The blog

Refocusing the AIME inquiry

04 December 2013
filed under: materials

Dear Readers and Co-researchers

You have signed up for the platform and you have no doubt begun to read the numerous additions to the ‘augmented book’. We hope you have been able to forgive us the gamut of teething problems that we are in the process of fixing. But it’s not about the augmented book that we wanted to talk to you today; it is about column C, for ‘contributions’. It’s here that the originality of the process we had in mind is located, and its success depends on you. But so that you can see what is involved with the whole thing, we will have to go back to the beginning.

For a start, let’s forget the book for the moment, the interim report that we have the aim of redrafting. We have to begin with the enquiry; the book is only one presentation of it, and it is both too long (who can read 500 pages of philosophical anthropology?) and far too simplified (each paragraph calls for massive extrapolation). In addition, the book is organised according to modes, as if each of these trajectories had to be understood before being able to delve into the data of the inquiry. But it is obviously all the other way around: it is because I undertook the inquiry that the modes came to light bit by bit.

In order to interest you in extending this inquiry, I have to show you how it works in practice. This is something the fictional character in the book, the anthropologist, did not go to the trouble of doing. Up until this point, the project generally gave the impression that one has to move from the book and the modes towards experience. We would like to try to put things back in the right order, to begin with experience in order to arrive—or not—at the modes.

One has to become capable of making experience protest. Protest against what? Against the impression that one has missed something important when one tries qualifying the presence of a being using a template that does it no justice. This is a common experience in ethnology, when the researcher makes huge blunders and in the process deeply shocks the people to whom he is talking. If he hears his informant say that his child has been ‘eaten by a witch’, and he comes back with the question as to ‘whether he really believes it’, he will understand immediately, through the evasive, shocked or surprised attitude of his interlocutor, that he has completely missed the point. And it is likely, in addition, that his interlocutor will clam up. He used an ill-fitting template. The word ‘belief’ does not capture the situation.

Faced with this kind of error, there are two solutions: carry on regardless, or imagine other templates. Carrying on means making the decision that the researcher already knows the kinds of beings likely to be acting in the world. No more are needed: witches don’t exist and have no power. If the interlocutor insists on his belief, another explanation has to be found, and, if possible, arrange for it to replace its precedent, either through education or violence. The second solution is to revisit the list of the types of beings likely to act in the world. To take a famous example, this is what happened to Jeanne Favret-Saada when she tried to apply the tools available at the time in order to follow the strange deployments of sorcery in the French bocage [in Normandy]. To account for the forces they were calling ‘sorcery’, she had to invent another way of being in the world than the one implied by the question, ‘Are they really there or not?’ Answer: Stupid question. They are there in their own way. You find out which way.

The first question is modernisationist; a front line of modernisation is set up which is going to limit, each time it is extended, the range of available types that could explain any situation. The second solution consists in doing the analysis of this modernisation effort by noting, on each possible occasion, the failures of the first solution. It is into this second enterprise we are inviting you. This is the one that deserves the title of an anthropology of the moderns.

It is a matter of fishing around for the protestations of experience. First by insisting on those we hold onto most solidly (about which we are militant) but also on those that interest people to whom we would like to give some freedom of movement.

In order to fish you need a net, fish and movement between the one and the other… or maybe sit still and leave it up to a strong enough current …

Nets are extremely simple, but they do have to be both supple and resistant. As for the fish, their size depends on that of the holes in the net. We don’t have to describe everything. That should be clear from a reading of the book. But despite its ambition, it does not deal with every subject. For example, there is nothing on pesticides, to the great disappointment of certain readers, nothing on taxi drivers or on elite sports stars! It’s not an encyclopaedia. So one can’t contribute to the project simply by pouring one’s favourite topic into it.

Especially as every situation is multimodal and that it will do no good to try to find typical cases that would only ‘illustrate’ a mode. In any case, if one finds oneself in a given situation, the first thing to do is a good old analysis along network lines, in the sense of Actor-Network or [NET]. One would never be able to detect the protests of experience without having completed such an analysis. Mode inquiry, therefore, cannot replace an inquiry about the ins and outs of any given situation.

What we are trying to capture is both much more delicate and at the same time omnipresent and often invisible. In experience, we are only interested in those moments where one can clearly discern that one has the wrong template, that one is in the middle of deeply shocking one’s interlocutor, or that the beings one is addressing seem to be disconcerted, off-balance, vague, embarrassed, or ill-at-ease. This, then, is a situation of ontological crisis, what one could call, via the etymology, deontological crises. When one is in the midst of such crises that one has to begin a kind of delicate negotiation to choose among the available templates the one that best captures the situation. And, if you don’t have one to hand, well then, you have to get busy inventing it.

Once one has a net with holes of a certain size, and one has decided to only catch ‘top of the range’ fish, one still has to move to find the best spots. Any who knows how to fish knows that there are favourite spots. If you don’t want to go home empty-handed, it is those that have to be sought out.

Some spots are easy to get to. I only needed two or three days in Roger Guillemin’s lab in California to discover that the templates I had at hand were never going to allow me to understand how objectivity was artificially produced. I found myself in the same situation as Favret-Saada. Either I kept to my list—which came down to choosing between ‘true’ or ‘fabricated’—and abandon, for example, any hope of coming to terms with objectivity and just be happy with the ‘social dimension ‘ of the lab; or rather I made the effort to find another measuring stick that would link the rigour of truth with the breadth and the quality of fabrication. Not easy. Especially if the researchers, whose practice one is finding a new way of describing, are really fond of using, for their own reasons, what seems to me to be the wrong template! But here we are already taking up the next question, that of how to imagine the diplomacy that would make templates shareable. This will be for later.

To continue the fishing metaphor, certain spots are a lot harder to find. This was Whitehead’s case when he felt that the a priori division of all access to reality into two orders of reality—that which is real but unknowable to any human mind, and that which is knowable to the human mind but unreal—brought about a ‘protest ‘ in him. To invent a template capable of no longer dividing all experience into two in advance, which he calls either a ‘conjecture’ or a ‘dream’, he had to rebuild the whole of philosophy!

Any yet this is really what one has to be ready for if one is to take seriously the idea of protestation. It is perfectly possible that the search for a good template might oblige us to begin all over again. There is no reason why experience should be easy to describe from the get go. Especially because of the long-term insistence applied to the maintenance of the usual template—is it subjective or objective?—always makes it more difficult to follow the thread of experience without a break.

You can see that if you decide to help me in this inquiry, you will not be short of material. Until now, I have only thrown my net in a few spots and, each time, I have had a miraculous catch. As soon as you pay attention, you hear the protestations of experience rising on all sides.

Let’s follow an example in a little more detail in order to understand what we mean by a contribution, as opposed to a simple commentary or a simple critique.

In the newspaper your eye is caught by the reaction of a politician who is protesting against what he considers is an unnecessary demand from his constituents for ‘transparency’. It seems that, when you ask politicians to ‘tell the truth’, they are terribly embarrassed because they feel your demand for this ‘telling the truth’ (which for you means ‘direct’, ‘frank’, ‘transparent’) corresponds to a lie for them because of the large number of people with contradictory interests that they have to address. A Cornelian dilemma which obliges him to either tell the truth in his own language, which you are going to take, inevitably, as a lie, or satisfy you, but then he would be lying politically. This is where you have to get to work to define what it could possibly mean to say that a statement is ‘politically true’. The fish is caught in the web of the net, but it is not yet out of the water.

This is where the questionnaire is useful, it should be maintained with some insistence because it allows us to make cases comparable, and without it, they would not be. One has to be systematic, at least, that’s how I’ve been proceeding until now. That is a long way from having mental systems. Systematic is a synonym for obstinate, obstinately trying to understand under what conditions one should be ready to increase the number of templates.

Where to from here? We have a hook: the protests of a politician who is under the yoke of a demand for ‘transparency’ which he senses the injustice of, but can’t refuse without looking like a shocking manipulator. OK. We have to open a document file. Now we have to tag this document, give it key words so we don’t lose it. Since we have already collected others, we know it is part of the [POL] mode. But as there is uncertainty about the terms ‘lie’ and ‘truth’, and that these are eminently multimodal terms, it is suitable to link this document to an already established crossing, probably [REF·POL] (but perhaps [POL·DC] or even, and this would be interesting, to [MET·POL]) Once the choice is made, that means that we consider the document capable of enlightening us on the felicity conditions of the two colliding modes.

As soon as we attach this document to the file of this crossing, we will profit from the constraints imposed by the questionnaire. These constraints will press on us—in the sense of a wine press—so as to get the most out of it. Consider one such questionnaire.

I pass over the first ‘classification’ column which allows us not to lose ideas when we are not sure of the precise question. Then we find the following questions:

Name of the crossing: [REF·POL]

(the proposed account of this crossing can be referred to in the column V for ‘vocabulary’, with this link

To be classified:

Difficulties specific to this crossing:

Explanation of the column: In the course of the inquiry, I noticed that each crossing had its own kinds of problems. In this box we note how we learn about these problems. No question but that this crossing is particularly inextricable because we will constantly confuse the link necessary to the two modes with the obligation to hold the domains of Science and Politics separate. In other words, careful, this is a minefield.

Tests favourable for the detection of the contrast (question 1 on the site)

Explanation of the column: This is the equivalent of the ‘good spots’ I spoke about above. One can, for example, find cases where the Science/Politics distinction has the least chance of working, revealing another relationship between the two modes, for example controversies or arguments on the precautionary principle.

Institution of the crossing (question 2 on the site)

Explanation of the column: In this column we are going to put all the documentation on the way it has developed through time and how we have attributed importance to it.. In any case, this is what will allow us to respond to the previous question, since the distinction between science and politics organises a large part of modernity and perhaps even defines it. This crossing’s pedigree is ancient, since it was already a polemical subject in Plato…so there is very rich material here .

What each mode learns from the other or technical characterisation of the crossing (question 3 on the site)

Explanation of the column: In a way this is the most important question, since the ‘friction’, so to speak, created in the testing of the crossing is the only source of information on the modes. The definition of the mode, its ‘specifications’, are only the synthesis of everything one has learnt from the crossings. In the document on transparency, one can see that the trajectory of [REF] will induce the politician to distance himself from the problem put to him, so as to reach a state of affairs which would have him be exact and objective, but this would in no way resolve the [POL] requirement to get closer to this constituent, who, in the end, is perhaps less in need of transparency than the need to be represented. As one thing leads to another, one can intensify the contrast between the two modes, a contrast which has nothing to do with the border between the two domains of what is Science and what is Politics. A whole metalanguage specific to this crossing will have to bee worked out.

Goals of AIME for this crossing, and diplomatic representations (question 4 on the site):

Explanation of the column: Since the beginning, we have understood that the exploration of a new template will bring about a whole series of disputes with the practitioners, and also with the descriptions of other modes. For example, to inject new vigour into the notion of political truth, will necessarily involve limiting the reach of certain other requirements for ‘truth’ , but then one has to avoid understanding this limit as that of ‘rhetoric’, an inferior form of truth, but with the same referential tonality. In fact the response to this question sets up the framework for future face-to-face debates in the inquiry. Hence the apt expression, ‘diplomatic representations’.


Explanation of the column: Into this column, which is not on the site, we gather all the elements of a vocabulary specific to this mode and that we have encountered in the course of the inquiry. For example, ‘transparency’ will become a specialised vocabulary entry in the same way as ‘precautionary principle’, ‘machiavellism,’ or ‘rhetoric’. All these terms, in a way, are exhibited as [REF·POL] which marks them with a more precise technical meaning, even if, of course, they can also appear in the vocabulary of other crossings, but exhibited differently. For example, the precautionary principle can also be found under [REF·DRO].

Now, suppose you set off in this way with enough determination and for a long enough period of time. Bit by bit you will gather a certain number of distinct templates. And, obviously, as in any inquiry, the more you advance, the more you are able to compare. Each crossing gives you ideas for other crossings. For example, it is likely that what you learn about [REF·POL] throws some light on another crossing [MET·REF] which has not been instituted in the same way, but is perhaps going to allow you to put to one side the strange template of Mind/Body which has made western medicine as hard to understand as so-called traditional cures. The two crossings have nothing to do with each other, but they help each other get rid of the amalgam that, in both cases, renders inaudible the protestations of experience. In any case, you will learn to skirt around [REF] and therefore to detach the capacities of scientific research from a ‘scientific world view’.

All this begins to move, breath and connect up, and, all of a sudden, the discoveries are accumulating. Experience becomes all the more recountable, accountable, as the templates multiply. And it is here that we can pick up the book that we asked you to put aside for a moment, because, like the chicken and the egg, after a while it is the knowledge of the modes which will draw attention to the crossings, as well as the other way around. The more the specifications of the modes are enriched, the more the analysis of the crossings will become fruitful.

This is the manner in which we suggest you can participate. What we call documents can be chosen in places of tension where it becomes gradually clear to the different protagonists that they have to carry out deontological work by revising the usual ontological bases on which they sought to regulate conflicts up until now. Of course, this doesn’t apply to all of ordinary experience, but to moments of crisis, complaint or sorrow, out of which one has to extract, with a new definition, the kinds of beings called to inhabit the common world.

Bruno Latour

(Thanks to Stephen Muecke for translation)

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