Matters of Concern

In Bruno Latour’s now relatively famous paper “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” he launches into a scathing critique of most of the methodology that defines cultural studies:

When naive believers are clinging forcefully to their objects, claiming that they are made to do things because of their gods, their poetry, their cherished objects, you can turn all of those attachments into so many fetishes and humiliate all the believers by showing that it is nothing but their own projection, that you, yes you alone, can see. But as soon as naive believers are thus inflated by some belief in their own importance, in their own projective capacity, you strike them by a second uppercut and humiliate them again, this time by showing that, whatever they think, their behavior is entirely determined by the action of powerful causalities coming from objective reality they don’t see, but that you, yes you, the never sleeping critic, alone can see. Isn’t this fabulous? Isn’t it really worth going to graduate school to study critique?
One thing is clear, not one of us readers would like to see our own most cherished objects treated in this way.

Now some contemporary thinkers embrace this line and turn their attention to ‘objects’ so as to resuscitate the dignity of objecthood. Objects can no longer be defined as a function of relation with subjects, they say. Perhaps they are concerned about their own existence as relatively powerless, but functioning objects in various social systems? By discovering the dignity of objects they will also discover dignity for themselves?

I turned in a different direction for the argument in my dissertation, which having completed now four years ago is practically historical in relation to my current thinking. As I was dealing with enthusiast cultures that organized around cars I did not want to fall into the trap of a neo-Freudian account of enthusiast practice that reproduced the fetishistic dimensions of enthusiast engagement. This was an intellectual decision, as it would have been too easy to follow this ‘common sense’ neo-Freudian line of scholarship.

Instead I turned to investigating enthusiasm itself. What is it about ‘enthusiasm’ that mobilizes enthusiast bodies into action? I still don’t know. I focused more on the event-based structure of enthusiasm, that which produced a processual cadence essentialized by Latour above as ‘cherishing’. I thought about enthusiasm as an event, a virtual structure of relations differentially repeated with any number of different objects and subjects. The motor for this event was not ‘in’ the objects or the subjects, but the process of becoming-together between the contingencies of challenges that mobilized enthusiasts into action as enthusiast practice and affective contours that constitute the enthusiast habitus and encourage communication across them as they are activated in positive and negative ways. ‘Positive’ and ‘negative’ in the sense of scholarship on affect where positive affections increase one’s capacity to act, while negative affections diminish one’s capacity to act. Enthusiasm is a positive affection.

Enthusiasts would dismantle, modify and repair the ‘black box’ of the automobile. They would produce an experience-based practical knowledge — ‘know-how’ — deployed to overcome challenges and establish a reputation in subcultural and masculine economies of respect. The contingencies that characterized the challenges of enthusiast practice could also be regarded as ‘problems’ for non-enthusiasts. A challenge is not an object; it is a virtual and processual structure characterized by the limit of understanding of the enthusiast, but one that is open to the future. A challenge is not yet a problem as the translation of the singular coordinates of a challenge into that of a problem means that the processual structure of the challenge has been conditioned into possibilities for solution. A challenge becomes a problem in discourse and in a backformed comprehension of the possibilization of the contingency into a field of solutions. (Massumi describes something similar, but not the same, with sport and play in Parables of the Virtual.) This is why ‘know-how’ is acquired by doing and maybe showing, but definitely not by talking or teaching in any conventional sense (unless ‘talking’ or ‘teaching’ are constituent elements of a specific challenge). Deleuze described a somewhat archaic version of this process when he argued that the Stoic sage “identifies” with the quasi-cause:

The Stoic sage “identifies” with the quasi-cause, sets up shop at the surface, on the straight line which traverses it, or at the aleatory [contingent] point which traces of travels this line. The sage is like the archer. However, this connection with the archer should not be understood as a moral metaphor of intention, as Plutarch suggests, by saying that the Stoic sage is supposed to do everything, for the sake of attaining the end. One rather acts in order to have done all that which depending on one in order to attain the end. Such a rationalization implies a late interpretation, one which is hostile to Stoicism. The relation to the archer is closer to Zen: the bowman must reach the point where the aim is also not the aim, that is to say, the bowman himself; where the arrow flies over its straight line while creating its own target; where the surface of the target is also the line and the point, the bowman, the shooting of the arrow, and what is shot at. This is the oriental Stoic will as proairesis. The sage waits for the event, that is to say, understands the pure event in its eternal truth, independently of its spatio-temporal actualization, as something eternally yet-to-come and always already passed according to the line of the Aion. But, as the same time, the sage also wills the embodiment and the actualization of the pure incorporeal event in a state of affairs and in his or her own body and flesh. (146)

In a sense (pun intended), Deleuze’s description of the Zen-like actualization of the archer and his attendant technologies of archery is when he is at his most Foucauldian. Foucault’s ‘discourse events’ are the spatio-temporal actualization of a pure event that defines the limits of intelligibility and authority as it is distributed into what is sayable and what is visible for a given body of knowledge. Foucault made this discovery in the archive, where the processual dimension was already backformed into discourse. Michel de Certeau repeats this while discussing what he calls ‘know-how’ in the Practice of Everyday Life for non-discursive situations. The on-going process of actualization that produces a distribution of subjects and objects and normative subject-object relations is the ‘grid’ that Deleuze discusses in the Fold as always already intervening in chaos. While this is all very interesting, I am sure, it seems to have even less relevance for contemporary thought than does a rigorous if futile investigation into the dignity of objects.

Kant’s discussion of enthusiasm is interesting at this point and perhaps more so is Lyotard’s discussion of Kantian enthusiasm. I don’t mean the version of Kant’s enthusiasm that is most commonly discussed with regards to Kant’s positive comments about the enthusiasm of spectators for the French revolution as proof of the moral judgment of the revolution as ‘good’. I mean in the context of Lyotard’s interpretation of a practical rationality that relies on enthusiasm as its impetus for ‘striving’. Enthusiasm signals a failure of ideas, it triggers an inflammation in the powers of imagination to overcome this failure. The concept of enthusiasm I developed many years ago extracts the virtual coordinates of this process as the processual differential repetition of the enthusiast body as it continually encounters challenges.

Of course, the Enlightenment project in part was defined by the work of Kant and others to rescue ‘rationality’ from all kinds of mystical and religious enthusiasms. The contradiction is that we need enthusiasm so as to achieve great things. Hence the problem, recast slightly, of the critique of critique. It was meant to be self-evident once the limits of rationality and conditions of possibility had been sufficiently laid out; the ‘naive’ believers (as Latour calls them) would simply come to their Enlightened sense. Instead critique itself poses a challenge that is not simply overcome with enthusiasm, the challenge posed by critique serves as another opportunity to differentially repeat enthusiasm itself. Witness political discourse, no minds change, only banal discriminations performatively reproduce themselves.

I don’t agree with Latour’s solution: “a multifarious inquiry launched with the tools of anthropology, philosophy, metaphysics, history, sociology to detect how many participants are gathered in a thing to make it exist and to maintain its existence. Objects are simply a gathering that has failed — a fact that has not been assembled according to due process.” Should we treat all enthusiasts of a given reality, of a given distribution of possibilities, as if they need to resuscitate the dignity of ‘cherished’ objects? No, they are working to actualize a particular world, an entire distribution of subject-object relations. Evangelicals name the Apocalypse as quasi-cause. Harnessing enthusiasm does not involve critique, it involves assembling challenges to mobilize (enthusiast) bodies into action. Increasing their capacity to act, rather than diminishing their capacity to act with ‘solutions’ to their banal everyday problems.

I started writing this post thinking about why Latour’s argument for turning to matters of concern is relevant for journalism, but it became something else. Apologies!

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