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Networks, Actors, and the Great Mindwarp

“To pay justice to the efforts of our predecessors and to remain faithful to their tradition, we have to take up their goal, understand why they thought it had been prematurely completed, and see how it can be pursued with slightly better chances of success” (Latour 248)

Bruno Latour. Image hosted on the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities.

Bruno Latour. Image hosted on the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities.

Ah, reading notes, we seem to keep bumping into each other. And, so we continue forth like ANTs making our way back to the nest as this week sees a return of Spinuzzi and a replay of Latour. Yes, you heard correctly. It’s time to wrap up Latour’s Reassembling the Social and introducing him to Spinuzzi’s chapter, “How Networks are Theorized?” Okay, my dears, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Continuing on from last week where we cut off after the third uncertainty, we pick back up with Latour’s four uncertainty: “Matters of Fact vs. Matters of Concern.” I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when looking at this title as I had never heard of “matters of concern” within the context of sociology. Was that a thing outside of ANT? How were actors involved? Of course actors were involved, but what was all this stuff about the melding of human and non-human entities? Settling back into my chair, I knew I was in for a mindwarp.

Enough distractions, young lady. Keep moving, keep unpacking threads of thought, and don’t forget to look back at the ghost of Foucault you imagine is judging every theoretical step you take. But, where to start? What thread to follow? Will I even understand the full tapestry when I stumble, rather ungracefully, upon it? Let’s just begin where I understand best and spiral outwards from there.

I have to say, Latour sure knows how to make a reader smile. When he is finished being snarky, or in the middle of a really good rant, the images his writing conjures give a sense of concreteness to theory I had not expected. Take, for example, his conversation about the word “construction” and all of the problems it had created for him and his colleague when they first used the term (the very beginning of their forays into the “construction” of Actor-Network-Theory). As he juxtaposed his ideas of what construction would mean in the boundaries of sociology with that of his colleagues, I found myself siding with Latour: “Moreover, to say that science, too, was constructed gave the same thrill as with all other ‘makings of’: we went back stage, we learned about the skills of practitioners; we saw innovations come into being; we felt how risky it was; and we witnessed the puzzling merger of human activities and non-human entities. By watching the fabulous film that our colleagues the historians of science were shooting for us, we could attend, frame after frame, to the most incredible spectacle: truth being slowly achieved in breathtaking episodes without being sure of the result” (90). All too often I see a movie or a theory or a book and think that it is perfect in its wholeness, never stopping to think of its flaws, the fact that there were probably times when the final product seemed nothing but a pipe dream. Latour’s concept of “construction” as a way to peek into the process of creation rather than something’s artificial-ness. I really loved the moment when he talks about learning of “the skills of practitioners,” as it relates to how the actors he is pulling from across all disciplines and boundaries of society are linked: “Those various trades are not distinct by the domains they deal with, but only by the different skills they apply to the same domain” (254). It is here where the ANTs start to make the most sense as he draws upon the example of a building being constructed, a concerted effort by people of all different trades and with all different skills. An architect may craft the designs for a building, but the actual work requires contractors, plumbers, electricians, foundation crews, suppliers, interior designers, construction workers, and all other types of subcontractors necessary to make a building not only visibly finished but also functional.

Construction Workers. Image hosted on The Daily Mind.

Construction Workers. Image hosted on The Daily Mind.

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“the question of the social emerges when the ties in which one is entangled begin to unravel, the social is further detected through the surprising movements from one association to the next; those movements can either be suspended or resumed; when they are prematurely suspended, the social as normally constructed is bound together with already accepted participants called ‘social actors’ who are members of a ‘society’; when the movement toward collection is resumed, it traces the social as associations through many non-social entities which might become participants later; if pursued systematically, this tracking may end up in a shared definition of a common world, what I have called a collective; but if there are no procedures to render it common, it may fail to be assembled; and, lastly, sociology is best defined as the discipline where participants explicitly engage in the reassembling of the collective” (Latour 247)

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To this discussion we add Spinuzzi, who has graced this blog before but had to be tucked away into interweaving of the theories my peers and I have approached. But, how does the man who sought for ways to accomplish Genre Tracing fit into ANT? Well, he decided to throw ANT into conflict/dialogue with its bitter enemy: activity theory.

Activity System Mode, hosted on the website, Information Research.

Activity System Mode, hosted on the website, Information Research.

Yes, Spinuzzi decided to throw them together to duke it out, to weave between, and to settle that while they do have differences, they also have similarities. As I am not too familiar with Activity Theory, I really couldn’t explain to you (yet. I’ll get cracking on discovering the tension).

[more information and quotes]

[discuss, discuss, discuss]

Citations:

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the SocialAn Introduction to the Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

In Which All Roads Lead to Frozen: