Thursday, January 5, 2012

Justifying Critical Outliers in the NATC


If we were to leaf through the second edition of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, we would not be surprised by many of the early entries.  Plato, Sydney, Wordsworth… In fact, the first two-thirds of the book include selections from poets, literary critics, philosophers, linguists, and other folks who are easily at least tangentially related to what we think of when we think of “theory.”  Most of these critics and theorists have at least one foot firmly planted in some humanities sort of discipline.  While the text does not claim to be a collection of “literary theories” per se, there is an expectation that the selections will somehow all come back to books, or philosophy, or something with which students who are interested in theory are comfortable.  Toward the end of the book, we might start to become more than a little disoriented as theorist’s names (and the related names their headnote writers drop) become less familiar, never heard of.  When we begin to read the headnote, and discover that this “theorist” doesn’t do what we thought was “theory” at all, but instead studies the behaviors of scientists in their labs, the befuddlement is complete.

Bruno Latour is one of these critical outliers. Situated between Barbara Johnson’s reading of Billy Budd and a bit of Martha Nussbaum’s philosophy that draws on poetry to make its claims, Latour the “science studies” guy seems out of place.  But while Latour himself is somewhat atypical of an NATC canonized theorist, his headnote does most of the things the typical headnotes do, and even stands as something of a model for how the editors typically deal with an outlier’s headnote.  Or how they typically deal with anything that might leave the reader wondering if they should ask for their $75 back.  The Norton rule:  Justify, justify, justify!

The introductory paragraph gives Latour’s overview, a thinker in “science studies” and “technoscience.”  The overview introduction is in the style of most headnotes, but in Latour’s overview the justifications begin almost immediately.  Headnotes in the NATC often contain justifications, even for critics long recognized as major voices.  These usually fall at the end of the headnote, after some critical objections are brought to light.  “Even though critic Y debunks everything critic X says, critic X is still important because…” is the typical formula.  (My prof calls this the “Newsweek ending.”) But with Latour the headnote writer can’t wait for the conclusion to get the justification, because we are already boggled by “technoscience.”  The writer assures us (we who are sweating and thinking "Oh shit, he's talking about science!?") that “the consequences go beyond disciplinary boundaries” and “illuminate several important concepts in cultural theory” (2277).  Key terms are dropped, that bring us back to literature and its tangents.  Phew.  While Latour’s brand of social constructivism can certainly be seen unfolding in gender studies and other lately recognized, literature-related schools of theory, the lengthy list of schools in the overview helps drive this point home.  Look at all the -isms he’s influenced!  He belongs in this book. (Or, You are not thinking that he does not belong in this book.  Norton mind-trick.)

The biography of Latour is typical of a headnote’s second paragraph.  No justification is given here, but a brief history of scholarship and positions held.  This holds true for some other entries, but a more literary scholar may have had more information his or her accomplishments and publications at each institution related in that paragraph.  The next section of the headnote explicates one of Latour’s major works, one that is not included in the volume.  Terms like "Actor Network Theory" come up, and the doubt may begin to seep back in to those of us who are still wondering what Bruno is doing here.  The justification is simple -- he weighs in on the nature/nurture dichotomy, along with other “monstrous” binaries that contemporary theory sometimes seeks to deconstruct.  This may be true, but it is doubtful whether most who use this book will go out and find a copy of Laboratory Life tomorrow, just to see those dichotomies meet their doom.  We have more “literary” sources to go to for that kind of reading.

The next paragraph begins with a list of Latour’s “eclectic and wide-ranging” influences.  Those adjectives are probably meant to keep us on our toes to spot the novelists and critics whom he has read, but the list consists of sociologists, analytical philosophers (that is, the kind who don’t typically write about literature), and linguists (so close!).  In order to get some kind of legacy out of Latour, the headnote author speculates on whom Latour is referring to in his critiques of contemporary social constructivism.  STANLEY FISH and MICHEL FOUCAULT (Latour never mentions either) make it into the note, as theorists who bear “some resemblance” (2278).  Two more all-caps names are listed, and these are his true legacies.  However, they are sociologists and science studies thinkers as well.  Influences and legacies are typical of the headnotes in this book, and reaching to make connections that may or may not be significant is not uncommon either.  An outlier’s headnote exemplifies how far the authors sometimes have to stretch.

The remaining two pages of Latour’s headnote are almost completely given over to explaining his positions as outlined in “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”  Again the author stabs at naming a literary critic whom Latour may or may not be commenting on (Fish), and brings up the dichotomies which we are all supposed to be so appalled by.  If a scientist type can deconstruct them, we will welcome him in, is perhaps the thought there.  The last sentence of the summary of Latour’s theories makes another association for us, by talking about associations: “The work of science studies, and by extension of literary theory as well, is to study associations…” (2278).  What a dumb sentence.  How “by extension” works is not quite clear, but they sure want us to think that science somehow extends into literature, because Latour has made it so!

The final paragraph gives the typical brief NATC overview of critiques of the theorist’s work, ending on the style of justification that has become quite familiar by page 2279: “In spite of the polarized responses he evokes, Latour remains a significant presence in cultural theory for his ingenious attempts to bridge the two-cultures model that divides the humanities from the sciences.”  Perhaps the headnote author should have said that in the first place.  The “[i]n spite of” portion of that sentence is for once not even necessary.  We are not objecting to Latour.  The scientists are.  We just want to know what he’s doing here!  And explaining that Latour helps us with a bridging of scientific and humanities cultures puts him in league with fellows like C.P. Snow and Matthew Arnold.  To some of us, this might be the best kind of justification.  Pointing to a legacy of writers on cyborgs and trans-humans (science, science!) might just befuddle us even more.

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I've nothing against Bruno.  My goal here was to give a specific example of how Norton is always justifying things.

Here's a cool article and interview about We Have Never Been Modern.

Here's a blog all about Latour and company, co-authored by my friend Mike Johnduff at Princeton (who is a literature student...maybe Norton can use him as their justification in the 3rd edition of NATC!):

"We Have Never Been Blogging."

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