Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Harman on me on Harman on Latour on plasma ...

Graham Harman responds to my last post on Latour's 'plasma':
Following Jay Foster’s recent article, the Circling Squares blog claims that I’m overgeneralizing Latour’s plasma. ...

Here’s the central point where the critique goes astray: “[Plasma] isn’t something that is generalisable to all things and all relations since it pertains primarily to epistemic or social relations.”

This misses Latour’s entire point. “Society” for Latour has nothing to do with a social realm as opposed to other kinds of realms. The social for Latour contains absolutely everything, including fictional and nonexistent beings (as long as they have some sort of effect on other things).

The idea that the plasma isn’t inherently unformatted but simply not yet known to humans gives a central status to the human knower that is simply not part of Latour’s outlook.

In short, plasma is one of the most metaphysical concepts in all of Latour’s work. It cannot be tamed or decaffeinated by trying to claim that it’s just the harmless and tepid point that sociologists must humbly realize that they don’t know everything yet.

Instead, as explained in Prince of Networks, Latour needs to posit the plasma because his overidentification of things with their effects on other things leaves him with no way to explain change, and thus he ends up in the same position as the Megarians in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. It is an innate hazard of all relational ontologies, of which Latour has developed perhaps the most interesting version we’ve seen.

Another part I don’t like: “When talking about plasma Latour clearly has his sociological hat on, not his philosophical one.” (emphasis added) You can’t use the word “clearly” unless the case is actually clear; it shouldn’t be a clumsy battering ram used to assert that your opponent is so obviously off the mark that sustained argument is not even necessary.

Here’s a more general issue. To say that Latour sometimes wears a metaphysician’s hat and sometimes a sociologist’s hat is certainly true. But it is never true at those moments where he is in fact making metaphysical claims. The distinction between metaphysics and sociology cannot be invoked on an ad hoc basis simply to insulate Latour’s argument from extreme metaphysical consequences at the places where such consequences arise. The plasma is one of those cases. It is a striking invocation of something like the pre-Socratic apeiron, for reasons entirely necessary to Latour’s argument, and with the same difficult consequences we see among the pre-Socratics (and to some extent in contemporary arguments about “the virtual”.)
Okay, some of the above I can readily accept: my use of 'social' and 'epistemic' was rather imprecise and misleading. I apologise if my previous post came across as a "clumsy battering ram"; I hope this version of the argument is more incisive. I'm still working these points out, thinking them through and have yet to find anything like a satisfactory way of expressing them. I do, however, believe that I am right.

I fully understand that by 'social' Latour does not mean either a particular distinct realm or kind of stuff, nor does he mean anything purely human -- 'social' is not purely anything. As he defines it, 'social' simply means 'association,' which can occur between anything. However, whether or not "[t]he social for Latour contains absolutely everything" is another question entirely (and, happily, it gets to the heart of the matter). Personally, I could not disagree more and I find the contrary to be evident in pretty much everything Latour writes.

Again and again and again, throughout his works, Latour states that the social is fragile, narrow, particular and limited -- and he does this for very good reasons! It is because disconnection is the norm and connection is fragile and rare that tracing associations (the raison d'etre of ANT) is both (a) interesting and (b) possible (because associations are not infinite and unending). So, no, the social doesn't include "absolutely everything" -- it can include 'absolutely anything' but that is not the same thing at all. Profound disconnection is the (admittedly implicit) starting point for all his ANT, of which Paris, Ville Invisible, is, for me, perhaps the outstanding example. This text, along with others, leads me to understand the following:

The social only contains that which has been enrolled within the social. Without groundwater pH testing laboratories groundwater pH is not part of the social. With groundwater pH testing laboratories groundwater pH is as much a part of the social as handshakes or tennis. Without censuses peoples' ages or family sizes are not part of the social; with censuses they are. Before HIV was discovered and brought to public awareness it was not part of the social. It existed, it infected and killed people, it spread from person to person (or perhaps from hominid to hominid) and it was, therefore, both real and relational but it was not social.

'Social' does not describe everything altogether -- it only describes certain, narrowly defined areas of reality (which do not all overlap, themselves). These nooks and crannies are not 'realms' separate from the natural, the political, the economic, etc. but equally they are not coextensive with everything. By replacing the sociology of the social with the sociology of associations he does not make 'association' a synonym for 'relation' in a metaphysical sense. Asteroids bouncing off one another in another part of the galaxy are only 'social' if some techno-scientific apparatus ties them into the sociality of associations. That a collision is, in a manner of speaking, an association is true generally but not in the precise, technical sense with which Latour uses 'social.'

This is the impression of the social that reading Latour's ANT accounts give me. 'Social' here is certainly not anthropocentric in the sense of imagining naked humans talking amongst themselves with everything else existing as a mere backdrop -- non-human things are ontologically equal and they're everywhere. But equally it is not non-anthropocentric in the metaphysical sense of pertaining to assemblages that involve no humans whatsoever. To claim that it is seems to me to be an unjustified abstraction that diverts us quite a long way from what Latour actually writes.

So, what, then, of plasma? Let's take a look at what Latour says about that in Reassembling the Social:
I call this background plasma, namely 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. How big is it? Take a map of London and imagine that the social world visited so far occupies no more room than the subway. The plasma would be the rest of London, all its buildings, inhabitants, climates, plants, cats, palaces, horse guards. Yes, Garfinkel is right, ‘it’s astronomically massive in size and range’.
...
sociologists were right to look for some ‘outside’, except this one does not resemble at all what they expected since it is entirely devoid of any trace of calibrated social inhabitant. They were right to look for ‘something hidden behind’, but it’s neither behind nor especially hidden. It’s in between and not made of social stuff. It is not hidden, simply unknown. It resembles a vast hinterland providing the resources for every single course of action to be fulfilled, much like the countryside for an urban dweller, much like the missing masses for a cosmologist trying to balance out the weight of the universe.
So, plasma is indeed that which resides outside associations and serves as a resource for unexpected changes. However, it matters a great deal whether social associations are all encompassing, omnipresent, touching everything or whether they are narrow, particular, fragile, regional and so on.

If 'social' is a synonym for 'relation' in a metaphysical sense then plasma must be what resides outside all relation of every kind. It must be some ghostly, untouchable, literally unspeakable phantom lurking in the corners of the shadows of the fissures of reality (yet somehow dwarfing it, being the larger part of everything). I can see why Harman likes that notion but I really can't see it in Latour's texts at all.

If 'social' is not a synonym for 'relation' but is instead a particular kind, form or region of relation then plasma needn't be anything like this. Plasma instead becomes simply that which has not yet been socially enrolled, formatted, formalised and allowed to circulate in social networks. It is ghostly and unspeakable from the point of view of that network but that network is narrow, particular and partial and therefore that which is plasma with respect to it may be fully formed, formalised and circulating in other kinds of networks elsewhere. Plasma suddenly becomes much more earthly, boring and run-of-the-mill (for better or for worse).

To make this point clearer, let's take up an example from before:

HIV, prior to its discovery in 1981, was not enrolled in the social -- it was, therefore, part of the plasma. However, since HIV, we now know, existed as a particular viral type for decades before this date it was not some ghostly, formless, virtuality lurking in the shadows -- humans were simply ignorant of it. It wasn't formalised, there were no metrologies for it, it couldn't be socialised. It was real, it spread, killed and was therefore a relational entity but it was not social. It was not strictly, metaphysically (or, indeed, physically or naturally) speaking formless -- it was socially formless, socially unformatted. It didn't circulate in social networks. It circulated in OTHER networks -- it wasn't without relation or form entirely, it was simply unrelated to those networks we call social. After 1981 it was formatted, formalised and socialised so that it could circulate within human-centred social networks as a social entity rather than just circulating in human bodies as a viral infection; prior to such happenings it was plasma, but plasma with respect to the social (or epistemic) networks in which it would later circulate. It previously circulated in assemblages of blood, sex, bushmeat markets and so on so it was not plasma with respect to those networks. Therefore, plasma is not the same thing to all things, everywhere.

Phew. I hope this is now ... clear!

For Harman's Latour, plasma is plasma to everyone and everything everywhere. For Latour, as I understand him, plasma is only plasma to those networks that have not yet formalised and enrolled it. No network can enroll everything (c.f. irreduction), therefore every network has plasma outside it but what is plasma to one network isn't plasma to another. What Harman gets wrong (in my opinion) is that the 'missing masses' are not missing from all relation -- they are missing from social relations, which is only one very particular kind of relation among others. A thing that is plasma with respect to human-centered sociality is not necessarily plasma with respect to any other kind of thing or complex of things.

More poetically, plasma is the oil to sociality's water but it might mix and meld happily and freely with other substances -- which the universe is full of since 'social' is not a synonym for all kinds of 'relation.'

So, actually, I should slightly redress what I said before: plasma can be generalised on a metaphysical level but not as Harman does so. I shouldn't have said that "[plasma] isn’t something that is generalisable to all things and all relations since it pertains primarily to epistemic or social relations" -- upon reflection is is generalisable but only if one recognises that something that is plasma is not entirely formless but is formless with respect to a network in which it cannot yet circulate. In terms of human sociality this 'inability to circulate' is understood as a relation of ignorance, of not knowing. It is, therefore, an epistemic relation, as Latour articulates it. Hence I was not completely wrong in saying that plasma primarily pertains to social and epistemic relations -- it could be more than this but it is no more than this in Latour's own writings (since he's only talking about sociality).



I should finally mention, by way of long overdue conclusion, that I'm not claiming to know 'what Bruno really means' or anything like that (how could I? and why would I care?). You might be thinking -- 'so, Harman's Latour is not Latour's Latour, big deal.' Well, it's true, as I'm sure we're all aware, that there can be no translation without transformation. That Harman's account of Latour does not simply mimic Latour's own is not to be commiserated, indeed it is to be celebrated. Yet, while there is no translation without transformation, equally there is no translation without continuation. Transformation on its own is not translation at all. And there are elements of Harman's Latour that I really struggle to relate back to the original. Plasma is a case in point and this is the main reason why I brought it up. There's nothing wrong with the way that Harman abstracts from Latour's sociological metaphysics as such but on this particular point I think the rather huge transformation indicates an underlying misunderstanding, perhaps the misunderstanding demonstrated in The Prince and the Wolf where Latour freely admitted to not really understanding Harman's critique of him.

All I'm trying to do is reproduce an account of an idea as I understand it on the basis Latour's own writings. I'm doing this because I honestly don't recognise Harman's version of this idea in Latour's texts and I'd like to better understand the differences between these two philosophies as I find both to be fascinating.

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