the vast outside
It’s not that purposeful humans, intentional persons, and individual souls are the only interpretative agents in a world of matters of fact devoid of any meaning by itself. What is meant by interpretations, flexibility, and fluidity is simply a way to register the vast outside to which every course of action has to appeal in order to be carried out. This is not true for just human actions, but for every activity. Hermeneutics is not a privilege of humans but, so to speak, a property of the world itself. (Latour, Reassembling the Social, 244-5)
This passage strikes me not only as the most Derridean I’ve encountered in Latour’s work, but really one of the most Derridean passages I’ve read anywhere that doesn’t explicitly make the connection itself. Indeed, you would only have to modify it slightly (perhaps substitute “différance” for “fluidity”?) in order to have a pretty accurate short summary of Derrida’s overall project. Now, I know many would protest this, maybe raising the (certainly reasonable) objection nowhere (or at least very rarely and obliquely) in Derrida’s corpus does he turn to non-human actors and/or collectives in the way that Latour argues we must do. Larval subjects recently made just this point specifically against Derrida’s (and others’) social and political stuff; he states pretty strongly that, in Derrida, Laclau, Balibar, et al., “we find nothing remotely close to the discussion of these issues.” I might debate the “remotely close” part of this claim, but I can’t deny that we don’t find a direct and sustained engagement with non-human objects in Derrida’s work. Nevertheless, I would argue that from the beginning what Derrida pushes his reader to do is to engage with the “vast outside” to which Latour is pointing, and that this necessarily includes not only a consideration of the non-human but also a breaking down of the barrier between the human and the non-human in much the same way as (at least some) proponents of OOO work to do.
The passage from Latour comes up as part of his discussion of “plasma,” which is the “not yet formatted, not yet measured, not yet socialized” background against which actor-networks and collectives emerge. It is a reserve of unknown stuff – unknown not because it’s unknowable or hidden, but simply because it has yet to be connected to any network. It’s the space between the ties. Now, in Prince of Networks, Harman sees a possible problem with this idea, writing that “at best Latour verges on acknowledging a single plasma-in-itself” (134). While I see the worry here, I don’t always buy the argument that something that is inarticulated has necessarily to be unitary. Harman’s position, as I understand it, is that an object is subtracted from all relations but remains, qua object, distinct and differentiated. This is certainly one way of retaining ontological plurality beyond the level of networks. However, I don’t think that otherwise we would end up with some kind of unitary plenum. The undifferentiatedness of plasma (or the reserve or what-have-you) – if we go that way instead of Harman’s – should rather be understood as not (even) one. Once we’ve stepped outside the network of relations, the choice between unity and plurality may prove to be a false one, and it’s for this reason that I think Latour’s idea of plasma may turn out to be surprisingly productive. As he repeatedly notes, compared with that which is part of a network, the outside is astronomically vast, and thus capable of introducing infinitely many opportunities for change and novelty.