factory2In response to The Politics of Epistemology, Evan remarks,

Very interesting. On the point of bringing up “Circulating Reference,” (which I have not had the pleasure to read) I was wondering if you might say more on how there comes about “really great stuff that is both realist and constructivist.” I’m working on a project that has to do with constructivism from a Hegelian perspective, but obviously, that, in some way shape or form, is going to involve absolute idealist constructivist.

Before proceeding to respond to this question, it is first necessary to forestall any confusion surrounding the term “construction” as used by thinkers like Latour, Stengers, Oyama, and Deleuze. Within our current theoretical climate the first thing that tends to come to mind when we hear the term “constructivism” is social constructivism. To say that something is constructed, in this theoretical framework, is to deny its reality, treating it as made up not of real things, but of social phenomena like language, power, signs (under an anthropocentric construal), or social forces. For example, if we say that gender is “constructed”, this generally signifies that gender is not natural. The “natural” here refers to the innate, inborn, or essential, as opposed to the acquired, learned, and artificial.

When Latour, Stengers, Oyama, and Deleuze refer to “constructivism”, they are not referring to constructivism in this sense. If this is the case, then it is above all because they reject the nature/society distinction that underlies this way of talking about the world. If, for example, Latour is led to replace the word “society” with “collectivity” and define sociology as the “study of associations”, then this is because Latour thinks it is impossible to draw a clean distinction between the social and the natural. Nonhuman actors always belong to human associations, and human associations would be impossible without these actors. On these grounds it is impossible to draw a clean distinction between a social on the one hand that would be exclusively composed of the human and human phenomena, and the natural on the other hand that would be purely natural and without any human admixture. The human is always bound up with these non-human actors.

read on!

Consequently, when Latour, Deleuze, and Stengers refer to “construction”, they are referring to how collectives of nonhuman and nonhuman actors and human actors and nonhuman actors are assembled. Here we are unable to draw a distinction between the artificial and the natural as the natural is no longer understood as the inborn and innate. Plutonium is constructed in the sense that it nowhere appears in nature of its own accord but rather has to be put together in the laboratory, but it is nonetheless entirely real. Plutonium is not a mere ephemeral simulacrum consisting of signs and signifiers, but it is also not something that occurs in nature independent of human intervention and activities. It is a construction laboriously put together under certain conditions.

At the beginning of Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari argue that the unconscious is not a theatre, but rather a factory.

The fact is, from the mmoment that we are placed within the framework of Oedipus– from the mmoment that we are measured in terms of Oedipus –the cards are stacked against us, and the only real relationship, that of production, has been done away with. The great discovery of psychoanalysis was that of the production of desire, of the productions of the unconscious. But once Oedipus entered the picture, this discovery was soon buried beneath a new brand of idealism: a classical theatre was substituted for the units of production of the unconscious; and an unconscious that was capable of nothing but expressing itself– in myth, tragedy, dreams –was substituted for the productive unconscious. (24)

Under the model of the unconscious as a theatre all elements of the unconscious become masked representations of something else. “That despotic man in your dream is your father, the woman laying on her back with her legs spread, your mother.” Everything becomes a matter of disguised mimesis, where all products of the unconscious are understood in terms of displaced and condensed resemblances to this “ur-drama” that is played out infinitely in the life of a subject. By contrast, where the unconscious is understood in terms of production, it can no longer be said that the productions of the unconscious are copies of some primordial ur-drama, but rather they are genuine creations that have no ultimate referent or ground.

In the domain of philosophical epistemology it could be said that questions of knowledge have been dominated by a similar model of knowledge as a representational theatre. As Latour writes at the end of “Circulating Reference”,

This whole tired question of the correspondence between words and world stems from a simple confusion between epistemology and the history of art. We have taken science for realist painting, imagining that it is made an exact copy of the world. The sciences do something else entirely– paintings too for that matter. Through successive stages they ling us to an aligned, transformed, constructed world. We forfeit resemblances, in this model, but there is compensation: by pointing with our index fingers to features of an entry printed in an atlas, we can, through a series of uniformly discontinuous transformations, link ourselves to Boa Vista. (78 – 9)

Philosophical epistemology begins from a stark opposition between words (or, alternatively mental representations) on the one hand, and world, on the other hand. Like the King’s soldiers, it then wonders how it is possible to put these two sundered halves together again. It is not difficult to see how it might be possible to cook up a theory of reference for propositions such as “the cat is on the mat”, but what could adequation between word and “thing” possibly mean for propositions like “the savanna is advancing on the jungle” or “the jungle is advancing on the Savannah”? What would a mental representation or mimesis between idea and world be in such a case? What are the inscrutable markers we find in our mental representation that establish such a correspondence? What resemblance is there between this proposition or statement and the world that it depicts? Posed in this way the question seems irresolvable as we either remain a “mind-in-a-vat” with no access to anything save our own mental representations (and therefore without the means of distinguishing the marks of the true from the false in our representations), or, equivalently, a “speaker-in-a-vat” with no means of distinguishing the marks that distinguish the true and the false in our propositions.

The whole problem, Latour contends, lies in the fact that philosophers always begin too late. Hegel famously proclaimed that the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk. By this Hegel meant that philosophical knowledge only occurs after a process has completed itself. In a sense very different from that intended by Hegel, we might say that this is the cardinal transcendental illusion haunting philosophical epistemology. Philosophy always begins with an exemplar of what counts as knowledge. Here I am not referring to philosophy’s theory of knowledge, but rather as its privileged example of what counts as genuine knowledge: Geometry for Plato, Euclid’s Elements and Newton’s Principia for Kant, mathematics for Descartes, etc. As Laruelle might say, this examplar constitutes the empirical “datum” upon which philosophical epistemology leans in the development of its theory of knowledge. “Given that Newtonian mechanics is uncontroversially true, what must be the nature of knowledge such that we are able to know this is a true representation of reality?”

The entire problem emerges because philosophy begins with its “knowledge-datum” as it appears at dusk, but does so without being aware that it is doing so. In other words, beginning with the product of knowledge labor as inscribed in a text such as the Principia or the Elements, philosophy then proceeds to inquire into how the propositions that compose this product resemble or mimic true reality such that they are adequate to that reality. As a result it finds itself plunged into irresolvable difficulties because, of course, reality shares no resemblance to either these mental representations or these propositions. In other words, when conceiving knowledge as a mimetic adequation between mind and world, word and world, we very quickly encounter an unsurpassable gap between the two. What possible resemblance is there between a chemical equation and the transformation that takes place in a beaker in the laboratory? The two could not be more unlike.

Latour’s modest and admirably naive proposal is for us to follow the practice of the scientist in the laboratory. Reference, contends Latour, is not a memesis or adequatio between word and thing, but rather “…the quality of the chain of transformation [and] the viability of its circulation” (310). In order to illustrate this thesis, Latour follows the laboratory work of four scientists in Boa Vista consisting of two pedologists (scientists who study subsoil), a geographer, and a botanist. Their laboratory is not a white sanitary room filled with instruments, but rather the savanna and the jungle itself.

The question they are attempting to resolve is that of whether or not the savanna is advancing on the jungle or whether the jungle is advancing on the savanna. Because there are disciplinary differences between the scientists, this question does not admit of straightforward resolution. The botonist notes the strange presence of certain trees inside the forest that botany has learned only grow on the savanna. This indicates that the forest is advancing and engulfing these trees. However, the pedologists believe that this cannot be the case as one of the central truths of pedology is that soil goes from clay to sand, not sand to clay. In order for the forest to be advancing it would be necessary for sandy soil (savanna) to be transformed into clay (forest), but that violates the known laws of pedology. How is the issue to be resolved? What adequation will decide this issue? “[H]ow do we pack the world into words?”

I cannot give a detailed discussion of Latour’s fifty page photo-account of the activity of these four scientists in resolving this issue (I strongly recommend reading the essay), so I will attempt to gesture at what Latour has in mind by “circulating reference” and his thesis that reference is not an act of memesis. When Latour describes reference not as an adequation or a resemblance between word and thing but as a series of transformations [in my language “translations”], he is referring to the manner in which facts must be constructed in order to become capable of speaking. One cannot simply begin by gazing at the forest and the savanna in order to decide these issues, for the forest and the savanna containing a bewildering array of differences that exceed the powers of human cognition and memory, and because while, ontologically, all these differences make a difference, not all of these differences are relevant to the issue at hand. One of the key epistemological issues then consists of the problem of how to localize those differences that make a difference with respect to the question or problem at hand.

As a consequence, it is necessary to prepare the object studied so that certain differences might come into relief. For the scientists this begins with the study of satellite maps and maps made previously by the botanist in the group to determine the “lay of the land”. Out in the field or the actual laboratory site where the savanna and the forest meet, the scientists divide up the region with graphs and mark the trees with numbered metal tags. In this way it becomes possible to accurately measure the movement of the forest and the savanna with respect to one another, a task that would be otherwise impossible without such technologies. Soil and plant samples are taken from the region, their locations carefully recorded and these samples carefully preserved. This decontextualization allows for an entirely new approach to these entities. Where their contextualization in the forest and savanna reveals little information, their dislocation from their context now allows the scientists to become “Levi-Straussian” back at their laboratory, shifting the various plant samples about, for example, in a combinatorial not unlike those used by Levi-Strauss in the study of myth, discovering isomorphisms, analogies, and relations that would have been invisible in the forest itself. The soil samples are not themselves raw data, but are compared against color cards conventionally used throughout the scientific world as well as the world of interior design. This allows the differences in soil color, often very difficult to register by the naked eye, to be assigned a numerical value that is revelatory of other properties contained in the soil. These numerical values can, in turn, reveal patterns when placed on a table or in a diagram. A similar process takes place in testing the consistency of the soil– is it more like clay or sand in this particular region –that is far more qualitative in character. Likewise, the soil samples are sent off to labs where their mineral and organic content is examined.

This “gridding” of the forest and the savanna, coupled with the assignment of numerical values to the plant, geographical, and soil samples now allows for yet another translation or transformation. Our first transformation was that of the bewildering differential complexity of the forest and savanna in space and time, to the coordinate grids that both striate the area into a Cartesian coordinate system through which change can be plotted and the assignment of numerical values or names to the different fauna and soils. This “data” is now transformed into charts, diagrams, and tables. From these charts, diagrams, and tables patterns can be inferred which lead to yet another transformation into the commentary that accompanies the data in the published articles and theses. The results are surprising. It appears that, contrary to the assumptions of the pedologists, the forest is indeed advancing on the savanna. Sand is being transformed into clay. But how is this possible given the pedological truth that we always move from clay to sand, not sand to clay? The early findings suggest that biological factors in the form of worms and microbacteria play a key role in the production of soil. The worms are creating clay that allow for the advance of the forest. Pedology is potentially transformed by this encounter with a remote bit of forest and savanna in the Amazon.

What establishes the possibility of reference, then, is not a resemblance between the proposition and the forest-savanna, not an isomorphism between word and thing, but a series of transformations or translations between the final propositions and the forest-savanna upon which one can circulate back and forth from final propositions to initial research and back again. There is no resemblance between each ordered transformation and that which it transforms, but we can pass from one stage of the transformation to the next… Especially since the data is carefully preserved at each stage. As Latour remarks,

The philosophy of language makes it seem as if there exist two distjointed spheres separated by a unique and radical gap that must be reduced through the search for correspondence, for reference, between words and world. While following the expedition to Boa Vista, I arrived at a quite different solution. Knowledge, it seems, does not reside in the face-to-face confrontation of a mind with an object, any more than reference designates a thing by means of a sentence verified by that thing. On the contrary, at every stage we have recognized a common operator, which belongs to matter at one end, to form at the other, and which is separated from the stage that follows it by a gap that no resemblance could fill. The operators are linked in a series that passes across the difference between things and words, and that redistributes these two obsolete fixtures of the philosophy of language: the earth becomes a cardboard cube, words become paper, colors become numbers and so forth.

An essential property of this chain is that it must remain reversible. The succession of stages must be traceable, allowing for travel in both directions. If the chain is interrupted at any point, it ceases to transport truth– ceases, that is, to reproduce, to construct, to trace, and to conduct it. The word “reference” designates the quality of the chain int is entirety, and no longer adequatio rei et intellectus. Truth-value circulates here like electricity through a wire, so long as this circuit is not interrupted. (69)

A key point not to be missed is that the equation of philosophical epistemology– “mind representing world” –is woefully inadequate to describe the production of this chain of reference. Rather, what we instead encounter is a whole series of mobilized actors ranging from the scientists themselves to the forest and the savanna to the string and metal tags used to grid the region to the color cards against which the soil is compared to the numbers assigned to the plant and soil samples to the satellites used to image the region to the diagrams and paper upon which the “data” are organized, and so on. At any point in this series of translations or tranformations something can fail or go wrong, impeding the circulation of reference from one translation to another. Truth is produced in a factory, but certainly not a factory in which humans impress form on poor passive matter as an absolute sovereign might issue orders. Were this the case, how could the worms and microbacteria so surprise the botanists and pedologists? Rather, the factory of truth is a factory where human and non-human actors alike conspire, form alliances, struggle with one another, and all the rest. These facts are certainly constructed– what else could be the case given the formation of the grids, the assignment of numbers, the compilation of tables and all the rest –but they are no less real for all that. Let us not begin with the product in our epistemological questions, but with the process through which that product is produced. Perhaps in this way we might learn to ask more interesting and timely questions, not to mention more relevant questions where philosophy might actually have something to offer the world.