Wednesday, May 18, 2005

(Reading Roundup: de Laet and Mol)

Originally posted: Wed, 18 May 2005 18:05:47

de Laet and Mol's "The Zimbabwe Bush Pump: Mechanics of a Fluid Technology" represents still another example of how actor-network theory (or, I suppose, one postvariant) has pushed from science studies to studies of technologies. Like Madeleine Akrich's study of the gazogene, this study examines how technologies are not contextualized but actually constituted by their relationships with local conditions, terrains, practices, and so forth. I like it very much. The ZBP, in this account, is articulated with a number of different actants to make it successful. One striking example is that the ZBP's documentation stresses the importance of consulting with local water diviners before siting a water hole (p.234) -- a beautiful illustration of how multiplying associations can produce a more durable and far-reaching settlement than otherwise.

And the ZBP settlement is quite durable. Unlike Akrich's gazogene, the ZBP is a runaway success: "A national standard, the Zimbabwe Bush Pump is a nation-builder that gains strength with each illustration" (p.236). Unlike Engels, who insisted that 100,000 steam engines did not prove Carnot's principle more than the one, de Laet and Mol boldly insist quite the opposite. The more ZBPs, the more real the ZBP is. Whereas Engels thought the steam engine could be reduced to a "germ-cell," a minimal abstract representation of the essential principle behind the steam-engine, de Laet and Mol insist that the ZBP has fuzzy boundaries:

Even if nothing can be taken from it, it is not clear where this pump ends. For what is the Zimbabwe Bush Pump? A water-producing device, defined by the mechanics that make it work as a pump. Or a type of hydraulics that produces water in specific quantities and from particular sources. But then again, maybe it is a sanitation device -- in which case the concrete slab, mould, casing and gravel are also essential parts. And while it may provide water and health, the Pump can do so only with the Vonder Rig -- or some other boring device -- and accompanied by manuals, measurements, and texts. Without these it is nothing, so maybe they belong to it too. And what about the village community? Is it to be included in the Pump --- because a pump has to be set up by the community and cannot be maintained without one? But then again, perhaps the boundaries of the Bush Pump coincide with those of the Zimbabwean nation. For in its modest way this national Bush Pump helps to make Zimbabwe as much as Zimbabwe makes it. (p.237)

If this discussion sounds familiar, perhaps you're thinking of Gregory Bateson's discussion of the blind man with the cane. Engels was searching for a way to generate abstract statements about essences while remaining materialist; de Laet & Mol, Bateson, Deleuze & Guattari, Latour, etc. were looking for a way to define technologies relationally and nonessentially. Partially this is because their different projects demand different tacks. Engels and his activity theory descendants were interested in learning and development, so they were concerned with how to describe concept formation in all its manifestations; they were interested in how abstractions were developed over time and made into mediators that guided further activity. Bateson and his actor-network theory associates were much more concerned with ontology, and found abstract essences to be quite untenable as ways to address that problem.

Back to de Laet and Mol. Although most of the article was quite good, I was disappointed to see that the Machiavellian slur was leveled (or at least entertained) here as well. Critics have argued that in invoking Machiavelli, actor-network theorists have created an incompatibility between the principle of symmetry that they hold and the extreme asymmetry of a Machiavellian viewpoint. de Laet and Mol give those critics comfort here:

For even if Latour's work shifts Pasteur out of the centre by pointing to the network he needs, it also suggests (or has been read as suggesting) that innovation, even if it turns out to be the work of a large army, does need a general in order to spread out. This Machiavellian reading of Latour says that technologies depend on a power-seeking strategist who, given a laboratory, plots to change the world. (p.227)

But neither Latour nor Machiavelli subscribe to this view! With friends like these, who need enemies?


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