Karl Rove Vs. Kant's Copernican Revolution

Posted by | Chris | 1.8.10 | 1 Comment

I’m reading Graham Harman’s Prince of Networks at the moment. I realised recently that by following his blog I read Harman every day. He writes clearly and wittily which is a great advert for his books and so I decided it was time to read a fuller work than just a blog post.

The subtitle to Prince of Networks is “Bruno Latour and Metaphysics” which precisely explains the purpose of the book: to present Latour, a sociologist and anthropologist, “as a key figure in metaphysics – a title he has sought but rarely received” (5). Divided into two sections, the first presents an overview of four of Latour’s most important works; the second is an appraisal and criticism of Latour in light of Harman’s own Object Oriented Ontology.

Chapter one examines Irreductions and introduces Latour’s metaphysics through four key terms: actants, irreductions, translations and alliance. What makes Latour such an interesting philosopher is his ontology of actants. For Latour there is no dividing line between humans and the world, everything is an actant and in this flat ontology all actants enjoy the democracy of objects. Latour is then an ally in any speculative philosophy wanting to overthrow the orthodoxy of post-Kantian metaphysics.

A rhetorical flourish used by Latour and emulated by Harman is what Ian Bogost has called a “Latour Litany”. Latour Litanies are lists of disparate objects strung together, their juxtaposition in any sentence and the equality of written expression reflecting the fact that no object or actant is metaphysically distinguished. “[F]rozen embryos, expert systems, digital machines, sensor-equipped robots, hybrid corn, data banks, psychotropic drugs, whales outfitted with radar sounding devices, gene synthesizers, audience analyzers” (We Have Never Been Modern: 49-50), all these things are actants and humans are actants too.

Irreduction is a concept I find more difficult but my understanding is that no actant can be reduced to any other. There are levels of complexity and actants may be complex alliances composed of other actants but there is no fundamental substance or form. All actants are equally ontologically valid.

Translation is the causality of Latours metaphysics. Latour is an actualist, there are no portentials or uninstantiated powers and every actant is an event that happens only once. Translation is then the way in which actants are made mobile, stable and concrete by a causal chain of abstraction.

Finally, alliances are the ways in which actants increase their power and reach in the world. Since actants do not have potentiality or substance it is only by enlisting other actants that changes in any system are affected. For Latour every relation between actants is a conflict and it is the more powerful (better connected) actants which win out and get to organise things their way. Networks of this type do not have centres or tyrannical actant dictators however since every part of the network is a relation between actants all networks and all communication are mediated.

Harman’s writing is even better in an monograph than it is on his blog. I have found the book so far to be illuminating, exciting and a really great pleasure to read. It’s unusual to laugh out loud while reading philosophy but I have done precisely this on more than one occasion.

One section in particular describes the way in which alliances of actants may be dissolved by attacking the strengths which hold it together. “Severing an actant from its allies is easier than it sounds, since allies are never as submissive […] as we think” (51). Yet to sever an actant from its alliances one must be an actant in an alliance capable of such a translation.

To illustrate a clash of actant alliances Harman describes Karl Rove taking on Kant’s philosophical legacy:

Let’s imagine that, in our efforts to counter the dominance of Kant’s Copernican Revolution we, we hire Karl Rove as a consultant. Since Kant has the reputation of a quiet, ascetic seeker after truth, Rove might begin by spreading rumours of Kant’s secret moral turpitude (52).

The rumours might even turn out to be true with a correspondence between Kant and the Marquis de Sade uncovered “[b]ut even with Kant unmasked as a shocking hypocrite, no one’s philosophical position will change very much” (52).

Rove’s next ploy involves uncovering documents revealing Kant’s published philosophical work to be a hoax. A document proven to be in Kant’s hand reveals the whole edifice to be an elaborate ruse. Yet:

in the end most observers would probably conclude that it is not so important whether Kant meant what he said. Kant’s arguments would still be taken seriously insofar as they have genuine merit independent of Kant’s sardonic intent (53).

Finally Rove learns of the criticisms made of Kant’s philosophy by a few dissenters. He begins to study philosophy.

Within a few years he prepares his first philosophical case against Kantian philosophy […]. After another two decades of research, the elderly Rove is now a philosophical juggernaut, hailed in many quarters as the most original metaphysician of the century (53).

To assemble the [alliances] needed to defeat the great philosopher Kant, Karl Rove had to become a great philosopher himself […]. Rove’s attempt to ‘socially construct’ the reputation of Immanuel Kant has failed. Instead, the ideas of Kant have constructed the new life of Karl Rove” (53).


One Response to “Karl Rove Vs. Kant's Copernican Revolution”

  1. peter
    26/8/10 04:54

    just read this bit the other day, is well funny. harman is a gracefully funny writer and also very adept at explaining through a differential repetitive manner. i.e. he puts across the same point but in such a deliciously different way that it sounds wholly other yet the same (delueze would of loved it). it also the great gift to have as a teacher. i bet he's an amazing lecturer.

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