Sunday, May 02, 2004

Reading:: Complexities

Originally posted: Sun, 02 May 2004 02:52:24

Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices

by John Law (Editor), Annemarie Mol (Editor)

Here's another useful book full of studies of knowledge. Mol and Law, you will remember, are currently in a "post-actor-network-theory" stage. Suitably, most of the essays in this book draw only glancingly from ANT in a direct sense, but underneath, almost all are heavily in debt to it. Here you'll find elephants, roads, aircraft, atherosclerosis, and other phenomena talked about in really interesting ways that highlight the construction of knowledge among multiple heterogeneous stakeholders. Some of these are really interesting and inventive. For instance, Andrew Barry examines how the EU works hard to maintain and extend its networks despite its status of relative powerlessness; Laurent Thevenot examines how roads are not only constructed through arguments but become parts of those arguments; Charis Thompson discusses how elephants and their relation to the environment are variously constructed by different stakeholders.

Sadly, my copy has a printer's error, which means that the essays by Thompson and by Mol are present only as fragments, and Michel Callon's essay is entirely omitted. A shame. All of these looked interesting, but I don't have enough to evaluate Mol's or Callon's work. Hopefully Duke University will send me a replacement copy soon.

Nevertheless, the collection is worthwhile, though not life-changing or substantially revelatory.

Update: The good people at Duke University Press replaced my copy of Complexities with a new one. No printer's errors in this one. Which means that I was able to read Michel Callon's essay "Writing and (Re)writing Devices as Tools for Managing Complexity." This essay was easily the most relevant for me and perhaps the best one in the collection -- not just because it focuses on writing (my main concern) but also because it considers the question of how texts mediate activity in a different way. In this formulation, texts aren't merely scripts, narratives, or documentary reality (although all of these functions are performed at various points). Rather, the texts Callon studied -- the manuals, questionnaires, and collateral materials employed by a cruise line -- serve to weave relationships between individual actors and collectives. (It hardly needs to be said here that Callon means both human and nonhuman actors here.) They translate the actors in such a way as to define them and to facilitate smooth, predictable relations.For instance, the detailed questionnaires given to customers define those customers through series of trials, just as Latour alleges scientists define phenomena through series of trials. What is iron? It's an element with this tensile strength, that melting point, that many protons, etc. What is a customer of this cruise line? It's a person who belongs to this demographic, who likes to travel to these areas, who wants cleaner toilets but who thinks the buffet is quite nice as is. Callon further alleges that writing helps to manage complexity in increasingly complex markets through such definitions: the bewildering range of customers can be reduced to customer types served by niche cruises, the bewildering array of detailed procedures can be reduced to principles. Narratives make actions and their unity compatible; they manage the multiplicity that comes from splicing together actors in an assemblage. This splicing work, Callon says, always involves negotiations. There are, of course, direct implications for my current project.

Since I'm discussing Complexities again, I should mention another essay in this collection. Laurent Thevenot's "Which road to follow?" examines how artifacts can be said to participate in the moral world. In the case that Thevenot studies, the road doesn't just provide a setting, it embodies an argument -- that is, it results from protracted moral and political negotiations and it continues to participate in them. From a symmetrical perspective, it becomes an actor itself, an artifact that is just as much a moral artifact as the wills and expressions of the humans involved in the activity. I find this notion of artifacts as arguments intriguing, of course, extending as it does the role of rhetoric to design.

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