About two years ago, I wrote about my ongoing reading of An Inquiry into Modes of Existence – AIME – Bruno Latour’s philosophical anthropology. AIME has been described as a summation of Latour’s entire intellectual career, as an ontological toolkit, as an expansion module for actor-network theory (arguably Latour’s most immediately recognisable contribution to social theory), and as a concatenation of malfunctions and adverse effects. Two years ago, I was halfway through my slow reading of AIME, a slowness dictated partly by having loads of other things to do at work and partly by an active wish to work through the text slowly and really think my way through what Latour is proposing. When time allowed, I would work with my hard copy of the book propped open (a gift from a former student when I was an OU tutor and to my embarrassment I have lost her contact details). With the AIME website open on my computer (AIME is self-avowedly, amongst other things, an experiment in digital humanities) I would chase down specific details and points of departure, printing screen grabs to add to my notebook. As I started to find other articles and chapters that drew on AIME I would take notes from these as well, writing in different colours in order to allow me to move quickly from author to author, all in the same notebook. And the reading is now done. I wrote up my last notes a few months ago, and am now looking for work by other writers who have drawn on AIME. What I have found so far is delightfully varied (ranging from law to geopolitics by way of medieval manuscripts and semiotics) but, sadly, rather sparse in quantity.
In my first blog I wrote about the trepidation that I faced when deciding to dedicate much of my research time to an inquiry driven by theory and reading that would take up my time without providing a clear sense of output or impact. I cushioned myself with my aspirations for a series of empirical papers that I hoped would be worthy of REF. Well, that ship has sunk, torpedoed by mock-REF reviewers who do not rate my research as positively as did the reviewers for the journals – all good ones, all with decent impact factors – within which I was able to publish my work. The one paper that I do have going in for REF is the one that I thought was the weakest of the three. Go figure. What has become apparent to me though, during this protracted period of reading and thinking, is that my engagement with AIME has fundamentally – and I do mean fundamentally – shifted the ways that I think. And yet the difficult part of this process has not been the paradigm shift (a bit of a cliché, but you know what I mean) but the capacity to permit myself the time and space for the effort required, rendered more difficult now by the verdicts of the mock-REF process.
So what now? Exhibiting what we shall for now describe as a textbook case of Academic Stockholm Syndrome, I have – of course – punctuated my AIME reading with some AIME writing. As of now, I have put out two journal articles and one book chapter, and a third journal article got accepted last week. All good journals, impact factors, the whole shtick. The book chapter gets a lighter touch, of course, but nonetheless had to pass muster with the two editors of the volume who are – trust me – both sticklers for detail and quality. And I am writing another article (currently standing at a little over 4,000 words) through which I hope to set out a theoretical standpoint that will expand on the framework that Latour has established. From the off, Latour described AIME as work-in-progress, and I am hoping to make a modest contribution. It has been terrifically hard to both think about and write about – and yet I have absolutely no sense as to whether all of that academic work is of any value whatsoever to the research culture that dominates the REF. It certainly hasn’t generated any research income for my institution yet. Then again, the amount of money that teaching brings in will always be significantly greater than the amount that research brings in so perhaps it’s not my perspective that is out of step with the contemporary conditions of university life, but those of some of my colleagues: and you don’t need just to take my word for it because Universities UK says the same. Research isn’t automatically better just because it receives external funding.
Taking the decision to trust my own judgements about my research and writing rather than the judgement of the REF process remains a fraught process for me: permanent contracts should not be equated with security or a lack of precarity, and certainly do not banish imposter syndrome. So how can I reassure myself (on a good day – it never happens on a bad day) that the work, the effort, is worthwhile? Partly, and despite the vagaries of the process, this self-evaluation rests in trusting the peer review process. Peer review is a troublesome practice, but at least it is anonymous and blinded, and does not pretend to reliability through the adoption of a spurious four-point scale. I will happily admit that I retain enough academic snobbishness to insist on sending my work to journals with impact factors and to avoid predatory publishers. Getting a rejection still makes me flinch, but (and if I was ever going to give advice to ECRs, it is this) working with the feedback and submitting somewhere else usually leads to an acceptance even if the entire process can take anything between one and two years.
Better than getting published, though, is getting an email from someone who has read your paper. In my blog from two years ago, I wrote: “Bruno has helped me a lot over the years, although he almost certainly doesn’t know it, as we have never met and I doubt he reads my stuff.” The latter part of that statement is no longer true. After the publication of my article in Social Epistemology, Latour emailed me to say that he “was very impressed by the quality and generosity of your argument […] it is very comforting for me to realize that there are some people who actually get the AIME principles of method, and naturally, because they are ethnographers and thus attuned to the very idea of the movements through observations and data […] I am also amazed by the references to work around AIME for which I had not the slightest idea […] I am very grateful to you for this paper.” I will take that over a score of 3 or 4 from a REF reviewer any time.
Now I need to get back to my writing. I want to propose a new mode of experience to add to Latour’s schema, and although I knew it would be difficult to write, it’s even harder than I thought it would be. Which is partly why these blogs only come once every two years. I will try to speed up – but I am still enjoying being Slow.
Works alluded to:
Berg, M. and Seeber, B. (2016). The Slow Professor: challenging the culture of speed in the academy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Latour, B. (2013). An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence. Transl. C Porter. London: Harvard University Press.
Latour, B. with Leclerq, C. (eds.) Reset Modernity! Karlsruhe: ZKM.
Tummons, J. (in press). Higher education, theory, and modes of existence: thinking about universities with Latour. Higher Education Research and Development.
Tummons, J. (2020). Ontological pluralism, modes of existence, and actor-network theory: upgrading Latour with Latour. Social Epistemology. DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2020.1774815.
Tummons, J. (2020). Education as a mode of existence: a Latourian inquiry into assessment validity in higher education. Educational Philosophy and Theory 52(1): 45-54.
Tummons, J. (2019). Ethnographies of Higher Education and Modes of Existence: using Latour’s philosophical anthropology to construct faithful accounts of higher education practice. In Theory and Method in Higher Education Research. Huisman, J. & Tight, M. Emerald Publishing. 5: 207-223.