Against the system

Bruno Latour, a social theorist normally associated with ‘science studies’ (the field for which the Sokal hoax was a reaction) in the U.S., has always managed to catch me flat-footed. It’s embarrassing, really. I shall try to account for my confusion. The first thing one encounters is the style — such a turnoff — what I imagined of a French business writer, chipper, optimistic, and relentlessly punny, like a domesticated Voltaire. But having experienced much worse, I stomached it, and grew to like his work a lot at first. He was the first person I read who looked at science as a social process, and in a way distinct from the more dominant Foucault and/or Bachelard-derived epistemic analyses that were thick on how science worked outside of the laboratory but thin on what went on inside it. And it seemed more grounded in practice than the little from the Anglo-American tradition I’d read — Kuhn, Feyerabend, Bohr. For all these reasons, I think Latour’s best book is still The Pasteurization of France. Philosophically, however, and this is best displayed in that same book (see the long closing section, “Irreductions,” a sort of Spinoza pastiche), his stuff always struck me as a diluted melange of Deleuze and Guattari and Michel Serres, suffering from the same shortcomings while also being much less fun to read.

Basically, everything is an ‘actor’ defined by its relations to a network of actors. Nothing can be ‘reduced’ to or defined in terms of anything else; there is no transcendent level of definition (no ‘ground’ or foundation) to which we can straightforwardly refer phenomena. To understand anything — the discovery of bacteria for example —  we have to follow the process of its construction as an apparently autonomous truth, and reconnect it to the (social) networks that sustain it. All very nice-sounding until one realizes that his definition of power (how does one construction beat out others; how is one explanation more convincing than others) amounts to an abstraction from Francis Bacon: technologies that increase the stability, mobility, and aggregation of knowledge(s) produce what is called power. At the microlevel, however (how there could be such a thing for Latour is another unresolved thread for me), every transaction is ‘symmetrical’; in a vision straight out of the 18th century, immoral, unjust power is always the effect of unthinking blindness or miscommunication, bizarre exceptions to the ideal rule of universal equality for all abstract units.

For a while I thought he was just a harmless social democrat and that I could take his studies of science and ignore the rest as whimsy.

Once I started reading his large-scale analyses of society and the history of European science, my misgivings became both harder to ignore and harder to resolve. The deconstruction of modernity in We Have Never Been Modern was refreshing in a number of ways, not least of which was that unlike Derrida he didn’t feel the need to keep the ‘absence’ of the Grand European Narrative around as a prop or idée fixe. You could just do without it. Then you get to the end of the book and find out he hasn’t actually gotten rid of it, only repressed it (just as Derrida said he would), and we’re left with what sounds like a lot of blather about the forward march of liberalism and the excision of dissent politely veiled by lack of explicit reference.

For those like me who crudely wonder what Latour’s ontology has to do with his politics, this recent piece clears up a lot. His enemy here is Capitalism — not the social relations properly so called, but the Grand Theory Of. Or should we say its hauntological specter, recently transmuted into a zombie horde? How do we (nonviolently) exorcise the demon?:

Thus, the question remains: how is one to take charge of the externalities incessantly produced by the formatting machines of the social sciences?  The answer, here as elsewhere, consists in shifting one’s position, in entering the logic of the formatting regime of the gift that aims at making proliferate the associations, at producing entanglement.  As countless examples from anthropological economy show, the formatting regimes of the gift do not distinguish between what enters the finite exchange and what is indefinite and incommensurable with the exchange, but rather, trace the mobilization of people and things so that there is no end to it, so that the parties never call it quits.  By emphasizing the ties, by insisting on the existence of relations, by producing a memory of associations that is always ready to pop up at the moment of the transaction, the tracing operations of anthropological economy make both the past and that which is distant present.  Following the lead of anthropological economy, both the hard sciences and technology might be mobilized to produce traces and to emphasize ties but without necessarily allowing the calculation, the adding up of relations and exchanges.  Thus the hard sciences and technology make possible, at the same time, both the coexistence of and the disjunction between the regime of the gift and the regime of capital.  All of these mechanisms, by establishing the exteriority of both regimes and by organizing and making compatible the different formatting investments, become the practical answer to the theoretical question at the beginning of this paragraph.  Both the adding up and the proliferation of the associations are at play.  But the adding up operations are not seen as a mutilating reduction of reality, just as the overflow is not the remainder of the lost paradise.  While the adding up operations allow calculating and effective action, the entanglement makes the social body present.

So the rift between capitalists and those denied capitalism’s meager forms of security can be healed by NGOs and shareware? Tell me more!

The eventual coordination of the formatting operations leads to a better appreciation of both regimes.  The virtue of the market is, precisely, that which makes it criticizable in the eyes of the anti-utilitarians: that is, allowing for calculations to take place, facilitating the expression of particular, divergent interests, and multiplying transactions that allow the parties to call it quits.  In this context, the market is like a highly efficient machine that multiplies use values and that makes decentralized plans and the mobilization of resources compatible.  In  contrast, the virtue of the gift is to net social ties by manufacturing attachments, by reinvigorating and extending the associations.  If both formatting regimes are taken together, the question of the social is resolved.  The market exchange individualizes, internalizes, manufactures, and separates calculating, interested agencies which, once the transaction is completed, call it quits; the gift, in contrast, makes the associations proliferate, unerringly linking together a series of existences.  Both hot and cold elements are necessary to the social machinery, and it is the task of politics to adjust this delicate Carnot Cycle.  And here, politics should not be mistaken for the authorities or the government, given that the State is as superficial and as formatted as the market itself.

Such a hypothesis allows us to move away from the calamitous opposition between “the market” and “the State.”  Politics is not a sphere that should be added to the economic sphere—or that, on the contrary, should be wiped away so that the “market forces” are “liberated.”  Politics pop up wherever an agent takes the floor to make the associations proliferate: “We all exist and your existence mingles with ours.  Don’t try to escape, too many ties link us.”  The recent truck driver’s strikewas a case in point: there are thousand ways to make ourselves present outside of the exchange of equivalents, to interrupt the production of internalities so that entanglement is increased, and to avoid that the parties call it quits.  The angry truck drivers were not asking for compensation, they were weaving under our noses the social web in which we are caught with them, thereby demanding that the fragile and provisional balance between the commercial formatting regime and the formatting regime of disinterestedness be reconsidered.

In a similar vein, when Bernard Barataud, the president of the AFM [French Society Against Myopathies], arbitrates between the public agencies, the financial resources coming from collective fund-raising events, and the private investments of the industry in order to decide the allocation of resources to either basic research or the purchase and development of prostheses for the sick, he engages in a most fundamental political task; namely, that of reaching a balance between, and establishing the complementarities of, the different formatting regimes.  This task, in its turn, presupposes endless research about the benefactor’s motivations, their preferences, and their take on the role of public generosity—whether and why it can and must take the place of the State or the investments of powerful industrial companies.

While no social science can take charge of the externalities without participating, sooner or later, in their inscription and internalization, political life can.  What is at stake is not the paralysis of politics by the economic sphere, but rather, a superficial formatting of the interactions that discards an indefinite mass of associations as externalities.  As such, these externalities constitute, so to speak, an always available, ready to be mobilized reserve army capable of complicating—or rather, of implicating—the economy at any moment.  Mobilized by politics, the externalities do not come back in the guise of competing interests but rather as strangers that want to become close, as unexpected consequences that demand to be expected, accepted, and included.  In this context, the modest contribution of the social sciences to the formatting of disinterestedness might be to allow certain actors—by multiplying the traces and indexes that are not susceptible to capitalization—to make incalculable the consequences of a capitalism that is constantly expanding its centers of calculation.  But with the condition, of course, that they get rid of their accountant-like morality—that is, their obsessive calculation of the forces at stake doubled by their moral indignation against all forms of calculation.

It’s hard to seriously respond to this. Apparently capitalism doesn’t have a specific set of determinant organizing principles at all, much less objectionable ones; it’s just a bunch of useful techniques, inappropriately used. Because these (self-appointed) ‘anticapitalists’ are too busy complaining to participate! Why do they keep pretending to be economists? Who are these jokers kidding? Don’t they realize that documenting and measuring exploitation just makes it worse? Anyway, we know they hate math. Each to his proper sphere, etc.

What’s actually interesting here is that the meat of Latour’s argument relies on a curiously abstract version of what roger has been calling “the myth of the myth of the noble savage,” combined with the myth, popular in some circles, of the ignorant capitalist:

The fact that the dis/interestedness of the savage has been a seemingly unending question is best understood if one bears in mind Hutchins’ insight, which is applicable to all forms of calculation and goes as follows: from the collective performance of a gift it is impossible to infer individual competence of the agent.  Just as an agent, without being a calculator herself, is traversed by calculation in capitalist formatting regimes, the same agent, without being herself a donor or a recipient, traversed by the gift in pre-capitalist or anti-capitalist formatting regimes.  The fact of the matter is that one cannot infer from these different performances radically different competencies; both sociology of science and cognitive anthropology prevent us from making such a move.

Insofar as this insight symmetrically applies to primitive “savages” and present-day “capitalists,” it allows us to redefine them both.  Indeed, the same amount of formatting labor is necessary to define a collective act of donation and to de-fine—that is, to terminate—a collective act of exchange.  Such is the central hypothesis of our chapter.  Once the psychology that fills the capitalist world with selfish calculators and the pre-capitalist world with unselfish donors is abandoned, it finally becomes possible to sort out with some precision the true differences between both formatting regimes.  At this point, it may noted that both regimes share a common categorical imperative, which can be summarized by the interdiction “you should not calculate!”; the difference, then, has to do with whatever should not be taken into account by each regime.

This is pretty amazing. Since capitalism for Latour is essentially a bunch of neutral technologies, the rationale imputed to anticapitalists is a misguided belief in the immense skill of individual technicians. So not only is the myth capitalists tell about themselves accepted — that they’re really sort of like scientists, working in small teams and competing to solve social problems — their opposition is criticized for believing it too much. Or as he says a bit earlier, “just because calculations are done in the quasi-laboratories of the economic agencies—the notion of the agent gives too much credit to the individual—one should not inductively conclude that calculating beings actually exist, no matter how much information they have.” That of course they individually do not have magical competence is rather sneakily used to assume an even more absurd level of ignorance on the part of their class as a whole, not only of the distant consequences of their actions (which is defensible), but any reason whatsoever for their behavior (which is not).

(It’s also worth noting that the cognitive scientist whose conclusions he appropriates studies small groups with more or less common interests such as tribes and research teams, not complex large-scale societies made up of structurally antagonistic groups — i.e. classes.)

We can even follow Latour’s advice and look at a case study. Exhibit A: his public stance against protesters and critics of Sarkozy’s neoliberal university reform plan. It begins with the same faulty insistence on symmetry as the starting point of analysis (an a priori if there ever were any) to argue that Sarkozy’s autonomy is the same as Negri’s autonomy. As if the issue were as simple as the university’s liberation from the state, as if the ‘deterritorialzing’ law of the market were merely optional for an institution of its size and makeup, as if Sarkozy’s plan were not engineered to ensure its complete capture. Check the rebuttal here.

But I know you’re all secretly craving moral education, so let’s end with a nice little piece of folk wisdom, as if this were a fable: when considering the relationship between theory and practice, it is probably best not to begin from the point of view of their separation.


2 Responses to “Against the system”

  1. is a great resource for actors, including a free acting scene you can download right now. Use it for acting class or practice.

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