Thursday, May 6, 2021

Sketches After Latour: A Working Paper

Title above, abstract, contents, and introduction below. Download at:

Research Gate:

Abstract: Thirteen various observations on the thinking of Bruno Latour, from We Have Never Been Modern through Reassembling the Social and up to modes. Excursions into Stanley Fish, Paul Feyerabend, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Topics: religion, history, social organization, culture, mind, language, truth and felicity. Thread running throughout: Latour’s “flat ontology”, in which everything has agency, has fruitful, perhaps even substantial and revelatory, implications. COI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.15423.64164


Introduction: Latour in the bushes 2
Latour Modern, Not 5
From Fish to Latour, Really 8
Latour's Modes of Existence 12
Lévi-Strauss and Latour: Transformations of a Myth? 14
Presuppositions and Conclusions: Some Comments on Latour 16
Ontology and Epistemology: gone, together? 18
Some Latour Litanies from Feyerabend 19
The Living Cosmos 20
Chapter 1 of the New Latour Available, Apocalypse Awaits 22
Latour and the End of the End of History 24
Latour and Culture 26 Of Factish Gods and Modes of Existence 27
Latour, Language, and Translation 33

Introduction: Latour in the bushes

Just yesterday, May 5, 2021, I was looking through my hard-drive for something-I-forget-what and I came upon this, an all but complete draft of a working paper on Latour. It was from late November of 2017. All I had had to do was complete the front matter, this introduction plus the abstract, and I would have been done.

Why’d I drop it? I haven’t the foggiest idea.

In any event, I’ve now completed it. This working paper collects posts written between April 1, 2012 and August 12, 2015. I’d started blogging about Latour on August 17, 2011, with my first post on Assembling the Social; that project continued until October 11. I issued those posts as a working paper two days later, Reading Latour: Reassembling the Social. And I suppose that my engagement with Latour reached its peak when I issued Living with Abundance in a Pluralist Cosmos: Some Metaphysical Sketches in January of 2013, which is what its title implies: I’d taken Latour’s ideas, sifted them through my own work and coughed up an outline for a metaphysics. Surprised me, but there it is.

In some way, reading Latour was a return to my intellectual roots, in philosophy, in Continental thought. But a strange return. Figuring I wanted his recent thinking, I deliberately began reading him with a late work, Reassembling the Social, which turned out to be a high-level methodological manual rather than a systematic exposition of a philosophical position. It was only some months afterward that I took Graham Harman’s advice and read We Have Never Been Modern. I found it strange, a segment from an ongoing-conversation where I missed the beginning. Graham Harman thought it was easy, I thought it was tough. I marked it up quite a bit, a habit from my undergraduate days, and continued on. The posts I’ve collected here represent some of that continuing on.

* * * * *

Some of these are little squibs, some are longer.

Latour Modern, Not: In the process of reading (three chapters in) We Have Never Been Modern: “...this virtual Constitutional Convention is mostly a conversation among humans about how they’re going to talk and think about relations among humans and non-humans. In the end, though, in that Parliament of Things that Latour leaves to his successors, does he not want the Things to be among the constitutional conveners?”

From Fish to Latour, Really: Stanley Fish talks about ideas as though they are just out there in the ether. Latour seems them as embodied in a vast meshwork of intersecting networks: “While I can’t imagine Fish denying the existence of such networks, I don’t see that they’re uppermost in his mind either. It’s not what drives his intuitions. It’s like the Gestaltist’s duck-rabbit. Fish and Latour may look at the same state of affairs, but one is driven by the intuition that it is a rabbit while the other sees a duck.”

Latour's Modes of Existence: For Latour, each mode of existence has its own characteristic type of veridication. Charles Tart advanced a similar idea in the 1970s: “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.”

Lévi-Strauss and Latour: Transformations of a Myth?: Lévi-Strauss had a tremendous influence on me early in my career. Latour has an interesting passage about him in We Have Never Been Modern. And 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.’”

Presuppositions and Conclusions: Some Comments on Latour: Latour talks of risk-taking rocks and networks of humans and everything else. But he’s rather thin on how people think and reason.

Ontology and Epistemology: gone, together?: Once you allow for multiple modes of existence, things get tricky.

Some Latour Litanies from Feyerabend: Allies in pluralist syntax.

The Living Cosmos: In an oblique way, consider this squib an homage to the John Cage of Silence.

Chapter 1 of the New Latour Available, Apocalypse Awaits: I’m all of three pages into the just-released English translation of An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence. Latour talks of climate science; I remember Hurricane Sandy. I conclude, “The weird aliens have come home to roost.”

Latour and the End of the End of History: Fukuyama was wrong about the end of history, an idea born out of washed up Hegel/Marx. “...lurking in Politics of Nature [...] are the seeds of a philosophy of history as a process of negotiations beyond the boundaries of society, of existing institutions, negotiations of collectives in dragon territory.”

Latour and Culture: He’s missing something. He fails to distinguish between society, conceived as a group of people oriented toward and interacting with one another, and culture, the beliefs, practices, a mores of those people. A tricky distinction to be sure: “Still, it changes how I think about Latour to realize that, in effect, those actor networks are important because they are the genetic substrate of culture. Finally, I’ve thought from the beginning that Latour is missing a psychology. He has little to nothing to say about the mind, and yet it is the mind that holds those actor networks together.”

Of Factish Gods and Modes of Existence: About Latour’s modes of existence, each with its own “felicity” conditions, with an excursion into a sermon delivered by a local preacher in a Black church. Religion is one mode. Science, waaayy over there, is different (Reference perhaps?). I conclude, however, that “Latour is missing some modes. He’s flattened a bunch of them into this single mode, Reproduction. Thus he’s giving us a scheme that bears an echo of that old nature/culture distinction he’s worked so hard to replace. His scheme has 14 modes which center on human activity and this one mode that, while humans as physical beings must participate in it, seems to be a single mode only in contrast to, by comparison with, the other fourteen.”

Latour, Language, and Translation: Language, whether written or spoken, is a double system in which a string of signifiers carries or encodes a string of signifieds, to use Saussure’s terms. The signifiers are physical events in the public domain, vibrations in air, marks on a page, while the signifieds exist within the privacy of individual minds and brains. In Latour’s terms, signifiers act like intermediaries while signifieds are mediators. In translation from one language to another, intermediaries must function as mediators.

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