Monday, June 30, 2003

Reading:: Aramis or the Love of Technology

Originally posted: Mon, 30 Jun 2003 08:32:55

Aramis or the Love of Technology
by Bruno Latour

When I first read this book, about three years ago, I agreed with many of the reviewers that it was not one of his best works. Unlike Latour's previous work, Aramis is an experimental novel based on a real research study the author conducted -- a study of a massive R&D project meant to develop a revolutionary new public transportation system. The study is recast as a sort of mystery novel told from many different viewpoints: a fictional researcher named Norbert who resembles Latour; a research assistant trained as an engineer; administrators involved in various parts of the project (through interview transcripts); and even Aramis itself, cast as a sort of Frankenstein's monster who only wants to be made real. On my first reading I was quite skeptical of the premise and the execution. Now I think it's an outstanding book.

What happened? Well, in relation to the rest of Latour's writings, the book provides an extended and enlightening illustration. Latour's major themes up to this point (symmetry and asymmetry, diffusion and translation, syntagms and paradigms, black boxes, networks, traitors, etc.) all make appearances and all are discussed clearly and simply. If you have some familiarity with them, that is. If you don't -- and I really didn't three years ago -- things get muddled very quickly.

So the book is a partial success. I assume that Latour's aims are the same that Norbert describes at the end of the book, when he talks about writing his own experimental novel based on the project:

"And I'd actually like to do a book in which there's no metalanguage, no master discourse, where you wouldn't know which is strongest, the sociological theory or the documents or the interviews or the literature or the fiction, where all the genres and regimes would be at the same level, each one interpreting the others without anybody being able to say which is judging what." (p.298)

That doesn't quite happen, of course. Readers -- or at least this reader -- believe that Norbert the sociologist has a handle on things the whole time, just like Hercule Poirot, to whom he refers frequently. We believe that at some point the researchers will discover the "hidden staircase," the surprise that makes sense of the investigation. But, as in a standard murder mystery, the fun is in trying to figure out the mystery before the protagonists do. I wasn't able to, but that's partially because I couldn't get a good grasp on what I should be looking for. Three years ago, the "hidden staircase," when it was revealed, was a disappointment. This time it was a revelation.

Aramis is also an attempt to write a book that is accessible and interesting to general readers. I don't think it succeeded in that respect. But as an illustration of actor-network theory in progress -- and as an illustration of qualitative research in general -- it is interesting and valuable.

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