Might and Right: Against Latour (part 2)

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In the previous post, I outlined some of the background to Latour’s denial that there is a distinction in kind between force and reason. In this post, I shall say why I think he is wrong to do so. A good place to begin is Latour’s explicit comments on reason and logic. He says:

A force establishes a pathway by making other forces passive. It can then move to places that do not belong to it and treat them as if they were its own. I am willing to talk about ‘logic,’ but only if it seen as a branch of public works or civil engineering. (PF 171)

What a daring and suggestive analogy! This is the sort of stuff that makes Latour a great read. Later, he continues this thought: “We cannot distinguish between those moments when we have might and those when we are right.” (PF 183)

One obvious worry here is that no accommodation is made for distinction between persuasion by means of inveigling, deceptiveness and threat, and by means of argument and sincere discussion which tries to make itself answerable to the facts and the well-being of the participants. Perhaps academics, politicians and scientists do not operate without the consuming cynicism of the advertiser or the predatoriness of the bully; but must this be the case — could there be no principled distinction between brainwashing and being convinced in light of evidence?

In the excellent discussions of Latour in Prince of Networks, Graham Harman defends him from this line of attack by reminding us that the relevant forces extend beyond the human to nonhuman actants:

A charlatan might convince a roomful of dupes that they can walk on hot coals without being harmed, but the coals remain unconvinced–leading the charlatan into lawsuits or beatings from his angry mob of victims.

This move tries to defuse the charge of having a crude cod-Machiavellian conception of the ubiquity of power in human affairs by extending the analysis to both the human, the nonhuman and hybrid networks inclusive of each. However we manage to convince humans, we need to ‘convince’ nonhuman objects too in order to be effective. There is no slide into relativism insofar as weak theories will collapse under the pressure of their inability to command actants. Or rather, we can hold onto them, but only at a cost:

We can say anything we please, and yet we cannot. As soon as we have spoken and rallied words, other alliances become easier or more difficult. (PF 182)

Is then rationality only one type of efficacy amongst others, fighting it out on a flat battlefield?

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Latour implies that rationality must either take the form of some spectral a priori process, entity or interaction, or fall under the thrall of networked objects. For example, he says:

There has never been such a thing as deduction. One sentence follows another, and then a third affirms that the second was already implicitly or potentially already in the first. Those who talk of synthetic a priori judgments deride the faithful who bathe at Lourdes. However, it is no less bizarre to claim that a conclusion lies in its premises than to believe that there is holiness in the water. (PF 176)

If we want anything like a deduction, we are supposed to earn it: we must subsidise the labour of translation which allows us to glide seamlessly from antecedent to consequent, from P to Q. Behind any such translation will be a massive apparatus of networked actants which we ‘black box’ in practice (treating them as uncontroversial) but which must ultimately be accounted for. One of Latour’s concerns with approaches which make rationality stand apart from force seems to be that they ignore the process of the genesis and reproduction of rationality and rational behaviour.

I think that something goes awry here. In short, Latour has reified the rational in an attempt to save it from platonism. But the normative dimension of rational action does not primarily consist of any kind of object. We will not find it by looking to heaven with the platonist nor to earth with Latour. Nevertheless, Latour’s approach is right insofar as it treats rationality as unintelligible apart from an understanding of how something is treated or mobilised as a reason, where this requires us to grasp features of our form of life and their inextricable embeddedness amongst nonhuman objects. But this does not mean that we should only talk about such mobilisations. The pressure to do so appears to stem from a sceptical bent: what else could we be talking about if it is neither objects in action nor mysterious rational Forms? Again, Latour is right to adhere to a flat ontology; there can be nothing above the one plane of the natural world crowded with interacting objects. But the vocabulary of rationality, as with normativity in general, can be deployed from a distinct standpoint within and upon this self-same reality.

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We undertake normative talk from a practical perspective, which inflects the theoretical mode of explanation in important ways. Normative vocabularies do not seek to describe the efficacious dimension of objects alone but rather throw another kind of light upon them which illuminates their place in the space of reasons. This neither takes normatively inert events and projects human interests upon them nor domesticates normative phenomena by reconstructing them in terms of their power to exert leverage on humans and nonhumans alike. Rather, it exploits anthropocentric modes of responding to the world — informed by our history, preoccupations, social organisation, physiology, art, environment, language, and technology, inclusive of all the hybridity that involves — in order to reveal distinctive aspects of certain situations which are not themselves directly parasitic on elements of our points of view. For example, decrying an action as cruel may only make sense within certain forms of life, but that does not mean that cruelty is a second-rate property or a cruel action is so only in light of us taking to be so. Some degree of epistemological anthropocentrism does not preclude genuine objectivity.

We ought to act in certain ways in virtue of how the world stands, but without supposing our characterisation of the world must only encompass those features identifiable from within an explanatory matrix focused exclusively upon ”wide cosmological role’ (i.e. those things which have effects upon things other than human attitudes). Seeing a badly injured friend, deciding whether to go to a protest, or it striking us that we have failed to balance an equation, can authoritatively demand things of us that overspill how we actually respond in these situations. Here we can use normative concepts, absent from the natural scientist’s official toolkit, to capture what is going on — being obliged to help, having reasons to go, being inaccurate in our calculations, and so on. But there should be no pressure to evacuate incipient normativity here from either our characterisation of the original situation (e.g. ‘injured’, ‘failed’) or its implications (e.g. ‘obligation’, ‘having a reason’). The absolute standpoint of the scientist, engineer or anthropologist, which sees only objects in action and their epiphenomena, although essential, has no claim to exhaust any legitimate account of reality.

Latour suspects hocus-pocus when we say that the premises are present in the conclusion. But this will only be the case on a crude reading of this claim which is shored up by the prejudice that if something cannot be slotted alongside all the other properties of objects in the same respect then it must be bogus or in need of reclamation in more causally respectable terms. Yes, rational agents will have to perform the translation from premises to conclusion themselves. Logical practice must be undertaken by someone (or something) somewhere, and such behaviour can be described. But to suppose that the only legitimate framework for such description is one of battling actants is false and will lead to a distorted picture of reasoning and its significance. No good basis for a revisionary account can be found. There is nothing spectral about the force of the better reason, what we ought to do, what virtue demands: distinctions of this kind pervade our language. All we need is the philosophically won confidence to take our own practices seriously.

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2 thoughts on “Might and Right: Against Latour (part 2)

  1. Hi, thanks for these Latour posts. I read about half of WHNBM a few years ago (hmmm, actually more than that now), and I liked what little I understood.

    But actually this comment is to tell you that I have nominated one of your posts (as well as one of my own) for a Big Prize. Go here and vote!

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