From the first time I heard about the basic concept of what the sociologists call actor-network theory, I have had a sneaky suspicion about it. Reading a late passage of Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern has convinced me that I was right. Latour’s actor-network theory is basically the exact structure of the assemblage theory developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, articulating the same ontology, but in a different context, one whose frameworks of thinking are structured by the conclusions of his ethnographies of scientific practitioners and the social dynamics of laboratories.
Let me give you a quote from Latour just to put the matter in context. Anyone who has read Deleuze will see how evocative this is.
“[The moderns] thought themselves revolutionary because they invented the universality of sciences that were torn out of local peculiarities for all time, and because they invented gigantic rationalized organizations that broke with all the local loyalties of the past. In so doing, they missed the originality of their own inventions twice over: a new topology that makes it possible to go almost everywhere, yet without occupying anything except narrow lines of force and a continuous hybridization between socialized objects and societies rendered more durable through the proliferation of nonhumans.” We Have Never Been Modern §4.11.
Latour describes our frameworks for understanding the connections among bodies in the world as topologies, maps of spaces that can themselves bend in a variety of shapes within a restricted locus of possibility. His problematically-named quasi-objects* are the building blocks of complex bodies that are hybrids of assemblages that have existed before. Every new network, every new mode of relating, is a mutation of what has come before. The present is the raw material of the future, even though the future may change the present so much as to make the new arrangement appear as if ex nihilo. But all novelty is mutation, merely radical mutation.
* Problematic because his vocabulary remains rooted in the dualist-implying language that the entirety of We Have Never Been Modern strives to overcome. I think one of the main reason people have misunderstood Latour’s ideas in this regard is because he keeps talking in terms that evoke subjects and objects, the two pure poles of the Modern conception of being that he pitches his own philosophy as trying to overcome. If he’d just admit that he’s basically a process philosopher, and use terms of that cobbled-together pseudo-tradition, he wouldn’t have sparked nearly the confusion that I’ve seen from younger students experiencing the trouble they do to understand the fine line Latour’s thinking walks.
|I can definitely understand not wanting to appear influenced|
by Deleuze and Guattari in one's hairstyles, but their
philosophical work is immensely valuable.
All of these ideas are central to the works of Deleuze and Guattari, yet Latour never really explains his influences throughout this book, and cites them only three times in the entire book. A mediocre professor once told me that I should discount sources that are cited very rarely and in very general ways. These are just gestures, he said, that amount to nothing but provocation and evocations of vague associations. I have since concluded that these vague associations are more often hints of a wider, more pervasive influence than a writer is willing to make explicit.
In this case, I think they are a sign of Latour’s wanting to hedge his bets. I think his hesitation to cite his Deleuzian influence (or at least accidental heritage) lies in the social situation of intellectual life in France in the 1980s and 1990s, and as well today. Here in North America, we identify (especially in cultural studies and literary theory programs) French philosophy as the psychoanalytic and post-structuralist waves of experimental theorizing, the difficult, strange texts of authors (quite a few of them communist or otherwise leftist) who tried to conceive existence in a new way.
Their response to the so-called failure of modernity, or at least the increasing tendency toward totalizing the state and corporate control of individual life and the inability of our old rationalist motivations to deal with our growing ecological crises, was not to give in to despair or double down on the old destructive attitudes. Their response was to develop a new way of thinking about existence.
By the 1980s, all these people were being discredited. There was a new generation of thinkers (the infamous Bernard Henri-Lévy among them) who was literally doubling down on the old habits of total rationalism and uncritical faith in the ability of Western culture to emancipate people. They were intellectuals who hid their heads in the sands about the destructive acts and absurdities of cultural colonialism and globalized corporate capitalism. One could not admit being a follower of Deleuze and Guattari’s insights without ruining one’s academic career.
So Latour did the obvious good thing: he got devious, and smuggled all these motivating ideas into a career based on the ethnography of science. Latour essentially used the tools of anthropology and ethnography to trace the shape of the networks that we live in, and that build the machines and processes which create our world. If Deleuze and Guattari lacked anything, it could be said that they lacked a method. In this way, a universal ethnography overcomes the ivory-tower universalism of philosophy and science. If everything can be analyzed, then every universal that pitches itself as transparent can be revealed for what it really is: not a lie, but a posit for the sake of the smooth operation of some other social machine.