Stupid Metaphysics; or, Res Ipsa Loquitur; or, Putting the Cart Before the Horse; or, Justify your Existents; or, Just A Few More Things; or…

In Sessions on October 6, 2010 at 4:58 pm

  • Object-oriented philosophy is a proud defense of ‘something more.’ – Harman (Prince of Networks 175)

  1. Commonplace philosopher

    Reading through Prince of Networks, I got the idea that Latour is a philosopher of the commonplace who tries valiantly to bring down pretentious philosophies and movements from their (what he sees as) nonsensical high horses. I didn’t expect this from the somewhat flashy, connotatively elitist title, but then again Latour did not write the book. In the preface, Harman observes: “Latour takes apples, vaccines, subway trains, and radio towers seriously as topics of philosophy” (5). Here we get a sense of the everyday, the ordinary, the commonplace that Latour is so interested in. For him, there is nothing in the universe but networks of “actants,” and inanimate objects are actants just as much as animate beings. Harman puts it this way, “All that matters are actants and the networks that link them” (64). He challenges the reader: “Attend any lecture by Bruno Latour, and ask yourself if his postmodern forerunners could honestly say anything interesting about the same topics: Derrida about the price of apricots in Paris, Foucault about soil samples in the Amazon, or Lyotard about brake failures on a new metro car prototype” (ibid.). The commonplace wrings through in these examples: apricots, soil samples, and brake failures. Further down on the same page, Harman takes a quote from Latour in which he mentions “gas lines or sewage pipes.” From this, one might say Latour is a “meat and potatoes” philosopher. But he is not a man of the people. According to him, “history is no longer simply the history of the people, it [is] the history of natural things as well” (65-66). This harkens back to his “democracy” of actants, in which everything is on the same level in and of itself. He brings up a realistic bureaucracy, where the director is not some Kafkaesque stereotype, but rather sounds much like the employees. Satirizing Heidegger, he talks of gods being present “in Adidas shoes as well as in the old wooden clogs hollowed out by hand” (68). Adidas shoes? Since all actants are on the same level, marvels can be seen anywhere—apparently even in old gym shoes—and yet Latour rejects traditional notions of essence and/or substance.
    Being a philosopher of the commonplace, he tries to bring down what he sees as pretentious, nonsensical, empty movements and philosophies. First and foremost, he hates postmodernists. He writes of postmodernism: “I have not found words ugly enough to designate this intellectual movement” (67). He goes after Derrida and the like: “the Empire of Signs lasted no longer than Alexander’s, and like Alexander’s it was carved up and parceled out to its generals” (64). He asks his readers: “are you fed up with language games, and with the eternal skepticism of the deconstruction of meaning?” (61) He mocks Heidegger repeatedly, and says inanimate objects have no place in Derrida. Jabbing at Foucault, he implies that there is no “panopticon” (21). For Latour, the philosophies of these individuals and/or movements are reductive and exclusionary (in the sense that they exclude objects). In a brilliant example, he writes, “Take some small business-owner hesitatingly going after a few market shares, some conqueror trembling with fever … some stuttering politician; turn the critics loose on them, and what do you get? Capitalism, imperialism … domination—all equally absolute, systematic, totalitarian” (62). He takes the everyday and juxtaposes it with the critics’ fanciful notions. As far as Latour is concerned, the totalitarian center is an illusion. There are only actants.
    His bringing philosophy down to the commonplace and his destruction of the deconstructionists are both fascinating in their own way, but in replacing these with an all-encompassing actants theory, his argument becomes less compelling. He claims the world cannot be boiled down to a grand narrative, but by boiling it down to actants, isn’t he doing the same thing? He asks if a democracy will be extended to things. What does he mean by this? That all objects—animate or inanimate—should have equal rights? Where would a doughnut stand in this? When, for example, Zippy the Pinhead walks into a doughnut shop and says, “Gimme a glazed,” what would a democracy of things mean for that doughnut? How is a doughnut an actant? How could it be part of a network? What does this mean for cartoon characters and cartoon doughnuts? Would the democracy be extended to them too?

  2. Adrienne Jankens
    ENG 7065
    October 6, 2010
    Response: Harman’s Prince of Networks
    Early in Harman’s text, he raises the point that, as of his writing, Latour’s work on an object-oriented philosophy had not been taken up by anyone else. Of course, this made me wonder why not, and as I began reading, I looked for what was so unique, and apparently disagreeable, about this philosophy that no one else has explored it further.
    The trouble with answering this question immediately was that what I read about Latour in the first few chapters seemed completely understandable. For example, his central ideas in Irreducations seem to be truth-statements easily enough: “the world is made up of actors”; “no object is inherently reducible or irreducible to any other”; things are linked through translation (mediation); actors gain strength through alliances (14-15). These four ideas culminate in basic idea of absolute concreteness (15). Alliances seem particularly evident in the world around us, as we see things gaining power through their conjunction, through their joining with other things (this may be people, or maybe bricks in a wall, or maybe a swarm of bees, right?). An actant’s reality (or maybe, it’s power) depends on these alliances (19). In Chapter Two, the concept of black boxes is compelling, and again, through his examples, we can see evidence of black boxes, our relationship to ideas, and how attention or inattention strengthens or weakens ideas. So I suppose I will say that as I read through Latour’s terms, through his essential vocabulary and the way he breaks down this vocabulary, I found it to be accessible, an apt way of considering the world around us.
    In his last chapter, “Object-Oriented Philosophy,” Harman presents both strong elements and critiques of Latour’s work, and it is a few of these critiques that seemed follow where my thoughts were heading in answering the question of why this philosophy has not been more championed. One of these is in his description of the possible radical philosophies in relationship to the object, where he notes the “radical denial of the distinction between object and subject” and his reference to Zizek, “for whom the real is not something stationed beyond human access, but is instead posited by the human subject itself as its own constitutive lack” (152). For Kant, Harman notes, “everything is reduced to a question of human access to the world, and non-human relations are abandoned to the natural sciences” (156).
    So I am led to wonder if perhaps this ignoring of an object-oriented philosophy comes down very simply to the idea, presented by Mailloux, Davis, and others, that in interpreting the world, we operate from a self-centered viewpoint. They will argue, in their various ways, that this is simply the way it is–we cannot operate in another way, though we may think about how to do so. Latour’s object-oriented philosophy presents us with this other way of thinking about interpreting the world, but because it is a given that we will operate from a self-centered frame of reference, the concept of humanity as central will not be ignored–while we can think past it, we cannot actually interpret past it–so an object-oriented philosophy is wholly foreign to our natural way of understanding the world. It is not that Latour’s concepts are not disagreeable, or far-fetched, or illogical, if we need logic. They are simply other than the way we will interpret the world, as we cannot ignore our own perspective. Until we can be not ourselves, until we can transcend this mode of interpretation, it will be hard for this philosophy to gain ground, I would think. But to think about it is a way of opening. I might ask, then, is looking at the object from a human-centered perspective and suggesting the impossibility of another perspective just another one of the binaries Harman suggests in his final chapter? And if we cannot approach the world with this philosophy because of a self-centered frame of reference, always connecting our human viewpoint to objects, what will we gain, regardless of this, from considering such a perspective?

    • That is a great question. I guess just knowing that our frame of reference is self-centered may help us tread more carefully in our theorizing; it may help us think more critically about “grand” explanations of the world. It humbles us in a sense.

  3. What Harman clearly likes about Latour is his construction of a “democratic” world. The world is composed not of some tiny essential particle that everything is created out of, nor is it broken down into human-stuff and non-human-stuff. Instead, what we have are objects (or actors) engaged in affective networks with other objects. This doesn’t mean that these objects have some sort of essential unity; it seems like the point is that we can examine the network of smaller objects involved with one another when my car runs, or we can examine the car as an object in a different network. The networks inside an object (and the networks inside those networks, on into forever) get treated as “black boxes.” We see them as whole under certain circumstances, but we are always free to open those boxes up, and to open the boxes we find inside those. Harman suggests that what makes some things realer than others is the number of supporters a particular object has, as well as the difficulty and risk involved in questioning the validity of the black boxes composing it.

    Where Harman finds a problem is in Latour’s notion that “an actor is not real if it does not transform, modify, perturb, or create something else” (213). Harman argues instead that even as objects find themselves in various networks, they are always somehow more than these networks –association with an object does not somehow tap all that object has to offer. Harmon proposes that “The reality of an object belongs to that object –not to its tiny internal constituents, and also not to the larger collectives in which it is immersed” (163). If nothing can be reduced to some basic particle, it also can not be reduced to its influence in the network.

    I feel very overwhelmed by this week, perhaps more so than I felt by books that felt much more difficult as I was reading them. This all sounds too easy to me. And yet I also feel like I’m trying to process a great deal of information about philosophical movements that I know very little about. Harman’s reading of Latour manages to make him sound both very straightforward, and somehow very vague. An example of this is when Harman says of We Have Never Been Modern, “Countless stale dualisms now fall by the wayside. For instance, in a world made up of networks of actants, does anything remain of the distinction between global and local? (66)”.
    This is an immensely provocative question that is never really taken up. Sure, Latour’s metaphysics means that everything we consider we consider locally, inasmuch as whenever we study the effects of (for instance) global financial capital we have to start somewhere, and as Latour points out, as we follow our network of actants, we will simply move from one local to another. And part of me is kind of delighted at the prospect of saying to Stiegler, “Latour scoffs at your collapsing of space. The global was always an illusion; all we have is the local.” Latour (maybe?) would say instead that we (and a bunch of other objects) are simply finding ourselves in larger, more unexpected, and more complicated networks.

    Still, what does this get me? In particular, what are the advantages if I am interested in creating some sort of change? The idea of a series of locals would seem to allow me to take on small challenges, rather than being overwhelmed at the prospect of striking at the heart of something gigantic. But what if none of the smaller black boxes I’m busy opening, studying, and dismantling changes anything at all about the bigger box encompassing them –the one I’d really like to change?

    This isn’t really Harman’s project, as he’d be the first to admit. Being pragmatic may be a luxury that metaphysics doesn’t have, but not being pragmatic seems to me like a luxury I don’t have. Harman suggests that a world in which Latour gained ascendancy would not ask such a question, but not asking the question (or being required to ask it in a different way) doesn’t eliminate the effects that the question is concerned with.

    [later addition]
    The “Turning Around Politics” and “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” pieces actually confuse me more than they illuminate me, perhaps because of the way Harman presents Latour. His project revolves around explaining Latour and identifying some problems with bringing him into metaphysics (although not insurmountable problems, obviously), not with explaining what I should do with Latour. As a result, I find I’m almost unable to recognize Latour when I see him putting his philosophy to use. Latour’s position in the “Turning Around Politics” piece suggests to me that he would be uninterested in making a claim about technological advances eliminating the local because it gives us a process (of technology, of globalization, etc) that we then use to try to understand situations. He would prefer that we examine some specific situation and move outward from it. I see the danger of his caution, the problem with trying to make a situation fit into a political or theoretical frame. What I’m still less sure about is how the work he wants us to do gets done.

  4. AHH! Forgot to post. Apologies!

    Joe Pazek
    Harman Response

    My God has More Facebook Friends than Yours, or the Draw of those PoMo Divas

    Working through Harman’s notions of Object Oriented Philosophy, now Object Oriented Ontology (or, OO(P)OO) – via Latour’s own philosophical work on science studies – has seemingly opened up a number of pathways for discussing “god” that have been jib-jobbing back and forth in my mind for quite some time now. In stark contrast to the traditionally religious conceptualization of God (a privileged being from which all others are derived, often personified by religious rhetoric), it would seem that an object-oriented formulation of god takes a much different tact. If no object takes precedent over another, if all things (objects) are co-constituded through associative relationships, according to Harman, then object-god- or maybe even network-god – must too abide by the same rules. No longer a deistic entity, OO(P)OO god exists in continuous relationship to various networks of other objects, irreducible to the monadic being of judeo-christian scripture. According to Harman, “it is joliot who links neutrons and politics, not God … for Latour every actor is a Joliot, a medium of translation able to link the most far-flung objects and equally capable of failing in this effort” (102). So where does this get us? How then are we to reconceptualize all of this religious rhetoric that is spewed forth from the mouth of American spiritualism/regliosity? Does this critical engagement with Latour’s object-god as black box get us anywhere nearer to some sort of real impact of engagement?
    In his chapter “Contributions,” Graham Harman further explicates (or re-excplicates) Latour’s philosophy of science studies. He writes on a seemingly paradoxical paradigm in L’s philosophy, stating: “Latour’s gamble, of course, lies in his notion that actors are defined entirely by their relations and alliances … This same model requires that actors not be permitted to endure any shift in their alliances, since to change one’s relations is to change one’s reality. Entities for Latour must be a perpetual perishing, since they cannot survive even the tiniest change in their properties” (104). If we combine this paradox with the very tenants of OOP then object-god becomes even more complicated in the assignation of nominative “God” in human language. This God, despite the attempts to recognize it as an object or black box for unpacking, remains almost axiomatic in American society because of its density, because of the tightly wound object interactions. Such a well-designed machine this god is, so effectively networked and administered that the option of ignoring this object becomes utterly impossible. To put it at its most in-elequant, this god has far too many connections. In this way, God has become truth. But if this object is in a continuous moment of perishing, then it would seem that language (the cast-away relic of those post-modern divas) itself does a nice job of smoothing over those moments of fissure. More specifically, the word “God” itself as a name for the black-box has itself become an object with its own associations, one that masks over the changing relationships that might perhaps cause its dissolution, or the peeking into the box to see what goodies are inside. What OO(P)OO does not account for in my reading, though this is no accidental misstep, is that the word “GOD” becomes less in a way to do with any real networks of religion and more with the ways in which belief itself can be put into relation with our experiences (i.e. even atheists are wrapped up in this rhetoric of a lack of god, rather than a positive conception of what else there is then. The discursive signifier must ultimately be opened to allow for some idea/concept/object that allows for things to take place).
    As I write this however, it seems to me that this is exactly what OO(P)OO does… Rather than revise my thoughts I wish just to push forward. It now seems to me possible that Latour’s theories allows us to also see language as an object with connections and networks. But should we open up the black boxes of language to see what is driving them, or have I fallen back into the top-hit melodies of those wretched postmodern players.

  5. If an academic paper falls in a forest and no one is around to read it, does it still make a theory?
    Graham Harman’s take on Latour is generous, but what is most interesting to note is the desire to extend Latour’s philosophy to his being – his objectness. In one of the many instances that Harman distinguishes Latour from other philosophers/thinkers, he states he has painted Latour “largely as a self-contained figure” (Harman 99). While I don’t intend on expanding too heavily on what this means in the grand scheme of Latour’s metaphysics and philosophy in general, I’m interested in how this self-containment not only works as a performance of his philosophical views, but how it reflects on the world of publication. I believe this is a fair question to explore for two reason: 1) For me, it offers a fairly productive way of evaluating Latour’s metaphysics and 2) Harman himself has a different approach to publication/print culture that could be fair to reflect on how his practices might be living his or Latour’s philosophies.
    What I am left wondering is what the role of “authenticity” might be within Latour’s position on objects. Since all things are actants – in the example for Harman/Latour “microbes as well as politicians” – would it then follow that a publication can also be an actant in the world? How to make the publication/piece of writing a center “dominating at a distance many other places” (54)? If we think of authenticity in the classic sense of the term – that is, as “genuine” – how might the objects in Latour’s philosophy respond (them or Latour himself, who is also an object) to being regarded as authentic? Furthermore, if there is a genuine quality to stand-alone objects, is that quality diminished or obliterated in the process of interaction? If anything, the closest we get to authenticity in Harman’s take on Latour is the notion of distance. I believe it follows that if an object cannot contain another, then it maintains some sort of “genuineness” – some sort of “true to tradition” value.
    So who cares, right? What’s at stake when thinking about authenticity and Latour’s metaphysics? When we go through the process of developing a thought and eventually committing that thought to print, there seems to always be an underlying anxiety over authenticity – have we written something that has already been said elsewhere? Will someone find out and completely obliterate months, even years, of hard work? The question of interest to me is, does Latour’s position support the “essence” of authenticity?
    According to Latour, the goal is to determine how to act on unfamiliarity at a distance. Yes, he does say “unfamiliar events, place, and people” (54) but as I see it, this can be read as simply acting on the quality of unfamiliarity. According to Latour, all entities have an essence, regardless of whether or not it is downplayed, it still exists. For Harman, this is both the best and worst part of Latour’s metaphysics. If ideas themselves can be entities, they must be shared and that would assume a contact and, I believe, this would be a contact that necessitates nearness. If our thoughts go through the process of abstraction – meaning, the unification of objects – can we ever be genuine beyond the interaction of several objects to elicit this one finished project? Does the academic paper mobilize and combine while at the same time affording stability?

  6. While some of the Prince of Networks is genuinely amusing, I found Harmon’s treatment of other thinkers and movements to be obnoxious. I’m sure that he imagines that he is being witty, but this is based in arrogance. He imagines that because he so completely enchanted by Latour’s ideas that those ideas are objectively enchanting. It also appears that he justifies his obnoxious assault on other thinkers due to a persecution complex. What is especially odd is that he not only believes that Latour is unfairly treated, but that objects themselves are being victimized. This takes on an especially bizarre quality when he describes ‘human centered philosophy’ as a “Hiroshima of physics.” While he is careful to apologize in advance, there is no way to read this statement as anything other than insulting.
    But what can it possibly mean to say that human-centered philosophy is a “Hiroshima of physics?” It appears that what bothers Harmon is categories, which means that he is at odds with not only most human thought, but with the actual process of human thought. Indeed, some of the earliest known writing is made up of lists of items that correspond to particular categories. While the Sumerian categories don’t stand up to our more advanced scientific understanding of physics and biology, they demonstrate a basic human drive- to impose some kind of order on the world we perceive, to help us function more effectively within it. This does not mean that our categories are real- far from it. Instead, the ability to conceptualize in terms of categories is one of the cognitive skills that allow us to survive without superior animal strength and instinct. Survival, and not an objective understanding of the world outside ourselves, is the purpose of these skills. The human/world split that Harmon is so distressed about is really just the most abstractly realized version of the human drive for survival. If we hadn’t acknowledged a difference between ourselves and our environment, in the origins of our species, if we’d considered rocks and lions to be equal players on the field of being, then we wouldn’t still be here. Of course, various kinds of animistic beliefs flourished in particular cultures at particular times, but even the animist is human-centered. Rocks aren’t revered as things onto themselves, but as beings who could help and hinder our survival. Therefore, our categories are inevitably based in human motives, and we can’t get beyond this. Even as he addresses the issue of instruments of perception vs. direct perception, he still seems to imagine that there is a way of seeing an individual thing as just itself, as a unique thing. While I am not familiar enough with Latour, I think this is a point where Harmon has parted company with Latour. Latour’s relationalism seems bound not only to categories (the bald kings of France) but to an essentially human centered goal. In other words, I don’t think he wants to look at all actants as equivalent because he wants to give equal rights to things and processes, but because he wants to understand the way relations determine the world that human beings must function in.
    This doesn’t preclude the human capacity for empathy toward the non-human. People of all kinds demonstrate the ability to love all kinds of animals and even insects. However, we can’t help but to ground our empathy in what we recognize. I respond to my cat’s cry for food because it is like the cry of a human infant. It also doesn’t mean that we can’t recognize the possibility of other kinds of existence- writers like H.P. Lovecraft demonstrate not only that this is possible, but that it is appealing. But again, these speculations are always, in some way or another grounded in human concerns. However, it is worthwhile to note that most treatments of the alien are fairy tales that encourage us to believe that we can destroy the alien threat to our survival. As Lovecraft’s ‘cosmicism’ demonstrates, the attempt to really think about the world outside the human subject position is generally inspired by nihilism. It is hard for me to see how a weird realism wouldn’t also be based in nihilism.
    But Harmon doesn’t seem nihilistic, so I’m left wondering what motivates his desire to put things and processes on an equal ground with human beings. What makes him so angry on behalf of all those things destroyed in Hiroshima? Is it just a thought experiment? Is he interested in the questions raised in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, where man is confronted with the completely other? If so, I think he might want to remember that Solaris remained unknowable.

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