Reviewed by Tailer Ransom
This book traces and articulates Bruno Latour’s political theory—a task that Harman deftly achieves through his intimate familiarity with Latour’s entire corpus and its rich, though often subtle political implications. Latour aims to establish a theory lateral to the modernist axis of left wing and right wing politics and their corresponding commitments to either a politics that is grounded in a fundamental, overarching truth of the human situation (e.g., Žižek, Badiou, Strauss), or otherwise reducible to mere power struggles without recourse to a higher court of appeal (e.g., Foucault, Hobbes, Schmitt). His critique of western political theory addresses its exclusive emphasis on the relations and power struggles among humans, and its specious modernist distinction between nature and culture. He advocates a theory of Object-Oriented Politics, or Dingpolitik: a play on the Bismarkian notion of human-centered Realpolitik. For Latour, if we are going to produce a viable political theory, it needs to account for the vast complexity of social networks, which include connections among both human and non-human actors.
Harman divides Latour’s politics into three stages: early, middle and late. The early Latour is described as quasi-Hobbesian, but rather than posit a centralized monarchical source from which sovereignty emanates, he holds that the leviathans are plural, distributed across social networks, and composed primarily of non-human actors. That is, human political drama does not occur against a passive material background. Rather, objects, technologies, and material conditions play an active role in social networks, participating in the flow of activity. We inhabit a world that is richly populated with buildings, roads, uniforms, factories, currency, phones, fences, etc.—whenever we act, we can be sure that we are never the only forces acting. Human actors do not have to constantly negotiate our social relations in a vacuum; we are always-already situated in a world of non-human forces that constitute our political relations in a way that is irreducible to the influence of human actors alone. In this sense, all politics involves material leviathans, which are impossible to locate at any one source or reduce to any one kind of actor. They are woven into networks, exercising influence and stabilizing social relations.
This political position follows from Latour’s metaphysics of immanence, which endorses a non-hierarchical ontology, in which objects do not possess essences that exist beyond their immediate appearances. He grants causal symmetry to human and non-human entities; however, this does not mean that all kinds of forces are inherently equal to one another. Instead, Latour suggests that there is no a priori way to know in advance what an actor is, or how it connects to other actors. These questions can only be answered by carefully tracing out the specific connections among actors at a particular place and time, without rushing into abstractions or general theories. We can see why this metaphysics bears relevance for this politics: in order to understand the connections among actors in a political network, we cannot assume that we already know how politics is supposed to work. This can only be determined by a slow and thorough analysis of the actual connections within the network in order to see what sorts of entities are at play and how they are at play. Deploying general theories and analyzing political phenomena piecemeal will often cause us to miss important structural features of the network.
At this point, we are left with two fairly unsatisfying conclusions: (1) the early Latour runs the risk of suggesting that everything is political, which seems to inflate the notion of politics beyond the possibility of specialized discourse, and (2) this focus on immanence does not allow us to deploy theories about capitalism, historical materialism, or transcendent moral objections to the layout of a network—a gloomy situation for the Marxist reader.
Whereas for the early Latour, non-human forces generally stabilize networks, for the middle-period Latour, networks are fragile, inherently unstable, and undergo constant transformation. Things can still play a role in stabilizing networks, but they have the power to destabilize things, presenting new problems and controversies (60). Latour advocates an approach of Socratic-style ignorance (57). Because we are always discovering or being forced to confront new actant forces not yet incorporated into our understanding, we should appreciate that we never fully comprehend all the forces that constitute a network. Because networks are fragile (they constantly recreate themselves, involve more actant forces than we know, and are connected in ways that we don’t always fully appreciate), we cannot always be sure that deliberate global revolutionary reorganization of networks will always produce the results that we want. In fact, for Latour, it is more likely that disrupting networks will cause to things be a great deal worse—a sentiment that is in danger of inviting political quietism.
The middle Latour involves a turn toward Dewey’s pragmatist political works. That is, there is no politics independent of a particular issue; politics is not a ready-made system into which issues are mechanistically incorporated. Instead, issues, controversies and problems are political objects because they present unprecedented challenges to the network’s structure. When faced with problems, we have to develop new methods and equipment specific to the problems themselves. There are also stages that issues pass through after they initially emerge as a controversy. Just as the sewer system in France was initially a political issue, but has since passed into the field of routine administrative public services, issues begin as controversies that threaten to destabilize the political network, and are gradually digested into a more stable position. However, once an issue is stabilized, it is not permanently solved. Thoroughly incorporated political issues are not immune from controversy, as illustrated by the famous Memphis sanitation workers strike, where workers deliberately forced the city to confront sanitation management as a political problem, or, more recently, by the events in Flint, Michigan, where management failures in ensuring water quality are once again brought to the political fore.
The late Latour is less committed to the totally flat metaphysics of networks, and introduces his theory of modes. Harman views this as a continuation, rather than as an abandonment, of his initial project: ‘once we have identified the most skeletal features of everything that exists, how do we then account for the differences between various zones of reality, or between all the numerous kinds of being?’ (90). That is, Latour’s early work on networks sketches out the basic features of his metaphysics, but further distinctions have to be made so he does not limit everything to a single homogenous kind. For instance, Different modes have incommensurable criteria for truth. Just as religious concepts should not be held to the truth criteria of scientific fields, the truth of political speech does not conform to rationalist criteria of direct correspondence with the world that its propositions seek to describe. In fact, these criteria cannot hold in general: the transportation of any type of fact across a network involves translation and transformation (87). Not even scientific facts achieve unmediated access to the Truth, since they are formulated in a network of equipment, data processing, and theoretical controversies (83). We cannot, therefore, hold all forms of truth in their respective modes to the same standards of veridicality as the natural sciences (91). Consequently, we should accept the disappointing rhetoric of politicians, since political speech, according to Latour, only appears untruthful in contrast to the truth criteria of other modes (84). He also describes the political mode as constantly re-inscribing itself, under immanent imperatives to preserve its structure and avoid dissolution.
This allows Latour to distance himself from the criticism that everything is political in his system. Potentially anything can become the subject of political controversy, but at any given time politics might not appear anywhere at all. He also maintains fidelity to his pragmatist inclinations according to which politics always takes something as its object. Accordingly, it is also out of the issues that an interested public emerges. The public, for Latour, is not an always-already integrated entity, but something that is formed in alliances and common interests about a specific issue (168). The public is an invaluable part of deliberative democracy, motivating action in the political sphere because of people’s support or opposition to one actor or another (175).
He also makes room for moral concerns in politics. Such a concern is excluded from his early works due to their focus on pure immanence. Here, however, he begins to talk about politics as a ‘mini-transcendental’ sphere (88). It leaves space for identifying felicity or infelicity conditions in politics: it fails when the political sphere is segmented, or interrupted, when it fails to reproduce itself, or fails to incorporate and represent excluded entities (107). In this sense, he moves away from an unqualified veneration for the winners and successful power-players in political struggles, in favor of a more morally motivated approach. However, this is not a mode of full transcendence: the inclusion or exclusion of entities from consideration or representation in a network, and the criteria by which it can judged as good or bad, still remain immanent to the network itself. That is, moral concerns about excluded entities do not refer to anything fully transcendental to the political realities of the situation in its immanence. Harman seems to be doing a lot of work here to defend Latour against some of Benjamin Noys’ Marxist critique (Noys 2012), and particularly from Noys’ concern that Latour cannot account for any sort of political standard over and above immanent power struggles. However, in the end, Harman does concede that the rather more limited notion of transcendence that can be found in Latour is not quite sufficient to evade such concerns. He agrees that Latour’s criticism of revolutionary politics may indeed have indeed made it difficult to address concerns about justice. But he claims that because Latour’s career is still in motion, it remains to be seen whether or not reacting to these criticisms might still be possible.
As a general remark, Harman does very little editorializing on Latour’s political views, but he seems to take a great deal of critical initiative when defending him against opponents. I take it that this is because he agrees with Latour to a large extent. At least this much is clear when he claims that ‘he is closer to the future of political philosophy than much of the better-known work conducted under that heading’ (1). In general, he seems to have more criticisms of his metaphysics than his politics. However, there remain sections in which it is unclear whether it is Harman’s voice or Latour’s that is speaking to us.
Harman and Latour remain very suspicious of Marxist political thought, and vehemently oppose the idea of revolution. But for those of us less content with the immanence of our political situation – those of us willing, even at great risk, to engage in the Promethean task of tampering with these fragile networks in order to reimagine the future of the political, unsatisfied as we are with its present – Latour does seem to give us some interesting tools for socialist strategy. If power and political agency are distributed across an assemblage of forces, held together by a plurality of interspersed material leviathans, then perhaps, rather than focusing on monumental loci of state power, our strategy ought to look more like the methodology of the Actor-Network Theory. We should engage in a careful and patient tracing out of the connections, mediations, and alliances among the immanent assemblages that compose our political world, keeping an eye out for tender modules in the network where intervention and disruption are possible. As Harman quotes Latour, ‘The general principle is simple, being the principle of any victory: you must fight the enemy on the terrain you master’ (48).
10 June 2016
- 2012 The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory Edinburg: Edinburg University Press.