Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Latour, Diplomacy and Anarchism

There is a giant, bright red, stompy, irritable elephant at the centre of Latour's concept of diplomacy (or his version of it, anyway).  Here's how he defines diplomacy:
The present investigation is presented as a diplomatic enterprise in the sense that there is no outside arbiter - survival of the fittest, universal reason, state, law, laws of nature etc. In this case, for want of a "referee" acceptable to all, we must "retake language" and, with the aid of a minimal number of forms, organize identification and bring negotiable and non-negotiable positions into contact with each other.
In other words, we must henceforth be 'diplomats' because we no longer have 'nature' to appeal to as a sovereign that could decide disagreements for us.  Okay, but diplomacy is the practical response to the absence of a deciding sovereign.  What is the condition of having no sovereign to appeal to itself?  Anarchy.  So, whither anarchism?

Anarchism is a word conspicuous by its absence from Latour's entire corpus.  There are only a few mentions, all of them dismissive.  This is from a 1993 interview:
I think deep down, Feyerabend rendered a disservice to the history and philosophy of science. I don't take very seriously political anarchism, and I don't take very seriously anarchism in science because it is completely reactionary. Again, it is a debunking strategy, and all debunking makes people believe in the thing being debunked. The attitude of unveiling and denouncing the falseness of the scientific method always reinforces the argument of the scientist, so I think Feyerabend has been rather counterproductive. His is a constant negative argument that the true method is not there, which makes you believe it is important to find the true method. 
This denouncing presupposes the existence and importance of what is at stake, and I think Feyerabend has been fighting a nonexistent element from the beginning--in exactly the same way as political anarchism or Dadaism. It is very chic but finally not very interesting. Feyerabend is a critical mind and all critical minds are disappointed. Deep down they believe very seriously in rationality, and they have been disappointed--something has not happened as they believe it should have. Maybe they believed something in their childhood, never got it, and were consequently disappointed.
In Pandora’s Hope (p.298) he dismisses anarchism because despite “its beautiful slogan ‘neither god nor master’” […] it has always had one master, man!”  But that's about it for Latour on anarchism.  And this is hugely ironic because Latour's post-natural world is as anarchic an imaginarium as was ever conceived!  I think that this needs to be redressed.

One thing hampering Latour's diplomacy metaphor is that it is not anarchic enough.  It does not recognise quite how anarchic the world it is supposed to mediate has become.  If diplomacy is modelled after interstate diplomacy then it is conceptually inadequate because such diplomacy is premised upon sovereignty.  While there may be no sovereign 'above' the state diplomat there are sovereigns 'behind' each one.  There is anarchy but only 'outside' the state, in the domain of the international.  A very partial, limited state of anarchy - nothing like that chao-scape which Latour sets in front of us Earthlings.

Latour's political philosophy deliberately transcends the state, seeing it as one set of points along many political trajectories.  Okay, so he doesn't urge us to burn the state to the ground, far from it but it does become just one flawed institution among many.  'Latour the Anarchist' may be an ironic figure but he's far from an absurd one.

So, Latour's diplomats cannot be state representatives.  There is no more a sovereign 'behind' than there is one 'above.'  This is generalised anarchy.  There is no one to 'report back to.'  No sovereign to appeal to anywhere.  It is anarchy in the most pure sense.  Indeed, it is far more anarchist than the classical anarchists like Proudhon for whom Man was the sovereign from which all questions could answered and upon which all politics could be assembled.

The anarchy of the international is partial because it presupposes the National.  Classical anarchism's anarchy is partial too because it presupposes Man or Nature.  Latour's anarchy is total.  Can 'diplomacy' make sense of such a world?


  1. I think that these declarations are themselves "diplomatic" or opportunist. Latour declares that Feyerabend's anarchist methodology for science is "completely reactionary". Yet in a recent interview ( he affirms "c’est
    un truc que j’ai appris des « scientifiques » que j’ai étudiés, c’està-dire que :« Anything goes as long as it leads to what you want to find ». De même que dans un laboratoire vous avez des instruments de toutes sortes, y compris les plus archaïques et les plus contemporains, parce que c’est ce qui est nécessaire dans la production, moi j’ai beaucoup appris des « vrais » cientifiques, des scientifiques durs, c’est-à-dire l’indifférence totale aux questions de méthode."

    "it's a thing I learned from the "scientists" I studied, ie that: "Anything goes as long as it leads to what you want to find". Just as in a laboratory you have instruments of all sorts, including the most archaic and the most contemporary, because that is what is necessary in production, I myself have learnt a lot from "true" scientists, hard scientists, ie the total indifference to questions of method."

  2. not sure that we can use it, or even should use it, to make sense of such a world, perhaps it might just be a call to actively seek out co-operations if not solidarity.
    Many philosophers now talk up "friendship" but I think that this is too intimate a term to be useful for dealing with multiplicities and strangers.

  3. Okay, let me put it another way. (I think this'll make more sense.) It's true that the solutions Latour offers (as vague as they are) are always drawn from the political tradition of modern, statist, liberal republicanism - diplomacy, the parliament of things, etc. I just wonder whether he's barking up completely the wrong tree of political ideas with all this. The cosmopolitical world he paints is one of complete anarchy without any sovereign to be appealed to be it political, theological or metaphysical.

    His instinct in response to this situation is clearly to push towards some kind of reinstituted uber-collective, however fragmented and localised. I just wonder if the intellectual tradition of anarchism might not be a better bet. It's an entire tradition based around the problem of making peace and living together without bringing a sovereign into the equation. I suppose the difference is that Latour is saying 'we need to build a new sovereign' whereas anarchists revel in the sovereign's absence. Latour is not an anarchist but he might be better as one. He's always forcing a square peg into a round hole - always trying to rebuild the Republic while at the same time denying any possibility of sovereignty.

    Maybe that's the aporia that makes it the regulative ideal, the collective-to-come ... but I really don't like the whole messianic thing. Fine, ideals and utopias are important and all but they're not anything to be especially proud of. They're an admission of the utmost ignorance and ineptitude. They're a start, nothing more. And the risk with everything always being 'to-come' is that we become complacent, just chasing our own tails in pursuit of the dream. There's far too much self-satisfaction drawn from the 'x-to-come' trope. It's so often asserted like it's an answer, like we should be awed at the insight. It's an excuse, more often than not. A good opportunity to sound profound while saying nothing about the world. An opportunity for a philosopher to sound consequential.