Weekly Response: Latour, Coole, and Frost

In “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Bruno Latour attempts to discover the lagging popularity of critique while demonstrating its power and its ability to be misused. Climate deniers are at the center of Latour’s argument as the debates the efficacy of fact and how easily it can be construed as relative. Latour uses our unique situation as a species on the brink of destruction to underscore the danger in believing in no irrefutable factual information, a stance he has built his career upon.

Key terms:


Latour’s entire argument is built upon the fact/concern dichotomy. The world of metaphysics has always been concerned with what is irrefutable fact and the constant questioning of these phenomena. The danger comes when these facts threaten our existence and we insist upon questioning what needs to be understood immediately as affecting our survival.

Empiricism is a branch of philosophical thought concerned with fact, with what can be demonstrably measured through sensory information. Latour argues that it is exactly this information that he feels responsible for placing beneath the critical gaze. ‘What is empirical, and what isn’t?’ is of importance when some use critique to obstruct factual evidence for purely political means. Latour reinforces the belief in empirical fact where once he would have called for constant interrogation.

Revisionism is used here with the qualifier ‘instant’ to describe a problematic in our contemporary use of critique. Where once information or theory, or anything really, was seen through a gestating period of years, now as soon as events occur, detracting voices begin critique with little or no true cause. 9/11 is a perfect example. We live in an era in which suspicion builds underlying information instead of discovering it.

“One thing is clear, not one of us readers would like to see our own most cherished objects treated in this way. We would recoil in horror at the mere suggestion of having them socially explained, whether we deal in poetry or robots, stem cells, black holes, or impressionism…This is why…those of us who tried to portray matters of science as matters of concern so often failed to convince” (240).

Latour writes of the emotional attachments that cannot help but obscure true empirical evaluation. With much of climate denial stemming from political affiliation, this refusal to forgo emotional attachment for the greater good could spell disaster where global warming is concerned. Matters of scientific fact cannot be understood as matters of emotional concern.

Question 1: Does everyone possess these untouchable attachments, or are these things manipulated by entities in a calculated manner? For example, climate change is almost always attached to liberal viewpoints, and those denying may not be denying actual climate change, but their political opposites.

Question 2: Can we devise better monikers than ‘matters of concern/matters of fact”? I feel a more direct label could be affixed to the entire argument?

In the introduction to “New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics,” Diana Coole and Samantha Frost describe the burgeoning critical perspectives being used for contemporary literary critique. Coole and Frost assess these new approaches and their link to traditional materialism while also explaining the added ontological view of the nonhuman at their core. The question of what matter is exactly, how the old Cartesian view is anthropocentric, and what to do now that this view is dispelled, are the primary questions asked by Coole and Frost. Deleuzean vitalism, imbuing agentic qualities if not life to the nonhuman or inorganic, is an integral part of this mode of thought.

Key Terms:


A simplified, but important, definition of ‘affect’ is the force of one extant encountering another. Where we have, in the past, forgone evaluation of these meetings and their results, we now imbue objects with ontological significance and draw attention to their force.

Materialism has a Marxist connotation from the work of Raymond Williams and others. Here the anthropocentric materialism of those theories is different from the force of the material-in-itself. The being of the material isn’t a product of human contact or notice, and it is not assumed to be radically different from human ontological substance due to some inherent difference that we can’t measure but nonetheless claim.

Agency is at the heart of recognizing the object as possessing being where we have not in the past, especially for literary study. Asking whether or not all phenomena possess agency or the potential for agency is another integral part of this philosophy.

“In this emphasis on corporeality, we also glimpse one of the most distinctive characteristics of the new materialist ontologies; their avowed posthumanism. They displace what Giorgio Agambencalls “the anthropological machine of humanism.” While new materialists’ conceptualization of materialization is not anthropocentric, it does not even privilege human bodies. There is an increasing agreement here that all bodies, including those of animals (and perhaps machines, too), evince certain capacities for agency” (20).

The ‘life’ outside of the human world and the human perspective isn’t necessarily formed in any manner that we can understand in the way in which we understand our own being. This is an important aspect to remember when thinking in these new materialist terms. In line with Affect theory, the force understood when one agent and another meet, determine an agency. In essence, all things possess agency, or at least are not denied agency for their lack of anthropogenic qualities.

Question 1: Can human perception and influence be removed from the positing of object ontology?

Question 2: If not, do we use the results of agents encountering one another to determine agency, and isn’t this far different from ‘being’?

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