books: January 2006 Archives

I started talking about Bruno Latour's latest book, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, last week, and having finished it last night, thought I would add a few more comments. In that prior entry, I talked about it really helped me synthesize that work of Latour's that I've read, and I was positively gushing over the importance that Latour places upon writing.

So let me start this next entry on the book by suggesting that it probably deserves an even wider audience than it's likely to receive. In other words, there are a lot of people in my own field who would benefit from having to work through these ideas and to reflect on the degree to which they rely upon what Latour calls "sociology of the social." Don't get me wrong, though. This isn't meant to be snarky--I think I've already derived some benefit from it as it's helped me to think about the shortcuts I take in my own work. The one thing I will say that is kind of a euphemistic snark is that this book would be harder to read for some than for others.

The book is intentionally polemical, a counter-statement to more than a century of sociology as well as the persistent misreadings of Latour's work (and the work of STS scholars more generally). But it's also instructive for those of us who have borrowed the work and/or language of social science to describe phenomena in our own fields, and that "us" is a lot larger than you might think, whether the borrowing is conscious or not. The bottom line is that Latour denies the existence of something called "the social," but in a very specific sense. The default position of social theory, as he describes it, includes among its tenets:

  • there exists a social "context" in which non-social activities take place
  • the social is a specific domain of reality
  • the social can be used as a specific type of causality
  • the full effect of the social is only visible to the social scientists' more disciplined eyes

There are others (on pp. 3-4), but you get the idea. One of the crucial distinctions that carries throughout the book is the difference between "mediators" and "intermediaries." Intermediaries are effectively conduits, simply transmitting the force of whatever stands behind or above them. Mediators, on the other hand, are transformative: "Mediators transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry" (39). I think that it's fair to say, and Latour does (I think), that is the central question at play in this book. Sociology of the social (bad) treats the world as intermediaries transmitting pre-defined social forces, while "sociology of associations" (Latour's alternative) treats the world as mediators who/that produce those social forces or, at the very least, transform the forces that they encounter (even if it is to reinforce them).

The book itself is laid out in a very outline-friendly format. Part 1 focuses on reopening the questions that sociology of the social has foreclosed on (Latour labels them "sources of uncertainty"), and each of these questions occupies a chapter:

  • What are groups? (" aggregates are not the oject of an ostensive definition--like mugs and cats and chairs that can be pointed at by the index finger--but only of a performative definition" (34).)
  • What is action? ("...the interesting question at this point is not to decide who is acting and how but to shift from a certainty about action to an uncertainty about action--but to decide what is acting and how" (60).)
  • What are objects? ("...these implements [hammers, kettles, baskets, clothes, remote controls, et al.], according to our definition, are actors, or more precisely, participants in the course of action waiting to be given a figuration" (71).)
  • What's the relationship between Nature and Society? ("The discussion begins to shift for good when one introduces not matters of fact, but what I now call matters of concern...the mapping of scientific controversies about matters of concern should allow us to renew from top to bottom the very scene of empiricism--and hence the divide between 'natural' and 'social'" (114).)
  • What does it mean to write? ("...a good account will perform the social in the precise sense that some of the participants in the action--through the controversial agency of the author--will be assembled in such a way that they can collected together (138).)

The first half of the book ends with a little interlude written in the form of a dialogue between Latour and a graduate student who has come to him thinking that perhaps actor-network-theory will provide a "frame" for a dissertation. It's a little self-satisfiedly Socratic, but helps to crystallize some of the controversies Latour talks about. As does the following passage from the end of the first part:

This is exactly what the five uncertainties added together might help to reveal: What is the social made up of? What is acting when we are acting? What sort of grouping do we pertain to? What do we want? What sort of world are we ready to share?...The fact is that no one has the answers--this is why they have to be collectively staged, stabilized, and revised. This is why the social sciences are so indispensable to the reassembling of the social (138).

In the second part of the book, Latour tackles the problem of oscillating between local and global in social theory, and he does this by effectively denying the existence of either. He describes the second part pretty concisely as follows:

The aim of this second part is to practice a sort of corrective calisthenics. I will proceed in three steps: we will first relocate the global so as to break down the automatism that leads from interaction to 'Context'; we will then redistribute the local so as to understand why interaction is such an abstraction; and finally, we will connect the sites revealed by the two former moves, highlighting the various vehicles that make up the definition of the social understood as association (172).

Part of what's interesting in the second half is his effort to come up with new terms for these processes. For example, we need clamps as part of relocalizing the global to keep ourselves from spinning out to global answers for happens in the local. Part of redistributing the local is accomplished through plug-ins, patches, and applets, a fairly literal adaptation of these technological bits of code: "To be a realistic whole is not an undisputed starting point but the provisional achievement of a composite assemblage" (208).

The book closes with a defense of actor-network-theory against the charge that, as a primarily descriptive method, it is insufficiently political. Again, though, Latour turns that charge upside down--he argues that what has been defined as political relevance is determined by adherence to pre-set categories, and that given ANT's refusal to acknowledge them, it can't be politically relevant in that fashion. ("...the definition of what it is for a social science to have political relevance has also to be modified" (253) and "So, to study is always to do politics in the sense that it collects or composes what the common world is made of" (256).)

Where this book strikes me as most disciplinarily relevant is its emphasis on production rather than reception. It's possible, I suspect, to read it (esp the last chapter) as an implicit endorsement of academic work--Latour clearly believes that what we do is important, and not only amongst ourselves as audience--but the work that we have to do to "trace the associations" is substantial. I don't think he'd disagree with the statement that his endorsement comes at a high price. In fact, all the way through, he emphasizes the economic metaphors of price and investment to describe the effort required to perform his brand of sociology.

In some ways it reminds me here of the sometimes blithe way that I assume that rhetoric is multi/trans/inter/supra/post-disciplinary, and I'm not the only one to have ever made such a claim, believe me. There's a certain arrogance in assuming that we study the "true" phenomenon "behind" all the other things that our colleagues study, without having earned that right. I think that there are striking parallels to be drawn behind the method that Latour describes here and the ways we go about our own work in our field. Enough so, in fact, that I've already recommended this book to several of our graduate students, and that I'll continue to do so. Enough so that I've been thinking about the work that I'm doing right now, and whether I'd fall afoul of some of the criticism that Latour raises.

Like I said last week, I'm no expert in ANT, and so a lot of what this book had to say was pretty new to me, although it certainly resonated in any number of places with things I've thought about. Perhaps, for someone more versed than I, it's old news. If nothing else, though, it provided me with a way into a very different way of thinking about method and an alternative to some of the default positions of my own discipline.

Good stuff. Thanks, Santa.

Before I press on for the next entry in my Things I Got for Christmas series, I did want to make note of two recent Gifts That Aren't Really Gifts But For Which I Am Nonetheless Grateful, both drawn from the world of sports. First, I feel a little bad about not jumping up to add my voice to those praising the selection of Bruce Sutter for the MLB Hall of Fame. Every time you hear about a pitcher throwing a split-finger fastball, you should remember that, more than perhaps anyone else, Sutter was the guy who made that pitch a household one. I don't know which cap he'll wear upon being inducted, but I'll always remember watching him on WGN, cuz when I saw him, that meant that the game was over and the Cubs were going to win (at least until he left).

Second, I was happy to hear today that Kirk Ferentz, head football coach at Iowa, had withdrawn his name from consideration for various NFL positions. It's entirely selfish of me, and of all Iowa fans I'm sure, but Ferentz took a team that, four years ago, was predicted to go 0-11, and over the last three seasons has gone 31-7. He's been a godsend for that program, and speculation was, with his son graduating, that he might return to the NFL, where he was an assistant coach for several years. Iowa was lucky to get him, and they remain lucky to keep him. It's refreshing to see a successful college coach who's happy to be where he's at, and not looking to parlay that success into a "better" gig.

latour.jpgNow, let's return to talking about me and my gifts. Lest you think that my life is all mustard and defunct TV series, I should hasten to note that much of my wishlist features academic books. Often, it's as much the case that these are books I wish I had time to read as it is that I wish I owned them. And today's feature certainly falls into that category. Right now, I'm reading Bruno Latour's Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, and I'm about halfway through, so it's not really fair of me to claim any kind of comprehensive account of the book. Besides which, there are definitely people out there whose opinions of this work you should heed before you heed mine.

That being said, let me offer two observations. First, while I wouldn't call myself a Latour groupie, I've read a fair amount of his work, including Science in Action, Aramis, Pandora's Hope, and We Have Never Been Modern. In fact that last book is one that I'd recommend to anyone looking for a way out of the various postmodernisms that seem to crowd out any other option. I'm not a groupie, so I don't always completely buy into Latour, but I will say this--more than anything else I've read by him, this new book (without explicitly doing so) really makes his entire intellectual trajectory cohere for me. I now feel like I understand how all those other books fit together for him in a coherent way. And part of that is that RS is an extended meditation on the core concepts and vocabulary that underlie Latour's method. I feel like the implicit assumptions of the rest of his work are laid fairly bare in this latest book, and that's really made it interesting to me. I don't think that there a lot of folk in my field who read Latour, and I don't read many people from other disciplines who work more closely with him, so this may simply be an epiphany for me. And that's cool.

The second thing that I want to point out about RS, though, is something that has relevance more broadly. This is a book on method, and while I'm sure that there are others equally as committed, I'm not sure I've read a book on method that is so insistent on the importance of writing, and for that reason alone, this is a book worth reading in our field. Two passages:

Since we are all aware that fabrication and artificiality are not the opposite of truth and objectivity, we have no hesitation in highlighting the text itself as mediator. Bur for this very same reason, we don't have to abandon the traditional goal of reaching objectivity simply because we consider with great care the heavy textual machinery (124).

(It's worth mentioning that "mediator" for Latour implies an actor, transformation, production, change, while its opposite term "intermediary" implies transmission, conduit, passivity, etc. One of his critiques of what he calls the "sociology of the social" is that it reduces the multiplicitous, varied world to a collection of intermediaries transmitting a vague, nebulous force called "the social.")

What's been interesting to me is that I wrote an essay 5 years ago for JAC that took up (in part) Latour's WHNBModern, and (again in part) addressed the problem of imagining rhetoric's place in a space where "natural" and "artificial" were opposite poles. By no means do I want to suggest that my account comes close to the detail or scope of Latour's here, but I think this is part of why it's resonating for me--I think I came fairly close in that article, responding to/building on Latour, to the position that he arrives at in this chapter. I don't mean to suggest here that I'm excited about this because "it proves I was right!" or anything. It's more of a "Wow, this is what I wish I'd said!" kind of vibe.

it seems that too often sociologists the social are simply trying to 'fix a world on paper' as if this activity was never in risk of failing. If that is the case, there is no way they can succeed, since the world they wish to capture remains invisible because the mediating constraints of writing are either ignored or denied (127-8).

There's a larger issue in this passage, about the fact that we are writing in the world and producing texts in the world that themselves are inseparable from the world, but let me focus my enthusiasm on the even simpler, more fundamental point that writing is mediating, because I think that it's worth saying over and over and over, particularly in my field, where I think we teach it to our students without ever fully believing it ourselves. Whatever I have to say, from blog entry to journal article to book chapter, is changed by the "simple" act of writing it. Since it's job season, and since I've been cracking the whip a little with some of our later-stage students, let me make it concrete:

There is a qualitative difference between the projects in our heads (the ones we're going to write) and the projects on the pages and screens (the ones we've written), and that difference leaves traces in our ability to explain those projects in letters, in conversations, and in interviews.

Nine times out of ten, being able to talk about the project you have done is going to be far better than being able to guess about the project you might do. And in a very practical sense, that's part of why, as a director of a graduate program, I'm pushing our students to have multiple chapters before they start talking about their projects to potential employers. Because

Writing. Changes. Everything.

That should be the tag line for the great collaborative-weblog-in-the-sky that is sometimes my/our discipline. That, and maybe something about spinning off into marginally relevant tangents like I've done here. I suppose that's all right, though: I'll never be anything but an amateur sociologist, and I'm certainly wouldn't bill myself as any kind of expert in ANT. But I did get this book for Christmas, and I'm looking forward to the second half.

That's all.



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This page is a archive of entries in the books category from January 2006.

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