Notes on Bruno the Tourist, “Why Critique Has Run Out of Steam”

Key Series: Critical Theory, the Crisis of Social Philosophy, Advancing the Frankfurt School

By Chris Wright

In his introduction to “Why Critique Has Run Out of Steam” (Critical Inquiry, Winter 2004) Bruno Latour begins with the following:

…What has become of the critical spirit? Has it run out of steam?
Quite simply, my worry is that it might not be aiming at the right target. To remain in the metaphorical atmosphere of the time, military experts constantly revise their strategic doctrines, their contingency plans, the size, direction, and technology of their projectiles, their smart bombs, their missiles; I wonder why we, we alone, would be saved from those sorts of revisions. It does not seem to me that we have been as quick, in academia, to prepare ourselves for new threats, new dangers, new tasks, new targets. Are we not like those mechanical toys that endlessly make the same gesture when everything else has changed around them? Would it not be rather terrible if we were still training young kids—yes, young recruits, young cadets—for wars that are no longer possible, fighting enemies long gone, conquering territories that no longer exist, leaving them ill-equipped in the face of threats we had not anticipated, for which we are so thoroughly unprepared?

latour-critiqueThis paragraph already makes me concerned. I am singularly uncomfortable with the militaristic metaphors, but that is not the what bothers me most. Rather, the idea that “times have changed”, that academics might be “fighting enemies long gone.” Aside from whether the jobs of educators are to fight enemies, are the “enemies” of old long gone? If one takes Frederick Beiser[1] or Gillian Rose[2] seriously, it becomes evident that much of modern philosophy is largely, and quite often unconsciously, rehashing the dilemmas of post-Kantian, mostly neo-Kantian, philosophy under a new language, and not infrequently with less honesty and intelligence. Or in the sciences, one finds, as Richard Lewontin and a host of others do, the return, albeit in more sophisticated terms, of eugenics and social darwinism[3]. Maybe some of the “enemies” are not so new after all.

But this is an introduction in a long piece. Let us follow our writer down the path and see where he goes, especially when he seems committed to criticizing French intellectuals in particular of being “one war late.”

One has to admit to a pleasant self-reflectiveness on his part when he at least reckons with the idea that his own work seems to give solace from within academia, and science studies in particular, of the anti-global warming milieu’s claim of “the lack of scientific certainty”.

 …Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast? In which case the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact—as we have learned to combat so efficiently in the past—but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we now have to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? And yet entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?

Further on, and even more starkly:

Remember the good old days when university professors could look down on unsophisticated folks because those hillbillies naively believed in church, motherhood, and apple pie? Things have changed a lot, at least in my village. I am now the one who naively believes in some facts because I am educated, while the other guys are too unsophisticated to be gullible: “Where have you been? Don’t you know that the Mossad and the CIA did it?” What has become of critique when someone as eminent as Stanley Fish, the “enemy of promises” as Lindsay Waters calls him, believes he defends science studies, my field, by comparing the laws of physics to the rules of baseball? What has become of critique when there is a whole industry denying that the Apollo program landed on the moon? What has become of critique when DARPA uses for its Total Information Awareness project the Baconian slogan Scientia est potentia? Didn’t I read that somewhere in Michel Foucault? Has knowledge-slash-power been co-opted of late by the National Security Agency? Has Discipline and Punish become the bedtime reading of Mr. Ridge (fig. 1)?

One has to wonder, who is this fellow? Certainly not Bruno Latour!

What’s the real difference between conspiracists and a popularized, that is a teachable version of social critique inspired by a too quick reading of, let’s say, a sociologist as eminent as Pierre Bourdieu (to be polite I will stick with the French field commanders)? In both cases, you have to learn to become suspicious of everything people say because of course we all know that they live in the thralls of a complete illusion of their real motives. Then, after disbelief has struck and an explanation is requested for what is really going on, in both cases again it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly. Of course, we in the academy like to use more elevated causes—society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism—while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation, in the first movement of disbelief and,then, in the wheeling of causal explanations coming out of the deep dark below. What if explanations resorting automatically to power, society, discourse had outlived their usefulness and deteriorated to the point of nowfeeding the most gullible sort of critique? Maybe I am taking conspiracy theories too seriously, but it worries me to detect, in those mad mixtures of knee-jerk disbelief, punctilious demands for proofs, and free use of powerful explanation from the social neverland many of the weapons of social critique. Of course conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments, but, like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party, these are our weapons nonetheless. In spite of all the deformations, it is easy to recognize, still burnt in the steel, our trademark: Made in Critical Land.

Or is it? This begins to stretch the bounds of credulity when one compares conspiracy theories with Marx, Durkheim, Bourdieu, and the like. Whatever their other differences, none of them hold to the kind of subjectivism and good-evil dichotomies of conspiracy theory, not to mention the conflation of social modes of existence with individual will and intent. And yet, do not sociology and most versions of Marxism treat “society” and “the social” as agents and causes, rather than as outcomes? Are they not fetishized? This is a point noted by Rose in her work and in a different way by John Holloway in Open Marxism Vol. 3 in the essay “The Centrality of Work” (p. 156) where he emphasizes Marx’s theory as less a theory of society (which would reify society in the manner noted above), than a theory against society. Both of them echo Marx’s point that “History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims…” (The Holy Family, 1845)

If his point flies wide of the mark pace Marx and heterodox readings of Marx, Latour has a valid point regarding much of 20th century French intellectual history, alongside sociology and orthodox Marxisms. In the Anglophone world, however, “There is no such thing as society” was enunciated, long before Margaret Thatcher, as an academic mantra and, not surprisingly is today mother’s milk for the populist Right that horrifies him.

Latour then makes a point that it is hard not to be sympathetic with:

In spite of my tone, I am not trying to reverse course, to become reactionary, to regret what I have done, to swear that I will never be a constructivist any more. I simply want to do what every good military officer, at regular periods, would do: retest the linkages between the new threats he or she has to face and the equipment and training he or she should have in order to meet them—and, if necessary, to revise from scratch the whole paraphernalia[italics mine – CDW]. This does not mean for us any more than it does for the officer that we were wrong, but simply that history changes quickly and that there is no greater intellectual crime than to address with the equipment of an older period the challenges of the present one. Whatever the case, our critical equipment deserves as much critical scrutiny as the Pentagon budget.

I would not make the point in quite the same way since my approach is not empiricist, but as there is no category that is not inherently empirical for constructivism, in the sense of being first-order, any change of appearance automatically entails a possible, even a probable, change of essence. I am of the opinion that form in the sense of the mode of existence of an essence should not simply be conflated with phenomenal “forms” in the empiricist sense. It is possible to have genuine changes of form that express the mode of existence of the same essence under different conditions. For example, the value-form has not disappeared, but the modes of existence it takes qua inconvertible paper money versus commodity money has genuinely changed because there is no longer an amount of commodity money that could express the mass of value, leading to new kinds of speculative possibilities and activities, and thus also to financial crises linked more immediately to the state(s) (in)ability to back a given currency as world money. Alongside this, radically new phenomenal forms arise, such as suburbanization, transformed labor processes, and altered production processes that decentralize populations, isolate individuals more completely, and break apart the old class estates. These changes in how the capital relation is expressed in turn transforms what kinds of resistance emerge and what shapes they take.

Latour’s commitment to empiricism is clear in the next paragraph, “The question was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the contrary, renewing empiricism.” And in the following, it feels like Latour is winding up to leave one kind of neo-Kantianism (the Southwest, Heidelberg version taken up by Durkheim) for the Marburg version, taken up by Weber.

The mistake we made, the mistake I made, was to believe that there was no efficient way to criticize matters of fact except by moving away from them and directing one’s attention toward the conditions that made them possible. But this meant accepting much too uncritically what matters of fact were.

This is a classic statement of Southwest normativity as explained by Beiser and Rose in separate instances.

Reality is not defined by matters of fact. Matters of fact are not all that is given in experience. Matters of fact are only very partial and, I would argue, very polemical, very political renderings of matters of concern and only a subset of what could also be called states of affairs. It is this second empiricism, this return to the realist attitude, that I’d like to offer as the next task for the critically minded.

And there it is. Now I am not concerned by someone who says that “Reality is not defined by matters of fact”, insofar as it would beg the question of what counts as a fact, and what counts as a fact already assumes some way of teasing out meaningfulness. Race and gender are facts and certainly help define reality, but our reality is what it is only because race and gender count as facts, that is, they are meaningful despite being “false” from a natural-scientific point of view. Rather, the shift to “states of affairs” is just a shift from one pole of the values-validity dualism of neo-Kantianism to the other.

Part of what is interesting here is Latour’s recognition of a problem with what he calls Enlightenment thought (which he associates with Heidelberg neo-Kantianism and French sociology from Durkheim forward, which is heavily indebted to this philosophical tradition), that it finds itself subject to its own critical methods. Actually, this is not a new point. Hegel made this exact same point in his section on “Faith and Enlightenment” in the Phenomenology of Spirit. However, he did not respond to this problem by shifting to “matters of concern” as an answer. Arguably, his section on “Morality”, which later on itself shows the limits of precisely this shift, and of its hypocrisy, describes Latour’s shift quite elegantly.

Maybe this is nowhere more evident than the move to take up Heidegger’s grandmotherly fetishizing of the Thing of pre-industrial lore against horrid objects of a corrupt modernity and apply it to the “objects of science and technology.” After all, in Latour’s eyes, the problem with philosophers is that their objects are too simple, compared to the marvelously rich objects of science studies. The philosopher’s rock (usually used to beat in the head of a relativist by a realist as the relativist cries that this is proof that a poor, lonely rock is suddenly a weapon if that is what it is used for) does not compare to the marvelous complexity of Ian Hacking’s dolomite. “Heidegger’s mistake is not to have treated the jug too well, but to have traced a dichotomy between Gegenstand and Thing that was justified by nothing except the crassest of prejudices.”

Now what does this mean? “It is interesting to note that every time a philosopher gets closer to an object of science that is at once historical and interesting, his or her philosophy changes, and the specifications for a realist attitude become, at once, more stringent and completely different from the so-called realist philosophy of science concerned with routine or boring objects.”

This somewhat cryptic statement is about how the “routine or boring objects” of science become Things once they go from “matters of fact” to “matters of concern”, that is, once they become meaning-full. One might consider here the difference between an object (Gegenstand) and a Thing to be their meaningfulness, that is, that something becomes value-laden. His example is the crash of the space shuttle Columbia, in which an object (that is, a piece of technology and engineering according to specific principles and following various laws of mechanics and thermodynamics) became a Thing, something meaningful, once it blew up and its various parts became part of the political and legal arena. He contrasts this with the simultaneous attempt to make the military buildup to invade Iraq from a Thing, from a matter of concern, into an object, into a matter of fact, through the argument that Iraq was involved with 9/11 and it had weapons of mass destruction, thereby obviating any matters of concern and making military intervention a matter of law-like necessity.

Latour wants to argue that we have moved from a world of objects, a world in which aura was being eliminated (as Walter Benjamin noted with mixed feelings), to a new kind of auratic world. I would say that capitalism has reversed course in a sense. Guy Debord expressed this many years ago in The Society of the Spectacle in which he stated that paragraphs 46-8, such as “USE VALUE WAS formerly implicit in exchange value. In terms of the spectacle’s topsy-turvy logic, however, it has to be explicit — for the very reason that its own effective existence has been eroded by the overdevelopment of the commodity economy, and that a counterfeit life calls for a pseudojustification.” To put this in Latour’s terms, in a world where exchange-value made all things equivalents (transforming Things into objects as it were), it has inverted and is making objects into Things, but more the form of things. Debord’s point that these are counterfeit Things goes straight to the heart of the matter.

The vigorously anti-intellectual intent of all of this begins to become clear (p.239 of the journal pagination) where we are told that all critique is just a hubristic claim of intellectuals to know what the naïve mass is ignorant of: that they are the plaything of powers that operate behind their back, while the intellectuals are truly in the know, and therefore presumably outside the reach of such forces, an assumption that would seem a little odd for someone from science studies, who should know that our knowledge of gravity, for example, does not allow us to simply defy it by an act of will. Even to the extent that we can give this point a certain due in relation to some of social theory, it utterly fails in the case of a whole range of thinkers, including Marx and Hegel and extending to Freud and most of psychoanalysis, and fusions of it from the Frankfurt School to Slavoj Zizek, for whom no one escapes and consciousness of the mechanism in no way entail any individual’s capacity to escape it individually. As Zizek points out regarding Marx’s notion of the fetish character of the commodity, even if we know, we act as if we did not. This flies in the face of Latour’s own rather disingenuous intellectual bashing, disingenuous because he is just using the same move to bash the intellectuals that he ascribes to the intellectuals bashing the naïve masses.

It is important to realize that the notion of “critique” that Latour is most in conflict with is Kant’s notion of critique, critique as an investigation “into the conditions of the possibility of a given matter of fact” aka the conditions of the possibility of knowing, but from the side of wanting to get away from matters of fact to matters of concern, to values. Not only is this a fixation on Kant common to all neo-Kantians, but specifically this reading of Kant’s project has its roots in neo-Kantianism, that is, the assumption that Kant is entirely concerned with a shift away from ontological and towards epistemological concerns. Thus, it becomes critical not only to fixate on what we can know and whether we can know, but to pick the kind of knowing that is valid.

On page 240 this comes out clearly:

One thing is clear, not one of us readers would like to see our own most cherished objects treated in this way. We would recoil in horror at the mere suggestion of having them socially explained, whether we deal in poetry or robots, stem cells, blacks holes, or impressionism, whether we are patriots, revolutionaries, or lawyers, whether we pray to God or put our hope in neuroscience. This is why, in my opinion, those of us who tried to portray sciences as matters of concern so often failed to convince; readers have confused the treatment we give of the former matters of fact with the terrible fate of objects processed through the hands of sociology, cultural studies, and so on. And I can’t blame our readers. What social scientists do to our favorite objects is so horrific that certainly we don’t want them to come any nearer. “Please,” we exclaim, “don’t touch them at all! Don’t try to explain them!” Or we might suggest more politely: “Why don’t you go further down the corridor to this other department? They have bad facts to account for; why don’t you explain away those ones instead of ours?” And this is the reason why, when we want respect, solidity, obstinacy, robustness, we all prefer to stick to the language of matters of fact no matter its well-known defects.

The result is, not surprisingly, to claim for his own little corner of the universe, “science studies,” a special place exempt from this indecency because its relation of subject and object does not allow it. Why not? Well… we used to, but we don’t now. But fortunately, “religion, power, discourse, hegemony” were impervious, the “black boxes of science remained closed” and “put simply, critique was useless against objects of some solidity.” Latour is of course a good Christian with a prayer on his lips even in this piece.

Now this requires that critical thought treats its objects as “mere projections on an empty screen”, but thankfully Latour has shown us that neither law nor Christian divinities are such entities. But Latour’s puppet theater has to ascribe to “critics” of the “fetish character” of something a view they often do not hold, which is to confuse something being appearance with it not being real or affective. It is difficult to tell if Marx is not mentioned here out of ignorance or simply to avoid the problem that neither he nor Hegel fit into this box, that they form aporias in Latour’s schema.

It seems what Latour would do in the end is to ask the “pride of academia, the crème de la creme” to develop tools to do away with the domination intellectuals impose on people with their ideas (a notion worthy of Rush Limbaugh, by the way). What is needed is not a negative attitude (which goes hand-in-in-hand with the fetish analysis and positivism, though one wonders what that means in this context, except maybe that is is a fixation on “matters of fact”), but a positive attitude “associated with more, not less, with multiplication, not subtraction.”

What is ultimately so disappointing about this piece is the paucity of awareness of its own lineage, of its impoverished replay of neo-Kantianism dilemmas, but with the claim to being something new, something progressing, while all the time seeking nothing so much as accommodation with what is, albeit a liberal rather than reactionary accommodation.

Notes

1 “Normativity in Neo-Kantianism: Its Rise and Fall”, International Journal of Philosophical Studies, 17:1, 2009
2 Hegel contra Sociology, Verso, 2009
3 Biology Under the Influence, Monthly Reviw Press, 2007; The Code of Codes, Daniel Kelves, et al, Harvard University Press, 1993 see esp. Kelves’ “Out of Eugenics: The Historical Politics of the Human Genome” and Evelyn Fox Keller’s contribution.; Genes, Cells, and Brains by Hillary Rose and Stephen Rose, Verso, 2013

*This article first appeared on Chris Wright’s blog ‘How sickly seem all growing things

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