Prince of Networks #3: Cinema for bugs and dogs?

This was originally written as a reply on Levi Bryant’s blog as part of the on going discussion of Graham Harman‘s book on Bruno Latour Prince of Networks. Please read the previous post first to get some context if needed. So, I was going to wait until I’d actually finished the book, but, hey, why not?

What I am trying to understand is how it is possible to have absolute instants and yet talk about ‘history’, ‘trajectory’, etc. Is an absolute instant meant to be a ‘point’? This is unclear. I ask because a ‘point’ has zero time-space, only coordinates, that was the quip about Zeno’s paradox and ‘no time’. The ‘cinematic’ view of a series of instants is a succession of zeros. If the ‘instant’ is slightly longer then it has duration, and we are not talking about instants anymore. Just to be clear it is Harman’s interpretation of Latour’s conception of time I was trying to describe, not what I think is Latour’s conception of time, which for me is far more Deleuzian than Harman and Levi allow it to be. ‘Deleuze’ in Prince of Networks is a bit of a straw person. So what is Harman’s interpretation of Latour’s conceptualisation of ‘time’, here are a few initial quotes for those who have not read the book:

“Just as with power, logic, and truth, Latour holds that time is merely the result of negotiations among entities, not what makes these negotiations possible. […] ‘Time is the distant consequences of actors as they each seek to create a fait accompli on their own behalf that cannot be reversed. In this way time passes’ (PF, p. 165). Or rather, ‘Time does not pass. Times are what is at stake between forces’ (PF, p. 165).” (Harman 30)

“And ‘to create an asymmetry, an actant need only lean on a force slightly more durable than itself’ (PF, p. 160). Finally, ‘“time” arises at the end of this game, a game in which most lose what they have staked’ (PF, p. 165).” (Harman 31)

“[In] one sense, Latour’s objects are utterly imprisoned in a single instant; in another sense, they burst all boundaries of space and time and take off on lines of flight toward ever new adventures. […] And if we are speaking of trajectories or transformations, then there is still no cryptic domestic essence on the interior of a thing that could endure across time—here a thing is still found on the surface of the world, but it is now a surface unfolding through a succession of various shapes rather than a cinematic frame of absolute specificity.” (Harman 65)

“[Latour’s] metaphysics of relations forces him into a twofold theory of time, now split into ‘linear’ and ‘sedimentary’ kinds. In his own words, ‘a year should be defined along two axes, not just one. The first axis registers the linear dimension of time […] in that sense 1864 happens before 1865. But this is not all there is to say about the year 1864 […]. There is also a portion of what happened in 1864 that is produced after 1864 and made retrospectively a part […] of what happened in 1864’ (PH, p. 172). And further, ‘if we skip forward 130 years, there is still a year 1864 “of 1998” […] maybe [including] a complete revision of the dispute in which, eventually, Pouchet is the winner because he anticipated some results of prebiotics’ (PH, p. 172). If you feel yourself resisting this strange conclusion, Latour says that your resistance is the result of ‘a very simple confusion’ (PH, p. 172) between linear
and sedimentary time.” (Harman 85)

The last passage reminds me both of Deleuze’s and Foucault’s respective works, particularly around the concept of the event. (For Deleuze the main texts are D&R, TLoS and The Fold, while for Foucault it is his review of D&R and TLoS and his inaugral lecture to the College de France published as The Discourse on Language as well as various interviews.) Bodies and the passions of bodies on one side completely ignorant of the human apprehension of microbes (‘linear’ time?) and the sense humans derive of their mixing on the other hand (‘sedimentary’ time?) for the microbe-event. Besides the difference in terminology, which I am not sure if it is accurate as Latour wrote in French, how is this different to Deleuze’s conception of time in the Logic of Sense?

The dominant Latour-event for me from my reading of Latour-academic’s work is derived from Reassembling the Social. I read the ‘social’ as an event, and not an object. Latour discovered the ‘social’ in the same way microbes were ‘discovered’.

“As we have seen, Latour does sometime speaks of actors as ‘trajectories’ that cut across numerous moments, and implies that an actor acquires a ‘history’ when its allies shift rather than that it perishes outright.” (Harman 104)

“The example of microbes in 1864 seems to require that humans had to learn about microbes before they could retroactively begin to exist in the past. This claim would enrage any realist, since it seems to deny a world apart from human perception of that world. But as already suggested, this should be viewed merely as a bridge too far, not as a central feature of Latour’s position. The reason is that he not only could have avoided such a theory of time, but even should have avoided it given his general views on actors. Latour’s main point is that reality is made of propositions, in Whitehead’s sense of the term—defined not as verbal statements by conscious humans, but mutual relations in which two things articulate each other ever more fully.” (Harman 125)

What does ‘ever more fully’ mean (“mutual relations in which two things articulate each other ever more fully”), if there was no potential or reserve? Harman’s mistake in interpreteting Deleuze’s conception of Bergson is that Harman is letting his Heideggerian side take over. Potential does not belong to an ‘object’, but more to what Harman is interpreting in Latour’s work as relations. Why ‘objects’? Not many objects articulate other objects. A rock does not articulate another thousand rocks (‘allies’) more fully to form a landslide. A rock forms a relation with another rock merely as a mass and a number of forces, humans and other animals witnessing a landslide articulate themselves and the other ‘bodies’ within the ‘landslide event’, but only humans will form relations with the landslide as what we call a landslide. Animals are different again. The landslide is not an ‘object’; it is repeatedly actualised in different ways as different ‘landslides’. An event and can be ‘more fully’ articulated relative to another differential repetition of the event, but I am not sure how an ‘object’ can be more fully articulated.

“It resembles the classic critique of intermediate points: the race staged by Zeno between Achilles and the tortoise. To reach one mediator we need another between them, but must first reach an additional mediator midway between those, and so forth. The same problem has often been raised concerning the theory of time as constructed out of instants, a doctrine I have ascribed to Latour as well. Such points are well taken. But they are merely problems to be solved, not outright refutations of the occasionalist stance. Note that the alternative theory of a primal whole of objects and primal flux of time is plagued with difficulties no less severe, since it cannot explain clearly how these wholes are segmented into distinct zones. The quantized world of occasionalism does have difficulty explaining leaps, but the continuum model of holistic flux or pulsations of intensity has problems explaining why the world is not a single molten whole, devoid of regions.” (Harman 145)

Well, string theory suggests it is all one flux! The simple answer to how a spatialised time emerges from the flux is that observers experience/engage with the world according to their capacities for experience/engagement. (Maybe ‘spatialised time’ is not sufficient for what I am trying to describe, perhaps ‘ordered time’ is better? This moment before that one and after that one, etc. The moments only make sense within a given event, as the ordering of time is produced as a function of the event.) Hence my first comment to Levi’s Flat Ontology post regarding affects. For example, and the only example I can provide, a spatialised time is an effect of the human perceptual capacity (+ tools and imagination) to arrest and backform time-space and therefore causality from the infinite flux. The cosmos is a single event at the same time it is an infinite mulitplicity of events. We have a perception of before and after (and causality) because our perceptual capacities allow us to delineate events around us. Hence cinematic illusions of movement from a series of still images, the rate of cinematic projection exceeds the human capacity for perceiving distinct moments. Other entities are capable of ‘folding’ the cosmos in different ways, ie representing it with the full capacities of their bodies (body-senses-nervous system-brain or whatever for humans, different for every entitity capable of folding the world). Cinema for bugs and dogs? A dog or a bug would have a different ‘cinema effect’ compared to humans, for example. For plants relying on the sun there are moments of sun and no moments, different seasons and so on, they each have their own temporality depending on the capacity for the plant-body to affect and be affected. Anything else is infusing a human-ordered temporality into the ontological conditions of the plant. Part of the becoming-plant of the gardener is to learn to appreciate and eventually assume the temporal rhythms of the plant to help it grow.

Latour’s philosophical practice, just like Foucault’s as Latour himself notes in Reassembling the Social, is excellent at tracing these emergent causalities along actor-networks, something seems lost when the focus is shifted to the objecthood of objects, so an event is reduced to be a condition of the object (when a thing is thinging) at the expense of events that cannot very easily be reduced to objects.

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