Friday, March 13, 2009

A Latourian conundrum, please help.

"Existence precedes essence". Bruno Latour (1993)
from Latour, B. (1993). Pasteur on lactic acid yeast: A partial semiotic analysis. Configurations, 1(1), 129-146.

However, isn't this a chicken and egg dilemma?
i think therefore I am, I am therefore I think.
Or crudely, I think and then I do.... I do and then I think, whats preceding?
Isn't there's always a before?
I get that things get shaped iteratively, for example:
I can do counselling, and in the performance their is an essence, or several essences; belonging, being in the moment...empathy. They dont exist outside of performance, but htey are aspired to and recognised as valuable in a therapeutic interaction...and therefore they are taught and aspired to...seems to me ts an 'and and' issue.

To adapt some Latourian critique of Pasteur and turn it on Latour himself:
Is Latour not giving his entity a little nudge forward? ...He is doing the action, he has prejudices, he is filling the gap?
Are not the metalinguistic resources that I apply handed to me directly by the author...

Well yes, and it leaves me stuck. I think there's a middle ground here that could be better explored. Latour (2005) in Reassembling the social, suggests its always best to start in the middle and maybe I have taken this literally, that there is always a middle? And therefore the apparent inconsistency of existence preceding essence.

However, Latour (1993) also admonishes:
"As long as we have not understood why what appears to us as a contradiction is not one for Pasteur (read Latour), we do not learn from those we study--we simply impose our philosophical categories upon their work."

And so i stay stuck, I feel like I am in a mobius strip.
So I have some uncertainty here, and I'd truly like it discussed. Please help me with this, its interfering with my sleep and my study.

BTW I found my folder :)


  1. I have to say that applying the ontic/methodological principles of a philosopher to themseleves is one of the great tests, and few philosopher's remain unscathed in some important sense. But I think that this is a signficant thing to do if one is going to take philosophical thought seriously, at its word.

    I am no expert on Latour, and have only arrived at his thought lately through Graham Harman, but a huge question that I have is: If nothing is reducible, but also everything that is reduced must be translated in such a way that we can trace the reduction, then where in the world is Latour's traceable translation of making everything in the world "actors"? This is an incredible reduction (I mean that that literally, in-credible, without credit), under Latour's own framework for legitimacy.

    Perhaps he has answered this question in some way or another, or he simply doesn't care for the meta-question, the internal consistency of his thought. It is one thing to say that one must always "start in the middle" (I wonder if he got this from Deleuze and Guattari, for this is their advice from "a thousand plateaus"), but quite another to say, "Because I start in the middle, my theory is self-justified".

    This is one of the difficulties that I have with Latour as far as I know him. He presents a very rich weave of concepts which help us tease out the nature of interactions in the world, but what he argues is incomplete, and leaves out significant factors of what we look for in an explanation. Yes, we are all actors in a world of actors, but we are also more than that. Its my feeling, as you suggest, that something of the demand that "existence precedes essence" comes from the insufficiency of "we must start in the middle". Yes, we must "start" in the middle, but the middle always leads us to what was before us.

  2. p.s. I might also add that when you ask, "Is Latour not giving his entity a little nudge forward? ...He is doing the action, he has prejudices, he is filling the gap?" you are also touching on an objection raised by Graham Harman (who is trying to draw out the metaphysical implications of Latour in his new book "The Prince of Networks"). Harman wants to tell us that Latour is left with something of a classical philosophical problem of Occasionalism. That is, each and every occasion or moment is defined by its relations, but there is no explanation for what moves each moment foward. It just kind of happens locally. This need for explanatory chains of causes is precisely the thing that is missing from Latour's flat world.

  3. Thanks for getting back to me Kvond, I am still trying to accept that Latour does know what he's doing here...I am happy to start in the middle which is why i am confused by the statement existence precedes essence. This suggests one and then the other, linearly.
    Unless... a more messy entanglement is construed and essence evolves in the middle, shaped within existence.

    Thanks hugely for the ps.
    This is a central question of my Phd. Where each and every occasion or moment is defined by its relations, there is no explanation for what moves each moment foward. Unless the actants can talk about whats shaping their movements or can be made to talk. And this from an ANT perspective also means making what appears seemingly immaterial, material. Paying attention to the everyday subtleties, the devil in the detail..and from an ANT informed approach, giving non language bearers voice also...
    Every occurrence and alteration or change always happens locally, and will have problems in transporting elsewhere and will require translation locally as every new actor will have their own chains shaping their motivations.... A need then for the explanatory chains to understand how or why a thing happens (but not if its good or bad).
    As i see it, Latour's work is precisely about explaining the chains of causes, or as he names it, reassembling the social. What moves things forward within an entanglement that allows some threads to pull, tug, snap? What i might do, imagine, have the capacity for ...and what holds me in, reigns me back... For Latour, this 'network' is to be traced. He accepts no hegemonic conspiracy divine heroes without the little heroes making it fate no luck... But its all evident (at least after the fact) in the detail. The explanatory chains are precisely what he claims there is a need to explore. And can only ever be explained locally.

  4. and some further considerations: when Latour was writing of existence preceding essence it was 1993, it does position ANT as anti-essentialist, worth remembering context. Also worth considering is that precede need not mean linear, but can be relational to what surrounds, forms, constructs, pushes and pulls...that a more relational performativity sits more comfortably to my way of thnking in 2009. Note to self, consider the context of what appears problematic- as Latour suggests, where there is conflict and i cant get a grasp on the how of something, its probably coz i dont understand the context that binds it.

  5. and a little more, existence precedes essence is the philosophical stance of Sartre, reflected in a movement toward existentialism. And fits also with Simone de Beauvoir who combining feminism with existentialism accepted Sartre's precept that existence precedes essence. "Hence one is not born a woman, but becomes one."

  6. oi, that was me. My existence/essence appropriated by the memory of the machine ...