Review of Week 5 (by Maranda Christy)
On Monday, we discussed Graham Harman’s essay on Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern. First of all, however, we briefly talked about Plato’s theory that we experience the world through a distorted lens. In this sense, it’s not a direct experience. In contrast, someone like Jane Bennet would be considered a realist (i.e. the world is as we see it and to understand it, we must experience it), as are most of the people involved with object-oriented theories.
In discussing We Have Never Been Modern, we analyzed how Latour views modernity. Importantly, he classifies himself as non-modern, rather than anti-modern or postmodern. The distinction is important in that he doesn’t believe in modernity at all—he argues that the concept of modernity doesn’t even exist. Latour divides modernity into human (society) and nonhuman (nature) spheres. This classification helps modernists clarify global issues, making them seem more understandable. It’s also a kind of “purification” because these categories keep human and non-human activities completely separate—there is no mixing of humans with nonhumans, who are apparently beneath us in no uncertain terms.
Latour suggests (by listing humans alongside “things”) that we are no better than dirt. It seems negative to compare human beings to dirt (we can’t all have the same value, right?), but in actuality it’s a way of saying we’re all equal (“flattening” hierarchies), rather than putting one down at the expense of another. Latour rejects the concept of time (as we know it) and instead places emphasis on how different actants interpret time differently. Latour defines everything in the world as beyond hybrid—things are made up of other things and all react with one another in vast networks.
We perceive continuity in the world, but everything is constantly shifting and changing around us. Latour states that “entities are events” as things are always changing in reactions to changes in their environment. History repeats itself. Past, present, and future are intertwined with one another. We ended class in talking about how the past never really goes away. Some “old” things, like hammers, are still with us today and just as much part of the present as cordless drills, for instance.
On Wednesday, we began class by talking about Michel Foucault, who Bennett (in her first chapter of Vibrant Matter, “The Force of Things”) responds to. According to Foucault, there are all kinds of readings of the body in terms of how we are constructed (so, we can think about the human body as constructed versus organic). Foucault studied people outside of the norm to prove that there is no “normal.” Also, just because something is “constructed” doesn’t mean it’s easy to change.
Bennett is especially concerned with the nonhuman. Since her focus is not on human understanding, she disregards epistemology. She’s looking at vibrancy, not transcendence. Bennett emphasizes networks or what she calls a “contingent tableau.” We can perceive something neither as an object or subject, but an “intervener.”
Then we had a “pause” in class to read Josh’s blog post called “Obedience and its inevitable benefits.” In looking at the post, we talked about how objects can have an agency that seems “passive.” Seemingly passive objects are actually displaying a type of agency (being “there” or having “effects”) we misunderstand.
Bennett acknowledges a weakness, saying that all of “this” might be in her head but what if what’s going on inside of her mind isn’t just human? Ultimately, Bennett wants us to get away from the idea of human mastery.
Finally, we spent the last part of class talking about Sir Degaré. We said that knighthood, in this story, is all about physical power. We looked at the scene on page 205 that describes the mother embroidering a message (implying that the token/object alone is not clear enough for him). This shows how she believes she has to control the object in order to bring about a particular outcome. The story is more concerned with individual identity instead of class identity. Lastly, we briefly mentioned how the dad (“fairy”) is set apart as “other,” so he can be understood outside of normal human motivation or will.
“All that matters are actants and the networks that link them. To follow a quasi-object is to trace a network” (Harman).
“Time is made of spirals and reversals, not a forward march” (Harman).
“We are also non-human” (VM, p.4).
“The initial insight was to reveal cultural practices of what we think of as natural” (VM, p.1).
Spinoza & Conatus—“every human body & nonhuman body…” (VM, p.2).
“Absolute thing power” (VM, p.3)
“I will try impossibly to do something” (VM).
“Human power is a kind of thing power” (VM).
“She glimpsed a culture of things separate from a culture of objects” (VM, p.5).
“There’s no necessity… to place humans at ontological center” (VM, p.11).
“Hopes it will chasten our will to mastery” (VM).
Page 250: mother embroiders message (Sir Degaré)
Page 858: he falls asleep, blames it on the “harp” (Sir Degaré)
Epistemology- ways of knowing
Ontology- ways of being
Conatus- ability to be able to continue existing (objects “persist in existing”)
Preview of Week 6 (by Dr. Seaman)
We’ll begin the week with a day focused on literature, after some quality time with Bennett and Latour (via Graham). After pursuing a bit further some of the thoughts we raised regarding Sir Degare at the end of last week, we’ll add Marie’s Lanval and the Middle English Sir Launfal to our collection of medieval texts on which we’re testing out the effects of object-oriented approaches. These two poems continue the emphasis on the marvelous or supernatural that we’ve determined has much to offer (including challenges!) such approaches. As you read these two poems I suspect you’ll find them more distinctive from one another than were Le Fresne and Lai le Freine. Think particularly about the representation of the fairy lover and the gifts she gives the hero. Here is another story that depends upon an extremely generous figure. How does this relate to Cleges, for instance?
On Wednesday we’ll return to Latour, this time reading him directly rather than through Harman’s introduction of Latour, as we did last week. From his book Reassembling the Social (which is online as well as in print) we will begin with “How to Resume the Task of Tracing Associations.” We’ve started focusing our attention on the relations among actants—the network, the assemblage, etc.—which is key to Latour’s orientation in this book. Returning to the quotes on the Actor-Network Theory PDF might be helpful as you consider Latour’s ideas. Consider how, from the very start, Latour is taking on a concern we noted in Bennett regarding views of all as socially constructed. Don’t worry that you’re reading the wrong chapter—that you’re suddenly in a sociology class. By page 5 (and from the title) the focus on assemblies (associations) should link pretty clearly to what we’ve been working up to in our reading.
On Thursday night at 11pm, your first paper is due in OAKS. I have office hours Monday and Wednesday from 1-2 and 4:40-5:10. Please stop in to see me with your ideas, draft, concerns, or whatever would help you. Remember the Writing Lab is available in Addlestone, as well, a helpful resource for finding a reader to test out your approaches on. If you’d like to meet with me but can’t make my office hours, please just email.