This is not a post for actors.
Good, now. Bruno Latour’s article ‘On Actor Network Theory: A Few Classifications 1/2’ aims to dispel myths about what exactly actor-networks are. Good.
He says that three misunderstandings are due to common usages of the word network itself and the connotations they imply:
- Network being a common technical meaning in the sense of sewage, or train, or subway, or telephone ‘network’. Recent technologies often have the character of a network, of exclusively related yet very distant element with the circulation between nodes being made compulsory through a set of rigorous paths giving few nodes a strategic character. Nothing is more intensely connected, mroe distance, more compulsory and more strategically organised than a computer network. An actor-network may however lack all the characteristics of a technical-network.
- The actor-network theory (ANT) has very little to do with the study of social networks. These studies, no matter how interesting, concerns themselves with the social relations of individual human actors – their frequency, distribution, homogeneity, proximity. ANT however extends the word actor – or actant – to non-human, non individual entities. ANT aims at accounting of the very essence of societies and natures instead of the social network which adds information on the relation of humans in the social and natural worlds. Anything, provided it can be the course of an action. It can be institutions (eg. the ABC), individuals, technologies…
- The actual meaning of the word ‘network’ has ontological (existential) roots; it is a change in metaphors used to describe essences from thinking of surfaces, to filaments, as in, nodes that have as many dimensions as they have connections. Initially, this begs one to think of modern societies as essentially fibrous, thread-like, wiry, ropy but these connotations don’t capture notions of levels, layers, territories, spheres, structure, systems. ANT aims to explain the effects accounted for by those traditional words without having to buy into the ‘ontology’, ‘topology’ and ‘politics’ that goes with them. This theory was developed by students of science and technology claiming that it is impossible to understand what holds societies together without “reinjecting in its fabric the facts manufactured by natural and social sciences and the artefacts designed by engineers.” ANT is therefore the only way to include (‘reinject’) these ideas into the understanding of social fabrics – through a network-like ontology and social theory.
Latour continues that Actor Network Theory is a simple material resistance argument; strength does not come from concentration, purity and unity, but from dissemination, heterogeneity and the careful plaiting of weak ties. ANT doesn’t start from universal laws – social or natural – it starts from irreducible, unconnected localities, which then, sometimes end in connections.
He calls it a foreground / background reversal. This is what Latour says it the most counter-intuitive aspect of ANT; that there is nothing like networks, there is nothing in between them. Apparently to Latour this makes ANT a reductionist theory, but he goes on to try and demonstrate that it may be a necessary step towards an irreductionist ontology. Brian Morris unpacked this point in class, saying that traditionally approaching critical studies, the way one goes about it is to read the artefact then understand its context and how it works to create meaning in that object. Latour advocates switching that to instead favour the context – complex network.
He begins to characterise networks by delineating some of their properties:
- Far / close: thinking in terms of networks removes negative proximity – elements which are close when disconnected may infinitely be remote if their connections are analysed, yet conversely infinitely distant appearing objects may be close when their connections are brought back into the picture. “The difficulty we have in defining all associations in terms of networks is due to the prevalence of geography…the geographical notion is simply another connection to a grid defining a metrics and a scale.” The notion of network helps us to lift the tyranny of geographers in defining space and offers a notion which is neither social nor ‘real’ space, but associations.
- Small scale / large scale: the notion of network allows us to dissolve the micro- macro- distinction that has plagued social theory form its inception. The whole metaphor… A network is never bigger than another one, it is simply longer or more intensely connected. A network notion implies a deeply different social theory.
- Inside / outside:
Hmmmmm. Will be looking forward to getting some context on this reading next week.