I’ve only read the first few chapters of this book, so these are some initial impressions. Probably the most surprising thing for readers of Latour is what he does with actor-network theory. It’s not that he dispenses with it. He just decides that it is only one part of a larger puzzle. Essentially he explains that the power of network analysis has been to allow the ethnographer to travel across various social domains, to mix nature and culture, the human and nonhuman, etc. (all the things we know about ANT), but it’s weakness has been its inability to recognize the specific values of the actors it has investigated: that is, from the perspective of ANT, all networks look much the same. To remedy this, in chapter two, he adds the concept of “prepositions” which “allows us to compare the types of discontinuities and consequently the trajectories that these discontinuities trace, one pair at a time” (62). More on this in a later post. (I should also note that there are 13 more modes to be added to Network and Preposition in this text.)
I want to turn to what I read as a very central role for rhetoric in what Latour is doing, even though he doesn’t use the word. Instead he writes about “diplomacy,” “negotiation,” and “speech acts.” So, for example, he writes, “this is an anthropologist who is not afraid of running the risks of diplomacy. She knows how difficult it is to learn to speak well to someone about something that really matters to that person” (46). This last, emphasized bit is important to Latour and he returns to it several times in the first couple chapters, noting for example, that to speak well in this way requires avoiding “category mistakes” (e.g. expecting that scientific proofs and legal means are the same thing). As such, he asks
Let us recall that in “category” there is always the agora that was so essential to the Greeks… kata-agorein is first of all “how to talk about or against something or someone in public”… Discovering the right category, speaking in the right tonality, choosing the right interpretive key, understanding properly what we are going to say, all this is to prepare ourselves to speak well about something to those concerned by that thing–in front of everyone, before a plenary assembly, and not in a single key. (59)
If, as Latour suggests at the outset of the book, there is a shift from Certainty to Trust, from the absolute certainty of scientific proofs to appeals to trust in scientific institutions and the knowledge they construct, then this is a shift into a rhetorical frame. This is quite consonant with what I see as Latour’s longstanding project. Yes, knowledge is constructed but that has to be enough. We cannot take this realization as a reason to throw up our hands in postmodern play or despair. But we do have to think about how such trust can be built, rhetorically, without crushing other non-scientific values (or at least that seems important to Latour).