Notes regarding Prince of Networks

This is supposed to be the time of writing my dissertation. There will be plenty on that in this space in the coming years. Instead—or perhaps in conjunction with the meandering processing of making said dissertation more precise—I’m finally getting to books that were on my generals list but for some reason or another fell off the radar at the time. Hence my recent reading of Graham Harman’s 2009 volume Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (available for purchase or for free download as a PDF).

Latour remains a key figure in my own personal development. While a master’s student at the MIT Media Lab I took a course taught by Sherry Turkle that was transformative for me where she paired personal reflections on objects from a variety of thinkers (scientists, humanists, artists, etc.) with more theoretical texts. One such text was a fragment from Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern. It’s hard to underestimate the influence of this text on my subsequent thinking. While I found the text enormously difficult to read at the time—due to both my own lack of background within this type of writing and my ignorance of certain texts such as Shapin and Shaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump (something that would be remedied once I came to Cornell)—his main premise, namely the untenable distinction between nature and society, was literally a “eureka” moment for me. I dove into actor-network theory, convinced, then as now, of the necessity of approaching objects as actors on their own right and the need for new forms of ontology. Such an interest has led most directly to the regular appearance of John Law and Annemarie Mol in my own work, as I find their approach to ontology and the political impact of method more forceful than Latour’s decidedly “flat” version.

As a result I have been following as a distant observer the growth of “object-oriented philosophy” (OOP, not to be confused with object-oriented programming (OOP)) and “object-oriented ontology” (OOO) over the past few years, sometimes subsumed under the overly-broad and somewhat-misleading term of “speculative realism”. (There are certainly distinctions to be made here and much consternation takes place over precise definitions. For the moment I leave that by the wayside.) Harman’s approach of taking Latour as a philosopher rather than simply a researcher in “science studies” belongs to this trend. Harman rightly points to the novelty in Latour’s own philosophy while gesturing towards its own resonances with prior philosophical approaches. Through a variety of extremely detailed and precise distinctions he notates his own problems with Latour’s system while sketching structural adjustments on top that would be a specific “object-oriented philosophy”.

My own training does not allow me to critique nor necessarily build upon Harman’s approach—at least not now nor in the near future. Yet I do want point to two specific issues I have with Harman’s approach in the second part of the book. First, at a certain point in a technical section regarding the distinctions between “real” and “fictional” actors, Harman writes that “Fictional characters and myths have weaker legions of allies testifying to their existence than do lumps of coal. Hence, we can democratize the world of actors and still avoid the free-for-all of social construction.” (p. 189) This move is to counter arguments against Latour’s flattening of ontology that would allow things such as neutrinos and unicorns to be understood on the same level. Yet I think Harman is too quick to suggest that such “fictional characters” necessarily have less power than “lumps of coal”. (As an aside, I think, in Harman’s system, that unicorns would only exist as “sensual objects” or “sensual qualities” without their real counterpart—but I remain to be corrected if wrong.) The tooth fairy makes an appearance earlier in the book—but to a young child the tooth fairy does not exist as a “fictional” character. To take a more blunt example, consider the enormous series of allies marshalled together to “testify” to the existence of the Christian God. In many ways this is stronger, in a Latourian sense, than the lowly lump of coal. Admitting the power of these “fictional” entities would potentially allow in a form of correlationism, but it would be mutated one, where such an object could not be said to be merely a copy of some real counterpart, as the “real counterpart” does not even exist. Perhaps this issue is taken up in a more detailed fashion by others elsewhere; nevertheless, as someone who heeds the power of fiction, the arts, and music to affect transformative change I feel like it needs to be considered carefully within OOP/OOO.

Secondly, I am both seduced and repelled by philosophical texts such as Harman’s. Seduced, because it is a fresh approach on something that is important to my own research, namely the relations we have with objects and that objects have with other objects. Yet I’m also repelled for a at least three reasons. First is the lack of women in Harman’s book. Stengers makes a brief appearance, but others who might make sense to include, such as Karen Barad, Donna Haraway, and Annemarie Mol, were absent [1]. I doubt this is due to any latent misogyny, but rather due to the lack of women within the (historical) philosophical canon. Nevertheless, it remains a pressing issue, and one that was not remedied in the recent Speculative Turn collection.

Second, I cannot help but listen to the reflexive, armchair “philosopher” asking, “So what?” So we have a (potentially) new way of understanding objects that does not rely on privileged human access. Can this new method affect how we approach the world in terms of political action? In such an approach I am a Marxist through and through, asking of each text I read, of each musical piece that I listen to, each artwork I view and/or participate in, does this allow me to concretely think through new ways of organizing, of being in the world (and not in the Heideggarian sense), of transforming our resolutely unjust system into something that is more just? Does it allow for new forms of imagination, can we think through new fictional possibilities via this philosophy that we couldn’t fathom before? Of course Harman does not claim that he is writing a political metaphysics (assuming something like that could exist). Yet this is my (perhaps vulgar) criterion for evaluating a new work. For all of their meanderings into assemblages, faciality, or the virtual, we know that Deleuze, Guattari, and Deleuze and Guattari are embarking on their project in a spirit of hopeful transofrmation of individuals and society. Harman’s intentions here, in terms of politics? Unknown. And perhaps it will simply take some time to discover this, for myself. And others, such as Tim Morton, are indeed using OOO/OOP to engage with political issues such as ecology.

Third, and finally, I have to wonder about the role of the arts within such a philosophy. Artistic works can, but not always, bring me to the brink of metaphysics precisely in the sense of “limit experiences” described by Bataille in Inner Experience. What would it mean to bring these aspects of our experience into OOO/OOP? Such a move would be potentially subject to the similar correlationist worries I mentioned above with respect to “fictional” entities, but at least with the arts we often have “real” objects, be they things on walls or plinths, instruments, books, or computers. I have yet to see a convincing OOO/OOP text that engages seriously with the arts, but the same could be said for ANT. Perhaps this is because, as Tim Morton suggests , “artists and designers and architects I’ve spoken with ‘get’ OOO on an intuitive level.” Perhaps the basic tenets of OOP/OOO are such a part of the world of the artist/architect/designer that they are “obvious”. And if they are obvious, how can articulating them further produce individual and social transformation?

1 As an aside, I wonder why OOO/OOP types tend to gravitate towards Latour to the exclusion of Mol and John Law. Is this due to a contention that Latour provides a philosophical approach while Mol and/or Law do not? Or is it simply that they have not, for whatever reasons, read Mol and Law? As mentioned earlier, I find Mol and Law to be more useful for my own work due to their insistence on the specifically political implications of ANT, namely that ontologies can be otherwise (Mol) and that method and our choice of method have strong political implications (Law).

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