Saturday, June 2, 2012

Lévi-Strauss and Latour: Transformations of a Myth?

In the fourth chapter, “Relativism”, of We Have Never Been Modern (p. 98), Latour offers a passage from Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind:
The false antinomy between logical and prelogical mentality was surmounted at the same time. The savage mind is as logical in the same sense and the same fashion as ours, though as our own is only when it is applied to knowledge of a universe in which it recognizes physical and semantic properties simultaneously ... It will be objected that there remains a major difference between the thought of primitives and our own: Information Theory is concerned with genuine messages whereas primitives mistake mere manifestations of physical determinism for messages ... In treating the sensible properties of the animal and plant kingdoms as if they were the elements of a message, and in discovering ‘signatures’—and no signs—in them, men [those with savage minds] have made mistakes of identification: the meaningful element was not always the one they supposed. But, without perfected instruments which would have permitted them to place it where it most often is – namely, at the microscopic level – they already discerned ‘as through a glass darkly’ principles of interpretation whose heuristic value and accordance with reality have been revealed to us only through very recent inventions: telecommunications, computers and electron microscopes.
The passage was so very striking that I decided that I had to verify it. Did the savage minds really anticipate telecommunications, computers, and electron microscopes?

Lévi-Strauss really said that?

Yes, it turns out, he really did. It’s not, mind you, that I even remotely entertained the notion that Latour was misquoting Lévi-Strauss, it’s just what Lévi-Strauss really did say was so, shall we say, outrageously generous. I mean, now that we know that bacteria communicate with one another through chemicals perhaps we can argue that they’re really the ones who invented the internet, not Al Gore.

Here’s Latour’s gloss on that passage:
Lévi-Strauss, a generous defense lawyer [note the trope of a trial, which pervades this book, indeed, it pervades Latour’s thought], imagines no mitigating circumstances other than making his clients look as much like scientists as possible! If primitive people do not differ from us as much as we think, it is because they anticipate the newest conquests of information theory, molecular biology and physics, but with inadequate instruments and ‘errors of identification.’ They very sciences that are used for this promotion are now off limits.
And so we arrive at Latour’s theme of asymmetry: the Moderns get to study the rest, those Others, the Pre-Moderns, but they are themselves above such scrutiny. An asymmetry that Latour aims to rectify, to rebalance. And, indeed, he began doing so the moment he set foot in Roger Guillemin’s laboratory at the Salk Institute.

But that rebalancing is not what I’m stalking in this post. There’s a different game afoot. Later in that chapter Latour asserts (p. 119) that in the contemporary world
The itinerary of facts becomes as easy to follow as that of railways or telephones, thanks to the materialization of the spirit that thinking machines and computers allow. When information is measured in bytes and bauds, when one subscribes to a data bank, when one can plug into (or unplug from) a network of distributed intelligence, it is harder to picture universal thought as a spirit moving over the waters ... Reason today has more in common with a cable television network than with Platonic ideas.
Lévi-Strauss aimed to recuperate the primitive mind by finding information theory in the way it regards “the sensible properties of the animal and plant kingdoms as if they were the elements of a message.” Latour tracks the spirit of Modernity in high-tech informatic infrastructure. I’m thus tempted (…nothing in my hand, nothing up my sleeve…), in the manner of Lévi-Strauss in Mythologies, to treat Latour’s passage as a transformation of Lévi-Strauss’s. Lévi-Strauss talks of the savage mind and its apprehension of the sensible world while Latour talks of the spirit and its materialization in high technology. The savage mind transforms the sensible world laid before it into myth while the Modern mind extends itself into the sensible world and mythologizes the difference. It’s as though Latour and Lévi-Strauss are spinning variations on the same myth, one about mind and (its embodiment) in matter.

If that is so, are the two thinkers so very different as Latour’s little critique aims to suggest? There would seem to be at least one major difference, one at the center of Latour’s thinking, and at the center of Lévi-Strauss’s. Both talk a lot about the opposition between nature and culture. Latour aims to undermine it while Lévi-Strauss would seem to be enmeshed in it, as Derrida argued in “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.”

Still, allowing for the fact that their favored objects of study are somewhat different, it seems to me that, to a first approximation, they operate in pretty much the same conceptual universe. But from different points of view. Latour is an intellectual generation younger than Lévi-Strauss. Will that conceptual universe remain viable and fruitful for the generation of the students of Latour’s students or will it end with Latour’s immediate successors?

* * * * *

This is my second essay taking a rhetorical look at We Have Never Been Modern. Here’s the first.

As background, you should take a look at Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, From Information Theory to French Theory: Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, and the Cybernetic Apparatus, which appeared recently in Critical Inquiry. Geoghegan looks at the period during and immediately after World War II when Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss and Lacan picked up ideas about information theory and cybernetics from American thinkers at MIT and Bell Labs.

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