Chapter 10: Learning to Respect Appearances

Title: Habitual Care:  The Mode of Existence of Habit and its Politics

Author: John W. Wright. Point Loma Nazarene University.

Chapter 10, “Respecting the Appearances,” engages “the question of essence” (p. 264).   Why does it arise?  Latour argues that the question of essence gestures toward another “mode of existence.”  This mode of existence, later in the chapter named “habit,” accounts “for the apparent continuity of action” amid a world characterized by fissures, gaps, and heterogeneities – in other words, a net.  Latour calls “habit” the “most indispensable” mode of existence:  “the one that takes up 99 percent of our lives, the one without which we could not exist” (AIME, p. 264).  As Latour works through the chapter, he clarifies his overall ontology and the deeper ethical/political concerns that fuel the plasma that circulates unseen underneath his ontology.

In this essay, I would like to accomplish three goals:  (1) I would like to explicate the mode of existence of habit in AIME; (2)  I would like to discuss how the chapter contributes to Latour’s politics; and (3)  I would like to clarify both by bringing the chapter into dialogue with the 2008 session between Graham Harman and Latour at the London School of Economics as published in The Prince and the Wolf:  Latour and Harmon at the LSE (Zero Books, 2011; hereafter PAW).

In The Prince and the Wolf, Graham Harman names Latour as a “secular cccasionalist” – a title that delighted Latour.  “Secular occasionalism” names the core of both the chapter and Latour’s research program:    “If substance is excluded as the way to experience existence, then how many ways are there to subsist?” (PAW, p. 49).  As Latour asks, “Can we shift from a theory of networks to a theory of modes of existence?” (PAW, p. 48).

To do so, one must render intelligible the apparent continuity of things.  The problem is not how to speak of discontinuity, but continuity. Classical metaphysics fixated on continuity, arising from Platonic notions of “essence” or Aristotelian concepts of “substance.”  Post-Kantian linguistic or phenomenological “philosophies of access” merely invert the problem to the subjective side:  substance dissolves objectively before emerging monolithically as phenomena  given through language or Dasein.

Latour names his answer to the problem of continuity, to subsistence, “habit”:

Habit, in fact, seems to have the characteristic of no longer needing transcendence at all, of leaping over obstacles so well that there is no more threshold, no leap, no discontinuity of any kind.  True; but this proves that even immanence needs to be engendered by a mode of existence proper to it.  If it is true that mini-transcendence is the default position, that it is thus without a contrary, immanence is not going to be introduced in this study as what is opposed to transcendence but only as one of its effects, as one of the ways – a particularly elegant one, to be sure – of adjusting the junction points without splices and without any visible break in continuity.  Habit has the peculiar feature of smoothing over, through what must be called an effect of immanence, all the little transcendence that BEING-AS-OTHER explores. (AIME, p. 266)

Habit provides a trajectory that overcomes the gaps and fissures in existence.  As Latour states, “I have always been interested in vectors” (PAW, p. 100).

Latour draws upon animated films as an analogy to describe how the question of essence arises. Gaps characterize the animated film.  Like animated films, habits leap across discontinuities or translations to provide the continuity of appearance.  The showing temporarily omits the gap as the film moves from frame to frame.  The producer can never forget the gap – to do so would alter the appearance of the film.  “The discontinuities are not forgotten, but they are temporarily omitted, which means that we remember them perfectly well, but obscurely (clearly) in a very particular sort of memory that we risk losing at any time” (AIME, p. 267).  When a projector breaks in its showing, the gaps re-emerge, always there, always hidden but not forgotten until the felicity conditions of the electronic source provides the conditions for the habit to re-emerge:  “Here is a fine felicity condition:  next time we shall do what we did last time, yes, but it will also be the first time.  Everything is the same, smooth, and well known, but difference is standing by, ready for a ‘manual restart’” (AIME, p. 269).

One does not need “substance” to preserve appearance, nor must one deconstruct appearance to allow for the in-coming of the phenomenon to protect from a totalization of reality:  “appearance does not stand in front of ‘what it hides’ . . . . ‘Behind’ the appearance there is not ‘reality,’ but only the key that allows us to understand how reality is to be grasped – and this key does not lie underneath, but alongside and ahead.  Appearance allows itself to be seen in the direction given by the preposition” (AIME, p. 271).  The mode of habit “obtains effects of substance on the basis of subsistence” (p. 272).  Subsistence always requires the cost of jumping the gaps, surmounting the veiled but not forgotten discontinuities strung together by habit.

The habit mode of existence allows Latour to give a sympathetic account of the moderns and their blindness to the double click.  Habit explains how double click occurs:  “The Double Click, too, can be justified:  this is what happens when habit has so well aligned the discontinuities that everything takes place as if we were seeing transports without deformation, simple DISPLACEMENTS  (AIME, p. 275).”  Moderns have forgotten the omissions veiled by habit, even as habit veils its own mode of existence:

Veiling has a function, an ontological dignity, that we can miss in two different ways.  First, by seeking direct access to ‘unveiled’ things:  at best we would simply come upon association networks stripped of their differences [net], or find differences only in tonalities, prepositions lacking trajectories, follow-ups, and networks [PRE]; second, by resigning ourselves definitively to dealing solely with appearances, without ever again seeking ‘that of which ‘ they would be the appearances.  (AIME, p. 271)

Such the moderns have done.   On the subject side, romanticism has habitually emphasized habit as the enemy of authenticity of expression while the “double click” has forgotten the veiling done by habit completely.  One sees how same networks produce the “subject-object” dichotomy through the repression or ignoring of habit.  We have never been modern.

This brings us to Latour’s political program as it emerges in the chapter.  Like animation, organizations or institutions provide “a very trustworthy an image to study, because their way of maintaining their subsistence Is visible and can be empirically studied in a dramatic manner that we might forget for these things or these sort of beings there” (PAW, p. 76).  Organizations/institutions inhabit the mode of existence of habit.  The modernist project of critique and its conservative reaction have both forgotten habit as a mode of existence.  Such forgetting has debilitated our ability to work with institutions.  Latour writes:

It took me a long time to understand what effect such an attitude was going to have on the subsequent generations from whom we were threatening to conceal the secret of institutions owing to our own congestion (and also owing to our numbers and appetites for living lavishly and for a long time).  We expected these generations to continue (as we had?), through the vigor of their critical spirit, to hold onto the originality of their initiatives, their spontaneity, their enthusiasm, everything that institutions were no longer (and no longer knew how) to keep going.  This was to sin against blessed habit; it was to claim to be continuing institutions without offering any way to ensure continuity.  We thought we were protecting values and contrasts by extracting them from institutions—from which we had profited before we destroyed them. (AIME, p. 279)

A “’malign inversion’ has resulted:

by losing the thread of the means that could have ensured subsistence – habit being no longer able to ensure the relay – we have involuntarily pointed in the direction of a return to substance without specifying to the next generation that this return would be truly fatal, precisely for want of defining its means of subsistence (AIME, p. 279)

The contemporary “critical” versus “conservative” dialectic has emerged:

By confusing the rejuvenation of institutions with their dismantling, hasn’t the baby-boomer generation made it possible to slip, almost unwittingly, from the critical spirit to fundamentalism?  As if a first category mistake about blessed habit had triggered a second, infinitely more calamitous, concerning the radical distinction between what is true and what is instituted (AIME, p. 280)

Left only with critical deconstruction of institutions to avoid their reification, a foundationalist authoritarian reification of institutions results.

Latour proposes another way:  serial redescription:  ‘Serial redescription is a powerful way of following an institution . . . What is an organization actually, even in organization theory, even in the most classical sense in a management, if not a serial redescription which starts again (and it’s true) every morning’”(PAW, p. 76).  As Latour states, “You are never going to know exactly what that reality is, and that’s why it can’t be a foundation.  But it has to be there, because you can’t account for the situation just with the relations” (PAW, p. 68).

Ultimately the political task requires a “democracy of modes of existence.”   Latour still intervenes from a principle of irreduction.  Human beings must be ordered by and within all the modes of existence, even as we intervene to order them appropriately.  Latour writes “Once we have deployed all the modes, we shall know what we are to inherit and what we can, with a little luck, pass on to our descendants”(AIME, p. 281).  The “critical task” to protect “individuals” from institutions now becomes a task of judgment that no longer leaves institutional maintenance to the fundamentalists:  “If our predecessors had spent even a fraction of the energy devoted to the critique of institutions on differentiating all these cases, all these attentions, all these precautions, our generation would never have found itself before empty shells” (AIME, p. 281).

Like his metaphysics, Latour’s politics is an empirical pragmaticism.  For Latour, however, “pragmaticism is not about practice, pragmaticism is about pragmata, about objects” (PAW, p. 61).  By unveiling the mode of existence of habit, Latour seeks to look beyond the dialectic of the left and the right, the reduction of all to politics to destabilizing identities or to reifying an economic materialist reductivism to the proper use of judgment within a democracy of objects.  It seems that implicit in Latour’s politics, informed by the mode of existence of habit, is a call for what might be called “wisdom.”   Perhaps beyond critique and fundamentalisms, Latour advocates for a pragmatic discourse on a common good, as long as the common good includes all modes of existence and nonhumans as well as humans.


5 responses to “Chapter 10: Learning to Respect Appearances

  1. Another great write up! This is my favourite bit from this chapter:

    “Without habit, we would never have dealings with essences, but always with discontinuities. The world would be unbearable. It is as if habit produced what stays in place on the basis of what does not stay in place. As if it managed to extract Parmenides’s world on the basis of Heraclitus’s. We can say of habit that in effect it makes the world *habitable*, that is, susceptible to an *ethos*, to an ethology.”

    Without habits we cannot become habitated, we cannot have habitats. Habits are therefore things to be celebrated, with the proviso that there are good and bad habits, habits that forget being-as-other and those that retain a connection with it.

    [hab] answers a problem that I’ve found with Latour’s philosophy from the beginning: if everything at every moment is in a perpetual state of perishing and becoming something else then isn’t our everyday experience an illusion? Apparently not, we mostly experience habit for the most part. The world seems smooth as though it flows together continuously because, when habitated, that is exactly how it is.

    This links nicely with Latour’s reading of Sloterdijk’s spherology. If spheres seem too smooth and continuous to be incorporated into the ontology of networks then we need only consider that such habitats benefit from regimes of habit. We cannot live in broken, bitty, fractured networks; we can only live in envelopes, blankets and containers that permit *implicitation*. Habit permits the connection of these two ontologies: the network and the sphere.

  2. thanks for this John, have you read the book Brains/Practices/Relativism: Social Theory after Cognitive Science by ?

    • I checked the book out — and I will order it soon. It moves in ways that I thought would productively help — the construction of mirror neurons would even extend this approach — which, I saw today, chimps also mimic behavior. Thank you so much for the reference. Do you think this approach would interact with the language of the “extended mind”? Does Latour’s thought find an ally in such thought?


      • as long as the idea of extended-minding wasn’t used to imagine/manufacture reifications along the lines of collective/hive-minds I don’t think there would be a problem,along those lines I think that this work is actually a serious (perhaps fatal if you will) deconstruction of the kinds of arche-typal modes that Latour seems to be offering us.
        Would be interested to hear what you make of it.

  3. Philip: Thank you for your response. I’ve begun Bubbles, but haven’t finished — and need to do it soon. I’m writing two major review essays now in two fields, but then hope to get to it. Your favorite parts from the chapter seem right on to me.

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