Andrew Pilsch Blog

On Infrastructure, pt 2 :

The Nearness of You

14 Jun 2014

Yesterday, I posted about Google Maps, God, and Bruno Latour responding to Nathaniel Rivers’s essay, “Stranger Attractions: Infrastructure Made Alien in the work of Bruno Latour and Jenny Odell.” That post was more directly oriented around responding to Rivers actual words, but today, I’ll be a little further afield.

To that end, saying that rhetoric is going through a Latourian moment may be an understatement. A wide range of people are responding to Latour in a number of ways. For instance, my colleague at ASU, Tatiana Batova, is using Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT) to trace actors in translation and documentation practices in technical writing communities. This deployment of ANT to talk about material, semiotic networks makes a ton of sense in rhetoric and rhetoric-allied fields, and a lot of people are doing this, not just Tatiana. At the same time, people are also adapting the more philosophical aspects of Latour’s work into the ongoing material turn in rhetoric. There’s even a forthcoming edited collection on Latour and Rhet/Comp.

At the same time, I think this tweet from Cynthia Bateman pretty much captures what it was like at the RSA Conference this year:

It's looking like RSA is gonna need to be renamed RSL, Rhetoric Society of Latour. Seriously, every panel. #rsa14

— Cynthia Bateman (@cindy091896) May 24, 2014

Cynthia was right: every single panel was “Bruno Latour this” and “Bruno Latour that.” It was a bit overwhelming (which isn’t to say it was by any means annoying or the work wasn’t good. Latour works for people). S Scott Graham’s presentation at the RSA roundtable on Bruno Latour was especially revealing on this saturation. He presented some citational data to suggest that rhetoricians way overcite Latour compared to other science studies figures.

So, anyway, all this talk about Latour and rhetoric, especially regarding a non-human or new material turn in rhetoric, is starting to cause me to question some of Latour’s key insights. Part of this may stem from my time as an undergraduate at Georgia Tech where Latour was very much in the water (I read “Give Me A Laboratory and I Will Raise the World” in freshman composition) , but I’ve never really taken him completely seriously.

This isn’t to say that his thinking isn’t incredibly important to my work. Instead, I’ve always considered his quirky sense of humor central to his work, much more so than many of the other Latourians in rhetoric, I think. For instance, this review on Amazon, which claims that We Have Never Been Modern was intended as a parody of postmodern gibberish, has always held sway on my thinking, especially given how funny a lot of early Latour is. Beyond just various jokes, there has always been something of play to Latour’s work.

So now that Latour (after Politics of Nature) is trying to use this same methodology to talk about saving the planet from climate change, I am left at an impasse, because the more recent Latour (especially following the announcement of his colon cancer in “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”) is so serious.

As Rivers points out in his essay on Odell (that this post is nominally responding to),

Latour is a spokesperson for the nonhumans that make our moral and collective life possible. “Knowledge, morality, craft, force, sociability are not properties of humans but humans accompanied by their retinue of delegated [nonhuman] characters” (“Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together” 310). Hearing Latour speak of these delegates, I have always imagined such missing masses as fundamentally infrastructural. Better yet, infrastructure has been the missing mass I think through the assemblages of nonhuman and human actors that compose the world.

So this newly serious Latour argues for including the nonhuman within our understanding of politics and I agree with that, but I wonder about the pay-offs of this gesturing toward a nonhuman political agency, if we take a hard line on Latour’s claims about things, politics, and networks.

All of this discussion gets me to this point: I’ve always thought there’s something of the stunt or the lark or the joking gambit to Latour’s method: “what if we studied scientific/technical objects as we study non-Western, ‘primitive’ peoples?” Now that he’s very serious about this work it seems that many of his interpretants are taking the early stuff seriously, despite this jokey quality to it.1 Part of this humorousness comes in books such as Laboratory Life or Science in Action, where Latour (we used to call him “Uncle Bruno” at GT, so this nickname probably influences my position here) adopts what I see as an absurd position of the complete innocent of French novels such as Candide: “I go into the laboratory not knowing what I will find” (this is where I get the sense that there’s something of the stunt to Laboratory Life). Of course, this naivety becomes the methodological maxim of ANT: “follow the actors themselves.” At the same time, this naivety naturalizes the infrastructure of scientific fact in very weird ways: Latour’s methodology makes no distinction between dirt and topofil in “Circulating Reference,” despite one being human-created and the other not.

I think there’s a really interesting conversation to have around Marxism in Latour. On the one hand, “follow the actors themselves” seems to suggest a project of uncovering ideology encrusted within our unseen infrastructure. On the other, as I’m arguing here, this same move also commits the Latourian to an erasing of the human hands within infrastructure’s creation. At the end of the day, the thing I want to stress in this post, and something I’m thinking through for my follow-up book, is the actual difficult of thinking within a flat ontology or thinking through a post-critique. It’s not easy and collapse back into a critical position of mastery.

Of course, this commitment to flatness buys Latour a lot, and, as Rivers points out, this commitment allows Latour to represent infrastructure as “strange and vibrant.” At the same time, doesn’t Latour distance human agency from the creation of this infrastructure? Bringing forward the alienness of our infrastructure allows startling insights into the construction of scientific facts, in the face of scientific ideology, but once this methodology becomes a politics, the world appears as though after a radical break: suddenly there’s all this stuff we have to contend with. Where did this stuff come from? What does it want? Who made it? How? How can we do anything other than negotiate without?

This alienness is what bothers me about Latour as a political thinker. I think he wants his readers to see this alien infrastructure in its alienness and begin to negotiate with it in its Otherness, a kind of imminent reality instead of a transcendent appeal to a natural state before our post-natural being. However, at least in rhetoric, the response to this Latourian “Dingpolitik” (I hate that term, btw) is more analysis of things. In many ways, I worry that the nonhuman turn in rhetoric is actually our moment to finally do New Criticism: “let’s close read this bridge or this statue or whatever.”

And this return to close reading, I fear, is a valid response to Latour’s political turn (one that merges the earlier methodological Latourian equipment with the later Latourian sincerity). However, Latour’s turn to politics opens up a distance between humans and human-made infrastructure, a distance that allows for the reinsertion of the critic-as-master outside the system who can comment on its various foibles and myths (demystification is the watch-word of negative critique and I think it is very much in operation here), despite Latour’s compelling assertion that this kind of critique has literally run out of steam. It seems that a Latourian criticism of objects and system has to grapple with the two radically different periods in Latour’s thought (one: the anthropological; two: the philosophical).

How, then, does one make manifesting alienness something other than what I fear is a way of sneaking negative critique into the party through the backdoor (that gate-crasher!). Rita Felski has a great essay on “Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion” that breaks down the various and pernicious aspects of critique in textual studies. She concludes by suggesting that

the idea of a suspicious hermeneutics does not invalidate or rule out other interpretative possibilities—ranging from Ricoeur’s own notion of a hermeneutics of trust to more recent coinages such as Sedgwick’s “restorative reading,” Sharon Marcus’s “just reading” or Timothy Bewes’s “generous reading.” Literary studies in France, for example, is currently experiencing a new surge of interest in hermeneutics (redefined as a practice of reinvention rather than exhumation) as well as a reinvigorated phenomenology of reading that elucidates, in rich and fascinating detail, its immersive and affective dimensions …

I wonder what a hermeneutics of trust or what hermeneutics “redefined as a practice of reinvention rather than exhumation” would look like in the context of a Latour-inflected rhetoric of things. I don’t have answer to this question, but I think it’s something that a Latourian rhetoric of science must grapple with at a methodological level. Unfortunately the gap Latour has inserted between his earlier anthropological methods and his later political commitments opens up this gap for critique to slip in. I fear that this project is significantly harder than we think and that, at a moment demanding rapid action, necessitates moving slowly.

  1. I want to stress that I take Latour seriously as a scholar, I just don’t follow his claims all the way through because of his seeming commitment to humor. 

Andrew Pilsch


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