Chapter 8: Making the Beings of Technology Visible

Author: Philip Conway

So, after something of a hiatus (geddit?) the AIME reading group is back!

Before I get on to chapter 8, ‘Making the beings of technology visible,’ I’ll just mention some resources that could help with the previous chapter on [met]amorphosis. A very difficult chapter, not especially well written, in my view, but important for understanding [tec]. I think I have a grip on it now after having read up (a little bit) on Tobie Nathan’s practice of ethnopsychiatry. All the talk of psyches, spirits and metamorphoses is based on Latour’s encounter with Nathan’s work; in order to understand ch.7 I’d say it’s pretty much essential to have at least a vague understanding of his practice. To that end (and in English) there’s a short summary of ethnopsychiatry by Nathan himself here; a really interesting paper on the kinds of spirits, Djinns, he has to deal with in his practice here and a nice blog summary of one of his books hereAnyway, after struggling through chapter 7 I must say that I found 8 to be plain sailing, comparatively. Certainly, anyone who is familiar with Latour’s previous work on technology should have found this all relatively familiar stuff. The [tec] mode can, I think, be traced back to at least to Latour’s well-known 1988 article on ‘The Sociology of a Door Closer’ (published under the pseudonym Jim Johnson). In that article he introduced the notion of a “sociology of delegation,” which seems to be the basic foundation for [tec]. The concept is developed in many subsequent works, most notably in the quite magnificent book Aramis, or The Love of Technology. This little paper on a Gaston cartoon strip is a very accessible introduction to delegation.

However, in addition to all that there’s now also the notion of folding. This was introduced in his article Morality and Technology: The End of the Means, published in English in 2002 and French in 1999. Here’s what he means by folding:

“The hammer that I find on my workbench is not contemporary to my action today: it keeps folded heterogenous temporalities, one of which has the antiquity of the planet, because of the mineral from which it has been moulded, while another has that of the age of the oak which provided the handle, while still another has the age of the 10 years since it came out of the German factory which produced it for the market. When I grab the handle, I insert my gesture in a ‘garland of time’ as Michel Serres has put it, which allows me to insert myself in a variety of temporalities or time differentials, which account for (or rather imply) the relative solidity which is often associated with technical action. What is true of time holds for space as well, for this humble hammer holds in place quite heterogenous spaces that nothing, before the technical action, could gather together: the forests of the Ardennes, the mines of the Ruhr, the German factory, the tool van which offers discounts every Wednesday on Bourbonnais streets, and finally the workshop of a particularly clumsy Sunday bricoleur.” (249)

Technology folds different materials, times and places into things. It is not only the detour that defines technology but what is extracted from that detour.

Now, moving right up to the present, I understand ch.8 as summarising, synthesising and extending these two elements of his thinking: the sociology of delegation and the more recent, more obviously materialist notion of folding that’s drawn from Michel Serres (and perhaps from Deleuze’s reading of Leibniz). Given the philosophical apparatus Latour has now constructed in the earlier chapters he is able to flesh out these ideas in more detail and understand them in their distinction to some of the other modes (he had already distinguished technology from morality in Morality and Technology).

The chapter really gets going, I found, from about p.223 where Latour introduces the notion of the technological labyrinth and the myth of Daedalus, the unofficial patron saint of [tec]. It is the trick, the knack, the hack that defines the technological detour, the ingenious production of fixes. The important thing to note about this is that a technical situation must be able to be run over and over. This is unlike [rep] where a being has only one chance – will this random gene mutation [met] help the organism or hinder it in its reproduction?; the being of [rep] itself has only one chance at finding out, the genetic engineer can attempt over and over.

Latour then goes into more detail on [met·tec] and [rep·tec] crossings (p.224-5). He’s keen to bolster his claims to realism by pointing out the aspects of these beings that greatly exceed human temporality:

“No archaeologist worthy of the name fails to be moved by the pottery she digs up, which, even in shards, will last as long as our Earth.”

However, at the same time, he wants to refute the vulgar materialism that would make beings of [tec] simply heavy, immutable clods of efficiently designed matter ‘out there,’ requiring no maintenance in order to persist qua technology:

“Neither the wall nor the table nor the vase—nor the car nor the train nor the computer nor the dam nor the culture of domesticated bacteria—is “technological” once it is left to its own devices. What is lasting and persistent in these things depends on the presence of composites that have been drawn out by metamorphoses [met] from the persistence of beings of reproduction [rep],each of which lends certain of its virtues, of course, but most often without leaving us the possibility of profiting from its initiative and its autonomy in a lasting way.” (224)

This sheds new light on ch.7 where it sometimes seemed as though beings of [met] were only psychic or psychological beings. Now it’s clear that psychic beings (and the therapeutic situations created to deal with them) are only examples of [met], not the whole mode (this is why it’s useful to understand the therapeutic practices Latour is commenting on – without that information ch.7 isn’t at all clear).

So, beings of [rep] can have their qualities extracted by various unpredictable, experimental transformations [met], leading to the production of beings of [tec] that, like the hammer mentioned above, can enjoy these qualities, durabilities, temporalities folded into their being but that, nevertheless, rely upon maintenance and upkeep.

Next, Latour examines the truth condition proper to [tec]: does it hold together? This can only be tested through experience and experimentation, of course. He then goes into more detail on the ‘folding’ that I mentioned above and starts to introduce the semiotic language of ‘shifting’ that is explicated in more detail in the next chapter. Finally, he hints at the subjectivation engendered by the technological encounter, the way in which the craftsperson learns from and is formed by their objects just as the objects are transformed by the craftsperson.

“In place of Homo faber, we would do better to speak of Homo fabricatus, daughters and sons of their products and their works. The author, at the outset, is only the effect of the launching from behind, of the equipment ahead. If gunshots entail, as they say, a “recoil effect,” then humanity is above all the recoil of the technological detour.” (228)

That’s a brief summary but I think I’ve covered the main points. To conclude I’ll just say a bit on my own interests and where I think these ideas can be useful.

Critical geopolitics scholars have struggled with the question of materiality for years. In the 1990s ‘discourse’ and ‘text’ reigned, as they did throughout the humanities and social sciences (at least in ‘critical’ circles). Since then the likes of Simon Dalby have moved on to writing about earth systems, climate modelling, the anthropocene and so on. However, at a theoretical level little seems to have changed. Often you’ll hear things like ‘oh, but Foucault is a materialist, discourse is material, just read Discipline and Punish.’ I think that’s broadly true but if Foucault is a materialist then he’s a materialist who saw no real need to think about such issues on a philosophical level – it was the ‘70s; language was in, things were out. He’s a canonical figure and with good reason but ontology is not his strong suit. We really do need something else. Intellectual history hasn’t ended.

What Latour gives us with [rep], [met] and [tec] is a framework within which we can acknowledge the radical degree to which non-human things precede and exceed our practices without reifying or naturalising the things that populate and format our collective lives.

Let’s take the issue of state borders. People often distinguish between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ borders. Critical geographers (e.g.) take these naturalising claims apart by locating the production of borders within discourse, practice, etc. They show that there can be no such thing as a ‘natural’ border because borders only exist given various practical, semiotic, socio-linguistic processes. And they’re entirely correct. However, this always seems to amount to the same old social constructivist argument that simply refuses to consider what role material things play in the formation of collective structures other than as a vague backdrop that can be gestured to but that remains always overlaid with a thick skin of signification (with the subdermis invariably shielded from any real interrogation).

Is a mountain a ‘natural border’? No. Nothing in any pre-given ‘Nature’ determines what it is in relation to human action. It could be a home, a retreat, a holiday resort, a sacred, mystical, terrifying place, a challenge, an essential part of an ecosystem, a dollop of not-yet-exploited resources; it could be all of these things – it could even be what draws people together and makes them cooperate rather than separating them and keeping them apart. However, a mountain can make a very useful ingredient in border-making. Map out its terrain (cartographically or mentally); control the high ground; install watch posts, barracks; secure the easily navigated passages and use the mountain’s slopes as walls to guard your flanks; use the mountain as a reference point, a marker for negotiations and wars with other parties – do all this and the mountain can become an imposing border, indeed. But all of this is done by translation, by [tec] (and [ref]). Mountains do not rely on human activity for their mass, shape, location, size, climate or gradients but nothing in their being qua [rep] makes them a ‘border.’ However, their being qua [rep] might make them excellent border-making material – a material that can be extracted by some ruse, some innovation, some experimental transformation [met].

By distinguishing [tec] and [rep] it becomes possible to be a practitioner in materiology (a term Latour takes from François Dagognet) – that is, to be a materialist of materials rather than matter. In the case of border-making we might call this a political or collective materiology: studying the materials with which specific collectives are sedimented, mineralised, made durable. No naturalisation is indulged in and yet things are granted their full, imposing, gravelly weight; granted their heft, their intransigence but also their indeterminacy. The superiority of this solution compared to the vague quasi-materialisms that begrudgingly let things be the projection screens for signification but nothing more is, I think, considerable.

Neither language nor discourse can serve as our epistemological or ontological cages any longer. (We’ll see what is put in their place in chapter 9!)

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One response to “Chapter 8: Making the Beings of Technology Visible

  1. Pingback: AIME Group Reboot | Knowledge Ecology

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