Month: November 2014

Henning Schmidgen’s Bruno Latour in Pieces

Translated by Gloria Custance, I was disappointed by this work, which I hoped would be the necessary background for providing links among Latour’s disparate works, from his PhD in philosophy of religion to laboratory life to his late AIME work. Originally published in German as Bruno Latour zur Einführung (2011), the books is at its best with Latour’s earliest writings, showing how in each of them there was a subterranean dialogue with a given thinker of power (Nietzsche, Spinoza, Foucault, Deleuze), but as it goes on, it can go through texts (We have never been ModernReassembling the SocialModes of Existence) with longer summaries of, say, a piece by Lyotard than anything in the actual texts. Indeed, it’s notable that one could read this “intellectual biography” and not even get stated the main thesis many of these texts (We have never been Modern is just jumbled, never mind the critique of the social in RtS), while going on about how Latour should have noted his phenomenological predecessors or Lyotard or someone else, or noting that MoE opens like Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism” (um, how?) etc. Then here it ends:

Latour provides no answers to these questions [it’s not clear what they are from the proceeding paragraphs, so no matter, since I guess he hasn’t answered them anyway]. He is too much the masked philosopher, the thinker on a stage. [Huh? Masked and on the stage?] His aim is not a representative sociological survey, a historical reconstruction, or a causal and explanatory account. Ultimately, his concern is not philosophy but to write books. Latour wants a new richness for descriptions–lively depictions of unfamiliar spaces, discourses, and realities. His concern is to dissuade us from anthropology [Huh? MoE is explicitly written in terms of “comparative anthropology”] as well as theology, away from the discipline of history as well as the history of science. The glad tidings he brings are that the openness of the event is perennial.

Nothing in the book discussed the “openness of the event” or how it’s presaged in this work to land at that ending. I thought the point of MoE is to think modes of diplomacy between these disciplines, not to dissuade “us” from them. In any event, too bad, since a book comparing the theses and arguments of Latour’s oeuvre along with its development (and perhaps also parsing out the relation of his devout Catholicism to any/all of this work, which is hinted at in spots in this book) would be a real help for those working through Latour.

Schellingians and French Continentals don’t speak to each other

In the past day, I’ve come across two essays by Schelling specialists (one in German, the other writing in English) who want to make allegiances between the late Schelling and Levinas–and keep on insisting that Levinas valorizes something like a Schellingian notion of the eternal, despite all the myriad places Levinas opposes himself to the ontotheologies of the eternal (infinity is not the eternal in Levinas or anyone else).

Then there’s this wonderful footnote in Bruce Matthews’ otherwise helpful introduction to English translation of The Grounding of Positive Philosophy (SUNY Press, 2007):

Contrary to Derrida and other Post-Structuralists, Saussure called upon the subject as the central agent responsible for providing an actual ground [my emphasis] for self-consciousness and meaning. According to the official version of Saussure’s Cours, it is the individual person who speaks words: “The vocal sound is not a word except to the exact, constant extent that a meaning is attached to it […]. Though is what delimits units; sound itself does not delimit them in advance; there is always a relation to thought”…Derrrida based his readings on the vulgate version of Saussure’s Cours … In this inaccurate version of Saussure’s lectures, the role and importance of the thinking and speaking subject hardly even appear. In the quote above, taken from the critical edition of Saussure’s works, the significance of a meaning conferring consciousness clearly emerges. In light of the fact that the critical edition had been available since 1957, that is, since before Derrida began to deconstruct the Structuralists, Derrida was repeatedly challenged to correct his reading of Saussure. Unfortunately he never addressed the issue” (p. 217, n. 47).

Quite damning: Derrida was not only wrong, but [breathe deeply for the concern trolling] “unfortunately” refused to correct himself. This all to remark in the introduction that Saussure’s speaking subject, like Schelling, is “capable of making positive determinations of meaning through its power to make assertions,” thus getting out of the negative relation of signs in his “concept of language as a diacritical system of signs” (p. 24). Again pretty damning, if not for the fact that Derrida produces numerous quotations in De la grammatologie and invented the term “phonocentrism” for exactly Saussure’s attempt to absolve “consciousness” of any place within the system of signs he portrays. Otherwise put, the assertion that Saussure’s speaking subject is “capable of making positive determinations of meaning through its power to make assertions” is as good a definition as I’ve seen for what the early Derrida means by the term in all of his works of the period. Why bring Derrida up for critique–with the ironic added touch of suggesting shoddy scholarship at the same time–if you don’t know the work you’re criticizing, which is all about speaking/writing and the privileging of the former?

Death Penalty Seminar Lecture

I continue to put up lecture notes (for most weeks; occasionally I let a week or so go into full seminar mode) for my course comparing Foucault and Derrida on punishment. Lecture 6 is here (as lectures they are a bit loose), and the others as well as course materials can be found here. Today is a discussion of the middle seminars in Derrida’s course, where he takes up Hugo’s Christian abolitionism, Kant’s “stupid, useless” writings on the death penalty, and Nietzsche.