DOES CAPUTO OUT-LATOUR HARMAN?: Quantitatively No, Qualitatively Yes

In his strange outburst against a « strange passage » in John Caputo’s new book (The Insistence of God: A Theology of ‘Perhaps’) it seems to have gone unnoticed that Graham Harman has outed a new verb: to out-Latour. Harman’s surprise at Caputo’s recontextualising Bruno Latour’s work in terms of postphenomenology and poststructuralism leads him to exclaim: « now Caputo is trying to out-Latour me. » He launches this expression in typically Harmanian fashion, a telling word with no concept to back it up. The evidence offered by Harman is not textual analysis, close discussion of Caputo’s problematic, new arguments aimed at correcting or refuting Caputo’s assertions. Typically, Harman relies on a non-conceptual argument based on biographical and chronological considerations: « In the 1990′s (as a Ph.D. student, at that) I was perhaps literally the only person on the American continental philosophy scene taking Latour seriously and writing about him ».

Even supposing that this chronological context is exact, it is presented as mere empirical fact and not analysed. I myself can say, but what interest can such biographical anecdotes hold?, that I read Latour when I was living in Paris in the 80s, and I was not very impressed. He seemed to be offering only footnotes on my major reading at that time: Deleuze, Guattari, Lyotard, Derrida, Edgar Morin and Michel Serres. That is to say despite his increasing rhetorical distancing from his immediate predecessors, due more to « anxiety of influence » than to any real conceptual rupture, Latour’s work seemed to amount to a practical application of that strange constellation of loosely affiliated thinkers called « poststructuralism ». This is not just my impression, nor is it just the attempt at a rhetorical takeover by an aging atrabilious Derridean acolyte (as Harman’s counterfactuation of Caputo would have it).

John Law, one of the founding figures of actor-network theory, argues that this approach is to be understood as an « empirical version of poststructuralism ». In particular, Law notes the resemblance and indebtedness to Deleuze:

« It can also be understood as an empirical version of Gilles Deleuze’s nomadic philosophy…. Latour has observed that we might talk of ‘actant-rhizomes’ rather than ‘actornetworks’, and John Law has argued that there is little difference between Deleuze’s ‘agencement’ (awkwardly translated as ‘assemblage’ in English) and the term ‘actor-network (Law: 2004) ».

Law traces a set of themes involving difference, plurality, incommensurability, and heterogeneity common to both post-structuralism and actor-network theory:

« Precarious relations, the making of the bits and pieces in those relations, a logic of translation, a concern with materials of different kinds, with how it is everything hangs together if it does, such are the intellectual concerns of the actor-network tradition. However, this is a combination of concerns also found in parts of post-structuralism ».

These are the themes shared by post-structuralism, by John Law and by Latour, and also by John Caputo. In virtue of these themes not only does Caputo out-Latour Harman but so do Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Morin and Serres.

In AFTER METHOD (2004) Law opposes the relationality of STS and of actor-network theory to the « metaphysics of presence », and marks the closeness with Derrida’s thought:

« This relationality has been the working tool for structuralist and post-structuralist writers. Structuralists hoped and searched for a fixed syntax of relations that reflects mental processes and actions in the world. Post-structuralists abandoned this search for foundations. There are always things that cannot be told, that cannot be made present. Instead they explored limits and incompletenesses. For Michel Foucault the limits to the conditions of possibility were or are set by the (modern) episteme. For Jacques Derrida the traces of incompleteness can always be discerned in the erasures and aporias enacted in whatever is present: in the deferrals of différance » (page 83).

Law cites both Foucault and Derrida as not only valorising difference and relationality but as elaborating a materialist thought: « Writers such as Foucault and Derrida insist on the
materiality of relations and of the trace » (83). Can John Law, one of the founders of ANT and a collaborator of Latour’s, be accused of trying to « out-Latour » Harman simply because he sketches out the larger context of post-structuralism as one of the best ways of understanding the origins of Latour’s ideas and their present meaning? The idea is ludicrous.

John Caputo’s treatment of Latour is no different. He refuses to take Latour’s explicit pronouncement on influences at face value, and certainly does not accept Harman’s contextualisations as illuminating anything of importance. I do not think it is an illegitimate strategy of annexation to claim that Latour is better understood against the background of post-structuralism than against the absolutely antithetical ideas of Meillassoux and Harman.

According to Caputo, Latour and Derrida have more in common than Latour lets on:

For the most part Latour has in fact set out, guided by his own lights, down pretty much the same path as Derrida, and they share a common thematic

Caputo’s description of this common thematic is very close to John Law’s account:

hybridism, contamination, and anti-essentialism; contextualism, relationalism, and differentialism (différance); the critique of humanism; the aporias of mediation and representation (the dangerous supplement) and the critique of pure immediate presence

Caputo concludes provocatively and nevertheless persuasively:

What Latour calls non-modernism is indistinguishable from the basic framework of deconstruction.

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4 commentaires pour DOES CAPUTO OUT-LATOUR HARMAN?: Quantitatively No, Qualitatively Yes

  1. Philip dit :

    I’d go further. Harman more or less attempts to out-Latour Latour himself – see the Prince and the Wolf, for example. When Latour expresses bafflement at Harman’s iteration of his ideas Harman is entirely unperturbed. In that sense isn’t Harman’s Latour – let’s call that Hartour – a very Modern (or perhaps postmodern, small difference) version of those ideas? The objections of the author qua informant (or author qua authority in the postmodern version) are largely without consequence. Objections are not the kind of ‘objects’ that object oriented philosophy is sensitive to (c.f. Latour and his debt to Garfinkel and ethnomethodology).

    I’d have no problem whatsoever with Hartour if Harman just admitted that it’s his own particular translation/deformation of Latour’s work and that it serves as a foil to the development of his own philosophy – which is what the Prince of Networks is all about, the first half sets up Hartour as both a stepping stone and a straw man (a stepping man? a straw stone?) to be ascended and then overturned. In and of itself there’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever. But Prince of Networks is written and promoted like its an authentic account of the corpus itself, like a quasi-textbook, which is shameless.

    On the subject of Caputo, I think that he is certainly right that Latour is not as different from Derrida as he’d like to think (« anxiety of influence », yes; I’d also say ‘Oedipal reflex’, something that most philosophers are guilty of!), however as philosophical predecessors go I honestly don’t think Derrida would crack the top ten (Latour’s a well read chap and a bricoleur of the highest quality). To suggest that Latour’s philosophy is basically just Derrida in different words is pretty much BS. In fact isn’t it intrinsic to Latour’s philosophy from the very beginning that nothing is contained in anything else in potentia? From irreductions (as I recall it): ‘Nothing is, by itself reducible or irreducible to anything else. To say something is to say it in other words, that is to translate.’ Even if Caputo was right Latour still needed to do that work of translation. It can’t have been done for him, not in Latour’s own terms, anyway.

    Of course, Caputo is the proverbial man with a hammer: to him everything looks like a Derrida! Perhaps the really unacknowledgeable trauma for Caputo is that Derrida wasn’t a supremely original ubermenschen either. Their ideas are similar in some ways but that may have less to do with Latour’s massive debt to Derrida than the fact that they both read Nietzsche.


  2. terenceblake dit :

    I am more concerned with the whole conceptual space that I call pluralist diachronic ontology than with any single thinker. I think that each thinker that has to do with that conceptual space should be read in its terms as primary context. Latour is a conceptual persona symbolising that space for both Caputo and Harman. The difference is that Caputo embraces that space whereas Harman rejects it, and makes up a regressive substitute. Caputo makes the further move of finding in Derrida a more adequate persona indicating that space. That’s fine by me, as long as the space that « Derrida » points to is one of realism, historicity, plurality, heterogeneity, and individuation. If Caputo makes the mistake of getting stuck on Derrida, which he sometimes does, or clings to religiosity in a way that prevents him fully engaging with that space, which is sometimes the case, then that is a sign that his path to immanence is unfinished, in progress. I myself do not feel comfortable with Derrida’s writing, but recently reading and listening to Bernard Stiegler has reconciled me a little more than before. Everyone thinking and working in terms of that sort of conceptual space has to do that work of translation that you invoke for Latour, which is part and parcel of their individuation. My problem with Derrida is that he himself, as instantiated in his writings, does not fully enter that space. However, Derrida and what he symbolises as conceptual persona is a far better context for understanding Latour than Harman and his ontology.


    • Philip dit :

      It’s a good point. There’s certainly no ‘authentic Latour’, as I know you know that I know as I’ve said it in comments on this blog before! However, there’s definitely a version of ‘Latour’ evident in his own texts that is absent in Harman’s and vice versa. Thinking of it as a conceptual space punctuated by different characters is probably the best way of navigating it without getting bogged down in egos and questions of authenticity. However, that approach does need a way of individuating different iterations of the various characters. Like in bad soap operas where someone’s evil twin is distinguished by having a goatee. The characters require distinction and figuration in order to give the discursive space a navigable structure.


  3. terenceblake dit :

    Both Latour and Caputo have the goatee of « difference », but unfortunately they both have the twirly moustache of Christian religiosity. Harman has neither. I find Caputo’s Derrida congenial but too indistinct to my liking.


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