Harman, the Other Prince of Networks

The following is a modified (and shortened) version of my previous post on Harman’s Prince of Networks.

Bruno Latour is unquestionably one of the strongest and most captivating thinkers of our time.  My knowledge of his ideas was basically limited to his opus magnum We have never been Modern.  However, as I finish reading Graham Harman’s brilliant Prince of Netwoks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, I can say that Latour has opened up a whole new horizon of problems and ideas for me.  Sure enough, a great part of this encounter owes to Harman’s attractive style and capacity for systematization.  For Harman is not only a competent commentator, but also one of the most interesting and original philosophers of his generation.  There is much to say about a scholar or philosopher by judging his style, and Harman writes with crystalline clarity, elegance and lightness.  Throughout my reading I caught myself oftentimes laughing at Harman’s witty sentences and sophisticated humor – not only with Prince of Networks, but also with his more personal works, such as Tool-Being and Guerrilla Metaphysics. He combines great ideas with exceptional writing – a combination rarely found among philosophers, with the possible exception of Nietzsche and the phenomenologists.  On the other hand, I can also pinpoint some aspects of his writing and reasoning that occasionally exasperate me.  At times he sounds excessively assertive, leaving very little room for self-questioning and being a bit overenthusiastic about his likes and dislikes.  However, none of these traits has ever diminished the satisfaction I get from reading his books.  In Prince of Networks, he presents the reader with the most complex ideas with a simplicity that is quite uncommon for a philosopher.  To be sure, his interpretation of Latour is heavily influenced by his own philosophical positions, which is not necessarily a flaw (in this case I would say it is rather a quality).  He highlights whatever aspects of Latour’s work might reinforce his positions, which also gives us some hints into his own philosophy.  Not surprisingly, what stands out in Harman’s appraisal of Latour is the anti-humanist thesis according to which the world is composed of a series of “actors”, among which human beings hold no kind of ontological privilege.   In Harman’s book, Latour’s actor-network theory acquires a sense of strength, life and concreteness that really does justice to the French philosopher. The book operates in a chronological fashion, analyzing the most important works by Latour according to their publication dates.  It begins by scrutinizing the concept of “irreducibility” (nothing can be reduced to nothing) and goes on to develop increasingly sophisticated arguments in a constant dialogue – and often in conflict – with the whole history of philosophy in the West.  For Latour, there is no ontological hierarchy between objects, ideas or people.  They are all actors (or “actants”) endowed with autonomous forces and the ability to affect the world.  That is why no theory that purports to reduce the heterogeneity of the world to a single unifying principle can be entirely satisfactory.   Neither the God of religion, nor Foucault’s “power”, for instance, are able to adequately translate that perspective.  All beings, animate or inanimate, organic or inorganic, material or immaterial, are on the exact same ontological footing.  As Harman puts it, “the world is a series of negociations between a motley of armada forces, humans among them, and such a world cannot be divided cleanly between two pre-existent poles called ‘nature’ and ‘society’” (p. 13).  This kind of reasoning allows for the birth of an object-oriented philosophy.  Actors are sealed off from the rest of the world; they are completely autonomous beings and have their own ontological “pedigrees”.  If that is really the case, how can we account for the fact that some objects do seem to interact with each other, how can we justify the important concept of networking?  Herein lies an interesting paradox: even tough nothing can be “reduced” to nothing, everything can be “translated” into something else, provided that some effort is applied.  In other words, Actors are constantly forming and dissolving networks, connections that enable the translation of elements from one field to the other, as if the world could be characterized as a communicational orgy.  In that sense, I presume that Latour’s notion of translation is not very different from Simondon’s concept of transduction.  In The Individual and its Physico-Biological Genesis, there is an extraordinary passage where Simondon exemplifies the idea of transduction though a fascinating analysis of the phenomenon of television.  After reading Harman’s book, I feel as though Latour himself had written that passage!  Suffice to say that Steven Shaviro hints at this possible connection when he describes Simondon’s Du mode d’existence des objets techniques: “I do not know if Bruno Latour ever mentions Simondon, but the basis of much of his account of science and technology can be found here”.  [Simondon was certainly a major influence for Deleuze and Bernard Stiegler]  In any case, Latour’s philosophy has very important impacts on the study of communication (in Brazil, a number of media scholars have been championing Latour’s ideas).  After all, some of his major concepts – “interfaces”, “networks”, “mediators” – have a distinct communicational flavor.  The world is composed of several layers wherein “dramas” are incessantly enacted and actors interact with one another – be they scientists, politicians, Hollywood actors or the Chase Manhattan Bank.  I do not expect to do justice to Latour’s ideas or Harman’s exceptional book within these few clumsy lines.  My hope is that my students feel motivated to read Harman and Latour directly.  Prince of Networks can also be an interesting point of entry to one of the most vital and refreshing philosophical works of our time.  What first struck me about Harman is the admirable material quality of his writing.  His respect for objects and the “carpentry of things” allows us to describe him as a herald for all the unsung entities of the world: rocks, dust, clouds or caterpillars (and in this sense I believe there is some sort of spiritual communion between him and Walter Benjamin.  See, for instance, Beatrice Hanssen’s marvelous work on the latter*).  Nothing is too small for him.  It feels almost as if we were able to “touch” the words he uses.  In his attempt to rescue metaphysics from the traps it has fallen into throughout history, he offers us a beautiful account of an enriched reality.  At the same time, his philosophy can greatly contribute to the field of media studies (and I hope someday he will venture in these territories), specially in regards to its inability to adequately deal with the intricate aggregate of materiality and immateriality that characterizes our communication devices.

* – Hanssen, B. Walter Benjamin’s Other History: of Stones, Animals, Human Beings and Angels. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.