In a recent response to one of my posts, Ross writes:

Ah, well, with all this reading of Leibniz it’s no wonder that you ascribe some sort of teleological agency to nature, and for that matter, the entire non-human universe.

Here it’s incredibly important to emphasize that I don’t ascribe teleology to all things. Indeed, I believe that teleology is even rather limited in the case of humans and social systems. Do I often speak of nonhuman objects as “doing” things, “wanting” things, “aiming” at things, and having goals? Absolutely. These anthropomorphisms– rife also in evolutionary theory, sociology, and Marxist thought –are not intended to suggest that things really have aims and purposes, but merely to draw attention to the contributions that nonhuman things make in the world and to us. They are designed to break the bad anthropocentric habit of treating nonhumans as passive stuffs upon which we project meanings and which merely obstruct us.

read on!

In The Politics of Nature Latour gives a succinct definition of what an actant is. As Latour puts it, actants are anything that “…modif[ies] other actors through a series of…” actions (75). Does the entity modify other entities, contributing something new to the assemblage that cannot be reduced to the other entities in the assemblage, or doesn’t it? If the entity does contribute something new to the assemblage, then it’s an actant. If it does not, then it’s not. It’s as simple as that. There is no weird teleology here that suggests that rocks, for example, have goals and aims. There is no suggestion here that street lamps really do want something. All that is to be attended to in the concept of actants is the manner in which they modify the action of other entities.

Here are a few examples of actants:

* Vinegar poured on baking soda. In its encounter with vinegar the baking soda behaves in ways that it would not otherwise behave.

* A surprising result in a laboratory experiment. In the moment of surprise in a laboratory experiment a substance other than the scientists and theories rises forth and announces itself, effectively participating in the dialogue. It is not just the scientists that here participate in the dialogue, but the substance has said something too. This speaking is provoked, of course, by the scientists, but it has nothing to do with the scientists’ intentions or meanings. It participates in the dialogue in the sense of modifying everything within that dialogue. Does this entail that the substance wanted to speak, that it intended to speak, that it demanded to be heard? No, of course not. Nonetheless it does speak or announce something in the course of the experiment and is every bit as much a participant in the experiment as the scientists. Indeed, often the scientists would prefer that the substance hadn’t spoken as in many cases the “speech” of the substance can spell the ruin of their work.

* The Krippen Virus in Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend starring Will Smith. In the film, the Krippen Virus is intended to cure cancer. However, as soon as it is released on the human population, it fundamentally modifies human beings, transforming them into nearly mindless vampire like beings. The Krippen Virus does not aim to do this, it doesn’t have the goal of doing this, it does do this.

In the grand scheme of things, there’s nothing really controversial about the concept of actants. Most reasonable people, in their day to day activity, would readily concede that entities do things or modify the behavior of us and other entities in all sorts of ways. My blog is an actant for me– and hopefully for others! –in the sense that it modifie(s)(d) my actions in all sorts of ways. With the blog, a whole set of goals, ordinary values, aims, and practices emerged that weren’t a part of my daily activity before. It’s no exaggeration to say that the blog fundamentally changed the very nature of my thought. Of course, the term “blog” here is shorthand for a variety of actants ranging from surprising remarks that appear in my comment section, posts that appear on other blogs, the software that constrains and affords the nature of my writing in a variety of ways, the temporality of blogs or the particular pace at which discussion here unfolds, the encounters with others that have taken place, the technologies I use to blog (blogging is very different depending on whether I’m using my phone, my iPad, or my laptop), etc.

The problem is that in our theorizing we often don’t do a very good job tracking or attending to actants. This happens in one of two ways. On the one hand, given the predominance of correlationo-idealistic thought, there’s a tendency to reduce the entities of the world to mere vehicles of human thought and intention, ignoring altogether the differences that entities contribute. We cease asking what entities do in particular circumstances– how, for example, our smart-phones modify us –and instead simply reduce them to vehicles of our use, meaning, or intentions. On the other hand, we can fall prey to something akin to what Heidegger had in mind when he referred to “sendings of Being”. In Heidegger’s strange reading of the history of philosophy, a sending of Being is something like a master-term that dominates a philosophical epoch and defines the ground of all beings within that epoch. These master-terms have the tendency to blind us to the action of actants by predetermining the ground of all beings in advance. Here it bears noting that whether or not a master-term occludes in this way is a functional property of the term, a feature of how the term functions, and not intrinsic to the term itself. Terms like power, capital, signifier, life, etc., can all begin to function in this way, giving us answers in advance and preventing us from seeing the world about us.

The concept of actant is a battle cry to attend to the manner in which entities modify other entities. By speaking in anthropomorphisms about actants we gradually develop a form of vision that helps to break the habit of seeing humans as the only actants. Rather, we come to look at the interplay of entities and how they modify one another. In particular, we develop a taste for events, that which surprises, or that which is unexpected in the course of things. The questions are always the same: what are the actants? what do they modify? how do they modify?

It is clear that the concept of actants is a relational term. Insofar as an actant consists of one entity modifying another (whether human or otherwise) we are attending to relations between entities. Within the framework of my onticology, actants thus fall under the domain of local manifestations and regimes of attraction, exploring the way in which entities are imbricated with one another and how they modify one another. Latour’s tendency is to reduce entities entirely to actants, arguing that entities only are insofar as they modify other entities. As Harman has argued, this is to confuse the being of entities with how they affect other entities. Entities in their being are always in excess of any of their affects, such that entities can exist that affect nothing, yet nonetheless exist and be real despite that. Nonetheless, the concept of actant draws our attention to a rich domain of interactions absolutely necessary as objects of analysis if we are to understand why our social world is as it is.

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