Latour


Responding to my post on Diamond, Yant writes:

One way of approaching the, I think, quite legitimate reservations that Johan raises is to recognise (and this should be quite obvious really) that just because we’ve got a noun for something doesn’t mean we should take it to be an object!

To use words like ‘European, Inca, Maya, European maritime technology’ do not necessarily make a work ‘object oriented’ – this is too hasty a conclusion. Whether a ‘culture’ or a ‘nation’ or a ‘state’ can be legitimately referred to as an ‘object’ at all I think is a very important point.

I study international relations and it is of the utmost importance to the theory of this discipline whether one accepts the state and thus the international system to be closed, black-boxed ‘objects’ (as the dominant, mainstream neo-positivist theories hold) or whether it is actually necessary to insist on opening up this black-box and actually denying it closure (both for ontological and ethical reasons). Similar concerns are routinely raised about Diamond’s histories and I think an OOO driven social science needs to address these problems as problems head on not just accuse critics of correlationism.

I think the problem with Diamond’s work is not that it is oriented towards objects (which is good) but that it is (like Braudel and McNeill certainly) overwhelmingly macro-oriented; this is not necessarily a bad thing but it is certainly something with a lot of problems attached to it.

If we are to advance object oriented theory into the humanities and social sciences further (and this is very much my intention) we need to square some circles. For example, are not the histories of Diamond et al. not the absolute anti-thesis of Latour’s ANT? (And is not Latour’s ANT somewhat the cause celebre of object oriented approaches in the social sciences so far?)

Being ‘object oriented’ doesn’t necessarily forgive one all other sins. I don’t think one need be ‘correlationist’ to recognise the problems of macro-history. That isn’t to dismiss its relevance, however, just to insist on the recognition of its problems.

I initially misunderstood the problem that Jonah was alluding to (here and here). My mistake. Yes, this is all absolutely correct. We cannot assume that just because there is a noun for something that something is an object.

With that said, I think it’s important to exercise some caution where Latour is concerned. OOO and Latour are not identical. Graham already shows some major divergences in Prince of Networks, where Latour falls into the internalist camp pertaining to relations, while OOO is externalist. To this, I would add that Latour, in my view (Harman need not be guilty of this criticism) is often confused with respect to mereology.

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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.

Reflecting on the Georgia Tech Object-Oriented Ontology Symposium, one of the moments that I’m less than pleased with was an exchange with one of the members of the audience who was defending the analysis and critique of ideology. If I’m bothered by this exchange it’s because I cut the participant off mid-sentence without allowing him to fully articulate his point. This was rather rude on my part and for that I apologize.

So what was at issue in this discussion? In my paper, “Being is Flat”, one of the key points I sought to make is that social and political thought has focused entirely too much on content, fetishistically revolving around beliefs, ideologies, signs, narratives, and discourses found in groups. My thesis is that if social and political analysis focuses on ideologies, narratives, signs, signifiers, discourses, beliefs, etc., in its analysis of why social formations are organized as they are, it is doomed to go astray. Following Latour, I thus propose that the concept of society should be replaced by that of collectives. A society is composed entirely of humans, human relations, and human phenomena such as discourses, narratives, and ideologies. A collective, by contrast, includes all of these things when it is a collective involving humans, but also includes nonhuman objects like technologies, resources, roads, cane toads, bacteria, etc., etc., etc. The concept of society should be abandoned, I believe, in favor of the concept of collectives. And if this is the case, then there is no such thing as human relations that do not also include all sorts of nonhuman actors. Moreover, these nonhuman actors are not simply passive resources that people use as tools (a form of overmining with respect to objects), but rather introduce all sorts of differences that deeply influence what sorts of associations between humans come to exist.

Latour underlines this point nicely in Reassembling the Social. Latour writes:

Between a car driver that slows down near a school because she has seen the ’30 MPH’ yellow sign and a car driver that slows down because he wants to protect the suspension of his car threatened by the bump of a ‘speed trap’, is the difference big or small? Big, since the obedience of the first has gone through morality, symbols, signs posts, yellow paint, while the other has passed through the same list to which has been added a carefully designed concrete slab. (77)

Latour tirelessly emphasizes that mechanisms of organization that pass through morality, symbols, and signs are incredibly weak and are very difficult to maintain. To be sure, they make their contributions, yet it is odd that entire schools of social and political thought seem to attribute these actants or objects an iron clad omnipotence and place their eggs in the basket of producing social change through a critique of this order of “morality” and signs. By contrast, the speed bump out there in the world is a real physical constraint. As Latour emphasize, the speed bump is an actant or object entangled with semiotic actants, but it is far from being a mere vehicle or carrier of these actants. Your car slows down whether you like it or not when you pass over that speed bump.

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I am just now discovering Ian Bogost’s Latour Litanizer which he created back in December of 2009. Bogost’s Latour Litanizer generates random lists of objects drawn from wikipedia. Now, it seems to me that there is something philosophically important going on with the Latour Litany. Latour litanies are not simply amusing lists of objects, but do important philosophical work by performing a sort of object-oriented epoché. Often when philosophers speak of objects– including object-oriented ontologists –we use the blanket term “object” without referring to any specific or concrete objects.

The danger here is that discussions of objects are implicitly governed by a prototype object that functions as the representative of all objects. Cognitive psychologists treat prototypes as specific examples that function as representatives of abstract concepts. Think back to the 80’s and the dire Reagan revolution. Many readers will recall all the talk of “welfare queens” that continues down to this day in discussions of social programs. Welfare queens were mythological single women on welfare who had multiple children (to get larger welfare checks, the story goes) and who used their money to buy expensive things like cadillacs. In short, the non-existent welfare queen came to function as a prototype or exemplary instance representing all people on welfare. This prototype caused much mischief in welfare debates and subsequent legislative reforms.

Here then we encounter the importance of Latour’s litanies. What Latour’s litanies effectively accomplish is an annulment of prototypes that come to stand for the being and nature of all objects. Through the creation of a litany of heterogeneous objects, the object theorist is forced to think that heterogeneity as such rather than implicitly (and often unconsciously) drawing on one prototypical object that functions as the representative of the nature of all objects. Here we might think of Borges’ entry from a Chinese encyclopedia discussed so brilliantly at the beginning of The Order of Things. The Latour litany is a technique for thinking this a-topos, this heterotopia, that follows from the central claims of flat ontology. And this task is accomplished all the better with a randomizer such as Bogost’s Latour Litanizer which confronts the thinker with heterotopic configurations of objects not of her own making, demanding the thought of this heterotopia. I’ve placed Bogost’s important piece of philosophical technology– and it is a piece of philosophical technology, not unlike a microscope for the biologist –in my blogroll. Experiment with it. Bogost’s Latour Litanizer might be the first genuine piece of laboratory equipment ever created for philosophy.

For the last few weeks I’ve been heavily engaged with the writing of articles and grading, so I haven’t had much time for reading blogs or writing posts. It was thus with a bit of guilt that I am just now coming across Nate’s post on object-oriented ontology, written back at the beginning of March. Nate writes:

In English there are two essential types of words: 1) words that have to do with objects (nouns) and 2) words that have to do with actions (verbs). And, just as Aristotle claimed of onoma and rhema, any structure that weaves these two types of words together is where discourse takes place. But another way of reading this “weaving together” would be to say that in discourse, or logos, we discover that essentially “objects act.”

In a recent discussion I had with my dissertation director, we came to the conclusion that this phrase (“objects act”) is the only way to describe the show on the History Channel entitled, Life After People. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it is roughly 40 minutes of watching buildings, landmarks, and cities crumble back into the earth. But what is fascinating about the show is its reliance upon the human gaze. For the only reason that this show is fascinating to its human viewers is because of the amount of significance we have given to each of the objects we watch deteriorate. Without significance there is no difference between the Statue of Liberty falling into the ocean and the face of a cliff. Significance is the recognition of the gaze, and without it we are left with the fact that “objects act”.

I find that I have very mixed feelings about Nate’s post. On the one hand, at the core of my onticology is the thesis that objects are powers of acting, and thus are better thought as verbs and perhaps events, than nouns. When Spinoza asks, in book 3 of the Ethics, what can a body do?, I want to take this question seriously and treat bodies as doings. Thus, when I distinguish between the virtual proper being of an object (an object’s substantiality) and its local manifestation, I am drawing a distinction between powers or capacities of an object to act and acts of an object. My thesis is that a local manifestation of an object are acts or “doings” of an object and that these acts or doings of an object are not possible without powers or capacities of an object (it’s virtual proper being).

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In comments Cogburn writes:

This is probably goofy, but I’ve been trying to situate you and Graham with respect to each other (I’m just now coming out of a philosophical hiatus of new baby inspired sleep deprivation, and really happy to be thinking about Speculative Realism).

Is this fair? A workable credo for a lot of Graham’s work is “The carpentry of perception is only a special case of the carpentry of things” (from Guerrilla Metaphysics), whereas your work might be “The carpentry of reference is only a special case of the carpentry of things.” Both of you are taking relations that are representational and at the intersection of mind and world, and showing in detail how these things to be instances of broader relations that are already there in the world. But you tend to do this more with respect to linguistic relations and Graham with perceptual ones.

This hadn’t occurred to me, though it certainly makes sense given our respective backgrounds (I’m heavily steeped in the linguistic turn and semiotics). I’d have to hear more about just what Cogburn has in mind when he talks about the carpentry of reference being a special case of the carpentry of things. In the linguistic turn as developed in Continental thought, discussions of reference are almost entirely absent. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that while Anglo-American thought, in many instances, revolved around questions of word to world, Continental thought– and I’m thinking primarily of the French) –was obsessed with the relation of word to word, i.e., diacritical relations where terms take on signifiance as a consequence their relation to other terms. Under this model talk of reference disappears almost entirely, being treated as a mere effect of these diacritical relations (viz., the referent itself becomes an effect of these differential relations between signifiers). I don’t think I’m suggesting anything like this about objects, but I’d have to think about it.

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Within the framework of onticology I’ve had difficulty articulating just what I have in mind by the concept of a “flat ontology”. The term “flat ontology” is, of course, derived from the work of Manuel DeLanda. In Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy DeLanda describes flat ontology thus:

…while an ontology based on relations between general types and particular instances is hierarchical, each level representing a different ontological category (organism, species, genera), an approach in terms of interacting parts and emergent wholes leads to a flat ontology, one made exclusively of unique, singular individuals, differing in spatio-temporal scale but not in ontological status. (47)

For DeLanda, then, flat ontology signifies an ontology in which there is only one ontological “type”: individuals. Thus for DeLanda the relationship between species and organism is not a relationship between the universal or essence that is eternal and unchanging and the particular or the organism as an instance of the species. Rather, both species and organisms are individuals that are situated in time and space. If species are not eternal essences or forms defining what is common to all particulars of that species, if they exist in space and time, then this is because species, as conceived by biology are not types but rather are really existing reproductive populations located in a particular geography at a particular point in time. For DeLanda, then, being is composed entirely of individuals.

While I find much that is commendable in DeLanda’s ontology, where the sorts of entities that populate being are concerned, I’m a bit more circumspect. At present I’m not ready to throw in with DeLanda and the thesis that there are only individuals. I am agnostic on the question of whether universals exist, and my intuitions strongly lean in the Platonic direction of treating numbers as real objects in their own right that have being independent of human minds. If this is the case, if numbers are real, then I have a difficult time seeing how they can be treated as individuals in the sense that DeLanda intends and, moreover, I do not think that the genetic concerns that preoccupy DeLanda are relevant to questions of number, i.e., a genetic account of how numbers come to be– if, in fact, they do come to be and are not eternal objects –does not get at what numbers are.

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