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Posts Tagged ‘Ontology

What is it like to be Bruno Latour?

When you and I wake up in the morning a series of unconscious microhabits of perception and appreciation take over. These habits structure our “common-sense” perception of the physical and the social worlds. In fact these habits dictate a specific partition of the everyday objects that we encounter into those that are “animate” (agents) and “inanimate” (non-agents). Within the subset of agents that we endow with “animacy” we distinguish those that have a resemblance to you and me (we use the term “humans” to refer to them) and those who do not. We treat the “humans” in a special way, for instance, by holding them responsible for their actions, getting mad at them if they do not acknowledge our existence but we have previously acknowledged theirs, saying “Hello” to some of them in the morning, etc. We also ascribe distinct powers and abilities to those humans (and maybe to those furry non-human agents whom we have grown close to).

The most important of these powers is called (by some humans) “agency.” That is the capacity to make things happen and to be the centers of a special sort of causation that is different from that which befalls non-human agents and non-agents in general (such as my lamp). This is our common-sense ontology.  Bruno Latour does not experience the world in this way. In Bruno’s experience, the world is not partitioned into a set of “animated” entities and a set of “non-animated” ones.  After much wrestling with previous habits of thought and experience (which Bruno imbibed from his upbringing in a Western household and his education at Western schools), Bruno has taught himself to perceive something that we usually do not notice (although I hasten to add, it is available for our perception only if we started to make an effort to notice): a bunch of those entities that the rest of the world does not ascribe that special property of “agency” to (because the rest of us continue to hold on to our species-centric habit of thought that dictates that that this capacity is only held by our human conspecifics), actually behave and affect the world in a manner that is indistinguishable from humans.  For instance, they act on humans, they make humans do things, they participate (in concert with humans some of the time; in fact humans can be observed to “recruit” these non-human agents and these “non-agents” for their own self-aggrandizement projects) in the creation of large socio-technical networks that are responsible for a lot of the “wonders” of modern civilization.

The important thing is that now Bruno is able to directly perceive (in an everyday unproblematic manner) that these “machines” and these “animals” are the source of as much agency (sometimes even more! ), than other humans. Bruno has gotten so good at practically deploying this new conceptual scheme (along with the radically new ontological partition of the world that it carries along with it) so as to transpose this newly acquired and newly mastered habits of perception and appreciation to discover evidence of the agentic capacities of those entities that were previously thought not to exercise it, in the history of Science and Politics.  He has even uncovered evidence of humans being aware of this evidence, but then he noted that they proceeded to hide this evidence by creating elaborate systems of ontology and metaphysics in which non-human agency was explicitly denied, and in which it was explicitly conceptualized as being an exclusive property of so-called “persons” (where persons is now a category restricted to humans) only. These “human” agents were now thought to reside in a special realm that these human apologists called “society.” This “society,”—these thinkers proposed—was organized by a specific set of properties and laws that were distinct from those that “governed” (the humans even used a metaphor from their own way of dealing with another! ) the “slice” of the world that was populated by those entities which “lacked” this agency (the humans called these latter “natural laws”).

Giddy with excitement at this discovery, Bruno even wrote a book in which he announced the entire cover-up to the rest of his human counterparts. But the basic point is as follows: When Bruno experiences the world directly, or when Bruno’s brain simulates this experience (e.g. when reading a historical account of the discovery of the germ theory of disease) he does not deploy our common-sense ontology. Instead he practically deploys a conceptual scheme that in many ways does “violence” to our common sense ontology by radically redrawing and liberally redistributing certain properties that we restrict to a smaller class of entities. Bruno is thus able to perceive the action of these “agents” both in the contemporary world and in past historical eras in a way that escape most of us. In fact, Bruno recommends that if you and I want to see the same things that he sees, and if you and I want to escape the limits of our highly restrictive “common-sense” ontology (in which such things as “society,” “persons,” “animals,” “natural laws,” etc. figure prominently) that we begin by (little by little) divesting ourselves of old habits of thought and perception and acquiring the new habits that he has worked so hard to master.

The epistemological payoff of doing this would be to see the world just as Bruno sees it: a world in which humans are just one of another class of agents and which agency is shared equally by a host set of entities that our common-sense ontology fails to ascribe agency to (and which we thus fail to perceive the everyday ways in which these alleged non-agents exercise a sort of “power” and “influence” on our own behavior and action). In this way Bruno recommends that the ontology specified in our common sense be reduced and displaced by that specified in what he now calls “actor-network theory.” But this is a terrible name, for this is not a “theory” but a viewpoint; a way of practically reconfiguring our perception of the social and natural worlds. In fact this last sentence just used categories from the old ontology for in Bruno’s world, the “master-frame” that divides the things of “nature” from “social” things (Goffman 1974) is no longer operative and no longer serves to structure our perception.