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kvond

Latour’s Inconsistency, “Start in the Middle”

Ailsa, over at a musing space asks a question that I have been troubled by myself, as she that she is in a kind of Möbius strip if she takes Latour’s reduction of Pasteur’s actorly position in a network, and applies it to Latour himself. If I understand her correctly, she is a counselor interested in the consequences of a Latour’s thinking on her profession, and though is quite happy at seeing that “essences” as lived moment to moment experiences of presence, come out of the trained existential relations of a therapy, but questions how it is that Latour himself is able to hand her the keys to the process. On what ground does Latour leverage his claim?:

I can do counselling, and in the performance their is an essence, or several essences; belonging, being in the moment…empathy. They don’t exist outside of performance, but they are aspired to and recognised as valuable in a therapeutic interaction…and therefore they are taught and aspired to…seems to me ts an ‘and and’ issue.

To adapt some Latourian critique of Pasteur and turn it on Latour himself:
Is Latour not giving his entity a little nudge forward? …He is doing the action, he has prejudices, he is filling the gap?
Are not the metalinguistic resources that I apply handed to me directly by the author…

The Case of Free Translation

I reprint here my comment, as it reflects something I have raised before, that Latour reduces the world in some rather dramatic ways without attaining to the very requirements he sets before others:

I have to say that applying the ontic/methodological principles of a philosopher to themseleves is one of the great tests, and few philosopher’s remain unscathed in some important sense. But I think that this is a signficant thing to do if one is going to take philosophical thought seriously, at its word.

I am no expert on Latour, and have only arrived at his thought lately through Graham Harman, but a huge question that I have is: If nothing is reducible, but also everything that is reduced must be translated in such a way that we can trace the reduction, then where in the world is Latour’s traceable translation of making everything in the world “actors”? This is an incredible reduction (I mean that that literally, in-credible, without credit), under Latour’s own framework for legitimacy.

Perhaps he has answered this question in some way or another, or he simply doesn’t care for the meta-question, the internal consistency of his thought. It is one thing to say that one must always “start in the middle” (I wonder if he got this from Deleuze and Guattari, for this is their advice from “a thousand plateaus”), but quite another to say, “Because I start in the middle, my theory is self-justified”.

This is one of the difficulties that I have with Latour as far as I know him. He presents a very rich weave of concepts which help us tease out the nature of interactions in the world, but what he argues is incomplete, and leaves out significant factors of what we look for in an explanation. Yes, we are all actors in a world of actors, but we are also more than that. Its my feeling, as you suggest, that something of the demand that “existence precedes essence” comes from the insufficiency of “we must start in the middle”. Yes, we must “start” in the middle, but the middle always leads us to what was before us.

My problem seems to be slightly different than Ailsa’s, for while I am troubled with the internal consistency of Latour’s thinking with a view toward its wider philosophical applications (its relation to other philosophical positions making claims of equal breadth), Ailsa is more troubled with her position as a subject, operating within a philosophical framework, looking to bring its analytical principles into play in real world situations. But I don’t think that these aspects are disconnected, for it is actually well-within our perceived, self-relating coherences that we work best as agents; and the Möbius strip sense-making that Ailsa is untangling herself from is part of the reason that chained-causes, the way that history imposes itself upon a process and gives us the constitutive weight of what “essence” is, substantiate a process. There is ballast to the thinness of the actor.

 

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16 responses to “Latour’s Inconsistency, “Start in the Middle”

  1. limitations and shortcomings March 14, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    “If nothing is reducible, but also everything that is reduced must be translated in such a way that we can trace the reduction, then where in the world is Latour’s traceable translation of making everything in the world “actors”? This is an incredible reduction (I mean that that literally, in-credible, without credit), under Latour’s own framework for legitimacy.”

    Latour, it seems, attempts to address this point in two different ways.

    In his first published text, Laboratory Life, he writes that the success of his work (i.e. his own reductive translations) will depend entirely on what is done with it subsequently. This claim is entirely consistent with his own principles. For example, it corresponds to his argument that causation (or lack thereof) is attributed after the fact, through a set of trials of strength. That is: it is not Lab Life (Latour? that renders the world reducible or irreducible but the network which Lab Life becomes a part of – or fails to become a part of.

    Serres makes the same point, more eloquently, when he writes that the most successful translators disappear. If Latour is successful, both he and his work does too. And by the very fact of being successful, to be sure.

    Other times, Latour wants to claim that he is doing something entirely different from the actors themselves. He is following them, un-earthing their ethno-methods. That is to say, Latour suggests that he is doing something of a different order to (almost) all sociology/philosophy. In this argument, he claims that he is not adding truth or unity, that he only has an ontology (infralangauge) and not a metaphysics (metalanguage). So this is not *entirely* different to the above move.

    Its an open question whether either of these moves are successful in the long run – but I only want to suggest that he does address the general question. Latour must be read, I think, as one of the most astute academics ever. He always seems to be aware of the problems with his position before we, as readers, are. He’s a politician before all else.

    On last thing: it’s also important to keep in mind that Latour thinks his sociology/philosophy is one that can fail. It is one that might fail to capture its object, one that might be resisted, and one that might die an invisible death. Its reductions are ones that might, simply put, fail to reduce. But they are also ones that might succeed – with all that that means.

    Reading over this, I have an even more reflexive point. Apologies. Latour’s general methodological rule (in those instances where he considers method to hold any value) is that one needs to be temporally present to uncover the processes of reduction, the regimes of translation that render an actors successful. If we arrive on the scene late, after a translation is already successful, we are already *too* late for Latour. So maybe he would say, simply, that you would have to follow him in his own work of reducing the world to actors to render this work ‘creditable’.

  2. kvond March 14, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    Wonderful comments. What it seems is that what Latour argues is that his theory will be successful to the degree that he has “Black Boxed” it. An interesting claim, unless one wants to open up his Black Box, and in so doing simply finds his theorizations incomplete or really more, internally incoherent (as I do). Which is not to say that they are uninteresting.

    So when you say, “Its an open question whether either of these moves are successful in the long run – but I only want to suggest that he does address the general question. Latour must be read, I think, as one of the most astute academics ever. He always seems to be aware of the problems with his position before we, as readers, are. He’s a politician before all else.”

    I have to say that when a politician comes off as a merely a politician, as he seems to do on this issue raised, fewer people are likely to vote for him. Yes, it is interesting to think about the world that Latour creates, but when comparing his philosophy to other philosophies, side by side, for me his “translation” suffers. Interesting yes, but not sufficient.

    Much of this reflects the same problem given to Nietzsche. If every theory is a will to power, and I accept this, I should refuse your will to power over me and reject your theory that everything is will to power. Latour’s version is a much more mundane and banal kind of equation. “I am a politcian, we all can be nothing more than a politician” is not an argument, but a polemic.

  3. limitations and shortcomings March 15, 2009 at 3:11 am

    “What it seems is that what Latour argues is that his theory will be successful to the degree that he has “Black Boxed” it.”

    If I was writing that sentence I would personally replace ‘theory’ with ‘text’. In terms of his theory, it is able to be ‘successful’ insofar as it becomes an immutable mobile, retain its (network) boundaries and move (spatially) from scene to scene or text to text. I do see what you are getting at though.

    Quickly: perhaps I was being too cynical calling Latour a politician. It makes sense in a negative sense, certainly, but is not the entire story. And, indeed, he much prefers to call himself a diplomat these days!

    Even more quickly: I am not sure how much bite it has to accuse Latour of having an incomplete theoretical apparatus when that’s precisely the point. It’s not the theory that solves the problem, that unifies, but the actors etc. etc.

  4. kvond March 15, 2009 at 3:26 am

    L and C: “perhaps I was being too cynical calling Latour a politician. It makes sense in a negative sense, certainly, but is not the entire story. And, indeed, he much prefers to call himself a diplomat these days!”

    Kvond: I was thinking of this quote by him:“It takes something like courage to admit that we will never do better than a politician….[Others] simply have somewhere to hide when they have made their mistakes. They can go back and try again. Only the politician is limited to a single shot and has to shoot in public.”

    Now if a self-admitted politician has decided it is better politics to call himself a diplomat, what I am I to make of this?

    L and C: “Even more quickly: I am not sure how much bite it has to accuse Latour of having an incomplete theoretical apparatus when that’s precisely the point. It’s not the theory that solves the problem, that unifies, but the actors etc. etc.”

    Kvond: Well, that’s just the problem, at least from my point of view. It is his fundamental and core reduction (hidden without accounted for translations) of the world to actorly politicians and their networks that leaves out a huge chunk of what explanation is. That is, the real, ontological way that our power is increased through the rational understanding of the causes of something. The aporia in his implied metaphysics is not just a “well, no theory can have it all”. It is simply a gratuitous omission of an essential characteristic of what it means to explain.

  5. ailsa March 15, 2009 at 5:49 am

    You have captured my dilemma accurately, and the mobius strip with ants is a graphic depiction of my current state of thinking, I appreciate the time taken, can I make use of your artwork, with appropriate attribution?
    ailsa

  6. ailsa March 15, 2009 at 5:54 am

    just found the M C Escher reference for the jpg. I look forward to more provocative discussions, you have a great blog, I’ll be back…
    ailsa

  7. kvond March 15, 2009 at 11:57 am

    Ailsa, Ha. Yes, the web is what Latour calls the cut and paste scriptorium, in which, much like the scriptorium of the Middle Ages, the sense of the “original” is lost and ever transferred.

    p.s. Thanks for the good words on the webblog.

  8. limitations and shortcomings March 16, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    “Well, that’s just the problem, at least from my point of view. It is his fundamental and core reduction (hidden without accounted for translations) of the world to actorly politicians and their networks that leaves out a huge chunk of what explanation is. That is, the real, ontological way that our power is increased through the rational understanding of the causes of something. The aporia in his implied metaphysics is not just a “well, no theory can have it all”. It is simply a gratuitous omission of an essential characteristic of what it means to explain.”

    To be honest, after the first two sentences I don’t really understand what you are saying here. I get that you think Latour does not provide an adequate explanation but he is quite explicit about this. Perhaps a part of my confusion stems from the fact that I thought we were talking about something like whether Latour was internally consistent or not. But, here, you seem to be leveling an external criticism – so I am additionally left a little uncertain as to what kind of move you are trying to make in the rest of that comment.

    Regardless, given your first two sentences, it might be worth clarifying a couple things.

    First, it seems to be that you are suggesting that ‘hidden’ translations are inherently negative for Latour. That the are somehow the sign of a bad science — or that they are a sign of bad faith. But they are not; they are one of the most stable ways in which truth gets done. Latour learnt this first hand in his study of science, for example: the most successful scientists are invisible; the world looks as if it speaks for itself. And that is precisely Latour’s model for his social science. I don’t know if I like the argument, but its an argument that he makes…

    You also seem to be continually ascribing these ‘hidden’ translations to Latour as an actor. But I think we need to ask why Latour is not at all reflexive about his own writings (he even apologizes for this at one point!). And this seem to be the case precisely because he does not think it is his job to be: if his reduction (I think simplification might be a better word, as it situates it more firmly within the process of translation) is successful, it is successful not because of him but because of the network in which both he and his text are inserted into.

    His text, to repeat, is only going to be successful if it helps us get where we want to go quicker. There is a diagram that mimics this perfectly in SiA. But there is obviously a tension here: insofar as we reckon with the fact Latour understands causation to be attributed via translation regimes, what happens when you (attempt to?) ascribe causation to Latour? I would suggest that this tension results from a different set of different ‘problems': Latour’s uncertainty over the extent to which we follow the actors, on the one hand, and his even more general uncertainty as to whether action is the property of an actor or a network (for the most part he thinks its the latter…).

    Perhaps this can be rephrased (although slightly altered, I admit) in terms of some questions: what exactly is it that ‘Latour’ is translating? The objects of his studies or the readers of his studies? Who is being simplified: Latour, his objects of study, us? And who exactly is doing this work, sustaining the boundaries of the actors or the trajectories of networks?

    One final thing: you seem to be suggesting that if we were to uncover Latour’s ‘hidden’ translations he has somehow have undermined himself. I don’t understand that suggestion at all, at least insofar as we are staying in Latour-land (something I have been trying to do). Let’s accept that Latour has hidden translations – but let’s also see what Latour thinks happens when we uncover hidden translations. And here we need to bear in mind that does not think his model of ‘critique’ actually does anything.

    He does not think, in other words, that critical proximity destroys the phenomenon, or that it tarnishes the truth of what is being studied. Just as he wants to argue that pointing out the various (previously hidden) translations involved in linking Pasteur and microbes does not undermine the existence of Pasteur’s microbes or Pastuer-with-microbes, highlighting Latour’s ‘hidden’ translations does nothing to affect the truth of those translations. And he would most likely suggest that it does nothing to affect Latour himself of his theory.

    Just a couple of sporadic thoughts (rather off the cuff, admittedly). And if I have been misreading the underlying framework of this discussion, you have my apologies.

  9. kvond March 16, 2009 at 11:28 pm

    L & S,

    Thanks for your considered responses.

    LS: “I thought we were talking about something like whether Latour was internally consistent or not. But, here, you seem to be leveling an external criticism – so I am additionally left a little uncertain as to what kind of move you are trying to make in the rest of that comment.”

    Kvond: Well, I have primarily provided an external critique in several places on my blog, and that is what I am most interested in, the insufficiency of his explanation, as one. But in this post we were addressing a particular question, whether he is internally consistent. I don’t find him to be so at all, though your tentative appraisal was a noble try. Simply put, if all things are actors and networks, he is an actor amid networks, and as such, I want to know what were the paths of translation he made when reducing all things to actors and networks. Saying that all translations disappear as translations is little more than “If you believe in the Easter Bunny, there is an Easter Bunny”. I don’t believe in the ANT theory reductions, so I need to look at the nature of his translations in order to be convinced. I see no such translations. And to say that he is doing something “other than actors” (your second attempted explanation) is in clear violation of the ontological posits of his theory.

    LS: “First, it seems to be that you are suggesting that ‘hidden’ translations are inherently negative for Latour. That the are somehow the sign of a bad science — or that they are a sign of bad faith. But they are not; they are one of the most stable ways in which truth gets done.”

    Kvond: He explicitly applauds black boxes, and as I understand him, a theorist often is most successful when his theory is black boxed. But I am not interested in swallowing hook line and sinker his black box. Because there are some strong external critique factors, I have to look under the hood.

    LS: “But I think we need to ask why Latour is not at all reflexive about his own writings (he even apologizes for this at one point!). And this seem to be the case precisely because he does not think it is his job to be:”

    Kvond: And it not the job of the snake-oil salesman to figure out why the snake-oil does or does not work. It may very well be that the reason why he is not reflexive about his work is that it would not pay off for him to be so. He would not be able to solve the problem of internal coherence (a philosophical problem, not a sociological one). He can simply slip into “science” mode when faced with too difficult a philosophical challenge, and the philosophy mode to separate out his theory from other social scientists. A very good amphibious state, one might say.

    LS: “His text, to repeat, is only going to be successful if it helps us get where we want to go quicker.”

    Kvond: It depends where it is where you want to go then. A social scientist isn’t really interested in internal conceptual coherence. A philosopher want “to go” towards a comprehensive, internally coherent view of the world. How “quickly” we get there isn’t often the point, though it can be. My point has been that we can get to all the same places that Latour takes us with an expanded point of view, that of a neo-Spinozist reading which pretty much subsumes all of the “go getting” aspects of his description:

    A brief comparison:

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/2009/03/04/is-latour-an-under-expressed-spinozist/

    LS: “One final thing: you seem to be suggesting that if we were to uncover Latour’s ‘hidden’ translations he has somehow have undermined himself. I don’t understand that suggestion at all, at least insofar as we are staying in Latour-land (something I have been trying to do).”

    Kvond: As I have tried to point out, there are two things going on here. The lack of translations which would internally ground his ontology is the matter of a philosophical coherence (which for a reader like me is very important). But the second point is that I am not a Latourite. I have no requirement to stay in Latour-land, and follow the laws of Latour. I find Latour helpful as I might. To this I add my recent point, that Latour-land seems subsumable in Neo-Spinozist land.

    LS: “Just as he wants to argue that pointing out the various (previously hidden) translations involved in linking Pasteur and microbes does not undermine the existence of Pasteur’s microbes or Pastuer-with-microbes, highlighting Latour’s ‘hidden’ translations does nothing to affect the truth of those translations.”

    Kvond: I disagree. For instance if we traced his translations (which I am pretty much convinced do not exist, but are merely the product of his creative mind and the distillation of various readings), we might discover that some very valuable things are left out. For instance, all things are not actors and networks, but rather forces and centers of attraction, or distortions of organized fields, or any number of other kinds of “reductions” that I can think of from the top of my head. Such new reductions might tell a very different narrative of Pasteur and his microbes. (I actually favor the reduction to actors because it meets with Spinoza’s notion of bodies, but the point remains.)

    LS: ” Just a couple of sporadic thoughts (rather off the cuff, admittedly). And if I have been misreading the underlying framework of this discussion, you have my apologies.”

    Kvond; Thanks for all your thoughts, most appreciated. I suppose in a way it could come down to: Latour or a follower of Latour does not require x or y from his theory, but a critical non-believer might. A Latourian might find my critique uncharitable, but then again fundamentalist readers of the Bible find critical questions about the inconsistancies of the Bible uncharitable and missing the point of its Truth. I’m not making a strict comparison, but simply saying that Latour doesn’t find that kind of question important carries very little weight when the question forms part of the question of credibility for me.

  10. limitations and shortcomings March 18, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    Just to provide some context for my comments: I am not a Latourian, and have not desire to defend him in the strictest of sense. I find Latour to be offer insights but ultimately we want to do different things.

    My interest in this discussion is only in presenting a more complicated or nuanced Latour than might otherwise be found in his more ‘philosophical’ texts. I personally think it is in those texts that we find a Latour that is more ‘French’ than normal — and that is a *bad* thing.

    Let me also say, quickly, that I am not sure what social scientists you are referring to in your comment. And that even to divide the social sciences from philosophy is a move that I am uncomfortable with.

    I will try to get back to this latter today.

  11. kvond March 18, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    LS, I took you to be a Latourian because you explcitly accept Latour’s criteria for what makes his theory the right one, this despite the fact that Latour admits that from his point of view a theorist must do all that he can to politically forward his theory, and presumably this also includes minimizing any critical questions that might unseat it. So when you say something like, “Latour doesn’t find this question to be very important” I have no idea at all why this should be given any weight.

    As for the division between philosophy and social sciences, I had in mind your quote,

    “Latour learnt this first hand in his study of science, for example: the most successful scientists are invisible; the world looks as if it speaks for itself. And that is precisely Latour’s model for his social science.” But really it was Latour himself as a social scientist (and I note that you too make a distinction between his more “philosophical” works, and others that you esteem).

    But more than this, the sciences themselves get along by making predictions or forming satisfactory models of events in the world such that they can be empirically checked. This is precisely NOT the kind of thing that philosophy is largely required to do. So, when shuttling back and forth between his theory as social science model and his theory as a metaphysical posit (insofar as it might be one), it is quite easy for him to retreat into the empirically based, description-heavy aspect of his thinking, and say, “It isn’t my job to be self-reflective about my work”. Well, if he is doing philosophy, I would contend, it pretty much IS his job to be self-reflective.

    Further though, when you say this, “His text, to repeat, is only going to be successful if it helps us get where we want to go quicker.” Perhaps you can tell me just where it is that you think “we want to go”, and in what sense is “going quickly” to some place a primary philosophical concern?

    I simply do not understand this. I’m not really interested in making sure that his text is successful (that’s his job, or a job of his followers). I am interested in whether his text does a job well, thoroughly, with coherence and satisfaction. Assessing what is it worth.

    For instance in reading his recent paper on the Facsimile and the original (cited below) I think he does a pretty good job of talking about the individual cases of the copy of the Nozze and the Ambassadors, as they are in public. As an observer of social phenomena, just wonderful. But as a philosopher I find his treatment of the concepts of “original” and “copy” to be internally incoherent to the value judgments he makes. That is to say, his conceptual framework does not support his valuation conclusions, (implicit and explicit). Now, as far as the text getting us to where we want to go very quickly, it seems pretty successful, but I don’t happen to want to go exactly where he is taking me. I don’t just want to adopt an informative perspective on the Nozze di Cana, and Holbein’s The Ambassadors, and their copies, with only a vague sense of what originals and copies are in the world. I want to from these examples to find a perspective that is satisfying to the concepts themselves, in an internally coherent way. This is precisely what I mean by the difference between social science and philosophy. As long as Latour is describing phenomena and prescribing concepts to help us take a position on them, brilliant. But the philosophical consequences, what he leaves out is lost in the descriptive value. We get there so fast in his essay, are so wowed (at least I was) by his exact descriptions, his science-like registry of processes, the exact mooring of the concepts gets a bit lost, and isn’t well-engaged by the writing. One has to take a critical distance to what he proposes, and not just go as fast as possible to some place or other.

    Written about here: http://kvond.wordpress.com/2009/03/07/the-facsimile-and-the-stolen-aura-of-the-original/

  12. limitations and shortcomings March 22, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    Kvond,

    Sorry for the confusion that has resulted.

    As I have tried to make clear, what I initially took you to be doing in your post is something like internal critique. You agreed with this, with the qualification that you are primarily concerned with Latour’s more general insufficiency. I hope you have noticed that I have thus far not attempted to speak at all to Latour’s more general insufficiency in an attempt to keep this discussion firmly within the bounds spelled out in your above post. In my first response, for example, I wrote: “Latour, it seems, attempts to address this point in two different ways.” In fact, I have tried to not speak for myself at all (and the one or two times I have it has been well signposted).

    The reason that I posted my first reply was that I was not convinced that your post reflected the full extent of what Latour is doing – hence I thought that it was like an internal critique that paid attention only to a part of what Latour is saying. I tried to remedy some of this by drawing attention to some further, relevant aspects of what Latour thinks he is doing. I am still not convinced that you are sufficiently applying Latour’s own ontology to his own work. You are welcome to disagree with me on that point. But, to repeat, it seems to me that you are not sacrificing everything to Latour’s altar. That is fine, of course, but I am not sure that we can still call that anything like internal critique.

    Let me explain a little. If we are going to treat Latour as an actor (as you seem to want to), then I think we have to see whether his translations are successful. And success for Latour has a very limited meaning. It means only that these translations chain – that they spread there rays over larger and larger network space. One might even want to say that to even point to an ‘internal inconsistency’ is to already stop testing Latour for consistency. In other words, we need to apply Latour’s own test for success to himself. That is, we need to se if Latour is successful based on he own criteria for success (which is also the criteria for an actor that is able to retain its network of actors).

    But perhaps it is both easy and hard to point to Latour’s inconsistency. Easy because he is a moving target, but hard for the exactly same reason!

    More seriously: I am perfectly fine with saying that Latour is not consistent with the normal imperatives of philosophy (or metaphysics or whatever). But, if we are wanting to say that Latour is an actor then that is merely a truism. Of course he is not doing philosophy or metaphysics, strictly defined – he is translating them! And it can not be otherwise for Latour.

    This general comment out of the way, some more specific points (some from your second to last post and some from your last post):

    First: “Simply put, if all things are actors and networks, he is an actor amid networks, and as such, I want to know what were the paths of translation he made when reducing all things to actors and networks.”

    Latour never says, to my knowledge, that all things are actors or networks. He presents a minimum condition for the manner in which action shows up as action. Push me, and I will agree for the sake of this point that he provides a minimal definition for what an actor *is*. But the idea remains: Latour does not say, to my knowledge, that “all things are actors and networks.” In fact, he is on record for saying the opposite: that he does not think the world is composed of actors, networks, and trials of strength.

    So, it’s not a case of merely pointing to Latour and saying that he is an actor translating his objects of study -– we have to point to his translations. That might be doable, I agree, but not by fiat.

    Second: “Saying that all translations disappear as translations is little more than “If you believe in the Easter Bunny, there is an Easter Bunny”.

    Again, Latour (nor my presentation of Latour) does not say that “all translations disappear as translations” –- only that the most ‘successful’ or ‘best’ translators disappear as translators.

    And, as an aside, Latour would say that the Easter Bunny is an actor too. And that should signpost some things for us….

    Third: “I don’t believe in the ANT theory reductions, so I need to look at the nature of his translations in order to be convinced. I see no such translations.”

    I am not exactly sure what you meant that last sentence but… if you cannot see the effects of Latour, then he not a Latourian actor by definition… or at least not until action is allocated to him.

    Fourth: “And to say that he is doing something “other than actors” (your second attempted explanation) is in clear violation of the ontological posits of his theory.”

    To clarify: this was not intended as an “attempted explanation” but merely a presentation of what Latour *sometimes* says he is doing. Latour, in these instances, does not think he is an actor because he is not making a difference to the translations of the actors. He is not simplifying them etc. We can dispute that, of course, and I would be really interested in seeing what else you have to say on this point because it is similar to my problem (although I do think Latour does do some things differently to almost all other actors).

    Fifth: “LS: “But I think we need to ask why Latour is not at all reflexive about his own writings (he even apologizes for this at one point!). And this seem to be the case precisely because he does not think it is his job to be:”
    Kvond: And it not the job of the snake-oil salesman to figure out why the snake-oil does or does not work. It may very well be that the reason why he is not reflexive about his work is that it would not pay off for him to be so. He would not be able to solve the problem of internal coherence (a philosophical problem, not a sociological one). He can simply slip into “science” mode when faced with too difficult a philosophical challenge, and the philosophy mode to separate out his theory from other social scientists. A very good amphibious state, one might say.”

    As I have already said, I have been trying to suggest that you are not testing for his internal coherence but his coherence based on an external standard. In other words, you keep on saying that Latour thinks he is doing politics but you think you test him on the standards of philosophy. That’s fine, in normal conditions, but I still think it is unfair to Latour to say, based on that, that he is in contradiction with his self. But if you are not doing this then I am obviously misreading what you are saying…

    Sixth: “Kvond: My point has been that we can get to all the same places that Latour takes us with an expanded point of view, that of a neo-Spinozist reading which pretty much subsumes all of the “go getting” aspects of his description:
    A brief comparison:

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/2009/03/04/is-latour-an-under-expressed-spinozist/”

    I have not had a look at this, but will at some point.

    Seventh: “Kvond: As I have tried to point out, there are two things going on here. The lack of translations which would internally ground his ontology is the matter of a philosophical coherence (which for a reader like me is very important). But the second point is that I am not a Latourite. I have no requirement to stay in Latour-land, and follow the laws of Latour. I find Latour helpful as I might.”

    I understand that there is not obligation to stay in Latour Land (I quite like that phrase!) but I think, when we want to see if someone is consistent with their own principles, we have an obligation to do just that. I have spoken to this point enough…

    Eight: “LS: “Just as he wants to argue that pointing out the various (previously hidden) translations involved in linking Pasteur and microbes does not undermine the existence of Pasteur’s microbes or Pastuer-with-microbes, highlighting Latour’s ‘hidden’ translations does nothing to affect the truth of those translations.”
    Kvond: I disagree. For instance if we traced his translations (which I am pretty much convinced do not exist, but are merely the product of his creative mind and the distillation of various readings), we might discover that some very valuable things are left out. For instance, all things are not actors and networks, but rather forces and centers of attraction, or distortions of organized fields, or any number of other kinds of “reductions” that I can think of from the top of my head. Such new reductions might tell a very different narrative of Pasteur and his microbes. (I actually favor the reduction to actors because it meets with Spinoza’s notion of bodies, but the point remains.)”

    Again, we strike on the general issue. If we are testing Latour’s consistency…

    But let me say that I agree with the thrust of your point, and it strikes on my general issues with Latour. I just don’t think when I say that that I am doing internal critique/testing for Latour’s consistency.

    Ninth: “Thanks for all your thoughts, most appreciated. I suppose in a way it could come down to: Latour or a follower of Latour does not require x or y from his theory, but a critical non-believer might. A Latourian might find my critique uncharitable, but then again fundamentalist readers of the Bible find critical questions about the inconsistancies of the Bible uncharitable and missing the point of its Truth. I’m not making a strict comparison, but simply saying that Latour doesn’t find that kind of question important carries very little weight when the question forms part of the question of credibility for me.”

    Thanks also for your comments!

    But here you seem to be conflating the issue of “credibility” with that of “consistency.” The former is an external criteria, the latter an internal one. To clarify, I don’t necessarily find some of your critique uncharitable, I just don’t think you are testing Latour’s against himself. That I all I have been trying to say, really.

    Tenth: “LS, I took you to be a Latourian because you explcitly accept Latour’s criteria for what makes his theory the right one, this despite the fact that Latour admits that from his point of view a theorist must do all that he can to politically forward his theory, and presumably this also includes minimizing any critical questions that might unseat it. So when you say something like, “Latour doesn’t find this question to be very important” I have no idea at all why this should be given any weight.”

    I have accepted only that when we are testing for Latour’s consistency we need to apply Latour’s own test for consistency –- not a test for credibility, as you latter term it. Stated negatively, I am saying that when Latour doesn’t apply a particular question or criteria to actors/translation/networks, we have should not apply it to Latour in an attempt to fathom whether he is consistent. We can, of course, apply it to Latour under a different guise –- this I do not deny.

    Eleventh: My speaking to Latour as doing social science was, in hindsight, not very helpful.

    You are right that I myself make a distinction between a text like Irreductions and a text like Aramis or The Pastuerization but that was more for clarity than anything else (I do think there are differences, though: Aramis, for example, is irredeemably uniquely adequate to the situation at hand while Irreductions is perfectly susceptible to been read as metalanguage. But I am not sure that I esteem one more that the other, if only because I read them all as trying to do the same thing. And if that does not make it clear that I am not a Latourian, I am not sure what will!).

    Twelfth: “But more than this, the sciences themselves get along by making predictions or forming satisfactory models of events in the world such that they can be empirically checked. This is precisely NOT the kind of thing that philosophy is largely required to do. So, when shuttling back and forth between his theory as social science model and his theory as a metaphysical posit (insofar as it might be one), it is quite easy for him to retreat into the empirically based, description-heavy aspect of his thinking, and say, “It isn’t my job to be self-reflective about my work”. Well, if he is doing philosophy, I would contend, it pretty much IS his job to be self-reflective.”

    Latour says something like: there are of course differences between the natural and human sciences, but there are also differences between the various human sciences, and even differences within each human science. The question is how relevant those differences are, and I am not sure that the start of your comment speaks to the point I was making: truth in philosophy and truth in science is most pure when the scientist or the philosopher is able to disappear.

    The question you ask, though, is a good one. Is Latour doing philosophy? And if he is not (which seems to be one of your central problems with him), why hold him to the standards of that discipline at all? Are you just policing disciplinary boundaries?

    Thirteenth: “Further though, when you say this, “His text, to repeat, is only going to be successful if it helps us get where we want to go quicker.” Perhaps you can tell me just where it is that you think “we want to go”, and in what sense is “going quickly” to some place a primary philosophical concern?

    I simply do not understand this. I’m not really interested in making sure that his text is successful (that’s his job, or a job of his followers). I am interested in whether his text does a job well, thoroughly, with coherence and satisfaction. Assessing what is it worth.”

    Its not where we want to go that is the question, but whether Latour is going to help us to get there. And, in any case, that “we” does not speak to us-together but only to each of us as philosopher or as sociologist or as… whatever. At the risk of sounding combative, I really have no idea where you want to go but it seems increasingly clear that you don’t think Latour is really going to help you get there – quicker or slower. And if speed is of no concern, you clearly don’t need any allies or any help at all.

    But “is speed a primary philosophical concern?” might be the wrong question. A better question might be: is speed a primary concern for philosophers? And I am sure you can answer that question far better than I can!

    Thanks again for your comments. And I hope I have not burdened you with an excessively long comment. Procrastination is a blessing.

  13. Pingback: Latour: Which Inconsistency? « Limitations and Shortcomings

  14. kvond March 23, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    L & S,

    Thanks for the time you’ve taken to address all my points made, but somehow I’ve gotten the sense that we have fallen into quibbling, making finer distinctions in order to avoid contradiction, and have begun speaking past each other a bit. If we were in a rooom, having a real time discussion probably much of this would be resolved, but the nature of my objections and the nature of your response seem to be under a process of being lost.

    To the whole of your point I believe though that I can reduce much of the difficulty to one sentence,

    “Latour, in these instances, does not think he is an actor because he is not making a difference to the translations of the actors.”

    This “not making a difference to the translations” is not in my mind tenable in his framework. It would mean something like “making the perfect translation” which is ridiculous.

    We’ve had a very fine discussion and probably laid out a good measure of the pros and cons of sacrificing everything at Latour’s alter. Perhaps other readers will find something of interest here as well.

  15. neville March 27, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    Kvond,

    I most certainly agree that we have been speaking past each other — which is why I made such a long response to more fully draw this out. But what I have also been trying to highlight is that it is also the case that you and *Latour* are speaking past each other.

    I don’t think it is appropriate for me to say anything more substantive to this point (which has perhaps been my only point) as I agree that it is best we leave it here.

    Thanks again for you time and comments.

  16. limitatiosnandshortcomings March 27, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    Sorry, that comment under “neville” is mine. For some reason my browser remembered my old name…

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