fluorescentcellsSince Graham has announced it, I might as well announce it here as well. I have finally begun reading Latour’s Irreductions, which is a short little treatise that can be found in the second part of The Pasteurization of France. About a year ago I finally got around to reading Latour’s Reassembling the Social. At that time I thought I was simply taking up a pleasant diversion from serious theory during the Summer, occupying my mind with something different for a time, by picking up something outside my usual neighborhood of thinkers. However, as dramatic as it sounds, Reassembling the Social had a dramatic and fundamental impact on nearly everything I believed about both the nature of the world and the social, both helping me to articulate things I had been groping towards before and challenging me to give up deeply cherished assumptions and ways of posing problems. I continue to be haunted by that book to this day, hounded by its declarations and challenges, and anguished by a number of the familiar coordinates it has required me to gradually sacrifice. I am still digesting this book to this day.

Irreductions promises to provide a similar challenge. Those loosely familiar with Latour will immediately think of “science studies” and elaborate discussions of the interconnection of actors of all sorts, ranging from natural entities like genes, discourses, ozone holes, signs, collectives, etc. In picking up a book such as Science in Action, We Have Never Been Modern, or The Pasteurization of France, your first thought might be “all of this is very interesting, but it is restricted to the domain of science studies or the sociology of science. While fascinating, this really doesn’t connect to my own research.” Texts like Reassembling the Social and Irreductions are different. Both are philosophical treatises. Reassembling the Social is not simply an introduction to Actor-Network Theory, but presents an entirely new conception of the social that includes both humans and non-humans building the social through various alliances and assemblages. The motto of Reassembling the Social is that “the social does not explain, but must be explained.” Think about that for a moment and you will see that it fundamentally displaces a number of questions in social and political theory, all of which presuppose the social as a sort of substance that explains rather than as something to be explained.

It is difficult to describe Irreductions as anything other than a metaphysical treatise. What Latour presents here is an entire ontology that heroically affirms that nothing can be reduced to anything else, nor that anything is irreducible to anything else. Rather, the universe becomes populated by trials of strength where actors, human and inhuman, vie with one another, striving to enlist allies to advance their own aims. Written in a style that simultaneously recalls Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Leibniz’s Monadology, Nietzsche’s Gay Science, and Epictetus and Epicurus, it unfolds as a series of gnomic propositions ambiguous in their sense, but also ripe with all sorts of realist implications. As Graham observes in his marvelous Prince of Networks, Latour claims that this short treatise is a sort of master-key or ground of all his subsequent thought. It is also a work that resonates deeply with Whitehead, Stengers, Nietzsche, and Deleuze and Guattari. I have had others tell me that they find “no there there” with Latour and actor-network theory– no doubt grumbling about the descriptivism of actor-network studies –but I simply don’t see how understanding of objects and the social cannot come away transformed after reading these works. I suppose I am doing my part here for Latour’s trial of strength, trying to enlist others to read these amazing works so that I might have someone else to discuss them with.