A Modest Proposal for Making Actor-Network Theory More than Academia’s All-Purpose App

As someone who suffers the misfortune of having committed to an academic life when very young, my institutional memory is somewhat older than my chronological age. For me the 1960s and 1970s remain very much part of living memory, which extends equally vividly into the present day – and beyond (as anyone familiar with my work can testify). This means that over my career I have witnessed a lot of amplifications, elisions, forgettings and, indeed, reinventions, if not outright fabrications, of various theories and concepts.

One especially striking development for social scientists has been the so-called ‘ontological turn’, which is strongly associated with actor-network theory (ANT). To my ears, it sounds like Orwellian newspeak for a methodologically justified refusal to take responsibility for the entities that one observes in the ‘world’ defined by one’s research subjects. Ontology is normally taken to be a normative philosophical discipline that prescribes the space in which thought and action can occur. Historically one didn’t talk ontology unless one meant it – i.e. the speaker endorsed the entities and relations being conjured in the discourse. Even imperial anthropologists who described ‘relativistically’ the ontologies of the subjugated natives felt – or were made to feel – a bit guilty about the degree of exposure involved, given the asymmetric power relations. Nowadays, however, appeals to ‘ontology’ merely signal a politically correct way of doing research that would have been condemned in my youth as ‘value-neutral’.

A researcher who takes the ‘ontological turn’ is rendered eminently ‘tool-worthy’ because by revealing something previously hidden for what it ‘really’ is, he or she makes it available for others to inspect and potentially act upon, if they’ve got the power to do so. Put it this way, by promoting the ontological turn, ANT reduces ethnography to an App, whose utility depends on the processing power of the platform to which it is attached. And with the demise of empire and the erosion of the nation-state, such ‘platforms’ are available to just about anyone who can afford them. This helps to explain why ANT is in such big demand to funding agencies (both private and public) yet so useless as a framework for extending the life-expectancy of strictly academic inquiry.

This is not to say that ANT isn’t good in keeping academics amused in the short-term! Followers of the works of Graham Harman and Timothy Morton know that these guys are masters of the ontological pirouette. But they are also quite explicitly apolitical in their intent. They are much more of the school (formerly called ‘Marxism’) that sees theorizing as a self-contained practice than theorizing as spilling over into practice. But does ANT need to remain the victim of this sort of self-domestication, a kind of caged craziness whose ultimate significance at best will be as a brilliant move in a philosophical chess match?

Luckily there is an opportunity for ANT to step up to the plate and earn its political cojones. It turns out that ‘natural historians’ – the field to which Charles Darwin thought he belonged and which continues to enjoy high media ratings – constitute an endangered species in academia. This is easy to understand in terms of scientific specialisation and funding patterns. Nevertheless, ANT could adopt a very interesting intellectual line on this.

The argument would be to shift the field of natural history into the ‘humanities’ but as part of a longer term strategy to re-divide the two major academic cultures. Instead of the humanities v. the sciences a la CP Snow, we might think of the posthumanities v. the transhumanities. The latter polarity would require a 90 degree shift away from the former polarity. I have been already arguing this point with regard to politics more generally – and it figures prominently in my forthcoming book, which supports the transhumanist side of the shift. But regardless where one stands on this issue, it is clear that Harman and Morton are simply making explicit what the great imperial anthropologist Malinowski called the ‘phatic’ side of sociality which ANT has long exploited, while capitalising on the aspersions associated with science as concealing hidden depths, available only to adepts.

The thing that is lacking from ANT – in both its empirical and theoretical expressions – is a place for will. It is to ANT’s diabolical credit that I am forced to remind readers that in ordinary English ‘agency’ implies a potential to do other than what one has. A more wilful approach to agency would involve altering, perhaps substantially, current states of being, along the lines afforded by live or virtual experimentation – that is, probing those hidden depths to which ANT seems so allergic. One of the great misapprehensions about ANT is to think that its classic interest in experimentation (from Latour & Woolgar’s Laboratory Life onward) comes from an acceptance of the epistemic premise of experimentation. No, ANT is simply interested in an experiment as an interesting observable event, with the assumptions of the experimenters (and subjects) just so much backchat until they appear in discourse available to ANT researchers.

I plan to pursue this idea of post- v. trans- humanities as a pivot point for tomorrow’s university in the future. But for now I flag the issue because if ANT people are interested in a life that goes beyond next the grant cycle, then they should jump to defend natural history as a ‘humanistic’ field.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes, Rethinking The World, Sociological Craft

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5 replies »

  1. Will and intent are Western philosophical fixations which themselves need thorough re-theorising prior to any such mooted inclusion into ANT

  2. There’s no ‘will’ in ANT? Rather depends what you mean by will. The Nietzschean will to power is pretty foundational to it. Didn’t Schopenhauer also use will as a metaphysical concept? Not an insignificant lineage, then.

    The point re ‘agency’ presupposing that the agent could have done otherwise presumably is meant to imply that rocks, scallops, etc. are bound by natural causality and therefore can only do as they do? (Welcome back bifurcation of nature, we didn’t miss you.) No counterfactuals for things.

    By the by, I’d argue against any really close connection between Morton, Harman and ANT. The latter is militantly empiricist and the former pair have little or no interest in empirical research (this is less true of Morton [though not untrue of him] but Harman is a pure philosopher). Of course they derive concepts and images but to divest ANT of its empiricism is to more or less destroy it. In practice, ANT studies are full of reflexive, wilful human agents. Maybe even excessively so (the legacy of ethnomethodology shouldn’t be forgotten). When reduced to its theoretical vocabulary (and this is a complete reduction) then of course it appears to be rather tough on human intentionality but then it was never intended to be a ‘standalone’ theoretical vocabulary (although I admit that it has been taken as such). The whole point of it is that the concepts must always be wrapped up in the empirical work. Divest it of that principle and you have something completely different.

    There’s nothing inherently ‘prescriptive’ in ontology (historically maybe but, really, so what?). It’s certainly not immune from it, of course, but, likewise, epistemology is no stranger to prescription (what is?). Not sure who these ‘value neutral’ apologists cloaking themselves in ‘ontology’ are either. The ‘speculative realists’? If so, then see my answer above. They bear only superficial resemblances to ANT as it’s generally been practiced. There’s a difference between something being ‘value free’ and it just not being explicitly on board with any particular political programme. Has every single research paper got to be banging some particular political drum? What if a researcher doesn’t know the political consequences of their research — yet? That doesn’t mean value neutrality, just naive uncertainty — an uncertainty that is acknowledged rather than buried underneath dogmatic adherence to whatever pre-existing sect (membership of which is perhaps to be prescribed — there’s that word again — by the ‘leading lights’ and ‘great old men’ of the discipline?).

    I do agree that ANT research, in the final analysis, can be somewhat limited for its tendency to eschew politics. However, there’s nothing necessary in that. Doubtless part of its popularity is due to its political open-endedness (the point of it was always to be open-ended) but that shouldn’t paper over the achievements of the field or license a regression to a modified, made-over humanism as if that was a new idea.

  3. Actually there is no place for ‘will’ in actor-network theory. Who in this crowd embraces Nietzsche, let alone Kant or Augustine? Will implies too much potential for responsibility — a godlike position that ANT’s self-styled ‘irreductionist’ ontology refuses, as it endlessly ‘delegates’ (a bit like Eichmann dispatching trains). But ANT’s refusal to embrace will also helps to explain its popularity among researchers in precarious positions. After all, if you don’t know where your next paycheque is coming from, it pays not to presume any explanatory framework that might put your potential paymaster in a disadvantageous light (as in the case of Marxist explanations).

  4. I think the limitation placed on will and agency from an ANT perspective is more that we do not know what always drives us, and therefore ascribing will and agency in such ways may be flawed rather than non existent. IMHO and as an ANT researcher I would claim that I have will; from the choice of a research question to the way it is studied, written of, and disseminated, there is no neutrality. However, my self-awareness is partial, both because of bias and because I do not know everything (!!). ANT is after all a humble methodology. Some further reading on the place of cognitions http://www.bruno-latour.fr/node/380

  5. There’s nothing wrong with being ‘humble’ — and ANT certainly didn’t invent this attitude (so references to Latour are gratuitous). However, humility is not an excuse for hiding behind the data in the manner of a dithering ventriloquist. Rather humility should imply a willingness to draw a firm conclusion which others may then contest — perhaps even successfully — and which in the process creates a common sense of inquiry.

    No doubt It is a mark of our times — where researchers find themselves in precarious employment — that the hyperbolic enactment of fallibility becomes the preferred researcher’s stance. It amounts to taking minimum responsibility for whatever you say. In the past, if people weren’t sure what they thought, they simply kept their mouths shut. When they opened their mouths, they already knew that they might be shot down.

    See here for more analysis of this malaise: http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/16047

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