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Schaffer on Latour December 7, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
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Some of Simon Schaffer’s more interesting pieces are his essay reviews, which we ought to discuss more often in this series.  The most important, though, is the confrontational “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Bruno Latour,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 22 (1991): 174-192, a review of The Pasteurization of France.  Schaffer discusses Latour and this piece in this video (approx. from 28:15 to 35:30):

The discussion in the video, and the one it segues into about the characteristics of science studies/history of science, provide an unusually explicit discussion about what scholarship should be like, and it’s useful to have it, because I disagree with it.  Schaffer cites Latour’s arrival with a bottle of his family’s best wine to work out their positions as a testament to Latour’s personal qualities as a scholar: Latour takes the time and effort to reconcile differences rather than engage in petty infighting.  Nevertheless, the tensions brought up in “Eighteenth Brumaire” are extremely interesting, and I view it as unfortunate that the dispute was apparently resolved socially in private, rather than intellectually in public.  (If I’m missing some crucial source, as usual please correct me in comments; to my knowledge Jan Golinski comes closest.)

Schaffer acknowledges that their positions were never fully resolved, comparing the product of the tensions between their points of view to the interference fringes produced by overlapping light sources.  He goes on to discuss how our field is highly unusual in its ability to support perspectives arising from different disciplinary backgrounds.

Yet, I tend to view the persistence of unresolved perspectives as a weakness.  It is important to note that the products of unresolved intellectual tensions can exist only in the minds of those scholars who resolve the differences between perspectives on their own.  Such individuals constitute a fairly narrow group that Chris Donohue has called a “court of understanding” (see also my discussion of “perspective layering” last February). Without an explicit and widely acknowledged resolution, the productive effects—if indeed they exist—are necessarily private, or at least excessively limited.  Audiences are divided into the elite “court” and non-elite spectators who may not even be aware that two tiers of conversation exist, mistaking a non-rigorous outline of the high-level conversation for the real thing.  (See also my take on Daston’s appraisal of the “microhistory” trend a couple months ago.)  This is an ironic outcome, since Schaffer makes a point of lauding Latour for his commitment to “honesty and rigor,” and to making work public, as through gallery exhibits.

Coming back to the piece at hand, most discussions of “Eighteenth Brumaire”  that I’ve heard take the dispute simply to be about whether or not non-humans can have “agency”, since Latour gives microbes a role to play in the rise of Louis Pasteur (see this blog’s previous discussion of Pasteurization here).  This makes it difficult to see Latour’s approach as much more than a too-clever-by-half joke compared to more sober historiography, and one’s response to Latour is thus determined by whether or not one is willing to humor Latour’s eccentricities for whatever salubrious qualities they might have (he is just another perspective to be judiciously layered).

Schaffer did indeed criticize Latour for endowing microbes with agency, but it is important to note his argument’s place within programmatic disputes between different schools of sociology, each of which view the utility of history differently.  In “Eighteenth Brumaire” Schaffer was specifically asserting the tenets of Harry Collins’ “Bath School” against Latour’s “French School” as more appropriate to historical understanding.  It is useful here to know that Collins’ sociology of calibration had played a major role in the argument in 1985’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump, and Schaffer’s 1989 piece “Glass Works” was essentially a demonstration of its utility in generating new historical analysis.

The sociology of calibration is not as trivial as it sounds, because for Schaffer its “regressive” mode of analysis spoke to the crucial issue of what social means established the credibility that determined which experiments done by which experimenters with which instruments produced valid forms of knowledge, and in whose eyes.  Asking such questions, it turned out that historians could indeed find answers, and for Schaffer this was a major innovation in historiographical craft.  He took Latour’s Pasteurization to threaten this innovation.

Schaffer noted the importance of the “ideal reader” in Pasteurization: a spectator viewing the unfolding of Pasteur’s rise to prominence through the pages of certain journals without having any intellectual way of knowing whether any of the actors were in some way “right”.  By charting authorities invoked—including that of the microbes’ positive response to experiments—Latour offered a way of offering a sort of play-by-play in a language that doesn’t frame historical development in terms of the progress of, and resistance to, those we might suppose deserved to win out.

Latour, Collins, and Schaffer could all agree that the presumption of victory for those who were “right” hamstrung historical inquiry by denying that those who were “right” had to do work to see their views accepted—correctness somehow spoke for itself in such accounts.  In their view, looking forward in time to find out who won, and thus privilege the narratives of certain historical actors, was to commit an analytical heresy; call it the Whiggish heresy.

The crucial point of dispute was that Latour allowed, by granting agency to microbes, that being in some sense correct could be a valuable asset in asserting one’s position.  This position was intolerable to Schaffer, who argued (with Collins and Steven Yearley) that Latour was himself committing a specific form of Whiggish heresy called “hylozoism”, allowing nature to settle human disputes.  For Schaffer, hylozoism, like grosser forms of Whiggism, hamstrung historical inquiry by short-circuiting the need to establish why evidence was considered credible in disputes:   “Protagonists in dispute must win assent for … material technologies.  Hylozoism suggests that the microbes’ antics can explain these decisions.  Sociology of knowledge reckons that it is the combination of practices and conventions which prompt them, and these strategies get credit through culture.  Only when credibility is established will any story about the microbes make sense” (190, my emphasis).

But this misunderstands Latour’s project in two ways.  First, it misses the fact that Latour seeks a universal language of description, not a means of explanation.  Second, Latour’s descriptions are actualistic: they are play-by-play in real-time.  Latour’s actualistic descriptions do not look forward to find out what happened, but they also do not look backward to establish sufficient conditions.  Where Collins’ and Schaffer’s projects—like a philosophical account—would look backward to identify a set of conditions that establish why people, institutions, instruments, and experiments were considered credible, for Latour’s purposes it was only important that they had credibility.

For Latour, such description could grow or shrink to encompass any frame of inquiry.  A historian could expand the scope of inquiry to a multi-national account, or delve into Pasteur’s laboratory notebooks, and just chart more alliances of people, instruments, objects, and so forth.  On the other hand, for Schaffer, there was always a proper frame of inquiry: the failure to look to crucial challenges to Pasteur, especially that of the German Robert Koch, was an essential weakness in Latour’s account of the rise of Pasteur: Latour “can explain this shift in loyalty [of the Revue Scientifique] by reference to Pasteur’s experiments alone, and the good behaviour of microbes, because he deliberately omits their most potent enemies” (188, Schaffer’s emphasis).

The differences here hinge on the analyst’s sense of their own function.  For Schaffer the historian, to provide a sufficient (and thus legitimate) account of the rise of Pasteur, one had to understand how Pasteur defeated the potentially fatal challenge of Koch, which itself could only be understood by going back in time before the acceptance of Pasteur’s arguments and investigating the sources of credibility that made that acceptance possible.  Investigation through time was essential to Schaffer’s enterprise.  But for Latour, the main task was to describe or simulate the subjective experience of the contemporary spectator who had no such investigatory inclinations or resources, just as most people today experience the use of knowledge in society on a day-to-day basis.

The differences between Schaffer and Latour were programmatic, and each approach could have its own uses for the historian and sociologist alike, when used to accomplish method-appropriate tasks.  For the sake of enhancing the rigor of our work, these differences should have been fought out, articulated, and re-articulated in view of everyone.  They should not have been buried along with the hatchets in a private ceremony over a bottle of good wine.



1. The Difference Between a Description and an Explanation « Frames /sing - December 29, 2009

[…] Wave Propaganda as up a nice video of Schaffer on Latour, but the commentary on the question of agency is even more interesting. As EWP points out, the […]

2. kvond - December 29, 2009

If indeed the differences were programmatic, and I agree that the are, insofar as programs are offered to represent the world, there should be a way to measure the worth of each programmatic posture. It is not just enough to say that they are doing different things. To use an anology, each in their descriptions give us “copies” of the world, but which “copy” is better? Which copy is the most “copious”, and why? When Schaffer accuses Latour of repressing important causal features, is he not saying that Latour’s representation, his copy, is a bad copy, in the same way we might consider a Museum bookstore poster of an important work of art a “bad copy”?

3. Will Thomas - December 29, 2009

Well, I’m on record, speaking as a historian, that the truncation of inquiry in a Latour-style analysis leaves too much uninvestigated for it to be useful as an unaided historiographical methodology. So my sympathies are with Schaffer here, though I do think he misinterpreted the intent of what Latour was trying to do in Pasteurization.

One thing I’ve been wondering about, though, is whether a network analysis, if extended far enough in the right directions, would replicate the gains of a Collins-style regression. For example, would Latour allow that the techniques scientists acquire in their original training, and subsequent successes achieved with those techniques, constitute possible “allies”?

In Pasteurization Latour specifically limits his analysis to a semiotic analysis of chosen journals, so it is clear that certain things that historians might be interested in, such as the terms of the Koch controversy, would not necessarily crop up. But this is not to say that the network analysis method cannot be extended to encompass those things, but one might have not only to analyze existing texts, but to actively prompt actors to unpack black boxes. Again, I’m not sure whether Latour would endorse that since it involves active investigation, possible breaches of actualism (asking scientists about their past experience), and, of course, a distinction between actors that can be interrogated, and those that cannot, like microbes. Perhaps someone more familiar with Latour’s oeuvre can comment here.

More seriously, even if an extension of the networks to the levels in which historians are interested (to make the “copy” of the past more detailed, or “better”, to use your analogy) is allowed, the question of which directions to extend the network, in view of limitations of our ability to extend our analysis indefinitely, is not clear to me. Where a Collins-style regression can make recommendations about what kinds of questions to ask, network theory seems to offer no firm guidance.

It is perhaps pertinent that Latour seems to work most often as a critic who takes apart naive views. In Pasteurization his opponents were those who might claim Pasteur was fully responsible for his own fame, as well as those who might attribute all scientific claims to “social interests”. Latour didn’t have to extend the analysis into Germany in order to foil those views.

In the new paper you’re looking at, it is those who view the appeal of an “original” work of art as something inherent to the original. In these cases, it is only necessary to extend the network so far as to problematize the naive claim. Still, I don’t think Latour and Lowe are saying that the copiousness of copies is the single source of value attributed to an original; it is only that the proliferation of copies proliferates the number of those who are interested in the “originality” of the “original”. I don’t take this necessarily to mean that a deeper, historically-grounded connoisseurship is necessarily excluded as a source of value attributed to an original work of art. It’s just that Latour hasn’t bothered to extend the analysis in those directions. This is frustrating to you, much as the lack of attention to Koch was frustrating to Schaffer. But what would suggest such an extension but some alternative theory of aesthetics, much as Collins’ sociology of calibration suggests an extension of analysis into disputes over experimental technique? I don’t want to get too much into aesthetics, since it’s not exactly my strong suit, so I’ll just leave that as a suggestion.

Thanks for the comment!

4. kvond - December 30, 2009

EWA: “It is perhaps pertinent that Latour seems to work most often as a critic who takes apart naive views.”

Kvond: This is a very good point, but the product that results from criticism must itself appeal to a standard of positive valuation. That is, sure, we can break things apart via a description of their networks, but the very discrepencies in networked connection itself must be accounted for for the picture to have worth for us. Every description IS an explanation of a kind, despite disavowal.

EWA: “In the new paper you’re looking at, it is those who view the appeal of an “original” work of art as something inherent to the original. In these cases, it is only necessary to extend the network so far as to problematize the naive claim. Still, I don’t think Latour and Lowe are saying that the copiousness of copies is the single source of value attributed to an original; it is only that the proliferation of copies proliferates the number of those who are interested in the “originality” of the “original”. I don’t take this necessarily to mean that a deeper, historically-grounded connoisseurship is necessarily excluded as a source of value attributed to an original work of art.”

Kvond: I’m not sure about this at all. On the one had Latour and Lowe bemoan the swallowness of certain copy kinds, in direct contradiction to the theoretical perspective they are trying to bring forth. (I point this out in my first two article posts.) This internal contradiction suggests a blindspot I believe. The value of connoisseurship can fall for instance to a “copy” in a positive sense (for instance if it is shown in a context of greater historical relevance), but the failure of the authors to address WHY the restored flattening of the Holbein into a photographic charicature is a “bad” thing (as surely it is for the authors), is telling. As Latour and Lowe touch on connoisseurship it is presented as secondary to the powers of copiousness itself. The “aura” of the original moves. But in no fashion does Latour present WHY it moves, or even what to make of its loss. The explanation is missing so to speak. Copiousness is the preverbial “dormitive power” of opium that puts you to sleep solely due to its power to do so. Originals, show themselves to be original through a “copious power”, certainly a power that has no reference to causal effects previous to its own existence. (The same explanationless Molierean virtus dormitiva might be said to be the affect of Latour’s ubiquitous “agency”.)

I like the idea that the universal matrix of network descriptions might offer a solution to historical analysis, but this is the thing (and I believe we see this in the analysis of the “original”), the value of specific differences found in the original are due to historical causations which are pregnant within them. A connoisseur loves the original painting (or even a digitally reconstructed “copy”) because it provides a portal into untold traces of the “world” behind it. A photographic image in a bookstore does not, and worse, a restoration of an original painting so as to reflect the bookstore aesthetic, robs us even more, even though it might lead to an even more copiness nature (through the proliferation of “flat” Holbein copies). When we lock onto an important “event” or object it is because it holds a certain relevatory depth (of what lay behind it), a depth of riches that surely feeds into the propogation of copies of that event in the future. It is specifically this richness of causation, the way that the past speaks through the event or object that Latour misses, I believe. And yes, it is because he is merely taking the position of critic.

EWA: “It’s just that Latour hasn’t bothered to extend the analysis in those directions. This is frustrating to you, much as the lack of attention to Koch was frustrating to Schaffer. But what would suggest such an extension but some alternative theory of aesthetics, much as Collins’ sociology of calibration suggests an extension of analysis into disputes over experimental technique? I don’t want to get too much into aesthetics, since it’s not exactly my strong suit, so I’ll just leave that as a suggestion.”

Kvond: As a Spinozist of a kind I can see that numericity of copy reflects a numericity of cause such that there are traceable correspondences, but involved is the historian’s decision (or selection) of germane lineages that opens up the event or object in the first place. It is a creative process. An alliance to the past through narrative. And that some lineages are more fruitful than others, some events more rich than others, is not a merely historically conditioned fact.

Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

5. Will Thomas - December 30, 2009

Here are a couple of links for anyone with further interest in this.

The new Latour-Lowe paper referenced here is available in pdf here. Use the track-back link just above to start navigating back to kvond’s initial discussion of it.

Possibly related discussion (I suppose depending on your point-of-view) can be found in the Q&A this blog did last year with Harry Collins and Rob Evans on their Sociology of Expertise and Experience (SEE). I recommend Part 1 in which they discuss SEE as a “third wave” of science studies, and contrast it with Latour and Callon’s actor-network theory. Also see Part 3 on how they view SEE as building up new knowledge claims rather than as a way of critiquing them.

6. kvond - December 30, 2009

SWT, thanks for the interview. I’ve perused it, and will read it closer.

EWA, I’ve thought about your desire to draw out the potentialities of Latour’s universal cartography for history, for instance one that includes “techniques” as actors as well. I have great sympathy to this in the sense that it is VERY Spinozan. Anything can be an actor in alliances, just as in Spinoza anything is a modal expression with its own actorly force (called conatus). But much of this turns on agency and what agency allows us to do. The attribution of agency to humans is really a part of our whole explanatory mechanism for the world. We describe people as agents not just because they have a force on the world, or even to establish their membership in an exclusive club, but because when seen as agents their actions can produce rich revelation for how the world is, BUT ALSO produce critique of our own orientation to it. This is the aspect of agency that Schaffer is referring to when he talks of the problems of the Whiggish heresy. The way that we rationally interpret the actions of an agent (and here “rationally” is only coherently and charitably) is that their powers of agency are not the deadend of an explanation, but rather a beginning. When a person has acted intentionally we turn to presumptions about their state of mind (which we assume is similar to our own to some degree), all the mental predicates of desire, or feeling, or belief, or intent, which explain their agentized behavior. This leads to one of three general conclusions:

1). Their mental states are the same as ours (are or would be) and therefore they confirm our interpretation for how the world objectively is.

2). Their mental states are different than ours (are or would be), and are in error, and therefore they confirm our interpretation of how the world objectively is.

3). Their mental states are different than ours (are or would be), but are superior to ours, and thereby question our interpretation of the world.

Being able to undergo this intersubjective investigation of the mental states of others is something that makes up the social glue between us and the capacity to create an objective world. For this reason “agency” is not a pure power so much as the opening up a host of analyses and affective projections into others, into imagined situations, that makes of any description (even a facial expression) an explanation (something that reflects causal forces).

So when Latour extends agency to non-humans, and does so in the “virtus dormitiva” fashion, he is cutting off the very mechanism by which agency provides a doorway into our causal readings of the world. When something is described as an agent we want to know, “Well, what does it believe, what does it feel, what does it want?” and this is so we can measure both it, and ourselves. And yes I believe that these questions can and ARE extended beyond the category of human (in more than a metaphorical sense). But there are diminishing returns.

When Latour absolves himself of having to explain anything, and merely describe, when he positions agency in a “flat” ontology, and does so without taking up questions of why, he misses a vital aspect of how the world expresses itself in a revelatory way, a way in which agent action is a mode of interpretation which allows us to pick out the most relevant features in the world, the features that MATTER. Flattening the playing field, although a productive thing to do in many ways, should bring along with it the powers of explanation if we are not going to lose the REASONS why this technique is better than another, or why this political faction won over another.

I do think that technologies and objects of every kind need to be fitted into our explanatory models, and I do believe that agency in a very broad sense can be spread out to all of those things incorporated, but our object agency and human agency must be sewn together in a very particular way I believe, a way that always brings the powers of explanation into view.

Thanks for the opportunity to add these next day thoughts. I know that they probably don’t mesh perfectly well with your historian’s concerns.

7. What is scientific practice? | False vacuum: a weblog by Aaron Sidney Wright - August 31, 2010

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8. Mark Moorman - February 20, 2011

I had the privilege of having Simon Schaffer as my supervisor whilst I completed an M.Phil at HPS. He was, without a doubt, the most brilliant person I have ever met. I did not get to know him well, my fault, really quite intimidated and quite sure I was “in over my head” at HPS, and so, no need to draw too much attention to that fact. Still, I liked and admired him. I never became a card carrying disciple, not because I was not sympathetic to the progressive trajectory of ‘science studies’, but because in lesser hands (than Latour’s and Schaffer’s) it became a kind of angry, adolescent exercise in the “spirit of revenge,” a lame continuation of the bad parts of the 1960’s. Every article had to have a colon, and a shocking, clever, or witty title, e.g., “Pissing in the Wind: Windmills and Early Sewer System technology in the Netherlands.” It wasn’t valid work if it wasn’t shocking, interdisciplinary, and witty. Core values were to be upheld: the particular, the mundane, work, the working class, praxis = “good”; the general, the gentleman, the “mere theory” = bad. So, the findings, the unmasking of power, the debunking of hazy prejudice—this I admired, but the barely hidden agenda of smashing idols simply for the joy of it was too much.
Enough biographical banter, on to my point with regard to Latour contra Schaffer. I mentioned that theory, or philosophy was frowned upon,but I think the Latour/ Schaffer debate is ultimately a philosophical problem. Call it the problem of relativism/ realism or historicism. As Kierkegaard’s mask, Johannes Climacus, shows there is a problem with the eternalism of historicism. Or, as Josiah Royce writes: “No absolute truth exists save this truth itself, that no absolute truth exists . . . . if you admit this truth then ther is in fact an absolute distinction between truth and error. And when we talk here of an absolute distinction . . . we mean a real distinction between truth and error. And this real distinction the fiercest partisan of relativity admits; for does he not argue for relativity against absolutists, holding that he is right and they are wrong.” [The Religious Aspect of Philosophy, p. 376]. Latour, I think, tries to revitalize the Being of beings when he pushes for what he calls “actants”. He is trying to ground human scientific praxis in the manifestation of Being. We are the beings to whom and for whom Being manifests itself, shows itself from itself. Of course, relativists could argue (and i might be sympathetic) that there is truth that is absolute—after an act of human decision (thinking of Quine on “posits”]. I suppose my point is to agree with the original author that it would be well worth having such a conversation in public—I would love to listen in on two “giants” like Latour and Schaffer from the safety of my Epicurean garden.
Excellent, well written, and informative blog, thank you—bookmarked.

9. Against clubbishness: an interview with Will Thomas and Christopher Donohue, authors of the blog Ether Wave Propaganda (1/2) | Zilsel - December 13, 2014

[…] entries in journals, etc.)? When you talk about the Schaffer v. Latour controversy, for example, you deplore that this debate has been settled around a good bottle of wine, secluded, even though this […]

10. Astral - August 28, 2019

I enjoyed your article and thanks for all the links. I like Simon Schaffer’s work. (I told him so once, when I was lucky enough to meet him). But he does like the sound of his own voice! 🤩

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