Decadence in the Biographical Sense: Taking a Distance from Actor-Network Theory

Decadence in the Biographical Sense: Taking a Distance from Actor-Network Theory

Graham Harman (Southern California Institute of Architecture, Los Angeles, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/IJANTTI.2016070101
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This article summarizes the author's 2016 book Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory, outlining the book's five criticisms of actor-network theory (ANT) and its fifteen provisional rules of object-oriented method in social theory. The article also considers Bruno Latour's criticism of Immaterialism, in particular his view that such terms as “symbiosis” and “decadence” rely too heavily on an inappropriate “biological” metaphor that has no place in discussion objects in a wider sense. In response, the authors claims that the primary meaning of the symbiosis and decadence is not biological, but biographical.
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1. Object-Oriented Ontology And Actor-Network Theory

Object-oriented ontology (OOO) owes a great intellectual debt to Bruno Latour, as extensively documented in numerous publications.1 The development of an object-oriented social theory, then, was bound to owe a great deal to Latour’s actor-network theory (ANT).2 As I see it, there are two main contributions of ANT to social theory. The first is its flat ontology, in which individual screwdrivers, mice, or espressos can play a role in a well-told story about any given project, whereas hazy reifications such as “society” or “capitalism” must be challenged. The second, closely related contribution comes from ANT’s adherence to Alfred North Whitehead’s “ontological principle,” meaning that the reasons for anything that happen must be found in the constitution of one or more actual entities: which Latour calls “actors.”3 While other social theorists might claim to deploy these principles as well, none of them do it with such consistency or such disarming wit as Latour himself. Just try to read fifty pages of Latour without laughing out loud at least once, and for the best of reasons.

Yet in developing a social theory with more of a OOO flavor, it is important to confront the weaknesses of ANT as well. As I see it, there are at least five key weaknesses of that ingenious theory, which I hold to be the most important philosophical method since phenomenology was born at the turn of the twentieth century. In my 2016 book Immaterialism,4 I devoted the eleventh chapter to summarizing these weaknesses:

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