Category: Bruno Latour

Trying to Understand Practice

I think it fair to say that the rejection of the term “experience” in favor of talking about “practices” is motivated by the worry that “experience” does not take the social dimensions of human being-in-the-world adequately into account.

A preference for the term “practices” can often be traced back to the influence of Wittgenstein.  Certainly, many of the puzzles surrounding practices were enunciated by Wittgenstein and still trouble those who want to use that concept.

I don’t think Wittgenstein uses the term “practices” himself.  He talks of “forms of life” and “language games” in ways that would align with some understandings of “practices.”  I don’t know where the current use of the term “practices” comes from.  Kant wrote about the difference between “theory and practice” and Marx used the term “praxis,” but those usages are not quite the same as the full-blown “social theory of practices” (the title of a useful book by Stephen Turner (University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Important for me is that a reliance on the concept of practice goes hand-in-hand with pluralism.  There are multiple practices—and that would be one objection to the Deweyean concept of “experience.”  Dewey seems to insist that all experiences have the same basic traits, which is why (for instance) he tries to make the “esthetic” (in Art As Experience) continuous with experience tout court instead of deeming the aesthetic a distinctive kind of experience with its own features.

My understanding of practice is derived from Wittgenstein, Bourdieu (key texts: Outline of a Theory of Practice [Cambridge UP, 1977] and The Logic of Practice [Stanford UP, 1990]), John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality [Simon and Shuster, 1995], Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice [University of Chicago Press, 1995], and Bruno Latour, Science in Action [Harvard UP, 1987]. I also learned a lot from a collection of essays gathered together under the title of The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, ed. by Theordore Schatzki et. al. [Routledge, 2001].  As you can tell from the dates on these sources, I was working on this topic in the 1990s—and taught a grad seminar on theories of action in 2002.  That work culminated in my essay “Action as Meaningful Behavior” (which can be accessed through the “Public Essays” tab on the front page of this blog)—an essay that does not use the term “practice” but which does touch on some of themes I will consider in this post.

Enough throat clearing. What is a “practice”?  Not an easy question to answer since there are some very different things that can be collected under the term.  Let’s start with a fairly straight-forward example: playing the piano.  This is an activity that takes place within a structured field.  The “social” element of the practice, then, is the existence of that field.  There has to be the edifice of Western music, with the way it organizes sound into notes and also motivates the production of the instrument, the piano, that produces the appropriate notes. (Chinese music is differently structured and the piano is an instrument that is irrelevant to, useless for playing, Chinese music.)

There also has to be a practitioner—the one who plays the piano.  Crucially, there also has to be a process of education.  You can’t just sit down to a piano and play it.  It takes years of training—and of practice.  You can’t learn to play the piano by reading a book.  You need to actually physically do it, moving from a starting point of almost complete ineptitude toward dizzying heights of proficiency on the part of those who become virtuosos.

The practice of piano playing spawns various social formations.  There will be professional organizations of practitioners; there will be institutions like conservatories; there will be networks of managers, agents, impressarios, philanthropists, and others who arrange for and publicize performances. There will be concert halls.  There will be critics who evaluate performances, scholars who study the history of the practice, and theorists who try to determine its enabling and generating conditions.  This is Latour territory, thinking about the multiple agents, with varying roles, required to maintain a practice—where “maintain” also entails a certain kind of communal policing of “what counts” as a valid example of the practice, what innovations are accepted, which ones rejected, and which enactments are deemed “better” or “worse.”

Dewey’s notion of “experience” fails to take into account what we might call the inevitable human audience for our actions, for our ways of interacting with the environment.  We are judged constantly by others—and the standards for that judgment are relative to the practice we are seen as participating in.  A good parent is distinct from a good piano player.  It is within the understood parameters of the relevant practice that a performance is understood (i.e. the very meaning of the performed action only makes sense in relation to the practice) and judged.  In other words, we have to name what the action is in general terms—parenting, playing the piano—before we have any way of assessing it, or even comprehending it.  What is she doing?, we might ask in puzzlement.  The answer to that question will (in most cases) gives us the name of a practice.

For Bourdieu (and many others, going back to Wittgenstein’s interest in games), the best way to think about practices is through the example of games.  A game is an activity that is structured by rules, but (crucially) not governed by rules.  The rule in baseball is that three strikes and you are out.  But the rules say nothing about the strategies, the techniques, a pitcher might employ in the effort to achieve a strike-out.  And the rules are not the source of the motivation.  The players play to win—and there are various socially provided rewards for winning—but the degree of compulsion leveraged to make someone play a game and care about its outcomes differs from one social setting to another.  Students are often forced to engage in athletic games they would rather give a miss.  More broadly, the structured field of economic competition for incomes within a capitalist society is a game few can avoid playing.

To think of the market economy as a game brings up many of the complications of “practices.”  Yes, there are identifiable rules in such a society—starting with the legal definition of and protection of “property.”  There is also the social institution of money itself.  Searle, in a formula I adapt in my essay on action, says that fields are structured in the following way: A counts as B under conditions C.  Searle mostly applies this formula to the establishment of social institutions, but I use it somewhat differently.  Money is a key example for Searle.  This piece of paper only counts (only functions) as legal tender under very elaborate conditions. There is a kind of magic about the social transformation that turns something into something else.  Games make this magic very obvious.  I step across a line carrying an oblong ball.  A perfectly ordinary action.  But under a set of very elaborate conditions that action “counts” as a touchdown.  The conditions?  I have to be playing a game of American football; time must be “in,”; the “play” has to have been “run” within the rules (no penalty flags), etc. etc.  Football, like money, is socially instituted.

Practices, then, are actions taken within conditioned circumstances, where the conditions are socially generated.  Searle focuses on the structure of that conditioning.  Latour focuses on the multiple agents and their ongoing actions required to keep the conditioned field operating.  Bourdieu focuses on two things: the strategies employed by agents to gain prominence, acclaim, financial rewards and the like within the game, and the ways agents are habituated to the games they play, taking them mostly for granted.  He adapts from Aristotle the term habitus, which he defines as a primarily unconscious “disposition” carried in our very bodies.  Thus, the trained pianist doesn’t think about her performance.  In fact, thinking most likely would only lead to mucking things up.  She has to let her body take over.

More generally, within a society’s field of social interactions there are unwritten rules, but they are clearly perceptible to one who looks, rules about tone of voice, how close to stand to some one else, how loud to talk etc.  The discomfort generated by some one who breaks that rules—or the embarrassment felt if one breaks them one self—are instances of the body’s having acquired the habits, or dispositions, appropriate to a set of social norms.  Thus, our interactions with the environment are mediated through socially generated notions of decorum, just as the scientist’s interaction with nature is mediated through her long training in the protocols of her disciplinary practice.  The internalization of those protocols is what Bourdieu calls “habitus.”  They become “second nature,” barely registered, taken for granted.

Several problems arise at this point.  For starters, few practices have a clear initiating moment when the rule book, the foundational conditions C, are enunciated.  Basketball is the exception, not the rule.  (Basketball was invented out of whole cloth by a man named Naimsmith—although the game he devised has been fairly radically altered over the years.) The US Constitution is a similar exception—and runs alongside common case law in its setting of legal/political conditions.  Much more frequent is an activity taking and changing shape through the course of actual interactions.  The game of baseball existed long before its rules were codified and formalized.  But if that is the case, then how can we say the practice is dependent on the structuring conditions—since the practice seems to predate the structure?

This puzzle also afflicts the use of language.  A child certainly has to learn how to speak.  But that learning does not appear dependent on knowing the structures of language or the rules for correct usage.  The child “norms” herself—in terms of pronunciation, and using words the ways others use them—through various feedback received from other users, not through being versed in the “rules.”  In fact, a good case can be made that there are no rules of grammar.  The so-called rules of grammar are just reports on the regularities that have emerged through speakers of a language “norming” themselves to one another in order to facilitate communication.  And that absence of rules explains why languages are constantly changing even if the pace of change is slowed down by the contrary pressures of conformity in order to enhance mutual comprehension.

In short, there is no instituting moment for a language, in which it was laid down that the pronounced sound “dog” (A) would count as referring to a particular sort of animal (B) under the condition that we were speaking English (C).  The same applies to syntactical rules.  In this vision of language, it is all pragmatics—with “rules” (regularities plus all those troublesome “irregular” verbs and other forms) generated by usage, not the other way around (i.e. usage enabled and generated by the structuring rules).  Hence Wittgenstein’s emphasis on “use” and his general skepticism about “following a rule” as any kind of explanation for how one proceeds, how one “goes on.”  (I am pushing here a contested reading of Wittgenstein since various commentators read him in exactly the opposite way, seeing him as determined to identify the rules underlying practices such as language use.  I think those commentators are hostages to the tradition’s search for certainty and transcendental conditions—exactly the parts of the tradition that I think Wittgenstein [like Dewey] was trying to overcome.  I take it as ironic—and evidence of the tradition’s mesmeric powers—that Wittgenstein’s critique of it is read as yet another engagement with its obsessive concerns.)

Wittgenstein thus leads us to the idea that we are making up our practices as we go along.  The image he uses is the repair of a ship even as it is sailing. There is no rule book for courtship, for economic activities (capitalist or otherwise), or for speaking a language the way that there are rule books for games. Games, it turns out, are a bad analogy for practices because practices are more chaotic, more free-form, more open, and more dynamic than structured fields.  Better to talk of a continuum here—and to locate the continual efforts (some more successful than others) to police practices, to gain some handle over their chaotic potential.  Thus, a “discipline” can be understood as a way of deploying authority (and/or power) to designate which activities “count” as legitimate within the relevant practice.  “Outlaw” or heterodox practitioners find it difficult to make headway against the organized forces of orthodoxy—and we can recognize the stratagems (from drastic to petty, yet cruel) used to stifle heretics (the inquisition, the denial of tenure, the cutting off of funding and access to jobs within the practice, the mocking of those who don’t exhibit good breeding or good usage). Of course, the heretics are often later hailed as “innovators,” as those who introduced needed reforms and novelties.

Thus, even in the absence of formalized and structuring rules, the notion of practice seems useful because it points us toward the organizations of practitioners (sometimes with credentialing powers and almost always with the power of accepting or rejecting someone as a fellow practitioner) and institutions that enable the practice to continue (by arranging for its public performances and garnering the financial and other resources –including physical spaces—for its enactments).  In short, unlike the term “experience,” practices points us toward all the social pieces that need to be in place for many (I don’t think all) interactions.

I will end with one recurring puzzle.  If, as I am inclined to believe, practices are not very rule bound, how does one learn them?  How does one acquire “a feel” for the game?  This brings us back to my quarrel with Joseph North.  There is no “method” for learning how to produce a compelling “close reading.” You don’t learn to play baseball by reading the rule book. And you certainly don’t find happiness in love or discover the secret to being a great writer by reading the manual.  (The wild success of self-help books attests to the unkillable wish that how-to guides could do the trick.)

There are techniques, tricks of the trade, that have emerged out of the ways previous practitioners have performed that activity. It helps to have a teacher who knows those techniques. But the only way to learn is to wade in oneself and have a go.  And then your performance will receive the feedback from others that leads you to do it somewhat differently next time around.  That’s how the child learns to speak.  By doing it—and by being corrected in some instances, understood in others, and even applauded in some.  Trial by doing—within a field with no set determinants, but with both centrifugal and centripetal forces influencing its present day norms and regularities.  That’s the field that Latour wants to describe in his work—taking into account what motivates scientists, the kinds of feedback they receive from both human and non-human interlocutors, the institutions within which the work takes place, the credentialing and other ways of distinguishing legitimate from unacknowledged work,  the instruments that mediate the interactions with the non-human, and the uses to which what scientists produce are put.

Aesthetic Sensibility

Nick and I are scheduled to have our second discussion of Dewey’s Art As Experience on Monday.  We will focus on chapters four and five, where Dewey has all kinds of interesting things to say about art as the expression of emotion.  But I thought it would make sense prior to that conversation to offer a kind of summary of where the previous posts on the aesthetic have landed me to this point.

The aesthetic sensibility, depending on how you understand it, can encompass:

1) Certain sensitivities to (and an inclination to pay attention to) perceptual encounters (hearing for music; seeing for the visual arts etc.)

2) Those sensitivities might stretch to include an attentiveness to or susceptibility to being moved by form (narrative structures; organizations of space in architecture or the plastic arts).

3) An expanded (or cultivated) capacity to sympathize with other ways of being in the world through acts of imagination that make those ways of being more “present” to the perceiver.

4) A propensity to consider multiple possible ways of understanding and responding to situations in which the self finds itself. (Could possibly tie this propensity to an account of “creativity”).

5) Tied (perhaps) to number 4 would be a tendency to consider meanings and values that step outside customary and prevailing views.  Tied (perhaps) to number 1 would be a tendency to dwell on certain perceptual experiences, valuing them for their own sake (the pleasure of the encounter), thus abstracting from a product-oriented relationship toward what a situation presents to the self.

6) An interest in the intensities generated by what Dewey calls “compression and concentration.”  That is, an appreciation of the ways in which formal organization of the materials of experience can heighten their impact.

I don’t see how any of these six possible features of aesthetic sensibility establishes any necessary connection to a leftist—or anti-capitalist—politics.  Yet I don’t want to endorse the kind of absolute divide between a “private” pursuit of intensities, of aesthetic experiences, and a “public “ pursuit of justice like that proposed by Richard Rorty in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.  The boundaries between the aesthetic and politics are more porous than that.

To be clear: I think that politics attends to desired arrangements for living in the world with others.  The fact that I share the world with others makes politics necessary.  (Hannah Arendt on plurality.)  Those who are passionate about politics care deeply about justice and/or about power.  Either they want social arrangements that they can affirm as just (there are, of course, competing versions of what justice entails), or they want social arrangements that serve and protect their interests against the (real or perceived) threat posed by others.  The exception to that either/or are those who desire power for its own sake—or for the status it confers (as contrasted to the safety or material goods it can secure).

However, it does seem that a focus on the quality of experiences pushes against the instrumental logic of capitalism (with its emphasis on production and efficiency).  The arts do seem to push in the direction of taking one’s time, of savoring available sensations, of focusing on process over product.  In addition, the pluralism of the arts—both the multiple different kinds of artistic practice/enjoyment and their imaginative play with different possibilities—does push against the way things are now, refusing to take the status quo as self-evident or necessary.  Finally, I think Nick’s position tends to a different way of understanding how the arts become political: namely, that the intense and fulfilling experiences that art offers stand as a rebuke to the dullness or positive suffering of the life on offer in contemporary societies.  The arts show that a higher quality of life is possible and desirable.

Three final points:

  1. I have not said anything yet about how the arts can create community. One problem of Rorty’s position is that it makes artistic practice and enjoyment so individualistic.  But the arts are in many cases collaborative (making a film, putting on a play, the studios of Titian or Barbara Hepworth).  And the arts are often enjoyed with others (going to a play or a concert)—and foster a sense of fellowship with those others.  Fandom is powerful social glue.  And maybe that works much more intensely at a football game, or is mobilized much more powerfully by nationalism, but sports and nationalism are at least cousins of the aesthetic in their mobilizing emotions to promote participation in collectivities in which the self is submerged.

 

  1. Everything said in this post as summary doesn’t help at all with my ongoing attempt to delineate the connection (which I think is intimate) between art and meaning. My hunch (but I am having severe problems cashing that hunch out) is that the arts (in many instances) push us toward asking the local question of what this phenomenon in front of me means and the global question of which things to value over others (i.e. what ways of being are most meaningful).  Do the arts forefront questions of value in a way that other activities do not?  I think they do, but am having a devil of a time coming up with an account that portrays how and why the arts are distinctive in that way.

 

  1. Aesthetic education stands in a fairly straight-forward relation to the observations in this post. The ability to experience the intensities offered by any given situation is enhanced by knowledge.  The person who knows the rules of baseball is going to “get more” out of watching a baseball game.  There are very few experiences that are not going to be enhanced by knowing something about the various participants in that interaction.  This is what Dewey calls “funded” experience; what we know—and bring from past experiences, memory, and knowledge—into the present contributes to how the present interaction unfolds. The experience will be different for different people with different degrees of knowledge.  Education provides students with that knowledge.  (Dewey, of course, thought the royal road to knowledge was experience itself–nowadays known as “active learning.”)

But there still remains the fact that education understood as I have just described it is about providing the student with knowledge.  What about that other goal: shaping the student’s sensibility.  Will enabling the student to be attentive to the nuanced qualities of a certain perceptual experience also awaken an appreciation of, a positive desire for, such experiences?  That’s why I find Sianne Ngai’s meditation on “interesting” so profound.  She shows how the description of something as “interesting” is a plaintive plea, a call sent forth in hopes of hooking one’s auditors.  Don’t just notice this thing, but acknowledge its worthiness as an object of attention, as a phenomenon worth dwelling on, spending time with.  Take an interest in it.  We have succeeded in shaping someone’s sensibility when we have inculcated that minimal psychic investment of their now finding something “interesting.”  They will not pass it by.  They will attend to it.

A political sensibility is formed when someone dwells on questions of justice—or questions of social order.  She finds those questions of import, of significance, worth attending to.  Those “matters of concern” (the great Bruno Latour term) are not, it seems to me, the same matters of concern that occupy the aesthetic sensibility.  The two sensibilities are compatible; they can co-exist without much strain; they may even mutually influence or reinforce one another in some cases; but they are far from identical, and the presence of one says nothing about the possible presence of the other.

Institutions

A former student got in touch to talk about “institutions”—which are important in Latour’s work, but rather “undertheorized” (as we used to say in the 1980s).  At least not much discussed in An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence, even as he chides “baby boomers” (278) for their knee-jerk hostility to them.  The boomers “accuse” institutions “of being routinized, artificial, bureaucratic, repetitive, and soulless,” fatal “to the initiative, autonomy, enthusiasm, vivacity, inventivity, and naturalness of existence. . . . [T]here is life only on condition of getting out of institutions, even destroying them, or, short of that, getting as far away from them as possible in order to subsist on the periphery” (278).  He locates institutions in the mode of existence called Habit—and sees them as a source of continuity and, hence, subsistence.  To be hostile to institutions is to end up throwing away a focus on subsistence in order to pursue that phantom: substance. The hostility to habit partakes of the characteristic “iconoclasm” of the moderns, who keep thinking they can get behind appearances to reality, can pierce through the “Shows” of the world to the “thing itself.”  We need (Latour argues), rather,  to develop the healthy regard for habit we find in William James, recognizing its benefits, its ways of making us at home in the world.

So the moral for Latour is “that we should ‘learn to respect institutions.’  [Otherwise], it will be impossible to know, given that habit has so many enemies, whether you want to protect a value by instituting it or, on the contrary, whether you want to betray it, stifle it, break it down, ossify it.  Now we baby boomers have drained that bitter cup to the dregs.  Confronting the ruins of the institutions that we are beginning to bequeath to our descendants, am I the only one to feel the same embarrassment as asbestos manufacturers targeted by the criminal charges brought by workers suffering from lung cancer?  In the beginning, the struggle against institutions seemed to be risk-free; it was modernizing and liberating—and even fun; like asbestos, it had only good qualities.  But, like asbestos, alas, it also had disastrous consequences that no one had anticipated and that we have been far too slow to recognize” (278-79).

For all this, Latour has little to say about how we are to think about institutions, how we are to describe them and what they do (or don’t do).  Maybe he does elsewhere.  I will have to take a look.

In the meantime, here is what I wrote to my student as a first stab of thinking about what institutions are:

My latest blog post (thanks for reading, by the way) does a little Latour stuff that points toward institutions.  I think, in fact, that what you can glean from his Science in Action or Reassembling the Social is most likely the best bet.  In short, Latour is great in getting us to think about all “the players” that contribute to the production of something.  Of course, he is interested in both human and non-human “actants” (to use his term).  Institutions, then, are formal structures within which actants operate (establishing hierarchies, differential access to resources, lines of authority and of connection), but which also represent an effort to stabilize and enable the continued existence of networks that spring into existence and act in relation to some specific end.  Institutions, in other words, put a public face on, and identity to, what might otherwise be ephemeral relations formed in the heat of action.  The institution tries to enable repetition–the gathering of these actants in the next instance, the next attempt to produce something.  This formalization of the actant network has its dangers/downsides (sclerosis is always a threat), but also its upsides (establishing relationships and procedures, so that re-invention of the wheel is not always necessary, and garnering resources).  A continuing presence, an institution can also bridge the gap between one instance of action and the next.  Finally, institutions can accumulate and store authority and/or prestige.  They can become a name-brand, thus attracting resources and attention.

 

As I thought more about this, I found myself troubled by the thought that most of what I say about institutions could also be said of “organizations.”  Yet in ordinary language, we do distinguish between the two.  Congress is a political institution; the Democratic Party is a political organization.  Amazon, Amnesty International, the New England Patriots, and the Modern Language Association (MLA) are all organizations.  To my ear, at least, it would be odd to call any of them “institutions.”  The Catholic Church, the University of North Carolina, and the Supreme Court are institutions.  In common parlance, we can also say that “Harriet Jones is an institution in these parts,” but we would never call her an “organization.”

“Hollywood” is a collective noun that designates the film industry; the “studio system” refers to a particular way that industry was (is?) organized.  But I don’t think we would normally call Hollywood an institution or an organization.  It is a loose affiliation of various actors—sometimes interconnected enough for us to speak of “networks”—with (perhaps) habitual ways of doing its self-appointed tasks.  But somehow it doesn’t rise to the status of “institution.”

Yet I feel as if Major League Baseball is on the cusp of being an institution—and is certainly an organization.  Even as I feel that the National Football League is definitely an organization, but nowhere near being an institution.  So can I make any sense of these contradictory intuitions?

Here’s a try before I go to the dictionary.  An institution is the framework within which a variety of actants can practice (in any variety of ways, including cooperatively or competitively).  The institutions lays down protocols—canons for a specific action being counted as an instance of the “practice” that the institution shelters/enables/presides over.  The authority of the institution faces two ways: 1. Inwardly toward instances of the practice itself, judging the status and quality of those instances. And 2. Outwardly toward the world as it makes the case for the general benefit that practice can provide to non-practitioners.  [In short, I am stealing here Bruce Robbins’ understanding of professionals; their guild establishes and maintains “professional standards,” even as their guild must legitimate to a wider public the usefulness of “professional practices.”]

Within that institutional setting, there can be a wide variety in the ways its practices are put to use—and there can be widespread disagreement and contestation about substantive matters.  The institution provides “the rules of the game” and the certification of who gets to be “a player.”

And something, like Major League Baseball, becomes “an institution” when the it garners a widely acknowledged “authority” and respect in relation to its wider legitimating function.

An organization may establish a “brand” that is well-trusted, seen as reliable.  But it will not have the “authority” that an institution has.  Why?  Because an organization is put together to facilitate the more efficient accomplishment of a single purpose.  Everyone in the organization must get with the program; all of the members of the organization must contribute to its achieving its goal.  The organization is not a framework for multiple uncoordinated actions; just the opposite.  Its whole point is coordination, in making sure that actants work in sync, in tandem.  An organization is never, like an institution, “above the fray.”  It is never the enabler of the varieties of practice; instead, it harnesses energies toward a goal.

Hence, if the Supreme Court becomes the tool of one political faction, it loses its “authority” as the institution that enables political contestation, becoming instead just another piece of an organization.  So maybe I can say that organizations exist to produce something; but institutions exist to enable the production of things, but do not produce things directly themselves.

Major League Baseball allows for the playing of numerous games of baseball; it does not do the playing itself.  It is the integrity with which it plays that role, as guardian of the practice, that gains it the “authority” that leads us to think of it as an institution.  But if the single-minded organizational goal of making money comes to dominate, then Major League Baseball will only be an organization, not an institution.  Football seems much more directly commercial than baseball—and hence the National Football League is not an institution.  This may be pure sentimentality, but it also has to do with how differently the two professional sports are related to the history of their games, and to the ways in which football players are interchangeable parts and constricted to a communal project.  Baseball is much more individual, much less faceless (it takes a truly devoted fan to know the linemen on a football team.)

Anyway, I could be totally wrong about this baseball/football divide.  More important is to recognize that the issue is not commercial versus non-commercial.  Amnesty International is an organization because devoted to a specific goal.  It is working for something substantive, not providing a framework within which a practice can unfold in myriad, even unexpected, ways.  But Amnesty is not commercial.  So the distinction I am trying to probe is not about the presence or absence of a profit motive.

It turns out the dictionary is not much help.  Here’s my Random House dictionary on “institution”: 1. An organization or establishment devoted to the promotion of a particular object.

But # 4 might help us some: Sociology, a well-established and structured pattern of behavior or of relationships that is accepted as a fundamental part of a culture, as marriage.

Followed by # 5: any established law, custom etc.  and #6: any familiar practice or object.

Whereas the definitions offered for “organization” are not very useful either.  #1 is “the action or process of organizing.”  #5 is “a body of persons organized for some end or work.”

I would say that the dictionary’s deficiencies indicate a general difficulty in describing collective action.  Organizations, quite obviously, act.  Things get produced and decisions get made that could never be done by a single person acting alone—and the thing produced and the decision made is not fully controlled by one of the actors (actants) in the process that yields that result.

When it comes to institutions it can seem even trickier.  If we are talking “habit” or “custom,” we can seem to be identifying a force that has no obvious origin.  It is “just our way of doing things,” even as that “way” does not remain completely impervious to change. But the mechanisms of change are hard to identify and even harder to manipulate.  We like to think we can tell an origin story about our political institutions—and we even have mechanisms for their being revised/amended/reformed etc.

But when it comes to relations between the sexes or between the races, the dead hand of the past, of cultural mores, proves incredibly resistant to direct intervention even as those relations do not remain immobile.  If we deem racism “an institution,” then it is like the Supreme Court in that it provides a framework for a whole set of practices, but it is unlike the Supreme Court in that there are no procedures for adjudication among those practices.  Racism as “an institution” is a product of various actions/practices in the past; but none of those actions/practices in itself had the power to establish racism.  We have what is truly a collective product here, one that is only “deliberate” in a very attenuated way.  No wonder conspiracy theories as so appealing; at least they identify agents powerful enough to serve as the originators or perpetuators of a particular state of affairs.

All of this is inconclusive enough.  The term “institution” clearly encompasses apples and oranges.  The more fruitful approach might be a version of Latour: consider particular instances of something you are tempted to call an “institution” and try to trace the actions that lead to its production.  Then, “institution” is the end product, not the starting place, of an inquiry.  And we don’t assume from the outset that one institution has much in common with another one.  An escape from essentialism into particularities.

Joseph North Five—The Aesthetic (Interactive Version)

My first stab at characterizing the aesthetic gave us a weak version of pluralism.  The aesthetic viewed things in a particular dimension, it “saw them as” meaningful, where that term covered their import and their importance.  Significance in both senses of the term: what some thing meant or conveyed and how (why?) that thing was of significance or value, worth caring about and for.

Such an understanding leaves the thing itself untroubled.  In Nicholas Rescher’s book Pluralism (Oxford UP, 1995), he accepts that there are multiple possible descriptions of a thing, what Wittgenstein calls its “aspects,” but insists there is still only one “reality.”  You and I are both seeing the same thing when I marvel at the color patterns in the fire and you worry about the people who might be trapped inside the building.  We are both responding to the fire.

I think (I’d have to go back and check the relevant texts carefully) that Richard Rorty, the most notorious anti-realist of late 20th century philosophy, would still hew to Rescher’s position.  Rorty focuses on “redescriptions” as a site of creativity, and as proof that “reality” under-determines the ways that human understand it, utilize it, and can creatively re-script their relations to it.  As Nick Gaskill points out in his essay on Rorty, one particularly dominant theme is Rorty’s work is anti-authoritarianism.  And that theme extends to “reality.”  Rorty writes against the authority that “reality” acquires in more traditional philosophical metaphysics.  He denies to “reality” the last word; humans can always—and are constantly—saying new things about the world.  And, following Kenneth Burke, we can claim that new things said open up new possible courses of action.

But what if we take a more radically interactive approach?  Such an approach is certainly suggested in the pragmatism of James and Dewey.  Debates about the “two pragmatisms” (H. O. Mounce’s term) in fact often center around the extent to which pragmatism is “realist.”  For Mounce, Rorty is the enemy, and we must return pragmatism to Charles Sanders Peirce’s metaphysical realism. [Howard Mounce, The Two Pragmatisms (Routledge, 1997).]  (Peirce, by the end of his life, was very close to a Platonic realist.)  This battle then gets fought over the body of Dewey; was Rorty’s radical reading of Dewey accurate or not?  And in most of these debate, James (and his radical empiricism) barely figures at all.  He is not taken seriously as an epistemologist or an ontologist.

Today, however, James’s radical empiricism has come to seem a fruitful approach to a variety of writers, none more prominent than Bruno Latour.  In his recent major tome, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (Harvard UP, 2018), Latour offers what we might call radical pluralism.  “Modes” is, in fact, a slippery term—and Latour himself often seems unsure just how far he wants to push his ontological claims.  There are mountains of books trying to figure out what Spinoza meant by “modes,” although I think it fair to say there is general agreement that his “modes” are secondary to, dependent upon, “substance.”

Latour quite clearly wants to jettison the notion of “substance” altogether.  But still the term “mode” is never in and of itself sufficient.  It must be a mode of something.  And what we get is “an inquiry into modes of existence.”  But to what does “existence” refer?  The general metaphysical condition (i.e just another name for “reality,” even if that reality is more inchoate, more open to various manipulations, multiple shapings than some other versions of “reality.” It is unclear, since despite the prominence of the term in the title, Latour never explains to us what he means by “existence.”) But he does rely heavily on the term “existents,” and its meaning is quite clear.  Latour wants to substitute “subsistence” for “substance”—and refers throughout his book to “existents” (y which he appears to  mean “things that subsist.”) There are identifiable things (existents) that subsist.  (It seems to me, although Latour only mentions this term once, that he has his own version of Spinoza’s conatus.  Latour seems to posit a fundamental drive to subsist, a fundamental energy devoted to subsisting.)  In this framework, “a mode of existence [is] a way of being that cannot be substituted for any other and that no other can replace” (268).  “A way of being” for what?–presumably for “an existent.”

Where Latour moves toward a more radical, ontological pluralism is in his insistence that to subsist requires change.  If there is a fundamental reality in Latour’s recent work, it is the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of ceaseless “flux,” a Jamesian conceit if there ever was one. [“in fact, there is neither real continuity of courses of action nor stability of subjects” (370).]  Against the relentless tide of time passing, an existent must exert itself to maintain itself.  It must be ever adapting to the novelties that time’s passage throws at it.  So are “modes” different strategies of subsistence?  Latour doesn’t go that way.

Instead—and here is where a Latour inspired version of “the aesthetic” would dovetail with North’s desire that the aesthetic provide us with images of and models for collectivity—Latour focuses on what “assemblage” of participants (“actants”) must work together to allow an existent to subsist. [The “malign inversion” that elevates a persistent “substance” over the struggle for “subsistence” is malign because it “loses the thread of the means that could have ensured subsistence” (279)] In the case of science, concentrating on “the means of subsistence” requires attention to the procedures, the instruments, the experiments—in short, the whole range of interactions between the scientist and both the “thing” studied and the scientific community.  Some existent is only “known” and only continues as an object of scientific discourse when it can be discerned by the procedures/instruments, fit into a causal story that the community (the peer reviewers in the first instance) buys, and remain an object of interest for subsequent inquiries.

Science, in Latour’s terms, grants us “access” to various existents—and it takes a village to secure such access.  But it remains unclear (at least to me) to what extent the “existents” pre-exist these interactions with them.  There seems to be some raw material out there, even if Latour is very specific that he wants to banish the reification called Matter (with a capital M).  Latour’s commitment to the primary flux is such that he battles against all reifications: Matter, Society, Truth, the Economy.  In their stead, he offers processes of assemblage in which “gatherings” (interactions) produce things. It would be better to say “produce states of affairs” (rather than produce things) because things always and only exist in relations. (That’s a major lesson of James’s radical empiricism.)

Thus, things emerge out of the flux, take on solidity as a result of interaction–and gain subsistence, plus any identity they might temporarily possess, in and through their relation to others.  Latour is insistent that the path to being is through the detour of otherness; I only become myself through my relations–which are never stable, always unfolding–to others.  But (here’s my nagging worry when it comes to science—and I think Latour actually is inconsistent on this score) what then are these existents, with their will to subsist?  It seems as if he posits not just an originary flux, but also some existents lurking within the flux.  Now we might say those existents are inchoate; he does at times use the term “articulation.”  So we could say that existents are articulated, take a specific form, through specific processes of assemblage.  And then we could say those specific forms are “modes.”  But that would still mean they are “modes of” something more primitive—of a non-solid stuff (substance?) that needs a lot of help to keep subsisting.  And that non-solid stuff has a will to subsist.  Specific objects emerge from communal processes, but those processes work upon some mysterious stuff called “existents.”

But the aesthetic (to get there at last) may not have science’s handicap.  There is little reason to think the aesthetic object pre-exists the act of artistic creation.  Certainly, in the kind of common sense view that Latour is at pains to validate against the wrong-headed metaphysics of “the moderns,” that artist works upon her material (words, musical sounds, marble etc.) and shapes it into her art work.  The interactive model works perfectly here.  The material offers various affordances and resistances.  It is hardly, as every artist knows, a passive participant, supine before the artist’s vision.  It has its own contributions to make, its own ways of frustrating or enabling the artist’s desires.  So this is not the Wittgensteinian interpreter who is seeing or highlighting “an aspect” of the finished thing he contemplates.  Rather, it is the very creation of that thing through an interactive process.  And it is not just the creation of the art work, but also the creation of this person as “an artist.”  You don’t get to assume the identity of artist until you have done the act of making.  It is not a pre-existent identity, but an emergent one–and it depends not just on the act of making but also on the community’s recognition of what you have made as a “work of art.”

Such a description immediately raises the question of whether or not there is a strong distinction between the aesthetic as experienced/practiced by the creating artist and the aesthetic as experienced/practiced by the audience.  I am going to leave exploring that question to my next post.

Today I just want to finish up by expanding (as Latour would certainly urge us to do) our account of the interactions that characterize the aesthetic.  In order for even that basic act of artistic creation to occur, there needs to be much more in place than simply the artist sitting down to work.  That act hardly takes place in a vacuum.  The artist has been trained in her craft, has received feedback and encouragement (or discouragement) of various forms, has learned something of the tradition of that craft, and has some idea of the possible places for display of her work.  Once the work has been created, its subsistence is radically dependent on practices of display—and institutions (museums, schools, theaters etc.) for “showing” works.  Roland Barthes, in an epigram I love, said “Literature is what gets taught.”  The canon is one way works of written art subsist.  A poem is dead, has not succeeded in subsisting, if it never gets read.  Similarly, “the art world” is a subject of so much fear and loathing precisely because an art work lives or dies by its ability to negotiate the various intricacies, procedures, and institutions that characterize that “world.”

In short, as Latour is always trying to get us to see, the number of actants involved in the subsistence of any activity and its products is almost always more numerous than we first suppose.  And thus the outcome—the artistic work that emerges from this activity—is always shaped by inputs from all of these actants.  No wonder artists continually dream of “artistic freedom.”  Images of heroic individualism push back against the inevitable entanglement in complicated webs (networks) of relationships that defeat any idea of mastery, of sovereignty over, the field.

The aesthetic, precisely because it entails the creation of new objects, seems particularly suited to serve as an instance of radical pluralism.  Its conditions for creation can be specified—and can be seen as distinct from the conditions of existence in other fields (such as science or, to cite some of Latour’s other examples, politics, law, and economics.)  Those conditions can be described (Howard Becker’s work is exemplary here, but we can also think of Bourdieu as well).  And we can even take a stab at trying to describe the factors that contribute to making judgments about the quality, importance, and/or significance (in all its senses) of aesthetic works.  That’s where I want to start in my next post.

 

 

 

Today I just want to finish up by expanding (as Latour would certainly urge us to do) our account of the interactions that characterize the aesthetic.  In order for even that basic act of artistic creation to occur, there needs to be much more in place than simply the artist sitting down to work.  That act hardly takes place in a vacuum.  The artist has been trained in her craft, has received feedback and encouragement (or discouragement) of various forms, has learned something of the tradition of that craft, and has some idea of the possible places for display of her work.  Once the work has bene created, its subsistence is radically dependent on practices of display—and institutions (museums, schools, theaters etc.) for “showing” works.  Roland Barthes, in  a epigram I love, said “Literature is what gets taught.”  The canon is one way works of written art subsist.  A poem is dead, has not succeeded in subsisting, if it never gets read.  Similarly, “the art world” is a subject of so much fear and loathing precisely because an art work lives or dies by its ability to negotiate the various intricacies, procedures, and institutions that characterize that “world.”

 

In short, as Latour is always trying to get us to see, the number of actants involved in the subsistence of any activity and its products is almost always more numerous than we first suppose.  And thus the outcome—the artistic work that emerges from this activity—is always shaped by inputs from all of these actants.  No wonder artists continually dream of “artistic freedom.”  Images of heroic individualism push back against the inevitable entanglement in complicated webs (networks) of relationships that defeat any idea of mastery, of sovereignty over, the field.

 

The aesthetic, precisely because it entails the creation of new objects, seems particularly suited to serve as an instance of radical pluralism.  Its conditions for creation can be specified—and can be seen as distinct from the conditions of existence in other fields (such as science or, to cite some of Latour’s other examples, politics, law, and economics.)  Those conditions can be described (Howard Becker’s work is exemplary here, but we can also think of Bourdieu as well).  And we can even take a stab at trying to describe the factors that contribute to making judgments about the quality, importance, and/or significance (in all its senses) of aesthetic works.  That’s where I want to start in my next post.

 

’t go that way.

 

Instead—and here is where a Latour inspired version of “the aesthetic” would dovetail with North’s desire that the aesthetic provide us with images of and models for collectivity—Latour focuses on what “assemblage” of participants (“actants”) must work together to allow an existent to subsist.  In the case of science, that means thinking about the procedures, the instruments, the experiments—in short, the whole range of interactions between the scientist and both the “thing” studied and the scientific community.  Some existent is only “known” and only continues as an object of scientific discourse when it can be discerned by the procedures/instruments, fit into a causal story that the community (the peer reviewers in the first instance) buys, and remain an object of interest for subsequent inquiries.  Science, in Latour’s terms, grants us “access” to various existents—and it takes a village to secure such access.  But it remains unclear (at least to me) to what extent the “existents” pre-exist these interactions with them.  There seems to be some raw material out there, even if Latour is very specific that he wants to banish the reification: Matter (with a capital M).  Latour’s commitment to the primary flux is such that he battles against all reifications: Matter, Society, Truth, the Economy.  In their stead, he offers processes of assemblage in which “gatherings” (interactions) produce things (probably saying “produce states of affairs” would be better).

Thus, things emerge out of the flux, take on solidity as a result of interaction.  But (here’s my nagging worry when it comes to science—and I think Latour actually is inconsistent on this score) what then are these existents, with their will to subsist?  It seems as if he posits not just an originary flux, but also some existents lurking within the flux.  Now we might say those existents are inchoate; he does at times use the term “articulation.”  So we could say that existents are articulated, take a specific form, through specific processes of assemblage.  And then we could say those specific forms are “modes.”  But that would still mean they are “modes of” something more primitive—of a non-solid stuff (substance?) that needs a lot of help to keep subsisting.  And that non-solid stuff has a will to subsist.  Specific objects emerge from communal processes, but those processes work upon some mysterious stuff called “existents.”

But the aesthetic (to get there at last) may not have science’s handicap.  There is little reason to think the aesthetic object pre-exists the act of artistic creation.  Certainly, in the kind of common sense view that Latour is at pains to validate against the wrong-headed metaphysics of “the moderns,” that artist works upon her material (words, musical sounds, marble etc.) and shapes it into her art work.  The interactive model works perfectly here.  The material offers various affordances and resistances.  It is hardly, as every artist knows, a passive participant, supine before the artist’s vision.  It has its own contributions to make, its own ways of frustrating or enabling the artist’s desires.  So this is not the Wittgensteinian interpreter who is seeing or highlighting “an aspect” of the finished thing he contemplates.  Rather, it is the very creation of that thing through an interactive process.

And it is not just the material the artist works with that is transformed in the process. So is the person doing that work.  Her identity as “an artist” only emerges through doing that work–and depends not only on what she produces, but also on how others are willing to view her.  We all know people who want to call themselves “writers,” but who do not feel entitled to claim that self-description because the community has not yet bestowed it on them.  That identity can only be achieved through the “means” of the others–the material worked on, the community to whom the work is presented.

Such a description immediately raises the question of whether or not there is a strong distinction between the aesthetic as experienced/practiced by the creating artist and the aesthetic as experienced/practiced by the audience.  I am going to leave exploring that question to my next post.

Today I just want to finish up by expanding (as Latour would certainly urge us to do) our account of the interactions that characterize the aesthetic.  In order for even that basic act of artistic creation to occur, there needs to be much more in place than simply the artist sitting down to work.  That act hardly takes place in a vacuum.  The artist has been trained in her craft, has received feedback and encouragement (or discouragement) of various forms, has learned something of the tradition of that craft, and has some idea of the possible places for display of her work.  Once the work has been created, its subsistence is radically dependent on practices of display—and institutions (museums, schools, theaters etc.) for “showing” works.  Roland Barthes, in  a epigram I love, said “Literature is what gets taught.”  The canon is one way works of written art subsist.  A poem is dead, has not succeeded in subsisting, if it never gets read.  Similarly, “the art world” is a subject of so much fear and loathing precisely because an art work lives or dies by its ability to negotiate the various intricacies, procedures, and institutions that characterize that “world.”

In short, as Latour is always trying to get us to see, the number of actants involved in the subsistence of any activity and its products is almost always more numerous than we first suppose.  And thus the outcome—the artistic work that emerges from this activity and “the artist” who also emerges from it—is always shaped by inputs from all of these actants.  No wonder artists continually dream of “artistic freedom.”  Images of heroic individualism push back against the inevitable entanglement in complicated webs (networks) of relationships that defeat any idea of mastery, of sovereignty over, the field.

The aesthetic, precisely because it entails the creation of new objects, seems particularly suited to serve as an instance of radical pluralism.  Its conditions for creation can be specified—and can be seen as distinct from the conditions of existence in other fields (such as science or, to cite some of Latour’s other examples, politics, law, and economics.)  Those conditions can be described (Howard Becker’s work is exemplary here, but we can also think of Bourdieu as well).  And we can even take a stab at trying to describe the factors that contribute to making judgments about the quality, importance, and/or significance (in all its senses) of aesthetic works.  That’s where I want to start in my next post.