Over at the OOP (why do I always start singing “are you down with OPP” whenever I say this?), Graham expands on my post about Caesar. I’m having tremendous difficulty articulating what I’m trying to get at in a way that is accessible to others who have predominantly worked within hermeneutic or meaning-centered orientations of theory (I use this term generically to refer to any predominantly semiotic, semiological, hermeneutic, deconstructive, discursive, or sociological approach to theory), so it’s nice to see him nailing the issue somewhat towards the end of his post. As Graham puts it,
The best way to see the importance of this is to compare any ANT-type [actor-network-theory] reading of some historical event with a more reductive reading. In the latter case you’ll see histories claiming that “the Crusades were all about economics,” or in the other direction, “Pasteur brought light to the darkness and gave birth to a new, enlightened era of medicine.” In the ANT’ish case, you’ll always find something much more interesting and surprising– actors displaced from their original goals due to chance material obstacles, forced to translate their progress along strange paths that they never intended.
There has been a lot of protest against Latour’s use of the term “actor” to refer to anything from pebbles to human agents. However, I think Harman nails it here when he draws attention to the manner in which goals shift as a result of aleatory encounters among differences in a multiplicity. This is not simply a question of unanticipated consequences, but also about the manner in which goals shift in unanticipated ways and begin to develop in unexpected ways as a result of bringing things together in networks. Here, perhaps, we could distinguish between smooth spaces and gnarled spaces. A smooth space is a space you move through without any sort of friction or resistance. As a result, nothing stands in the way of envisioning a goal and executing it. By contrast, a gnarly space is populated by all sorts of singularities or differences that gradually lead to a transformation of the goals themselves.
The very simple and concrete example that always comes to mind when thinking the role played by these gnarly spaces is that of a camping trip with my father when I was very young. There we are sitting about a fire with the other campers and he is whittling a stick. His goal was simply to occupy his hands while he talked, or perhaps to make a poker for the fire. However, as he made delicate slices something else began to take place. Towards the end of the stick he found a knot. That knot suggested an eye. Soon the tip of the stick suggested a bill. What began with the goal of creating a poker for the fire gradually turned into something very different: the graven image of a duck head.
Something similar can be observed in the amazing pumpkin carving to the right above. No doubt, in this case, the carver set out with the goal of carving a pumpkin. But note the idiosyncratic singularities of the medium he worked in. The pumpkin he uses is rather misshapen, rendering it inappropriate for other faces that he might have been envisioning. However, these singularities or differences embodied in the material come to be treated as affordances and constraints, presiding over the sort of carving that gradually emerges. Does the result come from the artist, from the medium, or from the tools? It would be a mistake to localize the cause in any one of these elements. Rather, the result is a project of the interplay among the elements of these assemblages. This is what my ethnnographer buddy refers to as “Margaret’s Pepper Principle” (see here and here).
More recently I have been referring to interactions in these types of assemblages as “engineering problems”. The reason I refer to engineers is that, in seeking to implement a particular idea, the engineer encounters the world as a problematic field. The reason for this lies in the singularities populating the medium with which the engineer must work to implement the idea. In computer problem, for example, you struggle with the constraints of your hardware and software. These constraints have a morphogenetic effect on what comes to be, taking it in unanticipated directions. Similarly, when building a bridge– which I’ve actually done –you have to take account of the geometry of the two shores, the depth of the water, how far you have to drive piling in through the muck to reach bedrock, the available materials, your workforce, etc., etc., etc. In the bringing together of all these elements the result is never like the intended aim. If all of the elements involved should be called “actors”– though I try to avoid this term myself –then this is because they actively contribute differences in such a way that you cannot tell whether you’re simply realizing your intention in matter or having yourself and your intention being formed by the material with which you’re working.