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.