Latour on the critical spirit

In “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”, Latour succinctly conveys critics’ two approaches in dealing with a “naïve believer”: “Better equipped than Zeus himself you rule alone, striking from above with the salvo of antifetishism in one hand and the solid causality of objectivity in the other”. The metaphor affirms Latour’s claim that, in deploying one or the other (depending on whichever tactic the situation calls for), the critic can count on being right. Previously, Latour argues that two positions of the objects at hand are established when a critic is met with a “naïve believer”, under different titles – ‘fairy’ (antifetishism) or ‘fact’ (causality of objectivity). The first, according to Latour, allows the critic to “show that what the naïve believers are doing with objects is simply a projection of their wishes onto a material entity that does nothing at all by itself”, or in other words, to reduce their objects of interest to “mere empty white screens”. The other position involves the critic’s designation of the behavior of the “poor bloke” as an unconscious process occurring outside of his own will. In either of these situations, the “only loser is the naïve believer”. According to Latour, the “Zeus of Critique rules absolutely, to be sure, but over a desert”, due to the humanities having lost the “hearts of their fellow citizens”.

I want to devote my post to Latour’s description of the “critical landscape” because through the primary methods used by critics, Latour realizes the need for a third position and is willing to address what that third “fair” position would look like. Throughout “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam”, Latour hints at various ways criticism could be reinvigorated – namely, returning to a realist method which concerns itself with matters of concern, rather than fact, not to “debunk but to protect and to care”. That some reality is lost when “we try to reconnect scientific objects with their aura” is disconcerting to Latour. At this point in the article, Latour seems momentarily sympathetic to the naïve believers, or at least not surprised that the believers and the “never sleeping critic” should be disconnected, given the process that ensures the victory of the critic every time. This “critical barbarity”, according to Latour, is grounded in the “total mismatch of the three contradictory repertoires-antifetishism, positivism, realism-because we carefully manage to apply them on different topics.”

What would a new vein of criticism entail? To “see through [objects] the reality that requested a new respectful realist attitude”, as Latour notes Whitehead having done well, or in other words, to realize objects cannot be assessed fairly as matters of fact. The job of the critic should entail a “multifarious inquiry launched with the tools of anthropology, philosophy, metaphysics, history, sociology to detect how many participants are gathered in a thing to make it exist and maintain its existence.” A critic, according to Latour, should not “alternate haphazardly between antifetishism and positivism like the drunk iconoclast drawn by Goya”.

It seems strange to the reader that after defining this new critic, Latour should throw Turing into the mix, especially as his speculation on how quickly objects turn into things persists throughout the article. On the one hand, this growth of object into thing can seem an irresponsible maneuver on the part of whoever is considering the matter at hand as a form of projection. On the other hand, Latour seems to suggest that this very maneuver is the only way in which matters of concern can surface. Latour notes Turing’s argument that “all objects are born things, all matters of fact require, in order to exist, a bewildering variety of matters of concern.” Latour finds in Turing’s paper the “surprising result… that we don’t master what we, ourselves, have fabricated, the object of this definition of critique.” Latour seems to include Turing’s model of idea generation ironically, considering the footnote that is included (Turing: “I do not do sufficient calculation to decide what to expect them to do, or rather because, although I do a calculation, I do it in a hurried, slipshod fashion, taking risks.”) Either way, the loss of the critical spirit is to Latour lamentable, ending his article with a speculation on what criticism would look like “if it could be associated with more, not with less, with multiplication, not subtraction.

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2 Responses to Latour on the critical spirit

  1. “That some reality is lost when “we try to reconnect scientific objects with their aura” is disconcerting to Latour.”
    This was a point in Latour’s essay that I found particularly interesting. This semester, every day after 166 I run all the way across campus to get to another English class, 130B with Professor Breitweiser. It’s a class on transcendental literature, including Emerson, Whitman and Thoreau, and interestingly, there has been a very great amount of thematic overlap between the two classes. Obviously, the writers of our course share with those writers a preoccupation with nature, viewed through the Romantic lens. There are many more parallels between the works in these two courses, but I was interested in the passage above, for its explicit departure from Emersonian logic. Emerson argues in “Nature” and his other essays that nature is a sort of language. Originally, all language derived from nature, and every word’s etymology evoked an object of nature. Emerson resented the fact that language was increasingly moving away from this rooted relation to nature. Words move further and further away from this original etymology or meaning, and Emerson expressed a desire to return to a grounded, nature-based language.

  2. “That some reality is lost when “we try to reconnect scientific objects with their aura” is disconcerting to Latour.”

    This was a point in Latour’s essay that I found particularly interesting. This semester, every day after 166 I run all the way across campus to get to another English class, 130B with Professor Breitweiser. It’s a class on transcendental literature, including Emerson, Whitman and Thoreau, and interestingly, there has been a very great amount of thematic overlap between the two classes. Obviously, the writers of our course share with those writers a preoccupation with nature, viewed through the Romantic lens. There are many more parallels between the works in these two courses, but I was interested in the passage above, for its explicit departure from Emersonian logic. Emerson argues in “Nature” and his other essays that nature is a sort of language. Originally, all language derived from nature, and every word’s etymology evoked an object of nature. Emerson resented the fact that language was increasingly moving away from this rooted relation to nature. Words move further and further away from this original etymology or meaning, and Emerson expressed a desire to return to a grounded, nature-based language.
    In direct contrast, Latour finds this desire unsettling. He has no desire to reconnect words with their original, historical meaning. Whereas, for Emerson, this aura is what is authentic, the aura is very “disconcerting to Latour.” It would be interesting to discuss this point with the group–I’m not sure what the implications of this contrast are, but I find it interesting, given the way in which Emerson’s works largely function in tandem with the works of our class.

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