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This Might Be Way More Offensive Than I Thought Last Night

by on March 28, 2013

I am quite conflicted by the Latour text. The introduction had me riveted, eager to see how he would bring objects into sociology, and I felt his criticism of sociology as a discipline that could only explain what had already been assembled, not what is in progress, were spot on (it was also nice to come across Emile Durkheim and Richard Powers in the same text [some of you might remember me mentioning Powers’ novel Galatea 2.2 earlier in the semester]), but certain points have me very suspicious moving forward.
I quickly took notice to his rather hypocritical denunciation of critical sociology while he is simultaneously calling upon the likes of Marx, Durkheim, and Tarde to emphasize his point (Durkheim and Tarde in particular as they are both credited with establishing sociology as a serious discipline, along with Weber of course, but those roots involved a great deal of critical speculation, as any new discipline will, a practice which he explicitly derides, while calling upon the practitioners for support. So the critics are wrong for doing it right up until you can use it? This is more the case for Tarde then Durkheim in the text obviously, but still quite suspicious). But several quotes from the second chapter REALLY bothered me:

“What is even more dangerous in the inconsiderate acceptance of hidden variables is to shift from the sociology of the social to critical sociology. This is the only discipline that finds itself scientific when it not only ignores data and replaces it with uncontroversial data from already assembled social forces, but also when it takes the indignant reactions of those who are thus ‘explained’ as what proves the unbearable truth of the critics’ interpretations. At this point, sociology stops being empirical and becomes ‘vampirical’. It is a great tragedy of the social sciences that this lesson was not heeded and that critical sociologists still consider as their treasure what they should rather be ashamed of, namely confusing what obfuscates data with what is revealed by it.” (50)

So, while I understand that Latour is taking up organizing a neat little empirical discipline, I think this is a horrendously depraved and self-serving statement that blissfully ignores reality, practicality, common sense, and if ever adopted into practice, would allow, if not possibly even justify, genocide.

I am thinking this point specifically in the realm of politics, mob mentality, and if pre-emptive action could ever be justified. This type of relativism basically says that even though we as a species know damn well what happens when a dictator is given absolute power or a government adopts a xenophobic agenda, or when the majority decides to kill their adversaries to solve the problems of their nation that we should wait until they are finished before judging the situation? Fine, there is a slight chance that absolute power will be given to the wise sage king of ancient China who will use his unrestrained power only for the good of the whole. But how often does that happen? But no, we can’t “replace” the data as Latour says like those arrogant critics would suggest. Just because all common sense and history says what will likely happen, we shouldn’t risk “obfuscating” the data. After all, we don’t objectively know the likelihood of genocide under a regime that says all the world’s problems are caused by Jews: maybe they will just ask them to leave and not set up death-camps. Maybe it is just an observation and they will never act on it. For that matter, could we ever justify stopping genocide from taking place since there is some chance that the ends could justify the means?

Basically, from what I see of this, we would have a social duty to just let things play out rather than risk the credibility of a discipline by acting on what most people would see as obvious. Fine, social criticism gets into realms that are an over-reach from time to time, but that doesn’t mean that you scrap the whole notion of social observation and prior experience just to retain some petty academic objectivity. It seems to me that in his restructuring of sociology, Latour is crossing a line into naïve realism with statements like “’No one mentions it. I have no proof but I know there is some hidden actor at work here behind the scene.’ This is conspiracy theory, not social theory” (53). So it wasn’t social theory for the Jews of Warsaw to suspect that something devious was in the shadows when they were relocated to the ghettos? It was all just conspiracy when their family was disappearing since none of them had been to a death-camp and returned? There was no sociological justification for attacking Nazi Germany prior to the Allied invasion (which, would have been unjustified on the grounds of stopping a genocide by objective observations as of that point) since the death-camps were a conspiratorial whisper at the time, not a proven fact? We shouldn’t have “replaced the data” of millions of missing people alongside Hitler’s open hatred for the Jews with the idea that all common sense says that someone is intentionally killing them? The posterity of a discipline should override all common sense, common decency, and logic because we don’t want to seem subjective since we didn’t really know where this whole Holocaust thing was going? This seems like a willing suspension of belief just to save face in case some fact comes out later that might disprove something. While I agree with Latour’s criticism of sociology as a discipline, I think adopting his version could be insanely dangerous, if not flat out despicably inhumane (after all, wasn’t the Nazi doctor Joseph Mengele also being extraordinarily objective when he ignored the screams of tortured children in the name of accumulating medical data?). Maybe I’m being too extreme here, but after so many texts this semester have called relativism into serious doubt (and after they finally started to convince me), to come back to a theory with a slavish devotion to objectivity now seems odd after being warned about that dangers of such an approach by so many texts.

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2 Comments
  1. jmdaven permalink

    I think you might be over-reading his accusation of conspiracy theory. It seems to me that what he is attacking in these arguments is the construction of the “social” as a vague and undefined bogeyman, so that instead of precising one’s terms, people are willing to simply explain problems away by the attribution of “social forces.” Of course the Holocaust is no conspiracy theory, but I think Latour would argue that it was not vaguely defined social causes that murdered the millions, but specific governmental policies and so on. I think what Latour is advocating is specifc and situation specific analysis of the social within the actors own terms instead of relying on nebulous, ill-defined perhaps unsupported ideas. Not that I agree with him…

  2. 7sshare permalink

    “Just because all common sense and history says what will likely happen, we shouldn’t risk “obfuscating” the data…”

    Hmm, I have to think differently about ANT when you put it this way. It seems like it is so slow and careful that its uses would have to be very narrow, and very academic. I don’t know, I still have to think through this, and see some ANT in action. But you’ve definitely made me think about it differently.

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