Friday, June 5, 2015

Latour: Firth Source of Uncertainty - Writing Down Risky Accounts

Alright! Here we are! I am continuing the exploration [and one-sided dialogue] with Latour and I have reached the fifth [and final] source of uncertainty. This first part of the book has tried to describe Actor-Network Theory by describing the negative space around it, by offering up metaphors and examples, and by giving some small snippets into what ANT is (or tries to accomplish).  As with the previous posts, I have picked out quotes that resonated with me (3 weeks ago) when I read the chapter. Now I am re-reading them and responding to them [if needed].
This introduction to ANT begins to look like another instance of Zeno’s paradox, as if every segment was split up by a host of mediators each claiming to be taken into account. ‘We will never get there! How can we absorb so many controversies?’ Having reached this point, the temptation is great to quit in despair and to fall back on more reasonable social theories that would prove their stolid common sense by ignoring most of the sources of uncertainty I have reviewed.(p. 121)
The point that I get from this is that if you can keep cutting something by half you will never be done, because something can always be divided by two.  But, the key point here is not to be nihilistic, but rather to be strategic about the mediators that you choose to cut in half to explore in more details.  The analogy that I can give is a library.  Seeing that huge building and all those books in it can cause any knowledge seeker to have a panic attack about where to start and how to process all of this.  At the risk of sounding like a rhizoFollower - go at it rhizomatically. Pick up an end, any end, and then start exploring from there, wherever the journey takes you.  If you want a map, get one, if you don't, then free-style it.
We could swallow one, maybe two, but not four in a row. Unfortunately, I have not found a way to speed things up: this type of science for that type of social should be as slow as the multiplicity of objections and objects it has to register in its path; it should be as costly as it is necessary to establish connections among the many mediators it finds swarming at every step; and it should be as reflexive, articulated, and idiosyncratic as the actors cooperating in its elaboration. It has to be able to register differences, to absorb multiplicity, to be remade for each new case at hand. (p.121)
Um...yeah...ditto to that (clever man, Latour!)

This is not a sociology any more but a slowciology (p. 122)
I gotta say - not fond of that term...slowciology.  It implies that sociology, by nature, is quick and therefore careless. I am not a sociologists but I think that all disciplines have fast and 'slow' lanes. The speed is dictated by a lot of factors, including the personal ontologies and epistemologies of the researchers. It also reminds me a lot of various slow fads.


If we want to have a chance to mop up all the controversies already mentioned, we have to add a fifth and last source of uncertainty, namely one about the study itself. The idea is simply to bring into the foreground the very making of reports. As the reader should have understood by now, the solution to relativism is always more relativity. (p. 122)
Oh goody, more relativism! ;-)  OK, in all seriousness though, the mere act of recording something is actually changing the original interpretations of the 'social' thing that occurred. No one record is enough to really understand what happened.  Not our recent HybridPed article, not the #ET4Online poster we presented, not the other articles we're working on as a RhizoResearch team.  Together they begin to re-constitute an understanding of what happened, but any one account will not fully shed light into the machinations of rhizomatic learning and learning experiences.  I would guess that Latour would also liken this to an asymptotic curve - it will get really close to the axis, but it will never touch it. There is always something left un-rediscovered once the original account ends.

A 50,000 word thesis might be read by half a dozen people (if you are lucky, even your PhD advisor would have read parts of it!) and when I say ‘read’, it does not mean ‘understood’, ‘put to use’, ‘acknowledged’, but rather ‘perused’, ‘glanced at’, ‘alluded to’, ‘quoted’, ‘shelved somewhere in a pile’. 
Hey, Latour! This is a bit depressing. A budding doctoral students does not want to hear this. A blog post I write [and post a link on twitter] gets more reads than this. I have not idea if anything I write gets 'put to use' but it is a useful vehicle for engaging with ideas and people, even if I don't get a lot of comments.  The consideration at a PhD dissertation doesn't get a lot of playtime, that it is not publishable like a book (without serious editing, cutting, and adding), just is one more indication that the book-length dissertation is a relic of the past. Alternatives to the dissertation would be much more useful it seems.

How does one make sense of this mess as it piles up on our desks and fills countless disks with data? Sadly, it often remains to be written and is usually delayed. It rots there as advisors, sponsors, and clients are shouting at you and lovers, spouses, and kids are angry at you while you rummage about in this dark sludge of data to bring light to the world. And when you begin to write in earnest, finally pleased with yourself, you have to sacrifice vast amounts of data that cannot fit in the small number of pages allotted to you. How frustrating this whole business of studying is. (p. 123) 
Gee Thanks, Latour! It all sound so...nihilistic! I do think that a lot of materials end up on the cutting floor, but that doesn't mean they can't be used.  After all, one write-up, one dissertation, one article, is not going to be a magnum opus that bursts the doors open to whatever phenomenon you are studying. You are standing on the shoulders of giants when you write your 'magnum opus' (dissertation). There are pre-requisites and co-requisites that go along with your work to make it understandable and applicable. It does not stand on its own, in a vacuum, so it's OK.  Just relax ;-)


It’s because ANT claims to renew what it means to be a science and what it means to be social, that it has also to renew what it is an objective account. The word does not refer to the traditional sense of matters of fact—with their cold, disinterested claims to ‘objectification’— but to the warm, interested, controversial building sites of matters of concern. Objectivity can thus be obtained either by an objectivist style—even though no object is there to be seen—or by the presence of many objectors— even (p. 124)
Huh...interesting.  I take it that the original language of Latour is French.  I wonder how this world-play (objectivity vs objector) works in French and in other languages that Latour is translated into.  For what it's worth I would say that it's all subjective. We aim for objectivity but our objectivity passes through the prism that is our knowledge and experiences, so an absolute version of the truth does not exist.


It’s thus a fair question to ask why the literature of social science is often so badly written. There are two reasons for this: first, scholars strive to imitate the sloppy writings of hard scientists; second, because contrary to the latter, they do not convoke in their reports actors recalcitrant enough to interfere with the bad writing. (p. 124)
Interesting thoughts, Latour.  That said, it's hard to make it in a system that values the "sloppy writings of hard scientists".  How does one publish a peer reviewed article in a journal of impact so that they gain the street cred to be able to affect change?  Do you go totally rogue and work on the periphery of the various academic disciplines? Or do you strive to immediate that sloppy writing, to formulate 'research questions' before you begin your research in order to conform to those standards? What about conforming to their ontologies? This seems like an equally problematic issue.

it seems that too often sociologists of the social are simply trying to ‘fix a world on paper’ as if this activity was never in risk of failing. (p. 127)
I guess I have no comment for this. It seems fairly straight-forward and I find myself agreeing with it.  Then again...what's wrong with trying to pin something down (no matter how feeble the attempt)?


if the social is a trace, then it can be retraced; if it’s an assembly then it can be reassembled. While there exists no material continuity between the society of the sociologist and any textual account—hence the wringing of hands about method, truth, and political relevance—there might exist a plausible continuity between what the social, in our sense of the word, does and what a text may achieve—a good text, that is.(p. 128)
Hmmm... How does one define good, bad, and mediocre (and anything in-between)? Just a question that came to mind while reading this. I am wondering, however...why is there no material continuing between society, the sociologists, and the textual account?  Can't we trace connections, even faint, between them?

A good ANT account is a narrative or a description or a proposition where all the actors do something and don’t just sit there. Instead of simply transporting effects without transforming them, each of the points in the text may become a bifurcation, an event, or the origin of a new translation. (p. 128)
Ding! ding! ding! ding!!!!!  We have an "Ant is..." statement (always exciting when this happens in Latour).  This sentence made me smile a bit, Latour old chap! One of my pet peeves (who knows, maybe I am too young of an academic to know any better) is that descriptions count for nothing.  A researcher can do a magnificent account describing what's happening and provide no 'conclusion' or 'analysis' but this counts for nothing (or very little at least).  Some sort of professional opinion needs to be bolted on if you want to publish this in anything other than your self-published blog.  Your descriptions need to be operationalized to matter.  Does this always have to be the case? What's the matter with just having a good, researched, description?


A good text elicits networks of actors when it allows the writer to trace a set of relations defined as so many translations. (p. 129)
Thanks for the explanation Latour :-)


So, network is an expression to check how much energy, movement, and specificity our own reports are able to capture. Network is a concept, not a thing out there. It is a tool to help describe something, not what is being described. (p. 131)
This is something that sent me for a processing loop.  For me networks conjure the image of computer networks. It's something concrete. Connections can be visualized and described as well.  The word 'network' is used in a fashion different than the common, current, usage, which to some extent is problematic. But I think that my conception of network is a static one, a drawing, a snapshot in time.  If an ANT network were to have a snapshot of itself, would it look like a network diagram for computers?  In real time, does a NOC network diagram look like something an ANT account might produce?


In order to trace an actor-network, what we have to do is to add to the many traces left by the social fluid through which the traces are rendered again present, provided something happens in it. In an actor-network account the relative proportion of mediators to intermediaries is increased. I will call such a description a risky account, meaning that it can easily fail—it does fail most of the time—since it can put aside neither the complete artificiality of the enterprise nor its claim to accuracy and truthfulness. (p. 133)
What are the risks? Risks to whom? Why are they risky? Is failure always an issue?


The whole question is to see whether the event of the social can be extended all the way to the event of the reading through the medium of the text. This is the price to pay for objectivity, or rather ‘objectfullness’ to be achieved. (p. 133)
Something to ponder...


The best way to proceed at this point and to feed off this fifth source of uncertainty is simply to keep track of all our moves, even those that deal with the very production of the account. (p.133)
This seems like a no-brainer to me...but then again my MA program was quite qualitative in nature and keeping account of all the moves, turns, twists, and thoughts of the researcher, seemed like a given.


To add in a messy way to a messy account of a messy world does not seem like a very grandiose activity. But we are not after grandeur: the goal is to produce a science of the social uniquely suited to the specificity of the social in the same way that all other sciences had to invent devious and artificial ways to be true to the specific phenomena on which they wished to get a handle on. (p. 136) 
This reminds me a lot of the untext - but how do audiences cope with this? Is it ethical to give an audience something messy and let them make sense of it?  The audience is further removed than the researcher from what was being researched, so doesn't the researcher have an obligation to provide some description and analysis - a way to set order an make neat for the reader - despite the inherent bias?



The task is to deploy actors as networks of mediations—hence the hyphen in the composite word ‘actor-network’. Deployment is not the same as ‘mere description’, nor is it the same as ‘unveiling’, ‘behind’ the actors’ backs, the ‘social forces at work’. (p. 136)
This might have made sense at one time, but I need to do some mental gymnastics to get it back now... Latour, you keep me thinking.


And what is so wrong with ‘mere descriptions’? (p. 136)
Amen to that! What is wrong with mere descriptions?


The simple act of recording anything on paper is already an immense transformation that requires as much skill and just as much artifice as painting a landscape or setting up some elaborate biochemical reaction. No scholar should find humiliating the task of sticking to description. This is, on the contrary, the highest and rarest achievement. (p. 136-137)
When I read this I thought it would appeal to my rhizomates ;-)


As soon as a site is placed ‘into a framework’, everything becomes rational much too fast and explanations begin to flow much too freely. The danger is all the greater because this is the moment most often chosen by critical sociology, always lurking in the background, to take over social explanations and replace the objects to be accounted for with irrelevant, all-purpose ‘social forces’ actors that are too dumb to see or can’t stand to be revealed. (p. 137)
Uh...ditto? :-)


Hence I come to an end with all of Latour's sources of uncertainty.  I've made it to Part II of the book. I am actually almost done as of this writing, but I am not sure I'll take the same approach to part II of the book. Something to think about.  What do you think of Latour's quotes thus far?

blog comments powered by Disqus