Wednesday, May 26, 2021

3508. Actor-Network Theory: A World of Networks

By O. Jones, in International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, 2009

Advocates of actor-network theory (ANT) such as Bruno Latour have mounted a concerted attack on modernist modes of classifications. They insist that the persistent separation of the world into cultural (or social) and natural denies the entangled ‘nature’ of everyday material life and allows dangerous entanglements to flourish unnoticed and unpoliced. ANT has sought to develop a ‘symmetrical’ view across the previously inscribed nature/culture/technology divides. This symmetry dissolves not only the nature/culture dualism, but also that of subject/object and agency/structure. Indeed, Latour has recently written that we should now completely bypass the old dualisms. We should no longer treat them as starting points for discussions (as so many do) or even as grounds of debate and attack. We should get on instead with tackling the world of actualities – networks or assemblages which contain unique, complex, and changing populations of people, organisms, things, substances, and processes. ANT hence argues that all manner of things (as many as you can imagine) are variously entangled together in specific formations or networks in the making of the world. These networks produce any given achievement in the world, be it education, power generation, food production, politics, music, and so on. Four points can be made about these networks which underpin the relational world view more generally.

First, the networks that ANT envisages make up the entirety of the unfolding fabric of life. They come in many forms and scales. They are unstable and prone to breakdown, and lots of effort goes into stabilizing and repairing them. Many networks fail or just moulder away, others constantly emerge. Second, networks make space rather than trace across previously present ‘empty space’ which is waiting for life to fill it. Straightforwardly Euclidean notions of space are rendered topological – space is crumpled, lumpy, folded. For example, Latour says that a journey on a modern train across Europe is an entirely different time–space matter than a perilous hike through thick jungle. Old notions of space – place as bounded locality, distance and nearness, local and global – are all problematized. Offices and computers in distant world cities may be in effect closer to each other than they are to areas of poverty which might be physically just down the road.

Third, all elements of the network are actors, or actants, which have agency or actancy (both latter terms are intended to de-center the human subject). Actants' identities and qualities are not innate but are relational – emergent from the network into which they are bound. Fourth, power needs to be read as located throughout the network rather that just at key centers. ANT is particularly interested in devices which connect and can effectively transmit agency/power from one part of the network to another. How are actants enrolled into a network? How are they held in place? What manner of translations and translating devices are needed to allow differing types of actants to communicate and thereby maintain network stability? The historical argument is that the nature/society divide was a creation of modernity which ignored the true conditions of connected, networked, relational life. If ‘modern’ means nature/society divided, then ‘we have never been’, and never will be ‘modern’, as Latour famously put it. This is not just some esoteric philosophical argument. Latour points out that our divided vision of the world has made us blind to the traffic which criss-crosses between the apparently separate realms of nature/society, and also to the monstrous formations which can thus form.

ANT has been questioned for its lack of interest in uneven power relations and thus in victimization. Nigel Thrift, while acknowledging its insights, has suggested that it fails to deal with ideas of place. Nick Bingham with Thrift suggest that it misses ‘the sizzle of the event’, that is, the complexities of encounter between entities. ANT also has a strongly technological inflection which seems to under-represent organic living things. Some have questioned whether it is reasonable to treat different types of actants in networks – for example, machines and animals – in the same (truly symmetrical) way. The life of animals here seems to be denied, almost as in social constructionist approaches. As in social construction, however, the power of the central insight of this approach needs to be carefully heeded as we contemplate nature-culture assemblages that make up the world. It seems undeniable that everyday processes unfolding in the world do involve a whole host of actants from right across the spectrum of existence working together (ideas, texts, chemicals, machines, organisms, processes, finances, and so on) – all being assembled together in forms of ‘heterogeneous engineering’, a key ANT motif. The study of these networks requires new approaches which inevitably break out of settled disciplines and disciplinary ‘regions’, and requires new suites of methodologies (although specific methodologies will remain useful as forensic techniques of investigation).

No comments: