A review of Latour & Lépinay on Tarde

Published as Candea 2012. “Review: Latour, B. and V. A. Lépinay (2009) The science of passionate interests : an introduction to Gabriel Tarde's economic anthropology.” IN JRAI 18(12) 506-507 Gabriel Tarde was an unflinching adept of what Everett Hughes has termed ‘theoretical fantasy’ (1961:556). In the fourth chapter of his massive opus Psychologie Économique (1902:26-29), Tarde pauses briefly to consider quite seriously the potential long-term trends in international political economy... if the earth were flat! His surprising conclusions I leave to the interested reader. In The science of Passionate interests, Bruno Latour and Vincent Antonin Lépinay consider a slightly less implausible counterfactual: what if Tarde’s Psychologie Economique had been taken up by practical and theoretical followers and had shaped the history of political economy, while Karl Marx’s Das Kapital fell into oblivion, only to be rediscovered today by sceptical or amazed readers? This “little essay in historical fiction” (1) gives an inkling of how Tarde’s forgotten opus might be read today if – as has in fact happened with Das Kapital – it had benefitted from generations of admiring commentators to smooth out its rough edges, extend its concepts through new theoretical language, and retrospectively highlight its prescience. In the process, Latour and Lépinay have succeeded in that most anthropological of tasks, namely to make strange what we thought we knew: about “political economy” first of all, and more generally about “everything that has happened to us in the past two hundred years and that we have far too hastily summarized under the name of “capitalism’” (5).

This orientation explains why, while the book offers a thought-provoking introduction to the substance and concerns of the century-old treatise in economic sociology, its aim is not primarily to give a critical contextualisation of the book nor of Tarde’s work more generally. While the authors contrast Tarde to Polanyi, Bourdieu, Marx or Adam Smith, and connect him to Darwin, Leibniz, Sahlins or Deleuze, their introduction is not seeking to ‘situate’ and thereby tame the majestic weirdness of Tarde’s Psychologie Économique, but on the contrary, to highlight the “strangeness of a book which will allow [the reader] to gain a new grasp on economics.” (67).

 

And Tarde’s ‘economic psychology’ certainly proves to be productively strange. Part I of Latour and Lépinay's book, entitled “It is because the economy is subjective that it is quantifiable”, outlines the Tardean challenge to the economic science of his day, and in particular his heretical proposal to decouple quantification from objectivity and distance. Tarde sees economic notions of value as metonymic of the more general phenomenon of ‘interpsychological’ give and take of ‘passionate interests’ (7-13, 24). In this respect, the authors argue, Tarde went much further than later attempts to ‘embed’ the economy in the social, or to add ‘extra-economic’ factors as modifiers upon the rational, calculating individual: everything in Tarde’s economy is ‘extra-economic’ (24), passionate, irrational, (inter-)subjective. And economics must, paradoxically, become more quantitative and more scientific by getting closer to, not further away from, these passionate interests (20-32).

Having disposed of the ‘discipline’ (32) of economics, the second part of the book traces Tarde’s substantive re-theorisation of the economy itself. In elucidating his counterintuitive account of capital and labour (for Tarde, ‘conversation’ is an essential production factor, and the essence of capital lies in the ‘inventions’ of which material objects are but an auxiliary, albeit useful, outcome - 46-56), the authors show convincingly that what looks like a strange ‘idealism’ when read through the old dichotomy of infrastructure and superstructure, seems strikingly prescient in the redistributed material-semiotic world of hardware and software, biotechnology and viral marketing. The authors trace Tarde’s similarly counterintuitive way of ‘naturalising’ the economy, while ‘socialising’ nature (42-46): in Tarde’s political economy as in his version of Darwinism, the immanent hope of symbiosis replaces the transcendent law of improvement through ‘vital conflict’.

This theme forms the center-piece of the third part of the book, “Economics without providence”, in which the authors contrast Tarde’s approach to political economy with the providentialism inherent in both liberal ‘laissez faire’ – with its crypto-religious belief in the Invisible Hand (71-74) – and in the all-too-visible hand of state socialism (74-79). By contrast to both of these beliefs in a transcendent harmonization, Tarde is presented here as an “agnostic” (5, 81). Not a post-modern apostle of chaos, but a cautious proponent of the immanent powers of harmonization present in every entity’s artifices and interventions. The book’s final sentence sums up the simultaneously methodological, ontological and ethical/political import of Tarde’s economic anthropology, as rendered by Latour and Lépinay: “[I]t is from the free play of passionate interests that [Tarde] expects more quantification, which is to say more social connections, to “‘card chaos into a world’” (87).

The formulation also gives a sense of how much the Tarde we encounter today owes to the current of thought characterized as Actor Network Theory – just as anthropology students in the 90s encountered Marx through practice theory. “No one seems to have chosen Tarde as his sociological ancestor” wrote Everett Hughes, adding “I recommend him as at least an uncle who is generous with his ideas” (1961:559). Four decades later, Bruno Latour claimed Tarde as the grandfather of ANT (2002). It will fall to readers to decide, in the light of this captivating and provocative little book, whether the real, spherical world would have been a better place, and political economy a better science, had Tarde’s unbroken lineage, rather than Marx’s, presided over the 20th century. Either way, the great merit of Latour and Lépinay’s introduction is to give us a glimpse of that conceptual generosity, at a time when anthropology, and the social sciences more generally, are greatly in need of new ‘theoretical fantasies’ to help unsettle the vocabulary of contemporary political economy, from ‘global capitalism’ through to ‘neoliberalism’.

References

Hughes, E.C. (1961) 'Tarde's Psychologie Economique: An Unknown Classic by a Forgotten Sociologist'. The American Journal of Sociology, 66(6), 553-559.

Latour, B. (2002) 'Gabriel Tarde and the end of the social'. In The Social in Question: New bearings in history and the social sciences, (Ed, Joyce, P.) Routledge, London, pp. 117-132.

Tarde, G. (1902) Psychologie économique. F. Alcan, Paris.

Tarde, G. (2007) 'Economic psychology'. Economy and Society, 36(4), 614-643