- The Richness of Things Themselves
Graham Harman's Prince of Networks is really two books in one. The first part is a lucid exposition of the metaphysics of Bruno Latour; the second part presents Harman's own metaphysical speculations, which are deeply indebted to those of Latour, but which also strike out in new and different directions.
Bruno Latour is well known in the United States, but he is not usually thought of as a philosopher or a metaphysician. Latour is, rather, most familiar as one of the leading figures in science studies: the interdisciplinary field that looks at the actual practices of scientists and scientific institutions, and the cultural implications of these practices. Science studies involves the work of sociologists, anthropologists, and historians, as well as of cultural theorists and rhetoricians, who are often to be found in literature departments. Latour is also frequently cited as one of the developers of actor-network theory, which has had a significant impact in the social sciences and in cultural studies—but which has little in common with the concerns of the philosophy of science as it was practiced in the last century under the influence of such figures as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn. It's surprising, therefore (at least for English-language readers, though not necessarily for French-language ones) to see Latour presented, as he is by Harman, as a [End Page 129] metaphysician, in the company of such figures as Leibniz, Hume, Kant, and Whitehead. Indeed, Harman suggests that Latour compares favorably with such figures as Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Lacan, and Badiou, those theorists who have entranced American academia over the last several decades. One of the great merits of Prince of Networks is that it not only argues for the importance of Latour's thought, but also places Latour himself in an entirely new light.
In the first part of Prince of Networks, Harman outlines Latour's metaphysics through a close reading of four of Latour's texts: "Irreductions" (from The Pasteurization of France, 1984), Science in Action (1987), We Have Never Been Modern (1991), and Pandora's Hope (1999). Harman discovers a cluster of "four metaphysical axioms" that define Latour's philosophy (14-16). In the first place, the world is made up of actors or actants, discrete and separate individuals. Human beings are actors, but so are bacteria, chairs, grapes, and grains of sand. In the second place, all these actors are irreducible. No actor can be entirely explained in the terms of, or by reference to, another. You cannot fully account for the being and doing of a chair, for instance, by referring either to the atoms out of which it is ultimately made or to its use by the person who sits in it. In the third place, any encounter, any interaction between actors, involves a process of translation. Each actor mediates (and thereby transforms) other actors and is in its own turn mediated (and thereby transformed) by still other actors: "There is never an immediate visibility of the fact, but only a series of mediations. . . . Truth is nothing but a chain of translation without resemblance from one actor to the next" (76). And finally, in the fourth place, change happens as a result of negotiations or battles among actors; and the outcome of these negotiations or battles depends upon the alliances that actors are able to make with one another: "For Latour, an object is neither a substance nor an essence, but an actor trying to adjust or inflict its forces, not unlike Nietzsche's cosmic vision of the will to power" (15). After stating these axioms concisely, Harman proceeds to elaborate and develop them, and to explore their ramifications and consequences. The result is to reveal that Latour is actually grappling with many of the major concerns of Western philosophy and offering his own innovative suggestions for resolving them.
In the second part of Prince of Networks, Harman steps back from this close reading, in order to offer some criticisms of Latour's metaphysics and to...