Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford UP, USA, 2005. Print.
Introduction: How to Resume the Task of Tracing Associations*
In the introduction, Latour illustrates how the traditional goals/definitions of sociology have been to apply the “social” lens to explain a state of affairs. In fact, the “social” as it is used in the social sciences has been overused to the point of meaning very little if anything. According to Latour, the traditional definition of ‘social’ is:
A given trait was said to be ‘social’ or to ‘pertain to society’ when it could be defined as possessing specific properties, some negative – it must not be ‘purely’ biological, linguistic, economical , natural – and some positive – it must achieve, reinforce, express, maintain, reproduce, or subvert the social order. (3)
Inherent in this definition is the idea that the social could explain the social. In challenging this first view of the social, Latour offers another definition. He states that “’society’ far from being the context ‘in which’ everything is framed, should rather be construed as one of the many connecting elements circulating inside tiny conduits. . . . In the alternative view, ‘social’ is not some glue that could fix everything including what the other glues cannot fix; it is what is glued together by many other types of connectors” (4-5). So, instead of viewing the social as the everything context of existence, Latour argues that the study of the social – sociology – is a “tracing of associations” (5). By looking at the world as a series of intersecting associations, we can get past explaining how “social structures” explain the existence of the world; rather, we can put to work the inner logics of things to explain why those things proliferation/associate longer and extend farther than others. In setting up his book, Latour frames sociology in three ways:
a. The sociology of the social – This is the first approach that Latour critiques. Owing its intellectual history to Durkheim, this uses society to study society. Instead of tracing associations between agents, this form of sociology uses the broader “society” to explain why agents make particular moves. Yet, this approach assumes a static social that cannot account for the development of new associations.
b. The sociology of association – This is Latour’s project. Otherwise known as ANT, this approach to sociology explains the association of agents in the world as often-times non-social. What I mean is the associations don’t have to be determined by social ties. The social isn’t some monolithic, omnipresent but rather a thing that can only be observed by the “traces it leaves (under trials) when a new association is being produced between elements which themselves are in no way ‘social’ (8). Owing much to Gabriel Tarde, Latour adopts this lens for sociology because “the social was not a special domain of reality but a principle of connections; that there was no reason to separate ‘the social’ from other associations like biological organisms or even atoms; that no break with philosophy, and especially metaphysics, was necessary in order to become a social science; that sociology was in effect a kind of inter-psychology; that the study of innovation, and especially science and technology, was the growth area of social theory; and that economics had to be remade from top to bottom instead of being used as a vague metaphor to describe the calculations of interests” (13). Through Tarde, Latour adopts the sociology of association not as an evolutionary method that explains everything by a “supremacy of a law of evolution” which follows a specific order, but as a collective: a massing together of minute elementary acts – the greater by the lesser and the whole by the part (15).
c. Critical Sociology – This branch of sociology is defined by three traits:
- a. It doesn’t only limit itself to the social but replaces the object to be studied by another matter made of social relations
- b. It claims that this substitution is unbearable for the social actors who need to live under the illusion that there is something “other” than social there
- c. It considers that the actors’ objections to their social explanations offer the best proof that those explanations are right.
Part I: How to Deploy Controversies About the Social World
Introduction to Part I: Learning to Feed off Controversies
In this introduction to Part I, Latour outlines how he intends to demonstrate the “types of controversies about what this universe is made of” (21). In so doing, he outlines 5 main questions that must be taken up by ANT analysts:
- a. The nature of groups: there exist many contradictory ways for actors to be given an identity
- b. The nature of actions: in each course of action a great variety of agents seem to barge in and displace the original goals;
- c. The nature of objects: the type of agencies participating in interaction seems to remain wide open
- d. The nature of facts: the links of natural sciences with the rest of society seems to be the source of continuous disputes
- e. The type of studies done under the label of a science of the social as it is never clear in which precise sense social sciences can be said to be empirical (22).
A key component to ANT that Latour reemphasizes in this section is the SLOWNESS of ANT. An ANT analyst finds order of the social after having let the actors deploy the “full range of controversies in which they are immersed” (23). By tracing these controversies, analysts can allow agents to define themselves. Latour also mentions what makes a good ANT study in this section (though he doesn’t take it up until the end of the book). He notes that a successful ANT study asks:
- a. Have all of the difficulties of traveling been recognized?
- b. Has the complete cost of the travel from one connection to the next been fully paid?
- c. Has the traveler not cheated by surreptitiously getting a ride from an already existing “social order” (25).
First Source of Uncertainty: No Group, Only Group Formation
In this chapter, Latour takes up the first of his 5 main questions for ANT analysts: the nature of groups. S.O.S. (Sociologists of the Social) tend to predefine groups and draw boundaries to define where those groups fit. In other words, there is a privileging that occurs in this group-defining process because every definition also requires exclusion. To respond to this, Latour notes that:
The first source of uncertainty one should learn from is that there is no relevant group that can be said to make up social aggregates, no established component that can be as an incontrovertible starting point.
For ANT analysts, the starting point for defining groups occurs when the analyst begins to investigate the controversies about which grouping one pertains to. Afterward Latour claims that ANT prefers to use what he calls an “infralanguage” (30) or a language that is completely meaningless outside of its ability to demonstrate displacement from one frame of reference to the next.
To discover how to trace the development or existence of “groups” Latour offers something of a method. Here’s his MO:
- a. All groups have a spokesperson. These speak for the group’s existence. Because groups are, according to Latour, “not silent things, but rather the provisional product of a constant uproar made by the millions of contradictory voices about what is a group and who pertains to what” (31) one must account for this multitude through the spokesperson.
- b. Second, whenever some work has to be done to trace or retrace the boundary of a group, other groupings are designated as being empty, archaic, dangerous, obsolete, and so on. In other words, all groups are defined by shared ties. That being the case, any description of a group must also generate a list of “anti-groups” (32). The associations that arise in the tracing process allow the actors in the groups to do the work of definition – it is the analysts job to trace the associations.
- c. When groups are formed or redistributed, their spokesperson looks rather frantically for ways to de-fine them (33). After this process of group definition, the actors no longer need to define themselves. . . this means an end to the ANT engagement with the group because the trace of associations has stopped; paradoxically, it also means that, according to S.O.S. the group has become a “bona fide member of the social” (33).
- d. Fourth, among the many spokespersons that make possible the durable definition of groups, one must include social scientists, social statistics and social journalism (33). The study of these groups by social scientists, etc. are what make the groups exist in the first place; hence, the analyst is central to the process of group formation.
For ANT’s, the performative takes precedence for study over the ostensible. For Latour, the object of an ostensive definition remains static, regardless of the positionality of the onlooker – it’s determined. The object of a performative definition; however, vanishes when it is no longer performed. Latour ends the chapter on grouping by discussing a couple more key terms. First he discusses intermediaries. For Latour, an intermediary is something that transports meaning or force without transformation. As an example, he says a black box that you can place something inside of and take out again at a later time. A mediary – close in syntax, but vastly different in definition, is something that conveys meaning but redefines and reinterprets that meaning in the transportations process. This distinction is huge because whether something is a mediator or an intermediary will determine the source of all other uncertainties down the line – and it will come to define how objects/groups diverge. According to Latour, “The S.O.S. believe in one type of social aggregates, few mediators and many intermediaries; for ANT, there is no preferable type of social aggregates, there exist endless number of mediators, and when those are transformed into faithful intermediaries it is not the rule, but a rare exception that has to be accounted for by some extra work – usually by the mobilization of even more mediators (40).
Second Source of Uncertainty: Action is Overtaken
In this chapter Latour is interesting in spelling out the role of the actor (or actant?) and agency in any event. Again, the emphasis here seems to be a non-reliance of determining an actor; rather, an actor will illustrate to the analyst what their “empirical metaphysics” are. Instead of relying on the idea that a “social force has taken over,” (45) analysts should collect data to determine what networks the actor is acting in. To map out the controversies over agency (in lieu of mapping out the infinite types or forms of agency), Latour promotes a couple of central ideas/tasks:
- Agencies are always presented in an account as doing something, that is, making some difference to a state of affairs, transforming some As into Bs through trials with Cs (53).
- If agency is one thing, its figuration is another. I NEED HELP HERE!!!!! In this discussion of figuration, Latour notes that “Figuration endows them (actors) with a shape but not necessarily in the manner of a smooth portrait by a figurative painter. To do their job, sociologists need as much variety in ‘drawing’ actors as there are debates about figuration in modern and contemporary art” (54). He also notes that the great difficulty of ANT is not to get hung up on the kind of figuration – ideo (ideologically), techno, bio – because these figurations don’t matter. . . it’s the . . . well, I don’t know what it is yet. I’ll try to answer this better later.
- Actors also engage in criticizing other agencies accused of being fake, archaic, absurd, irrational, artificial, or illusory. The main idea in this section is that the actor – not the analyst – will do the work of critique; hence, it isn’t necessary for the analyst to do this work by pulling terms from the existing theory.
- Actors are also able to propose their own theories of action to explain how agencies’ effects are carried over. Again, the emphasis here is that the actors – not the analysts – must and will propose their own theories of action or will explain how they come to agency. I think? Again, questions. ..
Third Source of Uncertainty: Objects too Have Agency
I really, really liked this section. The third source of uncertainty takes into account the agency of non-human objects. Latour excoriates the S.o.S. for negating the presence or even relevance of objects in accounting for the “social power.” Latour notes that “So, in effect, what sociologists mean by the ‘power of society’ is not society itself – that would be magical indeed – but some sort of summary for all the entities already mobilized to render asymmetries longer lasting” (68). Further, Latour intends to right this mistreatment of objects and power by accepting “as full-blown actors entities that were explicitly excluded from collective existence by more than one hundred years of social explanation. The reasons are twofold: first, because the basic social skills provide only one tiny subject of the associations making up societies; second, because the supplement of force which seems to reside in the invocation of a social tie is, at best, a convenient shorthand, and, at worst, nothing more than a tautology” (69). In fact, when explaining the role of power and how it’s accounted for, the multiplicity of entities that “don’t sleep and associations that don’t break down” allow power to last longer and expand farther from its original base. The S.o.S. neglected this aspect of power because they grounded it in “social ties and relations.” As such, they missed a large portion of the true reservoir of power – non-human objects. In discussing the incorporation of non-human agents, Latour redefines the “social” as the “collective.” In Latour’s words, “Collective on the other hand will designate the project of assembling new entities not yet gathered together and which, for this reason, clearly appear as being made not of social stuff”; further, “an action that collects different types of forces woven together because they are different” (74-5). In renaming the social a collective, Latour is emphasizing the heterogenous nature of uncollected elements – the “tracing” that sociologists of association must undertake to be effective and true to the goal of his new sociology. In purusing the task of making objects “visible” Latour accounts for four different methods/activities:
- The first solution is to study innovations – These are obvious sites where non-human objects act as agents in their genesis and adoption – and the ways that the adoption of innovation chains out.
- Second, Latour recommends approaching objects that have distance. What he means here can be distance in time (archeology), space (ethnography), skills (learning). By looking at distant objects, analysts are better able to trace how the objects act as mediators before habituation or disuse.
- Third, Latour recommends that we look at the accidents breakdowns, and strikes. In other words, what happens when the object goes from being an automated machine without agency – programmed – to an active agent that disrupts their own “purpose?”
- Fourth, Latour urges us to through archives, documents, memoirs, museum collections, etc. to understand the “state of crisis in which machines, devices, and implements were born” (81).
- Lastly, Latour recommends considering “fiction” to account for the use of “counterfactual history” to bring the solid objects of today into “fluid states where their connections with humans may make sense” (82).
Finally, Latour attempts to account for the criticisms ANT has received for not accounting for power relations. After describing how objects have been divided in two by the hard sciences (taking efficacy, causality, material connections, etc. )and social sciences (the realm of the social) – Latour describes how “causal determinism” has allowed objects to be construed as simply intermediaries instead of mediators. In considering how determinisms have portrayed objects, Latour describes the three deterministic conceptions of objects:
- Material infrastructure – these “determine” social relations like in a Marxian analysis
- Mirror materialism – this form of determinism – as advanced by folks like Bourdieu – states that objects simply reflect the social distinctions already present.
- Interactionists determinism – We don’t get a clear explanation of what this is here.
A lovely quote on power:
Of course, appealing to ‘social domination’ might be useful as shorthand, but then it is much too tempting to use power instead of explaining it and that is exactly the problem with most ‘social- explainers’: in their search for powerful explanations, is it not their lust for power that shines through? (85)
So, in closing on power, Latour basically says that ANT does account for power relations; however, what ANT doesn’t believe is that power and discipline exist in some otherworldly realm like the “social”; rather, we must, as attendant analysts, pay close attention to the ways that actors find power through means. As an endnote, Latour mentions how Foucault’s method of revealing power was dead on; however, folks generalized Foucault’s specific explorations of power to create systems of power that exist autonomous of the individuated experiences of individual actors.
Fourth Source of Uncertainty: Matters of Fact vs. Matters of Concern
This was a really tough chapter with A LOT of information. I think B. did a far better job summarizing this, but I’m going to take a stab at it. Latour spends a good deal of time in this chapter illustrating how the “constructivism” of the natural scientists is different from the “social constructivism” adhered to by those in the social sciences and humanities. For natural scientists, most facts are constructed because they are results of prolonged studies in laboratories – sites of artificiality. Though artificial, the results of these studies are fact – constructed fact. For the social scientists, social constructivist theories explain how everything – society, history, law, religion, sex, gender, etc. – are, essentially, made up by the social. So, the real tension began to arise when sociologists began to apply their notions of social constructivism to the constructivist position of the scientists. Because scientists occupied a place of resistance to sociologists explanation of social determinism, sociologists for the first time had to work “up.” As these sociologists of science realized this seeming incommensurability, they adopted a couple of positions:
- Science studies had to fail completely because no social explanation of objective science can be offered; facts and theories are too hard, too technical, too real, too eternal, and too remote from human and social interest
- In order to be respected and to succeed, sociology should stick to just those points deemed superficial by the former position [the scientists]
- The ANT position is that
- A sociology of science is perfectly possible
- Such a sociology cannot be limited to the superficial and social context of science
- Scientific practice is too hard to be cracked by ordinary social theory and a new one has to be devised which can be used to throw a new light on ‘softer’ topics as well
So, in devising this new sociology of science (and hence extending that sociology beyond Science – for the failure of S.o.S. for science meant a full failure of the entire sociological program), Latour and his buddies came up with some important insights.
First, the sociology of association – or as Latour calls it the Sociology of Translation – first had to erase the traditional idea of the “social.” Latour illustrates this in his description of how non-human agents act as mediators that make people do things (Latour uses Callon’s scallop paper). So, the social is nowhere in particular as a thing among other things but may circulate everywhere as a movement connecting non-social things. In other words, the social has returned as “association” (107). This is at the heart of ANT philosophy. According to Latour
[The philosophy of ANT] a concatenation of mediators does not trace the same connections and does not require the same type of explanations as a retinue of intermediaries transporting a cause” (107).
It is actually these connections that transport the transformations in meaning. For Latour, this is the process of translation. For the sociology of associations, the goal is that “there is no society, no social realm, and no social ties, but there exist translations between mediators that may generate traceable associations” (108). An aggregated collection of these associations must form a network (though I haven’t gotten there yet).
After explaining the importance of the sociology of association via translation, Latour gets into how Science can actually be studied productively by sociologists. Instead of seeing science as a collection of facts – a matter of fact – it would be more productive to see science (or at least the parts of science being further developed, debated, researched, etc.) as a matter of concern. Much akin to the position he took in a previous source of uncertainty, if a scientific question is a FACT, it is not debated and not extended; however, if a scientific question is a matter of concern, the associations still being developed with respect to that concern can more accurately be traced an analyzed. In concentrating on matters of concern, Latour posits that the divide between “nature” and “society” can at last be bridged because nature no longer occupies the monolithic position of fact and society still occupies the multiplicity. In fact, the ANT position seems to argue for a plurality of ontologies because the metaphysics of the social unit (actor) are not reducible again to the fact (single ontology) of the natural scientist. There are multiple different ontologies and metaphysics at work. . . their convergence or trace of association is what creates the network.
Fifth Source of Uncertainty: Writing Down Risky Accounts
This fifth source of uncertainty did a lot in tying together a theory that was somewhat malformed for me in earlier meditations. In this section Latour spends some time answering a couple of questions. First, he takes up the question of “How ridiculous is it to claim that inquirers should ‘follow the actors themselves’ when the actors to be followed swarm in all directions like a bee’s nest disturbed by a wayward child?” (121). In other words, if the job of an ANT analyst is to trace associations between actors, how in the world do we know which actors to trace and how far to trace them? In answering this question, we finally get a definition of the “network.” Before going there Latour spends a good bit of time talking about textual production. In the end, he comes to the conclusion that the only real difference between the natural scientists and the social scientists is that you can “never stifle the voice of non-humans but you can do it to humans” (125). So, for ANT’s, the textual tracing of associations is what constitutes a good sociological study. Here Latour is relying on description specifically. Instead of working around to explanation – the sort of thing that S.o.S. have often done to explain the larger social control mechanisms – the ANT notes how explanation is just an extension of description in order that the analysis might be more full, more realized. In fact, in the act of descriptive writing, Latour notes the important mediating qualities of the analyst themselves. Here, finally, we get a definition of the ANT and the network. According to Latour,
- A good ANT account is a narrative or a description or a proposition where all of the actors do something and don’t just sit there. . . . As soon as actors are treated not as intermediaries but as mediators, they render the movement of the social visible to the reader. Thus, through many textual inventions, the social may become again a circulating entity that is no longer composed of the stale assemblage of what passed earlier as being part of society (128).
- Thus, the network does not designate a thing out there that would have roughly the shape of interconnected points, much like a telephone, a freeway, a sewage ‘network.’ It is nothing more than an indicator of the quality of a text about the topics at hand (129).
- In order to trace an actor-network, what we have to do is to add to the many traces left by the social fluid another medium, the textual accounts, through which the traces are rendered again present provided something happens in it (133). This is a definition of the position of the analysts textual accounts.
Latour recommends a really in-depth method to record the ANT process. In fact, he actually uses the metaphor (or not) of multiple notebooks to document the process because, according to Latour, “everything is data” (133). Here are the notebooks:
- Notebook one contains a log of the enquiry itself – Appointments, reactions to the study by others, surprises to the strangeness of the field, etc.
- Notebook two contains the gathering of all information in a way that it can be categorized and also kept chronologically.
- Notebook three contains any “ad libitum” writing that occurs during the study. This is a place to invent, reflect, etc.
- Notebook four contains a carefully kept register of the effects of the written account on the actors whose world has been either deployed or unified.
In the way of lovely quotes, Latour mentions this one in describing why description is essential:
If connections are established between sites, it should be done through more descriptions, not by suddenly taking a free ride through all-terrain entities like Society, Capitalism, Empire, Norms, Individualism, Fields and so on.
In closing this chapter on the importance of writing and the definition of network for ANTs, Latour reflects on his larger enterprise. For Latour, the social sciences are a way to know what we have in common, what connections are associated together, and how to live in the same common world.
Introduction to Part II: Why is it so Difficult to Trace the Social?
In this brief introduction, Latour claims that a conflation of the “social” or “society” with the “body politic” has resulted in disastrous consequences for sociology. According to Latour, sociology should:
- a. be able to deploy the full range of controversies about which associations are possible
- b. be able to show through which means those controversies are settled and how such settlements are kept up
- c. define the right procedures for the composition of the collective by rendering itself interesting to those who have been the object of study
According to Latour, the problem with current sociology – besides dividing Nature and Society – is the substitutions that sociologists usually adopt in solving the political relations of the Many and the One [using a body politic – or the mass of population as a substitute for politics (162)] instead of worrying about how to compose the collective.
How to Keep the Social Flat
Latour begins this brief part II set-up with a recapitulation of the “global – micro” problem of the social sciences. When looking at objects, S.O.S. have often traced the local, then situated the local in broader “context.” Or, they have traced the broader context (structuralist) and found instances of the local to reify the structure. Both of these approaches, according to Latrour, are wrong. What sociologists should be doing is gleefully rejoicing in the “impossibility” of both of these positions. In Latour’s words:
We do not claim that interactions do not really exist because they have to be ‘put into’ a context, nor that context never really exists because it is always ‘instantiated’ through individual practice. Instead, we claim that another movement, entirely different from the one usually followed, reveals itself most clearly through the very difficulty of sticking either to a place considered as local [interactionist] or to a place taken as the context for the former one [structuralist]. Our solution is to take seriously the impossibility of staying in one of the two sites for a long period. (170).
Latour’s solution to this problem is to “flatten” the social – render it without depth. If S.O.S. have spent a lot of time adding volume – through contextual “society” or through the body politic – to the social, Latour wants to remove this dimension of depth. In this process of “restoration” Latour intends to flatten out the misconceptions of interactionist/structuralists – S.O.S./C.S. so that the real “distance every social connection has to overcome” can be realized so that the task of tracing can begin anew. To do this, Latour will pursue three steps:
- a. first, relocate the global so as to break down the automatism that leads from interaction to “context.”
- b. Then redistribute the local so as to understand why interaction is such an abstraction
- c. 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).
First Move: Localizing the Global
In order to flatten the social, it’s first necessary to remove any connotations of the global because the “global” implies a hierarchy embedded in other ism’s like Capitalism, Society, etc. In removing the global, the analyst is able to simply trace the connections to and fro – trace associations. Latour mentions that this tracing will not jump from local instances to larger global contexts; rather, he notes that we’ll be stretching the social instead. In flattening the social (if we take the crinkled up map metaphor that Latour provides), we’ll first have to use a couple of clamps to help it stay held down.
The first clamp that Latour proposes is the “oligopticon.” This is a clamps that asks “Where are the structural effects actually being produced?” (175). Or, in other word, what are the sites where the actors are acting. For an example, Latour introduces the “centers of calculation.” These sites (which are all sites really) offer star-like shapes for tracing associations. In Latour’s example, instead of concentrating on transnational capitalism as something of a God term, we should instead think about one specific site – the Wall Street Trading Room. If we begin to trace the connections from this one site, we don’t need the context to see how the landscape can be drawn. Instead of accepting the biggness/vagueness of “transnational capitalism” we should trace the connections from the room to the conduits of information to the traders to their trades to the trading screens to the connected trading screens to the internet to the millions of folks forever distributed across the earth. This landscape is more true to form, and is where things really happen. If there is a disruption in this interconnected series of associations, then the dangers of transnational capitalism might be realized – a huge loss for example because of a computer glitch (agency of non-human objects).
In this same section, Latour does away with any notions of the “local” by noting that, for the S.o.A., there is only the local (179). He also offers another definition (I find to be the best so far) of ANT. Latour states
The first part (the actor) reveals the narrow space in which allof the grandiose ingredients of the world begin to be hatched; the second part (the network) may explain through which vehicles, which traces, which trails, which types of information, the world is being brought inside those places and then, after having been transformed there, are being pumped back out of its narrow walls. (179-80)
To describe the “centers of calculation,” Latour uses the term “oligopticon.” The oligopticon, as opposed to the Foucauldian panopticon – “see much too little to feed the megalomania of the inspector of the paranoia of the inspected, but what they see, they see it well – hence the use of this Greek word to designate an ingredient at once indispensible and that comes in tiny amounts” (181). So, in short, concentrate on the local, trace the connections, use this clamp to flatten the social and trace the oligopticonic sites instead of yearning for the panoramic global hierarchies.
To describe those global views that must be abandoned, Latour uses the term “panorama.” Panoramas “give the impression of complete control over what is being surveyed, even though they are partially blind and that nothing enters or leaves their walls except interested or baffled spectators” (188) (spectators – not agents). It’s important to attend to these panoramas because they place the spectator as all-powerful, all knowing viewers of an unfolding social.
Second Move: Redistributing the Local
In this section Latour kind of unflattens the social. .. .. or at least complicates it a bit. As Latour has been claiming all along, it’s the connections – or connectors – that will move us beyond context. By tracing the connectors, the ANT analyst won’t ever have to stop “at a place called ‘context’ or ‘interaction’” (193). Again, as Latour has been doing throughout the work, he is disrupting not only the binary of global/local (structuralist/interactionist) posed by sociology, he is also disrupting the interiority/exteriority (sociology/psychology) binary. This is done in a rather intriguing way.
Latour questions how the self – me – is constituted in this section. While he traces the poles between lone hermit in essential mental existence – the pre-existing ego – he also traces the completely subjectified aggregate of the “Social” as the S.o.S. might explain it. To complicate this argument, he again relies on the emphasis on the local – or the non-local – or the site of connectivity. . . however you want to define that. Our self – ego – etc., is constituted by what Latour calls “plug-ins” of three varieties:
These three plug-ins allow us to not have “to imagine a ‘wholesale’ human having intentionality, making rational calculations, feeling responsible for his sins, or agonizing over his mortal soul. Rather, you realize that to obtain ‘complete’ human actors, you have to compose them out of many successive layers, each of which is empirically distinct from the next. Being a fully competent actor now comes in discreet pellets or, to borrow from Cyberspace, patches and applets, whose precise origin can be ‘Googled’ before they are downloaded and saved one by one” (207). In other words, for Latour, the larger worknets made up of numerous connections of human and non-human actors come to bear on the constitution of ego and agency. In other words, the actor-network “is what is made to act by a large star-shaped web of mediators flowing in and out of it. It is made to exist by its many ties: attachments are first, actors are second” (217). But what’s an attachment? Attachments are associations – attachments to the three plug-ins that Latour describes earlier in the chapter. In the authors words, “You need to subscribe to a lot of subjectifiers to become a subject and you need to download a lot of individualizers to become an individual – just as you need to hook up a lot of localizers to have a local place and a lot of oligoptica for a context to ‘dominate’ over some other sites” (216). When all of these things happen is exactly when, as Latour and William James note, the connections are multiplicitous and it is easier to grasp “how the ‘inside’ is being furnished” (215-6).
Third Move: Connecting Sites
This chapter is huge. Latour sets out early in the section the three things he wants to answer:
- To detect the type of connectors that make possible the transportation of agencies over great distance and to understand why they are so efficient at formatting the social.
- To ask what is the nature of the agencies thus transported and to give a more precise meaning to the notion of mediator that I have been using
- If this argument about connections and connectors is right, it should be possible to come to grips with a logical consequence that readers must have already puzzled about: What lies in between these connections? (221).
I’m going to try and answer these questions in the order that Latour poses them above. So, on to the first question.
Latour spends a good bit of time talking about forms, collecting statements and standards when trying to answer the first question. In summation, I think Latour is saying in this section that the connectors (mediators) that make transportations of agency possible are complex. Some take the form of the “forms” theorized by Sociology as stabilized universals (capitalism, patriarchy, etc.) – or at least as quasi-forms. These are ready made explanations that people use to “format” the social world. These forms have been standardized in the same sense as metrology – they have been theorized, but don’t evolve all that much without the aid of another scientific tool to demonstrate how they can be improved (think the titanium kilogram example on page 228). This standardization provides a universality that folks can get on board with – provided you have a way to “hook up your local instrument to one of the many metrological chains whose material network can be fully described, and whose cost can be fully determined.” The quasi-forms (things like capitalism, patriarchy, etc.) are the oft-circulated standards that “allow anonymous and isolated agencies to slowly become, layer after layer, comparable and commensurable – which is surely a large part of what we mean by being human. . . . Te question is not to fight against the categories, but rather to ask: ‘Is the category subjecting of subjectifying you?” (230). So, in sum, the forms and quasi forms that circulate (and are the exclusive domain of the S.o.S.), do a lot in the way of transporting agency; however, there is more to the story.
To the second question: On mediators. In answering this question, I’ll start with a quote.
By invoking the existence of non-social circulating entities, is this not taking the most reactionary backward and archaic move possible? This is where the ANT wins or loses. Can we anticipate a social science that takes seriously the beings that make people act? Can sociology become empirical in the sense of respecting the strange nature of what is ‘given into experience’ as zoologists do with their zoos and botanists with their herbariums? Can we trace social connections shifting from one non-social being to the next instead of replacing all entities populating the world by some ersatz made of ‘social stuff’? Even simpler: can social science have a real object to study? (236)
In answering this question, Latour says “YES.” All of the connectors, all of the mediators, all of the non-social things (law, politics, religion, economics, art) play a role in the composition of the AN. This is the fundamentally difficult thing to realize – these other mediators – these non-social connectors have yet to be proven by any sort of empiricism; however, they DO make people DO things. As Latour notes, “To understand what I take to be the ultimate goal of ANT, we have to let out of their cages entities which had been strictly forbidden to enter the scene until now and allow them to roam in the world again. . . . Law, science, religion, economics, psyches, moralities, politics, and organizations might all have their own modes of existence, their own circulations. The plurality of inhabited worlds might be a farfetched hypothesis but the plurality of regimes of existence in our own world, well that’s a datum” (239-41).
Finally the last question. If we are to conceive of this flattened landscape (for the ANT analyst anyway) as a star shaped constellation – a network or a worknet – what makes up the vast areas that aren’t filled in by the network itself? In other words, what exists between the connections? As Latour notes, the majority of his study has been concerned with continuity; however, continuity doesn’t explain the vaster backdrop of discontinuities. To describe these large gaps, Latour uses the term “plasma” or “that which is not yet formatted, not yet measured, not yet socialized, not yet engaged in metrological chains, and not yet covered, surveyed, mobilized or subjectified” (244). These potentialities, these plasmatic nonforms are exactly where political action lies in wait.
Conclusion: From Society to Collective – Can the Social Be Reassembled?
Here, in the end, we get one more indictment of the two main strands of sociology: critical sociology (he excoriates) and sociology of the social (he sees value in). Because critical sociology never fails (explain it away in a quasi-form before being attentive to the AN) he has no use for it and claims strongly that it’s a useless enterprise. ANT on the other hand claims that the controversies about the types of things that comprise the social world shouldn’t be solved or determined by sociologists; rather, these issues should be taken up by future participants. In making this claim, Latour illustrates how disciplines – the discipline of rhetoric and composition included – are actually a system to turn mediators into intermediaries – to mobilize and extend the entities of the status quo without allowing them to transform the discipline itself. We spend time creating new concepts, social forces, entities, laws, etc. because we are perpetuating a process of reifying intermediate creation instead of allowing for self-determination. In other words, “disciplines: each has chosen to deploy some sort of mediator and favored some type of stabilization, thus populating the world with different types of well-drilled and fully formatted inhabitants” (258). The crisis of the social sciences is due to their limit in scope. When an ANT study is undertaken, the new associations can’t fit into the livable assemblage predetermined by the discipline, hence the crisis. ANT is political because it is a simple (HA!) way of saying that the task of assembling a common world cannot be contemplated if the other task is not pursued well beyond the narrow limits currently fixed by a premature closure of the social sphere (260). By being attuned to those ANs, ANT analysts are engaged in a process of practicing sociology in a way that allows the collective to continually update itself – to refresh itself in light of existence instead of being hemmed into quasi-forms of determinism. The old forms of sociology and enquiry can’t account for all the new technologies and ways of meaning – all the multiplicities of connections – ANT allows analysts to review the sorts of connections and mediators that are constantly reassembling the social and can be a place (once this arduous work is carried out) to develop suggestions of how the collective can exist in a more peaceful and equitable world.