Throughout his work, the object of Latour’s analyses are networks. In our contemporary context the term “network” is misleading as it immediately brings to mind images of the internet, where computers are “networked” together through communications technologies. Although Latour’s notion of networks is designed to underline relations among actors, his concept of networks refers to something far more heterogeneous than something like the internet. Where the elements of the internet are all more or less the same in that they are all computers sending and receiving computer messages, Latour’s networks are composed of heterogeneous assemblages of diverse objects acting and reacting to one another. As Latour writes in Reassembling the Social, the term
…network does not designate a thing out there that would have roughly the shape of interconnected points, much like a telephone, a freeway, or a sewage ‘network’… It qualifies [rather] its objectivity, that is, the ability of each actor to make other actors do unexpected things. (129)
If, upon hearing the term “network”, we immediately think of points connected by lines, we have failed to understand Latour’s concept of what networks are. A network of highways is fixed and static. Latour’s networks are not a series of points connected by relations, but rather are interactions among actors that perpetually transform one another through their interaction. “A good ANT (Actor-Network Theory) account is a narrative or a description or a proposition where all the actors do something and don’t just sit there. Instead of simply transporting effects without transforming them, each of the points in the [network] may become a bifurcation, an event, or the origin of a new translation” (RS, 128).
The concept of network is thus a concept of a dynamic interaction among actors, not the concept of a fixed structure organizing entities embedded in a structure. As Latour puts it in We Have Never Been Modern, translation and networks are “[m]ore supple than the notion of system, more historical than the notion of structure, more empirical than the notion of complexity…” (3). Where a structure is a synchronic identity across shifting diachrony, networks are not fixed across time in this synchronic fashion because in acting the actor evokes action and translation in the other actor upon which it acts. For example, I stand in a networked relationship to the sun. The sun acts upon my skin and the cells of my skin translate this sunlight producing a tan. Perhaps my hot new tan now “acts” upon someone else, eliciting attraction in them and wackiness ensues. It is the actions that define the network, not a set of stable relationships or patterns that can be tracked throughout time despite changes in the entities enmeshed in the structure.
The concept of “translation” closely attached to the concept of networks is thus that of the way in which an actor receives the action of another actor and is provoked to respond in relation to that action. Cold makes my skin prickle. That is a translation between two actors where the action of the one actor provokes an action in the other actor. Networks are thus unfolding translation relations. I have called this “Latour’s Principle“:
There is no transportation without translation. Follows from the Ontic Principle. Insofar as there is no difference that does not make a difference, it follows that no assemblage or ob-ject-ile can transport or convey its difference to another assemblage or ob-jectile without a process of translation or weaving of differences in which singularities must contend with one another in the production of a state-change in one or both of the assemblages involved.
In acting (transporting) upon another actor, there is always a translation that takes place in the second actor such that the difference (the action) of the first actor is never transported or conveyed without being modified in some way or another by the second actor. My skin is not a wave of light moving at 186,000 miles per hour (the first actor), but rather the cells of my skin translate this light into the darkness of a tan through a variety of chemical reactions. From the standpoint of social analysis, this is a tremendously important point. Human bodies, for example, can never be mere “vehicles” of social relations and forces, transporting them as if without any resistance. Indeed, in Reassembling the Social, Latour will go so far as to claim that the social does not exist. In claiming this he is not endorsing the position of Margaret Thatcher, but is rather arguing that the social does not explain but must be explained. Such an explanation consists in a network analysis focused on interactants. If networks are more supple than systems, then this is because the elements of a system all depend on one another and form a whole, whereas the actors in a network are independent and autonomous, entering into relations with one another while also being separable.
No doubt my examples of actors above will raise some eyebrows. Ordinarily when we think of actors we think of human or living beings endowed with intentionality. Reference to sunlight and my cells as actors seems idiosyncratic at best. Latour broadens the term “actor” to include any element in a network that produces a difference in other actors in a network. As a consequence, Latour’s collectives are populated by human and nonhuman actors. As Latour writes, “…I will use the word ‘collective’ to describe the association of humans and nonhumans and ‘society’ to designate one part only of our collectives, the divide invented by the social sciences” (WNM, 4).
We can already see how vast a difference there is between Latour’s sociological approach and, for example, the sort of analysis we might find in one of Zizek’s books. Imagine, if you will, how Latour and Zizek would approach the issue of global warming. For Zizek we would get a very clever and sophisticated analysis of the discourse of global warming, how it relates to the non-existence of the big Other and our status as split subjects. For Zizek, global warming would not be an actor, but would rather be a vehicle for a set of signifiers functioning to cover over the traumatic truth of the Real. Latour would not, of course, reject this analysis. As I remarked in my last post, Latour approaches analysis at a number of different levels. Discourse is one of these levels. However, in addition to discourses surrounding global warm– which are certainly actors in a network –Latour would also analyze relationships between the media, scientists, politicians, technologies, and the changes in nature itself. In other words, the rises in greenhouse gases, the melting of polar ice caps, the changes in ocean temperatures, the depletion of fossil fuels, etc., are also, for Latour, actors in this network rather than mere vehicles of signifiers or social forces.
Nowhere is this status of nonhuman actors more clear than in the case of Latour’s analysis of Boyle’s Vacuum Pump.
…Boyle defines an even stranger artifact [than Hobbes' invention of representation]. He invents the laboratory within which artificial machines create phenomena out of whole cloth. Even though they are artificial, costly and hard to reproduce, and despite the small number of trained and reliable witnesses, these facts indeed represent as it is. The facts are produced and represented in the laboratory, in scientific writings; they are recognized and vouched for by the nascent community of witnesses. Scientists are scrupulous representatives of facts. Who is speaking when they speak? The facts themselves, beyond all question, but also their authorized spokespersons. Who is speaking, then, nature or human beings? This is another insoluble question with which modern philosophy of science will wrestle over the course of three centuries. In themselves, facts are mute; natural forces are brute mechanisms. Yet the sscientists declare that they themselves are not speaking; rather, facts speak for themselves. These mute entities are thus capable of speaking, writing, signifying within the artificial chamber of the laboratory or inside the even more rarefied chamber of the vacuum pump. (WNM, 28 – 9)
In response to the debate over whether space was filled with ether or was a vacuum, Boyle constructs the vacuum pump and places a feather inside of it. If space is filled with ether, then the feather should move from the ether-winds even though all air has been pumped out. The feather does not move. The vacuum pump has spoken. It is an actor in this debate that introduces a difference on other actors (the observing scientists). Latour will happily agree that facts are constructed. But they are not constructed out of social forces, signifiers, or representations (though all of these things are actors too). No, the vacuum pump is constructed from glass, wood, levers, etc. But in being constructed its role as an actor is no less real for all of that.
In producing its difference– in this case the absence of movement in the feather –it initiates all sorts of actions in other actors. This event must now be translated into theory. What is it saying? What does it mean? A whole hermeneutics now emerges around the production of these sorts of data, proposing theories that might explain the phenomenon. However, this actor must also be translated throughout the social field. As Latour writes,
While a dozen civil wars were raging, Boyle chose a method of argument– that of opinion –that was held in contempt by the oldest scholastic tradition. Boyle and his colleagues abandoned the certainties of apodeictic reasoning in favor of doxa. This doxa was not the raving imagination of the credulous masses, but a new mechanism for winning the support of one’s peers. Instead of seeking to ground his work in logic, mathematics or rhetoric, Boyle relied on a parajuridical metaphor: credible, trustworthy, well-to-do witnesses gathered at the scene of the action can attest to the existence of a fact, the matter of fact, even if they do not know its true nature. So he invented the empirical style that we still use today.
Boyle did not seek these gentlement’s opinion, but rather their observation of a phenomenon artificially in the closed and protected space of a laboratory. Ironically, the key question of the constructivists– are facts thoroughly constructed in the laboratory?– is precisely the question that Boyle raised and resolved. Yes, the facts are indeed constructed in the new installation of the laboratory and through the artificial intermediary of the air pump. (WNM, 18)
The observers become translators. They carry what they have seen all over Europe through their writings, their discussions with others, etc., constructing a fact not through a reasoned deduction, but through their testimony. The vacuum pump is refined and begins to be reproduced all over Europe, becoming a parlor trick for the amateur scientist at parties. That is, the vacuum pump leads all sorts of other actors to act, generating yet more actions.