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Latour’s Epiphany

November 24, 2012

The following comes from Bruno Latour’s “Irreductions”, the brilliantly eccentric philosophical treatise that he included as a free-standing appendix in The Pasteurization of France. Here he recounts a kind of origin story for all of his work, and gives a taste of the basic perspective and affective qualities of that work. Above all, his thinking is irreductive (not anti-reductive and not at all holistic). It seeks to allow all things to be as they are, to let them perform themselves freely, and to simply follow the traces of their actions. He is the philosopher of a democratic ontology. No writer has given me such a lasting sense of intellectual liberation as Latour.

Interlude 1 : In a Pseudoautobiographical Style to Explain the
Aims of the Author

I taught at Gray in the French provinces for a year. At the end of the winter
of 1972, on the road from Dijon to Gray, I was forced to stop, brought to
my senses after an overdose of reductionism. A Christian loves a God who
is capable of reducing the world to himself because he created it. A Catholic
confines the world to the history of the Roman salvation. An astronomer
looks for the origins of the universe by deducing its evolution from the Big
Bang. A mathematician seeks axioms that imply all the others as corrolaries
and consequences. A philosopher hopes to find the radical foundation which
makes all the rest epiphenomenal. A Hegelian wishes to squeeze from events
something already inherent in them. A Kantian reduces things to grains of
dust and then reassembles them with synthetic a-priori judgments that are
as fecund as a mule. A French engineer attributes potency to calculations,
though these come from the practice of an old-boy network. An administrator
never tires of looking for officers, followers, and subjects. An intellectual
strives to make the “simple” practices and opinions of the vulgar explicit
and conscious. A son of the bourgeoisie sees the simple stages of an abstract
cycle of wealth in the vine growers, cellarmen, and bookkeepers. A Westerner
never tires of shrinking the evolution of species and empires to Cleopatra’s
nose, Achilles’ heel, and Nelson’s blind eye. A writer tries to recreate daily
life and imitate nature. A painter is obsessed by the desire to render feelings
into colors. A follower of Roland Barthes tries to turn everything not only
into texts but into signifiers alone. A man likes to use the term “he” in place
of humanity. A militant hopes that revolution will wrench the future from
the past. A philosopher sharpens the “epistemological break” to guillotine
those who have not yet “found the sure path of a science.” An alchemist
would like to hold the philosopher’s stone in his hand.

To put everything into nothing, to deduce everything from almost nothing,
to put into hierarchies, to command and to obey, to be profound or superior,
to collect objects and force them into a tiny space, whether they be subjects,
signifiers, classes, Gods, axioms-to have for companions, like those of my
caste, only the Dragon of Nothingness and the Dragon of Totality. Tired
and weary, suddenly I felt that everything was still left out. Christian, philosopher,
intellectual, bourgeois, male, provincial, and French, I decided to
make space and allow the things which I spoke about the room that they
needed to “stand at arm’s length.” I knew nothing, then, of what I am writing
now but simply repeated to myself: “Nothing can be reduced to anything
else, nothing can be deduced from anything else, everything may be allied
to everything else.” This was like an exorcism that defeated demons one by
one. It was a wintry sky, and a very blue. I no longer needed to prop it up
with a cosmology, put it in a picture, render it in writing, measure it in a
meteorological article, or place it on a Titan to prevent it falling on my head.
I added it to other skies in other places and reduced none of them to it, and
it to none of them. It “stood at arm’s length,” fled, and established itself
where it alone defined its place and its aims, neither knowable nor unknowable.
It and me, them and us, we mutually defined ourselves. And for the
first time in my life I saw things unreduced and set free.

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