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).

read on!

At the outset, then, there are two points to be made. First, we cannot reduce normative force to causal force. To reduce normative force to causal force is to decide a priori what constitutes a force or an actor. However, we do not know a priori what counts as a force. For Latour we only come to know another actor through the resistance it creates in another actor. “No force can, as it is often put, ‘know reality,’ other than through the difference it creates in resisting others” ( To take a highly simplified example from psychoanalysis– I would have to write a much lengthier post to articulate this point –we come to know the force of the moral law through the guilt that it produces in us. This is not a causal relationship, at least not in any ordinary sense, but it is a relation of force between two entities. Likewise, we come to know the force of sexuality through the return of the repressed or all the symptoms that the moral law produces within us in acting upon us. Thus, for example, we encounter Freud’s (far-fetched) and classic example of obsessional and repetitive hand-washing as indicative of a substitute for masturbation. The “moral law” forbids masturbation– at least many parents once forbid this to their children –but this desire returns in another form.

Here we get a simple example of what Latour has in mind by “trials of strength” among actors and also see just how broad his conception of an actor is. As Latour will say, “whatever resists trials is real” (1.1.5). On the one hand, in what Lacan, in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, described as “the grim trial of the libertine, psychoanalysis shows how we are far more moral than we think we are. Even when we tell ourselves at the conscious level that we could care less about silly morality, that we are beyond all that, that it is a sham, the moral law continues to act in all sorts of ways, producing all sorts of symptoms or “tells”. The liar, perhaps, blinks a lot. Similarly, even when we tell ourselves that we have eradicated all of these forbidden desires, that our motives are purely motive and above board, the dark desires of the unconscious and our drives continue to act and produce their symptoms. Often the moralist, for example, is someone who has just found a convenient means for exercising their sadistic or masochistic drives.

The point here is that we cannot, at least without a great deal of expansion, simply substitute the concept of “causality” for that of “force”. They are two distinct concepts. Similarly, Pete is ignoring Latour’s very first principle when he attempts to do so, for as Latour claims in the very first line of Irreductions, “nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else” (1.1.1), to which he then adds “there are only trials of strength, of weakness. Or more simply, there are only trials. This is my point of departure: a verb, ‘to try'” (1.1.2). From this first principle alone it should be evident that it cannot be a question of reducing norms to something else. Norms are real actors, just as the planet earth and the moon are real actors. The real question is not whether or not norms are real actors, but rather a question of how they perform in trials of strength or weakness.

Moreover, it is also clear that the question cannot here be one of “might makes right”. If Latour speaks of “trials of weakness“, then this is because when one actor attempts to act upon another it perpetually encounters its weakness. This discovery is made by every parent as they attempt to integrate their child into a whole host of norms or when they try to form them in a particular image they would like them to embody. It is also found among those who refuse to accept neoliberal ideology and the dominant logic of its functioning. Might might pacify and subordinate on occasion, but actants are an unruly bunch that always find some way to muck up the form that other actors are trying to impose upon them.

Pete’s worry seems to be that Latour can provide no place for normativity in political struggles, but we have already seen that norms are real actors alongside of a host of other real actors. In articulating his worries, Pete writes:

We will first turn ourselves to the first Latourian position we identified above, the reduction of normative force to (loosely) causal force. Tom at Grundlegung has already performed a very good analysis of this and its problems in relation to rationality (here and here), but I will endeavour to add something to what he has said already.

We have already seen that it is incorrect to claim that Latour reduces normative force to causal force. Causal force is one sort of force. Normative is another sort of force. There can be no question of reducing the one to the other. This strikes me as closer to Pete’s own thesis than Latour’s.

Firstly, it is important to recognise that there are different forms of normativity that this Latourian move undercuts. There is the fundamental normative structure of rationality as such, which provides the form of reasoning (both theoretical and practical) independently of the content of one’s premises (e.g., the law of non-contradiction) and then there are the constitutive norms which make up that content, which license certain inferences on their basis, and demand others. It is these constitutive norms which demand that we acknowledge certain inferences, and they thus provide the so called force of reasons. If you are committed to the fact that ‘It is Sunday today’ then you must admit that ‘It is Monday tomorrow’, not in the sense that you are being held at gun point, but because that is simply a result of the norms governing the use of those temporal concepts.

Here it has to be asked how this possibly follows from Latour’s thesis and what, precisely, Pete is asking for. Insofar as norms exist within Latour’s ontology, it follows that he cannot undermine the structure of normativity as it functions in reasoning. This structure is a real actor within communicative relations. The question, for Latour, is not whether or not these sorts of norms exist, but rather of how they perform in trials of strength among actors. In order to answer these question, we need only look at actual discussions where these norms are evoked and employed. In some discussions these norms will perform very well among participants. In other discussions, such as blog discussions, they will perform very poorly in trials of strength. But nowhere is it being suggested that they do not exist.

There is then an additional level of normativity, that of practical norms governing action. These can come in varying different forms, from personal maxims, through explicit societal laws, and implicit norms of social conduct, all the way to supposed fundamental ethical principles which govern how we should act in all circumstances. When we are engaged in debate over the ethical and political implications that a given ontological theory might have, or indeed over the resources it might provide for pursuing some ethical/political dictum, we are in the domain of practical norms of action.

Again, the situation here with practical norms in the domain of politics and social context is identical to the situation of norms governing communicative discourse and inquiry. These norms exist. In certain instances they win out in trials of strength. In others they perform very poorly.

Pete goes on to write:

Here then is the problem that the first Latourian move produces: it undermines both the force of the fundamental and constitutive norms required for reasoning as such, and it undermines the force of the practical norms that constitute the ethical/political domain. Let us take these two implications one at a time.

Firstly, there are two dimensions to reasoning: public and private, or dialogical and monological, respectively. As some have already pointed out, the Latourian move undermines the distinction between reasoned argument and persuasive rhetoric in the public sphere, because all that matters is what produces (or causes) one to come to the position one occupies, not anything to do with the normatively assessable correctness of this process. This makes all public communication into what Habermas would call a strategic matter. It is about how one makes one’s position come out on top, rather than how one justifies it in accordance with some independent set of norms. In accordance with Latour’s wider metaphysics, an argument is just a struggle for dominance between actors in a network, just as takes place in every network whatsoever. There is no special kind of dominance here.

Here once again the issue is more nuanced than Pete portrays it. Latour’s thesis is not that there isn’t a distinction between persuasive rhetoric and reasoned argument. Both exist. The issue is one of how these two perform within the public sphere. It seems to me that what Pete desires is an appeal to a transcendent standard that would provide a winning move against the blowhard rhetor like Rush Limbaugh. The problem is not with Latour here, but with the fact that the social sphere does not function in this way. While I am all for independent norms that distinguish between reasoned discourse and abusive rhetoric, within the space of discourse itself, the appeal to these norms has very little effect. The issue then is not one of whether or not these norms exist, but rather with how these norms can be promoted within the public sphere. Returning to proposition 1.1.2 in Irreductions, Latour says “this is my point of departure: a verb, ‘to try’.” And this is the question, through what acts can something like the structure of discourse Pete here describes be promoted, made more real, made more resistant to other forces that would overturn it?

Now, the importance of drawing the public/private distinction is that this strategic notion of rationality that is motivated by Latour’s metaphysics can only function if an individual is capable of some form of private practical reasoning. One must both have ends and have ways of analysing the various means of achieving them in order to engage in anything strategically, let alone communication. We are not of course implying that non-human actors engage in practical reasoning of this strategic kind. The networked power struggles that take place between various non-human objects are not reason involving in any way whatsoever, nor should they be. The crucial point is that if we are to honestly believe in the truth of the Latourian position, then the only sincere (and self-conscious) form of reasoning that is open to us is private practical reasoning.

This is an odd charge to advance against Latour that betrays a very weak understanding of his ontology. One of the points that Latour constantly emphasizes is the necessity of actors enlisting other actors in order to increase their degree of reality or resistance. Now an actor that is purely private, that is purely individual, is an actor that is tremendously weak in trials of strength. In order for an actor to establish itself in the world, it must enlist all sorts of human and non-human actors to increase that strength. Thus, for example, Pasteur does not establish his theory of microbes all alone, but rather must enlist all sorts of laboratory equipment and experiments, all sorts of other scientists, all sorts of norms of rational argumentation and experiment, government connections, and so on. Similarly, Caesar does not cross the Rubicon alone and declare himself emperor, but requires his army, equipment, supply lines, and the consent of the Romans to accomplish this. Here the logic is similar to the one Deleuze and Guattari describe with respect to the game of Go in A Thousand Plateaus. The Go piece all alone and in isolation has a very low degree of reality. However, when it enters into relations with other pieces it can change the entire dynamics of the board.

Now, the second implication we worked out above is that practical norms of action have no force on the Latourian account. This means that if we are sincere Latourians, then such norms need play no role in our private practical reasoning – they cannot count as reasons for action. This means that the only motivating factors we are left with in our practical reasoning are our own desires or preferences. This doesn’t mean that we can’t take others’ desires and preferences into account in our reasoning, or even that we can’t effectively reason in accordance with practical norms, it is simply the case that the binding force of these must be shored up by our own desire or preference to so take them into account. This is the standard neo-Humean account of practical reasoning.

The problem with this line of argument is that it confuses norms with desires and preferences, when the three are irreducible to one another by the logic of Latour’s own argument. Additionally, it works from a folk ontological understanding of the world that treats individuals in the vulgar sense as the only real objects, ignoring the networks to which they belong.

In the end, I am led to wonder what Pete and others who argue along the same lines he’s arguing are asking for with respect to norms. As I mentioned before, it sounds to me like Pete is calling for transcendent norms, whether of the variety we find in Plato with his forms, religion with the decrees of God, or Kant with laws of pure reason. Pete calls for a naturalistic conception of reason. Here I’m not quite sure what he’s talking about as he is either using the term as if its meaning were self-evident or has developed this concept in previous posts. On the one hand, the call for a transcendent structure of normativity strikes me as deeply at odds with such a naturalistic framework. The safest candidate for such norms within a naturalistic context would be Kant’s conception of normativity. However, Kant explicitly relies on design arguments to ground his account of reason in both his ethical writings and in the third Critique. Within an evolutionary framework it is difficult to see how we can appeal to the moral vocation of reason evoked by Kant. This call for a transcendent structure of norms is equally odd within a Marxist historical materialist framework. The historical materialist does not begin with a set of a priori norms, but rather seeks to provide a genetic account of norms based on historical processes. In other words, within this framework, we do not begin with eternal and pre-established norms, but rather seek to determine how certain norms emerge or are produced. By contrast, the thesis that norms are a priori and eternal in the sense Pete seems to suggest would fall back on what Marx thought of as an ideological understanding of normativity that mystifies normativity and class interests by attempting to detach them from their conditions of production. But perhaps I am simply mischaracterizing Pete’s position. However, if he is advocating something closer to the genetic position I’m alluding to here, he strikes me as much closer to Latour than he admits. The real question ought not be one of guaranteeing norms, but rather of determining how they are produced, how they can be secured, and how they can be intensified as actors within the social field.

One final point. Towards the end of his post, Pete writes the following:

It seems as if the Latourian strategy gives these entities their independence, such that they can play roles within explanatory networks, thereby interacting with all manner of non-cultural and non-human actors in determining both cultural and natural states of affairs. However, as we have already seen, it denies these actors anything other than a sort of generalised causal force (again, this point is mildly problematic in relation to OOO, but we’ll get to it). It strips the furniture of the cultural domain of its normative force, of its apparently value-laden character. This is not to say that it thereby denies the existence of ‘values’, but instead that these become other actors in networks of interaction.

A good example of this stripping of force is descriptions of the values of cultures other than our own. For instance, it is possible for us as amateur sociologists to try and give a description of the norms governing a given society or culture’s taboos, such as the Jewish kosher laws, without thereby endorsing those norms. We present the norms in a conditionalized manner, almost as if they were candidate norms that we could adopt and thus take up the force of (e.g., if one is to prepare food in a kosher way, then one must…). The same is true of much of the internal furniture of other cultures. We can describe the roles the various cultural entities play, describe the values which they are bound up with, without thereby endorsing or adopting those values ourselves. The first Latourian move seems like a generalisation of this detached sociological perspective, whereby we treat all cultures, even our own, as at an arms length.

However, there is a genuine question as to whether this detached perspective is really an external perspective. An external perspective would be able to assess the extent to which the terms in which a culture talks about cultural phenomena, and the ways these are brought about, are in fact adequate to those phenomena. It would as such allow for the possibility of a disconnect between our internalistic conception of the furniture of the cultural domain and the real furniture of that domain. The move of ‘detaching’ from our own culture so as to enable ANT style analyses of how various cultural phenomena are produced is not necessarily adequate to this, because all it does is suspend the force of the values and other normatively constituted entities littering the social landscape, while nonetheless leaving the internal configuration of the cultural domain as it is. The danger is thus that such internalistic conceptions of culture maintain a residual normative structure, even when normative force has been suspended.

Here I would suggest that Pete needs to read some more Latour as the sort of internalist relation to culture that Pete here attributes to Latour is precisely the sort of anthropological and sociological position Latour inveighs against in countless books and articles. This would be the relativist perspective in which every culture is a self-contained bubble that only members of that culture can understand. Yet networks are not systems or structures, but are open and with fluid boundaries. As a consequence, this sort of cultural relativity is not possible within Latour’s framework as all we have are interacting actors across the board, talking and communicating with one another, without any sort of privileged vantage. Perhaps the assumption that Latour advocates this internalist view of culture is what motivates his remarks about normativity and the private that seem to dominate his post.

At any rate, if political theorists are looking for an angelic point that guarantees the truth of their position at the normative level, I suspect they’re going to come up disappointed with all theory. The desire for such a transcendent guarantee strikes me as more an issue of personal narcissism, for a desire to be “right”, than to really change things. I am unclear as to what differences these norms actually make in concrete struggles or why these norms are comparatively stronger than the formation of new collectives, new practices, and new institutions. In fact, it seems to me that discussion of norms only emerges when things break down, and are more a symptom of a failure than a flourishing movement and engagement.