Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern. To appear in Critical Inquiry



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Lots of gods, always in machines. Remember how Bush saluted Columbia reaching home in heaven, if not home on earth? Here Turing too cannot avoid mentioning God's creative power when talking of this most mastered machine, the computer that he has invented. Well, that's precisely his point in the whole paper. The computer is in for many surprises; you get out of it much more than you put into it. In the most dramatic way, Turing's paper demonstrates, once again, that all objects are born things, all matters of fact require, in order to exist, a bewildering variety of matters of concern.33 This is just this surprising result, why we don't master what we, ourselves, have fabricated, the object of this definition of critique:34
Let us return for a moment to Lady Lovelace's objection, which stated that the machine can only do what we tell it to do. One could say that a man can "inject" an idea into the machine, and that it will respond to a certain extent and then drop into quiescence, like a piano string struck by a hammer. Another simile would be an atomic pile of less than critical size: an injected idea is to correspond to a neutron entering the pile from without. Each such neutron will cause a certain disturbance which eventually dies away. If, however, the size of the pile is sufficiently increased, the disturbance caused by such an incoming neutron will very likely go on and on increasing until the whole pile is destroyed. Is there a corresponding phenomenon for minds, and is there one for machines? There does seem to be one for the human mind. The majority of them seem to be "sub-critical", i.e. to correspond in this analogy to piles of sub-critical size. An idea presented to such a mind will on average give rise to less than one idea in reply. A smallish proportion are super-critical. An idea presented to such a mind may give rise to a whole "theory" consisting of secondary, tertiary and more remote ideas. Animals minds seem to be very definitely sub-critical. Adhering to this analogy we ask, "Can a machine be made to be super-critical?" ["CM," p. 454]
We all know subcritical minds, that's for sure! What would critique do if it could be associated with more, not with less, with multiplication, not subtraction. Critical theory died away long ago; can we become critical again, in the sense here offered by Turing? That is, generating more ideas than we have received, inheriting from a prestigious critical tradition but not letting it die away, or "dropping into quiescence" like a piano no longer struck. This would require that all entities, including computers, cease to be objects defined simply by their inputs and outputs, and become again things, mediating, assembling, gathering many more folds than the "united four." If this were possible then we could let the critics come ever closer to the matters of concern we cherish, and then at last we could tell them: "Yes, please, touch them, explain them, deploy them." Then we would have gone for good beyond iconoclasm.

 [fn]
This text was written for the Stanford presidential lecture held at the Humanities Center, 7 Apr. 2003. I warmly thank Harvard history of science doctoral students for many ideas exchanged on those topics during this semester.


1. On what happened to the avant-garde and critique generally, see Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion, and Art, ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, Mass., 2002). This article is very much an exploration of what could happen "beyond the image wars."
2. "Environmental Word Games," New York Times, 15 Mar. 2003, p. A16. This Mister Luntz seems to have been very successful; I read later in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal:
There is a better way [than passing a law that restricts business], which is to keep fighting on the merits. There is no scientific consensus that greenhouse gases cause the world's modest global warming trend, much less whether that warming will do more harm than good, or whether we can even do anything about it.
Once Republicans concede that greenhouse gases must be controlled, it will only be a matter of time before they end up endorsing more economically damaging regulation. They could always stand on principle and attempt to educate the public instead. ["A Republican Kyoto," Wall Street Journal, 8 Apr. 2003, p. A14.]
And the same publication complains about the "pathological relation" of the "Arab street" with truth!
3. Paul R. and Anne H. Ehrlich, Betrayal of Science and Reason: How Anti-Environmental Rhetoric Threatens Our Future (Washington, D.C., 1997), p. 1.
4. The metaphor of shifting sand was used by neomodernists in their critique of science studies; see A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths about Science, ed. Noretta Koertge (Oxford, 1998). The problem is that the authors of this book looked backward, attempting to reenter the solid rock castle of modernism, and not forward to what I call, for lack of a better term, nonmodernism.
5. See Jean Baudrillard, "The Spirit of Terrorism" and "Requiem for the Twin Towers" (New York, 2002).
6. See Thierry Meyssan, 911: The Big Lie (London, 2002). Conspiracy theories have always existed; what is new in instant revisionism is how much scientific proof they claim to imitate.
7. See Lindsay Waters, Enemy of Promises (forthcoming).
8. Their serious as well as their popularized versions have the defect of using society as an already existing cause instead of as a possible consequence. This was the critique that Gabriel Tarde always made against Durkheim. It is probably the whole notion of "social" and "society" that is responsible for the weakening of critique. I have tried to show that in Latour, "Gabriel Tarde and the End of the Social," in The Social in Question: New Bearings in History and the Social Sciences, ed. Patrick Joyce (London, 2002), pp. 117–32.
9. See Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, Le Nouvel esprit du capitalisme (Paris, 1999).
10. This is the achievement of the great novelist Richard Powers, whose stories are a careful and, in my view, masterful enquiry into this new "realism." Especially relevant for this paper is Richard Powers, Plowing the Dark (New York, 2000).
11. See the erudite study by the remarkable French scholar of Roman law, Y. Thomas, "Res, chose et patrimoine (note sur le rapport sujet-objet en droit romain)," Archives de philosophie du droit 25 (1980): 413–26.
12. See Graham Harman, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Chicago, 2002).
12. Martin Heidegger, What Is a Thing? trans. W. B. Barton, Jr., and Vera Deutsch (Chicago, 1967), p. 95.
13. Although Fleck is the founder of science studies, the impact of his work is still very much in the future because he has been so deeply misunderstood by Thomas Kuhn—see Thomas Kuhn, foreword to Ludwik Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (1935; Chicago, 1979), pp. vii–xi.
14. See Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What? (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), in particular the last chapter.
15. See Michel Serres, Statues: Le Second livre des fondations (Paris, 1987). On the reason why Serres was never critical, see Serres with Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, trans. Roxanne Lapidus (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1995).
16. Heidegger, "The Thing," Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York, 1971), p. 178.
17. "Bush Talking More about Religion: Faith to Solve the Nation's Problems," CNN website, 18 Feb. 2003, www.cnn.com/2003/ALLPOLITICS/02/18/bush.faith/
16. Serres proposed the word quasi-object to cover this intermediary phase between things and objects—a philosophical question much more interesting than the tired old one of the relation between words and worlds. On the new way animals appear to scientists and the debate it triggers, see Primate Encounters: Models of Science, Gender, and Society, ed. Shirley Strum and Linda Fedigan (Chicago, 2000) and Vinciane Despret, Quand le loup habitera avec l'agneau (Paris, 2002).
17. See Peter Galison, Einstein's Clocks and Poincarés's Maps: Empires of Time (New York, 2003).
18. I summarize here some of the results of my already long anthropological inquiry into the iconoclastic gesture, from Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, Mass., 1993) to Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge, Mass., 1999) and of course Iconoclash.
19. See William Pietz, "The Problem of the Fetish, I," Res, no. 9 (Spring 1985): 5–17, "The Problem of the Fetish, II: The Origin of the Fetish" Res, no. 13 (Spring 1987): 23–45, and "The Problem of the Fetish, IIIa: Bosman's Guinea and the Enlightenment Theory of Fetishism," Res, no. 16 (Autumn 1988): 105–23.
20. For a striking example, see Jean-Jacques Kupiec and Pierre Sonigo, Ni Dieu ni gène: Pour une autre théorie de l'hérédité (Paris, 2000); see also Evelyn Fox-Keller, The Century of the Gene (Cambridge, Mass., 2000).
21. I have attempted to use this argument recently on two most difficult types of entities, Christian divinities (Latour, Jubiler ou les tourments de la parole religieuse [Paris, 2002]) and law (Latour, La Fabrique du droit: Une Ethnographie du Conseil d'Etat [Paris, 2002]).
22. The exhibition in Karlsruhe, Germany, Iconoclash, was a sort of belated ritual in order to atone for so much wanton destruction.
23. Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (Cambridge, 1920), p. 29; hereafter abbreviated CN.
24. See Isabelle Stengers, Penser avec Whitehead: Une Libre et sauvage création de concepts (Paris, 2002), a book which has the great advantage of taking seriously Whitehead's science as well as his theory of God.
25. That matters of fact represent now a rather rare and complicated historical rendering of experience has been made powerfully clear by many writers; see, for telling segments of this history, Christian Licoppe, La Formation de la pratique scientifique: Le Discours de l'expérience en France et en Angleterre (1630–1820) (Paris, 1996); Mary Poovey, A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society (Chicago, 1999); Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750 (New York, 1998); and Picturing Science, Producing Art, ed. Caroline A. Jones and Galison, with Amy Slaton (New York, 1998).
26. See Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (Chicago, 1995).
27. See Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, Mass., 2004).
28. See the marvelously funny rendering of the realist gesture in Malcolm Ashmore, Derek Edwards, and Jonathan Potter, "The Bottom Line: The Rhetoric of Reality Demonstrations," Configurations 2 (Winter 1994): 1–14.
29. This is the challenge of a new exhibition I am curating also with Peter Weibel in Karlsruhe, and which is supposed to take place in 2004 under the provisional title "Making Things Public." This exhibition would explore what Iconoclash had simply pointed at, namely the "beyond the image wars."
30. This paper is a companion of another one: Latour, "The Promises of Constructivism," in Chasing Technoscience: Matrix for Materiality, ed. Don Ihde and Evan Selinger (Bloomington, Ind., 2003), pp. 27–46.
31. This is why, although I share all of the worries of Thomas de Zengotita, "Common Ground: Finding our Way Back to the Enlightenment," Harper's, Jan. 2003, pp. 35–45, I think he is entirely mistaken in the direction of the move he proposes back to the future—to go back to the "natural" attitude is a sign of nostalgia.
32. See A. M. Turing, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," Mind 59 (Oct. 1950): 433–60; hereafter abbreviated "CM." See also what Powers in Galatea 2.2 (New York, 1995) did with this paper—this is critique in the most generous sense of the word. For the context of this paper, see Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma (New York, 1983).
33. A nonformalist definition of formalism has been proposed by Brian Rotman, Ad Infinitum: The Ghost in Turing's Machine: Taking God out of Mathematics and Putting the Body Back in (Stanford, Calif., 1993).
34. Since Turing can be taken as the first and best programmer, those who believe in defining machines by inputs and outputs should meditate his confession:
Machines take me by surprise with great frequency. This is largely because I do not do sufficient calculation to decide what to expect them to do, or rather because, although I do a calculation, I do it in a hurried, slipshod fashion, taking risks. Perhaps I say to myself, "I suppose the voltage here ought to be the same as there: anyway let's assume it is". Naturally I am often wrong, and the result is a surprise for me for by the time the experiment is done these assumptions have been forgotten. These admissions lay me open to lectures on the subject of my vicious ways, but do not throw any doubt on my credibility when I testify to the surprises I experience. ["CM," pp. 450–51]
On this nonformalist definition of computers see Brian Cantwell Smith, On the Origin of Objects (Cambridge, Mass., 1997).
[bio]
BRUNO LATOUR teaches sociology at the Ecole des Mines in Paris.





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