Projecting a genuine future for the living? On Latour & Stiegler comments after the Paris attacks

I was quite surprised at how quickly the translation of the short interview with Bernard Stiegler in le Monde spread on twitter, which is not usual for my posts…

Anyway, I have been struck by a similarity in ethos between the comments made by Bernard Stiegler in his interview and the commentary provided by Bruno Latour in an op-ed (translated by Jane Kuntz) for Reporterre, entitled “The Other State of Urgency” [via Installing (Social) Order].

It is an ethos of calling for the casting-off of a short-termism or ‘death-wish’ (pace Latour) focussed on (inadequately mitigating) destruction–destruction of states, of peoples and of our planet–towards affirming what Stiegler calls a ‘genuine’ future and what Latour sees as a taking of fate into our our hands. One might see it as a loosely vitalist ethos: an affirmation of life and its pluri-potency.

It seems to me significant that both Latour and Stiegler frame the issue in relation to the anthropocene and the COP21 talks being held in Paris. For both of them, the affirmation of a ‘genuine’ future entails combining stances towards ecological, economic, political and scientific atmospheres. Such an affirmation of a sustainable path towards a future of the living is set in contra-distinction to a rhetoric of war, which both thinkers reject in their own ways. To submit to war, in the manner of the French government, is to submit to a short-term imperative to (re)act, but to act for whom and to what ends is a question both Latour and Stiegler find troubling. It is analogous to government via catastrophism – such forms of reaction are already presumed in the mode of ‘normal’ operation: the ‘everywhere war’ and ‘state of exception’ is the new ‘normal’.

Who could argue against an affirmation of hope? I certainly would not. Yet, while there is plenty of diagnosis of the ‘state of urgency’, we are left to ponder: what is to be done?

I don’t think I buy Stiegler’s eurocentric call for policy, it is too easy to see how–even with the best of intentions–this would slip into the kind of technocratic malaise that has buggered up the Mediterranean EU countries. Yet, at least Stiegler attempts to offer strategies – and I think the wider outlining of a political-economics of contribution and of a kind of ‘neganthropy‘, while somewhat grandiloquent, remain inspiring. I would be very curious to see what Latour would suggest in order to “invent demonstrations more innovative than yet another march from Place de la République to Place de la Nation.”

It is, of course, excruciatingly hard to offer strategies for action – as Zizek likes to quip: we can see why it has been suggested that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than an end to the ideological milieu of capitalism. Working for a ‘genuine’ future hurts, but as both Latour and Stiegler demonstrate: it remains the task at hand.

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.

VIDEO > Trevor Pinch discusses the ‘material turn’ in STS

In this video from Edinburgh, STS scholar Prof. Trevor Pinch wrinkles his nose at multi-species ethnography and then goes on to identify what he sees as some of the problematic ways in which materiality has been discussed in STS. In particular he problematises the use of the term ‘affordance’, thinking through the various forms of intentionality that asks us to assume about both the ‘object’ to which the affordance is said to belong and the human ‘subject’ for which, Pinch suggests, that affordance is intended. Don’t think I would agree necessarily but I think this is an interesting voice to add to the broader material turn conversation…

Found via ANTHEM.

Interesting interview with Harman on Figure/Ground

Over on the website Figure/Ground, Andrew Iliadis has conducted an interesting interview with philosopher Graham Harman about his philosophical project and its special relationship with the work of Burno Latour, some short, and pithy, definitions of some of the key terms related to his work (object-oriented ontology, vicarious causation, weird realism), his dislike of scientism, and his contention that ” Latour is probably the most important living philosopher”. Worth a read.