Will the real objects of politics please stand up?

by Adrian Ivakhiv

Excerpted by permission.   Keep reading at Global Discourse: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Current Affairs and Applied Contemporary Thought,  04 Mar. 2015.  (See link beneath article.)

BRUNO LATOUR: REASSEMBLING THE POLITICAL, by Graham Harman, London, Pluto Press, 2014, 216 pp., £19.99 (paperback), ISBN 978-0745333991

Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political continues Graham Harman’s project, begun with Prince of Networks (2009), to present anthropologist of science Latour as an important philosophical figure for our time. As the first book devoted to Latour’s political philosophy, Harman’s is a groundbreaking work that carefully situates Latour’s thinking amidst an array of political philosophers of the left and right. As with his earlier volume on Latour, Harman writes judiciously here, carefully weighing out alternative interpretations while positioning both Latour’s and his own as pointing toward a sensible ‘middle way.’ While the writing occasionally deviates into caricatures and sideswipes at rivals – from Ray Brassier and the process-philosophical wing of speculative realism to the trendy hard left voices that dominate today’s Continental philosophy scene – the larger argument is presented cogently.

As with his writings on object-oriented ontology, or OOO – the philosophical movement that Harman has spearheaded over several books, numerous interviews, countless articles, and an endless stream of blog posts – Harman begins here with a useful, if oversimplified, schematic mapping of a complex terrain. With OOO, the mapping takes the form of two binary pairs: one distinguishing the real from the sensual, another distinguishing objects from qualities. The result posits four types of things in the universe – real objects, sensual objects, real qualities, and sensual qualities – and four ‘tensions’ between them, which he labels time, space, essence, and eidos. In Reassembling the Political, Harman also presents a conceptual fourfold, but here it is made of two axes rather than binaries: the first counterposes the political Left from the Right, and the second counterposes Truth to Power. Left is defined as belief in the goodness of human nature, and Right as its opposite, the belief that human nature must be curtailed by law; Truth is defined as belief in the accessibility or knowability of Truth in some form, and Power as its opposite – a belief in the lack of Truth and the consequent need for Power alone. These are, of course, false dichotomies: either in the sense that their existence belies the truth of the middle (human nature is neither good nor evil, but is simply what it is – an evolved, partially stabilized yet still-changing set of capacities for surviving together socially in larger-than-social environments), or in that they are not necessarily opposites (the accessibility of truth does not negate the possibility of power-in-itself, nor does the latter eliminate the possibility of truth).

If the dichotomies are overly schematic, the positions ascribed to notable thinkers – from Hobbes and Rousseau to Schmitt, Strauss, Žižek, Badiou, Lippmann, and Dewey – make for productive discussion. But they raise the question of whether or not these two axes ought to define political philosophy. Harman’s leap is to propose a new, third axis – that between human-only and human-plus-nonhuman – and then to point out that Latour’s innovation is precisely in charting out this third frontier and making it central to his work. The case for the novelty of this ‘Object Politics,’ as Harman calls it, is straightforward. None of the other thinkers Harman mentions make much of the nonhumans. This is not to say that such thinkers don’t exist: environmental philosophers like Val Plumwood and Arne Naess, animal ethicists like Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and Cary Wolfe, and even some better known for other work but whose forays into these areas are substantial (Haraway, Derrida, Macintyre, and others) have already paved the way for a political philosophy that makes space (and time) for nonhumans. But Harman’s task is not to make the case for these other thinkers, but for Latour. That case, alas, becomes a little muddy, in part because of the slipperiness of the word ‘object,’ which serves to obscure an important difference between Latour and Harman.  [Continued]

Adrian Ivakhiv (2015): Bruno Latour: reassembling the political, by Graham Harman, London, Pluto Press, 2014, 216 pp., £19.99 (paperback), ISBN 978-0745333991, Global Discourse: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Current Affairs and Applied Contemporary Thought, DOI: 10.1080/23269995.2015.1018663

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