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 highly pragmatic philosophy, borrowing from William James and Alfred North Whitehead as he follows the experience of those who participate in these worlds, each operating with its own truth conditions and organizational modes of staying in existence. One is a mode of knowledge creation that proceeds by reference as it traces the emergence of facts. Another mode has beings who persist along reproductive lines. The law will make good or bad judgments according to its own criteria and no others. Religious beings will call on those who can hear them and be saved. Others subject to strange transforming forces will be cured or succumb. There is a technical mode whose truth is in the efficiency of things that are well or badly made. In the aesthetic mode, beautiful things hold us in their thrall, and our devotion to them keeps them alive.
Of course, there are crossovers among these various modes of existence and a tendency for each to want to dominate over the others. Luckily, Latour has developed a principle of “irreduction” (first elaborated in a text of 1984, currently available in English translation as an appendix to his book The Pasteurization of France) to put the brakes on that tendency. Anything can be reduced to anything else if you go to enough trouble. Condoms, for instance, can be sins against human fertility or AIDS-inhibiting devices, as they sit at the crossroads of (at least) two equally real networks. A psychological explanation for religious obedience is hardly going to make faith go away when the ancient institutions continue to thrive in their massive global networks.
And since Latour is, in the philosopher Graham Harman’s phrase, the “Prince of Networks,” he loves talking about the intimacy of things, humans, concepts, passions in all their heterogeneous arrangements. This is why he bills his investigation as an anthropology of modernity. The Moderns might say, for instance, that their vaunted objectivity comes from “sober reflection” or a “broad perspective on things,” but what Latour actually observes scientists doing is getting totally, passionately involved with microscopes, spreadsheets, test tubes, peer reports, internecine disputes, and applications to funding bodies.
Likewise, folks in the humanities cultivate a skeptical attitude in order to judge, from the safety of a “critical distance,” anything that comes their way, from a literary text to climate change to abortion debates. But they never ask themselves how they achieved this illusory detachment. Armed with the tools of critique, they are able to show the rest of us how “mere appearances” are fooling us. But these supposedly autonomous intellectuals are intimately involved with their own university departments, which they are happy to turn on just as fiercely because, as we know, no institution can be trusted. Emancipation, for these “critical” humanists, is about breaking away from, or ignoring, or transcending one’s institutional alliances. The importance of such “freedom of thought,” they believe, was the lesson of 1968.
For Latour, though, emancipation means new or renewed ties with other organizations (which, again, is what already happens in practice with many activist intellectuals, contradicting what they think). The ‘68 generation may resist Latour’s call for a renewed confidence in institutions, which he feels need to be not opposed but valued and supported in their precarious existence. There are worse enemies and bigger problems, especially with the planet crashing towards its ecological limits. “Institutions are there to stop us relying on transcendence,” Latour writes. Instead of the monolithic, transcendent Reason we have inherited (or think we’ve inherited) from the Enlightenment, the Latourian adventure starts in the middle of our daily lives, in immanent constructions, mediations, and repetitions that are “paid for” by efforts of translation and displacement. In his proliferating mobile networks, nothing ever goes straight from cause to effect, or from subject to object; the course of existence never does run smooth. Transparency is an illusion, because various mediations get in the way, not the least of which are the technologies that continue to remake institutions, “nature,” and even living things.
Thus, the older monolithic concepts of Nature, Society, Language, Freedom, and Critique are dissolved into the descriptions of “the limited plurality of good reasons for acting,” as the sociologist Luc Boltanski nicely put it in another recent appreciation of Latour’s book. So instead of being stuck with those fundamental concepts that we are so used to leaning on for support, Latour forces us to ask ourselves what values we really want to hang on to in each of the modes of existence. And unlike many Anglo-American philosophers and social scientists who make a fetish of “value-neutrality,” he is not afraid to draw out the morality of these modes — that is, what is good or bad about them, what works and what doesn’t, what is well or badly put together.
The Economy — the pride and joy of the Moderns and of the “hard” social sciences — illustrates this well. What a mad construction Latour shows it to be! It is Providence itself, a second Nature, a religion that presides over the distribution of all that is good and evil. For the sake of comparison, anthropologists might read Marcel Mauss on the gift and look at “primitive” economies in the Pacific and “recoil in horror at the imbroglios which are described among these others. ‘Oh dear,’ they sigh, ‘these poor people will never get out of this mess, they are always tied up, attached, indebted, hooked, mixed up, entangled.’” Whereas, Latour goes on, in our modern economies “with long practice we have gotten used to being hardened to the idea of settling up with those we enter into transactions with […] we get out of such imbroglios by adding the exact opposite: ‘And now we are even; I owe you nothing; we have exchanged the equivalent; see you later!’”
Our economies are founded on a strange ideal of turning someone close into a stranger, of wanting to close deals as if getting away from one another were the aim. But in fact nobody lives according to the principles of this idealized Economy, where equivalent values are precisely and coldly calculated. Our actual economic behavior is just as mixed up and intimate as any Pacific bartering system. The cold hard gaze is hard to find. Commerce is, in reality, full of heat: surprising new products, marketing tricks, testosterone and stimulant-fueled traders, fictional goods, cooked books, and outright lies.
In economics as in everything, it turns out, we are attached to each other. To underscore this crucial point, Latour borrows a distinction from his sociological ancestor Gabriel Tarde: the verb to have is much more important than the verb to be. For what defines us is what we are attached to, what we don’t want to give up (goods, concepts, passions), more than any essence or identity. Latour would like to revise Descartes’s dictum “I think, therefore I am” to “I am what I am attached to.” This attachment is to both material things and values at the same time. Thus, pragmatics and morality are always intertwined.
Bruno Latour may or may not be “the Hegel of our times,” but it cannot be denied that his work makes the world — sorry, worlds — interesting again. And, best of all, it is a project to which you can attach yourself.