Response to Bruno Latour’s “Where are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts”

Independent Study

In “Where are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts” Bruno Latour resists the notion that sociologists wished to elevate objects above their lowly position and convince the world that they are inexplicably extraordinary. Rather, objects are essential actors in everyday life. They are so omnipresent and effective that we often neglect to think of them. As a result, we silently ignore their ethical effects and the huge amount of labour that we allocate to them.

Case in point, the simple door. Latour describes the genesis of the automatic door to illustrate what kind of labour each element does, eliminating human work in the process. He begins by discussing a wall, which keeps out the cold and damp. That’s its job, and it does it well. The wall, however, doesn’t allow for entry or exit. To eliminate the need for humans to have to claw their way through brick on a regular basis – an onerous amount of human work – a door is put in place. It’s an admirable exchange of labour – hard struggle on the part of humans replaced by the swing of hinges on a nonhuman agent. However, the hinges need a human to work, and visitors cannot always be trusted to close the door. After trying to keep even one human to guard the door, the doorman, and coming up with less than perfect results, an automatic, mechanized door is put in place. The “Frenglish” word for the automatic door, a “groom”, also cutely illustrates how easily nonhumans can take on human roles and actions by eliminating human labour (153).

That actions can be human or nonhuman is nature, is precisely Latour’s point in this essay, and consistent with his expositions of Actor-Network Theory, or ANT. According to ANT, relationships between nonhumans and humans form a complex web: we shift work to them and they require work from us, we delegate to them, and they delegate to us right back. The relationships are intricate and fluid. When nonhumans dictate human action, this is called prescription (157, a term Latour borrows from Madeleine Akrich). A fine example would be a seatbelt that can’t be unbuckled while the car is in motion, its purpose to protect human passengers by insisting on the moral choice: “don’t kill yourselves”. As Latour writes: “Prescription is the moral and ethical dimension of mechanisms. In spite of the constant weeping of moralists, no human is as relentlessly moral as a machine…the sum of morality does not remain stable but increases enormously with the population of nonhumans.” (157). Prescription also helps illustrate how objects can be discriminatory. An automatic door that closes too quickly discriminates against slow walkers (157). It also helps show the human design by “devious” engineers (152) that goes into creating nonhumans actors. When engineers create prescriptive nonhumans, what we have is a “distribution of competencies” (158). That is, there is no purpose in deciding what fine lines fall between human and nonhuman actions, for they work together and are distributed among types of entities. Actions can be human or nonhuman; Latour distinguishes only between actor, the source of an action, and actant, the doer of the action (177).

Finally, Latour discusses machines in relationship to texts. He sees machines as having “silent” authors; (169). We love silence in nonhumans – we don’t need our walls to loudly proclaim their existence. However, forgetting the work they do can cause a lapse in our understanding. The concept of the Text provides a way out of this solipsism. With a Text, a “program of action” allows words to become effects. His metaphor is that of a programming language, where words create things (251). The program of action of an object works against an antiprogram, or the non-effect of this action. Nonhumans are best at programs of action: “No matter how clever and crafted are our novelists, they are no match for engineers” (169).

This essay by Latour will be useful to me going forward as I think more about libraries and how library resources function as objects and as embedded sources of texts. I’ll be thinking about user-friendly interfaces and user interactions, user needs, and the way that physical, designed spaces shape information seeking behaviours. I’ll also be thinking about how library resources, namely Tests, can be moral agents prescribing action, a fact evidenced in the strong affective emotional attachment that readers have with them. In contrasting this with the silent nature of most prescriptive nonhumans, I’ll argue that the physical nature in which texts interact with patrons, and the web of actors and actants that exists there between author, reader, librarian, library, and collection, requires ANT theory to be best understood.

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