Particulate arising from study

Month: June, 2015

Tripping Over Our Bootstraps @ Model View Culture

“El Hombre en la encrucijada” Diego Rivera (1934), CC-BY Xenophon

“El Hombre en la encrucijada” Diego Rivera (1934), CC-BY Xenophon

I’ve got some writing in Model View Culture’s 22nd issue concerning the politics of liberational technology, open source, and bootstrapping. Check it out here:


“Without Mediation, No Access” – An Inquiry Into [INQ]

Bruno Latour’s An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns ([2012] 2013) is a very peculiar volume, not only in its expansive aims and conversational style, but notably in its significant modifications and proposed new directions to the technology of the book. Apprehending this work is thus a task that cannot be limited to mere analysis of content and concept, but must also address the formal features of his writing and the accompanying AIME digital humanities project. Consequently, accounting for the theory and extended practice at play requires an equal commitment to the internal language of Latour’s inquiry and the established analytics of media studies. These translations and crossings enable the reader to assess the networked book in terms of its internal commitments and its contrasts to the modes of inquiry that precede it. Ultimately, for all of Latour’s passionate defense of collective gatherings and renewed negotiations, the media politics of AIME often serve to the detriment of the diplomatic ethos Latour seeks to foster. Inquiry, in the end, exceeds AIME, and the institutionalization of knowledge on a digital platform does not do to justice to its modes and values.

The strangeness of An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence begins in its hardcopy form, the point of access at which most readers will, out of habit, begin. The reader is immediately confronted with the unusual presence of a user manual, outlining several typographic techniques that signal further content available on the “research apparatus” and “laboratory” of modesofexistence.org.[1] A timeline is also given, along with a solicitation to contribute to the larger project. The book’s considerable scope, after all, requires the reader’s participation; the cataloging and cross-referencing of all the modes, institutions, and ontologies of the contemporary West is a task that hopelessly outmatches the author by repeated self-admission.[2] The hopes for the book itself, therefore, are modest: “even if the book holds up by itself, it only really makes sense through the proofs and developments that will test it on the site.”[3]

Moving into the book proper, the reader encounters the peculiar texture and pace of its  text. Chapters are divided into multiple subtitles, whose logic flows more or less sensibly when collected together in the table of contents or the title page of each section, but induce a fair measure of discordance when reencountered as indented interruptions within the body of the text itself. These subtitles, many of which are reduced to sentence fragments, disturb the continuity of the reader’s passage through the chapter’s contents, inculcating an awareness of two summaries of different lengths running in parallel over the same pages.[4] The AIME team describes these interventions in terms of ease, such that they “allow one to get an overview of the book in a few minutes.”[5] However, the affordances of the fragments are such that they also situate one’s reading firmly within the schedule of another’s, punctuating the text with reminders of an ongoing conversation and perhaps a sense of external urgency.

This defamiliarization of the habits of reading is continued in the typographic symbols for mediated content. Key terms, particularly as they relate to Latour’s prior scholarship, are represented in bold, capitalized letters to signal that their definitions can be found on the AIME website.[6] While the meaning of these terms is often adequately signaled within Latour’s accessible prose, the reference to an exterior, legitimated definition, in addition to the visual presence of the text on the page, gives these words considerable weight. Such conventions are continued in the text’s most notable feature: that of the italicized and abbreviated modes, rendered as [REP], [REF], [NET], etc. Like the key terms, these words announce themselves with an insistent authority, grabbing the tired reader’s eye with their substantive brevity. The shortening of the modes into three-letter signifiers is surely a well-calculated gesture, for it flattens the differences in the structural and connotative valences of each word into new formal equivalence.[7] This newfound visual compatibility complements the repeated work of crossings that Latour orchestrates throughout the text, such that [REF • ATT] is more immediately thinkable than the complicated intersection of modes of references and modes of attachments. The bold text, whether in reference to modes or definitions, operates more as a summons than an open provocation.

There is also a significant factor of defamiliarization at play in the abbreviations. Although Latour’s definition of the essence of modes can be quite narrow and exclusionary at times, he persists in referring to each mode under its larger categorical name. [REL], for example, is defined in terms of restorative interpersonal speech acts and neighborly communities rather than religious transcendence or divinely-ordained morality.[8][REL]”, therefore, is given the difficult task of denotating only what Latour intends to make of religion, and it is here that the defamiliarization of its writing serves to set the phrase apart from its prior referent. However, given that the specificity of [REL] is unpacked solely within its given chapter, one is led to wonder if [REL] nevertheless connotes much more than this narrow pasture. Perhaps the strategic alienation of the modes’ lexicographic appearance works both to delimit and admit widely. One is left never quite certain about what [REL] refers to, and can only conclude that it is a particularly abundant index.

Such considerations of ease and association are calculated on the part of Latour, who very much wants his readers to interact with the website and potentially become co-researchers with the AIME project. The platform itself is divided in two, comprised of the augmented book and an expanded chart of the possible crossings of all of Latour’s modes. The latter takes the form of an interactive diagram, drawing references from the former, while the virtual text itself is more centrally organized into a four-part columnar division of t (the original text), v (definitions of key terms), d (documentation to further support the text’s contents), and c (contributions from co-researchers, including critique). The mystificatory powers of abbreviation again plays a strategic role here, for rather than clearly organizing the data relationally, the user of the website is more immediately confronted by a vast array of content and associations without a clear trajectory between headings and categories. Such an interface invites dérive, and the website’s principle value first appears to be that of aimless exploration rather than participatory research.

The appearance of an abundant crowd of material on AIME is not far from Latour’s more figurative goal for the project: to assemble a great many entities and analysts in a global agora, affording a more holistic account of contemporary existence and its multiple logics and values.[9] Explicitly opposed to the fundamentalism of critique and the inconsistencies of the Moderns, Latour notes that “if it is a question of ecologizing and no longer of modernizing, it may become possible to bring a larger number of values into cohabitation within a somewhat richer ecosystem.”[10] The composition and modes of entry into this ecosystem, however, are unclear. Following Latour’s own methods, one is inspired to ask: What sort of ecology does AIME engender and is it well constructed for the task at hand?

In order to assess the specific actions and values of the AIME Project, it is necessary to continue the analysis of textual difference initiated above. Mobilizing Latour’s example [LAT], while taking a few privileges with its specificity, one could situate such an analysis against the tracing of the mode of existence practiced by general scholarly inquiry [INQ], through the derivations evident in the crossing of [INQ • LAT]. Freely employing Latour’s terms, if a little roughly, helps us situate the braiding and unbraiding of his values and his practices, all while endeavoring to maintain the same spirit of charitable diplomacy that founds his text. While neither [INQ] nor [LAT] is quite grandiose enough to constitute its own mode of existence proper, borrowing the techniques of modes and their analysis nevertheless proves to be productive, even within this highly specific locality.

One might then begin by asserting the trajectories of the quasi-modes. [INQ], as practiced in the West over the past few centuries, is a particular case of the [REP • REF] crossing, resulting in the maintenance and rearrangement of what one might describe as the beings of knowledge. Reference, taken quite literally in the sense of citation, founds and sustains a competitive ecology of knowledge workers and ideas. The production of new scholarly work and names [REP] is negotiated only in conversation with the old, as contemporary academia continues to situate itself in relation to prior lineages of thought and persons [REF]. Scholars and theories are sustained through their references, whether under the veil of peer review or in the light of their own citations. Reference maintains the relevance and vitality of beings of knowledge (even perversely through the repeated assassination of strawmen and other intellectual villains). In this way, indifference cuts deeper than hate within [INQ].

Moreover, for all a graduate student’s grumblings about the circuitous nature of this referencing, nothing has been so productive to the continued generation of [INQ], at least in terms of quantity. Truly new ideas may be exceedingly rare, but the continued rise and fall of methods and vogue philosophers is more than enough to keep the presses running. To speak into the air without a care for what is already written in books is largely to speak alone. In this way, [REF] is both the felicity condition of [INQ] and the means of its reproduction. The only cardinal sin of knowledge would be to censor its contents or otherwise presume the book to be preemptively closed [INQ • DC].

A crude assessment of the volume of paper spent on footnotes and bibliographies immediately alerts the reader to the importance of [INQ]’s [REP • REF] chain and all its material instauration. From the unread but tactically cited volumes at the end of a dissertation bibliography to furtive aides hidden in the well-thumbed margins of a library book, the physical arrangement of reference in academic media is largely designed to support the protocols and felicities of reference. To begin [INQ] is to find a path to follow, only to later strategically lose it before it reaches the predestined end. This is accomplished by fishing in endnotes for half-digested breadcrumbs the author has charitably left in view, or by summoning a jury of texts by keyword search to bear witness to the state of a given question in a particular field. The practices of [INQ] prove the motif of the solitary philosopher to be a fiction. This broody character is at the very least surrounded by books, whose material affordances and network of references serve to mediate and co-create the volumes to follow.

[LAT], by contrast, puts its faith in the productive powers of [NET • ORG], both literally as an unintended pun on the Internet and narrowly in terms of the networked assembly of co-researchers AIME means to mobilize around the project. In eschewing the traditional [REP • REF] chain by omitting a reference section within the hard copy of the book, [LAT] interrupts and displaces the traditional practices of [INQ]. Readers must reference the website to find the figures with whom Latour is in conversation, and even these are sparser and more generally noted that might be typical even for a late-career scholar.[11] One might, at this point, take the augmented book to be resultantly superior to the hard copy as its contents are vaster and more fleshed out than its paper object, while an appeal can certainly also be made to student thrift in so far as it is freely accessible to those with an Internet connection. However, the augmented book is unpaginated, such that scholars will not be able to cite Latour more generously than he has cited his own interlocutors—a problem if one is to establish one’s legitimacy within the conventional circulations of [INQ]. Scrolling through text at length, moreover, is a cumbersome task for the divisions between t, v, d, and c partition a rather ungenerous amount of space for the writing in question. One is constantly distracted by the v, d, and c fields populating with material as one scrolls down t. Again, the webdesign’s affordances serve to solicit associations of breadth more than depth.

What then would the felicity conditions of [LAT] be? Like other network forums on the Internet, the success of the platform depends not so much on its external references, but on the content generated within its borders.  In this respect, AIME’s intended effect may be closer to institution building in practice than knowledge production in the critical tradition. This itself is wholly consistent with Latour’s avowed stance in the text, although it may underplay the politics and exclusions of such gestures.[12]

[NET], as Latour notes, does not in itself adequately qualify values within the associations it traces, even if they are meta-reflections on a digital network.[13] Fortunately for this inquiry, however, Latour himself offers many judgments on the comparative merit of different forms of digital media throughout the text. In his ongoing love of analogy, bad habits are likened to email spam[14] and the transition from modernity to ecology is likened to a change in operating systems.[15] Most obviously, the ruinous mode [DC] takes is appellation from “double click,” insinuating that the mouse and windows navigation of the majority of computer interfaces problematically conceals the mediating powers of the code and technological devices within.[16] The real sin of [DC], and where it departs from [HAB], is that this improper concealment prevents the resuscitation of a chain gone awry; “manual restart” is no longer possible.[17] A good [NET • ORG], like a good form of mediation, would effectively wire its participants around critical problems without preventing them from getting under the hood or even, perhaps, reorienting the collective entirely. [LAT], therefore, needs both participants and structures conducive to a particular form of mediation, one with the powers of [MET].

As with the other modes of existence, Latour characterizes mediators as essential co-constructors of entities that pass through points of hiatus (which is to say virtually all entities, including the ones that [DC] endeavors to simplify).  Breaking from crude social constructivism, Latour describes the process of these mediators under the name of “instauration,” composed of a three-part set of conditions that describe the mechanisms of co-creation. Firstly, the authorship of an action must be ambiguously distributed, such that the ordering of call and response become impossible to precisely define.[18] Secondly, the direction of this mutual activity must also be confused, such that both quasi-subject and quasi-object are affected by the process.[19] Finally, one must be able to ultimately make judgments on the quality of the construction within a given situation.[20]

Taken as a whole, instauration finds many initial points of accord with [LAT] and the mediations of AIME. Latour’s authorship could be seen to exist as both a precondition and preemptive point in the collaboration he seeks with his audience-cum-co-researchers. His writing style and interface design draw participants into the institution he is building for his work, with the frequent invitation to challenge his premises and to expand the scope and depth of the project, even as these very qualities are preemptively bent around this anticipated participation. What remains to be seen, however, is that the institution of AIME is adequate to the challenge of full instauration. Or, as Latour puts, “the act of instauration has to provide the opportunity to encounter beings capable of worrying you.”[21] Does AIME follow through on this point?

Mediation, as Latour describes in the introduction to the book, is largely a question of diplomatic representation.[22] It is thus not without some humor that the digital moderators of AIME are called Mediators,[23] giving a rather amusing spin to Latour’s resolute assertion in the book: “Without mediation, no access.”[24] The Mediator’s function is to review and publish user contributions to the site, possibly moving content from the c to d sections as they see fit. Their role within [LAT] is to allow felicitous alterations to the mode and also, one presumes, to keep the rabble out. Mediators are thus put in the somewhat contradictory position of soliciting transformation and prohibiting upheaval. This itself is a problem quite germane to [INQ], though in this case it is unusually placed on the shoulders of the inert few who act as gatekeepers but never masons to the institution under construction.

Even for the few that pass through the Mediator’s hiatus, [LAT] demands further mediation and trials before an idea can become stabilized. Larger questions of legitimacy and amendment are to be handled by a different class of worker, the Negotiators, who met in 2014 to discuss the respective merits of contentious user content[25] and major changes to Latour’s framework.[26] The sum of these conversations were brought to a head within several capstone conferences in July 2014 whose participants bore the title “Diplomats of Gaia.”[27] The results, however, have been fairly inconclusive. Diplomatic mediation has proven difficult from Latour’s point of view, as the AIME team has had to continually educate its critical interlocutors on the sum of what is meant by a mode of existence or the comportment proper to diplomacy.[28] Even amongst contributors who have assimilated to the linguistic norms and culture of the project, there have been intransigent voices. The lack of a robust language for vast concepts such as the global as well as the under-defined role of the diplomat proved too great a challenge for Gaia’s envoys, who were ultimately unable to reach consensus on proposed revisions to the text.[29] Plans are still in the works to publish this material, even if not ratified, though the details are not yet public. The project’s funding was extended through June 2015, principally to address technical problems encountered with the website.[30] No further chains of mediations appear to be planned, though Latour continues to explore his ideas through complementary lecture series and an upcoming art exhibit.[31]

If the felicity condition of [LAT] was to mobilize a sympathetic network to populate AIME with transformative and stabilizing content, the project can be said to have fallen short. While there are several intriguing additional thoughts and case studies to be found on the website, the principle premise of the inquiry remains largely unchallenged and unexpanded. Only one additional mode of existence has been proposed—quite tellingly that of media ([MED])although its contents remain empty. This is perhaps because the project is both premised upon and undone by the hope of institutionalizing a form of mediation whose diplomacy defangs much of its free association and generative powers. Such an arrangement comes at the cost of [INQ]’s larger [REF • REP] chains, such that the beings of knowledge did not find [LAT]’s pastures to be particularly accommodating to their maintenance. In the mirror image to one of Latour’s prior musings on technological systems, [LAT] can be seen to fail because it did not believe in the autonomy of [INQ].[32] AIME s’aime trop.

Works Cited

AIME Project Team. “An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: The Project.” Accessed May 11, 2015. http://www.modesofexistence.org.

———. “An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: The Tools.” Accessed May 11, 2015. http://www.modesofexistence.org.

———. “Diplomatic Writing Workshop, 21-25 July 2014, Paris – Schedule.” 21 July 2014. Accessed May 11, 2015. http://www.modesofexistence.org/diplomatic-writing-workshop-ateliers-decriture-diplomatique/.

———. “Final Evaluation Conference, 28-29 July 2014 – Video,” September 11, 2014. http://www.modesofexistence.org/final-evaluation-conference-28-29-july-2014-video-archive-conference-finale-devaluation-28-29-juillet-2014-video/.

———. “The AIME Project Continues,” September 27, 2014. http://www.modesofexistence.org/the-aime-project-continues-but-at-a-smaller-scale-le-projet-eme-continue/.

———. “The AIME Week Had Focused on 4 Themes from the Set of 80 Complaints Assembled before: How to Redescribe Nature, Politics, Religion, Economy.” Twitter, July 8, 2014. https://twitter.com/AIMEproject/statuses/493052532974182400.

Latour, Bruno. An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2013.

———. Aramis, or, The love of technology. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996. Originally published 1993.

Latour, Bruno, and Heather Davis. “The Amoderns: Thoughts on an Impossible Project.” Amodern February 2014. http://amodern.net/article/amoderns-impossible-project/.

[1] Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2013), xx.

[2] Ibid., 476.

[3] AIME Project Team, “An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: The Project,” accessed May 11, 2015, http://www.modesofexistence.org.

[4] For example: “which allow us to disamalgamate two distinct modes of existence” (73), “and they have particularly discriminating felicity conditions” (310), and “By returning to the experience of what sets the scripts in motion” (422).

[5] AIME Project Team, “An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: The Tools,” accessed May 11, 2015, http://www.modesofexistence.org.

[6] See, for example, BLACK BOX (214), COLLECTIVE (124), and BIFURCATION (288).

[7] With the exception, of course, of the devilish [DC], whose difference from the rest further emphasizes Latour’s judgment on its comparative utility.

[8] Latour, An Inquiry Into Modes Of Existence, 302, 322-323.

[9] Ibid., 483.

[10] Ibid., 11.

[11] Citations are typically given for whole books, without reference to specific page numbers. The only direct citation in the text is the curious inclusion Luke 6:42 on page 171.

[12] Latour, An inquiry into modes of existence, 261.

[13] Ibid., 35.

[14] Ibid., 270.

[15] Ibid., 479.

[16] Ibid., 93.

[17] Ibid., 275.

[18] Ibid., 157.

[19] Ibid., 158.

[20] Ibid., 159.

[21] Ibid., 161. Emphasis in original.

[22] Ibid., 17.

[23] AIME Project Team, “An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: The Tools.”

[24] Latour, An inquiry into modes of existence, 78.

[25] These contributions are curiously categorized as complaints by the AIME Project Team: “The AIME Week Had Focused on 4 Themes from the Set of 80 Complaints Assembled before: How to Redescribe Nature, Politics, Religion, Economy.,” Twitter, (July 8, 2014), https://twitter.com/AIMEproject/statuses/493052532974182400.

[26] AIME Project Team, “An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: The Project.”

[27] AIME Project Team, “Diplomatic Writing Workshop, 21-25 July 2014, Paris – Schedule,” 21 July 2014, accessed May 11, 2015, http://www.modesofexistence.org/diplomatic-writing-workshop-ateliers-decriture-diplomatique/.

[28] Bruno Latour and Heather Davis, “The Amoderns: Thoughts on an Impossible Project,” Amodern February 2014, http://amodern.net/article/amoderns-impossible-project/.

[29] AIME Project Team, “Final Evaluation Conference, 28-29 July 2014 – Video,” September 11, 2014, http://www.modesofexistence.org/final-evaluation-conference-28-29-july-2014-video-archive-conference-finale-devaluation-28-29-juillet-2014-video/.

[30] AIME Project Team, “The AIME Project Continues,” September 27, 2014, http://www.modesofexistence.org/the-aime-project-continues-but-at-a-smaller-scale-le-projet-eme-continue/.

[31] See, for example, the 2015 conference Rencontre autour du Nomos de la Terre de Carl Schmitt at Science Po, Paris and Bruno Latour’s 2016 ‘Reset Modernity!’ exhibition at ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany.

[32] See Bruno Latour, Aramis, or, The Love of Technology, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 292 for the counter example.