Pit Schultz on Wed, 14 Jan 1998 02:10:41 +0100 (MET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Latour, Bruno: On Actor Network Theory: A few clarifications 1/2

Centre for Social Theory and Technology (CSTT), Keele University, UK
Home - STOT Resources - ANT Resource - Bruno Latour's Paper
We are very grateful to Bruno Latour for his contribution to our Resource.
Please note that the copyright of this paper remains with the author. If you
do quote from it, please follow the usual academic conventions for

                           On actor-network theory

                            A few clarifications

Bruno Latour


(à paraître dans Soziale Welt, 1997)

Exploring the properties of actor-networks is the task that the Paris group
of science and technology studies has set itself to tackle since the
beginning of the 1980s (Callon, Law, Rip, 1986). However this theory has
been often misunderstoond and hence much abused. I would like in this paper
to list some of the interesting properties of networks and to explain some
of the misunderstandings that have arisen. I will not concern myself here
with the quantitative studies especially the so called 'co-word analysis'
since they are themselves misunderstood because of the difficulty of exactly
grasping the social theory and quaint ontology entailed by actor-network
(but see Callon, Courtial, Lavergne 1989a,b).

Three misunderstandings are due to common usages of the word network itself
and the connotations they imply.

The first mistake would be to give it a common technical meaning in the
sense of a sewage, or train, or subway, or telephone 'network'. Recent
technologies have often the character of a network, that is, of exclusively
related yet very distant element with the circulation between nodes being
made compulsory through a set of rigorous paths giving to a few nodes a
strategic character. Nothing is more intensely connected, more distant, more
compulsory and more strategically organized than a computer network. Such is
not however the basic metaphor of an actor-network. A technical network in
the engineer's sense is only one of the possible final and stabilized state
of an actor-network. An actor-network may lack all the characteristics of a
technical network -it may be local, it may have no compulsory paths, no
strategically positioned nodes. Tom Hughes's 'networks of power' (1983), to
give a historical example, are actor-networks at the beginning of the story
and only some of their stabilized elements end up to be networks in the
engineer's sense, that is the electrical grid. Even at this later stage the
engineering definition of networks are still a partial projection of an

The second misunderstanding is easy to lift: the actor-network theory (hence
ANT) has very little to do with the study of social networks. These studies,
no matter how interesting, concerns themselves with the social relations of
individual human actors -their frequency, distribution, homogeneity,
proximity. It was devised as a reaction to the often too global concepts
like those of institutions, organizations, states and nations, adding to
them more realistic and smaller set of associations. Although ANT shares
this distrust for such vague all encompassing sociological terms it aims at
describing also the very nature of societies. But to do so it does not limit
itself to human individual actors but extend the word actor -or actant- to
non-human, non individual entities. Whereas social network adds information
on the relations of humans in a social and natural world which is left
untouched by the analysis, ANT aims at accounting for the very essence of
societies and natures. It does not wish to add social networks to social
theory but to rebuild social theory out of networks. It is as much an
ontology or a metaphysics, as a sociology (Mol and Law, 1994). Social
networks will of course be included in the description but they will have no
privilege nor prominence (and very few of their quantitative tools have been
deemed reusable).

Why then use the word network since it is opened to such misunderstandings?
The use of the word comes from Diderot. The word 'réseau' was used from the
beginning by Diderot to describe matter and bodies in order to avoid the
Cartesian divide between matter and spirit. Thus, the origin of the word
('réseau' in French) that comes from Diderot's work has from the beginning a
strong ontological component (Anderson, 1990). Put too simply ANT is a
change of methaphors to describe essences: instead of surfaces one gets
filaments (or rhyzomes in Deleuze's parlance (Deleuze and Guattari, 1980).
More precisely it is a change of topology. Instead of thinking in terms of
surfaces -two dimension- or spheres -three dimension- one is asked to think
in terms of nodes that have as many dimensions as they have connections. As
a first approximation, the ANT claims that modern societies cannot be
described without recognizing them as having a fibrous, thread-like, wiry,
stringy, ropy, capillary character that is never captured by the notions of
levels, layers, territories, spheres, categories, structure, systems. It
aims at explaining the effects accounted for by those traditional words
without having to buy the ontology, topology and politics that goes with
them. ANT has been developped by students of science and technology and
their claim is that it is utterly impossible to understand what holds the
society together without reinjecting in its fabric the facts manufactured by
natural and social sciences and the artefacts designed by engineers. As a
second approximation, ANT is thus the claim that the only way to achieve
this reinjection of the things into our understanding of the social fabrics
is through a network-like ontology and social theory.

To remain at this very intuitive level, ANT is a simple material resistance
argument. Strenght does not come from concentration, purity and unity, but
from dissemination, heterogeneity and the careful plaiting of weak ties.
This feeling that resistance, obduracy and sturdiness is more easily
achieved through netting, lacing, weaving, twisting, of ties that are weak
by themselves, and that each tie, no matter how strong, is itself woven out
of still weaker threads, permeates for instance Foucault's analysis of
micro-powers as well as recent sociology of technology. But the less
intuitive philosophical basis for accepting an ANT is a
background/foreground reversal: instead of starting from universal laws
-social or natural- and to take local contingencies as so many queer
particularities that should be either eliminated or protected, it starts
from irreducible, incommensurable, unconnected localities, which then, at a
great price, sometimes end into provisionnaly commensurable connections.
Through this foreground/background reversal ANT has some affinity with the
order out of disorder or chaos philosophy (Serres, 1983; Prigogine and
Stengers, 1979) and many practical links with ethnomethodology (Garfinkel
and Lynch's principle in Lynch 1985). Universality or order are not the rule
but the exceptions that have to be accounted for. Loci, contingencies or
clusters are more like archipelagos on a sea than like lakes dotting a solid
land. Less metaphorically, whereas universalists have to fill in the whole
surface either with order or with contingencies, ANT do not attempt to fill
in what is in between local pocket of orders or in between the filaments
relating these contingencies.

This is the most counter-intuitive aspect of ANT. Literally there is nothing
but networks, there is nothing in between them, or, to use a metaphor from
the history of physics, there is no aether in which the networks should be
immersed. In this sense ANT is a reductionist and relativist theory, but as
I shall demonstrate this is the first necessary step towards an
irreductionist and relationist ontology.


                                     . .

ANT makes use of some of the simplest properties of nets and then add to it
an actor that does some work; the addition of such an ontological ingredient
deeply modifies it. I will first start by the simplest properties common to
all networks.

Far/close: the first advantage of thinking in terms of networks is that we
get rid of 'the tyranny of distance' or proximity; elements which are close
when disconnected may be infinitely remote if their connections are
analyzed; conversely, elements which would appear as infinitely distant may
be close when their connections are brought back into the picture. I can be
one metre away from someone in the next telephone booth, and be nevertheless
more closely connected to my mother 6000 miles away; an Alaskan reindeer
might be ten metres away from another one and they might be nevertheless cut
off by a pipeline of 800 miles that make their mating for ever impossible;
my son may sit at school with a young arab of his age but in spite of this
close proximity in first grade they might drift apart in worlds that become
at later grades incommensurable; a gaz pipe may lie in the ground close to a
cable television glass fiber and nearby a sewage pipe, and each of them will
nevertheless continuously ignore the parallel worlds lying around them. The
difficulty we have in defining all associations in terms of networks is due
to the prevalence of geograpy. It seems obvious that we can oppose proximity
and connections. However, geographical proximity is the result of a science,
geography, of a profession, geographers, of a practice, mapping system,
measuring, triangulating. Their definition of proximity and distance is
useless for ANT -or it should be included as one type of connections, one
type of networks as we will see below. All definitions in terms of surface
and territories come from our reading of maps drawn and filled in by
geographers. Out of geographers and geography, 'in between' there own
networks, there is no such a thing as a proximity or a distance which would
not be defined by connectibility. The geographical notion is simply another
connection to a grid defining a metrics and a scale (Jacob, 1990). The
notion of network helps us to lift the tyranny of geographers in defining
space and offers us a notion which is neither social nor 'real' space, but

Small scale/large scale: the notion of network allows us to dissolve the
micro- macro- distinction that has plagued social theory from its inception.
The whole metaphor of scales going from the individual, to the nation state,
through family, extended kin, groups, institutions etc. is replaced by a
metaphor of connections. A network is never bigger than another one, it is
simply longer or more intensely connected. The small scale/large scale model
has three features which have proven devastating for social theory: it is
tied to an order relation that goes from top to bottom or from bottom to up
-as if society really had a top and a bottom-; it implies that an element
'b' being macro-scale is of a different nature and should be studied thus
differently from an element 'a' which is micro-scale; it is utterly unable
to follow how an element goes from being individual -a- to collective -b-
and back.

A network notion implies a deeply different social theory: it has no a
priori order relation; it is not tied to the axiological myth of a top and
of a bottom of society; it makes absolutely no assumption whether a specific
locus is macro- or micro- and does not modify the tools to study the element
'a' or the element 'b'; thus, it has no difficulty in following the
transformation of a poorly connected element into a highly connected one and
back. A network notion is ideally suited to follow the change of scales
since it does not require the analyst to partition her world with any priori
scale. The scale, that is, the type, number and topography of connections is
left to the actors themselves. The notion of network allows us to lift the
tyranny of social theorists and to regain some margin of manoeuvers between
the ingredients of society -its vertical space, its hierarchy, its layering,
its macro scale, its wholeness, its overarching character- and how these
features are achieved and which stuff they are made of. Instead of having to
chose between the local and the global view, the notion of network allows us
to think of a global entity -a highly connected one- which remains
nevertheless continuously local... Instead of opposing the individual level
to the mass, or the agency to the structure, we simply follow how a given
element becomes strategic through the number of connections it commands and
how does it lose its importance when losing its connections.

Inside/outside: the notion of network allows us to get rid of a third
spatial dimension after those of far/close and big/small. A surface has an
inside and an outside separated by a boundary. A network is all boundary
without inside and outside. The only question one may ask is whether or not
a connection is established between two elements. The surface 'in between'
networks is either connected -but then the network is expanding- or
non-existing. Literally, a network has no outside. It is not a foreground
over a background, nor a crack onto a solid soil, it is like Deleuze's
lightning rod that creates by the same stroke the background and the
foreground (Deleuze, 1968) The great economy of thinking allowed by the
notion of network is that we are no longer obliged to fill in the space in
between the connections -to use a computer metaphor we do not need the
little paint box familiar to MacPaint users to 'fill in' the interspace. A
network is a positive notion which does not need negativity to be
understood. It has no shadow.

The notion of network, in its barest topological outline, allows us already
to reshuffle spatial metaphors that have rendered the study of
society-nature so difficult: close and far, up and down, local and global,
inside and outside. They are replaced by associations and connections (which
ANT does not have to qualify as being either social or natural or technical
as I will show below) . This is not to say that there is nothing like
'macro' society, or 'outside' nature as the ANT is often accused to, but
that in order to obtain the effects of distance, proximity, hierarchies,
connectedness, outsiderness and surfaces, an enormous supplementary work has
to be done (Latour, 1996a). This work however is not captured by the
topological notion of network no matter how sophisticated we wish to make
it. This is why ANT adds to the mathematical notion of network a completely
foreign notion, that of actor. The new hybrid 'actor-network' leads us away
from mathematical properties into a world which has not yet be so neatly
charted. To sketch these properties we should now move on from static and
topological properties to dynamic and ontological ones.


                                     . .

A network in mathematics or in engineering is something that is traced or
inscribed by some other entity -the mathematician, the engineer. An
actor-network is an entity that does the tracing and the inscribing. It is
an ontological definition and not a piece of inert matter in the hands of
others, especially of human planners or designers. It is in order to point
out this essential feature that the word 'actor' was added to it.

Now, the word actor has been open to the same misunderstanding as the word
network. 'Actor' in the Anglo-Saxon tradition is always a human intentional
individual actor and is most often contrasted with mere 'behavior'. If one
adds this definition of an actor to the social definition of a network then
the bottom of misunderstanding is reached: an individual human -usually
male- who wishes to grab power makes a network of allies and extend his
power -doing some 'networking' or 'liaising' as Americans say... This is
alas the way ANT is most often represented which is about as accurate as
saying that the night sky is black because the astrophysicists' have shown
there is a big black hole in it. An 'actor' in ANT is a semiotic definition
-an actant-, that is, something that acts or to which activity is granted by
others. It implies no special motivation of human individual actors, nor of
humans in general. An actant can literally be anything provided it is
granted to be the source of an action. Although this point has been made
over and over again, the anthropocentrism and sociocentrism is so strong in
social sciences (as well as in the critiques of social explanations) that
each use of ANT has been construed as if it talked of a few superhumans
longing for power and stopping at nothing to achieve their ruthless goals...
Even my own network study of Pasteur (Latour, 1988a) -in spite of the
lenghtly ontological second part- has often been understood as a Madison
Avenue version of science -which is unfair not only to my account but also
to Madison avenue... If a criticism can be levelled at ANT it is, on the
contrary, its complete indifference for providing a model of human
competence. There is no model of (human) actor in ANT nor any basic list of
competences that have to be set at the beginning because the human, the self
and the social actor of traditionnal social theory is not on its agenda.

So what is on its agenda? The attribution of human, unhuman, nonhuman,
inhuman, characteristics; the distribution of properties among these
entities; the connections established between them; the circulation entailed
by these attributions, distributions and connections; the transformation of
those attributions, distributions and connections, of the many elements that
circulates and of the few ways through which they are sent.

The difficulty of grasping ANT is that it has been made by the fusion of
three hitherto unrelated strands of preoccupations:

   * a semiotic definition of entity building;
   * a methodological framework to record the heterogeneity of such a
   * an ontological claim on the 'networky' character of actants themselves.

ANT asserts that the limits of these three unrelated interests are solved
when, and only when, they are fused together into an integrated practice of

Semiotics is a necessary step in this venture since when you bracket out the
question of reference and that of the social conditions of productions -that
is Nature 'out there' and Society 'up there'- what remains is, in a first
approximation, meaning production, or discourse, or, text. This is the major
achievement of the sixties and of their 'linguistic turn' or 'semiotic
turn'. Instead of being means of communications between human actors and
nature, meaning productions became the only important thing to study.
Instead of being unproblematic they became opaque. The task was no longer to
make them more transparent but to recognize and relish their thick, rich,
layered and complex matter. Instead of mere intermediary they had become
mediators. From a mean, meaning has been made an end in itself. The best
minds for twenty years have been busy exploring all the consequences of this
major turn away from the naïve model of communication. Their often
structuralist interpretations has been dismantled but what remains is a
tool-box to study meaning productions. ANT sorts out from this toolbox what
is useful to understand the construction of entities. The key point is that
every entity, including the self, society, nature, every relation, every
action, can be understood as 'choices' or 'selection' of finer and finer
embranchments going from abstract structure -actants- to concrete ones
-actors. The generative path that is thus retraced gives an extraordinary
liberty of analysis compared to the empoverished 'social vocabulary' that
was used earlier -and is now in fashion again. Of course the structural
rendering of these choices -differences- and embranchements -dichotomies-
are not kept by ANT but essential traits of semiotics are kept. First, the
granting of humanity to an individual actor, or the granting of
collectivity, or the granting of anonymity, of a zoomorphic appearance, of
amorphousness, of materiality, requires paying the same semiotic price. The
effects will be different, the genres will be different, but not the work of
attributing, imputing, distributing action, competences, performances and
relations. Second, actors are not conceived as fixed entities but as flows,
as circulating objects, undergoing trials, and their stability, continuity,
isotopies has to be obtained by other actions and other trials. Finally,
from semiotics is kept the crucial practice to grant texts and discourses
the ability to define also their context, their authors -in the text-, their
readers -in fabula- and even their own demarcation and metalangage . All the
problems of the analyst are shifted to the 'text itself' without ever beeing
allowed to escape into the context (Greimas, 1976). Down with
interpretation! Down with the context! The slogans of the the 60s and 70s
'everything is a text', 'there is only discourse', 'narratives exist by
themselves', 'we have no access to anything but accounts' are kept in ANT
but saved from their ontological consequences. This salvation however does
not come by falling back on the pre-deconstruction common-sense -'after all,
there is a social context up there and a nature out there'- but by extending
the semiotic turn to this famous nature and this famous context it had
bracketed out in the first place.

A major transformation of these slogans occured when semiotics was turned by
ANT to scientific and technical discourses -and especially to scientific
texts. As long as one studied fictions, myths, popular cultures, fashions,
religions, political discourse, one could hold to the 'semiotic turn' and
take them as so many 'texts'. Scholars did not seriously believe in them
anyway and thus the intellectual distance and scepticism was easy to achieve
while the double treasury of 'scientism' and 'socialism' was kept intact in
their heart. But what about scientific truth and material efficiency? What
about the reference 'out there' in hard scientific texts? This was the real
test for semiotics and although it passed the trial a price had to be payed.
In the practice of ANT, semiotics was extended to define a completely empty
frame that enabled to follow any assemblage of heterogeneous entities
-including now the 'natural' entities of science and the 'material' entities
of technology. This is the second strand of ANT, it is a method to describe
the deployment of associations like semiotics is a method to describe the
generative path of any narration. It does not say anything about the shape
of entities and actions, but only what the recording device should be that
would allow entities to be described in all their details. ANT places the
burden of theory on the recording not on the specific shape that is
recorded. When it says that actors may be human or unhuman, that they are
infinitely pliable, heterogeneous, that they are free associationists, know
no differences of scale, that there is no inertia, no order, that they build
their own temporality, this does not qualify any real observed actor, but is
the necessary condition for the observation and the recording of actors to
be possible. Instead of constantly predicting how an actor should behave,
and which association are allowed a priori, ANT makes no assomption at all,
and in order to remain uncommitted needs to set its instrument by insisting
on infinite pliability and absolute freedom. In itself ANT is not a theory
of action no more than cartography is a theory on the shape of coasts lines
and deep sea ridges; it just qualifies what the observer should suppose in
order for the coast lines to be recorded in their fine fractal patterns. Any
shape is possible provided it is obsessively coded as longitude and
latitude. Similarly any association is possible provided it is obsessively
coded as heterogeneous associations through translations. It is more an
infralanguage than a metalanguage. It is even less than a descriptive
vocabulary; it simply opens, against all a-priori reductions, the
possibility of describing irreductions (Latour, 1988a, part II). ANT is no
mere empiricist though, since in order to define such an irreducible space
in which to deploy entities, sturdy theoretical commitments have to be made
and a strong polemical stance has to be taken so as to forbid the analyst to
dictate actors what they should do. Such a distribution of strong theory for
the recording frame and no middle range theory for the description, is
another source of many misunderstandings since ANT is accused either of
being dogmatic or of only providing mere description. For the same reason it
is also accused of claiming that actors are 'really' infinitely pliable and
free or, inversely, of not telling what a human actor really is after (Lee
and Brown, 1994).

The two first strands -the semiotics and the methodological one- by
themselves will be opened to criticisms. The first because there is no way
to consider that bracketing out social context and reference solves the
problem of meaning -in spite of the now dated claims of the swinging
seventies-, and the second because merely deploying shapes of associations
might be a worthwhile descriptive task but does not offer any explanation.
It is only when a third strand is added to those two and that networks are
made an ontological claims that ANT escapes criticisms. This move however is
so devious that it has escaped the attention of many users of ANT. Which is
a pity since, once it is made, ANT loses its radical character and soon
appears commensensical enough.

The weakness of semiotics has always been to consider meaning production
away from what the nature of entities really are; when semiotics is turned
to nature however, and that unhuman entities are entered into the picture,
it soon appears that the word 'discourse', or 'meaning' may be dropped
altogether without any danger of going back to naive realism or naive
naturalism. It is only because semioticians studied texts -and literary ones
at that- instead of things, that they felt obliged to limit themselves to
'meaning'. In effect they scientistically believed in the existence of
things in addition to meaning (not mentioning their belief in the existence
of a good old social context whenever it suited them). But a semiotics of
things is easy, one simply has to drop the meaning bit from semiotics...

If one now translates semiotics by path-bulding, or order-making, or
creation of directions, one does not have to specify if it is language or
objects one is analyzing. Such a move gives a new continuity to practices
that were deemed different when one dealt with language and 'symbols' or
with skills, work and matter. This move can be said either to elevate things
to the dignity of texts or to elevate texts to the ontological status of
things. What really matters is that it is an elevation instead of a
reduction and that the new hybrid status give to all entities both the
action, variety and circulating existence recognized in the study of textual
characters and also the reality, solidity, externality that was recognized
in things 'out of' our representations. What is lost is the absolute
distinction between representation and things -but such is exactly what ANT
wishes to redistribute through what I have called a counter-copernican

Once settled this first solution -extending semiotics to things instead of
limiting it to meaning-, the second difficulty falls with it -building an
empty methodological frame to register description. Actor-networks do
connect and by connecting with one another provides an explanation of
themselves, the only one there is for ANT. What is an explanation? The
attachment of a set of practices that control or interfer on another. No
explanation is stronger or more powerful than providing connections among
unrelated elements, or showing how one element holds many others. This is
not a property that is distinct from networks but one of their essential
properties (Latour, 1988b). They become more or less explanable as they go
and depending on what they do to one another. Actors are cleaning up their
own mess, so to speak. Once you grant them everything, they also give you
back the explanatory powers you abandonned. The very divide between
description and explanation, hows and whys, blind empiricism and high
theorizing is as meaningless for ANT as the difference between gravitation
and space in relativity theory. Each network by growing 'binds' so to speak
the explanatory ressources around it and there is no way they can be
detached from its growth. One does not jump outside a network to add an
explanation -a cause, a factor, a set of factors, a series of co-occurences;
one simply extends the network further. Every network surround itself with
its own frame of reference, its own definition of growth, of refering, of
framing, of explaining. In this process the frame of reference of the
analyst does dot disappear more than the physicist's in Einstein's world; on
the contrary, at last it is able to extend itself, but there at a price: the
frame becomes, as it does in General Relativity, 'a mollusc of reference'
instead of a detached Galilean frame and each account has to be recalculated
by the ANT equivalent of a Lorenz transformation (Latour, 1988c). There is
no way to provide an explanation if the network does not extend itself. This
is not in contradiction with the scientific task of providing explanation
and causality, since we learned from the very studies of hard sciences that
no explanation of any scientific phenomenon and no causality could be
provided without extending the network itself. By tying the explanation to
the network itself, ANT does not abandon the goal of science since it shows
that this goal has never been achieved, at least through the epistemological
myth of explanation. ANT can't deprive itself of a ressource it shows no one
had ever had in the first place. Explanation is ex-plicated, that is
unfolded, like gravity in Einstein's curved space, it is still there as an
effect but it is now indistinguishable from the description, the deployment
of the net.

This relativistic position -but one should prefer the less loaded term of
relationist- solves two other problems: that of historicity, and that of

The pre-relativist debate between providing an explanation and 'simply'
documenting the historical circumstances falls apart: there is no difference
between explaining and telling how a network surrounds itself with new
ressources; if it 'escapes socio-historical contingences' as critics often
argue then this simply means than other, longer lasting, ressources have
been garnered to stay around -the etymology of circumstances. Hughes's
Network of Power grow (Hughes, 1983) and by their very growth they become
more and more of an explanation of themselves; you do not need an
explanation floating over them in addition to their historical growth;
Braudel's networks and world economics grow and they are what the 'big
causes' are made of. You do not need to add them Capitalism or Zeitgeist
except as another summary, another ponctualisation of the networks
themselves. Either the cause designates a body of practices which is tied to
the network under description -and this is what growth of networks mean- or
it is not related and then is just a word added to the description,
literally it is the word 'cause'. In this sense, ANT gives history its
legitimate place -which is not the one prudent historians like to sit on,
safely away from ontological questions. There is nothing better, sturdier
than a circumstancial description of networks. 'It just happens to be this

But such a summary would be construed as historicism if it were not
understood as a definition of the things themselves. The debate between
historicism and explanation or theory was not solvable as long as there was,
on the one hand, a history of people, of contingencies, of what is 'in
time', and, on the other hand, a theory or a science of what is timeless,
eternal, necessary. For ANT there is science only of the contingent, as to
necessity it is locally achieved only through the growth of a network. If
there is also a history of things then the debate between description and
explanation, or historicity and theory, is entirely dissolved. This is not
for ANT a proof of the weakness of its explanatory powers since describing
or accounting for a network is what an explanation or an ex-plicitation is
and what has always been the case in so-called hard sciences óor more
exactly 'progressively hardened sciences' (Latour, 1996b).

Although not the main goal of ANT, reflexivity is added as a bonus once the
frames of reference are granted back to the actors -and once the actors are
granted back the possibility of crossing again the sacred divided line
between things and representations (Ashmore, 1989). Reflexivity is seen as a
problem in relativist theory because it appears that either the observers
requests a status it denies to others, or that it is as silent as all the
others to which are denied any privilege status. This 'problem' falls
however when the epistemological myth of an outside observer providing an
explanation in addition to 'mere description' disappears. There is no longer
any privilege -but there has never been any need for it either. The observer
-whatever it is- finds itself at a par with all the other frames of
reference. It is not left to despair or navel gazing, since the absence of
privileged status has never limited the expansion and intelligence of any
actor. World builder among world builders, it does not see a dramatic limit
on knowledge in its abandon of Galilean frames but only ressources. To
extend from one frame of reference to the next, it has to work and pay the
price like any other actor. In order to explain, to account, to observe, to
prove, to argue, to dominate and to see, it has to move around and work, (I
should say it has to 'network'). No privilege also means no a priori limits
on knowledge. If actors are able to account for others, so can it. If actors
can't, it might still try. History, risks, and ventures is also in the
observers's own network building. Such is ANT's solution to reflexivity
(Stengers, 1993).

Reflexivity is not a 'problem', a stumbling block along the path to
knowledge, the prison in which all enterprises would be locked, it is the
land of opportunity at last opened for actors which are primum inter pares,
or strive for parity or primacy like any other. Of course reusable
metalangage is abandonned but this is not giving up much since observers who
displayed their rich metalanguage were usally small points limited to very
specific loci -campuses, studios, corporate rooms. The price ANT pays to
move from one locus to the next is that there are as many metalanguages as
there are frames of reference -the only metalanguage required (see above
strand 2) being more adequately called an infralanguage which has to be
poor, limited, short and simple -the equivalent of a Lorenz transformation
being called 'translation' in ANT (Latour, 1988c). This infralanguage is
enough to move from one net to the other and the specific explication will
always be a one-shot account exclusively tailored to the problem at hand
(Lynch's principle, Callon 'disposables explanations', Serres 'cross over
between explanandum and explanans' (Serres, 1995)). If it is more generally
applicable, it means that it is riding over a network that expands itself.

This solution becomes commonsense once it is accepted that an account or an
explication or a proof is always added to the world, it does not substract
anything to the world. Reflexivists as well as their pre-relativist enemies
dream of substracting knowledge from the things in themselves. ANT keeps
adding things to the world and its selection principle is no longer whether
or not there is a fit between account and reality -these dual illusion has
been dissolved away- but whether or not one travels or not from a net to
another. No metalanguage allows you to do this travel. By abandoning the
dreams of epistemology, ANT is not reduced to moral relativism but gets back
a stronger deontological commitment: either an account leads you to all the
other accounts -and it is good- or it interrupts constantly the movement,
letting frames of reference distant and foreign -and it is bad. Either it
multiplies the mediating point between any two elements -and it is good- or
it deletes and conflates mediators -and it is bad. Either it is reductionis
-and that's bad news- or irreductionist -and that's the highest ethical
standard for ANT. We will see that this touchstone is much more
discriminating than the quest for epistemological purity or for foundations
or for moral norms. Demarcation is in fact an ennemy of differenciation.

[cont'd in part 2]
#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo@icf.de and "info nettime" in the msg body
#  URL: http://www.desk.nl/~nettime/  contact: nettime-owner@icf.de