Epistemes and networks

I wrote this little comparison of Latour and Foucault on a plane. Since I’m mildly scared of the flying monsters we call aeroplanes, I scribble down things in my hipster moleskine notebook very swiftly while taking off and landing, so I better put this text on interwebs before I insert it to my dissertation. So, the question is, would this be a correct interpretation of the differences and similarities? (of course there are many more, please comment).

In Foucault there is a double articulation in the emergence of the social sciences; on the one hand there is the qualitative function in biopolitics, as an administrative, surveying and organizing science, in what he called the emergence of disciplinary societies. On the other hand, the positive domain of knowledge became possible through the void that had to be filled as there was a ‘tectonic’ rupture between the classical episteme and the modern episteme, a reconfiguration that was external to the social sciences themselves, and occurred in conjunction with how the other sciences rapidly discovered new grounds of knowledge.

This could have been another way of describing what Latour calls the modern constitution, if it were not for the drastic philosophical differences between Latour and Foucault. Latour argues that the purification of the modern constitution is an ever ongoing, tedious process. If it is not maintained, it breaks down, and we realize that all we have are ‘savage’ hybrids. The modern episteme, as described in The Order of Things, on the contrary, would postulate that the qualitative reconfiguration that took place towards the end of the eighteenth century, made thought possible in only one particular way(1). This has sometimes been called a ”structuralist” explanation, even though this is a bad word(2), both since it is quite empty of meaning, and because its association with linguistics.

The key figure to understand these differences is what I previously mentioned as actualism. But first, there is a similarity, in at least one respect. In a very interesting passage in Pandora’s Hope, on how human and non-human agency are related, Latour goes:

Purposeful action and intentionality may not be properties of objects, but they are not properties of humans either. The are the properties of institutions, of apparatuses, of what Foucault called dispositifs. Only corporate bodies are able to absorb the proliferation of mediators, to regulate their expression, to redistribute skills, to force boxes to blacken and close. Objects that exist simply as objects, detached from a collective life, are unknown, buried in the ground. (Latour 1999: 192-193)

The concept of dispositif and assemblages are closely related, in their collectivity, positivity, and also in the sense that they are actualist concepts. They configure and enable a collectivity of human and non-human agency to express knowledge in specific ways. The Hubble telescope would be such a dispositif, or assemblage, composed and held together by hundreds of scientists, thousands of technical components, billions of dollars and even the gravity of planet Earth. All of these links need to be aligned or the black boxes have to be patched and fixed. And the result is nothing less than images of distant galaxies. Remove the humans, and the telescope slowly runs out of power or burns up in flames as it falls through the atmosphere. Remove one lens, and we see nothing more than before Galileo. Thus, it is not the biopolitical side of Foucault that is a problem for Latour.

But, the problem instead is the model of epistemes. Indeed, along the lines of Foucault, Latour also acknowledges ”Kantianism” as one of the leitmotifs of modern thought (pre-dated by Hobbes and Boyle, see Latour 1991: 57ff). But while introducing hybrids, the amodern networks, which when multiplied fold together heterogeneous elements through moments of utterly concrete translations, there can be no prior historical rupture, as Foucault argues in The Order of Things, no void that emerges simultaneously in all the sciences. To put it in another way, Linnaeus and Darwin, even though the former belonged to the classical episteme and the latter in the modern, they would according to Latour have done the same primary things; collapsed the inside/outside division by bringing samples of minerals, birds and flowers back into their ‘labs’, inscribing them into systems, classifications; forced them to crack open, while struggling with kings and churches, perhaps even public opinions to support their assemblages. Neither Linnaeus nor Darwin was ever modern, even though the latter lived in a time when the proliferation of hybrids had become much more swift, more efficient, desired by institutions of immunology, public health, anatomy and medicine.

Footnotes
1.For example the presence of fossils was an unthinkable figure, a monster, before modern biology introduced ”historicity” into Life, see the chapter ”Monsters and Fossiles” in The Order of Things

2. Foucault himself rejected this label as nothing but fancy words of ”commentators”, see ”Preface to the English edition in emph{The Order of Things} INSERT PAGE}

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