Thursday, 17 October 2013

The risk of 'de-centering humans'; Reflections on LSE last year

Nicholas at Installing (Social) Order has a nice post updating the blogosphere on their latest work, particularly on 'decentering humans' in International Relations.  I'm glad to see that these issues are still burning away and that the IR/ANT collective is still hanging together!

With regard to the project in general, one question that must ultimately be asked, I think, is: when we have traced all the networks that form the human how do we avoid humans being dissolved into those networks?  How do we avoid shifting from anthropocentrism to an un-self-critical network-centrism?  How do we avoid the political complacency that can potentially come from thoroughgoing relationality?  Are there no unintended consequences of ANT's creeping colonisation of more and more intellectual territory?  I think that there are.

This is something that came up at the Millennium conference last year, as I'm sure you remember!  There was a clear divide at that event between ANT-types and others, most particularly from the critical realist camp, for whom human reflexivity as the basis of political agency is indispensable.  It was argued that the appropriation of 'agency' as a substitute for 'causality' undoes all the hard won victories of emancipatory politics (and its accompanying critical theory) in the 20th century.

As something of an ANT-phile I was quite challenged by this idea.  David Chandler in particular helped me to see the point.  I came to realise that it isn't just a blustery, reactionary reiteration of substantialism or modernist humanism (although it sometimes goes that way too!).  When ANT was working just on science and technology it was easy to downplay and de-exceptionalise the agency of the human - scientists and technicians had been granted far too much agency, far too much centredness and self-control and therefore depriving them of that was methodologically and politically unproblematic.  No one was ever going to lapse into thinking that these people really lacked agency or were cultural dopes; the goal was to shift these human agents back into their networks and ANT did that brilliantly.

When we shift forward 25 years and look at the situation where, now, rightly or wrongly, ANT is a sociological metalanguage that is informing all kinds of theorisation we have to tread much more carefully.  The political agency of human beings in general is in no way as assured as that of scientists and technicians.  We simply can't take human agency for granted in all walks of life (or in all modes of existence, perhaps).  Remember that ANT ethnographers were always (and they were always aware of this) studying up.  That is, they were studying persons with more power, money and prestige than they themselves enjoyed.  Studying down, studying persons who are downtrodden, disenfranchised, held by dominant discourses to be feckless and incapable of rational self-determination - these people need to be treated with greater care.

To systematically remove all the classic humanist means by which their agency can be defended without careful consideration of consequences is, frankly, irresponsible.

That isn't to say that ANT-type work has no place within broader social or political theory.  Far from it.  I am still an ANT-phile!  All I mean to say is that irreducing the human must not, ultimately, dissolve the human.  The ontological status of human political agency is too fragile to be thrown around so cavalierly.  That doesn't mean that we must stop walking in the direction that we have been but, as Latour would put it, we may need to slow down.  It isn't that ANT cannot be translated into all these different areas but we need to recognise and deal with the ever larger degree of transformation that is required to properly extend these networks the further they stray from their origins.  Part of that, I think, means that we have to find a way of saying: the more mediations, the more human.  More humanity, not less.  A new humanism.

That's the major realisation that I got from the LSE event last year (having had a year to reflect on it!).


  1. hard to recognize the characterization of ANT that you outline here when I think of the work by Law, Mol, and others, sounds more like the kind of technico-determinism I associate with folks like Kittler tho after this conference I'm not even so sure about that:
    part of the appeal of the pairing that Peter brought together in ANTHEM is that ANT is a pretty good balance to Heidegger's distaste for "mere" anthropology.

  2. Hmm, you do have a point. I'm too quick to talk about ANT as a homogeneous mass. There are many different iterations of the discourse. And, of course, most include human agents and, indeed, these are usually pivotal agents. Some accounts do a very good job of discerning the attachments that 'agentify' (if that's not too ugly a coinage) human beings. That's why I'd like to push for a kind of alter-humanism from *within* ANT rather than try to go beyond it or criticise it from the outside. A more serious look at the attachments that makes humans human, that make humans political agents. If humanity can be thought in network terms then these networks can be extended, intensified. Thus we can become *more* human - not post-human, more human. 'Human' isn't the default lump of matter to which objects are appended in order to turn us into cyborgs. If we are becoming post-human that is due to the *kinds* of attachments we are subject to (and subjectified by), not because of attachments per se.

    So, no, ANT doesn't exclude human agents, that's true. However, on a theoretical level they are made into 'just another agent among others.' This I find problematic for the reasons I mentioned above. The fight against dualism shouldn't lead to monism, it should lead to pluralism. It's false to oppose human agents on the one hand and mechanical, natural causes on the other but universalising agency as a catch-all term for all forms of causal efficacy is not the only way out of that bind. We must be able to make distinctions between kinds and give each kind its dues, including humans. The borders between these kinds needn't be absolute. But we need a vocabulary for discussing the associations that make human agents what they are; terms that do not apply to other subjectivations or objectivations. The reasons for this are political rather than methodological or even philosophical. That's the general point I was trying to make. I'll try writing some more on it tomorrow.

  3. sure, personally I don't feel the need for a "meta" to physics and I think this ties in with our earlier discussion of Latour leaving the field/lab behind to take a perch for a more God's-eye view.
    I generally find/take talk of the post-human to be science-fiction, don't know what sort of library access you have but Annemarie Mol's is one of the most humane and self-reflexive books I've read, she even has a sense of humor on display, who could imagine such a thing?
    cheers, dmf

  4. I have that book sat right next to me waiting to be read! It's next on my to-read list. Looking forward to it.