Reassembling the Social Chapter Two: Second Source of Uncertainty

Latour explores what he describes as a second source of uncertainty for the ANT analyst, and in my reading this second source of uncertainty revolves around the actions of actors and where or how we might understand agency withn and among those actors and actions.

“Action is not done under the full control of consciousness; actions should rather be felt as a node, a knot, and a conglomerate of many surprising sets of agencies that have to be slowly untangled” (44). 

Uncertainty, and the following and tracing of it, is what drives an ANT analyst. ANT acts as a corrective for disciplines, overrun by agencies, that “had to find a way to tame those many aliens [feeling Ian Bogost here] who barged in as uninvited guests in everything we seem to be doing.” (45).

Latour seems to be instructing the ANT analyst here nit to conflate the multiplicity of agencies that arise from the actions of actors. Do not essentialize, I hear; “action …is taken up by others and shared with the masses. It is mysteriously carried out and at the same time distributed to others. We are not alone in the world. ‘We’, like ‘I’, is a wasp’s nest …” (45).

The imagery Latour uses reminds me, in a way, of a model of the solar system. It’s probably a little too neat for the kind of networks an ANT analyst would observe, but in such a model large nodal bodies move through space while other nodal bodies whiz towards them, around them, and between them while waves of gravity connect them all together in complicated ways. “By definition, action is dislocated. Action is borrowed, distributed, suggested, influenced, dominated, betrayed, translated.” (46)

“The social is not yet made” (47); the social is becoming.

Agency, Latour seems to scold the sociologist of the social, need not be reinterpreted. Trust the actors, trace their own terminology and description of agentic experience. If the pilgrims say so, perhaps “the Virgin” has agency after all (48).

(“Down with Muses and other undocumented aliens” (48) says Latour in the sanctimonious tone of a sociologist of the social.)

Latour continues with a forceful, two-pronged critique of previous sociological stances. First, political agendas (Marxism and Critical Theory) characterize a sociology of the social. Critical sociology, says Latour, “stops being empirical and becomes ‘vampirical’ “ (50).  Also, tracing so many agencies in such complicated knots of networks is just plain difficult to do.

Latour suggests that an ANT analyst is led to the study of the controversies of agencies through empirical metaphysics” (50). An ant Analyst should be “feeding off controversies” (52).

Next Latour offers a list to map out the controversies over agency. Briefly:

  1. Agents do something. They act in some manner. Without action, no actor, no agency.
  2. Figurationis the counterpart of agency (53). Without figure, agency is unable. And, “there exist many more figures than anthropomorphic ones” (53). The technical term actant is offered in place of “figure” to avoid confusion with other schools of sociological thought (54). The thinking here is grounded in literary approaches to the world.
  3. Actors themselves will help map agencies as they criticize other agencies they determine “fake, archaic, absurd, irrational, artificial, or illusory” (56). Actors define their own agency and withdraw agency form other actants. Here again Latour pokes critical theory/sociology by suggesting that good ANT analysts should never play favorites when it comes to cataloging and tracing the agencies they observe. No picking and choosing based on a priori constructs.
  4. “[A]ctors are also able to propose their own theories of action to explain how agencies’ effects are carried over” (57). In other words, listen to the actors own metalanguage and don’t superimpose, through infralanguage, what those actors are “really” saying. All actants, all figurations, even the non-anthropomorphic “can be made to enter the account as a mediator …  while a … person may be played out as a mere intermediary” (57-58).

 

ANT does not care much for simple input/output and cause/effect relationships that may arise through intermediaries. Rather, an ANT analyst will be attuned to mediators whose “causes do not allow effects to be deduced as they are simply offering occasions, circumstances, and precedents. As a result, lots of surprising aliens may pop up in between” (58-59).

Action is dislocated, action is distributed. And in ANT, unlike other sociological correctives “are unable to imagine a metaphysics in which there would be other real agencies than those with intentional humans, or worse, they oppose human action with the mere ‘material effect’ of natural objects which, as they say, have ‘no agency’ but only ‘behavior’ ” (61).

Three chapters in, if I were to devise a motto for ANT, it would be “Follow the Actors”.

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