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.