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ANT & Hegelian Marxism image



A muted discontent with ANT-and-after has been voiced at least since the beginning of the 1990s (Winner, 1993; Amsterdamska, 1990). In recent years, however, this stream of critique seems to be on the rise within the Science and Technology Studies (STS) discipline. An example of this trend is the collection of essays in the latest edition of the Handbook of STS, out of which quite a few writers expressed their discontent with ANT (Thorpe, 2008; Mirowski, 2008). At the same time, however, outside the STS discipline, the fame of ANT-and-after is steadily growing. Its popularity in business schools has been noted before (Woolgar, Coopmans & Neyland, 2009). But the theory seems also to be gaining ground among groups of activists. For instance, a conference was held in 2009 in Leicester, U.K., with the ambition to cross-fertilise ANT and autonomist Marxist thought. The same themes were debated in a recently published, special issue of the journal Ephemera (2010). With this short text I want to address activists and activist-oriented researchers. My argument is quite straightforward: There is another philosophical tradition which offers the same ‘goodies’ as ANT, but avoids some of the more troubling aspects of that theory. Below is a list of the points which I believe constitute the main sources of attraction of ANT:

  1. Its insistence on the resistance of material things
  2. Its emphasis on practice over philosophical contemplation
  3. Its critique of dualistic modes of thought
  4. Its stress on properties being relational/situated rather than inherent to the object in question
  5. Its elevation of contingency over essentialist explanations

In fact, all of these points rehearse themes which have already been discussed at length in the Hegelian Marxist tradition. The stress on the materiality of things developed by ANT scholars stands out against the 1990s academic climate where everything was rendered as ‘texts’. This debate, however, largely repeats the polemic of Marxists who endorsed materialism against the idealism of traditional philosophers. This observation is related to the second point, i.e. the priority assigned by ANT writers to practice over contemplation. In a more Marxist-sounding language, much same thing is talked about as ‘praxis’. The link between ANT’s critique of dualistic modes of thought and dialectics is so obvious that Bruno Latour could hardly have passed over it in complete silence. Still, he quickly dismisses dialectics without giving it any serious attention (Latour, 1993, p.57). No less apparent are the similarities between the fourth point above and the Marxist critique of commodity fetishism. Marx argued that property does not stem from the object itself but is a social relation between people. Finally, ANT’s ambition to relativise essentialist truth claims by stressing contingency is reminiscent of the role which Hegel and innumerable Marxists have assigned to ‘history’. Now, these similarities are somewhat superficial and contain many elements which cannot be reconciled. But my schematic summary is nevertheless sufficient to make the case that some of the more attractive features which explain ANTs recent success could alternatively be found in Hegelian Marxism. The link between ANT and dialectics (Zammito, 2004), and between ANT and Marxism (Feenberg, 2008), have been pointed out before. My gut feeling is that the insights cited above appear as refreshing novelties of ANT simply because the richness of the Marxist tradition has largely been forgotten in many quarters of the social sciences.

There are also, of course, some important differences between ANT and Hegelian Marxism. The major one, I believe, is the philosophical idea of Totality which is central to the thinking of both Hegel and Marx (Jay, 1984). According to this idea, an analysis of the particular must always be made in continuous dialogue with the greater whole of which it is part. This approach is diametrically opposed to the emphasis on the locally emergent (and therefore multiple) which is stressed in ANT and related currents of thought within the STS discipline. In my opinion, this commitment to what is sometimes labelled ‘methodological internalism’ has been responsible for some of the more startling absurdities of the ANT-and-after tradition. The a priori assumption about always working locally and moving outwards results in severe difficulties in explaining observations which are consistent over space and time. This difficulty has not been satisfyingly resolved by Latour’s famous answer to his critics, i.e. that a local network can be stretched indefinitely to cover the global, macro-perspective, provided that the material traces are accounted for. Such a method is too cumbersome and, as far as I am aware of, has never been borne out by the followers of the ANT. The track record of the past decades of ANT research shows a strong bias against taking account of large-scale structures and related topics, such as patriarchy, political economy, geo-politics, etc. Bruno Latour and John Law have repeatedly rebuked the accusation that this neglect of power structures results in polical quietism. Especially John Law has been insistent on that the methodological internalism of ANT in itself constitutes a sufficiently political standpoint (Law, 2009). In fact, such a commitment seems to be the only standpoint permitted by this way of reasoning, since a more precise, partisan declaration of faith would violate this principle of being open towards the local and multiple (see for instance the difficulties which Annmarie Mol finds herself in towards the end of her acclaimed book, The Body Multiple, when she reflects over the political consequences of her argument). This far-reaching commitment to locality and multiplicity comes with some implicit assumption about the problems of the world and what needs to be done. It implies that all ills originates in universal, objectivist, totalising master-narratives. Or, at least, these are the only kind of ills which we can confront without summoning up some even greater danger. This way of analysing the problems in the world and how to resolve them qualifies for the classic Marxist accusation against idealism, admittedly a curious accusation to throw against a theory whoses main selling point is its stress on the materiality of things. Furthermore, this inclination to make the struggle against totalising master-narratives the only legitimate political struggle echoes the anti-totalitarian rhetoric of Nouvelle Philosophie, which, perhaps not coincidentally, reached its zenith of influence in France during the years when Bruno Latour came of age (Christofferson, 2009). Another key difference between ANT and Hegelian Marxism is of course that the former has enthusiastically espoused a post-humanist position. I frankly don’t think that any intellectual tradition which sincerely strives to be emancipatory can afford to do away with the idea of the human being. When Horkheimer and Adorno polemicised against liberal, bourgeois individualism, for instance, they nevertheless took care to respect the integrity of the individual. Let us give it to the post-humanist accusants that the “human” is merely a remnant of Christian superstition. However, if there was no such thing as a human, then it would be necessary to invent her. Without this idea, all normative strivings will be left hanging in the air, as it is no longer possible to ask the question: “for whom”? The post-humanists, right or wrong they might be, have rendered themselves politically irrelevant.

In sum, I believe that those of us who want to do activist-oriented research should avoid building on the methodology of ANT. The many, recent attempts to invent a more critical, politically engaged ANT program are mistaken. The problem is that even if ANT is applied to study antagonistic conflicts, inequalities etc. (thus in one sense breaking with the legacy of Latour, Law, Callon, etc.), the underlying methodological assumptions of this theory will shine through. If one is attracted to ANT because of any of the five points I listed above, then the Hegelian Marxist tradition seems to offer a much better alternative. Here I have highlighted two tenets, the philosophical concept of Totality and a commitment to the human, as two decisive advantages of this tradition. A very good piece of work which debates epistemology in relation to political questions while building on the legacy of Hegelian Marxism is Steven Vogel’s book Against Nature. Another writer who has made sustained efforts at updating critical theory and applies it to science and technology is Andrew Feenberg. These and affiliated authors provide a good starting point from which activists and activist-oriented researchers can engage in questions about the politics of science, technology and knowledge.


Works cited:
Amsterdamska, O. (1990) ‘Surely You Are Joking, Monsieur Latour!,’ Science, Technology & Human Values. 15 (4): 495-504.

Christofferson, M. (2009) Les Intellectuels contre la gauche – l’ideologie antitotalitaire en France (1968-1981).

Ephemera (2010) Special issue: Theory and politics in organization 10 (2).

Feenberg, A. (2008) ‘From Critical Theory of Technology to the Rational Critique of Rationality,’ Social Epistemology. 22 (1): 5-28.

Hacking, I. (2000. The Social Construction of What? New York: Harvard University Press.

Jay, M. (1984) Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Latour, B. (1993) We Have Never Been Modern, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Law, J. (2009) ‘The Greer-Bush Test: On Politics in STS.’ Draft paper, version of 23 December 2009, available: BushTest.pdf

Mirowski, P. & Sent, E. (2008) ‘The Commercialization of Science and the Response of STS’ in: Hackett, E, Amsterdamska, O., Lynch, M., Wajcman, J. (eds.) The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, 3rd ed.Cambridge, Mass.: MIT University Press.

Mol, A. (2003) The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. New York: Duke University Press.

Thorpe, C. (2008) ‘Political Theory in Science and Technology Studies,’ in: Hackett, E., Amsterdamska, O., Lynch, M., Wajcman, J.. (eds.) The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies 3rd ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT University Press.

Vogel, S. (1996) Against Nature – The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory, New York: State University of New York.

Winner, L. (1993) ‘Upon Opening the Black Box and Finding it Empty: Social Constructivism and The Philosophy of Science,’ Science, Technology & Human Values, 18.(3.), pp.362-378.

Woolgar, S., Coopmans, C. & Neyland, D. (2009) ‘Does STS Mean Business,’ Organization, 16 (1): 5-30.

Zammito, J. (2004) A Nice Derangement of Epistemes: Post-Positivism in the Study of Science from Quine to Latour. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.