Bruno Latour approaching an Object-Oriented Ontology

The following is another exchange with friend and colleague Adam Robbert in response to an essay by Bruno Latour. First, a short excerpt from the article “On Interobjectivity“:

Social worlds remain flat at all points, without there being any folding that might permit a passage from the “micro” to the “macro.” For example the traffic control room for Paris busses does indeed dominate the multiplicity of busses, but it would not know how to constitute a structure “above” the interactions of the bus drivers. It is added on to those interactions. The old difference of levels comes merely from overlooking the material connections that permit one place to be linked to others…

My initial response:

Latour is refreshingly worldly and specific, especially in comparison to all the abstract metaphysics I’ve been reading lately. But the metaphysical issues stuck out at me nonetheless. What is a non-human society? What is a non-human individual? I think an object-orientation levels out this dichotomy in a helpful way. There are social interactions all the way down, with social norms being contested at every opportunity by the things performing them. Formative causes (wholes/souls) are not the result of a pre-existing morphogenic field floating atop the merely bodily interactions at a lower level, but are entangled in these interactions, responsible to them, subject to their revolutionary transformations. I think there is still a certain mystery to how cells become animals, or how the Führer can bring a nation of individuals together against a common enemy. But this mystery is present at every level of ontology, rather than just the social or the animal (or the human). How do parts become wholes? How do wholes become parts? Is there any authentic/artificial boundary to be drawn between those wholes found in nature (like elements, organisms, solar systems, galaxies) and those fabricated by humans (nation-states, artifacts, identities)? I suppose it is helpful to make distinctions here, but not ontological dichotomies.

Latour’s call to let objects back into sociology is related to what I was struggling to express earlier today in my blog about the mutually untranslatable (or at least folded and obscured) layers constituting reality. Latour writes on p. 240: “Social worlds remain flat at all points, without there being any folding that might permit a passage from the ‘micro’ to the ‘macro.'” The relation to my thought was that certain objects exist only for other objects at the same level, and the narratives and social life they compose are only locally relevant. Sometimes these local layers come into contact with objects on other layers, whether more directly or more peripherally, and are able to narratively co-exist.

For instance, through the techniques developed by Claude Shannon, the language of human beings was translated into the informational terms of electronic beings to be amplified and mobilized at the speed of light across the world. These worlds, the human and the electronic, now co-exist narratively (though it is an asymmetrical co-existence, since humans seem to know more about what electrons mean than electrons know about what we mean).

But without a material link or trace of translation, one layer of beings cannot step outside its network of relations to grasp some ontologically more foundational macro-level ruling over all the local relations within it. This is the limit to knowledge placed on an object oriented knowledge. It is not an ultimate limit, though, since it leaves open the possibility that translational links to higher levels as yet undreamt of could be found.

Adam’s reply:

It seems to me that an appropriate compliment to any speculative practice or ontological schematizing (I think both words are still better than metaphysics) is almost always anthropology or political science. Metaphysics does baffling things to the brain (at least to this brain) and it is definitely helpful (essential?) to engage with sociological issues as Latour does, not just for the mental balancing this provides but more centrally because the whole point of studying ontology is in fact to be of service to the world by thinking through its basic structures carefully. Without a socio-political dimension ontology is for me bankrupt (though this doesn’t mean we have to reduce our ontological speculation to what we consider to be social or political). Latour is one of those few individuals who can handle both socio-historical issues and ontological ones with skill and competence.

Thinking through Latour’s paper on interobjectivity is difficult precisely because of the points you are raising (“What is a non-human society? What is a non-human individual?”) If we, as Latour suggests, are able to extend the notion of society to nonhuman actors, then the question becomes whether or not we should think of human societies as different only in kind than in nature from other types of nonhuman societies. Historically this question seems to be a reductionist black hole (“its all nature,” “its all culture”). In this context appealing to naturalism or relativism is beside the point.

A flat ontology, which describes all objects/actors as equally “real” also leaves much to be desired in this regard. Even breaking up the flatness by distinguishing between “real” and “sensual” qualities does not push the notion of an ontology of politics far enough- though perhaps the inevitable negotiations between the real and the sensual does constitute a basis for considering social negotiations to be present on a cosmological level. OOO [object-oriented ontology], I think, is hard at work filling in the gaps, and there is definitely much more work to be done here.

Then there is the more mainstream view of someone like E.O. Wilson who writes:

“But what is Nature? The simplest possible answer is also the best: Nature is that part of the original environment and its life forms that remains after the human impact. Nature is all on planet Earth that has no need of us and can stand alone.”

It becomes clear that the human/nature dichotomy is not a particularly helpful framework at this stage in the game, but none the less it goes to show how much more specific and accurate we could be in producing a realist (not just materialist) account of ecological relationships between the human and nonhuman world, and perhaps more crucially in this context, in accounting for ecological relationships on internal and external levels between nonhuman actors themselves. Wilson’s above statement would only make sense if ecology asserted itself as the study of the relationship between humans and their environment, but of course ecology is the study of organisms and their environments. Wilson’s odd claim in the above paragraph can be read as the consequence of hundreds of years of correlationist thinking- even a renowned scientist who studies the objective relationships between nonhuman organisms and their environments manages to lump the whole planet into two distinct categories- “nature” and “humans!” This strikes me as an ideological fallacy given that the biologist is the one for whom a real nonhuman world is the most central cornerstone of their worldview! That one can suggest that “Nature” can only be defined in the negative, as anything not human, implies that humans are the only ones capable of having an experience of a real world, a strange moment of cognitive dissonance indeed. I also find it quite plausible to consider the notion that the biologist and the ecologist do not necessarily have to engage in ecological thinking in order to perform their functions as scientists.

I suppose the question becomes which ecological schema one uses to understand concepts like evolution, culture or nature. For the niche-construction theorist for example the organism is constantly transforming its environment both mechanically by burrowing or building nests and so forth, and chemically by breathing out/secreting transformed chemical compounds that feed back into larger ecocyles. In this respect it is not just humans who are posed the question “what did Nature look like before I got here?” but it is in fact a question, perhaps not posed, but at least present, as a component of any organism’s relation to its environment. Strictly speaking, “environments” do not exist without organisms to surround, just as there can be no organism without an environment. Evolution is a historically contingent process for all organisms. For humans and for any other creature that would record its own history, this contingency is simply doubled by the fact that not only is our own developmental and evolutionary biology a historically contingent process, but the methods we use to interpret and structure our knowledge of those processes are also historically contingent- perhaps greatly more so. Thus I think it reasonable that, in their own species-specific way, all creatures experience a “Nature for me” versus a “Nature in itself” interpretive dilemma. I suppose any claim that humans and other organisms are in some way alike in their interpretive processes requires some disclaimer or permit which states “I have not partaken in the deadly sin of anthropomorphism” but I mean my comments more as thought excercises than as literal truisms (though I do find the possibility of amoeba debating the merits of an enlightenment view of nature over a romantic one rather entertaining- someone call Pixar!).

I think it’s a sad state of affairs when a scientist like Wilson has to resort to an almost dogmatic naturalism in order to refute an equally dogmatic anti-realist position. I understand Wilson’s assertion of “Nature” to be a call to recognize the world’s own objectivity – surely a worthy cause – in the context of the continued onslaught of postmodern philosophies that claim no such objective world can exist. But these two poles must be abandoned for both do damage to a genuine ecology of the real (perhaps an ecological realism?), which in my opinion is what Latour is aiming for. Latour paves a way out of naturalism and relativism, his notion of interobjectivity alongside of various new approaches to evolution such as Niche-Construction Theory (NCT) are promising endeavors in articulating a more comprehensive view of ecology- one that would take multiple perspectives seriously as ontological positions and not just as epistemological variations on an incomprehensible reality. I also agree that ontological distinctions need to be made, whilst avoiding ontological dichotomies. I am compelled by the thought that the notion of ecology can produce the kind of ontological stratification that these issues require. I think a three-fold model of ecology (what I’ve been calling Nature, Media and Knowledge), coupled with a four-fold approach to actors (objective, subjective, participatory and object-oriented) could clear some of this up. I’m excited to see how all of this develops.

My subsequent response:

I would want to preserve the more general category “metaphysics,” because there are at least three modes of ontological schematizing that are different enough to deserve their own sub-categories: there is ontology, the study of the Being of beings; there is onticology, the study of beings; and there is cosmology, the study of the relation between Being and beings.

I think ontology touches politics most closely through cosmology, and so a cosmopolitics is definitely the right route to take in thinking the relation between Being and beings (mysticla or revelatory relations?), and that between and among beings themselves (political relations). A cosmopolitics would require that the human/universe divide be demoted from a unique ontological chasm to just another ontic example of a tension that exists between sensuality and reality for all finite beings. But this still leaves the other mode of ontological schematizing, that concerned with Being itself. The concept of infinity broke open the medieval conception of Being as a static perfection. The modern and postmodern conception of Being, if such a concept can still be said to effectively exist, is uncertain, alienated, and skeptical: ontology has been associated with mere dogmatism or naïveté. But for a cosmopolitics to be possible, not only must a society’s conception of beings be democratic, its approach to the study Being must be constructive (not merely transcendental or critical). Dogmatic theism is here no more helpful than atheism, since without some positive conception of Being, beings will always lack the full individual reality that prevents each one from being exhausted by its relations to others. Democracy requires that there be a relation between creator and each individual creature; otherwise what is the sameness that each being participates in allowing us to call our ontology “flat”? What is the common though subterranean topology that all things share if not Being? Infinity demands a conception of Being as non-All, as incomplete but always in the process of completion (like Whitehead’s God). This leaves each being room to transform, to surprise itself and others by undoing and overcoming the restrictions leveled upon it by its qualities and relations. Being holds all beings in ontic co-existence while also infinitely distinguishing each being from its relations. Hegel’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic of particular–>universal–>individual is relevant here: beings would be lost in their own solipsistic particularity without any universal relation to Being; only through this relation do beings become true individuals.

Society still seems to pose a problem in the above scheme, since somehow many beings on one level exist in enduring relationships that produce a single being on another level (as in multicellular animals). Cells provide the matter that receives the form of the animal, while on an adjacent level, molecules provide the matter that receives the form of each cell. Which is the true society, the molecules or the cells? Is an animal-being more real, or more complete, than a molecule-being? Is it more “complex,” in Latour’s sense of being composed of more simultaneous interactions? If these part/whole and matter/form relations continue indefinitely into the micro- and macrocosm, measures of complexity seem arbitrary. Is everything really form, or really matter? Is society a superorganism obeying a necessity higher than any of its replaceable subjects, or is it the accidental cumulative effect of the activity of individuals? Perhaps society can no longer refer to a relation among the same, but must include relations between beings on varying levels of emergence. This would entail the ecologization of the concept of society, which I think may be more to the point than Latour’s “naturalization” of society/”socialization” of nature.


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