Summary

Keywords

  • Latour wants to redefine “sociology not as the ‘science of the social,’ but as the tracing of associations. In this meaning of the adjective, social does not designate a thing among other things, like a black sheep among other white sheep, but a type of connection between things that are not themselves social” (5).
  • As far as I can follow, “controversy” is Latour’s word of choice for anything that seems to deviate surprisingly from a pre-ordained model of understanding; actors are forever producing controversies that we should address head-on rather than subsume into a model (24).
  • “An ‘actor’ in the hyphenated expression actor-network is not the source of an action but the moving target of a vast array of entities swarming toward it” (46).

Notes

Introduction

  • “The argument of this book can be stated very simply: when social scientists add the adjective ‘social’ to some phenomenon, they designate a stabilized state of affairs, a bundle of ties that, later, may be mobilized to account for some other phenomenon” (1). So what does this really mean? Latour wants to redefine “social” from first principles: what are the units of sociology and what are the relations between them that constitute a field of social being? What would it even mean to construe the social as some kind of material domain, as Latour warns against?
  • The “relativist” framework of ANT is designed specifically to hand rapid acceleration and change: “But as soon as things accelerate, innovations proliferate, and entities are multiplied, one then has an absolutist framework generating data that becomes hopelessly messed up” (12).
  • “In the first part, I will show why we should not limit in advance the sort of beings populating the social world. Social sciences have become much too timid in deploying the sheer complexity of the associations they have encountered. . . . In the second part, I will show how it’s possible to render social connections traceable by following the work done to stabilize the controversies followed in the first place . . . I could say that ANT has tried to render the social world as flat as possible in order to ensure that the establishment of any new link is clearly visible” (16).

Part 1. How to Deploy Controversies about the Social World

  • “The first source of uncertainty one should learn from is that there is no relevant group that can be said to make up social aggregates, no established component that can be used as an incontrovertible starting point” (29).
  • “ANT-sociologists, on the other hand, possess no such common currency. The word social cannot replace anything, cannot express anything better, cannot be substituted—in any form or guise—for anything else. It is not the common measure of all things, like a credit card widely accepted everywhere. It is only a movement that can be seized indirectly when there is a slight change in one older association mutating into a slightly newer or different one” (36).
  • “An intermediary, in my vocabulary, is what transports meaning or force without transformation: defining its inputs is enough to define its outputs. For all practical purposes, an intermediary can be taken not only as a black box, but also as a black box counting for one, even if it is internally made of many parts. Mediators, on the other hand, cannot be counted as just one; they might count for one, for nothing, for several, or for infinity. Their input is never a good predictor of their output; their specificity has to be taken into account every time. . . . A properly functioning computer could be taken as a good case of a complicated intermediary while a banal conversation may become a terribly complex chain of mediators where passions, opinions, and attitudes bifurcate at every turn. But if it breaks down, a computer may turn into a horrendously complex mediator while a highly sophisticated panel during an academic conference may become a perfectly predictable and uneventful intermediary in rubber stamping a decision made elsewhere” (39).
  • “For the social sciences to regain their initial energy, it’s crucial not to conflate all the agencies overtaking the action into some kind of agency—‘society’, ‘culture’, ‘structure’, ‘fields’, ‘individuals’, or whatever name they are given—that would itself be social. Action should remain a surprise, a mediation, an event” (45).
  • Wow I never realized that “actor-network” denotes one conjoined concept.
  • “The painful lesson we must learn is exactly the opposite of what is still being taught all over the world under the name of a ‘social explanation’, namely we must not substitute a surprising but precise expression that is the well-known repertoire of the social which is supposed to be hidden behind it” (49).

Archive and Impact

  • Actor-network theory! One of the major precursors to object-oriented ontology although the OOO folks would get mad about that assertion b/c they get mad about most things. Latour is principally a sociologist (sociology and anthropology show up a lot in digital and anthropocenic studies). So why are we reading this book as part of a research program in digital studies? The first is that ANT forms the basis of many different kinds of anti-humanist philosophies of connection, thingitude, and so forth in the speculative philosophy camp. The second is that ANT is an example of the same kind of network fetishism that informs Hardt & Negri and that Galloway & Thacker critique. Latour’s vision for ANT as a method is to build from the local up to the global; indeed, to deny the formation of the “global” more generally. This is network thinking in the most classical sense: the topology of sociality becomes a flat graph.
  • Our good friends at the nanotech research center at UCSB have another good write-up on Latour: http://innovate.ucsb.edu/1022-reassembling-the-social-an-introduction-to-actor-network-theory.