Felix Stalder on Sun, 7 Sep 1997 00:56:41 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> More on Bruno Latour 1/2

[This is a text on Latour and his Actor Network Theory. It might be
interesting to complement Geert's and Pit's interview recently sent over
nettime. The aim of this text is twofold. First, it tries to overcome
some of Latour's ideosyncracies and then it tries to expand his concepts
to explicitly fit the analysis of communication networks.

The text is quite long (7000 words) and I have broken it into two
pieces. This e-mail contains the first and the second section, the
second e-mail the third and the forth section. This next is a shortened
version of a longer, academic (referenced quotes, footnotes, extensive
bibliography) paper which I am happy to provide on request.]

1. Introduction	
2. The Dynamics of Actor-Networks	
3. Neighbouring Theories	
	Systems Theory and the Concept of the Border	
	Evolution and the Dynamics of Systems	
	Complexity and the Evolution of Order	
4. Conclusion

__1. Introduction__

A major methodological trap lurks beneath attempts to conceptualize the
processes that  come into play when existing social concepts are
reinvented or new ones are introduced in the context of rapid
technological and social change: the search for what Frederic Jameson
called "the ultimately determining instance". This instance is most
often looked for in the dichotomy of society and technology. Approaches
which lean toward society being this instance begin with the assumption
that technology and its resulting consequences are planned and
inaugurated by social actors, most often large institutional entities.
The main focus is either on the political economy of the object of study
or on the social construction of the artifact of interest. Particularly
the latter, the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT), "points to
technology as being through and through social."  The most extreme
position on this side of the spectrum is "social determinism".

On the other hand, approaches leaning towards technology as this
instance assume that technology develops according to its own internal
necessity and out of dynamics beyond human control. It is focussed on
the impact of technology which is seen as the distinguishing element
between the past and the future. At the extreme end of that side of the
spectrum is "technological determinism". Characteristic for both models
is a clear distinction between society on one side and technology on the
other. The main disagreement lies in the question, which is leading
which? Is technology constructed of society or society made up of

An interesting approach to thinking about the social and technological
development all at once has been developed as "Actor-Network Theory".
This approach is one stream within the Social Construction of
Technology, a recent movement in the history and sociology of science
and technology. It is most prominently associated with the French
sociologists of science Bruno Latour and Michel Callon. The theory's aim
is to describe a society  of humans and non-humans as equal actors tied
together into networks built and maintained in order to achieve a
particular goal, for example the development of a product.

For Bruno Latour the Actor-Network Theory attempts to overcome what he
sees as the major shortfall of Modernism and  Postmodernism: the slicing
of a continuous, "hybrid" reality into analytical domains. The
epistemology of Modernism divided nature and society into two
incommensurable poles. Nature was only observed, never man-made; 
whereas society was only made by humans. The two poles were indirectly
connected by language which allowed us to make stable references to
either one of them. Postmodernism separated the middle ground, language,
from both poles by declaring it autonomous.  This autonomous domain has
been described as free-floating signs (Baudrillard) or as
self-referential texts and language games (Derrida). It is Latour's goal
to show that the separation introduced by Modernism and extended by
Postmodernism is artificial. Because (technological) reality is
"simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and
collective, like society" he does not follow the clean divisions
envisioned by Modernism and recently claimed that Modernity never
happened, that _We Have Never Been Modern_.

The Actor network theory uses a somewhat unusual vocabulary. The
following is a short "explanation" of the central terms.


Actors are "entities that do things" (Latour, 1992a, p. 241). "The
distinction between humans and non-humans, embodied or disembodied
skills, impersonation or 'machination', are less interesting than the
complete chain along which competences and actions are distributed."

The more heterogeneous elements a text or object is implicitly or
explicitly able to align, the more it becomes. A coin, for example, is
able to mobilize the reputation of a whole national economy to simplify
mundane transactions, such as buying a pack of cigarettes. If the coin
cannot mobilize those elements because it is forged, or if the mobilized
elements are weak, because the government is in discredit, the coin
loses some or all its power, which resides its unquestioned value. A
coin is an actor because it can mobilize a network of heterogeneous
allies to do things, to store and exchange value.  In a valid coin this
network of allies is tightly sealed and it is almost impossible to
question the connections of those networks for an individual using the
coins (and thus becoming a part of the network of the coins)1. A coin is
in this sense a "black box".

__Black Box__

"A black box contains that which no longer needs to be considered, those
things whose contents have become a matter of indifference." (Callon,
Latour, 1981 p.285) A black box, therefore, is any setting2 that, no
matter how complex it is or how contested its history has been, is now
so stable and certain that it can be treated as a fact where only the
input and output counts.


Besides actor, network is the second central concept-hence the name
Actor-Network Theory. The term network is defined as a "group of
unspecified relationships among entities of which the nature itself is
undetermined." (Callon, 1993, p.263) 

A network ties together two systems of alliances:
People: everyone who is involved in the invention, construction,
distribution, and usage of an artifact: describing this system leads to
a  "sociogram".

Things: all the pieces that were already on stage or had to be brought
into place in order to connect the people. Describing this system leads
to a "technogram". 

However, while it is useful for clarification purposes to separate the
two levels analytically, it is not appropriate to study these systems
separately because they are highly interconnected. A change on one level
will simultaneously change the other. Each modification in one system of
alliances is visible in the other. Each alteration in the technogram is
made to overcome a limitation in the sociogram and vice versa (Latour,
1987, p. 138-139). 

Actor and network are mutually constitutive. An actor can not act
without an network and a network consists of actors. This relationship
is highlighted in yet another definition of actor as "any element which
bends space around itself, makes other elements dependent upon itself
and translates their will into a language of its own." (Callon, Latour,
1981, p.286) Actor and network constantly redefine each other, one is
dependent on the other. Michel Callon (1987, p.93) details the
interrelation between the two: "the actor network is reducible neither
to an actor alone nor to a network. Like a network it is composed of a
series of heterogeneous elements, animate and inanimate, that have been
linked to one another for certain period of time. ... An actor network
is simultaneously an actor whose activity is networking heterogeneous
elements and a network that is able to redefine and transform what it is
made of."

The size or importance of an actor is dependent on the size of the
networks he/she/it can command and the size of the networks depends on
the number of actors it can align. Since networks consist of a (large)
number of actors which have different possibilities to influence other
members of the same network, the specific power of an actor depends on
the position within his/her/its network. There is no structural
difference between large and small actors, between a major institution
or a single individual or even a thing as mundane as a door opener
(Latour, 1992). This does not say that they are all equal. This simply
means that the main differences between micro and macro actors is the
size of the network they can bring into place for a particular goal,
that is the number of actors they can arrange according to their
objectives. These objectives can be a strategic choice of options,
adaptive necessities or built-in  properties of a certain piece of
equipment. Properties of a setting, the fact that it makes certain
things possible and others impossible, are called prescriptions.


Prescription is what a device allows or forbids from the actors(humans
and non-humans(that it anticipates; it is the morality of a setting both
negative (what it prescribes) and positive (what it permits).


Intermediaries provide the still missing link which connects actors into
a network and defines the network itself. Actors form networks by
circulating intermediaries among themselves, thus defining the
respective position of the actors within the networks and in doing so
constituting the actors and the networks themselves. An intermediary is
anything that "passes between actors in the course of relatively stable
transactions." (Bijker, Law, 1992 p.25) It can be a text, a product, a
service, or money.

Intermediaries are the language of the network. Through intermediaries
actors communicate with one another and that is the way actors translate
their intentions into other actors. Considering the definition of actors
as any element  "which makes other elements dependent upon itself and
translates their will into a language of its own" (Callon, Latour, 1981,
p.286), the possibility to command intermediaries lies at the heart of
action itself, which is translating an actor's will into other actors.

__2. The Dynamics of Actor-Networks__

In the dynamics of networks three phases can be distinguished. While
there is not necessarily any need that they be separated, it is useful
to construct them as analytical idealtypes of the stages a network may
undergo during its lifetime.


Networks are put into place by actors. However, since there is no actor
without a network, new networks emerge out of already existing ones.
Sometimes this happens through subtle changes, sometime as the results
of revolutionary developments which might push into the background the
element of continuity that is part of every dynamic. At the beginning,
therefore, stands an intermediary which is brought into circulation by a
network in order to align more/different actors for the network's own
interest. In other words, the attempt of an existing actor to grow and
include new domains can be a good starting point to observe the
emergence of a network. 

Networks allow actors to translate their objectives, be it conscious
human choice or prescription of an object, into other actors and adding
the other actors' power to their own. "By translation we understand all
the negotiations, intrigues, calculations, acts of persuasion and
violence thanks to which an actor or force takes, or causes to be
conferred to itself, authority to speak or act on behalf of another
actor or force." Networks emerge and are shaped by aligning more and
more actors. In this way an actor can grow. The importance of an actor
depends therefore on the number of actor within his/her/its networks
which he/she/it can employ to  a particular purpose. Actors are
isomorphic, which means their size and shape is not a priori but the
result of a long development. There is no fundamental difference between
a large structure and a small actor, the only difference is in the
number of actors that can be employed. It is a mistake to take
differences in size of a network for differences in level, because
networks always connect at the same time what conventional sociology
differentiates into micro and macro levels. This interconnection renders
such a distinction less significant, because "that which is large is
that which has successfully translated others and has therefore grown.
Since size is nothing more than the end-product of translation, the need
for two analytical vocabularies is thus avoided." Networks are made up
of what they network-actors which are always localized-yet these
networks can extend around the globe. Networks can be so large and
stable that they appear to be independent from the actors. This,
however, is a misconception. While they can (and do) seriously constrain
the range of action for certain actors, they always need actors. Any
given actor might be replaceable, but only by another actor. There is,
therefore, no gap between the individual and the structure which is made
up of individuals which are made up of structure which is made up of
individuals and so on, endlessly.  For Bruno Latour "the two extremes,
local and global, are much less interesting than the intermediary
arrangements that we are calling networks."


A network can develop into two different directions, towards convergence
or towards divergence of its actors. Adding new actors to a network
increases at first their divergence. The processes of translation by
which the will of one actor is transferred to another actor become
initially more difficult because each new actor is already included in
other networks that might have aligned him/her/it for different goals.
What to do in and how to account for new situations, how to assess the
meaning of an intermediary is unclear at the beginning.

There is a process of mutual shaping between a new actor and an existing
network. In the end neither the network nor the actor now included
remains the same. The changes can be so subtle that they negligible or
they might be massive for either one or for both of them.

For networks to operate successfully, the circulation of intermediaries
needs to be coordinated this means the included actors do not, or may
only to a limited extend, contest their own translation. Actors thrive
toward an internal agreement which allows for an optimal circulation of
intermediaries, because their strength depends on the coordination
within the networks. In networks where the actors have successfully
converged, i.e. are strongly coordinated, the network as a whole stands
behind any one of the actors who make it up.

The way agreement can be reached, the scope of the translations
possible, shapes the form of the network. In other words, "the network
is constructed according to the translation's own logic." The stronger
the coordination of  the circulation is, the more the different elements
are aligned, the more stable and predictable it becomes. The more stable
a network is, the better it defines its components, the smaller is the
leeway for other networks to untie the connections in order to redefine
an actor for his/her/its own purposes. The setting  turns into a black

Actors do not necessarily need to be successful in their attempt to
optimize the circulation of intermediaries. The translation process can
be denied. People might not want to become users and not buy a product,
or they might stop being willful citizens and  overthrow their
government.  A machine can fall apart because of a construction error,
new invention may render old solutions obsolete and channel money and
other resources into new directions. The circulation of intermediaries
within a network, then, becomes more and more difficult and the
alignment of actors becomes weaker and weaker, the actors begin to
diverge and the setting to disintegrate. The black box loses its
integrity, the edges become fuzzy.

Convergence and divergence point at the directions into which a network
can move, either towards a stabilizing itself or towards disintegration
in which it becomes easier and easier to reverse its connections.
Convergence in a network does not mean that every element acts or
becomes the same, it "simply means that any one actor's activity fits
easily with those of the other actors, despite their heterogeneity."


An actor-network thrives for stabilization because none of the entities
which make it up would exist without that network in that form. The
promotion of a network is a way to ensure the actor's existence and
development. It is, therefore, in the interest of all actors within a
particular network to stabilize the network which guarantees their own
survival to a higher or lower extent. The stability of a network depends
on the "impossibility it creates of returning to a situation in which
its [current form] was only one possible option among others". In other
words, stabilization, or closure "means that the interpretive
flexibility diminishes. Consensus among the different relevant social
groups [or more broadly, actors] about the dominant meaning of an
artifact merges and the 'pluralism of artifacts' decreases."

Once forged into an artifact, embedded social relations remain stable as
long the artifact it used. Bruno Latour details in his programmatic
essay, Technology Is Society Made Durable, how the social relations
embedded in artifacts are a stabilizing factor of society: "Society and
technology are not two ontologically distinct entities but more like
phases of the same essential action. By replacing those two arbitrary
divisions with syntagm and paradigm, we may draw a few more
methodological conclusions. The description of socio-technical networks
is often opposed to their explanation, which is supposed to come
afterwards. ... If we display a socio-technical network - defining
trajectories by actants' association and substitution, defining actants
by all the trajectories in which they enter, by following translations
and, finally, by varying the observer's point of view - we have no need
to look for any additional causes. The explanation emerges once the
description is saturated. ... There is no need to go searching for
mysterious or global causes outside networks. If something is missing,
it is because something is missing. Period."

Heterogeneity is another, central aspect of a stable network. The more
the diverse elements are interrelated, the more complex and stable a
network becomes, because each element is kept in place a number of
elements each one concerned with a different aspect of the element which
is kept in place. In order to disconnect an actor from a network, many
connections have to be untied now. 

The size and the heterogeneity of a network are related. The larger it
becomes the more heterogeneous it becomes because it develops additional
elements just to keep all other elements in place. In the language of
the systems theory this development is called "differentiation". The
network starts to develop its own trajectory, supported by its elements
which themselves depend on the network as environment. A network
therefore starts to "become heavy with norms of all sorts"  in the
course of stabilization. Its means, of course, nothing else than that
more actors are integrated or created. 

I have now reached some of the outer limits of the Actor-Network-Theory
as far as it has been developed today. Concepts like differentiation and
path dependence, however, form links to neighbouring concepts that are
themselves concerned with the development of heterogeneous and
interdependent elements and how, based on local actors, global order can
emerge. The following section examines a few of those concepts in order
to further develop the scope of the network metaphor as an analytical

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