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Alexander R. Galloway on the Complacency of Bruno Latour


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At his blog, Alexander R. Galloway dissects the popularity of Bruno Latour and argues that he is ultimately a conservative thinker whose intellectual worldview denies the possibility of radical change. Latour is widely cited and invoked today, from seminar rooms to art galleries. Part of this widespread appeal, suggests Galloway, is that Latour’s influential Actor-Network Theory in uniquely congenial to the neoliberal world as it exists today. Here’s an excerpt:

One common accusation leveled against Latour is that he promotes a more or less neoliberal, market-driven ontology in which all things are actors who meet on equal footing in order to exchange, translate, arbitrate, and indeed flesh out their very existence. To these accusers Latour’s chief flaw is a political one, for at best he abstains from the political question by naturalizing it, and at worst he unwittingly assists the dominant ideology by endorsing and recapitulating it. I’ll admit I’m persuaded by such accusations, and find Latour’s work shallow because of them. But it is one thing to crab and complain about one’s political enemies. It is another thing to investigate why such positions are malformed. So let’s suppress the epithets for the moment–bourgeois, neoliberal, Hobbesian, or otherwise–and instead try to clarify Latour’s chief defect. Hint: it has nothing to do with the postmodernism wars or the veracity of scientific fact.

Latour still believes the old myth that systems are disruptive of hierarchies, that bazaars are better than cathedrals, that networks corrode the power of the sovereign, that markets are the most natural, most democratic, and most scientifically accurate heuristic for redistributing and indeed defining knowledge. Such claims are often necessary to make, and are often true within a certain limited arena. Yet Latour is unable or unwilling to move beyond them, to take the ultimate step and acknowledge the historicity of networks. Such a step requires a number of things, but most importantly it requires an acknowledgement of the special relationship between networks and the industrial infrastructure, a relationship that began in the middle twentieth century and has become dominant now after the turn of the millennium. On this score, then, Latour has never been postmodern, not that he ever wanted to be. (He is, like Deleuze, often inaccurately lumped into that tradition.) Latour has never been postmodern because he won’t admit the contingency of one particular grand narrative, systematicity. He would never agree that there is an historical phase “after decentralization” has taken place. And even if we might convince him of such an historical periodization, he would not likely agree that this new reticular infrastructure should itself be the object of criticism. Latour views the reticular infrastructure as the real world, literally and explicitly.

Image of Bruno Latour via Alexander Galloway’s homepage.