Austin Smidt from University of Nottingham's Theology department, who gave a paper
for our reading group on Speculative Realism, has kindly given us his review of
Graham Harman's work on Bruno Latour. Thanks Austin.
PRINCE OF NETWORKS: BRUNO LATOUR AND METAPHYSICS
A review of Graham Harman, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. Melbourne: re.press, 2009.
Graham Harman is a front runner in a burgeoning intellectual movement known as Object-Oriented-Philosophy (hereafter OOP). This movement spans the intellectual landscapes of philosophy, science, architecture, art, and (broadly termed) social studies. The basic premises of Harman’s OOP, as outlined in Prince of Networks (hereafter PON) are fourfold: (1) “Objects are different from any supposed primordial world-lump, and hence they are not derivative of a primal whole,” (2) “Objects are irreducible to their pieces and have a genuine emergent reality, which entails that materialist reduction will not work for metaphysics, and that it is of limited use even in the sciences,” (3) “Objects are irreducible to their appearances in human consciousness,” and (4) “Objects are irreducible to their relations with other beings, and always hold something in reserve from these relations” (187). Thus, Harman’s motivation is to establish an understanding of metaphysics that is completely de-centered from human dominance, which simultaneously gives equal ontological value to rocks, trains, hippos, Democratic presidents whose names begin with the letter “B”, hot pockets, Frankenstein, God, atomic particles, cats, and any other conceivable “object.” This type of “litany” is frequent throughout the pages of PON, drawing attention to Harman’s unique philosophical style. For Harman, style is something that has been left out of philosophical writing. According to him, philosophy is boring and “good rhetoric is the key to philosophy” (176). He notes that in today’s philosophical writings, particularly in the “analytic” realm, thinkers are far too concerned with arguing correctly or pointing out the logical blunders in another’s argumentation. There is a sense of clarity and ability in such an approach, but there is hardly any substance that is worth grabbing hold of. Such an approach severely limits the creative impulse in writing and thought. Thus, we see in PON that not only is Harman expositing a creative new understanding of object-oriented thinking but that he is also utilizing a literary style that is rhetorically pleasing - that is both clear and persuasive: at times witty; at times harsh; but always confident and directional. Coming in at 228 pages of text, PON has two primary overarching aims: first of all, to introduce the philosophical world to the metaphysical possibilities in the thought of Bruno Latour. I say “metaphysical possibilities” because Latour is generally not known as a metaphysician. Rather, Latour’s infamy comes first from his part played in the “Science Wars” of the 1990s, which helped to identify Latour as a social constructionist who challenged the legitimacy of the realism of science. Second, he is known as one of the figureheads of Actor-Network-Theory that is hardly taken seriously in circles outside of sociology and anthropology. However, Harman takes great pains to demonstrate that the typical labels attached to Latour, while admittedly accurate, don’t do justice to the breadth of Latour’s philosophical thought. The second aim of the book is to separate himself from Latour at crucial junctions in order to begin to outline his clearest description of OOP. Although he laid previous groundwork in Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (2002) and Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (2005), PON must be seen as Harman’s most current exposition of thought. The first four chapters of the book outline Latour’s metaphysics by examining four of his more crucial texts (one book per chapter): Irreductions, Science in Action, We Have Never Been Modern, and Pandora’s Hope. The primary theme that Harman addresses comes from Latour’s book Irreductions that simply states “Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else” (12). Thus, all objects and all modes of dealing with objects are on equal footing. In other words, there is no difference in kind between objects. This does not mean that there is simply a monism of one solid lump that needs to be divided by human consciousness (i.e., Sartre). Rather, the complete opposite is the case: there is a plane of immanence filled with various objects (that Latour calls “actors”), which equally carry ontological value. Therefore, the world, for Latour, is a series of negotiations or relations between objects in network with one another. Harman summarizes Latour’s theory of objects in four propositions: (1) the world is made of actors/actants (what Harman also calls “objects”) that are all of equal ontological value; (2) no object is inherently reducible or irreducible to any other; (3) the means of linking one object with another is “translation”; and (4) actors gain strength or reality through the strength of their alliances with other actors (14-15). These four propositions deserve unpacking. Latour claims that there is a complete democracy of objects. There is no difference in kind between a plane, a cat, a thought, a balloon, a black hole, or a fictitious literary character. All objects in the world are equally valuable. The reason for this is because Latour does not view objects as substances with enduring essences. Rather, as actors, objects are given ontological value by their ability to ally with other actors. Consequently, the more alliances an actor has, the more “real” or “strong” it becomes. Actors are made up of components that can be theoretically explored. However, they are not reducible to their parts. Actors are not simply the sum of their parts. Rather, they are the totality of their relations with other actors. An actor is what it is based on its alliances with other actors in the network as they all exert force and influence on one another. This means that Latour is an “actualist.” He also denies the possibility of an object having intrinsic potency - since there is no interiority of an object. Change thus occurs through a shift in an object’s external relations. And this shifting of relations is something that occurs at every moment of an object’s existence - meaning that actors are constantly re-identified through the shift of their role in the network in which they participate. As completely exterior to one another, actors must link with each other through a mediating actor. In other words, actors do not relate to one another directly but rather through a mediating object. This is what Harman calls “vicarious causation.” Harman notes that Latour is one of the few thinkers to address the nature of causation (114); whereas naturalists, empiricists, and theologians simply take cause for granted as a force of nature, a product of the human mind, or an effect of God. By espousing a local, secular occasionalism Latour is “able to form the link between [entities] that previously had no interactions at all” (115), without positing that God or the human mind creates the link. As Harman summarizes, “Like the occasionalists [Latour] sees actors as cut off from one another, but unlike the occasionalists he thinks that local relations are possible... Actors are defined by their relations, but precisely for this reason they are cut off in their own relational microcosms, which endure for only an instant before the actor is replaced by a similar actor. The work of mediation must be done at every moment to restore or maintain the links between actors” (116). At this point, Harman changes focus in the book. After making clear the difficult and counterintuitive notions of Latour’s actor-metaphysics, Harman feels that the stage has been set to outline his theory of OOP. While retaining much of Latour’s democracy of objects, Harman “corrects” Latour at a few crucial points. First, Harman claims that Latour’s metaphysics has no explanatory power concerning the nature of the present state of an object. Remember, for Latour, an object is completely known by its relations. It is like a web with no center, just links. Harman, following Aristotle, finds this untenable. Instead, Harman maintains the idea that relations do have an enormous effect on objects, but that it must be maintained that an essential existent precedes those relations, serving as the condition of relationality. In other words, it is precisely an object that enters into relationships. This object is never exhausted by its relations: “‘there is always more to S than P’. Object-oriented philosophy is a proud defense of the ‘something more’” (155). And it is precisely this “something more” that is the autonomous essence of an object. The second point of major disagreement with Latour’s metaphysics concerns Latour’s relational ontology. He is convinced that Latour cannot account for change. After all, what is it that creates a shift in relations? By simply claiming that a third vicarious entity drives the relations between actors does not solve the problem of how the terms relate. Thus, Harman’s solution is to create his own theory of phenomenological vicarious causation. He does this by utilizing Heidegger’s tool analysis. For Harman, Heidegger’s presence-to-hand level is the level where relation between objects takes place - the phenomenological level. By contrast, the ready-to-hand level (the pre-ontological for Heidegger) is the autonomous non-relational realm of objects. By splitting the world into these two levels Harman claims that there are then two types of objects in the world: sensual objects and real objects. Sensual objects correspond to the presence-at-hand level of his tool analysis, whereas real objects correspond to the ready-to-hand level. Accordingly, only when two real objects are linked by a sensual object or when two sensual objects are linked by a real object can relations occur (208-209). Phenomenologically derived, this notion allows Harman to develop a theory of causation that he believes solves the relational aporia of Latour’s local occasionalism. While Harman’s creative tact and clear exposition outline a unique theory of metaphysics, I am not convinced that it is entirely successful - however, the idea of a democracy of objects is appealing. Even though both Harman and Latour reject a subject/object distinction in the world by claiming to create a democratic ontology, I can’t help but wonder if by positing “actors” in the world they are doing nothing more than espouse (albeit unwittingly) another model of correlationism. After all, escaping phenomenological language is impossible for humans. Even to think that one is not thinking within the correlationist circle is still to think within a human paradigm. Does this mean that we are forever destined to be trapped in the post-Kantian world of subject/object dualism? Such is not easily answered. But thanks to the creative work of Latour and Harman there is at least an alternative metaphysical bearing that might shed light on the future of metaphysical discussion that is not wedded to postmodern anti-realism. Regardless of the remaining questions surrounding Latour’s metaphysics and Harman’s OOP, I highly recommend this book for all those interested in metaphysical discussions. Not only is it well-written and highly entertaining, but Harman also introduces one of the most innovative metaphysical theories of this young millennium that needs to be addressed further in all philosophically related realms.