More on Latour and Tarnas – Networks, Technology, and the Transformation of Western Culture

Grant Maxwell has responded to my reflections on Richard Tarnas, Bruno Latour, and the Re-Enchantment Project.

Grant wonders what I meant by referring to Tarnas’ archetypal cosmology as a “middle up” approach to transforming culture, and to Latour’s anthropology of the moderns as a “top down” approach to the same. I appreciate Grant’s use of Latour’s own network analysis to deconstruct my construal of the two thinker’s relative positions within academic and popular culture. Latour has been problematizing the politically enforced boundaries between natural science and folk psychology (i.e., between elite knowledge and mass opinion) for most of his 40-year career. 

My vertical metaphor may have been misleading: I intended it as a reference to the size and shape of their respective audiences, not as a reference to the degree of their value or profundity. Tarnas’ bestselling Passion of the Western Mind has been read by hundreds of thousands of college educated people. It is bar none the most balanced, insightful, and well-written gateway into the long arc of Western intellectual history that I have ever come across. I characterized Tarnas’ impact on culture-at-large as “middle out” because Passion has succeeded in offering a coherent and carefully argued meta-narrative that many people can accept as basically true. The archetypal depth and conceptual clarity of its mythico-dialectical structure works like magic to compel its readers to accept the strength of the 2,500-year long thread of historical meaning it weaves from Socrates and Jesus through to Jung, Hillman, and Grof. 

As for Latour, one 2007 study showed that he was the 10th most cited humanities author of the year. I presume the study included all languages, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Latour was also on the top of an Anglo-only list considering the important influence of post-war French thought on the American academy. If you feel like following that particular thread, check out Francois Cusset’s French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (2008). What Cusset means by “intellectual life” in his title is a bit more concentrated than what I meant above by “college educated,” and by “concentrated” I mean in terms of the number of readers who are both capable of and interested in reading authors like Latour, Deleuze, or Derrida. Their work appeals to (relatively speaking) a very small number of highly educated graduate students, professors, and conceptual artists. Latour’s influence has been “top down” in the sense that it just isn’t accessible to many people (which is ironic considering his desire to make knowledge political–that is, to bring science to the people!). 

A reviewer of Cusset’s book offers a story that is relevant enough to Grant and my discussion that I will quote it:  

Artist and activist Jean-Jacques Lebel, who had imported beat poetry into France from the United States, once invited Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to a 1975 concert held in Massachusetts, where the two had the opportunity to meet Bob Dylan and Joan Baez backstage. Somewhat unimpressed with the two French philoso- phers, the folksingers had not bothered to read Anti-Oedipus, and likewise the two theorists were unfortunately not interested in smoking marijuana: an inadvertent misalignment of social interests, creating a somewhat awkward encounter for all parties involved. This anecdote of an ill-conceived compatibility epitomizes the spirit of comprehending the objectives of French theory and prompts an inevitable query: have we on the U.S. side of the Atlantic been able to come to terms with the French, their traditions of intellectual thought and their philosophical legacy?

The reviewer (as well as Cusset) suggets that much of what the French have to offer to we American theorists has indeed been lost in translation. Latour is certainly easier to read than a Derrida or a Deleuze, but his writing is still full of stylistically rich ironies and affective potencies. In such a textual environment, sometimes creative misreadings are the only available option (I’ve been offering my own no doubt often erring reflections on Latour for a while on this blog). Nonetheless, in the spirit of moving the discussion forward in a productive way, I’m going to risk contesting Grant’s reading of Latour’s analysis of knowledge-networks as somehow purely horizontal. Grant writes:

I see academic power as a horizontal network of relations, though differing from Latour, it seems to me that there are central nodes and margins of that network determined by the number of connections and the intensity of influence of those connections.

I’ve noticed that Deleuze and Guattari’s related notion of the “rhizome,” developed in A Thousand Plateaus (transl. 1987), is also usually interpreted as though it were a purely horizontal structure. This despite the fact that the final pages of the introductory chapter on the rhizome read as follows:

If it is a question of showing that rhizomes have their own, even more rigid, despotism and hierarchy, then fine and good: for there is no dualism, no ontological dualism between here and there, no axiological dualism between good and bad, no blend or American synthesis. There are knots of arborescence in rhizomes…despotic formations…and channelization specific to rhizomes…(p. 20).

Latour has clearly been influenced by D & G’s account of the rhizome in his own analysis of networks. In Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (1987), Latour first introduces his concept of the network to English-speakers:

If technoscience may be described as being so powerful and yet so small, so concentrated and so dilute, it means it has the characteristics of a network. The word network indicates that resources are concentrated in a few places–the knots and nodes–which are connected with one another–the links and the mesh: these connections transform the scattered resources into a net that may seem to extend everywhere. Telephone lines, for instance, are minute and fragile, so minute that they are invisible on a map and so fragile that each may be easily cut; nevertheless, the telephone network ‘covers’ the whole world. The notion of network will help us to reconcile the two contradictory aspects of technoscience and to understand how so few people may seem to cover the world. (180)

Latour’s analysis of networks finds in them precisely the sort of power distribution that Grant does. His goal has never been to relativize the natural or cultural power of certain concentrations of scientific or academic knowledge. He is fully cognizant of the forever advancing dialectic of discovery and invention underlying the technoscientific process of knowledge production. If he is arguing for any kind of relativism, it is that all knowledge (whether scientific or folk) is constructed out of what at first may be fragile relationships–relationships that are only gradually forged through repeated acts of translation between and among various sorts of human and nonhuman actors.

To be fair to Grant, Latour would seem to prefer a “multi-narrative” to a “meta-narrative” perspective on knowledge. This resistance to telling a simple story sometimes makes his ideas hard to track. Judging by the audience’s question after Latour’s first Gifford lecture on Gaia theory, it appears many of them were stunned, as Grant put it, “by a mixture of reverence and bafflement.” Grant wonders how many people actually grasped exactly what Latour was on about (the fellow who introduced him certainly didn’t seem to). Personally, I love his style, and I don’t think in this case aesthetics is just the icing on the conceptual cake. If, following Whitehead (as Latour does), aesthetics is first philosophy, then we should proceed carefully whenever we try to distill the pure logical essences of flowery rhetoric. We may find that much is lost in translation whenever the supposedly pure conceptual content of an argument is purified of the metaphors and imagery that originally delivered its meaning. Maybe I’ve read too much “post-modernism,” but I’ve come to understand philosophy as a kind of dramatic performance art. After reading Deleuze, I can’t help but notice the personalities of concepts. I agree with the object-oriented philosopher Graham Harman’s comments in an interview about the importance of style in philosophy:

there are immense pressures working on us at all times to shape us as if with cookie cutters. There are three or four readily available opinions on most issues, and at best we are usually only imaginative enough to choose the least common of those three or four options. But the sign of a genuine thinker is the ability to develop a new option, never heard of before. When this happens, the thinker has broken away from the robotic array of available opinions and made some sort of contact with the real. And how do you know when someone may have done this? You recognize it by a certain freshness in the style, a directness and honesty of testimony, a streak of the unexpected or original in the thinker’s voice… Arguments are secondary in philosophy; failure to realize this is the central flaw of the hegemonic school known as analytic philosophy. (The continental tradition has signature weaknesses of its own, of course.) You can refute Plato’s “weak arguments” twenty times per day, but Plato remains fascinating nonetheless. Why? Because his voice is unique and it speaks from the depths of the real, not just from the tabletop of refuted propositional claims. (the rest of Harman’s thoughts on style are here).

Another point of contention between Grant and I is the role of technology in the evolution of consciousness. While its true that technology needn’t necessarily disenchant (indeed, as I argued in my first response to Grant, it is itself a very powerful form of enchantment, whether mis-directed or not), I passionately reject the thesis that technology is in any way neutral. It’s precisely because I agree with Grant’s comparison of technology to psychedelics that I can’t accept their supposed neutrality. Like psychedelics, media technologies (which includes everything from the alphabet, to the printing press, radio, TV, PC, and smart phones) have radically called into question our understanding of human agency. Media theorists like McLuhan and Ong have shown that, for instance, the relationship between alphabetic print and literate consciousness cannot be understood in a linear way as though the print medium merely amplified the innate capacities of an already internally constituted rational individual. Media also amputate formerly endogenous capacities (Plato long ago realized the risks posed to memory and learning by writing). Media technologies are not neutral because our very sense of identity, and so also our values, have always already been shaped by the medium carrying the message. Technologies are actors in their own right with their own effects independent of what their human inventors or users intend. As I see it, consciousness is way too mixed up in a co-evolution with its media for us to pretend we can disentangle what is “me” and what is “media.” Someone with a more mystical leaning like Jean Gebser is going to privilege the agency of consciousness in its evolution, its ability to chose to use this or that technology in whatever way it sees fit, while a Marx or a Latour is going to try to reveal the way the evolution of consciousness through its magical, mythical, mental and post-modern/deficient phases has more to do with the widespread cultural shifts in material practices associated with humanity’s development through song and dance, hieroglyphic symbolism, alphabetic script, the printing press, and electronic screens. I wouldn’t want to dismiss Gebser’s more consciousness-centric position, but I think it is just as important to pay attention to the way seemingly external media technologies transform the very shape of our inner lives in powerful and often unacknowledged ways.

In closing, I definitely agree with Grant that the translation table Latour constructs to bring the religious people of God, the scientific people of Nature, and the Earth-bound people of Gaia into diplomatic conversation may benefit from a more archetypal sensibility like that offered in Tarnas’ Cosmos and Psyche. As I understand it, Tarnas is creatively carrying forward an ancient tradition dating back to Plato that looks to the meaningful motions of the stars and planets above for a universally available source of cultural and political orientation here below. I believe any future people of Gaia would benefit greatly in their struggle to find meaning in chaotic times by practicing the psychoplanetary therapy Tarnas has helped to birth.

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