Choose for Yourself: Latour or a Hen?
How does the old joke go--the one about the psychiatrist
and the woman whose husband thinks he's a chicken? The shrink has
a good idea how to remedy matters, but the woman is ambivalent because,
"hey, we need the eggs." It's a wonderful metaphor for the relationship
between theory and everyday concerns. We have a worldful of (apparent?)
absurdity and a heap of theory to explain, understand, or cope with the
absurd (and the logical), but ultimately, 99% of us disregard the absurdity
in our efforts to survive. Our words may be arbitrary signifiers,
and all that, but how many of us can afford to dwell on it? Arbitrary
or not, these signifiers are all we've got, so we use them--hey, we need
the eggs. The alternative--investigate language systems and theory--is
profitable for only a few of us. If all of us theorized over such
stuff, we'd soon face the very un-arbitrary prospect of starvation, hence
our preoccupation with eggs.
Should no one theorize? Is Latour a freak? Definitely not. But theory can be overemphasized. If theorists are at one end of the scale, I suppose laissez-faire MBAs define the other, and most of us occupy the golden mean. We want our eggs, but if we get a dozen square ones we'll want to know why. Relevance matters (is that redundant?) to most of us.
When I get impatient with Latour--there's a criterion for judging theory--it's partly because his questions--whether society, nature, or God are immanent or transcendent--have so little to do with the work of hens. Like it or not, we need the eggs.
From Eggs to Lumber
Once we've assuaged our hunger, though, we do want
someone to ask the big questions; Latour can't be so easily dismissed.
Maybe it's not applicability we're missing here: God, science, the social
contract--these things are as immediate as mail delivery. But some
of us want our big questions in accessible form. Latour's ideas fascinate
me, but his mode of delivery makes me crazy (back to that unconventional
criterion). After he lays the daily newspaper, Boyle, and Hobbes
in front of us, Latour departs for theoretical territory (taking us with
him) and gives us little or no concrete details for illustration.
(Latour's geometrical diagrams look simple, but such generic terms as "quasi-objects,"
"nature," "society," "subject/society poles" (51, 52) don't much help us
Imagine a scale with theory at one end and narrative at the other. Pure theory lacks tangibles: concrete things, people, places, events--the stuff of narrative. Pure narrative, on the other hand, would be story without a point: when the shrink says "I can help your husband--come by Monday at 11:00," the wife would say, "Fine, we'll see you Monday at 11:00." What satisfies us in fictional narrative is the marriage of story and ideas--narrative and theory. Othello, Huck Finn, Yoknapatawpha County, "The Open Boat," Oddyseus--ideas clothed with story make for a golden mean. Plotted on this scale, We Have Never Been Modern is extremist. (Latour's talk of mediation rings hollow.)
Latour's reasoning, regardless of it's quality, is irrelevant if it's inaccessible. And the complexity of his material is no defense. Emerson, Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Isaac Asimov, and Oliver Sacks, to name a bare few, bring theory and science to life with lively style. Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time brings theoretical physics--every bit as complex or more than Latour's material--to the kitchen table level. (I can understand it.) Creative thinking is half of genius; making difficult concepts accessible to the reader completes the job.
Latour is under no such obligation, of course. But you might think that if his purpose is to communicate his ideas to us--sell us a product, in the language of economics--he might package the product in accessible form. If you're selling 2x4s to carpenters, do you cut them in hundred-foot lengths?
Back to my home page