Is the question of Science (with a capital “S”) indicative of a certain misrepresentation of knowledge, politics, and composition? The question is itself an orientalizing one since it fails to establish which science, who’s common practice, and what intellectual climate. Being a good critical thinker one might then transition “Science” to “sciences” in order to do better justice to a heterogeneous series of distributed experimental, technical, political, and intellectual practices. But is pluralizing the term enough? What work is actually done by pointing towards the multiplicity, contingency, entanglement, and fragility of scientific practices? Donna Haraway (who’s name in this context will no doubt evoke mixed feelings) was the first person I heard point out that objectivity—that rare and vaunted diamond of knowledge—was in fact a very scarce resource in scientific practices, highly sought after, rarely achieved, and far reaching in its consequences (how hard it is to undo something once labeled objective!)
I think Haraway is right on two fronts: 1) the kind of objectivity achieved by various practices of science is, in an ontological sense, a true achievement (i.e., it tells us something significant about stars, planets, helium, and lithospheres), and 2) objectivity is always a hard fought, and difficult thing to produce. But objectivity is one of those words that can leave philosophers stumbling to define. Part of this is comes from the word “objectivity” itself which, in its every invocation, already pits one kind of knowledge against all others. I’m particularly interested in how one might formulate an understanding of knowledge—including, but not limited to scientific knowledge—within what we can all Graham Harman’s “withdrawal thesis.” The charge might be made that, because no mode of being or knowledge reaches the core of Harman’s “real objects,” all knowledge claims become equally valid since all fail equally at arriving at true knowledge of a real object. Unruly waters here folks.
If—and it’s a big if—withdrawal necessitates an ontological relativism of all knowledge claims (a “flat epistemology,” to borrow a term from Terrence Blake) we would land in a shaky relativism, both in terms of the question of science and the development of knowledge in general. Clearly, this is not a desirable position to be in with regards to ethics, politics, and science. However, I think the answer to the question is, “No—withdrawal does not necessitate a flat epistemology.” To reach this conclusion I argue that Harman’s withdrawal thesis (and his metaphysics in general) cannot be understood without some working knowledge of one of Harman’s great inspirations—Bruno Latour —and that the process of adjudication between knowledge claims is explicitly arrived at (for Harman) from Latour. Latour’s criteria for knowledge, as we know, come from the applied notions of composition and political art. The epistemic and the political must be composed and the criteria for the composition is doubly political and aesthetic insofar as what gets taken up in composition must (a) resist the trials of strength put against the knowledge claim, and (b) represent the interests of the various actors in question (which, as we also know, can be human or nonhuman for Latour). The central problem of composition is then not just one of resistance to trials of strength (which are necessary to evaluate the claim) but of mediation and translation between actors (who are implicated in the process of knowledge production).
The prolonged engagement Harman has had with Latour (e.g., the published dialogue recounted in The Prince and the Wolf and in Harman’s overview in Prince of Networks) indicates that Harman is well aware of the implications his ontology has for the knowledge making practices of the sciences. In accord with Latour’s own method, Harman has chosen to follow the actors-themselves to arrive at his version of an object-oriented philosophy, and its controversial claim of withdrawal along with it. This reframing of the Latourian strife between actors and their mediations forms a substantial component of Harman’s metaphysical program, and this has implications for how we understand both knowledge and politics within an object-oriented philosophy.
Insofar as Harman has provided us with conceptual tools to understand the ontological foundations of the processes of mediation and translation, his ontology actually strengthens the work begun by Latour in understanding the functioning of different practices of science, and the ways in which knowledge comes to be. None of this implies that (a) science and philosophy do not make any historical progress, or (b) that all knowledge claims are equal. The problem put forth by withdrawal simply states: interactions between objects are always mediated by the qualities (sensual and real) of those objects (or set of objects), denying the claim that unmediated interaction is possible. Mediation here means not that all knowledge claims are equally valid, just that all knowledge claims are equally mediations. The quality of those mediations is determined by the criteria listed in the above paragraph, and those criteria are inherently unstable, contingent, and contestable (i.e., they are always already political). In other words, Harman’s metaphysics does not lead to a flat epistemology, but rather a worthwhile engagement with what I would describe as the ontology of knowing based in the aesthetics of causality where the aesthetic refers to the ways in which different actors interpret one another more-or-less-well, without some final arbiter capable of overseeing the whole process from above. We can see this process unfold using an example.
The example I want to use is climate change and the associated political and ethical considerations that emerge when tracking the ontology of the event itself, and the ontology of knowledge by which we come to understand the event. When we are talking about a globally distributed phenomena like climate change—whose “center” is nowhere but whose effects are everywhere—the groups that must be mobilized (the “public” which must be formed, in Latour’s sense) to respond will be stakeholders that may: (a) hold mutually exclusive positions, (b) be ontologically entangled within different local scenarios in diverse and/or incommensurable ways, (c) be situated alongside asymmetrical categories related to gender, class, and nation, and (d) not even be of the same species (climate change effects all species, after all). As anthropologists, political ecologists, social psychologists, and environmental activists of all stripes know, any issue emerging at the intersections of climate change, eco-social pollution, and political organizing can be organized in myriad ways. Yes, there is data, and yes there is science. But the knowledge regarding complex systems like climate and ecosystemic functioning—particularly when thought alongside of complex human social dynamics—rarely leads to straightforward conclusions about the future trajectory of those systems; in fact, it would be regressive to suggest that appeals to mathematics and physics could solve these problems alone. In other words, the knowledge must be mediated, composed, and translated on multiple levels of interaction in such a way so as to assemble the collective towards a complicated idea called “justice.”
Such practices of mediation are at the heart of what Latour means by political art (in close alliance with what Isabelle Stengers calls “cosmopolitics”). Here’s Harman in praise of Latour’s politics (and metaphysics):
All reality is political, but not all politics is human. Referring to the ‘cosmopolitics’ of his friend Isabelle Stengers, Latour speaks of a redefined political order that ‘brings together stars, prions, cows, heavens, and people, the task being to turn this collective into a “cosmos” rather than an “unruly shambles”’ (PH, p. 261). It is no accident that Latour’s book Politics of Nature is translated into German as Das Parlament der Dinge: ‘The Parliament of Things’. We must liberate politics from the narrowly human realm and allow prions and the ozone hole to speak as well. Whether babble is reduced by reason (Socrates) or by power (Callicles), in either case political mediators are eliminated. Latour’s position is not just more politically attractive than this, but more metaphysically acute (Prince of Networks, p. 89).
Harman’s object-oriented philosophy can thus be read as implicitly tied to a Latourian politics of composition (indeed, this seems to be precisely what is at issue when Harman links his metaphysics of the object to the aesthetics of causality). To my reasoning this sets up a renewed potential for thinking through complex epistemic, political, and aesthetic issues (surely intertwined categories) at just the time we need them. In this respect, I don’t think the obligation lies solely on Harman to sort out all of the implications and uses of an object-oriented philosophy, but rather falls on the rest of us who are committed to using philosophy as a tool to help arrange more livable collectives in a socio-ecologically troubled twenty-first century. Not everyone will be interested in such a task of course, but for those that are I think Harman provides valuable resources to do so.