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.
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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.
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Many will express admirations for this book and its interactive website, in part because not really understanding its Baroque refinements but unwilling to say so. There is indeed much to admire in the originality of this work and its wealth of observations, concepts and ideas. But my assessment is that this magnificent edifice lacks foundations and is misdirected. Thus, the whole range of existential challenges posed by science and technology, with all their deep uncertainties and inconceivability, to the future existence and very nature of the human species, as discussed in my recent book, are in the main ignored. To add a concrete example, the critical importance of the quality of senior political leaders in impacting on the future, for better or worse, is not realized - leading to neglect of the crucial need for radical upgrading the minds of high level decision makers. This is not the place for a detailed critique of the book. But let me further illustrate some of the weaknesses by mentioning a category error and a misunderstanding, and then return to what I regard as the critical failure of the book and the project on which it is based, as hinted at above. The book discussed "modernity" and the moderns. But the image of modernity and moderns discussed in the book is at best one "pure type" out of a variety of equally plausible ones. For sure it is not reliable anthropological mapping of the multiple and divergent attributes of societies usually regarded as "modern." Thus, a central category of the book is not clarified nor justified, adding up to a kind of category error. The book completely misunderstands "politics." The differences and relations between "politics" and "policy" are not recognized nor discussed, probably because in French (and many other languages) there are no different words for politics and policy. The distinction made by the author between talking politics and talking on politics does nothing to overcome neglect of the realities of the real "corridors of power." Thus, the Agora is regarded as a model of politics, ignoring that fact that in Western democracies too most of politics (and even more so of policy) takes place in closed spaces not accessible to the public - largely necessarily so because of the low levels of public understanding of complex issues. Similarly, the critical roles of myths and imaginaries in politics are not considered. In addition, the realities of relations between the Occident and "others," which are central to the future of humanity, are grossly oversimplified. Trust in a novel type of "diplomacy" is unrealistic, ignoring the crucial roles of strongly held beliefs -- "fundamentalism" and "fanaticism" are neither understood nor and confronted in the book, nor are the nature of power and the strength of material interests. Most serious of all, the necessity for a strong global regime, up to a circumscribed "Global Levilathan," for imposing measures essential for assuring the future of humanity, is completely ignored. Instead trust seems to be put on arriving at consensus with the help of a kind of "diplomacy," which is completely misplaced in view of the lessons of history and whatever we understand of the nature of humans and tribal feelings. To be added as a main failure in its instauration thrust, to use a term from the text, is its concentrating on the interface between Gaia and Anthropocene and the necessity to radically adjust human activities and modes of existence to limits imposed by the Earth. True, this is an important issue. And many do regard it as the most fateful one. But from such an outstanding author more can be expected. Not only are the potentials of geoengineering not taken into account, but - much worse - the fatal dangers posed by synthetic biology and human enhancement, among others, are not taken into account, though they frame the required new civilizations and modes of existence. The author rejects the "to be or not to be" question (p. 178). He may be right in the specific context in which he does so, but the real issues facing humanity are indeed "to be, what to be, or not to be." Ecology is only one of the crucial facets of this existential mega-quandary. The whole raison d'etre of this book is undermined by not relating to this question as a whole, which realistically considered leads to understandings and conclusions radically different and also contrarian to those proposed in the book and the project on which it is based. I give this book four stars because of its high intellectual level and the wealth of novel though partial understandings providing by it. But, as a whole, I regret to reach the conclusion that it is misleading concerning the problematic facing humanity and the ways for seeking measures and modes of existence coping with it. Professor Yehezkel Dror The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
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