Latour, Hart, Maxwell, Hume, Whitehead etc….

Ok, so I have been learning that a lot recently, and no matter how much people may  correctly or incorrectly bash Latour or like his work. I don’t know, I just find it helpful to think with.

Here is my latest comment on the topic I started here . I am posting it below for kularing reader’s sake, and my own personal public storage 🙂

There are two pages of discussion before it with very helpful comments from Ragnhild, John, and Keith.

(i) Can we not include within the process of understanding, that we may not have a model yet that quite explains the void we find between Latour and Maxwell’s equations? Maybe we cannot be sure how the biosociotechnical politicaleconomy relates to the time hardened ‘objectivity’ of Maxwells equation.

(ii) Perhaps time will add Maxwell to Latours bag? Perhaps not. An equation can still hold true even if it does not capture objectivity in my observation, meaning that there is no tension between Maxwell and Latour. An equation can still yield technological endeavour without capturing objectivity.

The key problem is not this. The key problem is that the above still holds that there is an objective ‘nature’ behind all our social constructions. Latour overcomes this by pointing out that this relativist position is not his. He says that objects e.g. bits of nature, also have agency, and therefore it is not just a case of us mediating through our senses what objective reality is (theoretically psychedelics, blind people, bees, and bats would help us better then). Those objects are also generating a relationship with us, not simply reflecting it. If this is the case then ‘the comparative method’ maybe insufficient to tease out what is behind ‘subjectivities’ because the objectivities behind it are subjectivities themselves, sort of, not quite. e.g. objectivity is simply the combniation of the exetriorities of what we are measuring. Which is fine, but should not deny them their interiorities: e.g. ontology from alien phenomenology.

What is important then is how understanding of these exteriority can become a part of a relating to them e.g. technologies. The point is, what is your motivation. If it is to do something with electricity then Maxwell is your man.

(iii) Now comes Keith Hart’s critique which I hold true. We are not simply lots of people running about doing things. My answer is: we are but I agree there is more. There are common practices, narratives, and materiality. These are not limited to human scale, they can form at global scales and so we get systems. Key in Graeber’s writing is drawing a ‘big picture’ of all these and what they have been up to in terms of economics in the past 5000 years. In doing this there is an extra anthropological point of great value whose nuance gets taken for granted, and that is comprehensive history as a process of gleaning meaning from sociotechnical happenings. Highlighting the fact that meaning is not a social symbology, but small and large efforts of the everyday living in the world. Which evidently hark back to Latour.

Th key point that Keith wishes to point to is further though. But it is not a particularly complicated point as may be suggested. It is a simple matter of alienation, access to the modes of production, and domination of the political economy through narrative, practice and materiality. Again these three. But in this scenario they incarnate through violence. This again is where Graeber comes in. He demonstrates that in the big picture we see, which is made of people running about doing things, in which some people are violent and through violence dominate the modes of production and political economy, alienating others from them. He also demonstrates very aptly the role in the big picture of the narrative: ‘debt’. Finally the very materiality – ‘properties’ – of what is money, what is credit, what materials are available etc must also be considered, not because we are geographic or material determinists, but because any understanding of the ‘sociotechnical process’ reveals that materiality must be respected, otherwise our understadning will be flawed.

Finally what Keith Hart is pointing to is that the modes of production of the legal human, have been bought by corporations, meaning that they now have the mode of production of being legally human and so have made themselves so. I think corporations are an abstract concept, but they have ‘activity’ made of peoples activities, otherwise I would think that ‘corporations could do things’. Unless of course all the people constituting a coproartion have given up their agency to it, which is posisble, meaning we simply have a non-human thing -or a process- unknowingy churning away at being a profit making machine. Now this is where two questions come up, and Latour is asking one of them. What is an anthropology of the moderns? e.g. in thsi case how much is being legally human meaningful to people in general, I personally dont think people are that stupid, but they may well be that ignorant? Secondly, if meaning comes from ‘happenings’ or material events, then perhaps the leglisation of corporations as citizens is not simply a technicality but has wider cultural affects and effects. I think it obviously does in terms of what such machines are programmed to do and allowed to do, but am not such a relativist that thinks objectivity is subjectivity in a relativist sense that such a legal status really means a corporation is a person. Unfortunately, yes it does mean it will reap the benefits of it. Perhaps Turing’s machine has been invented. A machine that can be human without being an actual human, withstanding the fact that appearance does not make being (something the Turing test disagrees with, meaing it isn’t actually a Turing machine in my eyse because I disagree with teh hwole premise of his argument, see ‘Chinese room’ discussion)..

All in all, a human can theorise the above, not a corporation, not an object, not a non-human, not a machine, the idea of participant observation underlines this. Our efforts must be seen as ways to better understand and relate, but it is be silly and dangerous to think that our being is any way equal to any of these non-humans.

That is why Keith is rightly antagonised. Human rights are a meaningful institution, far more meaningful them simple laws and legalities, as are animal rights. For non-humans to be granted them through a legal doorway is tantamount insanity. However I disagree that Latour is assisting this. He is pointing out that we must respect non-humans and objects as what they are or at least the resistance they exert. Ignoring them has not necessarily led, but has not been the reason for them now having equal legal status.

Related sources are Keith Harts ‘Hitmans Dilemna’ and Ian Hacking ‘The Social Construction of what?’
Additionally I wrote this tangentally bouncing of the second in this lecture series from Latour: