Stephen Muecke on Latour’s Enquête sur les modes d’existence

In the LARB here. First a quibble: Muecke notes “An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence is not really philosophy as understood by the dustier denizens of the Sorbonne, where nearly everyone and his other is a phenomenologist.” First, I hate this pose of there being “dusty” philosophers denying some great project. No doubt it happens, but Latour has been one of the most cited philosophers of the past forty years, even and especially in our dustier phil of science areas. But more importantly, it would come as a shock at the Sorbonne that “nearly everyone is a phenomenologist,” if by “nearly all” you mean, at best a couple. Then there’s this:

Likewise, folks in the humanities cultivate a skeptical attitude in order to judge, from the safety of a “critical distance,” anything that comes their way, from a literary text to climate change to abortion debates. But they never ask themselves how they achieved this illusory detachment. Armed with the tools of critique, they are able to show the rest of us how “mere appearances” are fooling us. But these supposedly autonomous intellectuals are intimately involved with their own university departments, which they are happy to turn on just as fiercely because, as we know, no institution can be trusted. Emancipation, for these “critical” humanists, is about breaking away from, or ignoring, or transcending one’s institutional alliances. The importance of such “freedom of thought,” they believe, was the lesson of 1968.

If there is a part of Latour’s work that makes me turn the page quicker, it’s this: I think it is indeed the job of academics to hold a critical lens to the workings of the networks in and around them–though in complicated ways given that one is not exempted from the critical discourses that are produced. Post-Marxism, postcolonial theory, feminism, etc., are all under the rubric of such discourses, and as such when this is mentioned, one should know what is being attacked. Moreover, this work is not done with some elitist “I stand over and above” the heathens engaged in Ideology, etc., but all major so-called “1968” thinkers produced such tortured prose precisely because one couldn’t “transcend” one’s “institutional alliances.” Think of Foucault. Or Derrida and GREPH. Or that in fact, each of these 1968 thinkers were precisely critiquing the polarity of “being” and “appearance” that subtends the whole line of attack above. Which I guess then makes it easier to depict–haven’t we seen this in Meillassoux too?–poststructuralist thinkers, as in this essay, as a mere continuance of Kantian-style rationalism.