|tags:||Philosophy & Critical Theory|
RIGHT NOW IN PARIS, Bruno Latour is being fêted. “One of the great intellectual adventures of our epoch […] the Hegel of our times,” enthuses Patrice Maniglier in Le Monde, who finds him a much more entertaining read than the dour German.
Curious, the way the French worry about their intellectual standing, for which they use the English word, taking their philosophers to be the barometers of the national reputation. “Is France still thinking?” worries Le Magazine Littéraire, as it too comes up with Latour as a rare savior. His new book, Enquête sur les modes d’existence (An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence), sold out of the first print run of 4,000 in 10 days. But it is not just a book; it is also a project in interactive metaphysics. In other words, a book, plus website. (Unheard of! A French philosopher using the Internet!) Intrigued readers of Latour’s text can go online and find themselves drawn into a collaborative project (so far only in French, but the English web pages will be up soon, and Catherine Porter’s translation of the book will be out from Harvard University Press in the spring). Simply register on the site, and you are free to offer commentary, counter-examples, snippets of movies, images, whatever. You may possibly graduate to the status of co-researcher, and even be invited to a workshop in Paris down the line, to thrash out the thornier problems.
Collective collaboration — some would call it “crowdsourcing” — is rare in philosophy, but Latour, a sociologist and anthropologist by training, is used to collaboration with scientists. (He was one of the founders of the new field of science studies and a veteran of the “science wars” of the 1990s.) And An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence is not really philosophy as understood by the dustier denizens of the Sorbonne, where nearly everyone and his other is a phenomenologist. Latour's subtitle is An Anthropology of the Moderns, and it continues the project he began with 1993’s We Have Never Been Modern, an anthropological account of western European culture, with serious metaphysical implications, that attempts to answer the question: who do we think we are? “We” — however vague that occidentalist umbrella term may be — are the ones whose style of modernization was destined to take over the rest of the world. But the project has hit a dead end: the planet itself is protesting, and we are going to have to think again about our technological, economic, philosophical “universals.” We will have to choose between modernizing and ecologizing, says Latour, a theme he has been sounding at least since 2004’s The Politics of Nature.
Recasting the concept of Nature is key to Latour’s thought. It is, he argues, an occidental invention that makes it distant from us, in “culture,” on the other side of a historically built divide. Nature then becomes exploitable and knowable essentially only through Science’s “laws of nature.” But instead of one “outside world” which we all share but have many varied ways of talking about, Latour proposes a plurality of equally real worlds that correspond to the major institutions that order our lives: Law, Politics, Religion, Science, Technology, and so on. Latour's is a h...read more