Graham Harman - Between Truth and Power: Bruno Latour’s Political Philosophy

‘In Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political, I claim that Latour’s approach to political theory poses a strong challenge to reigning paradigms in the discipline. Politics since the French Revolution, whatever the complexities of any given historical moment, has habitually been carved up into “Left” and “Right” orientations. Indeed, this is how all of us instinctively classify each person we meet in political terms. As Emerson famously put it, every nation has its progressives (“The Party of Hope”) and its conservatives (“The Party of Memory”). Bruno Latour has always been difficult to place on this familiar spectrum. Clearly he is not a radical Leftist, having little in common with Jacobin countrymen such as Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière, who are prepared to sacrifice everything in the name of egalitarian principle. In fact, Latour is sometimes tarred by the Left as a “neo-liberal,” though this label is always too vague and too broadly applied to anyone who pulls up short of calling for instant Revolution.

Yet Latour also cannot plausibly be viewed as an adherent of the political Right, despite his unapologetic Catholicism and his famous polemic against modernism. One can hardly imagine Latour signing up for a “Party of Memory,” in view of his fondness for novel hybrid fusions of humans and non-humans: it is not for nothing that cyborg theorist Donna Haraway is an enthusiastic reader of his work. The difference between Left and Right actually has less to do with hope and memory than with the conception of human nature as basically good or basically troubled. In the former case, as for example in the writings of Rousseau or Marx, the innate goodness of humans is alienated or crushed by some external corrupting force— whether agriculture, metallurgy, society, ideology, or capital. In the latter case, as in the works of Hobbes or Carl Schmitt, the human being is viewed as a basically dangerous entity, and hence an iron fist is preferred to the innate corruption and disorder of our natures. These two opposite theories of human nature already show us why Latour is hard to classify as Left or Right: namely, Latour has no theory of human nature. The topic does not seem to interest him much, or at least has little place in his philosophy. What matters for Latour instead is the constant reshuffling of human and nonhuman actors in various networks; as they enter and exit various networks, actors change their character accordingly, including human actors. They do not have some inherent good or evil nature that would be either oppressed or restrained by authority.

Yet there is a different polarity in modern political theory, one that cuts across the Left/Right distinction and is also of far greater relevance to the political theory of Latour. I speak of the difference between what we might call Truth Politics and Power Politics. I have already mentioned Rousseau and Marx as exemplars of the Left version of Truth Politics: the truth is basically already known, but is prevented from becoming reality by various social, economic, or ideological obstructions. Yet there are also Right versions of Truth Politics, as found for instance in the teachings of Leo Strauss. Here Socrates is interpreted not as someone who seeks the truth without finding it, as the name philosophia suggests. Instead, Socrates already knows the truth: that humans are not equal, but are arranged in a permanent hierarchy of types that transcends all historical context. Philosophy is dangerous for the masses, yet philosophers must conceal this fact with coded writing and esoteric signals, convincing the masses that they are normal patriotic and religious citizens in order to avoid the fate of Socrates himself. But this elitism is merely the reverse of the supposed egalitarian truth, since both think the truth is already known to some smaller or larger group. This sort of Truth Politics has nothing at all to do with the thought of Latour, who completely forbids any direct access to a “truth” that might trump the uncertain struggles between competing actors.

Power Politics also comes in both Left and Right flavors, though it is perhaps more common on the Right. For Hobbes, nothing can be permitted to transcend the Leviathan. To appeal to a religious truth beyond the edicts of the State, or even to a scientific truth beyond such edicts, is to risk a bloody civil war of all against all. Transcendence is therefore forbidden. In the case of Schmitt, politics begins only in the sovereign’s decision that it is no longer possible to reason with one’s enemy, so that an existential struggle commences. We see Left versions of this Power Politics in various postmodern theories that dispense with the category of truth altogether. While Latour is naturally allergic to any form of Truth Politics, he remains permanently tempted by Power Politics, and fights these temptations for the remainder of his career. The young Latour shows open delight in defending the claims of Hobbes and Machiavelli, in erasing the purported distinction between Might and Right, in admiring a hypothetical Prince who would not just destroy or manipulate his human rivals, but would successfully arrange gas, water, and electricity lines as well. This early phase, in which Latour broadens Hobbesian politics to include inanimate beings alongside humans, ends in his 1991 classic We Have Never Been Modern. When Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer claim that the power of Hobbes outstrips the truth of scientist Robert Boyle, Latour suddenly intones: “No, Hobbes was wrong!” This is not because Boyle was right instead, but because both Hobbes and Boyle are wrong— by reducing the world either to Irrefutable Right or Irresistible Might. Both truth or power are employed by turns to efface the always uncertain play of political networks, in which rhetoric and proof, strength and weakness, all stand on the same footing.

Post-1991, Latour searches for a way to incorporate a reality external to Hobbesian power-plays. Yet he remains a Hobbesian at heart, just as suspicious as Hobbes himself of any court of appeal beyond the immanent world and its actors. Thus, the most Latour is ever willing to grant is a “mini-transcendence.” In his Politics of Nature (first published in French in 1999), it is scientists and moralists who are given the task of detecting new candidate entities for inclusion in the body politic. Not long afterward, Latour turns to the “object-oriented politics” of Walter Lippmann and John Dewey, for whom the “public” is constituted differently on an issue-by-issue basis. The political issue or object is that which gathers various stakeholders around it, gradually composing and clarifying the issue by determining what is truly at stake.

However, in both of these phases Latour tends to identify the political with reality as a whole. There is nothing in his early celebrations of Machiavelli and Hobbes that is any truer of “politics” in the strict sense than of science, sports, or amorous life. This remains the case even in Politics of Nature, whose parliamentary terminology does not stop its basic concepts from being applicable to even the least political portions of everyday life. Yet everything changes with Latour’s 2012 treatise ..An Enquiry Into Modes of Existence, or AIME, as it is usually known in Latourian circles. read more:

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