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.


Posted on May 13, 2010, in Derrida, Latour and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Hi Michael,

    Wow, you’re right around the corner from me (Frisco)! Perhaps we should get together sometime. Drop me an email.

    For me, the problem with Latour’s plasma is not to much whether it’s one or not (though that would be a big problem for any of us subtractivists) but rather because the accent is placed on knowledge. Ontologically I fail to see the relevance of whether or not an entity is known to whether or not an entity is. If an entity is unconnected to a network or entanglement– and in the most extreme case, unconnected to anything else –that entity is merely unconnected to a network. I see no reason to evoke a special category like plasma here, because issues of ontology are independent of issues of epistemology.

    Latour makes a similar remark to the one you cite from RS in Irreductions. There he remarks that all objects interpret one another. As I recall he directly evokes Derrida in this connection.



    • Levi,

      Thanks for the comment. Flipping through Irreductions (which I have yet to complete, let alone go through carefully), I can’t find a reference specifically to Derrida – not that it’s really so important. I did see, at 3.1.2, the connection he draws between objects, networks, knowledge and specifically others to whom/which I’m linked. At any rate, I’m anxious to find some time to go through this carefully in order to understand better the possibilities and problems here. So, thanks for the pointer.

      Again just skimming through this book, though, my impression is that Latour does focus more on knowledge than he does in RS. Even in the passage I quoted, I get the sense that it’s less a matter of knowledge per se than of…well, a relational ontology. To say that hermeneutics is a property of the world itself isn’t (at least in this case) to reduce the world to what is known or interpreted, but rather to extend the character of interpretation beyond the confines of epistemology and into ontology. (And that’s what I find in Derrida as well.) One could characterize this as a deconstruction of the distinction between ontology and epistemology, as long as we keep in mind that that would under no circumstances amount to a reduction of ontology to epistemology. This is probably (though not definitely) the position I’d take, so I don’t think I could ultimately accept that issues of ontology are totally independent of epistemological ones. At any rate, the point is that unconnectedness or non-relation need not be a purely epistemological situation or a purely ontological one, and so there may end up being some value in thinking about it in the way Latour does – i.e., “unformatted” or “not yet mobilized.” (There’s something in that “yet”, as well…)


  2. I’m mostly in agreement with you on the Derrida point (though I think we are the minority here, on both sides of that issue). But even if we find in Derrida a way out, it is fair to admit that most derridians don’t. So, even if there is a way to read Derrida as pushing towards the vast outside, and even if that is the ‘correct’ way of reading Derrida, it isn’t the common way. And on a personal note, I disliked Derrida for a long time in my early time working on philosophy. It wasn’t till I had read Delanda and Braudel and Marx and D&G in great detail that I started really engaging with Derrida in ways that were helpful.

  3. I really like the sound of this, and agree that there’s a lot more that can be done with Derrida. Without dwelling on the Latour side of your posting, your thoughts resonate with a lot of `antipodean’ reworkings of Derrida, esp by the corporeal feminist philosophers: Vicki Kirby’s Telling Flesh, and her wonderful chapter on ‘Quantum Anthropologies’ that deals with lightning, Elizabeth Wilson’s Neural Geographies, and so on. I don’t know if you’re familiar with their work at all, but Kirby, Wilson and co don’t just draw on Derrida to explore the issue of how bodies, systems, entities etc converse with their contexts, but go on to talk about forms of `genetic indetermination’ way beyond the human, and modes of communicative encounter between unequivocably other-than human objects. As Kirby says about lightning `one lightning stroke, moved by an excessive binary logic, can also be seen as a stroke in which an entire field of energy rewrites itself; a global field whose every `particle’ is charged’… Against the grain of most North Atlantic receptions, much of the Australasian rereading of Derrida has really stressed the idea that text/context/texture literally means the stuff of the world. My personal intro to Derrida, back in the late 80s was by way of Robin Craw, an entomologist (not etymologist!) who was using Derrida to work across the binary between biology and geology, the organic and the inorganic.
    I’d go so far as to say there’s a hell of a lot more genuinely nonhuman exploration taking place in antipodean derridean thought than there is in most latourean and ANT outings, and I think this has a lot to do with a point Levi has made about the lack of notions of dependence in Latours version of a flattened out ontology…

    “What is missed is the emergence of self-sustaining negentropic networks in which the actors in the network become dependent on one another in the replication or reproduction of the network.”

    With dependence come all the repercussions of a real asymmetry …and most latourean-style relational materialists don’t want to go there…. But at least a few `derrideans’ seem prepared to the pursue the idea of radical asymmetries that drop us out the human-nonhuman interface into other regions of encounter and existence…


  4. Thanks for the replies; I’m sorry I haven’t responded sooner (I was away for the weekend – able to have a nice couple days’ vacation somewhere where the internet service was slow and spotty).

    I think I sometimes underestimate the degree to which a reading of Derrida that doesn’t take him in an exclusively linguistic or (traditionally) hermeneutical direction is in the minority. So it’s always good to be reminded that that’s is in fact the case. I do feel though like many Derrideans, if pushed on the subject, would admit at least the tenability of an ‘antipodean’ approach. I suppose the trick is to get more of it done, and to get people interested! My own introduction to Derrida was squarely from a hermeneutical angle, and for a while I was certainly among those who viewed his work as part of an overall ‘linguistic turn’ (and positively so). But of course there’s so much more there than just that, and it’s good to know that these other resources are being explored.

    Nigel, thanks for mentioning Kirby and Wilson. I wasn’t familiar with their work, but I’ll definitely have to check them out in the future. Wilson’s work seems to be in the same vicinity as Catherine Malabou’s recent stuff. Is that a fair comparison to make?

  5. Hi Michael
    I dont know Catherine Malabou’s work, so I’ll take a look! If you do get the chance to look at some of the Australian feminist philosophers take on Derrida, an easy to access way in might be a special issue of Australian Feminist Studies, 1999 14 (29) on science studies that Elizabeth Wilson edited. Kirby’s Quantum Anthropolgies is in a hard-to-find collection called `Derrida Downunder ‘ (though I think she’s been talking of a booklength version of this, which I’d love to see…) If your curiosity is aroused, I can always send you a good old photocopy.

    Ive always like to think of Derrida belonging, if not centrally, then at least significantly, amongst that generation of French theorists who were trying to develop, as Michel Serre put it, `a general philosophy of marked elements’. I dont have a background in philosophy, but a few years back, when I was writing about feral things, – weeds and rabbits and viruses and such running loose in the antipodean landscape – I found Derrida really helpful. Strangely, more so than Latour. Not sure if I can actually explain or argue why …


  6. I like the gloss on Derrida’s project in Nigel’s post. We can see Derrida as giving an account of what has to be in the world if meaning and interpretation are to happen. For example: there need to repeatable things. “A sign which would take place but ‘once’ would not be a sign”.

    Repeatability (in the sense required by Derrida’s metaphysics of textuality) may not be ontologically basic (it may need something like memory, a primitive retension, for example) but he consistently asserts that abstract conditions of textuality are not preculiar to human cognizers.

    That said, I think the level of abstraction in Derrida’s account needs to be acknowledged. Textuality is not the same as hermeneutics, but (if JD is right) a minimal condition for it.

    • Thanks for the comment, David. Of course hermeneutics, in the usual sense of the word, is an extremely narrower category than textuality; but even when broadened to reflect the scope that Latour (and, I think, Derrida) gives it, it still remains not only narrower than textuality in general but also a few steps removed from it. There’s an aspect of textuality qua iterability that stretches beyond what Latour glosses as an appeal to the vast outside, which I think might also reach beyond what could be called memory or retension – depending on what you mean by that. I have in mind, for example, crystalline formations or planetary orbits – phenomena that exhibit a kind of material repetition. These would be effects of the general iterability that constitutes textuality, and whether or not they are wholly beyond the scope of what would reasonably be called hermeneutics is a separate question. It’s possible, even probably, that they are, even given Latour’s claim. But it remains the case that hermeneutics reaches far beyond the narrow confines of human activity.

  7. That’s a very interesting response Michael and I find the idea of material repetition here very appealing. I mentioned memory because it seems to me that iteration must require some kind of appropriate causal history. I mean, ‘water’ uttered on Twin Earth doesn’t iterate the English ‘Water’ (assuming the two planets to be causally isolated). So iteration needs some causal or informational relationship between events. What kind of link? Well, I can’t argue in detail for this here, but I’m inclined to think that this requires more than a bare replicative mechanism, but something that can bear the trace of its own history – like a recurrent neural network, which modulates current input with previous activation in the hidden units. So I mean ‘memory’ in a deflationary sense, certainly not in a psychological or phenomenological sense.

    • Ah, but I’m inclined to say that the Twin-Earth word ‘water’ does iterate the Earth word ‘water’ (and vice versa!) – to the degree that the physical signifiers (sound, ink, pixels, etc.) are not differentiated. We would not normally say that their respective referents (H2O and XYZ) are iterations of each other, though, which I think is where your call for a medium that can trace its own history comes in. However, it’s hard for me not to think that Earth and Twin Earth themselves can’t do this job, insofar as they are purportedly particle-for-particle identical aside from the chemical composition of what is called in each case ‘water.’ That is, iterability in fact need not be a function of causal or informational relationships; on the contrary, it has to be able to function across a wider scope. In the Twin Earth example, it seems to me that the place at which some kind of memory is required – however deflated or minimal, and I see the value in the minimalism you posit here – is actually the point at Earth water and Twin Earth water are distinguished as not, in fact, the same material.

  8. I do not agree that “issues of ontology are independent of issues of epistemology.” I think the question of plasma and of its non-unitary nature is a good case where we can see the imbrication of epistemological and ontological considerations. I do not see any reason to accept the self-appointed police of demarcation when what is being discussed is a concept (plasma) and a type of thought (Latour’s) that just don’t respect the classical boundaries. I discuss this problem on my blog, more especially here:

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