Thanks to Graham Harman for linking to this very interesting essay by Latour. In it Latour describes – in a very open, and biographical style – the development over the last 40 years of his project now known as An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME). He describes his encounters with people such as Michel Callon, Isabelle Stengers, and Shirley Strum, and explains how these encounters have shaped his philosophy. Especially interesting to me is his blending of empirical philosophy with anthropology – specifically an anthropology of “the Moderns,” but he also mentions Marilyn Strathern, Eduardo Vivieros de Castro, and Phillipe Descola as anthropologists who apply the same approach to non-Western cultures. Here’s a quote on how the whole project came together finally by way of a conversation with Stengers:
I am almost certain that it was in 1987, during a conversation by the swimming pool in Les Treilles, that Stengers shared with me an astonishing quotation from Whitehead, who was even less well known at the time than Gabriel Tarde, about the risk taken by rocks – yes, rocks –in order to keep on existing; it must have been the famous passage about Cleopatra’s needle on the Charing Cross Embankment in The Concept of Nature.
In August of that year, stretched out in the sun on an island across from Gothenburg, in Sweden, I couldn’t stop running my fingers over the rough red surface of the rocks as if to find out whether Whitehead could have been right . . . Everything became clear, then: what I had discovered in Kenya, and what the principle of irreduction had hinted at obscurely. There exists a completely autonomous mode of existence that is very inadequately encompassed by the notions of nature, material world, exteriority, object. This world shares one crucial feature with all the others: the risk taken in order to keep on existing. Thus the hiatus that I had detected very early on in exegesis, that I had found in the study of scientific inscriptions, in the disjointed itineraries of courses of action, in the surprising detours of technologies, this same hiatus was here as well, here in the first place, in the apparent continuity of beinghere. An epiphany that linked up with all the others, and especially the one whose scenario I had developed in Irreductions, the irruption of things “irreduced and on holiday.” There was nothing inevitable, nothing definitive, nothing irremediable in the tribulations of subject and object. One could think differently.”