Monday, June 11, 2012

Presuppositions and Conclusions: Some Comments on Latour

PRESUPPOSITIONS: What is the background from which Latour's thought emerged, and against which he was working?

These two passages are from “Biography of an Investigation: On a Book about Modes of Existence” (PDF). This article is a brief intellectual autobiography explaining how Latour arrived at his current project on modes of existence.

In this passage Latour is talking of the impact of working with Shirley Strum as she studied baboons in Kenya, p. 12: could I not be overwhelmed by those troops of monkeys whose path was crossed by leaping gazelles, by zebra or buffalo herds, and occasionally by a pachyderm slipping soundlessly by? No, this was not nature untamed, not the celebrated “wildlife”; or rather, yes, it was all that, but it was something quite different as well: it was a segment in the traejectory of phenomena left to themselves, without the intimidating presence of human subjects; these latter were pushed off into the wings. And yet these researchers capable of following and not dominating their object of study were producing science, and very good science at that...
Two things: That last sentence, the simple assertion that the ethologists WERE doing science. And the foundation of ethology is the description of animal behavior; that’s where it starts, with observation and description. Description, as we know, is central to Latour’s conception of social investigation.

And then there is the simple sense of wonder that the baboons, and other animals, got along perfectly well without humans. Surely he didn’t think that life ‘in the wild’ was somehow dependent on humans? That is to say, just what IS the presupposition here, the background AGAINST which Latour’s observation is working? I rather imagine he was also impressed with the intricacy and subtlety of baboon social life.

pp. 15-16:
I am almost certain that it was in 1987, during a conversation by the swimming pool in Les Treilles, that Stengers shared with me an astonishing quotation from Whitehead ... about the risk taken by rocks—yes, rocks—in order to keep on existing...Everything became clear, then: what I had discovered in Kenya, and what the principle of irreduction had hinted at obscurely. There exists a completely autonomous mode of existence that is very inadequately encompassed by the notions of nature, material world, exteriority, object. This world shares one crucial feature with all the others: the risk taken in order to keep on existing.
And what is the background against which THIS realization, about the risk-taking rocks, is working? What would move Whitehead to make such an assertion, and Latour to take it up?

I find such statements all but utterly opaque. I understand that, in the purview of quantum mechanics, rocks aren’t all that solid, but still, that they take risks to exist from one nanosecond to the next, what line of reasoning leads one to that conclusion?

* * * * *

CONCLUSIONS: These passages are from “Redistribution,” the fifth chapter of We Have Never Been Modern. That book encapsulates Latour's thinking as of 1990. It's what he'd learned to date.

p. 130:
Modernizing finally made it possible to distinguish between the laws of external nature and the conventions of society.
This, I take it, is a statement of the possibility of objective knowledge, as it is conventionally termed.

p. 132:
The innovation of longer networks is an interesting peculiarity, but it is not sufficient to set us radically apart from others, or to cut us off for even from our past.
The others Latour has in mind are the pre-moderns. Latour is contrasting their ways of knowing with those of the moderns (and the never have been moderns). The networks he talks of are the networks of actants—humans and nonhuman, animate and not—involved in knowledge production.

The moderns have more complex networks, yes, but that is not all. Latour seems to leave out of account the modes of thought needed to organize those networks and to abstract out those truths. Latour seems to have little to say about how people think and reason, and yet that too is important. To be sure, those differences are “not sufficient to set us radically apart from others”; but they should be acknowledged and studied. That’s what Dave Hays and I were up to in our work on cognitive ranks.

No comments:

Post a Comment