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.