Unpicking One Tuesday

In last week’s symposium I mentioned, in passing, Bruno Latour and actor-network theory. These are complex areas, but in that long messy (they’re always messy if you actually want to deal with what is rather than imaginary ‘forces’) conversation I’m going to try to join some dots.

Latour writes, “To be a realistic whole is not an undisputed starting point but the provisional achievement of a composite assemblage.” Fancy words. This is in many ways similar to Shield’s “plots are for dead people”. What I take Latour to mean is that we aren’t really ‘whole’ (and neither really is anything else). For instance as I sat in the symposium I was simultaneously a (1) teacher, (2) pontificate, (3) employee, (4) sort of employer (I asked Betty, Elliot and Jason to teach the subject), (5) supervisor (I am Jason’s PhD supervisor), (5) colleague, I’ve also (6) taught Elliot in media and in honours, (7) friend (my child has played with Betty’s children). I have not chosen any of these things deliberately, and some of them precede me. For instance simply because I’m in a lecture room and at the front of the room there is, by virtue of history, institutional processes, and your own experience as students, a role and authority conferred on me automatically just by being the one who gets to stand at the front.

That’s me, and just a description of my social relations as I sit for 50 minutes in one room on one afternoon. For Latour (and Shields) there’s an interest in thinking about the world as like this, as wondering what happens when we realise that things are what they are not because they sort of lie there by themselves being what they are but they are always in these relations that really matter (my example of something as banal as a hammer – and I’d argue on what basis do we even grant ourselves the privilege to say that a hammer is a banal, simple thing anyway?). So plots, and the way we narrate and present knowledge (the Ted Nelson and Vannevar Bush readings are making exactly the same arguments) are, according to these people, at odds, a mismatch, with how the world really is.

Now, network media, where does this fit here? Well, in digital network media we can develop, and are very slowly beginning to develop, ways of making and telling stories (fiction and nonfiction) that can begin to acknowledge, make with, and think with and about, the world as, well, these sorts of inter-related complicated things. So we can write and argue not with generalisations but with specific things. We can include that bit of that film we are writing about, or link to that essay, and not make some general comment about that doesn’t really have to be right because, well, who’s going to go read the original anyway? But when I can link or include that in my work, so now it is near, right there, what I say, how I say it, can change.

For example, in a hypertext it is very trivial for me to write a sentence like “As I sat in the lecture I noticed I was surrounded by social relations” and then literally make seven different links to seven different places/bits of content that then begins to discuss each of these seven social relations (and by now you should notice the relations create the roles, not the other way round, stand in front of a classroom you are a teacher). I can do this without having to make a list, without having to make it be sequential which is simply has to be if it is on paper, or even in most cases even HTML. This is a small step, but it does dramatically change how we can make academic arguments and how we think what they are.

Now, step acros so stories, and similar things can happen. We can make stories that are collections of pieces that keep changing. They are still stories. The think we keep coming back to is how, and what sort of are. We are literally still learning this, and one of the things getting in the way of this learning is to keep thinking a story equals what is has been for the last 400 hundred years. It doesn’t (I’m reminded of the line in WellesThe Magnificent Ambersons where Joseph Cotton sneers at the motor car as “a useless nuisance”).

Academically and personally, particular with the rise of informal documentary media (Instagram, Vine, even FaceBook) I’m interested in what’s next, and how we tell nonfiction stories in this space. Nonfiction stories that engage with the world as it is and let us understand it more intimately, and deeply. I think these tools begin to do this, but they are still deeply constrained by old forms. On the other hand something creative like We Feel Fine, Cowbird, and even Wilderness Downtown are all provocative in relation to story and the network in their own ways….