Sunday, November 21, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Graham Harman "Prince of Networks -- Bruno Latour and Metaphysics"

As someone who has a lifelong interest in what could serve as a philosophical  foundation for design, I have for many years admired the work of Bruno Latour. I have read most of his books and have seen him as one of the most important contemporary philosophers. However, Latour has not received the same recognition from the professional philosophical community. He is by many seen as a sociologist and not as a philosopher.

The book "Prince of Networks -- Bruno Latour and Metaphysics" by Graham Harman makes a great case in presenting  the ideas of Bruno Latour as a philosopher and someone who actually contributes to foundational metaphysical questions. Harman's book is basically divided into two parts where the first is a wonderful presentation of Latour's writings and ideas. In the second part Harman elaborates on his own philosophical thinking which of course rests solidly on Latour's, but deviates in some crucial and important regards. I must say that I really enjoyed the first part of the book which is an excellent presentation and explanation of Latour's ideas, while I did not to the same degree enjoyed the second part and that for two reasons. I will briefly comment on those two reasons before I write a bit more about Latour and the first part.

In the second part of the book Harman takes on a point where he deviates from the original ideas of Latour. The particular question is about the notion of 'object' and if objects should be seen as solely existing due to their relations of if they do have some internal or 'real' core. Harman argues that objects have to be seen as having some kind of 'real' core and he develops some arguments for this. I find this whole enterprise to be a mistake and is not a small deviation from Latour, instead I see it a major departure. It is difficult to see why Harman calls 'sensual' objects, which he distinguishes from 'real', as less real in a Latourian sense. It seems to me that Harman gets caught up in the issue of an object's 'real' core to the degree that he falls into the trap of dividing things into real versus made-up, or natural versus human. To me the prime example used by Harman where he writes about the difference between real cats and a made-up "monster x" is a mistake. The "monster x" could have a stronger existence and could even develop  internal relations with enough work (as Latour states it) would be put in.  It would take this blog post too far to fully develop this argument. Anyhow, the other issue I have with the second apart of the book is that becomes way to limited in scope and approach. Harman gets into highly detailed and internal arguments with other philosophers who subscribe to the same overall philosophy as he. The texts sounds in parts like a reconstruction of a workshop where some like-minded thinkers have really gone wild into their own little field of ideas. So, to someone who is more interested in the larger issues, the second part of the  book becomes less exciting.

So, back to Latour. After reading Harman, my respect and understanding of Latour has grown and I realize that there are so many aspects of his philosophy that makes sense from a design theoretical perspective. For instance, Latour's extraordinary strong claim about the "absolute concreteness" of objects or in Latour language "actant" clearly resonates with the notion of the "ultimate particular" that we have developed in our book "The Design Way". Harman summarizes Latour's idea about concreteness like this "Since every actant is entirely concrete, we do not find its reality in some lonely essence or chaste substrate, but always in an absolutely specific place in the work, with completely specific alliances at any given moment" (p 16). This is the reality for a designer. The design does not exist as abstract or universal idea or "thing", the design exists only in a given time and place and is what it is--an absolute particular. Its constitution and quality and existence is a result of its relationships to all other objects and actants.

Another aspect of Latour that makes sense for design is the notion that objects are created  by creating alliances, and by building relationships. All this, is for Latour a question of hard work. To make sure that a design will exist and "win" (another Latourian term) is a matter of it will connect to its surrounding objects, which in design terms is all about composition.

All the ideas of Latour that Harman eloquently presents in the first half of the book are possible to incorporate in a philosophy or theory of design. Of course, reading Harman about Latour should be complemented by reading the original, and my two Latour favorites are "We have never been modern" and "Pandora's Hope"-- two wonderful books.

I would really like to write much more about this book and about Latour, but I have to stop. I wish that we could start to see a more serious interest in Latour and his philosophy. The interest that has dominated so far is a quite shallow and uninteresting "use" of his ideas in the form of Actor Network Theory.  I find a lot of the work done under the name of ACT to be so far from Latour and so simplified and distorted that it has almost nothing to do with the original ideas. To use Latour's ideas methodologically without a deep understanding of the philosophical foundation leads to serious misunderstandings of the ideas and of their potential applications in daily research endeavors. Instead we could use Latour as a way to support a designerly perspective and to give it a strong philosophical foundation.

8 comments:

Jeffrey Bardzell said...

You almost make me want to read this! But then, World of Warcraft Cataclysm Official Strategy Guide comes out in a week or so, and I think I'll dive into that instead.

Erik Stolterman said...

You almost make me want to play Wow, but I think I continue with the book instead :-)

Eva said...

VA?! Är det du som har lånat min bok?! Som jag har letat...

Sam said...

Could I talk you into calling out ACT work that you do consider an honest motion forward for Latour?

Erik Stolterman said...

Hi Sam,

I am not sure I know what you mean, but I am quite sure that most ACT work done has not made Latour happy :-) There are of course exceptions and most of them are done by the close collaborators to Latour, and for instance, also his own work on the Paris subway, nicely described in his book "Aramis"

Anonymous said...

Erik, I guess I need to have a serious talk with you about what you did not appreciate in the second part of Harman's book...

In my initially humble opinion...: ... That's where the important stuff is, so re- read and do some homework besides getting what you already got!!! Also, .... please return to home (i.e Umeå, Sweden) if you recall?? That is, if you are keen in getting some sound and firm thought-provoking battles to keep you sane and sound =)

Welcome,

Anna

Erik Stolterman said...

Who is this Anna that is anonymous...
:-)

Anyway, I still like the first part better than the second part. Så det så!!

Emile Silvis said...

To use a Latourian concept popularised by Harman in this book: you must be a Joliot joining design and Latour -- I love it.

I also echo your sentiments about the book: the first part is a brilliant overview of Latour, the second part loses the plot a bit in my opinion. I wasn't convinced; I'm still a pure relationist thinker (as Latour is).

Finally, I can't agree more that Latour's work (and Law's, for that matter) should be taken as a metaphysical ontology, not a interpretive lens for your pet research project.

Good review!