Latour: “Conclusion: From Society to Collective—Can the Social Be Reassembled?” (247-262)
“The words ‘social’ and ‘nature’ used to hide two entirely different projects that cut across both of those ill-assembled assemblies: one to trace connections among unexpected entities and another to make those connections hold in a somewhat livable whole. The mistake is not in trying to do two things at once—every science is also a political project—the mistake is to interrupt the former because of the urgency of the latter. ANT is simply a way of saying that the task of assembling a common world cannot be contemplated if the other task is not pursued well beyond the narrow limits fixed by the premature closure of the social sphere” (260).
“In a time of so many crises in what it means to belong, the task of cohabitation should no longer be simplified too much. So many other entities are now knocking on the door of our collectives. It is absurd to want to retool our disciplines to become sensitive again to the noise they make and to try and find a place for them?” (262).
“One’s own actions ‘make a difference’ only in a world made of differences.” (252-253).
Mediators and Intermediaries Revisited
It seems necessary to distinguish between mediators and intermediaries, since these two terms are central to ANT. Latour writes, “An intermediary…is what transports meaning or force without transformation: defining its inputs is enough to define its outputs. For all practical purposes, an intermediary can be taken not only as a black box, but also as a black box counting for one, even if it is internally made of many parts. Mediators…cannot be counted as just one; they might count for one, for nothing, for several, or for infinity. Their input is never a good predictor of their output; their specificity has to be taken into account every time” (37). We could correlate these terms with two other terms: information (intermediary) and transformation (mediator).
The preceding distinction between mediators and intermediaries, then, is important when thinking through the utility of Actor-network theory in contrast to sociologies of the social and critical sociologies. How do critical sociologists and sociologists of the social deploy reductive frameworks through intermediaries? On the other hand, how do mediators affirm difference and multiplicity through mediators? Are these categories prescriptive or descriptive? And what are the political implications of Latour’s demarcation between mediators and intermediaries? Perhaps, this question will become clearer when we outline what the term political means for Latour and ANT. We can, of course, refer to a few points in the text wherein the foregoing questions are especially relevant. Consider when Latour writes, “For a social science to become relevant, it has to have the capacity to renew itself—a quality impossible if a society is supposed to be ‘behind’ political action. It should also possess the ability to loop back from the few to the many and from the many to the few—a process often simplified under the terms of representation of the body politic” (261). How does the notion of the mediator enable social science with capacities to renew and refresh itself?
Latour notes with regards to critical sociologists: “Critical sociologists have underestimated the difficulty of doing politics by insisting that the social consists of just a few types of participants. It did not care to notice that there was not much chance for politics to succeed if the list of bona fide members making up the social world was drastically restricted in advance” (250). It seems, for Latour, that intermediaries, which are part and parcel of the domains of sociology of the social and critical sociology, limit new connections from being made; therefore, the possibility of reassembling the social is always already disrupted by the presuppositions that intermediaries determine, that is to say, intermediaries can only conceptualize specific categories, associations, and terrains (e.g., foreclosing the possibility of thinking about “non-human” actors), so much so that events are always interpreted through the same, hackneyed tools: “For the new wine of new associations, a dusty old flask just won’t do” (260).
Between Society and the Collective
Latour describes the overarching project of the book at the outset of the chapter: “the question of the social emerges when the ties in which one is entangled begin to unravel; the social is further detected through the surprising movements from one association to the next; those movements can either be suspended or resumed; when they are prematurely suspended, the social as normally construed is bound together with already accepted participants called ‘social actors’ who are members of a ‘society’; when the movement toward collection is resumed, it traces the social as associations through many non-social entities which might become participants later; if pursued systematically, this tracking may end up in a shared definition of a common world, what I have called a collective, it may fail to be reassembled; and, lastly, sociology is best defined as the discipline where participants explicitly engage in the reassembling of the collective” (247). Simply put, there are two general movements for ANT: deployment and collection (the failure to differentiate between deployment and collection is a key problem for sociology of the social). The first procedure is by and large concerned with making the actors visible via deployment, while the second attempts to reassemble the collective by portraying a common world that is accepted by those involved. How can an association be resumed or suspended? What are the effects of resuming and suspending associations? How can resuming associations reassemble the collective?
There is another interesting moment in the text where Latour characterizes his project: “We first have to learn how to deploy controversies so as to gauge the number of new participants in any future assemblage (Part I); then we have to be able to follow how the actors themselves stabilize those uncertainties by building formats, standards, and metrologies (Part II); and finally, we want to see how the assemblages thus gathered can renew our sense of being in the same collective” (249).
It should be mentioned, however, that Latour’s call for a reassembling of the collective should be stripped of all teleological connotations, as it seems that the reconstruction of the social is one of constant process, which resonates with Deleuze and Guattari in many ways, especially the ways in which assemblages could be conceptualized as being situated in tension between the BwO and strata, that is, caught in a process of reterritorialization and deterritorialization: “In resuming the project of the social sciences and bringing it back to the source of bewilderment from which it first grew, it is important to become sensitive again to very odd types of assemblages” (248).
Latour is certainly aligned with Deleuze and Guattari in so far as their projects all demand a disruption of the existing categories of thought, that is, a certain commitment to making the world strange: “At every corner, science, religion, politics, law, economics, organizations, etc. offer phenomena that we have to find puzzling again if we want to understand the types of entities the collectives may be composed of in the future” (248). Nevertheless, what can we make of Latour’s definition of the collective—that is to be reassembled—as a common world? How can we think of difference, multiplicity, and process while also attempting to reassemble a common world? Does Latour’s call for a reassembling of the collective—a common world—necessitate a return to the same? Can we speak about a collective, a common world, in Deleuze’s parlance? Can we correlate this common world with the plane of immanence (the plane of consistency)? Is there a possibility, for Latour, to even utter the word alterity?
An Incredibly Brief Critique of Critical Sociology
I will quote Latour here: “Whatever it claims to science and objectivity, critical sociology cannot be sociology—in the new sense that I propose—since it has no way to retool itself to follow through on the non-social elements” (249). How do critical sociologists confuse society and the collective? What happens when the possibilities of an “actor” and the “social” are already determined in advance? What does this say about the contingency of politics?
Perhaps, one of the most striking and interesting claims that Latour makes is when he succinctly states, “if there is a society, then no politics is possible” (250). Politics, for Latour, can only be understood in thinking through specific material moments and conditions. Consider when Latour describes his first “clamp”: “even though the question seems really odd at first—not to say in bad taste—whenever anyone speaks of a ‘system,’ a ‘global feature,’ a ‘structure,’ a ‘society,’ an ‘empire,’ a ‘world economy,’ an ‘organization,’ the first ANT reflex should be to ask: ‘In which building? In which bureau’ Through which corridor is it accessible? Which colleagues has it been read to? How has it been complied?” (183). Latour’s emphasis on the material circumstances and particularities of events is redolent of De Landa in many ways as well. Consider, for instance, De Landa’s discussion of the market, which explodes the macro-micro distinction. But how can we situate this empirically driven political framework with our earlier discussion of mediators and intermediaries? Is it possible to put this conceptualization of politics into conversation with Deleuze’s so-called transcendental empiricism? Perhaps, we could ask, more broadly, what is the relation between science and politics? Deleuze and Guattari, in What is Philosophy?, claim that science is dedicated to functions, philosophy creates concepts, and art is affect (the ability to affect and be affected).
“To insist that behind all the various issues there exists the overarching presence of the same system, the same empire, the same totality, always struck me as an extreme case of masochism, a perverted way to look for a sure defeat…Is it not obvious then that only a skein of weak ties, of constructed, artificial, assignable, accountable, and surprising connections is the only way to begin contemplating any kind of fight?” (252).
Science, then, is not deterministic, for it permits contingency. Is Latour flipping an old paradigm? In other words, is it fair to say that Latour is assigning the “social constructionists” the role of the determinists, while opening a space for transformation that is in solidarity with science and this (new) materialism? “Social forces” that are above Latour’s flat ontology function to prohibit radical transformations, as they are fixed categories that cannot accommodate change, while, for ANT, if the world is composed of “weak ties,” then it follows that these ties can be transformed, altered, undermined without the burden of the hegemonic “power” of “social forces” that are mere abstractions: “I think it would be much safer to claim that action is possible only in a territory that has been opened up, flattened down, and cut down to size in a place where formats, structures, globalization, and totalities circulate inside tiny conduits, and where for each of their applications they need to rely on masses of hidden potentialities. If this is not possible, then there is no politics” (252).
Flattening Nature and Society
Latour demarcates between “matters of fact” and “matters of concern.” Matters of fact, of course, elide the multiplicities of matters of concern, as matters of fact cannot take into account flows, speeds, and processes: “Under the same ‘external reality’, the notion of nature conflates two different functions at once: on the one hand, the multiplicity of beings making up the world; on the other, the unity of those assembled in one single undisputable whole. Appealing to realism is never enough, since it means throwing together in one package multiple matters of concern as well as unified matters of fact. So, when people doubt the existence of ‘nature’ and ‘outside reality’, you never know if they are contesting the premature unification of matters of concern under the hegemony of matters of fact, or whether they deny the multiplicity if entities revealed by the sciences. The first is indispensable, the second is plain silly” (254).
“We may now see what the two collectors, nature and society, have in common: they are both premature attempts to collect in two opposite assemblies the common world” (254). To what extend does Latour destabilize and trouble the usual conceptions of “society” and “nature”? Consider the following quotation: “And yet in both cases what is to be collected, namely the former members of the old assemblages of nature and society which I have called mediators, circulating objects and beings, resembles neither matters of fact nor social actors” (255). I wonder how Latour’s flat sociology can be understood if we consider it in contrast with Nietzsche’s famous dictum “the only being is becoming.” Perhaps, we could ask the Nietzschean question: how does Latour and ANT say yes to life? The quotation below stages this question particularly well.
“At worst, it would simply put humans on par with other matters of concern in physics, biology, computer science, etc. Complexity will simply be added to complexity. Far from being ‘lowered down’, objectified humans’ will instead be elevated to the level of ants, chimps, chips, and particles! To be ‘treated like things’, as we understand it now, is not to be ‘reduced’ to mere matters of fact, but allowed to live life as multifarious as that of matters of concern…Their complex metaphysics would at least be respected, their recalcitrance recognized, their objections deployed, their multiplicity accepted. Please, treat humans as thing, offer them at least the degree of realism you are ready to grant humble matters of concern, materialize them, and, yes reify them as much as possible” (256).
“This means the two tasks of taking into account and putting into order have to be kept separate. The test is now to detect which social sciences are good at maintaining this distinction” (257). What does it mean to “keep separate” the act of taking into account (deployment) and putting into order (collecting)? Are there particular disciplines that succeed in holding this distinction?
Latour’s interest in the ways in which discipline themselves are intricately bound to the “social” fabric, and therefore cannot be conceptualized as existing as radically detached from actors and groups; however, the organizing and rupturing movements that conducting analyses implies, which ANT provides social scientists, opens up the possibilities, for Latour, to redefine the political as a perforated category that is always under construction—assembling and reassembling: “It simply means that they are like all the other sciences, involved in the normal business of multiplying agencies and stabilizing or disciplining some of them. In this sense, the more disinterested the sciences, the more engaged and politically relevant it already is” (258).
A question to consider as we read ahead: how does “a political ecology of things” that Latour gestures towards in this chapter connect with Bennett, Deleuze, and Guattari?
Watching the Social Unravel: “A Science of Living Together”
The three quotations below speak to how ANT can be situated in relation to politics, society, nature, and assemblages.
ANT collapses (or puts out of play) nature and society, so that collectives and associations can be rendered perceptible in turn. In other words, ANT is committed to reassembling the social based on what we might call a politics of difference that is part of collective, that is, a common world; nevertheless, how can these multiplicities not be sublated or effaced from within this common world? Does this collective exceed the sum of its parts? And how does one carefully and responsibly reassemble the associations that one has traced? Is it possible to compose a common world? Latour answers some of the foregoing questions when he writes, “What ANT has tried to do is make itself sensitive again to the sheer difficulty of assembling collectives made of so many new members once nature and society have been simultaneously put aside…once you extend the range of entities, the new associations do not form a livable assemblage. This is where politics again enters the scene if we care to define it as the intuition that associations are not enough, that they should also be composed in order to design one common world” (259).
An intriguing note on description and multiplicities: “So it’s perfectly true to say that no sociology can be content with ‘just describing’ associations, and nor can it simply enjoy the spectacle of the sheer multiplicity of new connections” (259). Is this where Deleuze and Guattari diverge with Latour? Is “sheer multiplicity” not enough?
To conclude, Latour lambastes social scientists who attempt to make a totality too early, which undercuts the emergence of new connections and associations; however, we might want to ask: is a collective ever complete? And how does one know when a closure of the social has been breached? Latour writes, “The words ‘social’ and ‘nature’ used to hide two entirely different projects that cut across both of those ill-assembled assemblies: one to trace connections among unexpected identities and another to make those connections hold in a somewhat livable whole. The mistake is not in trying to do two things at once—every science is also a political project—the mistake is to interrupt the former because of the urgency of the latter. ANT is simply a way of saying that the task of assembling a common world cannot be contemplated if the other task is not pursued well beyond the narrow limits fixed by the premature closure of the social spheres” (260).