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Latourian Subjectivity: Latour avec Lacan

by on April 5, 2013

Upon finishing Reassembling the Social, I’m pretty enthused about what I just read. Latour repeated his same basic points about the shortcomings of critical sociology on nearly every page, but I didn’t care. I think ANT is timely, sincere, and a step in the right direction for Western intellectuals.

I was particularly interested in the section of the book (Part 2, Second Move) when Latour finally addressed human subjectivity. It was indeed fascinating, but left me unsatisfied in an otherwise satisfyingly unsatisfying work. I think that Latour’s account of subjectivity leaves too much of what it means to possess human agency out of his picture.

For Latour, to be a subject is to be a “fully artificial and fully traceable gathering” (208). Basically, human subjectivity seems to come down to nothing more than the sum total of one’s associations with networks. The more associations, the more subjectivity you have. (I know I harped a lot about the false subject / object dichotomy in SR and OOO a lot earlier in the semester, but in the slightly edited words of Ralphy from A Christmas Story, “In the jungles of theory, the mind shifts gears quickly”.) Anyway I think Latourian subjectivity does serve some good purposes. As he says on 212-13, it allows one to view shadowy social forces not as limitations but as ineluctable constituents of one’s ever-so-precious identity. It also contributes to the (laudable, in my view) postmodern project of ‘de-centering the subject’ and questioning the coherence of any fixed notion of personal identity. But I think viewing human subjectivity as the sum total of associations, not essentially any different from “a body, an institution, … [or] an historical event” (218) misses the mark. It would seem to me that there is something essentially different in a human subject from an ‘institution’ or a brick or whatever. Also, Latourian subjectivity smacks somewhat of a masculine fantasy of mastery: “If you look at Supermarkets in this way, a bewildering array of devices is underlined, each having the capacity to provide you with the possibility of carrying out calculations somewhat more competently” (210). Look at me! Look at the astonishing competence with which I can perform the necessary calculations to pick only the most exquisitely select veggies at Wegman’s! Super Dad!

Joking aside, I think the clue to where Latour misses the mark comes in Part 3, on p. 236: “And yet, as one sees in religion, if you are listening to what people are saying, they will explain at length how and why they are deeply attached, moved, affected by the work of art which ‘makes them’ feel things. Impossible! Forbidden! To be affected is supposed to be mere affectation.” I think Latour needs to heed his own chiding here. Where is affect in his own account of subjectivity? Can a construction site or an institution be affected? But then, can affect really be said to be what sets human subjectivity apart from everything else and makes it special? One may have a hard time arguing that. I think at this point I can turn to Lacan to find an account of subjectivity that could augment Latour’s. Bruce Fink’s book The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance reads like a philosophical detective story, a thrilling chase after where exactly Lacan ‘rescues’, so to speak, human agency in the wake of the onslaught of post-structuralism and the death of the author and all that. And Lacan finds it precisely between language and jouissance. The essence of human subjectivity is in between stimulus and affect. I admit that I do not grasp the full implications of this idea (I’d have to reread the book) but it would seem to say that that true human agency resides in the flash between stimulus and reaction. We can’t control our stimuli, we can’t control our reactions, but nonetheless, there we are, stuck in the middle, aware of them and able to choose how we buy in or opt out.

So what does this do for Latour? I think it can restore a conspicuously absent validation of human agency in the onslaught unleashed by the bursting of the nature / society levies. Perhaps this is another example of a prospective OOP?


From → Quadruple Object

  1. jmdaven permalink

    I wish Latour more accurately and fully explained his notion of a network and degrees of subjectivity, for how can someone be more fully a subject than anyone else? If they interact with more networks? Does that mean that those that are restricted to fewer networks, say a sort of feral man who lives in the alone in the wild, is less a subject that anyone of us living in networks both physical and digital? Does this justify a superiority for those with more networks compared to those with fewer? And if one is more fully a subject if one encounters more networks, then what of the ANT sociologist monitoring a network or group that has fewer over all network connections than the ANT sociologist? Would the ANT be more correct or more knowledgeable about that group than the group itself? How exactly does Latour think this inequality or asymmetry of subjects?

    • 7sshare permalink

      Exactly. He doesn’t seem to find any problem at all with his super-dad suibjectivity, which is strange considering how thoroughly he works through some of the other problems inherent in ANT.

      • Could you clarify your concern here? If we think about the standards and metrology that allow one to compare products in a supermarket, I think it is reasonable to suggest that we may be made to act by these calculations. Clearly not everyone reads those labels or is made to act by them. Do we want to say that having labeled food creates bonds that produce greater degrees of freedom for consumers? If not, then would we say if grocery items lacked these labels that we would have the same degree of freedom?

        For example, I recently learned that canned tomatoes are often packaged in cans that contain BPA. However, some tomatoes are available in jars and others are in cans that state they are made w/o BPA. Via this information, this calculation, I am “made to act.” Does this make me super?

        With my computer in front of me, I can perform calculations at a speed unimaginable to someone from the 19th century. Does this make me super? It means that as an actor-network with my computer, I am made to act in a way unavailable to most humans in history.

        The key element here for Latour is that we are not creating this zero-sum binary of society and individual. There is no super-dad. There are only different actor-networks. POTUS has “his finger on the button.” But this is not an ontological statement about a human. Positions of power and freedom can be created and maintained. As humans we can be made to act in different ways depending on the actor-networks in which we participate. When I read “made to act,” I do not see “forced” or “compelled.” I see “composed.” It’s hard to get out of the viewpoint where it seems like either the “super-dad” is free to act in any way, empowered by technocratic knowledge, or is compelled to act by a technocratic society, but that is exactly what Latour is asking us to do.

    • Not answering for Latour…. However, first one would have to say this is not some moral or ontological superiority. One is not “better” than another because of one’s network. Second, this isn’t simply a quantitative matter where more bonds are better: “freedom is getting out of a bad bondage, not an absence of bonds” (230). Third, I would suggest that we should not equate the actor (or actor-network) with the object, as discussed by OOO, or the subject, as discussed elsewhere in pomo theory.

      So, for example, the OOO object, which can exist without relation, is not forbidden by ANT; it is simply not relevant as ANT is only concerned with that which is acting, i.e. that which is in relation to something else. For the OOO object to act (or think/experience), it must enter into a relation. In this way the OOO object is like the actor-network: it must be “made to do.” No doubt ANT extends more power to relation than OOO does, but I see this as a matter of degree rather than an absolute difference (I assume Harman must see something similar, given his interest in mating OOO with ANT).

      A human’s ability to experience/think/act emerges from his/her situation as an actor-network. This would be the argument for distributed cognition, for example. My brain may be biologically similar to English serf from the 13th century, but my connection to technologies of literacy (among other examples) allow me to think things not available to that serf. It is also true that the serf was able to experience/think/do things I am not able to do, because he had a different actor-network. However, Latour’s argument is that it is my particular bonds that extend to me greater freedom than that of that serf (or whatever example you might want to offer). [n.b. I assume that we want to retain the notion of lesser and greater degrees of freedom.] That said, a greater degree of freedom via a larger network of bonds does not necessarily mean that the research has better knowledge than the informant of the informant’s own situation.

      One of the trickiest reorientations in Latour is moving away from the zero-sum game where the more power given to society means less power for the individual or the more we explain as scientific (i.e natural) the less is available as social. Similarly we would want to move away from saying that the more knowledge the sociologist has, the less knowledge the informant has. What the actor-network theorist has is not an a priori social explanation into which an informant’s story is contextualized but rather tools for tracing the informant’s actor-network, which might begin with the informant’s story but is not limited to it. The example Sam gives from the book, regarding religion, is a good one here. If an informant says that she is “made to do” what she does by God then Latour’s argument is that we get nowhere by explaining that simple as a “social force.” Social forces are no more material than divine ones, no less demanding of belief. What the ANT theorist must do is trace the network of associations at work here. Perhaps we want to say that God doesn’t exist. Here that atheistic urge is irrelevant. God is the name given to a bond here, one that we need to explore in specificity rather than standardizing it.

      I hope that helps.

      • ytalob permalink

        This ANT sounds fantastic! Where can I get one? Will it fully reflect my narcissistic investment in the idea of cutting edge social media and technology and make me feel like the freest, most connected and most enlightened human subject, sorry agent, ever to walk the face of God’s earth? Thank heaven I was born into affluence in the west and don’t have to build all this connective shit from scratch like those serf people.

      • I don’t know if anything can fully reflect your narcissism, ytalob, though I don’t think you’d find ANT that satisfying as it doesn’t really offer one the kind of utopian subject position you seem to be seeking. Agency ends up looking fairly strange, I think. However, it would be incorrect to imagine that a serf would build his own networks from scratch. In Latourian terms, a serf is made to do differently than you or I, but a serf would still be conditioned by connections. Is one preferable over the other? I don’t think ANT provides specific scales for weighing this question. If you are searching for a way to critique ANT, which I assume you are, then the angle you’re reaching for would complain that it lacks a specific politics. More specifically the complaint you would want to offer isn’t that ANT makes you feel good for being “born into affluence in the west,” but rather that it doesn’t include a specific mechanism for judging you on the circumstances of your birth one way or the other.

        After all, in searching for a theory, you’re not really looking for something that will make you feel good, as you sarcastically describe above. You’re looking for something that will make you feel bad. Unfortunately, I don’t think ANT will do either.

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