Dear fellow Latourists,
Last Saturday Latourism presented itself in the Amsterdam zoo. The performance we rehearsed last Wednesday went pretty good and we managed to get a little bit of the ideas we thought were important about Latour’s work across. To also give you an idea about the presentation we did, I included the glossary we gave our participants below. In about three weeks we will read Latour and Massumi and dive into the world of politico-aesthetico-philosophical activism. This post is primary meant to ask you what do you want to do afterward. Are you fed up with reading post-anthropological texts or do you want to continue with the reading group? If the answer to the last question is ‘yes’, what do you want to read and when? As always, input is always welcome and if you missed literature in our past sessions, please tell us so via a comment or e-mail. If we want to continue, possible topics are the following ones in a random order:
- Eckersley’s Green State: ‘What would constitute a definitively “green” state?’.
- Hall’s Plants as Persons: ‘All those who depend on plants should critically read Plants as Persons’.
- Arendt’s On Revolution.
- Connoly’s Neuropolitics, Thinking, Culture, Speed: ‘ A surprising exploration of connections between culture, neuroscience, and our experience of time.’
- Hofstadter’s: Gödel, Escher, Bach: ‘a metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Caroll’ (GEB would be really fun to read collectively).
- Ankersmit’s Sublime Historical Experience: Ankersmit is a historian/philosopher/mathematician from Groningen who likes to combine the arts, history, philosophy, and science in pleasantly surprising ways.
- The (philosophical/psychological) motivation problem: how to go from normative argument, to actual practice? I have to look some literature up if you’re interested in it.
It should be noted that I did not read all these works previously so I am not sure whether these are really relevant/good (with the exception of the first part of GEB). Feel free to add suggestions or tell me if you want to resign your status as Latourist after the 15th of July.
What follows is the text we performed during the workshop. You might read the glossary as a summary of the meetings we had in Latourian terms. See this (not final) version of the text:
The Unpleasant Route from Understanding to Knowing
Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?
In a similar fashion as Mary (assuming) did when she exited the room, we believe it is important to not only know and theorize about ideas like post-humanism, post-anthropocentrism, and actants, but also try to understands how and experience how an ethical stance towards other things might work out in practice. Moreover, we are convinced that a genuine Parliament of Things (PoT) should start with a thorough analysis of the attitude needed to deal with other entities in our non-modern world. This post-human and post-anthropocentric stance towards the other might even be prior to the formal institutionalization of a PoT. But how to get such an experience across? Through not a simple presentation of what we know about Bruno Latour’s Parliament, but by inviting you to a situation which might resemble the messy, unpleasant reality of inviting other entities to a decision-making process. One of the important aspects we wanted to highlight is that a PoT might not be structured through processes of verbal communication. Though it is probably the most easy and comfortable thing to do, we do not have any reason to assume that this conventional method of doing politics, is the method we should use in a PoT. Hence, our choice of turning the format of the conventional (academic) workshop upside down. Without powerpoints, Prezis, argument, and – in general – verbal communication, we hope you – in your attempts of translation and communication – understand what a messy endeavour organizing a PoT would be. But, don’t worry: messy it should be. We should trip, always.
Though we think a good understanding of something should start with experience, we also think that an experience completely isolated from context does not work for everyone. We therefore include a short list of relevant concepts you can use to relate your experience to theory. First of all, the actor and actant:
Actant is a term covering both humans and nonhumans; an actor is any entity that modifies another entity in a trial; of actors it can only be said that they act; their competence is deduced from their performances. Since in English “actor” is limited to humans, “actant” can be used to include nonhumans as well.
An articulation connections propositions with one another. In contrast to statements which are true or false, propositions can be said to be well or badly articulated.
In spite of its use in the singular, the term refers not to an already-established unit but to a procedure for collecting associations of humans and nonhumans. It is instrument-based, rare, difficult to reproduce, always contested, and it presents itself as a costly trial whose result has to be decoded.
Fourth, matters of concern:
A matter of concern is to be distinguished from a matter of fact. It is best explained with help of an example. Before the dangerous characteristics of asbestos became known, asbestos was a matter of fact, a simple building material used in houses. After its potential of causing diseases became known, asbestos transformed into a matter of concern, influencing politicians, health professionals, and academics. Compare actant.
This concept has meaning only in the difference between the par “human-nonhuman” and the subject-object dichotomy. Associations of humans and nonhumans refer to a different political regime from the war forced upon us by the distinction between subject and object. A nonhuman is thus the peacetime version of the object: what the object would look like if it were not engaged in the war to shortcut due political process. The pair human-nonhuman is not a way to “overcome” the subject-object distinction but a way to bypass it entirely.
Sixth, speech impedimenta:
Designates not speech itself but the difficulties one has in speaking and the devices one needs for the articulation of the common world.
An expression used at first to show the profound kinship between representatives of humans (in the political sense) and representatives of nonhumans (in the epistemological sense). Next, the term is used to designate all the speech impedimenta that explain the dynamics of the collective. The spokesperson is precisely the one who does not permit an assured answer to the question “Who is speaking?”
In its linguistic and material connotations, it refers to all the displacements through other actors whose mediation is indispensable for any action to occur. In place of a rigid opposition between context and content, chains of translation refer to the work through which actors modify, displace, and translate their various contradictory interests.
By focusing on the difficult way we as human beings interact with, on the one hand, each other, and on the other hand, other things, we tried to let you experience what an enormously difficult task awaits us. We should not only reconstruct our notions of what a relevant political actor is, but also move beyond our common methodology of doing politics, and critically assess how communication in a collective can and should work.