DeLanda vs. Latour

A few direct comparisons between DeLanda and Latour, taken from Graham Harman’s, Prince of Networks (click for a pdf of the Open Access book, published by re.press). I am exploring these sources in an effort to better understand “assemblage urbanism.”

Direct references to DeLanda

Although Latour generally opposes reducing multiplicities to simple explanatory structures, his four metaphysical axioms all stem from a deeper principle: absolute concreteness. Every actant simply is what it is. This entails that all actants are on the same footing: both large and small, both human and nonhuman. No actant is just fodder for others; each enhances and resists the others in highly specific ways. 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 world, with completely specific alliances at any given moment. Everything is immanent in the world; nothing transcends actuality. In other words, Latour is proudly guilty of what Roy Bhaskar and Manuel DeLanda both call ‘actualism’. For Latour the world is a field of objects or actants locked in trials of strength—some growing stronger through increased associations, others becoming weaker and lonelier as they are cut off from others (15-16)

The necessary concreteness of actors also suspends any pre-individual reality that tries to claim a deeper status than specific entities. To take a bird seriously means to let the whole of reality pour into the actual bird, not to view it as the transient incarnation of some pre-avian ‘diagram’ or ‘line of flight’. Mammals are real, and there is no good reason to hold that mammals inhabit a topology that structures a space of possible vertebrates, as the wonderful Manuel DeLanda (A New Philosophy of Society) wrongly argues. To shift the scene of philosophy away from specific things is a superfluous gesture, one that makes sense only if we lose faith in the concreteness of actors. Latour’s gamble, of course, lies in his notion that actors are defined entirely by their relations and alliances. His model of ultra-concrete actors requires that they be fully relational in character, with no distinction between object and accident, object and relation, or object and quality. This same model requires that actors not be permitted to endure any shift in their alliances, since to change one’s relations is to change one’s reality. Entities for Latour must be a perpetual perishing, since they cannot survive even the tiniest change in their properties. Whitehead partly escapes this consequence by contrasting ‘societies’ (which can endure) with actual entities or occasions (which cannot). This distinction is less developed in Latour, but in my mind this counts to Latour’s credit as a mark of bolder consistency. As we have seen, Latour does sometime speaks of actors as ‘trajectories’ that cut across numerous moments, and implies that an actor acquires a ‘history’ when its allies shift rather than that it perishes outright. For example, we might claim that Obama’s White House in 2009 is the same as Eisenhower’s in 1959, since the changes on its periphery do not really affect the trajectory of events that truly comprise the White House. But recall that the very decision about what is important in a thing requires a work of translation, since it cannot lie in the heart of an actor like some traditional kernel of essence. Latour accepts no ‘substantial form’ of the White House that could endure through the decades despite shifting inhabitants and changing coats of paint, because there is no automatic way in his philosophy to separate the inner reality of the building from its transient fluctuations through the work of birds and vandals. Some external Joliot will always be needed to establish that the White House is the same thing at two different moments fifty years apart. (103-104)

There is not a ‘something more’ for Latour, a latent substance hidden from public view beneath an actor’s overt performance. An actor is completely actualized in any moment, inscribed without reserve in its current scheme of alliances. The term sometimes used for this doctrine is ‘actualism’, and some authors find it repellant. The specter of actualism drives Roy Bhaskar (A Realist Theory of Science) from entities to the laws they must observe, and drives Manuel DeLanda (Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy) from entities to a topological space in which they unfold. By contrast, Latour shows a maximum commitment to actualism. Whitehead’s ontological principle denies that we can pass beyond concrete entities when explaining anything, and this element of the Whiteheadian program is one from which Latour never veers. (127)

(160-163; all DeLanda refs are to A New Philosophy…)

Recently we have encountered a weaker but more sophisticated version of this position in the various philosophies of the virtual that have begun to proliferate in and around the works of Deleuze. These positions try to enjoy the best of both worlds, defining a unified realm beneath experience that is not completely unified. Instead of a total lump-world, it is one animated in advance by different ‘pre-individual’ zones that prevent the world from being purely homogeneous. This position has the following supposed benefits: it prevents things from being overdetermined by their current actuality (an admirable object-oriented gesture), while also slyly bridging the gap between things without doing the required work (a merely ‘radical’ move in the sense that must be rejected). For instance, DeLanda wishes to establish the possibility of a ‘continuous, yet heterogeneous space’  (Intensive Science…). The same is true of Gilbert Simondon, that posthumous rising star. As Alberto Toscano describes Simondon’s position, ‘whilst [preindividual being] is yet to be individuated, [it] can already be regarded as affected by relationality. This preindividual relationality, which takes place between heterogeneous dimensions, forces or energetic tendencies, is nevertheless also a sort of non-relation […]. Being is thus said to be more-than-oneto the extent that all of its potentials cannot be actualized at once’ (The Theatre of Production). Simondon like DeLanda wants the world to be both heterogeneous and not yetparcelled out into individuals. In this way, specific realities lead a sort of halfhearted existence somewhere between one and many.

This is certainly not Latour’s own position, since his actors are fully individual from the start; his philosophy contains no such concept as ‘preindividual’. His actors are not blended together in a ‘continuous yet heterogeneous’ whole, but are basically cut off from one another. There is no continuum for Latour despite his relationism, and this thankfully entails that his relationism is less radical than it is for philosophies of the virtual (note that Latour’s rare flirtations with monism seem to coincide with his equally rare flirtations with the term ‘virtual’). Individual candles and apricots do exist for Latour. This means that they cannot fully dissolve into a global system of relations, not even of the ‘continuous yet heterogeneous’ kind advocated by DeLanda, who is otherwise a more hardcore realist than Latour himself. In Latour’s metaphysics, even if a candle is nothing but its set of relations with other things it is still a specific individual set of relations different from those that assemble to give us an apricot. For Latour there are no pre-individual or virtual apricots—only actual apricots, defined entirely by their relations with other actants

Objects are Irreducible to Their Components

If utter monism is the most extreme form of relationism, the halfway house of virtual philosophy is only barely less extreme. What would be the next incremental step away from the full-blown radicalism of the shapeless apeiron? It would be a position that Latour still rejects: materialism. This word can be defined in a number of different ways, so let’s define it here as a philosophy claiming that all macro-sized entities can ultimately be reduced to a final layer of tiny pampered physical elements that are more real than everything else. If monism holds that there are no individual things at all, and virtualism holds that reality consists at best of preindividuals, then materialism makes only a small additional concession: there are individuals indeed, but only at the level of ultimate microparticles. All larger entities can be explained away as relational composites. An apartment building is really just a big assembly of atoms, since the building exists qua building only in its relations with the people who use it. Only ultimate particles, whether they be quarks and electrons or unknown smaller pieces of the world, exist in and of themselves and need no relations with other things to earn their reality.

Here we still find Latour resisting relationism as too extreme. Rather than saying that all macro-sized actors are reducible to tiny material atoms, Latour allows for every possible size of object—new entities emerge at different scales of the world. One good list of criteria for emergent entities can be found in DeLanda’s A New Philosophy of Society(a list drawn in part from Roy Bhaskar, an author DeLanda admires as much as I do). One obvious feature of emergent entities is that they must have ‘emergent properties’: for instance, the Paris Metro has features not discernible in any of its cars, tracks, turnstiles, or customers taken alone. Another feature is ‘redundant causality’:the wheels of the Metro trains can be replaced with duplicates or even with completely different types of wheels without necessarily changing the Metro as a whole. Still another feature is that emergent wholes are able to act retroctively on their parts: wheels in the Metro are perhaps subjected to more uniform frictional heat than they would in other possible contexts, and the global market for wheels, bearings, and tracks may become more standardized if the Paris Metro becomes their biggest customer. A final feature mentioned by DeLanda is that many parts of the emergent whole do not preexist that whole but are actually generated by it: one can now have a special career as a Metro musician, flower vendor, or graffiti artist; one can become an academic scholar of the Paris Metro, or a Metro rat spending a lifetime in its tunnels. None of these were necessary initial parts for the Metro to be what it was, but all are now inseparable from its rich emergent life.

It should be clear enough that Latour’s actors meet all of these criteria for emergence. This is true even for redundant causation, which might not sound very Latourian at first: if an entity contains all of its features and not just the supposedly ‘essential’ ones, wouldn’t a different wheel mean a completely new Metro? Not at all. When Latour says that a thing is defined by its relations, he is talking about its outward relational effects on other things, not its real internal composition. If the Metro had one type of wheel rather than another, it would not necessarily be a different actor unless this change made it register different outward effects on other actors. At any moment we can choose to open up a black box and examine the components that gave rise to it. But the black box does not just screen its inner pieces from human view, for it also has a certain ability to endure internal changes (as in the case of the Metro wheel just mentioned). Most internal rearrangements of an actor’s pieces are screened off from the external actors that the Metro affects, transforms, perturbs, or creates. Hence the black box is not just a temporary stopping point for humans who have not yet opened it, but also a genuine screen that blocks off unimportant changes from accessibility by all other objects.

However, I have already mentioned that there is a slight slippage toward relationism here. Why? Because Latour seems to view emergence as a functional matter. Namely, if a thing is real only because it transforms or perturbs some other entity, this means that it emerges only if it has an effect on something else. And this would imply that the Paris Metro does not exist if nothing is transformed by it. We cannot say that the Paris Metro exists ‘potentially’ before it is built, because there is no room for potential in Latour’s philosophy; instead, the Metro will begin to exist only at the moment when it is affecting other things. But this cannot succeed as a concept of emergence, because it passes the hot potato of reality from the Metro itself to other entities—nothing in the Metro makes it something real over and above its constituent quarks and electrons. Real emergence cannot be merely functional/relational, but must amount to the generation of new autonomous things with new autonomous qualities whether it relates to anything else or not. Otherwise, we would have a final layer of atomic microparticles. All larger physical entities would be reduced to relational effects—as seen in the philosophy of David Chalmers, who thinks a table is real only in the functional sense of having table-effects, but is otherwise reducible to tiny pieces of micro-matter. But Latour’s philosophy does not even allow for the existence of microparticles due to the infinite regress implied by his principle that black boxes can always be opened. Hence, it is all the more important for Latour that he allow genuine non-relational reality to emerge at each level of the world. And though he never passes the buck of reality downward to an artificial stopping point in the purported final kingdom of quarks, he does pass it upward to the outward effects an actant has on its neighbors. But the buck must never be passed in either direction. The reality of an object belongs to that object—not to its tiny internal constituents, and also not to the larger collectives in which it is immersed.

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