origin1Over at Speculative Heresy, Nick has a really interesting post up about the possibility of interesting intersections between Marxist thought and Actor-Network Theory. Much of the discussion has revolved around the conflict between actor-network theory and Marxist thought on the issue of totalization. ANT theorists are notorious for making claims like “society does not exist” and “capitalism does not exist”. Of course, such a claim is intolerable from a Marxist perspective insofar as Marxist requires that the social field is totalized by certain modes of production at a particular point in time. A charitable interpretation of these claims made by ANT theorists is that they are rhetorical exhortations to examine the relations among actors in networks. In other words, the ANT worry is that we treat concepts like “society” or “capitalism” as themselves being entities that do things, thereby becoming blind to how societies and modes of production like capitalism are put together. In other words, where these terms should be shorthand referring to complex networks of actors, we instead make claims like “society does”, etc. This reverses the order of explanation insofar as society and capitalism are not what explains but what is to be explained. An appeal to “social forces” in the explanation of a phenomena is a bit like appealing to the somnolent properties of wine as an explanation of why wine makes us sleep. In this respect, Marx is an outstanding ANT theorist. When Marx seeks to explain some phenomenon, he never appeals to “social factors” or “capitalism”, but rather he examines complex networks of actors such as the rise of factories and how they transform bodies and cognition– as Aleatorist informed me last night, Ford spent his time thinking about the most efficient forms of bodily movement on the assembly line –the role of clocks in temporalizing bodies and subjectivity, the conditions under which bodies become partitioned into workers and owners, the formation of trade routes and how they preside over the emergence of particular forms of production, distribution, and exchange in such and such a historical period, the role of memes in negentropically maintaining certain structure and order, and so on. Just look at Marx’s famous analysis of value. Marx refuses a psychological or “social” explanation of value, instead looking at the complex network through which something takes on value and, additionally, takes on the value of representing the value of something else (money). In every instance, we are referred back to the roles of human and non-human actors forming networks.

Unfortunately the issue is not clear-cut where ANT is concerned. If it were simply a matter of a rhetorical exhortation, we could easily forgive, even admire, actor-network-theory, readily agreeing that we should avoid the sorts of explanations so rightly derided by Molière. The problem is that Latour is often less than charitable to certain modes of analysis doing something very similar to what ANT calls for. Thus, it is not unusual to read him deriding Marxist thought. While I would agree that there is a lot of Marxist thought that should be derided because it turns capitalism into something like somnolent qualities or Zeus, there is a lot of really good work out there that avoids this sort of puerile simplification.

Depending on how it is theorized, it seems to me that the Marxists are clearly correct when they talk about totalization. The problem with ANT is that although it places “network” between “actor” and “theory”, somehow networks seem to get short shrift and all the emphasis gets placed on the side of actors. What is missed is the emergence of self-sustaining negentropic networks in which the actors in the network become dependent on one another in the replication or reproduction of the network. Just as Latour would like, these networks are composed of heterogeneous and autonomous actors, but insofar as the relations they enter into are characterized by negentropy, the network comes to organize subsequent adventures of actors in the network. In other words, the network functions like an ecology setting constraints for the actors within the network.

All of this makes me think of the rise of the eukaryotes about two billion years ago. There is a very real sense in which eukaryotes were a totalization of the biosphere, fundamentally transforming the ecology of the Earth. If the rise of the eukaryotes was so significant, then this was because it gradually transformed our atmosphere from one consisting of all sorts of inhospitable gases, to an atmosphere where oxygen came to predominate. Moreover, eukaryotes introduced complex cells enclosed in membranes. The formation of an oxygen rich atmosphere opened up all sorts of new environmental niches, creating new fields for speciation to take place. Similarly, the invention of complex cells with membranes opens a milieu of experimentation, allowing for the emergence of all sorts of multi-cellular critters. If eukaryotes totalized the biosphere, this is not because everything became the same, but because they transformed the very framework of the game of life. What we got was a very different sort of networked system. So too in the case of capitalism.