Sunday 26 August 2012

More on Geography, Materiality, etc.

Further to my last post, Prof. PTJ replies in the comments to the original thread) that:
Allowing a little non-social influence on social relations is like being a little bit pregnant, because strictly speaking, these are both firm dichotomies rather than categories that can be somehow combined. If social action has parametric non-social limits that can be definitively grasped, then social action isn't constitutive and creative except within a sphere that something else grants to it. Which is why a little bit of "physical features of a region matter on their own, autonomously" is, conceptually speaking, physical determinism. 
That said, realize that I am not making fundamental ontological claims here, but analytical ones. Obviously people need to eat, so the food supply is important. Duh. At issue is how one conceptualizes "the food supply" or the mountains/rivers/diseases you invoke. I do not think that it makes sense to simultaneously say that intrinsic characteristics of food/rivers/mountains/diseases cause social outcomes, and that the discourses (and I shouldn't have to say "discourse isn't talk, but a system of practical meaning-making activity," but I am saying it anyway just in case) disclosing these things as meaningful objects cause social outcomes. Theoretically speaking, it's one or the other, not both -- and if it's both, then it's usually the former....
Below, Nawal then raises the subject of Latour:
Curious though PTJ, if you think Latour and his relational actor-network theory offers us a way out of such dichotomies or conundrums? As in the dichotomy between the "ideational" and the "material?" I read him as offering an alternative conception of the "social," which ontologically it could be fleshed out, but epistemologically speaking? I'm not quite sure... 
Or to put it another way, I read him as attempting to map out configurations of transactions and relations between social sites, the latter which could be physical objects, persons, etc., hence problematizing the "social"/"non-social" dichotomy. On the other hand, if we did take into account the analyticist methodology you've outlined elsewhere, physical objects would still be interpreted of course for the sake of theoretical accounts, so in a sense, perhaps, the "social" is either A) still taking precedence here, or B) as Latour puts it, we're forced to rethink what "the social" entails. ...
To which PTJ replies:
I read Latour much the way that you read him here. I think he's basically a relational discourse theorist who is reacting against the "ideational" misreading of Foucault, so he and his disciples say "material" a lot when they mean discursive in the correct, narrow, Foucault-Laclau-Mouffe-Pickering-and-I-would-also-say-Wittgenstenian-sense of systems of meaning-making practices. The word "material" is a red herring in all-too-many of these discussions. 
For Latour there are no such things as 'social relations' in an abstract sense.  There are no 'social relations' as such, only mediators, which are things.  When Latour talks about 'the social' he is talking about a particular 'mode of existence' or mode of connection particular to sociality.  In other words, sociality is a particular way of connecting things; it is not a separate sphere or realm apart from things.  It's not composed from a different kind of 'stuff' to other kinds of things.  He isn't 'problematising the dichotomy' -- he's outright denying it.

Consequently, for him, sociality isn't limited to words, meanings, texts, etc. -- anything that performs a social connection is social.  While I'm fully aware that "discourse isn't talk, but a system of practical meaning-making activity" -- i.e. it isn't 'ideal' -- that isn't the problem.  Some discourse theorists are of course willing to embrace the concept of materiality insofar as texts are material, as are human bodies and regimes of discipline and so on.  But these caveats are generally pretty half-hearted and fail to go anywhere near far enough.  In fact they're just margin-notes to a whole mindset that is wrong.

Latour's definitely not a discourse theorist in any way, shape or form.  He certainly owes dues to Foucault, while semiotics is his main 'toolkit' but that's as far as it goes.  This becomes perfectly clear in any of his actual actor-network analyses.  For example: In his photo essay 'Paris: Invisible City' (available on his website) he goes around Paris looking at all the institutions that hold the city together as a city.  The city qua city -- that is, as a social entity.  He looks at, for instance, how the clocks keep time.

Tracing that network one can go from the watch on one's wrist to the radio towers that transmit pulses to update devices wirelessly to broadcasting stations, to the statute books and standards documents that prescribe the specific definitions of time to the laboratories where standards are produced, criticised, tested, reproduced and so on.  But if you keep pulling at the threads you can go even further.  Those laboratories don't just work on texts and traces; they also tie themselves into the persistent, unfailing pulses of decaying radioactive isotopes and the perfectly consistent throbbing of distant, dying stars.  These are the objects whose own time-keeping is used to set the whole network in lockstep.

These technical, legal, scientific and political institutions tie the city of Paris together by keeping it in time with itself.  And at what point is this network 'social' in the narrow sense?  The stars, atoms, papers, fibre-optic cables and so on are not part of the network 'in a manner of speaking,' nor are they only enrolled insofar as they are meaningful.  They simply are part of the network, just as all the meaningful human agents are.  The network isn't reducible to atoms and stars but nor does it make the least bit of sense without them.

Latour doesn't ask 'how is meaning made?' he asks 'how do things hold together?' -- and cities are held together, in some small part, with stars and atoms -- so long as the requisite networking institutions exist, that is.

Stars and atoms aren't the 'really real' behind the veil of subjective impression and they don't determine anything.  The fear of material determinism is frankly silly if you look at how much hard work goes into making the whole network hold together.  Stars and atoms don't easily lend themselves to humans' peculiar ends.  They have to be enrolled, enlisted and maintained.  Far from determining the whole getup on their own they are utterly indifferent towards us.  They have to be made to determine the time on our wrists and on our walls.

And yet, despite all of that, actor-network theory can easily be read as constructivism.  It steadfastly refuses, for instance, the notion of an absolute, objective Time sitting behind all our subjective perversions of it.  The stars and atoms do not pulse and decay in Real Time, 'out there,' as it really is.  The aforementioned network does not produce a subjective approximation of an objective absolute.  Time is the product of a specific network and, consequently, there are as many times as there are networks producing it.  But none of that constructivism draws a line between the atoms and the texts, the things and their meaning.  On the contrary, if there were such a line the whole network would collapse; the network exists precisely because the lines of the network look like this: ------ (connected) and not like this: ----|---- (disconnected).  Drawing an arbitrary line between sociality and materiality (thereby constituting the fantasy that such things exist, severally) prevents us from understanding these hybrid networks because the networks themselves do not operate on the basis of such distinctions.  This is why ANT adopts the ethnomethodological principle to let actors themselves define their own meta-languages, rather than imposing an analytical master-language from the outside.

And this is why our dualist SOPs (whether they're ontological or just analytical, it makes no difference), in my opinion, are no longer helpful.  They are the problem, not the solution.

So, PTJ, basically I don't accept that we should have hard and fast divisions between the ontologies of our daily lives -- in which we know that the world is full of things that have all kinds of effects on us -- and the ontologies of our analyses -- where only the 'meaning' of things is relevant.  It's not because ignoring materiality locks us into 'subjectivism' or because looking at things rather than people makes us all hard-nosed and serious -- these criticisms are bogus and based on their own dualisms.  It's because arbitrary, pre-judged distinctions between what matters and what doesn't make it impossible for us to understand hybrid networks that, themselves, only work because they do not make such distinctions.

If we live in an ontologically hybrid world we need modes of analysis suited to that world.  Social constructivism or discourse analysis in the vein of Foucault, Laclau, Wittgenstein, etc. are well suited to particular areas of our world but they miss out entirely on vast swathes of it because of their blinkered and entirely unnecessary dualist predispositions (again, whether it's ontological or analytical dualism, it makes no difference).  Social constructivism should be valued for what it does well but no number of successes should paper over where it goes awry -- and where it goes off the rails is in the face of hybrid networks, which are everywhere.