Latour, Bruno Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory
In his introduction to Actor-Network Theory (ANT), Latour calls for a new approach to sociology—one, which rather than uses the social to explain a state of affairs and to solve current controversies, traces associations and relations between controversies in order to describe how society is assembled by various actors (both human and non-human). This shift from what Latour calls “sociology of the social” to “sociology of associations” is a method of study that embraces uncertainties about the nature of the universe and relies on the actors’ own theories, contexts, metaphysics, and ontologies to assemble the social. Thus, rather than use scholarship to critique how the social forces assemble society, Latour advocates for a return to empiricism, in which scholars’ main task is to “deploy actors as networks of mediations,” and to describe how these multiple, complex associations of actors create a collective.
Key Concepts and Quotes:
Intermediators—transport meaning or force without transformation; reflections of things beyond them; conduit; reflect society; writer is reflection of social forces
Mediators—transform, translate, distort, and modify meaning or elements they are supposed to carry (39); shape society; tends to be geniuses and artists; social histories of rhetoric consider local, ordinary people as mediators
Actors—deliberate use of this term indicates that it is never clear who and what is acting when we act since actor on stage is never alone in acting (46). We have to resist the idea that there exists somewhere a dictionary where all the variegated words of the actors can be translated into the few words of the social vocabulary (48). We have to resist pretending that actors have only a language while the analyst possesses the meta-language in which the first is embedded (49).
Infra-language—language used by analysts to help them become more attentive to the actors’ own fully developed metalanguage, a reflexive account of what they are saying (49).
Social—type of momentary association which is characterized by the way it gathers together in new shapes (66). Designates two different phenomena: it’s at once a substance, a kind of stuff, and also a movement between non-social elements (160).
Society—designates assembly of already gathered entities; consequence of associations and not their cause (238); movement of associations (238). Collective—designates the project of assembling new entities not yet gathered together (75)
Translation—relation that does not transport causally but induces two mediators into coexisting (108). ***There is no aim society, no social realm, and no social ties, but there exists translations between mediators that may generate traceable associations (108). Translation is an encounter between two mediators which are both changed and which transport transformation…
Network—an expression to check how much energy, movement, and specificity our own reports are able to capture….a concept…a tool to help describe…what readies the text to take the relay of actors as mediators…a trace left behind by some moving agent (131-2).
Risky account—description…that can easily fail—it does fail most of the time—since it can put aside neither the complete artificiality of the enterprise nor its claim to accuracy and truthfulness (133). It is always part of an artificial experiment to replicate and emphasize the traces generated by trials in which actors become mediators or mediators turned into faithful intermediators (136).
Politics—progressive composition of the common world (250)
How does Latour ask us to redefine politics?
Using a slogan from ANT, you ‘have to follow the actors themselves,’ that is try to catch up with their often wild innovations in order to learn from them what the collective existence has become in their hands, which methods they have elaborated to make it fit together, which accounts could best define the new associations that they have been forced to establish. (12) ‘Follow the actors in their weaving through things they have added to social skills so as to render more durable the constantly shifting interactions’ (68).
I want to break the habit of linking the notions of ‘society,’ ‘social factor,’ and ‘social explanation’ with a sudden acceleration in the description. When sociologists of the social pronounce the words ‘society,’ ‘power,’ ‘structure,’ and ‘context,’ they often jump 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).
It is precisely because it’s so difficult to maintain asymmetries, to durably entrench power relations, to enforce inequalities, that so much work is being constantly devoted in shifting the weak and fast-decaying ties to other types of links (66).
The solution to relativism is always more relativity (122).
Writing about is x is part of x…..writing is a performance of the social (138).
Five Uncertainties we need to learn from as sociologists:
- There is no stable, relevant group that make up social aggregates from which we can begin any study; there are only traces of how actors attempt to form or stabilize and dismantle groups (29).
- Controversies about group formation should be mapped by identifying spokesperson for group, anti-groups with which they contrast themselves, ways in which groups attempt to be re-defined, recognition of ways scholars keep group in existence.
- Actions are never done in full control of consciousness; complex, diverse, and heterogenous actions are entangled web of surprising sets of agencies that need to be slowly disentangled (44). Our task is to describe what is acting and how even though this is difficult since action is dislocal—does not pertain to any specific site; it is distributed, variegated, multiple, dislocated, and remains a puzzle for the analysists as well as for the actors (60).
- Objects have agency and play a role in the collective—quickly shift, however, from mediators to immediators and thus become no longer visibly linked to social ties very quickly (80). Visibility of objects is enhanced when: we study innovations, maintain distance in time, space, and skills, study accidents, breakdowns, and strikes, use archives, museums, etc, to bring them back into light (80-81).
- There are no matters of facts, only matters of concerns. We have to free matters of fact from their reduction by ‘Nature’ exactly as much as we should liberate objects and things from their ‘explanation’ by society (109). In attending to matters of concern, we are allowing a thing itself to be deployed as multiple and thus allow[ing] it to be grasped through different viewpoints, before being possibly unified in some later stage depending on the abilities of the collective to unify them. There are multiple agencies in a pluniverse (116).
- Textual accounts—text for which the question of its accuracy and truthfulness has not been put aside—are risky (126). Too often sociologists of the social are simply to trying to ‘fix world on paper’…(128). We need to ask how can we extend the exploration of the social connections a little bit further? (128). A good ANT account is a narrative or a description or a proposition where all the actors do something and don’t just sit there (128). 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 be collected together. In a bad text only a handful of actors will be designated sa the causes of all the others, which will have no other function than to serve as a backdrop or relay for the flows of casual efficacy (130).
Key Questions Addressed about duties of ANT:
How to deploy the many controversies about associations without restricting in advance the social to a specific domain? To deploy simply means that through the report concluding the enquiry the number of actors might be increased; the range of agencies making the actors act might be expanded; the number of objects active in stabilizing groups and agencies might be multiplied; and the controversies about matters of concern might be mapped (138).
How to render fully traceable the means allowing the actors to stabilize those controversies?
Through which procedures is it possible to reassemble the social not in a society but in a collective? (16)
Kaironomia: White—middle voice = overtaken….
Description acts as explanation….Good description is self-explanatory….
Analysis vs. description….Whole is effect of different associations. Analysis undoes the affect…takes the whole; focus is on parts to explain the whole. Description acts as analysis.
Keeping the Social Flat:
Rather than research and focus only on the trace of other places, other times, and other agencies that have led up to and event or interaction, we need to instead trace where political action proceeds forward (166). We need to move away from only researching or always researching context and structure…we need to consider at once the actor and the network in which it is embedded (169). We need to keep the social flat—first relocate the global to avoid always going to context, second redistribute the local so as to understand why interaction is such an abstraction, three connect the sites revealed by the former two moves, highlighting the various vehicles that make up the…association (172).
Context in the abstract as pre-determination of an event or interaction, structure are consequences of activity. We take context and structure are the real. What we want to believe is that local is the hidden rather than as local production of stuff.
How to keep Social Flat:
1. Localize the Global:
We need to render visible the long chain of actors linking sites to one another without missing a single step (173). Invent a series of clamps to hold landscape firmly flat and to force, so to speak, any candidate with a more ‘global’ role to sit beside the ‘local’ site it claims to explain, rather than watch it jump on top of it or behind it (174).
Infra-language that maps how connections between actors are often side by side.
Create continuous map with no gaps, breaks, leaps, shortcuts, accelerations, etc. Scale becomes flat like star. Follow connections between conduits on the starlike map. Realize body politic is made of movements, which are woven together by the constant circulation of documents, stories, accounts, goods, and passions (179). Trace concrete, visible, delocalized actors—trace the indirect connections. Think oligoptican.
Panorama—get a totalizing view of multiplicity of sites in network;
Big picture as effect not as cause. Big picture is generated out of the social rather than predetermines the social.
2. Redistribute the Local:
Research the many local places where the global, the structural, and the total were being assembled and where they expand outward via conduits and cables (191). Focus on the connectors. Follow paths where ingredients come together into interactions. Find traceabilites between sites of production of local interactions (193). Locate articulators or localizers, which transport presence of places. Use negation as methodology—realize interactions are not isotopic, synchronic, synoptic, homogenous, or isobaric.
No place dominates enough to be global and no place is self-contained enough to be local (204). We need to see what is being transported: information, traces, goods, plans, formats, templates, linkages, and so on (205). Those things make an actor act.
3. Connecting Sites
Research connections, vehicles, and attachments which transport agency…locate forms, which allows something else to be transported from one site to another (223). Research collecting statements (“Islamic fundamentalism”) as traces of new connections….Detect circulating entities—follow the actors themselves or rather that which makes them act, namely the circulating entities (237). Dare to be empirical. Research the Plasma—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). Look for what in unknown, not hidden, in between, not behind (245). The laws of the social world…are not behind the scene, above our heads, and before the action, but after the action, below the participants, and smack in the foreground (246).
Today we have to restudy what we are made of and extend the repertoire of ties and the number of associations way beyond the repertoire proposed by social explanations (248). We don’t study, for instance, if language is really socially constructed in the classroom. We rely too heavily on abstracts.
The task of tracing connections has to be resumed and redirected toward all those objects they had thought reasonable to leave aside (248).
In nutshell, here is what we must do: deployments, stabilization, composition
- deploy controversies to locate new participants in associations of future assemblages
- follow how actors themselves stabilize uncertainties by building formats, standards, and metrologies
- see how the gathered assemblages can renew sense of collective (249)
Positivism wrong because it reduces matters of concern into matters of fact too fast without due process (256).
How does Latour redefine politics? What it means to be political in the academy?
What does Latour mean by relocating the global and redistributing the local? And why are these moves important in our field?
Representation in our field is not result of social forces at work.
What is the role of articulators or localizers?
What constitutes valuable sites of Plasma in our field? Is move to cultural rhetorics a move toward researching Plasma in our field?
What is metrology? The study of measurement. Looking at local everywhere. So local is global. Measurements are result of social and natural activity.
What do we have to learn about the value of empiricism in our field from Latour? We have a deepseated fear of quantative studies. Facts are socially constructed in our field.
Latour asks us to reclaim “And.”
To do rhetorical analysis needs to move away from just identifying rhetorical strategies at work in a given text or site, but also to analyze social effects. Tracing how the strategies are responding to various associations and how the site/text is circulating. How do texts/sites/genres function as social action? What is the effect? It is not just artifact to be understood. It is artifact as effect and potential effect. Move away from “this is rhetorical because” to “this is rhetorical how and to what effect.”
We Have Never Been Modern
In We Have Never Been Modern, Latour claims that modernity itself, as well as its symptoms postmodernism and antimodernism, as it has been manifested in modern critique is a dead end road that has diverted Western academic critique from generating a more productive understanding of the collectives in which we constitute ourselves. Latour argues that the Modern Constitution needs to be replaced by a nonmodern Constitution in order to more clearly and accurately understand the collectives which humans and non-humans comprise. A nonmodern Constitution does not completely abandon modern, premodern, or postmodern Constitutions; it rejects what is unuseful and retains what is productive. The nonmodern Consititution that Latour advocates would be comprised of four actions: realize the nonseparability between humans and nonhumans which produce both society and nature; conceive of Nature and Society as continuous entities rather than distinctions; sort through hybrids which don’t depend on homogenous flow and create polarization between archaism and modernization, the local and global, cultural and universal and natural and social; and slowly investigate the production of hybrids achieved through exploration of networks in which they exist.
The modern Constitution is not defined by the rise of humanism, the emergence of sciences, the secularization of society, or with the mechanization of the world (34). Instead, it is defined by the simultaneous polarization of Nature and Society (purification), the creation of multiple hybrids of nature and culture (translation), and the tossing of God to the sidelines of critical thought about Nature and Society—all of which cause contradictions that have lead to anti and post modern thought.
Postmodernism is a symptom, not a fresh solution. It lives under the modern Constitution, but it no longer believes in the guarantees the Constitution offers (47).
Latour rejects the abrupt break between time and culture that moderns claim exists to differentiate themselves from pre-moderns. Seen as networks, …the modern world, like revolutions, permits accelerations in the circulation of knowledge, a tiny extension of societies, minuscule increases in the number of actors, small modifications of old beliefs (48).
Three strategies of modern criticism are: separation of Nature and Society, automization of language (as social construction) and deconstruction of Western metaphysics (67). Modern critique draws on four resources yet keeps them distinct and deems them incompatible: naturalization, sociologization, discurvization, and forgetting of Being (67). Latour wants us to show their continuous connections….(89). After all, language by itself does not govern society and hold meaning of life; nature is not alienated from society and nor is all dominating and unknowable; our collectives are not constituted by humans all alone; and to understand our collectives and ourselves we don’t have to choose either God or the sciences, politics, or language (90). Real as Nature, narrated as Discourse, collective as Society, existential as Being: such are the quasi-objects that the moderns have caused to proliferate. As such it behooves us to pursue them, while we simply becomes once more what we have never ceased to be: amoderns (90).
The asymmetry between nature and culture [is] an asymmetry between past and future (71).
We can now drop entirely the ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ dichotomoy, and even the distinction between moderns and premoderns. We have both always built communities of natures and societies (102).
Each artifact has a history. Each artifact is an actant that possesses a unique signature in the space deployed in this way. In order to trace them, we do not have to form any hypothesis about the essence of Nature or the essence of Society….Each actant is an event.
The very notion of culture is an artifact created by bracketing Nature off. Cultures—different or universal—do not exist, any more than Nature does. There are only nature-cultures…(104). All nature-cultures are similar in that they simultaneously construct humans, divinities, and nonhumans (106).
All collectives are different from one another in the way they divide up beings, in the properties they attribute to them, in the moblization they consider acceptable ( 107).
The paradox of the moderns (and the antimoderns) is that from the outset they have accepted massive cognitive or psychological explanations in order to explain equally massive effects, whereas in all other scientific domains they seek small causes for large effects (116).
Postmodernism—nothing has value; everything is a reflection; a simulacrum, a floating sign –131
The moderns’ greatness stems from their proliferation of hybrids, their lengthening of a certain type of network, their acceleration of the production of traces, their multiplicaton of delegates, their groping production of relative universals….[Yet] we cannot retain the illusion that moderns have about themselves and want to generalize everyone…as different from other communities, cut off from a past that is maintained in a state of artificial survival due only to historicism, separated from a nature on which subjects or society would arbitrarily impose categories, denouncers always at war with themselves, prisoners of an absolute dichotomy between things and signs, facts and values (133).
In the same way, we can appreciate premoderns non-seperatability of things and signs; multiplication of nonhumans; sense of temporality; noncondradictory conception of transcendence yet we must reject their obligation always to link the social and natural orders; their ethnocentricism; obsession with territoriality; limits on scale (135).
And with postmoderns, we want to retain their multiple times, constructivism, reflexivity, and denaturalization yet reject their belief in modernism, critical deconstruction to a meaningless state of reality, ironic reflexivity, and anachronism based in belief of truly surpassed past (134-135).
We must become amodern and understand continous nature of collectivities comprised by humans and nonhumans and determined by both nature, society, language and belief in some form of God (my take).