If anybody fancies some heavy but rewarding reading try Bruno Latour’s recently published book on Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor Network Theory. I took it on holiday, along with a pile of other books , including Friction and Global Shadows. In the event, or lack of it, I only managed to struggle through the Latour. And once I had read it the other books didn’t seem as inviting, although they are probably a more engaging read. Latour’s book seems to be directed not at the experience of reading so much as the consequence of having read. It takes the reader on a mental journey over difficult terrain, the terrain metaphor resurfacing throughout the book via a play on the acronym ANT and the notion that ants are somehow grounded and hence capable of dealing thoroughly with whatever minutiae are blocking their paths
to unspecified destinations.
Reassembling the Social is one of those books written against in order to work out what it is for. In this instance, its directed against sociologists, whom Latour divides into two types: sociologists of the social and those who claim to practice critical sociology. Latour argues that both kinds of sociology and their practitioners do not conform to what might be the expectations of scientific approaches to the study of society. This is because they rely on pre-existing notions of what the social is and does to account for what people do and why they do it. The idea of society in such accounts fails to explain the very thing which is the object of study. As a consequence the motivations of social actors are always silenced and ignored. The silenncing of social actors is paradoxical for what claims to be a science of the social which ought to be able to demonstrate how things happen or rather how happenings are made. The making is the social process which is both material and symbolic. There is then no break between material culture and cultural material. The object of study includes objects, the subject object divide is collapsed and the sociology of the social superseded by a sociology of association, that is the relations through which actors achieve agency to effect happening.
Latour says much more than this of course in this complicated text, some of which reiterates previous insights and ideas. He makes pertinent points about the sociology of the social’s preoccupation with context and place, hence the eternal return conceptually to the analytical split level of the global and the local. I will try and think more about this when I get around to reading Friction as an `ethnography of global connections’. But in the meantime I think that Latour’s arguments about place are worth exploring for the way they jog ones’ perspective and decentre comfort zones about where we are and what we are claiming to describe when we set out to describe other places. Latour proposes that there is nothing intrinsically contextual about place, that place is simply a staging or framing for traces and associations, near and distant, past and present. Context as such does not exist as a factor which explains or accounts for a place. Placeness is brought to a situation through framing, and only part of this situation is localised.
There is some truth in this way of thinking. As write this I am in what I had on first contact thought of as a post Augean non place, not Manchester although I am sure that others consider it so, but a holiday island in the Mediterranean, the kind of island so subjected to the onslaughts of package tourism and the internationalization of consumption that it seems to no longer have any real identity or sense of location. Among the Irish pubs, the West African street traders selling carved elephants, the Mexican, Chinese and Indian themed restaurants , the International Herald Tribune on the newsstands and the televisions broadcasting UK news and sport, you have to actively look for faint signs of some other more original identity. Latour’s account makes me reconsider my position. If place is frame rather than context then what I am witnessing is a framing of wider traces, some place.