Thinking Law, Politics, and other Modes of Existence with Bruno Latour

Below I’ve pasted a couple of excerpts from Latour’s work on politics and law.

“Why do we regret that politicians ‘don’t tell the truth’? Why do we demand that they be ‘more transparent’? Why do we want ‘less distance between representatives and those whom they represent’? Even more absurd, why do we wish that ‘politicians wouldn’t change their minds all the time’, ‘wouldn’t turn their coats for the slightest reason’? These demands, repeated throughout the press like a complaint, a rumbling, a shout or, rather, like a mort, are good sense in appearance only, for they all amount to judging the conditions of felicity of one regime of talk in relation to those of another. The denigration of political talk would never be possible without this ignorance of its key, of its own peculiar tone, of its spin as English-language newspapers so accurately (albeit, mockingly) put it.

First, let us put an end to an ambiguity, an imposture: under no circumstances can double-click information don the white coat of scientific method to defend its right to represent the rectilinear way of faithful talk. If politicians are to be hated for their lies, what can be said about scientists? Demanding that scientists tell the truth directly, with no laboratory, no instruments, no equipment, no processing of data, no writing of articles, no conferences or debates, at once, extemporaneously, naked, for all to see, without stammering nor babbling, would be senseless. If the demand for transparent and direct truth makes understanding of the political curve impossible, remember that it would make the establishment of ‘referential chains’ by scientists even more impracticable. The direct, the transparent and the immediate suit neither complex scientific assemblages nor tricky constructions of political talk, as Gaston Bachelard has so amply shown. If we start making direct and transparent processes the supreme law of any progress, then all scientists are liars and manipulators, and all politicians corrupt bastards. The ‘crisis of representation’ has nothing to do with a sudden loss of quality by politicians or scientists; it emerges as soon as we impose the impossible yoke of transferring double-click information to practices with very different goals. A stupid question deserves a stupid answer. One could just as well complain about the poor quality of a modem that was incapable of percolating coffee ordered on the Internet!

If we turn from the demand for transparent information and focus a little more directly on the conditions of felicity peculiar to political discourse, we discover an entirely different demand for truthfulness. Political discourse appears to be untruthful only in contrast with other forms of truth. In and for itself it discriminates truth from falsehood with stupefying precision. It is not indifferent to truth, as it is so unjustly accused of being; it simply differs from all the other regimes in its judgement of truth. What then is its touchstone, its litmus test? It aims to allow to exist that which would not exist without it: the public as a temporarily defined totality. Either some means has been provided to trace a group into existence, and the talk has been truthful; or no group has been traced, and it is in vain that people have talked.

-Latour, “What if we Talked Politics a Little?”


“…you might object that I observed not ‘legal reasoning’ but the ways French administrative law judges (and they are not even judges but political appointees, former ministers, heads of public companies, journalists, etc.) think legally. That’s where I somewhat disagree. Anthropology of law has this interesting feature in that – contrary to, let’s say, anthropology of science, my original field – there was never any question that all cultures have law. It might differ in content; the conclusion might horrify the ethnographer – or the plaintiff; the circuitous route of reasoning might look incredibly farfetched; there might be blood all along; but it is always recognizable as tracing the path of something – quite elusive I agree – that we all call ‘legal’. So, yes, a case study will always be just a case study, and it should not be generalized too much, but the whole book that you, hopefully, are going to accept to read is based on the assumption that the English-speaker does not need to learn about ‘French administrative law’ (unless they wish to) but about the passage or the transit of law, a question that, naturally, can be highlighted only thanks to a detailed case study but that may become, in the end, rather independent from it. The true reason why I invested so much energy in this field work (I found, on the whole, law much more technical and difficult to follow than science or technology) is that it was precisely to compare the passage of law with the other types of enunciation regimes I had studied up till then (or have studied since). I belong to a small group of social theorists who believe that we have been pretty wrong in providing a ‘social’ explanation of anything—science, religion, politics, technology, economics, law and so on. Far from being what should provide the source of explanation of those phenomena, what we loosely call ‘the social’ is rather the result of what has been produced by types of connection (‘associations’ in my terminology) that are established by scientific, religious, political, technological, economical or legal connectors. If this theory (now called ‘Actor Network Theory’ or ‘ANT’) is even vaguely right, there is a paramount interest in defining, as precisely as possible, what it means to connect some association, let’s say, religiously, or scientifically, or politically, etc. The use of the adverbial form is crucial to the argument, since there may be a great gap between speaking about politics or religion and speaking politically or religiously. It’s much easier to understand, and it will become even clearer in what follows, that there is similarly an immense difference, very easy to grasp, between speaking about law and speaking legally. In the last thirty years, I have done much field work to define the scientific way of establishing connections: what I called ‘reference’. The book you are about to read is the Laboratory Life, not for the construction of facts, but for the construction of legal arguments (‘moyens de droit’). In the same way that I had been able to extract, from one admittedly limited set of case studies, a plausible definition of what it was to speak scientifically of some state of affairs, I have tried here, through another carefully devised set of ethnographic devices, to extract, to educe, to highlight a plausible definition of what it is to speak legally of a tort. My overall point, my general contention, is that we can’t possibly provide a positive anthropology of the Moderns (who, I remind you, have never been modern, but that is only a negative definition: what have they been, then?) as long as we don’t have a clear comparative study of the various ways in which the central institutions of our cultures produce truth. And clearly there are several types of felicity conditions for the various kinds of truth production (scientific, legal, religious, etc.) that define the former Moderns. There exists an inner pluralism in the way truth production is defined among the Moderns – which does not mean that they are indifferent to truth, quite the opposite. It is actually what makes law so interesting.”

Preface to Latour’s The Making of Law

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