Thursday, November 28, 2002

On Agency - Theory Version, Pt. I

I want to concentrate on two particular aspects of (social) agency put forth by Bruno Latour in his book Pandora's Hope: A Proliferation of Hybrids and A Collective of Human and Non-Humans.

[It seems to me that most technology design that takes into account concepts of "agency," uses cognitive rather than social criteria. And there's nothing wrong with that, but I'm more interested in concepts of *social* agency - and so we'll start with Latour.]

Latour is one of my favourite sociologists - first, because he is French and they don't seem interested in maintaining rigid distinctions between sociology and anthropology; second, because he is a beautiful writer and that should count for something; and third, because he has articulated notions of non-human actors (what he calls actants).

He wasn't the first to think this way, and if you're interested in the history of these ideas, I recommend you check out the work of Michel Serres and Michel Callon. There is also a good MA teaching unit and bibliography from Lancaster University on these and related subjects. You can also take a look at critiques of Actor-Network Theory (ANT) to see the current state of inquiry. This should also give you a good sense of my understanding of social systems theory and some of its problems. And if you are interested in notions of FLOW, you might like to trace the development of these ideas from earlier work in ANT.

Serres proposes the social is always already materially heterogeneous, and it is the object that stabilises sociality. Latour draws out a collective of humans and non-humans, extending sociality to objects. Purity, or pure form, is replaced by a proliferation of hybrids. Recalling the notion of a continuum, Callon and Latour claim that their “general symmetry principle is thus not to alternate between natural realism and social realism but to obtain nature and society as twin results of another activity… network building.” Differentiation has always been part of modernity, but so too have transversal connections (de-differentiations): linkages and networks across the divisions which create relative stabilities. According to Latour, social interactions are actively localised by objects, framed by associations between humans and non-humans. And these frames comprise convoluted networks, constructed simultaneously by hybrids of human, technological, natural and material elements. Latour’s actor/actant is something that acts or to which activity is granted; defined by what it does, by its performances. And actions may be understood as factishes: part fact, part fetish, performed and always emerging.

An actor/actant must be made relevant to others (interessement), be made indispensable to others (translation), and be granted consent by others (enrolment). Translation refers to “all the displacements through other actors whose mediation is indispensable for any action to occur… chains of translation refer to the work through which actors modify, displace, and translate their various and contradictory interests." Immutable mobiles allow new translations and articulations, while simultaneously keeping other relations intact. As such, actor networks are characterised by constant transformation through performative practices. They do not seek to explain what is between local pockets of order, but to claim that there is nothing in between them, nothing but networks. Spatiality/sociality is transformed into associations between actors and between networks; scale is understood in terms of connections.

According to John Law actor-networks can often deal with inconsistency and complexity, but there remains a tendency towards drawing things together: controlling, limiting and mastering disorder with the network. Challenging ANT, Mol and Law argue that the “social doesn’t exist as a single spatial type. Rather it performs several kinds of space in which different ‘operations’ take place… There are other kinds of space [where] neither boundaries nor relations mark the difference between one place and another. Instead, sometimes boundaries come and go, allow leakage or disappear altogether, while relations transform themselves without fracture. Sometimes, then, social space behaves like a fluid”. Drawing on the notion of flow from the work of Deleuze and Irigaray, Rob Shields explains that flows are spatial, temporal and, importantly, they are also material. “The significance of the material quality of flows is that they have content, beyond merely being processes… Flows signal pure movement, without suggesting a point of origin or a destination, only a certain character of movement, fluidity and direction… It is not that they are relational between objects or fixed points – which are taken as immutable mobiles – but they are the being of relation."

Enter D&G.


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