From Flickr, Creative Commons License

Subject, Quasi-Object, Object

Posts in this series. Bruno Latour uses words in ways that are not always clear. Discussion of unusual usages of words may appear in earlier posts.

We Have Never Been Modern is Bruno Latour’s effort to define the nature of modernity. Latour looks back in time to a point where we can see the beginnings of modernity. [1] The point he chooses is the 1660s, shortly after the end of the English Civil War, when Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle had a war of words over their respective conceptions of society and science.

The air pump was a recent invention, and Boyle and his associates spent a lot of time and money improving it. Boyle used the air pump to conduct experiments on air and air pressure. He described the methods and results in a a 1660 book, an early example of the scientific method.

Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan in 1651. The book is usually thought to be the first on political philosophy, an effort to understand the nature and structure of human society as a human construction, not a divine creation. He offers his ideas about the best way to organize society.

Each man wrote on the subjects covered by the other, according to Latour. But eventually people focused on Hobbes as a student of society and ignored his abstruse science. Boyle’s methods became the model for science, and his writings on politics and society were ignored. Nature and society became two separate things. Society doesn’t change the laws of nature, and nature doesn’t impact the structure of society. Society is about people, and science is about things. Latour identifies this as the decisive step to modernity, separating it from previous societies he identifies as premodern.

The distinction between nature and society has endured to the present. The two poles of our thinking are society, culture, people, the state on one hand; and nature, things, objects, on the other. [2] In order to study these separate topics, we are constantly involved in the process of purification, as Latour calls it. Science tries to rid the object of all traces of the subject. People studying society try to erase all traces of objects from their studies.

At the same time, we are engaged in a different process, which Latour variously calls hybridization, mediation, or translation, [3] This is our constant creation of new objects made up of elements of society and nature mixed together. We have made a vast number of these things that don’t fit the two categories of nature and society.

An air pump is a thing, but it talks to people about other things. Not everyone can hear it speak: only specially trained people are able to comprehend the message. Today there are instruments like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), so vast that they are hard to comprehend, staffed by 17,500 people, using thousands more computers, detectors, and other pieces of equipment. The LHC tells specially trained people things about fundamental particles. The air pump and the LHC are tools to study nature, but they also change us and they change our understanding of nature, and society as well.

Hobbes’ theory helps us understand and work with government and power, but there were entities that exercised power outside the government in his time, including the Church of England, masters, guilds and others. That’s true now, when we have enormous corporations which organize the production and distribution of vast amounts of material goods and services; giant universities; enormous churches; and more.

Latour calls all these objects and entities hybrids or quasi-objects. I understand a quasi-object as a node which focuses the efforts of people and other objects and at the same time changes the people and the other objects and is changed by them. It is something in itself, but its existence and its meaning depend on human action. Here’s an explanation by Levi Bryant:

Quasi-objects are objects that are neither quite natural nor quite social. … [T]hey are operators that draw people together in particular relations as well as drawing people into relations with other nonhuman objects while being irreducible social constructions in the semiotic [and?] in the humanist sense.

Quasi-objects do not fit neatly into either society or nature, but are composites, featuring some of the attributes of each. It’s easy to see how this applies to the Large Hadron Collider. It is the node around which many people gather to work at their projects. Some use it to think about dark matter. Some use it to confirm the existence of the Higgs Particle, some fix the electro-magnets, some run the massive electrical plant that supplies the power, some clean the floors and some watch the budget. There are various kinds of governance, for example, the group that decides who gets to use it, and the group that decides what upgrades to add.

The LHC cannot be understood as a physical object, nor as a social construct. It is a quasi-object.


This distinction, between society/culture, science/objects, and quasi-objects is central to an understanding of this book. In future posts I’ll look at some of Latour’s analysis of modernity in terms of these categories. For now, two brief points.

1. One aspect of this distinction seems to be that we understand society through Hobbes’ lens, as organized around human beings and their society. Politics, economics, and other social sciences study parts of society. Each of them focuses on human beings, and ignores the objects with which humans construct society.

We understand science through Boyle’s’ lens, as the investigation of material things. Physics, chemistry, biology, math, all are focused on understanding the rules of operation of the physical world. To do this we isolate the object under study, and erase all traces of human society from it and the process of studying.

Neither of these lenses enable us to come to grips with quasi-objects, because each leaves out important aspects of quasi-objects. As a result, moderns have ignored quasi-objects, allowed them to proliferate, and ignored the consequences of ignoring them. Mostly we simply allow quasi-objects to come into existence with no thinking or planning. Our general rule is that people do stuff, and then we deal with the consequences, pleasant or unpleasant, through law and regulation or through the courts. Two obvious examples: Elon Musk is throwing random satellites into space and no one stops him from clouding our ability to look into the starry night. Southeastern Australia caught fire.

2. As Latour says in Sec. 1.2, “… America before electricity and America after are two different places; ….” In the same way, America with cell phones is a different place than America without cell phones. Those differences are how we recognize a quasi-object.

[1] I offer a rationale for this approach in the Introduction to this Series.

[2] The subject-object distinction has been a fixture of philosophy since the ancient Greeks. I read Latour to say that premoderns did not use that distinction, leaving it to academic speculation where it belongs.

[3] These words have a technical meaning, to which I may return in a later post.

32 replies
  1. PeterS says:

    “Mostly we simply allow quasi-objects to come into existence with no thinking or planning.”

    The lack of planning is perhaps the main reason the world is in such a mess, in terms of the environment and economy.

    But democratic governments are inherently bad at planning because their focus is on re-election. 

    Corporations are good at planning – but only planning to make money.

    China is probably good at planning though their plans may not be your plans.

    A benign dictator is an impossible solution. 

    So we rely on a future when educated populations force their governments to do the right thing.

    In my lifetime?

    • Ed Walker says:

      We all need to think about this issue. There has been a lot of speculation lately about whether democracy is compatible with capitalism, mostly in the odd corners of the internet and smaller sites. It’s pretty clear that letting rich people make these decisions without public input is a raging disaster. But how does that change?

  2. Frederick Janson says:

    Alternatively, the subject, quasi-object, and object are each a finite agent of change, fresh peas within the old soup of infinite change, each able, alone or via proxies, to plan how things will change, and each, alone or via proxies, adapting to change to survive and grow, or else failing to survive and grow.

    To survive and grow, each agent of change gives a value to the changes they must adapt to and plan for, and where the behavior that follows often mirrors the valuation given to change.

    Negative behavior often mirrors negative valuations of change, and negative behaviors often result in failures to perform, with exceptions.

    Positive valuations often result in positive behavior, often resulting in positive performance.

    Global hoarders have weaponized these norms having created negative change, and given the same a positive value, in order to survive and grow, because a car with no wheels can’t roll the drivers farther.

      • Frederick Janson says:

        Thank you for that kind welcome bmaz.

        But you have just unintentionally proven me right here, as follows.

        Case in point, bmaz is an agent of finite change in the sea of infinite change.

        Bmaz perceived a change, my post in this case, and was deeply threatened by the same, thus giving that change a negative value.

        As the valuation of change often mirrors behavior, and rather than just providing a value to change, bmaz felt bmaz had to act or behave, and in the case of bmaz –without any meaningful exchange of ideas, and hiding behind a fake name, to be able to readily facilitate in cyberbullying – bmaz’s negative behavior mirrored bmaz’s negative value of change here.

        Similarly, bmaz’s performance mirrored both bmaz’s negative behavior and bmaz’s negative valuation of change, because bmaz failed to perform as intended, by proving my original point correct, and so bmaz failed to adapt to change in order to grow, thus entirely proving my original contribution, and as a civil and criminal lawyer, no less.

        Argued like a Trump bmaz, no facts, pure vile, then leave your umbrella outside the door, because you don’t know how to close it all by yourself.

        Remind me never to hire a lawyer to make a better argument than i’ll make myself.

        Hilarious bmaz, “top shelf” gibberish, no doubt, you win, and are a winner, because you trumped me.

        • Frederick Janson says:

          Molly, name calling instead of addressing points you would like to debate is among the weakest type of defenses. Please research techniques of neutralization in order to grow, you are victim shaming, and it is not pretty, but sad for you these others who feel the need to do the same.

          Surely you can all do better than that, especially on Empty Wheel of all places, one of the most cognitive reads online. Be more like Marcy, and breakdown the facts, as to what you don’t like about my contribution, and then add the spice. Spice without a substantitive meal isn’t really a meal, it’s just spice, and hard to swallow, and likely to come back up, as it has here.

          I get it. You know bmaz. You don’t know me. Bmaz doesn’t like my contribution. So you don’t like me or my contribution, and yet you can’t state why. It’s kind of like arguing with a child who is upset, but they don’t know why they are, and then when you ask them to explain, they struggle to let you know, and smack you instead. So you show them patience, and try and get them to understand, but if they step over the line, you have to give them a time out. So time out here children.

          You’ll note that though I don’t agree with bmaz, I breakdown bmaz’s failure to argue the facts, and how this only proved my point. In short, I brought substance to the argument instead of mirroring bmaz and instead of engaging in a slap-and-run, like you, bmaz, and others have here. Break it down, engage in a conversation with someone you don’t understand, ask questions, bring in some research, and try and understand the perspective, in order to grow.

          This is truly how the impeachment of Trump has played out recently, with one side not wanting to address the facts in the least, with a whole lot of naming calling, because the facts aren’t in their favor, and the argument based on facts cannot be won without a robust debate.

          Marcy and her crew, including bmaz, do one of the best jobs online of addressing the facts, making me one of your super fans, thought admittedly, less after this experience.

          As someone who has taught much of this in college and at a graduate level, all of my contributions here seek to inspire debate, to share ideas, and to grow, not to be bullied, and so sure, I will defend myself, as have others here, or else we succumb to the bully culture that struggles to unite us all.

          Talk it out, understand both sides, be a teacher, and be open to the possibility that you could learn something new in the exchange, or be petty, narrow-minded, fail to address points in an argument, and throw insults.

          I’m not big on contributing to blogs, because this is how blogs tend to play out, with someone making a contribution in order to have a good conversation, only to be mobbed by simple insults by those needing a channel to vent their frustrations.

          The main content articles in Marcy’s blog are truly gold, some of the best online, and I read about 10 different news sources daily, from the left to the right, trying to understand the state of the world, as the son of a philosophy professor and international politician, whose family is in the orbit of the global leadership circles, and as a Fortune 500 and Stanford University research professional, who like bmaz has completed at least three university degrees. So I like a good conversation, and this isn’t really one of them, but I should have known better, lesson learned.

          Last but not least, you too have proven my original contribution correct, as you too perceived a change, my posts, you gave them a negative value, your behavior mirrored that negative value, then your performance mirrored that negative behavior, and you too failed to perform to adapt to change, just slinging mud from your swamp, also cyberbullying me.

          To balance, it could be argued that I also failed to perform here, which a pompous ass would not admit to, but I just did.

          The uglier life is to us, perhaps the more beautiful we need to be to other people?

        • bmaz says:

          Listen jackass, do NOT ever, for one second, deign to tell people here how to think or act. You waste precious column inches, in an age where that is hard on people reading on mobile devices, on your own navel gazing drivel. Curb your electron use and holier than thou bullshit, or you will be quickly gone. You are oh so concerned about “ugly”? You should be worried about being gone, and you are on the cusp.

        • Rayne says:

          *blows whistle* Time out. Policing content and language of both contributors and community members doesn’t cut it here.

          Neither does a lack of concision which appears to be a form of DDoS to obstruct comments.

          Beat it until you can catch a clue stick.

        • P J Evans says:

          I can’t tell if this was written by a live person or a bot with neural-network programming. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, either way.

        • Hika says:

          If someone who is not a mathematician or physicist uses the word “infinite” they don’t know what they’re on about. (And if they are a physicist, take what they say with a grain of salt.)

        • P J Evans says:

          If you’ve had several math and physics classes, does that count? (Engineering and CS students get both, at many schools. Enough to learn the Greek alphabet.)

        • Hika says:

          Engineers certainly cover enough calculus classes that they should have a decent grasp on infinity, but there are those worrying Engineering student groups that print t-shirts declaring “pi = e = 3”, so I can’t be sure about them. I don’t know but do expect that CS students get enough set theory courses to get a pretty good fix on infinity, too. The two main ideas to get are that there are different sizes of infinity which in general terms are the smallest “countably infinite” which is the infinity of the natural numbers from 1,2,3 and so on … to infinity, and there is the “uncountably (or innumerably) infinite” which is the infinity of any continuous chunk of real numbers. So, the interval from 0.1 to 0.2 contains more real numbers than all of the integers from negative infinity to positive infinity. After years of drawing number lines in grade school, this can be a little challenging. And the second important thing about infinity after you learn about the distinction between countable and uncountable infinities is that the “little” countable infinity is still so much bigger than most people can begin to imagine.

        • Eureka says:

          I heard there’s this great new cruise with ayahuasca or something.

          <— Getchyer tickets to the left.

      • Mitch Neher says:

        Mr. Janson’s sentences are far more readable than Alfred North Whitehead’s sentences or Henri Bergson’s sentences, for that matter.

        Those process philosophers tended to reject SVO syntax altogether. Nothing remains what it was in the process of changing into what it is not yet becoming.

        P. S. It’s possible that Mr. Janson is pulling our legs–depending upon whether his comment about global hoarders alludes to the Mad Max movies.

  3. EricB says:

    nitpick: I think the LHC staff figure is exaggerated; the link says that 17,500 people “work together to push the limits of knowledge”, of which 2500 are CERN employs 2500 staff.

    (apologies if I’ve posted under another handle in the past; not sure if I’ve posted here before at all)

    • Ed Walker says:

      Yes, but the figure was meant to include all the researchers who work with the LHC, to give an idea of it’s social complexity.

  4. jaango says:

    A note or follow-up to what Frederick Janson has written up=thread. As such my dexterity for one-liners is at best nil since I very seldom post any blog than this one. As such, consider the following approach to my public discourse, especially, when I think of today’s primary selection in Iowa and the consequential results and all measured against “modernity and “post modernity.

    Challenging Iowa’s “temporary” Privilege..
    With today’s Caucus-Oriented Primary Selection of DNC’s presidential candidates, the ‘value’ of a perceived Unity that should it materialize, will be helpful to beating Trump in next November’s presidential election, may become emblematic for either of the selected candidates. Thus, the first vote will not achieve the appropriate success and therefore a second vote will be required.

    And of course, the overwhelming number of voters will be Anglo-oriented and perhaps, somewhat beneficial to these candidates since an “identity-oriented” candidate is not readily available. Consequently, the DNC’s schematic will be changing in either 2024 or 2028.

    As such, the primary contests in future presidential elections will be ‘regional’ in both context and content. As to the first primary, these four states will consist of California, Texas, Florida and New York. And perhaps, followed by the ‘second’ regional, that being the South, as well as the further allocation that is the Mid-Atlantic, the North-East, the Mid-Central, the Pacific Northwest and ultimately, the presumptive Sonoran Desert to include the states of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado.

    And why?

    Today, I have been selected, given my chauffeur-laden driver’s license, to become the driver for the Dump Truck of Demographics. So, if you look out through your home’s front window, do not be surprised that you should see this dump truck that I have parked on your front lawn.

  5. Sam Penrose says:

    Highest recommendation for David Wootton’s deeply researched books on these topics: The Invention of Science (Boyle) and Power, Pleasure, and Profit (Hobbes).

  6. Valley girl says:

    I’ll step in it and ask a simple-minded question or two. Is a match a quasi-object? Is a candle a quasi-object?

    • Ed Walker says:

      This is good question. For my purposes, I’ll just say no. These two things have been around so long that they have been completely absorbed by society. They retain natural aspects, of course, but they do not affect either society or nature in any new way. Thus, for all practical purposes, they are objects.

      As I see it, this term quasi-object refers to things that have the ability to provide new information to people, and when used, to effect changes in people and society, or to change our picture of nature.

      to put it another way, we can understand matches and candles as objects, without seeing any change in our society. They have lost their capacity to impact us other than in use.

      I’ll just add that this category is meant for empirical work, not for theorizing. And further, I might be wrong.

      • Eureka says:

        I’d call them quasi-objects; on the candles, we could go on all day. Candles are, in the corporate-pushed popular culture, sex toys (that book and movie ~ Shades of Grey — with sequels, pushed at women) and definers of women’s subservience in meta-ways (the themes of those stories) and how women’s appeal, suitability, and sexuality depend on them being game to such revisions from without (skipping men here for time’s sake, and sticking to binaries for simplicity).

        Candles in so many scents and as (still) standard gifts (especially reliable for impersonal relationships).


        • Eureka says:

          *clarify: I haven’t read/seen that series, it’s kind of a token stand-in for lots of related media aimed at women. Also maybe it’s freeing to someone who needs permission to enjoy hot, dripping wax. Which in turn reminds me of all of the wax-based spa treatments advertised these days.

          too much “etc.”

        • Eureka says:

          One more example because it’s huge in social relations (economic and interpersonal) and identity-making at multiple scales: candles* as a giant market of Koch effluence, and the made-with-beeswax movement. And besides the beeswax candles, there are all sorts of sustainably-aimed quasi-objects which have grown out of this shift, such as beeswax wraps to replace cellophane.

          *and crayons. And —–>soy-based crayons, etc. And who makes, sells, buys, and uses all of these things and how, etc. (‘etc.’ doing a lot of work today).

      • timbo says:

        Is a ‘switch’ a quasi-object? That is, because the concept of a generic ‘switch’ is abstracted beyond the actual physical nature of the thing that switches? There are railroad (track) switches in “switching yards”. There are light switches in houses. There are binary switches in computer ICs…

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