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Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social

I started talking about Bruno Latour's latest book, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, last week, and having finished it last night, thought I would add a few more comments. In that prior entry, I talked about it really helped me synthesize that work of Latour's that I've read, and I was positively gushing over the importance that Latour places upon writing.

So let me start this next entry on the book by suggesting that it probably deserves an even wider audience than it's likely to receive. In other words, there are a lot of people in my own field who would benefit from having to work through these ideas and to reflect on the degree to which they rely upon what Latour calls "sociology of the social." Don't get me wrong, though. This isn't meant to be snarky--I think I've already derived some benefit from it as it's helped me to think about the shortcuts I take in my own work. The one thing I will say that is kind of a euphemistic snark is that this book would be harder to read for some than for others.

The book is intentionally polemical, a counter-statement to more than a century of sociology as well as the persistent misreadings of Latour's work (and the work of STS scholars more generally). But it's also instructive for those of us who have borrowed the work and/or language of social science to describe phenomena in our own fields, and that "us" is a lot larger than you might think, whether the borrowing is conscious or not. The bottom line is that Latour denies the existence of something called "the social," but in a very specific sense. The default position of social theory, as he describes it, includes among its tenets:

  • there exists a social "context" in which non-social activities take place
  • the social is a specific domain of reality
  • the social can be used as a specific type of causality
  • the full effect of the social is only visible to the social scientists' more disciplined eyes

There are others (on pp. 3-4), but you get the idea. One of the crucial distinctions that carries throughout the book is the difference between "mediators" and "intermediaries." Intermediaries are effectively conduits, simply transmitting the force of whatever stands behind or above them. Mediators, on the other hand, are transformative: "Mediators transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry" (39). I think that it's fair to say, and Latour does (I think), that is the central question at play in this book. Sociology of the social (bad) treats the world as intermediaries transmitting pre-defined social forces, while "sociology of associations" (Latour's alternative) treats the world as mediators who/that produce those social forces or, at the very least, transform the forces that they encounter (even if it is to reinforce them).

The book itself is laid out in a very outline-friendly format. Part 1 focuses on reopening the questions that sociology of the social has foreclosed on (Latour labels them "sources of uncertainty"), and each of these questions occupies a chapter:

  • What are groups? ("...social aggregates are not the oject of an ostensive definition--like mugs and cats and chairs that can be pointed at by the index finger--but only of a performative definition" (34).)
  • What is action? ("...the interesting question at this point is not to decide who is acting and how but to shift from a certainty about action to an uncertainty about action--but to decide what is acting and how" (60).)
  • What are objects? ("...these implements [hammers, kettles, baskets, clothes, remote controls, et al.], according to our definition, are actors, or more precisely, participants in the course of action waiting to be given a figuration" (71).)
  • What's the relationship between Nature and Society? ("The discussion begins to shift for good when one introduces not matters of fact, but what I now call matters of concern...the mapping of scientific controversies about matters of concern should allow us to renew from top to bottom the very scene of empiricism--and hence the divide between 'natural' and 'social'" (114).)
  • What does it mean to write? ("...a good account will perform the social in the precise sense that some of the participants in the action--through the controversial agency of the author--will be assembled in such a way that they can collected together (138).)

The first half of the book ends with a little interlude written in the form of a dialogue between Latour and a graduate student who has come to him thinking that perhaps actor-network-theory will provide a "frame" for a dissertation. It's a little self-satisfiedly Socratic, but helps to crystallize some of the controversies Latour talks about. As does the following passage from the end of the first part:

This is exactly what the five uncertainties added together might help to reveal: What is the social made up of? What is acting when we are acting? What sort of grouping do we pertain to? What do we want? What sort of world are we ready to share?...The fact is that no one has the answers--this is why they have to be collectively staged, stabilized, and revised. This is why the social sciences are so indispensable to the reassembling of the social (138).

In the second part of the book, Latour tackles the problem of oscillating between local and global in social theory, and he does this by effectively denying the existence of either. He describes the second part pretty concisely as follows:

The aim of this second part is to practice a sort of corrective calisthenics. I will proceed in three steps: we will first relocate the global so as to break down the automatism that leads from interaction to 'Context'; we will then redistribute the local so as to understand why interaction is such an abstraction; and finally, we will connect the sites revealed by the two former moves, highlighting the various vehicles that make up the definition of the social understood as association (172).

Part of what's interesting in the second half is his effort to come up with new terms for these processes. For example, we need clamps as part of relocalizing the global to keep ourselves from spinning out to global answers for happens in the local. Part of redistributing the local is accomplished through plug-ins, patches, and applets, a fairly literal adaptation of these technological bits of code: "To be a realistic whole is not an undisputed starting point but the provisional achievement of a composite assemblage" (208).

The book closes with a defense of actor-network-theory against the charge that, as a primarily descriptive method, it is insufficiently political. Again, though, Latour turns that charge upside down--he argues that what has been defined as political relevance is determined by adherence to pre-set categories, and that given ANT's refusal to acknowledge them, it can't be politically relevant in that fashion. ("...the definition of what it is for a social science to have political relevance has also to be modified" (253) and "So, to study is always to do politics in the sense that it collects or composes what the common world is made of" (256).)

Where this book strikes me as most disciplinarily relevant is its emphasis on production rather than reception. It's possible, I suspect, to read it (esp the last chapter) as an implicit endorsement of academic work--Latour clearly believes that what we do is important, and not only amongst ourselves as audience--but the work that we have to do to "trace the associations" is substantial. I don't think he'd disagree with the statement that his endorsement comes at a high price. In fact, all the way through, he emphasizes the economic metaphors of price and investment to describe the effort required to perform his brand of sociology.

In some ways it reminds me here of the sometimes blithe way that I assume that rhetoric is multi/trans/inter/supra/post-disciplinary, and I'm not the only one to have ever made such a claim, believe me. There's a certain arrogance in assuming that we study the "true" phenomenon "behind" all the other things that our colleagues study, without having earned that right. I think that there are striking parallels to be drawn behind the method that Latour describes here and the ways we go about our own work in our field. Enough so, in fact, that I've already recommended this book to several of our graduate students, and that I'll continue to do so. Enough so that I've been thinking about the work that I'm doing right now, and whether I'd fall afoul of some of the criticism that Latour raises.

Like I said last week, I'm no expert in ANT, and so a lot of what this book had to say was pretty new to me, although it certainly resonated in any number of places with things I've thought about. Perhaps, for someone more versed than I, it's old news. If nothing else, though, it provided me with a way into a very different way of thinking about method and an alternative to some of the default positions of my own discipline.

Good stuff. Thanks, Santa.


All right, then. I've added it to my wish list (along with the other hundreds of books, but at least this one will be at the head of the line). But, yeah, it does sound important, especially for a field that's never really turned much after the much lauded social one back, oh, fifteen years ago. Or more.

My sister is trying to learn about all of the actor stuff.
THank you for posting all of that info.
Ant, I will get her that book:)


"What Would Clay Say"?

Wait, that was method #4. If you would just create a tag for "Book Reviews" or have an entirely separate blog for these readings, I could add a #5 to the "ways of reading."

Of course, I could refer to the same "WWCS?" bracelet.

My bad. You have a general "books" department. I comment corrected.

Add #5 to ways of reading:

"See what Collin Brooke says about the book in his blog (especially theoretically dense books)."

Funny you should mention that, Andrew. I just downloaded the folder of stuff for structured blogging, but I just haven't had the chance to implement, yet. It involves some code tweaking, I think, but that's my plan.

It'd be nice to be able come up with some way of designating these kinds of reviews such that they get aggregated at Kairosnews or something comparable...


That is a GREAT idea. I'm slogging through some Latour essays myself, and it would be REALLY useful to be able to use RSS for specific categories (I have a nice bookmark file for the reading logs I KNOW about, but the communal Kairos aggregation sounds like a GREAT way to do that more publicly.

BTW, your work on the Online C's just obliterated a link I had in a TCQ article proof. I had to send the proofs back with a dead link...sigh.

Hey, C. I'm interested. Can you give us (or just me) a sense of how much this global/local discussion plays a part in the book? Is that a central focus?

btw, we saw wonderfalls last night. it was really clever. thanks for the rec. :)

Actually, I thought a little about you as I was reading BL, Jenny, because I think what he says is compatible with your revision of rhetorical situations. We can chat about it in more detail when we chat...