Today has been a rather slow day, spent reading articles on developmental systems theory and A Sociological Theory of Communication by Loet Leydesdorff. Leydesdorff’s prose is extremely dense and abstract, so I’m not entirely sure I follow him (examples please!) but he has a number of interesting thoughts on how systems emerge. At any rate, I sometimes find that after a heavy day of writing I feel almost hung over the next day. This seems to be the case today, which upsets me a bit as I really only have about month left to complete the initial draft of The Democracy of Object.
Over at Ian’s blog quite the discussion has erupted surrounding his post on Marxism. Among the comments, I was interested to come across a link to an unpublished article by Latour entitled “An Attempt at Writing a “Compositionist Manifesto” (pdf). Without getting into the details of the article, Latour argues that we should replace the practice of critique with that of composition. Composition here does not refer to write, but rather to composing or building out of heterogeneous actors. In this connection, the key question becomes not whether or not something is constructed (too many still insist on claiming if something is constructed it’s not real, but everything is constructed), but on whether it’s well or poorly constructed.
What really caught my eye, however, were some comments Latour makes on objects towards the middle of the article. Latour begins by remarking that,
…there is no way to devise a successor to nature, if we do not tackle the tricky question of animism anew. One of the principle causes of irony poured by the Moderns upon the 16th century, is that those poor archaic folks who had the misfortune of living on the wrong side of the “epistemological break”, believed in a world animated by all sorts of entities and forces instead of believing, like any rational mind, in an inanimmate matter producing its effects only through the power of its causes. It is this conceit that is at the root of all the critiques of environmentalists as being too “anthropocentric” because they dare “attributing” values, price, agency, purpose, to what cannot have and should not have any intrinsic value (lions, whales, viruses, CO2, monkeys, ecosystem, or, worse of all, Gaia). (9)
Here we encounter a variation of Latour’s thesis, in the forefront of his thought since at least We Have Never Been Modern, that modernity is premised on a strict separation of nature and culture. Only in the domain of culture, the modernist story goes, do we find agency of any sort. The domain of nature, by contrast, is a domain of brute and dumb causes where the effect is already contained in the instigating cause. Latour, by contrast, wishes to treat nonhuman entities as also being actors.
What is interesting is how he fleshes this out in his manifesto. Latour goes on to remark that,
…what should appear extraordinarily bizarre is, on the contrary, the invention of inanimate entities which would do nothing more than carry one step further the cause that makes them act to generate the n + 1 consequence which in turn are nothing but the causes of the n + 2 consequences. This conceit has the strange result of composing the world with long concatenations of causes and effects where (this is what is so odd) nothing is supposed to happen, except, probably at the beginning– but since there is no God in those staunchly secular versions, there is not even a beginning… The disappearance of agency in the so called “materialist world view” is a stunning invention especially since it is contradicted every step of the way by the old resistance of reality: every consequence adds slightly to the cause. Thus, it has to have some sort of agency. There is a supplement. A gap between the two. (10)
What is interesting in these remarks are Latour’s references to a gap or a supplement in interactions between objects. This characterization of objects as entities capable of producing effects in excess of whatever perturbs them stands in stark contrast to Latour’s relationism where actants just are their relations. Indeed, here Latour sounds like a subtractive object-oriented ontologist. Perhaps he’s beginning to come around and recognize that you can’t simultaneously get novelty in the universe and reduce objects to their relations.