Saturday, 19 October 2013

Defending objects; Sorting our [REF] and [REP]; A pagan Christian

Levi Bryant kindly responds to my recent comments and corrects my misunderstandings!

I've not finished the aime book yet either; it's slow progress but I'm getting there.  It's a very readable tome but I keep having to put it down and let some of the ideas sink in (and then fly off in all directions).  Good books have that effect, I find.  They can be difficult to concentrate on because they spark trajectories that fly away from themselves.  Textual fecundity can be distracting.

It's a quite remarkably explosive book in terms of concepts - 'explosive' in the sense of the Cambrian explosion!  There's been this slow, gradual evolution of his work since the late 70s.  Looking back retrospectively you can clearly see it building up to this point.  And, actually, I wasn't that surprised when I learned of the modes project; it had become quite obvious that he was treating law, politics, science, etc. according to different standards, it just wasn't clear what those standards were or how they linked together.  The whole 'post-ANT' debate in STS has been leading in this direction since the 1990s.  The modes of net, reference, politics, religion, law, technology and morality are all thoroughly precedented and, to some extent, aime can be understood as a synthesis, rectification and systematisation of all this past work.  However, the larger part of the modes framework is startlingly new.  Quite revolutionary, albeit a revolution with a long genesis (and many influences - James, Whitehead, Serres, etc.).  I have some reservations about it and some enduring criticisms but for the most part I'm just enjoying the ride.

The biggest problem seems to me to be how the beings of the different modes come together, both in terms of how they conflict and co-evolve but also in terms of how they are able to create highly cohesive composite trajectories despite being different beings - because they are not modes of a single substance; every mode pertains to a distinct being.  That I don't really understand.  Is it only habit [HAB] that unites us?  Is that sufficient to make our buzzing, dashing confluences of things and modes hold?  Habit is the mode of black boxes; it pertains to individuation, certainly, but I'm not sure that it's a complete account of the problem.

Well, this question - individuation - brings us back to perhaps the central disagreement between Latour and all the OOO/OOM/OOP lot!

The way Latour uses the terms 'subject' and 'object' actually seems to owe a lot to structuralism and to sociology (despite what he claims to think of these discourses).  In the traditional philosophical order of things, subjects are substantial beings.  Human beings have agency, reflexivity, etc. and therefore are subjects.  One human, one subject.  In the sociological or post/structural vocabulary 'subject' is detached from any individual body and rendered relational in terms of socio-linguistic structures.  Thus any individual person is simultaneously many kinds of subject.  For instance I, as a Brit, am simultaneously a citizen (of the British state) and a subject (of the Queen - whether I want to be or not!).  Citizen and subject are really two different kinds of subjectivity, two different overlapping social assemblages that produce subjectivities (with capacities and obligations) that I embody but which are not reducible to my physical person.  I am also a subject of the English language, of the university that I work for, etc.  In short, subjectivity is social, multiple and variously embodied.

Latour effectively does the same thing with subjects and objects and then pulls the rug out from under them both by eliminating the body-qua-material-substrate and making the physical body into another mode.  Yes, I certainly do embody legal subjectivities and I do have a physical body but that is a LAW/REP crossing, not an embodiment of a transient mode by a single, underlying substance.  Subject and object become meaningful only within a mode.

To go back to his infamous assertion that Ramses II couldn't have died from tuberculosis because that hadn't been discovered then we can now see that as a confusion of modes, a confusing crossing.  Tuberculosis only became an 'object' once it existed for a subject in 1882.  Yes.  But that is only tuberculosis as object of knowledge, of REF.  It says nothing of tuberculosis as object of REP, which surely did pre-exist its discovery.  Hence he is now able to make this claim:
Beer yeasts were in no way prepared to become the experimental material through which the “yeastists” in Bordeaux made them capable of making themselves known. These yeasts had been making grapes ferment as long as there have been grapes, and producing grape must as long as there have been farmers, but they had never before caused brains to ferment, or contributed to the writing of blog posts and articles. (89)
A bit further along Latour goes on to say that “object and subject are then no longer the causes but only the consequences of the extension of such chains and, in a way, their products.” I.e. object and subject only exist in relation to an epistemic process, an instantiation of the REF mode, that produces both. Object and subject are not the ontological basis of knowledge but are the products of the process of reference.

This must mean, then, that the yeasts prior to documentation in articles and blogposts or tuberculosis prior to discovery in Koch’s lab were not 'objects'. Yeast and tuberculosis only became ‘objects’ (of knowledge) once they became known [REF], however that doesn’t mean that they did not previous exist [REP].

This relativity of objectivities in terms of modes gets rather complex.  It'll be interesting to see how it's tied together.  I'm not sure that it makes sense to me just yet.

On religion, I've not read Latour's 'Rejoicing' book yet but I have it waiting to be read.  He defines religion as a mode so very abstractly that it can seemingly be completely detached from religious practice.  Anywhere one agonises over the fidelity of one's transformations then religion qua mode seems to be present.  How this helps religious institutions I'm not sure.  Maybe it isn't supposed to.  Indeed, the kind of religion that Latour ends up articulating seems much more pagan than Christian!

I think his attack on the Modern epistemological rejection of religion is a blow that lands.  He's hardly the first to argue that comparing religion with science is effectively a category error - and he may well be right.  However, what is to stop atheists from simply shifting their stance and saying 'well, okay, [REF] and [REL] are different things, fine.  But I still refuse to organise my life and my world around something so fundamentally arbitrary; viva la référence!'

An atheist is free to argue that religion is nothing but an agonising over origins plus a tradition of fictions and habits and this is consistent with Latour's ontology.  The REL mode doesn't tell us why the worship of a deity is necessary or desirable - only that it's possible without reference.  It actually does nothing to bolster the case for religion at all, despite how its narrated.


  1. "An atheist is free to argue that religion is nothing but an agonising over origins plus a tradition of fictions and habits and this is consistent with Latour's ontology." wouldn't an atheist be correct that all all-too-human endeavors fall along these merely anthropological lines (if we understand habits in terms of extended-mind-ings)?
    The "argument" for people continuing along lines that including imagining non-material-beings/forces/spirits/etc than is that they cannot choose to stop such habits and will likely keep generating them in the future, so along democratic/pragmatic/diplomatic lines one has to make allowances for such human tendencies/proclivities, and again one never knows what metaphors might prove valuable so why shut them down if they aren't poisonous to the body-politic?

  2. You may well be right. I should probably stop jabbering on about Latour's religious philosophy until I've read it properly. I don't yet have a solid enough grasp of it to pass any kind of judgement.