Book review: 'Prince of Networks'

Harman on Latour's metaphysics, and his own

Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (2009)

author: Graham Harman
pages: 258

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This book does two main things. The first is announced by the subtitle: it presents Bruno Latour as a philosopher of metaphysics. Less obviously from the cover, the second is that it serves as an introduction to Harman's own object-oriented philosophy via the route of Latour. It does both quite well.

Latour has been massively influential in both the humanities and social sciences, originating an approach to sociology that focuses on networks of actants, which can include both human and non-human actants. This clearly has philosophical implications, but Latour has typically, quite consciously, chosen to avoid writing in the mode of a philosopher, instead writing in the mode of a sociologist, couching his metaphysical positions in the language of methodology, and often in a somewhat coy manner distributed here and there throughout his oeuvre. Only a handful of works, like the short "Irreductions", explicitly position themselves as doing philosophy in any sort of programmatic sense.

Part One

In Part One of this book, Harman does what Latour himself avoids doing, and outlines the coherent and innovative metaphysical system implied by Latour's work. Latour's key concepts emerge as a programmatic whole: actants, black boxes, networks, alliances, construction, translation, hybrids. In contrast to Latour's own work, and especially to much of the secondary literature on actor-network theory, the metaphysics are greatly clarified by presenting them explicitly as metaphysics. While much of this can be gotten from Latour—he does insist here and there on the generality of his approach, and on the absence of a human–world split that would make actor-network theory a purely sociological methodology—the fact that many of his own investigations and examples focus on specifically human practices makes the content of his (implicit) metaphysical program less clear in Latour himself than it is here.

In addition to distilling and laying out Latour's metaphysics, Harman also makes a helpful effort, especially moving into Part Two of the book, to connect it to other philosophical positions and questions (connections that Latour, deliberately not doing philosophy, tends not to draw). Hence, we learn how Latour's metaphysics sits in relation to trends in both analytic and continental philosophy (Latour fits comfortably into neither, being a basically non-Kantian philosopher), to positions on potentiality (Latour is an actualist), to questions about causality (Harman positions Latour as "the first secular occasionalist"), and so on.

A reader interested solely in Latour's metaphysics can profitably read this part of the book alone, and stop partway into Part Two of the book. That can be done, incidentally, without having read any of Latour's own work—Harman writes in a standalone style that assumes no preexisting knowledge of Latour's writing on the reader's part, rather than in the style of a commentary or companion volume, and any prerequisite material is liberally quoted, paraphrased, and explained.

Part Two

However, the reader who wishes to learn about Harman's own object-oriented ontology will find the rest of Part Two an intriguing entry point into that philosophy via a critique of Latour. This critique takes a somewhat interesting direction. Instead of looking to criticize Latour's metaphysics directly, Harman introduces the notion of a "hyperbolic critique", which asks: let us assume that Latour's metaphysics is so solid and powerful that, some decades from now, it becomes the dominant school of thought (and we can assume in doing so that any minor inconsistencies or deficits will be worked out). What then would still be missing from a mature Latourian philosophical scene? From there, he uses Latour's metaphysics as a scaffold upon which to build his object-oriented ontology, modifying it by questioning, in particular, Latour's thoroughgoing relationism.

Part Two's introduction of object-oriented ontology atop a Latourian scaffolding is particularly useful for the reader who wants an introduction to Harman's object-oriented ontology, but who does not come from a starting point of being familiar with or perhaps even sympathetic to Heidegger. Harman's previous two books, Tool-Being and Guerilla Metaphysics, largely scaffold themselves atop Heidegger, making them difficult entry points for someone who doesn't share that background. Prince of Networks offers an alternative via Latour. Heideggerian concepts are introduced, but unlike in Harman's earlier books, in this one the Heideggerian concepts are introduced parsimoniously, with explanation and motivation for why any of them are necessary or profitable to introduce; and they're related back to the Latourian ideas of the earlier part of the book (this careful and always-with-justification use of Heidegger is perhaps done in part because Latour himself is not particularly fond of Heidegger). In the course of this exposition, Harman also spends a good deal of time discussing Quentin Meillassoux's recently influential After Finitude, and how it relates to both Latour's and Harman's own views.

Unlike Part 1, however, Part 2 can't easily be read on its own. It is enmeshed quite deeply with Harman's interpretation of Latourian metaphysics sketched in the earlier portion of the book, so needs to be read in that sequence.

* * *

A brief note on writing style: despite the concepts involved, the book is a surprisingly brisk read, and one that "Anglo-American" readers may find more appealing than Latour's own prose style, which is closer to the "French theory" style. Harman is not an analytic philosopher by any means (in fact the book sets aside some space for a dig at W.V.O. Quine's writing style—"desolate tax lawyer" in Harman's opinion), but his prose is clear and to the point.

A final caveat is that this is not the book for someone looking for an introduction to the actor-network theory literature in general, or to Latour as he's been received in the existing secondary literature. Harman instead gives a novel reading of Latour, taken directly as a philosopher, from the primary sources, and placed against a background of the history of philosophy. That's not really a criticism, since a survey of the existing literature on Latour would be a large project of its own with a quite different flavor, and I for one am grateful that the book wasn't full of obscure internecine debate between Latour scholars. But it's worth being aware of. There is probably a future book, or at least journal article, to be had in comparing Harman's Latour with the "received Latour", since Harman seems to be implicitly revising the common reception of Latour on a number of points.

In short, this book is a good read for the reader looking for either or both of: 1) an understanding of Bruno Latour specifically as a philosopher of metaphysics; and/or 2) an introduction to Harman via a more Latourian and less Heideggerian trajectory than his earlier books provide.