Monday 11 March 2013

Contrarianism and Oedipus; How to become a dominant French philosopher

In response to my last post an anonymous reader comments:
I get what you're saying about not wanting to cite whatever is "popular," but you have to remember that Latour is almost as cited as Deleuze or Foucault at this point! but remember also his discussion of citation practices in Science in Action...You have to think that every citation (and every omission) is strategic with Latour, especially digging up the work of Tarde, Souriau, etc with little more than a passing reference to the way they function similarly or differently in Deleuze's work. Frustrating, to say the least.
It's not just about not wanting to 'go with the crowd' for reasons of stubbornness or contrariness, I just think that these (stereotypically French) character-traits may play some part!  The urge to be contrary is something I can relate to, which is why I like this explanation but I don't believe at all that it is a sufficient one.

Choosing not to cite persons who are presently perceived to be over-cited or over-hyped is clearly strategic in and of itself (this goes for Foucault too).  It's about setting yourself apart – Foucault wanted to set himself apart from the Marxists, Latour from the poststructuralists.  It's a bit Oedipal, really – every generation wants to 'violently' distinguish itself from the previous one, regardless of how much intellectual debt the succeeding generation really owes.  Latour wanted to set himself apart from the generation of Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, etc. that had come just before him, just like they wanted to set themselves apart from the stucturalisms of Levi-Strauss, Saussure, Jakobsen, Althusser, etc.  However, this demarcation isn't purely narcissistic; there are some very significant ways in which Latour's thought (and that of Michel Callon, etc.) departs from the poststructuralists (and they from the structuralists); it just isn't quite the quantum leap that he would have us believe.

I share much of your frustration with Latour's writing practices.  He generally has to be read as a philosophical polemicist rather than a scholarly essayist.  This is perhaps tempered a little in papers that he's co-authored but even then you can still detect his prose-style, which is intrinsically performative.  It's interesting that he's chosen 'diplomacy' as a concept relatively late in his career.  His writing has always been 'diplomatic' insofar as it's at least as much to do with the implicit 'signalling' and the subtle games of rhetoric and alliance-building (and perhaps enemy-making) as it is to do with the actual content.

This article makes for interesting reading:
It's a highly formal, partially quantitative study of, as the title puts it, "How to Become a Dominant French Philosopher: The Case of Jacques Derrida".  Many of the tricks and tropes Latour employs are found in Derrida too, such as being deliberately vague so as to appeal to the largest possible audience, etc.  The article is a little reductive but a little reduction can yield insights; it definitely illustrates the kind of 'political economy' particular to French intellectualism, especially when it comes to the propagation of such ideas in North America (something that Latour has been almost as successful as the likes of Derrida at achieving).

One thing about writing polemically, as Latour does, is that you've always got to expect polemic in return.  It's important not to take a polemicist too seriously or to be shy about submitting their claims to critique – to give them a taste of their own medicine, in other words (and despite his banging on about the flaws of critique he does do a lot of it).  Being the agonistic, argumentative, 'diplomatic' type that Latour is I suppose he expects people to call him out on his elisions and silences, to draw the links and point out the associations that he leaves implicit.  That can seem arrogant – expecting others to do the legwork – and can be frustrating since it begs so many questions but that's the rhetorical style that seems to work within the political economy of 'being a dominant French philosopher.'  He's certainly not the first to do it and I’m sure he won’t be the last.