Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern

by Bruno Latour
Critical Inquiry, Vol.30, No. 2

Wars. So many wars. Wars outside and wars inside. Cultural wars, science wars, and wars against terrorists. Wars against poverty and wars against the poor. Wars against ignorance and wars out of ignorance. My question is simple: Should we be at war, too, we, the scholars, the intellectuals? Is it really our duty to add fresh ruins to fields of ruins? Is it really the task of the humanities to add deconstruction to destructions? More iconoclasm to iconoclasm? What has become of critical spirit? Has it not run out of steam?

Quite simply, my worry is that it might not be aligned to the right target. To remain in the metaphorical atmosphere of the time, military experts constantly revise their strategic doctrines, their contingency plans, the size, direction, technology of their projectiles, of their smart bombs, of their missiles: I wonder why we, we alone, would be saved from those sort of revisions. It does not seem to me that we have been as quick, in academe, to prepare ourselves for new threats, new dangers, new tasks, new targets. Are we not like those mechanical toys that endlessly continue to do the same gesture when everything else has changed around them? Would it not be rather terrible if we were still training young kids–yes, young recruits, young cadets–for wars that cannot be thought, for fighting enemies long gone, for conquering territories that no longer exist and leaving them ill-equipped in the face of threats we have not anticipated, for which we are so thoroughly disarmed? Generals have always been accused of being on the ready one war late–especially French generals, especially these days; what would be so surprising, after all, if intellectuals were also one war late, one critique late–especially French intellectuals, especially now? It has been a long time, after all, since intellectuals have stopped being in the vanguard of things to come. Indeed, it has been a long time now since the very notion of the avant-garde–the proletariat, the artistic–has passed away, has been pushed aside by other forces, moved to the rear guard, or may be lumped with the baggage train.1 We are still able to go through the motions of a critical avant-garde, but is not the spirit gone?

In this most depressing of times, these are some of the issues I want to press not to depress the reader but to press ahead, to redirect our meager capacities as fast as possible. To prove my point, I have not exactly facts rather tiny cues, nagging doubts, disturbing telltale signs. What has become of critique, I wonder, when the New York Times runs the following story?

Most scientists believe that [global] warming is caused largely by manmade pollutants that require strict regulation. Mr. Luntz [a lobbyist for the Republicans] seems to acknowledge as much when he says that "the scientific debate is closing against us." His advice, however, is to emphasize that the evidence is not complete. "Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled," he writes, "their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue."2
Fancy that? An artificially maintained scientific controversy to favor a "brown backlash" as Paul Ehrlich would say.3 Do you see why I am worried? I myself have spent sometimes in the past trying to show the "lack of scientific certainty" inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a "primary issue." But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument–or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I'd like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from a prematurely naturalized objectified fact. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?
In which case the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact–as we have learned to combat so efficiently in the past–but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! While we spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the appearance of objective statements, do we have now to reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices? And yet entire Ph.D programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always the prisoner of language, that we always speak from one standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we meant? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can't I simply say that the argument is closed for good?
Should I reassure myself by simply saying that bad guys can use any weapon at hand, naturalized facts when it suits them and social construction when it suits them? Should we apologize for having been wrong all along? Should we rather bring the sword of criticism to criticism itself and do a bit of soul-searching here: What were we really after when we were so intent on showing the social construction of scientific facts? Nothing guarantees, after all, that we should be right all the time. There is no sure ground even for criticism.4 Is this not what criticism intended to say: that there is no sure ground anyway? But what does it mean, when this lack of sure ground is taken out from us by the worst possible fellows as an argument against things we cherished?
Artificially maintained controversies are not the only worrying sign. What has critique become when a French general, no, a marshal of critique, namely, Jean Baudrillard, claims in a published book that the World Trade Towers destroyed themselves under their own weight, so to speak, undermined by the utter nihilism inherent in capitalism itself–as if the terrorist planes were pulled to suicide by the powerful attraction of this black hole of nothingness?5 What has become of critique when a book can be a best-seller that claims that no plane ever crashed into the Pentagon? I am ashamed to say that the author was French too.6 Remember the good old days when revisionism arrived very late, after the facts had been thoroughly established, decades after bodies of evidence had accumulated? Now we have the benefit of what can be called instant revisionism? The smoke of the event has not yet finished settling before dozens of conspiracy theories are already revising the official account, adding even more ruins to the ruins, adding even more smoke to the smoke. What has become of critique when my neighbor in the little Bourbonnais village where I have my house looks down on me as someone hopelessly naive because I believe that the United States had been struck by terrorist attacks? Remember the good old days when university professors could look down on unsophisticated folks because those hillbillies naively believed in church, motherhood, and apple pies? Well, things have changed a lot, in my village at least. I am the one now who naively believes in some facts because I am educated, while it is the other guys now who are too unsophisticated to be gullible anymore: "Where have you been? Don't you know for sure that the Mossad and the CIA did it?" What has become of critique when someone as eminent as Stanley Fish, the "enemy of promise" as Lindsay Waters calls him, believes he defends science studies, my field, by comparing the law of physics to the rules of baseball?7 What has become of critique when there is a whole industry denying that the Apollo program landed on the Moon? What has become of critique when DARPA uses for its Total Information Awareness project the Baconian slogan Scientia est potentia? Have I not read that somewhere in Michel Foucault? Has Knowledge-slash-Power been co-opted of late by the National Security Agency? Has Discipline and Punish become the bedside reading of Mr. Ridge?

Let me be mean for a second: what's the real difference between conspiracists and a popularized, that is a teachable, version of social critique inspired for instance by a too-quick reading of, let's say, a sociologist as eminent as Pierre Bourdieu–to be polite I will stick with the French field commanders? In both cases, you have to learn to become suspicious of everything people say because "of course we all know" that they live in the thralls of a complete illusio on their real motives. Then, after disbelief has struck and an explanation is requested for what is "really" going on, in both cases again, it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly. Of course, we, in the academy, like to use more elevated causes–society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism–while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation, in the first movement of disbelief and, then, in the wheeling of causal explanations coming out of the deep Dark below. What if explanations resorting automatically to power, society, discourse, had outlived their usefulness, and deteriorated to the point of now feeding also the most gullible sort of critiques?8 Maybe I am taking conspiracy theories too seriously, but I am worried to detect, in those mad mixtures of knee-jerk disbelief, punctilious demands for proofs, and free use of powerful explanation from the social neverland, many of the weapons of social critique. Of course conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments, but, like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party, these are our weapons nonetheless. In spite of all the deformations, it is easy to recognize, still burnt in the steel, our trade mark: MADE IN CRITICALLAND.

1.  On what happened to avant-garde and critique generally, see Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art, ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, Mass., 2002). The present article is very much an exploration of what could happen "beyond the image wars."
2. This Mister Luntz seems to have been very successful; I read later in the Wall Street Journal:

There is a better way [than passing a law that restricts business], which is to keep fighting on merit. There is no scientific consensus that greenhouse gases cause the world's modest global warming trend, much less whether that warming will do more harm than good, or whether we can even do anything about it. Once Republicans concede that greenhouse gases must be controlled, it will only be a matter of time before they end up endorsing more economically damaging regulation. They could always stand on principle and attempt to educated the public instead. [Wall Street Journal, 8 Apr. 2003]
And the same publication complains about the "pathological relation" of the "Arab street" with truth!
3.  See Paul R. and Anne H. Ehrlich, Betrayal of Science and Reason: How Anti-Environmental Rhetoric Threatens Our Future (Washington, D.C., 1997).
4.  The metaphor of shifting sand was used by neomodernists in their critique of science studies; see A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science, ed. Noretta Koergte (Oxford, 1998), but the problem is that the authors of this book looked backward to reenter the solid rock castle of modernism and not forward to what I call, for lack of a better term, nonmodernism.
5.  See Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism: And Requiem for the Twin Towers (New York, 2002).
6.  See Thierry Meyssan, 11 Septembre 2001: L'effroyable imposture, translated as 911: The Big Lie (London, 2002). Conspiracy theories have always existed, what is new in instant revisionism is how much scientific proof they claim to imitate.
7.   See Lindsay Waters, Enemy of Promises, forthcoming.
8. Their serious as well as their popularized versions have the defect of using society as an already existing cause instead of as a possible consequence. This was the critique that Gabriel Tarde always made against Durkheim. It is probably the whole notion of "social" and "society" which is responsible for the weakening of critique. I have tried to show that in Latour, "Gabriel Tarde and the End of the Social," in The Social in Question: New Bearings in the History and the Social Sciences, ed. Patrick Joyce (London, 2002), pp. 117—32.

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