Although I tend to agree with Latour, I would like to use this post to question some of the possible implications of Actor-Network Theory.
How does one determine what belongs to the network? Or, rather, where does the network end? In my Rhetorical Ecologies class last semester, many of the theorists applied network theory to understanding the process of writing. Certainly, a written work is not the product of some autonomous agent; it does not shoot Athena-like from an individual author’s head. Instead, writing is a process involving a network of human actors and non-human actants, wherein agency is distributed across the network, albeit unevenly so. For example, this blog post is the result of me, theorists I’ve read, previous and current professors, and other students, but also the blog medium, my keyboard, the Internet in general, etc. However, it is unclear to me when we should stop tracing the network. One of the theorists from last semester went so far as to acknowledge her cat as an agent in her writing process. Others (briefly) delved into the realm of food and other bodily concerns in tracing the network. It appears that one could continue tracing the network indefinitely. How might we be capable of setting up some kind of threshold agency—that is, a level of agency below which agents are deemed irrelevant—without “transcending” the network?
Additionally, Latour defends ANT against charges of immorality, apoliticism, and moral relativism by claiming that he is not “indifferent to the possibility of judgement”; instead, he merely refuses “to accept judgements that transcend the situation” (“Technology is Society” 130). According to Latour, “one must first describe the network” before making diagnoses or decisions. However, if the tracing of the network is seemingly and perhaps actually endless, how do we ever manage to achieve the potential for judgement or decision or diagnosis? There needs to be some point at which it is decided that the network is sufficiently described, but (as stated earlier) how might we manage to designate such a point while remaining within the network and not imposing some limit from an external perspective? In ANT, where exactly do ethical or political considerations come into play?
Bruno Latour, “Technology Is Society Made Durable.” In A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination, edited by John Law, 103-31. London, UK; New York, NY: Routledge, 1991.