Saturday, November 30, 2013

Reading :: An Inquiry into Modes of Existence

An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns
By Bruno Latour

I've cited Latour quite a bit in my scholarship and reviewed his works on this blog, so when I found out this book was being published, I bought it immediately, along with Rejoicing. The book is respectably thick, 486 pages—which is actually much shorter than it could have been, since Latour omitted parenthetical citations and did not include a bibliography. You can see the citations at the book's website, which also hosts the book's glossary, visual materials, notes, and articles, as well as a column for readers' commentary and critiques. (If you want an index, too bad, use the online search function.) It's an interesting, though quite centralized and controlled, experiment.

For now, though, I'll keep my critique decentralized on this blog. But what a daunting challenge it is to critique a thick book by a world-renowned scholar. Especially when the scholar draws on such a broad set of significant works. Especially when the scholar writes in ways that often seem oblique and metaphorical, And especially when the resulting book seems like a capstone, one that reviews practically all of the author's scholarly output. That's essentially what the book is, from what I can tell: an attempt to tie all of this previous scholarship together into a single broad-based inquiry.

So what is this inquiry? Essentially, it's a taxonomy of different processes that yield different, yet internally coherent, contexts or meanings. Throughout his career, Latour has studied how meaning and knowledge are produced in the sciences, in technology, in law, in religion, in economics, and in politics. Here, he argues that these represent separate processes for developing meaning, processes that are internally consistent but that appear at odds when they come into contact. Those processes are all ways for making meanings and truth—ways with different logics, aims, and standards of proof. But it's difficult to get these modes of existence to interact well for two reasons.

First, it's easy to make category mistakes, mixing up their separate felicity conditions.

Second, and related, it's easy to assume that the different modes of existence are essentially compatible, boiling down to the same mode of existence and ideally following the same logics, aims, and standards of proof (something that Latour describes using the figure of "double click"). For instance, when someone tries to apply the felicity conditions of science to politics, or those of technology to religion, s/he is invoking the "double click," assuming that there can be transportation without transformation.

With that in mind, Latour patiently discusses each mode of existence, then how those modes interact. Patiently, but not economically, because Latour is not an economical writer. Fortunately for us, he lists the modes of existence in the back of the book:

  • reproduction
  • metamorphosis
  • habit
  • technology
  • fiction
  • reference
  • politics
  • law
  • religion
  • attachment
  • organization
  • morality
  • network
  • preposition
  • double-click
Each has its own hiatus (loosely speaking, a disruptive condition), trajectory (i.e., results of transformations), felicity/infelicity conditions (when they thrive vs. when they crash), beings to institute (i.e., objectives to produce), and alteration (i.e., the way in which they are transformed). (I'm not sure how happy Latour would be with my parenthetical explanations, but since he has not provided an index, I'm going to stick with these.) 

You'll notice that some of these modes are tied to fields (e.g., politics, law, religion) while others are not (e.g., habit, organization, network). Activity theorists will note that habit, which AT would associate with the operational level of activity, is presented as a separate mode. Yes, these modes are entangled in practice, and I'm not always clear on why a field-oriented mode (e.g., science) is on the same footing as a mode that is inevitably going to be instantiated in every other mode (e.g., habit). But Latour is not simply attempting to examine these modes as separate, but as inevitably crossing and producing hybrids. For instance, he talks about the crossings between networks and prepositions (p.63), reproduction and reference (p.106), reference and politics (p.128), reproduction and metamorphosis (p.202), technology and networks (p.212), and so forth. In defining each mode along basic canonical questions (hiatus, trajectory, felicity/infelicity, beings to institute, alteration), Latour has presented a way to systematically investigate each mode and how each mode interacts with the others. 

To describe the project in an overgeneralized way, the book is an attempt to get at polycontextuality via a taxonomy of processes that yield different, coherent contexts/meanings. Once the taxonomy is laid out, we can use it to systematically investigate how these processes interact. Along the way, Latour draws on his vast set of publications, discussing Latourean concepts from networks to black boxes to quasi-objects and quasi-subjects to factishes, and on and on. If you haven't read Latour yet, this is probably not the book to start with. The number of concepts is overwhelming, as is the overall scope of the project, and Latour's often elliptical, often metaphorical writing style makes it difficult to keep the concepts and scope straight. 

For those who have read most of Latour's major works, this book is worthwhile. But it's not a walk in the park for those folks either: after all, the book is attempting to reframe key parts of Latour's work, often by re-presenting some of the original material within the newly expanded scheme. In practice, this means that it's easy to begin skimming a chapter ("ah, this is his basic argument from that chapter in Pandora's Hope") only to realize near the end of the chapter that Latour has added a new term, concept, or connection. This problem is compounded by the fact that the printed book has removed some of the key signals that help readers to detect updated arguments: citations and footnotes. Nevertheless, the book synthesizes a vast body of work into a more coherent understanding of what's at stake. Those who have seen Latour primarily as a sociologist of science because of his earlier books should now be able to see how those early projects connect with his overarching ontological project.

At least in outline. As Latour says apologetically on p.478, "I am well aware that I passed over each mode too quickly, and that each crossing would require volumes of erudition, even if the modes and crossings are more fully developed in the digital environment that accompanies this text" (p.478). Latour's hope, I think, is that the digital environment will allow others to work out these ideas more fully, connect the modes more firmly, and examine the crossings more fully. Latour has provided this vast infrastructure, so won't you build on it?

Will I? Probably not. I expect that I'll return to this book over and over—as a sourcebook. But as a work of scholarship, it was too exhausting, too unwieldy, and too sprawling for me to take in. (Longtime readers may note that this review is shorter than those I've written for similarly massive books.) The scope itself was not the only problem. Latour's writing style, which can be immensely enjoyable in 150pp books, wore on me in this longer format, and I began to fervently wish that some editor had been licensed to ruthlessly edit for concision. Frankly, I think this book could have been sweated down to 200 lean, well-organized pages, and the result would have been much easier to absorb and navigate.

Nevertheless, if you have a few Latour books on your shelf, I encourage you to pick it up. In fact—although I obviously didn't try this—you might consider blocking off six months to read the book in concert with Latour's major works. For instance, when the present book mentions religion, you could bookmark it and read On Rejoicing. When it mentions law, you could bookmark that passage and read The Making of Law. When it discusses factishes, you could read Pandora's Hope and On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. If you do this, let me know how it goes.


Philip said...

That's pretty much my experience too. It's like the rest of Latour's writing but somehow more so. And it gets a bit too much at times.

One thing to note is that each mode is described in terms of its archetypical instantiation but that instantiation doesn't 'own' it. So, [law] is described in terms of the practices of law (obviously) but, strictly speaking, anything that attributes action to an actor is a kind of legal relation. Likewise, religious relations could just as easily be described as relations of love (which he does, briefly). But this is where it all becomes impenetrable because while there might be secular equivalents of the religious experiences Latour leaves us no real way into those experiences in terms of his system because he builds that mode entirely from his own Christian vocabulary.

It's really ultimately a conceptual structure that only applies to himself and his own experiences. To make use of it ourselves we pretty much need to take it apart and put it back together in another form. And that's maybe what he's trying to make us do with this experimental platform thing. But that's rather a big ask on readers, to say the least!

I don't think it's quite going to engender the 'planetary conversation of moderns and their others' that he envisions. It's a triumph of philosophy but a failure of diplomacy.

Clay Spinuzzi said...

"It's like the rest of Latour's writing but somehow more so." Yes! Well put.

I like your analysis here and I (mostly) agree with it, particularly the idea that the book/site is a "triumph of philosophy but a failure of diplomacy." This is a bold attempt to make Latour's work a coherent substrate for others' work, a monster obligatory passage point that is more extensible than the scholarly works of the past. Rather than reading and commenting on a book, say Marx's Capital, we are encouraged to invest time (i.e., become interessed) in a coauthored site that can underpin our own work more directly. But interessement requires us to see our own interests in the book/site, and at least for me, those interests don't seem to be there.