Book Review “Torture for the good” by Cornelis Verhoeven

Folteren om bestwil” is published in 1977 by Ambo and written by Cornelis Verhoeven.

The book’s main thesis is that torture is ideological. Torture is a tool to push through a specific ideology but, also, torture’s very existence is only possible within a particular ideology. These two ways of approaching ideological torture flow through each other in the book and aren’t explicitly distinct.

Torture to push an ideology

The torturer is an idealist who can’t accept those who don’t share his ideal. Those others aren’t necessarily bad but definitely wrong and require a tough re-education.

An ideology to bring forth torture

Ideology is the set of belief and practices which are considered obvious. The idea of the negative faze and that activity is paramount are both necessary parts of the ideology to allow torture. Firstly, the negative faze is the idea that paradise/progress can only be achieved through suffering. This provides an excuse for the inflicted suffering. Secondly, activity is superior to passivity. It’s better to do something rather than nothing. This pushes people towards ill-considered action out of fear for being passive.

Within this framework the torturer is not a psychopath. Instead, he’s more of a bureaucrat operating within an ideology which considers suffering a necessary step and fails to create the proper space to think clearly by pushing for actions.

‘The last resort’ is a pseudo-technical and quasi-moral euphemism for: an activity whose effect is dubious, a means of which its instrumental character has not been established. (p. 83)


Both parts are hard to distinguish in the book. Whenever the torturer is depicted as an idealist trying to convince his victim I couldn’t help but ask myself “really?“. Such claims require at least some empirical backing. I prefer these paragraphs to be re-written such that it’s not the description of the torturer pushing his ideology but instead yet another necessary part of an ideology which brings forward torture. When the book says “they have an ideal which they want to realize no matter what” it could say “the third aspect of the ideology is a set of beliefs which are absolute and universal“. This provides yet another building block of an ideology which brings forth torture.

All in all, the main thesis is interesting but underdeveloped and there are a lot of off-topic discussions.

Verhoeven published over 80 books. I wish some of these high-volume writers would write less but with more care.

Lees verder

Quote: Heidegger’s Dasein & Being-in-the-world

“[…] Being-in is not a ‘property’ which Dasein sometimes has and sometimes does not have, and without which it could be just as well as it could with it. It is not the case that man ‘is’ and then has, by way of an extra, a relationship-of-Being towards the ‘world’ – a world with which he provides himself occasionally. Dasein is never ‘proximally’ an entity which is, so to speak, free from Being-in, but which sometimes has the inclination to take up a ‘relationship’ towards the world. Taking up relationships towards the world is possibly only because Dasein, as Being-in-the-world, is as it is. This state of Being does not arise just because some other entity is present-at-hand outside of Dasein and meets up with it. Such an entity can ‘meet up with’ Dasein only in so far as it can, of its own accord, show itself within a world.”

Lees verder

To analyze or not to analyze

The issue I’m addressing in this blog post is not how to analyze something, but what it means to decide on analyzing something and what effects it has. The “something” I have in mind is not a philosophical text, but an accounting process.

To analyze a process or sub-process, we first need to make it analyzable.  To make something analyzable is to externalize all the actants involved firstly from the analyzer and secondly from each other. Explicitly agreeing on analyzing the process is already creating the first gap between analyzer and process (Austin). The second gap (or, better, multitude of gaps between all the actants) will be enforced throughout the analysis itself.

The analytic method (divide and conquer) can have negative consequences both in productivity and employee happiness. Processes can be divided into bits and pieces and analyzed on their logic, necessity, time management etc. Yet, simply by analytically approaching a process; it’s virtually impossible not to lose certain aspects which make the process running smoothly today. Habits (James), tacit knowledge (Polanyi), and the unique set of actants and the various kinds of relations between them (Latour).

As an accountant, to be an organic part of the process makes it on the one hand harder to analyze the process and implement the typical agile/lean improvements. Yet at the same time it smooths the work flow by moving as one organism as opposed to many autonomous bits. Especially when the same people, computer programs, customers, vendors etc. have been interacting over a long period of time. A way-of-doing-things has emerged which isn’t possible to bring into words and diagrams in it’s complete, complex and fuzzy being; but it might be productive and efficient nevertheless.

When Heidegger’s hammer breaks, it’s not just the inner complexity of the hammer that becomes apparent; but the unity of the whole hammering-process (incl the smith) as such falls apart. Such a unity contains an approach and certain type of knowledge which is valuable in itself. A similar event can occur in any kind of process. To analyze  is to purposely break-up a process in order to achieve a certain goal.

“If we look at Things just ‘theoretically’ [or ‘analytically’], we can get along without understanding readiness-to-hand. But when we deal with them by using them and manipulating them, this activity is not a blind one; it has its own kind of sight by which our manipulation is guided from which it acquires its specific Thingly character.” – Heidegger (Being and Time, p. 98)

I’m ending with three questions we should ask ourselves before starting a new project. (1) Do we want to (analytically) break-up a process that isn’t broken? (2) Can an analysis prevent a crash or help fixing it when the process ultimately does crash? (3) What measures can be taken to avoid losing these pre-analysis inexpressible, yet useful, parts of the process?

Quote Hegel

The world is created, is now being created, and has eternally been created; this presents itself in the form of the preservation of the world.

Quote William James: Absolute Truth

This regulative notion of a potential better truth to be established later, possibly to be established some day absolutely and having powers of retroactive legislation, turns its face, like all pragmatists notions, towards concreteness of fact, and towards the future. Like the half-truths, the absolute truth will have to be made, made as a relation incidental to the growth of a mass of verification-experience, to which the half-true ideas are all along contributing their quota.

In  Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth

Musicians, “Capitalism” and “Art”

The past few days, the friend in whose apartment I’m temporary staying returned. She’s in the city for a week in order to finish her sociology thesis on musicians. I want to make a more general point in this blog post, inspired by her thesis title, on a methodological topic. Just yesterday, she changed the title of the thesis to “Music Creators in a Contemporary Capitalist Reality“. Although such a title sounds very sexy and might attract some attention of people in the academic world; I don’t feel very comfortable with it.

Music Creators: OK; Contemporary: Fine; Capitalist:  Uuumm…; Reality: What?

I will ignore the last one in the list because it doesn’t really play a role (very un-Latourian from my side). In her explanation, “Reality” in the title implies that there are multiple realities and the capitalist reality is only one. If the title were “Music Creators in Contemporary Capitalism” it might imply that the whole of reality is capitalist. Keeping capitalism, instead of “reality”, I’ll use her definition of art to make my point on the chronology in the making of concepts.

The core of the thesis is a set of interviews with a broad range of questions going from “Who inspires you?” to “What do you think about the influence of major labels?”. From these interviews, the idea that capitalism is stifling the artistic work is taken out as the main topic and analysed.

In my view, there are two ways to start this research; parallel with two ways of organizing the thesis. The first way is to take a certain theory, define the key concepts, and take this as a guideline/framework throughout the thesis. Structurally, the thesis has a long introduction in which the analytic framework is set. Through this framework, the interviews can be analyzed. The second option is to take certain methodological tools of how to follow the actors. Through this process of following, the interviewees can create their own world with their own concepts and categories. The result is a small introduction and it’s only during the interviews that concepts might arise. The sociologist can play after the collection of data a role  by summarizing and organizing the received data.

Either concepts as the result of a research (bottom-up from the actors) 
Or pre-existing concepts applied by the researcher (top-down).

The First Option: Using Capitalism and Art as a Start.

Step one: Define capitalism. Let’s define capitalism in a common way with its two most fundamental characteristics. (1) The accumulation of capital and (2) the marketisation or commodification of increasingly more things (especially of labor time).

Step two: Define art. I’ll take a rudely hypershortened version of the one used by her: Art is a creative activity aiming at independence.

Step three: Bring the two definitions together. By defining art as something independent and capitalism (partly) as the commodifaction of labor time, there is no way to avoid a conflict between the two.

Step four: Interview artists. This step became redundant, because we already know based on our concepts what’s happening. Artists are forced into our capitalist economic structure and will lose their independence and the relation with their artistic products (alienation). The capital accumulation process implies a growing trend; not only of the economy as a whole, but also of individual businesses. The larger the corporation, the more layers and structures and increasing alienation from the product at the end of the musical assembly line.

NOTE: Both concepts can play a huge role in structuring the thesis and a critical scrutiny of the topic. They bring something to the table and using them is defendable. But despite all the arguments and seemingly good analysis based on these and other concepts, the cart is put in front of the horse. Something went wrong in the chronology of the sociologists’ research.

NOTE: We might define capitalism and art in another way. Fore example, I like the definition of art in Levi Bryant’s latest book. But my argument is not about the specific definitions of the concepts at hand. The point is that concepts and categories are made by the sociologist based on reasoning from other sociologists, philosophers and whatnot. Afterwards they’re smashed together to see what comes out of it. Some might skip the last part, but not confronting the concepts merely creates confusion and vague research. Once you take up the task of creating the structure of a reality in which your interviewees are working, you should take your responsibility of pushing it to the end. But at that point we enter the jungle of theoretical discussions we shouldn’t have  gotten into in the first place.

The Second Option: Following Actors in the Creation of their Own Reality.

What if the our definitions aren’t nuanced enough? What if the capitalist economy as defined above isn’t all there is?

Before starting any study on this topic, we might look around a bit and see what friends in the music world are telling us over a pint. Artists make art for themselves, to share with others, to gain social status, to exchange a gig for a roof and a meal, and many other reasons.

Just going through this list of aspects that come up, we can already assume a network of relations of the musician in the different modes of exchange that’s more complex and diverse than the earlier defined capitalist one. Of course, the first method might bump into these examples as well. Yet all these difference and subtleties will be marked as exceptions, outcasts, or more generally, a relational structure that diverts from the capitalist standard (a standard put forward by the sociologist).

What to do?

The scary question that often pops up is: So what should the sociologist do? Just sit, listen/watch and write?

Firstly, searching the right vocabulary to start the conversation and the thesis is tough in itself.

  • If the question is about musicians and their inspiration, the results can be expected to be very diverse. Yet, you can’t start by pushing forward capitalism as a huge player before the interviewees have said anything.
  • If you want to study musicians from the economic point of view, you might go into the different modes of exchange. “Economy” is often defined as the science of the efficient allocation of means. “Capitalism” is a a specific kind of exchange structure. Again, capitalism might be one of the answers, but it can’t be the starting point.

In any case, these two examples are far from perfect. More than anything, this shows the difficult task of the sociologist.

Secondly, there is lots of work involved in following the actors. It’s not something you can take lightly. Partly because of the hours of interviews and partly because of organizing and summarizing what has been said.

Summarized: Concepts and categories play an important, active and forming role in reality. It’s not up to the sociologist to create and apply them. Instead, one should cautiously jump into the topic and let the actors create their own reality (including concepts and categories).

Corporate Jobs and Philosophy.

After leaving university where I studied history and philosophy, I ended up at the accounting division of a giant corporation. I fairly quickly moved to a different position in which my task is to improve existing processes (Continuous Process Improvement). Many of my accounting-colleagues studied Economics, not philosophy. Yet, all of them told me extensively how useless their years of study were considering the job they’re currently doing. The obvious uselessness of studying philosophy all of a sudden wasn’t that bad anymore since studying economics was almost equally useless.

But there is more to philosophy than making it to the “equally useless”-league!

Last week I was discussing the implementation of certain ideas of improvement with a colleague. All of a sudden, it felt as if Latour and Heidegger started coloring my thoughts and arguments.

The question was to what extent I should write VBA code to automate a specific accounting process. The less code, the more input required from accountants. The more code, the more the ecology of the processes in questions would be tightened. The latter implies both a smoother going of the process if everything goes right, but also the possibility of total failure due to unexpected events. In explaining why this negative side played an important role and how we could figure out what the best option was to take I was surfing on Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, Andrzej Nowak, John Law and maybe a hint of Heidegger.

My whole argument revolved around the point that whatever solution we go for, we’re creating something within a certain ecology. If we’re putting everything into code; are we confident enough that our knowledge of this interconnected reality is sufficient? Whomever want to control everything, can be destroyed by everything. At any point, there might pop up an error seemingly out of nowhere. Instead of just thinking about invoice numbers, amounts, VAT, etc, shouldn’t we take a step back and take the agnostic view of the anthropologist?

Let us remind for a second what this view is. Firstly, it’s the empirical approach of reality in which we avoid categorizing data in our own categories, instead, uncovering the categories used in the object of study is part of the investigated reality. Secondly, everything that plays a role is by definition an actor (no matter whether it’s a computer, idea or accountant).

In terms of metaphysics, Latour avoids the Kantian question about the preconditions of reality in order to receive empirical data as we do by destroying the subject/object dualism all together. At the same time he takes so-called socially constructed categories as part of the studied reality. This means that they should be the product of the study and not the structure enforced on the object of study. The realm of metaphysics with Latour was entered when the subject/object distinction was detected as the primal source of theoretical delusion (eg. what is an actor?).

All kinds of actors that are too obvious or too opaque to think about all of a sudden come to the surface. Once they’re mapped, they’re manageable. The large body of texts written by Callon, Law, Latour and others might confuse the reader in assuming a complex structures of rules of how to start the research. While in fact, they say: follow the actors; what acts (or: plays a role) is an actor; describe, describe, describe. At the same time we should remind ourselves that actors aren’t clean building blocks. Actors do something and not necessarily in our favor. Also, thinking ecologically means to take chaotic interconnections (and thus uncertainty) as a given.

Latour does speak about creating a better reality. But he rarely seem to engage in doing so (unless we take his books as a creative addition, which they are). For me, re-creating is the most important part. Together with Andrzej Nowak, we should re-think the used categories and by doing so, make positive changes. But more importantly, categories are just part of the story, one of the many actors. Just like Benedict Anderson’s nationalism is a category not merely expressed or supported by the printing press, but existentially connected to it. Things matter (or matter matters). What does the army of actors consist of? How can we put them under our command? And where can they lead us?

The presented approach allows you to see what has always been there, but what fell out of your pre-existing categories. Bringing all the actors in sight and gearing-up with relevant tools should gives us an idea of our possibilities.

Does the army of Unsullied code give us enough power to be an all-ruling King? Or should we foster alliances with very different entities and set up a network based on opener negotiations with multiple power centers and less slaves?

Quote Friedrich Nietzsche

We have created the world that possesses values! Knowing this, we know, too, that reverence for truth is already the consequence of an illusion – and that one should value more than truth the force that forms, simplifies, shapes, invents.

Nietzsche F., The Will to Power, p. 236

Bruno Latour & Gabriel Tarde (2/4)

The road from the monism of Tarde (influenced by Liebniz) and the network metaphysics of Latour (influenced by Whitehead) is similar.

Tarde goes through the multiple possibilities to escape from the Cartesian dualism. Firstly, subject and object are two sides of the same coin. Secondly, subject and object have a common source. And lastly, one is reducible to the other. I won’t go into the philosophical discussion, but it’s remarkable how similar the project of Tarde is to the one of Latour in We Have Never Been modern. The enemies in WHNB are those who stick to the two categories and merely investigate the relations between them instead of questioning the two categories as such. Tarde’s answer to the question is different, in that he suggests a universe of souls. Nevertheless, the further development of these souls into a monadic metaphysics is close to Latour’s networks. Both have relations, materiality and agency as central themes.

In order to explain the post-humanist theory, we’ll go into two important terms in Tarde’s work: desire and belief.[1] According to Tarde, both are universally present in both human and non-human entities. By belief, he means a certain form of knowledge. This knowledge might be explicitly or implicitly present in humans, but it might also be the implicit knowledge of humans or animals about for example the space in which we are living. Our behavior adapts according to our belief (knowledge) of the space in which we are. Neither I nor my cat will run into a wall because the lack of explicit knowledge about the presence of such a wall. With such a broad conception of the term “belief”, all living creatures are believers. A similar argument is made for desire.

The similarity between Tarde and Latour lies in the search for words that allow them to discuss a situation without excluding certain entities by definition by, for example, using anthropocentric words like “actor”. Latour has introduced many new terms with exactly this goal. Unlike Tarde, Latour wants to create a vocabulary that not only fits to describe living organisms, but every possible entity.

The result of Tarde’s monads and Latour’s networks has the same consequences: (1) a metaphysical equality for all entities, (2) there is no ultimate level, every entity is always a part of a whole and a whole with parts, (3) there are no a priori categories to divide the object of study and (4) every entity in the story keeps its agency.

[1] Tarde (G.), Monadology and Sociology, Re-Press, 2012, p. 15-18.

Bruno Latour & Gabriel Tarde (1/4)

Comparing Bruno Latour with Gabriel Tarde isn’t a random selection of thinkers. Despites the limited fame of the 19th century French thinker Tarde in his own time, he received a lot of attention in the works of Latour. Tarde is one of the few thinkers who was explicitly mentioned in books like Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns[1] and Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory[2] and he’s the central figure in multiple articles of Latour[3]. By making a comparison between Latour’s work and the reprinted book Monadology and Sociology of Tarde, we will point out the many similarities and the need of a so-called ontological turn.

Both Latour and Tarde are searching an alternative path through metaphysics in order to solve or avoid problematic issues in sociology like micro v. macro; agency v. structure; and individual v. collective.  The result is in both cases a post-humanist metaphysics with a remarkable attention for the practical, almost banal, entities.

Science as an incentive for a new sociology with a post-humanist metaphysics as its foundation.

Latour’s first book was an anthropological study of a contemporary laboratory in California[4]. Tarde too starts in his Monadology and Sociology with great attention to the findings of the sciences in his age. Unlike Latour, he doesn’t undertake an anthropological study, but the scientific progress concerning atoms does play a major role in his aversion of metaphysical substantialism. The atom theory implies a deconstruction of the individual objects. On the one hand, the objects are internally multiple; on the other hand, no object is standing alone in reality; no object is relationless. Especially since Newton, Tarde writes, the range of actions of relations between different objects has grown significantly and became hard to measure[5]. The Cartesian mechanistic world is supplemented by Newtonian powers. The 19th century scientific progress like the atom theory are continuing the same line of thinking in which interrelation, interdependence and interaction are key. Replacing clear-cut entities by relation-based-entities isn’t only happening in the laboratory, but Tarde takes it to the planets, the human body, water, diseases and nations[6].

Laws of nature and other products of the scientific world are included in the before mentioned list. These aren’t meant as subjective fabrications or products of a subjective network of knowledge. Instead, they are fabricated and are added to reality[7]. A similar kind of social constructivism is present in Latour’s work. It’s only by renouncing the category of the subject that a constructivism in which all entities can play their role fully becomes possible. There is no reason to assume that the activity of humans in the construction of certain entities implies a lack of reality once it’s finished. Neither does it imply that the human actor is the sole creator of these entities, by which he would start from nothing, is influenced by nothing and brings forth everything. The human actor amongst the many other actors with fundamentally similar possibilities, but (case-by-case) different concrete influence, prevents us from taking too decisive a priori stands. The productive and creative[8] part of the science are clearly present in Latour’s work.

Another clear similarity we can find in the dual function of the sciences. Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern makes the distinction between the massive production of new entities and on the other hand their purification.[9] We read the former at Tarde when he writes: “[…] science tends to pulverize the universe and to multiply beings indefinitely.”[10]

It’s remarkable how planets, human bodies and nations are all on the same level. We’ll see how Tarde is constructing a post-humanist sociology based on a metaphysics in which a priori categories are impossible. Sociology as a science is in need of concepts that won’t categories our object of study, but allow us to follow the entities and let them categories themselves. A similar goal for the right terminology can be found throughout the works of Latour. Two of the three steps of Latour I described previously (cf. blog Three Steps Towards a Non-Methodology) are already present in the work of Tarde, namely, radical agnosticism and hybrids.


[1] Latour (B.), An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns, Harvard University Press, Cambridge en Londen, 2013,p. 353.

[2] Latour (B.), Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005, pp. 14-16.

[3] Zo schreef Latour ook samen met Vincent Antonin Lépinay de inleiding tot een heruitgebracht werk van Tarde. Latour (B.) en Lépinay (V.A.), The Science of Passionate Interests: An Introduction to Gabriel Tarde’s Economic Anthropology, Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago,

[4] Latour (B.) en Woolgar (S.), Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1986, pp. 293.

[5] Tarde (G.), Monadology and Sociology, Re-Press, 2012, pp. 5-8.

[6] Tarde (G.), Monadology and Sociology, Re-Press, 2012, p. 7.

[7] Tarde (G.), Monadology and Sociology, Re-Press, 2012, p. 27.
Dit geldt niet enkel voor wetenschappers, maar ook bij economisten. In een inleiding tot de antropologie van de economie van Tarde citeert Latour het volgende uit Tarde’s werk: “When everyone has been persuaded, on the strength of the work of ancient economists, that the price automatically determined by the ‘free play of supply and demand’ is justice itself, there is no doubt that this general belief plays a part in making it possible for exorbitant prices, or prices so minimal that public conscience would have rejected them other times, to be established without protest, or even with general approval.” Latour concludeert: “[…] the sciences do more than just know: they add themselves to the world […].” (p. 41)

[8] Latour heeft verschillende pogingen ondernomen om bijhorende –ismes te recupereren. Het creationisme in Will Non-Humans be Saved (pp. 469-470) en sociaal constructivisme in The Promises of Constructivism.

[9] Latour (B.), We Have Never Been Modern, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1993, p. 10.

[10] Tarde (G.), Monadology and Sociology, Re-Press, 2012, p. 15.