Friday, June 13, 2003

Reading:: Aircraft Stories

Originally posted: Fri, 13 Jun 2003 08:02:23

Aircraft Stories: Decentering the Object in Technoscience
by John Law

"Absence/presence, the absence of materiality that is also a presence -- no doubt that is what those who write actor-network studies intend when they talk of 'translation' and 'chains of translation'" (p.98). What a great sentence to encapsulate so many things that are wrong with this book. "No doubt" indeed. Actor-network theory is most strongly associated with a very few names, including Michel Callon, Bruno Latour ... and John Law. So why the artful hesitance and distancing between the author and ANT?

I suppose the author could say that he has begun to distance himself from ANT, at least as it has emerged lately as a strong program (see my review of After Actor Network Theory, ed. John Law). Certainly this book reflects a shift away from ANT, and particularly the things that attract me to it: the focus on materiality, the pragmatism. But in other places the author is quite happy to draw from ANT and particularly his previous work in it. This feigned (that's how I read it) distancing is characteristic of the book, which has attempted to take on a postmodern aesthetic -- stops and starts, hesitations, the performance of reflexivity. It's tiresome because the author clearly has strong ideas about his subject. The performance, in other words, is poor. Let's not kid ourselves, academic writing is performed, and what I admire so much about Latour's style is that he can perform an outburst so admirably while clearly making a well thought out argument. Law's writing style, in comparison, is overprocessed and overproduced in the same way that an N*Sync album is. It's tiresome.

Not that there isn't some worthwhile stuff in here. Law starts with a reflection on the role of personal writing and performance that is quite interesting. His use of Deleuze and Guattari (who I'll have to read soon) begins to make sense through the case. And the approach of examining an empirical study through slices -- although flubbed here in my opinion, making the book incoherent rather than "fractionally coherent" -- has some promise.

But then on the other hand, Law's project is doomed from the start. His project "is about modernism and its child, postmodernism -- and about how we might think past the limits that these set to our ways of thinking" (p.1). Great, sounds like what Latour was doing in his last two books. But rather than abandon the distinction as an artifact of Cartesianism, Law proposes that we oscillate between modernism and postmodernism. So we enter a bipolar world in which we are supposed to enjoy and explore tensions between mo and pomo, presence and absence, ideal and material, grand narratives and little narratives, and other dichotomies.

Speaking of grand and little narratives, it pained me that Law rejects grand narratives as explanations, then turns around and imputes a grand narrative in his review of a brochure. Law indulges himself in a vaguely Lacanian analysis of the figures in the brochure, arguing for instance that a sketch of an aircraft in a meadow is meant to invoke a range of tropes:

So it is that we see a surround of soft meadows, trees, and bushes. For by drawing a gentle landscape it becomes a place of rest and nurture, with all the tropes that this carries. For instance, there is husbandry. What is it, one might ask, that grows in this particular garden? What fruits does it bear? Is it dragons' teeth? For what grows is a weapon, a weapon of war or, more abstractly, a potential, a potential for action. Thus the aircraft is something that grows, grows quietly in potential and (it is understood) its quiescence is merely a stage, a moment -- as will be revealed when it leaves the garden and that potential is unleashed. (p.139)
Law abandons the pragmatic approach of ANT (remember earlier essays in which, for instance, Latour argued that power could only be seen as a consequence rather than a motivator?) for this sort of semiotic exploration without any sort of coordinating evidence such as readers' reactions or artists' interviews. This trick of reading a text and stating authoritatively what it means -- didn't we leave this when we left grand narratives? No, because it's a good trick, one that we can use to render living human beings into fixed objects of study. This is what they really meant. And the thing about this trick is that you can use it even if your objects of study resist and protest. They didn't realize this is what they meant, because it's all subconscious. The people who produced the text are through this trick rendered incapable of interpreting or evaluating it. They're no longer competent readers; the meaning of the text is now fixed by the academic rather than determined by the chain of interactions among actants. How disrespectful and pointless this trick is! And how dishonest for Law to resort to this trick -- which amounts to a grand narrative, an arborescence -- while questioning such narratives and promoting little narratives or rhizomes.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Reading:: A Sociology of monsters

Originally posted: Wed, 11 Jun 2003 00:36:00

A Sociology of monsters : essays on power, technology, and domination
John Law (Editor)

Too bad this book is out of print. Even though I'm a little tired of discussions of "power," this collection is really interesting and full of useful essays. In particular, I was taken with Steve Woolgar's investigation of usability trials -- an excellent essay to have your usability class read, as it calls into question some of the notions that underpin the realism of usability labs. Woolgar is amused by how large a role coffee seems to play in the usability trials he studied. Beyond that, he asks what the boundaries of an object are, and gives an answer that is a little more complex and satisfying than "they're just social."

Latour's classic "Technology is Society Made Durable" uses examples such as hotel keys to argue that we have to see technology and society in terms of the associative chains built among actants -- chains that are often (always?) forged through rhetoric. What is an actant? An actant, he says, is a list of answers to trials. Here's another answer to the question Woolgar poses: through successive trials, the actant becomes known and distinguished from other actants.

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Reading:: Power, Action, and Belief

Originally posted: Wed, 11 Jun 2003 00:27:51

Power, Action, and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge?
by John Law (Editor)

It might be cheating to count this as a book since I only read three of the essays: Michel Callon's classic study of scallops and fishermen, John Law's (again) classic study of Portuguese navigation, and Bruno Latour's good-but-probably-not-a-classic essay on the nature of power. All three were well worth it in terms of understanding actor-network theory, but all three implicitly pointed out some of the problems as well.

Take Callon's study. It's a great way to illustrate the notion of translation, the notion of treason, and the principle of symmetry. I was particularly interested in how he uses symmetry to show how the fishermen were enlisted and translated just as the scallops were, and how both groups of entities had to be kept in line. Fishermen and scallops both vote; they both become unruly and betray the researchers. Great. On the other hand, I thought Callon went too far (or not far enough) to make his points. How is it that the fishermen and scallops are construed as being kept in line and as betraying the researchers, and not the other way around? Despite the principle of asymmetry, it seemed to me that Callon had made the researchers into tragic heroes, Machiavellian (and not in the positive sense).

Law's study was very nice, and it's no wonder that it was cited approvingly by Edwin Hutchins in his 1995 book on distributed cognition and ship navigation. Law convincingly argues that the Portuguese achieved naval dominance in part by "the creation of an environment within which vessels might operate with integrity" through new practices and artifacts, resulting in the projection of long-distance control. Although Law doesn't invoke Taylorism here, some of the practices he describes can be seen as its precursors. Fascinating stuff, and a nice point to move from ANT to distributed cognition if you're interested in doing so.

Latour's essay argues that power is not a possession, but a consequence, and that we should begin to see the enactment of power as translation rather than diffusion. One person does not possess more power than another, at least not in any empirical sense, but one person might be able to find ways to align her interest with others, to translate their interests so that they must take a detour and fulfill her goals. This notion of power is democratic (no surprise there) and materialist. Latour goes on to say that society itself is also the result of material tasks. We can see here where Latour wants to part company with folks like activity theorists, who want to use diagrams to construct overall pictures of cultures and activities. Rather, Latour believes that those pictures don't exist, since culture and activity are abstractions or stories that are made up after the fact. In his later work, Latour picks up the notion of rhizomes, as does John Law (whose book I'm working on right now).

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Monday, June 09, 2003

Reading:: The Myth of the Paperless Office

Originally posted: Mon, 09 Jun 2003 10:24:15

The Myth of the Paperless Office
by Abigail J. Sellen (Author), Richard H. R. Harper (Author)

The Myth of the Paperless Office should be an interesting, exciting book, especially for folks like myself who are interested in workplace communication, writing, unofficial texts, and technology. It discusses how paper has been thoroughly integrated into modern workplaces; takes steps toward designing round paper; and offers lots of case studies.

But I found myself skimming through the book. I read through it very quickly, over two evenings, not because I found it to be terribly interesting but because I skimmed so much. Although important work is done in the book, and I'm positive I'll be citing it, there are not many surprises. Does anyone who has studied workplace writing find it to be surprising that workers juxtapose documents, annotate while they're reading, and use paper documents spatially? Similarly, Sellen and Harper's endless taxonomies are useful but wear quickly on me.

(Maybe it was a mistake to read this book right after Latour.)

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Sunday, June 08, 2003

Reading:: Actor Network Theory and After

Originally posted: Sun, 08 Jun 2003 09:37:35

Actor Network Theory and After
by John Law (Editor), John Hassard (Editor)

In his contribution to the collection, Bruno Latour tells us that there are only four things wrong with the name "actor-network theory": the words "actor," "network," "theory," and the hyphen. He argues that it really should be called something like "actant-rhizome ontology."

Well, that should give you an idea of how the book is. Many of the essays, including Law's contributions, argue that actor-network theory is in the process of being reified as a Theory (with a capital T, like Truth) and a Method, when it was meant precisely as a challenge to Theories and Methods. Law in particular wants ANT to resist this tendency to be turned into Theory.

I don't have the book with me right now, so I won't try to trace through Law's and the others' arguments. I will say, though, that the book gives a lot of insight into what ANT is, how it's been applied, and how some of its earliest developers would like to see us proceed. And if memory serves, it has a nifty glossary.

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Reading:: Science in Action

Originally posted: Sun, 08 Jun 2003 09:02:53

Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society
by Bruno Latour

Well, of course this book is a classic. I had forgotten how good it was. A few things that struck me on this reading:

First, Latour's unique and remarkable writing style has begun to emerge here. It was present in the earlier Latour and Woolgar, but very subdued. It gets stronger here and is in full flower in Pandora's Hope and We Have Never Been Modern. Yes, I think this is very important. As Latour points out in this book, most academic articles go unread or at most glanced at; it is as if they never existed. His style helps his work to be noticed and read, although of course there's much more to his work than his style (see below). Compare it to another book I'm currently reading, Sellen and Harper's The Myth of the Paperless Office (review coming soon) and you'll see what I mean -- it's not that Sellen and Harper's insights are shallower or less useful, it's just that their mild academic style, endless taxonomies, and run-of-the-mill examples make their text a bit hard to get through. I'm not racing through that book or feeling inspired as I do with Latour's works. So I'm very interested in Latour's style and particularly in learning how to make my own style more interesting.

Second, Latour has some interesting thoughts about rhetoric and its importance. Rhetoric is not simply assembling a large number of allies, but allies in the most advantageous way and in transformative ways. Even here in his earlier work he's connecting rhetoric and democracy in smart ways. Pandora's Hope develops this thought further. (Another thought: In PH, I think Callon stands in for the figure of Machiavelli and turns out to be a nice way for Latour to defend himself against the charges of Machiavellism that are sometimes leveled against him. Some of those charges came from hasty readings of Science in Action. Reading the two books in reverse chronological order makes it easier to evaluate those charges.)

Third, and probably the most interesting to me at this point, Latour proposes a "moratorium on cognitive explanations of science and technology" -- a rejection of the idea that special cognitive abilities are a necessary explanation for how technoscience works. Well, there it is. Distributed cognition takes a similar tack, of course. But I wonder if perhaps this point has something to do with why Latour is so blithe about the macro-micro distinction. If he abandons the cognitive as a useful and meaningful explanation, it's much more interesting to watch texts and artifacts change hands than to scrutinize micro-level interactions! Compare that with Hutchins (1995), where he agrees that special cognitive abilities aren't needed but still thinks the cognitive is vitally important. Hutchins examines macro and micro levels with appropriate methods and tries to integrate them; Latour really doesn't, I think.

Anyway, a great book.

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Reading:: Laboratory Life

Originally posted: Sun, 08 Jun 2003 09:26:19

Laboratory Life

by Bruno Latour, Steve Woolgar

I read most of this book when standing in line for tickets to The Matrix: Reloaded on opening night. My wife is ultra-line competitive and sent me to stand in line two hours early. Well, it worked -- I was first in line for the 9:30 showing. Plenty of people were there for the 9:00 showing, pretty much the folks you would expect. One young woman was wearing an authentic Trinity outfit that she probably bought from a bondage shop. So you can see why I bore down and read the book rather than make chitchat with the other people in line.

I keep talking about style in Latour's work, and in that sense this book is highly interesting because its style is almost conventional. That undoubtedly has to do something with the fact that it's Latour's first book and the fact that it was coauthored with Woolgar. Still, it's compelling partially because it is so audacious.

It also uses the term "social constructionism," a term that Latour rejects later because it has become associated with postmodernism. Latour is not postmodernist but amodernist -- that is, he sees us as continually interacting with each other and the world, collaboratively constructing selves, societies, facts, sciences, etc. in a web of interpretation. Yes, that sounds postmodernist. But he also brings in the principle of symmetry, that is, the point that nonhumans are actors just as much as humans are. In other words, we are not autonomous minds simply constructing reality -- or even society -- out of the yarns we spin. Our stories recruit other actors, including nonhuman actors, and those actors sometimes resist, disrupt, or commandeer our stories. For instance, it's not enough for Pasteur to tell a story about microbes to make them a reality -- the microbes must be compelled to take part in the story by, for instance, causing unsterilized material to forment while leaving sterilized material untouched. If they are unruly, if they are unconvinced by Pasteur's story, then Pasteur's story doesn't convince anyone else either.

Speaking of microbes as being "convinced" or "compelled" seems to lend them human qualities that they do not have. But Latour's aim is to use the same vocabulary for humans and nonhumans in order to call into question the deep assumptions we have about the divide between mind and reality, politics and science, etc. In other words, Latour is a monist. And he sounds very much like other monists here and especially in Science in Action, where his account of children learning language sounds a lot like externalists such as Thomas Kent or Donald Davidson. Similarly, his account of networks of humans and nonhumans, and his symmetrical treatment of them, sounds a lot like distributed cognitionists such as Edwin Hutchins and (to an extent) Donald Norman. When you read Latour, keep in mind the notion of monism and he sounds much less outrageous. It makes sense that he affirms his belief in reality, as he does in Pandora's Hope.

In any case, this book is a strong account of how a lab works, and I especially like the account of inscriptions making successive transformations as they circulate through the lab.

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