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.