Thursday, 18 October 2007

Formalism in Science & Technology Studies

When this blog first kicked off I used a different mission statement, which explained its humble origins: I thought that working on it with my mate Deridata provided a little "interaction ritual" to generate some extra solidarity for our friendship. I also worried about hard drive crashes, the failures of memory supplements which might mean valuable things would be washed away, like "tears in rain", as Batty so eloquently put it in his soliloquy at the climax of Blade Runner. There was also the problem of sending/receiving things, and not having an easy search functionality to access them wherever I happened to be. For a person still using a dial up connection, the idea was very appealing of walking into the library, with a personal archive at my disposal, along with all my bookmarks, on a broadband connection.
I raise these points only to emphasise the primary purpose of the blog as a research tool between 2 friends, in recognition of the fact that there is little to stop other people accessing and possibly misusing some of the material put on here. Hence again, as I've said with respect to the Vandenberghe piece and other items, please do not cite the following. It was given to me by my supervisor Paul Jones, and fair use of the item would involve citing it from the journal published version. No other form of citation or reproduction is permissible. I will remove the item on the author's request.
The idea for this paper arose from a peculiar kind of semi-articulated collegial ‘insistence’ I had felt – and resisted - to read Bruno Latour’s work. Superficially at least, Latour seemed to be reinventing some rather old social constructivist wheels within science studies that I had already met within the sociology of journalism, for example (and reading time is a precious asset). It also struck me as odd that while Latour’s work is now increasingly being cited within ‘cultural theory’, those who so cite him seem to be blind to his own dependence on a much earlier set of similar arguments within what what would now be called cultural theory (namely formalism and structuralist semiotics). Moreover, the highly comparable work within the project of the cultural theorist on whom I have done the most work, Raymond Williams, tends to be set aside in the same eddy of intellectual fashion. But more than mere fashion (or interdisciplinarity or the cultural turn) seemed to be at stake here and, as it happened, this phenomenon was one to which Williams had paid specific attention via his discussions of avant-gardism and formalism within his his late sociology of culture. That said, the reader should be reminded that this is a preliminary exercise. Time and space constraints have meant I have had to set aside, for example, a detailed examination of Latour’s and Williams’s versions of a social constructionist analysis of technology.

Raymond Williams: setting aside some interpretative anomalies
In many accounts of ‘British Cultural Studies’ and the now global forms of cultural studies which have developed in its wake, Raymond Williams is usually positioned as a ‘founding father’ alongside Richard Hoggart, the founder of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS). The risk of conflation of the two is considerable and even Williams joked about being shadowed by a mythical ‘Raymond Hoggart’. The differences are considerable and highly relevant to this paper.
Hoggart did practise a kind of status-challenging ethnography of working class culture in his seminal 1957 The Uses of Literacy (Hoggart, 1976). This genuine innovation drew much critical approval, including that of Jean-Claude Passeron (1972), and was one of several influences on the subcultures research of the later CCCS under Stuart Hall. Williams too wrote appeciative reviews of Hoggart’s book but was also quite stringent in his criticisms of Hoggart’s relative politico-cultural conservativism (Jones, 1994).
Williams, like Hogggart, had been trained in ‘Cambridge English’ literary studies but did not move towards ethnography methodologically. Yet it is Williams who is usually accredited with the corresponding conceptual shift within English language usage of ‘culture’: from an allegedly élitist restrictive ‘high culture’ to an all-embracing ‘whole way(s) of life’one. This attribution, most notably promoted by Stuart Hall, is erroneous as Williams insisted on the conjunction of both senses of culture. ‘High culture’’ needed to be sociologically placed and immanently criticised. Formalist methods – within which Williams includes the structuralist project - were highly relevant to this immanent process but insufficient as they tended to be blind to the immanent emancipatory norms of ‘high culture’. Williams so moves to a position which is closest to Lucien Goldmann, and often closer to Adorno and Benjamin (and Habermas’s conception of ideology critique) than the more common celebration of Gramsci or Bourdieu within cultural studies and cultural sociology (Jones, 2004).
In practice this meant Williams’s own work outside ‘literary studies’ was a particular kind of socio-cultural history based in his ‘social formalism’ and what became his sociology of intellectual ‘formations’ (Jones, 2004).
‘Technicist’ Formalism, ‘Social’ Formalism & Critique
Williams’s critique of aesthetic formalism starts as a dissident position in literary studies and grows into a key component of his ‘social formalist’ alternative within his late sociology of culture. Towards the end of his life it is increasingly used as an organizing principle in what is effectively a sociology of knowledge. The pervasive problem within this last area to which Williams sought a solution was the ‘eternal recurrence’ of formalism as a first resort of critical intellectual practice.
As Doložel has pointed out, 1970s Western textbook accounts of structuralism - on which much English language reception of that project was based - tended to share a particular narrative of its development. Saussure’s initiatives in structural linguistics and the work of the Russian & Prague Formalists were regarded as important precursors, but ‘structuralist poetics’ per se, for example, was regarded as foundationally French. In a curious anticipation of future narratives of the formation of cultural studies, what was influential in Paris became the criterion of selective historical emphasis in these 1970s accounts. Jan Mukařovský’s 1946 Paris lecture on Prague structuralism went unnoticed, as did Goldmann’s attempts to shift the terrain of discussion of the Parisian structuralists twenty years later. Thus were crucial innovations of Prague structuralism sidelined.
Williams constructs an alternative narrative of formalism’s legacy that recovers both Mukařovský’s critique within the Prague circle and the then recently translated (into English) critiques of Russian Formalism from the ‘Vitebsk’ group: Vološinov (1973), Bakhtin & Medvedev (1986). It is this body of work – along with that of Goldmann and some other elements of ‘Western Marxism’- that he uses to shape his ‘social formalist’ alternative. There is a certain ‘realist’ dimension to this alternative – as in the familiar criticisms of the strong sense of ‘arbitrariness’ in the Saussurean model of the signifier/signified relationship within the sign. However, Williams’s main focus, like Mukařovský’s and Vološinov’s, is normative. That is, while, for example, a prime step is the recovery of greater recognition of semantic content of texts per se, this recognition is tied to a particular mode of immanent critique rather than a naïve realism or ‘humanist’ psychologization of authorship. Thus the strongest challenge Williams mounts towards what should from hereon be considered ‘technicist formalism’ is that it is effectively blind to the immanent normative content of the texts it analyses. ‘Technicist formalism’ is thus more commonly allied with a form of critique where ‘external’ criteria are brought to bear on an analysis of the form of the text or even where perhaps no normative orientation is seen as required, so leading to a potentially ‘affirmative’ interpretation. As we shall, it is the latter which tends to be the case in Latour.
The ‘level’ at which such immanent social formalist analysis operates in Williams varies from the historical semantics of his very carefully chosen ‘keywords’ (Williams, 1983) to his more elaborated analyses of aesthetico-literary and other writings.
Formalism, Technological Determinism and ‘Projection’
In 1986 Williams’s chief example of formalism was the theoreticist purism of Althusserian ‘structuralist’ Marxism that had then recently dominated the Birmingham CCCS (Williams, 1986). However, he’d launched a very similar swingeing critique of formalism in Marshall McLuhan’s work in 1974 (Williams, 1974). It moves in perfect parallel with Williams’s better known critique of McLuhan as a technological determinist.
What these different theoretical formalisms – or technicisms - have in common for Williams is an emphasis on the functionality of devices within self-reproducing systems. For Russian Formalists the central methodological concern was of course how to isolate the aesthetic function for analysis. For Shklovsky at least, this was a matter of identifying appropriate aesthetic devices and techniques that performed the aesthetic function. McLuhan’s famous insistence was that meaning was entirely borne within the medium – and that new media were to be understood entirely within the aesthetic sense of the term – as if they were as much as, but not more than, new palettes for experimentation. This, for Williams, was an analogous formalism that facilitated a technological determinism.
Both these technicisms were thus largely oblivious to the social production of the devices they celebrated. Within his sociology of art, Williams takes classic instances of changes in dramatic devices – the soliloquy, dramatic naturalism’s three-walled room – and demonstrates their dependence on – or homology with - changing social circumstances by means of his social formalism. ‘Micro-cultural’ analysis so articulates with ‘macrosocial’ analysis, usually with strongly normative implications.
Within his sociology of means of communication – which restores a ‘social shaping’moment to accounts of ‘new media’- the procedure is remarkably similar to his social formalist anlaysis (Williams, 1981). McLuhan provides a more precise example too of the risks of ’accidental’ legitimation of a status quo. It is the technicist formalism – not the technological determinism – that Williams focusses on in his critique of McLuhan. His work was for Williams ‘…a particular culmination of an aesthetic theory which became, negatively, a social theory: a development and elaboration of a formalism which can be seen in many fields, from literary criticism and linguistics to psychology and anthropology, but which acquired its most significant popular influence in an isolating theory of "the media". (
Williams, 1974, 126)
This isolation enables a further step, the projection of de facto social theory of a highly affirmative type – the retribalizing effects of television in the new age of the ‘global village’. It is important to reiterate here that Williams’s target is not formalistic techniques as such but the associated ‘denormative’ technicism and projection that results from their isolated usage.
Avant-Gardism, Intellectuals and Critique
The methodological isolation Williams challenged was closely informed by his developing sociology of intellectuals. One way of unpacking Williams’s position here is to use as a foil the work of Stuart Hall - the former Director of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies - as a foil. In the 1980s Hall tirelessly promoted the Gramscian model of the organic intellectual as the most appropriate alternative to the then still-common (in Europe) Leninist one of the subordinate of the vanguard party (e.g. Hall, 1986). Since then Hall has always characterized the role of the Birmingham CCCS – and much later work in cultural studies - in terms of its struggle to adequately achieve the organic intellectual role (e.g. Hall ,1997). This has suited very well later cultural studies’ function as an incubator of intellectuals from subaltern social groups. Williams, very much an organic intellectual in this sense himself, had made his own break with Leninist vanguardism in the 1930s and 40s and was one of the first major advocates of Gramsci’s relevance following the partial translation of The Prison Notebooks into English in 1971 (Williams, 1973). However, Williams never embraced the organic intellectual model. Williams seems to have detected that for all his apparent respect for the role of democratic institutions, popular culture and civil society in hegemonic and counter-hegemonic practice, Gramsci’s overarching organic intellectual remained that of the Leninist party.
Of more immediate relevance here is Gramsci’s binary contrast of a hegemonic contest for intellectual leadership between established traditional intellectuals and the organic intellectuals of the rising class who draw primarily on the culture of that class. Williams’s view of tradition and traditional intellectuals is far more subtle than this. Traditions for Williams had no necessary class - or other social - belonging. Social power was certainly demonstrated in selectivity and exclusions in the composition of traditions but these are seen as nonetheless part of a common culture open to intellectual debate and quite possibly critical redemption. So something like a cultural public sphere is always assumed by Williams. The task of the subaltern intellectual was first and foremost to contest this terrain of common intellectual culture with challenges to the dominant selective traditions. Williams rarely saw a need for wholesale dismissal of or opposition to, such traditions. Rather, his own practice usually entailed at least three steps: (i) an immanent critique of the dominant tradition or its informing ethos; (ii) a sociological placement of the intellectual groups responsible for the tradition’s development (formational analyses designed to capture the organizational fluidity of informal intellectual groupings (e.g. the Bloomsbury group) and (iii) the development of an alternative counter-tradition. Cultural and intellectual history thus play a crucial role in Williams’s project but their use is a long way from that of an arcanely disengaged history of ideas. Rather, cultural history might reveal fruitful ‘paths not taken’ within the dominant intellectual culture while the aspirations of subaltern social groups might provide the means of completion of the emancipatory promise of the project of modernity. Most of Williams’s best known works on literary and intellectual traditions operate in this mode e.g. Culture and Society (Williams, 1990), Modern Tragedy (Williams, 1966), The Country and The City (Williams, 1975). One of the major preoccupations of the mature sociology of culture is the articulation of this practice of socio-cultural critique (Jones, 2004).
As the influence of structuralism, postmodernism and post-structuralism grew within the academy, Williams sought to sociologically place these developments as well by applying his method of socio-cultural critique. That is, he treated these developments as new traditions but, like all other intellectual traditions, necessarily selective ones. What had grown from a dissident position Williams had developed within literary studies and developed into a sociology of aesthetic culture was increasingly looking like a sociology of knowledge. Williams thus combined a history of the structuralist enterprise with a sociology of avant-gardism and his own tentative construction of an alternative tradition of the key movement for him in these developments, modernism. It was this project – The Politics of Modernism: against the new conformists (Williams, 1989) - on which Williams was still working when he died in 1988 but its basic shape is reasonably clear.
The central premiss is similar to Susan Buck-Morss’s account of the role of avant-gardism in the formation of Theodor Adorno and Frankfurt Critical Theory. As the model of Leninist vanguard is rejected as a template for intellectual politics, that of an avant-garde – leadership by experimental example - tends to fill the vacuum (Buck-Morss, 1977, 32). For Williams, however, there are further dimensions. Not only do aesthetic avant-gardes tend to prefigure developments within the dominant social class within which they are often formed and against which they rebel; critical intellectuals also increasingly take their lead from aesthetic avant-gardes at the level of intellectual content. Here Bakhtin and Medvedev’s thesis that Russian Formalism was the theorisation of the practices of the Russian Futurists is pivotal for Williams (Bakhtin & Medvedev, 1986). When combined with Frederic Jameson’s account of the dependence of French structuralism upon Russian and Prague Formalism (Jameson, 1974), Williams felt he had a powerful account of a seductive ‘formalist trap’ into which may of his contemporaries were falling. This too was a selective tradition with hegemonic effects.
Crucially, however, those swayed by this hegemonic intellectual leadership were not the general population or students but intellectuals who increasingly identified themselves as cultural theorists. For Williams ‘the formalist trap’ was a kind of intellectual alienation from any capacity to practise redemptive immanent critique, to form solidarities with non-intellectuals or to engage in the development of policy alternatives.
More specifically, the recurrence of technicist formalism as a critical intellectual preference also depended on the adoption of an avant-gardist impatience with tradition such that conventional scholarly protocols were not always in play. The Althusserian advocacy of ‘epistemological breaks’ with ‘empiricist’ and ‘humanist’ intellectual precursors, for example, bore striking resemblance to avant-gardist breaks with prior aesthetic traditions. To these we might add the limited selection of materials available in translation and the tendency for many early English language advocates of formalist-structuralist methods from the 1970s to write within a minimalist self-referential style that often advanced its case by seductively succinct examples in the mode of, say, the early Roland Barthes.
Latour: from ethnomethodology to literary formalism?
To suggest Latour is guilty of technicist formalism seems absurd at first glance. Unlike Williams, Latour has actually conducted fieldwork into ‘ways of life’ – specifically the ‘laboratory life’ and similar practices of scientists. So the further implication that his work is socially isolated or affirmative of a status quo is at least counter-intuitive.
Latour’s adoption of an overtly ‘semiotic’ position in the 1990s is relatively well-known (e.g. Akrich & Latour 1992; Latour 1993a & 1993b; cf Barry & Slater 2002). However, his employment of semiotics and formalistic literary analysis dates from at least as early as his and Steve Woolgar’s Laboratory Life (Latour & Woolgar, 1979). In that work Latour argues that laboratories can be understood as principally sites of ‘literary inscription’ (Latour & Woolgar, 1979, 51ff). This follows from the genuine insight that in the laboratory he investigates the consumption and production of scientific papers is quite pivotal, leading to ‘a central prominence of documents in the laboratory’ (Latour & Woolgar, 1979, 52), rather than the commonsense ‘realist’view of the dominance of practical-experimentation. This leads Latour directly into formalist analysis of actual papers on the basis of ‘the modality of their statement types’ by which he means the forms of propositions employed in the papers but not, at any level, their overt ‘content’. Latour so surmounts the problem that, for the character through whom re reports his results, his ‘anthropological observer’, the scientific papers read like ‘Chinese’.
While the category of inscription is attributed to Derrida, the more significant ongoing influence from this moment is A.J. Greimas’s semiotics (Greimas & Courtés, 1982; Greimas, 1983; 1987; 1990). Latour’s most notable debt to Greimas is his highly infuential conception of actant, the core of his ‘actor network theory’ (ANT). This position aims to break with the limits of social shaping and other sociological approaches. These allegedly depend on structure versus agency and nature/culture dichotomies as well as the use of ‘external’ appeals to social interests. Latour employs the concept of actant to characterize those forms of manufactured objects that have a kind of agency – doorclosers and speed-humps are two of his favourite examples (e.g. Latour, 1992). If we acknowledge actants’ capacities for action – albeit highly predictable action – then, for Latour, the structure/agency binary is unsettled and many other similar assumptions begin to unravel. Latour would thus replace structure/agency binaries with networks of actors and actants.
It is a glossary of semiotics that provides my favourite fictional example of an actant, the Batmobile (Colapietro, 1993, 5-6). Greimas’s own dictionary of semiotics quite properly sources the term to Vladmir Propp’s Morphology of the Folk-Tale, the classic Russian Formalist source of structuralist models of narrative (Propp, 1968). For Propp, the concept of actant is needed to account for the narratively active role of non-human agents in folk tales i.e. usually magically endowed animals and objects that acted as helpers to the hero. From this conception of narrative, via Greimas, Latour is able to provide a critique of naïve narratives of ‘normal’scientific practices and ‘progress’. Moreover, he is also able to practise of form of self-reflexivity in his own writing up of his ethnomethodological practice via the form of a delegated fictional character such as ‘the observer’ of Laboratory Life.
Perhaps this is what Latour means by the later slogan ‘Semiotics is the ethnomethodology of texts’ (Latour, 1993b: 131). However, while ethnomethodology can be placed within the anti-positivist tradition as a likely bearer of verstehen/understanding, its correlate in textual analysis would surely then be a form of hermeneutics that paid similar attention to substantive content. However, the subtitular social constructivism of the ethnomethodological work Laboratory Life is itself formalist to the significant degree that it focusses on the the fomal-textual dimension of the construction of scientific facts. To reverse Latour’s slogan we might say his ethnomethodology – or rather its interpretative moment - is as formalist as his intellectual sources.
There is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with such a formalist position. Formal techniques can reveal properties of social phenomena insusceptible to other forms of analysis. Williams himself insisted that sociology should recognize that cultural forms are indeed ‘social facts’ susceptible to formal analysis. His critique of technicist formalism only comes into play if the formalist techniques Latour deploys isolate their ‘objects’ from their social determinants and/or are allowed to become a projection, a de facto social theory. This does seem to be a trend in the later Latour.
As noted above, Latour believes his conception of actant unsettles structure/agency binaries that underplay the social dimensions of ‘objects’ and indeed the ‘black box’ bracketing of scientific and other techniques in much sociology, social theory and science studies. To focus on objects/actants – or indeed to adopt ‘their’ perspective - reveals otherwise hidden social relations. One simple example is his fictive/illustrative account of the breakdown of a humble overhead projector (Latour, 1994, 36) . In Latour’s narrative the breakdown leads to ‘swarms of repairmen’ descending on the projector and opening it, so rendering it and its components a social centrality usually repressed. Latour’s point is well-made but the assumption of the likely entry of the deus ex machina of ‘swarms of repairmen’ is itself a social one easily challenged by anyone who works in an underfunded teaching or research institution. In such circumstances the black box would not only remain unopened, it would be abandoned until repair at a later date and still remain equally ‘hidden’. It is not the adoption of the perspective of the actant that is the problem here but how this perspective is used to reinform - or articulate with - ‘macro’ sociological accounts. Latour’s oversight here is symptomatic. He assumes in a blackbox manner the background presence of a very affirmative characterization – that infrastructural resources will always be readily provided in times of crisis - of the very social relations he claims ‘sociologics’ overemphasize to the detriment of actants. His assumption so has a normative dimension that Andrew Feenberg has characterized as conformism (Feenberg, 2003). For Feenberg, this risk emerges precisely because Latour overprivileges his operational actor-networks over all else, and most especially over any claims to transcendental social norms. More particularly, he privileges the knowledge he obtains from his practice-oriented fieldwork on scientists and engineers (and related actor-actant networks). As Judy Wajcman has put this problem more explicitly, ANT’s ethnomethodological orientation is ‘similarly ill-equipped to deal with power as a structural phenomeneon’ (Wajcman, 2002, 355). As we have seen, this privileged ethnomethodological evidence is heavily dependent on literary formalism for its interpretative frame.
Latour, McLuhan & Visual Mediation
We saw earlier that the work of Marshall McLuhan provided Williams’s paradigmatic case of formalistic projection. Parallels between McLuhan and Latour have been noted (Stalder, 1998). Latour’s mid-90s work on ‘technical mediation’ certainly moved within a somewhat McLuhanist mode of argument in that it implied a possible reconciliation between objects and humans via the delegation of agency to the actant (as McLuhan had argued of ‘the medium’). Latour has recently drawn the parallel with McLuhan himself (Latour, 1998, 422). As with his earlier invocation of Greimas and, by implication, Propp, the turn to ‘McLuhanism’ derives from a defensible employment of formalist methods. Latour’s interest has now expanded to visual as well as ‘literary’ inscription and mediation of scientific practices (e.g. electronic microscopy imaging) .
Now, we saw in his earliest work that Latour not only practised a formalist narrative analysis ‘upon’ scientific texts and practices but appeared to use a formally self-conscious literary device in his ‘delegation’ of his own narration of his ethnomethodological findings to a quasi-fictional character. To this extent we could say he even practised a kind of literary ‘modernism’ as part of his contestation of a naïve scientistic ‘realism’. In the case of his interest in the visual he has gone far further in this aesthetico-practical direction to the practice of visual art curatorship.
In 2002 he co-curated an exhibition in Germany (ZKM Center for Art and Media) entitled Iconoclash: beyond the image wars in science, religion and art. In his opening paper for the book of the same name, he outlines his own understanding of the exhibition’s juxtaposition of images from religion, science and contemporary art. Such juxtapositions, he suggests, may help increase recognition of the modes by which all such images are constructed: that they were made by human hands - not gods - in the case of religious icons and that they are not transparent representations of nature in the case of scientific images:
We have not brought religious images into an avant-garde institution of contemporary art to have them again subjected to irony or destruction, nor to again present them to be worshipped. We have brought them here to resonate with the scientific images and show in which ways they are powerful and what sort of invisibility both types of images have been able to produce. …
Scientific images have not been brought here to instruct or enlighten the public in some pedagogical way, but to show how they are generated and how they connect to one another … what peculiar type of invisible world they generate..
As to contemporary art pieces, they are not being shown here to compose an art show, but to draw the conclusions of this huge laboratory experiment on the limits and virtues of representation that has been going on in so many media and so many bold innovative enterprises… (Latour, 2002, 11-12)
Having so played with a range of possible instititutional signifiers to attach to this event – avant-garde exhibition, pedagogical museum, scientific laboratory - Latour immediately proclaims the exhibition ‘an idol-chamber, similar to the ones made by Protestant desecrators when they tore the images away from the cult, turning them into objects of horror and derision, before they became the first kernels of the art museum and aesthetic appreciation’(2002, 22). However, later in the paper he concedes that the practice of such invocation of intertextuality by montage-like juxtaposition has an impeccable aesthetic modernist pedigree (Latour, 2002, 40).
From Williams’s position it is reasonable to observe here that avant-gardist aesthetic experiment has contributed to an inadequate de facto social theory. Indeed the whole enterprise bears more than a passing resemblance to McLuhan and Fiore’s The Medium is The Massage (1967) and, perhaps even moreso, to Susan Sontag’s 1965 essay that placed McLuhan within a new imagistic sensibility that might transcend the literary bias of the old (British) ‘two cultures debate’ (between science and culture as represented by C.P. Snow and F.R. Leavis respectively) (Sontag, 1968). McLuhan and Williams had both been trained in Leavis’s ‘Cambridge English’ in the 1930s. Williams’s whole early project was framed as an immanent critique of Leavis’s quasi-sociological thesis that only Great Literature – his ‘great tradition’ - bore the legacy of lost organic communities of the past. McLuhan simply declared that television provided instantaneous means of establishment of such organic communities. The formalism and technological determinism in McLuhan that Williams challenged followed directly from that position
But despite the evident parallels with McLuhan and the tendency towards formalistic projection, Latour’s position is much better characterized as an ambiguous balancing act of ‘amodernism’.
(A)modern Critique?
Behind Latour’s idol-chamber metaphor lies his own understanding of those who defend a project of ‘modernity’ – their alleged naïve confidence in science, modernization and verifiable ‘truth’ castigated throughout We Have Never Been Modern (Latour, 1993a). But behind the continuing invocation of aesthetic modernism and its formalistic theoretical legacies lies a somewhat anomalous suspicion of avant-gardism – both aesthetic and theoretical - which also briefly surfaces in We Have Never Been Modern’s attack on the exhausted avant-gardism that fuelled much of the postmodernist surge. Baudrillard and Lyotard, Latour says, ‘…are simply stuck in the impasse of all avant-gardes that have no more troops behind them’ (1993a, 62). The proximity to Williams here is uncanny, right down to the stickiness of the metaphor. Williams put it more bluntly: he refused to be ‘stuck in the post’ (Williams, 1989, 35).
Most recently, Latour has pointed to explicit problems with an ‘amodern’ quasi-avant-gardism in his own work. In 1997, for example, he complained (perhaps playfully) about the shift in common usage of the term ‘network’. Whereas twenty years ago it conveyed a critical sense (for Latour, of transformative/translation practices along a network), now it signifies communicative immediacy (via the internet etc). This, says Latour, is the ‘great danger of using a technical metaphor slightly ahead of everyone’s common use’ (Latour, 1997a). Williams could have reasonably predicted such an outcome with his historical semantics. Many of his famous keywords were chosen precisely because they sat at the intersection of popular & critical intellectual usage (e.g. tragedy). Intellectuals from subaltern social groups were, in Williams’s view, often the best-placed to detect such semantic locations. The critical task was not the quasi-avant-gardist one of keeping slighly ahead of popular usage but of locating the contested signifier within an alternative tradition to the dominant. Williams’s historical semantics thus moves hand in glove with his practice of critique.
Latour’s own practice of critique has fared little better than his semantic quasi-avant-gardism. In 2004 he admitted he was horrified to discover an echo of his own undoing of ‘scientific certainty’ within the Bush Administration’s contestion of the scientifiicity of claims about global warming (Latour, 2004, 226-227). This echo is consistent with Feenberg’s charge of conformism. Latour has so turned his more recent attention to the practice of critique – and of a critical avant-garde - in something like the auto-critical manner of the later Foucault.
While such a qualification of his amodernism is fruitful, even here, however, there is little sign that Latour has learnt the lessons of the fictional engineer, Hans Castorp, in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain: that the Enlightenment practice of critique – and the related conception of modernity - is not reducible to the destruction of false idols in the name of an objective ‘realist’ science. Such an unmasking or defetishisizing critique was only ever half the story, certainly of social critique. The other half - immanent critique - was never wholly destructive – it was as much about the holding to account of those who made Enlightenment promises of emancipation as about the removal of apparent forms of subordination and their legitimative ‘distortions’. This was Williams’s complaint against the pseudo-science of the Marxist-Leninist tradition (as opposed to Marx) up to and including Gramsci: its inability to distinguish between bourgeois propaganda and a bourgeois public sphere. Some might say – Williams in his lifetime and Latour today – that that distinction is becoming harder and harder to make in recent times and that an overly abstracted conception of modernity isn’t sufficient to this task. But the technicist formalism on which Latour still appears to rely offers no more towards a renewal of critique. To move beyond such limitations is beyond the scope of this paper but one of many potential starting points may be, nonetheless, the synergies between Williams’s mature sociology of culture and Latour’s call for a rethinking towards a renewal of the practice of critique.
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