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"In general, what passes for reflexivity in most social sciences is the sheer irrelevancy of questions raised by the analyst about some actors' serious concerns." (Latour 33)


The above from: Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

I have just started reading it today, and so far (touch wood), I am finding it refreshingly lucid and useful. Something that is not always a feature of social theory :-)

Update 20/1

Well, I finished the book and am find myself to be somewhat inspired by it; the explanations are mostly clear, and the basic message is simple: don’t invent agencies and overarching ‘frames’ for whatever subjects you are studying – listen to them and follow them where they take you.

Laying the whole mass of actors and connections on a ‘flat’ social world is a useful way of visualising ‘social’ relations: no actor/actant is ‘above’ another, and all potentially influence each other. More importantly perhaps, all that connect are ‘part’ of each other, they have contributed to building the ‘site’ as it is. Thus we are all sites, and understanding how sites are ‘stabilised’ is an important way of effectively describing the situation.

Actor-Network Theory is an essentially descriptive process, and to counter accusations of ‘mere’ description he argues that if something is properly described, in all its minute detail, then no extra explanation (i.e. frame, context, meaning, …) should be required. And he has a point there, though a difficulty is to decide when to stop tracing the connections between different actors, or actants.

In spite of what I said above about lucidity and all that, the last two chapters before the conclusion (“Second Move: Redistributing the Local”, and “Third Move: Connecting Sites”) get pretty convoluted. He comes across sometimes as somewhat structuralist/determinist: he mentions “structuring templates” that circulate, and uses that analogy of ‘plug-ins’ to explain how we cannot do anything (e.g. rationally choosing something in a supermarket) without having these ‘plug-ins’ ‘downloaded’ from other sites. For me this ignores our basic sociality, and ability to negotiate with the world based on some basic instincts (i.e. survival, social, and reproductive). In a way, it’s like he’s being an ‘atomised structuralist’, or ‘powerless structuralist’ – he’s mapping out the social world in a ‘flat’ manner, arguing that all element affect others etc., but just saying there’s no central motor force to it all, which ain’t a bad point.

In the second-to-last chapter, he asks what will be between the lines that connect the sites in the network, and starts to speculate about ‘plasma’ and “vast outside” – all very strange… My feeling is that there doesn’t have to be anything ‘between’ the connections – for the connections are what make our world, mediators affect it, things change, traces are left and actions initiated; but as he said, if it leaves no trace it is not there. I would also say, perhaps tautologically though, that what is visible is visible because it’s part of ‘society’; though he’s arguing that with his method we can discover more, etc.

His conclusion (for anyone looking for a shortcut to reading the whole book ;-)) isn’t actually a summary of the book, but an argument for the political validity of ANT. He argues that ANT is political; proper data collection needs to let subjects have all their agency, and include all relevant entities; secondly, it is political because it has as a task to make the ‘composition’ of the data in a manner accessible to all, and in a manner that loops between the elements and the composer (so to speak).

From linear to circular

The concepts of linear and circular time fascinate me. The most well known is, I suppose, is the Abrahamic eschatological concept of the ‘end of times’: i.e. as in Armageddon, the Day of Judgement, etc. The belief that the world was created, had a beginning, and that it will one day come to an end.

This is linear – i.e. in a line. Linear time makes sense to me, until someone produces a time machine. Even considering the relativity of time, Einstein only proved that time can be relatively slower in one ‘frame’ compared to another – not that one can go back in time.

Another widespread concept; particularly in Hinduism (and by implication Buddhism, but not necessarily), and apparently in Maya cosmology too, is the concept of cyclical time, or ‘ages’. Again, expressed in terms of cosmology, it means that there was no beginning point, and will be no end point of the world. It will simply carry on changing.

The Big Bang theory lends some credence to this, given that the universe is constantly expanding, and will therefore in theory eventually contract back to the initial compressed point.

For me, one problem with the circular, at least using a diagram in the way I have, is that it implies that things go back to the way they were initially. Which is why I like the idea of a spiral better: the way I see it, things tend towards equilibrium, and thus many things seem to repeat themselves, but on every ‘pass’, they have changed from before.

The spiral is really just another line, with a beginning, and never repeating itself; but the advantage of the spiral is that it reminds us that the past can ‘catch up’ with us. Everything has a consequence; and we’re not advancing straight into a virgin future, untrammelled by the past; nor can we just carry on because everything is going to be wiped clean and we start over again…
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