Review of Graham Harman’s Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political

Harman's 'Bruno Latour' Book CoverReview of Graham Harman, Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political (London: Pluto Press, 2014), 216 pages, £17.50

Reviewed by Conor Heaney

In his masterful dissection of Foucault’s oeuvre, Deleuze (2006) writes through Foucault in such a manner that the reader is showed how Deleuze filtered Foucault into his own conceptual apparatus, and how Foucault’s work helped shape Deleuze’s own conceptual tools. We are offered both a Deleuzian Foucault and a Foucauldian Deleuze. The task of writing a book focused on the work of another theorist inevitably confronts this most political of issues: the issue of representation.

In Reassembling the Political (RTP), Graham Harman presents his Latour (or, Latours, rather). In the introduction, Harman notes how he has long suspected that Latour’s work could enable us to think the political landscape on new terms: beyond the modernist ontology of nature/culture, beyond ‘truth’ and ‘power’ politics, and beyond the left/right spectrum. What, then, does this Harmanian Latour look like?

LATOUR-1: AN IMMANENT ONTOLOGY

One of early-Latour’s most well known arguments is his rejection of what he sees as the modernist nature/culture ontological binary. Whereas nature, on this taxonomy, is considered as the non-human realm of mechanistically (in the Newtonian sense) functioning physical laws, culture is the realm of contingent human relations. Latour collapses this distinction, offering instead a flat ontology of human and non-human actors (18). Here, any entity can be an ‘actor’ (have ‘reality’) insofar as it has an effect on other actors. This is the Latour of actor-network theory, who assesses actors in relation to their ability to mobilise other actors and form networks of influence (15). Latour’s immanentisation of the social realm has political implications insofar as it also functions as a rejection of any potential notion of a politics of transcendence, essence, or truth: ‘There is no dualistic opposition between natural right and cultural might, but a single immanent plane where mightless right may as well not even exist. All consoling appeals to a transcendent authority are pointless as long as we fail to amass the needed allies to allow our position to prevail’ (35). So, as well as a thorough rejection of a politics of truth, Latour’s ontology appears to offer a more Machiavellian/Hobbesian politics of power struggles and the pursuit of associations – including associations with nonhuman actors – as the only route to political effectiveness (33-34).

It is here that Harman strikes a cautionary note which becomes a central theme throughout RTP: does Latour’s flat ontology of human and nonhuman actors not run the risk of ontologising politics? In other words, is everything not rendered political through such a flattening of the ontological plane? Harman considers this on a number of occasions (12, 22, 31, 56, 75, 93, 180). Why we should be so worried about this tendency is not thoroughly defended by Harman. Nonetheless, this worry serves as an organising problematic through which Harman presents the entirety of Latour’s political philosophy (Harman goes as far as to say that it ‘haunts’ Latour (12)). Harman presents a Latour with three “phases” – early, middle, and late – which are broadly organised around the extent to which politics and ontology are conflated.

As already noted, Harman presents early-Latour as heavily indebted to Hobbes (who Latour interestingly reads as a thinker of immanence, not transcendence) (25-28) and sympathetic to Machiavelli (34) in chapter two (‘Early Latour: A Hannibal of Actants’). This is the Latour who conflates politics with ontology (40-41), and who, for Harman, is ‘excessively fond of the immanence of the political and the impossibility of any outside standards’ (46).

LATOUR-2: IGNORANCE, DUE PROCESS AND COMPOSITION

The middle-Latour is offered in chapter three (‘Middle Latour: The Parliament of Things’). In this period, Harman presents Latour’s politics as one of progressive ecologisation. Progressive ecologisation, here, is the process by which institutions are progressively composed via a ‘due process’ which strives to compose a common world which extends political participation and speech to nonhumans (57-62).

This phase is marked by Latour’s deepening acknowledgement of ignorance (which, for Harman, is the point of connection between Latour and Socrates (57)). Since our ignorance cannot, for Latour, refer to an ignorance of transcendence, essence, or truth (since his ontology is one of immanence) – what is it, then, that we are ignorant about? We are ignorant, precisely, about future relations: ‘Latour views relations as the place of all possible surprise […] actors only surprise us when brought into new and unforeseen combinations’ (58). We are ignorant about what might next confront and disrupt the present political collective (163). Precisely because we do not know what actors or issues we will come into relation with in the future, the progressive composition of the common world ought to take stock of and indeed embed this ignorance into due process itself. Middle-Latour’s politics is not a politics of knowledge, in other words, but a politics of ignorance.

Harman presents Latour here as developing a due process which always aims to extend the number of those who can ‘speak’ (remembering that this will include nonhuman actors) in the collective through a complex normative processes under two themes: (i) the ‘power to take into account’ – which ‘has the responsibility of detecting entities currently excluded from the collective’ (62) – and (ii) the ‘power to arrange in rank order’ – which concerns itself with the actual political inclusion of those previously excluded entities (63-64). Latourian due process is charitably presented by Harman as a constitutively open process in which the collective is constantly in motion and never fully enclosed (68). Politics, here, is a process of the continuous formation of a collective, its disruption by new, surprising relations with those who are excluded from the present formation, and subsequent reformation of the collective with these new voices – it is a loop.

On the specific issue of the ontologisation of politics, the middle-Latour appears to offer a refinement rather than a rejection of this theme when he introduces the following five ‘levels’ of politicality: (i) Political-1 is the raising of new, surprising relations between humans/nonhumans, generating a new ‘issue’; (ii) Political-2 is the generation of concerned actors around this issue; (iii) Political-3 concerns sovereignty in the traditional sense, and is reached when this new issue is officially considered; (iv) Political-4 is traditional, procedural political debate on the new object; (v) Political-5 refers to those things which have passed through the previous stages and have become ‘routine’ or depoliticised (78-79). So, as Harman presents it, for middle-Latour everything is political, yes, but not everything is political in quite the same way.

 

LATOUR-3: POLITICS AS A MODE OF VERIDICTION; OBJECT-ORIENTED POLITICS

In chapter four (‘Late Latour: Politics as a Mode’), Harman argues that Latour’s recently published work importantly ‘reverses this [previous ontological] flatness and tries to account for the incommensurability of various modes of being, each with its own criteria of truth’ (81). Latour’s recent work investigates distinct ‘modes of being’ – such as a law, religion, politics, and morality – as having their own incommensurable modes of veridiction.

Politics is presented as a kind of ‘mode of being’ which deals with ‘issues’ or ‘objects’ (83). What is true in the political mode of existence is, simply, what succeeds in extending the collective (84-85). Actually, much of Harman’s content here recalls and reuses the image of politics as a loop from the ‘middle’ Latour: a ‘successful’ or ‘truthful’ political intervention would consist in the disruption of the existing collective by an object such that this disruption would be resolved only when the collective was reformed with the inclusion of this once disruptive object. Successful struggles for rights and recognition are rendered politically ‘true’, ‘forming a new and temporary collective […] then awaiting the possibly surprising results’ (88). However, given the importance of the introduction of an immanent mode of truth for the political mode of being, this definition perhaps requires more exploration than what is briefly given to it by Harman. Nonetheless, his politics is, again, a looping politics, but it is also an object-oriented politics, and Harman discusses in detail the relevance of Lippmann, Dewey and Marres’s respective influence on Latour here (in particular, chapter seven: ‘“A Copernican Revolution”: Lippmann, Dewey, and Object-Oriented Politics’). It is precisely new objects – new matters of concern (164) – which constantly and continuously disrupt the collective, and we are always ignorant as to what new objects will emerge in the future.

In chapters five (‘”Usefully Pilloried”: Latour’s Left Flank’) and six (‘”An Interesting Reactionary”: Latour’s Right Flank’), Harman attempts to situate and differentiate Latour from the political left and right. These contain interesting discussions on Noys (113-121), Foucault (120-131) and Schmitt (134-147). Through Harman’s presentation of Latour’s looping politics, with politics as a process of composition, it is fair to say that Latour’s politics is distinctly not a revolutionary politics (87, 114). However, considering that Latour’s ontology resists the human/nonhuman distinction, a Latourian political philosophy is a far cry from anything like a liberal humanism or a conservatism resistant to change – indeed, continuous change is the very ‘stuff’ of the political loop Latour offers. As Harman notes ‘the political Left and Right are humanistic political theories’ (146), whereas Latour’s ontology is positioned squarely against the ontological centrality of the human.

DIRECTING THE ASSEMBLAGE

Extracting or tracking an evolving political philosophy from Latour’s vast work is, of course, a worthwhile task. Harman marshals a great deal of Latour’s work within this slim volume. However, there are three critical points worth pointing out.

Firstly: the book relies much too heavily upon block-quotation. Whether in sections presenting Latour’s own work (eg, 23-29, 42-53, 67-80, 94-107) or another theorist’s (eg Schmitt 134-143 or Marres 166-170), Harman regularly fills pages with quotations and connecting sentences (“Or in other words…” “Put another way…”). Although this writing tactic is a staple, and is one used in the vast majority of academic writing, it nonetheless appears vastly overused here, as Harman’s authorial voice becomes lost in pages filled with quotations.

Secondly: at the start of the book, Harman notes that one of his guiding principles in writing the book was ‘not to put words in to the mouth of Bruno Latour’ (7). However, one can’t help but feel this is precisely what is being done, on occasion. For example, despite Latour’s own defence of the Sophists against Socrates (36), Harman assures us that Latour really is Socratic through his embedding of ignorance into political sphere, and that Latour is mistaken about his own position (46). Moments such as these feel like conceptual overreach (no matter how convincing the point on Socrates is made).

Thirdly: on a number of occasions Harman raises fruitful and interesting issues without devoting space to developing on them in any real detail. One example is in the section considering Foucault (120-131). Harman agrees, with others, that a systematic and comprehensive comparative account of Latour and Foucault has yet to be fully conducted (128), but instead of exploring or hinting towards such an account, he instead criticises previous smaller attempts at this (129-131). A second example is Harman’s keen emphasis to develop a principled distinction between Latour and ‘process philosophy’ (as exemplified by contemporary Deleuzians) (93, 130), a distinction he emphasises but devotes no sustained space to defending. The reader must simply trust Harman on these points, it seems, and the merits of this distinction being held are not offered.

RTP has a tough task. Latour’s research spans disciplines and is difficult to isolate. In order to discuss a distinctly political philosophy, Harman abstracts Latour’s work away from the problems they are initially isolated in. However, in terms of readership, this book would be better served for those with some familiarity with the philosophical terrain Harman is considering in order to situate Harman’s Latourian positions, rather than as an introductory book on Latour. Just as Deleuze’s Foucault tells us what it is to be both a Foucauldian and a Deleuzian, RTP tells us what it is to be both a Harmanian and a Latourian.

Further Reading

Deleuze G (2006) Foucault, trans. by Séan Hand. London: Continuum

Dewey J (2012) The Public and its Problems: An Essay in Political Inquiry. University Park: Penn State University Press

Harman, G (2009) Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. Melbourne: re.press

Latour B (1988) The Pasteurization of France, trans. by Alan Sheridan and J. Law. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Latour B (1993) We Have Never Been Modern, trans. by Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Latour B (2003) What if we Talked Politics a Little? Contemporary Political Theory 2(2): 143-164

Latour B (2004)  Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. by Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Latour B (2013) An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns, trans. by Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Lippmann, W (1993) The Phantom Public. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers

Noys, B (2012) The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Schmitt C (2007) The Concept of the Political, trans. by G. Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Conor Heaney is an MPhil candidate in Philosophy at the University of Warwick. He received his BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Queen’s University Belfast. He is currently the holder of a two-year AHRC Research Preparation Master’s Scholarship, and is a Deputy Editor of the academic international politics website ‘E-IR’. His current research interests are normative political theory (humanitarian intervention, protest and global tax justice), 20th Century continental philosophy (primarily Foucault and Deleuze) and the ethics, politics and aesthetics of resistance and affirmation. He is currently researching the ‘new materialisms’ and their relationship to naturalism. He can be contacted at: c.c.j.heaney@warwick.ac.uk

Is Re-modernization Occurring – And If So, How to Prove It? A Commentary on Ulrich Beck by Bruno Latour: http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/20/2/35.full.pdf+html

Reconstructing Humants: A Humanist Critique of Actant Network Theory, by Frédéric Vandenberghe : http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/19/5-6/51.full.pdf+html

Cosmopolitics and the Subaltern: Problematizing Latour’s Idea of the Commons, by Matthew C. Watson: http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/28/3/55.full.pdf+html

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