Over at Deontologistics Pete has written a lengthy and excellent post about the relation between Latour and neo-liberalism. Before jumping to some of Pete’s actual portrayal of Latour, I think it’s first worthwhile to point out that OOO and Latour are not equivalent. This conflation of distinct philosophical positions was one of the causes of the recent dust-up concerning neo-liberalism. OOO is a genus, Latour, onticology, Graham Harman, Ian Bogost, Stengers, Whitehead, and Leibniz are all species falling under that genus. Just as there are vast differences between Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel within German Idealism, or between Derrida, Lyotard, Lacan, Deleuze, and Foucault within post-structuralism, there are significant differences among these positions within OOO. If one is going to write a post on Latour, write a post on Latour. It is dishonest, however, to elide all of these positions into a single shared position.
I cannot address all of Pete’s lengthy post– and I really would like to go through it point by point because there’s so much great stuff there and I do think it’s written in a general spirit of inquiry and questioning –but I would like to zero in on one set of issues in particular. Here my thought revolves more around a query than any defined issue on this position. For Pete the possibility of a politics– and much else besides –relies on the ability to ground normative grounds. It is on this issue, in particular, that Pete grounds his critique of Latour with respect to politics. Pete begins by remarking that,
it seems that there are two crucial features of Latour’s work with relevance to the current issue. I will address these as features of Latour’s work as it is not always clear to me to what extent these are directly adopted or transmuted in their uptake by OOO. These features are as follows:-
1) The collapse of the distinction between might and right. We might also call this the reduction of normative force to causal force, although this characterisation might later be problematised.
2) The non-modernist elision of the distinction between nature and culture. This is meant to be opposed to modernist separation between these two domains.
Pete is somewhat correct in his claim that Latour collapses the distinction between might and right insofar as Latour, in Irreductions describes relations among actors in terms of “trials of strength”, but I believe he is mistaken in the suggestion that Latour collapses normative force into causal force. For Latour we are to evaluate relations among entities in terms of force, but it in no way follows from this that causal force is the only sort of force that exists. As Latour writes in the introduction of Irreductions,
To follow this argument, we should not decide a priori what the state of forces will be beforehand or what will count as a force. If the word “force” appears too mechaical or too bellicose, then we can talk of weakness. It is because we ignore what will resist and what will not resist that we have to touch and crumble, grope, caress, and bend, without knowing when what we touch will yield, strengthen, weaken, or uncoil like a spring. But since we all play with different fields of forces and weakness, we do not know the state of force, and this ignorance may be the only thing we have in common. (159)
A few pages later, Latour writes, “What is a force? Who is it? What is it capable of? Is it a subject, text, object, energy, or thing? How many forces are there? Who is strong and who is weak? Is this a battle? Is this a game? Is this a market? All of these questions are defined and deformed only in further trials” (1.1.7). And in referring to trials, Latour is referring to how we come to know different entities: “A shape is the front of a trial of strength that de-forms, trans-forms, in-forms or per-forms it. Of course, once a form is stable, it no longer appears to be a trial of strength” (1.1.6).