The Prince and the Wolf

Today I read The Prince and the Wolf, the short book from Zer0 that transcribes a discussion between Graham Harman and Bruno Latour, held at the London School of Economics in 2008, and organized and introduced by Peter Erdelyi. I found the book very helpful in further pursuing the questions about Harman’s object-oriented ontology that I have been mulling over for several years. This is largely because of the context we have Latour responding to Harman’s reading of him, which suggests different directions for debate than any I have thought of myself, or come upon elsewhere. I haven’t the time to think through all of the stuff I read — so this posting will just mention briefly a few of the key points that emerge from the book, before I forget them.

Basically, Latour objects to Harman’s characterization of him as a relationist, by saying that he doesn’t understand (or doesn’t accept) Harman’s entire opposition between objects/substances and relations. Where the question of whether objects can be defined by their relations, or on the contrary have hidden nonrelational cores, is crucial for Harman, Latour suggests rather that this is a both/and, not an either/or. It is precisely because things are singular, that they need mediators, relations via translation and transportation, in order to have an effect, or assert their presence in the world. So it’s not a question of whether objects are defined by intrinsic substantial natures or by merely relational qualities, but rather that it is precisely to the extent that objects are singular and irreducible to external common measures that they need to establish modes of relationality.

Latour accepts Harman’s definition of him as an occasionalist, and as the first secular occasionalist. This is because, for Latour, all alliances among things are contingent, and can always be broken or articulated differently. However, it still doesn’t seem to me that causation, or contact among entities, is as problematic for Latour as it is for Harman. Harman affirms occasionalism because, given his notion of sel-subsistent objects, sealed off from one another, the fact that objects do affect one another cannot be taken for granted, but needs a special explanation. I don’t see that this is a problem for Latour — he sees objects making alliances and networks, entering into confederations or fights and oppositions, as being the usual course of things; it isn’t in need of special explanation.

This also is an issue in Harman’s reading of Whitehead, which comes up briefly in the book because of Latour’s overt Whiteheadianism. Harman says that Whitehead is also an occasionalist, and not a secular one, because Whitehead requires eternal objects mediated by God in order for things to affect one another. This seems to me to be wrong. In his doctrine of causal efficacy, Whitehead presents entities as affecting one another directly, without mediation, all the time.

This is the whole point of Whitehead’s critique of Hume. Whitehead says that, if Hume were correct in claiming that no connections among events or entities can be detected in the world, then it would be impossible for such connections to be detected in the mind either — there could be no habit or stability of mental associations. Hume in fact assumes, in the case of the mind, the very causal links that he denies to the world outside the mind. But this is unacceptable, once we reject the Cartesian dualistic notion that the mind is somehow separate from the world. Whitehead says in effect that it is impossible to actually disavow causal efficacy. I accept Harman’s brilliant observation that Hume’s scepticism is really just the flip side of Malebranche’s occasionalism — but my conclusion from this is that, if we accept Whitehead’s argument against Humean scepticism, then this is an argument against occasionalism as well. For Whitehead, an entity cannot ever exist apart from its connections, even though the entity itself is not reducible to these connections.

As for eternal objects and God in Whitehead’s cosmology, it seems to me that they are not deployed in order to answer the question of how things can influence other things. Rather, they are there in order to answer a quite different question: that of how novelty is possible, of how creativity takes place, of how things can be something other than just repetitions of previous things. Harman observes that, “for Aristotle… causation itself isn’t really a problem; there are no gaps between things.” I would claim, contra Harman, that the same is true of Whitehead. The problem for Whitehead is not the occasionalist one of how to bring unconnected things together, but rather the one of how to produce gaps, discontinuities, and changes in a world in which everything (every actual entity) has a reason, which reason is always another actual entity (or a number of them).

In other words: Harman rejects Aristotle’s belief that “there are no gaps between things,” while he seeks to revive an Aristotelian notion of substance. Whitehead, as is well known, utterly rejects Aristotelian substance, but like Aristotle he doesn’t have a problem with things touching and affecting one another. Actually, it is a bit more complicated: for Whitehead – contra Bergson – “there is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming.” Both the continuity and the gaps in continuity have to be produced, and have to be accounted for. Reality, for Whitehead, is atomistic — but this does not mean nonrelational. I think that Whitehead would probably reject Harman’s basic duality between objects and relations in much the same way that Latour does.

To get back to Latour — he says in The Prince and the Wolf that he is not as much of an actualist as Harman makes him out to be, precisely because he does not conceive things in “punctual” terms. Where Harman seeks to revive a notion of substance in order to get away from the contemporary overvaluation of relations, Latour poses the issue quite differently. Several times in the book he says that, precisely because we can no longer accept the notion of substance, the question that exercises him the most is one of subsistence. “Once substance has been excluded, subsistence comes to the fore.” For Harman, things are substances, in their basic being, regardless of whether they subsist or not. For Latour, things cannot be substances at all, and this is why the question of their subsistence is such an important one. Indeed, Latour hints that his still-unpublished exploration of different modes of being (under the influence of Souriau) is really about different ways of subsisting. There are multiple modes of being, because there are multiple ways in which entities, without being substances, nonetheless subsist over time (and also, I would suspect, through space).

Latour adds that what he now sees as the defect of his early treatise “Irreductions” (part of the Pasteur book) is that it is in fact too “punctual” — it presents as points what are really vectors. Now, “vectors” is very much a Whiteheadian term as well — Whitehead insists on the vector quality of existence — and for Latour, vectors are important because they involve both movements of translation and transportation, and processes of subsistence. Harman objects that vectors are only spatial, not temporal, a movement outward but not a movement forward in time — Whitehead’s and Latour’s vector picture has little to do with Bergsonian duration. Harman is right regarding Bergson specifically, but I don’t accept Harman’s further inference that therefore there is no real temporality in Latour: I think it is just that Latour is following Whitehead’s physics-inflected sense of spacetime, rather than Bergson’s radical duality between time and space. The movement of the vector is as irreducible to the kind of temporality of present instants that Harman describes as it is to Bergsonian continuity of becoming. For Latour (as for Whitehead, and in contrast to Harman) everything has “descendants and ascendants” [I suspect that what Latour meant by the latter word was “antecedents”].

And this, coming near the end of the volume (page 108), is perhaps the crux: Latour claims that “every single entity is expectant of a next step.” Harman responds: “Not expectant, but it becomes a possible mediator of other two entities.” Latour responds that he does intend the stronger meaning that Harman rejects: “No, but for itself, we are talking about the thing itself. It is expectant, is it not?” Harman says no, where Latour says yes. As for me, this is precisely where I side with Latour (and Whitehead) against Harman. Things are indeed “expectant,” because they feel what they prehend, and in turn set down conditions for what will prehend them, i.e. ways in which they will (expect to) be felt. Such is the vector character of experience for both Whitehead and Latour; it is also the “physical intentionality” at the heart of George Molnar’s conception of “powers.”

10 thoughts on “The Prince and the Wolf”

  1. This is really helpful. Thank you. I’d note that these are the same issues that you’ll find Statius working out in Purgatorio XXV, as an argument between Aristotle and Albertus Magnus. And I think what you’re saying is consistent in every way I would want it to be with Wittgenstein.

  2. Popper’s got an amusing sentence or two in The Open Society about Heraclitus who he claims had two claims but is only known for the endless novelty of the phrase, “One can not step into the same river twice.” Popper says more important than the phenomenal changes were how the Logos remains the same, and he says that Heraclitus was part of an old fading aristocracy who saw an influx of newcomers to Ephesus as a threat, and says the same thing happened with Plato and Socrates, and this is why they, too, resisted the notion of endless novelty and change, and favored the Forms, which were allied to Logos. It’s more or less in the opening chapter of Open Society.

    I keep hoping one day I’ll open this, and see the title, “Whitehead Among the Blackfeet.”

    Novelty stores are vanishing along with the 5 and dimes, but some puns always remain in the thickets, wiggling their tails, waiting to pounce, classics before they were even born.

  3. Thanks for this, in advance of reading the Prince and the Wolf, and after acquiring the Prince of Networks, I was wary of Harman as he seemed to be shoving Latour’s most fruitful insights into a box / dead end – especially losing sight of the both/and, either/or thing, which is the most important insight Latour brings to his beautiful language game – as well as his engagement with the actual practice of the social sciences. He should also have invited John Law to be on the panel, and Michel Callon. The hagiography is irritating. I think I have to buy this just to read Latour’s responses. Great blog, by the way. Will delve deeper.

  4. Thank you for your commentary — one of the most helpful I’ve read on the Harman-Latour exchange. I wonder if you have pursued the work of either Latour or Harman after this event because it has taken new and interesting dimensions since then. If so, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts.

    Something that bothers me about Harman’s criticism of Latour is his constant question about how two objects are supposed to finally “touch” in Latour’s so-called metaphysics. What the question itself exposes, it seems to me, is that the implications of mediation are lost on Harman. He seems to be clinging to the metaphysical notion that mediation has to end in a privileged, immediate contact. Formally speaking, it’s as if he conceives of mediation as a recursive function that has to bottom out at some (preset) point and is now expecting that from Latour. Whereas, to paraphrase the way I understand it, for Latour, that which is immediate is just well-mediated.

    The disagreement resurfaces, if tacitly, elsewhere in the book as well, e.g. in Latour’s discomfort with Harman’s insistence that he indeed has a metaphysics in the traditional sense, or when the discussion turns to Heidegger and phenomenology, all of which leads me to think that Harman might be trying to import Latour into frameworks that are fundamentally inconsistent with his thought.

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