Monday, 14 October 2013

More on ontological conservatism

Terence replies to my previous comments on Latour's ontological conservatism.  He uses the phrase “duty of non-infringement” to describe the way Latour defends his modes – that’s a good way of putting it. I think a lot of it comes down to how we interpret that. On the one hand Latour is very clear that he wants to grant ‘dignity’ to each mode, that each mode is valid and good in its own way, etc. However, this is stated and insinuated rather than actually argued. His intention is clear but he doesn’t go so far as to say why the modes must be conserved at all cost – why no creative destruction? If they are historical then surely that is inevitable, given a long enough timeframe. Why hold back the tide as a matter of necessity?

Or is it necessary?  It seems like that from the way his argument proceeds but I do wonder.  In its precise technical definition I don’t see what the REL mode even does to save religion, really. It’s narrated in such a way that it’s clearly meant to defend religion from its detractors but it’s a funny sort of defence. REL is defined so abstractly that it could apply to completely non-religious situations – ‘I adhered religiously to my instructions - I agonised over them out of respect to their originator.' And if it can be detached from religious situations then religion is merely an archetype of the mode, nothing intrinsic to the mode itself (perhaps this is true of all the modes; they are named by their archetypes rather than their essences).


  1. I think that once we really get into the distinction between the modes and the domains we are faced with surprising consequences. As you say the religious mode (REL) has no intrinsic limitation to the religious domain and can be instantiated anywhere, as can any other mode. So any domain, for example baseball, can be practiced religiously, metamorphically, legally, politically, etc. Any real domain is heterogeneous, and so our practice of it is plurimodal. This is what I was trying to say about reading as a plurimodal, and thus polytheist, practice here:

    Latour neglects the diachronic aspect when applied to modes as a whole. REL had a beginning and religious innovation is a constant part of the question of being faithful or not to the Message, but collapsing REL as a whole back into MET, as Jungian analyst James Hillman does (and perhaps Jung himself) would be proscribed by Latour's modal protectionism.

    Some modes (e.g. politics, religion, and law) bear the same name as their archetypal domain of instantiation, thus causing even more confusion. This reinforces the impression that the modes are often mere transcendental retranscriptions of empirically (in the old sense) observable domains, even if the grammar of enunciation proposed is innovative.

    Latour seems to be relying on a sort of diplomatic common sense to permit us to recognize the modes in the domains (but then how does he escape the accusation of essentialising retranscription?)and to prevent us from detaching and transferring them too far afield, as their abstract specification would permit (but then how is he to escape the charge of conservative attachment and risk of conflation?)Further, given that a new mode may emerge from one or more already existing modes, why cannot it be re-absorbed by the same or some other mode or combination of modes? (if not, how is he too avoid the objection of synchronic stabilisation?).

  2. The history of the modes might take a whole other book but in principle it should be possible. Without that work we're left with the impression that the modes are quasi-Platonic even if Latour insists that they are not. Their temporal dynamism is asserted but not demonstrated.