Deleuze, Latour, and the virtual

Continuing on this thread from the last few posts, I have become interested in investigating the relationship between Deleuze and Latour, especially as it pertains to a concept of the virtual. So, courtesy of Google Books, here are some places in Latour's work where "virtual" and "Deleuze" arise. This is not meant as definitive, merely exploratory. And I limited myself to the two works of Latour's with which I am most familiar (and which I have lying around the house): We Have Never Been Modern and Reassembling the Social.

The word "virtual" doesn't appear in the former text, but has a role in the latter, where it appears five times (excluding the index or in titles of cited books). One of these, a footnote on pg 208 is a reference to the technological concept of VR and doesn't really add anything here.

  1. At the end of his chapter on the "Fourth Source of Uncertainty," Latour discusses the challenge of ensuring that the diversity of "agencies manifested by matters of concern…. is not permanently closed by one hegemonic version of one kind of matter of fact claiming to be what is present in experience" (188). So Latour makes a 4-item "to-do list" and the word virtual appears in the fourth item. Essentially the list is about tracing the material production of "scientific facts:" in the lab (first), extending outward into society (second), through specific experiments and controversies (third), and "the growing intensity of controversies over 'natural things'" (fourth). Here he writes: "While before you had to go back and forth between reality and fiction as if it was the only road worth taking, it is now possible to distinguish the procedures allowing for realities–now in the plural–and those leading to stability and unity. To maximize the fabulous power of their etymology, objects have now become things again: the disputed topic of a virtual assembly" (119).
  2. The other three uses of virtual come closely upon one another on pp 163, 164, and 166, and build upon a particular point Latour wants to make and is put well here: "it does not require much effort to see that a virtual and always present entity is exactly the opposite of what is needed for the collective to be assembled: if it's already there, the practical means to compose it are no longer traceable; if it's total, the practical means to totalized it are no longer visible; if it's virtual, the practical means to realize, visualize and collect it have disappeared from view… To put it even more bluntly: either there is society or there is sociology" (163).

Rather than address these different uses of the term "virtual," I want to head into Latour's references to Deleuze. In Reassembling the Social, Deleuze comes up twice in footnotes and once in the text. One of the footnotes (pp 94-95) is just a passing comment on the "science wars" and not worth noting here.

  1. The first footnote is on pg 59 in the chapter on the "Second Source of Uncertainty" (which is related to action or agency) in a section titled "How to make someone do something." Here Latour is arguing for the importance of mediators as a way of suggesting that one cannot simply expect that "causes" determine "effects." All sorts of interesting things can happen in between, at least for Latour. So these are two ways of looking at things: one where causes are deterministic and one where mediators affect outcomes. He writes, "The first solution draws maps of the world which are composed of a few agencies, followed by trails of consequences that are never much more than effects, expressions, or reflections of something else. The second solution, the one preferred by ANT, pictures a world made of concatenations of mediators where each point can be said to fully act." The footnote comes at the end of the sentence and says, "In Deleuze's parlance, the first has 'realized potentials,' the second 'actualized virtualities.'"
  2. Deleuze appears in the "main" text (sort of) in a side bar on "a terminological precision about network" on pg 129. Of course Latour is famous for saying about ANT that there are only three things wrong with it, "actor" "network" and "theory," and here he is parsing the term "network." He mention two common uses of network: technical networks and the sociology of organization. And then writes, "But the other tradition, to which we have always referred, is that of Diderot in his La reve de d'Alembert (1769), which includes twenty-seven instances of the word reseaux. This is where you can find a very special brand of active and distributed matieralism of which Deleuze, through Bergson, is the most recent representative."

There are three references to Deleuze in We Have Never Been Modern and I'm going to speed things up a little here.

  1. "What is the source of the very modern impression that we are living a new time that breaks with the past? Of a liaison, a repetition that in itself has nothing temporal about it (Deleuze, 1968)?" (72)
  2. "moderns have simply invented longer networks by enlisting a certain type of  nonhumans. The network-lengthening process has been interrupted in earlier periods, because it would have threatened the maintenance of territories (Deleuze and Guattari, [1972] 1983). But by multiplying the hybrids, half object and half subject, that we call machines and facts, collectives have changed their topography" (117).
  3. "Every totalization, even if it is critical, helps totalitarianism. We need not add total domination to real domination. Let us not add power to force. We need not grant total imperialism to real imperialism. We need not add absolute deterritorialization to capitalism, which is also quite real enough (Deleuze and Guattari [197] 1983). Similarly, we do not need to credit scientific truth and technological efficacity with transcendence, also total, and rationality, also absolute" (125).

I don't want to make too much of this little exercise. But I will say this. In these spaces Latour has plenty of opportunity to dissociate himself from Deleuze. He could have been critical or not even mentioned Deleuze I suppose. But you don't see that. Instead, I see someone who is building on Deleuze or at least does not find it necessary to make a clean intellectual break from Deleuze as he does from mainstream sociology. Now some might want to criticize Latour's use of Deleuze (though the idea of a "Deleuzian purist" strikes me as about as weird a concept as could exist); others might want to emphasize Latour's differences from Deleuze. But I don't see Latour taking real liberties with Deleuze or making substantive breaks from him. It's more like they touch upon one another in productively resonant ways, that Latour has made something productive from his encounter with Deleuze… which is what I would hope to do.

As my last post discussed, one of these points that is raised has to do with the virtual. I would have to agree with Harman's point in The Prince of Networks that Latour does not often employ the term "virtual." Above we get two very different uses of the term virtual. The second case is more critical and refers to the virtual as an ideal realm, which I think is very different from the way Deleuze employs the virtual. The first is more interesting "objects have now become things again: the disputed topic of a virtual assembly," as is the first footnote reference that appears to link "concatenations of mediators" with "actualized virtualities." 

Here's an example. Take this sentence. Objects have now become things again: the disputed topic of a virtual assembly. When I encounter this, it is as patterns of ink on paper. Here it is patterns of light on a screen. Then there are light wave-particles that carry those patterns to my eyes. Stand back far enough (or in my case, remove eyeglasses) and nothing happens. Close enough and the light hits my eyes, goes through a series of mediations where I maybe recognize (but do not consciously think), these are letters that make words that make a sentence. I don't consciously process letters or even words necessarily but a thought enters my head that is "caused" by reading the sentence, but not in a deterministic way, certainly not for Latour.

So part of this is boilerplate textual theory. My 10-year daughter is very bright (he said objectively) but she would get something very different from that sentence, as would my students or neighbors, etc. etc. The disciplinary-academic meaning of the sentence, which attempts (cybernetically) to limit its effects, is maintained through various institutional actors operating in a network, including in some modest way this blog post. So all of those things are obviously not physically present as I sit in my living room reading that sentence, and yet they linger somewhere in my brain or I encounter them in a google search or something on my laptop as I write this (e.g. where does Latour mention Deleuze? ah thanks Google book search). 

As I see it, Latour's main argument in Reassembling the Social is that we can't just leap from ink to Inc. That we shouldn't jump from ink forming letters on a page to a transnational capitalist ideology controlling our interpretation of texts. We need to follow the trails, like ants (Latour's joke).

Latour addresses this question of object relations through the concept of mediators. And as far as I can see, he doesn't have a major issue with thinking about mediators as "actualized virtualities." FWIW, we see a similar discussion coming from a different angle in the work of Agamben and Nancy where one is working through concepts of immanence and community. To put the questions together, if objects are immanent to themselves, how do they relate (i.e. form communities)? Put differently, what is one's theory of mediation? As I have discussed, the virtual offers a different concept of immanence, as a theory of mediation. 

Well, I have to head to a meeting and then I must do some grading, so I am afraid I will need to leave off here, but I will get back to the matter later.

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