Latour on factishes and belief

Before moving on to work on Spinoza and the concept of aberrant monism, I want to add one more post on Latour. I hope that between this and previous posts there may emerge a relatively coherent picture of my reading of Latour. I also hope to indicate how Latour’s thought can become, and ought to become, an effective tool in countering a number of the presuppositions of contemporary neoliberal politics, or what Mark Fisher aptly calls capitalist realism. As usual, feel free to point out the errors of my ways.

As contradictory as it may seem, Latour argues that ‘construction’ and ‘autonomous reality’ are to be understood as synonymous. Among the neologisms Latour uses to elaborate this point is ‘factish,’ being a combination of fact and fetish. A fact, traditionally understood, is autonomous and unconstructed. When Pasteur discovered the role microorganisms play in the process of fermentation he simply, on this view, came to recognize an autonomous fact that was already there and independent of the historical events involved in Pasteur’s efforts to locate these microorganisms. A fetish, by contrast, involves the projection of beliefs upon a mute, passive object. In both cases, according to Latour, what is maintained is the subject-object dichotomy. In the case of facts, objects are ultimately responsible for the success of Pasteur’s experiments; and in the case of fetishes, subjects are the ones responsible for projecting beliefs onto objects. A factish, for Latour, is a type of action that does ‘not fall into the comminatory choice between fact and belief.’ (Pandora’s Hope, 306). Rather, a factish entails events; or, as Latour puts it, ‘I never act; I am always slightly surprised by what I do. That which acts through me is also surprised by what I do, by the chance to mutate, to change, and to bifurcate…’ (ibid. 281). In a nod to Deleuze, Latour claims that factishes are ‘rhizomelike,’ or ‘one should always be aware of factishes…[because] their consequences are unforeseen, the moral order fragile, the social one unstable.’ (ibid. 288).

A factish is thus neither an independent reality that comes to be discovered after a successful scientific experiment, nor is it merely the projection of human beliefs onto an inert object. A factish involves both human and nonhuman actors, and scientific experiments, as events, involve relations between actors that return more than any of the actors contributed singly (neoliberal understandings of the market ignore this fact, but the recurrence of crises, as David Harvey has argued, justifies Latour’s point). It is for this reason that Latour claims ‘an experiment is an event which offers slightly more than its inputs…no one, and nothing at all, is in command, not even an anonymous field of force.’ (ibid. 298)(Nor, for Latour, would an anonymous, impersonal market be in command). Latour acknowledges the influence of Whitehead when he uses the term event, most notably the use Whitehead makes of the term to replace ‘the notion of discovery’ and its attendant assumption concerning the ahistorical nature of objects and the historicity of human endeavors. When Latour defines an experiment as an event, therefore, he intends precisely to argue that this ‘event has consequences for the historicity of all the ingredients, including nonhumans, that are the circumstances of that experiment.’ (ibid. 306).

Despite all the apparent differences between modernism and postmodernism, Latour argues that they have each ‘left belief, the untouchable center of their courageous enterprises, untouched.’ (ibid. 275). In particular, the modernists, on Latour’s reading, felt the task of philosophy and science was to track down which of our beliefs are justified true beliefs. To this end, science comes in armed with facts to hammer away at any beliefs that are not in line with the facts. With postmodernism, on the other hand, science itself comes to be seen as nothing but beliefs that construct a reality, or ‘construction and reality are the same thing; everything is just so much illusion, storytelling, and make believe…’ (ibid.). And what we have then, ‘when science itself is transformed into a belief’ is ‘postmodern virtuality—the nadir, the absolute zero of politics, aesthetics, and metaphysics.’ ‘Virtuality,’ in short, is for Latour ‘what everything else turns into when belief in belief has run amok.’ (ibid. 287). When Latour argues that it is because factishes are constructed that they are so very real, therefore, he is saying something quite different from the postmodernist who claims that ‘construction and reality are the same thing.’ The difference has to do with who or what is acting. In the case of factishes, there is a ‘rhizomelike’ network of both human and nonhuman actors, and no one actor is in command, ‘not even an anonymous field of force.’ For the postmoderns, it is the power of belief that is in command, or the virtuality of the One as Badiou interprets Deleuze, and the autonomous nature of reality is nothing but a mode of belief or virtuality.

If Badiou’s critique of Deleuze is correct (as an earlier post indicated it was not), then it would seem that Latour would echo Badiou’s criticisms, at least on this point. As we unpack precisely what Latour is arguing for when he claims that it is ‘because it [a factish] is constructed that it is so very real,’ we will find that it bears much in common with Deleuze’s project, as Latour himself recognizes, and thus Badiou’s criticisms are directed at a ‘postmodern’ Deleuze that never was. Key to understanding how ‘construction’ and ‘autonomous reality’ are synonymous is what Latour calls ‘historical realism,’ whereby the reality of what is is inseparable from processes that increase or diminish the number of associations that are accumulated over time. It is not all or nothing regarding the existence of entities, but we ought rather to speak of ‘relative existence.’ As Latour puts it, ‘An entity gains in reality if it is associated with many others that are viewed as collaborating with it. It loses in reality if, on the contrary, it has to shed associates or collaborators (humans and nonhumans).’ (ibid. 257). For Deleuze the heterogeneous network of human and nonhuman associations that constitutes the relative existence of an entity is just what he calls a multiplicity, or what I have called historical ontology, the double articulation and movement that is inseparable from the reality of entities. Moreover, we could say that the reality of entities is a reality-effect of historical ontology, though an autonomous effect whereby historical ontology is a quasi-cause (as Deleuze understands this term). Using Deleuze’s terminology, the reality of an entity is inseparable from a double articulation, with the first articulation drawing a number of associations and links between human and nonhuman elements into a plane of consistency, and the second articulation actualizing this plane of consistency as a real, autonomous entity. As Latour and Woolgar state it in Laboratory Life, ‘“reality” cannot be used to explain why a statement becomes a fact, since it is only after it has become a fact that the effect of reality is obtained.’ (p. 180). For Deleuze the multiplicity is the reality of the virtual that is the quasi-cause inseparable from the reality of entities that are its autonomous effects. A further and related concern of Deleuze is what he calls counter-actualization, or a problematizing history as I call it, whereby the virtual as quasi-cause becomes tapped, thereby problematizing the actual so as to allow for its possible transformation. Latour’s use of history in science studies shares a similar concern. In particular, by problematizing traditional understandings of science and the presuppositions it entails concerning the relation between beliefs and things, it could be argued that Latour is attempting to problematize and hence move beyond belief. Rather than attempt to justify beliefs through scientific facts or unmask beliefs as mere fancy and fetish, Latour sees ‘the role of the intellectual’ as the task of ‘protect[ing] the diversity of ontological status against the threat of its transformation into facts and fetishes, beliefs and things.’ (Pandora’s Hope, 291). In short, Latour, as with Deleuze, sees the ‘role of the intellectual’ as one of affirming multiplicity in order to counter the identification of multiplicity with the one or multiple of beliefs and things. And it is with this move that Latour’s thought has begun to engage more actively and critically with a number of the presuppositions of contemporary neoliberal politics, as I’ve tried to indicate briefly here and in previous posts.


5 responses to “Latour on factishes and belief

  • kaibosworth

    which version or edition of politics of nature are you citing? my page numbers do not align (eg, 306 is in the glossary)

  • Anti Vigilante

    Hi,

    I thought it might amuse you to know that, a while a ago before learning of people actually philosophizing about objects, I began outlining a communication protocol between content sharing peers with double articulation as the major principle (turning axioms and problems upside down). I had to do this in order to avoid a catastrophic explosion of relationships to maintain and to eliminate the need to have all peers have complete copies of each other’s catalog of files. Instead, if two individuals have the same file then it shows up in the center of the screen. Then the shared distributed catalog could easily be built as more people discussed files and sent them to each other.

    Perhaps the less solid reality (Quantum Mechanics) that we are offered by the universe prevents the universe from crashing under its own information/entropic weight. But as long as there are multiple sources participating in the reality of one thing so let it be done.

  • the habit of things | Aberrant Monism

    […] reading this I immediately thought of Latour’s concept of relative existence (which I discuss here in an earlier post). For Latour, as for Peirce, existence is not an all or nothing affair but is a […]

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