Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Reading :: Aramis or the Love of Technology (supplemental notes)

Originally posted: Wed, 13 Apr 2005 00:37:20

Aramis or the Love of Technology

by Bruno Latour

I reviewed Aramis earlier, but since I have just finished rereading it along with my grad students, the time seems opportune for some follow-up observations.

First, I think Aramis can be read as a treatise on research methodology: much of it is about how qualitative researchers conduct their research, how they represent their participants, and what it means to "do research." Latour's comparison of traditional and relational sociology in particular cuts to some really interesting divisions with broad methodological repercussions.

Second -- and this is in conjunction with some other readings I've been doing recently -- Latour's text has to be carefully parsed when we read his declarations about power relationships and alliances. One of my grad students declared halfway through the book that Latour was really talking about manipulation: the many actors attempt to enact their programs by convincing others to do their will. But I tend to think that manipulation entails negotiations in which one party makes all the compromises -- and I don't think that happens in Aramis. All parties find themselves compromising, yet in the end, none of them compromise enough to save the project. And this leads us to the often-leveled accusation that Latour and other actor-network theorists are Machiavellian. There is some basis to these accusations, so it's surprising to find Latour's characters accusing each other of being Machiavellian (as if it were a bad thing) and Latour's protagonist dismissing such charges. Parse the book carefully, though, and you'll see that Latour is denouncing the caricature of Machiavelli, the amoral opportunist and manipulator; his methodology is still grounded in the historical Machiavelli, the pragmatic observer who constantly examines, tests, and forges alliances through open and covert negotiations. Latour gives us what I take to be sly, uncited references to that Machiavelli. For instance, Latour's protagonist says:

"That's exactly why military types have learned to draw up strategies and hierarchies, why they've invented uniforms and epaulets, why they've created the maps, why Gribeauval perfected the general staff, why military orchestras were signed up quite purposefully -- precisely so that a strategy could become possible no matter what." (p.177)

The topic is one that Machiavelli takes up in The Art of War.

Other points also surface on my third reading of this book. For instance, I have noted that Latour ends up blaming everyone -- even himself -- for Aramis' "death." So how do we interpret this passage from halfway through the book? "An accusation that's so watered down it blames the whole wide world is even more futile than one that picks a scapegoat" (p.198). I suppose Latour is contrasting the blame of everyone involved in the project (the network) with the blame of culture or society.

On the next page, Latour contrasts classical and relativist (relationist) sociology. Classical sociology presumes a social structure that functions as an explanatory device; it "can comment on what the patients say because it possesses metalanguage, while they have only language" (p.199). But his relationist sociology doesn't use this explanatory device: it "has no fixed reference frames, and consequently no metalanguage. It expects the actors to understand what they are and what it is" (p.200). Again, this relativist sociology should sound familiar. Here's a quote from Machiavelli's The Prince to drive things home:

But since my intention is to say something that will prove of practical use to the inquirer, I have thought it proper to represent things as they are in real truth, rather than as they are imagined. Many have dreamed up republics and principalities which have never in truth been known to exist; the gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done moves toward self-destruction rather than self-preservation. (p.50)

Is it a coincidence that the social structure described in Latour's quote sounds a lot like an activity system? Or that activity systems have been notoriously hard to nail down, as some have recently discussed?

In the end, I was glad to take another crack at this book. It doesn't read as well as a novel, but it does represent an audacious piece of work.

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