platos_cave_verysmallIn response to my post on Object-Oriented Realism, the always interesting Nikki of prosthetics writes,

so nicely laid out, levi, from the positivist accusation onward. in response i have a very naive question, but one that i can’t wrap my head around with OOP, perhaps you have spelled this out elsewhere and if so, just let me know where and i’ll read it… so this issue is this: object-oriented philosophy, in its terminology as well as in its moves, seems to imply a subject oriented toward objects/object relations. yet i know it is precisely subjectivity that is (thankfully) under reconfiguration in OOP. yet even if/as we follow latour in the practice of actor-network tracing, there is always a sociologist behind the pen, behind the keyboard. the objects and object networks being traced are traced not from a place of removal but from one of the actors (as latour does clarify)… and it seems to me that this still leaves OOP mired in subject as ground. is this a fair reading of what is operative, have you answered this endlessly elsewhere? any and either way, looking forward to your response…

Rather that providing an answer to this question, perhaps the better move is to call into question the question itself. If I understand the issue Nikki is raising properly, then the question is that of how it is possible to have an object-oriented realism when, as in the example of the sociologist, it is nonetheless the sociologist that is tracing all these associations or relations among nonhuman objects. The problem then becomes that talk of objects ends up seeming ineradicably subjective.

In his charming essay “Do You Believe in Reality?” in Pandora’s Hope, Latour recounts an encounter with a Brazilian scientist who posed a similar question to him at a private lunch. Voice quivering and hushed, the scientist asked “do you believe in reality?” Latour was flummoxed with the question in that it had never occurred to him that reality was something a person might not believe in, but also because, as he and his science studies colleagues understood it, the entire accomplishment of their research was to account for the realism of the sciences.

read on!

While unapologetically affirming his realism in this essay, Latour’s strategy in responding to the troubled scientist is not to explain how we can have access to reality, but rather to analyze how we reached a point where it became possible to even ask this sort of question. In other words, what framework of thought allows such a question to be posed? Latour’s strategy, in short, is to investigate what sort of desire might motivate the epistemological question. What is it that leads philosophers to raise questions of knowledge? After all, in our day to day lives, both in the laboratory and in our ordinary dealings with the world, we seem to get along just fine without sophisticated epistemologies. Lest I be misunderstood, when I suggest that the laboratory scientist gets by just fine without a sophisticated epistemology, the emphasis here is on the word sophisticated. To be sure, the laboratory scientist raises all sorts of issues about the reliability of data, bias, double blind testing, etc., etc., etc.

Yet what we don’t find among the laboratory scientists is a pervasive anxiety that their mind might be thoroughly separated from the world. We do, however, find this pervasive anxiety among philosophers. Whether this anxiety be of the Cartesian “mind-in-a-vat” sort or the more contemporary worries that we might be so thoroughly trapped in language or history that never the world will we touch, this sort of fear and concern seems omnipresent in philosophy. How did we get to this place? After all, when someone in day to day life presents a bum argument or observation, we seem to do just fine in showing that the evidence doesn’t support this particular conclusion or correcting ourselves, yet in philosophy fear of error becomes so inflated that we seem to think that it calls into question the entire world. This is all very odd.

Given that rough and ready epistemology seems to do the job, we can ask what motive lies behind the hyper-epistemologies we find in philosophy. What is it that philosophers are looking for in their epistemological inquiries and why do they get so worked up about these particular questions? Latour traces the epistemological fetish back to Plato’s allegory of the cave and reads the history of philosophical epistemology as a series of variations on these theme and the desires that lie behind it. Far from being an innocent and simple question about how it is possible for mind to have a true representation of the world, Latour instead sees philosophical epistemology as deeply bound up in issues of a political nature.

allegoryofthecaveWe are all familiar with Plato’s allegory of the cave. On the one hand we have the prisoners who have been trapped in the cave shadows for their entire existence. The pass their days watching images appear and disappear on the cave wall and debating amongst one another as to which image will appear next. At one point, one of the prisoners escapes, ascends out of the cave, witnesses true reality, and returns to inform the unruly mob (the demos) of the truth that he now possesses. Of course, this philosopher-scientist should rule because he and he alone has possession of the unassailable truth… Of that truth that silences all debate.

285321130_2c4c7d3ebb_mIn the allegory of the cave Latour discerns a philosophical horror of the unruly mob and a desire to find an unassailable point of purchase that would silence the endless debates of this unruly mob. Thus, on the one hand, you have the social (the unruly mob) that is the source of all confusion and falsehood, and on the other hand you have the world of truth that has the power to silence all dispute and debate. Like a Daimon, the philosopher-scientist has the unique power of traveling between these two world, the world of the social that endlessly speaks without ever producing any truth and the world of the truth that never speaks but is the source of all that is true.

The project of philosophical epistemology is then a purification of this second world from the first, maintaining it in its unassailable muteness, so that there might be something that always possesses the power of silencing the unruly mob. This, Latour thinks, is the real desire behind the philosophical quest for certainty, the project of critique, and the question of knowledge. First, the world of truth must be carefully purified and separated from corruption by the social. Second, it is necessary to maintain some point of leverage from which the unruly mob can always be silenced. These two aims are accomplished through a careful purification of the two worlds– the social world and the true world –so that they never touch one another. It is for this reason that we arrive at a picture of the real as a transcendent beyond– as in the case of Meillassoux’s model of the real as that which is anterior and beyond –that is thoroughly separated from anything mental or social. The philosopher-scientist is then that Daimon that has the power to make the mute truth speak and that can travel between the two worlds. In Descartes, this two world model takes the form of a world defined purely by its mathematical structure and a subject reduced to the pure gaze without knowing whether any of its perceptual data are veridical. Of course, when pitched in these terms the problem of knowledge is impossible to resolve without “skyhooks” (Descartes’ God as guarantor of rational truth, for example) as we are so thoroughly separated from true reality for fear that we would contaminate the true world where alone resides the power of silencing the rabble.

Latour’s strategy lies in affirming the rights of the unruly mob or the rabble. Where philosophical epistemology strives to purify the two worlds so that the world of truth might avoid any and all contamination from the social, instead Latour plunges us into the social world of associations. However, this collective is not a collective composed of only human actors and their debates, but rather is a collective composed of assocations of nonhumans with nonhumans and nonhumans with humans. The only form of association that is precluded is the exclusive association of humans with humans. In other words, all human associations are already plunged into endless relations with nonhumans and these relations are necessary for any human relations whatsoever. It is through these endless debates among actors forming collectives– and actors are always both human and nonhuman –that truth comes to be produced. Where philosophical epistemology dreams of a silver bullet that would silence all debate, the object-oriented realist wants to increase the number of debates and uncertainties. Where philosophical epistemology wants to purify the two worlds of one another, formulating either a pure social world or a pure objective world, object-oriented ontology wants to multiply relations and assocations among human and nonhuman actors. Where philosophical epistemology aims at absolute certainty, object-oriented ontology argues for local certainties and the multiplication of uncertainties.

However, perhaps the most important point is that we are always-already among things or objects in such a way that there can be no question of mind, language, the social, or the cultural somehow forming a shadow world that shares no relationship to the world. Yes, indeed the sociologist traces all sorts of associations between nonhuman and human actors in his investigations, but if he is not a sociologist that spends all his time in his office he finds that the actors he traces always have their say in matters as well. The square peg won’t fit in the round hole, and in our engagement with nonhuman and human actors other than ourselves, we find that while we would often like to present hegemonic theories that would place everything in square holes the pegs whether human or nonhuman often have their own say in these matters. I think this marks a significant difference between ontology and epistemology as understood by Object-Oriented Realism. Ontologically we can make all sorts of claims about what must be true of objects in principle regardless of whether humans are related to them. Epistemologically, however, OOP, I think, advocates a rather pragmatic epistemology that recognizes that our knowledge of particular things is hard-won and always partial, and that there are many things that are completely impossible for us to know. Probably a disappointing answer, but hopefully a start. I need to develop more about the nature of collectives with regard to these issues.