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Actor-Network-Theory-Theory (deconstructing everything)

by on April 5, 2013

As Latour writes, in the fictional professor-student dialogue that forms the interlude between parts I and II of Reassembling the Social, Actor-Network-Theory is not a framework, not something that can be unproblematically applied to the study of something such as an organization, institution, “society,” etc. I appreciate this, no less so for the fact that what follows is a speculation on an application of ANT – as a framework, some might say – to the examination of the institution/category/genre/primordial-Deleuzian ooze of capital-T theory, such as it is, may be, etc.

[The temptation to fall into theory jargon’s theoretical abuse of equivocation and punctuation will be difficult to avoid here, but I’ll do my best. Of course, I am already deploying brackets, and referring to their use as ‘deploying,’ so this might be a lost cause. (See what I’m doing here? Besides filling space, I am – supposedly, I hope – proving a point about the generic consistency of theory, at least as it is understood in the humanities and literary studies, as both a particular genre, or area, of study, and as a way of filling space, killing time, by writing theoretically.)]

In much the same way that Latour describes the conflicted/contradictory uses of the term ‘social’ – social as a descriptive term for a type of material, like wool, steel, plutonium, or Jell-O; or social as describing a particular realm, or area, as in the social or society – I have been thinking through the presence of similar type of bifurcation with regards to the treatment of the term ‘theory’ in the humanities, and literary studies in particular. Theory is something one does, a type of writing/prosaic material; and, likewise, theory is treated as a particular realm, a genre/area of study, distinct and semi-autonomous in much the same way as Victorian literature, the picaresque, or science fiction.

In much the same way that society, in Latour’s formulation, is expected to “do two jobs at once” (162), theory is apparently subjected to an equally conflicting set of expectations – it is expected to sit there, and be theory, and to actively theorize. I am intrigued, as I continue working my way into the second half of Reassembling the Social, of the applicability (blasphemy!) of the practices of ANT to the study of theory, and its particular short-lived moment in the humanities, social sciences, and arts – beginning, if one is to periodize, sometime in the wake of the second World War and culminating, in the United States at least, sometime in the nineties, when we briefly assumed that universities everywhere would have departments devoted to the study of theory (or criticism, which often seems to be employed as a synonymous term, although there does seem to be some room for debate here).

Further things I want to think about:
**Theory – a reactionary event, moment, or turn in the history of the humanities? I have heard it described as such, convincingly, on a number of occasions.
**Accounting for the moment, or the event – how does ANT fare here? I have been thinking about this after a similar question was raised in my Deleuze seminar (there some theory for you, eh?) pertaining to Deleuze’s ontology in Difference and Repetition.
**Speculative realism on theory – Graham Harman mentions it briefly in the Quadruple Object, as one of the sixteen possible tensions between objects, and I know Levi Bryant has written about it on his blog.

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From → Quadruple Object

3 Comments
  1. jmdaven permalink

    It seems that it is not merely theory or the social that must do two things at once– be both active/productive, and stable, sitting there– but many objects, and perhaps objects in general. For instance, literature is both a stable substance and a productive or prescriptive activity. I think of a book as both a stable, somewhat consistent, and preserved thing as well as something to be written, to be manipulated, a flexible structure or realm that changes me as I change it. Perhaps Latour’s description of the social as vaguely all encompassing and yet empty is truly a reading of many objects according to the logic of post-structuralist thought. He might focus on the social, but there literature, theory, philosophy are all objects that might similarly withdraw from any particular substantial definition while simultaneously seeming larger in the periphery, affecting and affected by everything else.

  2. 7sshare permalink

    This book caused me to think about ‘theory’ in a more removed way as well. If, as you say, theory could be considered a “reactionary event”, then to what exactly is it reacting? If “any given interaction seems to overflow with elements which are already in the situation coming from some other time, some other place, and generated by some other agency” (166), then what is the undeniably particular and actually existing phenomenon known as ‘theory’ influenced by? As you mentioned in your post, I think World War II has a lot to do with it. I think it could be possibly to theorize theory as a traumatic response to the undigested horrors of World War 2 (and World War 1, and Vietnam, and the Korean War, and…). Just an idea, but I think there has to be something there.

  3. For all of my gripes about his regular attacks on critical theorists, I could not ignore the validity of the “reactionary” speculative interpretation of the social, but I also saw traces of that in ANT itself (and I specifically reacted with WWII in mind a week or two ago). Logically, I suppose I can’t really see any other way for theory or ANT to work, an event, social movement, metaphysics, etc. has to gain momentum before an intelligent reaction can be formulated, but that doesn’t mean that all speculation is without merit (again, sometimes we really do just know how things are going to end). But, I suppose this has always been my gripe with theory, philosophy, and such: it never seems deployed, just stoic and looming in the corner of a library until we can point to it and say, “See? This guy knew what was coming of this!” after the event has taken place. But, the more I consider ANT, the less certain I am that it could really operate any differently.

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