on 17 December 2014
Probably interesting, but unreadable in this English version.
'Continental Philosophy' or 'continental' thought in translation has itself developed a strange culture that social anthropologists would do well to explore.
Language is the primary institution of any culture or society, and consists in very complex networks of meaning that can in principle map all the other dimensions of that culture, as of the partly acculturated Nature which is projected as its external material base. A well-written text should work 'musically' to coordinate all the various resonances of its words in all sorts of literal and figural local registers within a global system of meaning and argument in the text as a whole. A sort of infinite crossword puzzle that does have some kind of coherent solution.
With the mushrooming of 'continental thought' in anglophone educational institutions in the 1970s, opportunistic British and American publishers printed endless textual abortions by linguistically unqualified PhD students. The texts typically lose and confuse a large proportion of the semantic networks of their (say) French or German originals, generating a strange idiolect analogous to Airport English, whose unfathomable mysteries, so appealing to a certain sort of student or lecturer, are in fact a projection beyond the clumsy translation onto imaginary complexities that would horrify the original writers.
This is a relatively recent phenomenon. Baudelaire's translations of Poe were so good that people joked that the original read like a translation from the French. Many French and German novels are still admirably translated (by writers properly qualified and paid). But in the anglophone Academy we now have a sort of mythology of recent foreign thought systems so subtle and complex they're largely incomprehensible except to an elite of initiates dressed in special imperial cloth, or the complementary and converse view that all recent 'continental philosophy' is charlatanism and pretentious mumbo-jumbo.
The two views or versions are equally false, and interdependent. The latter view was expressed to me recently by an Oxford professor of philosophy, talking of Derrida, who he then admitted he'd never read in English, let alone French. The former view is perhaps best expressed by an English student who worked for years on a Deleuze translation by writing his guess of an equivalent English term, chosen from a dictionary, above each word of the French original, then trying to make the string of resulting words vaguely grammatical (he'd never studied French or lived in France). He was in discussions with a prominent publisher for a couple of years before the project was shelved.
So... it seems to me that this to me largely unreadable English version of Latour's text (the writer himself, like most of his peers, is perfectly articulate in written and spoken French, which is far more precise language than English, especially the American variant) is not so much a help in understanding an influential an interesting new approach to the analysis of instititutions, as an interesting case study in the bizarre institution of 'continental thought' as parodied in anglophone universities.
So... either read this book in French, or as the notional anthropologist of the book exploring an institution far stranger than most of the institutions mapped in the book itself. You may even get some idea of Bruno Latour's ideas in passing, but it's hard work - often I had to imagine what French sentence might have produced an English one, in order to understand it.
on 24 March 2014
Well printed and bound, physically a pleasure to read. Bought following an excellent review by Jonathan Rée in the t.l.s 10 Jan 2014. Latour's ideas are interesting, his style not - verbose and mock-enthusiastic as a scientist explaining to a twelve-year old why sugar melts in water. Here he in on 'habit': 'It is the most common experience. No touchstone is more discriminating than this one: there are habits that make us more and more obtuse; there are habits that make us more and more skilllful. There are those that degenerate into..' enough, but there is more and more of this. Somewhere inside these 488 pages lies a brilliant essay. I am trying to find it and it is a struggle.