In his latest book, Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory, (Polity, 2016) Speculative Realist philosopher Graham Harman differentiates Object Oriented Ontology from New Materialism and Actor-Network Theory, using the Dutch East India Company as a primary example. In the following interview, we discuss some of those nuances, how they relate to art, the Anthropocene, and Harman‘s articulation of Object-Oriented Social Theory. Harman is the author of several books including Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (2005), Circus Philosophicus (2010), Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political (2014) and more.
CP: In your latest book, Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory, (Polity, 2016) you articulate how object-oriented ontology differs from Actor-Network Theory and New Materialisms. Would you talk a little bit about those differences?
GH: Let’s start with Actor-Network Theory, to which I’m much closer. I first encountered Bruno Latour’s work here in Chicago, as a student working on my PhD at Depaul in the late 1990s. What I immediately liked about Latour is that his tone was much more optimistic than Heiddeger’s. Latour is much funnier. He also provides more resources for talking about specific objects. For Heiddeger, all objects seem to be treated as faces of technology and miserable instantiations of presence. Meanwhile. Latour actually talks about individual technologies, each different in its own way. Yet what bothers me about the Actor-Network approach is that It defines things solely by their actions. That’s too limited; ultimately, you need to be able to talk about things outside of their actions because things are capable of multiple different actions.
CP: How does that relate to the main example in Immaterialism, The Dutch East India Company?
GH: I chose that example because Leibniz made fun of the Dutch East India Company as a pseudo-object, in his correspondence with Antoine Arnauld. As concerns the Company, Leibniz basically says: “How silly to think of it as a unified substance. It’s just a bunch of different people and different ships. How can it be considered one thing? There is no monad here.” Yet the fact remains that the Dutch East India Company lasted nearly 200 years, longer than any known human being has survived. Even if it changed its ships on a regular basis, it was a real object that exerted pressure both on its internal components and the outside environment. It remained roughly the same thing throughout that time, even when ships, people, or its operational strategies were replaced.
CP: But you are interested in the way it, as a single thing, nevertheless changes over time?
GH: Yes, but not according to the usual pseudo-cutting edge model in which everything is in a constant flux of becoming. This merely levels out everything in such a way that all moments become equal, which does not match what experience teaches us. In Immaterialism I try to identify five or six particular moments that were crucial for the life of the Dutch East India Company. My major source here is the Serial Endosymbiosis Theory (SET) of the biologist Lynn Margulis, who is only just starting to catch on in the humanities: Luciana Parisi at Goldsmiths in London and Myra Hird at Queen’s University in Canada come to mind as two authors working in neighboring areas to my own who have grasped the importance of Margulis for all of us. For those who haven’t read her but are interested, the book Symbiotic Planet is a good starting point.
Margulis had an important idea in the 1960s, during her years as a graduate student and assistant professor, that life forms evolve primarily not through a gradual process of survival of the fittest, but through intermittent symbiosis with other life forms. Consider the human cell and its numerous organelles. Her theory was that these organelles did not originally belong to the human cell, but came from the outside. Originally, there was the prokaryotic cell, which has no nucleus or internal membranes. According to Margulis, these organisms were probably infected by cellular parasites that fed on the nutrients inside the cell. Eventually, the parasites became important for our cells to survive when atmospheric oxygen drastically increased.
Margulis hypothesized that if we were ever able to run adequate tests to analyze the DNA in the nuclei of human cells, we would find that the cellular DNA does not code for all the organelles, thereby proving their extra-cellular origin. In the 1980’s those tests became possible and it turned out that Margulis was right. What she had proposed went from being a laughingstock of a theory to standard textbook biology.
CP: Is there another example of how that would work?
GH: Yes. Around the same time, Margulis asked, “Have we ever seen evolution happen in a laboratory?” They told her there was one such case, and it involved fruit flies in a tank, if that’s the proper term. Researchers split the tank down the middle, slowly turning the heat up on one side and down on the other. After however many generations, the two sets of fruit flies could no longer mate., and thus had effectively become different species. After dissecting them, they found that there was a virus in the hot fruit flies. The orthodox reaction to this might have been: “Damn it. The experiment is contaminated by a virus. It’s useless.” But the reaction of Margulis was different: “No. That’s the whole point. The point is that the virus allowed the fruit flies to survive in the heat.”
CP: What made you want to apply that approach to history?
GH: I was thinking first about human biography, because Levi Bryant and I had an interesting dispute. He claimed that since I think objects have fully formed essences, this would entail that a thing could never change, and that only combinations of things could change. I took this objection seriously, though it’s not inherently problematic given that everything for me is a combination in the first place, since there are no ultimate objects that consist of no further parts. But then the further observation occurred to me that we don’t really change internally as individuals anyway. We don’t sit around in our bedroom, brooding, and then suddenly our lives are different. Instead, this happens through symbiosis with some other object: a person, an institution, a career, a city, a favorite author. These are the things that can change our lives irreversibly. And furthermore, I don’t think these life changes are infinite in number. A typical person has maybe half a dozen in a lifetime.
And then it occurred to me just before writing this book that we could apply the same idea to history, by saying that the real changes in history are sudden and symbiotic, not gradual or internal. There are amazing moments leading to big changes, and mediocre moments that exist in the midst of long stable periods. I was looking for symbioses in the history of the Dutch East India Company, with the idea that the Company evolves by creating new objects in fusing with others. The resulting change is irreversible because the total object has a retroactive effect on its parts, even if the object isn’t irreversible. The Dutch East India Company eventually ended as all historical objects come to an end, but things did not revert to their previous state. A married couple can always get divorced, but in most cases the marriage —as a larger object containing two individuals—will have left retroactive effects on those individuals even if they decide never to speak to one another again. And you can always get married again, but you can never have a first marriage again.
CP: It reminds me of co-evolutionary theory, where things develop reciprocally within a specific niche. For instance, the Dutch East India Company continues to specialize until it only trades in spices and nutmeg—like a hummingbird whose beak evolves to get longer and longer…
GH: That’s right. Certainly, that is a disadvantage and why species disappear suddenly: they become over-attached to situations that do not endure. What happens to the Dutch East India Company in the 18th century is that nutmeg and cloves and other spices become less desirable on the market. In the 1700’s it was tea, coffee, and chocolate that were on the rise, and the British were in a better position to supply those goods, especially tea.
So, the fate of the Dutch East India Company goes hand in hand with the fate of nutmeg and cloves. Yet there are also cases without reciprocity. For example, I definitely had a symbiosis with Cairo. I arrived there at the right moment in my life. I worked there for sixteen years, lived there for thirteen, and will never be the same person I was before Cairo. At the same time, Cairo didn’t have a symbiosis with me. Cairo has an ancient history, and was barely affected at all by my presence there. I’m not a symbiosis for that city in the way that the arrival of Islam was, or that the Romans were, or whatever happens next.
CP: That’s where you bring up metaphor—
GH: —because not only does metaphor not give literal comparisons, it also does not give reciprocal ones. If we say that two things are alike in a literal sense, there is a reciprocal relationship between the two terms: the pen is like a pencil, or Chicago is like Toronto. There’s a reciprocal exchange of properties in such cases. That’s not what happens with metaphor. Here, one of the terms is in the object position and the other in the quality position. It’s an asymmetrical pairing. One object strips qualities away from the other, but not the reverse. In the new book I was trying to say that symbiosis is a metaphorical relation rather than a literal one, and therein lies its power.
CP: Using the Dutch East India Company as your main example brings out a political aspect in your discussion. There is so much violence and exploitation inherent in the company’s history.
GH: One of the paradoxes of the company is that the Dutch were the most liberal and humane nation in Europe at that time, and yet they created in the Company a very efficient monstrosity. It should not be forgotten that the Netherlands at the time was a newly independent nation, in true existential peril from their former Spanish masters, who committed a number of atrocities on Dutch soil. In this situation the Netherlands needed the huge monopoly profits promised by Jan Pieterszoon Coen’s vision for the Company, which entailed not only shutting out other European powers with violence, but even dominating trade among the Asians themselves. Yet there were limits to Dutch power, as seen by their failure to make inroads with Tokugawa Japan and Qing China. Japan in particular humiliated the Dutch, making representatives of the company go and bow before the Emperor, who as a rule would make the most minimal concessions. There were also occasional threats from local potentates, first in Java and later (and more seriously) in Malacca, where the Dutch Navy eventually had to come and save what was supposed to be an autonomous corporation.
Yes, there was a horrible amount of violence connected with this vast and powerful corporate monopoly.
Let me add that it was not my intention to single out the Netherlands for bad behavior. At a recent conference in Cincinnati, I received a rather emotional reaction from a Dutch reader who had appreciated the book but felt that I had focused on the absolute worst aspects of the Netherlands during that period. He offered some counterexamples of Dutch Liberalism, such as the de Witt brothers. What he was forgetting is that my case study was the Dutch East India Company, not the Dutch in the Netherlands, and the Company was largely autonomous of the Netherlands itself, a measure necessary to allow quick decision-making on the other side of the world in a time of slow communications. And I tried to stress the fact that the Netherlands was a young and vulnerable country at the time, despite its wealth, and was truly in danger from Spanish invasion. Moreover, the Portuguese and British were hardly models of fine behavior in the East Indies. The reason I focused on Dutch atrocities is simply that I was focusing on a period of relative Dutch dominance in the region. The Portuguese were much worse in at least one respect: religious bigotry. Ironically, the concerted efforts of the Portuguese to destroy Islam was one factor in the rise of the Dutch, who cared less about spreading religion than about securing profit for the Company.
CP: At one point you quote the archaeologist Ian Hodder saying “Anthropocene civilization cannot easily rid itself of disposable plastic trinkets and their ultimate Pacific Ocean dumpyard, because too many jobs depend on such trinkets.” It drew a parallel for me between the Dutch East India Company and a contemporary corporation—
GH: That was a paraphrase rather than a direct quote from Hodder, but that’s certainly his idea. He calls it “entanglement” and he wrote an entire book about this interesting topic not so long ago. Hodder’s point is that human activity is so path-dependent that we often become trapped by decisions made long ago. His chosen example is Christmas tree lights. They generate a lot of waste and use a lot of electricity, and so it’s conceivable that government under a Global Warming State of Emergency might choose to ban them, among other things. But so many jobs around the world depend on a thriving Christmas tree light industry that it’s hard to get rid of them.
I see that we both have iPhones. How many people scraped metal in mines and polished the phones in Chinese factories, perhaps getting horrible lung diseases to make these? Hodder says that an iPhone uses as much electricity as a small refrigerator, though I have no independent verification of that. It’s easy to say that it’s “capitalism’s” fault, but what then? How do we dismantle capitalism without people starving and the environment becoming as bad as it was in East Block communism?
Perhaps gold mining companies are the world’s most vicious corporate entities today. There have been cases of mining companies that use attack dogs on local citizens. The conditions in their mines are appalling and hideous. The temperature down there can run to 120, 130 degrees fahrenheit. You have to shimmy on your stomach because the tunnels are so low, according to my journalist friend Graeme Wood, who has visited one of these mines. And then of course there are the toxic chemicals they use, and the tiny wages people earn from mining gold. In fact, some observers have labelled AngloGold Ashanti “the most evil corporation in the world.”
CP: Within that frame, though, it feels as if the system propagates itself; it’s almost impossible to identify personal agency within this massive economy of extraction.
GH: I think it’s true that in some cases the remaining human agency is fairly minimal, and the corporations themselves become agents with their own inhuman interests. Occasionally, I’ve been puzzled to receive the criticism that Object-Oriented Ontology must agree with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case that corporations are people. Frankly, this is a rather stupid misunderstanding of my position. My position is that corporations and individual humans are both objects, not that they have equal political rights. According to OOO, Popeye, unicorns, and square circles are objects, but obviously we would not insist that these things deserve human rights. The ontological and political questions are completely different. We don’t give votes to mosquitoes, and I’ve never even heard an animal rights activist say that mosquitoes should not be smashed, though I suppose Jainism would say that. Nor should we obviously give corporations political rights in the sense that the Citizens United decision granted them.
CP: Going back to symbiosis, I started to wonder how humanity might itself be a global object. I don’t want to reduce the complexity of our species into one unit, but if we are tied together in an evolving global system, where would the Dutch East India Company sit on that trajectory?
GH: The Dutch East India Company was the first modern corporation. It had to monopolize in order to function as it did. Fernand Braudel talks about this in his three-volume Civilization and Capitalism, as does Manuel DeLanda later on. Capitalism is really about anti-markets. It’s about international monopolies and cartels, because if you look at what the trade was like in the East Indies before the Europeans came, or more specifically before the Dutch came (because the Portuguese were unable or unwilling to stifle free trade in the region), the ports were completely open to Turks, Arabs, Chinese, Ethiopians—it was a multicultural paradise in terms of trade.
But those ports were eventually monopolized by the Dutch. Controlling everything was their specific innovation. The spices in question were very rare at the time, coming only from specific and limited points on the globe. At the time, nutmeg, mace, and cloves came only from a small number of East Asian Islands: the “Spice Islands,” as they were known, which lie midway between Sulawesi and New Guinea. The Dutch would actually chop down the trees on certain islands to make sure they only grew on the islands they controlled, in order to keep monopoly prices high. It works, and that’s a sobering lesson: anti-markets work.
CP: At the end of your book, you propose to develop an object-oriented social theory?
GH: I was trying to test the waters here for something different from Actor-Network-Theory, a theory I cherish but which has obvious problems, such as over-emphasizing the actions of a thing as opposed to its mere stable existence. ANT does not deal well with counter-factuals, and thus is most useful in describing things that have already happened, not things that might still happen. Furthermore, it doesn’t give us the proper tools to distinguish between important and unimportant actions, whereas Margulis’ notion of symbiosis does. ANT is also perhaps a bit too blithe about the reversibility of relations: for it, everything looks like a fragile and symmetrical assembly of different actors. This is one place where the Left does have a point in its critique of Latour: some relations are actually quite asymmetrical and difficult to reverse.
Along with ANT, I also made criticisms of the so-called New Materialism in this book. A lot of people group OOO with New Materialism, but I do not feel at home with the latter camp. What people overlook is that New Materialism has no interest in objects, and OOO (in my version, at least) has no interest in “matter,” a concept I would like to see abolished.
Materialism can be one of two things—both of them bad, from my standpoint. One of them reduces things to their pieces. That’s the old classical materialism. The other reduces objects upwards to the social practices or language or events in which they are manifest. I call these two strategies undermining and overmining, though they are usually combined in a joint assault I’ve termed duomining. Both of these materialism are not quite object-oriented theories, because obviously they eliminate objects in favor of an upward or downward effect.
CP: Part of what you’re talking about is how difficult it is to concentrate on an object; a kind of awkwardness or insecurity emerges about exactly what the thing is: is it a set of atoms—but if so, why would atoms be the smallest unit? Or if it is a net assemblage of effects—then still we have to explain why we prioritize one scale over another. One’s encounter with an everyday mug, for instance, becomes very peculiar.
GH: We should resist the temptation to know too quickly. When somebody asks you what something is, there are two possible kinds of answers: you can either say what it’s made of, or say what it does. These correspond to what I just called undermining and overmining, and they are the two forms of knowledge that human beings have.
But I argue, in the Immaterialism book and elsewhere, that philosophy and art are not forms of knowledge. Knowledge means paraphrasing the thing in terms of true properties that can be ascribed to it. This is precisely what science does. Science has of course been the gold standard of cognitive activity in modern civilization. For 400 years, it has been the ultimate authority. It has replaced the Church as the place where we all go for ultimate reassurance. Great. But there have also been some great artists over the same time period, and I would resist any tendency to downplay their cognitive impact and view them as mere decorators and mood manipulators. Should we really rank Picasso lower than Einstein or Newton? That would seem to be going too far. But we have to see Picasso as doing something different. I wouldn’t say Picasso gives us knowledge, as if I learned something about horses or acrobats from looking at Picassos (though this seems to be Alain Badiou’s position, oddly enough). That’s not what’s happening. It’s something else. An artwork cannot be paraphrased. Art critics have to swerve in from the side and deal with things obliquely. That’s how they should do it. Yes, it can slip into pretension sometimes. That is the professional risk of philosophers, criticsm and artists: we all risk falling into pretension in a way.
CP: I wonder if part of the anxiety that I feel—at least as it’s connected to climate change or major global corporate investments—is connected to how the landscape is stepping its traditional background position into the foreground—
CP: That we’re not in control, maybe.
GH: Or maybe we’re still too much in control. One or the other. In a few essays I’ve used “Anthropocene” as a technical term for philosophy, referring to any object in which humans are a necessary ingredient. Things like arts, chess, and basketball obviously have been Anthropocene from start. But now the climate is becoming Anthropocene for the first time because humans are an ingredient in it. There is some disagreement about when this first happened. Was it 1945? Was it the industrial revolution? Was it way back in the Stone Age? At the advent of agriculture? At some point, we became a crucial ingredient in the planetary climate. We’re part of it now. We have responsibility for it now. That in and of itself is anxiety-inducing.
CP: I wonder if the theoretical structures Western thought has used thus far to understand the world—philosophies, mathematics, sciences etc.— aren’t positioned to accommodate that shift.
GH: Certainly the kinds of philosophy and science we’ve had were probably not adequate to account for the shift. Climate and earth science are, of course, crucial in helping to identify what is going on. But these are very different kinds of sciences from the precise modern ones that we relied on for so long. To take one especially sinister example, the Nagasaki bomb in 1945 required the perfect implosion of a ring of plutonium so that all portions of the ring reached the center at precisely the same moment to create a critical mass. That is extremely precise weapons science.
But that’s not what climate science is like: they are not the kind where you have 100% indubitable evidence, which is precisely why there is more politics involved in such science than in the previous kinds. Bruno Latour is one of the first philosophers to have picked up on all those themes. He already wrote one book on ecology and will surely be writing more. I think Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern is the most important philosophical book since the Second World War. I’m probably still the only one saying that, but Latour drives a stake in the heart of Modernism with this book, and I don’t see that anything more important has happened in philosophy. As Latour teaches us, modernism is about the attempt to purify subjects and objects from each other. Within this paradigm, there are just two kinds of things: (1) people and (2) everything else. Nature becomes the cold realm of calculable automatic action and culture becomes merely an arbitrary projection of values with no reality principle behind it. People swing back and forth, choosing nature or culture depending what suits them at the given moment. Conservatives hold that war is a natural and ineffaceable fact but that domestic gun violence is “socially constructed” by violent movies and videogames and inadequate mental health treatment. Liberals say that the current status of women is socially constructed and thus revisable, but also say that homosexuality is a natural fact found in some people from birth and not something that can or should be changed by treatment. Whichever political tribe is yours, nature and culture are your two basic weapons, drawing first on one and then on the other to argue your point. But what if neither of the two is a good weapon? What if nature and culture are just two separate domains amongst trillions of others? Latour will try to say that most objects are hybrids, most of them involve humans and non-humans entangled, so you cannot tell which is which. The ozone hole is both natural and constructed. Global warming is an even better example. But there’s still a danger with this concept of the hybrid, which is that people might think that every object requires a hybrid of nature and culture. No, that’s not the point. The point is that neither nature nor culture is a good concept.
In any case, four or five centuries from now when the end of modernism seems as obvious a historical fact as the birth of it, I think Latour will be seen as the one who really put his finger on what is central to modernism: an artificial taxonomy of natural and cultural (or world and thought) in which the two realms are supposed to be purified from one another. The reason so many philosophers have a hard time appreciating this is that philosophers are still pursuing a modernist project even as other disciplines have been compelled to move beyond it. The Owl of Minerva flies at dusk, so it must not be dusk quite yet. We are still in the late afternoon of modernism.
CP: Does formalism tie into Latour’s account?
GH: Formalism can mean a number of different things, but perhaps the most relevant way to define it is in Kantian terms. He uses it in his ethics to refer to ethical principles that are autonomous of any reference to the material world and refer solely to the categorical imperative. Similar principles are at work in Kant’s aesthetics and ontology. I deal with this in my just completed book Dante’s Broken Hammer, which will be published by Repeater Books (London) in October 2016. Max Scheler makes a helpful start for us by opposing Kant’s formalism in ethics. Whereas formalism assumes (just as Latour argues against modernism) that self and world are two ontologically distinct zones that must be purified one one another, Scheler effectively argues that the ethical unit is not the human, but rather the human in conjunction with the world. One practical consequence is that Scheler has greater sensitivity to the different personal vocations of different people. If someone has a calling and a wish to a be a great viola player, there is an ethical imperative to follow this path that is not merely “hypothetical,” as Kant would put it. The ethical unit here is actually person plus viola, not just a person with a sense of duty.
The same holds in Kant’s theory of art, where both the beautiful and the sublime are actually about us, not about the world. Ironically, this gets flipped in twentieth century formalism, in which Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried, Cleanth Brooks, and other formalists want to say that art is all about the art object, not about us. Though it’s the exact inversion of Kant’s position, it’s still a formalism, because it still involves the notion that self and world must be mutually purified, and it’s still in search of an objectivity of taste that is binding on everyone. Here again, I argue in the book that the aesthetic unit is neither the person nor the object, but both in conjunction. One consequence is that just as there can be an individual vocation to become a plumber, painter, or parent, there can be an individual vocation to respond intensely to Schopenhauer (like Nietzsche did) or to Nicolas Poussin (as Cézanne did). It’s like changing your mind about buying Cialis. Perhaps this is even easier to see if we look at cases in history where someone was especially inspired by a relatively minor figure. The one that’s always in my mind is how enthusiastic T.S. Eliot was about the poetry of Jules LaForgue, who by no means ranks among the greatest French poets of his time. Another example is how the young Heidegger was set on his path of the thinking of being after reading the doctoral dissertation of Franz Brentano on the many senses of being in Aristotle. Now, Brentano is in my view one of the overlooked great philosophers, not a minor figure, but his dissertation is not one of his obviously greatest works. It took Heidegger’s special sensibility to see something potentially world-changing lying in germ in Brentano’s thesis. Many others read it, but no one else saw it as crucial to the future of philosophy.
I’ve not yet mentioned Latour, who was the point of your question. But perhaps it will now be clear why Latour’s attack on the nature/culture taxonomy of modernism also gives us the resources to escape Kantian formalism, and its variants.
CP: So this goes back to my question about how knowledge production might have to change to accommodate the Anthropocene—
GH: Early on in his career, Latour was working with Shirley Strum on baboons for their paper “Redefining the social link: from baboons to humans.” What Latour learned from working with Strum is that baboons are more social than we are (and by the way, I owe my recognition of the importance of baboons for Latour to Peer Schouten). Baboons are constantly watching each other: who’s grooming whom today? A baboon has discovered a rich food source, and sees the rest of the baboons wandering off: now there is no alternative but to run after the others, because baboons are too social to be alone. Each day, baboons are keeping a close eye on the pecking order of their society as it shifts; they are constantly renegotiating their place in that order. And though we might tend to think of humans, in respectably cynical fashion, as cagey, social-climbing, manipulative beings, that’s really not true at all when you compare us with baboons. After all, humans wake up to a relatively stable world each day. We have birth certificates, driver’s licenses, jobs, names, wedding rings, bank accounts, titles, and family histories. All of these give us a relatively stable place in the world that changes only in moments of life crisis, such as professional or marital problems or financial catastrophe.
CP: So, objects help stabilize our world-position.
GH: Yeah. Inanimate objects stabilize us. We have homes. My wife and I have an apartment, and if somebody breaks in, we can call the police. The police will arrest the person responsible, if they can be found. My home is not available for anybody to come in and crash. It remains my home until I decide to move or am evicted due to non-payment of rent. If anyone doubts who I am, I can prove it with a birth certificate. I know that I have some money in the bank that I can withdraw when needed: nobody else can take that money out, and it will be available at all times unless there is a global financial crash. Baboons have none of these luxuries. Inanimate objects are the mediators that stabilize human society: this is one of Latour’s most important political insights. He rightly complains that there’s not much about inanimate beings in Machiavelli or Hobbes, who talk mostly about other people. Machiavelli speaks a bit about fortresses and guns, but he’s mostly concerned with out-foxing of overpowering humans. Latour is really the guy who has made inanimate objects part of politics.
CP: You always make lists when you’re giving examples of different types of objects. I was wondering if you have advice about …
GH: How to create them?
GH: We call them Latour Litanies. Ian Bogost coined this term because Latour does these lists especially well, though they’ve been around for centuries. Perhaps Latour’s finest litany moment comes on page 316 of Pandora’s Hope, when in one list he invokes golden mountains, phlogiston, unicorns, bald kings of France, chimeras, spontaneous generation, black holes, cats on mats, black swans, white ravens, Hamlet, Popeye, and Ramses II. Another brilliant one is when Richard Rhodes in The Making of the Atomic Bomb lists all the different types of objects that were destroyed in the Hiroshima bombing. Then there is Georgius Agricola in his De Re Metallica, when he lists all the different ways that people can be killed without metal, in order to absolve metal of the claim that it is used to make too many weapons: an early sort of “guns don’t kill people, people do” argument. And of course, Francis Bacon’s mind-blowing list in the Novum Organum of “instances agreeing in the nature of heat,” including “fire erupting from the cavities of mountains,” fresh animal dung, and “all flame.” Some critical readers of OOO claim to despise this technique, but I see no reason to stop using it. It’s an excellent rhetorical method for reminding us of the plurality of entities against any attempt to tame that plurality by privileging one specific type: usually the human mind.
As for practical methods of creating good Latour litanies, here are my own tips. Generally the human mind gravitates towards lists of three, so I try to use at least four at a time in order to get the mind out of that natural rut. Bogost tends to like alliterative litanies, whereas I prefer not to use them because I want the feel of randomness about my lists, and to that end it’s important not to have all the words begin with the same letter. I also want my litanies to cover a wide range of entities, so for that reason I always try to include at least some humans, some non-humans, some natural things, some artificial things, some live humans, some dead humans, some fictional objects, and maybe some impossible or self-contradictory ones. And then you have to pull out before it gets too long and you try the reader’s patience: I’m talking about sincere readers, of course, not the sort of people who pretend to be annoyed by litanies. And they are many— insincerity is one of the most abundant productions of modernism.
Steven Shaviro also noticed that I often include tar on my lists.
GH: Yes, tar. T-A-R. At one point I was listening to Shaviro gives a lecture, and he said something like: “I want to know why Harman is so fascinated by tar.” Part of it is simply that I like the sound of the word, and always remember that it rhymes with “star.” There’s probably a psychoanalytic resonance here, as there is with most habits and obsessions: “yellow star” was reportedly one of my first compound spoken phrases as a child. My bedroom as a child was next to the top of the garage. At one time it was being tarred, and of course my parents wouldn’t let me go out there while the tar was still hot. But I did eventually walk out there, barefoot, when the tar had cooled but was still a bit soft and mushy to walk around in. I’m not sure why that’s such a pleasant memory, but maybe that’s why tar makes frequent appearances in my own litanies.
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