Latour loves the metaphor of the ant — small, seemingly insignificant, myopic. And he takes it as an apt description of his much confused and maligned “theoretical” approach: Actor-Network Theory. Latour says there is nothing wrong with the term except the word “actor” and “network” and “theory” and the hyphen in between. He proposes more of an anti-theory of work-nets traveled by actants — a redefinition of what is described and how it is described. He wishes not to be boxed or contextualized or constructed in terms of others, as that is against the project itself. But it must be called something, so the insignificant ant, which becomes significant through its interactions with other ants, is an appropriate metaphor he embraces. So Latour wouldn’t study the ants themselves, but the paths they travel, the connections they make, the traces they leave, the relationships they foster. But then, how is that different than activity theory, which does a similar project, mapping the movement to various levels of interaction?
Actor-Network Theory is Activity Theory gone meta, with a side of snark. Unlike Activity Theory, ANT does not propose to create a model or accept any fixed stabilities (an infiltration of other French philosophers — looking at you, Foucault and Derrida). Latour says, “ANT claims that it is possible to trace more sturdy relations and discover more revealing patterns by finding a way to register the links between unstable and shifting frames of reference rather than trying to keep one frame stable” (24). In other words, we can learn more by not trying to arbitrarily stop the motion that is “society” and to “solve” the controversies or “resolve” the tensions that create it. An analyst imposing such structures from the outside, or for some political agenda or “social engineering” necessarily changes those s/he is studying, in ways that can approach the kind of paternalistic “designer-as-hero” narrative that Spinuzzi rails against. ANT attempts to allow the actors to be free to “deploy the full incommensurability of their own world-making activities” (24) and for the analyst to never explain or theorize, but only to faithfully describe in ever greater detail. An accurate description requires no explanation, Latour says, and scholars become stymied at their sense of lost importance. If one doesn’t apply a theory, categorize a phenomenon, reason from the theoretical to the practical or from the case study to the generalizable, then what do we do? What importance can we have? How do we “make a difference?”
ANT attempts to make the invisible visible, as does activity theory, but a fundamental difference is in what each theory takes as its nodes/objects. In activity theory, there must be a “thing” — an artifact, an interface, an object, a person, a structure. And by observing the interactions of these structures, the analysts determine the “how” and the “why” and deduce patterns and opportunities for optimization. Spinuzzi says activity theory a theory of “distributed cognition” (which smacks to me as a fragmented unity, with the assumption that there is such a stable unity), while ANT is an “ontology — an account of existence” (62). Spinuzzi notes that both theories are intersecting in work organization, which is interesting, but not surprising as ANT accounts for the movements of “everyday life”, which work (a hierarchical organized system) has now become an inextricable part of. What interests me most about ANT is that it attempts to account for the truly invisible and intangible actors — beliefs and knowledge — that affect the interactions that produce activity, perception, and reality of the actors.
Latour says that the fundamental problem with other sociological theories is an assumption that there is “something else” behind observed interactions (they tautologically and reflexively call this the “social” or “society”), that the movement “from the local to the global and from the macro back to the micro” must be “the shadow image of some entirely different phenomenon” (171) that is theirs to unpack and reveal. I am struck here about how this may/may not play into Platonic thought (which Latour briefly addresses) as well as Jungian shadow theory. I don’t have time to ruminate about this now, but that is going to stick around for a bit. Can the two be reconciled or made to communicate? Anyway, Latour advocates removing this artificial notion of a third dimension called “the social” and flattening interaction to two dimensions. We should not seek to add a layer (a lamination??) to try to understand these phenomenon. Removing these “crinkles” in the 3D map and “ironing” it out on the table removes context and allows us to see what is happening. In addition, we have to give credit to the actors as being mediators and not intermediaries. They are not merely repeating or transporting knowledge and beliefs, but transforming them as they interact. Themselves. Too often, theorists add a “frame[work]” that, as Latour says, does not explain or add to the painting at all.
Money concept: there is no individual and society existing as separate entities, one within the other or ranking above/below the other. Individual/society are two sides of the same coin, two ways of explaining the same thing. They are actor-network, with the hyphen showing how they are one concept, together.
I’m curious about how ANT relates to rhetorical situation. It seems that the response created by the exigence of the situation — and even the interpretation that there is a situation — would be the sort of presumed panoptical megalomania that Latour attempts to break down, in favor of a more narrow oligoptical view that “pins down” reality to a flattened map of interactions. As Vatz noted, a situation is interpreted by the rhetor, who gives it context from previous similar situations, and responds with speech acts that meet
expectations and align with goals. ANT would not, I think, allow for the primacy of the “situation” as an exigence. ANT would map the interactions and expectations without trying to understand why choices were made, only that they were made by the particular actor-network of that moment. The choices made become the movements to study, and the rhetor holds no more importance than others in the interactions. Latour would definitely, I think, not allow Bitzer, because in ANT something such as a “situation” as existing to be discovered by the rhetor does not exist. What exists are webs of relations that dynamically and continuously co-create generate the social and natural world we inhabit.
I place the yin/yang symbol here because I think there may be a useful way to try to approach some of this discussion from a more Eastern (vs. Western) philosophical perspective. The Chinese symbol of yin/yang, imagined as a holistic entity divided into two halves that represent binaries — male/female, dark/light, good/bad, day/night, etc. However, the binaries are not strict–there is dark in the light and light in the dark. Nothing is all one or the other, and BOTH must exist simultaneously to have reality, balance, life, existence. The Cartesian mind/body split has further entrenched our notion of difference, that is recognized, but not divided in Eastern thought. A picture of yin/yang is never recognized to BE yin/yang, only something like a freeze-frame of a video. A capture of a specific moment in time, and the way the swirls were at moment. As soon as it was captured, it was lost, and if we were to build theories upon that observation at that moment, we would be incorrect. That seems to be part of what Latour is trying to say, although with considerably more pomposity and derision of those who disagree with him.