Friday, May 20, 2005

Reading :: Pandora's Hope (Supplemental Notes)

Originally posted: Fri, 20 May 2005 09:22:28

Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies

by Bruno Latour

Pandora's Hope was one of the first books I reviewed on this blog. It's a fairly short review, partially because I was still trying to absorb the basics of actor-network theory at the time. This second reading comes after several other books and articles on ANT. So I'll be a bit more detailed in my comments this time.

Latour begins with the question of what science actually is, framing it with the story of an encounter with a scientist who nervously asks him if he believes in reality. Of course he does, Latour says. The rest of the book is a discussion of what that means -- a difficult proposition, Latour maintains, because of the way the world has been divided between subjects and objects. This modernist settlement has led us away from commonsensical statements and to a point at which we must discuss whether we believe in reality in the first place!

To illuminate, Latour takes us in Chapter 2 to Brasil, where he follows an interdisciplinary set of scientists who are examining the dividing line between a savannah and a forest. How is their work done? Through a set of circulating references, Latour says: representations that themselves become represented by other representatives. "A word replaces a thing," he notes, "while conserving a trait that defines it" (p.63). The inscriptions that science mobilizes together constitute long chains of representation that typically converge into something about the size of a tabletop -- whether the thing that is represented is a galaxy, a microbe, or the soil underneath a savannah. And this chain renders the subject-object distinction useless -- and a bit ridiculous, in Latour's view. "Knowlendge, it seems, does not reside in the face-to-face confrontation of a mind with an object, any more than the reference designates a thing by means of a sentence verified by that thing." Rather, it resides in the long cascade of re-representations.

An essential property of this chain is that it must remain reversible. The succession of changes must be traceable, allowing for travel in both directions. If the chain is interrupted at any point, it ceases to transport truth -- ceases, that is, to produce, to construct, to trace, and to conduct it. The word "reference" designates the quality of the chain in its entirety, and no longer adequatio rei et intellectus. (p.69)

The principle is nicely illustrated on p.71, in which "the transformation at each stage of the reference ... may be pictured as a trade-off between what is gained (amplification) and what is lost (reduction) at each information-producing step." In the diagram, successive steps lead to narrower locality, particularity, materiality, multiplicity, and continuity, but greater compatibility, standardization, text, calculation, circulation, and relative universality -- that is, the transformation leads us to representations that are less rich but more calculable and transportable. Transformations lose some properties but gain others. Conducting a phenomenon in this way, in successive layers, makes it more real (p.76). It is the erasure of these intermediate steps that causes us to believe in the subject-object distinction.

With that in mind, we go to Chapter 3, in which Latour discusses translation by using the historical case of Joliot attempting to develop an artificial nuclear chain reaction. Such a feat required a long set of translations: "when their goals are frustrated, actors take detours through the goals of others, resulting in a general drift, the language of one actor being substituted for the language of another" (p.89). Dautry's goal, national independence, can be reached only by taking a detour through Joliot's goal, being the first to master a chain reaction. Joliot's goal can only be reached by building a laboratory that can help to reach both goals. These detours link together very different sorts of enterprises, resulting in an interesting drift as the chain of translations expands, a drift from the exoteric to the esoteric. Some of the actors are humans, like Dautry and Joliot, but others are nonhumans, such as neutrons that must be persuaded to slow enough to hit a uranium atom. "For Joliot, it wasn't very difficult. In the morning he dealt with the neutrons and in the afternoon he dealt with the minister. The more time passed, the more these two problems became one" (p.90).

Based on this work, Latour proposes that scientific facts are created and maintained through a "circulatory system" with five loops: mobilization, autonomization, alliances, public representations -- and the loops that knot them all together, the "links and knots" that are typically considered the scientific concept. In the modernist subject-object understanding, this last loop is conceived as an inner core surrounded by context; in the amodernist understanding being promoted here, it is one loop among others, moving and changing rather than transcendant and static. "A concept does not become scientific because it is farther removed from the rest of what it holds, but because it is more intensely connected to a much larger repertoire of resources" (p.108).

This leads us to Chapter 4, where Latour returns to Louis Pasteur's work to suggest that we stop worrying about whether facts are constructed or real. Of course they are both -- and the shifting out of one plane of reference to another is what makes this doable (p.130). Latour suggests that instead of thinking of the world in terms of statements that allow words to correspond to the world (i.e., bridge the subject-object divide), we turn to a model of propositions in which we examine which propositions are articulated with one another (p.142).

Chapter 5 takes up a common criticism of ANT, which is its lack of historicity. Following his standard pattern, Latour outlines two understandings of historicity, using the illustration of the microbe. "Did ferments exist before Pasteur made them up?" (p.145). If the question is in terms of representations, the answer is no: the notion of the microbe didn't come into being until Pasteur. If the question is in terms of evolution, the answer is yes: microbes were really there, but hadn't been named or theorized. But this is the words-and-world, subject-and-object distinction all over again: "the divide between what pertains to human history and what to natural history would not have been bridged in the slightest" (p.146). To overcome the distinction, Latour turns back to the notion of circulating reference from Chapter 2. Every change in the series of transformations makes a difference (p.150); "Associations of entities have a history if at least one of the articles making them up changes" (p.152). So an amodern account of historicity is grounded in changes in associations. And such a historicity is reversible; no inertia is enough to keep up the reality that has been so difficult to produce" (p.155). Settlements can unravel. Scientific facts have relative existence (p.156), an existence that takes hard work to keep up. Victories always require further actions (p.168). And now we get to another of Latour's diagrams (p.171), this one illustrating an amodernist historicity of Pasteur's work. The X axis is the "linear succession of time," while the Y axis is the "sedimentary succession of time" -- the year 1864 as it is represented in subsequent years. The 1864 of 1864 was not the same as the 1864 of 2005: in the earlier sedimentation, spontaneous generation was a serious theory that had to be addressed with careful methodology, whereas in the later sedimentation, we don't consider spontaneous generation seriously. The concepts become rearticulated and reread in later history. (From my own research: the concept of universal service became rearticulated in the 1970s, then was read back into Theodore Vail's 1907 statement on universal service as well as the Communications Act of 1934, neither of which originally shared the 1970s-era understanding of universal service.)

Now for Chapter 6, in which Latour talks about mediation. How do we deal with technical mediation and the questions it poses for agency? Do guns kill people or do people kill people? Latour sees the subject-object dichotomy in this question as well, and characteristically proposes a middle ground through his account of technical mediation. Mediation, he says, involves mutual transformation of the assemblage (in this case, the gun-human), and this transformation has four parts:

First, translation: "we can portray the relation between two agents as a translation of their goals which results in a composite goal that is different from the two original goals" (p.179).

Second: Composition. "Action is simply not a property of humans but of an association of actants" (p.182). This composition of different agents in an assemblage is enacted through a series of "subprograms" that together achieve the composite goal of the assemblage.

Third: Reversible blackboxing. An assemblage (composition) of agents can be "blackboxed" or regarded as a single entity. But if the settlement breaks down, the black box can open; the composition can unravel as easily as it was raveled. In Aramis, for instance, Latour demonstrates how engineers labor to turn a field, a set of motors, a set of citizens, and innumerable other humans and nonhumans into a public transportation system. If blackboxing works, you can say, "I'm taking the train to the meeting." If the black box is opened, you might say, "the drivers are on strike" or "there's something wrong with the engine." Technical and scientific settlements need to be renegotiated and supported as much as political ones do. (pp.183-185).

Fourth: Delegation. The illustration here is the "sleeping policeman" or speed bump. "The driver's goal is translated, by means of the speed bump, from 'slow down as not to endanger students' into 'slow down and protect your car's suspension.' ... The driver's first version appeals to morality, enlightened interest, and reflection, whereas the second appeals to pure selfishness and reflex action. ... But from an observer's view it does not matter through which channel a given behavior is attained" (p.186). The nature of "meaning" is itself modified through delegation (p.187). "The speed bump is a meaningful articulation within a gamut of propositions" (p.187).

Given these four meanings or aspects of mediation, Latour attempts to trace "how a collective of one given definition can modify its makeup by articulating different associations": through translation, then crossover (i.e., humans and nonhumans exchange properties), then enrollment, mobilization, and finally displacement ("the direction the collective takes once its shape, extent, and composition has been altered by the enrollment and mobilization of new actants" (p.194). This part confuses me because according to one of Michel Callon's most quoted articles, translation occurs in four moments: problematization, interessement, enrollment, and mobilization. Is Latour using a more narrow meaning for translation here? Or different meanings for the other terms? I really wish he had traced the genealogy of the term here and related it more strongly throughout the chapter, since Callon's piece is much more established.

In any case, we now get to Latour's two-chapter discussion of the Gorgias, Plato's famous Socratic dialogue in which Socrates gets to beat up on rhetoric. As a rhetorician, I am not very happy with the two-dimensional portrayal of rhetoric. Neither is Latour. In the dialogue, Socrates represents Right: the lone man with knowledge and virtue on his side, who invokes absolute truth and declares that he will be vindicated in the afterlife. Callicles represents Might: the strongman who commands the dumb masses through force of personality, ruthlessness, and deception. Callicles is the very image of the Prince, at least the Prince that we have come to expect from the many slanders leveled against Machiavelli. But Latour scorns both Socrates and Callicles. If they just looked out the window, he says, these two would-be rulers would see the real rulers of Athens: the citizens in the marketplace, bargaining, negotiating, persuading, and trading.

It's worth noting that just as he did in Aramis, Latour takes a little time here to distance himself from Machiavelli. He warns against accepting "the Machiavellian definition of politics as being unconcerned with morality" and disapproves of "what Machiavelli will later esteem as a positive definition of political cleverness --- although Machiavelli's position is, of course, not a wholly immoral one" (p.253). Later, he says that "Machiavelli fell into Socrates' trap and defined politics as a cleverness entirely freed from scientific virtue" (p.263). Notice two things here, though. One is that Latour is not repudiating Machiavelli entirely, just Machiavelli's acceptance of the Socrates-Callicles settlement -- and in that way Machiavelli is no different from any modernist. The other is that Latour is talking about Machiavelli in the context of the Socrates-Callicles debate after emphasizing that the Callicles in this dialogue is a straw Callicles, distinct from the historical Callicles, who would have surely said something different. Is this a clever way to get across the difference between a straw Machiavelli and the actual Machiavelli, as he did in Aramis? Or am I trying too hard here?

In any case, Latour says that "power and reason are one and the same" -- that Might vs. Right is an illusory dichotomy and that "the Body Politic built by one or by the other is shaped with the same clay" (p. 262).

This brings us to Chapter 9. Latour talks about "factishes." "Fact" and "fetish" come from the same root word but connote opposite meanings, Latour contends, because of this modernist settlement that has split subject and object (p.267). He tries to reunite them as a "factish," something that, if fabricated well, allows reality to be autonomous. The question is not whether facts are real or constructed, "the Procrustean bed in which the modernist settlement wants us all to slumber" (p.275). They are both! And here's where Latour does another one of his hit-and-run jobs against dialectic:

When a fact is fabricated, who is doing the fabrication? The scientist? The thing? If you answer "the thing," then you are an outdated realist. If you answer "the scientist," then you are a constructivist. If you answer "both," then you are doing one of those repair jobs known as the dialectic, which seem to patch up the dichotomy for a while, but only hide it, allowing it to fester at a deeper level by turning it into a contradiction that has to be resolved and overcome. And yet we have to say that it is both, obviously, but without the assurance, certainty, or arrogance that seems to go with the realist or the relativist answer or with a clever oscillation between the two. (p.281)


Am I simply restating the dialectic? No, there is no object, no subject, no contradiction, no Aufhebung, no mastery, no recapitulation, no spirit, no alienation. But there are events. I never act; I am always slightly surprised by what I do. (p.281)

This is a fairly abbreviated critique of dialectic, isn't it? But at least it's a little more coherent than his previous attempts. On the other hand, Latour's critics have been guilty as well, and that has agitated him:

If I have not answered the science warriors' arguments term for term -- or even cited their names -- it is because the science warriors too often waste their time attacking someone who has the same name as mine, who is said to defend all the absurdities I have disputed for twenty-five years: that science is socially constructed; that all is discourse; that there is no reality out there; that everything goes; that science has no conceptual content; that the more ignorant one is the better; that everything is political anyway; that subjectivity should be mingled with objectivity; that the mightiest, manliest, and hairiest scientist always wins provided he has enough 'allies' in high places; and such nonsense. I don't have to come to the rescue of that homonym! (p.300)

That Latour sounds familiar too. I recognize him from Miettinen's criticisms, and Engestrom's, and others. >

Blogged with Flock

No comments: