One of the most unfortunate things to take place in the world of theory and philosophy was the assimilation of the term “construction” to social, discursive, or representational construction. Scarcely had the term been introduced, than it was assimilated to a thesis about fabrication through language, signs, or representations. And here it bears noting that the term “fabrication” has suffered a similar unfortunate fate, coming to take on connotations of falsehood and artificiality. What should have brought about a revolution in realist epistemology instead became a way of claiming that facts are unreal, merely social, merely linguistic. This, for example, seems to be the root of Brassier’s confusion regarding Latour in his article “Concepts and Objects” in The Speculative Turn. For Brassier Latour has made the unforgivable claim that facts are constructed, from which Brassier seems to infer that facts are unreal, mere products of rhetoric, that they are mere fabrications or ideological falsehoods.
Yet this is the exact opposite of what Latour argues. Representation, rhetoric, and language are far too flimsy for the construction of facts. Here the Latourian (and Stengerian and Object-Oriented) critique of those descendents of Kant and postmodern social constructivists would be the same: they both mistakenly believe that knowledge can be constructed out of something as flimsy as representations. Yet from representations we will never get anything but more representations. The point is not that we don’t represent– we do –but that representation is only one small part of the story. Rather, when we hear the term “construction” we should not think “social construction” out of signs, language, power, and representations, but rather something closer to building a house. I cannot “represent” a house into existence– though clearly a house isn’t a house without being represented as such –but rather I must fabricate the house. And I must fabricate the house with wood, stone, nails, shingles, bricks, hammers, saws, and so on. Moreover, the binding or linking of these materials must accord with laws of physics, geometry, mathematics, and geology (with all houses there’s always the question of foundations). These latter forces are both dis-covered through the activity of fabrication and building, and the builder is in constantly dialogue with these forces as he builds. Decisions to bind such an such materials at this particular point in time will have consequences for how I bind subsequent materials by virtue of how this earlier activity of binding bricks, for example, leads to an actualization of forces down the road in further acts of linking.
Social constructivists give the impression that things may be constructed in whatever way society might like. This, of course, disturbs Kantian representationalists. Yet construction is not a construction with signs, representations, or language. Construction is not discursive construction, though it will certainly involve discursive elements. Rather, construction is always construction with and from the entities of world. And the point is that in order for a fact to be constructed, it must be capable of standing. And here’s the crucial point: whether or not something stands is not entirely up to us. This is what distinguishes materialist or object-oriented constructivism from postmodern or social constructivist constructivism. Facts are simultaneously constructed or fabricated– out of the entities of the world –and they must be capable of standing to be facts.
Boyle carefully refrained from talking about vacuum pumps. To put some order into the debates that followed the discovery of Toricellian space at the top of a mercury tube inverted in a basin of the same substance, he claimed to be investigating only the weight of the air without taking sides in the dispute between plenists and vacuists. The apparatus he developed (modelled on Otto von Guericke’s) that would permanently evacuate the air from a transparent glass container was, for the period– in terms of cost, complication and novelty –the equivalent of a major piece of equipment in contemporary physics. This was already Big Science. The great advantage of Boyle’s installations was that they made it possible to see inside the glass walls and to introduce or even manipulate samples, owing to a series of ingeniously constructed lock chambers and covers. The pistons of the pump, the thick glass containers and the gaskets were not of adequate quality, so Boyle had to push the experiment he cared about most: that of the vacuum within a vacuum. He enclosed a Torricelli tube within the pump’s glass enclosure and thus obtained an initial space at the top of the overturned tube. Then, by getting one of his technicians (who were invisible) to work the pump, he suppressed the weight of the air enough to bring down the level of the column, which descended nearly to the level of the mercury basin. Boyle undertook dozens of experiments within the confined chamber of his air pump, starting with attempts to detect the ether wind postulated by his adversaries, or to explain the cohesiveness of marble cylinders, or to suffocate small animals and put out candles– these experiments were later popularized by eighteenth-century parlour physics. (We Have Never Been Modern, 17)
Through this little apparatus, Boyle constructed all sorts of facts about air. Out of what were these facts constructed? Certainly not signs, language, power, and representations alone. No, they were constructed out of glass, gaskets, lock chambers, covers, the samples placed in the chambers (feathers, candles, birds, etc.) as well as those that operated the pump and the observers. Through all of these entities, Boyle was able, in a controlled environment to harness the forces of air and the lack therof, as well as dis-cover some of these forces.
Yet it is not the nonhuman elements of the apparatus alone that matter, but also the observers. As Latour continues,
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 [the scholastic method being described by some of our contemporary colleagues as “rigor”]. Boyle and his colleagues abandoned the certainties of apodeictic reasoning in favor of a doxa. This doxa was not the raving imagination of the crdulous 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. (17 – 18)
In this context, facts won’t be deductions or inferences from ultimate discursive grounds, but rather will be arrived at through witnessing an action: what takes place in the vacuum pump. Knowledge will not be a result of discursive reasoning independent of experience– though certainly that will play a role as well –but will be produced in and through action. The action of building the pump. The action of placing various things in the pump. The action of manipulating the pump. The action of observing what takes place in the pump. The limits of our knowledge will be bound by the limits of our ability to act. “We know the nature of the facts because we have developed them in circumstances that are under our complete control” (18). We know facts through constructing facts or such circumstances. And so our contemporary scientists proceed to construct the Haldron supercollider.
To the question “why do you believe this? what authorizes you to claim this?” the carpenter can only respond that the constructions admitted of no other events. The construction, harnessing as it does materials and forces, did not allow itself to be put together in any other way. And the events that took place in the construction were the events that took place. The bird died in the chamber, the soft tendrils of the feather did not move, the candle flame did not waver and was snuffed out. “We endlessly varied instances within the chamber, yet always got analogous results.” “The fact managed to stand. My rhetoric, my representations, could not best these entities, regardless of how much my scholastic reason compelled me to believe in ether winds.” We will only ever know the facts that we construct, but these constructions are never the constructions of an absolute sovereign– Kant’s infinite intellect that produces the very things it intuits in the act of intuiting –but rather will be dialogical dialogues of humans in communication with the forces they harness, the instruments they use, and the materials they assemble. They will consist of what Karen Barad calls “intra-actions”.
It is for this reason that the nonhuman entities assembled in the construction of facts deserve to be called “actants”. The thesis that nonhumans are actants is not the neo-vitalist thesis that nonhuman entities have will, intentions, desires, and aims. Rather, nonhumans are actants insofar as they are participants in these constructions. In order to conduct his experiments, Boyle finds that he must construct new glass chambers and gaskets. He is “told”, by his materials, that existing technology is inadequate. He is thus propelled to invention in dialogue with the materials with which he works. Unlike Aristotle’s conception of the artisan where the artisan already has a form in his mind that he then imposes on matter, the materials, in the process of being assembled, “speak back”, playing a role in the development of the instrument. Likewise, what takes place in the glass chamber plays a similar role, selecting for or against various hypotheses in an aleatory fashion that couldn’t have been entirely anticipated by Boyle. Such is the point of Latour-Serres’ concept of “quasi-objects“, where a quasi-object bends us about us in such a way that it cannot be reduced to a mere vehicle of our representations, but where we too are modified in interaction with these entities.