Monday, April 10, 2006

Reading :: Reassembling the Social

Originally posted: Mon, 10 Apr 2006 20:40:04

Reassembling the Social : An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory

by Bruno Latour

To understand Latour's latest book, the key passage is a footnote on p.207 referring to a discussion in which he uses the Internet as a metaphor, he says:

I often find that my reader would complain a lot less about my writings if they could download ANT version 6.5 instead of sticking with the beta.

So is he saying that the work he has done over the last 30 years has evolved and matured? Yes -- but he implies repeatedly that the changes have mostly been in its presentation. ANT 6.5 has an updated interface -- Latour has dropped some terms and replaced or rearticulated others -- but he spends a lot of time arguing that the underlying protocol hasn't changed at all. In his discussions of networks (p.129), symmetry (p.76), and social construction (p.92), among many others, the story is the same: we used this term, poor as it was, to mean x; others thought we meant y; so we'll either change the term for those thick people or we'll stick with it and explain it just one more time

This is a story we might have read in Science in Action or Aramis. In Science in Action, scientists maintained apparent coherence in their research projects through a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes coordination that continually constructed, changed, and strengthened their experiments. In Aramis, engineers made several changes to a public transportation system, but ultimately the project's definition never changed, vital compromises were never struck, and the enterprise died.

So which is Reassembling the Social? A work that brings coherence to ANT by developing and reconciling it, even though Latour frames the work as consistent? Or is it a bullheaded attempt to simply say the same thing again, in different terms, hoping that this time people will understand?

I'm inclined to believe it's the former. Latour has provided a lot of review here, but he has genuinely addressed issues such as multiplicity, and he has also started to discuss new concepts such as plasma, "that which is not yet formatted, not yet measured, not yet socialized, not yet engaged in metrological chains, and not yet covered, submerged, mobilized, or subjectified" (p.244). That is, the reality, the "missing masses" that are not (yet) associated in a given actor-network.

Latour is also more inclined to pay respect to his opponents -- although only after characteristically sharp and often hyperbolic attacks.

One example is how he portrays conventional sociology (a theme familiar to readers of Aramis). He says that it ignores its informants' explanations and instead posits invisible, unverifiable "social forces" that supposedly pulls the strings -- even if, especially if the informants disagree with this notion. "This is conspiracy theory, not social theory," Latour says sharply -- and sensibly (p.53). And Latour, who has been frequently attacked for anthropomorphising nonhumans, turns the tables by pointing out how sociologists have used figurations in constructing sociological explanations, rather than attributing phenomena to people:

To endow an agency with anonymity gives it exactly as much a figure as when it's endowed with a name, a nose, a voice, a face. It's just making it ideo- instead of anthropo-morphic. Statistical aggregates obtained from a questionnaire and given a label -- like A and B types in the search for heart disease -- are as concrete as 'my red-faced sanguine neighbor who died last Saturday from a stroke while planting his turnips because he ate too much fat'. To say 'culture forbids having kids out of wedlock'' requires, in terms of figuration, exactly as much work as saying 'my future mother-in-law wants me to marry her daughter'. To be sure the first figuration (anonymous) is different from the second one (my mother-in-law), but they both give a figure, a form, a cloth, a flesh to an agency forbidding me or forcing me to do things. (pp.53-54)

He even says that if such social forces actually existed, politics would not be possible (p.250). Latour gave up on such "social forces" and figurations long ago, and he tells us his road-to-Damascus story:

After a week in Roger Guillemin's laboratory thirty years ago, I remember how inescapable I found the conclusion: the social cannot be substituted for the tiniest peptide, the smallest rock, the most innocuous electron, the tamest baboon. Objects of science may explain the social, not the other way around. No experience was more striking than what I saw with my own eyes: the social explanation had vanished into thin air. (p.99)

But - after this ringing condemnation, Latour admits that we must pay respect to formal sociology, for it has its place, albeit a specific place that comes only after the work of association and composition at which ANT excels (p.227). Latour even works up some respect for studies of cognition (p.209 fn 279).

So this book mends fences, Latour style. Latour's aim here is to redefine sociology as the tracing of associations (p.5), and to rehabilitate ANT as a sort of "laboratory" whose experiments can fail:

Would you qualify as 'scientific' a discipline that puts to one side the precise information offered by fieldwork and replaces it by instances of other things that are invisible and those things people have not said and have vocally denied?


ANT is "experimental metaphysics" (p.51). (And, yes, after repudiating the name "actor-network theory" a few years ago, Latour is again embracing it -- see p.9). So what does this experimental metaphysics look like? Latour likens it to drawing a coastline, bit by bit, based on many reported points (p.24).

Latour urges us to study controversies, since these tend to expose productive differences. (cf. Activity theory's contradictions.) He also sideswipes dialectics again (p.169), making a bit of a clearer case than he has earlier. Or is that just me?


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