Monday, May 18, 2015

ANT via Dudhwala: #rhizo15

In her article What is Actor-Network Theory?, Farzana Dudhwala explores actor-network theory (ANT) in positive and negative ways: saying both what ANT does and, by contrast with traditional sociologists, what it does not do. She says that ANT practitioners differ from classical sociologists first in their concept of the social. For Durkheim and Comte, society was a thing with both positive and negative characteristics that could be relied on and pointed to as existing prior to the issue at hand. For ANT practitioners such as Callon, Latour, and Law, the social is a network of relations and "does not exist as an objective reality prior to the research having even begun. … Consequently, the sociologists of associations envisage their role not as attributors of a hidden social force or context, but simply as tracing the associations between heterogeneous entities and following their lead" (3). As a method of inquiry, then, ANT refuses the "imposition by the sociologist on the social of an a priori social context or framework" (3). Rather, the social must emerge from close observation that follows the actors and traces the rhizomatic connections they forge. It is the dynamic interweaving of these connections from which the social emerges. The social structure is not given; rather, it emerges. Thus, ANT is more inductive than deductive, explaining large social structures (the macro) through close observation of the small details (the micro).

Macro actors such as religion, economy, and politics are traditionally seen as the cause of the behavior of micro actors, and thus, they are of more importance. ANT insists that the macro and micro must be examined on equal (more flat) terms, and that the micro actors are often more complex than the macro. ANT further flattens the social by mixing non-human actors alongside human actors in the sociological soup. Dudhwala says:
Callon's study of scallops in St. Brieuc bay shows how humans and non-humans alike form networks and associations in order to translate their will and shape their world. This paper therefore, true to ANT's methods, treats researchers, fish farmers, scientists and scallops all in exactly the same way: as actors.
Latour distinguishes intermediaries from mediators. Intermediaries transport force or meaning without transformation, while mediators transform all that they transport among other actors. Mediators, then, introduce an element of surprise and unpredictability in connections among actors that must be allowed and accounted for.

Dudhwala summarizes her amazingly clear examination of ANT this way:
Actor-network theory evidently differs from the classical tradition of sociology at its very core. Its belief in a flat ontology puts all entities, human and non-human, on the same plane – a notion unspoken of in the Durkheimian tradition. Actors are awarded the same level of knowledge about their world as sociologists, and therefore the task of the sociologist is simply to follow these actors.
Finally, she seems to agree that ANT is more a methodology than a theory, though its treatment by sociologists seems to be forcing it into a theory-producing role, much to the dismay of ANTians such as Latour, who insist that the acronym ANT is more appropriate than the term actor-network theory, as the acronym perfectly describes "a blind, myopic, workaholic, trail-sniffing, and collective traveler" such as himself.

The lessons for me, then, from Dudhwala's observations: Study of Rhizo14 may best proceed along the lines of an ethnomethodology which treats Rhizo14 as a hyperobject, to use Timothy Morton's term, or as noise, to use Serres' term. These are objects that are not formed beforehand, but out of which a form emerges. To form an image of the larger object (Rhizo14), we track the connections that actors such as Ensor, Hamon, Honeychurch, Twitter, Facebook, laptops, and others make through the noise. This is something like forming an idea of wind currents in the sky by tracing the paths of murmurating starlings. This is hard work, but we hope that the actual shape of Rhizo14 will emerge from our tracings, or from our mappings as Deleuze and Guattari say it (for them, a tracing is going over a given, existing pathway—which is not what ANT implies by the term—while mapping is following an emerging pathway).

We do not privilege any particular actor in Rhizo14, though clearly some actors had a macro role and others a micro role. Lurkers should be regarded as well as Dave Cormier or Facebook. Finally, we do not privilege our own language as researchers over the language of the actors, especially given that we researchers are also actors in Rhizo14. Finally, I'm particularly interested in Latour's distinction between intermediary and mediator; however, I don't know of many intermediaries. I think most every actor transforms or translates the forces and meanings that it transports among the other actors within the emerging social structure. For instance, when I use Google Docs to communicate with others in Rhizo14, Google Docs translates my meaning. What I put in is not necessarily what others take out. Rather, as Serres notes, there is always a parasitism at work in the movement of information and energy through a system such as Rhizo14. The parasites (such as auto-correct in Google Docs, to pick an obviously parasitic feature) always translate the meaning and the force, changing it as it flows from here to there within Rhizo14 and out. This translation cannot be predicted, and it cannot be ignored.

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