In We Have Never Been Modern Latour critiques two contradictory tendencies within social science. On the one hand, there is that form of social science that denounces the naturalization of what essentially comes from us:
Social scientists have for long allowed themselves to denounce the belief system of ordinary people. They call this belief system ‘naturalization’. Ordinary people imagine that the power of gods, the objectivity of money, the attraction of fashion, the beauty of art, come from some objective properties intrinsic to the nature of things. Fortunately, social scientists know better and they show that the arrow goes in fact in the other direction, from society to objects. Gods, money, fashion and art offer only a surface for the projection of our social needs and interests. (51 – 52)
The social scientist here reveals that all those things “naive social subjects” take to be properties of the things themselves are, in fact, fetishes. On the other hand, however, we often believe that we are free. Now social science will show that we are governed by iron-clad laws that transcend our own self-consciousness and knowledge.
Ordinary people, mere social actors, average citizens, believe that they are free and that they can modify their desires, their motives and their rational strategies at will. The arrow of beliefs now goes from the Subject/Society pole to the Nature pole. But fortunately, the social scientists are standing guard, and they denounce, and debunk and ridicule this naive belief in the freedom of the human subject and society. This time they use the nature of things– that is the indisputable results of the sciences –to show how it determines, informs and moulds the soft and pliable wills of the poor humans. ‘Naturalization’ is no longer a bad word but the shibboleth that allows the social scientits to allow themselves with the natural sciences. All the sciences (natural and social) are now mobilized to turn the human into so many puppets manipulated by objective forces– which only the natural or social scientists happen to know. (52 – 53)
These objective forces, of course, refer to economy, language, and ideology in the realm of society, and perhaps innate biological dispositions in fields like sociobiology. Consequently, Latour continues,
In the first denunciation objects count for nothing; they are just there to be used as the white screen on to which society projects its cinema. But in the second, they are so powerful that they shape the human society, while the social construction of sciences that have produced them remains invisible. Objects, things, consumer goods, works of art are either too weak or too strong. (53)
It is in this way that the Nature/Culture divide defended by Modernist forms of thought becomes indestructible. Wherever any claim is made about objects and values the Critic can come along and show how these claims are really based on a fetishization or naturalization. Wherever any claim is made about freedom or human agency, the Critic can now say that we are being naive and are, in fact, governed by iron clad objective laws that transcend us and direct us from behind our backs. The first side represents the side of the humanists which defend human freedom, while the latter side would be that of the antihumanists that claim that we are governed by inexorable objective forces. Here it’s notable that object-oriented ontology receives criticism from both sides. The humanists declare that OOO rejects human autonomy and freedom by speaking about objects and claiming that humans are one type of object among other objects, while also claiming that we fall prey to naive or pre-critical fetishization that fails to recognize that we make objects what they are. The antihumanists, by contrast, declare that we refuse to acknowledge the objective forces that structure and govern our action insofar as we defend the externality of objects from their relations and argue that objects are withdrawn. We are said to be guilty of both denying freedom and defending too much freedom.
Latour first asks why, for the antihumanists, the elements on the “soft” side of the equation (religion, consumption, politics) happen to be all the things social scientists seem to hate, while those on the “hard” side, the objective forces, are always things like economics, genetics, biology, linguistics, and brain science. In other words, he seems to think there’s something arbitrary about these lists.
Second, and more importantly, however, he remarks that “…it is not clear why society needs to be projected on to arbitrary objects if those objects count for nothing” (54). If the humanist mode of critique is true, why is it that humans need to undergo this curious detour whereby we encounter our own concepts in alienated form. However, Latour continues,
…if religion, arts or styles are necessary to ‘reflect’, ‘reify’, ‘materialize’, ’embody’ society– to use some of the social theorists’ favorite verbs –then are objects not, in the end, its co-producers? Is not society built literally– not metaphorically –of gods, machines, sciences, arts and styles?… Maybe social scientists have simply forgotten that before projecting itself on to things society has to be made, built, constructed? And out of what material could it be built if not out of nonsocial, non-human resources? (54)
This, I believe, is Latour’s core thesis: society must be built. Society does not explain, but is precisely that which must be explained. And wherever we refer to social forces and the like to explain such and such a phenomenon, we’ve skipped this step. Under the most charitable interpretation, Latour’s point is not that there aren’t projections or that there aren’t objective forces, but that 1) the form social relations take cannot be completely explained through projections or naturalizations, and 2) that humans cannot be entirely reduced to marionettes of so-called objective forces. In other words, Latour sides with both the humanist and the antihumanist, while nonetheless arguing that there’s an additional missing term, a missing mass, in their social explanations: nonhuman entities.
Latour, following Serres, refers to these missing terms as “quasi-objects”. Quasi-objects are objects that are neither quite natural nor quite social. Like Deleuze’s aleatory point, they are operators that draw people together in particular relations as well as drawing people into relations with other nonhuman objects while being irreducible social constructions in the semiotic in the humanist sense. As Serres puts it in The Parasite, “…quasi-object[s] [are] not… object[s], but [they are objects] nevertheless, since [they are] not subject[s], since [they are] in the world” (225).
Serres gives a gorgeous example to illustrate this point in terms of the game of soccer. Here I quote at length:
A ball is not an ordinary object, for it is what it is only if a subject holds it. Over there, on the ground, it is nothing; it is stupid; it has no meaning, no function, and no value. Ball isn’t played alone. Those who do, those who hog the ball, are bad players and are soon excluded from the game. They are said to be selfish. The collective game doesn’t need persons, people out for themselves. Let us consider the one who holds it. If he makes it move around him, he is awkward, a bad player. The ball isn’t there fore the body; the exact contrary is true: the body is the object of the ball; the subject moves around this sun. Skill with the ball is recognized in the player who follows the ball and serves it instead of making it follow him and using it. It is the subject of the body, subject of bodies, and like a subject of subjects. Playing is nothing else but making oneself the attribute of the ball as a substance. The laws are written for it, defined relative to it, and we bend to these laws. Skill with the ball supposes a Ptolemaic revolution of which few theoreticians are capable, since they are accustomed to being subjects in a Copernican world where objects are slaves. (225 – 226)
What is Serres’s point? His point is that while we bring the ball to life by using it, the ball nonetheless has a sort of “quasi-agency” that it exercises upon us in this use that cannot be reduced to mere “social construction”. The ball has, as we all know, its own physics. In interacting with the ball we must bend our bodies to this physics to become adept with the ball. The ball is not a simple slave of our intentions, but also modifies our intentions. And here, as an aside, it can be pointed out that this point encapsulates Latour’s thesis that objects are “actants”. The point has never been that objects have some sort of mysterious intentionality or self-directedness like animals and human objects, but that objects bend, as Serres puts it, our intentions in ways that can’t be strictly attributed to us. They are participants, not mere recipients, in our action. But that is not all. As the ball flies up and down the field in both its aleatory fashion and as a result of the actions of the soccer players, it brings the soccer players together in constantly shifting configurations or relations with one another. The ball is a key “player”– pardon the pun –in why people come to relate in this way rather than that way at each point in the game. This is why the ball is no less a quasi-subject than a quasi-object. The point here is that so long as we reduce the ball to a mere social construction, so long as we treat it as a mere screen for human and social intentions, we miss a big part of the story as to why the players are brought together in the way they are and why their relations constantly shift.
The domain of quasi-objects, of course, does not end here. Monies, technologies, animals, microbes, and natural resources can all come and do come to function as quasi-objects. These quasi-objects all bend human practices in a variety of ways and constant configure and reconfigure human relations amongst one another. Attentiveness to quasi-objects and how they bend human practices and configure and reconfigure human relations can shed light on vexing questions of why people continue to endure certain oppressive conditions despite being aware that they are oppressive. As a consequence, these concepts can help us to devise new strategies of political engagement that while recognizing the importance of the ideological in structuring social relations opens other modes of engagement beyond simple demystifying critique.