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This was going to be an entry about ducks

Before I press on for the next entry in my Things I Got for Christmas series, I did want to make note of two recent Gifts That Aren't Really Gifts But For Which I Am Nonetheless Grateful, both drawn from the world of sports. First, I feel a little bad about not jumping up to add my voice to those praising the selection of Bruce Sutter for the MLB Hall of Fame. Every time you hear about a pitcher throwing a split-finger fastball, you should remember that, more than perhaps anyone else, Sutter was the guy who made that pitch a household one. I don't know which cap he'll wear upon being inducted, but I'll always remember watching him on WGN, cuz when I saw him, that meant that the game was over and the Cubs were going to win (at least until he left).

Second, I was happy to hear today that Kirk Ferentz, head football coach at Iowa, had withdrawn his name from consideration for various NFL positions. It's entirely selfish of me, and of all Iowa fans I'm sure, but Ferentz took a team that, four years ago, was predicted to go 0-11, and over the last three seasons has gone 31-7. He's been a godsend for that program, and speculation was, with his son graduating, that he might return to the NFL, where he was an assistant coach for several years. Iowa was lucky to get him, and they remain lucky to keep him. It's refreshing to see a successful college coach who's happy to be where he's at, and not looking to parlay that success into a "better" gig.

latour.jpgNow, let's return to talking about me and my gifts. Lest you think that my life is all mustard and defunct TV series, I should hasten to note that much of my wishlist features academic books. Often, it's as much the case that these are books I wish I had time to read as it is that I wish I owned them. And today's feature certainly falls into that category. Right now, I'm reading Bruno Latour's Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, and I'm about halfway through, so it's not really fair of me to claim any kind of comprehensive account of the book. Besides which, there are definitely people out there whose opinions of this work you should heed before you heed mine.

That being said, let me offer two observations. First, while I wouldn't call myself a Latour groupie, I've read a fair amount of his work, including Science in Action, Aramis, Pandora's Hope, and We Have Never Been Modern. In fact that last book is one that I'd recommend to anyone looking for a way out of the various postmodernisms that seem to crowd out any other option. I'm not a groupie, so I don't always completely buy into Latour, but I will say this--more than anything else I've read by him, this new book (without explicitly doing so) really makes his entire intellectual trajectory cohere for me. I now feel like I understand how all those other books fit together for him in a coherent way. And part of that is that RS is an extended meditation on the core concepts and vocabulary that underlie Latour's method. I feel like the implicit assumptions of the rest of his work are laid fairly bare in this latest book, and that's really made it interesting to me. I don't think that there a lot of folk in my field who read Latour, and I don't read many people from other disciplines who work more closely with him, so this may simply be an epiphany for me. And that's cool.

The second thing that I want to point out about RS, though, is something that has relevance more broadly. This is a book on method, and while I'm sure that there are others equally as committed, I'm not sure I've read a book on method that is so insistent on the importance of writing, and for that reason alone, this is a book worth reading in our field. Two passages:

Since we are all aware that fabrication and artificiality are not the opposite of truth and objectivity, we have no hesitation in highlighting the text itself as mediator. Bur for this very same reason, we don't have to abandon the traditional goal of reaching objectivity simply because we consider with great care the heavy textual machinery (124).

(It's worth mentioning that "mediator" for Latour implies an actor, transformation, production, change, while its opposite term "intermediary" implies transmission, conduit, passivity, etc. One of his critiques of what he calls the "sociology of the social" is that it reduces the multiplicitous, varied world to a collection of intermediaries transmitting a vague, nebulous force called "the social.")

What's been interesting to me is that I wrote an essay 5 years ago for JAC that took up (in part) Latour's WHNBModern, and (again in part) addressed the problem of imagining rhetoric's place in a space where "natural" and "artificial" were opposite poles. By no means do I want to suggest that my account comes close to the detail or scope of Latour's here, but I think this is part of why it's resonating for me--I think I came fairly close in that article, responding to/building on Latour, to the position that he arrives at in this chapter. I don't mean to suggest here that I'm excited about this because "it proves I was right!" or anything. It's more of a "Wow, this is what I wish I'd said!" kind of vibe.

it seems that too often sociologists the social are simply trying to 'fix a world on paper' as if this activity was never in risk of failing. If that is the case, there is no way they can succeed, since the world they wish to capture remains invisible because the mediating constraints of writing are either ignored or denied (127-8).

There's a larger issue in this passage, about the fact that we are writing in the world and producing texts in the world that themselves are inseparable from the world, but let me focus my enthusiasm on the even simpler, more fundamental point that writing is mediating, because I think that it's worth saying over and over and over, particularly in my field, where I think we teach it to our students without ever fully believing it ourselves. Whatever I have to say, from blog entry to journal article to book chapter, is changed by the "simple" act of writing it. Since it's job season, and since I've been cracking the whip a little with some of our later-stage students, let me make it concrete:

There is a qualitative difference between the projects in our heads (the ones we're going to write) and the projects on the pages and screens (the ones we've written), and that difference leaves traces in our ability to explain those projects in letters, in conversations, and in interviews.

Nine times out of ten, being able to talk about the project you have done is going to be far better than being able to guess about the project you might do. And in a very practical sense, that's part of why, as a director of a graduate program, I'm pushing our students to have multiple chapters before they start talking about their projects to potential employers. Because

Writing. Changes. Everything.

That should be the tag line for the great collaborative-weblog-in-the-sky that is sometimes my/our discipline. That, and maybe something about spinning off into marginally relevant tangents like I've done here. I suppose that's all right, though: I'll never be anything but an amateur sociologist, and I'm certainly wouldn't bill myself as any kind of expert in ANT. But I did get this book for Christmas, and I'm looking forward to the second half.

That's all.


Well, you've sold me on Latour's latest. Of course "sold me" means that I'm content to leaf through it at the CGBbrary until it comes out in paper. Guess I could just look it up in the Bird catalogue.... Nope, not there.

LOVE that tag line!