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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.

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