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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”.

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