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Negations or Networks?

To make a sweeping-statement, but one that is not invalid or unsupported, modern criticism has a very strong negative and caustic character, which is deprived of regenerating ambivalence. According to Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World we discover that this sort of strict seriousness of highbrow modern intellectuals could be otherwise; specifically, it could be more like medieval parody, which was a popular corrective laughter. Moreover, modern abuses are significantly different from the medieval period in that they are destructive and purely negative whereas it was previously ambivalent in meaning and held the potential for regeneration. “Only the bare cynicism and insult has survive[d]” and “at present conveys nothing but senseless abuse” (p. 28). In modernist form, criticism generally becomes gloomy and solemn. Even in parody it tends to be narrowly focused on cold, melancholic, destructive humor. Bakhtin presents an alternative in a more carnivalesque frame:

The principle of laughter and the carnival spirit on which grotesque is based destroys this limited seriousness and all pretense of an extratemporal meaning and unconditional value of necessity. It frees human consciousness, thought, and imagination for new potentialities. For this reason great changes, even in the field of science, are always preceded by a certain carnival consciousness that prepares the way (p. 49)

The analysis of modern abuses is a topic that Latour is also insightful enough to make. For Latour, the sacred task of modernity was to unmask and unveil. If modernity was about anything, it was foremost about revealing the underlying workings of reality and strip away all the false facades. In this sense, modernity is highly critical and negative; putting all things under suspicion and suspending any positive appraisal after all angles have been thoroughly scrutinized.

We find this same sort of investigation in Graham Harman’s book, Guerrilla Metaphysics; although not until the closing pages does he explicate the title of his work. What he means by “guerrilla metaphysics” is the modern attitude and awareness that metaphysics lies in ruins. And if, for any reason, metaphysical problems are resuscitated–such as the existence of God, the fate of the soul, the struggle between good and evil–the first impulse of learned professionals should be a critical and defensive attitude. To renew metaphysics is to lack a rigorous technical philosophy. For moderns, these problems should remain lying beyond the pale, exiled to the no man’s land of faith.

I do not think this is any less true for Nietzsche or Foucault. Nietzsche, for one, was very polemic towards Christianity and rhetorically exaggerated his position on many occasions. On a more abstract level as well, Nietzsche’s project was a space clearing gesture. As I have highlighted before under a reference to Žižek, Nietzsche was like a lion who cleared the table of false illusions and made room for the child who would come after him and posit something original. The point is that Nietzsche did not have the vocabulary to articulate something beyond his own social situation but could at least expose the absurdities of the traditions and conventions he inherited. Likewise, Foucault in many ways seems only to offer a genealogy of madness and the clinic, among other things, in order to unravel the vain ideas we have about them. As wrote Foucault,

The purpose of history, guided by genealogy, is not to discover the roots of our identity, but to commit itself to its dissipation. It does not seek to define our unique threshold of emergence…it seeks to make visible all of those discontinutites that cross us (p. 366)

Although these projects are certainly not insignificant they do fall within the modern stigma of acerbic critique mentioned above.

This makes the modern method of going about accusing one another in a critical and even indignant spirit subject to a sociology of criticism. This was clearly done in such works as Blotanski’s and Thevenot’s On Justification and Girard’s Violence and the Sacred. Instead of a resource or practice of criticism, these authors open up a systematic study to the spirit of modern critique itself, thus making us uncomfortable with the obviousness of our own scapegoating mechanisms. On the wake of these authors, according to Latour, “denunciation and revolution have both gone stale” (p. 45).

But having lost our foundation for moral judgment by denunciation are we without tools for analyzing everything that is important to us? Latour thinks not, for we have always functioned by other methods. “It is called arrangement, combination, combinazione, combine, but also negotiation or compromise… It is scorned because it does not allow indignation, but it is active and generous because it follows the countless meanderings of situations and networks” (p. 45). This supple rather than rigid form of examining, assessing, and describing reality has always been present with us; we have just opted for smugness and indignation in favor.

This means for Latour that neither anti-moderns nor post-moderns offer fresh solutions to the problem. While both sense “that something has gone awry in the modern critique” they nevertheless “prolong that critique” (p. 46). One of the characteristics they share is a proclivity for thinking about revolutions that will come along and solve all their problems in one swift swoop. But these revolutions that moderns and their epigones fantasize over are

scarcely anything more than small extensions of practices, slight accelerations in the circulation of knowledge, a tiny extension of societies, minuscule increases in the number of actors, small modifications of old beliefs. When we see them as networks, Western innovations remain recognizable and important, but they no longer suffice as the stuff of saga, a vast saga of radical rupture, fatal destiny, irreversible good or bad fortune (p. 48)

So, as Latour would have it, we’ve never been modern. We have only ever rearranged and translated preexisting elements and their relations. In a positive retrospective attitude we can affirmatively say that we have always been non-modern.

Modern Criticism

The critics have developed three distinct approaches to talking about our world: naturalization, socialization and deconstruction. Let us use E.O. Wilson, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jacques Derrida – a bit unfairly – as emblematic figures of these three tasks. When the first speaks of naturalized phenomena, then societies, subjects, and all forms of discourse vanish. When the second speaks of fields of power, then science, technology, texts, and the contents of activities disappear. When the third speaks of truth effects, then to believe in the real existence of brain neurons or power plays would betray enormous naiveté. Each of these forms of criticism is powerful in itself but impossible to combine with the other two….Such a patchwork would be grotesque. Our intellectual life remains recognizable as long as epistemologists, sociologists and deconstructionists remain at arm’s length, the critique of each group feeding on the weaknesses of the other two. We may glorify the sciences, play power games or make fun of the belief in a reality, but we must not mix these three caustic acids (Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, pp. 5-6)

Latour’s point, as expressed above, is that the critical stance of modernity is characterized by keeping the Big Three of criticism segmented into three distinct sets: facts, power and discourse. This three-way partitioning, according to Latour, establishes the great fiefdoms of criticisms. The weakness of criticism, however, is that it is incapable of swallowing networks. In other words, it is unthinkable to ask any one of the enclaves of criticism to weave together “the heavens, industry, texts, souls and moral law” (p.5).

Fortunately, we are not hopeless in wrestling with this dilemma presented by the critical tripartition of naturalization, sociologizaiton and discursivization. Latour argues that anthropology has always already accustomed us to dealing with the seamless fabric of nature-cultures. As Latour puts it,

Once she has been sent into the field, even the most rationalist ethnographer is perfectly capable of brining together in a single monograph the myths, ethnosciences, genealogies, political forms, techniques, religions, epics and rites of the people she is studying….In works produced by anthropologists abroad, you will not find a single trait that is not simultaneously real, social and narrated (p. 7)

Although this weaving together of the natural, social and discursive has always been dealt with calmly and straightforwardly when anthropology has studied cultures abroad, there seems to be a lack of anthropological treatment of the modern world. To be brief, then, it appears as though anthologists are incapable of studying themselves. Doubtless, this is due to the susceptibility of anthropology implicitly accepting the tripartite separation of Nature, Society and Discourse in the modern world. Latour, on the other hand, roughly describing himself as a social scientists, is fairly effective at disabusing us of this assumption:

The ozone hole is too social and too narrated to be truly natural; the strategy of industrial firms and heads of state is too full of chemical reactions to be reduced to power and interest; the discourse of the ecosphere is too real and too social to boil down to meaning effects. Is it our fault if the networks are simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society? (p. 6)

Monsters in the Network

Measurements taken above the Antarctic are not good this year. Rare species that naturalists would like to protect are being carried off in smoke. The innocent chlorfluorocarbons of Monsanto’s assembly lines turned out to be a crime against the ecosphere. There’s starving multitudes and the fate of our poor planet is in jeopardy. Then there’s the ozone hole story, global warming and deforestation.

Modernity was a rupture in time; an acceleration and revolution in contrast to the archaic and stable past. Modernity finishes off the old regime of the Ancients and emerges as the victor. In contrast to the obscurity of the olden days, “which illegitimately blended together social needs and natural reality,” modernity characterized itself as freedom from these ridiculous constraints of the past (Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, p. 35). In other words, it gave up the delicate web of relations between things and people. Succeeding in ostensibly separating Nature and Society, the moderns truly believe they are riding the wave of progress. There are no limitations to mixing together “greater masses of humans and nonhumans” (p. 41). No combination is ruled out! While the premoderns dwelled endlessly and obsessively on the connections between nature and culture, the moderns, by contrast, do not think at all about “the consequences of their innovations for the social order” (p. 41). The premoderns, to put it simply, exercised the greatest prudence in limiting the expansion of social and natural mixes whereas the moderns show no restraint.

To put it crudely: those who think the most about hybrids circumscribe them as much as possible, whereas those who choose to ignore them by insulating them from any dangerous consequences develop them to the utmost (p. 41)

Some of the consequence of our disintegrated culture—which isolates (in name only) economics from ethics and technology from politics—are most readily seen in the irreversible damage done to the social and environmental fabric of our world. By choosing to ignore the connection between consumer choices and the social macro-context that is affected, we inhabit fragmented and dishonest lives. Of course, I could always read up on the effects that industrial agro-business is having on the global economy and ecosystem, but I don’t “know” it in the same way that I “know” the full consequences of missing a nail with a hammer in full swing.

Likewise, I am brushed up on the basics of global systems, but I still do not fully comprehend the specific causal networks that produced and transported the dried fruit and nut medley I am currently enjoying. If we are to think in a collective frame, we will begin to see that “the powers of the North and the West have been able to save their peoples and some of their countrysides by destroying the rest of the world and reducing its peoples to abject poverty” (p. 9). Put simply, the West is not more ‘progressive’ in ignoring the relation between objects and people.