speculative rhetoric

pedagogy and Latour's quasi-subjects

Continuing my increasingly plodding march across An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, I’ve completed Latour’s description of the modes he refers to as “quasi-objects” and “quasi-subjects.” To recall, one of the keys of the argument here is to dispense with the binary of subject and object. However, Latour recognizes that these concepts play a central role in how Moderns define themselves, so one cannot pretend as if they simply don’t exist. As such, we get these “quasi” things. Not only that, but Latour also has modes that are prior to subjects or objects.

Just a brief review (I hope), as I want to get to the matter of quasi-subjects. Reproduction, metamorphosis, and habit belong to the pre-object/subject group. As Latour writes

To use a linguistic metaphor, if the beings of reproduction define some kinds of syntagmas (lines of force for inert beings, lineages for the living), might we not say that the beings of metamorphosis define paradigms, possible series of transformations, vertiginous trances? We would then be sketching a matrix made of the crossings between horizontal lines—reproductions—and vertical lines—metamorphoses or substitutions. They would form the warp and the woof of which all the rest is woven. If, much later on, humans begin to speak, it is because they slip into these horizontal and vertical series that they could not have invented. If humans act and speak, it is because the worlds are already articulated in at least these two ways: they reproduce, they metamorphose. (287)

To me, this sounds very close to DeLanda’s use of Deleuze and Guattari’s assemblages, but that’s a post for another day. Thankfully the mapping is one to one, but all the elements are there: lines of force, enunciations, deterritorializations and reterritorializations, and coding/symbolic behaviors.

Latour’s quasi-object modes are technology, reference, and fiction. As Latour continues:

The beings of fiction have lent powers of delegation to the beings of technology, powers that have allowed the sciences, starting from a limited viewpoint that condemned them to blindness, to traverse the whole world and cover it with chains of reference paved from end to end with instruments [tec·ref] and with delegated and domesticated virtual observers [fic·ref]. Hence the idea of grouping these three modes together. (289)

These modes each deal with things “fabricated thing (tec), dispatched things (fic), and known things (ref).” However it is these things that allow for quasi-subjects to emerge.

So, quasi-subjects: Latour identifies three modes here as well–religion, politics, and law. There is enough of a fascination with trinities in this book as it is, but the religion chapter takes it to a new level with its implicit focus on Catholicism. I struggled with that chapter. I realize that Latour has written extensively about religion elsewhere, and I suppose I could go and read those books. And, of course, I recognize that religion is important for many people in the world and for the “Moderns” definition of themselves. Latour mixes up religion and love, which I suppose makes sense to a Catholic. I can see religion has something to do with renewal for Latour, but honestly I am at a loss here. Maybe you can help me (is that a prayer?).

Fortunately the politics and law chapters made a little more sense to me. Latour situates politics firmly in a rhetorical context, at least as far as I am concerned. He describes a cyclical process whereby quasi-subjects shift from being multitudes into a unity and back again. he writes:

What the Sophists discovered is that there is a truth of curves, a necessary truth when one has to produce, in the middle of the agora, statements like “We want,” “We can,” “We obey,” whereas we are multitudes, we do not agree about anything, above all we do not want to obey and we do not control either the causes or the consequences of the affairs that are submitted to us. To pass from one situation to another, yes, a miracle is required, a transposition, a translation in comparison with which transubstantiation is only a minor mystery. (346-7)

This points to one of the central linkages among these modes: none are allowed to speak truthfully or falsely. To jump ahead to Law, legal truths are not perceived as Truth (e.g. he was found “not guilty” on a technicality). We can say that religion is true for believers and that politicians are liars but really neither mode has credence within the mode of reference (of science), which is where truth is established for Moderns. But Latour’s point is that these modes accomplish things that science/reference cannot and that misunderstanding this is the great error of philosophy: “As if Socratic dialogue could put an end to the pandemonium of the public” (347). One more long quote (thanks to the online version of AIME).

The third group has a common feature, moreover, that justifies calling it that of quasi subjects: the fact that the felicity and infelicity conditions for the group always depend on the moment, the situation, the tonality, almost on the tone of voice—in any event, on form. (For this reason it would not be a bad idea to reserve the term regimes of enunciation for this third group, for it is definitely a matter of a “manner of speaking.”) It was the very fragility of these conditions that led modernism to declare them irrational, or at least irrelevant to truth and falsity alike. And yet what a loss, if we couldn’t trace once again the differences between truly speaking politically, legally, religiously and falsely speaking politically, legally, religiously. And a still greater loss if we were to mix up these forms of truth, if we were to amalgamate them. (375)

Perhaps it is just me, but I hear rhetoric in this passage: moment, situation, tonality,  “manner of speaking.” As I understand it, these modes take up technology, fiction, and reference to enunciate subjective layers, to articulate humans as individuals and groups. I think this is very close to where I am going with understanding rhetoric as an enunciative force (symbolic or otherwise). Rhetoric is not a product of subjects but rather something closer to the other way around (although we never actually get “subjects”).

It is in this context that I wonder if pedagogy or learning might not be another mode of quasi-subjects. We wouldn’t want to mistake it for educational institution any more than we would religion for religious institution. Double-click, Latour’s Modern nemesis throughout this book, wants to think of pedagogy as transmission of fact (reference), but the project here is to recover these modes from the influence of Double-click. Pedagogy has its own mode of gathering together fabricated, dispatched, and known things, its own sense of moment, situation, and tonality. Pedagogy links people together in a unique way. It has its own intersection with metamorphosis. On the other hand, if one adds pedagogy/learning then maybe that opens the door for dozens of other possible modes and the results is unwieldy. On the third hand though, religion, politics, and law seem incomplete to me.#plaa{display:none;visibility:hidden;}

One reply on “pedagogy and Latour's quasi-subjects”

One thing that’s becoming very clear to me as I work through this book (I’m only up to the politics chapter so far) is the debt to James’ radical empiricism (Latour admits as much in the ‘vocabulary’ section on the website version of the book). The constant reference to ‘experience’ can be rather confusing without first understanding how James uses that concept. In fact the whole aime project can be understood as radical empiricism with Souriau, Whitehead and Serres mixed in. If anything James is the starting point, the basis.

So, I’m wondering what that means for rhetoric. Rhetoric as an experiential, radically empirical (not just a linguistic) phenomenon. He uses linguistic resources (e.g. from speech act theory) but it’s really got to be understood very much in Jamesian terms – that is in terms of flows of experience.

I don’t feel that I can really understand aime until I properly understand James. It’s one of those things that, despite Latour’s careful explication of his argument, he really leaves unargued – the concept of experience. It’s one of those threads we have to draw out for ourselves.


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