Beginning to Actually “EXPLAIN” Power through the Active Role of Objects in Social Inequality

Posted: February 7, 2012 by gardenofdawn in Feb 8

Latour’s main arguments and insights in a nutshell

In a highly theoretical fashion, Latour scrutinizes the foundational sociological intuition of social inequality from the perspective of Actor-Network Theory (ANT). However, Latour does not dismiss the existence of social asymmetry at all. Instead, Latour aims to reframe the inquiry of sociology by proposing sociologists take An epistemological stab at EXPLAINING social inequality. In the author’s effort to explain this phenomena , he challenges  the research interests of traditional sociologists: the identification and repetition of the common notion that social asymmetries exist, which he describes as a tautological endeavor.  Latour’s critique proposes that objects are “full-blown” (Pg. 72) actors engaged in social ties much like human actors, given the ANT definition of the “social” as “movement, displacement, and transformation”. (Pg. 64) In asserting the agency of objects, Latour makes the objects the site of power, vowing to dislodge the myth that the study of sociology is without object, thus making ANT and Latour’s analysis key to a dynamic social analysis of objects.

Connecting Latour to Schamberger

Although he’s assuredly not the first one to admit it, Latour even states that his philosophical arguments are “difficult to grasp”. (Pg.77) His theoretical arguments however, need not be left in the abstract. A key comparison can be made to the Schamberger et. al article from the first week of readings regarding the Australian museum which featured  a dress and bamboo instrument. Schamberger et. al introduced us to the relationship and dichotomy between objects and humans, describing the relationship as a dynamic intertwining, “constantly in motion” (Pg. 276) Latour provides a highly similar yet more sophisticated understanding of the relationship between objects and humans. In doing so he first asserts the danger of blurring the two entities. For Latour, blurring the two things is to cut off the agency that both possess. Thus, Latour’s definition of the relationship is much like the relationship that exists between society and technology. In this case, objects can be considered technology and humans of course society. Latour continually returns to the concept of “reshuffling”  and a “zigzagging” (Pg. 75) action occurring between humans and objects. Thus, to see objects only as they relate and fit neatly into human agency is to deny objects their own  agency.

In search of solutions for the incommensurability of objects

Latour notes that the fundamental incommensurability of objects is a hindrance to the study of them and the identification of objects as actors. He further notes that nonetheless, researchers need to get over such incommensurability and study objects in sociological inquiry as to not continue leaving behind missing patches in their research of social phenomenon.  (Pg. 74) Latour’s fault is he does not propose ways for researchers to overcome the incommensurability of objects. Like much of his argumentation, especially given that it is calling upon an entire epistemological shift, something must be said.

Easier said than done, Latour, easier said than done. (And he doesn’t even say it easily)

Questions regarding making objects “talk” and the role of art

1. If this object could talk…the things it would say…!

Latour argues that humans use tricks to make objects “talk”, but he does not give any concrete relevant examples.

What might be some examples of  tricks used to make objects visible, allowing objects to “talk”?

2. Role of creativity and fiction

But given the fact that objects cannot and will never actually “talk”, What is the role of creativity and fiction for making objects visible, what can we learn from “artists”?

  1. Gardenofdawn,

    The two points that you raised at the end of your response were very interesting for me as well, particularly Latour’s brief pointing out of the role of the artist (fiction) in making objects visible. I think magical realism would be great example of a literary technique which really renders objects or ‘non-humans’ visible, for example, talking trees, animals etc. If we are to look at the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie, we can see how the objects play a central role in speaking to or about very real and important political/ historic events such as colonialism and slavery in Latin America and/or late 20thC immigration and migrancy.

  2. sorry, not only objects but ‘non-human- actors

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