Saturday, August 02, 2003

Reading:: We Have Never Been Modern

Originally posted: Sat, 02 Aug 2003 12:25:58

We Have Never Been Modern
by Bruno Latour

Okay, a short review this evening. Latour describes postmodernism: "I have not found words ugly enough to designate this intellectual movement -- or rather, this intellectual immobility through which humans and nonhumans are left to drift. I call it 'hyper-incommensurability'" (p.61). He lets postmodernists have it with both barrels in this engaging book, saying that there is always "a hint of the ludicrous" in the postmodernists' pronouncements (p.47) and -- in the unkindest cut -- that postmodernists are more naive than modernists (p.131)! Of course, there's plenty of this to go around. "Dialectics ... feigns to overcome [the divide between nature and society] by loops amd spirals and other complex acrobatic figures" (p.55). Constructivism? Latour says it's impossible to be convinced by a constructivist argument for more than three minutes. Nobody escapes the hit list. I, of course, find this all immensely enjoyable.

This book is a mediation on modernism, what it is, how it came about, and what has happened to it. In typical fashion, Latour conceives of modernism in terms of a political arrangement -- a constitution with checks and balances that allow modernists to separate Nature and Society while surreptitiously joining them with hybrids. But that constitution is falling apart as the poles are forced farther from each other. Latour calls for a new constitution modeled on the modernist one but making up for its defects.

We have never been modern is a good read and a genuinely thought-provoking book. But, like Marc Berg (or was it Mike Lynch?), I long for the empirical work Latour did in The Pasteurization of France or Science in action.

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Monday, July 28, 2003

Reading:: Perspectives on Activity Theory

Originally posted: Mon, 28 Jul 2003 00:05:28

Perspectives on Activity Theory
by Yrjo Engestrom (Editor), Reijo Miettinen (Editor), Raija-Leena Punamaki (Editor)

Perspectives on Activity Theory is composed largely of selected papers from the Second International Congress for Research on Activity Theory in Lahti, Finland. Consequently, the papers come from all over, tackle a variety of issues, and are generally quite short. The book thus provides a broad international and interdisciplinary set of perspectives on activity theory, its applications, and its parallels with other social, cultural, historical, cognitive, and interpretive perspectives. It is not for those new to activity theory.

I don't consider myself new to activity theory, having written about it since 1996, but I found many of the essays to be tough sledding. Partly that's because so many of the essays hearken back to AT's 19th-century German philosophical roots, with which I am unfamiliar. (I'll make a stab at these soon when I read Marx's Captial Vol. 1.) So I found myself out of my depth in discussions of ideality and so forth. Another factor is the international flavor of the contributions -- not because they represented different perspectives but because so much goes unsaid that I cannot follow or evaluate some of the arguments being advanced. I don't think that this is simply because I'm a provincial American but rather because I don't have the philosophical grounding emphasized in Russia or Finland. That philosophical grounding being what it is -- again, 19th century German philosophy -- I'm not sure how much effort I want to put into it, frankly.

Nevertheless, many of the essays were both accessible and useful. Engestrom and Miettinen's introduction gives a good "big picture" view of AT. Engestrom's "Activity Theory and Individual and Social Transformation" provides a strong argument for paying attention to contributions made by the people, not just elite decision makers (perhaps a dig at ANT?) and criticizes the agency/structure, psychology/sociology distinctions that have traditionally been made in the social sciences. Lektorsky and Hayrynen separately note AT's roots in the totalitarian society of the USSR and discuss the implications that this context had for how AT handled social development and agency-structure relations. Closer to my interests, Kari Kuutti again weighs in with a strong essay that classifies various traditions of human-computer interaction, including participatory design; the essay concludes by suggesting that AT can provide a framework that allows the Information Systems community to account for both individual and organizational viewpoints. Finally, Engestrom's essay "Innovative Learning in Work Teams" discusses expansive learning and provides the barest link to ANT.

I've read this collection before, but in light of my current readings, AT comes off as a good deal more structural than before and I can see some of its drawbacks more clearly. Fascinating. If you're familiar with AT, by all means check out this collection; if you're not, go for a more introductory text such as Nardi's Context and Consciousness.

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Sunday, July 27, 2003

Reading:: Mind, Culture, and Activity 3(6), 1996

Originally posted: Sun, 27 Jul 2003 22:47:51

Mind, Culture, and Activity 3(6), 1996.

This special issue of the superlative journal Mind, Culture, and Activity isn't a book, of course. But it provides a unitary set of papers around one main issue, and as such illumnates Latour's thoughts in ways that I have found quite useful. In particular, it highlights the advantages of Latour's approach, its disadvantages, and its relations to other approaches such as activity theory.

I say "Latour's approach" here because at this point Latour is no longer referring to his work as actor-network theory. Like John Law (see previous reviews in this blog), he has made a conscious decision to transition to post-ANT thought. Whatever that means. Despite some changes -- for instance, focusing on mediation rather than translation -- what Latour describes here is certainly part of a continuous trajectory that started with his ANT and "pre-ANT" work rather than a radical break. His critics also examine his work in terms of ANT. So I'll refer to Latour's argument as "ANT" or "post-ANT" throughout with the caveat that there may be important differences that I just don't get at this juncture.

The special issue includes Latour's essay "On Interobjectivity" along with commentaries by Michael Lynch, Marc Berg, and Yrjo Engestrom, and concludes with a response by Latour. (The issue also includes an unrelated article and two book reviews; I won't concern myself with these.) Latour's essay essentially tackles the micro-macro or agency-society or actor-network distinction that has concerned him since almost the beginning of his work. He criticizes attempts to separate the two, particularly as those attempts involve divining a macro-level structure that affords a God's-eye view of social interactions. Macro-level "forces," he says, cannot control us any more than we control our mediators.

For instance, he says, consider puppeteers. "If you talk to a puppeteer, then you will find that he is perpetually surprised by his puppets. He makes the puppet do things that cannot be reduced to his action, and which he does not have the skill to do, even provisionally" (p.237; cf. Bakhtin's discussions of dialogism in Dostoyevsky). "Is this fetishism? No, it is simply a recognition that we are exceeded by what we create" (p.237). Similarly, Latour argues, no macro-level force can be said to completely control us or pull our strings. "One can only associate mediators, no one of which, ever, is exactly the cause or the consequence of its associates" (p.237).

This insight leads Latour to a couple of conclusions. One is that skill cannot be attributed to a particular actor -- a statement that, taken to the extremes that Latour takes it, is anathema to activity theory and any other theory of learning and development. (On the other hand, you can see why Latour admires Hutchins' version of distributed cognition.) Another is that it doesn't make sense to talk in terms of levels or social structures -- action, rather, is shared by dispersed actants with various ontologies. Even the action of "summing up" (for instance, creating macro-level diagrams of activity systems) is a set of localized interactions meant to shrink a macro level down to human scale through inscriptions.

The commentaries are all interesting in different ways, but I want to focus on Engestrom's because it gives a lot of insight into both scholars' views. Engestrom praises Latour's essay for its similarity to activity theory, then criticizes it for its differences. In particular, Engestrom criticizes Latour for abandoning the idea of levels, for abandoning "cognition, volition, and emotion" (in short, learning and development applied to individuals), and for not accounting for a systematic durability beyond objects. In particular, Engestrom makes the argument that he has made elsewhere, that in a capitalist market economy the primary contradiction is between use value and exchange value. In short, while praising Latour, Engestrom disagrees with nearly all of the main claims in Latour's essay.

Latour understands this immediately and highlights it in his response. "How am I supposed to deal with this matter-of-fact rendering of everything I reject in my paper? ... Surely, all the differences in scale, timing, agencies that I pointed out in my paper cannot be put on the Procrustean bed of Yrjo's 'embeddedness'!" (p.268). Latour says that he is explicitly shifting away from the Marxist notion of dead labor, the notion of "a human in command, or more exactly, laborers who are empowered again by what has been taken away from them by fetishism and naturalization" (p.267). In short, Latour disagrees with the Marxist (and more generally modernist) tack of backgrounding the world of artifacts so as to foreground human ingenuity. Again, Latour is trying to draw our attention to a symmetrical understanding of the world, one in which humans and nonhumans alike are actants. "I am not trying to naturalize or mechanize humans by turning them into what are held by objects, I try to modify as much the humans who are no longer in command as its associates who are no longer objects, nor means, nor tools" (p.267).

The dialogue is fascinating for what it tells us about ANT (or I guess post-ANT) and AT. Reading Engestrom's other work through this lens, I discover a persistent reference to social structures, to the essential contradiction between use and exchange value as sort of a foundational contradiction in Western society, and to dead labor (although not usually expressed as such). And hand in hand with those is the persistent valorization of individual humans -- something I have done myself and that I make no apologies for, since I believe it was a necessary counterweight to the prevailing managerial models of human-computer interaction against which I was arguing. Latour's argument makes me pause and want to reevaluate AT, which is so rooted in 19th-century German philosophy and so focused on individual and group development. On the other hand, it makes me suspicious of Latour's account that he uses the interconnectedness of networks as an excuse not to account for individual and group development. Surely the sorts of everyday innovations we witness are not simply to be dismissed because of their interconnectedness!

And this gets me, again, to one of the chief complaints I have with ANT. I admire the persistent critique of abstract structures and the undertaking of integrating levels of analysis. I admire Latour's willingness to praise ethnomethodology. But ethnomethodology studies second-by-second interactions (what we might call micro-level interactions) and attempts to connect them to larger trends (what we might call macro-level interactions). ANT appears to do the latter but not the former. Does ANT use the flattening of levels as an excuse not to examine the routine, moment-by-moment interactions that by its own account make up the fabric of actor-networks? If not, then where are these accounts? Until they appear, I don't see why frameworks that do account for these interactions should pull up stakes.

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