Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Actor-Network Theory in theory and in practice

Perhaps in theory actor-network theory neglects human reflexivity; in practice, however, ANT accounts are full of fully reflexive humans all reflexively reflecting in their own ways. Mol's The Body Multiple is a paragon of self-awareness and empathy. Latour's Aramis is replete with engineers agonising over engineering, politicians opportunistically politicking, etc. In Gomart and Hennion's A Sociology of Attachmenteven drug addicts aren't reducible to their vice; their vice, instead, provokes instances of subjectivation.
[G&H] reveal a subtle interweaving between being abandoned to an external power and the virtuosity of practices, of manual, and of social skills. The user passes between active and passive. That is, between 'I am manipulated' (because I agree to it) and 'I manipulate' (an object which is stronger than myself). (p.243)
There are no more 'network dopes' than there are 'cultural' ones.

And so on and so on.

Nowhere are human beings reduced to being mere 'mouth pieces' of networks; however, the mere fact that humans have reflexive self-awareness isn't allowed to be the be all and end all, the thing that separates humans from other things so fundamentally that they have to be dealt with in separate chapters or with distinct conceptual vocabularies.

Where does that craving for a kind of ontological cordon – a prophylactic for humanness, an agency-shield – come from? It can only come from the fear of automata, the belief in beings that are pure clockwork and simply reproduce their constitutive causes without alteration. ANT dismisses this as a possibility and so the lack of human agency is never really an issue, at least not a priori.

Certainly people are repressed but always in particular times, in particular places and always by particular networks. If something or someone is without agency (and for a human this must mean that they are incapable of understanding what it is that they are doing) then this is something remarkable that must be explained, it isn't something that justifies letting nature bifurcate all over again.

If you are convinced that human beings are engulfed in totalitarian social structures that threaten to drown them in determination then it makes sense to worry endlessly about reflexivity and to make it the alpha and omega of your sociology. If, however, you grant everything agency (of whatever sort and of whatever strength and intensity) as a matter of course and then proceed to understand the meshing of these infinitely variegated agencies in concrete situations then this never becomes a problem since the presence or absence of any kind of freedom is always explained by concrete forces deployed in the case at hand.

In short, actor-network theorists routinely deal with human reflexivity, they just don't make a big song and dance about it.

The above tenets are, of course, entirely questionable and open to criticism; however, unless ANT is criticised for what it does rather than what its humanist critics like to think that it does we'll never get anywhere with anything.

ANT deserves to be critiqued – but it deserves to be critiqued well.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

'What is space?'

I'll be presenting a paper at the 'What is space?' workshop being held at Warwick in a couple of weeks (17/06/2014). As the programme demonstrates, it's a positively eclectic interdisciplinary event. I'm going to be exploring the title 'Latour, Lovelock and Sloterdijk on being imprisoned in the World.' Looking forward to it!

Edward Casey on place and plants

A tree stands in its own place. Its life is sedentary. It is a life in one place, a life without anxiety. Not only is a tree in its place; it actively contributes to its place, filling it up with its own organic substance. It knows no menacing void, even though to move from its own place is to risk the death of the organism. (Getting Back Into Place, xii)
The movement-capability and hence the spatiality of plants is indeed different to that of locomotory animals. Plants are where they are; they move but only by themselves growing; they migrate but only reproductively, across generations.

This is significant. But if what Latour, Sloterdijk and Lovelock all say of the Earth—that it is the only planet we have and that space migration is, most likely, for fools (or those with a death-wish); that we are trapped within this planet's atmosphere—then aren't we as stuck in our planetary place as plants are in their soil (at least those of them that put down roots)? Even more so since it would take many generations to travel to the nearest habitable planet (wherever that is) even at lightspeed.

This ties into the question of 'soil'; humans are rooted to their 'soil' if not to their soil. Indeed, isn't human from humus (earth)? In this way the difference that is meant to found a fundamental difference in being between animals and plants is really just an illusion of scale—we are even more rooted to our 'soil' (let's say humus instead of 'soil') than plants are to their soil. Territory in the sense that Latour uses the term—to designate all those attachments without which a being could not be and that could fail it at any moment—is as applicable to plants as it is to animals, human or otherwise. Every existent has a territory, an umwelt, a humus. Some existents have the capacity to nurture their natures; plants as well as animals do this—all life does it, according to Lovelock's theory.

The serene emplacedness of plants impresses Casey, a partisan for place. Perhaps, then, we do have to recognise our plant-ness; our common vegetal-spatiality. Plants have accepted their place while we try to convince ourselves that we are placeless, infinitely mobile; that we have no air-conditioning requirements, that we can breathe without spacesuits. We are fools, no doubt.

However, I think with this settlement must also come a rejection of some of the exclusivity granted to plants. They cannot do violence, according to the Hegelian theory—but don't they sever, crush, choke, smother and destroy, like other beings? If we are even more trapped and emplaced (albeit against our apparent will) than they are then how can we attain the self-negation that they cannot? Isn't it the self-negation itself that is illusory? It is only on a short scale that these differences appear and cannot sustain differences in kind, at least not in the respects aforementioned.