Frames /sing


Category Archives: Latour

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”.

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.

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.]

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.


Comments upon Latour’s Flat Originality and Immanence

Ailsa, over at a musing space; a performance in progress comments upon my recent thoughts on Latour’s concept of Originality, The Flatness of Latour’s Concept of Origin and Holbein’s The Ambassadors. In “it’s not a case of “either or” but of “and, and” she finds that I haven’t fully satisfied on my my claim that Latour’s treatment of originals in some substantive way contradicts or at least is not accountable in his existentialist principle that existence precedes essence:

While I disagree with Kvond who appears to argue against this proposition with reference to art, yet his argument to my mind demonstrates exactly what Latour says. The minutae of detail, the pressure of the paint on the page, the texture of brushstrokes and the variability in paint pigmentation…are all ‘things’ preceding essence. Essence came in the aggrargation of such things in a time and place and viewed in a context, or so I understand Latour. But what then of other ‘things’?
I find myself comparing these arguments of authentic art to the stories I have heard when talking of the shift of phone counselling to text. And am also reminded of the historic stories captured on moving conversation to phones. But to stay with counselling for the moment, is its ‘essence’ lost when the medium changes? The logic from Latours argument, is that it cant be as essence is always preceded by existence.

Because she is applying Latour to counseling solutions (her blog says that she is currently reading Latour’s Reassembling the Social, and she is a teacher of communication skills at a Health Facility), she is particularly interested in how moving therapy processes to the telephone our to text, might or might not involve a change in essence.

The essence is in it’s existence, not an antecedent event, but in it’s being performed. Does the reproduction in another form lessen its value? Perhaps. The processes of translation from one medium to another may fail to capture the ‘things’ of importance , what then can be added or removed? Is it essential to counselling that it be ‘in the moment’ that it be synchronised not asynchronised? Far from becoming “sterile” counselling so reconstructed becomes more accessible. So where does the crime lie? I suggest it lies in the gap where the index for reality is misunderstood. Text counselling far from being barren or sterile is serving a purpose attested to by those who continue to make use of it.
It provides an option, the value of which is evident in its being used and in its ongoing development and ongoing translations.

In such a conclusion she seems to have found something of a resting point on my concept of a change in recording surface, as I describe the differences between a painting and its photograph, and there are signficant productive values to be watched here as translations of subjectivities occur across domains. In the comments section there we touch on the possibility that we are thinking of two different aspects of “essence”, but I also sense that in our valuations of originality and its copies, any interpretive value placed on an original source of replicating effects also must draw its weight form the marks of the forces that brought it into being.

A Blog of Immanence

Also this weekend I ran into an interesting thought stream provided by Adrian J. Ivakhiv who teaches at the Rubenstein School of Environment & Natural Resources at the U of Vermont. He describe’s the weblog’s mission in part as the following:

(1) To communicate about issues at the intersection of environmental, political, and cultural theory, especially at the interdisciplinary junctures forming in and around the fields of ecocriticism , green cultural studies, environmental communication, political ecology, and related areas (biosemiotics, geophilosophy, social nature, poststructuralist and liberation ecologies, zoontologies, animist liberation theologies — invent your own neologisms!).

(2) More specifically, to contribute to the development of a non-dualist understanding of nature/culture, mind/matter, structure/agency, and worldly relations in general. Dualisms aren’t inherently bad, but these have become stultifying; they contribute to the log-jam in which environmental thinking has been caught for too long. To this end, the blog is interested in philosophies of process, ontologies of immanence and becoming, and epistemologies of participation, relation, and dialogue – that is, ways of understanding and acting that take ideas and practices, bodies and minds, subjects and objects, perceptions and representations, agency and structure, to be fundamentally inseparable, creative, and always in motion. The blog will be a place where non-dual mind (/body, subject/object) meets non-dual world (nature/culture), or where rigpa meets anima.

As all these are positions that I have some affinity for, in particular as a Spinozist approach seems to embrace them, it is a webspace I will be watching. Recently there was some discussion on Stuart Kauffman’s new book (which dissappointed me to no end for how much I have loved his past books), and the potential of blogged philosophy as is being done by Levi, Shaviro and Graham, to name just a few. I have not searched the site heavily, but I wonder if how much, if at all Adrian follows Arne Næss’s Spinoza influenced Deep ecology.

The Flatness of Latour’s Concept of Origin and Holbein’s The Ambassadors

[Bruno Latour offers 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).]

These are expanded thoughts on Bruno Latour’s excellent and inspiring article on the digital-aided reproduction of Veronese’s Nozze di Cana, “The Migration of the Aura – Exploring the Original through Its Facsimiles” (2008), here at his website. I reread the article more closely and I found that I had maybe been too generous on some counts in my first assessment. An aspect that I called “underdeveloped” was actually absent from the discussion. In particular, as Latour sought to define and bring to life the conditions that make up our sense of the “original” of something, though he did bring out very significant factors he was utterly silent on perhaps our most salient connection to the concept: the idea that the original of something that has been copied is that which retains the effects of its own history. It holds the imprint of what brought it into being. And while Latour does a fine job of making even more clear the point put forward in Walter Benjamin’s criticism of Art in a mechanical age, that it is the differential gap in processes that often guides our assessment of the difference between the copy and the original, he makes no connection at all to the substantive aspects of an original that bring about the very importance of this “gap” in process. It is specifically that gaps, or leaps in process, can change the recording surface (if we can be both somewhat analogous, somewhat literal) such that the history of causes and effects that make up the original, themselves become lost, or reconfigured.

The Copy as “Copious”

But to trace this aporia in Latour’s description we must start with his very helpful framing of the concept of the original. He tells us with some illumination that an original only becomes importantly so due to the very variety and numericity (and quality?) of the copies that it produces, for our word “copy” comes out of the very concept of “copious”. A true original carries within it the “aura” of a fecudity which produced its copies which flow from it like branches from a trunk and root, but in a retroactive sense the aura of the “original” is actually produced by the very weight of its copies, as these copies become the evidence of its originary profusion:

In other words, the intensity of the search for the original depends on the amount of passion and the number of interests triggered by its copies. No copies, no original. In order to stamp a piece with the mark of originality you need to apply to its surface the huge pressure that only a great number of reproductions can provide….

…let us remember that the word “copy” does not need to be so derogative, since it comes from the same etymology as “copious”, and thus designates a source of abundance. There is nothing inferior in the notion of a copy, simply a proof of fecundity….Actually, this connection between the idea of copies and that of the original should come as no surprise since for a work of art to be original means nothing but to be the origin of a long descendance. Something which has no progeny, no reproduction, no inheritors, is not called original but rather sterile or barren (8)

So we are given an account of originality which works in two ways, backwards from the plethora of copies which in a way retroactively create the original as a place of origin, and then forwards as we are able to trace out the flowing line of copious progeny.

Plastic Surgery on Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”

This conceptual bookend serves us well, but we run into some difficulty when applying it to the half-subject of his essay, the saddening failure of conservators to restore Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” well. Instead of a nice fatherly line wherein a profound original propels copies into the future, horrifically, the photographic copies of the original have turned upon their father and remade it in their more sterile image:

Something odd has happened to Holbein’s Ambassadors at the National Gallery in London. The visitor does not immediately know how to describe her malaise. The painting is completely flat, its colors bright but somewhat garish; the shape of every object is still there but slightly exaggerated; she wonders what has happened to this favorite painting of hers. “That’s it”, she mutters, “the painting has lost its depth, the fluid dynamics of the paint has gone. It is just a surface now.” But what does this surface look like? The visitor looks around, puzzled, and then the answer dawns on her: it resembles almost exactly the poster she has bought several years ago at the Gallery bookshop and that still hangs in her study at home. Only the dimension differs.

Could it be true? She wonders. Could they have replaced the Ambassadors by a fac simile? May be it’s on loan to some other museums and they did not want to disappoint the visitors, so they put up with this copy. Or may be they did not want to trick us and it is a projection, it is so flat and bright that it could almost be a slide projected on a screen… Fortunately, she composes herself enough not to ask the stern guard in the room whether this most famous painting is the original or not. What a shock it would have been. Unfortunately, she knows enough about the strange customs of restorers and curators to bow to the fact that this is indeed the original although only in name, that the real original has been irreversibly lost and that it has been substituted by what most people like in a copy: bright colors, shining surface, and above all a perfect resemblance with the slides sold at the bookshop that are shown in art classes all over the world by art teachers most often interested only in the shape and theme of a painting but not by any other marks registered in the thick surface of a work. She leaves the room suppressing a tear: the original has been turned into a copy of itself looking like a cheap copy, and no one seems to complain or even to notice the substitution. They seem happy to have visited in London the original poster of Holbein’s Ambassadors!…(8)

…If the Ambassadors have been irreversibly erased, it is not out of negligence, but, on the contrary, because of an excessive zeal in “reproducing” it. What the curators did was to confuse the obvious general feature of all works of art -to survive they have to be somehow reproduced- with the narrow notion of reproduction provided by photographic posters while ignoring many other ways for a painting to be reproduced….

…Actually, a terribly revealing documentary shows the culprits restoring the Holbein by using as their model photographs of the original and subjectively deciding what is original, what has decayed, what has been added and imagining the painting as a series of discrete layers that can be added or removed at will. A process that resembles plastic surgery more than an open forensic investigation (14-15).

Here is the apparent contradiction. If originality comes out of the pressure of numerous copies, and expresses itself in its very capacity to generate copies of every sort, there seems to be no reason at all why the “plastic surgery reconstruction of the painting does not make it all the more original. For while it may have put off this particular art critic who decries the photographization of the wonderful canvas, the flattening of its surface, the brightening of its colors, it seems quite unlikely that this change would drop it from its canonical position within the history of Western Art, and its rightful place in endless compendiums. Further though as Latour admits, its perfect resemblance to its copies in the bookstore creates a certain connection between it and they, most certainly a connection we can conceive of as furthering its very fecundity for copy generation. Far from becoming “sterile” the painting so reconstructed actually has become proliferate. So where does the crime lie?

The Weightless Weight of the Original

First we must briefly follow Bruno Latour’s reworking of Benjamin’s 1936, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” which sought to decode why the modern rapidity of mechanistic reproductive means had unseated the location of an “aura” of the original, freeing it from its ritualistic encampments in a singular object. Latour tells us that what Benjamin tried to reveal in his notion of “mechanistic reproduction” was actually “the differential of resistance among all segments of the trajectory”. When the differential is low, that is when processes and expense, perhaps the particularized intensity is very much the same in the making of the copy as with the proposed original, there is no real “aura” of the original to speak of. It becomes diffused. It is for this reason that a contemporary production of King Lear does not suffer too greatly the disparagement of being a mere “copy” when compared to the original production of the play so many centuries ago. There is very little “differential of resistance among” the segments. For this reason as well, all the lithographs in a first run series are equally original. Whereas in the case of paintings, reproductions are not only assumed to be easier, but also there is a potentially a great disparity in process (whether it be a human imitator with brush in hand, or a snap-shooting tourist). Latour sums it up this way:

In other words, it is not because of some inherent quality of painting that we tend to create such a yawning gap between originals and copies -it is not because they are more “materials” (an opera or a play are just as “material” as pigments on canvas)-, but because of the differences in the techniques used for each segment of the trajectory. While in performance art they are grossly homogeneous (each replay relying on the same gamut of techniques) the career of a painting or a sculpture relies on segments which are vastly heterogeneous and which vary greatly in the intensity of the efforts deployed along its path (12)

Yet problematically, just as Latour has spoken only of homogeneity and heterogeneity of techniques, he also will informs us that photography itself is not only heterogeneous, but also the most barren of reproductive forms (14), despite its capacity to spawn numerous  copies, the very power of reproduction that denies barrenness, (how many copies of Ansel Adams prints are there?). Photography has a bad reputation as being an index for reality, it transfers a stigma of a gap in technique between what is photograph and the photograph itself :

Hidden behind the commonsense distinction between original and mere copies, lies a totally different process that has to do with the technical equipment, the amount of care, the intensity of the search for the originality that goes from one version to the next. Before being able to defend itself for re-enacting the original well or badly, a facsimile is discredited beforehand because it is associated with a gap in techniques of reproduction. A gap based on a misunderstanding of photography as an index for reality (12)

I’m not sure what Latour means by “a misunderstanding of photography as an index for reality”. In some very strict senses, photography indeed is an index for reality as anyone who has been convicted of a crime due to surveillance tapes would attest, but photography also is understood to be quite malleable and capable of forgery. I do not want to focus to much upon the nature of Latour’s problem with photography, but rather want to keep track of just what it is about this “differential or resistance” that matters in question of the importance of an original. And I think Latour has the wrong, or least incomplete factor when he speaks of  “the amount of care, the intensity of the search for the originality that goes from one version to the next”  for the Holbein conservators no doubt worked sincerely, searching for the originality (no matter what you think of their results). One certainly could imagine that the Nozze di Cana  duplication, if accomplished by some future molecular duplicating machine with very little “intensity of the search,” would produce equally satisfying “aura” transfer results. Photographs of paintings are not respected as aura entrenched primarily because the change in recording surface and technique is understood to present a change in marked causal histories, the great train of the “original” object).

What really is at stake in the Holbein reconstruction is the very real way that originality has to do with something much more than the number of copies one produces, or even their quality. The reason why an original is sought, why one might want to hold the pen used to sign a historic treaty more than its reproduction, or look closely at canvas from which endless photographs have been taken, is that an original, having given birth to so many copies, is understood to retain within its internal differences the traces of so many causes that have exerted their pressure upon that moment, that little piece of space and time, which then in turn worked to produce so many copies. What the copies do, besides attesting to the historical power of the original, is efface or change something of that record, the enfolded of information that speaks to the conditions of the world that gave birth to that birthing center. There is ever the sense that whatever we thought was important and thus captured in our copies (perhaps in the case of Holbein the clarity of form, the uniqueness of that anamorphic skull), might turn out to be less important than we thought under different questions. The original is not only pregnant in a forwards sense, but also recordedly, in a backwards sense – it captures countless invisibles that helped bring it into being. And thus when there is, what Latour would like to emphasize as, a process gap between the techniques and efforts used to produce the original (and all their recording surfaces for its causes), and those used to copy it, is that the new techniques, the change in registry obscures that connection to the past, the capacity to read the forces that actually were the cause of all those copies (having come to the nexus point of the “original”).

“Existence Precedes Essence” No?

Even though the experience of originality, the aura of it even may have migrated to Italy in the digitally aided copy of the Nozze di Cana (see the discussion of this in the Latour article), which is to say that in its presented condition aspects of the history that lead to the production of the painting might come into better relief than with the original when it was hung opposite the Mona Lisa, the reason why we would chose the save the real original (historically) instead of the excellent facsimile, is obviously that despite the precision of “copying” there are innumerable differences within the first which simply are not present in the latter: an underpainting on the canvas, a chemical composition trace in the oil, the hand-weight on a brush stroke, perhaps a buried fingerprint, all of which are differences uncaptured and uncopied in the new original.

For distinct reasons positional Latour does not claim this backwards leaning importance of the original. He wants to emphasize that any fact or actor in the world gains its substantive weight from the threads of causes that all trace to its present condition. He wants to see each actor as flat, created and suspended in the lateral relations to its position, its network to other actors. He wants originality to be essentially a condition of the present, and a reactive effect of a future, I believe. He wants originality to be something of a constructed illusion. And I do think there are very good reasons to incorporate this constructed sense of the original into one’s view. But restricted to such Latour undercuts something of his own despair over the rather copious reconstruction of “The Ambassadors”. Why indeed should this photographic reconstruction be “bad” (with the implicit judgment that cosmetic plastic surgery of human faces is bad).

What I suggest is that what is disappointing in the Holbein reconstruction is that it effaces exactly what is considered important in the original, the way that it expresses the fullness of causes that brought themselves to bear upon a turning point in history, all of which work to further inform us of the nature of that which has flowed from that originality. To veer somewhat for an analogy, I recently began researching the possible form of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s lens-grinding lathe [ Spinoza’s Foci], a physical, mechanical process he applied himself to almost as often as he did to his philosophical writings. I recalled learning that the reproduction or representation of his said lathe at the Spinozahuis museum had very little to do with the device(s) he likely used. The lathe in the museum was just a rough stand in. This inaccuracy retarded any contemporary possible attempt to link the causal relationship between Spinoza’s experiences at the lathe, and his metaphysical concepts. And while I came much closer to the kind of device he likely used (below), the original device if ever found would possibly be a wealth of recorded and influential information (a sketch of it less so). The point being that it is the record of causal relationships that gives us our urge to get close to and preserve the original of something.

But there is an additional reason why the Holbein restoration is potentially dissatisfying, and that is due to its recursive, causal nature. Its structure having changed over time, its copies now reflected back upon the form of its recording surface, now no longer informs us so clearly about the causative effects that produced it. It no longer looks back into the depths of its own historical origin, but rather serves as something more like a mirror, showing back (forward?) what it produced. This recursivity in fact might work to enhance its very capacity to create a profusion of copies, as the similarity in form enhances our experience of the veracity of its copies. They capture to a great degree its apparent original form. Without the anchoring urge to point backwards in time, this recursive lateral generation simply flattens out and spreads, and not invaluably so. Much is still transferred on. But the sense of the original, its weight, is diminished.

This where I differ from Bruno Latour who says unequivocally the existence of something precedes its essence, in that a host of existential factors and networking actors have to all conspire to give the original its weight. If that were only the case the proliferate and enhanced Holbein would be very far from “barren” or “sterile”. It is rather that due to all those existential forces pressing down towards original, we also count the original as revelatory of other forces that were antecedent to it, and immanent to its own production. This is what gives weight to the original, the way that it reveals its prior world. It is this specific “essence” coherence of relations, which necessarily precedes its existence, residing in what was before it, that prevents the current Holbein profusion from being satisfying. Latour evokes this historic power of the original without being able to identity it within his preferred, horizontal/flat frame of reference, and so he is not able to fully expression the discontinuity between the two objects that generated his article: the more-original-than-the-original facsimile of the Nozze di Cana, and the no-longer-the-same original of The Ambassadors.

Now we can add some flesh to the bones of Latour’s implicit slight to cosmetic plastic surgery (if I read his meaning there). Mirrors or recursive generative structures are not bad things, and when celebrities find themselves reconstructing their faces not only to achieve (correct) them towards their supposed youth, but also so that they achieve the photographic sleek by which the have become known through their copies, and even move towards the impressional ideal they leave in the minds of fans, we have to ask, what has been accomplished in this Holbeinian remaking? What is satisfying, and what is dissatisfying in it? It is notable that under Latour’s “originality  spawns multiple copies” definition the transmigration of nose shapes and lip forms to patients, as well as endless photographic portrayals of great variety, the so-constructed celebrity’s face proves more original than ever. It is copious. But what is lost (and we must keep track of these costs, almost like an accountant), is of course the recorded surface history of forces that fell upon that face prior to reconstruction, the way that we want to come in touch with the record of expression (and their emotions), the genetic traces of family lines, the wealth of interpersonal and sub-personal effects that all resulted in this original person of fame. It might very well be that the fecundity of reproduction outweighs this lost aspect, that the rapidity of replications and imitations caught in and thrust through the mirroring effects propels the person beyond the weight of their own personal history, in the way that Michael Jackson has now become a literal child of an industry and an artform (and no longer so much the Jackson family), losing his personal originality for the originality of an entire recursive birthing that only employs him as a reproductive conduit. This can be so, as becomes the case for Pharaohs, one might say. But in the differential between the originality of Michael Jackson now, and Michael Jackson circa 1976, lies the difference between essence and existence. The power of the original, that which speaks as an origin, is two-fold, that of its progeny, but also and with great weight, to the causes that it directs our attention to. It is Janus-faced.

The Facsimile and the Stolen Aura of the Original

The Latourian Migration

[Bruno Latour offers this citation correction for the article discussed below: 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).]

Bruno Latour has as wonderful article on the philosophical and aesthetic consequences in an Age of extremely accurate and realized digital reproduction, “The Migration of the Aura – Exploring the Original through Its Facsimiles” (2008), here at his website. He takes as his principle focus the remarkable reproduction of  Veronese’s Nozze di Cana, a huge framed painting that has the unfortunate favor of being hung (and so dwarfed) opposite the tiny Mona Lisain the Louvre. He traces the digital and pigmented reproduction of this painting, a process so exact that the question of where the original is has to be raised, in particular when the “copy” is hung returned to where it was stolen, placed in a refectory in San Giorgio, very much like the one where it originally hung. There something of the original lighting, spatial presentation, atmosphere even is given with the re-production, enough to convince some art critics that THIS is the original, finally restored. Reminding us that the word “copy” merely comes from the word meaning “copious”, he  makes the wonderful point that the very notion of the original, our sense that there is an original, is dependent upon the great pressure exerted by the multiplicity of its copies. Mixing metaphors, originality is only seen as an Urspring in the aftermath of a rich and diverse progeny, like the Delta of the Nile:

But it’s not the original, it’s just a facsimile!”. How often have we heard such a retort when confronted with an otherwise perfect reproduction of a painting? No question about it, the obsession of the age is for the original version. Only the original possesses an aura, this mysterious and mystical quality that no second hand version will ever get. But paradoxically, this obsession for pinpointing originality increases proportionally with the availability and accessibility of more and more copies of better and better quality. If so much energy is devoted to the search for the original – for archeological and marketing reasons- it is because the possibility of making copies has never been so open-ended. If no copies of the Mona Lisa existed would we pursue it with such energy – and would we devise so many conspiracy theories to decide whether or not the version held under glass and protected by sophisticated alarms is the original surface painted by Leonardo’s hand or not. In other words, the intensity of the search for the original depends on the amount of passion and the number of interests triggered by its copies. No copies, no original. In order to stamp a piece with the mark of originality you need to apply to its surface the huge pressure that only a great number of reproductions can provide.

So, in spite of the knee-jerk reaction -“But this is just a facsimile”-, we should refuse to decide too quickly when considering the value of either the original or its reproduction. Thus, the real phenomenon to be accounted for, is not the punctual delineation of one version divorced from the rest of its copies, but the whole assemblage made up of one -or several- original(s) together with the retinue of its continually re-written biography. It is not a case of “either or” but of “and, and”. Is it not because the Nile ends up in such a huge delta that the century-old search for its sources had been so thrilling? To pursue the metaphor, we want, in this paper, to behave like hydrographers intent in deploying the whole catchment area of a river -not only focusing on an original spring. A given work of art should be compared not to any isolated locus but to a river’s catchment, complete with its estuaries, its many tributaries, its dramatic rapids, its many meanders and of course also with its several hidden sources.

Latour, makes the Benjamin-friendly point that it is the change of intensity of labor, and the gap in techniques or processes, that renders a copy as only a mere copy, and he has some interesting comments on the effects of a cut-and-paste realm of web communications. There is odd point in the essay where he is exacting some sort of criticism of the restoration processes that have made the Holbein “The Ambassadors” actually look flattened like so many of its many postered reproductions, as if the pressure of the copies themselves have worked to undo the original. He calls the photographs which were actually used as a guide “the most barren” of reproduction techniques, though this appeal runs counter to the very defintions of originality already submitted.

Actually, a terribly revealing documentary shows the culprits restoring the Holbein by using as their model photographs of the original and subjectively deciding what is original, what has decayed, what has been added and imagining the painting as a series of discrete layers that can be added or removed at will. A process that resembles plastic surgery more than an open forensic investigation.

If indeed “The Ambassadors” has been made to look like its photographs, this “plastic surgery” very well have added to the fecundity of the image in museum, and isn’t barren at all, as the confirmed similarity to mere copies may drive even more visitors to witness the enshrined aura of the original, and admire its efficacy of reproduction (willing to buy photographs in the bookshop, for how closely they mimic what they just saw). How many movie star faces employ just this sort of photographic “fecundity” wherein the original becomes nearly photographic? (And even more striking as a truth, the botched surgeries of Mickey Rourke’s face may have given him the generative edge of an Academy Award nominated role, ensuring more duplications.) 

Latour does not address this seeming contradiction or the problematic of originality as defined by the numericity of progeny, and it is a contradiction probably due to his lasting connoisseur sensibilities for the lost minutia of detail in the hallowed first, a feeling that details should not be erased no matter the productive value of erasure. And I think that there is something to this, though I can’t see how it is captured by Latour’s analysis. All the same, a wonderful essay that changes one’s view about what makes a copy a copy, and even a type a type. It allows us to conceive of “original” in the Medieval sense of how types were read, as powerful manifestations that were strong enough to force imitations and reproductions. The Christ type. The Achilles type, etc.

And it is interesting to think along with Latour on the movability of the “aura” of the original, how it can seem to move from one material manifestation to another, almost atavistically. I think that there is one sense of the “original” which is underdeveloped by Latour perhaps due to his appeal for the flat ontology but I cannot be sure, is the sense in which the original to all those copies, itself as a thing value, bears the traces, the marks of the forces that gave rise it it. We want to see the pressure of Holbein’s hand in brush strokes, the crease of repetitious grimaces in the face. The original, even our most sacred isolation of it, is not monolithic, but rather maintains its value through the fingerprints of causation that trail behind it, in the way that we can feel the forces which nexused themselves at this point, to create such progeny. In a sense, to change the original is to change the direction that those winds had blown, often making our histories more recursive and therefore possibly starved of potential resources of productivity and self-examination.