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<nettime> Latour, Bruno: On Actor Network Theory: A few clarifications 2
Pit Schultz on Wed, 14 Jan 1998 02:18:29 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Latour, Bruno: On Actor Network Theory: A few clarifications 2/2

Building on the semiotic turn, ANT first brackets out society and nature to
consider only meaning-productions; then breaking with the limits of
semiotics without losing its tool box, it grants activity to the semiotic
actors turning them into a new ontological hybrid, world making entities; b=
doing such a counter-copernican revolution it builds a completely empty
frame for describing how any entity builds its world; finally, it retains
from the descriptive project only a very few terms -its infralanguage- whic=
are just enough to sail in between frames of reference and grants back to
the actors themselves the ability to build precise accounts of one another
by the very way they behave; the goal building of an overarching explanatio=
-that is, for ANT, a centre of calculation that would hold or replace or
ponctualise all the others- is displaced by the search for ex-plicitations,
that is for the deployment of as many elements as possible accounted for
through as many metalanguages as possible.


                                     . .

Now that the basic topological properties of networks have been sketched
-second section- and that the basic ontological features of actors have bee=
outlined -section above- there is no difficulty in seeing that ANT is not
about traced networks but about a network-tracing activity. As I said above
there is not a net and an actor laying down the net, but there is an actor
whose definition of the world outlines, traces, delineate, limn, describe,
shadow forth, inscroll, file, list, record, mark, or tag a trajectory that
is called a network. No net exists independently of the very act of tracing
it, and no tracing is done by an actor exterior to the net. A network is no=
a thing but the recorded movement of a thing. The questions ANT addresses
have now changed. It is not longer whether a net is representation or a
thing, a part of society or a part of discourse or a part of nature, but
what moves and how this movement is recorded.

We cannot say that what moves inside networks are informations, genes, cars=
bytes, salutations, words, forces, opinions, claims, bodies, energy, etc.
since ANT also wants to reconstruct nets before there is any distinction
between what circulates inside and what keep them on track, so to speak,
from the outside. Again, as I said at the beginning, the technical metaphor
of networks is a latecomer for ANT and does not capture the tracing
activity. No, what circulates has to be defined like the circulating object
in semiotics of texts -especially scientific texts (Bastide, 1990). It is
defined by the competence it is endowed with, the trials it undergoes, the
performances it is allowed to display, the associations it is made to bear
upon, the sanctions it receives, the background in which it is circulating,
etc. Its isotopy -that is its persistence in time and space- is not a
property of its essence but the result of the decisions taken through the
narrative programs and the narrative paths.

However, such a classic definition would limit ANT to the world of text and
discourse. What happens when a circulating object leaves the boundary of a
text? The traditionnal answer is that there is a yawning gap in between the
text and the context. At the interface a dramatic trial is supposed to
abruptly intervene through which the circulating object is assessed either
by checking its referential fit or its social interest. Not for ANT which
does not believe in this distinction since it has extended meaning
productions to all productions. For ANT the gap is no more than a slight
bump along the net; the yawn is an artefact caused by a previous divide
between nature, society and discourse. For ANT there is on the contrary a
continuity, a multiplicity of plugs, between the circulating objects in the
text, the claims outside the text in the 'social', and what the actants
themselves really do in 'nature'. The circulating object goes on circulatin=
and goes on getting its isotopy from what other actors do to it. 'Society'
has the same net-like properties as the texts, and so has 'nature'. But it
would be more accurate for ANT to say that these three categories are
arbitrary cutting points on a continuous tracing of action, and still more
accurate to show how these categories are themselves part of the many
trials, and events, and ressources that are used along the paths to
attribute 'textuality' or 'sociality' or 'naturality' to this or that actor=
They are part of what is distributed not part of what makes the

There is no off-the-shelf word to describe this common movement. To say tha=
it is a generalized narrative path would immediately mean that texts are
extended to everything; to say that it is a force, or an energy, or a gene,
or a culture-gene would mean that everything would be naturalized including
society and discourses; to say that it is a social interest or a social
action or labor would extend society to nature and to texts. It is to get
out of this essential difficulty that ANT played with a generalized symmetr=
(Callon, 1986) and made a principle of using whichever words are connoted i=
one of the former realm to describe the others, thus showing the continuity
of networks and the complete disregard for the artefactual gaps introduced
by prerelativist arguments. However this solution is rather tricky since it
may combine all the misunderstandings -and this is indeed what happened to
ANT, readers and users alike saying at once that it is a social
constructivist argument, the return of naturalism or a typically French
belief in the overall extension of texts... Which of course it is in a
sense, but only in so far as ANT is the simultaneous rejection of
naturalisation, socialisation and textualisation. ANT claims that these
'(x)-lisations' have to be dissolved all at once and that the job is not
done better if one of them gains hegemony or if the three are carefully
circumscribed. All (x)-lisations are the filling in of what is 'in between'
the networks, and which one is chosen or rejected makes no practical
difference since nets have no 'in between' to be filled in.

If chosing words for the network-tracing activity has to be done,
quasi-objects (Serres, 1987) or tokens might be the best candidate so far.
It is crucial for the definition of the term that what circulates and what
makes the circulation be both co-determined and transformed. A ball going
from hands to hands is a poor example of a quasi object since, although it
does trace the collective and that the playing team would not exist without
the moving token, the latter is not modified by the passings. Conversely,
what I called the first principle of science studies (Latour: 1987) -that a
claim is in the hands of others- is equally an approximation since it
entails human locutors to begin endowed with hands and mouths who passes a
claim without they themselves undergoing dramatic changes. As a rule a
quasi-object should be thought of as a moving actant that transforms those
which do the moving because they transform the moving object. When the toke=
remains stable or when the movers are kept intact, these are exceptional
circumstances which have to be accounted for. This definition of what is a
rule and of what are the exceptions, would be enough to tell ANT apart from
all models of communications that, on the contrary, begin from well defined
movers and moving objects and view obstacles to exchanges as so many
exceptions to be explained. But another feature forbids any confusion of AN=
with human centered, or language-centered, or praxis-centered models. As a
rule, what is doing the moving and what is moved have no specific
homogeneous morphism. They can be anthropo-morphic, but also zoo-morphic,
phusi-morphic, logo-morphic, techno-morphic, ideo-morphic, that is
'(x)-morphic'. It might happen that a generative path has limited actants t=
a homogeneous repertoire of humans, or of mecanism, or of signs, or of
ideas, or of collective social entities, but these are exceptions which
should be accounted for (Latour, 1996c).


                                     . .

ANT is a powerful tool to destroy spheres and domains, to regain the sense
of heterogeneity and to bring interobjectivity back into the centre of
attention (Latour, 1994). Yet, it is an extremely bad tool for
differentiating associations. It gives a black and white picture not a
colored and contrasted one. It is thus necessary, after having traced the
actor-networks, to specify the types of trajectories that are obtained
through highly different mediations. This is a different task and the one
that will make ANT scholars busy for a number of years to come.



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Date of this contribution: 2 May 1997
Last Update: 2 May 1997 by Olaf Boettger

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