I decided to hold of writing further on Latour until I made my way to the end of the first part of the book (about 1/3 of the way through). As I wrote in my earlier post, I find this text deals centrally with issues that concern rhetoricians (not that all rhetoricians will agree with Latour, but I think almost any would see rhetorical matters being addressed here). Latour begins with the networks with which we have long associated his work, but he quickly moves to address concerns that are familiar to those who have followed speculative realism.
Chapter three address correlationism, which Latour calls “correspondence.” He writes
what are usually called the “knowing mind” and the “known object” are not the two extremes to which the chain would be attached: rather they are both products arising from the lengthening and strengthening of the chain. A knowing mind and a known thing are not at all what would be linked through a mysterious viaduct by the activity of knowledge; they are the progressive result of the extension of chains of reference. In fact, if we are so readily inclined to speak of “correspondence” between the two, it is because they both indeed arise from the same operation as the two sides of the same coin. (80-81)
Latour comes to identifying these as two separate modes of existence. Reproduction is the mode by which objects persist, and reference is “the establishment of chains defined by the hiatus between two forms of different natures and whose felicity condition consists in the discovery of a constant that is maintained across these successive abysses” (92). His example is the use of a map to navigate a trail up a mountain. Of course the map isn’t the mountain (the map is not the territory). But if there are strong chains of reference between the map and the mountain (i.e it is a good map), then knowledge has been created that can be employed on a hike. As I see it, the error from Latour’s perspective is to begin with the premise that the subject-object divide is a fundamental ontological rift, when instead they are produced by the same process of reference. Chapter four continues this conversation by addressing the concept of “materialism,” which mistakes the formal qualities of objects established through processes of reference for the substance of reproduction.
These concerns may seem distant from rhetoric, but only because rhetoric has rested upon the premises of modernity that have led us to view our discipline as a strictly cultural, symbolic, and human enterprise. This becomes more clear in chapter four, which deals directly with rhetorical issues. Here Latour returns to a familiar concern in his work, the disconnect between scientific and political discourses. He rehearses the familiar (at least to rhetoricians) history of rhetoric as it is divided from philosophy, science, and Truth through the invention of what Latour calls “straight talk.” However, once we abandon straight talk we return to a rhetorical space where we are obligated to seek out good, strong articulations of the world, which depends in part (as Latour continually reminds in the text) on the people one is addressing.
Part one concludes with this concept of instauration, which I see as a replacement term for “compositionism.” This is a shift in emphasis that rethinks agency as instauration is the act of renewing or restoring (in English), though instauration in French is translated as “foundation” or “establishing.” Latour takes this concept from Souriau (Etienne or Paul, not sure as there aren’t any citations or even a works cited; I guess we are just supposed to know, or maybe it isn’t important). Latour writes, “An artist, Souriau says, is never the creator but always the instaurator of a work that comes to him but that, without him, would never proceed toward existence” (160). And later, “the act of instauration has to provide the opportunity to encounter beings capable of worrying you. Beings whose ontological status is still open but that are nevertheless capable of making you do something, of unsettling you, insist, obliging you to speak well of them” (161).
For me, this notion of instauration is key in understanding the agency of the composer as necessary but not sufficient to the composition. Once we can begin to see the interactions among objects across different modes, we can recognize rhetoric as something that is not strictly human. All objects have the capacity to encounter one another and must take up one another in their own terms (establish chains of reference); we must enunciate one another. At the same time, in those enunciations we are obligated by our encounters with others and we must establish strong chains of reference if we wish our instaurations, our compositions, to be good. Symbolic action is then one particularly powerful means of instauration, but it is a part of these larger nonhuman rhetorical relations. Once one recognizes this, it is no longer sensible to imagine language as standing with subjectivity on the opposite edge of a great divide from the rest of the material world. It is no longer sensible to imagine that language has an obligation to reveal or represent some hidden formal truth or law underlying a mute materiality. If we can move beyond the modernist fantasy that language should speak some formal truth or justice or foster some pure human agency, then we can get to the more interesting rhetorical task of understanding how rhetorical acts (human and nonhuman, symbolic and nonsymbolic) operate in the establishment of the modern world.
Though Latour clearly has more than rhetoric on his mind, this is where the next two-thirds of the book is headed.