Digital Mapping as Double-Tap – A Reply from Gavin MacDonald

Gavin MacDonald has been kind enough to offer a reply to the article Sybille Lammes and I wrote in Global Discourse recently on Latour and digital mapping. This is a short personal response – and does not necessarily represent the views of my co-author, Sybille – just to avoid any possible confusion.

In it Gavin draws attention to Latour’s celebration of ‘touching at a distance’ – rather than the aura of immediacy (in the form of ‘double-tap’) we identified as the ideal focus of Latourian work at present. In so doing, MacDonald attempts to qualify our own efforts at conceiving the relationship between phenomena and representation, vision and touch.

In short, MacDonald plays up Latour’s use of haptic terminology – especially the likening of mediation to the work of termites (!) and other ‘blind insects’. As MacDonald says:

Access depends on a relay of mediators, each of which touches the next. For Hind and Lammes, vision and touch are bound up with each other in the operation of touchscreen in such a way that the latter secures the former. A question that isn’t explore or answered here is whether or not we can conceive of these glossy interfaces [of phones, tablets etc.] in a way more attuned to Latour’s celebration of ‘the world at your fingertips’.

Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with MacDonald in this – Latour is remarkably keen to show how mediation is an inexact haptic science; of groping, fumbling and struggling to make connections, I’m keen to see how the interface erases this distance and smooths the otherwise unstable relays. It may be true that in order to load OSM or Google Maps onto my smartphone a huge number of commands need to be issued – to code, capacitors and cell towers – but I don’t need to (or do) consider this each and every time I do so. Put otherwise: the interface user barely – rarely – experiences this. Until, of course, like we say in the paper, things go wrong. I’m interested in this normalizing force. I think this as much an issue of methodological orientation as any conceptual approach – do we look being the scenes or into the audience itself? To use a theatrical metaphor.

MacDonald also rightly questions whether Latour’s notion of immutability mobility is still fit for purpose. I think this is an incredibly valid point – especially in relation the digital map. Is there value in attempting to trace the various im/mutable or im/mobile elements in each enterprise? As MacDonald says, we’ve stretched Latour’s sense of the term somewhat and pushed it out to refer to wider systems rather than objects themselves. I think this is necessary – to refocus our attention away from the objects and specifically the map – but I don’t think we need to do so in reference to exclusively  Latourian terms. Indeed, squeezing our efforts back into an ill-fitting framework is a recipe for disaster. Nonetheless, I’m still intrigued by the tension in immutability mobility. There is no agreed answer; maps are ‘in general’ neither immutable or mutable mobiles. Moreover, there is no need to find one.  As ever, we need to trace the connections in each and every case – just as Latour would rightly suggest.

Once again, thanks to Gavin for his reply.


onto Latour’s ‘Biography of an Investigation: On a Book about Modes of Existence’, again, available to download on Latour’s own website. It really is just a biographical account of how he ended up where he his. He talks through his various encounters with scientists, ethnographers and philosophers, as well as his early life as a ‘militant Catholic student’, and the development of his projects. Here’s a nice quote Latour pulls out when talking about the effect Isabelle Stengers had on his work :

‘Even Pasteur’s microbes, even Aramis’s magnetic couplings, the automated subway system, even Michel Callon’s famous scallops, all of them undeniably present, actants and movers, glittering with reality, still didn’t offer, in Stengers’ eyes, a sufficient guarantee that we had pulled ourselves away from the text, the social, the symbolic. To manage that, we would have had to grasp the world without dragging through it human subjects and their obsession with knowledge conceived as the relation between words and things.’

Latour (2012: 15)


Elden, Harman, Latour

Stuart Elden’s Progressive Geographies is one of a few academic blogs I return to on a near-daily basis. Surfing from personal insights into the academic work process to book releases, video links and conference details, Elden provides a rich stream of content across Political, Geographical and Philosophical spheres. There are recurring figures most weeks; Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger, Immanuel Kant and Peter Sloterdijk pop up frequently. As does Graham Harman; a feverish blogger himself over at his Object-Oriented Philosophy page. Elden’s latest post is a re-blogged interview with Harman over at The Loyal Opposition to Modernity that can be read here. As Harman is a big reader of Bruno Latour, he brings his name up in conversation, alluding to his appeal to anthropologists, geographers and sociologists over philosophers. Harman also talks of his lethargy with purely relational concepts (in metaphysical terms and then political arenas). In particular Harman says;

Now that relations and events have become king in continental philosophy, these battles have largely been won. Rather than endlessly using these theories to beat up the decreasing number of reactionary holdouts, we ought to take a closer look at the problems with relationality itself.

‘Metaphysical essentialism’, he says later, ‘is politically harmless, but epistemological essentialism is not’. So two problems with essence? The idea that it can be directly known (rather than obliquely), and is eternal (a-historical).

Another great quote is on Deleuzian thought within Continental Philosophy:

We are well into the “Deleuze is compatible with everyone and foresaw everything” phase, the lack of a challenging outside, which always announces the closing decadence of any philosopher’s vogue; Derrideanism got this way by the early 1990’s. And now the Deleuze industry is finally on the point of overheating and excess inventory, and soon there will be layoffs and plant closures.

Latour, as Harman argues, is certainly no Deleuzian (too much flux not enough formation). Harman’s Prince of Networks, from 2009, is a good starting point for thinking about Latour as a philosopher, and how Harman’s own Object-Oriented Philosophy can work with Latour’s Actor-Networks. It’s available as a free pdf from here, but also well worth buying.