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The Difference Between a Description and an Explanation: Deficits in Latour

Ether Wave Propaganda as up a nice video of Schaffer on Latour, but the commentary on the question of agency is even more interesting. As EWP points out, the difference between Schaffer and Latour is programmatic, and as such it falls to the difference between description and explanation. In short, Latour is not attempting to explain things.

The crucial point of dispute was that Latour allowed, by granting agency to microbes, that being in some sense correct could be a valuable asset in asserting one’s position. This position was intolerable to Schaffer, who argued (with Collins and Steven Yearley) that Latour was himself committing a specific form of Whiggish heresy called “hylozoism”, allowing nature to settle human disputes. For Schaffer, hylozoism, like grosser forms of Whiggism, hamstrung historical inquiry by short-circuiting the need to establish why evidence was considered credible in disputes: “Protagonists in dispute must win assent for … material technologies. Hylozoism suggests that the microbes’ antics can explain these decisions. Sociology of knowledge reckons that it is the combination of practices and conventions which prompt them, and these strategies get credit through culture. Only when credibility is established will any story about the microbes make sense” (190, my emphasis).

But this misunderstands Latour’s project in two ways. First, it misses the fact that Latour seeks a universal language of description, not a means of explanation. Second, Latour’s descriptions are actualistic: they are play-by-play in real-time. Latour’s actualistic descriptions do not look forward to find out what happened, but they also do not look backward to establish sufficient conditions. Where Collins’ and Schaffer’s projects—like a philosophical account—would look backward to identify a set of conditions that establish why people, institutions, instruments, and experiments were considered credible, for Latour’s purposes it was only important that they had credibility.

For Latour, such description could grow or shrink to encompass any frame of inquiry. A historian could expand the scope of inquiry to a multi-national account, or delve into Pasteur’s laboratory notebooks, and just chart more alliances of people, instruments, objects, and so forth. On the other hand, for Schaffer, there was always a proper frame of inquiry: the failure to look to crucial challenges to Pasteur, especially that of the German Robert Koch, was an essential weakness in Latour’s account of the rise of Pasteur: Latour “can explain this shift in loyalty [of the Revue Scientifique] by reference to Pasteur’s experiments alone, and the good behaviour of microbes, because he deliberately omits their most potent enemies” (188, Schaffer’s emphasis).

The differences here hinge on the analyst’s sense of their own function. For Schaffer the historian, to provide a sufficient (and thus legitimate) account of the rise of Pasteur, one had to understand how Pasteur defeated the potentially fatal challenge of Koch, which itself could only be understood by going back in time before the acceptance of Pasteur’s arguments and investigating the sources of credibility that made that acceptance possible. Investigation through time was essential to Schaffer’s enterprise. But for Latour, the main task was to describe or simulate the subjective experience of the contemporary spectator who had no such investigatory inclinations or resources, just as most people today experience the use of knowledge in society on a day-to-day basis.

This brings to greater account a criticism I have made of Latour’s flattened notion of “copy”, directed towards his co-authored article on digital reproductions of original works of art (The Copiousness of Copies). The core of my objection is that Latour’s flat appraisal of what a “good” copy is (and here for ‘copy’ we can substitute ‘description’), is that he misses the requisite historical dimension which causes us to bestow importance upon an ‘original’. It is not just the copiousness of an original that gives it weight or substance, but also the retention of specific causal factors, their possible interpretative traces, which help us draw out the relevant features in the world in a historical, developmental fashion. The reason for prizing the original Mona Lisa over a 35mm photograph of it is not merely the number of networked connections each could make in the future, but also the depth (we want to say), the dimensionality of connections it can draw out from its past: the retention of brushstroke angles, a possible underpainting to be revealed, the history of its materials, etc, etc, etc. The original is narratively pregnant.

As Schaffer brings out in his criticism, Latour’s “flat” copy of Pasteur, his attempted universalization of a description, is one that lacks dimensionality. Another way of saying this is that no description is neutral, our copies of the world always contain explanatory (and ideological) force in that they open to the world to us a specific window, the line of traces, a diverse geneology of heritages, genealogies that then select out the germane causes of an original event, positioning us to it and them.

I say this is some sympathy to Latour’s desire to position us rather in the day-to-day basis as well, for our long trails of historical geneologics also can trap and configure us. In this Spinoza and Latour share a great deal. Latour’s networkology in a sense is a leveling of the playing field, in the moment, but what it is missing is the creative power and, one could say, ontological change that comes from explanatory force itself. This is precisely what I directed myself toward in my comparison of Latour and Spinoza (Is Latour an Under-Expressed Spinozist? ). The numericity of networked connections, the rise in the substantiveness of being accomplished through the copiousness Latour desires, is founded upon the sometimes unrecognized consonance between description and explanation. In this regard, all descriptions ARE explanations, or at least contain an explanatory force that directs the eye or organism towards a genetic line of causes into the past. And our grasp of those pasts is what gives soil to our very capacity to copiously make copies in the future. To be “originals”.

A Few Random Thoughts…Spinoza, Descartes, Latour

Descartes philosophized laying in bed, it is said, and Spinoza did so at the work bench where he ground lenses during the day. A difference in affects of philosophy.

Genevieve Lloyd says in her “Male, Metaphor, and the Crisis of Reason” that female designates the undifferentiated, and that the male designates the de-gendered soul to be appropriated by (male) Reason, while female designates that which is marked by gender (sex), by virtue of its alignment with the Body. One wonders, is Spinoza’s Substance to be read as feminine (perhaps here is where Schelling tries to grasp him)? Plotinus’s move of the One (Hen) is a quick shuffling from “male” (progenitor) to “female” (engendering) in a single line (Ennead V ii, 1).  She also says that Descartes was caught up in the analogy of motions of the mind (no doubt conflating physics and mentality). Is this why Spinoza thinks of the agency not as a motion, but as a shift in Being, and not an act of Will? Is all transparency masculine? Is there not a transparency of body? Are Latour’s black boxes female holes in the materiality of the body? Is it not the case that instead of a world of black boxes we have orbs of transparency?

Bourdieu on Blogging: Where to Find Symbolic Capital?

Living Beyond Your Means, On Credit

I don’t have time to summarize in depth, but some may be interested in this discussion over at the Latourian blog We Have Never Been Blogging: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop. In our back and forth I quote from Bourdieu, from his Homo Academicus, a passage meant to describe the avenues of academic respect hoped to be achieved through “journalism”. The passage has of course interest for the kinds of Symbolic Capital some are, or have been trying to accumulate through blogging and other heterodox philosophical publishing. Worthy of note, Bourdieu uses an analogy of credit quite similar to one that I employed recently, although I did not have this passage or even Bourdieu in mind:

The heretical traditions of an institution based on a break with academic routine, and structurally inclined towards pedagogical and academic innovation, lead its members to become the most vigorous defenders of all the values of research, of openness to abroad and of academic modernity; but it is also true that they can encourage to the same extent work based on bogus, fictitious and verbal homage to these values, and that they can encourage members to give prestigious values for a minimum of real cost…The structural ambiguity of the position of the institution reinforces the dispositions of those who are attracted to this very ambiguity, by offering them the possibility and the freedom to live beyond their intellectual means, on credit, so to speak. To all the impatient claimants who, against the long production cycle and longterm investment…have chosen the short production cycle, whose ultimate example is the article in the daily or weekly press, and have given priority to marketing rather than production, journalism offers both a way out and a short cut. It enables them to overcome rapidly and cheaply the gap between aspirations and opportunities by ensuring them a minor form of the renown granted to great scholars and intellectuals; and it can even, at a certain stage in the evolution of the institution towards heteronomy, become a path to promotion within the institution itself.

There is even more coincidence for those interested in the local goings on in the blogged philosophical community, as Levi Bryant actually holds related parts of Bourdieu’s book as authentication for why he turned down a future at four year colleges and universities:

“Why did I choose a position at a two year school? “There”, I told Fink, “I will have academic freedom. I will be able to explore my interest in all styles of philosophy, psychoanalysis, biology, physics, history, literature, and so on without being required to be anything. No one will care what or where I publish, so I will be free to do what I want.” In his characteristic manner he said “hmmmm!!!”, making a honking sound like one of the squash horns my grandfather used to make for me as a young boy. At the time I thought that was a rationalization. Often I still do. I took myself out of the prestige game, though I still yearn for it sometimes. But what I was doing ultimately, I think, was giving myself the freedom to speculate. What a relief it was to read Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus years later! Perhaps, above all, what that seventh chapter gave me was the authorization to speculate without bowing before the obsessional alter of “Continental rigor” [editorial note: defense]. However, the fact that I would undermine my own work in this way must indicate that here there’s still something unresolved. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel embarrassment whenever anyone wants to discuss the work or wants insight into it.” here

No longer did Levi have to bow down and kiss the rings of the “prestige game”. We might assume that much of the thinking that leads one to the freedoms of speculation, that draw one away from university pursuits, would also be integral to the pursuits of blogging where even more freedom and speculation can occur.

Monk-Mind and Speculative Thinking: Playing Seriously

But in another sense, if we are going to appreciate Bourdieu on this front, we should keep our eye upon all the Symbolic Capital accumulations (not just where and how they have been cashed in within the Institution), and see that Speculation is an interesting game, one that aims at kind of heretical prestige runaround, but also one that participates in the general game of the scholè, the reasoned preoccupations that only can occur within a hermeticism against practical, worldly pressures. The generation of the “scholastic point of view”:

I believe indeed that we should take Plato’s (1973) reflections on skhole very seriously and even his famous expression, so often commented upon, spoudaios paizein, “to play seriously.” The scholastic point of view of which Austin speaks cannot be separated from the scholastic situation, a socially instituted situation in which one can play seriously and take ludic things seriously. Homo scholasticus or homo academicus is someone who is paid to play seriously; placed outside the urgency of a practical situation and oblivious to the ends which are immanent in it, he or she earnestly busies herself with problems that serious people ignore-actively or passively. To produce practices or utterances that are context-free, one must dispose of time, of skhole and also have this disposition to play gratuitous games which is acquired and reinforced by situations of skhole such as the inclination and the ability to raise speculative problems for the sole pleasure of resolving them, and not because they are posed, often quite urgently, by the necessities of life, to treat language not as an instrument but as an object of contemplation or speculation.

Thus what philosophers, sociologists, historians, and all those whose profession it is to think and/or speak about the world have the most chance of overlooking are the social presuppositions that are inscribed in the scholastic point of view, what, to awaken philosophers from their slumber, I shall call by the name of scholastic doxa or, better, by the oxymoron of epistemic doxa: thinkers leave in a state of unthought (impense’, doxa) the presuppositions of their thought, that is, the social conditions of possibility of the scholastic point of view and the unconscious dispositions, productive of unconscious theses, which are acquired through an academic or scholastic experience, often inscribed in prolongation of an originary (bourgeois) experience of distance from the world and from the urgency of necessity.

“The Scholastic Point of View”

For those that follow Harman’s preoccupations, the forgotten Scholastics are principle among them. These now ill-respected thinkers for Harman form a whole portfolio of philosophical stock that can be purchased at bargain basement prices. Mix one of these thinkers into your paper and one suddenly produces a sense of weight and historical richness, we know. If you embrace one fully enough you’ve resurrected a lost soul locked in the catacombs of philosophical history, and have engendered a sense of personal originality, going against the tide of the Institution. But as well we might see that the connection between Scholasticism and Speculativism comes out of a certain kind of inherent idealization of what academic thinking is. Cocooned from practical concerns and pressures, the monk-mind is free to speculate and achieve a kind of non-worldly perspective. The isolation into institutions, and then, when run from, into blogged privacies is a participation in privilege to which the thought produce may very well be blind. There is real, Bourdieuian advisement that “the scholastic point of view” must be epistemologically leavened with an awareness of the structures which have produced it, and thus made aware of the unconscious investments that govern its own quietude.  If we may be monks, the conditions that allow our speculation are brought along with it, and if we really are pursuing, not just speculation for its pleasures of freedom and imagination, not just some kind of run-around of Institutional restraint, searching for cheaper prestige, but true ideas and ideas that inherently should matter to the world, the consequence of our ideas (politically, ethically, socially) must be embraced. In this way there is an epistemological mandate for our ontological speculation which immediately connects ethics to metaphysics. By way of example: Speculating that the world is essentially an Oriental condition of mediated cause as Harman does, should be related to the real world Orientalization which produces the cocoon of one’s own speculation, possibly to detrimental effect. To put it another way, the more our Symbolic Capital increases, especially in the field of philosophy, the more our ethical responsibility of our ideas to the world does as well.

Just as men out of prisons into holy sancturaries are fleeing, so these joyous men out from technical arts are leaping into Philosophy, as if those being most intricate would hit upon the little art of themselves. For in comparison with the other arts the honor of philosophy even though foresaken is more magnificent. This is the flight of the many unaccomplished by nature, who from the technical arts and even workmanship, their bodies have been mutilated and their souls envined and even crushed through the mechanical arts.

Plato, Republic [495d]

The Play of Fascist Objects: Object-Orientation and Latour: Updated

Adriano has a really articulate comment he put up under my posting on Latour’s implicit Fascism, Fascist Bindings In Latour: The Blinding Glory of Non-Human Agency. I have to comment on this later, but his essential Bourdieu vs. Latour political point is certainly a compelling one. Its has a double-edged blade when put to Harman and Levi because Harman declaratively wants to ignore any political complicity or consequence of his thinking (he embraces its Orientalism to no ill effect), while Levi who tries to preserve his social justice credentials and his hatred (yes hatred) for Neoliberalism wants to read Marx as essentially Latourian. For those interested in Levi’s self-proclaimed in-name political radicalism (and I am not, other than its implicit hypocrisy) Adriano’s pressing of a political, sociological critique is quite germane. For those interested in Harman’s implicit Capitalized logic (which I am), the question of Latour’s Neoliberalism which grounds Harman’s attempt to glue Husserlian objects to Heideggerian ones, Adriano’s point again presses home. The question arises, What is so sexy about objects?, if one could put it that way.

As Fuller writes in the article I cited, the very object-orientation of the concept of “translation” as a strong counterpart in our conception of desire:

” “Translation” was meant broadly to cover the process whereby one thing represents another so well that the voice of the represented is effectively silenced. Central to this process is the capacity of something to satisfy—and thereby erase—a desire. Callon and Latour exploited the Latin root of “interest” as interesse (“to be between”) to capture this capacity, which reverses the ordinary meaning of interest by implying that it is the presence of an object that creates (or perhaps reorients) a desire which the object then uniquely satisfies. That object is the mediator.”

When Latour’s very theory of objects as actors itself is seen in this light, as the “object that uniquely satisfies or fully orients our desire”, when our consciousness is defined by its objects, we of course lose the capacity to critique that desire itself, and the matrix of powers/desires it finds itself in. Is it not that the very verticality of ontology (aside from Harman’s fantasy of four-fold sensuality), the leverage point upon which ethics is built? And is not the very absence of an ethics from Latour, Harman and Levi, the mark of the failings of their ontological construction? In short, perhaps….where is Bourdieu?

Here is Adriano’s comment:

Well yeah, as we have coincide before: the foundational imposture that Latour retains is the source of the problem. But its also worth to mention that neither Harman nor Levi bothered themselves to take Latour`s work critically. Like i have said elsewhere, Latour´s work departures from a very and detailed systematic anti-bourdieusian imposture, say like ‘phantomizing’ Bourdieu´s constructive/conceptual preoccupations. So from this reactive foundation he is doing a cinical counterargumentation of all the work done by Bourdieu, and he keeps on feeding his stands by doing that.

Its seems that the position that Latour is occupying between the philosophical and the sociological fields is one of an ideologue who denies the relation that social research is meant to have in respect with other fields of knowledge, and this, in order to presume and to exalt the illusion of an absolute autonomy of the scientific field. But as he does this cynically, those who follow his work without any critical margins are meant to fall into a blinded spot in the exercise of their own practice, while they reproduce it as a naturalized scholastic point of view which gives a ‘fair’ sense of justification to their objectual laboratory. This is what i was trying to say to Nick the other day.

So the problem is also the lack of interest in adapting their work into the social research procedures: neither Harman or Levi are much worried to do this in the right way so to contemplate and conceive other critical angles regarding to what is known about the latourian assertions.They don`t do this because it would imply to realize how urgent is it for their sake to drop out a big part of what sustains their work. For instance, as a bourdieusian, its seems to me that they had never triangulate Latour`s work with Bourdieu`s, not even when there is a clear critical struggle underlined between these two sociologues. So they took an unquestioned part on Latour`s favor without knowing the specific and confronted vis a vis details of this very particular struggle, and obviously without getting to know closer the bourdieusian frame of work.

The results are evident: blinded spots within their practice that are reproduced through their pragmatic academic and granted commodities. This also means that they may not be aware how they are reproducing specific ideological interests that also might point out to their own social class and habitus) and this, in despite their good intellectual and ontological will. An object-oriented-naivety that ends to be self-oriented while they insist to defend it in they mean to fiercely embrace it.

UPDATED: For those interested in the Levi opera, I include here a link to a thorough-going response Adriano had to Levi’s separation of ontology from politics, which Levi in his usual fashion of refusing to publish critical objections to his position, deleted, in an effort to shape the impression that his position is both achieved through some kind of dialogic with all objections, and the production of a kind of consensus: here. He of course also has deleted any number of similiar critical questionings of his concepts by me, as well.  A discussion of these issues follows in the comments section below.

Fascist Bindings In Latour: The Blinding Glory of Non-Human Agency

I’m still reading and digesting the essay, but Steve Fuller’s critical treatment of Latour, with its deep investigation into the economic and political matrix out of which it came is extremely interesting reading, in particular for those that imagine that there is something inherently liberating by either Flat Ontologies, or the raising of objects to the level of actor.  I want to reproduce here two pages of thought provoking text wherein Latour and ANT is taken to task for its Capitalist and Fascist potentiality, as well as an implicit Neoliberal stake (which Fuller examines elsewhere). For an panpsychist like me, an advocate for Animal Agency-Right recognitions, and a thorough-going Cybernetic conception of mankind and human beings, this presents a serious challenge on the ethical/political axis. If it is to be resolved, for a Spinozist, it is within the one thing that separates out Spinoza, strongly, from Latour, the power of rational explanation of cause, and the directional degree of liberation entailed in forming networks in the first place. The one thing that unbinds any imposed corporeal union of technology and humanity, is the dutiful liberation of all elements beyond their single axis of connection or network. Otherwise Fascism haunts.

It is worth considering that Fuller brings up some of the recent commentary fears that have attended criticism of various blogged appropriations of Latour which stake their soul upon not being Neoliberal, and certainly not Fascist. Some have feared that displacing the importance of the human is a demotion of human, in particular of political concerns. Fuller raises this problem of increase agency under the auspices of liberation with some worthy argument. I have an answer for this from a Spinozist, non-Flat perspective, but I’m unsure if the new metaphysicians of Latour do.

I hope to formulate a more comprehensive post of Fuller’s point, and the Spinozist answer, in particualr of the terms where Latour and Spinoza agree. I duplicate the prose here because the pages are relatively succinct and convincing in their argument, and form a kind of brief, elegant picture of what is wrong with Flat Ontology, in particular from a political and ethical perspective.

This last point is worth stressing because actor-network theory is full of emancipatory-sounding talk that claims to reveal the “missing masses” needed for any large-scale sociotechnical achievement. However, the masses are presented as if they were literally physical masses whose movement is necessary to give an elite forward momentum. The agency of these masses is thus limited to the extension or withdrawal of collaboration, not the initiation of action. The current fashion for distributing agency across both people and things merely underscores the value of the masses as means to the ends of other parties, since in many cases nonhumans turn out to be at least as helpful as humans in achieving those ends. (The locus classicus is Callon 1986; for subsequent applications, see Ashmore and Harding 1994.) Although actor-network enthusiasts often make much of the innovative political vision implied in this extension of agency from persons to things, some disturbingly obvious precedents for this practice seem to have been suppressed from STS’s collective memory, the first from capitalism and the second from totalitarianism. The first precedent concerns actor-network theory’s affinity with the metaphysics of capitalism, which, through the process of commodification, enables the exchange of human and machine labor on the basis of such systemic values as productivity and efficiency. This is the sense in which technology is normally regarded as a “factor of production,” that is, a potentially efficient replacement of people. Indeed, the metaphysically distinctive tenet of socialism in modern political economy has been its revival of the medieval doctrine that human beings are the ultimate source of value in the world. But like capitalist cost accounting, actor-network theory knows no ontological difference between humans and machines. Consequently, the subtext of the title of Latour (1993), We Have Never Been Modern, might have read “We Have Never Been Socialist” to capture the increasingly neoliberal climate of French science policy that makes ontological leveling seem so attractive. This point is lightly veiled in Latour’s refashioning of the word “delegation” to capture the process whereby humans and nonhumans exchange properties, which legitimates the treatment of humans as cogs in the wheels of a machine, and machines as natural producers of value.

Here we might compare the Parisian treatment with the most developed set of arguments for extending agency to nonhumans. These fall under the rubric of “Animal Liberation,” as popularized by the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer (1975). In this guise, the politics of agency veers toward restraint and caution rather than mobilization and facilitation. An important difference between Singer and Latour is that the Animal Liberation movement has gravitated toward a conception of “animal rights” modeled on the civil rights accorded to humans. Significantly, a sentient creature, usually a mammal, is the paradigm case of a “nonhuman.” In contrast, the various Parisian exemplars of a “nonhuman” have typically resided much lower on the evolutionary scale: scallops, microbes, and even mechanical door closers all serving as examples at various points (Callon 1986; Latour 1988, 1995). The overall effect is that in its proliferation of agency, actor-network theory dehumanizes humans, while Animal Liberation humanizes animals.

When Hegel, following Spinoza, said that freedom fully realized is the recognition of necessity, he had in mind an idea that can easily be lost in the liberatory rhetoric associated with the extension of agency to nonhumans, namely, that to increase the number of agents is not to increase the amount of agency in the world. On the contrary, it is to limit or redefine the agency of the already existing agents.A’s full recognition of B’s agency requires that A either make room for B as a separate agent or merge with B into a new corporate agent. In both cases, A is forced to alter its own identity. In the former case, the change may be rationalized as A’s coming to lead a simpler life, whereas in the latter, it may be rationalized as A’s now having access to more power than before. The former corresponds to Animal Liberation, the latter to actor-network theory: the former retains the human as unique agent (at least at the species level) but at the cost of diminished wants and power, whereas the latter magnifies the wants and power of the human but at the cost of rendering each individual a (potentially replaceable) part of the larger corporate machinery. (For an earlier treatment that mistakenly assimilated actor-network theory to the Animal Liberationist perspective, see Fuller 1996.) Animal Liberation’s excesses are regularly documented in the forced entries into university laboratories to “free” animals that have been caged for experimental purposes. Yet, there is an even less savory precedent for the extremes to which an actor-network perspective can be taken, namely, the twentieth century’s unique contribution to political theory and practice: totalitarianism. Contrary to Latour’s oft-repeated claim that politics has never taken technology seriously, totalitarian regimes stand out from traditional forms of authoritarianism precisely by the role assigned to technology as the medium through which citizens are turned into docile subjects, specifically, parts of a corporate whole.

While attention has usually focused on totalitarian investments in military technology, of more lasting import have been totalitarian initiatives in the more day-to-day technologies associated with communication, transportation, and building construction. The early stages of these developments already informed science policy debate in continental Europe at the dawn of the twentieth century (Fuller 2000, chap. 2, sec. 3). Ultimately, these technologies enabled unprecedented levels of mass surveillance and mobilization, all in the name of configuring the national superagent. In the course of this configuration, any sharp division between humans and nonhumans was removed. An important consequence was that a subset of the human population— say, the Jewish race or Communist ideologues—could be excluded from the corporate whole as such great security risks that the rest of the human population would agree to submit themselves to sophisticated invasive technologies in order to become part of, say, the “Nazi cyborg.”

This last point was first made by Carl Schmitt, the Weimar jurist who provided the original legal justification for the one-party state that became Nazi Germany. Schmitt ([1932] 1996) held that technology was the latest and most durable corporate glue because its apparently neutral character seemed to impact everyone equally, thereby enabling conflict to metamorphose from the elite cross-border confrontations of the past to “total war” involving a nation’s entire population. Schmitt envisaged that the threat of an external foe more powerful than any internal foe would lead citizens to submit to the application of mass technologies for purposes of defeating that foe, however much their own personal freedoms may be constrained. Actor-network theory can be understood as the account of society that results once there is no longer a hegemonic state apparatus in charge of this technostructure: a devolved totalitarian regime; in a phrase, flexible fascism. Instead of a unitary state that renders everyone a means to its specific ends, now everyone tries to render everyone else a means to their own ends. The former members of the corporatist state may have lost their sense of common purpose, but they retain the personal ethic which attended that purpose. The difference in actual outcomes is much less predictable than under a totalitarian regime, but ultimately explainable in terms of the agents’ differential access to the resources needed to attain their ends. Thus, the necessitarian myths that originally propped up Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin have now yielded to contingent narratives centered on Pasteur (by Latour), Edison (by Hughes), and Seymour Cray (the inventor of the mainframe computer, by MacKenzie).

Indeed, one of the eerier similarities between the predilections of totalitarian and actor-network theorists is the glorification of the heroic practitioner—be it the power politician or the heterogeneous engineer—whose force of will overcomes the self-imposed limitations of superstitious citizens and academics in the grip of a theory. Thus, comparable to Pareto’s disdain for the planning pretensions of social democrats is Callon’s (1987, esp. 98ff.) contempt for the sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Touraine, who define in mere words the contemporary state of French society, something engineers supposedly do much more effectively in their daily practice.

One of the most remarked upon features of fascist ideology is its easy combination of an animistic view of nature, a hyperbolic vision of the power of technology, and diminished sense of individual human agency. The same could be said of the “delegations” and “translations” that characterize the accounts of sociotechnical systems provided by actor-network theory. Interestingly, in his brief discussion of totalitarianism, Latour (1993, 125-27) comes closest to endorsing the Pirandellist “it is so, if you think so” form of relativism of which his critics have often accused him. Specifically, he explains the formidability of totalitarian regimes in terms of a widespread belief in their underlying philosophies, rather than, say, the collective impact of the actions taken under their name. Latour officially wants to ensure that people are not inhibited by philosophies that stray too far from the scene of action, but his argument also implies that one ought not be inhibited from forming alliances with people to whom such philosophical labels as “totalitarian,” “capitalist,” and “imperialist” are conventionally attached. In this way, Latour allows nominalism all too easily to slide into opportunism (22-24)

“Why Science Studies Has Never Been Critical of Science Some Recent Lessons on How to Be a Helpful Nuisance and a Harmless Radical”, Steve Fuller

Thank you for the essay Adriano.

Birth of Sandman: the Pulverization of Material, the Inversion of Man

Recently I read in connection to Latour that there has been a pulverization of the material, somehow, and that this somehow points us towards a world of objects. It calls to mind for me that for Spinoza the world itself too is pulverized, or must be pulverized unto a microstate, so as to become fully active (that leap, that direction). Individual things must be grasped, not abstractions, or generalizations, not the ens rationalis. That is, there is a kind of degree-zero intensification of a thing into its raw, state of potentiated energy (Deleuze and Guattari’s Body Without Organs perhaps). It also reminds me of the very poetic rendition of the birth of sandman in Spiderman 3, wherein he gets pulverized, one of the most moving scenes of animation ever assembled. Pulverization occurs in a field, we are reminded. Nostalgia and wound last across persons, and objects are summoned into orbs of direction not always benign. It is not the pulverization of matter, but the context into which it is done, the motivations and inflammation that occur around such acts. I’m reading an essay as well that suggests that Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern should be read as We Have Never Been Socialist. Interesting. We turn things into “objects” so that forces can act upon and through them. We make ourselves into objects for the same. We  give them to the field. Think of what has been made. Think of the field.

The poetry starts at the 2:26 mark.

Harman’s Commodification of Paper Writing

The blog has long since been deleted, but this trace of it remains in the discussion one of the posts inspired. Carl over at Dead Voles brought up the ethical issues associated around Harman’s insider-type advice for how philosophers should write scholarly papers: How Ideology Works, pt. 2 . For those following the recent discussion of the Capitalist-like deferral of the debt of explanation in Graham Harman’s thinking, a kind of Speculative Bubble and the tendency to commodify one’s philosophical productions, this trace makes interesting evidence. Harman is very strong on learning how to produce and “do work” very much in keeping with University as text producer needs. Philosophizing becomes a fulltime project of how to produce ideas that through their allure, and good old-fashioned elbow-grease, end up in texts and a circle of readers.

Most symptomatic of Harman’s sizzle-and-not-the-steak approach is his advice that it is always good to put an old forgotten philosopher in the “mix”:

Always good to bring an older classic thinker into the mix. My choice in this case is Giordano Bruno, who has so much in common with Grant. A critical analysis of Bruno’s Cause, Principle, and Unity would work perfectly here. Put it on the smaller bookshelf where I keep books currently in use for projects, where I will see it each day as a reminder to reread it when I have the time.

This post of Harman’s, given our past personal discussions on Scholastic philosophers and my reading of, what I have found to be his somewhat deceptive essay on causation “On Vicarious Causation”, really ended up convincing me of Harman’s disingenuous METHOD of philosophizing (despite enjoying his simplification of Heidegger as Tool-Being). The blog is now deleted along with all its helpful hints and clues on how to get ahead in the philosophy world, but at least this past discussion over at Dead Voles points us in the direction of much of Harman’s “allure” thinking about what makes good philosophy. In this his theory of causation and his methodology coincide. Personally I find this production-line thinking combined with Harman’s  “shock value” and “great idea” esteem to be antithetical to what philosophy should be about, and carries with it some substantive comparisons to Capitalist Speculative Bubble debt deferral. As such it draws our attention to the problems with the underlying theory itself, and the values that underwrite or inspire it. This is only to say that both his thinking and his methods should be shown in a more socially critical light, a light that ultimately goes to the question of cause and to the purpose of philosophy itself. Is philosophy ever anything more than “black box” making as Harman claims?

Aside from the questions this raises about a metaphysics of “allure” and the allure of rhetorical forces in philosophy paper writing, in the general sense that philosophers are in the business of selling their texts, one has to think about the “genuine” products of philosophers, what it is about the philosophical endeavor that gives it its importance, its foothold amid our more commercially vested institutions. When we write a paper, any such paper, what is it that we really would like to show? That is what matters.

As I wrote in a parallel discussion:

The answer to this is not to come up with One Great Idea, One Great Exaggeration, as Harman claims…It is to genuinely explore the past of our community discussions for the relevance that REALLY matters now, and to articulate that relevance convincingly. I do not consider this a matter of “repackaging” nor of repeating a past point, nor straining for “originality”. It is making persons of the past who answered questions quite well, answer OUR new questions, a far cry from simply bringing a classic philosopher into the mix for some paper-writing effect. It’s a question of engagement.

* More follow-up of the past discussion at Dead Voles here.

From Ideal Networks to Real Ones: Al Qaeda and Chaoplexic Warfare

Are Networks Networks?

One of the weaknesses of a Latourian sense of the world as Networking is that though such sociological analytic takes its traction from the fashion in which actual networks have been coming to dominate our communications and industry, it is not really the Internet or other literal networks Latour and ANTS are talking about. Indeed, everything is to be explained by the transformations of networks, and it may be that literal networks are some of the things that are least explainable in such terms. Which is to say that the dispositions of any of the actants and their various trials of strength really are not the best, or at least the most compelling causal narratives by which we should come to understand them. For while it does something to undress prima facie non-network social phenomena such as Scientific discovery so as to reveal their networked, actant natures, something else seems to occur when we consider networks themselves, things that don’t nearly have to be demystified to such a degree. In the past I have argued that Latour is in need of a Spinozist rationality of cause (here, here and here), but Latour is not so much the aim here as the context for an interesting historical example which gives me pause to ANTism.

The source of my series of thoughts is The Scientific Way of Warfare by Antoine Bousquet. I got the title from Nick at Accursed Share. I can say that he does a much better job then I ever would in reviewing the book. Instead I would like to take a very small snippet from the quite interesting analysis which attempts to expose the conceptual schema of modern warfare organization, as exemplified or inspired by the four devices: clock, engine, computer, network. Really the first two are only cursorily handled without much historical depth, providing only conceptual framework for the latter two of which the author has the most knowledge and interest.

What Antoine Bousquet contends is that with the advent of the computer military organization took on a largely cybernetic concern of command and control. Under this command and control approach, like a computer, military action was thought of as a closed organization whose interrelatability of parts had to be perfected in terms of information processing so as to best rule out informational “noise” from the environment. And this closed-circuit organization is achieved through negative feedback, the steering of the closed system away from events that disturbed its homeostasis. Bousquet thus suggests that historically with the rise of real networks in the world – principally the Internet which began as a military program that become civilized – coupled to the increased applicability of Chaos Theory and Complexity Theory, decentralized organization was discovered to be far more resilient and adaptable than the Closed System. Decentralized modeling followed Positive Feedback instead of the computer model’s Negative Feeback, and became the new paradigm for vital military and security organization. As he traces it, this paradigm has been adopted by the United States military to only a limited degree, as hierarchical, topsight priorities have used growing network connections for increasedly centralized control, in a kind of culturally entrenched conceptual backlash.

Deviations From Homeostasis

Rather, the better example of military chaoplexic warfare seems to be that of al Qaeda, the description of which I will quote at length:

Since September 11, the focus has naturally been on al-Qaeda and the wider movement of radical Islamist militancy and terrorism. The nebulous and dispersed nature of these organizations has invited their analysis in terms of decentered networks and complex adaptive systems. Thus al-Qaeda is seen as a decentralized and polymorphous network “with recursive operational and financial interrelationships dispersed geographically across numerous associated terrorist organizations that adapt, couple and aggregate in pursuit of common interests” [citing "Observing Al Qaeda Through the Lens of Complexity Theory: Recommendations for the National Strategy to Defeat Terrorism," Beech]. For Marion and Uhl-Bien, interactive non-linear bottom-up dynamics are behind the self-organization of al-Qaeda in which bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership are an emergent phenomena: “leaders do not create the system but rather are created by it, through a process of aggregation and emergence” [citing "Complexity Theory and Al-Qaeda: Examining Complex Leadership," Marion and Uhl-Bien].While a diffuse movement of Islamic radicalism coalesced to create terrorist networks from which the leadership could spring, the latter has also assisted the continued development of a decentralized movement by maintaining and fostering “a moderately coupled network, but one possessing internal structures that were loosely and tightly organized as appropriate.” The authors distinguish between loosely coupled networks in which the parts have functional independence, thus granting the system great resilience to large scale perturbations, and tightly coupled networks in which the leadership imposes control mechanisms that enable it to direct activities and receive regular reports. In between these two poles, we find moderately coupled networks which allow some degree of directing by leadership but retain great resiliency. [note the rhetorical disbalance here: modest "some" vs. the still threatening "great"]. If the wider radical Islamist movement is only loosely coupled and individual terrorist cells are tightly coupled, the pre-9/11 al-Qaeda leadership network sat somewhere in between, performing the function of a galvanized interface.

Even in the case of [a] single operation such as September 11, it has become increasingly clear that its planning and execution were far more decentralized than initially supposed. The different cells in the plot, although tightly coupled internally, functioned quasi-autonomously, and although they received some financial, logistical and training support from other parts of the organisation, were not exclusively dependent on them. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, said to be the operational “mastermind” behind September 11 (a designation which, although commonly used in the media, is problematic as it suggests highly centralized planning and control) and now in American military custody, is alleged to have claimed that “the final decisions to hit which target with which plane was entirely in the hands of the pilots.” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was only then subsequently informed of their decision in July 2001. According to this same testimony, bin Laden and the high ranks of the al-Qaeda organisation were only loosely informed of specific details and had only a very limited directing role. Many of bin Laden’s close associates were never even made aware of the plot. This form of organisational and operational structure is one that is particularly alien to Western states and their heirarchial military and security apparatuses, as Mohammed himself recognises, “I know that the materialistic western mind cannot grasp the idea, and it is difficult for them to believe that the high officials in al-Qaeda do not know about operations carried out by its operatives, but this is how it works.”

The Scientific Way of Warfare, 208-209

And here are three worthy quotes explaining how complex organization is to be thought of…

Complex adaptive systems constitute a special case of complex systems that are capable of changing and learning from experience. Complexity theorist John Holland defines a complex adaptive system as a dynamic network of many agents acting in parallel, constantly acting and reacting to what the other agents are doing. Since the control of a complex adaptive system tends to be highly dispersed and decentralized, any coherent behavior in the system arises from competition and cooperation among the agents themselves. It is the accumulation of all the individual decisions taken by the multitude of agents which produces the overall behavior of the system, which can thus be said to be emergent. (175)

The worldview constituted by chaoplexity marks a seismic shift away from the dominant conceptions of the natural world. No longer is order to be seen a product of the natural tendency towards equilibrium. On the contrary, it is with non-equalibrium that order emerges from chaos, at the point where instability and creative mutation allow for the genesis of new forms and actions. Consequently, the systems produced through these processes of self-organisation have distinct emergent features which cannot be understood solely through an analysis of their atomized components since it is their pattern of interaction which constitute their complexity. (181)

“Up to a point, tightening the connections between elements in the system will increase efficiency when everything works smoothly. But, if one small item goes wrong, then that can have a catastrophic knock-on effect throughout the system. The system literally switches over, from smooth functioning to interactively complex disaster”

Global Complexity, Urry

We can see the beauty of this particular kind of networked conception one which Bousquet reads as perched between order (systematic, heirarchial, negative feedback restrictive control) and chaos. A non-equilibrium juxtaposition that uses its very instability as an advantage of its own becoming. And indeed there is something of a parallel to philosophies of becoming that want to read things in terms of primary deterrorializations. When one considers something like Latour’s notion of actants in network somehow the critical analogy which seems to hide within many of our non-network seeming processes don’t really seem to explain what is happening, or how information and organization is acquired in al Qaeda:

in order to spread far…. an actant needs faithful allies who accept what they are told, identify itself with its cause, carry out all the functions that are defined for them, and come to its aid without hesitation when they are summoned. The search for these ideal allies occupies the space and time of those who wish to be stronger than others. As soon as an actor has found a somewhat more faithful ally, it can force another ally to become more faithful in its turn. “despite everything, networks reinforce one another and resist destruction. Solid yet fragile, isolated yet interwoven, smooth yet twisted together, [they] form strange fabrics.” (199)

The Pasturization of France

Beds of Chaoplexic Organization

It is not enough to say that bin Laden has performed a trial of strength and created allies, or that each of the cell groups have identified with his cause, and then carry out “the functions”. There is something more going on here. It is true that networks such as al Qaeda are resilient and reinforced (though their persistent media image as THE threat no doubt goes a long way in preserving and overstating this); yet this is not just a story of alliances. As Bousquet tells it, it is a story of patterns. It is the very distinct pre-Chaotic level of al Qaeda organization that the figure of its strength lies, such that it cannot be either predicted (only perturbed), nor destroyed (only fragmented). One suspects rather strongly that it is not even in the pattern itself that the whole causal story is told, but as well in the ideological substrate, the entire imaginary, affective pool of Middle Eastern, and indeed global Islamic realities, as well as very concrete political-economic stratifications, which serve as immanent possibility for such a Chaoplexic organization. It is not just that they are braided into alliances, but also that the ideological well-spring is rich enough that fragmentation does not kill operation.

In this way the initial conditions prove significant sources for the possibilities of Chaoplexic collectivity, whole-cloth ideational dispositions that work as a body upon which organization can express itself so as to arise with emergent (and fluctuating) powers of action. There is something more than actants and their transformations.

In this way ideology and economy serve as a kind of perspective intermediate stage between full-blown metaphysics (which once only had the State as its avatar), a pseudo-divinity of effects which is neither object (actant) or its relationships (network). Not a material plasma, but an affective/conceptual coherence between bodies that readies actants for a change in the degree of order/chaos ratios, hence adaptive intelligence. In a sense, al Qaeda structures exhibit the very radicality of democracy itself, perhaps governed (made possible via Negative feedback) as it is by other significant anti-Western cultural factors.

Addendum: Here is a interesting, well-summed blogged review by Chet Richards, over at Defense and the National Interest, an electronic source even cited by Bousquet, with mention of Boyd’s OODA loops which is perhaps the most compelling aspect of the book, something I hope to post on soon. Included in the review is link to the influential essay by Linda Beckerman “The Non-Linear Dynamics of War” (1999), also cited by Bousquet.

(C)ontinental Philosophy’s Incursion Into Environmental Study

Four Moments of Engagement

Adrian J. Ivakhiv, over at Immanence, provides a crisp, seemingly exemplary mini-history of the on-going interaction Environmental Studies has had with (C)ontinental philosophy, thrilling to read even though I am unfamiliar with nearly every Environmental author. One has a sense that one is watching the arboreal-rhizome of how philosophy invades a discipline, like so much Japanese Knotweed perhaps, in beautiful time-lapse photography. Additionally, I enjoyed the anti-essentialist, very “contenental” manner in which he denies there is anything such thing as Continental philosophy, insisting it is perhaps, at most, “a style”. A delightful paradox of form and content (and I do not say this critically).

I just love the tracing of Spinoza’s initial and then latter-day coming to the field (and as a Spinozist cringe over the Heideggerian phenomenology). And savor how he rightly labels Spinoza “prehistorical”. In any case, this is one of the most informative and enjoyable weblog entries I have read in a long while, opening up a world of persons, texts and species. 

The Ontology Beneath it All

Of this Spinoza’s Return moment Adrian writes:

This is the moment when Spinoza and other relational thinkers make their return via Deleuze, among others, into a field already imbued with phenomenological-hermeneutic and postmodern-poststructuralist thinking as well as the non-dualist provocations of Bruno Latour (actor-network theory), Donna Haraway and the critical animal studies folks, and other schools of thought. What’s missing in much of this work is an adequate ontology, and what Spinoza, Bergson, Whitehead, and the Deleuzians bring is an attention to the complex networking of the temporal-relational processes that constitute the world. This moment is ontologically anti-essentialist in its focus on processes of subjectivity (or subjectivation) and network-building (relationality, complex systems, etc.). Epistemologically it is realist in its understanding of cognition and affect as intertwined, relational, dynamic parts of the process by which organisms/subjects encounter environments/contexts. It is both materialist and discursive, politically and ethically engaged, holistic but not totalizing.

To bring to bear a perhaps critical question, it is interesting to query just how much Spinoza’s own ontology (even however bent by Deleuze’s will) could be asked to bear the full weight/breadth of the intellectual milieu it has entered. If indeed Spinoza helps provide an ontology for this field of positions, is it a Spinoza that would have to relinquish his main securing claim to enter fully into the continental style, that we understand something through its cause. That is, is Spinoza a “relational thinker”? Perhaps a direction is taken to an answer in my comparison between Latour and Spinoza: Is Latour an Under-Expressed Spinozist? where we may find the seed of a distinction for a coming importance of a non-Deleuzian Spinoza for Environmental (and Bio-ethical) Studies.

The Copiousness of Copies

[click on diagram for larger version]

[Bruno Latour makes this citation correction for the article discussed below: the paper and the theory is Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe and here is the exact reference to the soon to be published version: « The Migration of the Aura - Exploring the Original Through Its Facsimiles », a chapter prepared for Thomas Bartscherer (editor) Switching Codes, University of Chicago Press (2010).]

I’ve been thinking on it for some time, on the back burner. Here is a follow-up diagram to my critique of Latour’s interesting essay on art in the age of rich, digital replication, wherein he points out that the very aura of originality can move from the original work of art. As I pointed out, Latour’s standard for accepting the authority of originality based upon the very fecundity of copy-production as shown through its history (copiousness) failed to account for his negative assessment of the flattening of Holbein’s The Ambassdors, as it had been restored into a photographic cartoon of itself. What is treasured in an original are the traces (copies) of the full-forces of causes that brought it into existence, imprinted there, a causal picture that Latour entirely neglects. We see history imprinted in the material of the original. In this way originalities become keyholes into the past, as well as accountings for nexus points which explain our current compliment of copious states.

“Bad” copies are those that obscure either the germane or discoverable causes, or lack the connective influence to replicate themselves.

The original discussion: The Flatness of Latour’s Concept of Origin and Holbein’s The Ambassadors.

[As a sidenote, Spinoza's Substance stands in unique position to all three of these criteria. Any one point of modal expression of Substance is: necessarily loyal to germane causes, infinitely rich in causal explanations, and fecund to its own production all to the degree of its power to affect or be affected.]

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