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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