The “Big Event”

Here is another excerpt from the dialogue between me and David Berry that has just been published in Theory, Culture, and Society. This section discusses critique and hermeneutics in the network age.

ARG: Ten years ago in Protocol I wrote that protocols and networks are ‘against interpretation’. At that time I was trying to describe the qualities of this new reticular infrastructure. One of the key issues was the way in which computers are very weak interpreters – they are in very literal terms anti-hermeneutic. So it comes as no surprise that, with a change in the mode of production since the early 1970s, we have a change in the ideology of how knowledge is produced. The reticular empiricists are more or less dominant today. From Nate Silver to Franco Moretti, the hard-nosed empiricism of big data is triumphing over more interpretive or normative approaches. To be a knowledge worker today, one must affect a kind of sober pragmatism and deal with the world empirically. In a certain sense we’ve all become glorified journalists, or at best social scientists, expected simply to observe and describe the world. Bruno Latour confirms this recently in his An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: we all ought to be, like William James, radical empiricists; we all ought to move beyond ‘common sense’ to ‘good sense’. In fact Deleuze, bless his heart, is the consummate reticular empiricist. Deleuze is affirmative, non-dialectical, network-centric, and might be said to be one of the great proponents of a radical empiricism.

Shall we resist such empiricism? What a silly notion, of course not. Empiricism is essential. But it’s also totally banal. Empiricism is something akin to respiration. We all must breathe air in order to remain alive. But the spirit of humanity does not float on the breath.

Badiou’s work in Logics of Worlds is an important critique of such reticular empiricism. I’m thinking of his phrase ‘only bodies and languages’ from the opening passages of the book. Asserting that there exist ‘only bodies and languages’ is the key danger of contemporary life, because it suggests that nothing exists except for entities and the symbolic structures that organize them. Later in the book he uses the concept of an ‘atonal’ world to evoke something similar. Atonal worlds are lifeless worlds, flat worlds, worlds that have no topography. Atonal worlds claim that there are only bodies and languages – in other words, that there are only objects in the world and the various relations that combine and organize objects. For Badiou this is the utmost in cynicism, for it denies the event. Atonal worlds have being, but nothing else. They have being without event.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, the reticular empiricists make the same claim: being without event. For example, in Latour nothing can ever really change because there is nothing in his work that goes beyond a series of descriptive frameworks for bodies and languages. Latour is very Deleuzian in this sense because he embeds difference (along with change, process, transformation, etc.) inside the reticular infrastructure. For example, events are relatively banal in Deleuze, whereas they are extraordinary in Badiou. Cells dividing. . . versus the storming of the Winter Palace. (Badiou is the DeMille of philosophy: it’s all about the Big Event.) Because of this, many have accused Latour of promoting a more or less neoliberal, market-driven ontology in which all things are actors who meet on equal footing in order to exchange, translate, arbitrate, and indeed flesh out their very existence. To these accusers Latour’s chief flaw is a political one, for at best he abstains from the political question by naturalizing it, and at worst he unwittingly assists the dominant ideology by endorsing and recapitulating it. I’ll admit I’m persuaded by such accusations, and find Latour’s work shallow because of them.

Latour still believes the old myth that ‘networks are enough’. He still believes that bazaars are better than cathedrals, that systems are enough to disrupt hierarchies, that networks corrode the power of the sovereign, that markets are the most natural, most democratic, and most scientifically accurate heuristic for redistributing and indeed defining knowledge. Such claims are often necessary to make, and are often true within a certain limited arena. Yet Latour is unable or unwilling to move beyond them, to take the ultimate step and acknowledge the historicity of networks. Such a step requires a number of things, but most importantly it requires that we acknowledge the special relationship between networks and the industrial infrastructure, a relationship that began in the middle of the 20th century and has become dominant now at the turn of the millennium. Latour has little interest in the contingency of systematicity. He would not agree with me that there is an historical phase ‘after decentralization’ has taken place. And even if we might convince him of such an historical periodization, he would not likely agree that this new infrastructure should itself be the target of criticism.

DMB: Latour asserted that critique is running out of steam, arguing, somewhat unconvincingly, that ‘critical theory died away long ago’ (Latour, 2004: 248). Are you gesturing to another kind of post-ideological approach, perhaps as a (reconfigured) Laruellean ‘real’?

ARG: Critique only runs out of steam if thinking becomes the hand-maiden of its natural surroundings, only if the world of networks is taken to be the one and only network-world. Latour ultimately eschews both the Kantian and Marxian modes of critique: denying Kant, he shuns the kind of inquiry that would plumb the conditions of possibility undergirding the present state of affairs, in the hopes of auto-position via better self-clarification; denying Marx, he shuns the kind of inquiry that superimposes a two-structure of antagonism onto the state of affairs, in the hopes of destroying and preserving the world in a higher form. In other words, Latour enacts a kind of ‘reticular decision’ in which markets, networks, and other kinds of economic exchange are deemed sufficient to describe any situation whatsoever. To avoid the Latourian trap one must withdraw from the reticular decision, refusing to decide in favour of the network, and ultimately discovering the network’s generic insufficiency. (This is how to arrive at the ‘Laruellean real’ evoked in your question.)

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