Friday, August 09, 2013

“I’ve Never Been Modern? Why, that Changes Everything…”

1.      Latour finds himself in a very awkward position in We Have Never Been Modern: while emphasizing, at the close of his second chapter, the point of his title, he nevertheless wants to historically chart the birth of the modern. The two claims strike me as perfectly commensurable if one sorts out what one is doing and claiming properly (in order to avoid your own paradoxes in your own philosophical Constitution). “Constitution” is, of course, Latour’s idiom for developing his account of modernity. This is the gist:
The hypothesis of this essay is the word “modern” designates two sets of entirely different practices which must remain distinct if they are to remain effective, but have recently begun to be confused. The first set of practices, by “translation,” creates mixtures between entirely new types of being, hybrids of nature and culture. The second, by “purification,” creates two entirely distinct ontological zones: that of human beings on the one hand; that of nonhumans on the other. Without the first set, the practices of purification would be fruitless or pointless. Without the second, the work of translation would be slowed down, limited, or even ruled out. The first set corresponds to what I have called networks; the second to what I shall call the modern critical stance. The first, for example, would link in one continuous chain the chemistry of the upper atmosphere, scientific and industrial strategies, the preoccupations of heads of state, the anxieties of ecologists; the second would establish a partition between a natural world that has always been there, a society with predictable and stable interests and stakes, and a discourse that is independent of both reference and society. (11)
Latour’s selection, in 1991, of climate change as a network to be studied is a good indication of why people have found Latour’s work in the philosophy of science increasingly useful. Latour’s formulations, however, strike me as still too paradoxical by half, as in this early formulation (admittedly rhetorical for his dramatic narrative): “And what if we had never been modern? Comparative anthropology would then be possible. The networks would have a place of their own” (10). If modernity is what disallowed a space for networks, and we’ve never been modern, then networks have always had a place of their own. That’s the central paradox Latour awkwardly confronts. He wants to say (rightly, I think) that modernity never existed and to say (also rightly) that realizing this will enable us to do something new, thus ushering in a new moment in our history. But at the close of Latour’s second chapter, he goes to some lengths to say that he is not claiming “that we are entering a new era” (47). Latour’s probably right: “era” would be too strong. Latour, however, is trying to usher something new in, but because of the state of philosophy and politics at the time, he finds it difficult to say so out loud. Latour’s formulation should be: “what we thought was modernity was never actually the case, and realizing this will enable us to do better things we’ve already been doing, and perhaps for some of us something new.”

2.      In order to isolate the context Latour finds himself awkwardly in, we might look at the four-part schematic in its opening pages. After contextually defining the two modern desires as ending humanity’s exploitation of itself and increasing humanity’s control over nature, Latour lists the two different “antimodern” reactions: “We must no longer try to put an end to man’s domination of man, say some; we must no longer try to dominate nature, say others” (9). These are still two recognizable responses, and we might accord them the status of being the radical right and radical left, respectively. However, I think Latour is smart in not so doing. These responses should not be reduced to political orientation (like conservative/liberal, right/left) because political orientations are linked too directly to choices in political action—a “political orientation” can only manifest itself within some local politico-power grid (like the Beltway, or the Democratic Party, or the Arizona 2nd District, or the Printer Icon Department at Microsoft). So what we need are labels that express a guiding motive, or orienting principle, that can then be transformed into a political orientation (and thence action) given a planting in some local institutional context. [1] The two antimodern reactions might be described fairly easily as, respectively, “social Darwinism” and “primitivism.” [2]

The first two then quite easily slide into a right/left manifestation in most current “Western” political landscapes. But Latour’s second two responses are harder to place, both in their attitude and their potential political manifestation. The third possibility Latour calls “postmodernism” and says it is an “incomplete scepticism” that causes people to “remain suspended between belief and doubt, waiting for the end of the millennium” (9). We might call this “pyrrhonism,” after the ancient form of skepticism about the possibility of making knowledge claims (and thus the problem of basing action on them). But while some (certainly not all) postmodernist theorists behave like millennialists (there were probably more during the ‘70s and ‘80s, the context Latour was confronting), it’s certainly no requirement for a pyrrhonism to so compose itself. This makes Latour’s theoretical art less useful, for its utility is based on the sense of his having placed his finger on the pulse of the times—and so better able to manifest a good alternative. This becomes worse, it seems to me, in his last option: those who double down on modernity and “carry on as if nothing had changed” (9). Latour shapes this option as those who put their head in the sand, willfully plugging their ears to their better angels. But this seems terribly ill-suited as a description for any responsible intellectual. And this also seems to be the only option available for those who, while hearing the angels, don’t have any better ideas than striving for political emancipation and better technological control in order to improve man’s estate (in the Baconian phrase). But sticking your head in the sand seems a very different quality from being out of ideas. The first manifests fear; the other lack of imagination. What I think Latour’s schematic in the last instance hinges on is his implicit definition of modernity as unmitigated, Chicago-style anarchic-market economic expansionism—the “clever trick” (9) the West hopes to export. But this must be considered a narrow definition of the modern, for what do you do if you do think there is some interesting difference between “the West and the Rest” that you yet have an imperfect faith in?

3.      The difficulty here seems to be in denying a plausible position for those who are already behaving as if we’ve never been modern, but just didn’t realize it. Because we should ask ourselves of Latour’s schematic—who is he talking about? Theorists? Intellectuals? Politicians? Educated people? Car mechanics who don’t read newspapers? This is the conundrum for the intellectual—how do I attribute motivations to people who wouldn’t understand what I’m attributing to them? What I’m pointing at, I think, is just a matter of Latour’s rhetoric getting in the way of his real point—he’s staging himself as a revolutionary in a field (which he is) while at the same time saying that everyone is hooked up to this field where he is a revolutionary. But they are and are not—everyone’s hooked into networks, but not everyone is in Latour’s disciplinary field (studying networks). It seems like we must make a distinction between intellectual and plebeian, for this seems a corollary of denying we’ve ever been modern, which was after all an intellectual’s fiction—say, of Boyle and Hobbes (his primary emblem). [4] The “modern Constitution” Latour draws up fills a role in inferential patterns that not everyone might ever stumble down. We have to say this to deny the Platonism of principles ruling practices, rather than practices being summarized by principles: the former idea helps to produce the tripartite structure of separation in Latour’s Constitution (principles rule practices, meaning realms are separate and playing by their own rules, hence all you need to do is isolate a practice and formulate its rules, rather than studying the jumble of practices), and the latter helps to show how discourse, the social, and the real (one of Latour’s several formulations) are wrapped up into each other.

Latour’s graphical representation helps see what the paradox amounts to:


The trick to seeing the paradox is asking what is being translated in the hybrid networks. In the Modern Constitution, it is Nature and Culture. But that means the Work of Translation requires the dichotomy of Nature and Culture. That’s why Latour marks it as “the first” (though if you look at his summarizing paragraph above he calls “purification” “the second”), but where does the dichotomy come from? The Work of Purification—that means all those hybrid networks conceptually require the work we’ve become suspicious of. So what, in the end, does it in fact mean to reject the Modern Constitution?

4.      The way through, I think, is to distinguish the metaphysics of modernity from the practices we are surrounded by. We might think of metaphysics as a kind of conceptual explanation of our practices and how they work. What Latour is saying is that the Metaphysics of Modernity is incoherent, and in fact needs to be to get on with the work the Metaphysics in part is designed to explain. But we shouldn’t go that far—what we shouldn’t do is think that the work requires the metaphysics. It is an explanation and perhaps a justification, but nuclear bombs do not require any particular metaphysics to work. They only require that you do a certain thing, not think a certain thing.

The reason it appears that nuclear power also requires us to think a certain thing is that it seems absurd to think that hunters and gatherers could perform the requisite tasks to create a nuclear weapon without having, for example, learned that e=mc2. Our ability to do certain things does require us to be able to think or say certain things—we shouldn’t deny that. But what certain things? That is the open question. Latour and many others wish to argue that there is something irrevocably paradoxical about modern life (and sometimes, just human life in general—like Camus). However, this claim requires that the only way to get on with some practice (say, the Work of Translation) is via this other particular practice that actually contradicts the first. But this claim will only ever be justified based on experiment—trying out other ways of getting the good practice to work. In other words, I see no reason to think that the bad metaphysical dualism between Nature and Culture is required to get the Work of Translation done. Much good philosophical work that goes under the banner of “pragmatism” has been trying to work out alternative idioms for understanding the entangled lives we find ourselves thrown into without trying to erase the entanglement. For what pragmatists have learned over the course of philosophical history—a history marked by attempts to purify our categories of understanding—is that some categories are entangled in each other, but that isn’t itself a paradox. Entanglement is okay. It’s only the ghost of Plato that would tell us otherwise.

5.      One way of applying the lesson above is to debates about humanism and posthumanism, especially as Latour has been picked up by many who consider themselves as working out posthumanistic idioms. From a Latourian point of view, I would think the theoretical lesson is that we’ve never been human(istic)—“humanism” never existed in the way it thought itself to. The trouble here, however, seems to be that some posthumanism composes itself as, from this vantage, distinctly anti-humanistic—it doesn’t just wish for the erroneous self-conceptions of humanism to disappear, but for vast tracts of practices that “gave rise to humanism.”

My scare quotes denote the problem of identification that is at issue. For if practices proceed conceptions of practices, then what we are talking about when we want to get rid of humanism is an expulsion of practices—but which are the practices that are at issue? The trouble of cultural evolution is that we are complex to a degree we sometimes forget in analysis. Our conceptions, built out of practices, are only a problem if they double back into bad practices. The problem of institutional reform, as Latour points out, is that if you uproot a practice without uprooting the real cause of the practice—which is another practice—then you will create a “return of the repressed” situation (see 8). [5] So the problem of conceptual reform is the same: identifying correctly a conceptual practice that really does enable a particular bad practice. The trouble of conceptual reform is that a lot of different premises can lead you to the same bad action. Conceptual reform is about disabling the premises in our practical syllogisms that lead us to perform some unwanted action. On this model, there’s a certain slipperiness in conceptual reform. Not only do we sometimes misidentify the culprit, but people have a tendency to replace other premises in their syllogisms if they don’t agree that the object-action is unwanted (the problem we’ve been facing in reforming out of existence racism).

6.      This means the real question for intellectuals is—how much time should we really be spending on haggling over conceptual reform? The stance of both Latour and Shapin is that practices come first, then concepts. [6] So how much dog should we have in the fight over concepts? Who, in fact, are we fighting? Intellectuals have a habit of attributing beliefs and concepts to people who have no idea what they are talking about. This is effectively the same maneuver that physicists perform—do rocks understand the laws of gravity? (If you want to say yes, then you’re simply using a slightly different notion of “understanding”—and how much should we really haggle over this definitional asymmetry?) The real problem is not exactly, it seems to me, bridging back and forth between science, politics, and discourse (which is something like how Latour pictures the problem). The problem is bridging back and forth between experts and non-experts. This isn’t simply a problem of non-experts not understanding technical vocabularies, it is more especially the problem of convincing non-experts that the technical vocabulary should be given authority over our conceptualization of problems (and the experts trusted to be working through the correct inferential consequences—after all, how could a non-expert provide a peer review, or as we used to say in math class, “check your work”?). Latour’s battle is with other experts in his field (which we might label as, in this particular book, philosophers). So how much time should Latour spend in convincing laypersons—scientists, sociologists, literary theorists, politicians, car mechanics—that if they take his perspective, the world will become a little better (i.e., we’ll be able to handle better some of our pressing problems, like climate change)? Because just so long as there are experts resisting Latour, these on-looking laypersons will feel uneasy about giving their trust (this being the very obvious strategy in the debate about climate change). And if there are more direct paths of arguing about these pressing problems, more direct than arguing in a technical field before arguing about the bridge between that field and the public, then this makes Latour look like a detour to action.

So what is the point of all this for debates like those about posthumanism? In turns out not much, because if it is really true that all these systems and practices and networks (or whatever other name one wants to give to the layered and shifting sediment of nature-culture) have always been there, then it doesn’t exactly devalue what the technicians are doing in their respective spheres (even if it is from one vantage seamless). After all, as a layperson, I do tend to think Latour is right in nearly every way as a philosopher of science. If the above is right, then a Latourian revolution in conception just might make the world a little better. Likewise, whatever one thinks of as a “posthuman revolution” just might. But the farther one gets from actuating premises in practical syllogisms—the premise that then kicks out the requisite action—the more nebulous the possible effects changing those farther back premises will have on the object-action one’s eye is really on. All that this suggests is that as scholar-intellectuals, we make a short-term/long-term distinction between the different practices we might take our time up with: practices that will have an immediate effect on the world (voting, teaching), practices a little more distant (writing for newspapers, rabble-rousing), and practices that may only have an effect on the world in the distant future (having babies, writing treatises about conceptual change). As a plea, it is simply about orientation, or about what to remind oneself occasionally while obsessing over one’s area of interest. But it may affect our work as well, for it is possible that a practical orientation like an engulfing messianic fervor might be an actuating principle behind some of our worst practical syllogisms—that our ism-work often looks like silver-bulletism, turning our theoretical work into a practical problem. We have to remain aware of when our theory stuffs up our practical syllogisms, which then requires a theoretical decongestant like Latour.




Endnotes

[1] These labels are at a remove from this “local” context, but no less contextual for that. I think our theoretical discourse has still not yet come to terms with how to formulate the abstract/concrete distinction across the global/local distinction—for we still too often feel moved to call abstraction a “decontextualization,” when we should rather think of it as moving from one context to another. To think of abstraction as a process of decontextualization is to be modern—and we’ve never been modern.

[2] For a brevity I will already fail at, I won’t elaborate why these two labels. But suffice it to say that at other moments in history, these attitudes might have transformed into different orientations. For example, our great modern primitivist is Rousseau, and he mobilized his in order to emancipate humanity, not to not dominate nature. Rousseau’s screeds against modern luxury and the like had as their priority his project of political emancipation, not the ecological project of nature emancipation.

[3] The “unmitigated” plays an important role here, for the American non-Marxist, Reformist Left’s hope is that European “social democracies” provide a model for how to have market economies whose tendencies for imperialistic expansion are curbed.

[4] Latour uses Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s groundbreaking 1985 book, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, to discuss the theoretical implications of the historical digging done in that book: that Boyle, to create the material-scientific “object,” had to deny the framework of thought that allowed Hobbes to create the moral-political “subject,” and vice versa for Hobbes. I do something similar to Shapin’s later The Scientific Revolution in “A Lesson between the Lines: Teleology and Writing History.”

[5] What’s a “real cause,” especially in this complex game of interlocking practices? The same thing it is in the physical sciences—the condition that produces the effect. The great problem of cultural reform is that there are a multitude of conditions—in fact, given the problem of redescription in object-conceptualization (e.g., are you talking about the same object if you describe it differently?), there are an infinite number of conditions potentially. This makes our practices of description (i.e., “theory”) terribly important for picking out practices to be reformed, but it also means that a deep theoretical skepticism necessarily abides in all of our attempts at cultural reform—even if we successfully extirpate an unwanted effect (say poor people or greed) by reforming or removing an isolated and defined practice, we will not ever know whether or not that removed practice was really the cause of the bad effect—unless, and only unless, the bad effect returns. Only when we are wrong do we attain certain knowledge (the Hegelian via negativa crossed with Popperian falsifiability—an amusing cross-fertilization). This form of (Cartesian) epistemological skepticism is only debilitating if one hasn’t previously put one’s faith in the “experimental method”—the defining quality of which is the belief that it is only by trial-and-error that we shall apprehend causes, i.e. a real cause can never be found by theoretical fiat (though it will only appear under a theoretical edifice). The trick for making sure this faith in experiment doesn’t turn back into the Platonism that dogmatically, and by fiat, declares it really has found the real cause, and we can therefore cease inquiry, is to combine Baconian experimentalism with fallibilism—the idea that inquiry will never end because we’d never know it if we’d reached it. The trouble, here again, for this sort of orientation toward cultural reform, rather than physics reform, is that when you reform physics, the only losers are physics professors (until a physical discovery blips our universe out of existence—a real fear attaching to the activities at CERN for some). But for cultural reform, more lives are at stake, and hence “inquiry” into real causes of cultural problems has effects we might not always wish to risk. This, and only this, is what provides the intellectual justification for political conservatism, the attitude that a given change will put at risk things we wish to keep.

[6] Following Robert Brandom, I call this Shapin’s “fundamental pragmatism” in “A Lesson between the Lines: Teleology and Writing History.”

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