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Unsettled Thoughts/Works in Progress

Discursive Tai-Chi and Social Assemblages

These are a few notes on reading Bruno Latour (2005) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory.

On pp.141-156, Latour (as professor) recounts a conversation between himself and a graduate student (click on link for the entire dialog); in which he pulls the negativist (in contrast to ‘positivist’) trick of simply negating any attempt at any positive constructive statement. The conversation goes on over more than 15 pages, but discursively consists of something like this:

Student: “So, by Actor-Network-Theory, do you mean X?”

Professor: “No, I do not mean X.”

Student: “So then, you mean Y?”

Professor: “No, I mean not-Y.”

Student: “So you do not mean X and you do not mean Y?”

Professor: “Yes.”

Student: “So what do you mean?”

Professor: “I just told you!”

Et cetera, et cetera, and so on forever. This is the argumentative equivalent to the martial arts of Tai-Chi or Aikiko, in which one (the Professor) never makes any positive statement and does not meet”force with force”, but rather uses a negative construction to deflect every attempt (by the student) to attempt to understand and construe that which is being talked about (ANT) in a positive way. This is very effective in defeating an attacking opponent (either in martial combat or discursive argumentation). But, it is also empty meaninglessness that brings nothing positive into the world (and in martial arts, is criticized for being purely defensive). As an exclusive, sole tactic, it is purely deconstructive, not constructive; uncreative (dis-creative? de-structive?), not creative.

If that is all there is to scholarship, ultimately, nobody isn’t talking about nothing, which makes for a rather boring, meaningless conversation; one that I lost interest in a long time ago… at least when done purely for its own sake. It is useful to be able to engage in this sort of emptying out of all meaningful signification, if one is engaged in deconstructing something such as a theory of race or system of sexism that really should be done away with altogether. But mere deconstruction, leaving nothing in its place is useless when creativity is called for (e.g. in creating public policy or put forward suggestions for ethical action in the world). Deconstruction alone is a belief in all yin and no yang.

To Latour’scredit, in this book, he is working toward a “reassembling” of the social; but the long interlude in the form of conversation in the middle of the book reminded me of too many annoying, pointless conversations I’ve had with “po-mo” professors and colleagues, who seem to think that deconstruction exclusively and for its owe sake is useful (or even more annoyingly, that it makes them look clever).

As for Latour and ANT, the main contribution of ANT is to afford agency to non-human actors (or ‘actants’ as Latour prefers). That is a rather useful contribution, especially for those who are interested in attending specifically to understand systems or “assemblages” involving both human and non-human elements/actors. Although, for myself, since I draw my own understandings or models for systems-theory from Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) theory of the Santa Fe Institutesort, and since most of the systems they deal with are non-human systems to begin with, there is nothing very surprising (or even all that interesting or original) in conceptualizing systems in which non-human things can be actors/agents. (Fully mapping out the parallels and divergences between Latour’s assemblages and CAS theory would take a lot more than a blog post!)

I also find Latour’s argument about “the social” very weak. He seems to setup a straw-man type argument by presenting the common sociological understanding of “the social” as a very vague sort of “context” (in his formulation, “the social” as used by sociologists becomes something of a Derrida-type ‘supplement’; a constitutive outside or context to positive constructs such as economics, law, politics, etc.). While it may often be used in such an undertheorized, weakly constructed way, I would not expect that is how most sociological theorists see it (I’m still trying to figure out what sociologists actually think “the social” is; Giddens’ “structuration” model, for example or Bourdieu’s “habitus” are more substantively defined than mere supplemental “context”).

Latour’ssubstitution of ANT as a means of tracing out ties or significant relationships of things (human and non-human) to identify “assemblages” is fine. But it does not strike me as necessarily substantially different from empirical systems theory. Except, perhaps, in that ANT (correctly) does not assume that the ties we trace will lead us to find a “system” (relationships exhibiting some degree of efficacy, regularity and persistence over time). However, CAS theory (for example) does not assume that either. In fact, CAS theory explicitly includes states (or relationships) of “chaos” which can be described mathematically (insofar as I understand the math involved) but do not produce systemic regularities. Complex adaptive systems are themselves defined as “far from equilibrium” systems that approach (are at the ‘edge of”), but do not become chaotic (i.e. they are not ‘purely random’ patterns).

A final question: From a social science point of view, such “chaotic” (non-systemic) assemblages may be of interest as descriptive histories, but if we are trying to understand power (for example) or efficacy, are not chaotic relational states defined by the absence of both? Isn’t power and efficacy (cause-and-effects), by definition, a systemic state in which outcomes are at least theoretically or probablistically predictable? Is it not just as incorrect to assume that all assemblages are not “systemic” as it is to assume that all relationships and assemblages are?

And, finally, just because I’m interested in studying and understanding systems does not mean that I assume everything is a system any more than just because I’m an anthropologist interested in studying humans means that I assume everything is a human being! It amazes me how often I encounter criticisms – of my work or of others – of the sort that would imply if you are doing systems theory (or any X theory) you are assuming everything is a system (or everything is X).

P.S. – After writing all this and ‘googling around’ the web for ‘social assemblages’… I came across A New Philosophy of Society by Manuel DeLanda. Skimming it for about 2 minutes, it looks like a good introduction to this whole idea of “social assemblages”. More lucid and ‘postively’ constructed than Latour’s Reassembling the Social.

May 29, 2009 Posted by | Research, Teaching | 1 Comment