그레이엄 하먼 화상강연회 : <네트워크의 군주> 이후 10년

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ludante
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2019-08-25 12:23
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Ten Years of Prince of Networks 

 

A Lecture by Graham Harman 

 

 

 

It is with great pleasure that I lecture on the new Korean translation of Prince of Networks by Kim Hyo Jin. Thank you for inviting me to speak to the audience in Seoul today. 

 

Prince of Networks was first published in English in 2009, which means exactly ten years ago. It quickly became my most widely read book, although the Korean translation is only the second in a foreign language, after the 2016 translation into Polish by Marcin Rychter. Most of the credit for the popularity of this book must go to Bruno Latour. He is one of the world’s most prominent figures in the social sciences, and any book about Latour is sure to gain many readers. Nonetheless, my book was the first to treat Latour as a philosopher, not just as a social scientist. More than that, I argue in the book that Latour is our most important living philosopher. Let’s begin by summarizing his most important ideas. At the end of the lecture, I will also mention some things that Latour gets wrong, and explain how I think these points can be fixed to make his model even more powerful. 

 

Latour’s most important idea is “actors.” This is his word for “objects,” and it implies that what objects mostly do is act. In classical theories of substance since ancient Greece, a substance is something that exists behind any of its visible properties. Aristotle says that Socrates is a substance, for example, because we can say “Socrates is sad” but not “sad is Socrates.” Substances are connected with nouns, while what Aristotle calls accidents are linked with adjectives. Socrates is a substance because he can be happy one minute and sad the next, but he is Socrates in both cases. But sad is always sad and happy is always happy, which is why for him they are not substances. This is already a major difference from Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, who thought that “sad” and “happy” are eternal perfect forms existing in another world, and people in this world “participate” in these forms. For Plato, the eternal perfect forms are the primary substance of philosophy, and the things in this world are corrupt and changeable, and less important than the perfect forms. For Aristotle, by contrast, the primary substances of philosophy are the individual things in this world. Happy and sad are qualities we observe in many different people, and we then form concepts of them. For similar reasons, Plato thinks we are born already having a very weak knowledge of the perfect forms, and over time we can learn to “recollect” or remember them. But Aristotle thinks a baby is born with a blank mind, and learns only from experience. This remained a major difference between different philosophers in later centuries, some of them agreeing with Plato on this issue and others were Aristotle. 

 

Let’s return to Bruno Latour. Latour’s philosophy is not a philosophy of substance. The reason is that Latour does not believe that objects are substances or nouns, but actions or verbs. A thing is what it does. He did not invent this idea –that may have been the American pragmatist philosophers– but he does push it to a new extreme. One of the powerful features of Latour’s method, is that he rejects abstract nouns such as “society,” “power,” or “capitalism.” For him, these do not exist in such abstract form. If we talk about “capitalism,” for example, we need to talk about all the small local actors such as businesspeople, national currencies, markets, and so forth. The French historian Fernand Braudel said something similar in his own analysis of capitalism. We cannot start by assuming we know what capitalism is, or even whether it really exist. All we know are the small- and medium-sized local actors, and consider what they do by observing and describing them. 

 

There are two main features of actors, and I agree with one of them and disagree with the other. The first main feature is that Latour’s theory of actors, called Actor-Network Theory, gives him what we call a “flat ontology.” A flat ontology means that we start by assuming that everything is on the same level. Before Isaac Newton, scientists assumed that there was one law of physics for things on the earth, and another for everything that happened in the sky, as studied by astronomers. But Newton’s theory of gravity flattened this belief into a single theory: the moon orbits the earth because of gravity, and an apple falls from my hand to the ground because of gravity. Everyone in the modern world agrees that there is one physics for the whole universe; it is no longer controversial. But modern philosophy acts the same way physicists did before Newton. Modern philosophy assumes that there are two different kinds of things in the universe: first human thought, and second everything else. Supposedly, we can experience our own thought immediately, but can only experience other things after we first experience our thought. This has been true of modern philosophy since Descartes and Kant. 

 

Latour’s flat ontology says, against the moderns, that everything exists in just one kind: actors. Actors act. They do things to other actors. The reason actors exist is only because they act on other things, and something that does not act would not be real. This is a very broad theory, because everything that exists does seem to have effects. We humans have effects on other things and on the environment. Animals and birds eat fields of grain. Volcanoes erupt and destroy villages and burn trees. The sun and other stars act as gravitational forces on other things. But the same is true of actors that are not part of nature. An airplane acts by moving many people from Seoul to Los Angeles and back to Seoul again. Mickey Mouse is an actor, even though he is a fictional character, because he entertains children and earns money for the Disney Corporation. Ghost are actors even if you do not believe they are real, because they affect people who believe in them by scaring them, and even affect non-believers by making them laugh. What about contradictory ideas, such as “square circle”? The square circle is also an actor, because it has effects on our thinking. When we hear the words “square circle,” we immediately think this idea is illogical. But being illogical means that the square circle has the effect of making us think it is illogical. To summarize, a flat ontology means that we should not start in philosophy by assuming we know what exists and what does not. Anything that acts is real. 

 

The second feature of actors is linked with this one, and here I disagree with Latour. For Latour, if we define objects as actors, we must also say that they are only their actions. This is against Aristotle too, because Aristotle said that things are potentialities, not just actualities. Here is an acorn in my mind, and actually it is only an acorn, But it is potentially a tall oak tree, if we let it have soil, water, and food, and let it grow for 100 years in the sun. Latour thinks potentiality is a lazy idea, because it does not explain all the work that the soil, water, food, and sunlight need to do along with the acorn in order to let it grow. This means that Latour’s theory of the world is relational: nothing exists outside of the relations and actions with which all the actors co-operate in order to make things happen. 

 

At first, this relational model of the world seems to make perfect sense. Everything and every person needs other things or people to make things happen. Nothing exists in a vacuum, but everything has effects on other things and is affected by other things too. But there is a problem with how Latour describes the situation. Right now I am a fifty-one-year old man who is giving a lecture to people in the Republic of Korea. One year from now, if I am still alive, I will be a fifty-two-year-old man who is doing something different. The question is, how do I move from the first point to the second? Yes, I will need the help of many other actors to survive until one year from now. But this also means that I am more than my current relations to all the actors that help me right now. Aristotle already noticed this in his great book, the Metaphysics. He was arguing with some other Greek philosophers called the Megarians. The Megarians said that no one is a house builder unless they are building a house right now, which is similar to Latour’s theory. An actor is only what it is actually doing now, in this moment. Aristotle’s argument against them was as follows. What about a master house builder who is sleeping right now? Is this person really not a house builder? Of course this person is a really a house builder, even if they are sleeping or eating for the next hour and not building. What this means is that a substance, such as a person who knows how to build houses, is more than what they are doing right now. Otherwise, we could never explain how they can be eating or sleeping one minute and building the next. Not all of the qualities of a substance are acting in any specific moment of time. 

 

This is why I use the term “objects” instead of actors. In any moment, I can be involved in some actions while not being involved in others of which I am also capable. Humans are breathing animals, but we can choose to hold our breath for a minute or more. There is a limit, since we will die if we breathe no oxygen for twenty minutes or even less. But I do not need to be breathing in every second to continue living. But more than this, there may be objects that are not acting on anything at all right now, but can start to act sooner or later. For example, when I was growing up in America, there were only a small number of Nazi Party members. Most Americans were proud of defeating Adolf Hitler in World War II, and even if there were a few Nazi Party offices and more Ku Klux Klan offices, their effect on the political discourse in the country was so small as to be almost non-existent. Neither of the two major political parties wanted to be linked with White Nationalism. Today, that has changed. The FBI considers White Nationalism to be the biggest terrorism threat in the United States, and almost every month there are terrorist attacks by these groups somewhere in the country. When I was growing up, White Nationalism was not taken seriously as a political force in America, but now it is a very serious political threat to everyone. What this means is that in the past White Nationalism was real, but not really an actor, since whatever effects it had were not important enough to be part of our everyday political arena. This is one of the reasons that I prefer the model of real objects, which exist even when they are not acting at all, or hardly acting, as opposed to Latour’s model, which thinks things are real only when they are doing something. One problem with Latour’s model is that he has a hard time explaining the existence of things that people do not yet know about. For example, some Egyptologists x-rayed the mummy of Pharaoh Ramses II, and discovered that he was suffering from tuberculosis. Latour’s reaction to this was very extreme: he said that Ramses II could not have had tuberculosis, because tuberculosis was not yet discovered in ancient Egypt. Nothing is real until it is acknowledged by society. Most people, including me, disagree strongly with this conclusion. We would say that tuberculosis existed in ancient Egypt, and people were dying from it, but nobody understood that it was a disease caused by bacteria. Now we do understand it, but that does not mean that tuberculosis did not exist in the past. Many scientists have criticized Latour severely for this idea. 

 

But let’s look at a more practical feature of Latour’s theory, one that I also agree with. This has to do with what he calls mediation. If two actors are to make a relation, Latour thinks that they need a third actor to serve as a bridge between them. Here is one example he gives. Just before World War II began, scientists in different countries were making discoveries about splitting the atom to create energy and weapons. The first discovery was made by Lise Meintner in Germany. Luckily, she was Jewish and had to flee from Germany to Sweden; otherwise, Hitler may have built an atomic bomb first. France was a bit further behind in atomic research at the time. The French physicist Frédéric Joliot, who was married to another physicist (the daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie) was the first to warn the French government about the possibility of atomic weapons. He was the first in France to make a link between neutrons and politics. When neutrons were first discovered in 1932, nobody imagined that they had political relevance. That changed when Enrico Fermi in Italy showed that slow neutrons could split atoms in a way that fast neutrons could not. Suddenly, an atomic bomb was a real possibility, and neutrons became one of the most political actors in the world. Joliot was the one in France who linked politics and neutrons for the first time. 

 

Another example is the gun debate in America. The pro-gun people in America like to say that “guns don’t kill people, people do.” For this reason, they say that guns are not the cause of our many shootings in this country, but only mentally ill people, or people who play too many violent video games. Latour makes a good point against them. His point is that when you combine people with guns you have mediated them, and created a new actor, person plus gun, who is more dangerous than guns or people in isolation from each other. So, the goal should be to combine people with guns less often. 

 

There is one last point that is worth considering. Latour is the greatest critic we have of modernism. This is not because he wants to go back to pre-modern civilization, but because he thinks modernity misunderstands the world. As I said earlier, modern philosophy thinks that there are just two kinds of things in the world: humans, and everything else. This means that we often ask ourselves, “Is war natural or is it created by an evil society” “Is homosexuality natural, or is it the product of how children develop in society?” Latour’s answer is that these questions make no sense. Almost nothing is purely natural or purely cultural. Instead, the world is filled with “hybrids,” which means actors that are both natural and cultural. Two good examples are the ozone hole and global warming. Are they natural? In a way, yes, because they are part of the world and we cannot easily fix them. Are they cultural? In a way, yes again, because human activity caused these things to happen. 

 

However, with the example of tuberculosis in ancient Egypt, we saw a problem with this theory. Latour does not just say that some actors are hybrids. Instead, what he really thinks is that everything is a hybrid. Nothing exists for him unless it also has some social features, such as the process by which it was discovered. This is why he thinks tuberculosis cannot exist until people discover it, which contradicts the assumption of science that it is talking about real things in the world that are often not produced by humans at all. For this reason, Latour is usually much more popular with social scientists than with natural scientists. For the natural scientists, Latour is a relativist who thinks truth is produced by human society instead of existing outside it. I have already said that I think this is too extreme. However, he also has a point. Quite often, the idea of scientific truth is produced through political struggle. Global warming is just the clearest recent example, and it is one that Latour often writes about these days. Oil companies and industries have a great political interest in funding any doubts about global warming, even if only a small minority of scientists still have such doubts in 2019. For this reason, Latour draws surprising support from the Nazi political philosopher Carl Schmitt, who said that in a state of war, we declare the other side to be “the enemy” and no longer listen to what they have to say. In Latour’s opinion, global warming deniers should now be called “the enemy” and excluded from the debate. We must first save ourselves and the planet and not pretend that the climate deniers are rational opponents who can be persuaded. They must be defeated, so that the rest of us can start to build better links between human society and the environment. Otherwise, we may not survive as a species. In this way, power politics returns to the heart of Latour’s philosophy, even though he demands at the same time that climate science (which is inexact) should be the political leader in the coming decades. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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