Review: Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Bruno Latour)

This is quite possibly the worst non-amateur book I’ve ever read. My notes to this book are so many that in the latter parts of the book, I got tired of noting the errors and oddities, just wishing to get it over with.

To those unfamiliar with this kind of thing, go read Sokal and Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense, or Dawkins’ review for the lazy. The very short version is that there exists a bunch of intellectuals working at fancy universities who write pure gibberish dressed up in near-incomprehensible language, and they not only get away with it, they are revered by many, and their stuff in taught in mandatory courses at normal universities. Case in point, I’m taking such a course as part of my minor in information science. As far as I can tell, this class has nothing relevant to the minor. There was nothing information theoretic or science about it.

Let’s get to it. I will use long quotes because I don’t want the reader to think that I’ve quoted stuff out of context. The reaction of many people to this kind of literature is disbelief that it is real or common. I have talked with many physicists who did not believe me. I had to show them the quotes. So I will do the same here.

This default position has become common sense not only for social scientists, but also for ordinary actors via newspapers, college education, party politics, bar conversations, love stories, fashion magazines, etc. 2 The social sciences have disseminated their definition of society as effectively as utility companies deliver electricity and telephone services. Offering comments about the inevitable ‘social dimension’ of what we and others are doing ‘in society’ has become as familiar to us as using a mobile phone, ordering a beer, or invoking the Oedipus complex—at least in the developed world.

Latour thinks it is common to invoke to Ødipus complex, as common as ordering a beer?!

In the course of the book we will learn to distinguish the standard sociology of the social from a more radical subfamily which I will call critical sociology. 7 This last branch will be defined by the following three traits: it doesn’t only limit itself to the social but replaces the object to be studied by another matter made of social relations; it claims that this substitution is unbearable for the social actors who need to live under the illusion that there is something ‘other’ than social there; and it considers that the actors’ objections to their social explanations offer the best proof that those explanations are right.

Italics are in the original. Is he saying that when people object to being analyzed in a particular way, this is the best proof that it is a correct analysis??

To clarify, I will call the first approach ‘sociology of the social’ and the second ‘sociology of associations’ (I wish I could use ‘associology’). I know this is very unfair to the many nuances of the social sciences l have thus lumped together, but this is acceptable for an introduction which has to be very precise on the unfamiliar arguments it chooses to describe as it sketches the well-known terrain. I may be forgiven for this roughness because there exist many excellent introductions for the sociology of the social but none, to my knowledge, for this small subfield of social theory that has been called—by the way, what is it to be called? Alas, the historical name is ‘actor-network-theory’, a name that is so awkward, so confusing, so meaningless that it deserves to be kept. If the author, for instance, of a travel guide is free to propose new comments on the land he has chosen to present, he is certainly not free to change its most common name since the easiest signpost is the best—after all, the origin of the word ‘America’ is even more awkward. I was ready to drop this label for more elaborate ones like ‘sociology of translation’, ‘actant-rhyzome ontology’, ‘sociology of innovation’, and so on, until someone pointed out to me that the acronym A.N.T. was perfectly fit for a blind, myopic, workaholic, trail-sniffing, and collective traveler. An ant writing for other ants, this fits my project very well! 9 Ideally, the word sociology should work best, but it cannot be used before its two components—what is social and what is a science—have been somewhat revamped. As this book unfolds, I will use it more and more often though, reserving the expression ‘sociology of the social’ to designate the repertoire to which other social scientists, in my view, limit themselves too readily.

Besides apparently not being able to settle on a name for the field, despite decades of ‘work’ in it… he rambles on with incoherent sentences. Did no one proof read this? (The answer appears to be “no” for there are typos spread around in the book, giving the impression that no one proof read it.)

Then comes the typical language abuse: actant-rhyzome ontology?? actant is their word for actor which also means something else. rhizome is a technical term from biology. ontology is from philosophy.

Do not miss the good part about the ant (apparently choosing this term because it fits with the abbreviation?) that is both blind and myopic. [A friend suggested a more charitable interpretation, namely that the ant has one blind eye and one myopic one. I guess that is possible!]

In what follows I am not interested in refutation—proving that the other social theories are wrong—but in proposition. How far can one go by suspending the common sense hypothesis that the existence of a social realm offers a legitimate frame of reference for the social sciences? 11 If physicists at the beginning of the previous century were able to do away with the common sense solution of an absolutely rigid and indefinitely plastic ether, can sociologists discover new traveling possibilities by abandoning the notion of a social substance as a ‘superfluous hypothesis’? This position is so marginal, its chance of success so slim, that I see no reason to be fair and thorough with the perfectly reasonable alternatives that could, at any point, smash it into pieces. So, I will be opinionated and often partial in order to demonstrate clearly the contrast between the two viewpoints. In exchange for this breach of fairness, I will try to be as coherent as possible in drawing the most extreme conclusions from the position I have chosen to experiment with. My test will be to see how many new questions can be brought to light by sticking firmly, even blindly, to all the obligations that this new departure point is forcing us to obey. The final test will be to check, at the end of this book, if the sociology of associations has been able to take up the relay of the sociology of the social by following different types of new and more active connections, and if it has been able to inherit all that was legitimate in the ambition of a science of the social. As usual, the result of whether this has been successful or not will be up to the reader.

Read that part again. The use of terms from relativity is a hallmark of Latour. He does not appear to understand the theory and did in fact write a 40 page paper about his misunderstandings.

Latour, B. (1988). A relativistic account of Einstein’s relativity. Social Studies of Science, 18(1), 3-44.
Twice does Latour misunderstand the word “quantum”, apparently thinking it is just a fancy synonym for “quantity”. E.g.:
I have left aside in this book the question of quantitative sociology not because I believe more in qualitative data, but because the very definition of which quantum to tally is at stake in the different definitions of the social vector I am going to follow here. [footnote 14]
The reader will discover here a set of complicated instructions to make displacement more costly and more painful. The reason for this is that I want to break the habit of linking the notions of ‘society’, ‘social factor’, and ‘social explanation’ with a sudden acceleration in the description. When sociologists of the social pronounce the words ‘society’, ‘power’, ‘structure’, and ‘context’, they often 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. Not that they are wrong since its perfectly true that older social relations have been packaged in such a way as to seem to provide a ready explanation for many puzzling subjects. But the time has come to have a much closer look at the type of aggregates thus assembled and at the ways they are connected to one another.
Not even sure what this is.
Where should we start? As always, it is best to begin in the middle of things, in medias res. Will the reading of a newspaper do? Sure, it offers a starting point as good as any. As soon as you open it, it’s like a rain, a flood, an epidemic, an infestation. With every two lines, a trace is being left by some writer that some group is being made or unmade. Here it’s the CEO of a big company who deplores the fact that five years after the merger the firm’s various branches are still not fully integrated. She wonders how to ‘promote a common corporate culture’. A few lines further down finds an anthropologist explaining that there is no ‘ethnic’ difference between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, but that it’s really a ‘class difference’ that has been ‘instrumentalized’ by colonialists and then ‘naturalized’ as a ‘cultural’ one. In the letters section, a Scot reminds his readers of the ‘Glorious Alliance’ between France and Mary Queen of Scots, which explains why Scotland should not share the rabid Europhobia of Englishmen. A correspondent from France tries to explain why second generation girls from Algeria that show up at school with an Islamic veil are seen by their teachers as ‘fanatics’ who ‘exclude themselves’ from the French Republic. In the Europe section, it is explained that EU functionaries are more and more thinking ‘as Europeans’ and are no longer ‘loyal to their nationalities’. In the Music section, a fierce dispute divides Baroque ensembles according to the frequency of their tuning forks, pelting one another with accusations such as ‘modernist’, ‘unfaithful to the tradition’, ‘academic’. In the Computer section, the writer mocks the attachment of Macintosh users to their utterly marginal machines and puts forward a ‘cultural interpretation’ for what he calls a form of ‘techno-fanaticism’. Further down an editorialist predicts that Iraq, though its borders are fairly recent, will exist as a nation and will not split up along the older dividing lines of religion and historical ‘zones of influence’. Another column mocks the accusation that those against the war in Iraq are ‘anti-American’. It never stops.
This is the opening of a new chapter. He sure does read some other newspapers than I do.
This is a larger point about the vocabulary of ANT with which I should familiarize the reader at this early stage in order to avoid confusing the language of this book with the landscape we are going to visit. I find it best to use the most general, the most banal, even the most vulgar repertoire so that there will be no risk of confusing the actors’ own prolific idioms. Sociologists of the social, as a rule, do just the opposite. They are keen to produce precise, well chosen, sophisticated terms for what they say the actors say. But then they might run the risk of confusing the two meta-languages—since actors, too, have their own elaborate and fully reflexive meta-language. If they practice critical sociology, then there is an even greater risk to render actors mute altogether. ANT prefers to use what could be called an infralanguage, which remains strictly meaningless except for allowing displacement from one frame of reference to the next. In my experience, this is a better way for the vocabulary of the actors to be heard loud and clear—and I am not especially worried if it is the social scientists’ jargon that is being downplayed. If I had to provide a checklist for what is a good ANT account—this will be an important indicator of quality—are the concepts of the actors allowed to be stronger than that of the analysts, or is it the analyst who is doing all the talking? As far as writing reports is concerned, it means a precise but difficult trial: Is the text that comments on the various quotes and documents more, less, or as interesting as the actors’ own expressions and behaviors? If you find this test too easy to meet, then ANT is not for you.
Infralanguage? Ok.

It would be possible to attenuate the differences between the two schools by saying that ‘naturally’ all social scientists agree that groups have to be made and remade anew through some other non-social means, and that there is never a grouping that can sustain its existence without some keeping up. To be sure, everyone will agree that, for instance, popular festivals are necessary to ‘refresh social ties’; that propaganda is indispensable to ‘heat up’ the passions of ‘national identities’; that traditions are ‘invented’; that it is good for a company to distribute a journal to ‘build loyalties’; that without price tags and bar codes it would be very difficult to ‘calculate’ a price; that for a child to become ‘responsible’ early spanking cannot do any harm; that without a totem it would be difficult for a tribe to recognize that they are ‘members’ of the same clan. These sorts of expressions flow effortlessly from our keyboards. But their precise effect depends on how exactly we understand ways of speaking which all allude to the ‘making’ of groups. For sociologists of the social, such terms designate the many avatars that the same social order can take or the variegated tools with which it ‘represents’ itself or through which it is ‘reproduced’. 29 For them, ‘social forces’ are always already present in the background so that the precise means to achieve their presence matters a great deal—but not that crucially.

The use of nonsensical single quotation marks and italics is found in the entire book. Unfortunately, italics do not copy from the PDF, and I’m too lazy to recreate them except for in some cases.

To take two of the very few technical terms I will need in this introductory book, it makes a huge difference whether the means to produce the social are taken as intermediaries or as mediators. At the beginning, the bifurcation seems small, but it will later on lead us into different territories. To be sure, this nuance will be fully visible only at the close of this book—if the reader is patient enough to reach it! Yet we should try to get familiar with it as early as possible as it will be our shibboleth throughout.

Very few technical terms? Hm! Since he continues to redefine common terms, sometimes without saying it, using terms from actual sciences in new ways, and introducing new words like infralanguage without defining them, I’d say that it is more than a “very few”.

In most situations, we use ‘social’ to mean that which has already been assembled and acts as a whole, without being too picky on the precise nature of what has been gathered, bundled, and packaged together. When we say that ‘something is social’ or ‘has a social dimension’, we mobilize one set of features that, so to speak, march in step together, even though it might be composed of radically different types of entities. This unproblematic use of the word is fine as long as we don’t confuse the sentence ‘Is social what goes together?’, with one that says, ‘social designates a particular kind of stuff’. With the former we simply mean that we are dealing with a routine state of affairs whose binding together is the crucial aspect, while the second designates a sort of substance whose main feature lies in its differences with other types of materials. We imply that some assemblages are built out of social stuff instead of physical, biological, or economical blocks, much like the houses of the Three Little Pigs were made of straw, wood, and stone. To avoid this confusion between the two meanings of social, we have to open a second source of uncertainty, one dealing this time with the heterogeneous nature of the ingredients making up social ties.

I can think of multiple common meanings of social, but this is not one of them. agrees.

It is not by accident that this expression, like that of ‘person’, comes from the stage. Far from indicating a pure and unproblematic source of action, they both lead to puzzles as old as the institution of theater itself—as Jean-Paul Sartre famously showed in his portrait of the garc¸on de cafe´who no longer knows the difference between his ‘authentic self’ and his ‘social role’. 40 To use the word ‘actor’ means that it’s never clear who and what is acting when we act since an actor on stage is never alone in acting. Play-acting puts us immediately into a thick imbroglio where the question of who is carrying out the action has become unfathomable. As soon as the play starts, as Irwin Goffman has so often showed, nothing is certain: Is this for real? Is it fake? 41 Does the audience’s reaction count? What about the lighting? What is the backstage crew doing? Is the playwright’s message faithfully transported or hopelessly bungled? Is the character carried over? And if so, by what? What are the partners doing? Where is the prompter? If we accept to unfold the metaphor, the very word actor directs our attention to a complete dislocation of the action, warning us that it is not a coherent, controlled, well-rounded, and clean-edged affair. By definition, action is dislocated. 42 Action is borrowed, distributed, suggested, influenced, dominated, betrayed, translated. If an actor is said to be an actor-network, it is first of all to underline that it represents the major source of uncertainty about the origin of action—the turn of the word ‘network’ will come in due time. Like Jesus on the cross, it is of the actor that one should always say: ‘Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.’

Some very peculiar ideas about acting.

What is even more dangerous in the inconsiderate acceptance of hidden variables is to shift from the sociology of the social to critical sociology. 47 This is the only discipline that finds itself scientific when it not only ignores data and replaces it with uncontroversial data from already assembled social forces, but also when it takes the indignant reactions of those who are thus ‘explained’ as what proves the unbearable truth of the critics’ interpretations. At this point sociology stops being empirical and becomes ‘vampirical’. It’s the great tragedy of the social sciences that this lesson was not heeded and that critical sociologists still consider as their treasure what they should rather be ashamed of, namely confusing what obfuscates data with what is revealed by it. Would you qualify as ‘scientific’ a discipline that puts to one side the precise information offered by fieldwork and replaces it by instances of other things that are invisible and those things people have not said and have vocally denied? For once, it’s sociologists of associations who are following common sense. For them, controversies about agencies have to be deployed to the full, no matter how difficult it is so as not to simplify in advance the task of assembling the collective.

Second, if agency is one thing, its figuration is another. What is doing the action is always provided in the account with some flesh and features that make them have some form or shape, no matter how vague. ‘Figuration’ is one of those technical terms I need to introduce to break the knee-jerk reactions of ‘social explanation’ because it is essential to grasp that there exist many more figures than anthropomorphic ones. This is one of the many cases where sociology has to accept to become more abstract. To endow an agency with anonymity gives it exactly as much a figure as when it is endowed with a name, a nose, a voice, or a face. It’s just making it ideo- instead of anthropomorphic. Statistical aggregates obtained from a questionnaire and given a label—like A and B types in the search for the causes of heart disease—are as concrete as ‘my red-faced sanguine neighbor who died last Saturday from a stroke while planting his turnips because he ate too much fat’. To say ‘culture forbids having kids out of wedlock’ requires, in terms of figuration, exactly as much work as saying ‘my future mother-in-law wants me to marry her daughter’. To be sure the first figuration (anonymous) is different from the second one (my mother-in-law), but they both give a figure, a form, a cloth, a flesh to an agency forbidding me or forcing me to do things. As far as the question of figuration is concerned, there is no reason to say that the first is a ‘statistical abstraction’ while the other would be a ‘concrete actor’. Individual agencies, too, need abstract figurations. When people complain about ‘hypostasizing’ society, they should not forget that my mother-in-law is also a hypostasis—and so are of course individuals and calculative agents as much as the infamous Invisible Hand. This is exactly what the words ‘actor’ and ‘person’ mean: no one knows how many people are simultaneously at work in any given individual; conversely, no one knows how much individuality there can be in a cloud of statistical data points. Figuration endows them with a shape but not necessarily in the manner of a smooth portrait by a figurative painter. To do their job, sociologists need as much variety in ‘drawing’ actors as there are debates about figuration in modern and contemporary art.

Everybody suffers from multiple personality disorder?

And lots of more fancy terms. The following paragraph has a few more:

To break away from the influence of what could be called ‘figurative sociology’, ANT uses the technical word actant that comes from the study of literature. Here are four ways to figure out the same actant: ‘Imperialism strives for unilateralism’; ‘The United States wishes to withdraw from the UN’; ‘Bush Junior wishes to withdraw from the UN’; ‘Many officers from the Army and two dozen neo-con leaders want to withdraw from the UN.’ That the first is a structural trait, the second a corporate body, the third an individual, the fourth a loose aggregate of individuals makes a big difference of course to the account, but they all provide different figurations of the same actions. None of the four is more or less ‘realist’, ‘concrete’, ‘abstract’, or ‘artificial’ than the others. They simply lead to the entrenchment of different groups and thus helps to solve the first uncertainty about group formation. The great difficulty in ANT is not to be intimidated by the type of figuration:ideo-, or techno-, or bio-morphisms are ‘morphism’ just as much as the incarnation of some actant into a single individual.

This belief in the ‘lived world’ is a nice case of ‘misplaced concreteness’ to use Whitehead’s term: an account full of individuals might be more abstract than another consisting only of collective actors. A billiard ball hitting another one on the green felt of a billiard table might have exactly as much agency as a ‘person’ directing her ‘gaze’ to the ‘rich human world’ of another ‘meaningful face’ in the smoke filled room of the pub where the tables have been set up. This is not what phenomenologists and sociologists of the social might say, but then listen to what the players themselves are saying about their own ‘behaviors’ and the unpredictable ‘action’ of their billiard balls. They seem to produce quite a lot of the very imbroglios which are strictly forbidden by the theory that states that a radical difference should be maintained between ‘action’ and ‘behavior’.68 Here again, social scientists have too often confused their role of analyst with some sort of political call for discipline and emancipation.

Once this second meaning of social as association is in place, we can understand what was so confusing about the sociologists of the social. They use the adjective to designate two entirely different types of phenomena: one of them is the local, face-to-face, naked, unequipped, and dynamic interactions; and the other is a sort of specific force that is supposed to explain why those same temporary face-to-face interactions could become far-reaching and durable. While it’s perfectly reasonable to designate by ‘social’ the ubiquitous phenomenon of face-to-face relations, it cannot provide any ground for defining a ‘social’ force that is nothing more than a tautology, a sleight of hand, a magical invocation, since it begs the question of how and through which means this increase in durability has been practically achieved. To jump from the recognition of interactions to the existence of a social force is, once again, an inference that does not follow from the premise.

Normal definition of social don’t work because eh..

Are sociologists of the social so foolish that they are unable to detect such a tautology in their reasoning? Are they really stuck in the mythical belief of another world behind the real world? Do they really believe in this strange bootstrapping of a society born out of itself? 76 Of course not, since they never really use it in practice and so are never confronted by the contradiction inherent in the notion of a ‘self production’ of society. The reason why they never draw the logical conclusion that their argument is contradictory is that they use it somewhat more loosely. When they invoke the durability of some social aggregates they always, wittingly or unwittingly, lend to the weak social ties the heavy load coming from the masses of other nonsocial things. It is always things—and I now mean this last word literally—which, in practice, lend their ‘steely’ quality to the hapless ‘society’. So, in effect, what sociologists mean by the ‘power of society’ is not society itself—that would be magical indeed—but some sort of summary for all the entities already mobilized to render asymmetries longer lasting. 77 This use of a shorthand is not tautological, but it is dangerously misleading since there is no empirical way to decide how all that stuff has been mobilized any longer—and worst of all, there is no way to know if such a load is still active. The idea of a society has become in the hands of later-day ‘social explainers’ like a big container ship which no inspector is permitted to board and which allows social scientists to smuggle goods across national borders without having to submit to public inspection. Is the cargo empty or full, healthy or rotten, innocuous or deadly, newly made or long disused? It has become anyone’s guess, much like the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

The tautology is.. contradictory?

This, for me, has always been a great surprise: How is it that, in spite of this massive and ubiquitous phenomenon, sociology remains ‘without object’? It is even more startling when you realize that this discipline emerged a full century after the Industrial Revolution and has been evolving in parallel with the largest and most intensive technical developments since the Neolithic. Not only that, but how to explain that so many social scientists pride themselves in considering ‘social meaning ’instead of ‘mere’ material relations, ‘symbolic dimension’ instead of ‘brute causality’? Much like sex during the Victorian period, objects are nowhere to be said and everywhere to be felt. They exist, naturally, but they are never given a thought, a social thought. Like humble servants, they live on the margins of the social doing most of the work but never allowed to be represented as such. There seems to be no way, no conduit, no entry point for them to be knitted together with the same wool as the rest of the social ties. The more radical thinkers want to attract attention to humans in the margins and at the periphery, the less they speak of objects. As if a damning curse had been cast unto things, they remain asleep like the servants of some enchanted castle. Yet, as soon as they are freed from the spell, they start shuddering, stretching, and muttering. They begin to swarm in all directions, shaking the other human actors, waking them out of their dogmatic sleep. Would it be too childish to say that ANT played the role of the Charming Prince’s kiss tenderly touching Sleeping Beauty’s lips? At any rate, it is because it was an object-oriented sociology for object-oriented humans that this school of thought was noticed in the first place—and that it makes sense to write an introduction to it.

This one starts out good enough.

In plain English, to say something is constructed means that it’s not a mystery that has popped out of nowhere, or that it has a more humble but also more visible and more interesting origin. Usually, the great advantage of visiting construction sites is that they offer an ideal vantage point to witness the connections between humans and non-humans. Once visitors have their feet deep in the mud, they are easily struck by the spectacle of all the participants working hard at the time of their most radical metamorphosis. 108 This is not only true of science but of all the other construction sites, the most obvious being those that are at the source of the metaphor, namely houses and buildings fabricated by architects, masons, city planners, real estate agents, and homeowners. 109 The same is true of artistic practice. 110 The ‘making of’ any enterprise—films, skyscrapers, facts, political meetings, initiation rituals, haute couture, cooking—offers a view that is sufficiently different from the official one. Not only does it lead you backstage and introduce you to the skills and knacks of practitioners, it also provides a rare glimpse of what it is for a thing to emerge out of in existence by adding to any existing entity its time dimension. Even more important, when you are guided to any construction site you are experiencing the troubling and exhilarating feeling that things could be different, or at least that they could still fail—a feeling never so deep when faced with the final product, no matter how beautiful or impressive it may be.

The difficulty was to make sense of this experience—and this took a very long time. That scientists were sometimes angry at us was not in itself that significant. Studying up does not mean being submitted to the agenda of those we study: what some disgruntled scientists concluded from our research remains their business, not ours. As far as I can tell from the confusing episodes of what has been called the ‘Science Wars’, they might have concluded that the white purity of science should never be sullied by the dark and greasy fingers of mere sociologists. 129 If they have not learned anything from their encounters with us, this is too bad for them and there is not much we can do. But even if they drew the wrong conclusion, their furor at what sociologists were so clearly missing in trying to explain their work was for me a crucial sign. No matter how misguided their reactions, it showed that whenever a social explanation was provided there was something very tricky going on. Instead of establishing some connection between two entities, it often happens that one entity is substitutedby another one. At which point the necessary search for causality has become a wholly different enterprise dangerously close to prestidigitation.

He is referring to Sokal’s critique here, citing it in footnote 129. They did not learn anything? lol?

It is exactly at such a juncture that we have to choose to be literal, naive, and myopic. Refusing to understand only half is sometimes a virtue. After all, physicists got rid of the ether only when one of them was moronic enough to ask how the small handle of a clock could be ‘superimposed’ on the big one: everyone else knew, he chose not to. 135 With all due respect, I propose to do the same with this great mystery of the social. Everyone seems to know what it means to ‘relate’ religion and society, law and society, art and society, market and society, to have something at once ‘behind’, ‘reinforced’, ‘invisible’, and ‘denied’. But I don’t!

Not quite sure what this is supposed to refer to. Anything better with history of ether in physics than me, please fill in here.

With my voluntarily narrowed mind I’d say that if social element A is said to ‘cause’ the existence of B, C, and D, then not only should it be able to generate back B, C, and D, but it should also account for the differences between B, C, and D, except if it can be shown that B, C, and D are the same thing, in which case their differences can be declared unimportant. If you peruse the social history literature and look at the number of things that are supposed to be caused by ‘the force of society’, the rise of the modern state, the ascent of the petty bourgeoisie, the reproduction of social domination, the power of industrial lobbies, the invisible hand of the market, individual interactions, then the relation might just be one where a single cause has a million effects.136 But a cause is a cause is a cause. Is the causing element able to account for the differences between millions of effects—in which case can I generate B, C, and D as consequences when I hold A as a cause? Or are these differences between millions of events really immaterial—in which case sticking simply to cause A implies that I hold everything as important, minus marginal perturbations? In both cases, the A cause is indeed, for all practical purposes, substitutable with the millions of B, C, Ds, etc. But with the ‘ascent of the petty bourgeoisie’, do I really grasp what happened in England, France, and Germany from the 15th to the 20th century? With the ‘automatic feedback of the invisible hand’, do I really grasp the millions of market interactions throughout the whole world? When holding the law of falling bodies, do I grasp everything pertinent there is to say about the planet’s interactions as well as in the pendulum movement of my mother’s old clock? Does ‘society’ or the ‘market’ contain in potentia what it is supposed to cause or not? ‘Of course not’ would respond the unanimous choir of social theorists, ‘we never claimed such a stupid philosophy of causes’. But then what exact role do they really give to ‘social forces’?

A real gem! The differences between the same things can be said to be unimportant!

Law of falling bodies presumably refers to Newton’s law of universal gravitation.

As I have said in the introduction, to use the word social for such a process is legitimated by the oldest etymology of the word socius: ‘someone following someone else’, a ‘follower’, an ‘associate’. To designate this thing which is neither one actor among many nor a force behind all the actors transported through some of them but a connection that transports, so to speak, transformations, we use the word translation—the tricky word ‘network’ being defined in the next chapter as what is traced by those translations in the scholars’ accounts. 144 So, the word ‘translation’ now takes on a somewhat specialized meaning: a relation that does not transport causality but induces two mediators into coexisting. If some causality appears to be transported in a predictable and routine way, then it’s the proof that other mediators have been put in place to render such a displacement smooth and predictable (see Part II). I can now state the aim of this sociology of associations more precisely: there is no society, no social realm, and no social ties,but there exist translations between mediators that may generate traceable associations. Through this book, we will hopefully learn to widen the gap between an account that makes use of the social as traditionally construed and this other one that purports to deploy strings of mediators. To learn ANT is nothing more than to become sensitive to the differences in the literary, scientific, moral, political, and empirical dimensions of the two types of accounts.

Another nonsensical redefinition.

Next up, let’s talk nonsense about sociobiology:

To pursue our project we don’t have to tackle these difficult philosophical questions. We just need to be open-minded about the shape in which former objects of nature might present themselves in the new associations we are following. To our great surprise, once the artificial boundary between social and natural was removed, non-human entities were able to appear under an unexpected guise. For instance, rocks might be useful to knock an idealist back to his senses, but rocks in geology seemed to be much more varied, much more uncertain, much more open, and deploy many more types of agencies than the narrow role given to them in empiricist accounts. 147 Steel desks offer a great opportunity for angry realists to thump the table in the name of ‘material constraints’ so as to bring sociologists back to reality, but laminated steel in metallurgy offers so many conundrums on the ways material resistance may occur that there is almost no relation between what positivist philosophers and material scientists call ‘matter’. 148 The inflexible drive of genetic make-up may be great for socio-biologists to ridicule the socialist dream of nurturing a better humanity, but genes in biogenetics take so many contradictory roles, obey so many opposite signals, are ‘made up’ of so many influences that if there is one thing that cannot be done with them it is to silence an adversary. 149 Computers might offer an advertisement for the best example of hype, but chips in computer science require vast institutions in order to live up to their reputation as ‘formal machines’. 150 Everywhere, the empirical multiplicity of former ‘natural’ agencies overflows the narrow boundary of matters of fact. There exists no direct relation between being real and being indisputable.

Is biogenetics something else than normal genetics? Is there a non-bio genetics? Alien genetics? A subfield of xenobiology perhaps?

It’s not too late to abuse math too:

This introduction to ANT begins to look like another instance of Zeno’s paradox, as if every segment was split up by a host of mediators each claiming to be taken into account. ‘We will never get there! How can we absorb so many controversies?’ Having reached this point, the temptation is great to quit in despair and to fall back on more reasonable social theories that would prove their stolid common sense by ignoring most of the sources of uncertainty I have reviewed. We could swallow one, maybe two, but not four in a row. Unfortunately, I have not found a way to speed things up: this type of science for that type of social should be as slow as the multiplicity of objections and objects it has to register in its path; it should be as costly as it is necessary to establish connections among the many mediators it finds swarming at every step; and it should be as reflexive, articulated, and idiosyncratic as the actors cooperating in its elaboration. It has to be able to register differences, to absorb multiplicity, to be remade for each new case at hand. This is why the four sources of uncertainty have to be tackled courageously all at once, each adding its set of differences to the others. If one is missing, the whole project falls apart.


A sudden flash of self-reflection?!

It’s thus a fair question to ask why the literature of social science is often so badly written. There are two reasons for this: first, scholars strive to imitate the sloppy writings of hard scientists; second, because contrary to the latter, they do not convoke in their reports actors recalcitrant enough to interfere with the bad writing.

False alarm.

But is it not somewhat disingenuous to retain the tricky word network to describe such a benchmark of literary quality? I agree that it does not resemble other words I have used up to now like group, actor, actant, group, fluid, and non-human, which are chosen voluntarily because of their benighted meaninglessness. This one, on the contrary, has too many meanings! The confusion took place—it is our fault entirely—because some of the earlier objects described by ANT were networks in the technical sense—metrology, subways, telephones— and also because when this term was introduced twenty-five years ago, the Internet had not struck—nor had al-Qaida for that matter. So, network was a novelty that could help in eliciting a contrast with ‘Society’, ‘institution’, ‘culture’, ‘fields’, etc. which were often conceived as surfaces, floods of causal transfers, and real matters of fact. But nowadays, networks have become the rule and surfaces the exception. It has lost its sharp edge. 185 If I believed in jargon and if worknet or action net had any chance to hold, I would offer it as a substitute so as to make the contrast between technical networks and worknets, the latter remaining a way for social scientists to make sense of the former. 186 Work-nets could allow one to see the labor that goes on in laying down net-works: the first as an active mediator, the second as a stabilized set of intermediaries.

More random allusions (9-11), and choosing words deliberately that are confusing.

A very strange part of the book is the Dialog in the middle. In the dialog, a professor and a student talk about ANT, and the student brings up the usual objections: nonsense dressed in fancy language, useless as a theoretical perspective, etc. The professor is Latour and he responds akin to Latour elsewhere in the book. The dialog is strange in that Latour seems to halfway understand the problems with ANT, but still engages in it. Dishonest or merely very confused?

The problem is that social scientists use scale as one of the many variables they need to set up before doing the study, whereas scale is what actors achieve by scaling, spacing, and contextualizing each other through the transportation in some specific vehicles of some specific traces. 244 It is of little use to respect the actors’ achievements if in the end we deny them one of their most important privileges, namely that they are the ones defining relative scale. It’s not the analyst’s job to impose an absolute one. As every reader of relativity theory knows, absolute frames of reference generate only horrible deformations, spoiling any hope of superimposing documents in some readable format, while soft and slimy ‘mollusks of reference’ (Einstein’s term) allow physicists to travel from one frame to the next if not smoothly, then at least continuously. 245 Either the sociologist is rigid and the world becomes a mess or the sociologist is pliable enough and the world puts itself in order. Here again the duties of empirical relativism are akin to those of morality.

As in every previous case of Latour using “as every… knows”…

Scale is the actor’s own achievement. Although this is the oldest and, in my view, the most decisive proposition made by ANT, 247 I have never encountered anyone who could accept to even glance at the landscape thus revealed—no more, if I dare the parallel, than Galileo could tempt his ‘dear and respected colleagues’ to have a look through his makeshift telescope. The reason is that we tend to think of scale— macro, meso, micro—as a well-ordered zoom. It is a bit like the marvelous but perversely misleading book The Powers of Ten, where each page offers a picture one order of magnitude closer than the preceding one all the way from the Milky Way to the DNA fibers, with a photo somewhere in the middle range that shows two young picnickers on a lawn near Lake Superior. 248 A microsecond of reflection is enough to realize that this montage is misleading—where would a camera be positioned to show the galaxy as a whole? Where is the microscope able to pin down this cell DNA instead of that one? What ruler could order pictures along such a regular trail? Nice assemblage, but perversely wrong. The same is true of the zooming effect in the social realm, except that, in this case, it is taken not as a clever artistic trick, but as a most natural injunction springing from the sturdiest common sense. Is it not obvious that IBM is ‘bigger’ than its sales force? That France is ‘wider’ than the School of Mines that is much ‘bigger’ than me? And if we imagine IBM and France as having the same star-like shape as the command and control war room I mentioned earlier, what would we make of the organizational charts of IBM’s corporate structure, of the map of France, of the picture of the whole Earth? Are they not obviously providing the vastly wider ‘framework’ into which ‘smaller things’ have to be ‘situated’? Does it not make perfect sense to say that Europe is bigger than France, which is bigger than Paris that is bigger than rue Danton and which is bigger than my flat? Or to say that the 20 th century provides the frame ‘in which’ the Second World War has ‘taken place’? That the battle of Waterloo, in Stendhal’s The Charter house of Parma, is a vastly more important event than Fabrizio del Dongo’s experience of it? While readers might be ready to listen patiently to the claims of ANT for a new topography, they won’t take it any further if it goes too much against every commonsensical reaction. How could ‘putting things into a frame’ not be the most reasonable thing to do?

An odd critique of zooming.

It’s worth noting at this point that ANT has been accused of two symmetric and contradictory sins: the first is that it extends politics everywhere, including the inner sanctum of science and technology; the second is that it is so indifferent to inequalities and power struggles that it offers no critical leverage—being content only to connive with those in power. 349 Although the two accusations should cancel each other out—how can one extend politics so much and yet doing so little for it?—they are not necessarily contradictory. Since the Left has always leaned on some science to reinforce its project of emancipation, politicizing science amounts to depriving the exploited from the only chance they have of redressing the balance by appealing to objectivity and rationality. 350 Although the false sciences have to be exposed—they are nothing but barely disguised ideology—there resides in the purely scientific ones the only court of appeal capable of adjudicating all the disputes. Only the most reactionary people rejoice at a weakening of reason. If not, the underdogs are left with ‘mere’ power relations—and at that game the lambs will be eaten much faster than the wolves. Moreover, by delivering the keys of a politicized science to the hands of the powerful, ANT turns into nothing but a ‘sociology of engineers’, or worse, a group of consultants teaching those who have been freed from the disciplining power of reason to be even more Machiavellian, even more scheming, even more indifferent to the difference between science and ideology. In the name of the extension of networks, the naked emperor gets more of the latest ‘wearables’. 351 ANT is nothing but an extended form of Machiavellianism.

Are they contradictory or not? And don’t tell Latour about advanced modal logic!

And finally in his conclusion:

I am well aware that I have not said enough to substantiate any of these numerous points. This book is just an introduction to help the interested reader in drawing the social theory consequences of the sociology of science. It’s not for me to say if anyone will end up using these tricks in any trade. At least now nobody can complain that the project of actor-network-theory has not been systematically presented. I have voluntarily made it such an easy target that a sharpshooter is not needed in order to hit it.

What Latour presents is neither precise, clear, introductory or systematic. It is a verbiage of misused, redefined, made-up without definitions mixture of language in essence presenting very simple ideas. It is exactly the kind of confused drivel that Sokal et al has claimed.