Latour’s self-identification as “primarily a philosopher, though not a professional” in a 2010 article has emerged as an immensely poignant supplement to Foucalt’s History of Madness. (http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/114-UNSELD-SSS-GB.pdf)

Latour travels back to William James and Whitehead, who bombarded modernist ontology with critical rays to introduce audiences to the “pluriverse” that predates the distinction between primary and secondary qualities, a world of worlds in which many modes of existence can proliferate without fear of isolation and reduction, “each in its own key.”

Latour speaks of his constructive philosophical project as a “mad project”. — “You see how drunk I am!” he says. The idea is to survey all the modes of existence at work in all the regional and sub-regional anthropological worlds of the human. Religion, politics, law, fiction, music, etc etc.

I latch onto religion because of the contentious mixing of realms that religious people demonstrate in conversations with various scientists, secular citizens, and what not. For Latour, religious discourse is about forming subjectivities. As such, the optimal path is not to reference one’s scriptures to the works of contemporary cosmology, attempting to moderate the production of truth, as it were, across the keys of religion and science. Rather, theology functions as an enclosed system of cross-references and networks of translation precisely designed to produce transformations in the interior lives and interpersonal relationships of people. Religion is about interpersonal discourse, not about “sense & reference”.

There seems to be an identity crisis at work in many religious lives because the institutions of religious practice are interpreted as total guides to the pluriverse. In the quest for interpersonal transformation, religious discourse utilizes music, fiction, science, technology, and whatever else is at hand. What Latour emphasizes is that religious institutions and religious subjects should not blindly reorganize their networks of translation in light of the battle with science, or the battle with law. Rather, people should focus on transformation of the heart. Interactions with the other modes of existence should be utilized for the purpose of improving this process.

Sound crazy? What would be the outcome of this rethinking of religion? For one, the New Atheists would lose some sparring partners. In addition, I suspect there would be a fair amount of focused religious innovation. Latour calls the spirit of innovation “The Holy Spirit,” and its flourishing through networks of translation as the very stuff of religious history. Finally, there would be a new role for religion in secular debates about political institutions and social order.

This last point is highly unsettling for most people. How is religion supposed to influence secular debates about social order? Isn’t religion inherently oppressive?

Nah! Religion is just producing shitty products these days, that’s all. The same can be said of modernist enterprises across the board, as Latour has painstakingly documented. The products of globalization, for example, destroy human ecologies and environments. This does not entail the eternal doom of human social organization, does it?

For Latour, we must separate and survey truth production in each of these distinct modes of existence, exposing the metaphysics of economics, for example, identifying weaknesses in its specific regional projects in light of the ethics and moral order that originally accompanies these metaphysics. Without a systematic effort, techniques of social learning get all jumbled up. One obstacle to such effort is that an anthropology of the economic key, for example, cannot resist framing a survey in the form of a critique. The descriptive act is tainted by opposition, or endorsement, or other commitments. Data analysis is not a revelation of objective order but a constitutional convention.

This contributes to widespread battles where developing definitive analysis is a “mad project” fit only for the frenzied.

Notice that what seems like a rational process is now tainted by what amounts to the character flaw of hubris. We are once again confronted by madness as tragedy and reason as madness — a situation analysed by Foucalt in History of Madness. For Foucalt, the 19th and 20th centuries were only successful at isolating forms of consciousness that cannot be eradicated. The analytic quest for knowledge cannot breach the metaphysical gap separating human powers from certainty, simplicity, tranquility, and univocality. To produce those experiences in citizens and scientists, knowledge would seem to require frameworks that resemble theologies. Attempts at a definitive treatment of an economic order, for example, mix modes of existence in ways that either accomodate forms of power over the manifestations of consciousness, or attempts to establish an alternative order that will offer tranquility, simplicity, and other illusions.

Latour walks this tightrope, suggesting that a “mad project” is nevertheless worth attempting.

This mad project is actually a neverending profusion of projects that do not exist, piled atop projects that do exist. What makes the project “mad” is perhaps that it takes place in daydreams and sketches where its effects do not disturb. This is just what Foucalt’s approach would suggest: mad projects originate in suppressed, dominated corners and will tend to be driven into silence.

Sound cynical? In the presence of venues of bias and limited powers of attention, Latour — who identifies as “primarily a philosopher, though not a professional” — is forced to undertake his mad project below the consciousness of others. He cites a few colleagues and contemporaries who know his secret, and portrays his philosophical views in the form of a conversational intellectual autobiography — a “coming out” party. http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/114-UNSELD-SSS-GB.pdf

“Coming out” — yet another term related to the history of madness that Latour relies upon in the presentation of an otherwise perfectly sound, rational research proposal. By acknowledging the pluriverse of William James, and proposing an unfathomably massive anthropological survey (“not a critique”) of networks of translation in many modes of existence, Latour is somehow confessing guilt. There is something crazy, something taboo, something constitutive of his own subjectivity that does not fit in the contemporary moral and social order. The constructivist, the actor-network theorist — a systematic philosopher? GTFO.

But, suggests Latour, it’s the only way out of nature! It’s the only way forward!

Without going into a hysterical fit that could finish his career and land him in the asylum, Latour apologizes, masks his proposals in intellectual biography, cross-referencing other thinkers who can vouch for his sanity. All the while, though, he announces something tragic and frenzied, something audacious, something…systematic and rational.

If I dared to reveal my entire mad project to you, I would confess that I always had this odd dream of being able to do for contemporary collectives what had been done, on the Elgin marbles, for the Panathenaic festival: a procession, that is, a theory of ambassadors–and thus not a critique – of the various modes of existence, each with its own incommensurable and yet fully respected truth conditions. You see how drunk I am! And yet, I can’t help it, there is an urge, consubstantial to the philosophical tradition, whenever you are told to limit yourself inside a well defined specialty, to jump on the other side of the fence in order to embrace the Whole. Naturally, the Global will never come back, and fortunately so, but that does not mean that other figures of the Whole are not there to be detected and composed. I want to have a go at it.

The image of a procession of ambassadors is interesting, as it goes beyond viewing the role of the researcher/theorist as a recording device or a mirror. Rather than devising an instrument or a reference manual, research is a production, a project, an event. But not a critique.

This seems sneaky, and I have to consider whether Latour is even being genuine in the expression of his secret desire. Can he be believed when he claims that his entire career should be viewed as a single systematic project in constructive philosophy, to produce a procession of ambassadors? What kind of subjectivity even claims to undertake such a project? Does it not imply that Latour is assembling some kind of internationale, a subversive coup disguised as “not a critique”?

Without an impressive body of work to establish a legacy in realms of not-philosophy, Latour the philosopher would indeed sound like a madman with delusions of grandeur. But then, I’ve seen him lecture the Queen of Denmark. His name is on the tip of millions of tongues. Perhaps leaders of the world should listen to what the fool has to say?

Or perhaps Latour should actually organize and produce this procession, rather than waxing philosophical about secret desires and alluding to the hubris and grandiosity of the thought of the project. The entire pageant of this article to me is bizarre: declaring one’s own madness, announcing one’s emergence from a situation of alienation, yet still isolating one’s own proposal in the obfuscating context of an intellectual biography. What is Latour doing?

I think he is defending himself against himself, actually.

In parallel with the empirical work pursued for almost 30 years on the socio-technical networks of science, the author has systematically pursued a philosophical inquiry to compare different way of producing truth (science and technology being only two ways among several). The principle is to add to the analysis of networks the ‘key’ in which each type of network is able to spread, this key defining for each type of mediation the felicity and infelicity conditions necessary to grasp it. This project aims at providing a positive philosophical anthropology of the moderns instead of the only negative one offered in We Have Never Been Modern.

Does Latour the non-philosopher — an identity reinforced and re-produced by thousands of lecture requests, institutional appointments, and the rest of it — really provide any room for Latour the self-identified philospher to undertake this project? Alas, Latour’s identity is confined by what has always-already occurred.

Shifting modern institutions away from nature and toward the ecological thought of stewardship, toward caring for one’s creations, seems only slightly more difficult for Latour than shifting his own intellectual modes of production. It is as if the full weight of his relationships to social theory, architecture, etc etc allow only for dreaming of one’s real interests and actual identity.

The proposal is thus tragic not simply because of its hubris. The tragedy is also reflective of Latour finding himself in the dominated position of figures like Cassandra, concubines of networks whose capacities to provide advice about how to proceed are overshadowed by the inertia of other ongoing plot lines. There is too much movement to provide the audience with anything other than a dream sequence or a vignette of what could be.

I, for one, hope Latour finds an opportunity to organize this procession of ambassadors that is not a critique. I’m just not sure what the felicity conditions of that dream entail. An academic department, a new interdiscplinary category with its own conferences and journals? Or just a few years of solitary research?

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