Monday, March 26, 2012

Some clarifications on actor network theory

In response to Andy's comment in that last post I offer some excerpts from Latour's article by the above name:

"This theory has been often misunderstoond and hence much abused.... The first mistake would be to give it a common technical meaning in the sense of....a computer network. Such is not however the basic metaphor of an actor-network.
Put too simply AT is a change of metaphors to describe essences: instead of surfaces one gets filaments (or rhizomes in Deleuze’s parlance). More precisely it is a change of topology. Instead of thinking in terms of surfaces - two dimension- or spheres -three dimension- one is asked to think in terms of nodes that have as many dimensions as they have connections. As a first approximation, the AT claims that modern societies cannot be described without recognizing them as having a fibrous, thread-like, wiry, stringy, ropy, capillary character that is never captured by the notions of levels, layers, territories, spheres, categories, structure, systems. It aims at explaining the effects accounted for by those traditional words without having to buy the ontology, topology and politics that goes with them.

Through this foreground/background reversal AT has some affinity with the order out of disorder or chaos philosophy (Serres, Prigogine and Stengers, ) and many practical links with ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, Lynch’s principle). Universality or order are not the rule but the exceptions that have to be accounted for.

The notion of network, in its barest topological outline, allows us already to reshuffle spatial metaphors that have rendered the study of society-nature so difficult: close and far, up and down, local and global, inside and outside. They are replaced by associations and connections (which AT does not have to qualify as being either social or natural or technical as I will show below) . This is not to say that there is nothing like 'macro' society, or 'outside' nature as the AT is often accused of, but that in order to obtain the effects of distance, proximity, hierarchies, connectedness, outsideness and surfaces, an enormous supplementary work has to be done. This work however is not captured by the topological notion of network no matter how sophisticated we wish to make it. This is why AT adds to the mathematical notion of network a completely foreign notion, that of actor. The new hybrid 'actor-network' leads us away from mathematical properties into a world which has not yet be so neatly charted."

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