Bruno Latour - "Visualization and Cognition: Drawing Things Together"


Latour, Bruno. "Visualisation and Cognition: Drawing Things Together." Knowledge and Society: Studies in the Sociology of Culture and Present, 6 (1986): 1-40. Print

 

Citational Chain: Manovich cites Latour's work when discussing image-instruments and telecommunications in The Language of New Media (167, 169). In turn, Latour situates his own work in relation to that of Elizabeth Eisenstein, Michel Foucault, and, notably, Leroi-Gourhan. 

 

Focus: Focusing primarily on perspective/scale, shifts in temporality/spatiality, and issues of persuasion and resistance, Latour discusses a number of key moments of innovation, thus developing a theory of the text and technologies of textual reproduction.

 

Logic: Latour provides a counter-history of technology, describing a number of key developments contributing to the mobilization of images and texts.

 

Characteristics of Text/Technology
New theory of the text
The technology of "optical consistency" allows us to displace "cities, landscapes, and natives," and to travel a "two-way avenue" between the text and its referent This opens up the potential for movement or "mobility" and the possibility for reaching utopia(s) (8). Technology produces texts that allow one to reach "saints," "heavens," and "dreams." The impossible and virtual can be drawn realistically, and the realistic can be re-drawn in order to achieve utopia.
The printing press allows the user to make many identical copies of image and the word, thus increasing the text's "immutability" and "mobility" substantially (10). The printing press does not add anything to the mind or the scientific method. The press just conserves and spreads everything without discretion (11) The links/paths between different places in time and space are altered substantially by this development (10). The text proliferates and moves at an unprecedented rate, and "large-scale long-term" capitalism is made possible. The theory of the text need not account for a "new world view" or "spirit," but for the increasing presence of "immutable mobiles" (12)
Anything that accelerates and intensifies the mobility of the text will be favored (12) Those developments that contribute to the increased mobility of the text are fundamental to our understanding of power generally (12)
"A few days in the laboratory reveal that the same trends that made the printing press so necessary, still act to produce new data bases, new space telescopes, new chromatographies, new equations, new scanners, new questionnaires, etc. The mind is still being domesticated." (13) The perpetual human interest in making textual renderings of distant events, works, and information available--in domesticating the text--drives the development of technology. Technology determines that the text will be more immutable and mobile than ever before. As such, any theory of the text must account for developments in terms of process and scale, and not in terms, necessarily, of sequence or finitude (13)
Technology gives rise to relationships of asymmetry (14) The technologies of reproduction create spatial and temporal imbalances. There are those that have the technology to appropriate images of the other and those that, simply put, do not (14-15)
"Without displacement, the inscription is worthless; without the inscription the displacement is wasted" (16) An inscription is determined by its distribution and interpretation. As such, the text is determined by its relationship to those whose rhetoric it reaches and influences.
The cost of dissenting increases with each new collection As interpretations of an inscription multiply and become ever-more complex, it requires more effort to exagerate the power of semiotics and to instantiate a change that might be enough to swing the balance of power (17). The forces that corner the the dissenter are increasingly difficult to elude.

 

Implications: Latour re-conceptualizes the historical evolution of technological development, shifting focus away from (a) "materialist" explanations that focus primarily on advancements in hardware/software and issues of access, and (b) "mentalist" mediations that, in his terms, exaggerate the role of the mind and the primacy of the human body in explanations of technological adaptation and assimilation. In place of these two problematic theories of development, Latour focuses on a number of innovations that accelerate and intensify the processes associated with technological "mobilization."  From a rhetorical perspective, Latour is invested in a theory that accounts for how image and text copies persuade audiences in different, often disparate, geographical locales.  Those invested in issues of digital literacy will likely find Latour's refusal of materialist and mentalist theories a bit challenging.  If the tendency to characterize technological development from these perspectives might be considered, as Latour suggests, "racist," how does this challenge the contemporary emphasis on restorative/redemptive efforts or practices as they relate to the problem of a "digital divide"?  Is there, in Latour's terms, room for work that accentuates issues of race in technological practice, if the real issue is not access but how, when, and where the copy persuades its audience? If this is a matter of access, Latour suggests that we might think of key problems in terms of temporal and spatial asymmetry or discrepancy. What would it mean to begin thinking in terms of a history of inscriptions that considers their geographical paths? Does this notion of movement disturb the tendency, in contemporary scholarship, to think of literacy as situated or immutable?