If I were to name a single thing that I most regret in all that I have written in since 2011, it would be my defense of Latour’s principle of irreduction in my article entitled “The Ontic Principle” in The Speculative Turn. Having reflected on this principle in the intervening years, I can’t help but believe that it would be a catastrophe to any knowledge-producing practices were it taken seriously. Why? Because to explain is to reduce. The sciences explain the powers of H2O by reference to the features of hydrogen and oxygen. Likewise, I explain the powers of hydrogen and oxygen by reference to more elementary particles. When someone interprets a novel, they’re carrying out a reduction saying, in effect, that the “manifest content” of the novel refers to this latent, ideational content. When a psychoanalyst interprets a symptom, they’re carrying out a reduction. Indeed, even Latour’s own actor-network analyses are reductions. He takes complex aggregates such as corporations and looks at all the actants that make them up. He’s reducing these aggregates to more elementary units. What we need is not a principle of irreduction, but of reduction that would allow us to distinguish between good and bad reductions.
The problem with the principle of reduction when taken at face value is that it leads us to treat every entity as an ontological given. “God, is but a set of beliefs, you say? Well by Latour’s principle of reduction this is an illegitimate reduction! Therefore we must include God in our ontology!” “Your depression is a chemical imbalance, you say? Well that’s an illegitimate reduction and it really means all that your confused says it means!” And while you’re at it, us Jews really were what the Nazis said we were because, well, it would be reductive to say otherwise!
I suspect that Latour himself didn’t think this is what the principle of irreduction means. After all, all of his actual analyses speak against this as he perpetually carries out reductions. What does Latour actually say? He says, “[n]othing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else” (The Pasteurization of France, 158). It’s the second part of the proposition that’s important. When he refuses reduction he’s challenging bad sociology. Like the mathematician, he’s saying you have to show your work. Somewhere or other he gives Freudian dream interpretation as an example of virtuous reduction. What’s good about a Freudian dream interpretation. It shows all the transformations (the dream-work) that lead from the dream-thought to the manifest content of the dream. It doesn’t just say “dream x means y”, but shows how the thought or repressed desire gets elaborated into y. Similarly, in the domain of Marxist social theory, it’s not enough to say “capitalism causes r”. You have to show all the mediations and mechanisms by which we get from the dynamics of capitalism to a particular social phenomena. We have to show our work. However, showing your work is a reduction nonetheless. A bad reduction is merely one that doesn’t show the mediations or how you get from point a to point b. Not everything exists. Sorry folks, there are no rainbows, though we certainly experience them as a result of the properties of light, raindrops, and our own neurological systems. Whiteheadian nonsense aside, in the absence of those neurological systems rainbows just ain’t there.