I’m just managing to keep up with the Latour/AIME reading groups (both the one on my campus and the online one organized by Adam Robbert et al.), but not so much with the commentaries. Here’s my first brief reflection on the book…
1. You know that a scholar has made it to the top of the French academic heap when he can publish a 500-page book that lacks a single bibliographic reference.
2. That said, the references are evident for longtime readers of Latour, as the book is a culmination of work he’s been doing in various venues for a quarter-century or more. I’m thinking less of his work in science and technology studies, the field in which he’s best known, than in everything else, including his scattered writings on religion, psychology, ecology, cosmopolitics, his curatorial work (like Iconoclash and Making Things Public), and so on.
Here and there certain authors pop out into the light from out of their black boxes (Souriau in particular). But others that have made up the constellations of the Latourian night sky — Tarde, Stengers, Whitehead, Serres, Greimas, Garfinkel, Simondon, Deleuze, his anthropologist colleagues (Descola, Viveiros de Castro), his primatologist friends (Strum and Haraway, though they haven’t popped up yet), and of course his many allies and interlocutors in STS and ANT — are gestured toward or hinted at as well.
3. As a culmination, AIME is both tremendously synthetic — the first systematic exposition of the complete system of “modes of inquiry” — and veiled in a strange (and very French, very rhetorical) language. Latour makes us work at reading this book, and it isn’t easy. This is certainly not going to be a straight description of the ontologically pluralist universe he’s trying to circumscribe, no: it will take effort, and tools. It is taking some figuring out, on his part: how to describe things, how to nudge us (or bludgeon us) into following him, what tools and objects to throw down — like the metal nuts that the Stalker in Tarkovsky’s Zone throws down — to test out the solidity of the ground we are about to walk on.
Of course, as with Stalker’s journey into the Zone, it’s all very performative — how could it not be? It requires curious chants and ritualistically repeated slogans, specialized terms and 3-letter abbreviations, and mythical characters, from the unnamed female ethnographer-protagonist to the Evil Genius “Double Click” to various other kinds of beings. And that “dear readerly” style that characterized We Have Never Been Modern (and many of Latour’s other theoretical writings, unlike the clarity of his more empirical work), which some readers will no doubt chafe at as being too patronizing, too repetitive, too, well, rhetorical.
4. But by the time we realize we’ve gotten somewhere (if we’ve indeed followed him on this Stalker’s journey), we’ve left behind our skepticism, left it on hold for the sake of the journey. At least I have.
Not that I have forgotten the criticisms, many of which still apply, despite Latour’s protestations to the contrary. He is a relativist — as long as we define relativism as an ontological sort of relationality (which always was the best kind of relativism; it just got forgotten along the way as relativism got tied up with textualism and opposed to realism; and much the same can be said for constructivism). His style (a monological and totalizing one) does contradict his message (a pluralist and participatory one): “Follow me and I will tell you all about the world, even if that world is one we all make up as we go along.” (Here the feminists, like Haraway and Harding with their “situated knowledges,” and Latour’s cosmopolitical ally Stengers, all display an awareness of the politics of their craft much more openly and astutely than does Latour.) He does create plenty of straw characters — “the Moderns” being only one of them; “critique” being another — whose empirical substance is questionable. He does forget to give credit where it’s due to others. And so on.
5. In the end — at least as far as I’ve gotten (after 7 chapters) — everything appears to circle around two immovables. (As Whitehead once pointed out, one can’t set everything into motion at once; something must remain unmoved for there to be a fulcrum around which other things are set to rotate.) They are: the Moderns, who deserve all the raging critique Latour vents at them, but who also deserve all the deconstruction his critics charge at him (who, after all, are they really? and has he really succeeded at not being one of them?); and Gaia, the ecological crisis, the beings that call us to “ecologize” rather than “modernize.”
I’m happy to let the Moderns remain as a figure of drama that’s needed for Latour to get his show on the road. (And fortunately it does, though it takes several chapters for the wheels to start to roll.) I’m more interested in figuring out the Gaian secret agents (as Tim Morton will call them at the Baltimore gathering of wizards; pity Isabelle Stengers can’t be there to make it a gathering of witches, too).
6. In the end, I’m kicking myself for sitting on a few (unpublished) articles where I draw on Latour to move in this very AIME-ian direction, since I’ll now have to rewrite them using, or at least taking account of, the language he’s drawn up in this massive tome. No way around that; the book will become an obligatory point of passage for those wishing to cosmopoliticize the relations between (those entities formerly known as) Nature, Culture(s), Religion (or the gods), and all the rest — which here will include Law, Politics, Science, Technology, and much else.
For now, I am enjoying the journey.