the challenges of reading Latour

A couple of Latour-related articles have been going around lately, particularly this article in the NY Times and more recently this critical piece by Alex Galloway at least partly occasioned by the Times article. Galloway’s rejection of Latour (and Deleuzian, new materialism in general, if one reads other works of his) comes down to the infelicity of this kind of thinking for his political project. That is, it is, in my view, an ideological objection. And I don’t have any problem with that. Well, let me rephrase that. I don’t have any problem with people–academics or otherwise–having a goal and selecting the best tools for achieving that goal.

That said, at the end I think the only conclusion you can draw is that Latour doesn’t share Galloway’s political commitments, is not seeking to carry out Galloway’s political objectives through his research, and that therefore Galloway believes his work has little or no merit.

I will leave it up to you to determine whether or not you find that piece of news useful.

In passing though, I will point out what strike me as some misreadings of Latour. Galloway writes,

Latour very clearly enacts a “reticular decision” of economic exchange in which markets and networks are sufficient to describe any situation whatsoever. And thus to avoid these Latourian difficulties one might “degrow” this particular reticular decision — so engorged, so sufficient — refusing to decide in favor of the network, and ultimately discovering the network’s generic insufficiency. Latour does the reverse. Networks overflow with sufficient capacity.

I see this as a key point in Galloway’s critique as this notion of a reticular fallacy is something he has turned to before. As is suggested here, the reticular fallacy has to do with seeing everything as rhizomatic or networked or horizontal, plus assuming such structures are intrinsically better, freer, more just, or some such. I completely agree that it would be an error to see everything that way or assume there’s something necessarily better.

But I am confused as to how one sees that in Latour. Take for example, the concept of plasma as discussed in Reassembling the Social

plasma, namely that which is not yet format- ted, not yet measured, not yet socialized, not yet engaged in metro- logical chains, and not yet covered, surveyed, mobilized, or subjectified. How big is it? Take a map of London and imagine that the social world visited so far occupies no more room than the subway. The plasma would be the rest of London, all its buildings, inhabitants, climates, plants, cats, palaces, horse guards. (244)

To be clear, one can be critical of plasma also, but it strikes me that networks are like the subway system. They are hardly capacious at all despite Galloway’s assertion. And if plasma seems like a fairly minor point in Latour’s work, then one might try reading An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, which begins with networks as one of fifteen modes–a number which he does not claim to be exhaustive. Really Galloway’s point is that he believes Latour’s way of thinking is not progressive, that it merely reiterates an existing perspective when “The goal of critical thinking, indeed the very definition of thought in the broadest sense, is to establish a relationship of the two vis-a-vis its object, a relation of difference, distinction, decision, opposition.”

I can agree with that, but it’s that same value that is the basis of my dissatisfaction with Galloway’s argument. While he argues that Latour’s thought creates no difference or distinction in relation to its object of study, my complaint with Galloway is that he never really enters into a relationship with his object of study, having already predetermined his opposition. Perhaps that is just his rhetorical style. Maybe somewhere along the way, in the distant past, he engaged with Latour’s work in a way that was open to its possibilities. However reading this, you’d wonder how far along Galloway went before he came to this judgment or if he arrived at the text with this judgment in hand. And I don’t really care if the latter was the case. Most people are true believers of one sort or another. He already knows what the world is, how it can change, and how it should change. In that light the purpose of humanities scholarship can only be a political-rhetorical one: to persuade people to accept one’s beliefs and take up one’s cause.

The error one can find in Latourian-Deleuzian thinking comes when it is used in this same way, as if networks, rhizomes, becomings, etc. represent a teleology, as if we’d all be better off as nomads, schizos, or something. That would be a reticular fallacy as Galloway might put it. However I wouldn’t attribute such claims to either Latour or Deleuze themselves.

Latour’s methods might only be useful to people who do not believe they know how some part of the world works before they examine it and/or who are uncertain about how to act next. Even then, it’s quite possible that you won’t find Latour’s methods all that useful to you–if it doesn’t create more understanding and more importantly if doesn’t expand your capacity to act effectively in the world.

 

 

9 thoughts on “the challenges of reading Latour

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  1. The irony is that you could easily make the opposite case for Latour’s political philosophy: that he isn’t nearly ‘horizontal’ enough. He is, in the end, a liberal republican in the Deweyan mould, and that has, as you mention, always been pretty clear to anyone who actually bothered to do the reading.

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  2. One of the problems with Laruelle and his disciples is that they produce critiques of thinkers who have already advanced the same critiques and moved on. You are right to cite Latour’s AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE as escaping from Galloway’s objections. AIME contains the results of Latour’s autocritique, and de-emphasizes networks in favour of a panoply of concepts of a different order (the multiple modes and the diverse felicity conditions). Latour thus recognizes the danger of sufficiency in his previous work and proposes a far more nuanced and differentiated way out of that sufficiency than Laruelle’s clunky scientism. I do not think that Galloway’s complaint is basically political. You point out that his portrait of Latour’s work is based on an incomplete and erroneous reading. My impression is that Galloway cannot abide Latour’s pluralism, and its critique of scientism. This pluralism finds one of its models in networks, but then goes beyond the network model to the modes of existence model, thereby deepening its exploration of pluralism.

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  3. Reblogged this on AGENT SWARM and commented:
    One of the problems with Laruelle and his disciples is that they produce critiques of thinkers who have already advanced the same critiques and moved on. Alex Reid rightly cites Bruno Latour’s AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE as escaping from Galloway’s objections. AIME contains the results of Latour’s autocritique, and de-emphasizes networks in favour of a panoply of concepts of a different order (the multiple modes and the diverse felicity conditions). Latour thus recognizes the danger (and not the necessity) of sufficiency in his previous work and proposes a far more nuanced and differentiated way out of that sufficiency than Laruelle’s clunky scientism. I do not think that Galloway’s complaint is basically political. Alex Reid points out that his portrait of Latour’s work is based on an incomplete and erroneous reading. My impression is that Galloway cannot abide Latour’s pluralism, and its critique of scientism. This pluralism finds one of its models in networks, but then goes beyond the network model to the modes of existence model, thereby deepening its exploration of pluralism.

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  4. can anyone provide examples where reading (recent work like AIME not his early ANTish/ethnographic work) Latour has actually expanded their “capacity to act effectively in the world” beyond say new vocabularies for doing more of the same academic work and the like?

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    1. I’ll give examples of two things that struck me in AIME that I believe have expanded my pedagogical capacities. The first is a fairly general premise in the text, his notion of a second empiricism. I don’t teach classes in Latour, but I do teach classes where students are investigating the rhetorical/compositional qualities of digital technologies and practicing digital communication. I find this method offers me an understanding of my students’ experiences with digital rhetoric that results in pedagogical insights. The second would be the concept of instauration, which he takes up from Souriau and which I find to be a useful way to rethink invention. Taken together–along with other elements, Latourian and otherwise–I find such concepts useful in describing how the assemblages we form with digital media shape our capacities, how we are “made to act” as Latour might put it.

      Briefly I’ll try a specific example. One doesn’t need a sophisticated theory of any kind to get the basic premise that developing the technical skill to produce a podcast gives one capacities one did not have before (how much one values those capacities is a different matter). Of course the devil is in the details, especially as one tries to tease out the rhetorical and not simply technical capacities. E.g., how and when does one use ambient sounds? how does one get a good recording of them? And while we can construct common and/or exchangeable understandings of these capacities, the answers are also always singular as well. That is, there is a compositional strategy here that respects the specific, ambient, ecological conditions of rhetorical practice, that such practices arise in our relations with others. So while I’m not assigning Latour to my students, my reading of Latour has shaped my ability to understand my students’ compositional practices in a way I think makes me a better teacher.

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      1. thanks,be interested to hear how that works out with yer students but strikes me that AIME had much grander ambitions than this and yet seems to have yielded little but more of the same old academic work products like conferences, books, lectures, etc.

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      2. I’d agree AIME (and Latour) have grander ambitions than I do. I think the NY Times article does a good job of outlining Latour’s ambitions in relation to science and climate change in particular. I’m curious as to what standard for success/impact you have in mind here–in comparison to Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, etc. I do think that what Latour offers is an academic method designed to produce scholarly knowledge, which might inform political debate or broader cultural conversations, but I don’t think there’s a Latourian politics–as one would find with Marxism or feminism for example–around which a political movement would form.

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