Thursday, July 29, 2004

(John Fund on Trippi and Hewitt)

Originally posted: Thu, 29 Jul 2004 03:28:23

A few days ago, I reviewed Convio's white paper on Howard Dean's website. It turns out that Joe Trippi, Dean's onetime campaign manager, has written a book about the campaign's use of the Internet. So has Hugh Hewitt, a radio show host and blogger who is a bit to the right of Dean. I haven't read either book, but the Wall Street Journal's John Fund reviews them both.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Reading :: The Companion Species Manifesto

Originally posted: Tue, 27 Jul 2004 07:45:04

The Companion Species Manifesto

By Donna Haraway

If you're like me, as you examine the literature of technoscience, sometimes you pause in your office or library carrel and ask yourself questions.

Questions such as "Are there any scholarly treatises in the humanities that include lengthy descriptions of dogs engaging in oral sex?"

And after a moment's thought, you probably concluded: no, I suppose not.

Well, my friend, you would be wrong.

You would be wrong because Donna Haraway, that iconoclast, has authored another manifesto. Her Cyborg Manifesto was a brilliantly iconoclastic piece of work in which Haraway ruthlessly interrogated allies as well as enemies, relentlessly probing Marxists, feminists, and socialists as well as taking shots at capitalists, paternalists, and the Right. That manifesto presented a figure or trope that could be used to describe the mixed, intertwined, inseparable relationships among people, nature, and technology.

Haraway takes up this agenda again in The Companion Species Manifesto, a slim pamphlet published by Prickly Paradigm Press. Here, she turns away from the figure of the cyborg to that of the dog, using this new feature to address the issue of "natureculture" discussed in more depth by Latour in his latest book. The dog, she concludes, is the right figure for this: they aren't "furry children," they're actually companions and partners with their own talents, agendas, and places in the family. Dogs become part of vital natural-cultural ecosystems, no more and no less important than human beings.

Well, now you don't have to read the pamphlet. In fact, I can't recommend it. Like Haraway's last book, it's terrifically self-indulgent in style, pacing, and subject. I tired quickly of the uninspired wordplay, with words like "dogmatic" and phrases like "going to the dogs" repeated too often to seem clever. And like Latour's entry in this series, the argument is edited with a light hand, so it tends to be undisciplined and flabby. If you want the sense of the argument without the flab, take a look at Haraway's chapter in Chasing Technoscience.

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Monday, July 26, 2004

Reading:: The Discourses

Originally posted: Mon, 26 Jul 2004 19:14:11

The Discourses

By Niccolo Machiavelli

Machiavelli, as I've noted earlier in this blog, is a major inspiration for actor-network theorists. Latour cites him in his earlier works, and Callon, Law, and Rip make him the central figure in their introduction. This has led critics to accuse ANT of double dealing, of claiming that power is distributed while positing Machiavellian princes who actually control the political landscape. That criticism is suspect even when reading The Prince, and dissolves when considering Machiavelli's text on the workings of republics, The Discourses.

The Discourses are, in fact, discourses on how republics work, just as The Prince provides a discourse on how principates work. Machiavelli underpins his discussion of republics with Titus Livy's history of Rome, his ideal republic. By closely reading Livy, Machiavelli develops a set of principles that he argues govern republics; he confirms his principles by testing them with recent and contemporary events. It's evident that Machiavelli relishes this work, partially because he believes republics to be superior to principates. At several places, he argues that even though the populance often chooses leaders by gossip, reputation, and prejudice (p.496), nevertheless the populance makes fewer mistakes than do princes (p.500). The populance is more reliable than are princes (pp. 252-257). Freedom results in better conditions across the board (p.280). Defenses should be distributed rather than centralized, the populance should be armed (p.359). Contrary to popular opinion, Machiavelli evidently believed that one can distribute decision making and power and come up with a better republic.

The key, of course, is that we are talking about republics here. Machiavelli argues early on that republics, aristocracies, and tyrannies tend to follow each other in an inevitable cycle. The Prince gives us "best practices" in a tyranny, while The Discourses gives us "best practices" in a republic. Nevertheless, many of these "best practices" are the same. And, I think, Machiavelli's response to the charge leveled against ANT would be that, yes, there are great men and women who have disproportionate impact on a society -- but their impact is in how they are able to coordinate and persuade others, not in their will alone. Machiavelli talks quite a bit, for instance, about how a good general leads by drill, preparation, and example before the battle so that the army can take care of itself during the battle (pp.491-492).

Let's discuss Machiavelli's investigation for a moment. After reading this book, I was better able to understand why Callon, Law, and Rip praised Machiavelli as an ethnographer (of sorts) who did not let anything get in the way of his investigation. Machiavelli plainly admires Livy, but is free in disagreeing with Livy when the evidence supports a different interpretation. Similarly, he clearly despises particular actions, but still tells us how the actions are accomplished and what "best practices" underpin even them. He generally does not hold with conspiracies, for instance, and says that they almost always fail, but then he carefully discusses how they might succeed (pp. 398-432). By being able to become detached enough to analyze, Machiavelli produces a generally clear-eyed and measured analysis of the principles he's laid out. It's worth examining in methodological terms, and it's worth remembering as we continue to read the ANT work drawing from Machiavelli.

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