Thursday, June 05, 2003

Reading:: Pandora's Hope

Originally posted: Thu, 05 Jun 2003 01:17:14

Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies
by Bruno Latour

This is one of Latour's most enjoyable books. Latour was one of the first popularizers of actor-network theory (which he now claims should be called "actant-rhizome ontology" to be accurate) and continues to be a really interesting thinker. And writer. His style is really remarkable -- provocative, pugnacious, confrontational.

Latour's family also is known for wine, and in an interview a while back, he said that he only hoped that people enjoyed reading a Latour as much as they enjoyed drinking a Latour. For me, reading a Latour is very enjoyable and tends to be like drinking. His texts make me feel a little euphoric, a little gregarious, particularly since he sees humans sharing a world with nonhumans who are every bit as much socialized actors as we are. I enjoy that perspective. But the day after reading a Latour, I tend to have sort of an ontological hangover. As a colleague of mine said recently, Latour's extraordinary writing style comes at a price. Clear away the remarkable writing style (at its best here) and you see the same sort of academic argument you often see: position A, position B, and then Latour's position C.

In this book, position A is modernism and position B is postmodernism. According to Latour, they're two sides of the same coin, two ways of handling the Cartesian split and the related modernist settlement. What interests me is that he connects these to democracy, in which he seems to believe quite fervently. Well, me too. So his two chapters on the Gorgias -- the famous Socratic dialogue in which Callicles and Socrates create the false dichotomy of Might vs. Right, ignoring the teeming masses and their way of governance, democracy -- is really fascinating and thought-provoking. I see a lot of parallels with other movements that are concerned with democracy and modernist threats to it, particularly participatory design.

Latour's work is particularly interesting to me right now because I've been dealing with activity theory and genre theory to tackle problems of information design and knowledge circulation. See my upcoming book. But activity theory and Bakhtinian genre theory both developed in the Soviet Union, where it wasn't particularly safe to question the political structure, so politics are relatively undeveloped in both approaches. (Some may disagree with me here.) So I'm looking for ways to extend my genre tracing approach to involve the political dimension (and, inevitably, the rhetorical dimension that goes along with it). Of course, the schools of thought may be hard to reconcile, since activity theory was founded on Marxist thought and Latour has contempt for Marxism. I'm working on squaring that circle right now.

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