Sunday, May 17, 2015

Latour: Third Source of Uncertainty - Objects have agency too!

Continuing on my exploration of ANT, and asynchronous and indirect dialogue with Latour - this blog post will cover the third source of uncertainty, which according to Latour, is that Objects have agency too! As with the previous blog posts, I've pulled out quotes from the book that seemed interesting, or that I reacted to in some way, and I am responding to them here.

no tie can be said to be durable and made of social stuff (p. 66)
This quote seems to continue Latour's assertion that there is no such thing as "social" or "social stuff" and that "social", or the meaning of needs to be negotiated and better understood.  It also continues the thought that social can only be seen from the actions of its actors, the traces they leave behind, and that these bonds are not durable because they need continuous reinforcement. I guess Social is a perishable item.

Left to its own devices, a power relationship that mobilizes nothing but social skills would be limited to very short-lived, transient interactions (p. 66)
So, social skills aren't all the rage?  They are only one part of a larger equation? What other things are needed to sustain interactions?

Social action is not only taken over by aliens, it is also shifted or delegated to different types of actors which are able to transport the action further through other modes of action, other types of forces altogether. (p. 70)
One of the issues with Latour is that he likes his examples, and he circumnavigates the point he is making.  At this point I am wondering if Aliens was a metaphor, aliens of the Spock variety, or of the kind that burst out of your belly.  I think the key point here is that action and interaction is like a set of dominoes (which I think I referenced in the previous post).  Your action of knocking down one domino will eventually lead to knocking down another, and in the end that action you initially had might even be transformed into another action altogether. The question is: do we treat this as a black-box? as an integrated system with various cogs? Or something else entirely?

if we stick to our decision to start from the controversies about actors and agencies, then any thing that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor—or, if it has no figuration yet, an actant. Thus, the questions to ask about any agent are simply the following: Does it make a difference in the course of some other agent’s action or not? Is there some trial that allows someone to detect this difference? (p. 71)
Figuration here, according to Latour, is the counterpart to agency. No figuration, no agency.  The whole issue of action, and in this case agency, reminds me of the animated videos of molecules traveling fast. If they don't hit anything they travel on their merry way, and if they hit other molecules not only do they alter their original path, but they also alter what that other molecule was doing before the collision.  The question that comes to mind is this.  Can an actor through their own actions make a difference in themselves (think action returning back to self), and in this case would it be considered agency by Latour if the action is reflexive to the original actor and not affect other actors?  I think it would, but how does one measure difference? And is this a joint endeavor by a researcher and the researched (the actor)? Or just something the actor does as well - as in when the actor is an actor/researcher (maybe I am over-thinking this...)

In addition to ‘determining’ and serving as a ‘backdrop for human action’, things might authorize, allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, influence, block, render possible, forbid, and so on. ANT is not the empty claim that objects do things ‘instead’ of human actors: it simply says that no science of the social can even begin if the question of who and what participates in the action is not first of all thoroughly explored, even though it might mean letting elements in which, for lack of a better term, we would call non-humans. This expression, like all the others chosen by ANT is meaningless in itself. It does not designate a domain of reality. It does not designate little goblins with red hats acting at atomic levels, only that the analyst should be prepared to look in order to account for the durability and extension of any interaction (p. 72)
Here Latour introduces the notion that non-human (and non-living) elements could be actors in the actor-network. It's not just us humans that are actors and have agency, but non-humans can as well. Of course, from this brief bit, Latour doesn't tell us that non-humans must be counted, rather he is coming from a position that we must ask what the elements are before we start thinking about our network, rather than starting from a presupposition of what's to be included.  This reminds me, to some extent, of grounded theory.  In one of the varieties (because that couldn't be simple and just have one variety) you go into the data without any predispositions (which can be thought of a bit as a white lie because we all have biases), and you let the data guide you.  Similarly in ANT it seems that you can go in and observe what's happening and then determine who or what is an actor in this network.

ANT claims that we should simply not believe the question of the connections among heterogeneous actors to be closed, that what is usually meant by ‘social’ has probably to do with the reassembling of new types of actors. ANT states that if we wish to be a bit more realistic about social ties than ‘reasonable’ sociologists, then we have to accept that the continuity of any course of action will rarely consist of human-to-human connections (for which the basic social skills would be enough anyway) or of object-object connections, but will probably zigzag from one to the other (p. 75)
Quite interesting.  I think the thing to keep in mind here is that I don't think Latour is claiming that objects have personalities and agency, like Robots and Androids on television (see Mr. Data on Star Trek for example), but rather that our interactions between human actors are mediated and translated and carrier through non-human means.  For instance, as with my previous blog posts, I typed this out on my computer and keyboard, on my internet connection, and you are seeing it wherever you are, while the content is stored on some google server.  That said, this medium mediates the communication, the action itself.  If we were in close proximity I would most likely discuss this in person with you, but then what I said would go up into ether (assuming that the air that carries my voice can be considered an actor itself), whereas here there is some constraint (I don't write as I would normally speak for example), but the words and ideas have some sort of permanence. Actors mediate, transform, alter the original actions.

ANT, even though it is not a specific stretch of land nor an enclosed turf but only a brief flash which may occur everywhere like a sudden change of phase. (p. 79)
This is probably one of the frustrating things of ANT thus far - neither here, nor there.  How can one grasp it if it's not concrete?

To be accounted for, objects have to enter into accounts. If no trace is produced, they offer no information to the observer and will have no visible effect on other agents(p. 79)
It's not that I disagree with this, but how does one account for traces? And what do traces mean?  Can one person see a trace in a certain ecosystem and another person not see that trace?  I wonder if this is a case where you would need different raters to establish inter-rater reliability.

information—it is clearly more difficult for objects, since carrying their effects while becoming silent is what they are so good at as Samuel Butler noted.(p. 79)
I guess I can't argue with this, Latour.  Then again

Speech acts always look comparable, compatible, contiguous, and continuous with other speech acts; writing with writing; interaction with interaction; but objects appear associable with one another and with social ties only momentarily. (p. 80)
I guess...?  I am not sure what Latour's background is (I could look it up, but I am feeling lazy, and I want to finish this blog post so I can get to other things) but if you ask a linguist I doubt they would think that speech acts are always looking comparable, compatible, continuous, and continuous with each others. I haven't studied linguistics in depth (at least core, traditional, linguistics - I am at the moment more into the applied variety) but even I would disagree with Latour on this.  By the same token, even though social ties are only momentary the should be comparable (etc.) with other social ties. Just because they are momentary it doesn't mean that they aren't comparable (etc.) - unless I am missing something :-)

The first solution is to study innovations in the artisan’s workshop...In these sites objects live a clearly multiple and complex life through meetings, plans, sketches, regulations, and trials. Here, they appear fully mixed with other more traditional social agencies. It is only once in place that they disappear from view. (p. 80)
I liked the metaphor here, the artisan's workshop - it also has a feel of a master/apprentice relationship which seems to me where I am at the moment with my doctoral education. The thing that stood out here for me was that the objects disappear from view. Probably NOT because they are no longer there, but because they blend into the background.  This got me thinking - Latour says that the social needs to be reinforced and groups need to reform and re-establish themselves, otherwise they cease to exist. If actors disappear from view - and objects here are actors - then why not the "social" itself? Why does it need work to keep going?

The third type of occasion is that offered by accidents, breakdowns,and strikes: all of a sudden, completely silent intermediaries become full blown mediators; even objects, which a minute before appeared fully automatic, autonomous, and devoid of human agents, are now made of crowds of frantically moving humans with heavy equipment. (p. 81)
Latour here, in my mind, argues that when turd hits the fan with in-animate objects that's when we notice and they become full-blown actors.  I agree to some extent (if I assume I am buying his argument that non-human actors exist), but I don't agree fully.  I think that non-human actors are already full-blown actors in what we do regardless of whether they are functioning fully or not.  Just because we notice them more when they don't function it doesn't mean that they weren't  full actors before that. It's just that the malfunction makes them act in new, and sometimes, unpredictable ways.

Fourth, when objects have receded into the background for good, it is always possible—but more difficult—to bring them back to light by using archives, documents, memoirs, museum collections, etc., to artificially produce, through historians’ accounts, the state of crisis in which machines, devices, and implements were born (p. 81)
I agree with this. Once an object becomes antiquated (for lack of a better word) it's hard to imagine how it was used.  You have to replicate all of the conditions of the ecosystem that that object in order to better appreciate its function within that ecosystem.  This is one of the reasons I wanted to be a computer and video game archivist in previous years ;-)

Social explanations run the risk of hiding that which they should reveal since they remain too often ‘without object’. (p. 82)
A good caution by Latour.  Not sure what I can add to it other than "I agree".

When a bicycle hits a rock, it is not social. But when a cyclist crosses a ‘stop’ sign, it becomes social. When a new telephone switchboard is installed, this is not social (p. 83)
This is one of Latour's many examples in the book - thus far - .  My feelings here is that there is a level of nuance that goes unexplained with all of these inanimate objects.  The implicit assumption is that because a human actor put up the stop sign, and that symbol means something within our culture, running a stop sign is a social act (what sort of social act it is requires more investigation).  The assumption is that the rock just exists, and therefore when the bike hits it there is just action-reaction but no social.  But, what if someone put the rock there?  What is Wile E. Coyote put that rock there intentionally to stop the Roadrunner?  Does this still leave the rock being asocial?  Or does the act of one actor imbue the non-human object with some sort of social potential?

Thus concludes Uncertainty #3.  Only two more to go. thoughts?
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