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In defence of ANT image

In response to Söderberg, Nathaniel Tkacz argues that the political insights afforded by ANT are not reducible to the Marxist tradition. He argues that ANT is especially well suited to describe how force flows through peer-production projects – projects which already perform their own critique of Capital. The final installment of this debate sees O’Neil argue that ANT’s ignorance of history and justice prevents it from constituting a credible alternative.

In defence of ANT

A reply to Johan Söderberg by Nathaniel Tkacz

Discussions of the intersections, cross-fertilisations and irreconcilable differences between Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and Marxism are hardly new. The State of Things conference in Leicester was one space where this dialogue took place [1]. In a very different way, it can also be found in Latour and Lépinay’s (2009) recent pamphlet on the economic anthropology of Gabriel Tarde, which opens with an engagement with Marx and who remains an invisible interlocutor throughout the work.

Any comprehensive comparison between these two perspectives is not possible here, so I will limit my response to the critique leveled at ANT by Johan Söderberg. It is a critique designed to discourage political thinkers and activists from drawing on ANT as a resource. Hopefully, through this rebuttal of Söderberg’s criticisms some of the positive qualities of ANT will nonetheless also begin to emerge. I will finish by briefly noting why I think insights from ANT are useful for anyone analysing or participating in peer production projects.

Söderberg begins by noting how ANT continues to flow over new fields, infecting them with a new language, a new set of perspectives, or at least a new set of buzzwords to make old research seem fresh. At the same time, he writes of ‘a stream of critique’ that is ‘on the rise’ within ANT’s most common disciplinary home, Science and Technology Studies. The implication no doubt is that ANT is deeply flawed: the people who witnessed the birth of ANT have seen its faults, but have still not been able to stop the spreading. One might alternatively read this rise of critique as evidence that ANT is a lively and vibrant field or that its insights are powerful enough to require dismissing if one chooses not to adopt them. It also signifies the development of ideas within, which always happens through some form of critical engagement. Noortje Marres’ (2005) critique of Latour’s conception of politics via her notion of ‘issue networks’ is one good example of such development.

Söderberg then proceeds to make several arguments against ANT: 1) all the desirable components of ANT, the philosophical ‘goodies’, merely ‘rehearse themes which have already been discussed at length in the Hegelian Marxist tradition’; 2) ANT has (problematically) abandoned the notion of Totality, ‘large-scale structure’ and power structures, and that such abandonment is based on the assumption ‘that all ill originates in universal, objectivist, totalizing master-narratives’ and; 3) that ‘any intellectual tradition which sincerely strives to be emancipatory can ill afford to do away with the idea of the human being’. I will consider each of these arguments in turn.

Let us call the first objection ‘the unoriginality critique’. Söderberg lists five characteristics associated with ANT, and then provides their apparent equivalent (and precursor) in Hegelian Marxism. The first trait is an ‘insistence on the resistance of material things’, a ‘stress on the materiality of things’, which according to Söderberg emerges to counter the strong preoccupation with textual analysis in 1990s academic research. Söderberg then claims that this debate ‘largely repeats the polemic of Marxists who endorsed materialism against the idealism of traditional philosophers.’ I do not agree that the emphasis on materiality in ANT can be reduced to a reaction to semiotic or text-based analysis and critique (though this history is significant), nor does is ‘largely repeat’ the materialism/idealism debate. ANT’s emphasis on material things is part of a larger attempt to develop a distributed notion of agency. This distributed notion of agency, moreover, does not privilege material things at the expense of signs, images, texts or words, but rather seeks to place them on the same ontological level. It realises that both things (like a weight on an hotel key, for example) and signs (such as a ‘please return your keys’ sign above a hotel exit) might be ‘actants’ in a network, they might exert force on other things. In short, either might be important for understanding how force flows within and throughout any situation (such as the desire to have customers return their keys when leaving a hotel) (Latour 1991).

This has little to do with historical arguments about the idealism of traditional philosophers, and everything to do with trying to build an ontology (and related set of concepts) able to better describe how power operates within a field of relations. This idea of distributed agency, and the related concept of a ‘flat ontology’ (flat because everything is included and considered relevant; Latour 2005) is very different from historical discussions of materiality in various strands of Marxism, which tended to discuss materiality in relation to economics, to this or that mode of production, and (at least in some variations) situated an economic base as the most significant force in a given situation, even if only ‘in the last instance’. From an ANT perspective, the relations of force in a situation, the hierarchies, orderings and asymmetrical arrangements can never be assumed in advance; they can never be explained from the outset, but are first and foremost what require explaining.

It is clear then that this trait of ANT does not rehearse an old Marxist notion. It would be quite possible to go through each of the other characteristics listed by Söderberg as well, but I think this one example is enough to problematise the unoriginality critique. Whatever similarities, resonances and overlap exist between concepts, each also has significantly different trajectories and qualities. Each operates in different ways, with different emphases, in relation to different conceptual allies, and implies a different mode of analysis. Moreover, not only do the ‘goodies’ differ significantly between and ANT and Hegelian Marxism, but in these opening passages we are also privy to a writing style that actually performs the difference between these two perspectives. It is exactly the tendency to see sameness, to create continuity and downplay difference (that ‘makes a difference’) that distinguishes these two approaches. Both ANT and Hegelian Marxism have a place for materiality, but this does not make the character of materiality in each equivalent or in any way interchangeable. (For a more detailed account of how ANT’s materialism differs from a Marxist one, see Latour’s ‘Can We Get Our Materialism Back, Please?’, 2007)

The second critique leveled at ANT has to do with Totality, power structures and master-narratives. There are actually several distinct though related criticisms nestled in this section. The first is that ANT denies the existence of Totalities. This is supposedly a mistake, because ‘an analysis of the particular must always be made in continuous dialogue with the greater whole’. Proponents of ANT are usually very suspicious when ready-made wholes, eternally stable and fully formed, are presumed to exist, especially when they are attributed as the cause of things. What exactly is this ‘greater whole’ that we are supposed to be in dialogue with? How can we know what this greater whole looks like if we only ever have access to ‘its parts’? Totalities are founded on a leap of imagination, a leap that renders imperceptible much more than it faithfully describes. By no means does this mean that ANT cannot intervene in ‘large scale’ debates, or that proponents of ANT cannot imagine, and strive toward, a better state of affairs. It does mean, however, that we cannot rely on magical notions that explain all the world’s ills in one fell swoop.

Related to this is Söderberg’s criticism of ANT’s refusal to invoke ‘large scale structures’ and ‘power structures’. The task of the ANT researcher is not to discover the hidden power structure that works over a set of relations, but to describe the way certain relations are stabilised, made durable, how certain asymmetries are formed. In this regard ANT has a lot more in common with a Foucaultian (1972) approach to power than a Marxist one. ANT certainly speaks of power and of force, of stability, durability and perhaps even structures or structuring devices and tendencies. However, it does not speak of ‘power structures’ understood in the sense of an overarching edifice that bears upon an individual. Such a model of power gets stuck in the structure/individual autonomy dead end, where power is either located at the ‘structural level’ and the individual has no power or agency to act, or the individual is alternatively described as autonomous from this structure. Neither option does a good job or describing how relations of force actually operate. To invoke an overarching power structure would be to deny the distributed character of power. It would be to make invisible all the actors that actually operate and define a network of relations. As far as the individual is concerned, a theory of (autonomy from) ‘power structures’ misses the crucial point that the capacity for individuals to act is made possible by the very relations they enter into. For example, without a ball, a team, field, umpire and opposition it is not possible to be ‘a soccer player’, with all the skills and identity traits that go along with it. These capacities are only possible, they only manifest, in relation to the network. To be sure, different sets of relations enable different kinds and levels of agency, some of which are clearly better than others, but once again this is what has to be determined through the analysis.

Söderberg also notes as a minor point that while ANT theorists claim to be able to extend their analyses across the globe and generate descriptions of a large scale, so far they have failed to deliver this kind of research. The question of scale in ANT does remain a difficult one and there is not a large body of work within ANT that attempts the kind of analysis Söderberg calls for. This is no doubt related to the amount of work involved in tracing large networks. ANT informed analyses of the sociology of finance, including Knorr Cetina and Brugger’s notion of global microstructures (2002) together with Michel Callon (1998) and Donald Mackenzie’s (2006) work are exceptional in this regard. Outside studies of finance and markets, Jane Bennett’s (2010) recent account of the power blackout that affected 50 million North Americans in 2003 is another attempt to tackle this kind of large-scale analysis as well as account for things like neo-liberal economics as an active force within an ANT-related paradigm. Hopefully more of this kind of work will emerge.

Söderberg’s final accusation regarding big, towering, structures, is that according to ANT, ‘all ills originate in universal, objectivist, totalising master-narratives’ and therefore the ‘struggle against totalising master-narratives [is] the only legitimate political struggle’. Upon consideration of just one figure within ANT, Bruno Latour, the fallaciousness of this accusation becomes clear. With his ‘parliament of things’, Latour has developed a new model for doing politics together with a related set of political concepts. (I should be clear here that I am not making a qualitative judgement about Latour’s ‘parliament’; it merely serves as an example.) These ideas play out and develop throughout several of his texts, from We Have Never Been Modern (1993), through to the Politics of Nature (2004) and Making Things Public (2005). Furthermore, in Laboratory Life (1986) and Science in Action (1987), Latour has contributed to an understanding of how knowledge and truth claims form in the hard sciences and how knowledge becomes durable and is translated into material artefacts. As a slight aside, it’s also worth mentioning that such ideas about the translation of linguistic statements into material artifacts can be read productively against Marx’s notions of the general intellect and machinery as dead labour.

Finally, Latour has also curated the ‘Making Things Public’ exhibition designed to explore and develop his notion of politics, which demonstrates a more than discursive political engagement. We have in Latour’s body of work, then, several novel descriptions of how force flows throughout different networks; but more importantly, there is also a constructive or instructional component – a positive political programme. Latour both describes and experiments with a way of doing. Is it possible to reduce all this to a struggle against grand narratives? Put differently, does the statement ‘critique of grand narratives’ adequately explain everything Latour has ever written on politics, let alone everyone else who has ever been associated with ANT?

What can be said about ANT in relation to universal, master-narratives is that ANT is methodologically and epistemologically opposed to them; that its politics participates in a refusal of them. This is also true for virtually all methods even remotely marked by ‘poststructuralism’. It is also true that ANT has dedicated more energy to the challenge of describing relations of force, rather than building activist agendas around them. Within ANT, however, this process of description is itself thought to have political significance in that it either reinforces existing relations of power, and thereby makes them ‘more real’, or offers a description that disturbs the established status quo, thereby making it problematic and less real, believable and certain (Law 2004). This politics of description partly stems from a belief in the performative nature of linguistic statements: knowledge is never a more or less faithful reflection of the world, but inscribes it in different ways. Different knowledges inscribe different realities. In ANT, to describe the world differently is always already to ‘change it’. To be sure, some forms of knowledge or ‘theory’ have very little impact on the relations in which they emerge and are embedded. What is important, however, is that distinction between ‘theory’ as something ineffectual or outside the material world, and practice (praxis) as the related thing that actually effects change, is not maintained.

The final critique put forward by Söderberg is that by jettisoning the notion of the human, ANT (and other post-humanists) have ‘rendered themselves politically irrelevant’. Instead, Söderberg urges us to maintain our ‘commitment to the human’. I do not believe that ANT has done ‘away with the notion of the human being’. In fact, humans pop up all the time in ANT research as actors within networks, or alternatively as networks composed of actors. What I mean by these distinctions (human as actor in network, human as network of actors) is that ANT does not imagine an autonomous, isolated human being that is the subject of politics, and the actors that get called human beings are always situated within a network of wider relations. These relations contain other humans, but also the famous ‘non-humans’ that populate many ANT writings. Not only is the human always necessarily embedded in a network, it is also described as a network. Humans aren’t ready made wholes; they are constantly changing set of relations between diverse actors: flesh, food, memories, calcium, movement, digestion, sweat, bacteria, water, DNA and so on. For ANT, politics cannot just be about humans because humans are always surrounded by non-humans, but also because they are made of non-humans. To think politically about humans, is necessarily to think other than human.

I want to finish by noting why I think ANT can be useful for activists and how it might be used to inform peer production projects. It is indeed highly unlikely that thousands of protesters will ever chant slogans borrowed from ANT, or raise placards that read: ‘We have never been modern’! Political action, however, is a diverse beast. Perhaps the most significant shift in political action in recent years is from ‘tactical’ to more ‘strategic’ forms of engagement. While long-term alternative forms of living have always existed – and this must be stressed – the last few decades of political activity in the West have often been characterised by ephemeral forms of intervention. This de Certeau-inspired politics included such things as ‘culture jamming’ and ‘semiotic terrorism’, together with the older but equally temporary technique of the protest. In the realm of activist media (the history I am most familiar with), the best expression of this form of politics was found in the notion of ‘tactical media’, coined by Geert Lovink and David Garcia in the 1990s (see Lovink 2002).

Increasingly however, political action has shifted emphasis from the tactical to the strategic. Rather than framing political action as a tactical engagement with an all powerful foe, political action is increasingly returning to and rediscovering the practice of living differently, of creating alternatives. There are innumerable examples of this shift, many of which are directly related to this journal. Indeed, CSPP is itself an example of a sustained attempt to create a different world – in this case the world of academic publishing. But it is also part of the larger peer production or P2P movement, whose aim is anything but tactical. Likewise, today Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter’s politics revolve around creating ‘organised networks’, groups that can sustain themselves and act continuously in different spaces and times (Lovink and Rossiter 2005; Rossiter 2006; Lovink 2008). Rossiter writes, ‘It is time to make a return to and reinvestment in strategic concepts, practices and techniques of organisation. Let’s stop the obsession with tactics as the modus operandi of radical critique, most particularly in the gross parodies of de Certeau one finds in US-style cultural studies’ (2006, 206). If the question in the 1990s was ‘who and how to attack?’, perhaps today it is ‘how best to live differently?’ and ‘how can we sustain ourselves outside the dominant forms of value creation?’.

Living differently over time requires creating durable alternatives. It requires building ‘structures’; making decisions about how to live, about what is and is not desired. In short, this shift in politics reposes the old question of organisation. The question of how best to live, and therefore how to organise, however, is entirely dependent on first answering ‘how do we live now?’, ‘how is force currently distributed in these relations that we want to improve?’. That is, the question of ethics first requires an ontology, a description or cartography of the present.

While Marxism is very much at home in critiquing and describing the relations of ‘capitalism’, what can it say about the relations that emerge within peer production projects? Marxism, I contend, is not very well equipped to describe non-capitalist phenomena. Indeed, capital marks the end point of Marxist critique because such critique is entirely geared toward that entity. If new forms of activism and political action are less about engaging an enemy and more about ‘living differently’, Marxism is relatively unhelpful once one actually begins to live differently. (I should state here that I am allowing the ideal position that peer production projects can somehow neatly break away from commodity relations, a point that has been critiqued at length by Matteo Pasquinelli (2008).) Moreover, because many people involved in peer production projects are influenced by the Marxist tradition, there is a general poverty of political descriptions of peer production projects themselves. Instead, there is a tendency to depict peer projects as free from relations of power altogether and to describe such projects as necessarily open, harmonious and collaborative. I think this does a disservice to the actual developments and possibilities of peer production. Rather than remain silent about its own relations of force, or couch peer production in a language that doesn’t allow genuinely political descriptions to emerge (how can asymmetries be identified when everything is open and collaborative from the outset?), such projects need to be more attentive to relations of force. Peer production needs more cartography, more description and more sensitivity to the array of actors that generate new asymmetries under its name. Only then, can peer production be said to partake in a more evolved form of politics.

[1] See


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