Wednesday, February 13, 2008


The word "pace", B— writes to tell me, "seems like a fun term to use for juggling arguments while not having to do justice to them." That, in any case, is what she thinks Teppo was doing in the snippet I quoted yesterday.

Labelling Latour as a social constructionist seems to be an all too frequent misinterpretation (pace Teppo) most often to be found in the works of scholars who have not actually taken the time to read his texts. In fact most of Latour's authorship (1979 and onwards) has been dedicated to arguing against the social construction of scientific facts (along with whatever other entities in the world that social constructionists may reduce to mere gossip and storytelling).

Notice that B— is not defending social constructionists; she is saying that Latour isn't one. If Teppo had written "pace social constructionists" she may have granted his point. While constructionists (according to B—) do believe that "a disease is what a few doctors decide to call it", Latour does not.

Now, in so far as you are explicitly arguing against another position, taking issue with it, contending with it, I don't recommend using "pace". It should be reserved for disagreements you don't really want to get into. In fact, all disciplines are defined in part by the arguments they juggle without doing justice to. If we didn't dismiss certain approaches to reality out of hand without reading them, we'd have way too much reading to do. And, yes, "peace" to those who seem to have misunderstood reality at a fundamental level but whom we don't have time to read properly.

Still, as B—'s mail demonstrates, this gesture has a particular rhetorical function in our writing. Those we don't explicitly contend with help us to find our feet in relation to those we do.

"The state of affairs outlined by Latour is thus much worse than most critiques of social constructionism could possibly imagine," says B—. This is because social constructionism assumes what she calls a "double ontology", "retain[ing] a nice and quiet reality out there behind language and social constructions, (thus reducing nature to “a dull affair”, untouchable, colourless and meaningless without human interpretation)."

Now we get to the crux of her argument:

In the ontology of Bruno Latour there is thus no objective reality out there beyond our perception. Everything is equally real, albeit not equally realized, and the realization of objective facts should thus be explained accordingly: as a process of becoming. This process can never be understood if only seen through the lenses of language/the social/discourse.

Notice that there are really three positions here, and at least two points of contention. B— is positioning herself among social constructionists, critics of social constructionism, and Bruno Latour. (Or would it be more accurate that she is positioning herself and Bruno among social constructionists and their critics?)

She is also dealing with the opposition between realism and relativism. There are non-relativistic realists, there are relativistic non-realists, and then there is Latour: a relativistic realist. But the relativism of constructionism also has that "dull" reality to refer to (and otherwise say nothing about).

So is Latour an ordinary realist, i.e., one who writes about reality and whose statements are true or false depending on what is actually the case? Well, in a sense, yes he is. But not in the sense that Teppo is talking about. Remember that Teppo's illness (which fortunately turned out to be not quite an illness after all, or at least not one requiring the treatment his doctors proposed) was, in his view (and pace Latour), part of an "objective reality". According to Latour, however, the doctors are always already constrained by that reality too. As B— puts it, there is no place outside of reality to relegate our analysis of their diagnosis. Things are indeed "much worse than [Teppo] can imagine": his doctors were right!

Now, as Teppo would note, this argument simply won't do. There is an important sense in which his doctors were wrong, and would have been wrong even if he had had the operation. This wrongness is the stuff of contentious facts. I would add that there are styles of writing that lack this contentiousness precisely because they reject the existence of a shared objective reality to talk about (or at least think it is a "dull affair"). Such writing has only peaceful facts and accomplished facts to work with. Either we don't talk to each other or you believe what I have to say.

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