My way to Speculative Realism was through Harman’s was through Harman’s Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. It’s difficult, after all these years, to convey the sense of excitement I felt when reading this book. I had felt it before, my first year of graduate school when reading Zizek’s Sublime Object of Ideology (I actually dreamed about that book). There I felt as if an entire opaque world of theory opened up to me that both allowed me to understand the thought of figures such as Lacan but, more importantly, that allowed me to put that theory to work and comprehend the world around me. Harman, of course, is a consummate stylist. There is a certain charm and style to his writing that is difficult to put your finger on. Often it occurs in the margins, when the reader comes across offhand asides that he makes such as his observation that “Callon and Latour aim this same arrow at the Marxist Left, though they bury their bold remark deep in a footnote, as so often happens with young researchers” (Bruno Latour: Reassambling the Social, 28). In such passages one senses that it’s as if there’s a sort of shadow philosophy (or theory of discourse?) that inhabits his explicit philosophy (object-oriented philosophy) about the dynamics of social relations.
However, over and above his stylistic virtues, my experience reading Prince of Networks was one of having an entirely new world, barely glimpsed before, open up to me. Whether one agrees with him or not– and I’ve disagreed with him quite a bit over the years –it’s hard not to hear a symphony when reading his work and thought process and to experience sparks fly in ones own thought. In the case of Prince of Networks, and steeped as I was– and continue to be –in the traditions of critical theory, semiotics, semiotics, rhetorical analysis, social constructivism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis, the unfolding of the role objects (or what Latour calls “actants”) play in our social assemblages was a revelation for me. I had focused a great deal on the agency of the signifier and the power it exerts, but now suddenly the humble speed bump revealed itself as an agent of power, not by virtue of what it signifies, nor by virtue of the ideology it embodies, but by virtue of what it does. To be sure, we can treat the speed bump as what Pierce would call the “sign-vehicle” of an interpretant or signified and interpret it as a text. We can also analyze it as the embodiment, expression, or “coagulation” of an ideological formation. But, to take a term from Maurizio Ferraris, there is something “unamendable” about the speed bump as a speed bump that is irreducible to ideology and signification that consists in a power of being. Regardless of whether we’re able to read the text ideological or otherwise, the speed bump compels us to slow down by virtue of what it does or what it is. Perhaps a trite and obvious observation, but herein lies an entirely different form of power that, while it might be intertwined with textualities of all sorts with respect to the sort of chiasmatic ontology I’ve been gropingly attempting to develop, is not a matter of semiotic or suspicious deciphering.
I find myself overcome with a similar encounter as I read one of his recent works, Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political. One of the nagging questions that’s beset speculative realism and object-oriented ontology since the beginning (and here I think that the new materialist feminisms are further along) is that of just what a speculative realist and object-oriented politics might look like. In this regard, I’m often reminded of something Haraway said in her talk at a conference devoted to things at Claremont University: “I feel as if I’m still learning how to use ‘speculative realism’ in a sentence”. I feel as if I’m still learning how to use “object-oriented ontology” and “speculative realism” in claims about political theory.
I don’t know that Graham has managed to fully answer this question in Reassembling the Political, but as those who have a talent for opening new trajectories of thought so often do, I think he has certainly gone a long way in developing the framework in which such questions might be posed. Before proceeding to a brief discussion of the way in which he breaches a new way of talking about the political, it’s important to pause and mention his authorial voice in texts such as this. In the case of Deleuze’s studies of figures such as Hume, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bergson, Leibniz, and Foucault, it’s often noted that it’s impossible to determine who is speaking. Is this Leibniz or is it Deleuze? Leibniz becomes something that is other than Leibniz in his encounter with Deleuze while remaining Leibniz. Something similar seems to take place in Harman’s studies. Is this Heidegger or Harman? Is it Lovecraft or Harman? Is it Latour or Harman? Continental philosophy in the Anglo world has often been defined by a rut of commentary. I think this methodology of writing, this way of really encountering a text– perhaps a form of what Harman elsewhere analyzes under the titles of metaphor and mimesis in the context of aesthetics –is both the most productive form of commentary and the finest strategy for escaping the rut of commentary in the Continental tradition. As he argues with respect to Ortega y Gasset’s theory of metaphor, when the reader encounters a sentence such as “the tree is like a flame”, it is not that the poet is imitating the tree, but rather that the reader is invited to become the tree. Something like this is at work in Harman’s generous readings of other thinkers.
I will not do Harman nearly the justice that he deserves in this post as I’m still reading and its late, but– to deploy a somewhat overused trope —Reassembling the Political invites something of a Copernican Revolution in how we think the political and political theory. As I have argued elsewhere both on this blog and in Onto-Cartography, the key problem of the social and political is not so much how change is possible, but why it doesn’t happen all the time. In other words, it’s a problem of entropy and negentropy. I will not get into all of the details of the concept of entropy in information theory and physics here, but it is a question of order. Why is it, we can ask, that social assemblages are not a random chaos of cloud-like brownian motion rather than the persistent and patterned organization that we instead find in the world around us? What is it that allows patterned organization in the social world– what in another register we might refer to as “power” –to persist and endure? After all, we are dealing with assemblages of differing subjectivities that perpetually misunderstand each other.
Representationalist social and political theory would have it that it is shared beliefs, ideologies, and languages that function as the glue that holds entropy at bay. In other words, it is what Latour calls the “social” or the “representational” that prevents us from falling into entropic brownian motion. However, in a clever move, Harman-Latour argues that we find the “politics of the social” in its purest form among the other primates such as chimpanzees where every social action must be negotiated anew in each social encounter. As a consequence, there is a high degree of flexibility in these social assemblages. Paradoxically, for Harman-Latour it is through a process of desocialization that the “social” is about to ground itself in a negentropic fashion. As Harman writes, “[r]ather than having to construct society out of a formless state of nature, humans are involved in a systematic process of desocialization, using nonhuman entities to mediate interaction with our fellows” (24).
What does this mean? It means that the glue that holds us together in social relations is not so much our discourses, laws, conceptual schemes, and so on, as nonhuman entities like roads, documents, speed bumps, tattoos, etc, that function as traces of social bonds and that function as catalysts of ongoing social bonds. There’s so much more I want to say about this both critically and in drawing out its implications, but I’ll have to set that aside for the time being. What I do wish to suggest here is that if the political is to be found, in part, in the domain of objects or nonhumans, then this suggests that the site of political engagement lies in assembling nonhumans. In addition to loud and lively sites such as a protest or an online political debate where one strives to persuade others, the political would also consist in both disassembling certain assemblages of nonhumans that pattern relations between people in particular ways, and assembling relations among nonhumans to forge different patterned ways of beings among persons. The imperative of an object-oriented politics would thus be, quite literally, “build something!” or, to put it nicely, “deconstruct something!” (and, it goes without saying, in a quite literal way).