Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Reading :: The Mangle of Practice

Originally posted: Wed, 11 Aug 2004 19:49:58

The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science

by Andrew Pickering

Some time back, I was busy buying books at Amazon.com. I had gone on a grant-funded spending spree that involved several science and technology studies (STS) books: Latour, Law, Mol, etc. After a few purchases, Amazon began making suggestions, and the foremost suggestion was always Andrew Pickering's The Mangle of Practice.

Not long afterward, I presented some of my research to the School of Information here at UT, and one of the audience members suggested that a problem I had raised had been solved by Pickering in the same book.

Since all of the signs seemed to point in the same direction, I ordered the thing. What I found was, indeed, an important book -- but, I think, more important in its critique of STS and in its general solution than in the specifics. This review will be long because I think it's vital to understand what this important book does.

Let's start with the critique. Although I don't think Pickering explicitly says this, the book is constantly in dialogue with actor-network theory (or "the actor-network," as Pickering calls it, perhaps to justify his habit of calling his theoretical-methodological approach "the mangle"). Pickering repeatedly makes clear that he owes a debt to ANT (see, e.g., footnote 9 on p.7; p.11). He agrees with its critique of traditional STS and, to some extent, its critique of sociology in general. But he finds that it has its own troubles. The mangle is an attempt to deal with those troubles via a performative understanding (achieved through practice) rather than a representational understanding. Latour and other actor-network theorists, he charges, tend to shift between the two modes -- drawing on the performative understanding for much of their analysis, but shifting to a representational (semiotic) mode whenever they are called on it! (See pp.9-20, esp. p.13, footnote 20.) Indeed, Pickering says,

From my point of view, the most attractive feature of the actor-network approach is precisely that its acknowledgement of material agency can help us to escape from the spell of representation. It points to a thoroughgoing shift into the performative idiom. And from this perspective, the appeal to semiotics in the face of [criticism] looks like a kind of retreat, a return to the world of texts and representations that one does not wish to make. (p.13)

Pickering charges in a footnote that in actor-network theory -- particularly in Latour's work -- semiotics "seems invariably to be invoked under pressure" (p.13, footnote 20). He prefers John Law's approach of avoiding semiotics entirely -- and in fact the whole notion of appealing to performance sounds a lot like Law's later work (e.g., Aircraft Stories) as well as Mol's (e.g., The Body Multiple). In fact, Pickering's critique leads him to a difficulty I've discussed elsewhere, which is that ANT doesn't have a good account of cultural-historical development -- or, as Pickering expresses it, temporally emergent agency (p.14). Pickering's counter-account is that scientific practice involves a process of "tuning" or "delicate material positioning" in which material agency emerges through an interaction or dialectic among parts of the material environment -- some of which are human (p.14). More on this in a minute.

The second and related problem with ANT, according to Pickering, is that it implies interchangeability between human and material realms: "Semiotically, as the actor-network insists, there is no difference between human and nonhuman actors" (p.15). But clearly, Pickering argues, there are significant differences among various actors -- partial proof being that humans delegate tasks to nonhumans, but never the other way round. (I disagree with this point and tend to think that the notion of tuning is itself an example -- but let's leave that for now.) Yet

actor-network theory is onto something in its extended symmetry, actually two things. One is that there exist important parallels between human and material agency, concerning both their repetitive quality and their temporal emergence; the other is that a constitutive intertwining exists between material and human agency. (p.15)

Pickering goes on to discuss his own vision, in which fields of machines are "enveloped by human practices" and around which we humans tend to act like machines (p.16). We do indeed have our own agency, our own intentionality with specific plans and goals, but we tune that agency with our material environment. "Disciplined human agency and captured material agency are, as I say, constitutively intertwined; they are interactively stabilized" (p.17). This interactive stabilization is later figured as a "dance of agency" (p.21). (Personally, I don't like dance metaphors very much; I can trace my dislike to Tom Kent's discussion of communication as a "hermeneutic dance" -- apparently "interpretive dance" was already in use.) And this leads us to what Pickering calls the "mangle":

The dance of agency, seen asymmetrically from the human end, thus takes the form of a dialectic of resistance and accommodation, where resistance denotes the failure to achieve an intended capture of agency in practice, and accommodation an active human strategy of response to resistance, which can include revisions to goals and intentions as well as to the material form of the machine in question and to the human frame of gestures and social relations that surround it.

The practical, goal-oriented and goal-revising dialectic of resistance and accommodation is, as far as I can make out, a general feature of scientific practice. And it is, in the first instance, what I call the mangle of practice, or just the mangle. (pp.24-25)

If you had trouble understanding that explanation, don't worry -- Pickering repeats it in more or less the same level of detail and volume of words throughout the book. n.b.: A mangle, apparently, is an "old-fashioned device ... used to squeeze the water out of the washing" (p.25).

Readers who have made it this far may note that Pickering's "dance of agency" is like Kent's "hermeneutic dance" in more than nomenclature. This "dialectic of resistance and accommodation" sounds very familiar to me, pragmatist in fact, and Pickering makes the pragmatist connection clear in Ch. 6 -- although I think he drops the ball by criticizing Donald Davidson's take on incommensurability without understanding that Davidson, whose work underpins Kent's, wrestled with the same basic problem and came up with the same basic answer. So do the actor-network theorists in much of their work, and Lucy Suchman, and others -- as Pickering acknowledges. So what is the ground-breaking significance of the mangle? I'm really not sure, and I confess that I'm not sure whether this is because I'm being thick or because Pickering is overselling his work. I lean toward the second interpretation, though, especially when Pickering explicitly tries to turn the mangle into a "theory of everything" in the last chapter. My note on p.203 reads: "Gee, the mangle does everything."

Although I'm critical of the totalizing claims of the mangle, I respect the degree to which Pickering has theorized and categorized the "dialectic of resistance and accommodation." All in all, this book is really valuable -- which is why I spent so much time reviewing it, of course -- although that value tends to be more in the critique than in the general solution.


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