Tag Archives: science

Latour, Law, Singleton, and Method

(Note: This post is a modified version of a response I gave to a series of readings required as part of a course on “material rhetorics”)

My response this week focuses primarily on the Law and Singleton essay [Ed. Note, "Object Lessons," See reference] that discusses objects as part of methodology. In particular, I am interested in how the object of study was not necessarily the object of study, but the uncertainty surrounding methodology and the object. The impetus for the essay originates not from a discovery, but from the lack of such discovery: attempting to trace or map alcoholic liver disease proved difficult within the “noise” of other conditions such as “cirrhosis, liver disease, alcohol abuse or alcoholism.”1 That is, thinking of liver disease as a single object limited the methods by which the object could be mapped. “So why was this? What was the problem? What was going on?” Not a forging ahead, but a reassessment, with that reassessment being generative.

The second section, titled “Rethinking Methods and Object,” sets the stage for the problem and its possible “solution”: methodology only accounted for the object as something that could be accounted for in a single dimension. This speaks back to Law’s introduction to Aircraft Stories in which he discusses both the Modern and Postmodern predicaments of methodology, by which we either assume the smooth unity of observation or shatter it into infinite and intractable multiplicity. Law’s response, harkening back to Bruno Latour’s “Compositionist’s Manifesto,” is to build a singularity from the multiplicity, and to do so with the understanding that the narratives we construct pertaining to particular objects only construct objects from “fractional” possibilities.

Law muses that the “Euro-American culture doesn’t really have the language that it needs to imagine possibilities of this kind . . . this is one of the reasons why the postmodern reaction . . . still finds itself trapped within a version of the modern predicament. For if things don’t cohere together . . . then it is usually assumed that they don’t cohere at all.”2 That is to say, it is either the purity of coherence or the purity of incoherence. But through “Object Lessons,” we see Law and Singleton approach the fractional nature of Liver Disease precisely as a problem of methodology qua  generative tension between these ideal, pure states, and present the reader with the possibility that questions of methodology are essentially questions of ontology. Or, to be more precise, it isn’t a matter of one preceding the other (ontology precedes and dictates proper methodology vs. methodology constructs infinite multiple ontologies). Rather, methodology is a mode of being that makes visible particular aspects of the object. This does not mean that the object contains a singular description to which methodological practices can attain, but that objects, like sub-atomic particles, also participate in various modes of being (Euclidean, cybernetic, managerial, etc.).

So, Law and Singleton’s introduction of the “fire” object represents a reassessment of methodology through the narration of an object with presences and absences (that is narrating with the understanding that something always “escapes”).3 We can, I think, make a case for a link between this idea and our discussion of Bruno Latour’s call for radical empiricism (later experimental metaphysics). What I wonder, at the tail end of this, is how we discuss methodology in terms of rhetoric? The rush seems to be, at least in my readings thus far, to fall into the (post)modern problem Law lays out in Aircraft Stories: either we discuss rhetoric (or concerned topics of subjectivity, agency, intentionality, etc.) as a monolithic subject, or as a hopelessly fragmented series of situated “sub-subjects.” Or, following that, how do we define methodological “rigor” in terms of questions regarding rhetoric? What does it mean to empirically work on an object such as rhetoric, to build narrations about rhetoric as a fractional and discontinuous object? And what does this mean for ethics in terms of research? What are the implications for the scholarship produced by our field, if we takes these ideas to heart?


1. John Law and Vicki Singleton, “Object Lessons,” Organization 12, no. 331 (2005), 332.

2. John Law,  Aircraft stories: decentering the object in technoscience (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002),3

3. Law and Singleton, 349.

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Thinking About "The Politics of Nature" Section 1 — The Sciences

*note; I’ve changed my URL to http://rhetoricalecology.wordpress.com. I like it better than my previous one, so there you are. On with the show.

Other than its repeated
allusions to discourse, Bruno Latour’s The Politics of Nature interests me for a number of reasons. What follows as a loose collection of thoughts that represent my attempt to organize some of these interests.


Nature and Culture

Latour’s primary target in this work originates from his critique of modernity/postmodernity exemplified in his work, We Have Never Been Modern. Specifically, Latour concerns himself with the categorical divide between “Nature” as a singular and objective entity opposed to the transitive and unpredictable realm of social interaction known as “Culture” (represented by the acts of discourse and politics). His tactic, however, is not necessarily to demand the submission of human politics or human endeavors to the will of Science (Note the capital “S”), but rather to bring our attention to the multiplicity of “sciences” that proliferate society. Latour does not deny that there exist a world, in which physical things happen that we can observe and form hypotheses about. Instead, he suggest  that scientists themselves serve as a sort of “speech prosthesis” for nature(s), in that they speak (to us, in ways we understand) through scientists. The sciences, through assemblages of techniques, equipment, discourse, interpretive lenses and mathematical apparatuses translate objects in “nature,” and introduce objects from nature into the collective.

This critique addresses Latour’s main concern with the Modern establishment (what he refers to as the “Modern Constitution” in which two houses — Nature and Culture — exist without overlapping). In my reading, it allows two things to happen. First, scientists are given an aura of objectivity that makes their statements arbiters of truth, or sort of “discussion stoppers” against which no argument can be brought. The second is that it allows those who practice politics (politicians, obviously, but also those in business and industry) to either use these scientific pronouncements to their own advantage by declaring certain discussions off-limits, or short-circuiting the legitimacy of scientific discussion by questioning its supposed “objectivity.” In either case, the issues with these scenarios become clear when, according to Latour, we acknowledge that the sciences, while engaging in fruitful, meaningful research, do not have access to unfettered truth. Rather, knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is constructed. Indeed, Latour seems to reclaim the word “constructed” from its more negative connotations, earned over years of the mischaracterization of postmodernist thought. Science, Latour argues, should never be used as a hammer to end argument, but rather as a tool to get the work of the collective (his name for his reworking of the opposing houses of the modern constitution).

All of this, of course, raises questions of discursive relations between science and the rest of us in “society.” Again, while Latour never claims the sciences as “relative” in the sense that they are “simply” political, or victim to human subjectivity (as some comments regarding the rhetoric of science have implied, and as the “climategate” “scandal” has explicitly brought into popular discussion), he does state that they are an effort to translate the effect of objects in our lives. The result of taking Science from its pedestal (of which it was as much a victim as a benefactor) is that we are forced to engage the world not as an external singularity of Nature dominated by deterministic laws, but rather as the collective of things within which we are always implicated (and which are always implicated in everything we do).

Latour’s discussion of this divide, and how to move beyond it in a constructive way, involves what I believe are two important moves: one involving the use of discourse as a driving metaphor/reality, and the other involving the questioning of what it means to be a subject and what it means to be an object. Both of which I will discuss in a later post.


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