Are there 15 ways to be unhappy? Surfing Bruno Latour’s ‘An Inquiry into Modes of Existence’

1). Samin’ and changin’

DSCF1034I have had Bruno Latour’s An Inquiry in Modes of Existence (AIME) kicking around my desk since last summer, thinking it’s the sort of book one should probably read in case it turns out to be mind-blowingly important. I finally got round to reading it, in a certain manner, recently, encouraged by the setting up of a reading group by the NAMBIO research group in the Geography here at Exeter, which I have actually not been able to attend until this week. I might not be able to go to the next one meeting either, so in the spirit of stretched-out, online thinking that this book is meant to exemplify, I thought I’d try to articulate some of the thoughts that it has provoked in me. (The book is just one element of a more ambitious ‘digital humanities’ project – a website, basically, with some further written material, a glossary, and some interactive activities, where you are invited to assist in the empirical fleshing out of Latour’s ambitious analytical framework).

AIME is a book that invites a certain sort of engagement, and not only because of this hyper-textual dimension to the print version. It has an interesting narrative structure, apart from anything else, involving a series of deferrals from a lead narrator (let’s agree to call him ‘Latour’), telling the story of what an ethnographer amongst ‘the Moderns’ might expect to find, and then ‘the Moderns’ themselves (‘the Moderns’ are a people who believe in sharp distinctions between words and thing, apparently. Their voices are not heard at all, throughout. Which may or may not lead you to think they are a made-up people). If I remembered more literary theory, I think I might be able to name this sort of narrative device, which creates both an implied distance between the narrator and the world being described (that of ‘the Moderns’), and an implied first-person intimacy between the narrator and the reader as sharing in the same insights about those who are written about in the third person.

There is lots going on in the book, which is I guess part of the ongoing ‘coming out as a philosopher’ which Latour announced a while ago, but more precisely is a fleshing out of the awkward attempt of giving some normative substance to the distinctive ontological drift of Latour’s work, evident in discussions of such things as ‘learning to be affected’ and ‘matters of concern’ (I particularly like the bits on habit, and the general theme of ‘prepositions’, which bought to my mind the work of Gerard Genette on ‘thresholds of interpretation’). What I found most entertaining, and the reason I felt the book might be worth reading, is the way in which it attempts to outline an analytic framework for discerning the internal normativity of different fields of practice (this is not how Latour puts it, I’m translating). I think Latour’s project has various resemblances with similar projects: everything from Foucault’s outlines for doing the ‘history of thought’ (well, actually, it everything and anything by Foucault); Boltanski and Thevenot’s account of the coordinating function of practices of justification in various ‘economies of worth’; the analysis of the rationalities of different forms of action by Habermas, of course, and of the different interests served by different forms of knowledge in particular; Goffman’s frame analysis; field theory, from Bourdieu through to Fligstein and McAdam; Rainer Forst’s consideration of normative orders…. You can add your own examples of the sort of thing I’m getting at, if you want. Michael Oakeshott’s Experience and its Modes, perhaps? Kenneth Burke on the ‘grammar of motives’? Needless to say, none of these resemblances is noticed in AIME. I guess they might not pass muster as being adequately attuned to the demands of “ontological realism” (on the other hand, all of them suppose to a greater or lesser degree that conflict is an irreducible dynamic of life in a way in which Latour’s account of controversies arising from mistakes does not).

What has always struck me as most interesting about Latour’s work and that of others associated with ANT and STS is not the grand ontological claims, but the demonstration of the ways in which responsibility, accountability, obligation and the like are dispersed across networks of motives and machines, intentions and insects. From key-fobs to speed-bumps, it’s not interesting to think of all this work as about ontology and materiality; hasn’t it always been about norms (not ontonorms; just norms – the conjunction makes no difference: the onto- is the easy bit; the norms are the difficult part). If you take these stories as primarily about ontological issues, about symmetry between human and non-human actants, or, more interestingly, as being about distributed agency, then you still miss what seems to me most interesting about them: the key-fob story, from Latour, is about particular values, such as honesty; the speed-bumps is about a different combination of values, such as safety, legality, efficiency. On this reading, this style of onto-inflected work has always been about norms, and in interesting ways (although that only raises the question of why it’s own authors didn’t seem to notice until quite recently, and/or feel the need to explicate this now). The reason these strands of canonical ANT are interesting, it seems to me, is because they focus attention on some of the weird dimensions of ‘moral’ action: the ways in which the actions for which people might well be held responsible, in one sense or other, can be caused by all sorts of factors beyond their intention or control. These ideas can be found in other fields of social theory and philosophy, no doubt, but I like the idea of reading ANT/STS in this way, against the grain of its own publicity, for sure. Not least because I think it’s a way of drawing attention to an irreducible, shall we say, ‘humanist’ reference in this work, without which it might just not resonate – but a reference the full consequences of which, I also think, are systematically evaded by recourse to the easy trumping of ontological claims (what sort of being cares about ontology, after all?).

In this respect, it’s notable that Latour’s new book is actually all about speech, and more precisely, about the ethics of speech. It is anchored around a concern to elaborate on how different fields of practice are distinguished by their own forms of truth and falsity, in order to assist us all in avoiding making category mistakes. Latour wants to be able to clear up conflicts between the values that shape distinct fields (between science and, perhaps, social studies of science, for example?). These conflicts arise, he seems to suppose, because truth-and-falsity-talk in one realm (e.g. in science) is mistaken for truth-and-falsity-talk in another (e.g. in law). That’s why Gilbert Ryle’s notion of ‘category mistakes’ is so important to the analysis in AIME – Latour wants to help us to avoid making errors of this sort, so that we might all be able to get on a little better. Now, I really like the idea of category mistakes (although I always tend to say ‘category error’, I think because of sitting through lectures by Terry Eagleton long ago. Eagleton has always had a rather good way of mobilizing this idea. I’m not sure if getting the name of this notion actually wrong counts as an error, or a mistake. But it might matter, as we’ll see: you can correct mistakes, and learn from them: error is the stuff of life). If Latour wants to help us avoid category mistakes, he also wants to free speech from “the awkward constraints peculiar to Modernism”. These constraints seem to turn around that clear-cut distinction between words and things, which Latour just can’t help continuously ascribing to the ‘modern’ subjects of his account. The concern with avoiding mistakes is shaped by the imperative to develop the art of ‘speaking well to one’s interlocutors’, by learning to be sensitive to what it is that those from other fields of life are actually doing, what they are going through, what they are concerned about. It is this moral imperative that justifies Latour’s development of a typology of an elaborate typology of different ‘modes of existence’, each defined by its own, proper, forms of forms of truth of falsity.

As I have already admitted, I tend to read the notion of ‘modes of existence’ through the lens of a whole family of related ideas in contemporary social theory. It helps, as a way of working out what might be distinctive about Latour’s approach (it also helps if you suspend one’s credulity towards the terms of interpretation Latour himself provides – the stuff about the moderns, the grand claims about ontology, the non-human, that sort of thing: all those terms that have become slogans). Roughly speaking, modes of existence are different orders, let’s say, of practice, or life, perhaps, depending on your inclination; as I say, they might look like ‘fields’. Each one (in the course of the book, Latour identifies 15, but that’s not meant to be exhaustive) is associated with ‘distinct forms of experience’; they lay down ‘experiential conditions’ that have their own truth and falsity. Whether this talk of variable forms of experience evokes memories of reading Foucault depends on your own intellectual heritage, I suppose; whether or not Latour’s idea that each mode of existence is characterized by its own proper forms of veridiction also brings Foucault to mind, for you, depends on which bits of Foucault you most like to read. Whether or not you would like to hear more about the personal qualities required in speaking the truth, as a first person practice of ethical truth-telling, which this notion of veridiction perhaps brings to mind depends perhaps on whether you think Foucault is a more profound thinker about the limits of the human than Latour.

Latour’s project is to identify, he says, the principles of judgment that each mode of existence appeals to in order to decide what is true and false. Modes of existence are presented as having forms of truth and falsity proper to them, a recurrent line in the book. What’s involved here, then, is a multiplication of the truth and falsity, across distinct realms of practice. This is not the only thing that distinguishes modes of existence – they are also distinguished by different forms of ‘hiatus’ (the problems or worries or interruptions they suffer from); ‘trajectories’, ‘beings to institute’, ‘alterations’ (there is a really helpful table at the back of the book which helps you to get a sense of what all these mean across the different modes of existence; one thing that seemed to be agreed in the reading meeting which I attended is that across the 15 modes Latour identifies, there are different kinds of modes of existence: from specific fields of practice such as law and politics and religion, through to things which sound more like names for generic processes, like network, preposition, reproduction ). It is, though, the variable forms of truth and falsity that is given most weight: the other dimensions are readily available for description, whereas it is these variable forms of ‘truthing’, if I can borrow a term from Nancy Sinatra, that need to be negotiated in order to better cultivate the virtue of ‘speaking well’.

I’m not sure if any of this will make sense unless you are in the middle of reading this book, and I’m probably not the best person to ask to provide a clear (and balanced) exposition of the key concepts in AIME. Although nor, it seems, is Latour. It does read like a book designed to be read in reading groups, where everyone sits around spotting the allusions to other thinkers, trying to piece together what it is that a new term is really referring to (the material on the website doesn’t help, it just has more of the same type of fleeting definition).

2). Doing things with Austin

DSCF1168What most interests me about AIME is Latour’s use of a specific strand of ordinary language philosophy (he refers to it as speech act theory, which I think is itself telling), and in particular, the reference to the work of J.L. Austin. Latour does not give much attention to the possibility that the reference to Ryle might give the impression of a certain sort of prescriptive intent behind his project. Ryle was interested in correcting other people’s mistakes, by showing that whole ways of thinking about problems were flawed. Austin engaged in some of this too, not least in Sense and Sensibilia (where, amongst other things, he shows how claims about ‘reality’ are easily deployed to shut other people up). But the appeal to Austin here, it seems to me, opens up some questions about the values implicit in Latour’s approach to identifying modes of existence. I guess this is not the most likely line of questioning that AIME will generate – but it’s honourable concern with helping to clarify and correct mistakes and enable more diplomatic negotiation of controversies suggests is not beyond ‘critique’, if we are allowed to still use such a word.

Austin is, it should be said, just one amongst a series of names or concepts drawn from the canon of ‘modern’ philosophy of language and/or linguistics that Latour uses: we have actants, competence and performance, shifters, speech acts, prepositions. If I were engaged in a proper reading, the repeated borrowing or paraphrase of concepts from this resolutely ‘modern’ line of thinking about language would garner much more attention. What is one to make of the fact Latour seems unable to reconstruct the real pluralism of values in an ontological register without recourse to this range of concepts (I’m not making the cheap point that he is writing it all down, using language; the point is that the conceptual architecture being used is certainly resolutely ‘modern’, historically speaking, although not quite in the sense that Latour uses this term). If this book was the only source you had available to you with which to reconstruct the concerns of ‘modern’ thought, then in fact you would find quite a lot of evidence that ‘the moderns’ have all sorts of ways of talking about the world that did not suppose sharp distinctions between words and things.

Reference to Austin is one of the defining features of French Theory – everyone from Lacan to Ricouer, de Certeu to Deleuze & Guattari have recourse to some version of Austin’s thought. Latour’s use is distinctive, however, not least because he appeals to Austin in order to bolster what is an explicitly metaphysical, ontological project. What in particular Latour claims to be taking from Austin and from ‘speech act theory’ is the idea of ‘felicity and infelicity conditions’, “notions which make it possible to contrast very different types of veridiction without reducing them to a single model”. The idea that modes of existence can be identified by their distinctive felicity and infelicity conditions recurs throughout the book. Now, it seems to me, that this reference to Austin, and speech act theory, and to felicity and infelicity conditions deserves to be treated seriously. Austin certainly gave a lot of attention to ‘infelicities’, most obviously in How to do things with words. To borrow a phrase from Foucault talking about Canguilhem, Austin was a philosopher of error, in the sense that he sought to understand action by analyzing the ways in which actions went wrong and how in turn this generated certain sorts of accounting and evaluation (which is not quite the same thing as Anscombe’s story about intentionality being a function of forms of description, although I’m not quite sure why, or can’t say why off the top of my head, although I also think it can’t just be because she didn’t like him). Being able to tell whether an action was an accident or a mistake, whether it needed to be excused or justified – these were the sorts of things that Austin worried away at. The degree to which this project was oriented by a concern to correct and clarify is open to interpretation: it depends, somewhat, on whose ‘Austin’ you most like – John Searle’s, Derrida’s, Stanley Cavell’s, Shoshona Felman’s, Mary Louise Pratt’s, Judith Butler’s? And depending on which ‘Austin’ you prefer, you may or may not still think that what Austin was doing was pluralizing forms of truth, or whether it was something altogether more interesting and disturbing, something to do with suggesting that there was more to things going well or going awry than truth and falsity.

I’ve already mentioned the idea that Latour’s work has already contained a set of lessons about responsibility, accountability, obligation and the like. The reason to draw attention to this is to flag up one possible link with Austin, perhaps, many of whose examples draw from questions about Tort law and related issues, and overlap with the legal philosophy developed by Herbert Hart and Tony Honoré. One reason to make the link is because it helps to see what Austin might have been concerned with in developing, first, and most famously, the distinction between performative and constatives and, then, junking it and replacing it with a more complex conceptual framework of locutionary acts, perlocutionary acts, and illocutionary acts. So, yes, there is a lot of infelicity-talk in Austin, but that using this sort of term isn’t really a smart way of saying that there is more than one version of truth and falsity. There is something else going on. Nor does Austin doesn’t talk much about there being conditions of felicity and infelicity (felicity doesn’t have much of a role in Austin’s stories at all). This idea seems to resonate most strongly with John Searle’s formalization of Austin, in which he outlined the conditions that allowed one to properly categorize certain acts as being, well, more or less proper (the paradigm case is, of course, promising). Latour’s usage seems, to me at least, to echo quite strongly the concern with proper categorization that one finds in Searle (but without Searle’s concern, for example, with thinking through conditions such as sincerity). It’s the prescriptive side of Austin, if you like. What Latour does not acknowledge, shall we say, at least not in this analysis, is the degree to which Austin might not be concerned with pluralizing orders of truth and falsity at all, but with thinking of forms accountability and evaluation (of judgement) that are not restricted to truth and falsity. Latour actually keeps alluding to this, to be fair, without properly following up: he tends to mark distinctions and then collapse them again, referring to ‘truth and falsity, satisfactory and unsatisfactory’, ‘truth and false, good and bad’, ‘truthful or deceitful’. The second terms in these sorts of remarks aren’t just variations of truth or falsity: they indicate different orders of evaluation (truth can be quite unsatisfactory, after all). That, one might suppose, is precisely why Austin talked about infelicities – he was interested in various forms through which things went astray, or turned out well, or came off as intended, or ended unhappily. Another way of putting this is that Austin was interested in the faculty of judgment, and did not reduce this to a matter of assessing truth and falsity, however contextual ones understanding of those terms. Knowing how to speak well to others might well involve being able to tell when there is more than truth or falsity at stake; so might knowing when not to feel obliged to do so at all.

Latour doesn’t seem that interested in getting at this aspect of modes of existence, and this disinterest seems to be wrapped up in a certain sort of ontological anxiety. When, in AIME, Latour first mentions Austin, he quickly asserts that to really make use of the ideas in speech act theory that he likes “we shall need to go beyond the linguistic or language-bound version of the inquiry to make these modes more substantial realities”. What an odd worry to have, to think that one needs to take a tradition of analysis beyond language? Why the default to the spatialization of ‘language’? What sort of prejudice is it that still requires you to present a concern with matters of language as requiring this sort of aggrandizing correction? Elsewhere, in an interview published last year trailing the publication of AIME, Latour talks of his ambition to develop “a sort of ontological form of speech act theory. If you could ontologize speech act theory, you would get the concept of modes of existence”. Well, maybe you would, although I’m not sure if Latour hasn’t really just succeeded in ontologizing Foucault’s notion of ‘episteme’ instead. This line makes me ask what would it mean to ontologize Austin, specifically? (Would that be an error, or a mistake? Would it be excusable? Justifiable? And does it matter that those questions might sound different in other natural languages?). ‘Ontologize’ here seems to mean, at a minimum, moving beyond language, not restricting the analysis of conditions of (in)felicity to speech acts. The project of articulating plural values, says Latour, has to be done “for real” (his inverted commas) and not ‘merely in words’. Ho hum. In trying to identify the (in)felicity conditions of modes of existence to do justice to the diversity of values, Latour announces that “it would do no good to settle for saying that it is simply a matter of different ‘language games’”. Were we to do so, our generosity would actually be a cover for extreme stinginess, since it is to LANGUAGE, but still not to being, that we would be entrusting the task of accounting for diversity”.

Again, where does this sharp distinction between language and being come from? Who exactly believes in this? Who is fooling whom? Last time I looked, agreeing in ‘language games’ was all about agreeing in ‘forms of life’ (and this is not agreeing on the latter by means of the former – the difference is not of the kind that Latour insists on imposing on it; the former is an index, or a trace, or a synecdoche of the latter). Or, to put it another way, Latour seems to be making a category mistake, because he seems to think that Austin and speech act theory and ordinary language philosophy and ‘analytical philosophy’ is all about language and speech. What if we make the effort to see that it might be all about acts. So, for example, matters of truth and falsity are referred, by Austin, to the circumstances of the acts being performed (which is not quite the same as the conditions). One fundamental theme in the history of doing things with J.L. Austin lies here, in the question of the degree to which the contexts to which Austin refers matters of meaning (that is, matters of intention, motive) is thought of as a kind of frame that precedes and, finally, prescribes different acts; or whether acts are thought to have an open structure, what, after Derrida (being nice about Austin) or even Butler (pretending not to be), a certain sort of iterability in the structure of the act; or in Canguilhem’s terms, whether these contexts are normative for those acts….. The differences of interpretation at stake aren’t about ‘ontology’ at all, however you construe that term. They are about different understandings of the force of norms (which is, after all, what Searle and Derrida argued about way back when). More or less inadvertently, Latour seems to have allied himself with Searle, in the sense that he wants to find rules that can help him enforce codes of proper conduct for speech (the point is not necessarily that allying oneself with Searle is a problem, but that one way or another, we are not in a realm where what really matters is claims about ontology, but understandings of the normativity of norms). If you really want to admit “more diversity in the beings admitted to existence”, then perhaps the best way of doing so is not to develop more sophisticated ontologies at all. The problem isn’t one of ontological insufficiency after all. It’s not a problem of not knowing enough about the qualities of the real in all its varieties. It might be more like a problem of acknowledgement. There are forms of relating that exhaust truth and falsity, however pluralized, without being rendered matters of subjective caprice: and they might well be more compelling for not being confined by that frame.

I realize that I’m engaging in my own form of allusive arm waving now, to Cavell, most obviously, because it’s Cavell’s Austin that I find most compelling. Also to Sandra Laugier (if you haven’t yet found the Dictionary of Untranslateables, she has some great entries in there on these sorts of issues). I’m just not sure that expanding the scope of communities of concern really requires getting everybody to agree to new models of ontology. Having the wrong picture of the world isn’t the problem. The problem is one of understanding practices of assent, agreement and approval. That might be Austin’s lesson.

3). All too human

IMG_0723I’m rambling now, and not really explaining well what it is that I have in my head. Reading Latour’s book made me realize how much Austin’s work might well overlap with Foucault’s late work on ethical truth-telling, that’s one thing floating around up there. But that’s not, I suspect, one of the intended take-home points. Latour seems uninterested in the personal qualities associated with different modes of existence. But this seems to me precisely what one might expect from an account that seeks to elaborate on the task of speaking well to others. So I’m left to wonder what sort of truth-telling it is that is involved in contemporary forms of onto-talk, of the sort outlined here by Latour. As I said at the start, I think what is most interesting about this book is precisely the degree to which it is all about the ethics of speech. I’m interested to see how much attention will be given to this aspect of the project. It is here that the limits of the ontological imagination seem to become most evident: this is an imagination that seems to suppose that the best way to foster preferred virtues lies in correcting some peoples’ mistaken views of themselves and their relation to the world by outlining an all encompassing pluralistic ontology. But ontology is just a smart word for metaphysics, which is in turn a smart word for the stuff you make up. Or, it’s just the word for the stuff you can’t help being committed to. One way or the other, outlining new ontological pictures of the world helps no-one. I happen to think that Latour might have chosen the wrong register in which to cultivate his preferred virtues, and that that might be because he has made a mistake in his diagnosis of what is lacking in the world.


5 thoughts on “Are there 15 ways to be unhappy? Surfing Bruno Latour’s ‘An Inquiry into Modes of Existence’

  1. You may be right about Latour overstating the language-reductiveness of speech act-theory, etc. and analytic philosophers certainly are interested in being as well as language. However, I think it’s also fair to say that Latour goes a long way beyond where any of these people end up.

    In AIME he argues the following (I paraphrase loosely but, I think, accurately) with regard to language and metaphysics: everything relates with or ‘passes through’ something else in order to continue existing; therefore everything joins things together, everything ‘articulates’; each mode is a particular kind of articulation, a particular way of relating; thus every mode can be understood as having different truth procedures or standards of meaning; everything articulates, everything interprets, everything judges—from tics to popes, as Latour puts it at one point; *language is just one way of articulating, among others*, though it is not a mode itself but a mixture, presumably, of [tec]hnology, [fic[tion and others; when we speak or write we are simply taking advantage of a capacity that already exists in the world—namely, articulation; language is simply an invention that utilises and renders unusually explicit and dynamic what was there all along; thus we can understand the world in language, not as a ‘lens’ or anything of the sort but as something with real purchase on how things are because meaningful articulation *is* how things are.

    Making AIME all about language is, therefore, rather misleading. Although it makes use of lots of linguistic philosophy it’s utterly metaphysical at heart. To suggest that ‘ontology’ and ‘metaphysics’ are empty signifiers because it’s really all about language—that misses the whole point of what Latour is trying to do. Saying that ‘practices’ also have a meaningful structure and therefore discourse theory, etc. isn’t all about language isn’t sufficient either—that’s like an agoraphobic setting one foot outside his front door and saying that he’s been around the world and back. For Latour the evolution of sea algae in and of itself is as meaningful and articulated as this sentence, as any sentence.

    Now, that’s not to say that there can’t be all sorts of productive conversations between these thinkers but, suffice to say, I don’t think that ontology and metaphysics are empty signifiers.

    I may have misunderstood precisely what you were getting at and I appreciate that it’s a rather difficult book, not written to be a straightforward read! Anyway, I hope some of that is helpful.

    • Thanks for your response Philip

      Just a couple of points in reply:

      – I didn’t say ‘it’s all about language’, I simply took off from how the central concern revolves around an ethics of speaking well, and how in turn the book depends on rather weak understandings of what is at stake in various streams of philosophy of language and/or linguistics. The hang-ups about ‘language’ and its various ‘beyonds’ are, one might suppose, a projection of this style of ‘utterly metaphysical’ thinking. I guess I find it interesting that this project can’t seem to do without a straw-figure understanding of language that no-one actually holds to in order to distinguish its own position.
      – Nor did I say that ‘ontology’ and ‘metaphysics’ are ’empty signifiers’ [they aren’t signifiers at all; and there is no such thing as an empty signifier, that is a category mistake]. I was suggesting that whether or not one finds AIME at all compelling might depend on what you think ontological styles of reasoning can and can’t disclose.
      – Oh, and I don’t think it’s a ‘difficult book’, and I can’t imagine what being ‘not written to be a straightforward read’ actually means – generally speaking, when you hear that defence of a theory book, something fishy is going on.

      • I apologise. I obviously misunderstood where you were going with this. And perhaps I should have said that *I* found it a difficult book in general!

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