Travis Wall

(Sometimes Graphic) Designer. Working on a PhD: Design Thinking +/= Heterogeneous Engineering. General flâneur. Chronic knowledge gatherer.

Location: Sydney, Australia

Dave Elder-Vass Disassembling Actor- network Theory 2015

For critical realists, there is one historical past but many theories about it, some of which may be wrong, including some past theories. But for Latour, history itself is also composed of assemblages. A given year in the past, for example, “should be defined along two axes, not only one”— one axis identifying the year to which we are referring and the other the year from which we are referring to it, the year in which our sense of the original year is located. “In this second dimension there is also a portion of what hap- pened in 1864 that is produced after 1864 and made retrospectively part of the ensemble that forms, from then on, the sum of what happened in the year 1864” (Latour 1999c, 172). We find a similar argument in Law’s discussion of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in England in 2001. A later govern- ment report on the outbreak, he says, “helps to enact one kind of foot and mouth 2001 . . . it helps to make the reality of the past” (Law 2009).

John Law On the Methods of Long Distance Control: Vessels, Navigation, and the Portuguese Route to India 1986

I want to argue that it is not possible to understand this expansion unless the technological, the economic, the political, the social, and the natural are all seen as being interrelated. My argument is that the Portuguese effort involved the mobilisation and combination of elements from each of these categories. Of course kings and merchants appear in the story. But so too do sailors and astronomers, navigators and soldiers of fortune, astrolabes and astronomical tables, vessels and ports of call, and last but not least, the winds and currents that lay between Lisbon and Calicut.

John Law Notes on the Theory of the Actor-Network: Ordering, Strategy and Heterogeneity 1992

Just occasionally we find ourselves watching on the sidelines as an order comes crashing down. Organizations or systems which we had always taken for granted – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Continental Illinois – are swallowed up. Commissars, moguls and captains of industry disappear from view. These dangerous moments offer more than political promise. For when the hidden trapdoors of the social spring open we suddenly learn that the masters of the universe may also have feet of clay.

How is it that it ever seemed otherwise? How is that, at least for a time, they made themselves different from us? By what organizational means did they keep themselves in place and overcome the resistances that would have brought them tumbling down much sooner? How was it we colluded in this? … they are the questions that lie at the heart of “actor-network theory” … It suggests, in effect, that we should analyze the great in exactly the same way that we would anyone else. Of course, this is not to deny that the nabobs of this world are powerful. They certainly are. But it is to suggest that they are no different in kind sociologically to the wretched of the earth.

John Law After ANT: complexity, naming and topology 1999

Some stories about actor network theory.

First story. Actor network theory is a ruthless application of semiotics. It tells that entities take their form and acquire their attributes as a result of their relations with other entities. In this scheme of things entities have no inherent qualities: essentialist divisions are thrown on the bonfire of the dualisms. Truth and falsehood. Large and small. Agency and structure. Human and nonhuman. Before and after. Knowledge and power. Context and content. Materiality and sociality. Activity and passivity. In one way or another all of these divides have been rubbished in work undertaken in the name of actor-network theory.

Of course the theory is not alone. There are cognate movements in feminist theory, cultural studies, social and cultural anthropology, and other branches of post-structuralism. But even so, we shouldn’t underestimate the shock value, nor indeed the potential for scandal. Sacred divisions and distinctions have been tossed into the flames. Fixed points have been pulled down and abandoned. Humanist and political attachments have been torn up. Though, of course, it is also a little more complicated, and the scandal may sometimes be more metaphysical than practical. For this precise reason: it is not, in this semiotic world-view, that there are no divisions. It is rather that such divisions or distinctions are understood as effects or outcomes. They are not given in the order of things.

There is much that might be said about this. To take the notorious human/non-human divide, much ink has indeed been spilled over the importance or otherwise of the distinction between human and non-human. Or, for that matter, the machinic and the corporeal. But this is not the place to reproduce such set-piece debates. Instead, I simply want to note that actor-network theory may be understood as a semiotics of materiality. It takes the semiotic insight, that of the relationality of entities, the notion that they are produced in relations, and applies this ruthlessly to all materials – and not simply to those that are linguistic. This suggests: first that it shares something important with Michel Foucault’s work; second, that it may be usefully distinguished from those versions of poststructuralism that attend to language and language alone; and third (if one likes this kind of grand narrative) that it expresses the ruthlessness that has often been associated with the march of modernity, at least since Karl Marx described the way in which ‘all that is solid melts into air.’

Relational materiality. this catches, this names, the point of the first story.

The second story has to do with performativity. For the semiotic approach tells us that entities achieve their form as a consequence of the relations in which they are located. But this means that it also tells us that they are performed in, by, and through those relations. A consequence is that everything is uncertain and reversible, at least in principle. It is never given in the order of things. And here, though actor-network studies have sometimes slipped towards a centred and no-doubt gendered managerialism (more on this below), there has been much effort to understand how it is that durability is achieved. How it is that things get performed (and perform themselves) into relations that are relatively stable and stay in place. How it is that they make distributions between high and low, big and small, or human and non-human. Performativity, then, this is ‘the second name, the second story about actor-network theory. Performativity which (sometimes) makes durability and fixity.