- The Case of Latour
Generally speaking, the oppositional strategies employed by various disciplines to study scientific discourse may be described as critical constructivist ones: they seek to expose the derived nature of both scientific theories and empirical facts by ascertaining the interests and forces determinative in their construction. Such strategies hold that the usual accounts of science, which depict the progressive emergence of a realm of objective knowledge from the murky past of superstition, are in fact attempts to remove scientific discourse from the sphere of political strategies broadly conceived—attempts at an illegitimate neutralization of intrinsically conflictual or agonistic discourses. An oppositional critical strategy thus typically consists in inserting the narrative of scientific objectivity back into such conflictual fields in order that the unity of the scientific object might be fractured. 1
If one takes this political approach, then what is at stake is the familiar political problem of legitimation. Further, it is possible to see in [End Page 319] the relation of critical oppositional and scientific discourse the reenactment of what Hannah Arendt terms the struggle between truth and politics. For Arendt, Western political philosophy began when Plato sought to transfer the authority of scientific or mathematical truth into a political field hitherto ruled by conceptions of tyranny and despotism. The authoritative element of reason lies in the coercive character of its self-evident truths, which in turn is grounded in an ontology of identity. The difficulty with the authority of truth from a political standpoint, Arendt notes, is twofold: first, only few are subject to its strictures, something that finds expression in Plato’s figure of the philosopher-king; second, truth tends to exclude opinion and thus foreclose debate, both of which constitute the essence of political life. 2
Critical oppositional strategies usually stage their own relationship to scientific discourse from just this standpoint—that is, they contest the coercive authority of reason with the aim of restoring a democratic plurality of knowledges. But Arendt also acknowledges that, more often than not, truth is held in contempt because it threatens tyrants “who rightly fear a coercive force they cannot monopolize.” 3 In political terms, then, the question is whether the opposition to the coercive force of truth is that of a democrat concerned with enriching and maintaining the civil discourse of the body politic, or that of a tyrant seeking to establish a monopoly of force.
To consider but one example: the most obvious difficulty with the critical constructivist approach—and one that has been endlessly commented on—is that of the “performative contradiction” involved in claiming that truth is but an effect or construct of other kinds of forces and relations. 4 But this contradiction is not really a logical one, nor even epistemological (although one can always ask how it is that the critical interrogator has acquired access to these underlying, “real” causes if not by the same mysterious manner in which the philosopher-king escapes from the cave of shadows); it involves, rather, the nature of the coercive force of statements that seek to convince others of the validity of one’s own position. The authority of claims opposing the truth of reason is not supposed to be [End Page 320] grounded in the coercive presuppositions of truth and identity, but neither is it supposed to be tyrannical or despotic.
Various strategies have been developed that attempt to deal with this problem. Some endeavor to build modes of demonstration that do not resort to the coercion of truth, that do not appeal to self-evidence as their criterion, that do not put a claim upon their readers; they desire instead something akin to the aesthetic persuasiveness of literature. Here whatever is considered to be specific to literature is equated with a new politics. Others resolutely embrace politicization in a pure pragmatism (a position often attributed to the writings of Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish) that presumably countenances the prevailing practices of particular “interpretive communities” whatever their content, or adopts positions in accordance with unabashedly “interested” aims. Both strategies remain comparatively scarce, at least in academia. Most scholarly discourses continue to be couched in “rational” modes of argumentation that appeal, if...