Latour, Bruno

Assigned: Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” (2115-36). Also read the editors’ introduction (2111-15).

“Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” (2003/2004)

1. On 2115-18 (“Wars. So many wars…”) Bruno Latour addresses what he calls his “worry” (2116 top) about what has become of the project of critique that spans from the Enlightenment to postmodernist literary and cultural theory. What main example from a New York Times editorial does Latour offer to illustrate why he is so concerned about today’s highly motivated and political/corporate application of “social constructivism” under the banner of critique? Why does the position attributed in the editorial to a certain “Republican strategist” get under Latour’s skin, and even instill in him a sense of guilt over his own past intellectual positions? What kind of miseducation does he now fear is rampant in American and European universities? (2117)

2. On 2118-20 (“Artificially maintained controversies…”), Latour deplores the popularity of conspiracy theories in modern America and elsewhere in the West. What do the many conspiracy theories surrounding the 9/11/2001 attacks by Al Qaeda terrorists against the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon suggest to him about the intellectual temper of the times, and more particularly about the uses to which the tools of once-rarefied critical theory are being put? What is “instant revisionism” (2118), and how does Latour describe the two-step process whereby conspiracy theories are launched into public consciousness? (2119)

3. On 2120-22 (“What’s happening to me, you…”), Latour explains concisely what he thinks has gone wrong with critique, and how he wants to improve matters. What possible factors does he identify? In particular, what does he seem to think of the possibility that critique’s devaluation is “another case of the famed power of capitalism for recycling everything aimed at its destruction” (2120)? Ultimately, how, according to Latour, does the necessary maneuver amount to “renewing empiricism” (2121) rather than fleeing from it? How was critique in error with regard to the way it focused on “matters of fact” in the spirit of debunking them? What more constructive enterprise does Latour gesture towards when he writes of turning critique towards a “stubbornly realist attitude” and an emphasis on “matters of concern, not matters of fact” (2121)?

4. On 2122-23 (“Martin Heidegger, as every philosopher…”), what does Latour suggest is the problem arising from Martin Heidegger’s differentiating so sharply between Gegenstand (a manufactured object) and the Thing (an object that requires craftsmanship and around which a world gathers and concern is shown)? What does Latour want to do with the objects of science that would avoid perpetuating this dichotomy? (2122 bottom-2123 top) What problem does he identify in the way philosophers usually talk about objects—what opportunity do they miss when they keep bringing up simplistic examples such as “pots, mugs, and jugs” and “the occasional rock” (2123) instead of examining complex material objects, such as even a piece of dolomite stone could be considered?

5. On 2123-24 (“Several years ago another philosopher…”), in discussing the French philosopher Michel Serres, Latour mentions two important events that occurred in 2003: the destruction of and search for the Space Shuttle Columbia and the concerted American and British effort to make a case for war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. What inferences does he make regarding these events in connection to his exploration of the meaning of the word “Thing”? (2124) How do both incidents or efforts highlight the sheer complexity of the supposedly simple, given “objects” involved, the difficulty of the “gathering” (2124) required to make or reconstitute them?

6. On 2125-26 (“My point is thus very simple…”), Latour draws a key inference from his previous discussion about the Space Shuttle Columbia and the Second Gulf War in Iraq. What new attitude towards the interpretation of and regard for objects as “Things” (2125), as opposed to a merely dismissive approach to objects, does he see taking hold of certain professional researchers and philosophers as well as among the general public? What healthy shakeup does Latour also see in the way some historians delineate the advent of modernity on the basis of what he (following Heidegger’s terminology) calls “Things that gather” (2126)?

7. On 2126-28 (“And yet, I know full well that…”), Latour offers the first two of four diagrams to illustrate what he considers an unfair and disheartening process of critique as it is too often taught and practiced. Consider his prose explanation of these first two diagrams, beginning with his comments on the “fairy position” (2126): taking up this scheme, how does the cynical critic convince “naïve believers” that whatever they believe in is simply unreal? As for the “fact position” (2127), what very different move against the believer does it entail, and what is the effect of using the fairy position and the fact positions either together or sequentially against the believer?

8. On 2128-31 (“Is it so surprising, after all…”), why, according to Latour, have the practitioners of critique so thoroughly “lost the hearts of their fellow citizens” (2128)? In his view, what gives many theorists the sense that they are always right about everything, and makes many ordinary people want them simply to keep away from whatever beliefs and objects the public values? What “rather poor trick” (2130) in his view, props up the “critical barbarity” (2129) of theorists in tearing apart everything they don’t like and preserving everything they do like? How can such a practitioner be “an antifetishist,” “an unrepentant positivist,” and “a perfectly healthy sturdy realist” (2130), depending on what is being defended or criticized? After an admission that critique simply does not work against strong “scientific objects” (2131) and that in truth, it doesn’t work on “weak” objects either, what basic call for a reorientation of critique does Latour make?

9. On 2131-33 (“To retrieve a realist attitude…”), Latour points out that trying to increase the degree of realism in one’s critical approach is bound to present problems since “the realist attitude will always be split; matters of fact take the best part, and matters of concern are limited to a rich but essentially void or irrelevant history” (2132).In this regard, what value does Latour find in the philosophy of Alfred Whitehead? How did this British philosopher regard “matters of fact” in a respectful way that Latour finds exciting with respect to the prospects of reorienting critique in a more positive direction?

10. On 2133-34 (“Whitehead is not an author known…”), what use does Latour make of Martin Heidegger’s key term “gathering” as he looks to “replace the tired routines of most social theories” (2133)? If an object is regarded as a thing, how, according to Latour, can one then approach it in a way that respects its reality and complexity? In what sense, too, does this approach involve a recognition that the construction, or constructedness, of a thing means the thing is “fragile and thus in great need of care and caution” (2134)?

11. On 2134-36 (“The practical problem we face…”), what definition of critique does Latour borrow from the British mathematician and computer theorist Alan Turing? What is special about the early computer, according to Latour, that Turing invented? How does it teach us that “all objects are born things” (2135) and that, by implication, setting the status of something as a mere object amounts to a kind of failure on the part of the person who fixes its status that way? (2135) What would become possible, according to Latour in addressing the prospects of critique, if, following Turing, “all entities, including computers, cease to be objects defined simply by their inputs and outputs and become again things…” (2136)?

12. General question: In “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Bruno Latour offers scathing criticism of “business as usual” in the humanities: he sees graduate students trained in the grand tradition of “critique” to shred the validity of just about everything the average Jane or Joe cherishes, all the while arrogantly preserving their own favorite objects and methods from any criticism whatsoever. Does that sound like an accurate description of what’s going on in humanities departments today, or do you think Latour is exaggerating? Explain. In addition, if you do in fact see a problem in how the public has come to perceive what humanities scholars and teachers do, how could that perception issue be ameliorated: what can scholars and teachers do to reengage with people who live outside the university setting?

13. General question: In “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Bruno Latour at one point laments the ubiquity of today’s instantly cooked up “conspiracy theories” about nearly every major event that happens. He explains his own theory about what enables such so-called theories on pages 2118-19, but how do you explain them: what is your theory of conspiracy theories, so to speak? Is it simply that people want to sound as if they know what is going on, and are too lazy and ignorant to do the research that would allow them to learn and accept the truth? Or is there more to it than that? Consider, for example, how much time and energy some people will gladly put into “proving” an absurd and even scurrilous proposition. What is going on with all this proliferating conspiracy theorizing? False as it is, does it perhaps amount to an understandable response to a bewildering, frightening contemporary reality and to leaders who are untruthful in their dealings with the public? Do conspiracies give people a sense—however illusory—of control over a threatening world? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake