Discursive Networks and the Epistemological Gap in Latour and Tarnas


Matt Segall has written another insightful and eloquent post continuing our conversation about Bruno Latour, Richard Tarnas, academic discourse, networks, technology, science, politics, archetypes, affect, translation, anxiety, nature, religion, Gaia, climate change, and more.

I know Matt admires Tarnas’ work as much as I do, so I’m glad he clarified the vertical, hierarchical metaphor for Latour’s and Tarnas’ respective audiences as “misleading.” Continuing our discussion of horizontal networks, I’d suggest that perhaps a more accurate way to describe Latour, as an academic specialist speaking to other academics, would be as writing from the center out, while Tarnas, as a specialist academic speaking to the educated public and other academics, could be characterized as writing from the middle in, or perhaps from a different center out. I’d heard that Latour was apparently the tenth most cited academic in 2007, which is certainly impressive, but I wasn’t aware of Francois Cusset’s book French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, which looks fascinating. I love the passage from Cusset’s book that Matt reproduces about a meeting of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, which is directly up my alley. I would give a lot to have witnessed that awkward sounding summit, particularly as I argue in my forthcoming book that, although Dylan is not an academic philosopher by any means, he is consistently and profoundly philosophical in his interviews, lyrics, and writing in a way that, I suggest, is deeply sympathetic with the philosophies of William James, Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead, and Richard Tarnas.

I’m not sure I follow Deleuze and Guattari’s rationale for claiming that “rhizomes have their own, even more rigid, despotism and hierarchy,” as from my (admittedly limited) knowledge of these theorists, it seems that rhizomes push directly against a vertical, “aborescent” model of knowledge, rather finding their exemplification in something like the phenomenon of horizontal gene transfer. Perhaps Matt could illuminate this issue further. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the passage Matt quotes from Latour’s Science in Action, which suggests that “the word network indicates that resources are concentrated in a few places–the knots and nodes,” seems somewhat to contradict Latour’s statement four years later in We Have Never Been Modern that “the defence of marginality presupposes the existence of a totalitarian centre. But if the centre and its totality are illusions, acclaim for the margins is somewhat ridiculous” (124). I acknowledge that a possible avenue of escape from this seeming contradiction could be to argue that the “knots and nodes” of networks are not “totalitarian,” but fluid multiplicities of human and nonhuman (institutional, conceptual, technological) agencies (a supposition I push against below). But Latour still seems to suggest, if we can judge from the specific language of this translation, that the “centre” is an “illusion” connected but still distinguishable from its supposed “totality.”

However, behind all of this theorizing, as far as I can tell, is Latour’s ingenious defense of the central nodes of discursive power as not really central, which seems to me a rather subtle justification for Latour’s own location in that center. Matt writes that Latour’s “goal has never been to relativize the natural or cultural power of certain concentrations of scientific or academic knowledge,” but this is precisely what Latour seems to do in his erasure of “a totalitarian centre” and his suggestion that “acclaim for the margins is somewhat ridiculous.” To my mind, Latour is arguing, as we all do, from his affective “way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos,” as William James puts it in Pragmatism (1). Latour clearly feels comfortable in the main streams of academic discourse; his proclivities make him an ideal candidate to perform as a central node within the larger node of academia, so of course he prefers the center; it’s the site of his admirable success. And of course he wants to erase the postmodern privileging of the margin at least partially because it serves him to do so. He likes the center and he seems implicitly to want to maintain that center by pretending that it is not a center. To my mind, this is like claiming that Manhattan or San Francisco are not totalitarian centers of multi-leveled networks. To follow this thread, while it is true that the metropolis is interlaced with marginal immigrant deli workers, dish washers, and people without homes, the fact is that to live comfortably in that central cultural node requires a lot more money (and thus influence) than less compact areas of the geographical network. In this analogy, Latour is like a man born into intellectual wealth who claims that he’s just a regular guy, that any of those immigrant workers or homeless people could have what he has if they just tried harder. This seems to me a case of unconscious academic privilege. I honestly don’t begrudge Latour that privilege—someone will always be at the center while others are on the margins—but to suggest that the center and, thus, the margins are “illusions” seems a clever, perhaps unconscious way to reify intellectual class distinctions: “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

In contrast, the archetypal cosmological perspective championed by Tarnas in Cosmos and Psyche is without doubt marginal as far as the main streams of academia are concerned, which is fine for now as long as we can all agree that there is in fact a discursive margin that is systematically and unquestioningly excluded and, worse, trivialized by those at the centers of intellectual authority (though Tarnas is central to his own countercultural academic node, albeit a much smaller one than mainstream academia). As Tarnas often notes, the archetypal cosmological perspective is “the gold-standard of superstition” for our culture even as many educated and intelligent people outside the main streams of academia find great value in it. It seems to me that Latour’s denial of a totalitarian center (if we can define intellectual totality as the absolute exclusion of certain modes of thought) is the most subtle and clever way yet devised implicitly to reify the dominance of the characteristic postmodern “view from nowhere,” as Sean Kelly puts it (in a comment on Matt’s last post, derived from Thomas Nagel, I assume), even as Latour explicitly seeks to call this view into question.

Wikipedia has a nice summary of this “view from nowhere”: “analysis that misinforms the audience by creating the impression that opposing parties to an issue have equal correctness and validity, even when the truth of their claims is mutually exclusive” (under entry for “Lie”). I actually think this operation, taken in a more positive light, is the essence of the integral perspective, synthesizing seemingly incommensurable modes (which is why I suggested “view from everywhere” in a comment on Matt’s last post). But Latour seems to argue this view in its negative sense, suggesting that the centers and margins of intellectual discourse are merely different concentrations of continuously networked relations, when in fact there is an impassable epistemological gap (which perhaps fractally reiterates the epistemological gap between mind and world) fortifying the main streams of academia, based at bottom only on material and efficient causation and excluding modes of thought that accept the validity of formal and final causation in addition to material-efficient causation. This gap exists less in the individuals who form these networks than in the agency of the academic institutions themselves, which are intellectually conservative by nature, even as they tend toward political progressivism. Like corporations (formally recognized as “people” by the Supreme Court in “Citizen’s United”), universities are not necessarily benevolent agents.

I know many mainstream academics (I’m ostensibly one, despite the fact that I do my best to straddle the epistemological gap) who are open to modes of thought in their personal lives (religious, mystical, archetypal, teleological) that they would never admit to in their professional capacities, because the university seems to act as something like a multifocal Foucauldian “panopticon”; academics enforce the epistemological gap on one another because they (rightly) fear the judgment of their colleagues, who, in a closed, vicious circle, in turn enforce this judgment based on their own fear of being judged. No individual is the totalitarian emperor of this “misenchanted” epistemology, but the institutional structure of review committees as “guardians of the threshold” for attaining a doctoral degree or tenure effectively creates an intellectually totalitarian climate of extreme discursive caution not far removed from that of the Catholic Church (which perhaps makes sense given Latour’s Catholicism). This seems to be why Freud is canonical in the humanities and social sciences, while Jung, whom Freud initially designated his “crown prince” and “heir” (in The Freud-Jung Letters, if I remember correctly), is generally considered passé and overly credulous in “postmodern” circles. Forget Joseph Campbell, who had the audacity to speak about archetypes on television in a way that a popular audience could understand, thereby undermining academia’s primary tool for reasserting its authority: rhetorical difficulty. In my discipline, English, formal and final causation (which can manifest as archetypes, synchronicity, and teleology) are accepted, even celebrated in fictional narrative or as ironic rhetorical device, but are implicitly and categorically suppressed when brought to bear on “the real world” outside fictional and rhetorical fancy. The correlation of two materially unconnected entities (for instance, something in nature and something in human experience, the scarab-like beetle knocking at the window as the analysand describes her dream of a scarab) can be meaningful, even central in a novel, a form in which the primary literary trope of the “symbol” often performs this very function. However, locating this sort of connection in extra-textual experience (as does synchronicity) is anathema. In fact, I see literature and literary studies as keeping the flame of premodern epistemological modes alive in a “misenchanted” modernity, even as most of its practitioners are unaware of, or unwilling to acknowledge this secret at the heart of our discipline.

However, having defined this stark distinction between academic center and margin, between Freud and Jung, between Latour and Tarnas, Matt and I appear to agree that Latour’s evocation of nonhuman agency pushes academic discourse towards the Jungian-Tarnasian archetypal hypothesis, which seems to me a paradigmatic articulation for modernity (along with Hegel, James, Bergson, Whitehead, and others) of agency that exceeds human consciousness. Perhaps the way to produce an integration of these two modes is not, as Latour does, to erase or deny their incommensurability, but to delve deeply into the genuine differences, to push those differences to the point of paradox, and then push through the paradox until it opens into a deeper kind of coherence and commensurability.

I deeply appreciate Latour’s style, and I agree with Matt when he writes: “I don’t think in this case aesthetics is just the icing on the conceptual cake.” Style and substance are indeed deeply imbricated; as with Whitehead, the ideas themselves are inseparable from the language in which they are expressed. My question to Matt (or anyone else who cares to comment) is this: How can we produce a reconciliation of the modes of thought, both conceptual and rhetorical, exemplified by Latour (and Deleuze, Guattari, Derrida, Foucault, et al.) with the modes of thought articulated by Tarnas (and Sean Kelly, Stan Grof, Keiron Le Grice, Jorge Ferrer, et al.)?

Also, very briefly on the technology issue, I agree with most of what Matt says.  When I called technology “neutral,” I didn’t mean that it’s without agency (an understandable misreading); I meant that it’s morally neutral, or that these “extensions of man” (to employ McLuhan’s rather antiquated phrase) are morally ambiguous just like the human individuals and cultures from which they emerge. I think Matt’s right that we’re inseparable from our technology, and I actually think that Gebser would agree with this sentiment. For instance, perspective in visual art can be seen as a technological innovation that has become a part of us, endemic to the way we see the world. Human sentience itself, which I suspect probably arose coextensively with language, can be considered a kind of technology. It seems to me that technologies start outside of us and then quickly become so pervasive that they disappear from our sight. Like psychedelics, we take technologies into ourselves and they actively transform and mediate our engagement with experience, whether of the transcendent heights or the darkest depths. For instance, consider the radically different affective attitudes that are produced by the different structural arrangements of blogs, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. These four types of “social media” enforce different aspects of our identities. But that’s a conversation for another day.



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2 responses to “Discursive Networks and the Epistemological Gap in Latour and Tarnas

  1. Bravo, Grant! Enjoyed this… I’ll respond with a few thoughts ASAP.


  2. Thanks, Matt! I’ll look forward to it.

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