Saturday, July 14, 2018

RhizoRhetoric: ANT Roots

I'm reading Bruno Latour's 2005 book Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory, and the implications for a rhizomatic rhetoric are worth careful exploration over several posts. This is the first.

The first chapter of Latour's book presents his reasons for devising actor-network theory (ANT) and for writing the book: his discomfort with the assumption by conventional sociology of the social as an existing domain within which to embed and define groups. Latour prefers to start with the emerging group to follow the connections and interactions both within the group and with its environment to uncover how the social emerges. To my mind, Latour wants to define from the inside out rather than from the outside in. Following the actual, existing traces of the group's activities means being willing to follow tracks that might not be recognized as social from the perspective of any given social theory.

In her review of the book, Barbara Czarniawska begins with a quote from Giles Deleuze: "There is no more a method for learning than there is a method for finding treasures...(Giles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 1968/1997: 165)". I like this nod to Deleuze as recognition of the more open-ended approach both Deleuze and Latour bring to their studies. Learning demands a willingness to re-examine existing structures, points of view, methods, and theories and then to reinforce those that prove helpful and to change or abandon those that prove harmful. Our existing knowledge both enables us to know more and limits what more we can know. When we already know what will happen, then we are more likely to miss what actually happens. Deleuze and Latour are both looking for ways around this dilemma of knowledge. Shunryu Suzuki says it best for me in his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1973): "In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few." Suzuki, Deleuze, and Latour are, of course, speaking of issues in the complex domain rather than the simple or complicated domains, as defined in Dave Snowden's Cynefin framework. Like these thinkers, I think that most of life is complex, and I'm certain that rhetoric is, despite the myriad attempts by rhetoricians to render it simple or at least merely complicated.

In a sense, then, all of these fellows, and certainly Latour, are resisting the tendency to view life through too narrow a lens, to put our experiments into too small a box, to render simple or no more than complicated that which is rightly complex. Latour makes this clear when he compares the shift in thinking required by ANT with the shift in thinking required by modern physics. He says:
A more extreme way of relating the two schools is to borrow a somewhat tricky parallel from the history of physics and to say that the sociology of the social remains ‘pre-relativist’, while our sociology has to be fully ‘relativist’. In most ordinary cases, for instance situations that change slowly, the pre-relativist framework is perfectly fine and any fixed frame of reference can register action without too much deformation [Cynefin's simple/complicated domains]. But as soon as things accelerate, innovations proliferate, and entities are multiplied [Cynefin's complex/chaotic domains], one then has an absolutist framework generating data that becomes hopelessly messed up. This is when a relativistic solution has to be devised in order to remain able to move between frames of reference and to regain some sort of commensurability between traces coming from frames traveling at very different speeds and acceleration. Since relativity theory is a well-known example of a major shift in our mental apparatus triggered by very basic questions, it can be used as a nice parallel for the ways in which the sociology of associations reverses and generalizes the sociology of the social. (12)
I particularly like this comparison of ANT sociology with modern physics, as it seems to me that modern physics has moved us from the modern world of the Enlightenment and Newton into the postmodern world of Einstein, Bohr, Deleuze, and Carlos Casteneda. I mention Casteneda because he provides the perfect image of ANT years before Latour thought of it. Also, Deleuze and Gauttari mention Casteneda in their book A Thousand Plateaus, where they note that in The Teachings of Don Juan, the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan Matus gives his student Carlos instructions about how to cultivate a garden of hallucinogenic herbs:
Go first to your old plant and watch carefully the watercourse made by the rain. By now the rain must have carried the seeds far away. Watch the crevices made by the runoff, and from them determine the direction of the flow. Then find the plant that is growing at the farthest point from your plant. All the devil's weed plants that are growing in between are yours. Later … you can extend the size of your territory by following the watercourse from each point along the way. (ATP, 11)
This makes Latour's point quite nicely and most graphically: start with an initial observation of a functioning group, then follow the traces (the watercourses and crevices) that are actually there (not the ones you think should be there based on your fixed, rectangular theory of what a garden should look like), scribbling like mad to capture as much as you can.

Though as often happens, the poets and prophets were there first. In a 1956 interview in The Paris Review, William Faulkner says of theory: "Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error." He says of his own method for writing Nobel-quality novels: “It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”

This may be the heart of ANT: start with an observation and trot along behind to see where it goes, what it connects to, and what energy and information it exchanges. There's your novel, your sociology, or your physics. Or your rhetoric.

Czarniawska explains Latour's intentions for his book this way:
The question for social sciences is not, therefore, ‘How social is this?’, but how things, people, and ideas become connected and assembled in larger units. Actor-network theory (ANT) is a guide to the process of answering this question. (1)
Latour devotes much of his first chapter to distinguishing his approach to sociology from established approaches. As Czarniawska says, "Students of the social need to abandon the recent idea that 'social' is a kind of essential property that can be discovered and measured, and return to the etymology of the word, which meant something connected or assembled" (1). Latour says it this way:
Even though most social scientists would prefer to call ‘social’ a homogeneous thing, it’s perfectly acceptable to designate by the same word a trail of associations between heterogeneous elements. Since in both cases the word retains the same origin—from the Latin root socius— it is possible to remain faithful to the original intuitions of the social sciences by redefining sociology not as the ‘science of the social’, but as the tracing of associations. In this meaning of the adjective, social does not designate a thing among other things, like a black sheep among other white sheep, but a type of connection between things that are not themselves social. (5, italics in original)
A social group for Latour is not defined from the outside by measuring how well the group matches a definition of social, regardless of how sophisticated or admirable the definition might be; rather, a social group is defined from the inside as the researcher crawls into the group to trace the associations at work within the group and between the group and its environment. The working out of these associations -- these dynamic exchanges of energy, information, matter, and organization among actors -- define the group. For Latour, this is the work of the ANT sociologist.

I am deeply attracted to this orientation to study, analysis, and understanding, and it helps explain what one of my writing groups tried to do in a recently published paper "Pioneering Alternative Forms of Collaboration", in which we explored how our online group formed to write several documents and presentations about the #rhizo14/15 MOOCs we all participated in. We wrote this particular paper from the inside out, or tried to, and I think we were able to capture a few points that we might have missed had we done a traditional rhetorical study of our work together. In this document, we did not start with a rhetorical definition of how academic scholars should collaborate online to write their documents; rather, we tried to trace what we actually did to see if we could figure out how and why it worked. I'm proud of this paper, though I think we could do a much better job of it now than we did then. Still, for me it was a step in a rewarding direction. And this is worth adding: it was not a destination, just a direction. We will not likely create a swarm method of scholarly writing for other groups to follow, though we may trace a few paths that others may walk, more or less. That remains to be seen.

So like Latour, I can orient myself to my studies by starting with an observation of an actor/action and then tracing as carefully as possible the connections and interactions within the actor and between the actor and its environment of myriad other actors. I will almost certainly rely on my existing models of reality to try to understand the actor/action, but I also must be willing to relax those models to allow for the connections and interactions not included in my model. Like an ant, I must be willing to follow any trail -- especially those that lead to wrong turns and dead-ends on the map of my theory -- for that is precisely when I am positioned to learn.

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