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by Terence Blake
FOREWORD: the struggle for intellectual hegemony and the travestying of pluralism "We are witnessing today the struggle for intellectual hegemony — for who will occupy the universal place of the “public intellectual” — between postmodern-deconstructionist cultural studies and the cognitivist popularizers of “hard” sciences" (Slavoj Zizek, “Lacan Between Cultural Studies And Cognitivism”).
Faced with the strange contemporary spectacle of the struggle for intellectual hegemmony between the postructuralist constructivists and the scientistic cognitivists, Zizek proposes his own solution to escape from this dichotomy: an imaginary Lacanism (that could be called "Lacan Z"! put together retrospectively to outflank both constructivism and cognitivism" #he position elaborated in Zizek$s te%ts amounts to the combination of a poststructuralist approach (there is no meta language, the big &ther does not e%ist! and of a regressive Freudo Lacanian recoding of such ideas" Zizek takes deconstructive and pluralist arguments and then retranscribes them backwards into what he calls 'Lacanese(" )ut the Zizekian Lacan never e%isted, rather it is the necessary mask for propounding Zizek$s own ideas, a heuristic fantasy" Zizek wavers between poststructuralist pluralism and a monist reductionism founded on his idiosyncratic reading of Lacanian psychoanalysis" *espite the grand declarations, Zizek does not accomplish any break with and going beyond poststructuralism, rather his work represents its continuation " +nless one accepts his caricature of poststructuralism as an accurate description, in which case it is no big thing to go beyond it" #his strategy of unavowed parasitic feeding on and wilful mis representation of pluralist thought (whenever Zizek talks about postmodern, deconstructionist, or poststructuralist thought he is targeting the pluralist thought of *eleuze, Foucault, Lyotard, and *errida! is no invention of Zizek,s" *eleuze and -uattari argue convincingly that Lacan$s "anti philosophical" thought is a compromise formation between the monism of his predecessor Freud and various pluralist insights that he integrated to correct or to pluralise the system partially" .o, like his mentor Freud, Lacan feeds on, without giving proper recognition to, the 'other image of thought( that *eleuze e%plicitly links with the names of /ietzsche, 0illiam 1ames, and 0hitehead" *iscussing "pluralism" or the "pluralist" in general can be in itself a conceptually regressive gesture, creating the danger of
conflating the pluralist with the relativist, or confusing realist pluralism with social constructionism" 2s these latter positions are relatively easy to refute, such conflations and confusions have a strategic rhetorical advantage: one can seem by rattling off hard hitting arguments to refute a whole gamut of positions, and to be in the theoretical avant garde, without giving oneself the trouble to work through any really e%isting specific pluralist elaborations in detail" &ne may bray loudly about our fallibility and about the need and importance of empirical tests to ensure our agreement with the real, without ever having confronted a real pluralist position to test one,s arguments" 2s one has talked about noone in particular, specific 3uotations contradicting the stereotyped analysis can be simply ignored, declared irrelevant, interpreted as saying the opposite of what they do indeed say, etc" 4n this article we shall try to distinguish pluralism from its relativist shadow, and to elaborate, both abstractly for its own sake, and in relation to a concrete e%ample of a pluralist thinker, the concept of a realist pluralism" #he concrete e%ample that we shall e%amine is the pluralist metaphysics of )runo Latour as it is e%pounded in his book 2/ 4/5+467 4/#& 8&*9. &F 9:4.#9/;9" FROM RELATIVIST EPISTEMOLOGY TO PLURALIST ONTOLOGY &ne can talk about the e%perience of gods, or spirits, or demons, or ghosts, or of supernatural entities in general< one can investigate the practice of sorcery, or divination, or witchcraft< one can study the historical movements of magic, or gnosis, or alchemy" 9ach time one can show that much of what appears to us to be alien, primitive, naive, or superstitious in terms of our current techno scientific outlook can have a totally reasonable interpretation in terms of the sort of pluralist, diachronic, individuating, performative ontology that can be found in the works of poststructuralist philosophers such as *eleuze, -uattari, Lyotard, Foucault, and 8ichel .erres" 4f one adopts the broadly *eleuzian and Feyerabendian pluralist line that one can see in contemporary thinkers such as )runo Latour, )ernard .tiegler, Fran=ois Laruelle, 0illiam ;onnolly, 2ndrew >ickering, and 1ohn Law, then we can see that such phenomena are not ?ust the ob?ects of culturally alternate perceptions and views, to be respected in some relativist gesture of tolerance" #hey are in fact much closer to home and more familiar, an integral though down played and often un noticed part of our own practices and e%perience" 4n @ubert *reyfus and .ean Aelly,s book 2LL #@4/-. .@4/4/-, we can see a sort of evolution in their understanding of pluralism as more than ?ust an epistemological relativism, a position that can also be found elsewhere, sometimes more clearly, sometimes less" #he overarching frame for that book is a @eideggerian vision of the succession of incommensurable "understandings of )eing", or "worlds", from the @omeric world through the tragic culture of
2eschylus and the metaphysical culture inaugurated by >lato, through *ante and his poetic e%pression of onto theology, up to 8elville,s 8&)7 *4;A as a work of art that configures a pluralist understanding that characterises in part our contemporary world, but that is yet to come to full flourishing" #his description of the historicity of our e%perience of )eing as embodied in a plurality of worlds succeeding each other over time (and also across space, as in their lectures *reyfus and Aelly consider the differences of our world with those of the 1apanese and the )alinese! is only a first appro%imation, as no understanding of )eing can ever be total" .uch a total understanding would make communication between different worlds, and the passage from one world to another, not only incomprehensible but impossible" .o this "relativist pluralism" must be mitigated with the observation that we are not stuck inside an all pervasive e%pressive totality that saturates every single word and deed, where everything is related to everything else, at least indirectly, by virtue of being related to the all englobing world understanding" 2s 2ndrew >ickering remarks, such seemingly "total" worlds are in fact only hegemonic, in the sense that there are many small scale and marginal practices and understandings going on within whatever global world prevails at any given period, imposing its dominant significations and regulated behaviours on a marginal molecular mass of other meanings and acts" 2 further mitigation of relativist pluralism lies in the fact that each world understanding contains a multiplicity that is more or less restrained or displayed: the many gods of polytheism (@omeric, but also )alinese and 1apanese polytheism!, the profusion of saints and angels within ;hristianity, the pluralism of moods in the 8elvillian cosmos (and in the phenomenology of @eidegger!" #he combination of these two mitigations to relativist pluralism, marginal practices and contained multiplicity, determine a position that one could call "realist pluralism"" @owever even this vision gives too much ascendancy to the global understanding of being, or episteme or paradigm, said to define an epoch" >erhaps even its hegemony is more relative and more fragile than its self advertising would have us believe" #his interplay of the center and the periphery, of the norm and the margins, of the ma?ority and minorities, is incomplete, as it creates sharp boundaries even as it seeks to blur them" 4t tends toward a reproduction of the same sort of e%pressive totality, only on smaller and smaller levels, a nesting downwards of subworlds within worlds" /othing has changed e%cept the scale, the molar relativism has been replaced with a molecular e3uivalent" .uch relativism is not fine grained enough: there is more to transaction and transversal commingling than the molecular interplay of power relations and peaceful (or not so peaceful! compositions"
#his is where *reyfus and Aelly talk in their podcast lectures of the @eideggerian concept of "things thinging"" #his is @eidegger,s non anthropocentric thing paradigm, that replaces his world paradigm in his later works" #hings, including humans, assemble performatively, in more or less stable configurations, engendering and e%pressing local understandings and local worlds" &ne could call this "performative pluralism" to emphasise the active character of the elements of an assemblage, how they do not merely e%press an all powerful sructure that determines their every feature" &ne could also call it "realist pluralism", to emphasise the fallible nature of our paradigms, and their testability and revisability in the face of the multiple confrontations with the real world" #hings are not imbued with their signification by an all encompassing paradigm, rather they have meaning locally, provisionally, in contingent, fragile configurations" #his is also the domain that *eleuze and -uattari are gesturing at with their pluralist ontology of "double becoming" and "assemblages"" LATOUR ON INVISIBLE ENTITIES: Relativist Tolerance or Ontological Pl ralis!" Let us e%amine how Latour deals with the problem of superstition in his ontological treatise 2/ 4/5+467 4/#& 8&*9. &F 9:4.#9/;9" #he general framework of the book is materialist in the sense that the various modes of e%istence are embedded in material networks, and that Latour regards the various relations that define and constitute these modes of e%istence as themselves material, e%isting with the same degree of material reality as the elements that are related" Latour poses a basic ontological principle that what is generated within and transits along these networks is not reducible to them" #o take an epistemological e%ample, knowledge is produced inside the material networks of reference but cannot be identified with them" #o identify knowledge and its networks (i"e", in the case of science, universities, laboratories, instruments, inscriptions, scientists themselves, and computer simulations, etc"! would be to commit a category mistake (naive reductionism!" #o separate off knowledge as e%isting in some other non material realm would be another category mistake (>latonist idealism!" #he same can be said for the other "modes of e%istence" that Latour describes, on the principle that if all is material networks, what is produced and transits in these networks can be 3ualitatively very different" 4t is important to note that these distinctions have nothing to do with "belief", but with an empirical and conceptual analysis of the various material networks" For Latour the people occupying a certain domain of practices may be totally mistaken not only in particular beliefs, but also globally in the type of e%istence that they attribute to the entities they deal with" For Latour there is no 3uestion of ontological tolerance being e%tended to every worldview, some are ?ust plain wrong" #his is the realist principle underlying his ontology" For e%ample, fundamentalist ;hristians, in Latour,s terms, are mistaken, they get the world
wrong" #he same can be said (and Latour says it often! about the climate change denialists (they are wrong about science, they are wrong about climate change, the politics that they advocate would have disastrous conse3uences!" Latour,s pluralism is no wishy washy tolerant relativism, but a doctrine of combat" &ver and over again Latour emphasis the fallibility of our beliefs and the need for ob?ective tests" 0hen he talks about the need to discover the "interpretive keys" that characterise each mode of e%istence, this is not beautiful soul relativism proclaiming "to each his belief"" #he interpretative key is a criterion that ensures that the claims and the practices appertaining to a particular mode of e%istence can be put to the test, and so be validated or re?ected as compatible with the ongoing engagement with reality that each mode embodies" #he keys and the networks are the criteria that ensure that we are not infallible, each in his or her own world, and that we are not reducible to our system of beliefs" 4n ;hapter B Latour applies this ontological pluralism to the "irrational superstitions" that are thought to characterise traditional societies" 2ccording to him, enlightened modernity and its view of reason has been self consciously constituted in terms of a battle against the superstitious belief in invisible beings and occult powers" #he previous chapters of 2/ 4/5+467 4/#& 8&*9. &F 9:4.#9/;9 have shown that the 8oderns are mistaken about the nature and composition of the visible world" For Latour there is no single 'visible world(, the very idea of such a thing is the result of a category mistake" Cisibility is constructed and maintained in diverse material networks, and means different things in different conte%ts, mobilising different e3uipment and standards" For Latour, we are not as homogeneously reasonable as we suppose" 2 suspicious symptom from our history is the overwhelming violence that has accompanied the spread of 6eason in the world, a sign that we are an%ious and frightened about the entities that we nonetheless assert to be devoid of e%istence" #he persistent accusation made by the moderns against other cultures is that of their 'irrationality( in their attribution of real e%istence to invisible beings" /ot e%isting in the ob?ective world, these beings, in the eyes of the moderns, can only be pro?ections of the human psyche, the true locus of their e%istence" #he only mode of e%istence that they can have is that of illusions and phantasms" #hese beings can only be e%plained in terms of the psychology of the inner world of sub?ectivity" 2pplying his method Latour must search for material networks that are psychogenic, i"e" engaged in the production and maintenance of psyches and sub?ectivities" #he moderns that we are may have no positive institution for welcoming invisible beings, but we have
an abundance of psycho techni3ues and psycho entertainment to stimulate, care for, or amuse ourselves" &ur naDve, folk psychology, belief is that we do not produce our psyches but rather that we possess them" #he self is supposed to be autonomous, independent of networks for its e%istence" #here is no meaning in the e%ternal world that is not pro?ected by means of our internal representations" 4n this ontological investigation into spirits, sub?ectivities and psychic entities, traditional psychoanalysis cannot help us: according to Latour what is 'repressed( is not ?ust a part of the inner psyche that we pro?ect onto the outside world, confusing inner representations with outer entities" 8ore fundamentally, what defines us is the ontological repression of the psychogenic networks that endow us with a psyche" &ur error is to attempt to think outside networks, to pay attention only to the 'visible( products and to forget the invisible infrastructures" 4n conse3uence, we no longer know how (or where! to situate the sub?ect and its "contents"" ;ertainly not inside, as interiority is not a given, it is manufactured" &ur problem is one of attention, we do not notice the networks that engender the psyche" .o we must return to the 'original e%perience( of this mode of e%istence: emotion" 9motion is a form of crisis and transit, where our interiority is in the grip of what feels like an outside force" 4t invades us, takes possession of us for a certain time and carries us away, transforming our reactions, and then leaves us changed for better or worse" #he modern self is a contradictory relation between the belief in an autonomous authentic indvidual sub?ect alone in an ob?ective world devoid of meaning, and the swarm of entities that are actually necessary to its fabrication and continual modifications" ;aught in the repressive process of avoidance of these outside forces and of denial of their e%istence, the moderns have produced a vast array of therapeutic arrangements authorising their acknowledgement as inner facts susceptible to various forms of manipulation" Latour affirms that an ethnopsychiatric approach to therapeutic situations gives us the best insight into the e%istence of these invisible beings and into the skill needed in dealing with them" 0e already have such a skill constructed over our many contacts with these invisible beings" 0e know how to deviate and deflect their forces to other targets and gain their energy for going on in life" #hese beings can transform us, alientaing or inspring us in uncanny ways" #hey metamorphose themselves too, so this is why they are 'invisible(, they do not have the persistence of the beings of reproduction, they do not belong to their rEgime of visibility and of stability" #hey do not inhabit the same networks" )ut they are real nonetheless"
#hus in Latour,s system and in #obie /athan,s practice these invisible beings are 3uite real, although perhaps not in the way that those who consciously believe in their e%istence may suppose" #heir scope is not ?ust therapeutic but ontological, foregrounding by means of their own proprties of metamorphosis and invisibility the alteration that characterises the form of ontological pluralism that Latour advocates, which he calls "being as other"" Latour acknowledges the e%istence of invisible beings, of forces, powers, divinities and demons that do not take us as unified persons< he emphasises the importance of psychic processes, of incorporeal metamorphoses, transformations, transmutations and becomings that oblige us to take being as alteration and repetition as difference" #his is the language of affects and intensities that was developped by both *eleuze and Lyotard, but Latour does not give them ontological primacy, as *eleuze and Lyotard did at a certain moment" #hey constitute one mode of e%istence amongs many, and the pluriverse does not repose on this mode alone" Latour also breaks away the ?argon filled Freudo 8ar%ist conceptual field that complicated this ontology and burdened it with a heavy handed academic style" )y renewing our theoretical vocabulary and references Latour has freed us from anti3uated connotations and other dogmatic residues of the last century$s philosophical combats" AGAINST T#E OB$E%TAL RE&U%TION: Lato r's (l ralis! o) entities )runo Latour$s 2/ 4/5+467 4/#& 8&*9. &F 9:4.#9/;9 provides us with a host of categories other than ob?ect for describing what e%ists" 4n particular, the dynamic aspect of matter is described in ;hapter B under the category 89# or 'the beings of metamorphosis(" 8ost of the chapter is focused on psychic entities, but at the end he remarks that these beings 'precede the human, infinitely( (FGH!" 4t is clear that calling all e%istents 'ob?ects( is already a reduction, and we need a more plural vocabulary" &n the 3uestion of the stability of ob?ects, Latour has revealed that he found this problem particularly difficult" 4t was only after a conversation with 4sabelle .tengers about 0hitehead that he had an illumination that this stability was not universal, nor was it necessarily tied to humans" @e conceived that it belonged to a specific mode of e%istence 69> or reproduction, that ensures the persistence of beings" Latour$s movement is to get away from the abstraction of the sub?ect ob?ect division and to come back to both historical and individual e%perience" &n the basis of an ontological analysis of the phenomenology, he can then widen the import to more 'cosmological( concerns" @e makes it clear towards the end of the chapter we may consider that psychogenic metamorphosis is only one
part of the metamorphic mode of e%istence: '9verything can, everything must, become something else( (FGH!" 4n doing so, he elevates it to a cosmogenic principle on a par with reproduction" &n this model the beings of reproduction are prior to the bifurcation of sub?ect and ob?ect, and so prior to, but at the basis of, the constitution of ob?ects stricto sensu by means of human categorisation" #he interplay between persistence and alteration, or reproduction and metamorphosis, is the 'musical( substrate for all other modes of e%istence which modulate this rhythmic composition of process and stability: 'they form the basso continuo without which no music would be audible( (FGI!" #his universality is only a speculative 'hypothesis( inspired by the cosmological status that other collectives give to these beings" 2t the end he descends once again to modern sub?ectivity, our e%perience of emotions, and our interaction with invisible e%istents" Latour calls his pro?ect 'empirical metaphysics(, and 4 see this same movement of descent to e%perience, speculative elevation, and empirical redescent everywhere in the book" .tarting off from some historical and social generalities he descends to the 'original e%perience( (empiricism!, the privileged or paradigmatic e%ample" *oing the phenomenology of this e%perience lets him e%tract the form of veridiction (with its felicity conditions! appropriate to the beings involved, and lets him rise to the determination of their mode of e%istence" #his ontological determination lets him descend again to e%perience, but this time finding the beings in 3uestion present all through e%perience, and not ?ust confined to the paradigm case he began with" PLURALISM IS NOT RELATIVISM: T*ree T*eses +, Against tolerance: Lato r-s (l ralis! arg es against cli!ate c*ange .enialis! &n this very interesting 3uestion one should read the numerous discussions of climate change denialism by Latour, who very intelligently outflanks the deniers, and shows that they have no research to back up their claims, that they are not credible 'others( whose point of view is to be respected" Latour,s pluralist ontology is not a universal relativism, as this very e%ample proves" #he -ifford lectures (Facing -aia: .i% lectures on the political theology of nature! were very clear on this point" 2lso 2/ 4/5+467 4/#& 8&*9. &F 9:4.#9/;9 opens on this 3uestion and establishes Latour,s re?ection of such sceptical and relativist ploys as based on a totally inade3uate view of science" #here is no e3uivalence of value between the scientific view and pseudo scientific propaganda" /, Against 01elie)2: Lato r's (l ralis! re3ects ) n.a!entalis! as
erroneo s 4t is important to note that the distinctions that Latour makes between the different modes of e%istence have nothing to do with 'belief(, but are based on an empirical and conceptual analysis of the various material networks that sustain them" For Latour the people occupying a certain domain of practices may be totally mistaken not only in particular beliefs, but also globally in the type of e%istence that they attribute to the entities they deal with" .uch is the case of the ;hristian fundamentalist" #here is no 3uestion of ontological tolerance being e%tended to every worldview and to every belief, some are ?ust plain wrong" #his is the realist principle underlying Latour,s pluralist ontology" Fundamentalist ;hristians, in Latour$s terms, are mistaken over many things, not ?ust about their own religion: their preoccupation with belief as the defining feature of religion is wrong, their actual beliefs are false, their idea of reference to the world is wrong, and so Latour concludes that they get the world wrong" 2s we have seen, the same can be said (and Latour says it often! about climate change denialists (they are wrong about science, they are wrong about climate change, they are wrong in the politics that they advocate, which would lead to disaster Latour$s pluralism is no wishy washy tolerant relativism, but a doctrine of combat" 4, AGAINST EPISTEMI% IMMUNITY: Lato r's (l ralis! arg es )or t*e )alli1ilis! o) o r 5no6le.ge clai!s Latour,s pluralist ontology emphasises the fallibility of our beliefs and the need for ob?ective tests" 0hen he talks about 'interpretive keys( characterising each mode of e%istence, this is not beautiful soul relativism proclaiming 'to each his belief(" 2pplying the wrong interpretive key is a category mistake, i"e" an ontological error that results in false claims about the world" #he key is a criterion that ensures that the claims and the practices can be put to the test of e%perience, and so to be validated or re?ected as compatible or not with the ongoing engagement with reality that each mode embodies" &ur ontological error is to attempt to think outside material networks and to ignore the need for the appropriate interpretative key" 0e tend to pay attention only to certain detached propositions and to reified products, and to forget the modes of e%istence and the material infrastructures" #he keys and the networks are the criteria that ensure that it makes sense to try to get the world right, taking into account that our beliefs are not infallible, each in his or her own world, and that we ourselves are not reducible to our system of beliefs"