Politics as an Empirical Phenomenon

In response to an earlier post, DMF poses a very apt question regarding Latour’s politics in the ‘comments’ section. How can it be diagnosed? Or, as he puts it, ‘any way to test this speculation?’

First of all, please remember that I am using ‘politics’ not in the narrow sense, as referring to the human organisation of society, which is embodied in the mode of existence [POL], but in a broader sense, to describe what Latour calls ‘the progressive composition of the common world’. Thus, the politics we are talking about here refers to the axiomatic ontological thesis that undergirds Latour’s entire work. The distinction is one that Latour himself makes:

We should not confuse […] the idea of multiplicity of beings and the consequent abandonment of the human-nonhuman distinction with any position about how to organise the polity. This is an entirely different question [….] it relies on the specification of what is original in the political mode of existence, as different from laws as it is from reference, and so on. (The Prince and the Wolf, p.97).

This is the type of politics that contributes to the concept of ‘political theology’ – and this is the concept that I think is going to be most heuristically valuable in the future as we apply Latour’s work to the problems of the contemporary world.

To state it briefly, I think Latour provides us with two diagnostic tools for a politics of non-Modernity. Both are empirical: but one is empirical in a ‘quotidian’ sense, and the other is empirical in an ‘analytic’ sense, if you like.

On the one hand the diagnosis can take place at the level of quotidian experience. To open and read a newspaper is immediately to recognize that contemporary debates in the domains of public policy, education, economics, society, health, sport and culture resist specification and demarcation according to the purified categories of Modernity. Politics cannot proceed as if controversies in such areas might be resolved by proxy with the apodictic certainty of ‘Nature’. Rather, politics proceeds via complex negotiations between competing centres of value. In making this argument, Latour is building on the work of his former doctoral student, Noortje Marres, that it is precisely via the negotiation of values that the constitution of a body politic is made possible at all.

But on the other hand, Latour also suggests that the non-politics of Modernity can be diagnosed at the level of philosophical anthropology. Of course, his own anthropological work in Guillemin’s laboratory and then on every other ‘site’ since (eg. the Conseil d’Etat) is one example of this. But he also interacts with a wide range of authors in the field, including Boltanski and Thévenot,  Viveiros de Castro,  Kohn and, most crucially of all,  Descola. In Beyond Nature and Culture, Descola proposes an anthropological matrix in which four ontologies are distinguished. Of particular interest to Latour is the one called ‘naturalism’: Descola argues that although this is assumed to be the normative ontology within Western political society, it actually represents ‘a highly localised and historical production that is not shared, or so it seems, by any other collective’. Latour directly appropriates Descola’s philosophical anthropology to argue that the categories of the Modern Constitution have no explanatory or heuristic value in themselves and, as a consequence, that any politics that is formatted onto them will be truncated and hegemonic. The Moderns live under ‘une Constitution bancale’ (trans. ‘a delicate/ precarious Constitution’), as he puts it in Face à Gaïa. This constitution provides an unreliable representative assembly for the housing of ontological pluralism, as well as for the associated regimes of truth that ontological pluralism allows us to consider—including morality, politics and theology:

Cette ‘nature’ dont nous savons maintenant qu’elle n’est que la moitié d’une définition symétrique de la culture, de la subjectivité et de l’humanité, et qu’elle véhicule depuis plusieurs siècles tout un barda de morale, de politique et de théologie dont elle n’a jamais pu se défaire. (Latour, Face à Gaïa)

We understand now that this ‘nature’ is only half of a symmetrical definition of culture, subjectivity and humanity, and that for many centuries it has transported a great deal of moral, political and theological baggage of which it has never known how to rid itself. (my trans)

When the ‘non-politics’ of Modernity is associated with ‘the Religion of the Moderns’, we get the disastrous phenomenon of political theology A. When the true, representative politics of immanence is associated with true religion, that is [REL], we get political theology B. This latter is a situation in which rationality can flourish and justice can be done to the real experience of the Moderns. This is what I tried to explain in this post.



4 thoughts on “Politics as an Empirical Phenomenon

    1. I use the word ‘logistics’ to describe ontological pluralism, that is, Latour’s commitment to the composition of truth via the local, immanent activity of plural ontological actors. I like this word, because it contrasts with the idea of a (meta-) ‘logic’, that is, a truth-claim that is fixed or determined by an external actor or principle of agency. This would be the dreaded entrance of metaphysics (Adam S. Miller has a nice phrase for this – a ‘metaphysical paymaster’). Instead of ‘logistics’, you might go for any one of Latour’s alternative formulations: ‘social construction’, ‘cosmopolitics’, ‘progressive composition of the common world’ or just ‘politics’ (which is different from POL of course). The point is that rationality only and ever arises through a logistics, not through a (meta-) logic. And it follows, then, that rationality can be ‘tested’, because one can always refer back to the actors that composed it in the first place (we can always ‘open the black boxes’, if you like). So I was arguing (against that article from ‘The Week’) that my support for the EU is not ‘progressive’ (in the sense of idealist), because my definition of ‘progress’ is logistical, not metaphysical – it never outstrips the composition capacity of the plural actors who we are hoping to work with. The article was (rightly) criticising a definition of progress that is Modern. I am hoping to stand with a definition of progress that is nonmodern – because it is in connection with the ‘logistics of rationality’. How’s that?


      1. still dubious about the rationality part smacks too much of a kind of hegelian sublation, here I think that Richard Rorty was quite right that there is no philosophical substitute for liberal democratic processes/norms (like protections for minority points of view, etc), something like attempts to stay in the realm of ballots not bullets.


  1. ‘the progressive composition of the common world’
    There are different “ideals” for what a “common world” could be. For example in quantum mechanics you may have different projections of the “state of the world”, impossible to be put under a common classical view. And yet there is a “whole” there.

    Or one may wonder what kind of “common world” Aristotles might have in mind (Is Aristetelian Nous part of “the dreaded entrance of metaphysics”? If yes, is it not a little bit…. extreem, to shovel away Aristotles in such a facile way?)

    Logistics brings also in mind “algorithms whose rationality is difficult to contest”. But what about t the authority of the teachers, and the authorization that passes from master to pupil? Could this be part of a “fully rational logistical mechanism”?


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