rhetoric and Latour's Modes of Existence

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).

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2 thoughts on “rhetoric and Latour's Modes of Existence

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  1. Thanks for this post; sobering to have what has looked to me as a sprawling and vague work that presumes fine-grained-work-already-done redescribed in a way that makes me aware that I’ve missed the broader points and changes in emphasis. I’m about halfway through now—but will have to go back! You help me see just how important speech act theory is in this book: felicity conditions, trust, even value belongs to Austin’s idiom. I’m interested to know how a fight over speech act theory between Butler/Derrida and Latour might play out.

    One more point on rhetoric. In Irreductions Latour writes, “Rhetoric cannot account for the force of a sequence of sentences because, if it is called ‘rhetoric,’ then it is weak and has already lost.” [2.4.1] I always found that lovely and maddening, simultaneously empowering words to do the very thing they’re said to be incapable of doing: rhetoricians (who pay attention to what things are called) are weak; those who call them rhetoricians are strong. A classic differend. If Latour has rehabilitated rhetoric, perhaps it’s because he’s moved the predicament of the enthnographer/diplomat to the front “burner”: after critique and after “modernity,” how can conditions for efficacious, authorative speech be instaurated? “Irreductions” was then a critical, therapuetic text. The Inquiry is not.

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    1. Thanks John. I don’t know if Latour would agree with my account. However I do think that decades of battles and facing up to the reality that his work is misunderstood by both folks in science studies/sociology/cultural studies and by the scientists he has studied has made Latour more focused upon the challenges of negotiation and diplomacy, which for me is a rhetorical matter.

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