Actors, you say? Now what does that have to do with networks? Or hyptertextuality? Or even Foucault, for that matter? Are you mad? Obsessed with Hollywood? Ohohoho, my dears, your lives are about to get so much more interesting. Mine certainly has.
However, before we can continue, we must add just one more thing to our call for actors.
Tada! Yes, a travel guide. May the squiggly river lines be ever in your favor. So this completes our necessary metaphors, or does it? haha You will just have to wait and see. Now, onwards and upwards. Theory waits for no individual! Which brings me to this guy…
Meet Bruno Latour, author of Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Now, you may be thinking of actors like those in Hollywood ( Bollywood, Japanese, Korean, or Chinese dramas, all of which are amazing), but that would be a little too reductive in terms of Latour’s use of the word. While the image fits, they are not the only actors on this stage. You, gentle reader, are also an actor in this fine frenzy we find ourselves moving through. Now, to help us get adjusted as we move into Actor-Network-Theory (or, as Latour has dubbed it, ANT), I am going to give a list of some terms we will be needing for this adventure, though it is not entirely inclusive as this entry only deals with a part of Latour’s work (the second section will be for next week):
Actor-Network-Theory – is a sociology approach that centers on the “sociology of associations” (rather than “sociology of the social”). Its practitioners trace the actions of “actors,” following moments of controversies and uncertainties in relation to group formation, maintenance, and dissolution: “in situations where innovations proliferate, where group boundaries are uncertain, when the range of entities to be taken into account fluctuates, the sociology of the social is no longer able to trace actors’ new associations. At this point, the last thing to do would be to limit in advance the shape, size, heterogeneity, and combination of associations…it is no longer enough to limit actors to the role of informers offering cases of some well-known types. You have to grant them back the ability to make up their own theories of what the social is” (11).
“instead of taking a reasonable position and imposing some order beforehand, ANT claims to be able to find order much better after having let the actors deploy the full range of controversies in which they are immersed. It is as if we were saying to the actors: ‘We won’t try to discipline you, to make you fit into our categories; we will let you deploy your own worlds, and only later will we ask you to explain how you came about settling them.’ The task of defining and ordering the social should be lest to the actors themselves, not taken up by the analyst” (23).
Latour, calling upon a comment made by another, declared, “the acronym A.N.T. was perfectly fit for a blind, myopic, workaholic, trail-sniffing, and collective traveler. An ant writing for other ants, this fits my project very well!” (9)
Actor – While Latour seems to give no clear cut definition of what he considers an “actor” (or, if he does, I totally missed it), he does give out statements that serve to function as boundaries for what an actor does, such as the idea that actors should not be limited to the role of informers. Actors are active agents in the assembling, disassembling, and reassembling of what composes the social, such as when they “incessantly engage in the most abtruse metaphysical constructions by redefining all the elements of the world” (51). Actors are individuals moving fluidly between groups (sometimes inhabiting multiple groups at one time), helping to define what those groups are and what they are not, and being the focal point of “social” activity that sociologists are (in the boundaries of “sociology of associations”) supposed to be tracing (rather than defining and limiting).
Tracing of Associations – “In this meaning of the adjective, social does not designate a thing among other things, like a black sheep among other white sheep, but a type of connection between things that are not themselves social” (5)
Sociology of the Social – Latour, very openly, decries the pathways and objectives of this brand of sociology as he finds their methods too engaged with political aims than with the original goals of social sciences (“the political agenda of many social theorists has taken over their libido sciendi” (49)). He describes them as, essentially, what not to do with sociology, as they are too limiting and not looking from the right angles. For example, “When sociologists of the social pronounce the words ‘society,’ ‘power,’ ‘structure,’ and ‘context,’ they often just straight ahead to connect vast arrays of life and history, to mobilize gigantic forces, to detect dramatic patterns emerging out of confusing interactions, to see everywhere in the cases at hand yet more examples of well-known types, to reveal behind the scenes some dark powers pulling the strings” (22).
Sociology of Associations – On the other side of this sociological divide are the sociologists of association. These practitioners seem to be in the relatively good graces of Latour (I’m not even kidding when I say that he will openly bash whoever and whatever he thinks is frolicking in the wrong social sciences’ direction), as they focus on the associations within which the social emerges and dissolves: “[Sociologists of associations’] duty is not to stabilize–whether at the beginning for clarity, or to look for reasonable–the list of groupings making up the social. Quite the opposite: their starting point begins precisely with the controversies about which grouping one pertains to including of course the controversies among social scientists about what the social world is made of” (29).
Intermediary – “is what transports meaning or force without transformation: defining its inputs is enough to define its outputs…No matter how complicated an intermediary is, it may, for all practical purposes, count for just one–or for even nothing at all because it can be easily forgotten” (39).
Mediators – “cannot be counted as just one; they might count for one, for nothing, for several, or for infinity. Their input is never a good predictor of their output; their specificity has to be taken into account every time. Mediators transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry…No matter how apparently simple a mediator may look, it may become complex; it may lead in multiple directions which will modify all the contradictory accounts attributed to its role” (39)
Meta-language – is “a language used to talk about language” (Merriam-Webster Online). Latour states that actors have their “own elaborate and fully reflexive meta-language” upon which sociologists should not encroach (30)
Infra-language – language that “remains strictly meaningless except for allowing displacement from one frame of reference to the next” (30).
Now that we have a lexicon with which to approach Latour’s work, let’s get moving into our roles as ants reading about an ant writing for other ants.
I really enjoyed reading the first part of Latour’s book, with his snarky comments, brutal honesty about how he sees the direction of his field, circular thinking, and just the language he employs to promoting this “sociology of associations.” There were so many moments where a paragraph of his would give me an aha! moment about the still muddy waters of Foucault. Latour’s emphasis on the controversies and uncertainties of social sciences, group formations, actors being active agents, and the roles of sociologists helped me to put into perspective the fluctuating history, enunciative formations, and discursive statements that are the heart of Archaeology of Knowledge. I think what gave me some clarity was how thoroughly he seeks to completely shred the idea of permanency that seems so inherent in society and social groups. When we discuss civilization and civilized lives, it is in opposition to the wild, ever-changing face of nature, and yet, there our civilizations are just as fluid (maybe even more so) as nature. As Latour mentions, “For ANT, if you stop making and remaking groups, you stop having groups. No reservoir of forces flowing from ‘social forces’ will help you….Whereas, for the sociologists of the social, the great virtue of appeals to society is that they offer this long lasting stability on a plate and for free, our school views stability as exactly what has to be explained by appealing to costly and demanding means” (35). Here again, Foucault seems to resonate. Controversies, uncertainties, ruptures, suspicions over stability. By looking towards a sociology where activities, actors, analysis are in constant motion, not just layering one on top of the other, but with movement like atoms in motion.
It took a few moments for me to wrap my mind around the idea that a group dissolves once effort has stopped being placed in the sustaining of a group. What about all of those historical groups that still influence our modes of thinking, our current choices, and the ways we see how we want the future to unfold? But, then I realized that by continuing to draw upon, adapt, enhance, and introduce to others groups of the past, effort and means are still being funneled into that group. Take, for example, a university (it was the example that popped into my head while I was reading). What composes a university? A university, with its various departments, potentially looks stable from an outsider’s perspective. It is an institution set in place to deliver knowledge onto maturing generations, helping to guide them towards the next stage of their life while also populating the ranks of the colleges, departments, and disciplines. Places like Harvard, Oxford, and Yale have been around for a very long time and can be seen as rooted within their communities and our nation at large. But, universities are a group, composed of smaller groups and connected to a group of other universities, associations, businesses, and so on. And, it takes a lot of work to keep them running, smoothly or otherwise. There are accreditation boards, alumni, sponsors, funding committees, political interest groups, recruiters, sports associations, student organizations, departments, faculty groups, staff groups, unions, public media outlets. All of these different groups are constantly in motion, defining and redefining the boundaries of what a university is, how it should be run, what it is doing wrong, what departments and subjects are being considered outdated and not worth funding, the point of higher education, the place of the university in conjunction with the community surrounding it. This activity defines the institution of a university and keeps it in existence. If all of these people suddenly walked away from Harvard, that university would no longer exist. An institution is not the buildings or the lab equipment or the computers; it is the people who ascribe to being a part of that institution that give it life and meaning. The same goes for a civilization, or even a species. A group must be composed of something, even if they are fragments of what had been continually being called into existence by the memories and dialogues of others.
Ah, right. Sorry about that long-winded monologue (well, I guess this whole thing is a monologue, really). Anyways, it was in this stream of thought where I remember Latour criticizing the efforts of the sociologists of the social for distancing themselves from this beehive of activity and his acknowledgement of the sociologists of associations’ opposite approach: “For the sociologists of associations, any study of any group by any social scientist is part and parcel of what makes the group exist, last, decay, or disappear. In the developed world, there is no group that does not have at least some social science instrument attached to it. This is not some ‘inherent limitation’ of the discipline due to the fact that sociologists are also ‘social members’ and have difficulties in ‘extracting themselves’ out of the bonds of their own ‘social categories.’…Although in the first school [sociology of the social] actors and scholars are in two different boats, in the second school [associations] they remain in the same boat all along and play the same role” (33-34). As I am not a sociologist or a social scientist (literature is my flavor of academics), I cannot be sure how sociologists of the social feel about their role in society and the extent to which they perceive themselves to be part of the beehive of living. I love the idea of people, regardless of where they are living and how old they are and what background they are from, recognizing that we are all just little ants living in a particularly complex system because we have made it complex. People may claim that they are “sticking it to the man” or “going around the system,” but we are the system and we are the man. Society is based on collective agreement, even if that agreement is unconsciously indoctrinated from childhood all the way up until death. Civilization is really just a group of people, however loosely tied or tightly knit, functioning together, until that system is abandoned, dissolved, replaced.
haha I know, again with the rants? I’ll try to behave from here on out. Maybe…
So, as part of his goal, Latour outlines five “major uncertainties” that he explores in his book (for this week, we only read three of the five):
1) “the nature of groups: there exist many contradictory ways for actors to be given identity;”
2) “the nature of actions: in each course of action a great variety of agents seem to barge in and displace the original goals;”
3) “the nature of objects: the type of agencies participating in interaction seems to remain wide open;”
4) “the nature of facts: the links of natural sciences with the rest of society seems to be the source of continuous disputes;”
5) “and, finally, about 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).
I wanted to lay out this list to give myself a reminder as to how Latour saw his exploration playing out. Before I move on, there was one more moment of this first section of the book that I wanted to draw attention to: “empirical metaphysics.” What exactly does that entail you ask? Well, according to Latour, empirical metaphysics is “what the controversies over agencies lead to since they ceaselessly populate the world with new drives and, as ceaselessly, contest the existence of others” (51). Maybe my brain just died at the word metaphysics (physics was mind-boggling enough), but this is definitely a concept that I am going to have to tease out before I feel comfortable enough to invite it to tea.
Ah, but I did promise to move on. I feel like I will be giving short shrift to the other two authors, but how to compete with a man who so eloquently weaves a Foucauldian thought process and then can switch over, with startling speed, to declare, “Down with the Muses and other undocumented aliens!” side note: For those of you who just bristled upon reading the phrase undocumented aliens, he really had been talking about alien beings who people believe “pull the strings” of our society (more like alien gods than someone who came to the U.S. without documentation, though I guess an extraterrestrial might not be aware that documentation is necessary before landing a spacecraft on “American” soil). He also calls some other sociologists vampiric, so supernatural beings seem to be a motif in this work. No judgement.
Right. Still moving on. I should probably give the other two authors their own blog entry (or entries) to make up for how grand the academic love affair with ANT had been, whereas my relationship with these other texts pales in comparison, despite me also finding their writing refreshing. For Joyce and Johnson-Eilola, both of their works felt like case studies for what Latour was proposing. They seemed to each be actively engaging and struggling with attempts to permeate the boundaries of their disciplines (Joyce by simultaneously occupying the spaces of being a “professor of English and the Library,” and Johnson-Eilola by struggling with how hypertextuality could fit within the realm of composition.
I do want to wait and go into another blog looking at the texts of these men specifically, but before I wrap up this entry of reading notes, I wanted to include some of my favorite quotes from the early chapters of their works, especially since these quotes are going to be my link to the entry of them under the microscope of the ANT lens.
“This narrow focus [traditional five page papers] was helpful historically for composition in defining itself against a range of other disciplines and academic departments; today, however, we must expand our definitions to gain broader influence and relevance. The focus on redefining composition motivates the selection of hypertext as the topic of my study” (Johnson-Eilola, “Border Times” 7)
“We all hope to be one thing or another especially in strange company; however, as someone who was simultaneously a professor of English and the Library (though not a librarian) as well as a hypertext novelist and theorist, the question of whether I came to the library as a wolf in sheep’s clothing or a lion lying (in whatever sense one pleases to understand that term) among lambs was not clear at the time to me or to them [librarians]” (Joyce, “Lingering Errantness” 67)
“Writing has always been about borders, about the processes of mapping and remapping the lines of separation between things. Writing constructs implicit and explicit boundaries between not only product and process and said and unsaid, but author and reader, literacy and orality, technology and nature, self and other. Although we often build these borders in order to help us assert a disciplinary identity, these same borders also threaten to marginalize us” (Johnson-Eilola, “Border Times” 3)
“In ‘Coming to Writing,’ Helene Cixous says, ‘I didn’t seek. I was the search’ (1999). We could say that in the electronic age we don’t collect, we are the collection. The value of what we collect is not as much embodied in what it is as in how we found it and why we keep it” (Joyce, “Lingering Errantness” 73)
“I would note that I am not in the business of predicting change. In fact I am not only not in any business at all but I also resent the current fashion that urges us each to claim that we are in a business. Instead like most of us, librarians or humanists or whatever, I live in change, living not a business but a presence. As an artist and teacher and technologist I make change and am changed by what others make” (Joyce, “Lingering Errantness” 71)
For me, each of these quotes embodies the struggle of being an ant, while recognizing being part of ant-dom. Joyce and Johnson-Eilola are attempting to consciously take a system that seems inflexible and make it understand that it is inherently permeable. University departments are always in flux, shifting borders and boundaries as new sub-disciplines emerge and old ones fade. Newer technologies like hypertext also shift boundaries, becoming tools that are shaped by and shape in return the users. Joyce’s declaration of “I live in change” represents an actor who is aware that he is an actor, not just some outside observer. The activities of these two men and their texts are actions being taken by active actors, from vantage points that would suggest a bird’s eye view but instead are realized as nodes in a system that is constantly being made and remade by the people who compose it.
Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. “Chapter 1: Border Times: Written and Being Written in Hypertext.” Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing (Advances in Discourse Processes). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Pub. Corp., 1997. Print.
Joyce, Michael Thomas. “Chapter 4: The Lingering Errantness of Place, or, Library as Library.” Othermindedness: The Emergence of Network Culture (Studies in Literature and Science). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Print.
Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to the Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.
Other Readings for This Week
Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. “Chapter 5: X-Ray Vision and Perpetual Motion: Hypertext as Postmodern Space.” Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing (Advances in Discourse Processes). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Pub. Corp., 1997. Print.
Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. “Chapter 6: Angels in Rehab: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing.” Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing (Advances in Discourse Processes). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Pub. Corp., 1997. Print.
Joyce, Michael Thomas. “Introduction” and “Hypertext and Hypermedia.” Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. Print.
Joyce, Michael Thomas. “Chapter 5: Beyond Next before You Once Again: Repossessing and Renewing Electronic Culture.” Othermindedness: The Emergence of Network Culture (Studies in Literature and Science). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Print.
Even Vampiric Sociologists Need Music: