Latour – The whole is always smaller than its parts

In 2012 Latour gave a version of the paper “The Whole is Always Smaller than its Parts: A Digital Test of Gabriel Tarde’s Monads“, published in the British Journal of Sociology, for MOMA, a joint research group from the Paris IdF Complex Systems Institute and the Center for Research in Applied Epistemology (CNRS/Ecole Polytechnique). The video of the talk is quite entertaining, as usual Latour is a witty speaker…

The paper makes the argument that digital systems have realised a model for testing Tarde’s theorisation of the monad: ‘not a part of a whole but a point of view on all the other entities taken severally and not as a totality’ (Latour et al. 2012, 598) – the sense of which, in ANT language, is that all actors are simultaneously networks and vice versa. In this way, if we consider the ways in which coded entities are arrayed and structured in digital systems we can trace out the relationships between different kinds of entities through digital systems in something like a ‘scale-free’ manner. The example Latour gives is that, if you search for a particular academic you will find various kinds of information about them on a digital profile (on their web page, on academia.edu or ResearchGate): so you find that they work at a particular university, in a particular discipline and have written particular papers and so on. Thus, from one entity ‘academic’ you extrapolate others, ‘university’, ‘department’, ‘paper’ and so on. Likewise, this is a uni-directional relation – collapsing scale. (You can sort of see why Graham Harman identifies Latour as a metaphysician here.)

If you do not begin either from the micro or the macro but instead focus on ‘the practice of slowly learning about what an entity ‘is’ by adding more and more items to its profile’ (Latour et al. 2012, 598-99) then we do not begin with substitutable individual entities but instead individualise an entity by tracing its attributes. Latour argues ‘the farther the list of items extends, the more precise becomes the viewpoint of the individual monad’ (ibid, 599). In this way, we might see the practice of tracing intersecting attributes as the performance of what Bernard Stiegler (following Gilbert Simondon) has called ‘co-individuation’ through categorisation. As the tracings of attributes metastabilise in the sharing of meanings (i.e. entity x is understood as the intersection of attributes y and z) they become formalised as the ‘rules’ by which an entity is understood and somewhat concretised as recorded knowledge, and then reinterpreted – constituting what Stiegler has called transindividuation. This is a metastabilisation of co-constituted knowledge – the monad is only possible in the performance of its observation, that observation can be more or less concretised.

Now, Latour et al. highlight that it may not always be feasible to ‘move from particular to particular’  – the data to do this ind of tracing is often not available, or even possible: as Latour et al. argue, even the most sophisticated tracking devices cannot detect the differences between atoms in a large body of gas. What Latour et al. suggest is that ‘every time it is possible to use [entity] profiles, then the monological principle will obtain’ (600). Instead of being a structure more complex than its individual components (the idea of lots of ‘micro’ entities aggregated into a ‘macro’ whole) the monadological ‘whole’ becomes a simpler set of attributes whose inner composition is constantly changing according to the viewpoint – the tracing. ‘Wholes’ are ‘nothing more than several other ways of handling the interlocking of [attributes]’ (Latour et al. 2012, 609).

This theorisation, by Latour, of the monad (according to Tarde), as in some sense ‘smaller’ than the sum of its (observable) parts, leads on to another aspect of Tarde’s philosophy: imitation. For ‘imitation’ is not a psychological phenomenon, its not simply mimesis, it is (as Deleuze observes following Tarde) the difference in repetition.

Its worth reading the paper in full, its quite a rich version of Latour’s monad argument, which he has rolled out in a number of ways at various points in his career – this is of particular interest to me because of the resonances with Stiegler’s reading of Simondon and its relevance to the Contagion project I am working on with colleagues at Exeter.

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