Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Latour's Modes of Existence

Ornstein's Tart's State-Specific Sciences, and a Note on Work, Love, Play, and Adventure

Graham Harman has just posted a link to a Latour draft: Biography of an Investigation: On a Book about Modes of Existence (PDF).

An Ethnographer from Mars

Here's one passage, about his days in Africa:
In the Abidjan of 1973-75, I discovered all at once the most predatory forms of capitalism, the methods of ethnography, and the puzzles of anthropology. And one puzzling question in particular that has never left me: why do we use the ideas of modernity, the modernizing frontier, the contrast between modern and premodern, before we even apply to those who call themselves civilizers the same methods of investigation that we apply to the “others” – those whom we claim, if not to civilize entirely, then at least to modernize a little? ...

There was a flagrant asymmetry here: the Whites anthropologized the Blacks, yes, quite well, but they avoided anthropologizing themselves. Or else they did so in a falsely distant, “exotic” fashion, by focusing on the most archaic aspects of their own society – communal festivals, belief in astrology, first communion meals – and not on what I was seeing with my own eyes (eyes educated, it is true, by a collective reading of L’Anti-Oedipe): industrial technologies, economization, “development,” scientific reasoning, and so on: in other words, everything that makes up the structural heart of the expanding empires.

Whence the idea of applying the methods of the social sciences, ethnography in particular, to the most modern practices.
Indeed, why not? Why not, in effect, take up the role of the mythical Martian ethnographer and use it as a vehicle to study the Modern World at the very heart of Modernity and height of its Powers?

Of his mid-70s work in the neurological laboratory of Roger Guillemin at the Salk Institute:
How could one explain that, here too, the appeal to an abusive transcendence had been able to dissimulate the layer of texts, of documents, that had to be continuously rewoven in order to produce a truth that could not be based, try as one might, on a firmer foundation? Was it possible that scientific veridiction was as far away from Double-Click information as the latter is from religious truth – in which case we would find ourselves faced with three types of veridiction, each entirely distinct from the others and true in its own genre and its own fashion?
Peak Experiences and Alternate Realities

At roughly the same time a rather different group of investigators was attempting to make sense of the experiences afforded by psychedelic drugs and by meditation. One of them, a psychologist named Robert Ornstein Charles Tart, talked of "state-specific sciences"–alas, the book in which he used the term is no longer on my shelf and I cannot remember its name, much less a page number. The idea was this: When you take a psychedelic drug you (may well) have a (so-called) peak experience in which deep truths are revealed to you. Those truths often seem like trite nonsense to those who've not experienced a psychedelic peak. Let's posit that those deep truths are, in fact, specific to one's biochemical neural state and can ONLY be judged and appreciated from within that state. Those who've not taken the drug, and had the trip, are in no position to pass judgment on the truths revealed in the trip. They don't know what they're talking about.

Work, Love, Play, Adventure

I don't remember when I read Ornstein Tart, but it was probably in the early 1970s. While I didn't take his notion of state-specific science at face value, I did feel it pointed at a truth that needed to be worked out. And I've been working at it off and on ever since. David Hays and I often talked of Work, Love, Play, and Adventure as specific and more or less independent modes of human action, each in effect having its own modes of veridiction, to use Latour's word. We never saw our way to writing these thoughts out in a systematic exposition, though bits and pieces managed to show up here and there. My various posts on behavioral mode contribute to this line of thinking, in particular, see Q. Where’s Reality? A. Which One?

* * * * *

It does seem to me that Latour is following the same scent, though perhaps though a different territory. We shall see. At this point I'm only on page 6 of a 20 page article, and there's his book to come: An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence. We shall see.

More later.

ADDENDUM: A link to a summary of Latour's modes-of-existence project. Website for the digital version of the project, with short characterizations of the fifteen modes.


  1. Hi,

    I just stumbled upon your blog and this post through a google search about Bruno Latour's "modes of existence".

    You wrote in it : "a psychologist named Robert Ornstein, talked of "state-specific sciences""

    Could you please provide the precise reference, and *date*, of this citation because
    I am highly interested in any such wording or formulation that could predate the one of the famous and classic 1972 article of psychologist Charles Tart, published in Science, entitled "States of consciousness and state-specific sciences" (DOI:10.1126/science.176.4040.1203)?


  2. You know, it was probably Tart I was thinking of, not Ornstein. Thanks for the correction.