writing, invisibility, and Latour

As I’ve written here before, one passage that has really stuck with me since my early days in graduate school comes from Lester Faigley’s Fragments of Rationality, where he observes that the disagreements in rhetoric and composition can be understood in terms of the subjectivities we want our students to occupy in the classroom. I’ve always seen this as an astute accounting of a disciplinary paradigm; I’ve also always seen it as a matter of concern (to adopt a Latourian phrase). Following the administrivia tornado of the first couple weeks of the semester, I’ve gotten back into Modes of Existence and immediately encountered a couple chapters that I see as speaking directly to this matter.

Chapter 7 deals with questions of the psyche and introduces a mode Latour terms “metamorphosis.” To briefly summarize, one of the defining characteristics of “moderns” is their rejection of external, invisible forces impinging on the psyche (e.g. spirits). Instead moderns attribute their mental states strictly to internal processes. As Latour writes, “the continuity of a self is not ensured by its authentic, and as it were, native core, but by its capacity to let itself by carried along, carried away, by forces capable at every moment of shattering it or, on the contrary, of installing themselves in it. Experience tells us that these forces are external, while the official account asserts that they are only internal” (196). Perhaps one might want to raise the question of ideology here. That is, at least among some moderns (e.g. academics), there is the belief in an external, overdetermining ideological force. Indeed, harkening back to Faigley and the cultural studies/postmodern composition moment, one might say that teaching students to understand their subjectivity as shaped by ideology is a primary goal of instruction. But these really are quite different things. Even the moderns believe they can be “influenced” by the external world, and the critical pedagogue ultimately relies upon fostering an internal process of critical thinking. In teaching composing though, we mostly focus on internal processes of invention. Following Latour’s lead, it shouldn’t be too difficult to demonstrate how composition follows the rest of the moderns in imagining an internal subject/psyche as the focal point of writing and pedagogy.

Chapter 8 turns to technology and to technical processes. Perhaps I should say “returns to” since technology is clearly Latour’s wheelhouse. Moderns are, of course, the technological creatures par excellence. It is technology and a technological way of thinking that separate them from the nonmoderns. However, moderns tend to make their technologies invisible. We only see them when they break (as Heidegger reminds us). The cliche about necessity and invention reveals our belief that technologies are an extension of will, and we measure them by their effectiveness. Latour writes “effectiveness is to technology what objectivity is to reference, the way to have your cake and eat it too, the results with out the means, that is, without the path of appropriate mediations” (218). Let me throw a few quotes at you from this chapter:

  • If nothing in technology goes in a straight line, it is because the logical course–that of the episteme–is always interrupted, deflected, modified, and because in following it one goes from displacement to deviation… This is what we mean, quite banally, when we assert that there is a “technological problem,” an obstacle, a snag, a bug; this is what we are referring to when we say of someone that “he’s the only one with the technical ability” to solve a given problem. (223)
  • Through technology, the being-as-other learns that it can still be even more infinitely altered that it thought possible up to that point. (226)
  • If we always have to maintain the ambiguity of constructionism without ever believing in the assured existence of a builder, it is because the author learns from what his is doing that he is perhaps its author. In the case of technological beings, this general property is of capital importance, since technologies have preceded and generated humans: subjects, or rather, as we shall soon name them, QUASI SUBJECTS, have spring up little by little from what they were doing. (230)
  • The author, at the outset, is only the effect of the launching from behind, of the equipment ahead. If gunshots entail, as they say, a “recoil effect,” then humanity is above all the recoil of the technological detour. (230)
  • all humans are the children of what they have worked on. (231)

I would ask, simply, what does it mean to put “writing process” in this context? Both in the context of “metamorphosis,” of a psyche/subject produced and maintained through external means (if external/internal can still operate) and in this context of the technological. Technology, as noted above, is riddled with glitches. It moves in a zig-zag fashion, as Latour repeatedly notes. Technologies bring animate and inanimate objects together, each lending some capacities, to produce a new technological relation, a metamorphosis that is solidified in some respects though it still must be continually repaired and adjusted (zig-zag). The technological mode precedes humans and it is through our encounter with it that we are altered, made human perhaps. What does it mean to conceive of writing processes in these terms? From my perspective, it fits in quite well with many of the things I’m already writing about, though I think Latour brings some great conceptual clarity to the matter. When we think of language, symbols, and other communication as nonhuman technological others that are not produced by humans but through which humans are produced, are metamorphosed, through this technological mode, then we have a very different way of thinking about writing process that moves beyond the expressivist voice, beyond the ideological subject, and even past the human actors in activity systems, to see a far more open and complex system, one that I think is far better situated to address the task of investigating the shift from print to digital media.

Here is perhaps the key point from these chapters: “now that we are beginning to free ourselves from the scenography of Subject and Object, the question becomes essential: if there are several ways to exist, and not just two, we can no longer define the one simply as the opposite of the other” (201). The “question” being what kinds of alterations are possible? If we can move beyond the mire of subjectivity that Faigley rightly identified, how do we open up the field of writing?



One thought on “writing, invisibility, and Latour

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  1. I haven’t had a chance to pick up _An Inquiry into Modes of Existence_ yet, but I’ve recently been giving a lot of thought to the idea of “talking to interfaces” (communicating/communing with writing technologies). Indeed, the “zig-zag fashion” of technological unfolding introduces different types of communication into the writing moment — on a zig, we are composing an email and envisioning the recipient’s response, and on a zag we are engaged with the interface itself as it asks us to confirm a network connection, run a spell-check or not, informs us our work has been lost, etc. It’s a crossing between discourses and audiences, only some of which are human. D.F. McKenzie has a great section in _Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts_ — he relates an account of newly literate, first-time letter writers as they write partially to the recipient and partially to the paper, asking if they are using it correctly and wondering whether or not it will transmit the message properly.

    I really like this passage you wrote: “When we think of language, symbols, and other communication as nonhuman technological others that are not produced by humans but through which humans are produced, […] then we have a very different way of thinking about writing process that moves beyond the expressivist voice […] to see a far more open and complex system.” The figure of the expressive, empowered voice looms so large in approaches to rhetoric (especially feminist approaches), it’s a continued struggle for me set to that notion of agency aside or at least map a pathway around it.


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