Monday, 28 October 2013

The narcissism of minor differences or the importance of small mutations?

In many ways Latour is thoroughly disingenuous in terms of his intellectual predecessors.  He is an enthusiastic cheerleader for the relatively unknown or unfashionable - Tarde, Serres, James, Dewey, etc. - but either ignores or distances himself from other more hegemonic figures whose influence on his work is, nevertheless, unmistakeable.  Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze are the poststructuralist/postmodernist trinity that he attempts to distance himself from perhaps above all.  He generally has good things to say about them when prompted and will occasionally cite Foucault as a good example of this or that but in general they either sit in the background or, in the case of Derrida, become straw men for Latour's rhetorical bonfire.

So, Latour as a philosopher is thoroughly precedented and this is obvious despite his best Oedipal efforts to distance himself from many of his predecessors.  However, those critics who say 'this argument is very similar to that made by X, therefore X said it all before' are utterly misguided.  For one thing, the originality of the likes of Foucault and Derrida is itself often overstated.  Derrida didn't invent the notion of a regulative ideal that must be pursued despite being unachievable (but whenever anyone adopts such a position now they are said to be Derridean).  Many things are often labelled 'Deleuzian' that could just as easy be called Nietzschean.  Likewise Foucault and, say, Bachelard (or Marx who Foucault delights in not citing).

Derrida/Foucault/Deleuze are the presently hegemonic generation of dead white men who are the most read and so ideas tend to get attributed to them rather than to anyone else.  The innocuous academic phrase 'as Y has argued...' inevitably suggests that Y is the brilliant originator of that argument.  It is the enduringly critical role of intellectual history to stretch out these inelastic trajectories into proper genealogies (to whom one may attribute that insight, I'll leave that question open!).

But there is a more fundamental and important flaw in the 'X said it all before' attitude.  It misses the fact that subtle mutations can make huge differences.  Yes, there's hardly a page of anything Latour has written that can't be traced back to a whole slew of predecessors.  But taken as a whole just how much of a resemblance does his work bear to even his closest progenitors - e.g. Deleuze?  Not much.  One has to be attuned to the differences, perhaps, but differences there are - and many of them.

The mutation that turns the unstable linguistic structures of Derrida et al. into the actor-networks of ANT is at once a small difference and a huge one (isn't this inversion of scale a classic ANT insight? or is it?!).  Likewise, the extension of actors into objects in the manner of Harman et al. - a small mutation (almost undetectable at first) that leads to a completely different result.

In a sense Latour's philosophy is just poststructuralism 'writ large' - but he had to write millions of carefully translative, transformative words in order to achieve that!

7 comments:

  1. I do not say that X (say Deleuze). said it all before Y (say Latour). My worry is when Latour is busily going about making the preceding generation unreadable by obliterating both its larger problematic and his own. Latour forces us to separate out problematic and agenda. His problematic is poststructuralist, as he begrudgingly admits and as John Law very clearly proclaims. In that, his thought is in progress compared to all those "poststructuralist critics" (in my lexic an oxymoron) you wish to get away from. Latour's agenda is not clear to me, but I see it as in part conceptually regressive. If Latour lifts stuff from poststructuralists but attributes it to James it may be a way of saying that James said it all before. It may however be a way of neutralising criticism. I do not see any engagement with the analyses of empiricism that have been made over the last 60 years, clustered around the notion of theory-ladenness. I see a strawman critique of Lockena empiricism. This hides the many places where Latour makes naive empiricist remarks and gives an aura of sophistication that is often unmerited as he employs the right words, but attaches simpler meanings.

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  2. my point wasn't that Latour isn't original, or that he shouldn't be doing the work that he is (what else could he do really?) but that there are better models out there like John Law, Annemarie Mol, and Paul Rabinow. Rorty was wrong to single out religious faith-commitments as conversation stoppers, when as Wittgenstein had shown any faith-commitments will do, but the pragmatist (homo rhetoricus) focus on actual effects/responses is vital.
    So yes endless gnawing on, squabbling over, authorial intentions (and or insisting on puritanical uniformity) is something we can gladly leave to those folks caught in the flytraps of the academy.
    -dmf

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  3. am I the only one that finds some confusion/irony in that Latour as a pioneering STSer was one of the folks who brought to light how the supposedly purified disciplines/fields/modes of the hard sciences where always already shot thru with personalities (and all the power/interplays of seduction, aggression, and such that come with those), politics (formal govts,economics, etc?
    -dmf

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  4. Sorry! I wasn't really referring to either you when I wrote this! I was referring to a general tendency of people to dismiss one thinker because someone else has said it before, and so on. I didn't think that that's what either of you were arguing, you just set me on that train of thought (this happens a lot, I should be clearer!). If I make a direct criticism I'll do so by name, not by some abstract placeholder (X, Y, etc.) - that's rude.

    dmf: As mentioned in comments the other day I've still got Mol's book on my to read pile. I like John Law's work but I don't find it to be especially useful on the whole. It is far more honest about its poststructuralist roots but it's also far less interesting, inventive and philosophically nuanced. His case studies are often fascinating but I don't find him especially interesting as a philosopher.

    Is it ironic that the principle pioneer of the 'flat ontology' that is ANT has gone so radically un-flat? The way he sees it, the modes are necessary to *preserve* pluralism. Sticking within a single mode gives us a plurality of things and relations but a monism of being. As he puts it in AIME, when you're following only one kind of network 'everything becomes surprising in the same way.' The modes are entirely compatible with the sociology of science that finds *domains* such as science and law to be radically impure. There's no contradiction there whatsoever. He still understands that science is riven with politics, law, economics and so on. That's pretty much the point - modes can be overlaid in infinitely complex configurations, domains or spheres are always mutually spatially exclusive.

    Terence: Yes, I strongly sympathise with what you say about Latour making Deleuze unreadable. He does that a lot. He makes international politics pretty much unreadable with his whole 'decline of the West, need for diplomacy' shtick. Because he doesn't use many neologisms but instead uses other people's terms and lots of commonplace terms we end up losing the vocabulary to describe the things that those terms originally described! E.g. how can I go and describe diplomacy - actual diplomacy between nation states - in Latour's terms? I can't because he's already hoovered up all those terms and completely changed their meaning. I'm working on a paper at the moment saying that to bring Latour into international relations, political geography, geopolitics and so on we'll need to transform most of his terms.

    I see lots of James in Latour. Parts of 'A World of Pure Experience' read like an early draft of AIME - really! His problematique may be poststructuralist but I see no reason to doubt his claim that he takes his concept of experience from James. I find that conclusion unavoidable. Yes, the 'first empiricism' is a straw man but Whitehead saw James' empiricism as something radically different too and he wasn't someone given to playing games with his rhetoric.

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  5. oh no worries I don't take any of this personally and without the give and take how will we refine our efforts?
    I'm all for people following their interests, just proposing some potentially viable alternatives that aren't as haunted in the ways that Latour is tho of course they have their own influences/anxieties to bear.
    And to risk repeating myself 'they' don't overlap as they don't exist apart from those other activities/affordances/resistances, you can't split people up in those ways to sort out their activities (well you can of course abstract/manufacture such things, but than perhaps own them as such?).
    -dmf

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  6. Okay, good! I was raised to believe that manners cost nothing. Nobody has found a way to enclose that commons yet, anyway!

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  7. Okay, good! I was raised to believe that manners cost nothing. Nobody has found a way to enclose that commons yet, anyway!

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