Category Archives: Latour

Latour giving the Giffords

Some great news (h/t to Harman): Bruno Latour will be giving the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh sometime in the next couple of years. Not only is this quite a distinction for Latour (see the Giffords’ website for a list of the company he’ll be joining), but it will be very exciting to see the product – apparently it will relate to the book he’s completing right now. So many great publications have resulted from these lectures over the last 100+ years that I don’t even want to get start listing examples (without even looking at my bookshelf, 4 or 5 immediately come to mind).

A couple of years ago I read a book on the history of the Giffords, The Measure of God: Our Century-Long Struggle to Reconcile Science and Religion by Larry Witham. It’s fairly interesting, if not particularly fascinating, piece of intellectual history if I remember correctly. I’d recommend it to those who follow the religion/science “debate” (or who are generally fans of Gifford-related work, of course).

appealing to eco-theology

Spurred by a post by Peter Gratton and its ensuing interchange (see here), I’ve been preoccupied today by questions about Derrida’s relationship to (mostly Christian) theology, to atheism, and to science… and at the same time, about the relationships between religion, science, and especially (thanks to Tim Morton’s comments) ecology. I won’t repeat here what I already said on Gratton’s blog about my take on Derrida, theology, and especially those who want to save Derrida from theology (e.g., Martin Hägglund, whose reading of Derrida I will say again is right on except to the extent that Hägglund seems to want to disqualify any religious appropriation of him).

The relationship between theology and ecological thought, however, I think can be (indeed, already is) particularly fruitful within the context of a thinking of radical finitude. While I do think that there are many resources in Derrida for pursuing this line of thought, what came to my mind on this point is a paper by Latour from a couple of years ago (and I of course continue to insist that Derrida’s and Latour’s positions have several significant commonalities). In the paper, “Will Non-Humans Be Saved?” (available on his website), Latour argues for an ecological theology that would articulate a relation not between religion (again, confining ourselves to Christianity for the moment) and the “nature” of modernity but rather between religion and the entities (objects, actants) that relate to and interconnect with one another in order to endure and persist as real (or not). The punchline of his argument is that what best allows religion to productively interweave itself among the “creativity” and “reproduction” of entities – in other words to concern itself with immanence, although thinking about immanence changes much of its resonance if we abandon transcendence in the traditional sense – turns out to be Darwinian theory! So, if we follow Latour here, we might be able to read Darwin and St. Paul (and perhaps some early Greek theology) together after all.

the vast outside

It’s not that purposeful humans, intentional persons, and individual souls are the only interpretative agents in a world of matters of fact devoid of any meaning by itself. What is meant by interpretations, flexibility, and fluidity is simply a way to register the vast outside to which every course of action has to appeal in order to be carried out. This is not true for just human actions, but for every activity. Hermeneutics is not a privilege of humans but, so to speak, a property of the world itself. (Latour, Reassembling the Social, 244-5)

This passage strikes me not only as the most Derridean I’ve encountered in Latour’s work, but really one of the most Derridean passages I’ve read anywhere that doesn’t explicitly make the connection itself. Indeed, you would only have to modify it slightly (perhaps substitute “différance” for “fluidity”?) in order to have a pretty accurate short summary of Derrida’s overall project. Now, I know many would protest this, maybe raising the (certainly reasonable) objection nowhere (or at least very rarely and obliquely) in Derrida’s corpus does he turn to non-human actors and/or collectives in the way that Latour argues we must do. Larval subjects recently made just this point specifically against Derrida’s (and others’) social and political stuff; he states pretty strongly that, in Derrida, Laclau, Balibar, et al., “we find nothing remotely close to the discussion of these issues.” I might debate the “remotely close” part of this claim, but I can’t deny that we don’t find a direct and sustained engagement with non-human objects in Derrida’s work. Nevertheless, I would argue that from the beginning what Derrida pushes his reader to do is to engage with the “vast outside” to which Latour is pointing, and that this necessarily includes not only a consideration of the non-human but also a breaking down of the barrier between the human and the non-human in much the same way as (at least some) proponents of OOO work to do.

The passage from Latour comes up as part of his discussion of “plasma,” which is the “not yet formatted, not yet measured, not yet socialized” background against which actor-networks and collectives emerge. It is a reserve of unknown stuff – unknown not because it’s unknowable or hidden, but simply because it has yet to be connected to any network. It’s the space between the ties. Now, in Prince of Networks, Harman sees a possible problem with this idea, writing that “at best Latour verges on acknowledging a single plasma-in-itself” (134). While I see the worry here, I don’t always buy the argument that something that is inarticulated has necessarily to be unitary. Harman’s position, as I understand it, is that an object is subtracted from all relations but remains, qua object, distinct and differentiated. This is certainly one way of retaining ontological plurality beyond the level of networks. However, I don’t think that otherwise we would end up with some kind of unitary plenum. The undifferentiatedness of plasma (or the reserve or what-have-you) – if we go that way instead of Harman’s – should rather be understood as not (even) one. Once we’ve stepped outside the network of relations, the choice between unity and plurality may prove to be a false one, and it’s for this reason that I think Latour’s idea of plasma may turn out to be surprisingly productive. As he repeatedly notes, compared with that which is part of a network, the outside is astronomically vast, and thus capable of introducing infinitely many opportunities for change and novelty.

litanize it

Via larval subjects, I’ve just seen and have been playing with Ian Bogost’s Wikipedia-based “Latour Litanizer“. It’s a great little web tool that generates more or less random lists of objects such as those found throughout Latour’s works, by mining Wikipedia entries. Three things strike me as worth some further thought here:

(1) the frequency with which, given repeated multiple pushes of the button, people come up in the object list. There’s at least one in almost every list, and I got one that only had one non-person in it. Of course this does not reflect anything even close to the actual distribution of human persons among things in the world, but it does point to the fact that, because of various aspects of our way of being in the world, we are much more apt to catalog particular humans as such than any other kind of being. I think there would be much more to say about how different kind of beings are distributed into sets starting from a point such as this.

(2) the occasional appearance of a Wikipedia disambiguation page as an object in one of the litanies. There may be nothing qualitatively different about this kind of set of objects than any other (set of) objects, at least qua set. Still, I have a vague sense that there’s something significant in a grouping together of objects with the same (or very similar) name being brought together for that reason as an object.

(3) the fact that Bogost has chosen to call these lists “litanies”. Given the religious background of this word – I imagine any English dictionary will list prayer or liturgy as its “primary” meaning, before getting to the “derivative” sense of a cumbersome list (and the significance of this connection is hard to ignore as well) – my hunch that there is something really worthwhile to be made out of a thorough application of Latour’s work to thought about religion is growing stronger.