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.

read on!

In many respects I think Latour is guilty of a problem opposite to that of Diamond’s. Where, as Yant and Jonah point out, Diamond tends to be too hasty in treating things like “Mayan culture” as entities in their own right, thereby leaving unquestioned whether or not these are genuine entities, Latour, in my view, is too hasty in undermining larger scale objects. In short, despite his principle of irreduction, Latour nonetheless proceeds in many instances as a great underminer. Howso?

Let’s recall what undermining is as understood by Harman. Both undermining and overmining are operations whereby objects are dissolved. The overminer argues that objects are falsely deep and reduces them to something more immediate like bundles of sensations or impressions, or effects of language. The underminer, by contrast, argues that objects are too superficial and that, in fact, they are effects of a more fundamental stata of reality such as subatomic particles, the One, water, pre-individual fields, internal relations, and so on.

The suggestion that Latour is guilty of undermining initially appears counter-intuitive because Latour shows so much respect for the agency of actants. However, it is paradoxically Latour’s deep respect for actants that causes him to tend towards undermining. And, in this connection, I am suggesting that hidden in Latour’s analyses and ontological claims, there is often hidden an asterisk to the effect that only a particular type of actant counts as an actant. Here I have in mind mid-sized actants such as persons, technologies, buildings, roads, electric lines, etc.

How does this occur? Latour’s favored critical strategy (and it is a critical strategy despite his scathing critiques of critique) is to undermine larger scale objects by reducing them to effects of mid-scale objects. In both his practice and his theory, he treats only the mid-level objects as being real objects or actants. Suppose, for example, Latour were to conduct an ANT analysis of my college. We can imagine how he would proceed. Latour would, no doubt, proceed by first declaring that the college does not exist. That is, he would denounce the naive who believe in the existence of an entity like the college.

Next Latour would proceed to show how the college really is an effect of a number of smaller scale actants such as administrators, faculty, students, the technology stations in the classroom, eraser boards, fiber optic cables allowing for distance learning, etc., etc., etc. The college would be dissolved and reduced to the activity of all these other actants. These other actants would be coded as the real whereas the college would be treated as a sort of fetish or illusion.

If we followed Latour to the letter of the ontology he proposes in Irreductions, then it is precisely this sort of move that should be prohibited, for there is no compelling ontological reason to treat these mid-level objects as more real than larger scale objects. There is no reason, for example, to treat an army as less real than the soldiers, horses, officers, uniforms, guns, etc., that make that army up. In my view, Latour therefore perpetually wants to claim that objects are their parts. Thus he generally fails to capture one of the central ways in which objects are split: the split between objects as a totality and unity and composed of parts. Yet for onticology, objects are one thing and parts are other objects.

Latour’s undermining of objects in favor of parts has a whole cascade of theoretical consequences. For example, I suspect that many of Latour’s scathing denunciations of Marx arise from his confusions about the mereology of objects. Lurking in the background it is likely that Latour is regarding, with disdain, objects like class. Instead, no doubt, Latour would like to analyze smaller level actants alone and to reject the existence of class altogether. But here Marx is closer to the truth. As any careful and fair-minded reading of Capital or Grundrisse will reveal, Marx does not begin with categories like class, but 1) shows how class is an emergent object from the actions of many smaller level actants, that 2) being aware or knowing that one belongs to a class is not a necessary condition for being a part of a class, that 3) class, once it has come into existence, exercises downward causation on its parts, and that 4) nonetheless these parts are independent of the larger scale object to which they belong in the sense that they can struggle against it.

The proper onticological thesis is thus not that larger scale objects are not real and that only parts are real, but rather that both parts and larger scale objects are real actants in the world, and that they are independent of one another while the larger scale object requires the smaller scale parts or objects in order to exist. In this respect, I believe that Deleuzian concepts like the molar and the molecular and sociological concepts like the macro- and the mico- are less than useful and are even a hindrance to sound analysis. Generally these concepts are deployed with an implicit morality and theoretical decision. The molecular and the micro are coded as the “good” and the “real”, while the molar and the macro are coded as the “bad” and the unreal. This leads to theoretical attitudes where the reality of larger scale objects is denied from the outset. But in denying or ignoring larger scale objects we end up missing one of the most interesting things we would like to understand in our social analysis: the tensions, antagonisms, and struggles that emerge between larger scale objects and their parts. For every larger scale object struggles against its own parts because, insofar as parts are independent objects in their own right, they’re always striving to go their own way and do their own thing while the larger scale object is attempting to herd cats so as to sustain its own existence.

With all of that said, Yant is absolutely correct in pointing out that we can’t assume that just because there is a noun for something, that something must exist. Part of a good object-oriented analysis will consist in determining what the real objects are. And here, it is above all necessary to show that there is an endo-consistency or set of endo-relations among parts establishing the existence of an object. Absent that you’re guilty of grouping a set of actors together as parts of a single larger scale object, when in fact there are no endo-relations grouping these objects together. We sometimes hear this, for example, in discussions of atheists as analyzed by some religious folk. The suggestion is that there is some macro-level entity that one might refer to as “atheists” on par with organizations like a church. Yet this is to posit an object where no object exists, because while there are many individual atheists, there is no larger scale organization linking all these atheists together as parts of a single object. Suggesting that such a larger-scale object exists is a bit like suggesting that there is a larger scale object called “coffee drinkers”. To have such an object you need endo-relations striving to regulate and maintain the parts, but no such set of endo-relations exist. I take it that this is what Yant and Jonah are trying to get at when criticizing supposed entities like the “Maya”.