Today in class we reached the fourth basic principle of Latour’s ontology in Irreductions as depicted by Graham in the first chapter of Prince of Networks. As I formulate it:

The degree of reality possessed by an actant or object is a function of the number of its alliances with other actants.

Latour’s proposed object-oriented ontology differs from both my own and Harman’s in that under his conception objects or actants are defined by their relations. This is evident from this fourth ontological principle. For Latour, the more alliances an actant has the more real it is. Reciprocally, the less alliances an actant has, the less real it is. It seems to me that there are three senses of the term “reality” Latour is evoking:

1) An actant is real insofar as it is resistant to other actants.

2) An actant is real to the degree that it persists and endures through time and space.

3) The reality of an actant is a function of the magnitude and extensiveness of the effects it has on other actants.

According to the first sense of reality, a rock is real insofar as it resists another rock bumping into it. The second sense of reality coincides closely with intuitions we have about existence going all the way back to Plato where, as can be clearly seen in Plato’s divided line, the more fleeting something is the less real it is and the more enduring something is the more real it is. Consequently if simulacra or things like images in ponds are less real than objects, then this is because they cease to exist the minute clouds pass in front of the sun. If mathematical entities and forms are more real for Plato than objects, then this is because objects come-to-be and pass-away, whereas triangles always remain triangles and the Just or the Identical always remains the identical.

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The third sense in which Latour thinks about reality can be illustrated with reference to President Obama. If President Obama is more real than me, then this is because he impacts other actants in a far more extensive way than I do. He impacts other nations, the citizens of other nations, the economy, the media, other state officials, American citizens, industries, etc., etc., etc.. If the sun is more real than Obama, then this is because it impacts all the other planets and objects populating the solar system through its charged solar particles and gravity, because it impacts each and every thing on the planet, and because it impacts many things outside the solar system besides.

For Latour then, reality is not a binary, but rather a matter of degrees ranging from the least real to the most real. Where for Harman and I reality or existence is a binary in the sense that something either is or is not regardless of the relations that it enters into– with the important caveat that something can cease to exist or pass out of existence –for Latour something is less real insofar as it possesses fewer alliances with other actants and impacts fewer actants, while something becomes more real insofar as it forms more alliances with other actants and impacts a more extensive range of actants. Here it is important to note that the reality of an actant is not a fixed essence. Rather, objects can become more real by entering into additional alliances and extending the range of their effects on other actants. Thus, since relations among actants are perpetually shifting, the degree of reality possessed by any actant fluctuates.

Now, when Latour’s fourth principle is taken from the realm of meta-theory or ontology and put into practice examining the world, things become difficult. If it is difficult to practice actor-network-theory or object-oriented ontology, then this is because so many of the actants that contribute to the reality or existence of any actant are “black boxes”. As Harman puts it,

What actants do is act, as the words themselves immediately suggest. In negative terms, this means that actants are not ready-made essences that happen to stumble into relations every now and then. An actant is always born from crisis and controversy; only when it succeeds in establishing a foothold in the world do we forget the tribulations of its birth and eventually treat it as a seamless black box… To speak of objects in action is to convert objects from black boxes into withering trials of strength, re-enacting the torrid events that gave birth to the most obvious facts in the world. (PN, 36)

The sense of reality that Harman is here working off of in his discussion of black boxes would be that of endurance and persistence. A black box is an object that has managed to secure its endurance or existence or that, as it were, is well put together such that its internal works disappear from view or become unobtrusive. The world all about us is populated by black boxes. And if this ubiquity of black boxes make actor-network-theory or alien phenomenology (Bogost’s nice term) so difficult, then this is because black boxes are above all unobtrusive and largely invisible. This essential invisibility or unobtrusiveness insures that many actants that are crucial to the existences of some actant will go unnoticed or passed over in analysis. I think this is part of what accounts for the superficiality of so much philosophy and social and political theory when compared to analyses undertaken by actor-network theorists. So many actants are “black boxed”, so many actants require that we actually know something about the world (rather than speaking in trite generalities), so many actants are so familiar that they become invisible, that philosophers and social and political theorists simply pass over them altogether, not recognizing how crucial they are to understanding the phenomenon in question. It seems that a number of philosophers and theorists suffer from the nasty habit of confusing superficiality with rigor and profundity, believing that because they can set up a series of entailments among propositions in a deduction they’ve really gotten at the essence of things. Yet that chain of entails, that phenomenological description, that ideology critique is only possible by making the vast majority of the world and its actants disappear. This is somewhat equivalent to treating a single type of fish as if it were representative of all life in the oceans.

To illustrate the imbrication of reality and alliances as understood by Latour I select a student from class, draw a stick picture of her on the board, and we collectively proceed to analyze the student’s alliances with other actants. We start with very basic and obvious things pertaining to the students bodies. The first actants that come up are, of course, food and water. However, even here things are not as simple as they might first appear, for as we already know by the principle of translation, actants relate to one another by translating one another and when one actant translates another actant it produces something new. We can adopt the slogan “no translation without transformation!” or, alternatively, “no relation without the production of something new!” Much of concrete actor-network and OOO analyses are devoted to the investigation of these translations and what they produce. Consequently, the types of food and liquids we digest make a difference. Food effects psychological states, health, vitality, etc. All of this must be taken into account.

The next things that inevitably come up are the earth’s gravity, air, the earth’s electro-magnetic field, etc. The gravity of the earth interacts with the genetics of our body playing an important role in how our bodies develop. Were we born on Mars it is likely we would grow much taller because Mars is a little over half the size of the earth. Moreover, as we’ve learned from space travel, the absence of gravity leads to muscle degeneration and bone deterioration. The situation is similar with the earth’s gases. It is not simply that we require oxygen and other gases to breath, but the pressure of the earth’s gases pressing down upon us prevents our bodies from exploding as depicted in Total Recall or Event Horizon when the characters are exposed to depressuration. Additionally, the amount of oxygen present in the atmosphere makes a difference in our lung development and the functioning of our blood as can be seen in the bodily differences between Peruvians that live in the Andes and those of us that don’t live at such high altitudes. The absence of sunshine wrecks havoc on moods and has all sorts of negative health benefits, while the earth’s electro-magnetic field diminishes the rate of genetic mutations and cancers by deflecting highly charged cosmic particles. All of these actors to which we’re related are so persistent that they go almost entirely unnoticed. To notice them at all you actually have to know something about the earth.

Having discussed these very basic actants we now move on to the more diffuse yet no less important actants. The first series of actants that is inevitably brought up consists of other people. Here I draw attention to family, friends, co-workers and a class of persons I refer to as “the anonymous”. The anonymous are all the black boxed people that make up the furniture of our everyday life while being almost completely invisible. These are folks like the janitors that keep classrooms clean and well organized, cooks that prepare food, the folks at plant operations and in the tech department that keep the electricity, heat, and communications networks running, etc. All sorts of affordances and constraints are dependent upon the anonymous such that our power of acting or not acting is increased or diminished as a result of the material infrastructure laid down by the anonymous.

The next series of actants that come up revolve around transportation. The student inevitably arrived at school in a car and will depart from school to work by car. In the absence of the automobile it is unlikely that the student would be able to attend school or maintain the job and job hours that they do. However, the automobile now leads to considerations of energy and infrastructure. Roads all but disappeared following the collapse of the Roman Empire such that travel became, if Braudel is to be believed, overland. In the absence of roads travel was far more difficult and perilous. Consequently the distribution of goods and communication between cities, villages, and farms was severely inhibited leading to much slower rates of change. The simple presence of roads and road signs significantly increases the reality of an actant, allowing it to form more extensive alliances with other actants and to impact far more actants.

The case is similar, of course, with energy. Energy comes in a variety of forms ranging from human power to animal power, and extending to wind, water, wood, nuclear, thermal, solar, and fossil fuels. Where the primary form of energy consists of wood, wind, and water the size that a city can attain and the forms of organization it can possess are significantly diminished. This is because the availability of wood needed to warm houses, cook, and build equipment and homes is limited. Very quickly we find resources being depleted and wars breaking out over valuable timberlands. To make matters worse, these wars themselves require all sorts of wood, thereby eating up the very resource that contributed to the conflict in the first place. The situation is the same with fossil fuels. Suddenly the student discovers that the simple act of driving a car has implicated her in global conflicts over resources. The situation here is a catch-22. She needs the car and the fuels to form an alliance we her education and job– not to mention, to maintain her important personal relationships –yet in driving the car all sorts of rather noxious geo-political conflicts are promoted (coupled with the damage to the environment).

There is, in addition to all this, the entire system of production and distribution. We eat better today than the emperors of Rome, enjoying foods that are out of season in our own locality and a wide range of goods that we would never be able to experience in other social settings as they come from far off lands. This system of production and distribution now embroils the student in all of the sweat shops throughout the world where people are more or less enslaved so that certain goods may be readily available and so that the price of production might be kept down to increase profit and offset costs of transport.

Then there are the technologies. Most of my students are in their late teens and early twenties so they can hardly discern the revolution that they are living through. At the age of 35 I lived prior to the personal computer and the invention of the internet and thus– following a line of thought Jameson explores somewhere in relation to Adorno and Benjamin and the changing circumstances through which they lived –have had the privilege (and culture shock) of living between two entirely distinct temporalities. The impact of internet communication, cable, cell phones, satellite communications, etc., has fundamentally changed the nature of our world, collectively increasing our reality as actors. When I first started studying philosophy around the age of 14 or 15, we only had B. Dalton’s and Walden Books which were little holes in the wall that carried crap. I had to scour the vintage and used book stores for miles around to find anthropology, history, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and literature texts. And I was forced to read whatever I happened to find, which partially accounts for my eclectic background. Now, however, I can link to the internet on my iPhone while hiking in a wooded park and order the newly released copy of Souriau’s Les différents modes d’existence from France. I can acquire bootleg transcriptions of all of Lacan’s seminars, and online for free, no less! Additionally, SR and OOO would not have been possible without the intertubes or back in 1991. For SR/OOO to come into existence all sorts of relationships had to be forged among eclectic and diverse thinkers in a variety of fields and this simply would not have taken place in the conference format that traditionally brought thinkers together. The nature of research and interaction changes significantly as a result of these new network links, allowing for new forms of organization and resistance.

Floating amidst all this are the semiotic actants or all those signs, legal relations, partially semiotic entities like nations or the Elks, catch phrases (“you’re for us or against us!”), fads, and so on. These too are closely tied to infrastructure as, like highways, these entities must circulate through zero’s and one’s, radio waves, texts, etc. As Bogost is quick to remind us, it makes a big difference whether this infrastructure consists of copper wires, fiber optic cables, soup cans hooked together by taught string, illuminated texts as in the Middle Ages, satellites, etc. For most of us this infrastructure is invisible. Yet the difference between phone signals sent by copper wires and phone signals sent by fiber optic cables is a quantum leap. The former is deeply limited in the number of signals that can be transported across the line at any point in time, while the latter can carry a tremendous amount of signals. In my lifetime it used to be a fairly common occurrence for phone lines to get overloaded. The last time this occurred that I can recall was on September 11th in 2001. When my blog used to be over at Blogger I had a tracker in the html code that showed a map of the globe indicating where all of the visits I was receiving were originating.

One of the most striking things I recall about this map was that there was a narrow band of high traffic visits just north of the equator across the entire globe, from whence the majority of my traffic came. In the United States the majority of the traffic was along the coasts, whereas the center of the country was largely dark. I had hits throughout Europe (especially Great Britain, Northern Europe, and regions of Eastern Europe), while traffic began to drop off further into Eastern Europe and Russia. There was lots of traffic from regions of Australia and New Zealand, traffic from a few cities in Mexico, South and Central America, and cities in Africa. China was entirely blank. These are infrastructural issues pertaining to how the taught strings between all those soup cans are connected up with one another. I find the darkness or lack of visits in the middle regions of the United States particularly interested as this indicates a lack of well developed infrastructure and this lack of communications infrastructure correlates strongly with political party affiliation. If you want a revolution a good start would not be protests in the streets or critiques of ideology or even Badiouian truth-procedures, but quietly making internet, satellite, cable, and cell phone reception readily available in regions where these things aren’t available.

All of these actants and many more both afford and constrain my student, increasing her degree of reality by both connecting her in all sorts of ways that assist in her ability to endure and persist through time and space, but also by increasing the effects she can have on other actants in the world around her. Yet what I’ve outlined here is only the barest sketch of what an object-oriented analysis looks like. It’s still too vague and general, gesturing at relations with other actants without looking at the concrete actants involved and how these networks are organized, their history, their evolution, their dominant tendencies and directions, their interdependencies and how these constrain the possibility of certain forms of change, where “lines of flight” or tendencies of change are breaking free, how those might be assisted, accelerated, and enhanced, and so much more. In his magnificent three volumes entitled Capitalism & Civilization, Braudel seeks to investigate what he calls “material history”. Material history is the organization of these actants. Braudel’s seeks to determine why, despite the present of certain revolutionary semiotic actants in a historical epoch (semiotic actants), change is nonetheless so slow to come. Why does everything remain largely the same at the level of material life after Hume, Spinoza’s Theologico-Politico Treatise, Voltaire, Diderot, etc? This question seems pessimistic, as if one were claiming that change is impossible, but it’s precisely the opposite. Only through knowing how networks of actants are actually put together, what actants are involved, how these interactions among actants are organized, etc., does it become possible to locate the bottlenecks or inhibitors of change and devise strategies for undoing these bottlenecks and releasing transformative potentials. Just opening the black box and seeing the networks already imperiles the organization of the network by opening the possibility to think and enact other possibilities.