Monday, May 17, 2004

Reading:: The Prince

Originally posted: Mon, 17 May 2004 19:00:07

The Prince

by Niccolo Machiavelli, David Wootton (Editor)

Whenever anyone wants to criticize actor-network theory in general or Latour in particular, the most popular line of attack is to call the theory and the theorist Machiavellian. After all, the foundational work on ANT in the late 1970s and early 1980s drew explicitly from Machiavelli to provide a political-rhetorical account of science, an endeavor that had typically been seen as neither political nor rhetorical. Callon, Law, and Rip, for instance, praise Machiavelli in their 1983 collection Mapping the Dynamics of Science and Technology as a sensible ethnographer who recorded what was rather than what should be.

The charge has stuck, partially because early ANT work has tended to foreground the political-rhetorical expertise of individuals (such as Louis Pasteur in The Pasteurization of France) and partially because, as Latour notes in Science in Action, rhetoric is a despised discipline. Activity theorists have been quick to pick up on the accusation. For instance, Reijo Miettinen claims that the early focus on Machiavellian princes works against the principle of symmetry, while Engestrom et al., Engestrom & Escalante, and Nardi et al. all point to Machiavellian princes and their manipulations in their critiques.

But if you actually read Machiavelli's The Prince, his most famous work and the one to which critics most frequently allude, you'll find that the picture is more mixed. Despite what his critics have said, Machiavelli is not amoral, nor does he focus exclusively on retaining power through manipulation. Rather, Machiavelli recognizes that leaders, citizens, and countries continually form alliances and find ways to advance their own interests -- princes or not -- and the book aims to provide insights and instruction useful for surviving in such a variable and treacherous environment. The point is not to manipulate and betray, it is to find settlements that will satisfy the greatest number of stakeholders and provide the most durable networks.

In that sense, later ANT work -- particularly Latour's -- is if anything more Machiavellian than the earlier work! The original references to Machiavelli may have been dropped -- a politic decision -- but the concern with settlements, stakeholders, and durability continue, as does the impulse to portray things the way they are rather than the way they should be (p.48).

Interestingly, Machiavelli points to a methodological problem faced by actor-network studies and descriptive studies in general. As David Wootton points out in the introduction, Machiavelli attempts to write a how-to, a set of guidelines that distill his experience and insights into prescriptions. But time and again Machiavelli admits that decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis. The calculations are too complicated, the knowledge is too tacit. Machiavelli rarely succeeds in moving easily and unambiguously from description to prescription. The same can be said of ethnography.

The Prince deals primarily with lands accustomed to dictatorial or monarchal rule. I understand that his Discourses deal with his preferred governmental system, the republic. Perhaps I'll read them next.

Blogged with Flock