Monday 11 March 2013

Latour, fieldwork and philosophy; A defence of (radical) empiricism

Forgive me, kind reader.  I've been reading Kurt Vonnegut this evening and therefore feel compelled to write a little bit like I'm a 'writer.'  Much of what follows is correspondingly pretentious.

What stoked my interest was another post by Terence of Agent Swarm blog fame; this paragraph in particular:
Despite his insinuations to the contrary, Bruno Latour with his compositionism is the direct application of this thought, that he is very familiar with. His talk about his “empirical” research is very misleading and contains overtones of scientistic bravado, as his system is parasitic on these predecessors. He is however a good populariser of good ideas, and his work should be encouraged as long as we do not accept his own contextualisation of his ideas. Latour is vey much an inheritor of Deleuze, Lyotard, Derrida and Serres and the intellectual contemporary of Laruelle and Stiegler. It is this that gives his work its superiority over Badiou’s, not any primacy of the empirical over the philosophical.
I don't think that Latour ever claims a 'primacy' for the empirical over the philosophical.  His field studies aren't just about adding a scientific gloss to concepts he's borrowed (or stolen) from others.  I think that misrepresents what he does with his field studies.  I agree unreservedly that he's misleadingly coy about his philosophical influences.  Indeed, he's self-consciously strategic with who he acknowledges and who he doesn't.  He frequently and unabashedly cites Serres and other peers and contemporaries like Haraway, Callon, Greimas, etc. as well as lesser-known old, dead dudes like Whitehead and Souriau.  Indeed, he is happy to heap praise on anyone he considers an ally or fellow traveller.  For some reason other obviously significant precursors like Deleuze, Foucault and Nietzsche are deemed less than allies and are consequently relegated to scattered, almost accidental footnotes and occasional, almost embarrassed comments in interviews.

On this point I'm reminded of Foucault saying that he hardly ever cited Marx because, at the time that he was writing, everyone was citing Marx at every possible opportunity on any subject -- so Foucault elected not to cite him at all despite his obvious influence!  Latour's evasions may be similarly contrarian.  More cynically, they may be designed to allow Latour to present himself as more original than he really is.  Then again, maybe he just thinks that citing names and dates is boring and a waste of time; an academic pleasantry that, due to his fame and notoriety, he is in a position to skip.  I think there's probably an element of truth in all of those explanations.

Regardless, while Latour is clearly "parasitic" on his predecessors (who isn't?) I don't think the title "populariser" quite does him justice -- nor, I repeat, is his 'empiricism' merely about adding a scientific gloss to his inherited ideas.  The most valuable thing about Latour, from my point of view, is the way he joins the empirical and the philosophical -- far from these terms being in competition they, under his penmanship, become profoundly harmonious.  In fact, one of the main criticisms I have of his more recent work is that it is not empirical enough.  He was fastidiously anthropological when it came to science, engineering, law, etc. but largely abandoned the practice when it came to thinking about politics -- little more than offhand anecdotes creep into his political writings.  Consequently, I found his 'Politics of Nature' to be the weakest of all his books -- abstract, verbose and fanciful in a manner disappointingly unlike what came before it.  ('We Have Never Been Modern' was similarly abstract and general but since it wasn't modal in its focus and because it was considerably more concise it worked much better, I think.)

Probably my favourite essay of his, and certainly the best example of the empirical/philosophical complex that I'm talking about, is what I think (from memory) is the second chapter of Pandora's Hope, the essay on 'Circulating Reference'.  Is the story that Latour tells -- that of following some soil scientists and botanists in their journey from the heat, humidity and creepy-crawlies of the Brazilian rainforest through all their scientific translations back to the laboratories, running water and journal articles of cosy old France -- a mere gloss on the philosophical content?  Is it simply an elaborate, science-tinted vehicle for making his point?  I don't think that it is.

Certainly, the fact that these ideas were based on firsthand research and not simply on sitting down and thinking hard about stuff he'd read doesn't necessarily make them 'better' -- but to dismiss the empirical process through which the ideas were derived as indicating nothing more than a loosely shrouded scientism is shortsighted; in fact it misses the point.  Every philosophical idea derives from some kind of practical process -- whether it's trekking through the forests of Bavaria, slouching over a writing desk in a musty Cambridge office, or clumsily wandering about in a laboratory.  Every philosophical utterance is an embodied utterance, an utterance with a backstory, a genesis -- the result of a radically empirical flow of experience (James is another influence that Latour has no shame in citing, which is good since Latour's empiricism is really just an actor-network-ised version of James').

Most philosophers believe that reading, walking and talking to like-minded others constitutes a sufficient process for the productive stewing of ideas.  Latour, contrariwise, has found fieldwork among the different people his philosophies comment on (the practitioners of his various modes of truth) to be considerably more fecund than guessing at the particularities of their lives from a distance.  I don't find it hard to see why.

It isn't a case of 'empirical, therefore scientific, therefore better' -- it's much more interesting than that.  I mean, would the poor guy have spent all those months and years painstakingly note taking, conversation starting and archive trawling just to score a few Brownie points for being 'scientific'?  The interesting point is that, in what I think are his best works, the distinction between the empirical and the philosophical if it doesn't quite disappear then at least becomes considerably blurred.  I think it's much more likely that it is his anthropological process in combination with his philosophical and theological education that has resulted in the ideas he claims as his own (however unpaid his dues may be).  And this, I think, is an object lesson not just for how we interpret his work but also in how we think about thinking in general.

To my mind the really pertinent questions are not 'Why do fieldwork?' but rather 'Why don't more philosophers do fieldwork?'  Why don't more philosophers realise that secondary sources aren't good enough?  Why aren't the social sciences and empirically-inclined humanities given the time of day in philosophical discourse (unlike their Natural brethren)?  Why is intellectual hermeticism still thought to be a valid thought process?  The notion of the cloistered, hermetic genius is an evocative image, though it is one unburdened by any kind of actual existence.  Newton, for one, consciously promoted himself as such an isolated, neutral, disinterested-but-brilliant figure; historians like Simon Schaffer have shown that he, like all great men of letters, was a formidable network-builder.

Frankly, I think the burden of justification is on those who don't look very closely into the lives and issues on which they pass judgement.  It isn't the empiricist who needs to justify himself.

I don't think the epistemic authority deriving from doing empirical research is at all necessary to explain why Latour does such research.  However, I do think that, in many cases, actually going out and talking to people, reading primary sources and producing an original study of a situation does accord an analyst a degree of authority over and above those who simply read books and take others at their word with regard to how things work.  Take the old-school, pre-Bloor and pre-Latour historians and philosophers of science -- all those Whiggish dinosaurs who thought that they could infer all they needed to know about the practice of science from its results, on the one hand, and the casual testimony of its off-duty practitioners, on the other.  Latour and others showed this supposition to be laughably inadequate.  When intensively observed scientists' practices appeared to function quite differently from how they were supposed to according to tradition, dogma and folklore.  When anthropologists actually took the time to watch these tribespeople in action they found that the prevailing explanations proffered by their more naive and doting commentators were wholly inadequate since they were largely oblivious to what stands out as the most remarkable characteristic of scientific research, when observed by an anthropologically trained outsider: that facts are constructed, often astonishingly well.

I'm perfectly happy to say that these empiricists have greater epistemic authority by dint of their efforts, compared the idleness of their rationalist predecessors who merely inferred the details of their subjects from the ideological predispositions to which subjects and observers were all privy and upon which all agreed -- specifically, that Science was all about disinterestedly uncovering Truth and discarding Fiction.

But, and this is the key point for me, this superiority comes not from being grounded in practical experience as opposed to abstract ratiocination -- this classical opposition of empiricism and rationalism is false because it opposes two variants of a common problematic: subjectivism.  On the contrary, I think it can be claimed that the evidentialist ethic enacted by the practice of fieldwork leads to a general qualitative improvement in philosophical discourse because it extends the radically empirical flows of experience, the practical processes that generate the philosophical discourse.  The processes that philosophers generally enact so as to generate their ideas -- sitting, staring, reading, writing, walking, talking to other philosophers -- are not invalidated by this general empirical commitment but they are shown to be relatively disconnected from the world on which they comment in a way that is not necessarily disastrous but is demonstrably unnecessary.

In other words, fieldwork deepens a philosopher's attachment to that on which they commentate morally, socially and epistemically.  It broadens the attachments, the connections, the radical flows, which they both ride and channel.  Doing fieldwork (of whatever kind) allows a thinker to be surprised and perturbed in their trajectory by a greater array of facts, theories and knowledges than they would bump into otherwise.  It pluralises their journey and thus their philosophy -- but, importantly, it does so in a fashion with specific pertinence to what they're thinking about.  It's not about 'broadening horizons' by learning a new language or 'expanding your mind' by dropping acid or some-such.  It's about delving more deeply into the world so as to synthesise and criticise philosophical abstractions from within it rather than above it -- the latter being a fool's errand.

In a sense, every philosopher does 'fieldwork' because every act of ratiocination is an empirical -- i.e. experiential -- phenomenon.  The question is, then, not so much whether to do 'fieldwork' but rather what fieldwork is germane to the topic at hand.  Far too many philosophers think themselves above the humdrum, humid, detail-cluttered world of the merely empirical.  They are all fools.  (It's worth mentioning parenthetically that, from what I know of him, Feyerabend, for one, was no such fool.  Of course if I was being fair I might have to say the same of Kant, who was prolific in all the sciences of his day, and many others besides; but I'm not being fair I'm being polemical, so ... whatever!)

Rationalists -- those who believe that ratiocination is anything but a much variegated element in the flow of experience; that it transcends the "great blooming, buzzing confusion" out of which we all clutchingly piece together a world -- simply abstract from the flows they embody and translate in order to make it seem that their utterances are sui generis -- that their thoughts are more original than they would otherwise seem.  Then again, that is somewhat reminiscent of what Latour does by not stating his influences in full.  Oh well, none are innocent!  Or, as Kurt might say, so it goes.


In response to the above Terence replies:
Philip of Circling Squares ... seems to be criticising me, despite the fact that I agree with nearly everything he says and have said similar things in various blog posts. I think he is right about what he calls “fieldwork” and I share his desire for philosophers to indulge in more “empirical research” conceived broadly. My quibble is that sometimes Latour slides between this more general sense, where a philosopher like Deleuze can be considered to do (conceptual, affective, perceptual, political, and yes why not? religious) fieldwork and a more limited sense in which Latour has done fieldwork but not Deleuze, Badiou, Lyotard and Serres. My quarrel is with the diplomatic caricature of himself that Latour secretes, consciously or not, and that interferes with the part of his message that I like and wish to help publicise.

I'm sorry if I misunderstood or misrepresented what you were saying. Hopefully the tone was not too objectionable. When I wrote “I’m not being fair I’m being polemical” I meant it! I was dimly aware that your Feyerabendian predilections might actually chime with some of what I was saying, the post I referred to just seemed to be saying something different. My mistake.

I completely agree with the portrayal of Latour as a wily, Machiavellian diplomat rather than the mild, polite, self-consciously constructive diplomat he pretends to be. As I wrote in a follow-up post, he always has to be read as a scheming polemicist rather than a scholarly essayist; everything’s performative with him. A key element of his performance is his citation — or non-citation — of influences. This rhetorical style can be a little annoying at times but it does seem to be intrinsic to his thought — practicing what he preaches, essentially. Bah, philosophers!]