Reflecting on the Georgia Tech Object-Oriented Ontology Symposium, one of the moments that I’m less than pleased with was an exchange with one of the members of the audience who was defending the analysis and critique of ideology. If I’m bothered by this exchange it’s because I cut the participant off mid-sentence without allowing him to fully articulate his point. This was rather rude on my part and for that I apologize.
So what was at issue in this discussion? In my paper, “Being is Flat”, one of the key points I sought to make is that social and political thought has focused entirely too much on content, fetishistically revolving around beliefs, ideologies, signs, narratives, and discourses found in groups. My thesis is that if social and political analysis focuses on ideologies, narratives, signs, signifiers, discourses, beliefs, etc., in its analysis of why social formations are organized as they are, it is doomed to go astray. Following Latour, I thus propose that the concept of society should be replaced by that of collectives. A society is composed entirely of humans, human relations, and human phenomena such as discourses, narratives, and ideologies. A collective, by contrast, includes all of these things when it is a collective involving humans, but also includes nonhuman objects like technologies, resources, roads, cane toads, bacteria, etc., etc., etc. The concept of society should be abandoned, I believe, in favor of the concept of collectives. And if this is the case, then there is no such thing as human relations that do not also include all sorts of nonhuman actors. Moreover, these nonhuman actors are not simply passive resources that people use as tools (a form of overmining with respect to objects), but rather introduce all sorts of differences that deeply influence what sorts of associations between humans come to exist.
Latour underlines this point nicely in Reassembling the Social. Latour writes:
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, signs posts, yellow paint, while the other has passed through the same list to which has been added a carefully designed concrete slab. (77)
Latour tirelessly emphasizes that mechanisms of organization that pass through morality, symbols, and signs are incredibly weak and are very difficult to maintain. To be sure, they make their contributions, yet it is odd that entire schools of social and political thought seem to attribute these actants or objects an iron clad omnipotence and place their eggs in the basket of producing social change through a critique of this order of “morality” and signs. By contrast, the speed bump out there in the world is a real physical constraint. As Latour emphasize, the speed bump is an actant or object entangled with semiotic actants, but it is far from being a mere vehicle or carrier of these actants. Your car slows down whether you like it or not when you pass over that speed bump.