Tuesday 28 October 2014

Harman's 'Reassembling the Political'—Some first impressions

I received Graham Harman's new book on Latour's political thought last Wednesday. Apparently before it's author!

Having spent several hours in and around airports on the following day, I was able to read it on Thursday. However, I'm only just now having time to put my thoughts down in words, this time looking out at the passing Devonshire countryside.

It is certainly a very thorough introduction to aspects of Latour's political philosophy. However it has, in my opinion, several major flaws.

First, and perhaps least importantly, the first half of the book should really give Latour co-writing credit since it is mostly a patchwork of quotations from his books. In excess of 50% of the text seems to be quotation in many places (I haven't calculated this systematically). This gives the impression of a book that was written in a hurry and that, while not being very long, is short on original content. The actual analysis is packed into the last 70 pages or so, amidst more long quotations from other authors.

Secondly, and much more seriously, the book almost completely decontextualises its subject matter. Latour's political thought becomes free-floating and grounded only in his own personality, not in his problematiques, nor in his historical moment. It is written, like Harman's Prince of Networks, as though Latour was responding to 'perennial problems' rather than concrete historical issues. Unless I somehow missed it, Harman doesn't even mention the 'Science Wars,' a quite surprising omission, especially with regard to the extensive treatment of Politics of Nature, which, along with Pandora's Hope, was written in direct response to said affair. (I should add that I don't have the text in front of me to double check these points but if these things were mentioned it can only have been very briefly.)

Thirdly, and not unrelatedly, Harman hardly mentions diplomacy as a concept at all. His treatment of 'politics' comes down almost entirely to the issues of power and violence. He does mention at one point that, contrary to Zizek's imperiously self-certain basing of politics on Truth, Latour thinks and argues as a diplomat rather than a vanguardist. However, the depth and importance of this concept (one that he takes from Isabelle Stengers) is unrecognised and its conceptual complexities are not even nodded at.

Much like his previous writings on Latour, Harman's new book should not be read as a neutral introduction. Just like Prince of Networks, Harman really ends up talking about himself and his own interests via the medium of Latour's concepts. Harman's clear, accessible and sometimes entertaining prose style, and the excessively extended introductory quotations, should not distract from this point. The final two fifths of the book are far stronger than the earlier part with interesting and valuable discussions of Zizek and Strauss. However, as mentioned above, it appears to be a book written both in a hurry and in a style that fosters the appearance of being relatively neutral and introductory while in fact being anything but. Once again, Harman completely ignores the more interesting and complex, pluralistic aspects of Latour's work and his unwavering groundedness in problems.

To take account of the changing historical circumstances in which Latour was writing would require a more careful and difficult writing process. Harman prides himself seemingly above all in being prolific. Well, it is easy to be prolific when you trade in 'perennial problems' that require no contextual discussion. Moreover, it is easy to slice Latour's works up into heuristic phases when when the actual conditions under which his thought evolved are simply erased.

Harman writes that Latour deserves better critics than he has for the most part been subjected to so far. I would agree. However, Harman's only real criticism is that Latour is not 'realist' enough, which perhaps explains why he gives diplomacy as a concept such short shrift. If he had to actually deal with the extreme intimacy of thought, politics and plurality in Latour's and Stengers' works it wouldn't be so easy to reduce the former's to bland, emaciated musings on 'perennials' that are said to be hamstrung by being inadequately underpinned by 'realism.'

Harman continues to reject out of hand the possibility of any real relation between Latour's work and that of Deleuze on the rather dubious metaphysical grounds that Deleuze apparently dissolves things into flows while Latour is interested in individual things. Even if that were true it is flabbergasting to think that the basic ontological aesthetic choice of things versus processes would exhaust the relevance of a thinker as complex and multifaceted as Deleuze.

Latour is Deleuzian, in my view, in this sense: he is a thinker for whom thought must always move from, around, towards and/or through a specific, particular, pressing and contemporary problem. His work simply cannot be properly understood in ignorance of this. The crucial connection between philosophical and political pluralism, both of which must be redefined in order to reach a new accommodation of the Moderns' values, is just left outside in the cold.

In grounding Latour's thought in perennials rather than problems, Harman not only misrepresents Latour's work; in my view, he fails to understand its most essential characteristics. He doesn't just perturb the works along a slightly new trajectory (of course every commentator does this) and he doesn't just neglect important aspects of Latour's work. He gets crucial, core elements of Latour's thought wrong.

It is for this reason that Harman's books should be read with a highly critical eye. Under no circumstances, in my opinion, should they be assigned to students or interested beginners as introductory texts. While the copy and paste reassembly of choice cuts of Latour-prose may be useful for such readers—as a kind of highly edited 'Latour Reader'—they are likely to be wholly mislead by the unmistakably Harmanian spin that is put on the whole assemblage. Once again, this is, on a conceptual level, more a book about Harman than it is about Latour, and it must be read as such.

Harman's central conceit in both his books published on Latour to date is this: to read Latour as though he hadn't attempted to redefine what doing philosophy, or doing political philosophy, involved; as if he could be read without recognising the degree to which he attempts to modify the very ground of interpretation from which he could be understood.

Harman's book is not without merits but its demerits are disappointing. The summary of recent criticism makes for a useful literature review and focusing some attention on the Hobbesian underpinnings of Latour's work over the years is worthwhile. However, ultimately Harman is all too conservative a reader. His modus operandi is one of simplification, axiomatisation and schematisation. While I have nothing against these operations per se they it would be nice if Harman at least acknowledged that in pinning down the proverbial butterfly he is losing something of its being—perhaps the most crucial part.

Latour's work doesn't need simplification and separation; it needs articulation and interconnection; less carding, more weaving. The principle fault of the existing secondary literature on his work is that it fails to draw it together in its interconnectedness. Harman compounds this problem. Just as his book on Latour's metaphysics sidelined his sociology, seeing that as a separate thing, here certain elements are deemed political and others are left out. This is, in my view, not helpful. If Latour's work were so easily 'zoned' it wouldn't be as interesting as it is.

And so I can only conclude by saying that if Harman's commentary becomes the prism through which people begin to read Latour (and I have seen some evidence of this) we will all be a lot worse off for it.