Continuing from yesterday’s post on Graham Harman… (Warning: This post is long.)
Where Tool-Being presented a Heidegger flushed clean of his anthropocentrism, Prince of Networks takes Bruno Latour for a ride on a philosophical adventure toward a world not of actors and networks but of objects, pure if not so simple. The book’s first half provides a detailed, clear, entertaining, and precise exegesis of Latour’s metaphysics through an examination of his claims in four books: Irreductions, Science in Action, We Have Never Been Modern, and Pandora’s Hope. The second, slightly longer half investigates some philosophical problems his actor-network theory opens up; explores lengthy detours through Meillassoux (on relationism and correlationism), Whitehead, Husserl (immanent objectivity), speculative realism, and other by-ways; and ends with a detailed explication of Harman’s object-oriented philosophy, which, the argument goes, is made possible by Latour’s ‘flat ontology’ and deepened through Heidegger’s tool-being (with the aid of Zubiri and others), but which is ultimately Harman’s own. In effect, this is Harman building an all-star collective, enrolling Latour (who participates vicariously) and Heidegger (who’s too dead to tell us whether he’d go along with the project or not), with assistance from others, against the revolution by which Immanuel Kant installed humans at the philosophical center of everything.
The Latour presented here is the one who follows the painstaking assembly of the obdurate networks that make up the world, not by positing causal determinants, explanatory mechanisms located on a level separate from and therefore unaffected by the machinations of the level which they describe, but by placing them all on the same epistemological playing field and then ‘following the actors’ to see how they build their worlds. Latour’s world is one of actors or ‘actants’ (about whom we need make no further assumptions except that they can be said to act) forging alliances and/or resisting those alliances.
“Every actor is a proposition: a surprising marriage of components that never expected to find themselves together, or which were at least surprised by the exact nature of their union. And ‘the relation established between propositions is not that of a correspondence across a yawning gap, but what I will call articulation’.” (Pandora’s Hope, p. 142)
Of course, the actors in this system are not self-evident, because for the most part what we see when we look at the world are ‘black boxes,’ things that have been invented to keep us from looking too closely at how they have been arranged.
“In a sense, all human activity aims to create black boxes. [...] In forming a friendship, settling a marriage, or composing a manuscript, our hope is to establish something durable that does not constantly fray or break down. […] By definition, a black box is low-maintenance. It is something we rely on as a given in order to take further steps, never worrying about how it came into being.” (PON pp. 37-8)
“Like Heidegger’s tools, a black box allows us to forget the massive network of alliances of which it is composed, as long as it functions smoothly. Actants are born amidst strife and controversy, yet they eventually congeal into a stable configuration. But simply reawaken the controversy, reopen the black box, and you will see once more that the actant has no sleek unified essence.” (34)
Harman’s goal is to show the boldness and fruitfulness a Latourian turn would bring with it, if we were to take it. A Latourian metaphysics fills in the gaps too often subsumed into clunky metaphysical structures or neglected altogether, and it fills them with the detailed richness of the immanent world of real things — which makes of it not a philosophy to end all philosophies, but merely a corrective that would take us out of our anthropocentric cul-de-sac and onto a different, more promising road:
“If Kant’s Copernican Revolution placed humans at the center of philosophy while reducing the rest of the world to an unknowable set of objects, what Latour recommends is a Counter-Revolution.” (59)
One of the goals of Harman’s book, then, “is to open the black box of the stale analytic/continental [philosophical] dual monarchy, exposing its interior to the blows of sunlight, eagles, and dogs”: (45)
“Whereas Latour places all human, nonhuman, natural, and artificial objects on the same footing, the analytics and continentals both still dither over how to bridge, ignore, deny, or explain away a single gap between humans and world. While graduate students are usually drilled in a stale dispute between correspondence and coherence theories of truth, Latour locates truth in neither of these models, but in a series of translations between actors. And whereas mainstream philosophy worries about whether things exist independently of us or are constructed by the mind, Latour says they are ‘socially’ constructed not just by human minds, but also by bodies, atoms, cosmic rays, business lunches, rumors, physical force, propaganda, or God. There is no privileged force to which the others can be reduced, and certainly no ceaseless interplay between pure natural forces and pure social forces, each untainted by the other.” (16)
The promise, then, is that “When the centaur of classical metaphysics is mated with the cheetah of actor-network theory, their offspring is not some hellish monstrosity, but a thoroughbred colt able to carry us for half a century and more.” (p. 5)
All of this is to the good, in my view, and I won’t go into the reasons why I enthusiastically support it (though I’ve given some arguments here, here, and here). The political, or ‘cosmopolitical,‘ promise of Latour’s approach is one that attracts me especially, though it’s also one that’s been questioned rather incisively. A piece of the answer to that questioning is that a Latourian, actor-network analysis makes it possible for us to conceive of things being crafted differently than they are:
“Systems are assembled at great pains, one actant at a time, and loopholes always remain. We are not the pawns of sleek power-machines grinding us beneath their heels like pathetic Nibelungen. We may be fragile, but so are the powerful.” (22)
Another piece has to do with what Latour in his later writings, following philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers, has been calling ‘cosmopolitics.’ I’ll return to that below.
The remainder of my response, however, will take up an issue with Harman’s own object-oriented metaphysical project, and with one of the close alternatives he discusses but opts against, an alternative he refers to as “relationism.” I should state at the outset that as a non-philosopher (and not necessarily only in the Laruellian sense of the word), or at least as a not-quite-(strictly-speaking)-philosopher, I’m not the best-equipped person to make the kind of critique I’ll be attempting here. I’m in part taking advantage of the medium (a blog) and of the blog-heavy presence of speculative realism and related philosophical movements to forward it here rather than in the safer venue of a journal that won’t likely be read by too many actual philosophers, or at least speculative realists, or the still safer venue of a private diary or a conversation at a cafe with those even less well informed than I am. But here goes…
At this point I’ll plead the same amendment that Harman relies on in his discussion of Quentin Meillassoux. Harman writes that he finds himself “in the strange position of not wanting to convince” Meillassoux “that he is wrong”:
“For in the first place, none of us can ever be sure that we have found the proper starting point for philosophy; even a successful annihilation of opposing positions merely strips diversity from the gene pool, which should only be done if we are absolutely sure that they are faulty genes. And in the second place, my disagreement with Meillassoux’s pro-correlationist outlook does not lessen my admiration for all the exotic fruits and birds that spring from it. (167)
– at which point he launches into an eighteen-page demolition of Meillassoux’s argument (about correlationism), ending with: “Everyone knows the old Chinese proverb about the finger pointing at the moon and the fool looking at the finger. But correlationism is even worse, since it claims that the moon is made of fingers. This is not just folly, but a form of madness.“ (185)
Like Harman to Meillassoux, I also want Harman to continue developing his object-oriented philosophy, not least because I enjoy it and because he might be right. I follow his arguments like a good boy scout through the woods of an entertaining and wise guide, and I like where they lead. In particular, I like the Heideggerian turns and the destination, which ends up in a four-fold picture-postcard meadow where he outlines the promise of an object-oriented metaphysics of ‘time, space, essence, and eidos.’
At the same time, there’s a (heavy-ish) part of me that gets stuck along the way, stuck in the mud at a few of the forks posted with signs marked ‘Relationism: Not worth going here.’ Somewhere beyond those posts I imagine alluring but unexplored alternative trails veering off into the woods, perhaps towards waterfalls and overlooks more exciting than the ones ahead on the main trail.
Objects, relations, and the passage between
What, then, is this ‘relationist’ path not taken?
“It would certainly be fruitful to consider Latour’s similarities and differences with fellow non-analytic/non-continental (i.e., basically non-Kantian) thinkers such as Alfred North Whitehead, Henri Bergson, William James, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Serres, Gilbert Simondon, Gabriel Tarde, Etienne Souriau, and Latour’s own friend Isabelle Stengers. But when this emerging ‘School X’ is promoted under such misleading titles as ‘process philosophy’ or ‘philosophy of immanence’, the result is a false sense of beatnik brotherhood. For in fact, there is a major family quarrel underway on this list over a highly classical problem: the isolation and interbleeding of individual things. On one side are figures like Bergson and Deleuze, for whom a generalized becoming precedes any crystallization into specific entities. On the other side we find authors such as Whitehead and Latour, for whom entities are so highly definite that they vanish instantly with the slightest change in their properties. For the first group, substance is too determinate to be real; for the second, it is too indeterminate to be real.” (6)
Harman acknowledges that relationism, “the view that a thing is defined solely by its effects and alliances rather than by a lonely inner kernel of essence, is the paradoxical heart of Latour’s position, responsible for all his breakthroughs and possible excesses.” (75; italics added) This kinship with Whitehead, et al, comes from a desire to overcome the “privileged rift between world and humans,” the appearance that there are “‘two disjointed spheres separated by a unique and radical gap that must be reduced to the search for correspondence […] between words and the world’” (quoted from Pandora’s Hope, p. 69). “Much like Whitehead,” Harman continues, “Latour fragments this gap to infinity, placing it everywhere in the world. Everywhere, the universe is riddled with gaps. But they are by no means unbridgeable, since they are crossed constantly by the work of translation.” (75-6)
For Latour, this translation “is ubiquitous: any relation is a mediation, never some pristine transmission of data across a noiseless vacuum.” (77) “While Descartes fretted over the gap between mind and body, Latour is closer to Malebranche and his Arab ancestors, who needed God to enable even the collision of grains of dust—since here too there was a gap, though not one between minds and bodies. Instead of calling on divine intervention, Latour finds his mediators locally.” (77) In fact, “Latour is probably the first thinker in history to invent a local option for occasional cause—one not passing through God (as in al-Ash‘ari, Malebranche, and even Whitehead) or the human mind (as when Hume and Kant turn human habit or categories into the seat of all relations). In my view, this is Latour’s single greatest breakthrough in metaphysics, one that will be associated with his name for centuries to come.” (82)
Latour, then, makes immanent what has always been transcendent (whether it was conceived as a godly force somewhere over yonder, a physical one buried deep in the structure of things, or a uniquely human space at the central vanishing point in the middle of everything). But he does this at a cost, a cost Harman feels is too high, that being the cost of losing the non-relational essence of objects. If all things are relational, then they are ultimately not anything. He credits Latour with being more ‘boldly consistent’ than Whitehead insofar as his things do not change; they merely perish. “Entities for Latour must be a perpetual perishing, since they cannot survive even the tiniest change in their properties. Whitehead partly escapes this consequence by contrasting ‘societies’ (which can endure) with actual entities or occasions (which cannot).” (104)
The problem with relationism, Harman argues, is that by reducing a thing to its relations, it results in a homogeneity that is unable to account for change or movement:
“insofar as an object is more than its relations it must stand apart from any supposed monism of the world-as-a-whole, since a homogeneous universe of this kind merely gives us the most radical form of relationism—with everything dissolving into everything else in a vast holistic stew.” (152)
But surely not everything dissolves in the same way, at the same rate, into everything else equally? Rather, things arise and dissolve out of their specific conditional contexts and, in turn, give rise to others. Must it be all or nothing — distinct and solid, non-relating entities, or one formless ocean?
Harman’s solution is to posit a two-leveled ontology, one in which there are not just objects, or not just relations, but rather there are two kinds of objects: ‘real’ objects and ‘intentional’ or ‘sensual’ objects. Following Husserl, quite interestingly, he divides “experience itself” “in half between unified objects and the diverse contents through which they become manifest.” (193) Unlike Brentano, Husserl’s teacher, who “thinks all consciousness is grounded in presentation, Husserl modifies this principle to say that all consciousness is grounded in objectifying acts.” (198) (This reminds me of Whitehead’s notion that subjectification and objectification are two sides of the same process characterizing all action/experience; but Harman doesn’t note that connection.) “Real objects,” in this view, “withdraw from our access to them, in fully Heideggerian fashion. The metaphors of concealment, veiling, sheltering, harboring, and protecting are all relevant here.” (193-4) They
“ withdraw from all human view and even from all relations with each other. This was the conclusion of the previous section [of the book], which rejected all ‘radical’ attempts to collapse objects into a monistic world-lump, a virtual realm of pre-individuals, a reductionist cosmos of rock-hard atoms entering larger ‘functional’ units, a correlational circle of human and world, or a global relational network à la Whitehead and Latour. Real objects belong to a pre-relational dimension in which they cannot make direct contact of any sort.” (195)
Being non- or pre-relational, “belonging” in fact “to a pre-relational dimension” (195), real objects make no contact with other objects. ‘Intentional’ or ‘sensual objects’, on the other hand, are completely relational. And real objects connect with other objects only by way of sensual/intentional objects acting as their mediators. So there are real objects, which include persons, markets, rocketships, black holes, the Speculative Realist movement, et al., and there are sensual or intentional objects, which include thoughts and representations of real objects. “The world is composed of countless layers of withdrawn real things, each with a molten core where one of its real pieces confronts the sensual image of another piece, thereby forming a bridge between one layer of reality and the next.” (215)
To this distinction between the real and the sensual or intentional (is this the same as “perceived”?) — “the real sunflower (assuming it exists) and the sensual translation of it that appears to humans or other entities” — Harman later adds another distinction between “the real moments that the sunflower needs in order to be what it is, and the accidental specific qualities through which the sensual sunflower is incarnated in the experience of perceivers” (206-7) to build the four-fold objectology that comes towards the end of the book.
Unlike Harman, however, Latour, like Whitehead, has no concept of an “enduring kernel” in objects that would be different from their relations or their “palpable qualities.” What I’m not convinced of, however, is that the ‘enduring kernel’ cannot also be fully relational. “I”, for instance, include in myself more-or-less-internal relational networks such as the formal-systemic relations between my face, limbs, torso, brain, and so on — relations which are fairly strong, stable, enduring, readily reproducing — as well as others, such as those I experience as my thoughts, moods, individual sensations, and the like, which are more changeable, but also still relations; none can exist without some others, just as I don’t think I could exist apart from others, relational accomplices and allies from bacterial microorganisms to friends and relatives to those whose bodies become my dinner. Being a body is that sort of thing, and being a mind is no different (not that I believe there are two such things); whatever identity there is in me is fully relational, and I don’t mind that at all.
The difference between Harman’s real objects and his sensual/intentional objects is that “whereas a real object is always more than the specific qualities that we ascribe to it, an intentional object is always less. A real tree withdraws into the dusk of its being, and is never fully expressed by any of its distinct features. By contrast, an intentional tree is always before us as soon as we see a tree, or think we see a tree.” (199) To which I would reply: what is the tree apart from its wood and bark, the creatures that burrow into in it, the expansion and movement of its limbs in relation to the sun, the flow of nutritive juices between soil and branches, etc. etc. – in other words, all the relational networks in which the tree is enveloped and manifests as ‘this tree’? What is a river apart from the valley in which it flows and which it carves over time, the rains that supply it and the ocean (or gravity) that draws it forward, the plants and fish and oxygen that move about in it, etc.? Is there a ghostly ‘essence’ to each of these that’s somehow unrelated to all these things, that underlies it in some subterranean domain but makes no contact with the fish, the forest, the soil, the air? We call it a ‘river’ and give it such and such a name (the Mississippi, the Thames), but a fish swimming in it has no need to call it that. Why should a human habit of identifying it as ‘river’ prevail such that an object-oriented ontology should recognize it as such and not as something else?
In Harman’s system, the river would seem to be a real object and would therefore relate to other real objects through the mediation of sensual or intentional objects. But this would require positing that a salmon swimming upstream to spawn is not relating directly to the river but is relating to some sensual or intentional object (as in a representation) that it may have of the river. So there’s a layer of reality made up of discrete, disconnected, and relatively invariable things that are unknowable to each other; and another layer of relations made between those things through other kinds of objects (called sensual or intentional objects) which are internal to the first kind (the real) — though they must somehow also be able to exit their hosts so as to meet the objects on the outside in order for that connection or relation to happen. Why couldn’t we just posit the salmon and the river: the salmon equipped with certain capacities for swimming upstream, dealing with river currents, etc., because the relations that have constituted them have made them that sort of thing; and the river also being its sort of thing as a result of the constitutive relations that have made it so, however fleetingly and contingently, in an unceasing forward movement of ever grasping, ever becoming (subjectifying/objectifying) relationality?
If by definition, as Harman seems to imply, a uni-leveled ontology, like those of Latour and his relationist brethren, must decide whether it consists of non-relating pieces or a big blurred mass, then Whitehead and Deleuze would probably also opt for multiple levels, at least one of which is thoroughly relational and one of which is somehow slower, more crystallized and compacted, more ‘black-boxed.’ (In fact, Deleuze does just that with his actual/virtual distinction.) But can’t a single-leveled universe consist of relative consistencies/stabilities and relative blurrings/relations, simultaneously reproducing and transforming each other as they go?
Another example related to this inability of relational ontologies to deal with change (or to deal with stasis, since Whitehead and Deleuze seem ultimately to be about change rather than stasis) is Harman’s “sitting-man”: “If the sitting man is inherently ‘sitting-man’ through and through, then there is admittedly no way to turn him into ‘standing-man’. What we are seeking instead is simply the ‘man’ who can either stand or sit.” (130) But a relationist could reply that ‘sitting man’ is never simply reducible to some “inherently ‘sitting-man’ through-and-through” but is always, rather, sitting-man who has sat and stood and even learned how to walk and who is the sum total of experiences that have gone into constituting the one who is currently sitting and who may tomorrow walk, jump, or collapse into a heap. To say that sitting-man (let’s call him S.) is capable of getting up does not, to my mind, necessarily mean rejecting a relational universe within which S’s capabilities were co-produced through countless interactions that led to the situation being as it is with S. and his world. Why do the results of those co-articulations need to be siphoned off into an understory of “the real S.,” “S. held in reserve”? Why can’t they be simply there, whether encoded into his neurons and memory systems or whatever else (or into “S.”, the fictional character whom we’ve agreed to grant the dignity of personhood because it suits us to do that in a socially constituted world)? Are these two views of reality – S. as rich in the fullness of his relations (which are not reducible to his sitting, but include capacities for movement, neural ‘memory’, etc.) versus S. as his relations PLUS a hidden ‘tool-being’ reserve – necessarily incommensurate with each other?
“If not for this basic asymmetry between an actor’s components and its alliances, we would have a purely holistic cosmos. Everything would be defined to an equal degree by the actors above it as below it, and there would be no place in reality not defined utterly by its context. But this is by no means what happens. What happens instead is that components sometimes unite to form a new actor, an ‘emergent’ reality irreducible to its pieces.” (131)
But isn’t there local context and the context to that context, relations closer and more distant? Latour’s view of reality as ‘black boxes all the way down’ sounds like a Buddhist onto-phenomenalist view of reality as contextually co-produced all the way down. (Of course, Buddhism, like Whitehead, smuggles in an ‘occasionalist’ god, though ultimately it’s not a god but simply the — posited — nature of things. But that’s another topic.)
“Take the example of a great philosophical work—say, Heidegger’s Being and Time. The relationist would say that this book is no more than what it ‘modifies, transforms, perturbs, or creates’. At this very moment, Being and Time is modifying, transforming, perturbing, and creating a certain number of objects, mostly human ones. But is this really the whole of its reality? We can easily perform the thought-experiment of imagining other interpreters coming onto the scene. What they would be interpreting in this case is Being and Time itself, not the sum total of other interpretations.” (186)
But this is not so clear-cut. When Harman says “At this very moment, Being and Time is modifying . . .”, he appears to be positing some non-time-bound essence to the text. But Being and Time (and one could hardly have chosen a better book for making this argument) is and has always been time-bound. It was produced as a manuscript over several years, got published in German, then translated, read, interpreted, debated, etc. Being and Time in 2009 is not the same as Being and Time was in 1933, or in 1965. The words are more or less the same, but their meanings have changed (if only marginally), the intellectual debates within which those words carry meaning have also changed (which adds to the different meanings they are likely to engender in readers), its readers have changed significantly (which is why Harman’s interpretation was not possible in 1960 but is now). Being and Time today is constituted by a different set of relations, which have accrued over the years onto the relations that constituted it at some point in the past.
For Harman, “an actor is not identical with whatever it modifies, transforms, perturbs, or creates, but always remains underdetermined by those effects.” Yes, perhaps.. But who will ever be able to sum up every single ‘effect’ that actor’s relations are involved in at any given point in time? In the same way, to say that “we can discover new features of the black hole at any time, and this does not mean that the black hole is no longer a black hole“ (184-5) does not negate the fact that our idea of the black hole will have undergone a change. Whatever the “black hole” is or will one day, like Pasteur’s microbes, be discovered to have been “all along,” what we’ll have discovered is that we hadn’t grasped the “sum total of effects” of the black hole as fully as we do now. Doesn’t GH’s complaint about reducing an object to its “sum total of effects” presume that we, or someone, can know that “sum total of effects,” and in this sense is it not a sneaking-back-in of the human-world correlate, or at least a knower-known correlate, back into the picture? If an object is conceived of not as a static “thing” in a stop-motion world, but as something more like a recognizable form (a black box, a Whiteheadian ‘society’, a collection of actual entities or emergent processes that work together more than they work at odds with each other; and the term “form” is one Harman himself used in Tool-Being) that by its very nature undergoes perpetual change and does this in relationship to an environment made up of other such forms, then where else could there be a “hidden reserve” if not in the actual relational processes that make it up?
To reiterate, Harman accepts Aristotle’s critique of the Megarians (p. 187ff.) that “if a thing is entirely relational, then there would be no reason for it to change”; to which the relationist can reply, unless change is its very nature (and there are so many ways of changing, being active, moving, enacting…). GH: “The thing would be fully deployed or exhausted in its reality here and now, and the same would be true of all of the things with which it relates.” Relationist: unless there is no “here and now”; there’s only “here becoming here, now becoming now,” or seen in a rearview mirror, “here becoming there, now becoming then” (with our use of the same word clouding our perception of the difference between this ’here’ and that ’here’).
GH: “Unless the thing holds something in reserve behind its current relations, nothing would ever change. [. . .] The only thing that will fit the bill is a nonrelational actuality: objects that exist quite apart from their relation to other objects, and even apart from their relation to their own pieces.” Relationist: But what are these objects that exist “quite apart from their relation to other objects”? Where are the things held in reserve? How, and by whom?
Finally, back to Whitehead:
“To remove Whitehead from Harvard and put him at Stanford would only destroy Whitehead for those (such as Whitehead himself) who accept the strange doctrine that a thing is entirely defined by its relations. Far more drastic than forcing Whitehead to leave Harvard would be to remove all of his body parts, or to shatter his soul in the bowels of the underworld. In these latter cases the effect would be truly destructive. Nonetheless, all the cells in Whitehead’s body can be replaced by similar ones without destroying Whitehead, and in this sense an object is partly independent of its own pieces just as it is fully independent of its relations with other things.” (187-8)
But what about removing Whitehead from academe and putting him into the elementary school system, or into prison, or into the White House? As for the cells, they are replaced, and change; they are not the same cells when he is 55 as when he was 15. But the form stays roughly the same. This is akin to cognitive biologists Maturana’s and Varela’s proposition that all living systems maintain their form while interacting with their environments (which they call autopoiesis). In its later form, in Varela’s Buddhist inspired rendition, this thesis becomes the idea that the world of a living being or organism is ‘enacted’ in the ‘structural coupling’ of that organism with its environment. The path, as he puts it (and this is all there is, paths all the way down) is laid down in walking. What is staying the same here, and what is changing? Certain formal, systemic — i.e. relational — properties (which Harman would call internal relations) are no doubt staying somewhat the same, though probably not exactly, as every step opens the form up to possible modifications. But is there some hidden thing-in-itself that remains entirely outside of – fully cut off from – the realm of relationality for forty years? And if not for forty years, then why even for a moment? Whitehead’s thoughts, desires, etc., all have changed and matured a great deal over the course of those forty years, even if some of them have reiterated themselves over and over in the process of relating to the things they have encountered. If there is to be a ‘Whitehead-in-himself,’ or for that matter a train, laser beam, or word, apart from the relations that constitute each of them, then where is that Whitehead to be found, especially if he is stripped of his name, his parents and language, his brain cells and his physical nourishment?
I don’t think this is playing naughty Humean games, since, not being Whitehead, I can ask myself whether and what the inherent, unchanging essence of the thing I identify as ‘Adrian Ivakhiv’ might be. And the best methods of introspective self-analysis I’ve come up with haven’t allowed me to identify such an unchanging being. But getting into what those methods are and why I consider them the best, would get us back to a Buddhism that I’m leaving aside, since it hasn’t been properly domesticated into a western philosophical context yet.
Harman acknowledges that Latour, despite his uni-leveled ontology, has a way out to all this, which is his as-yet-undeveloped notion of ‘plasma,’ introduced briefly in an earlier text but expanded on in the more recent Reassembling the Social. Plasma is “that which is not yet formatted, not yet measured, not yet socialized, not yet engaged in metrological chains, and not yet covered, surveyed, mobilized, or subjectified’ (RS, pp. 243-4). It is “in between and not made of social stuff. It is not hidden, simply unknown [… like] a vast hinterland […, like] the countryside for an urban dweller […, like] the missing masses for a cosmologist trying to balance out the weight of the universe” (RS, p. 244). (quote on p. 133)
“To escape relationism means to establish a metaphysics of the plasma or missing mass to which Latour refers. Only one note of caution is needed: there is no good reason to agree with Latour that the plasma has no format, since this would imply that all format must come from relations. [. . .] To summarize: mediating objects are always needed between any two objects, but a mediator would be needed to touch the mediator as well, and on to infinity. Hence, the world must also be filled with a non-objective gas or plasma in which direct contact is possible. That plasma is found on the interior of objects themselves.” (134, 147)
I like this plasma, and I also agree with Harman that it needs further mediation. In a sense, ‘plasma’ plays a similar function for Latour as Heidegger’s self-withdrawing of Being (and I admire Heidegger’s reluctance to even speculate as to where it is where it is that Being withdraws), Deleuze’s ‘virtual’ (and one of the other thorny issues I have with Harman’s presentation is that fails to convey the commanalities and shared sympathies between Latour and Deleuze), and Whitehead’s ‘extensive continuum.’ But it’s a little too vague to be useful for the kind of object-anthropological project that actor-network theory was developed to serve. As I’ve argued elsewhere, John Law’s conception of multiple ‘outsides’ or ‘hinterlands’ fares better in this respect, as it allows an analyst to focus on the fractal differences between rival network enactments or assemblages, which each of which produces somewhat different ‘outsides’ or ‘absences’ from out of the reality-possibilities making up their ‘hinterlands.’ For an ontological politics (or cosmopolitics), an undifferentiated ‘plasma’ remains too much like the formless ocean Harman critiques.
But terms, as Continental philosophers know (and analytic philosophers tend to regret or deny), are metaphorical (‘plasma’, ‘objects’, ‘actual occasions’, ‘becomings’), and our choice of terminology is more a choice of the more useful and evocative metaphors — a matter of communication, of cognitive-affective connection, resonance, and alliance-building — than of the dry description of reality. For Latour, the metaphors include black boxes, and therefore translators, ‘all the way down.’ And to the extent that translation is something akin to what Gregory Bateson referred to as ‘difference that makes a difference,’ it’s also communication all the way down — which brings us into the orbit of biosemiotics and of another figure who I wonder if Harman might, in a future work, weave into his thinking (whether positively or not): Jakob von Uexküll. My hunch is that von Uexküll’s notion of ‘umwelten’ democratizes phenomenology beyond the human (as Neil Evernden argued, and as Brett Buchanan suggests), and that as a result of an Uexküllian shift, Latour’s actants would each become world-bearing, not merely there in the flick of the moment of a relational event, but actively pursuing this thing or that thing, or many things at once. But this would depend on their being world-bearing, in capacity at least, to start with. Biologists, like Maturana and Varela, allow this kind of capacity for living things; a post-Uexküllian Latour or Harman might allow it for other things as well. Others, like complexity theorist Stuart Kaufmann (or, for that matter, Manuel DeLanda), attempt to account for how it might come into existence where it doesn’t appear to start with. We may never be able to pin down the place at which the non-world-bearing becomes the world-bearing, nor to measure the quantity of ‘world’ to be found in any object-relation or network. But I’m not convinced that an ontology of objects provides as sharp a set of tools for getting at that world-bearingness as an ontology of processes and relations, such as Whitehead’s events, actual occasions, experiences each of which has a subject-pole and an object-pole, or Deleuze’s becomings.
The question Harman poses but does not answer to my satisfaction, then, is whether it’s more appropriate to call the pieces of world around us ‘things’, ‘objects,’ or ‘processes’ and ‘relations.’ The world presents evidence that would support either case. Certainly a body, a house, a piece of land, a continent, the complete works of Shakespeare, all maintain a stability that allows us to count on them and do things with them, at least long enough for our purposes. But thoughts, moods, nightmares, affective explosions (like those resulting in wars), and sunsets are all made of a texture that vanishes when we try to grasp them too intently; and are all the more precious for it. Are they ‘things’ that continue their existence in some submerged realm away from our gaze? Or is their slippage built into the fabric of the world, giving it the very texture it has for mortals like us (who also slip away when we may least expect it)? And in between we have love, hate, political regimes, the weather, the colors of autumn, forests and annually returning fish populations, and when these become less predictable and more unruly, then we know that grounds are shifting more rapidly than we’d like them to.
What I’m trying to suggest is that the question of whether to call them ‘things’ or ‘processes’ may ultimately be less a matter of accuracy than a stylistic choice. Processes are always in motion, and when we reach toward them, they elude us, or they change us. Objects are just that: x, y, this thing, that thing. Latour’s ‘ding’ is not an object but a parliament, an assembly in which the rabidly untamed world of wild wonders bids to make alliances of conviviality (but which always remain riven through with resistances). His bold move of ‘flattening’ the terrain between humans and the rest of the universe has opened a door; but what occurs when we proceed through that door is the project of a cosmopolitics that crafts worlds — collectively, humans, animals, angels, and all — not just describes them by encompassing them within a finer conceptual system. I fear the reduction of these world-building allies to ‘objects’ because, by definition, objects don’t move unless they’re pushed. Why I prefer ‘relationism,’ then, may be a matter of style – that it represents an entering into moving currents, a playing along with uncapturable and mysterious allies, a forging ahead without seeing the whole from a view above the fray. But I believe that the style is part of the substance.
A sort of conclusion
After all this relationist whining, however, I come back to my admiration for Harman’s project and for the way he expresses it. I treat these as one, not two, though in his own object ontology, he may have to separate the thing itself (Harman’s object-oriented ontology) from its expression (the rhetoric, the presentation, the interlocution of voices from past and present — Heidegger, Latour, the speculative realists, nature, et al.). This is where I will insist on my Whiteheadian/Deleuzian processualism, because I can’t conceive of the object (this book, or Harman’s OOP) as separable, ultimately, from the conditions in which it arose, the milieu within which it is carrying out its delivery, and the impact it will have had once we realize what hit us.
What I like most about Harman’s argument is his insistence on the Heideggerian insight that things slip away, that they withdraw and retain their mystery, concealing their inner essence behind the veils of a world that is too flush with activity, too busy with concern, to make it possible for us to undress them despite our most frantic efforts. What Heidegger meant was that Being — the earth and the gods — slips away, but Harman generalizes this to everything in its very specificity, and that’s a move I like very much. (Derrida’s main lesson, as I understand it, was also that everything slips away, because mortals like us, who use language as our primary means of fixing those things, are ill-equipped to keep them from slipping. That he focused so much on language, especially in his earlier writing, is somewhat incidental to his overall argument; but that’s another matter, too.)
But there is something in the style of this kind of philosophizing that, I fear, can lead us to believe it’s captured those things, even as they slip away – which makes it rather different from, say, poetry, which makes little effort to capture the things but simply dances alongside and slips away with them. Heidegger’s poetic vision of the earth, sky, gods, and mortals (which Harman’s explication of is wonderful and highly original), like Harman’s own four-fold of ‘time, space, essence, and eidos,’ deviate from this will-to-mastery, and so I embrace them as forms of experimental metaphysics, and I hope they will settle in to my own thinking over the time that the book’s ideas resonate with me.