When scientists began to explore the invisible world of the very small, they tried to apply metaphors from the macro world of  sensory observable objects and events, persons and relationships to the micro world.  Evidence for the micro world occur as visible “readings” on macro instruments where within is a sample of material assumed to contain systems in the micro world (atoms, elementary particles, etc.).  Data tables and graphs are the real empirical content of science. All the rest is conceptual and hypothetical.

A set of anomalous findings in the late 19th century came to a head at the start of the 20th century. Physicists knew that the old order wasn’t right, but they were challenged by mystery.  New patterns in data cries for theoretical forms to fit. Neils Bohr proposed the atom be like a micro solar system with a central nucleus orbited by spinning electrons. For more than two decades they played with equations for a modified solar system atom that could generate observables (on the instruments) to fit the data. Although they continued to make discoveries (new data), no theoretical model for the Bohr atom worked. Slowly they consciously realized that the solar system metaphor wouldn’t work and eventually they deliberately abandoned it.  The Bohr atom was a phantom.  The resulting model in Quantum Physics for the atom was nothing more than a calculating process (somewhere in the instrument). Plug initial condition data into the new equations (by Heisenberg and Schroedinger, two different models that it took a while to prove their mathematical equivalence) and out pops numbers that matched the observables from the instrument. Even though in their practice, physicists have abandoned the use of visualization to model the micro world, education still starts with the phantom of the solar system like atom.

We can transfer this same logic to our attempts to comprehend our societal worlds, patterned activity in groupings of many persons spread out in time and space where we can never actually observe them.  For example, we never actually observe the city we live in.  We observe only what we can observe: buildings, streets, rivers, people, etc. – but never the whole city (which would involve looking into all the rooms or spaces simultaneously). Viewing the city of Tucson from Windy Point on Mt. Lemmon is not observing the city; it is only a view of the city from a distance.  The picture at the top of my blog is this scene (photo taken by Glistening Deepwater): . The whole of Tucson is a conceptual hypothesis.  The subsystems (energy sources, transportation, infrastructure, governance, industry, etc.) can each be observed in detail, but never as whole subsystems.

Societal entities (such as cities and governments and economies) never seem to work together as we imagine they should in our conceptual hypotheses.  Different persons act according to their interpretations of what were their limited observations; but nothing ever seems to go as intended.  We blame each other and our misinterpretation of societal reality (free markets vs socialism).  Yet, why don’t we learn – we repeat again and again and again what has failed in the past (but we tell ourselves the failures were due to stupidity or enemies).

What if societal reality was not as our metaphorical societal systems and subsystems were imagined.  What if, like in the micro world and the Bohr atom, societal reality had its own laws, maybe different from those governing persons and social systems (real groupings of persons in real interaction)? These speculations are probably beyond what Latour intends; but his exploration of phantoms (not a topic of either lectures or essays) resonates with my reasoning stated above. What follows are my speculations of what Latour implies about the “nature” of his phantoms.


One type of phantom is a “complexity of processes and things” given a label. This label takes on “life” as metaphor from our ordinary reality of perceived objects and events, becoming a higher-level entity in a mythological world we confuse with reality.  What happens when we conceptualize on the phantom as a system, with components and subsystems?  What happens may differ for different phantoms.

Consider the phantom called organization and more specifically THE Governmental network of the USA, from Federal to Local.  We can find or construct organizational charts explicating the echelon hierarchy of subsystems and components (roles occupied by persons).  Usually these also become phantoms masking the real patterns of interactions among persons; substituted by a description of the (phantom) functions of the roles.

Consider a more concrete example: the US Congress in 2013.  The media shows us snapshots congress-persons and senators supposedly debating and voting on legislation.  If we were to follow anyone of them for a week or two, or sit in a chamber and watch the goings on, we would begin to wonder if our phantom system had any match to the complexities observed.

Listening to pundits we will learn how the two parties are aggressively partisan, the GOP declaring all out obstructionism to anything Obama proposes for Democratic support.  As phantoms following phantom rules, this is a poor showing of democratic process – but within the stable phantom of Democratic USA.  An analysis of the actual activity may suggest a different interpretation: a coup in process with the procedures and rules being hacked by forces outside the system.  It is said that corporations and the banks have taken over, bought the votes of elected officials and manipulated the electoral process. But, in our mythological world, corporations and banks are also phantoms and have similar breakdown into phantom system of subsystems and components.  We generalize this to societies, themselves phantoms within phantoms within phantoms.

We can do exercises applying the same analysis to other organizations: educational systems, schools & universities; religions and churches; worker professions; public services such as fire and police; medical system and hospitals; agricultural systems and farms; supply chains; the military and bases; law firms and courts; retailers and consumers; intelligence & covert op agencies; transportation system and vehicles; families and children, scientific research centers & scientists, etc.  Each is a phantom system with phantom subsystems and phantom components – viewed together as a vast board game, a phantom world to which we lazily ascribe reality.  But, each can be scientifically studied to reveal a scope and complexity well beyond that of the phantom analysis. Many primary patterns in the scientific study would not find corresponding patterns in the phantom analysis. For example, scientific analysis would discover a major network of “conspiratorial gangs” (groups of persons acting together in ways counter to rules and in secrecy).  We would discover shadow or underground economies. We could discover that every persons is far more complex that their phantom appears.

It is evident that it is “natural” that we intuit our world as a vast complex of real entities which “actually” are phantoms.  It is “natural” to use metaphors from the familiar to assist in comprehending what we can’t directly observe – although we go around talking as if we can and do observe them.  I wonder if those with visual imagery (which I lack) can actually visualize phantoms as real entities. Our languages evolve for discourse about phantom worlds. Viewing our Crisis-of-Crises as threatening our phantom world we cannot find solutions, and we also can’t discover the many opportunities available to us (hidden by phantoms).

I speculate that a new mix of our multi-media, digital technologies can provide platforms for our working directly with the basic reality of networked human relationships and the observable sysnet of semiotic structures (text and video) and move away from playing in phantom worlds.  How to bring this about is our current challenge. We should not initially attempt to design an educating/organizing system/process for everyone, at the start. It will be enough to develop a viable program for contemporary “activists”.


While thinking of phantoms when riding in the KIA I imagined the possibility that super-heroes may be a form of phantom – and how media personalities, including politicians, may also be phantoms.  A live exploration follows.

I read my comic books in my youth, but have not really followed superheroes in any depth since.  I think Ironman-1 was the only video of superheroes I have viewed in a decade – along with some of the Batman videos.  However, I can’t avoid news of and video previews of movies and tv programs.  These I will call “Extreme” Superheroes, and their enemies, Super-villains, often associated with a Super-evil organization.  Many novels also feature this theme, and some of my mystery novels are beginning to feature persons with extreme abilities. More and more narratives are populated with humans who could not really exist.

In what sense can we view these superheroes as phantoms? Above we speculated how phantom organizations are populated  by phantom persons who play phantom games which are supposed to be simple representative of the real games played by real persons in real organizations. Superheroes vs Supervilains is but a fantasy fictional extension of this process.  Superheroes are not new and their current Extreme form may only the result of technological amplification and not an indication of a new need for superheroes.  On the other hand? Some superhero narratives can be accurate caricatures of real persons and organizations – mostly the villains.

Many persons are aware of their powerlessness in the face of oppressive systems, often with visible oppressors. Superheroes provide an imaginative narrative as how a single person can have great agency against great odds and can win.  It would be interesting psychological research to explore physiological and behavior changes in persons while and shortly after reading/viewing superhero narratives.  A study of authors of superhero books or films may also reveal useful info.

To what extent do some persons experience the media play of politicians, businessmen, CIA agents, generals, etc. as a variation on superehero and supervillain? Some may view everyday drama on TV as special persons playing in ways superheroes play.  Suppress the “super” and we may be left with a phenomenon common to everyone’s take on activities they learn about only via the expanded media – where phantoms are known to reside.

Author: nuet

01/24/1935. BS-physics RPI 1956; MS-physics UofChicago 1958; PhD-physics Yale 1965; PhD-Edu Psy Uof MInnesota 1970. Auroral Research Byrd Station, Antarctica 11/1960-02/1962. MINNEMAST curriculum dev 1964-68. Woodstock. faculty Pima Community College, Tucson 1974-1997. Transdisciplinary scientist, philosopher, educator, futurist, activist. PC user since 1982. "Wife". daughter, 2 grandsons. 5 dogs & 7 cats. Lacks mental imagery in all sensory domains.