Harman on Latour, Socrates, and Sophistry

The first of my summer reading books have arrived from Amazon. Last night I read the first few chapters to Brooke's Lingua Fracta and the Pandora's Hope chapter of Harman's Bruno Latour: Prince of Networks. Both are really good, although Harman's book agitated me (and, yes, it was an affective response--quivering hands, underlining margins, restlessness). I slept on it, then re-read/drafted a response to Harman for my "Callicles, Latour, and Levinas" article. Here's the rough stuff.

What appear below is my initial reactions/notes to Harman's chapter. Many grammatical fragments and oddities likely follow. Please proceed with tolerance.

Harman, Graham. Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. re.press: Melbourne, AU: 2009.

Latour's commitment to democracy is not a form of pandering to the spirit of our age, but is an intimate part of his metaphysical position. The universe is nothing but countless actors, who gain in reality through complex negotiations and associations with one another: not as one against a crowd but as one in the shape of a crowd of allies. We cannot appeal to some authority (geometry, power) lying outside the shifting alliance of networks. (88).


"For Latour all reality is political, not because human power inexorably shapes the truth, but because truth and reality are assembled through chains of actors in the same way that bills go through Congress: slightly transformed and translated at each step, and failing as often as they succeed. All reality is political, but not all politics is human" (89).

It might be difficult to appreciate how Latour's third position differs from that of the second--Plato's morally and intellectually bankrupt Callicles. I would offer this distinction: it is a matter of where we locate agency. Agency cannot be isolated in the rhetor, who through skillful manipulation, lies, and pandering molds the crowd. Rather, agency is located in the crowd, who through yea or nay determine a course of action (think of Consigny's robust definition of agonism, a game in which all participants agree to honor the contest's determination). In Harman's language, power cannot be located solely in the hands of the sophist who acts upon the crowd, but is dispersed throughout all the actors (rhetor, opponent, audience, scene, time, podium, screen, temperature, etc) composing the rhetorical ecology.

Harman citing Latour: "A politics that does not rely on experts citing impersonal law 'requires a disseminated knowledge as multifarious as the multitude itself. The knowledge of the whole needs the whole, not the few. But that would be a scandal for Callicles and Socrates, a scandal whose name has been the same at all periods:democracy" (89, Pandora's Hope 229).

Harman's rehabilitation of Socrates, particularly in light of Latour, is to stress "Socrates' contempt [not] for the mob, but to his contempt for power" (90). Thus wisdom for Socrates: "only wisdom governs these virtures in such a way that they always reach for the sake of which they act; and in the end only a god is wise, no human experts" (92). He concludes:

The power of a tyrant or rhetorician is insufficient, because these are merely superficial efforts at the mercy of a reality that only wisdom can probe, not power. The guiding insight of Socrates is the notion that reality is more than its current status, its current impact in the world here and now, its attributes, its relations, its alliances with other things. And here we find a more genuine point of opposition between Socrates and Latour. (93)

Here Harman does not seem to ask the obvious (sophistic) question--isn't wisdom itself an expression of power? Despite these conceptual differences, Socrates' transcendental non-humanism leads Harman to conclude that "the similarities between Latour and Socrates are much greater than those between Latour and the Sophists" (95). Quarreling with Harman's depiction of sophistry is not my primary aim. Quarreling with his depiction of sophistry is; unlike Latour, Harman fails to pull back the Platonic theatrical veil and question Plato's depiction of sophistry as mere, pandering, power-grubbing foolery. (My initial affective annoyance stems from the fact that I really appreciate the complexity and nuance of Harman's work--I wish he paid some attention to some contemporary rhetorical theory, particularly a 25+ year rehabilitation of sophistry, rather than simply echoing Plato's dismissal).


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Casey said...

Two things:

First, notice that Latour's whole schtick is derived from a metaphysical claim about the nature of reality. His metaphysics precedes his valuation, right?

Second, a minor point, but, since it calls us back to our favorite location: what is sophistry if it is not power-grubbing foolery? What is it's essence? What is the fruit of the art of sophistry?

Insignificant Wrangler said...

I'm not quite sure what "his metaphysics precedes his valuation" means. But, as to his shtick, every statement of a metaphysics requires some kind of first principle, right? Grund? Arche? Epiphany? Moment? Experience? Primal? Postulate?

To the second question. Its power-grubbing foolery if the rhetor commands the audience or simply panders to them. But, in each case there is simple lateral intent and power.

Latour's politics is more complicated than that, particularly because it is dialogic.

These days, there's three primary ways of theorizing sophistry (notice I say primary)--all of which in some way oppose both the transcendental epistemology and emphasis on clarity in Plato.

First, there's social constructionists who emphasize sophistry as a form of democratic practice.

Second, there's social constructionists who emphasize sophistry as a form of agonistic contest [which doesn't necessarily have to be democracy--sophistry dedicates itself to playing the game of the day]

Third, there's deconstructionists who emphasize sophistry as a means for exposing the limits of any transcendental or social constructionist agon.

The names that come to mind in connection with these three are (respectively): McComiskey, Consigny, and Vitanza/Jarrat/Worsham. Sophist Monster might have some input here.

Hey, what do you know. Spell check recognizes deconstructionist. Probably says something about what new limits need to be explored (eh, Casey?).

And, real quick, I think I had an experience with the Other today--and it certainly wasn't an other. Its these automated blog comments. They are a bit uncanny to me. I can't quite say why and I'm in the middle of prepping for my summer course--it starts Monday, so I don't think I'll invest too much thought here. But something about the machines replicating an attempt at dialogism in an effort to attract attention stirs me to question what I am, what I do, and how I think about what I am and what I do. To refer back to our earlier discussion today--that's a brush with the Face.

Casey said...

A machine-human! Interesting. Was the encounter ineffable, as you seem to imply? Sweet!

I guess by pointing out that Latour's metaphysics precede his valuation, I just meant that metaphysics seems to me always to be a first philosophy (another effort to understand Levinas, I guess).