Contrary to what Plato said in his Republic, there is not one but at least three ‘Big Animals’: the Body Politic, the Society, the Collective. But to be able to render these different beasts visible, distinguish their movements, track their various ethologies, detect their ecology, one must refuse again to be intelligent. One must remain as myopic as an ant in order to carefully misconstrue what ‘social’ usually means. One must travel on foot and stick to the decision not to accept any ride from any faster vehicle (Latour 171).
As discussed previously, I will be synthesizing several weeks worth of discussion and readings in this post in order to both get the blog “caught up” on several of the theoretical developments, and to problematize them through association and investigation – as is my mode. I apologize, but I’m going to have to waste a bit of time up front and in the middle section building a physical (social) case study which I will use to illustrate the remainder of the post. Sorry.
Then, I’m going to apply ANT, CHAT, Spinuzzian, and other approaches to this object, and we’ll see how that goes. Spoiler alert: I already wrote the essay. It doesn’t go well. Sorry again.
Over the last few weeks, I’d been thinking about how the digital context is overly-focusing the content of much of the theory I’m grappling with, and the reclamation of the network for practical applications (at least at first) might benefit from some grounding in the “real-world” networks of social human interaction. After much consideration, I have selected a network set to study for my super-analysis of Latour, Spinuzzi, CHAT, et al. – and it’s a favorite of mine.
I have always been interested in anti-capitalist practices in society, subversive leveraging of socialist methods within capitalism, and also Chinese culture (in part due to my past professional relationship with the Confucius Institute and Hanban). As such, the stories of the birth of the Chinese trade associations in the late 19th century have always fascinated me. These associations (“fang”) reflect the history of the United States’ culture as a whole, while also setting the Chinese-American community apart from other ethnic groups in the US. More importantly, their continued presence, and the long-term effects of their influence, are clearly visible today… if you know where to look.
Did you catch that? Yeah. I’m using Foucault. Get off the sidewalk, people.
On Latour and Some Critiques of ANT
What amazes me most about Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social (2005) is that it completely disassembles the social – and doesn’t do much at all to reassemble it. A search for “community” in the text yields precisely one result – in a long-form quote from Ludwik Fleck (112-14). “Neighbor” similarly yields only one instance, in a paraphrase of a statistics/polling question (53). Of ten references to “family” and “families,” only one deals with notions of family as social units explicitly – and that is in reference to the general field of sociology textbooks, and not to ANT (174). “Tribe” and “tribal” yield one result – referencing consumers’ digital association with brands (37). “Office,” meanwhile, appears over a dozen times, typically in recognized contexts of social authority.
Perhaps the best application of ANT would be mapping routes to actual social systems in ANT.
I would like to recall the epigraph above for a moment. If Latour argues one must “misconstrue” what ‘social’ usually means,” he’s done a great job (171). I’m hardly a dyed-in-the-wool, ultra-conservative, family-values type – but the absence of human interactions and support and networking systems in the exploration of the social seems to be a level of “myopic” “unintelligence” which ought not to be celebrated by anyone – Latour included – if only for the fact that the local, the personal, is the foundation of all social integration of the individual into the collective, the body politic, and the social. If Latour is making a capitalistic argument for digital culture, we consumer to belong, and the site of that belonging is more critical than he gives credit. If Latour is making a technical argument, then it must be noted that the goal of almost all consumer technology is connectivity. If Latour is making a political argument about globalized social trends, he might benefit from comprehending the global community as a community of representation – or a community at all (see 173-218 – the “First Step” and “Second Step” of localizing the Global and redistributing the Local – as an indicator of Latour’s dissociation of society from culture, collectives, or personal connections).
I would argue that what Latour has enacted here might be better labeled as the Reassembling of the Digital, or even the Reassembling of the Commercial/Managerial. Before people label me a nay-saying curmudgeon, I’d note that this is by no means a novel complaint about Actor Network Theory in general or Latour specifically – Collins and Yearley (1992) famously called Latour’s work a game of “epistemelogical Chicken,” running full-tilt at scientific claims and hoping the other side dodged before the two theories had a chance to impact each other in any way. Others like Schaffer (1991), Winner (1993), Bloor (1999), and Woolgar (1991) (all noted in Latour’s footnotes for their dissent, but more often than not dismissed with a call to read Latour’s published responses, which tend to be at least partly non-responsive) have argued for the lack of mechanism, lack of purpose, lack of research ethic, and lack of social aspect to Latour’s application of social science.
Is Reassembling the Managerial useful? Sure. If you’re a manager. Let’s see if we can’t leverage some other theorists to actually Reassemble the Social. Can we make ANT a humanistic, ethical, social, purposeful exploration of mechanisms?
The answer will be no, but let’s try anyhow.
On the Merits of Community in Network Studies
One of the confusing elements to the criticism of Latour is the vacillation between complaints of moralizing and complaints of amorality. I think this might be explained by the ways in which Latour’s work makes moralistic arguments about positivist notions, while leaving a moral vacuum in their wake; as Dick Pels notes, “Latour [has] increasingly veered towards a quasi-political or power model of science, and [has] grown increasingly critical of the ‘economistic’ metaphors of credit, profit, and cultural capital [while incorporating] Bourdieu in his sweeping critique of the ‘poverty of sociology’ which allegedly remains stuck in the Kantian divorce between culture and nature” (59).
Say what you will, Unlike Collins and Yearley, at least Latour isn’t authoritarian – even if he is strictly managerial. However, it’s not hard to imagine a view of Latour’s social theories which suppose both a moralistic tone and an amoral message – especially when the methodology itself is so generalized, unclear, and often inapplicable.
If we embrace intentionality for a moment and assume that Latour means to do better, we might find a point of access within the practice of Spinuzzi’s three levels of scope (see Figure 1 below, labeled “Table 2.1” from Spinuzzi’s original indexing.)
I’ll not belabor this, since I have done Spinuzzi to death in previous posts at this point, but where would ANT be located in this gradation of scopes? My sense is to place the vast majority of ANT practices within the Mesoscopic/conceptual, to study ANT not as theory or practice, but research object of HCI itself, and to view ANT’s drive to explore “myopically” as a cognitive, mental model of direct, goal-conscious action moving towards resolution of a challenge (which brings up CHAT, which I promise I’ll get to). Latour’s ANT practices occasionally reach up into the macroscopic to grasp as social functional contexts which drive media access and digital network formulation, but the study rarely stays there – and it shouldn’t. However, these contexts, this act of reaching – the premise of accessing context to drive the Mesoscopic – loses purpose of the psychosocial (or in Spinuzzi’s HCI study, the psychophysiological). That is to say, the psycho-X functions to provide a mechanism of meaning – a drive for the interaction with spaces through physiological impetus and capability for Spinuzzi, or a drive to function within networks in service of and as extension from the social collectives of personal interaction for Latour (optimally).
I recognize that that sentence was almost Foucauldian in its unparsibility. Allow us to return to the Fang – and to CHAT.
What’s with All this Exclusion?
Before Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law in 1882, Chinese immigrants had been flooding the West Coast territories at an unprecedented rate for over 12 years. As economic prospects had fallen in rural China, young men had emigrated in order to send money back home – however, a labor surplus, racist policies, and other circumstances reduced their earning potential, and continued economic slippage in Asia meant that many or most elected to stay permanently, working to save enough to relocate their families if possible. After the Exclusion Act, such relocation became impossible.
However, California’s constitution had been amended three years earlier due to anti-Chinese and anti-Coolie sentiments, and it was illegal in 1879 and beyond for Chinese laborers to be employed by almost any business, corporation, or state entity.
Chinese laborers were effectively excluded from being employed by any white business, but lacked the trade skills or resources to engage in economic practices as individual business-owners. Most Chinese laborers coming to the US were uneducated: typically farmers, miners, and construction workers. Most were illiterate. Many could not do basic accounting necessary to function as an independent economic agent.
Enter the fang. Chinese communities self-organized, frequently according to family, borough, or street, into trade associations, which pooled resources in order to provide training, startup funds, and social training – in return for future support of the association and future entrepreneurs. Some of the only businesses which could be started cheaply, trained into quickly and easily, and operated independently? Restaurants, groceries, and laundries. Even after the Exclusion Act and its expansions finally expired, the traditional trades of the associations remained a pronounced element of the Chinese American commercial and communal network.
As the Chinese American community expanded, so did the role of the association. With immigration re-allowed for Chinese nationals, associations began financing immigration. With a surplus of local tradesmen, associations began seeking out new markets, and transporting labor and resources to those markets in order to expand influence and gather more resources for further expansion and security. This very specifically Chinese-American practice is precisely why, in any especially small town in America, you’re unlikely to find an Indian restaurant, a Thai, Irish, French, German, or Mexican restaurant – groups which worked tirelessly to integrate their identities into American culture – but in any town over about 500 people, you are all but guaranteed to find a Chinese laundry service, restaurant, or grocery. As unbelievable as it may seem, some estimates claim there are three times as many Chinese restaurants in the United States as the sum of the top three fast food chains (McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s) – and yet almost no major Chinese food chains [1, 2].
That is to say, it seems that the hybridity and dispersion of Chinese-American culinary culture is a network feature, not incidental. These practices become pronounced reverse-enculturations, which express themselves through an organically-grown and -distributed network and function to build, support, and reinforce communities, families, and social structures.
What does this mean? It means, in part, that the history of Chinese labor in the United States is documentary, physical, and cultural, and can be viewed as “Embodied, Represented, and Embedded” – an interesting object of study for the presumably digital practice of CHAT made analog.
And ANT isn’t far off, if less overtly functional for its lack of actual social functions: popular culinary writer Jennifer 8. Lee, who has studied the Chinese Exclusion Act’s influence on Chinese American cuisine, ironically enough refers to the generation of these associations and the cuisine that follows as “spontaneous self-organization like in ant colonies where little decisions made on the micro level have an impact on the macro level [emphasis added]” (video link), an “open source” cuisine spread through free knowledge, remixing, and reapplication of traditional practices to new problems.
Ironically, what is viewed by Americans as one of the most ethnically-driven cuisines in the world is something of a social chameleon, uniquely driven individually by local politics, local economic systems, and local tastes. Each association, each restaurant, each restaurateur, even each dish, might be viewed as an expressive node in a greater narrative and cultural network, tied together by edges of social interaction and interactivity.
Reviewing the Managerial ANT Impulse
Pierre Bourdieu, one of the chief sociological influences to Latour’s ANT, notes in An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (1992) that the sociologist might embrace as his or her own motto that notion of Flaubert’s that it is the job of a great storyteller to “write well about the mediocre” (221).
Pushing back on those who might be disabused of the notion of legitimacy from myopic evidences, Bourdieu warns that “every researcher grants the status of data only to a small fraction of the given, yet not, as it should be, to the fraction called forth by his or her problematics, but to that fraction vouchsafed and guaranteed by the pedagogical tradition of which they are part and, too often, by that one tradition alone” (225).
Might we level such criticism against ANT? Frankly, it feels from where I am that Latour has embraced the study of the mediocre, but has not written well about it. In embracing exclusion through “myopic” lensing, he has lost the forest for the trees, or perhaps vice versa. He has abandoned the map as a story of how we got to where we are – and where we are going. And in doing so, he has abandoned the moral impulse of research to generate real knowledge, “ignored that fraction called forth by his problematics” precisely because the interpersonal and psychosocial is problematic.
Few workers ever respect their manager, and that is because the typical vision of the manager from below is one who has lost sight of the rudimentary demands of the work of their underlings. If, as Latour’s critics claim, ANT is managerial, it would be blind to those personal elements which drive interaction and progress. If not, there would be no issue but one of interpretation by ANT’s critics.
The issue, of course, is that Latour has not only recognized the myopic, elevated position (though he likens the image of the ant-trail to elicit an ethos of grounding), but he has embraced it as the functional process to generate knowledge. But an unframed image is not knowledge, and a picture is all we get with ANT.
“Not all those who wander are lost”
In past weeks, I’ve had a lot to say about the non-functionality of CHAT, the absurdity of hypertext’s detachment from the linearity of temporal study, the non-applicability of Spinuzzi’s layers of scope to questions outside genre, and just the general incomprehensibility of Foucault as a thinker – or anything other than as a signpost of erudition in the field of theoretical application.
I stand by that. And I also stand by the value of theory deconstruction. It is in destruction of CHAT’s rudimentary application by Prior et al. that we see its Vygotskian roots, and the extension the authors have appended to it – that we can view CHAT as having applications outside the hyper-real, imaginary space of the hypertextual. For Joyce, it is in the act of destruction, of reading oneself from without (copping Debray and Irigaray) that we “open ourselves to who we are within” and gain access to hyper- spaces which inform our connectivity to our communal (“family”) origins (Othermindedness 91). “Othermindedness” is Joyce’s tool for looking back, not looking myopically at specificity, but looking introspectively for the strings which tie an individual to a community – which network them to the meanings they embrace and the texts they are inexorably tied to.
This is poetic and beautiful, but it’s also useful. It’s how praxis is supposed to function – detachment which attaches us to new knowledge. It is for this reason that notions of the classroom as a knowledge-community in Of Two Minds are so prevalent and pronounced, and powerful, too: Joyce argues that “in the silence of the empty hypermedia classroom we are aware of the reciprocal power of the community of ideas that await the hour when we can plug into them” (93). If we are ourselves hypertextual – if we can move digital theories into analog spaces – we see ourselves as beings of limitless potential and connectivity, and we can actually (unlike, I daresay, digitally-focused CHAT, ANT, or Hypertext theory) study it through our communities, maps of our relations to each other in moral, personal, and global contexts. Our fang, if you will.
And this is what I think we have been getting wrong – the solution to networks is not to explore them digitally and hypertextually, but to understand them as products of human needs and desires which are organic and analog in nature. We can argue for posthumanism and Cyborg Manifestos ’til the cows come home, but those cows will still be cows, and not cyborg cows. The dairy farmer will not be a cyborg dairy farmer. His milk distribution network may be cyborg, but he will still be a fully non-digital being connecting to a digital network.
You can’t eliminate that initial node. It is the node from which all other knowledge flows. Hypertext networks do not exist as an island. Johnson-Eilola told us that “Hypertext is writing and reading,” and it was (if I’m being honest) at that moment that I checked out on his exploration of the hypertextual space because he conflates for the remainder of his argument a compositional space with an interpretive one (6-7). Hypertext writing is both writing and reading, but hypertext is much more than either. Johnson-Eilola’s world is encompassed in interpretation, and composition is interpretive, but there is more happening.
This is, in part, what makes it so difficult to study – except, again, perhaps through CHAT, and the cultural-historic contexts which have driven both the hardware and mediated data-centric networks which define Johnson-Eilola’s realm – networks which function under the pretense of cultural motivations and desires.
Chop Suey with a Side of Laminated Chronotopes
After all, what is the knowledge to create – and remix – Sesame Chicken, if not a literacy? And how could that literacy be situated in anything but family or fang?
The myopic view could never create a chicken dish as sweetly savory as General Tso’s, because it could never appreciate the cultural desires which produced its exigent challenge. I’m not being facetious, here (not here. Never with Chinese food. This is too important). The fang is a self-perpetuating network which generates and disseminates new knowledge, and is situated across multiple laminate frames of meaning and purpose. It creates value through its networked practices, but also through the facilitation of autonomy between “hypertextual” nodes, which develop and reconnect organically and purposefully.
Like the humble fortune cookie, it is adaptive, appropriative, and mis-attributed by most who look at it. Spinuzzi can help resolve this by considering the recipe as genre, and noting that it is the individual who re-appropriates such genres to specific, optimized purpose through a transit between scales of meaning, purpose, and authority. Spinuzzi might also note that the restaurant itself, or even the cuisine, is similarly a genre, a collective of traditional meanings which are leveraged, but never perfectly adhered to, in order to create new meanings and new paths through our networked lives, networked acts, and networked identities.
What, then, prevents the fang from acting as genre, and if that is possible, what prevents the people, the ethnicity, the nation, and the world from acting as the same? Chinese culture is global culture, adopted, adapted, and redistributed in what Lee would call the ultimate “open source” aesthetic.
If it is ubiquitous, surely it is worthy of study. If it is everywhere, surely it is essential. How could the intentionally myopic apprehend the infinite variability of such a network? How could the digital apprehend the traditional? How could the genre apprehend the variability of forms? How can theory supplant and apprehend reality, except through the psychosocial or interpersonal?
And if the theories cannot apprehend a network as functionally pronounced and ubiquitous as this, what can they do to explicate it in some smaller facet? How can such theories reconsider or reframe without losing the elegance of the globalized organism of the “hypertextual” organic network?
I have no answers. But I have an inkling, and I’ll keep working on it.
Bourdieu, P., & Wacquant, L. J. (1992). An invitation to reflexive sociology. University of Chicago press.
Collins, H. M. & Yearley, S. (1992). Epistemological chicken. A A. Pickering (Ed.), Science as practice and culture, 301-326.
Joyce, M. (1996). Of two minds: Hypertext pedagogy and poetics. University of Michigan Press.
Joyce, M. (2001). Othermindedness: The emergence of network culture. University of Michigan Press.
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social-an introduction to actor-network-theory. Reassembling the Social-An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, by Bruno Latour, pp. 316. Foreword by Bruno Latour. Oxford University Press, Sep 2005. ISBN-10: 0199256047. ISBN-13: 9780199256044, 1.
Pels, D. (2003). Unhastening science: Autonomy and reflexivity in the social theory of knowledge (Vol. 7). Liverpool University Press.