I claim to be an expert on actor-network theory*, but I’d like to be. This is the first time I’ve really tried it. After reading the second half of Reassembling the Social this week, I’ve realized my idea to separate networks and actors into hierarchical layers (“each network [is] full of actors”) pretty fundamentally misunderstands Latour’s definition of networks. My plan was to identify all the actors, trace their connections and call everything that was linked a network. I think the first two steps are fine. But then what’s the point of elevating that network as a layer on top of the actors? The notion that networks are “filled up” makes them out to be more like rigid containers and independent entities than Latour prescribes, and pushes these “networks” unnecessarily and unfairly forward in the actors’ stead.

Latour says that a network isn’t itself anything but a bundle of mediated actions: “a network is not made of nylon thread, words or any durable substance but is the trace left behind by some moving agent” (132). And he says, even more clearly, that a network is “a tool to help describe something, not what is being described” (131). So let’s bypass that layer entirely. The network is there, but the things that make it up change all the time, so I can’t ever define it universally. I like to think that in practice, when I started working up from that base ‘actor’ layer and trying to set out some organizational system, all the choices I’d have to make would quickly make it apparent that embedding was a little too precious and there was really nowhere “up” to go.

Part of what got me thinking about this was actually this idea of “opposition networks” that frames my whole project (I’m really digging myself a hole here). First, I don’t think that’s how the people I’m calling “opposition” conceive of themselves. Their work shouldn’t be defined in the negative. The “opposition networks” offer resistance and dissent, but in many cases only implicitly through the telling of a less selective and more considerate account.** Calling them “opposition” implies authority for the developer and the uncritical press’ narrative. And the second problem with “opposition networks” is that eventually there needs to be a border, where so-and-so is opposed and so-and-so is not. It’s too soon to even expect that I’ll be able to make those kind of judgements. Better do away with borders and judgements on every front. More is more.

* or Atlantic Yards.

** There’s an important mirroring between the include-everything goals of actor-network theory (the more mediators the better) and those of the Atlantic Yards writers I’m most interested in (the more perspectives/reporting/studies the better).

One comment

  1. I’m not sure that you need to regard this as a “whoops” moment. If we want to “trace associations,” and we’re using a database to do it, we’re in a way compelled — by the very structure of the database — to isolate the “association” and figure out a concrete way to “trace it.” And in order to “trace” the paths between your points (as Latour says, “A good ANT account is a narrative or a description or a proposition [or a map?] where all the actors *do something* and don’t just sit there,” p. 128), you have to make the paths — the links between the nodes — entities. You have to use the structure of the relational database to specify the nature of the relation between your entities. So, in a way, the database necessitates a reification of the network — apart from its individual actors.

    Does a database-backed map allow us to map the “trace[s] left behind by some moving agent”? (132). Is it possible to create a map that isn’t just another “simple-minded[, static] visual representation”? Is it possible to translate Latour’s “multiple notebooks” method to a map? I got no answers. Just questions!

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