Friday 18 October 2013

Thinking about an alter-humanism internal to ANT; Policing translation in the borderlands

Nicholas replies to my last comment on his blog; an excerpt:
...Like the hard-won efforts to generate political agency, ours was a hard-won battle to generate technological agency but with a balance. Jan and I have always written that ANT has been used in so many and so many contradictory ways that it almost defies simple summary and has a much more malleable character these days, as it is collided with new theories born in disciplines with different traditions and orienting assumptions. 
So, a materialist answer that still provides something of political agency: I wonder what a discussion would look like if it were started like this: “what should we do with bodies when we de-center humans?” 
I think that in Jan and I’s chapter for that new book, we are walking as far away as we can from humanist theories of international relations precisely waiting for the moment for other to say “STOP, you’re too close to the edge!” Not because we have “materialist-blinders” on, but because I think the ultimate answer to your question will not have almost anything to do with theories or findings, and instead it will be a professional or (dare I say, but surely I do mean it) aesthetic decisions about what theories and models we will invite to populate our home disciplines. This will be something of a traditional “gate keeping” practice that nearly any discipline must encounter. Given the “migratory” (or predatory, depending on perspective) uses of ANT … perhaps its time for a few boundary policemen in IR to ask the hard question: now that they are in the gates, do we let them say and settle here?
I tend to cross post my longer comments on other blogs here. That much typing must deserve a post of its own! So here it is.

I think that kind of dialectical, agonistic discursive approach is a very valid one.  Take your line of argument as far as you can until someone stops you or until it breaks down!  It recognises that thought is a dialogical process and one where (polite) conflict can be productive.

I think that a kind of neo- or alter-humanism is possible from within ANT.  It simply has to take the form of: the more mediations, the more attachments the better (that's the ANT way).  What are the associations and assemblages that make us human?  Can we intensify them to make us even more human (note, not post-human but more human)?  The problem with classic humanism is the location of agency in the human body as if human beings were substances with essential properties.  It's an occult theory that always requires a 'context' to be appended to the individual body as if these things were somehow of different orders of reality.  Instant dualism, just add water.  The worst part of this bodily ontology is that we are locked in to our bodies, as if they are all we are, as if being born naked means we have to live naked.  If, on the contrary, humanity is the product of a broader network then that network can be extended.

I'm thinking of an essay of Latour's on 'qualculation' (what a horrible word!) where he says that e.g. in a supermarket the way that prices are laid out per unit and per weight, etc. turn the shopper into a calculating subject; the shopper 'downloads' that capacity through the network.  Likewise in extended cognition terms we can think of the expansion of calculative capacities that comes even from a simple abacus, for example.

What are the attachments that constitute human political subjectivity and how can they be extended, intensified?  I think part of answering that question might mean taking another look the word 'agency' itself.  If it really is as essential as the humanists say (and aren't we supposed to be ethnomethodologists and diplomats who 'respect our informants'?) then perhaps that's something that needs to be sacrificed, given up to the human inasmuch as it is taken to refer to those attachments that achieve a particular kind of agency, a particular kind of subjectivity instead of standing for all kinds of causal efficacy in general.  It is just a bit of terminology, after all, it is a replaceable part.  It's the spark plug of ANT - essential and yet replaceable.

As for the need for boundary policing, yes I think so.  I'd go so far as to say that ANT requires that kind of opposition.  After all, what produces translation?  A trial.  And if no one opposes ANT's adventurism with any force then there are no real trials and no translation of any significance.  In that sense ANT is an intrinsically agonistic, dialectical, dialogical form of discourse.  It needs to be told no.

I'm also thinking this issue through Latour's modes book that I'm about 2/3 of the way through.  That puts a whole other spin on things as it makes NET one mode among many (albeit a pivotal one).  The modes are pretty transformational for Latour's ANT but he still maintains the ontological policy of 'agency for all' so there's still a debate to be had on that, very much so.  Particularly as the politics mode is quite weak, I think (based on my reading so far at least).  Certainly weaker than some of the others.