Exposing subject and object’s “mutual dependency,” Jane Bennett levels the subject-object hierarchy (23). Similarly, Bruno Latour “dislocate[es]” cause-effect authority (58). Traditionally, “the second term is predicted by the first,” locating authority in the cause (58). Actor Network Theory, though, resists assigning a central cause and instead enumerates multiple actors. Bruno Latour explains that “[w]hen a force manipulates another, it does not mean that it is a cause generating effects,” for this kind of central causation implies a certain authority (someone/thing “giving” agency, to borrow from class). Instead, Latour considers a cause “an occasion for other things to start acting,” exercising the agency they already have (60). The cause as an “occasion” may inspire action, but it does not directly determine it.
Looking at three lays with an identical “cause” (or occasion) – the werewolf transformation – but different “effects” (or subsequent actions) attests to Latour’s rejection of singularity and determinacy and his support of multiplicity and variability. Circumstances certainly vary across Bisclavret, Melion, and Biclarel’s situations; their transformations, recuperations, and all that transpires in between. But what of the similarities? Doesn’t the werewolf consistently cause fear? Doesn’t betrayal consistently cause revenge? Though generalities, these actions/reactions re-occur in all three lays. Even if these are simply literary tropes, they stem from somewhere. Even an “occasion” to act is not an open invitation, it is an inspiration, which includes certain guiding implications.
Having already established the agency inherent in all matter, the next move in Actor-Network Theory (a la Bennett, Latour, and Yates) seems to be to embrace its fluidity. How, though, does one embrace something fluid? Hold on to something uncontainable? Latour begins his “Introduction to Part I” with a series of such unresolvable paradoxes. He proceeds, though, to devise a method that will in fact resolve them (by introducing a paradox in itself, of course). “Relativism” in Latour’s “sociology of associations” (his custom word for ANT)makes it “possible to trace more sturdy relations and discover more revealing patterns by finding a way to register the links between unstable and shifting references rather than by trying to keep the frame stable” (24). “Relatively” recognizing the shifting instability and changing locality of agency within a society, network, assemblage, (take your pick), is a sturdier approach than permanently erecting fixed, stable frames and categories. Tracing and linking agents in an event is much less damaging than dissecting, disordering, and categorizing them.
Similarly, Julian Yates’ concept of “agentive drift” is “a way of representing agency as a dispersed or distributed process in which we participate rather than which we are said to own” (48). Yeats does not try to locate agency definitively within any particular group, action, object, or fact (those uncertainties that Latour grapples with), but concedes that it “drifts” amongst them, just as Latour feels it “shifts.” Distributing agency, as Bennett insists in her parallel discussion of assemblages, does not dissolve accountability. Yates’ ANTy retelling of Arden and Garret’s 1597 prison break “maximizes the number of actors,” but does not dismiss a single one of them. If anything, it maximizes the scope of the event, revealing that while it appeared to be an individual incident, it was a community effort of combined agency.
The social sciences, according to Bruno Latour, seek to explain the “presence of something at once invisible yet tangible, taken for granted yet surprising, mundane but of baffling subtlety…” (Latour 21). We, as human beings, struggle to define our social interactions by labeling them. However, most of these interactions (especially involving non-human entities) are so complex as to preclude the need for strict categorization. In attempting to tame “the wild beast”, we forget that the beast resists our attempts to categorize it.
Other disciplines, like cartography, use abstract means of making sense of its findings. Latour says that (in reference to the community of social sciences), “we, too, should find our firm ground on shifting sands…” (Latour 24). Making sense of the world requires a theoretical standpoint, particularly when dealing with the social. A more abstract approach is the better way to tackle questions and/or problems of such enormous complexity, rather than preempting the reactions with a ready-made box to facilitate “organization.”
Latour defends ANT theory in conveying the overall message that the social sciences need to embrace change. Rather than rely on strict categories to define or order the social, sociologists should get used to the unpredictability inherent in trying to explain the interactions between the human and non-human. Also, recognizing that social forces are unpredictable puts more of the emphasis on the reactions, rather than the one observing the reactions (who most likely has a preconceived notion for what “category” something fits in anyway). In other words, “the task of defining and ordering the social should be left to the actors themselves, not taken up by the analyst” (Latour 23). Latour’s whole concept of “reassembling the social” centers on, first, changing what we perceive to belong in a certain category and, then, questioning the usefulness of those categories in and of themselves.
This week I read the Yates essay before reading the Latour introduction, and I am glad I did because a lot of the difficulty that Latour warns us about is difficulty that I experienced while trying to read the Yates essay. I could definitely relate to the immediate satisfaction that Latour talks about with how sociologists are able to “jump straight ahead to connect vast arrays of life and history, to mobilize gigantic forces, to detect dramatic patterns emerging out of confusing interactions, to see everywhere in the cases at hand yet more examples of well-known types, to reveal behind the scenes some dark powers pulling the strings” (Latour 22). That is exactly what I was trying to do with those oranges. I read the first couple of pages of the Yates essay a few times searching for some clue I missed about these oranges that I did not receive until the end of the essay—what a relief that was. Yates did a good job of “let[ting] the actors deploy the full range of controversies in which they are immersed” (Latour 23) before saying exactly why the oranges were so important at the end. It felt like a test of sorts.
I could also relate to the cartographer that Latour writes about (23-4) who struggles in figuring out how she will include all of these different aspects of reports while still making sense. I feel that way when writing a term paper, and find that if I attempt to stick to the conventional paper writing method—just like the cartographer will struggle with conventional cartography—of outline first, then introduction, body, and conclusion I have a really difficult time. Why? Because I am trying to force those abstractions into concepts without letting them fully form yet which happens in the process of actually writing the essay. How can I introduce what I have not even started writing yet?
One last thing: Near the end of the introduction Latour writes, “Be prepared to cast off agency, structure, psyche, time, and space along with every other philosophical and anthropological category, no matter how deeply rooted in common sense they may appear to be” (24-5). That reminded me of when Jane Bennett writes that “[f]or this task, demystification, that most popular of practices in critical theory, should be used with caution and sparingly, because demystification presumes that at the heart of any event or process lies a human agency that has illicitly been projected into things. This hermeneutics of suspicion calls for theorists to be on high alert for signs of the secret truth (a human will to power) below the false appearance of nonhuman agency” (xiv).
I had a good deal of difficulty picturing abstract actants such as a power grid’s “profit motives” in the medieval texts we’ve read thus far (Bennett 25). But after today’s discussion in lecture, I went back to “Guigemar” and couldn’t help seeing them in every passage. One of the most interesting intangible actants I found had the most apparent power when Guigemar first encounters the lady. When he arrives on the ship, the lady believes him to be dead, a corpse, an object. Guigemar is unconscious and has no control over his body, yet he’s still able to affect her as she falls in love with him. How is that? She’s captured by his beauty, “lamenting his beauty and fine body” (Marie 296). His beauty itself behaved as an actant, redefining him and his relationships without the need of Guigemar’s will. Guigemar’s body/beauty was necessary for the plot’s progression, and had power over his destiny even when Guigemar himself was on the brink of death and had no power for himself.
The lord’s niece affirms the power of beauty, claiming that this shared quality between Guigemar and the lady was sufficient in establishing a lifelong alliance between the two; “This love would be suitable . . . / you’re handsome and she’s beautiful” (Marie 451-3). The ability of qualities of a person to act independently of one’s will seems pretty frightening to me, as it draws into the question just how much “free will” we actually have. Beauty/Physical appearance is one of the most grounded qualities one has, but any quality, one’s sense of humor, intelligence, empathy, may behave as an actant, changing one’s course in life regardless of our will or intentions. Does this make sense?
Going over the literary texts in the class, we reiterated that it’s helpful to focus on the concepts that we grasp, as opposed to trying to understand every single sentence of the reading. I have found a practice that is helpful for me is relating the idea to something I’ve seen before, as I did in one of my previous posts about objects asserting themselves in the movie “The Bicycle Thief”.
Although I found this past week’s readings a little more difficult to grasp, I did pick up on Bruno Latour’s rejection of modernity. “Latour puts it later in his Politics of Nature, a pluralistic multiculturalism is always opposed to a homogeneous mononaturalism. We are told that nature is one, but that humans have numerous diverse perspectives on it. Not surprisingly, Latour rejects this modernist vision” (Harman 57). I understand Latour’s stance that nature is not homogenous or stable at all and I think that popular culture is reflecting this idea more and more through the media.
Movies and Television shows such as Planet Earth, Life, and Blue Planet are just a few examples of the way that nature is currently being portrayed. These movies and shows’ sole objective is to show the diversity and the importance of every aspect of the natural world, paying little to no attention to human beings. From microscopic organisms floating in the ocean to the great redwoods of California, these shows aim to reveal the significance of every aspect of nature. They display that nature not only strongly impacts the world, but that it is the world. Nature’s constantly evolving action is what creates the cycle of life. These shows represent the significance of nature so much so that humans, in comparison, seem homogenous and unimportant.
From what I gathered, these shows can work as examples of Latour’s rejection of mononaturalism. That is, if I grasped the concept correctly. If I am way off base, any comments would be helpful and very much appreciated.
I would like to begin my blog this week by examining Dr. Seaman’s request on the Preview of Week 3 to begin thinking about what a “more distributive agency” could be (Bennett ix). Bennett leads into this topic with a few terms coined by Bruno Latour, author of Reassembling the Social which we will be reading this semester, and how she finds his attempt to be admirable in “address[ing] multiple modes and degrees of effectivity” (viii-ix). According to Bennett, this is Latour’s effort in moving towards that “more distributive agency.”
The word “more” is usually always used in comparison. Therefore, it was right here that I gathered that Bennett may be setting herself apart from Latour. For in Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory, any thing in existence that alters another thing is an actant. I think that what Bennett is suggesting, then, is that by allowing his theory to include all and any thing that may have any effect is giving Latour a “more distributive agency”: a wider application of his theory because it is all-encompassing. I am led to further believe this because a couple of sentences later Bennett asserts that she “lavish[es] attention on specific ‘things,’ noting the distinctive capacities or effacious powers of particular material configurations” (ix). Meaning, perhaps she has a smaller distributive agency than Latour does because she is being more specific. In her preface she places a personal importance on a greener existence (x), which may also limit her distributive agency when compared to Latour’s. Though, I am not able to fully make that claim yet only having read “What is Actor Network Theory?,” and not the actual theory itself (Martin Ryder). However, just from reading that collection of responses to Latour it does not sound as if the things he focuses on are quite as particular as the ones that Bennett does. In turn, this gives Latour a “more distributive agency.”