As I’ve reread Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason I’ve been astonished by the overlap between Latour’s actor-network theory and Sartre’s account of how the social comes into being. One of Latour’s central claims is that the social does not explain but must be explained. As Latour remarks,

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’ [my emphasis]. 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. (Reassembling the Social, 43)

The central target of Latour’s actor-network theory (ANT) is what he calls “the sociology of the social”. The sociology of the social would be that form of sociology that suggests that the social is composed of a special sort of “stuff” (“social stuff”, not unlike phlogiston) that holds people together in a particular way. Generally sociologists of the social appeal to power, social forces, signs, language, norms, and human intentions.

By contrast, Latour argues that all of these agencies are rather weak and fail to account for why the social (assemblages of humans and nonhumans) are held together in the way they’re held together. In place, the sociology of the social, Latour instead proposes a sociology of associations. The social, for Latour, is nothing more than associations between human and nonhuman entities (and sometimes, many times, solely associations between nonhuman entities) that include semiotic components, human intentions, norms, laws, but also technologies, animals, natural entities like rivers and mountains, etc., etc., etc. Indeed, Latour will argue that it is nonhuman actors that do the lion’s share of the work in associating human beings with one another, and that signs, intentions, norms, laws, etc., are rather weak tea in maintaining certain assemblages or associations between humans. As Latour writes in a justly celebrated passage,


A shepherd and his dog remind you nicely of social relations, but when you see her flock behind a barbed wire fence, you wonder where is the shepherd and her dog– although sheep are kept in the field by the piercing effect of wire barbs more obstinately than by the barking of the dog. There is no doubt that you have become a couch potato in front of your TV set thanks largely to the remote control that allows you to surf from channel to channel– and yet there is no resemblance between the causes of your immobility and the portion of your action that has been carried out by an infrared signal, even though there is no question that your behavior has been permitted by the TV command.

Between a car driver that slows down near a school because she has seen the ’30 MPH’ yellow sign and a car driver that slows down because he wants to protect the suspension of his car threatened by the bump of a ‘speed trap’, is the difference big or small. Big, since the obedience of the first has gone through morality, symbols, sign posts, yellow paint, while the other has passed through the same list to which has been added a carefully designed concrete slab. But it is small since they have both obeyed something: the first driver to a rarely manifested altruism– if she had not slowed down, her heart would have been broken by the moral law; the second driver to a largely distributed selfishness– if he had not slowed down his suspension would have been broken by a concrete slab. Should we say that only the first connection is social, moral and symbolic, but that the second is objective and material? No. But, if we say that both are social all the way through, but they certainly are collected or associated together by the very work of road designers. One cannot call oneself a social scientist and pursue only some links– the moral, legal, and symbolic ones –and stop as soon as there is some physical relation interspersed in between the others. (RS, 77 – 78)

Latour’s point is that if we wish to take account of the fabric of the social, of those assemblages that exist, we have to take into account the role that nonhuman entities play in organizing particular patterns of relations and behavior. Each example contrasts, more or less, a humanist explanation (reference to power, signs, laws, morals, etc) and a nonhumanist example. Thus, in the first example, Latour contrasts control of the sheep through power (the role of the shepherd and the sheep dog) and control of the sheep through a barbwire fence. This example is particularly nice because it shows that for the sociology of associations the behavior of sheep is every bit as much a sociological question as the behavior of humans. The second example contrasts human intentions with the unintended consequences of technology (becoming an overweight couch potato). The third example contrasts agency through law and signs with agency through a nonhuman actor such as a speed bump.

read on!

Latour’s point is not that we should ignore intentions, laws, signs, morals, etc., not that we should restrict our field of analysis to the nonhuman, but that we ought to expand our field of analysis if we truly wish to understand associations. Along these lines, Latour will argue that nonhuman objects should be treated as full-blown actors in associations or assemblages. As he writes,

The main reason why objects had no chance to play any role before was not only due to the definition of the social used by sociologists, but also to the very definition of actors and agencies most often chosen. If action is limited a priori to what ‘intentional’, ‘meaningful’ humans do, it is hard to see how a hammer, a basket, a door closer, a cat, a rug, a mug, a list, or a tag could act. They might exist in the domain of ‘material’ ‘causal’ relations, but not in the ‘reflexive’ ‘symbolic’ domain of social relations. By contrast, if we stick to our decision to start from the controversies about actors and agencies, then any thing that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor– or, if it has no figuration yet, an actant. Thus, the questions to ask about any agent are simply the following: Does it make a difference in the course of some other agent’s action or not? Is there some trial that allows someone to detect this difference? (RS, 71)

It’s important to understand Latour’s strategy here. The standard rejoinder to Latour’s proposal to treat nonhumans as actors is that this proposal can only be metaphorical because nonhumans do not act but only behave. Because nonhumans do not have meanings or intentions, the rejoinder goes, we can only be speaking metaphorically when we say nonhumans act. Nonhumans, the critic continue, can only “act” insofar as humans project meaning and intentions on to them. In response to this criticism, Latour’s strategy is not to argue that nonhuman objects have intentions and meanings, but to question the degree to which human actors have intentions and meanings. As Latour puts it elsewhere, in his essay “A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans” in Pandora’s Hope,

What interests me here is the composition of action marked by the lines that get longer at each step… Who performs the action? Agent 1 plus Agent 2 plus Agent 3. Action is a property of associated entities [my emphasis]. Agent 1 is allowed, authorized, enabled, afforded by the others. The chimp plus the sharp stick reach (not reaches) the banana. The attribution to one actor of the role of prime mover in no way weakens the necessity of a composition of forces to explain the action. It is by mistake, or unfairness, that our headlines read “Man flies,” “Woman goes into space.” Flying is a property of the whole association of entities that includes airports and planes, launch pads and ticket counters. B-52s do not fly, the U.S. Air Force Flies. Action is simply not a property of humans but of associations of actants, and this is the second meaning of technical mediation. Provisional “actorial” roles may be attributed to actants only because actants are in the process of exchanging competences, offering one another new possibilities, new goals, new functions. (PH, 182)

Latour’s point is two-fold: On the one hand, action never occurs in a vacuum but requires an assemblage of actants to take place at all. As Sartre argues in his Critique of Dialectical Reason, in order to act at all we must make our body material to act on other material bodies, yet in doing so we are in turn acted upon by both the material bodies we act on, but also the products of our production come to act on us. As Sartre will put it, this is “…that terrible aspect of man in which he is the product of his product” (CDR, 184). On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, we can’t speak unequivocally about intentions coming from human beings. Did the intention to become a channel surfer issue from the man in his Lazy Boy or did it issue from the remote? We can’t answer the question. Therefore, in a manner similar to Gilbert Ryle in The Concept of Mind, we must, in our social and political theory, first exorcise the ghost in the machine that continues to haunt our social and political thought by treating intentionality and meaning as solely arising from human agency.

Indeed, how often do people act based on reasons and intentions? Isn’t it rather that we fabricate reasons and intentions after we act as grounds of our action, such that these reasons and intentions are not grounds of our action, but rather results of our action? Isn’t this precisely what MRI resonance shows, where the decision is made prior to us becoming conscious of the action or reasons for the action? If this is the case, then, all things being equal, we should abandon the idea that meaning and intention is the sole domain of humans, as humans never had this capacity to begin with. Just as we no longer speak of a homunculus in the mind, we should abandon the notion that intentions and meanings solely belong to humans.

All of this, of course, gives rise to the question of just how human agency is possible. Are we mere puppets of assemblages, or is agency possible? It is this very question that Jeff Bell, Joe Hughes and I are currently working on. However, the point is that we must not cheat. Agency is not something that we have, it is not an a priori given as the neo-Kantians would argue, but rather something that we accomplish. Put differently, agency is something rare and unusual, not the norm. It is an accomplishment that must come-to-be, not something that is already there. But more on that another day.

The problem with Latour is that while he is so often theoretically right, his concrete analyses and examples just tend to be uninteresting. In Sartre we find much more compelling examples. In the Critique of Dialectical Reason the role played by nonhumans is referred to as antipraxis, the practico-inert, or the world of worked matter that then takes on an intentionality of its own. Antipraxis, the practico-inert, or “counter-finality” structures the possibilities we encounter in our world through a series of material structures. Thus, as Sartre writes,

At the origin of this membership [in class-being], there are passive syntheses of materiality. And these syntheses represent both the general conditions of social activity and our most immediate, crudest objective reality. They already exist; they are simply the crystallised practice of previous generations: individuals find an existence already sketched out for them at birth; they ‘have their position in life and their personal development assigned to them by their class. What is ‘assigned’ to them is a type of work, and a fundamental attitude, as well as a determinate provision of material and intellectual tools; it is a strictly limited field of possibilities. Thus Claude Lanzmann is right when he says: ‘A working woman who earns 25,000 francs a month and contracts chronic eczema by handling Dop shampoo eight hours a day is wholly reduced to her work, her fatigue, her wages and the material impossibilities that these wages assign to her: the impossibility of eating properly, of buying shoes, of sending her child to the country, and of satisfying her most modest wishes. Oppression does not reach the oppressed in a particular sector of their life; it constitutes this life in its totality. They are not people plus needs: they are completely reducible [sic.] to their needs. (CDR, 232)

For Sartre, it is not as Althusser argues that the woman is an effect of ideology, of a “hailing”, that makes her what she is, but rather that she is caught in the gravitational orbit of another entity, a vampiric, devouring entity, that, as I argued in my last post on class, is a hyperobject or object in its own right. Indeed, the woman translates this object in her own unique way, yet she also encounters this object in a manner akin to ocean surf and undertows that continuously restrict her possibilities of local manifestation and praxis.

Yet what does this all have to do with nonhuman actors. Remember that for Harman, objects are wrapped in objects that are, in their turn, wrapped in other objects. Objects are simultaneously built of other objects and autonomous from those objects. However, we must not forget that objects have to emerge or be built and this requires connection or relation between a variety of different objects. In order for class to exist, there has to be an entire network of human and nonhuman actors that build this object. Later, in the same example, Sartre gives the marvelous and harrowing example to illustrate this point. As Sartre writes:

Corresponding to the iron and coal complex there is the so called ‘universal’ machine. This means a machine– like the lathe in the second halve of the nineteenth century –whose function remains indeterminate (in contrast to the specialised machines of automation and semi-automation), and which can do very different jobs provided it is guided, prepared and supervised by a skillful, expert worker. The universality of the machine produces specialisation in its servants: it is accessible only to those who know how to use it, and who have therefore had to undergo an often very long apprenticeship. (Conversely, the specialisation of the machine, fifty years later, in the period of semi-automation, has brought with it the universalisation of its servants: they are interchangeable.) Thus the producer of the machines, through his product and the improvement he makes to it, identifies a certain type of men, namely the skilled workers who are capable of carrying out a complete operation from beginning to end, unaided, that is to say, a dialectical praxis.

The practical effect is built into machines themselves in the form of exigency. They reduce specifically physical effort, but require skill. They require that men freed of all secondary labours should devote themselves entirely to them: in this way, they fix, first, the mode of recruitment; then, through the employers, they create employment opportunities and relatively high wages on the labour market; and so a structured future opens up for certain sons of workers [my emphasis], who turn out to have the abilities and means required to become apprentices. (This means sons whose fathers, themselves workers, are in a position to let their sons work for a number of years without being able to support themselves. Generally, the father himself will have to be a skilled worker.) But, in the same process, machines create a lower proletariat which is not only the direct result of the rise of an elite of better paid workers, who are selected by apprenticeship, but is also directly required by the universal machine, in the form of the ensemble of unskilled workers who, in every workshop, have to be attached to the skilled workers, obey them, and relieve them of all the lowly chores which Others can do for them. (CDR, 239 – 240)

Sartre’s point here is that class is not the result of any sort of class experience, class consciousness, set of intentions and meanings, etc., but that it is already inscribed in the nature of the lathe. Like the plurality of ocean forces I described in relation to the distribution of sea shells that I described in my last post, the lathe is a sorting mechanism, a difference engine, that captures human bodies within a field of various forces that sort them into skilled and unskilled labor. We thus get the emergence of two new objects, the skilled working class and the unskilled working class, that didn’t exist prior to, perhaps, the lathe. The point here is that if we are to understand social distributions we need to expand our field beyond the domain of belief, intentions, the semiotic, laws, morals, and so on if we are to understand social distributions. We must abandon our fetish for texts.

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