Recent Readings in STS

I’ve been reading pretty voraciously over the past two months and as such, I’ve not had time to keep up with my book reviews. So this is a catch up post. I don’t normally like to tackle so many works in a single review, but if I don’t write about these now I’ll never have a chance to document them. So here we go, in the order I read them: 1) Bruno Latour (2005) Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network theory; 2) Annemarie Mol (2002) The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice, 3) Graham Harman (2009) Prince of networks: Bruno Latour and metaphysics, and 4) John Law & Annemarie Mol, Eds (2002) Complexities: Social studies of knowledge practices.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network theory. New York: Oxford UP.

Before reading this book, I was somewhat embarrassed to admit that even though I’d published two articles which rely heavily on actor-network theory, I’d not yet read Reassembling the Social. Now that I’ve finished the work, I’m much less concerned. I find that I have much more scholarly/theoretical affinity for the Bruno Latour of Pandora’s Hope or We Have Never Been Modern that I do for the Latour of Reassembling the Social. Latour’s introduction to ANT takes great care to distance ANT sociology (or as he would prefer “sociolology of associations” or “associology”) from critical approaches to power and hegemony. In fact, he specifically objects to any attribution of power or exploration of influence that cannot be directly traced to discrete actants. Certainly, this approach is in keeping with Latour’s vision of a flat ontology wherein all actants hold equal status as subjects/objects/agents/etc. And while I certianly support the symmetrical ontology and agency of human and non-human actants, I think the “flatness” of Latour’s ontology elides the possibility of emergent phenomena. Even Latour admits that all actants are essentially black boxes, that is, they are constellations of elided articulations of other actants. The scalability of this model should allow for black boxing intensely large constellations of actants, e.g. the military-industrial complex or the medical-industrial complex. This is how I would understand attributions of power to “hidden” forces within a Latourian idiom. However, Latour does not seem to be with me on this issue. He’s, perhaps, too empirical. He will admit know attribution of influence without a directly observable articulation and corresponding result.

As quibbles go, however, this is fairly minor. Certainly, I could point to the many, many things Reassembling the Social does well. The one I appreciate most (yet don’t have the time/space to go into) is Latour’s argument that ANT needs to shift away from metaphysical/epistemological/representational inquiry towards the ontological. Actually, his argument dovetails so well with Mol’s that I’ll leave it to her.

Mol, A. (2002). The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Durham, Duke UP.

The Body Multiple is a brilliant ethnographic (actually praxiographic) exploration of atheroscleroses in a Dutch hospital. You probably noticed that I typed “atheroscleroses” instead of “atherosclerosis.” That’s very much intentional. Mol’s inquiry explores the multiple different atheroscleroses that emerge from different sites of practice within the hospital. She investigates these different diseases (read different diseases not different manifestations) through multiple ontologies theory. This approach argues that different ontologies (again plural) emerge from different sites of practice. So the reality of atherosclerosis in the out-patient clinic is different from its reality in the pathology lab and still different from its reality in the surgical ward. Nevertheless, these ontologies still coordinate across different sites of practice through the coordinating activities involved in treating individual patients. I can’t say enough good things about this book and I’m very grateful to Christa Teston for pointing me in the right directions. You should check out her post on the book as well.

Harman, G. (2009). Prince of networks: Bruno Latour and metaphysics. Melbourne: & Graham Harman.

Harmon’s Prince of Networks is a work of philosophy aimed at philosophers. More specifically, it seeks to introduce metaphysicians to the collected works of Latour. Harman argues that Latour is, perhaps, the greatest metaphysician of our age and a great travesty has occurred in that he is not recognized as a philosopher at all. Despite being somewhat overly genuflectional, Prince of Networks is a thought-provoking and engaging read. It is divided into two parts: 1) a summary of Latour’s major writings on metaphysics and 2) a critique and extension of his metaphysical theories. Part one focuses on Irreductions, Science in Action, We Have Never Been Modern, and Pandora’s Hope. Through these chapters and the subsequent exploration of Latour’s thought in the second half of the book, Harman argues that Latour’s primary and truly innovative contribution to metaphysics is the invention of a secular occasionalism. Whareas traditional occasionalists argue that God is the root of all causation, Latour replaces God with what Harman dubs “vicarious causation”–a situation wherein “Any entity is able to form the link between others that previously had no interaction at all” (p. 115).

Harman ends Prince of Networks with an argument for his own approach to metaphysics, an approach he calls “object-oriented philosophy.” Object-oriented philosophy begins with Latourian metaphysics as its foundation but rejects ontological flatness. Instead, Harman argues that there is a binary between “real” and “sensual” or “intentional” objects. It’s just that this binary is not necessarily the same as the debunked one between humans and objects. Under Harman’s theory many objects could be the mediators (“real” objects) that allow for the creation of “sensual” or “intentional” objects. While Harman acknowledges that this sounds dangerously close to phenomenology, he objects to this discretion and points out this his elucidation of real vs. sensual objects never once references humans. Ultimately, I’m unpersuaded. I never found that Harman could adequately account for object-oriented philosophy as, in any way, different from phenomenology. Furthermore, I must question the point of distinguishing between the real and the sensual. I’m still not convinced that such a project has any other utility than the leveraging of power. (But I digress.)

It absolutely should not go without noting that Harman makes a passionate and engaging argument for the return of rhetoric in philosophical inquiry. He vehemently objects to the obsessive focus on formal logic and its criticism which plagues analytic philosophy and argues, instead, for an appreciation of the role of rhetoric is philosophical arguments as more than what the Phaedrus would allow. More specifically Harman argues that the objects of philosophical inquiry (for him, the truth) exceed the capacity of language to describe them. As such, he argues, rhetoric and metaphor offer the best approximation of success available.

Law, J. & Mol, A., Eds. (2002). Complexities: Social studies of knowledge practices. Durham: Duke UP.

Finally, I turn to Complexities– another engaging work of STS that I’m pretty sure I was made aware of thanks to Christa Teston. Check out her blog post here. It’s hard (read: impossible) to sum up an edited collection on complexity (complexities, again with Mol, it’s all about the multiplicities) in a few short lines on a blog post, so I’m not really going to attempt it. Complexity has become an important trope in both science and science studies. The metaphors of systems, networks, rhizomes, etc all play on this notion and it’s one that warrants further attention and consideration. Complexities is a start in this directions. It offers ten exploratory essays on the subject from a variety of perspectives. It contributors include philosophers, sociologists, economists, STS scholars and more. I would draw rhetoricians’ particular attention to the introduction (by Mol and Law) and the essays provided by Chunglin Kwa, Laurent Thevenot, Michel Callon, and Annemarie Mol. The peice by Callon, entitled “Writing and (Re)writing Devices as Tools for Managing Complexity” is arguably a work of rhetorically inspired technical communication scholarship. It investigates the written knowledge management practices of two different corporations and provides an interesting bridge between STS-writ large and technical communication.