From the Toolbox of a Serving Library

The spirit of the last two weeks has been inhabited by French sociologist and anthropologist Bruno Latour. His Spinoza lectures, collectively titled What is the Style of Matters of Concern?, were originally delivered in May 2005 at the University of Amsterdam. Here they serve as a focal point for the broader lessons of the Type tool and the Lasso, somehow, very elegantly, knitting them together. What follows is my own attempt to make sense of Latour’s lectures through the lens of the residency discussions. It is also worth mentioning that we have been playing quite a bit of Mafia, reinventing it even. There is a potent metaphor in there, about the reciprocity between form and the world, and the challenge of situating reflections of the world within a dynamic experience of it.

Umberto Eco, in The Open Work, develops an idea that authentic forms are pertinent, relevant, useful and potentially emancipatory, and he insists on using and interpreting these terms without cynicism. He is attempting to follow them through, to see where an honest admittance of their import might lead. The corollary of this is an admittance of when existing forms become impotent and clichéd so as to no longer be useful. Eco’s proposal is an appropriate point of departure for considering Latour’s project: Latour believes that an empiricism that distinguishes between primary and secondary qualities is an out-moded form of perception and analysis. Bifurcation is artificial and the product of a specific aesthetic related to the idea of scientific laboratories as places where facts are produced. However, so much of our experience is contrary to scientific facts. Latour uses the example of a nightingale’s song to highlight the alienation that science produces:

In a nature that is bifurcated, it’s in vain that the nightingale sings: the singing is entirely in our mind, or even in our brain. If we could look directly at nature…it would be soundless: the throat of the nightingale would simply agitate the air, the waves of which will strike our eardrums triggering some electric effects in our neurons, and somewhere in the auditory folds of our cortex a pure invention will emerge which has no correspondence whatsoever with anything of a similar tone in nature: the song of the soundless nightingale…Philosophers, in the name of what I call the “first empiricism,” have forced upon common sense a rather stark choice between two types of meaninglessness: either the meaninglessness of senseless but real nature; or the meaninglessness of meaningful but unreal values (11-12).

Latour is putting forward an argument to re-politicize laboratories, to shear them of their objectivity, and to consequently re-conceptualize matters of fact as matters of concern. Form is not a vehicle for thought, but a way of thinking. The scientific method produces one kind of truth which demarcates between reality, nature and the world on one hand, and meaning, value and words on the other. Taking a note from Hegel’s conception of the dialectic, Latour encourages the attempt to grasp these apparent opposites in their unity. This is not an act of bridge building because the idea of a bridge reinforces the distance between ways of knowing. Instead, Latour proposes we go kayaking and apprehend both the social and the natural from the perspective of being immersed in a forward movement between them. His intuition is that “the two riverbanks would take on an entirely different meaning and that nature, having stopped bifurcating because of the way you have let it pass…will be now able to mingle with our speech and other behaviours in many more interesting connections (14).” The kayak acknowledges the implication between looking and seeing (much like the lessons of the Type tool encourage a consideration of reading as writing as reading in an endless loop), and the kayak implies entanglement in a moving substance (much like the lessons of the Lasso encourage a consideration of our current conditions from a position that is irrevocably immersed and simultaneously productive).

Latour’s solution to the bifurcation of nature is this kayak, or what he otherwise calls a second empiricism, whose main objective is to deny bifurcation in the first place. This involves a paradigm shift from understanding the world through matters of fact, to understanding the world through matters of concern, which is “what happens to a matter of fact when you add to it its whole scenography…instead of ‘being there whether you like it or not’ they still have to be there, yes (this is one of the huge differences), they have to be liked, appreciated, tasted, experimented upon, mounted, prepared, put to the test” (39). An aesthetics of matters of concern, according to Latour, would be comprised of at least the following four conditions:

1) Matters of concern have to matter. Matters of concern do not exist in a pure state, but are animated through an interest in and a focus upon. “There is no law or scientific theory (any more than there is a system of philosophy) that does not bear its author’s name still legibly written” (23).

2) Matters of concern have to be liked. They are emphatically not “whether you like it or not.” They are objects of discord, negotiation and compromise.

3) Matters of concern have to be populated, they have to “become something that is to be explicitly recognized as a ‘gathering’,” a unification of the objects of the world and our organizations of them (48).

4) Matters of concern have to be durable, which is to recognize that they are maintained in their existence, that they persist through time by way of being “kept up, cared for, accompanied, restored, duplicated, saved” (49).

I wonder if matters of fact and matters of concern overlap entirely? Is the import of Latour’s idea that the landscape of knowledge must be re-evaluated in its constitution, or more simply that we need to acknowledge the construction of it? Do the initial four conditions of matters of concern rule out any knowledge that would otherwise just be factual? I wonder if, at any point, “facts” do not correspond to concern? Or, how does Latour’s proposal map differently back onto the world? It seems like matters of fact and matters of concern must overlap, given that matters of concerns are facts recognized as a part of their sceneography, but something nags at me, a question about what happens to a “fact” when its community dissolves. Perhaps this is akin to a flat-earth theory: what was once “fact” is now disregarded as such in light of information that convinces otherwise. But could a matter of concern cease to be, not by refutation, but by common disregard?


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