Holmes: “Multiple Bodies, Actants, and a Composition Classroom: Actor- Network Theory in Practice”

Holmes, Steven. “Multiple Bodies, Actants, and a Composition Classroom: Actor- Network Theory in Practice.” Rhetoric Review. 33.4 (2014): 421-438. Web.

ANT, principle of general symmetry, actant pedagogy, poststructuralism, deconstruction

One sentence summary:

How one might simulate ANT as pedagogy in the writing classroom, with a case study of an assignment.


Holmes argues that ANT offers an alternative pedagogical strategy grounded in description to an explanatory, postmodern pedagogy as described by James Berlin that has become a “near universal pedagogical strategy for rhetoric and writing teachers” (421). Holmes builds his approach around the idea of actant-pedagogy, contrasting it with Berlin’s social-epistemic pedagogy. Holmes describes a unit in an advanced writing course that seeks, through research and discourse analysis, to simulate the anti-methodology of ANT. While not precluding explanatory moments altogether, the focus of Holmes’ pedagogy is to compose ontological networks, to assemble the actors of an issue into an account that may then be communicated to other actors and reflected upon by students.

Nathaniel Rivers, “Tracing the Missing Masses”

Bruno Latour, We have Never Been Modern

Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social

Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter

Jody Shipka, Toward a Composition Made Whole

LatourBot“[R]hetoric and writing scholars … have largely avoided exploring ANT directly as a pedagogical method with something to teach students about their political agency as writers” (422).

“ANT is a tool that I can only use after the activity of teaching to describe my efforts to employ actant-pedagogy within a contingent set of alliances, mediators, students, technologies, and networks of associations through which my intentional (and unintentional) pedagogical aims unfold. For this reason I suggest that actant-pedagogy is better understood as a strategic pedagogical effort to simulate ANT’s descriptive antimethodology to teach them how not to represent rhetorical situations through explanation and heuristic-driven critique alone” (423).

“[N]etworks have to be composed by writers through a rather laborious and difficult process of determining unique and local configurations of agency, connectivity, affect, influence, and many other factors” (426).

“Simply stated, it is one thing to provide students with a drawing of a pencil (for example, an assignment prompt directing them to document nonhuman actors in a certain fashion) that becomes their own pencil (descriptive tool). It is a different point of emphasis entirely to help them understand the difference between the pencil and the drawing of the pencil, and negotiating this gap even at a basic level is a necessary and crucial step if we are to think of applying ANT as a way to raise students’ political consciousness” (429).

“ANT does not foreclose the importance of social-epistemic critique” (431).

The charge I take from Holmes’ work here is to think through potential uses of an ANT-inspired pedagogy that focus on composing networks/assemblages/accounts. One of the first distinctions to make in a FYW course, it would seem to me, would be to frame writing, analysis, and research on issues or controversies or problems as opposed to topics. Whereas researching and analyzing a topic entails a kind of durable realm of knowledge that affords revelation or explanation (“this is what I discovered when I looked this up”), engagement with an issue/problem/controversy implies flux or the capacity for alternatively composed descriptions (not descriptions revealed or explained through an appeal to already-known information) that ANT-inspired pedagogies build from.

In general, the form of an assignment would involve two primary artifacts: a description and a reflection. In short, the writer’s task would be to:

1) Write a descriptive account of an issue/controversy/problem to a political actor (by political here I do not mean a politician per se, rather an actor who may wield or influence power within an assemblage). 4-6 pages, I suppose,  but it could be longer.

2) Reflect on what was included and excluded from the account and discuss how such inclusion/exclusion gives shape to their accounts. How do their accounts inflect and reflect the assumptions or commonplaces related to the issue? 2-4 pages, but, again, could be longer

In addition, I think it would make sense to collect other artifacts into a portfolio, a small collection of things that contributed to and bear witness to the invention of  descriptive account, preferably detailed in the reflection.

Over the course of a 3-4 week unit, the entire class could focus on one issue. It could be hypothetical: the university president has decided to ban vending machines from campus. It could be topical: students performing regular “die-ins” on campus, disrupting classes or events. It could be on a grander scale: the appropriate extent of government or corporate surveillance. In the first week the key would be for students to assemble the actors through a series of in- and out-of-class questions and explorations.

Week one: Exploration

In class discussion/invention of the major contours of the issue. This may include detailing assumptions, listing materials, related issues or concepts, key figures, key terms, knowledge bases, historiography, etc. In class work would be followed by an assignment to extend the work out of class and bring back results for further exploration.

Week two: Tracing

In class work focuses on finer detailing and interactivity of actors. Students begin to present notions of connectivity, select paths toward and begin to compose an account. Out of class work involves composing a draft of an account.

Week three: Assemblage.

A draft comes due. In class work includes peer feedback and a re-accounting of the actors. Out of class, the focus turns toward situating the account as a communication to a specific political actor.

Week three/four: Description.

The description is completed along with a reflection describing the choices that comprise the composition. In class work includes grappling with gaps, asymmetries, silences, inflections, commonplaces, etc. as missing from or abundant in accounts.

This is a rough sketch, and it’s not terribly different from the kind of work that Holmes details in the soda tax unit he guided advanced writing students through. The collecting of actors is key, I think, in the early week one and two stages of such an assignment. I imagine lots of small group followed by large group discussion. A reading or set of readings would accompany this assignment as well. That choice would depend on the issue, of course. If the issue of vegetarianism were pursued as a class, for example, David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” would work well. If a topical issue were pursued (the Black Lives Matter/I can’t Breathe or Occupy movements, for example) there would likely be a number of videos or webtexts that would work well in the service of tracing the contours of the issue.

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”.

Reassembling the Social: Chapter 1: First Source of Uncertainty

Key Terms: Enroll/Enrolled/Enrollment; Infralanguage; Ostensive and Performative Definitions; Intermediaries and Mediators

In my reading of this chapter, Latour continues to distinguish between two approaches to sociology: the sociology of the social and the sociology of associations.

Actors (including sociologists) enroll in groups. Sociologists of the social see the enrolled and their enrollment as constitutive of durable, fixed boundaries that clearly and firmly delineate one group from another. “The main feature of this world is to recognize, independently of who is tracing them and with what sort of tools, the unquestionable existence of boundaries” (28).

An alternative perspective sees boundaries as mutative, existing provisionally as demarcated by actors themselves, “situated” as opposed to “existing”. “The first source of uncertainty one should learn from is that there is no relevant group that can be said to make up social aggregates, no established component that can be used as an incontrovertible starting point” (29). The person interested in tracing associations will begin “precisely with the controversies about which groupings one pertains to, including of course the controversies among social scientists about what the social world is made of” (29).

As a methodology, ANT finds more value in the stories, voices, definitions  and jargon of actors themselves than the narratives of those who study them. An ANT analyst observes the tracings actors leave behind as opposed to demarcating those boundaries from the start.

Latour then offers a four-fold “list of traces left by the formation of groups” (30).

  1. Groups speak. They have spokespeople. People define the groups that they enroll in in many different, sometimes contradictory or confusing, ways through “group makers, group talkers, and group holders” (31).
  2.  Actors delineate the groups they enroll in. Sociologists of the social view actors as mere informants whose perspective is necessarily limited by the context of the group in which they preside. Such an analyst imagines seeing “big picture,” both spatially and temporally, so to speak.  By contrast, an ANT analyst will “set up as the default position that the inquirer is always one reflexive loop behind those they study” (33).
  3. Actors attempt to delineate the groups in which they enrolled with “fixed and durable” boundaries. Such delineations can be traced in innumerable ways, though the intent, in all of the complexity and variability of such a task is to make the boundaries “finite and sure.” An ANT analyst is uninterested in fixed boundaries; rather, the ANT researcher will follow and trace the actors’ efforts at delineation and definition.
  4.  Analysts themselves are among the spokespersons of groups. Any observer of groups, in other words, contributes to the delineation of the group itself.


Groups, or “social aggregates” (34) can be defined in two manners: ostensivly and performativly. Ostensive definitions form groups as rigid structures, static, already-there. Performative definitions see groups/aggregates as in flux, active–performing. “For sociologists of associations, the rule is performance and what has to be explained, the troubling exceptions, are any type of stability over the long term and on a larger scale” (35).

Latour looks to the “sometimes exquisitely small differences between the many ways in which people ‘achieve the social’ “ as the meticulous work of an ANT analyst (36-37).

Finally, a distinction is made between intermediaries and mediators. An intermediary “is what transports meaning or force without transformation: defining its inputs is enough to define its outputs” (39). A functioning computer is offered as an example; while it may be complex, its use is straightforward (things change if the computer breaks down, though). “Mediators transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry” (39). A conversation is proffered as an example of mediator; it may look simple enough, but its output of “passions, opinions, and attitudes bifurcate at every turn” (39).

After reading through the uncertainties outlined in this chapter, “Readers can begin mapping the many contradictory ways in which social aggregates are constantly evoked erased, distributed, and reallocated” (41).

Composition’s New Thing: Bruno Latour and the Apocalyptic Turn

I’m immersing myself in Bruno Latour‘s Reassembling the Social. So last night, when I was discussing an upcoming conference presentation with one of my professors, my head tilted and my eyes opened a bit wider when Latour’s name came up. I never expected to discuss Latour, even briefly, with this particular professor, but, also, from the conversation that followed, I understood this piece, by Paul Lynch (published in English Journal in May 2012) to be about the end of composition as a discipline. Promptly after dinner I stopped by the library, saw Apocalyptic in the title of Lynch’s piece and decided (felt compelled, really) to grab a cup of coffee and read for an hour.

The piece begins with an epigraph by John Stewart, a quote that softens the end-times allusion of the title. Lynch discusses a number of “turns” composition has taken as a young discipline, arguing that a most recent turn involves “an apocalyptic turn, in which the end of the world looms ever larger in our disciplinary and pedagogical imagination” (458). Lynch references a number of writers regarding the apocalyptic turn and details three writers right away: Derek Owens, Kurt Spellmeyer, and Lynn Worsham. These and other scholars explore the implications of large-scale economic and environmental collapse, local and global violence, and, in short, very bad things happening all around us through the lens of composition.

Lynch asks, “what, finally can composition do to ameliorate these threats?” (458) The aforementioned authors, Lynch says, suggest that critical thinking has outlived its usefulness  and he uses this line of thought to bring into examination the usefulness of “the critical impulse that has been one of composition’s central values” (458). (An aside: I’ve followed a discussion from a blog post titled “Critical Thinking is Bogus” from Alex Reid. In my reading, Reid’s focus seems to be more on how “critical thinking,” or any kind of cognitive activity, for that matter, is situated and not really something that can be taught as a generalized skill set. Rather, systems of thinking, like close reading in an intro lit course, are what we ought to be exploring in education.)

Lynch goes on to explore the implications of Latour’s post-critical stance as established in We Hvae Never Been Modern and other works. Lynch envisions a move past the “apocalyptic logic of critique and closer to an apocalyptic turn toward responsibility” (459).

Lynch’s turn away from the logic of critique includes a discussion of David Bartholomae‘s essay “Inventing the University.” Lynch respectfully discusses Bartholomae’s ad-lib like critical formula: ” ‘While most readers of ____ have said ____, a close and careful reading shows that ____’ ” (463).  While recognizing a “critical enterprise” as an important component of education, Lynch wonders how useful it is in the present zeitgeist, though he’s not entirely dismissive, turning Bartholomae’s fill-in-the-blank supposition back onto the entire critical enterprise, suggesting “critique may become a trained incapacity” (463).

In critique’s place, Lynch calls for “contemplation, connection, and cultivation … as the discipline’s central values” (464). Lynch moves from there to look at Latour’s “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’,” (next up on my reading list), a discussion of “capital-T Thing” (467) and gestures that connect Kenneth Burke with Latour while weaving Plato’s cave allegory throughout.

This is a piece I’ll come back to and perhaps blog about again. I’m eager to check out some of the “apocalyptic turn” texts Lynch mentions, too. But in the meantime, I’m thinking about how Lynch’s observations on critical thinking, alongside Reid’s discussion, impact my own thinking.

As I become more familiar with ANT through Latour (and as Ian Bogost speaks about in Alien Phenomenology), I am sensing a turn to the slowing down of observations, a reveling in the complexity and messiness of it all, a move toward observing and noticing all of the strangeness and ambiguity around us, tracing connections and taking stock. Let the patterns reveal themselves on their own terms, this turn seems to say, and keep on observing because those patterns are probably going to change soon. The critical impulse, it seems to me, runs the risk of too quickly turning knowledge into totalized or essentialized assumptions that become static, rigid answers that try to self segregate themselves beyond the flux of situatedness and into the shiny, sure realm of objectivity, a realm that, of course, can be accessed through critical thinking.

Reassembling The Social Read-Along: Introduction

(Caveat lector. This is raw, a document of initial encounters. Like a ride-along in a police cruiser, I’m observing, taking things in, asking questions, and chatting with the driver.)

“What I want to do is to redefine the notion of social by going back to its original meaning and making it able to trace connections again” (1).

Social as Material, Social as Thing, Social as Place


Social as Motion, Social as Construction, Social as Assemblage

“Two widely different approaches have been taken” to explain foundational/definitional questions like “What is a society?”; “What does the word ‘social’ mean?”; What does it mean when we use phrases like “social dimension” and social factors”? Etc. (3)

One approach is the default position of sociology — realms, domains, spheres, dimensions, structures can all be social. Social fills in spaces of other domains, too: socio-economic, socio-political, social insights into law, social constraints within science. Etc. The social informs economics, politics, law, language, etc.

Social aggregates as explanatory, given. (rigid? static? inanimate?)

The Social as Container. I am in society. I cannot escape society. I’m glad there’s a sociologist here to observe me in society. I can’t get the whole picture since I’m inside of it, but I can be an informant from within society.

A second, less traveled approach: The Social as Network, The Social as Current, The Social as Flow

Social aggregates as emergent from “associations … sociology … as the tracing of associations … [the] social [as] a type of connection” (5). (plastic? dynamic? animate?)

The second approach widens the field of study: Human connections remain, yet the field of study, the practice of tracing connections, will also include  objects, materials, and things, within, between and outside of the human. Such investigators may consider themselves “strictly limited to the tracing of new associations and to the designing of their assemblages” (7).

Sociology of the Social

(Useful as “shorthand” for that which is “already accepted in the collective realm” [11])


Sociology of Associations

(“painful and costly longhand” [11])

The sociology of associations is mired in uncertainties, fluctuations, unknowns. Actors are observed in relation to dynamic associations and the (as)sociologist learns from those relations, rather than actors as situated in a preexisting static social order to which they may become more aware and reflexive with the intervention of a omnipotologist.

The distinction between two sociologies is not new. Emile Durkheim won out over Gabriel Tarde (13).

“This book resembles a travel guide … we will have to learn how to slow down at each step …. It is directed at practitioners as a how-to book helping them to find their bearings once they are bogged down in the territory ” (17).