Based on a recommendation by a student that was prompted while teaching Harman’s Prince of Networks, my bedtime reading has recently consisted of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. Although I’m not very far into the book, so far I am very much enjoying it. Like Braudel and the Annales School historians, Diamond is extremely attentive to the role played by nonhuman objects in collectives. In many respects, Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel reads like a much quicker and livelier version of Braudel’s Capitalism & Civilization. Diamond, I think, presents us with what 1/3 of an object-oriented analysis would look like in social and political thought. Speaking of the encounter between Pizarro and Atahuallpa, Daimond writes:
How did Pizarro come to be at Cajamarca? Why didn’t Atahuallpa instead try to conquer Spain? Pizarro came to Cajamarka by means of European maritime technology, which built the ships that took him across the Atlantic from Spain to Panama, and then in the Pacific from Panama to Peru. Lacking such technology, Atahuallpa did not expand overseas out of South America.
In addition to the ships themselves, Pizarro’s presence depended on the centralized political organization that enabled Spain to finance, build, staff, and equip the ships. The Inca Empire also had a centralized political organization, but that actually worked to its disadvantage, because Pizarro seized the Inca chain of command intact by capturing Atahuallpa. Since the Inca bureaucracy was so strongly identified with its god-like absolute monarch, it disintegrated after Atahuallpa’s death. Maritime technology coupled with political organization was similarly essential for European expansions to other continents, as well as for expansion of many other peoples.
A related factor bringing Spaniards to Peru was the existence of writing. Spain possessed it, while the Inca Empire did not. Information could be spread far more widely, more accurately, and in more detail by writing than it could be transmitted by mouth. That information, coming back to Spain from Columbus’s voyages and from Cortes’s conquest of Mexico, sent Spaniards pouring into the New World. Letters and pamphlets supplied both the motivation and the necessary detailed sailing directions. The first published report of Pizarro’s exploits, by his companion Captian Cristobal de Mena, was printed in Seville in April 15 1534, a mere nine months after Atahuallpa’s execution. It became a best-seller, was rapidly translated into other European language, and sent a further stream of Spanish colonists to tighten Pizarro’s grip on Peru. (78 – 79)
Daimond works not with the concept of society, which is a concept restricted to people and their beliefs, but rather with what Latour calls collectives. Collectives are entanglements of objects. They can be entanglements composed entirely of nonhuman objects as in the case of an eco-system, or they can be entanglements that also contain humans as well as nonhuman objects. However, they can never be composed of humans alone. In his analysis of the encounter between Spain and South America, Daimond not only discusses human actors such as Atahuallpa, but also institutions like forms of political organization, and nonhuman actors such as germs, clubs, forms of armor, maritime technologies, writing, pamphlets, letters, horses, and so on. All of these entities are full blown actors in Diamond’s account that are generative of certain forms of association or certain social relations.
Indeed, when Diamond begins discussing food production in Europe, he notes the manner in which the domestication of plants and animal led to markedly different forms of human relation:
All those are direct ways in which plant and animal domestication led to denser human populations by yielding more food than did the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. A more indirect way involved the consequences of the sedentary lifestyle enforced by food production. People of many hunter-gatherer societies move frequently in search of wild foods, but farmers must remain near their fields and orchards. The resulting fixed abode contributes to denser human populations by permitting a shortened birth interval. A hunter-gather mother who is shifting camp can carry only one child, along with her few possessions. She cannot afford to bear her next child until the previous toddler can walk fast enough to keep up with the tribe and not hold it back. In practice, nomadic hunter-gatherers space their children about four years apart by means of lactational amenorrhea, sexual abstinence, infanticide, and abortion. By contrast, sedentary people, unconstrained by problems of carrying young children on treks, can bear and raise as many children as they can feed. The birth interval for many farm peoples is around two years, half that of hunter-gatherers. That higher birthrate of food producers, together with their ability to feed more people per acre, lets them achieve much higher population densities than hunter-gatherers.
A separate consequence of a settled existence is that it permits one to store food surpluses, since storage would be pointless if one didn’t remain nearby to guard the stored food. While some nomadic hunter-gathers may occasionally bag more food than they can consume in a few days, such a bonanza is of little use to them because they cannot protect it. But stored food is essential for feeding non-food-producing specialists, and certainly for supporting whole towns of them. Hence nomadic hunter-gatherer societies have few or no such full-time specialists, who instead first appear in sedentary societies.
Two types of such specialists are kings and bureaucrats. Hunter-gatherer societies tend to be relatively egalitarian, to lack full-time bureaucrats and hereditary chiefs, and to have small-scale political organization at the level of the band of tribe. That’s because all able-bodied hunter-gatherers are obliged to devote much of their time to acquiring food. In contrast, once food can be stockpiled, a political elite can gain control of food produced by others, assert the right of taxation, escape the need to feed itself, and engage full-time in political activities. Hence moderate-sized agricultural societies are often organized in chiefdoms, and kingdoms are confined to large agricultural societies. Those complex political units are much better able to mount a sustained war of conquest than in an egalitarian band of hunters. (89 – 90)
I quote these passages at length because they are so foreign to most of what we find in dominant strains of continental cultural, social, and political theory. Daimond’s history is a history of collectives that is as much a history of the role played by nonhuman objects as human actants in the genesis of associations between humans and nonhumans in these collectives. Ask yourself honestly, do you really see anything remotely like a discussion of these sorts of agencies in the social and political thought of the Frankfurt School, Zizek, Ranciere, Balibar, Laclau, Derrida, or Badiou? Stepping outside the continental tradition, do you find it in Rawls or Habermas? What about Luhmann? No, we find nothing remotely close to the discussion of these issues. Rather, to encounter a discussion of the role of these sorts of actors we need to turn to Latour and the ANT theorists, Marx, Deleuze and Guattari and their under-developed analysis of machinic assemblages, and thinkers like McLuhan, Castelles, Haraway, DeLanda, Hayles, Bogost, Ong, Kittler, and so on.
What are we missing as a result of ignoring these nonhuman actors, and to what degree are our questions of political theory and action poorly formed and premised on a complete misrecognition of why collective formations are as they are? Indeed, to what degree do we entirely miss issues that are political because we have restricted the domain of the political to the human and the subject? To a great degree, I would say. However, as I said at the beginning of this post, something like Diamond’s analysis only constitutes 1/3 of what an OOO analysis would look like in social and political thought. Diamond is to be commended for paying keen attention to the role played by nonhuman actants in collectives that contain humans, but we must also recall that for OOO signs and language are objects as well. The semiotic is not to be abandoned. What is to be abandoned is the thesis of the linguistic idealists to the effect that language and signs constitute entities. Rather, we must think the manner in which the semiotic is entangled with non-semiotic actants. And finally, we need to make room for the manner in which objects are always withdrawn or in excess of any of their manifestations or sensuous presentations. A fullblown OOO analysis would contain all three of these dimensions in its thinking of collectives and entanglements.