Friday, 14 May 2010

Reply to: http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2010/05/14/some-remarks-on-latour-mereology-and-actants

Wow, a lot to respond to!

I should perhaps clarify my claims in response to Levi's and Graham's comments: I am certainly not claiming that large/macro/generally big objects are less real or necessarily unreal - not in the slightest, though my comment earlier was brief and unclear (I had to get back to work!) so I can see why it might have come across that way.

Take the planet. What is more of an object than that? And it's pretty big! My previous post was intended to pick up Johan's points and try to re-phrase them in such a way as to further the conversation - I felt that they had been swept aside a little too quickly, that is all.

I will say a little more too about my particular perspective on this coming from outside philosophy: in academic international relations (IR) the overwhelming (perhaps even the founding) ontological assumption has been that there exists at the highest spatial scale of human existence an international 'system' comprising discrete, rational units: modern nation states. Their interaction is taken to be entirely irreducible to their components (to perform this reduction is called the 'domestic analogy'; this is not to be taken as a compliment!). The system is said to have an anarchic structure due to there being no overarching sovereign; states thus interact through diplomacy, trade and war in accordance with the structural imbalances inherent in the system and their own nature. (From here we descend into haphazardly rehashed neoliberal economics where actors can only be envisaged as rational, self interested maximizers of their own wealth and security.)

In mainstream IR, then, we are dealing with kinds of objects: the states and the system(s) they reside in. This perspective remains dominant and since the late 1970s (and certainly since Kenneth Waltz's' Theory of International Politics' was published in 1979) this ontology has been propped up by a neo-positivist epistemology which tends to claim that 'of course states aren't really perfectly unitary, rational actors but this hypothesis affords the theorist the most explanatory power' (or words to that effect). The greatest problem with this theory is that, first of all, it is contradicted by a great deal of history; secondly, it has a profound tendency to reify and naturalise the state and the states system as lamentably but unavoidably structured to be violent (thus letting governments, arms companies, warlords, etc. off the hook). So, the largest, most powerful elements within this academic discipline depend for their theory, their jobs and their funding on assuming that states and the states system are closed objects - and so they defend their 'hypothesis' fiercely, regardless of the evidence. Equally, this ontology benefits bigots and war mongerers as it fits perfectly with nationalism, militarism and so on; and so these people defend this ontology, fiercely.

... Hence my particular concern over reifying cultures and nations. So, now perhaps you can see more clearly: it is not that think that nations or states or cultures don't exist (I don't think that these are simply nouns without objects, signifiers without signifieds), it is just that I am very keen to warn against this as yet inchoate (but, in my opinion, enormously exciting) school of political theory making the same mistakes as its predecessors. As it happens I do think that we should take states, nations and cultures to be objects of some kind but as of yet we are lacking the vocabulary to do this properly. It is to that end that I am trying to pose these comments.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that any object oriented people would tolerate the above described ontology for a moment; it wouldn't last ten minutes - I add this detail to describe where my scepticism of these particular sorts of objects comes from.

I can't really think what more to say about that right now, although there is a lot left unsaid so I'll just try to respond more specifically to the points Levi and Graham raised.

Levi, your above post is a good point well made. I didn't mean to imply that OOO=ANT or anything but rather more basically that if we drew up a provisional list of presently available empirical works in the social sciences and humanities that conformed more or less to what we might hope an object oriented social science might look like in future then Latour's work would probably be among the first on the list. ANT is so different to the works of Diamond, Braudel, McNeill, etc. that I thought it deserved mentioning. It wasn't trying to throw a spanner in the works, I was just trying to point out that we might need to tighten that nut a little!

On Latour's attitude to larger objects: I'm not sure I agree with you completely about this. Certainly he has a tendency to concentrate on more or less human sized objects (people, cars, pens, files, paperclips, etc.) but, to take your example of your college, he certainly doesn't deny the reality of such objects - it would be more accurate to say that he is sceptical of larger objects; these objects invariably emerge in the last chapter of his books; they are an achievement; they require much more labour to 'make speak' than the more or less human sized objects he starts off with. So, he gives larger objects a hard time, but I don't think he denies their reality.

Take his book 'Aramis, or The Love of Technology'; this is a book about a fairly large object - an urban transporation system. It eventually transpires that Aramis does not fully exist, but not because it is large; rather it is because its parts, in one way or another, conspired to thwart its coming into being. This should not, however, imply that Latour reduces Aramis' fate to its parts; Aramis itself enters the dialogue as a character and pleads to be allowed to exist (this sounds like a really weird way to write a sociology book but in Latour's prose it is thrilling); this is more than an eccentric (and brilliant) narrative device - it really is a book about Aramis; it really is a painstakingly precise account of how this object could not become fully real, why it had to remain on paper and in boxes not fully deployed, being doted on by maintenance staff and relied on by thousands of commuters. It would make no sense to write a book like this if such an object could not possibly become real - it is this very possibility that motivates it.

Similarly, I just this morning finished reading Latour's book 'The Making of Law'. While he approaches law through files, bodies, hallways, paperclips and so on he does eventually more or less arrive at the conclusion that law has an autonomous existence. He is not 100% clear on whether he attributes it complete independence (and admittedly his account is written through thoroughly human eyes) but its reality is certainly not denied.

The important point with regard to Aramis and the law, of course, is that Latour's realism is incremental (this is my favourite thing about it) and things can be more or less real, more or less objects, and there is room for ambiguity about the extent to which any given noun refers to something with an independent existence or whether the noun is the beginning and the end of the matter. We should also remember his heavy debt to ethnomethodology and thus to (unHarmanised) phenomenology. I read earlier today (just before my earlier post actually) that Harold Garfinkel's PhD supervisor was Talcott Parsons and his ethnomethodology was in some part a reaction against (but at the same time inspired by) Parsons' structural-functionalism. A point worth considering, perhaps.

So, it is the difference between scepticism and denial that is the matter at hand here. I am on Latour's side, personally, but if we accept this distinction then we can certainly have a conversation.

Graham, yes I am trying to be serious rather than flippant. I am very much arguing for option A, as you are. I am very excited by the discussions taking place on this blog and read your blog daily also. As you yourself remark in one of your books (I forget where), there are two sorts of critics: those that want you to succeed and those that want you to fail. I'm trying to be a friendly critic wherever possible!

So, while I don't have much to add right now about what the other 2/3 might look like I'm as keen as anyone on finding that remainder. A dose of considered, educated scepticism isn't the worst starting place; that is what I'm hoping to offer.

Gosh, anyone who reads all that deserves a medal or something!

Oh and p.s. Levi, I am with you on Latour's attitude to Marxism 100%. I'll try and say something intelligent about that another day.

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