A number of questions have been posed to me regarding object-oriented ontology and epistemology. These issues are outlined in my post “Circulating Reference“, which explores Latour’s account of reference and how knowledge is produced. John Doyle mentioned that perhaps this post hadn’t gotten much attention as it begins with a discussion of a conversation between Jerry and I concerning the role of locals in knowledge production. To avoid this problem I’ve thus decided to post a revised version of the original post that gets right to the meet of the matter.

For those who have cut their teeth on Derrida, Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Lacan, I suspect the term “circulating reference” resonates in highly misleading ways. In fact, I think it was a horrible choice of terms for what Latour is trying to mark as, like the free play of the signifier, it arouses thoughts of a reference relation that is not fixed. Here the idea would be that reference circulates about in a playful fashion in much the same way that the signifier cannot be tied to a single signified or referent. This is not what Latour has in mind by circulating reference.

read on!

To understand Latour’s concept of circulating reference it is helpful to contrast it with traditional ways of posing the problem of reference. For the last three hundred years or so philosophers have been obsessed with the question of how words relate to things or how the mind represents the world. This link between representation and object or word and thing is the relation of reference. Now, rather than beginning with the sort of idiotic examples used as devices for posing the problem of how the two are related– examples like Quine’s “the cat is on the mat” –instead let us begin with the relationship between Newton’s Principia and the world to which it refers. I open Newton’s Principia and discern magnificent equations, geometrical diagrams, and a whole set of propositions that suddenly seem to reveal the secret of nature. Yet when I close the book and look up at the night sky or all of the buzzing actions of the objects of the world around me, there seems to be no resemblance between the text and the world.

What, then, is the relation between this text and the world, how did Newton arrive at this knowledge, and how can we determine whether this relationship is true? Do I arrive at this knowledge through my sensations? Well there seems to be very little in the flux of my sensations that resembles what we find in the Principia. Is it through some art of pure reason like Descartes’ innate ideas that I discover these things? Well while this might work for mathematics, it’s difficult to see how pure reason could discover physically necessary truths about a contingent world. So begins a long history of vexed problems about the relationship between representations and objects, words and things.

Note that the traditional way of posing the problem restricts the reference relation to two terms: word and thing. Latour’s innovation consists in adding a third term: the process by which knowledge is produced. The reference relation, according to Latour, refers not to the relationship between word and thing, but to a series of backward mediations ranging over the process by which the judgment is produced. Timothy Webmoor gives an excellent summary of Latour’s thesis over at Reconfiguring the Archeological Sensibility:

In his ‘Circulating Reference’, Latour (1999:ch2) tackles both mutually supporting notions in a single example of fieldwork by botanists and pedologists in the Amazonian region of Roraima. To fulfill their project goal, the researchers must produce a report detailing the whether the savanna is encroaching upon the forest, or if the reverse is taking place. The report must accurately portray the state of savanna/forest battle in order that inferences as to cause may be generated and supported by the evidence. However, in creating the map replete with locations of botanical and soil samples, Latour notes that instead of mimesis of representation, of a report mirroring what is actually happening ‘out there’, what actually transpires in practice is a series of translations across tiny gaps of material to media. “In actual practice, however, one never travels directly from objects to words, from the referent to the sign, but always through a risky intermediary pathway” (ibid:40). So for instance of this intermediary pathway, the scientists taking soil samples must transubstantiate or translate a given piece of soil into a code on a Munsell soil chart. The soil’s moisture content, the illumination of the location, the condition of the chart itself, and of course the capability of the researcher to judge fine shades of color all inter-act to create, in the end, a color code. [my emphasis] For Latour, this is not correspondence or mirroring of the world into representation. A series of actions on the part of researchers and savanna soil are coordinated, are articulated in order that the code will do more than resemble the soil: “it takes the place of the original situation” (ibid:67). It takes the place of the soil so that it can be integrated with other information collected while in the field – it must be inter-fungible with graphical notation, statistical nomenclature, and textual narrative. Instead of a correspondence of the code to soil, we have an actively manipulated transformation for specific purposes.

Latour describes this entire process of moving across a series of small gaps as circulating reference. And, as we no longer are talking of society mirroring nature, but rather of a heterogenous series of operations which are enabled by considering the transformative capacity of the researcher and his/her media as well as the unique capacity of nonhumans to foster, inhibit or qualify this transformation, it is better termed mediation.

“Circulating reference” thus signifies the series of transformations that things undergo in being worked over by the scientists. For example, we first have the “raw” forest. Trees are tagged to create a grid, plants are mapped, satellite pictures are taken, plant samples are taken, soil samples are taken and so on. Reference “circulates” in the sense that it moves forward and backwards along this chain of mediations and transformations. That is, when faced with the finished article of the scientists, we can move backwards along the chain of transformations to investigate their samples, the process they went through, their log of their fieldwork, and ultimately the forest itself. Latour’s point is that reference does not run from word to object, but rather circulates along this chain of systematic transformations.

Latour describes this process of translation, mediation, and transformation as a sort of interplay between matter and form, as can be seen in the diagram below:

Latour-mediaton circ.ref.-w

The upper portion of the diagram represents the interplay between matter and form. For example, we start with the “matter” that is the forest. The forest is first translated into a form through the tags on the trees that allow a grid to be produced in which soil samples and plants can be precisely mapped. The soil samples and plants now become a new matter, that is then plotted into a different set of forms: their plotting on the map, the correlation of the soil samples with established color grids, etc. And so the interplay goes until we have the summary in the form of the article or report. Note that in the lower portion of the diagram, we now have the erasure of this series of mediations and translations and are presented with two heterogeneous domains: the text or article (words) and the world (things). It is here that we get philosophical epistemology’s way of posing the question of reference. Where the upper half of the diagram contains a chain of interplay between heterogeneous matters and forms circulating across the process between local and heterogeneous materials all the way to the finished product (the article), the lower level erases all these intermediary steps and presents us with two new entities: a thing called “world” and a thing called “words”. It then faces the irresolvable question of how these words can ever refer to the world, because there is such a lack of resemblance between the two domains that they seem entirely different. For example, Kant was no doubt led to claim that the category of causality arises from mind because nothing in Newton’s Principia indicated how action at a distance could be possible.

Latour represents the upper portion of the diagram above with the following diagram:


Note the arrows. On the one side of the diagram towards the top we see the word “reduction” with arrows pointing to the right and meeting at a point. Under reduction we find the words “locality”, “particularity”, “materiality”, “multiplicity”, and “continuity”. This side of the diagram would be, for example, the forest as first encountered by the scientist, filled with a bewildering array of differences. On the other side of the diagram, by contrast, the word “amplication”, with the words “standardization”, “compatability”, “text”, “calculation”, “circulation”, and “relative universality” with arrows pointing back towards the other side. What this diagram thus represents is a movement from the particular and different, from the multiple, to the reduced and codified as it is situated in a series of forms. Circulating reference is the thesis that the knowledge is “grounded” in our ability to move back and forth along this chain of mediations and translations to see how the text relates to the initial stages. Although Latour situates his account of circulating reference in the context of his field-work on a group of scientists doing research in the Amazonian rain forest, I think he here gives us a formal schema for development in general. For example, while the interplay of matters and forms are very different in the case of infant development, we could give a similar analysis of how child eyesight moves from a chaotic mass of indistinctness to the ability to recognize depth, distinct shapes, etc.

The key point not to be missed, however, is that knowledge is an activity. It involves an active interplay with the “materials”, a genesis of forms, and a situating of these materials in forms. This leads me to a further point about philosophical epistemology. Philosophy has a long history of holding practice in disdain. This can be seen in all domains of philosophical thought, and, is very likely, in part, due to the class origins of philosophy, and, in part, the sort of lives philosophers themselves live. As early as Plato’s Meno, we witness Socrates and Meno effectively mocking the slave boy with their questions, but there is also a complete disregard for the slave boy’s practical knowledge in relating to the world. All that Meno and Socrates are interested in, as masters, is the slaves propositional knowledge: not his techniques or practical know-how, but what he can convey in speech. Indeed, if we look beyond the upsetting encounter with the slave boy, the very way in which the question of the dialogue is posed– “can virtue be taught” –reflects this bias for speech over practice. Thus when they reference a well respected Athenian who is known for his virtue and observe that his boys are pretty wretched, they conclude that certainly this man would have taught his sons virtue (i.e., conveyed it in speech) were it possible to teach virtue. They don’t even bother investigating the developmental milieu in which these sons were raised. In Aristotle, of course, we witness theoretical knowledge as being treated as the highest destination of the soul in the Nichomachean Ethics and largely denigrating the practical arts in the opening pages of the same text. In aesthetic theory we witness a focus on the spectator rather than the production of art, and in contemporary political theory we witness a focus on normativity and ideology, rather than the practical activities of organization and operation of institutions.

Everywhere, with few exceptions, technique, activity, and practice is systematically excluded from philosophical theorizing as if there is a horror at getting one’s hands dirty. Development is perpetually treated as irrelevant to the questions of philosophy. In part this reflects the class origins of philosophy in ancient Greece. Supported in a life of leisure by slaves, the dimension of production wasn’t even on their radar. In part, the persistence of this sort of blindness– a blindness so deep that often the issue can’t even be understood –arises from how philosophers relate to the world. Taking a page from Bourdieu, philosophers tend to systematically distort problems because they primarily relate to the smooth space of texts and ideas, and thereby pose the questions of philosophy in these terms. Not working directly with materials or the world, they instead begin from the text or proposition and ask “how does it link to the world”. Since they use their hands for little more than writing and typing– and if they are Rousseau more amusing exercises yet –they instead rely on their eyes and ask “how can I see what this proposition represents?” Of course, the question here becomes completely irresolvable because they’re beginning with a final product of much labor (the text) and then trying to link it back to a “world” where all the forms organizing matter are no longer present. Rather than going to those who actually produce knowledge– after all, philosophers aren’t interested in the process of engineering or the work it takes to get from multiplicity to reduction, only the report of the result –they then work themselves up in knots trying to figure out the relationship.

It seems I’ve gotten quite off track in responding to Jerry’s initial remarks. I think Jerry is quite right to point out that often there’s a theft of knowledge from the locals in these sorts of situations. In his article on circulating reference, Latour notes that at least two of the scientists had worked in the region for year as a part of their research and had deep relations with the locals, but little is said about this relationship. In Latour’s defense it must be remembered that he’s doing field-world and relating his observations of how the scientists proceeded in their work over the course of his visit and therefore did not have the opportunity to investigate these relations.

However, I think Jerry gets at a point that is common to all knowledge production and knowledge products. The situation here is not specific to the instance of the erasure of the locals, but rather is common to all knowledge products in the sense that in the product– the text, the statement, the proposition, etc. –the process out of which it emerged is effaced and erased. In this respect, products of knowledge resemble Marx’s account of commodity fetishism. In Marx’s labor theory of value the object gets its value from the labor required to produce it, but in commodity fetishism the value of the object manifests itself as a mysterious property of the object itself rather than as a result of the labor process that produced the object. We can imagine a debate between empiricist value theorists and transcendental value theorists over where, say, gold gets its value. The empiricist talks about all the sensible qualities of the gold and how they combine with certain human passions, creating value. Gold is full of luster, it’s useful, etc., etc., etc.. The transcendental idealist value theorist points out that nonetheless the “valuebleness of value” can nowhere be found in these sensible qualities and that therefore the value of the gold comes from an a priori category of the faculty of desire that is then imposed on the sensible matter of those intuitions belonging to gold. Both regard or gaze at the gold like mesmerized apes trying to figure out where the valuableness of the gold lies.

Philosophical epistemology is very similar. The philosopher sits before a finished text, a beautiful mathematical equations, or whatnot and tries to figure out the secret of its truth in a relation between the text and a world now denuded of all the markers by which this text was produced. To the same degree that the locals are erased in the text of these scientists depicted by Latour, the activity of knowledge production is erased in all knowledge products, turning them into mysterious monuments whose relationship to the world is inscrutable. For epistemology to proceed it must overcome epistemological fetishism and its allergic reaction to engineering or bricolage. It must learn how to become blind, denouncing the primacy of the gaze, so it might rediscover the hands and the tool through which forms and matters come together.