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Wolves, armies, and Latour litanies

by on January 24, 2013

I first encountered Graham Harman about a year ago, while working on my MA; in preparation for an upcoming visit to the university by Tim Morton and Jeffery Cohen, some professors organized an OOO reading group for faculty and  MA students in the English Department (most of whom were encountering OOO for the first time). In a moment of ambition, the night of the lecture, I bought Harman’s Quadruple Object. I only made it about 40 pages in, before I got into the heavy-duty Heidegger and summer arrived. Abbreviated as my reading was, I still managed to scribble some notes in the margin. Reading the other day, I came upon one of these gems in the third chapter when, building up to his discussion of tool-analysis, Harman writes: “When I stare at a river, wolf, government, machine, or army, I do not grasp the whole of their reality” (39). Scribbled in the margin to the right of this sentence is the note, in my handwriting: “GH really likes wolves + armies.”

Really, they’re all over the place! I remember thinking it pretty funny how frequently dogs and wolves (along with vaguely fantasy metal-esque entities such as triremes, stone walls, and centaurs) showed up in the lists of things and objects recited throughout the text: “dogs, candles, and snowflakes”, “a dog or moon” (9), “airplanes, carrots, electrical pylons, triremes, walls, and men”, “dog, candle, or army” (10), “trees, wolves, or beach balls” (74), “dogs or apples” (89), etc.

I was a little disappointed to learn, somewhat later, that there was already a name for these lists of things and objects (apparently a stylistic mainstay of not just Harman, but OOO in general): “Latour Litanies.” The term was coined by Ian Bogost in Alien Phenomenology, and quickly adopted by the other members of the OOO blogging community. I’ll admit to not liking the term very much (no offense to Bruno Latour) – it seems to me overly self-serious, to the point where I try to avoid having to say it aloud. This is no accident, of course. For OOO, this is serious business – amongst those theorists I have read thus far, it seems clear that the Latour Litany is seen as not merely stylistically salient, but philosophically important. From Levi Bryant’s blog:

Latour litanies are not simply amusing lists of objects, but do important philosophical work by performing a sort of object-oriented epoché. Often when philosophers speak of objects– including object-oriented ontologists –we use the blanket term “object” without referring to any specific or concrete objects.

The excerpt above comes from Bryant’s post on Ian Bogost’s  Latour Litanizer, a fascinating little device that generates random list of things, drawn from the random article function of Wikipedia (well, nearly random — some controversy ensued over a series of misogynist images retrieved by the Litanizer during its initial run, prompting Bogost to filter out certain criteria).

These Latour litanies, as Harman writes on his blog, are useful for establishing the “autonomous force and personality of individual actors, rather than allowing them to be reduced to or swallowed up by some supposedly deeper principle.” What I am curious about now is, how does this synch with the clearly deliberate composition of the litanies in the writings of Harman, Morton and others (and Bogost’s litanizer, to a lesser extent)? At the risk of sounding glib (not my intention, at all): what’s up with all the dogs and fantasy stuff? There seems a deeper principle at work, even if nothing more than a personal preference for dogs and the genre of fantasy.

I realize I’m in danger of seeming nitpicky here. But it seems to me that this raises a number of interesting questions regarding SR/OOO and literary criticism. What might autonomy mean in the context of literature and its study — in terms of questions of authorship, readership? Is it even possible to have a literature that does not allow for the reduction of autonomous entities to some deeper principle?

And what about Harman’s reading of intentionality, by way of Brentano and Husserl, in the second chapter? How is the composition and deployment of the Latour litany, the direction of attention toward it, functionally different from the bracketing activity of intending. Or is not even a concern?

(I just want to break out of the circle of critique, guys)


From → Quadruple Object

  1. There are a couple of things here.
    1. Like you, I find the choice of the world “litany” curious. Clearly it’s alliterative. But should we make more of it? Litanies are traditionally associated with religious, spiritual, and/or meditative practice. Is there some element of that here? Or is this more in the colloquial sense of the term? (I suspect that latter is intended but there might be something fruitful in the former.)

    2. The is a disconnect between the objects in the lists and the composing of the lists. For example, if I created a list (lamp shade, ottoman, faucet, garage door, cloud, yoga ball) we might say, according to Harman, that these objects are autonomous from one another. However the list itself betrays some relation in its composing, starting with the fact that I authored the list. In this case, these are all things I can see right now. In the case of Bogost’s litanizer, we might refer to his own theory of “procedural rhetoric” (which we’ll learn about more later this semester) that proposes that software (and other objects) might persuade through their operations. Nothing is purely random. Similarly we might pursue some hermeneutics of selection in different author’s versions of these litanies. We could psychoanalyze them and/or consider their implicit rhetorical effects. (Later we’ll look at an essay by Morton that discusses the rhetorical style of OOO, the litany in particular.) However we want to put it though, I think we have to distinguish between the composing of the list and the items in the list.

    3. Thinking about the items in the list, I would have to say that list-making puts these objects into relation with one another in however temporary and tenuous a way. I don’t think that Harman would deny that reading the list put these items in relation “for us.” Are the yoga ball and the lamp shade from my list having relations with one another just because I put them in a list? Do they have relations independent of me? The answer to this last question is purely speculative. Can they have relations? Sure. As physical objects there is always the possibility for collision (especially if one has kids in the house as I do). Does the fact that these items are in my list change their being? Harman would say no. Even though the fact that I have been paying special attention to that yoga ball that someone left in the hall may cause me to put it back where it belongs, the yoga ball itself will retain its withdrawn being. For Harman, this is the key difference between his philosophy and that of materialist who emphasize relation (as he says Deleuze does). If objects are defined by relation, then the yoga ball would change after I move it (and I will be a different person once I press “post comment” and drive to work).

  2. 7sshare permalink

    What’s with all the centaurs? Centaurs are all over this book. The sheer volume of centaurs seems to be pushing the point that there is obviously “a deeper principal at work” (Harman’s nerdy preoccupations), and perhaps that is part of his point? Maybe the necessarily contingent relationality implied by these lists is meant to draw attention to the fact that they are purely allusive. In other words, the lists’ distance from the reality of the objects they list is implied by the essentially flawed (not totally random but also influenced somehow) nature of the lists. The lists are a demonstration of the limitations of the anthropocentric viewpoint, and also the speculative power to allude toward reality that human consciousness possesses. This would go against what Harman has said explicitly, but you know, just trying to help him out here…

    “What might autonomy mean in the context of literature and its study — in terms of questions of authorship, readership? Is it even possible to have a literature that does not allow for the reduction of autonomous entities to some deeper principle?”

    Hmmm…laudable effort to tie this into literary criticism. It would seem to me that no, there is absolutely no possibility of a literature that does not reduce autonomous entities. As shown by the essentially not-so-random nature of the Latour Litanies, we just can’t not reduce. Neither can software, apparently, although I don’t know much about that. We can only speculate. So maybe an OOO literature would be one that accepts its necessary reductionistic modus operandi, and speculates fantastically like there’s no tomorrow anyway?

  3. traviswmatteson permalink

    Your invocation of the “seriousness” of this project reminded me of one of Harman’s first characterizations of his philosophy: “the stance of this book is not critical, but sincere.” If this project is sincere, is it also earnest? If it is earnest, is it also unironic? Surely the straight faced invocation of centaurs is post-ironic. This continues to strike me as funny, considering the opposition of this movement (it seems to me) to the postmodern understanding of “play.” And yet, these authors punctuate their book titles with words like “Alien” and “Weird.” Is the intended audience of such terms the younger post-ironic generation of Lady Gaga monsters who consider themselves weird? Is this question too critical? I have run out of steam.

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