LATOUR ON WHITEHEAD AND PERSISTENCE IN BEING: the opposite of Graham Harman’s claims

What Latour gets from Whitehead is precisely persistence rather than evanescence. This is the mode of existence that he calls REP or reproduction (and not “repetition” as Graham Harman mistakenly declares). It “concerns everything that maintains itself: languages, bodies, ideas, and of course institutions” (AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE, 102). Harman misrepresents this as: “nothing continues in its existence, and everything must be recreated in every instant”. In other words Latour makes use of REP and of Whitehead to ward off the threat of occasionalism, and not as Harman claims to perpetuate it. The definition given by Latour, the examples listed, and the place this notion occupies in Latour’s intellectual biography – all contradict Harman’s interpretation (which is offered, as is his interpretation of Deleuze, ex cathedra, with not the slightest quotation to back it up).

“I am almost certain that it was in 1987, during a conversation by the swimming pool in Les Treilles, that Stengers shared with me an astonishing quotation from Whitehead, who was even less well known at the time than Gabriel Tarde, about the risk taken by rocks – yes, rocks – in order to keep on existing; it must have been the famous passage about Cleopatra’s needle on the Charing Cross Embankment in The Concept of Nature. In August of that year, stretched out in the sun on an island across from Gothenburg, in Sweden, I couldn’t stop running my fingers over the rough red surface of the rocks as if to find out whether Whitehead could have been right . . . Everything became clear, then: what I had discovered in Kenya, and what the principle of irreduction had hinted at obscurely. There exists a completely autonomous mode of existence that is very inadequately encompassed by the notions of nature, material world, exteriority, object. This world shares one crucial feature with all the others: the risk taken in order to keep on existing” (BIOGRAPHY OF AN INQUIRY, 15-16).

Harman’s post comes in reply to the rather tempered criticism proffered by Adrian Ivakhiv in the latest issue of PARRHESIA. I think Adrian’s article deserves a better answer than that.

One must remember that for Harman time is unreal. This is perhaps the most glaring weak point in his system and it must be addressed. Peter Gratton has constantly criticised Harman on this point, to no avail. A smokescreen of unsupported and patently false presentations of philosophers who have grappled explicitly with the problem of time and who do not end up with its Parmenidean denial (on Harman’s temporal denialism see this post) will not get Harman off the hook on this point.

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