Things thinging and Bruno-in-the-box

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Personally, I liked Harman’s text, specially the way he linked Latour’s networks with Islamic ‘occasionalism’. I believe that many of its faults are produced by the eeriness of its aim. Harman’s Prince of Networks attempts to trace a coherent philosophy in several of Latour’s texts. It could be said that it translates ‘Latour’ into a metaphysical idiom –something that, as a first step, requires black boxing Latour– and, afterwards, tries to link the translated Latour with Heidegger’s philosophy. This operation, of course, could not be done without ‘paying the cost’… something quite brave, given that Latour is alive, healthy, and a relentless opposer to Heideggerian philosophy (e.g. http://sorcerer.design.harvard.edu/gsdlectures/s2009/sloterdijk.mov).  

The first Latour that Harman considers, that of Irreductions, provides the general features of the Prince of Networks. This is the Latour for whom “nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else”  (The Pasteurization of France, p. 158) and the foundation of the black box called Latour. Through it, Harman is able to condense several of Latour’s texts. However, I am not sure he manages to successfully establish a connection with Heidegger. In fact, within Harman’s text, Latour seems more akin to Husserl than to Heidegger –if, as Harman tells us, Husserl philosophy can be understood as an attempt to displace the science of his time to a theoretical realm, one that necessarily exceeds our experience of any phenomenon. Similarly, for Latour, the disputes around scientific facts could be understood as an exercise in rhetoric, one that attempts to recruit allies in order to produce a convincing proof, a matter of “assembling of as many black boxes as possible to force one’s opponents to give way” (Prince of Networks, p. 54). In this sense, Heidegger criticism to Husserl, as seen in his characterization of the ‘present-at-hand’ as a second order experience and in his distinction between things and objects in “The Thing”, could also be applicable to Latour. In other words, from a Heideggerian point of view, Latour would be an advocate for a more effective approach to things, but one that remains technical in its aims and ontotheological in its presuppositions; while, for Latour, “Heidegger treats the modern world as the visitors treat Heraclitus: with contempt” (We Have Never Been Modern, p. 66).      

I am not sure that Latour, or even Harman’s Latour, treats Heidegger fairly. Heidegger’s notion of “things thinging” might be troublesome, but not because of what it proposes. Its problem seems to be of scope: it appears to exclude most of the non-human that Latour’s ANT can include. This might be partially attributed to the form of “The Thing” as an essay, cryptic and aphoristic. It focuses too much on the jug. In a way, the Heidegger’s jug traps us within its void, making the gift, the outcome of a balance between holding and pouring, excessively difficult to grasp. As a result, other things remain concealed within the text.

However, we should not forget that the jug is just an approximation to things the problem of the loss of nearness. Heidegger’s description of things and objects can only be translated into metaphysical terms at a great cost. We should read “The Thing” as an attempt to provide an alternative path in the face of a loss. This seems to be the reason why he defines a set of ‘things’, of possible fruitful openings, within a larger set of ‘objects’. In other words, Heidegger suggests that a possibility for the restoration of distance after its ontotheological and technical effacement may be opened up if we focus in the difference between his ‘things’ and his ‘objects’, something that would require a peculiar stance. Heidegger’s insinuation of this stance could be understood as a form of criticism, just as Marx’s argument about the fetishism of the commodity or Latour’s argument about the separation of society and nature. For Heidegger, this stance could allow a relation to technology different to the one that made the hydrogen bomb possible, the hydrogen bomb amongst many other things (objects). I believe that his critique remains fruitful and should continue to be taken into consideration in spite of its annoyingly obscure formulation, as we keep seeking for more inclusive ways to approach the non-human, may these be paintings in a museum, pictures in a magazine, a humble rock, a coat, a land mine, laboratory registers, or an outdated handmade jug.

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