Visible Objects

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One of the more productive moments that I found in Reassembling the Social, was Latour’s discussion of the visibility of objects and their activities (which the discussants point to in question 6. of their posting). With their tendency to fall silent, to go unnoticed in their connection with humans, objects of all degrees of complexity continuously slip from being visible mediators into invisible intermediaries, fulfilling their intended functions but obscuring their status as ever-present actors. For the student and historian of things, the ability to animate objects, to “make them talk” depends on a combination of good timing and methodological “tricks”. Latour nicely breaks down a number of strategic moments, which we have already been isolating (both implicitly and explicitly) in our study of things (79–82).

For Latour, the avid observer of scientific production and laboratory work, the privileged moment (1) is that of innovation, the coming-into-being moment in the life of the object, when its status as mediator is most visible––through interference and translation between agents, blackboxing, and the circuitous line of composition, etc. (Pandora’s Hope, 176–190). The second instance, what Latour describes as (2) distance, might be productively rephrased as the ‘moment of encounter’ with a new object, existing as a mediator for the limited moment when it is still strange and novel, still magical, unwieldy, and unaccountable. This is the frequently privileged moment in the history of technology and media, when the technological artifact is given full weight as actor before it is domesticated, habituated, or completely forgotten. Latour’s next instance is quite familiar by now, (3) the breakdown, although as someone who witnessed the exploded Columbia shuttle all the way from the New Mexican desert, I would take issue with the aptness of his example. Sadly, my chosen strategies for engaging with things are what Latour relegates to last ditch attempts: (4) historical reconstructions and (5) fictions. My challenge to Latour might be to consider how imaginative fictions are in fact very much in play in the constitution of innovation and discovery, distance and encounters, and narratives of breakdown and crisis. Sociologists not only have a lot to learn from artists, but they must acknowledge the imaginative fictions very much imbedded in the social lives of things.

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