Schlagwort-Archiv: theory

The thing about doors

Actor-Network-Theory starts from the assumption that all the ways in which we have hithereto understood actors – as natural, social or constructed – are inadequate in an age in which technology plays such an important role (Latour 1996). Instead, Latour and others have suggested to think of humans and things as networks – or associations – which form an integrated whole. The argument is not, that they are the same. But the argument goes so far, I believe, to argue that there is no reasonable way to differentiate between the ways things and technologies shape the world an the way in which we humans do. In fact, they are so intermingled, that we can never attribute an action purely to one or the other. My personal favourite is the example of the door:

By robertsharp (originally posted to Flickr as Downing Street) CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

By robertsharp (originally posted to Flickr as Downing Street) CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Walls are a nice invention, but if there were no holes in them, there would be no way to get in or out; they would be mausoleums or tombs. The problem is that, if you make holes in the walls, anything and anyone can get in and out (bears, visitors, dust, rats, noise). So architects invented this hybrid: a hole-wall, often called a door, which, although common enough has always struck me as a miracle of technology. The cleverness of the invention hinges upon the hinge-pin: instead of driving a hole through walls with a sledge hammer gently push the door (I am supposing here that the lock has not been invented; this would over-complicate the already highly complex story of this door). Furthermore, and here is the real trick, once you have passed through the door, you do not have to find trowel and cement to rebuild the wall you have just destroyed; you simply push the door gently back (I ignore for now the added complication of the “pull” and “push” signs).” (Johnson 1988: 298)

The door, in other words, ‘acts’ in the sense that it is replacing and thereby transforming the action of biological and social actors. This effect may well be used to create certain behaviours – for example when hotel keys are given out with large heavy metal objects hanging from them to make people remember not to take them home…

So far, so simple. In a way, this kind of thinking is just one variation of the ways in which human-technology interaction has been described in Science and Technology Studies, the strand of sociology focusing on just such interactions. It comprises a broad spectrum of ideas, from more deterministic perspectives to the favouring of social construction. However, ANT has its own distinct perspective. We must rethink any social actors ability to act and consider the ways in which we encounter technology that – in fact – acts upon us. To a reader pof Foucault, of course, this is no entirely alien idea. The panopticon may well be viewed as a a technological representation of the surveillance society. However, with Foucault that is as far as this goes. Latour (with Callon and others) goes further and asks us to consider society not as constituted by social actors but think instead of associations.

In a way this asks us to abandon the idea of a natural self. The individual is inseparable not just from the next individual or its social relations (as in constructivism), but also inseparable from the material objects that surround us. It is not so much that we are cyborgs but that we must acknowledge that our being cannot be understood unless we think of ourselves as part of associations of things and humans/animals. Our mobile phones are mediating and shaping our social interactions – and we would be different if they did not exists.

Of course, thinking of my phone as doing something rather than a tool is challenging and slightly disturbing. It has its charms, though. And the anthropomorhisms we use with regard to many technological objects are an indicator that the whole idea is not as counter-intuitive as one might suspect: Computers can have bad days, traffic lights have it in for you and the printer usually tries to screw you over just when that paper is due – like they knew. Surely, this does not mean that the theory is useful with regard to scientific analysis of social and political phenomena.

Latour’s analyses, interestingly, do not focus on current network technologies – he works with much simpler and seemingly antiquated examples. However, in one paper he addresses the issue of globalization and clarifies some things with regard to the ways in which ANT relates to the problems we look at in political science. He raises one question, that I find most interesting:

“Is space this inside which reside objects and subjects? Or is space one of the many connections made by objects and subjects?” (Latour 2009: 142)

What if we, as well as the world around us, were constituted by the connections we make? These connections would be spatial, social, material and temporal. They would make each one unique and at the same time make them only possible as part of a wider network of things and beings. I believe this networked understanding of the self opens many possibilities. Instead wrapping our head around a mutual constitution theme, we can then imagine how a complex process of self-construction would work – it is about making connections. However, this is a spatial metaphor and it remains to be seen, if different kinds of ties, e.g. temporal and emotional, between networked individuals are indeed better imaginable in the network metaphor.

The cyborg as imaginative resource

I have to admit, Donna Haraway‘s “Cyborg Manifesto” – despite its shortcomings – wows me every time I read it. I am not sure if it is the fact that this text – so eloquently describing changes that seem so very real today – was actually written in the 1980ies, when none of the things that seem to make us cyborgs today were part of everyone’s everyday life. Or it might be the sheer amount of different ideas brought together and interwoven, from science fiction to Marxism to feminist theory. Could be this text wows me because its style is so radically different from the usual academic writing, because it dares to speculate, antagonize and call for action. Or maybe, because it does all of those things at the same time. If I look closely, I find that the argument is not all that clear and some twists seem out of place to me. I am not always sure, there is even such a strong conclusion in there. However, this texts achieves what good political theory – in my humble opinion – is supposed to do: it provokes thought and triggers the imagination. In fact, it sends me down a spiral of exciting new thoughts whenever I return to it.

Haraway and companion, By Rusten Hogness, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Haraway and companion, By Rusten Hogness, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Haraway introduces the cyborg as what she calls “an imaginative resource” (292). The cyborg is an image that stands for embracing what Haraway identifies as three “crucial boundary breakdowns” of the contemporary world — between human and animal, between animal-human (organism) and machine, and between the physical and the non-physical (293/4). She suggests this image in order to launch a criticism of feminist discourse that questions its very basis – the idea that there is something about being a woman that naturally binds women. according to her there “is not even such a state as ‘being’ female” (295). The contemporary self, she argues, is fundamentally fractured. She asks then, “what kind of politics could embrace partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves and still be faithful, effective – and, ironically, socialist-feminist?” (297).  This is usually where I associate the Zapatistas and the peculiar way the Zapatista discourse manages to connect different struggles without levelling out the differences. Of course, their inspiring example also teaches us about the possible limitations.

Having tackled the concept of identity, Haraway goes on to question the postmodern conception of “biopolitics” and argues instead to think of the contemporary self as being constructed within the “informatics of domination”. This kind of domination works not through division and the imposition of categories but through permanently dissolving them, by blurring all distinctions and thereby disabling the crude (post-)modern tool of resistance – identification. Coding and information processing (rather than categorizing and subjectivation) are the ways in which this domination manifests itself. In its most advanced form it can eliminate the natural unity altogether – when in microlectronics there is copies without originals (303) or, as we would say, the digital copy is indistinguishable from the original. This is evident not just in purely digital environments but also, for example, in genetically ‘identical’ beings such as clons or identical twins where there is indeed differences inscribed in the genes themselves (Casselmann 2008). Even the genetic code of a living breathing person may change over the course of their life. In other words, coding always means recoding and there is never a wholly identical copy. The process of communication transforms all information and negates the possibility of complete identity.

Seven of Nine, a borg made from a human currently recoding as a human

Seven of Nine, a borg made from a human currently recoding as a human

The cyborg as a resource for political imagination – how does that work in the informatics of domination? Haraway draws on literature in order to give her answer. I have a “literary” cyborg of my own in mind. In the Start Trek universe there is a race called the Borg (clearly, not the most original of names). These Borg procreate by “assimilating” other species, making their “technological and biological distinctiveness” part of their collective consciousness. The Borg absorb difference and create a unified whole in which individual distinctions are denied in favour of a collective unity. They are awfully efficient and – needless to say – the ultimate villains of the liberal consciousness. In one installation of the franchise, a young female, designated Seven of Nine, (incidentally dressed in a very revealing costume for the rest of the series…) is “freed” from the collective. It turns out, however, that she cannot be fully re-transformed into a human – some cybernetic implants remain as well as – more importantly – many character traits. Throughout the series the character remains trapped between being Borg and being human, never fully emerging as one or the other. She struggles with defining and re-defing herself and there is no choice for her than to remain in between. Interestingly, the franchise offers many more of these characters – the robot “Data“, who looks so much like a human and interacts with humans like a human but lacks emotion like a radicalized version of a vulcan. The half-klingon B’Elanna. The holographic doctor with the complex personality subroutines. Outside the Startrek Universe we could consider the Terminator or Marvin, the paranoid android. If we think of their struggles not as ones that seek to cross the border between human and machine but rather as continuous struggles for acceptance of the lack of any clear boundary, we may find the inspiration Haraway sees in the image of the cyborg. Just like Seven of Nine can never be fully human nor return to be Borg, we may never be woman or man, German or European, white or black but only ever the something that struggles to cope with lack of clear distinction between these categories.

What sounds like a grim outlook may be the one strategies that alleviates the effects of the informatics of domination. As nothing is fixed, the domination is constantly challenged by the very mechanisms that maintain it. Resistance is not about overthrowing domination but about continuing to struggles along the lack of clear boundaries. It is about turning the struggle into the purpose. Maybe that is why Haraway ends on the optimistic note:

I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess. (316)

Story telling as political theory

Political theory comes in many forms and variations. Currently it follows academic modes of speech, which focus on the analytical distinctions and a language which connects to academic discourses. But we don’t have to go far to see how it could be different. The writings of Foucault would hardly pass the hard muster of academic peer review as they often lack the clarity and structure expected of academic papers. So would Hannah Arendt’s and those of many others, who reference discourses with great knowledge yet not necessarily systematically. Political theory comes in many shapes and forms and always has.

Le Soldat en Semestre, by Sigmund Freudenberger, Public Domain

Le Soldat en Semestre, by Sigmund Freudenberger, Public Domain

Story telling has been one of the more prominent modes in which political theory was presented. It is easy to think of obvious examples such as Thomas More’s Utopia – which lead to the naming of a whole genre of political theory. At the juncture of theory and literature a number of author’s have used stories to reflect upon societal and political conditions. Remember Lilliput? Gulliver’s Travels may well be read as critique his contemporary society.

But fictional accounts are not the only way in which story telling matters in political theory. Drawing historical analogies may also be understood as a form of story telling. Machiavelli uses history in his arguments on good governing quite excessively. He tells stories of failed wars and titles won, of great strategies and bad luck. I believe, anyone who argues from historical experience in political theory, in a way, chooses to tell a certain story.

A third way of using stories turns out to be common: that of allegory or parable. This is a technique that tells neither a fictional story nor refers to historical arguments in a strict sense. Instead it constructs an artificial setting in order to make a certain point. Plato’s Cave Allegory is an example. But one could think of the use of parables in the bible in a similar manner. By telling a story such as that of the Good Samaritan certain moral and ethical values are illustrated and put in an easy to understand context (admittedly, doesn’t seem to have worked too well, but that’s true for Machiavelli too…).

In so far as political theory analyses and criticizes existing conditions and suggests how thinks might be differently, story telling can be a central tool. And there is some very obvious reasons why:

  • stories are easy to understand and to remember
  • good stories are interesting – people want to hear them
  • complex problems, when explained in form of a story, may be more easily seen in their complexity, because the also communicate an affective, emotional dimension that academic papers do not/ should not

Of course, there are also limitations – stories lack conceptual clarity and leave much to interpretation. But when it comes to political theory problems which touch upon people’s identities, fears, hopes or values, a good story may well help to navigate the complexities of the issue. That is one of the reasons why story telling of sorts has some repute even in contemporary academia. In particular sociology has recovered the art of story telling to play out the future effects of contemporary trends. Anthropology uses it to describe complex social interactions for example when retelling the way rituals are lived. In political science scenario development is used to explain how various changes today may impact the future.  All these attempts may be pursued as a subversive activity of developing a new narrative, a new way to see that which is there. When Foucault talks about the ways in which discourse may be subverted, he remains vague. I believe, that story telling – which allows the breaking of certain rules of truth and adequacy – may work as one way of subverting dominant discourse. This happens – for example  in this video:

Clearly, story telling is no cure all. But if it helped Thomas More condemn land crabbing and displacement of the poor as thievery, maybe it is a good tool today, too.

The proliferation of discourse

Clearly Foucault’s later writings, such as “The subject and power” and the “Technologies of the self” lend themselves more easily to an interpretation of Foucault as by no means opposed to the idea of an acting subject.* His earlier writings, which focused more on language and discourse, at first glance seem to negate such acting capacity for subjects. This aspect of Foucault’s thought may well be the most contested and has been the origin of such vibrant debate**, that it cannot be repeated here. I would like, however, to point out some of the elements of Foucault’s understanding of discourse which fuel, I believe, his later focus on the technologies of the subjects.

"Blühende Landschaften" by Thomas Kohler on Flickr (CC-BY)

“Blühende Landschaften” by Thomas Kohler on Flickr (CC-BY)

“The Order of Discourse” is the title of his inaugural lecture at the College de France held in December 1970.  In it he lays out concisely (for a postmodernist, that is) the concept of discourse, which is derived from his works on the order of things and the archeaology of knowledge.  Discourse therein is language, struggle and sometimes even equated to power itself. I find it easiest to imagine this discourse as a fragile network of related (speech) acts which follow and transgress rules and restrictions, somethings which changes slowly, sometimes catastrophically but never entirely. Subjects participate in discourse, reproduce it and are produced by it.

You are wondering how a discourse can even do that? Create a real living breathing thing? Aren’t we there, even if we have no name, no colour, no shape? Maybe. But we can only be who we are – living, breathing, things – in relation and through discourse. There is an episode of Star Trek, in which the Picard’s Enterprise encounters an strange alien species (ok, that’s all of them but wait for it!). This species apparently has no concept of “living” and “breathing” so that the universal translator translates their understanding of human beings as “bulky bags mostly filled with water”. While this description is technically correct, it defies the way we see ourselves. It references an entirely different discourse, hence causing irritation.

Discourse (or power) can only be noticed as the restraining, limiting and enabling phenomenon as which Foucault describes it when such irritation occurs. As discourse works through the creation of truth, which relies on differentiations, exclusions and the permanent reproduction of its own rules. Discourse hence implies an outside, a wild external to the truth discourse. This external wild side is at the same time the greatest danger to discourse. Its mere existence is proof, that the truth of the discourse is fragile. Exclusion and differentiation are the origin of dissonances. Or, as I think of it, reality is always messier than any of the ways in which we make sense of it. At the same time, if we do not make sense of it, reality has no inherent structure of its own, it cannot be perceived as reality.

What we have here, is a circular argument: Discourse produces reality (and in it subjects) and those are the source of discourse itself. None exist without the other. Many people struggle with the idea, that everything should be so fragile, preliminary and most importantly without inherent meaning or value. It is, for example, diametrically opposed to a simplified reading of Marx’s concept of history where material (!) changes and conditions drive historical change.

Even more pertinent to the question of the subject is the resulting question of how – if discourse really simply reproduces its distinctions and rules, which produce subjects which are conditioned by these restrictions and rules – discourse could ever change. Wouldn’t everything converge and remain bound by its discourse for all time, only reproducing the ever same patterns? Clearly, even this ‘early’ Foucault does not believe so. In fact, he describes the “proliferation of discourse” (in German usually translated as the ‘mushrooming’ of discourse) as a wild and chaotic process (p. 66). Yes, discourse seeks to eliminate that which does not fit, to bring order and clarity, but it fails to ever achieve this. There is an undeniable wildness about discourse over time which continuously threatens its stable continuation. And then, there is the outside, which stabilizes and threatens truth claimed by discourse.

It amazes me time and time again, how similar Arendt and Foucault argue, albeit coming from such very different places. But that is another story and must remain for another time.

*Mark Bevir has written a very thoughtful essay on the subject of agency and autonomy in Foucault’s thought.

** For first insights into the Foucault Habermas debate consider Nancy Love (1989)