Session 10: The Collective


Some talking points for our discussion, put together by Sydney, Easton, and Brook.

1. New Terminology 

In this week’s readings, Latour offers us a new set of critical binaries to discuss and compare with other terms from earlier on in the semester.

Introducing human-nonhuman not to “overcome” the subject-object distinction but bypass it completely. How is a “nonhuman” different than an “object”?  And what do you think of Latour’s argument that “There are no visible objects and there never have been (Berlin Key, p. 11).

Changing the term “agent” to “actant.”  (E.g. A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans, Latour, p. 180) For instance, how does the term “actant” differ from Gell’s social or secondary agent?  Does the actor-actant idea successfully bypass the subject/object divide?

The confusion of “human/inhuman” with “figurative/non-figurative” (Johnson, 303). Is Latour setting up new ideas, or renaming already established concepts?

How do we understand Latour’s “collective” and what are the possible (ethical) implications of breaking down the boundaries between “nature” and “society”

2. Ethics

The work of Bruno Latour and his critics brings to the forefront a host of new considerations for our engagement with things––one of the more obvious additions: the question of ethics. In his 1988 essay (written under the pseudonym Jim Johnson), Latour borrows the term prescription to describe, “the behavior imposed back onto the human by nonhuman delegates” (301). The continuous string of silent moral and ethical imperatives originating in the technological artifact (the nonhuman) are either tacitly obeyed by the compliant human or ventriloquized in training sessions, transcribed into instruction booklets. Again, the example of the gun illustrates the point and raises the stakes: “The military are especially good at shouting [prescriptions] through the mouthpiece of human instructors who delegate back to themselves the task of explaining, in the rifle’s name, the characteristics of the rifle’s ideal user” (301). The prescriptions of the rifle-actant, which silently shape the gunman, are thus codified in the exaggerated screams of the drill sergeant. (One might ask how the ethical imperative of the rifle changes with the association of additional actants, say a telescopic sight.) 

As this example suggests, the question of ethical responsibility is not limited to the human actor, but is shared and dispersed among the various actants (and additional actors) involved in a given event. The question of ethical responsibility, however, remains nebulous in Latour’s writings. Aaron Smith takes up the question of ethics by considering the consequences of Latour’s theory from the legal standpoint of culpability. Smith sees a benefit in a Latourian framework for developing ethical stances with respect to large-scale systems, where culpability must be dispersed over a wide range of actors and actants, rather than allowing a small numbers of humans take the fall for a crime while the responsible system remains intact. How might we imagine a legal system that takes up a Latourian stance on the agency of nonhumans? How is culpability punished? Might the legal system (already) “punish” the nonhuman in the form of regulations? (For example: the confiscation of guns and the regulation of their production and sales.) Is there a way to think about the ethics involved in Latour’s positions that lie outside a legal discussion of culpability? 

3. Composition

One of the interesting things that comes out of this weeks readings is Latour’s statement that over time, human/nonhuman associations are requiring an ever-increasing number of delegates.  For example, in the Jim Johnson article he points out that originally all we needed was doors, then we needed signs, then we needed springs and hydraulics, and even these are not sufficient.  This idea is extremely intriguing, especially in light of the quote we addressed at the very beginning of class that the world is becoming emptied of things.  What Latour doesn’t address and what strikes me is why is there this ever-increasing number of delegates?  Are we resisting non-human actants in some way that calls for this increase?  What does increasing the chain of delegates do to the overall association and path of transformation?  What makes some things, ie a stoplight, resist this trend?

4. Networks and Assemblages

Another question that came to mind was how does Latour’s philosophy fit in with that of Jane Bennett’s assemblages.  In many ways they seem similar.  A network of interaction that includes a number of actors and actants all essential to the overall working but each with their own level of influence.  But there also seem to be subtle differences. While Jane focuses on connecting all the nodes in her assemblage, Latour seems to liquefy these nodes so that they no longer exist at all.  Instead we are left with constant paths of action in which individual objects no longer exist.  What does this difference mean for methodology, for culpability, for future investigations into things?  In addition, Bennett sees things as representing society (hence the legislation is reflected in the power grid) but Latour sees actants as making social interactions.  This is a nuanced difference but holds major implications for the future of social sciences. Would Bennett and Latour agree on this point?  What would an assemblage of the Berlin key or an association of the power grid look like?

5. Semiotics?

Many articles we’ve read this semester speak of things in terms of texts and signs.  “The Berlin Key,” Latour writes that the key “does not ‘express,’ ‘symbolize’, ‘reflect’, ‘reify’, ‘objectify’, ‘incarnate’ disciplinary relations.”  Instead, such mediators “make” and “form” these relations (p. 19).”  How does his interpretation of things differ from other perspectives we’ve read?


3 Responses to “Session 10: The Collective”

  1. People like Facebook because it’s like gambling – Quartz Says:

    […] within them, if designers can inscribe intentions into the things they build, as in sociologist Bruno Latour’s theory, then we can say that some engagement mechanisms are more prescriptive than […]

  2. People like Facebook because it’s like gambling; “It’s Not About Winning, It’s About Getting Into the Zone. A sense of monetary value, time, space, even a sense of self is annihilated in the extreme form of this zone that you enter.” | Bambo Says:

    […] “prescriptions” within them, if designers can inscribe intentions into the things they build, as in sociologist Bruno Latour’s theory, then we can say that some engagement mechanisms are more prescriptive than […]

  3. The Machine Zone: This Is Where You Go When You Just Can't Stop Looking at Pictures on Facebook : The Shrike Says:

    […] within them, if designers can inscribe intentions into the things they build, as in sociologist Bruno Latour’s theory, then we can say that some engagement mechanisms are more prescriptive than […]

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