I recently acquired Prince of Networks:  Bruno Latour and Metaphysics by Graham Harman.  After listening to some of Harman’s lectures and reading some of his writing I am starting to feel familiar with his style in both.  In lectures, Harman’s style is conversational, filled with personal insights of those he talks about and littered with nuggets of knowledge that allows listeners to piece together philosophy, or aspects of philosophy in their minds.  His books too, provide a wide and often personal discourse of the person or thinking he is writing about.

The first chapter of Prince of Networks is entitled Irreductions based on a long appendix attached to Latour’s book The Pasteurization of France.  Whilst this work was largely ignored, Harman argues that it is the gateway to Latour’s philosophy.  It’s first principle is that nothing, of itself, is irreducible or reducible.  This epiphany had come to the young Latour while driving his Citroen van.  In Irreductions, Latour explains the moment as follows:

“I taught at Gray in the French provinces for a year.  At the end of winter of 1972, on the road from Dijon to Gray, I was forced to stop, brought to my senses after an overdose of reductionism.”  (Latour in Harman 2009:13).

Latour at this point renounces various people and groups that reduce the world to their own view of reality such as Christians, Catholics, mathematicians, philosophers and followers of particular philosophical standpoints.  Later in Irreductions, he follows up on his epiphany by explaining that:

“I knew nothing, then, of what I am writing now but simply repeated to myself: “Nothing can be reduced to anything else, nothing can be deduced from anything else, everything may be allied to everything else.” . . . And for the first time in my life I saw things unreduced and set free.”   (Latour in Harman 2009:13).

Of course, this is music to Harman’s ears – Latour is a flat ontologist like Harman where everyone and everything is playing on the same level.  As he says:

“An entire philosophy is foreshadowed in this anecdote.  Every human and non-human object now stands by itself as a force to reckon with.  No actor, however trivial, will be dismissed as mere noise in comparison with its essence, its context, its physical body, or its conditions of possibility.  Everything will be absolutely concrete; all objects and all modes of dealing with objects will now be on the same footing.  In Latour’s new and unreduced cosmos, philosophy and physics both come to grips with forces in the world, but so do generals, surgeons, nannies, writers, chefs, biologists, aeronautical engineers, and seducers.  And though all these examples of actors are human, they are no different in kind from the forces that draw objects to the center of the earth or repress desires in the unconscious.  The world is a series of negotiations between a motley armada of forces, human among them, and such a world cannot be divided clearly between two pre-existent polies called ‘nature’ and ‘society’.  (Harman 2009:13).

And this was the start of a new philosophy:  Object-oriented philosophy.

In Irreductions, Harman identifies four principles of Latour’s philosophy:

  1. The world is made of actors and actants including not only human but non-human things. All things or objects as Harman refers to them are on the same level ontological footing.
  2. No object is reducible or irreducible. Latour refers to them as concrete.
  3. The process by which one thing is linked to another is referred to as translation or mediation and is achieved through logical deductions performed sequentially and through layers of concepts.
  4. Actants are not judged in terms of relative importance based on some inherent strength or weakness. Any relative value can only be achieved through alliances with other actors or actants.

Latour’s philosophy, like Harman’s is at odds with the prevailing continental philosophy that divides humans and the world.  That philosophy concerns itself with whether objects, exist independently from us as humans, or whether they are socially constructed by us.  Latour argues that all objects have metaphysical equality and that objects can be socially constructed by other things than the human mind such as atoms, cosmic rays, God or propaganda amongst others.

My interest was drawn to Latour’s term actants.  Harman explains that for Latour an actant always takes the form of an event – and that everything happens only once and at one place.  An actant is always completely deployed in that event.  Actants are not different from their relations.  This approach calls into question the issue of durability of objects and the continued existence of say a dog.

So, how does this relate to the ontology of the photographic moment?  Well, the pressing of the shutter to record a particular moment as an image is a single event, recording of a single slice of time involving various actants.  This moment and the action of taking a photograph will never be repeated in Latour’s terms.  Sometimes my images are successful in accessing the ephemeral hiddenness or the essence of an aspect of nature.  Other times they are not as I cannot guarantee the outcome of each iteration.  When my images are successful, are they capturing the actant, at that moment in time and all its relations?  Does this shed some light on why some images are successful?

 

References

HARMAN, Graham.  2009.  Prince of Networks:  Bruno Latour and Metaphysics.  Melbourne: Re.Press.

Alison Price

Alison Price

My name is Alison Price and for the past ten years I have travelled the world photographing wildlife, including Alaska, Antarctica, Borneo, Botswana, the Canadian Arctic, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
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