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Synechdoche

by on April 4, 2013

In honor of Roger Ebert’s passing, I thought I’d offer a cinematic reference point for understanding Part II of Latour’s Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory.

 

I was particularly intrigued by Latour’s discussion of the interplay, the maddening, vertiginous exchange between “local” and “Context.” Continuing his redefinition of sociology, Latour says, “when inquirers begin to look away from local sites because obviously the key of the interactions is not to be found there—which is true enough—they believe they have to turn their attention toward the ‘framework’ inside of which interactions are supposed to be nested.” Yet, once the attention turns from local to big C “Context,” one discovers that the Context is much to abstract to actually do anything.

So “inquirers” turn back to the local, which again redirects them to the Context.

In place of this unproductive loop, Latour proposes Actor-Network Theory, which begins from the realization that “local and context are not to be reached—either because they don’t exist at all or because they exist but cannot be reached with the vehicle offered by sociology.” The synecdoche breaks down.

Reading the above account, I recalled the film Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut. The film recounts an aging theater actor-director named Caden Cotard as he attempts to stage a play about his life featuring a life-sized replica of New York City inside a warehouse, inside New York City. Immediately, Borges comes to mind with his story about “A map of the empire whose size was that of the empire.” But what is useful for our discussion of Latour is the relationship between the local events and the constructed Context in which they take place.

In his review of Synechdoche, New York, Ebert writes, “Here is how life is supposed to work. We come out of ourselves and unfold into the world. We try to realize our desires. We fold back into ourselves, and then we die.” This is essentially the plot of the film, except for the complication that the “Context” is a “fictional” New York inside a “real” warehouse inside the “real” New York (sorry about all the scare quotes). This is a Baudrillardian nightmare. Or may be Disney World. What becomes clear throughout the film, though, is the instability, even inadequacy, of any context to “contain” (there I go again) the local interactions in Cotard’s life. In addition, the reality, or the discreteness, of these local interactions breaks down as contexts blend together. I think a more sustained treatment of this film in relation to ANT might be warranted, especially considering auspicious fact that Synecdoche, New York is about an actual actor. 

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