The Line Between Actor and Action: Response to Karen Barad

Independent Study

In the course of reading about material culture, I have been entirely swept off my feet and convinced by Bruno Latour’s concept of ANT. This theory posits that all action takes place between humans and nonhumans within a network, with each having the potential to be “actants” and affect one another. This means that nonhumans, objects, have agency. This idea is laughable to some – objects! agency? – but it’s also extraordinarily clear that objects do affect us. Books change us. Cars move us. Buildings protect us. We would be very lonely without our nonhuman companions, and very ineffective as humans if we didn’t use tools and cultural items on a regular basis.

I can accept that there are countless relationships between humans and nonhumans, and that this network of relationships creates a certain equality between the two as mutual actants. But could the division between that which acts and the action be divided, which would allow us to remove nonhumans, once again, from the acting process?

Karen Barad has one of the most sensible objections to the idea of agency in objects that I have encountered. She argues that no one really possesses agency, but that it exists through relationships of affect. She states: “Agency is not held, it is not a property of persons or things; rather, agency is an enactment, a matter of possibilities for reconfiguring entanglements” (Interview 4). This is because “separately determinate entities do not preexist their intra-action” (Universe 175). Rather, they come together through action, a phenomenon that Barad explains in Meeting the Universe Halfway through a combination of quantum physics and constructivism.

Agency based on relationships is not radically different from ANT, save that ANT insists on the embodiment of agency within an actant. For both, relationships are how action is able to happen. Yet, Barad’s idea matches the common sense notion that writers like Latour have been trying to dispel: that objects can’t act. As it turns, neither can we.

While sitting and reading a book, I had never considered myself a separately determinate entity encountering another separately determinate entity, the both of us composed in the moment of our intra-action, but I suppose this is the case. I will have to read Barad more thoroughly in order to better understand the science behind her theory; she may be technically correct, which is, as they say, the best type of correct. Barad’s complex reformulation of interaction does remind me of a quotation from Paul Eggert: “mute objects in material form, texts only live by our grace as we read them” (30). The problem is, while I am comfortable with books only coming to life through interaction, I’m not sure if I accept that the reader is in the same position.

The reason that Latour’s formulation is difficult for some to accept is that he allocates agency to where we typically (and mistakenly) believe there is none. How much more unconventional Barad’s reformulation is by comparison! If it is correct, it is still difficult to swallow from a solipsistic-human point of view. It flies in the face of the English language, where subjects impact objects. This is to say nothing of Western philosophy, for which the subject-object dialectic, the Cartesian viewpoint, and the absolute I-know-it-all attitude still hold massive sway. Barad’s viewpoint is semantically impossible to approach. Can I refer to you and I, or to a book, when these objects in space are not yet configured? Attempting day-to-day life while being politically correct with regards to the configurations of one anothers’ atomic matter must surely be difficult.

The centrality of relationships to Barad’s work makes me want to delve in deeper, which I intend to do shortly. At the outset of approaching her work my response is that in comparing her to Latour, Latour’s formula for describing relationships works much more smoothly and with common sense on its side. Yet, constructivist and intricate quantum physics do still have their appeal, the complexity and impossibility of which may be all the better to disturb what needs to be disturbed and question our assumptions. After all, there are those who critique object agency: what else might they be missing in the formulation of reality?

 

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. London: Duke University Press, 2007. Print.

Dolphijn, Rick, and Iris van der Tuin. New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies. Introduction and Chapter 3, “Interview with Karen Barad.” Michigan: Open Humanties Press. 2012. 48-70.

Eggert, Paul. “Brought to Book: Bibliography, Book History and the Study of Literature.” The Library: The Transactions of the Bibliographical Society 13.1 (2012): 3-32. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

Materiality in the Library: Review of Marlene Manoff’s “The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives”

Independent Study

In “The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives” Marlene Manoff gives a good overview of how Library Science can learn from media studies and material culture studies. Her essential purpose in writing is simply to note that different formats of content are not interchangeable. Although we often forget this, digital formats are material in nature: “electronic objects are as dependent upon material instantiation as printed books” (311). Librarians, who are at the forefront of digital media collection, need to acknowledge physical differences between formats and the false myth of digital immateriality in order to “understand the implications of our decisions as we allocate our resources and decide what to acquire” (312). As the gatekeepers between users and materials, we need to understand the nuances of materiality.

Manoff uses Early English Books Online (EEBO) as an example of how content differs between mediums. This collection consists of four types of formats: the original books themselves; microfilm; online, scanned pdfs of book pages; and, online transcripts . Each different format serves a different purpose for the user. She writes:

Why are there four different instantiations of the works in the EEBO full-text database? These exist because different modes of material embodiment produce different objects. Many researchers simply cannot get access to the print originals. Microfilm provides access for much greater numbers of users than could ever examine the print versions; digitization generally provides even broader accessibility. But consulting a page in a 400 year-old book, deciphering a microfilmed image of that page while sitting at a microfilm reader, deciphering a digital image of that same page on a computer screen, and reading a modernized digital version of that page on screen are significantly different experiences.
(316)

None of these formats can be substituted for another without creating differences in accessibility and use.

Manoff draws on enough theorists and disciplinary definitions to make her essay substantial, but overall her focus is limited. While I find her argument for differing formats compelling, with me she is preaching to the converted. The reason that librarians do cancel print subscriptions in favour of digital access is that there is something fundamental about the a text that transcends format. Differing formats provide for different experiences of a text, but at the core of Manoff’s essay there are larger philosophical questions that she never fully addresses. When we consider a work, what part of that is intrinsic to the medium? I think it’s fair to say that there is something intrinsic to the text that transcends mediums, and something that does not. Exactly what remains and what is lost is difficult to define. Librarians will have radically different viewpoints on how different texts are embodied. Manoff’s reminder that digital formats are always also physical is very helpful, but a more fully articulated differentiation between work and text is needed to more fully address why materiality matters for librarianship.

Further work is also needed to make the case for materiality in light of the push towards digital technology and the economic conditions that drive libraries towards digital adoptions. Case studies for choosing one format over another would be helpful reading, and would help emphasize why materiality matters even in cases unlike EEBO: where only one format can afford to be purchased. After all, the concerns of a library are practical in nature, no matter how theory-based.

 

Notes on Manoff, Marlene. “The Materiality of Digital Collections: Theoretical and
Historical Perspectives.” Libraries and the Academy 6.3 (2006): 311-25.

 

Mystical Things

Independent Study

Deciding what to call non-humans says quite a good deal about our conceptions of them and how far we perceive them to fall from our control. The distinction, in a number of cases, comes down to the difference between objects and things for a number of writers. Objects tend to be characterized as knowable, marked by human action, and understood by science; things are foreign, their effects are unknown, and they are as yet not apprehended.

In “The Thing” by Martin Heidegger, things are mystifying. They have a “uniform distancelessness” (113). They stand alone and apart, while, objects stand before us. How we view objects is through the representations of them we hold in our minds (114). From a scientific viewpoint, we can only ever see objects, not things, for “science always encounters only what its kind of representation has admitted beforehand as an object possible for science” (116). We view objects as phenomenological occurrences. By contrast, we have never seen things (116). Their essential nature “has never yet been able to appear” (116). Yes, within the object that Heidegger analyzes in this essay, a jug, he sees both object and thing: the object is the clay, and the thing the void and none of the matter than makes the jug up (115). “Thinging” for Heidgeer is an action word, meaning shadows forth the void. While Heidegger’s distinction between objects and things is relatively clear – it’s the difference between the phenomenological the unknownable and not yet named – his reverence for things veers towards the mystic. He imagines the thing bringing together four forces (Earth, Sky, Immortals, and Mortals) into a cathartic unity. This concept is nonsensical to all but the most devout of Heidegger scholars and, unfortunately, he ends his essay with this unknowable metaphor.

In “Thing Theory” by Bill Brown, Brown also describes things as remote. They are a comfort from the world of thought, “something concrete that relives us from abstraction” (139). Like Heidegger, Brown’s things are somewhat mystical. Unlike Heidegger’s void in the vase, Brown’s things can be anything as long as they are vague and indefinite: “that green thing in the hall” (140). We long for things as an alternative to the dry, dusty austerity of theory. Things seem belated (and thus unreachable) (147). And, things are impossible to get to because of phenomenology (we see what we would like) and because of physics (and the unreachable space between atoms) (141). Brown clearly differentiates things from objects. Things appear out of the ether. They carry a thingness about them that “seems to name the object just as it is even as it names something else” (141). Objects, on the other hand, are more clearly human: “We look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture-above all, what they disclose about us), but we only catch a glimpse of things” (140). A functional window is an object that we barely see while we gaze out at the outside world, it’s so human it’s invisible; a dirty window is not useful, it’s a thing in and of itself and for its own purposes, useful only to those who gaze at its thingness. He quotes Derrida to explain how one is irreducible to the other: “the thing is not an object [and] cannot become one” (140). For Brown, things and objects have a fundamentally different quality; they’re still alike enough, however, that he needs to address both with regards to thing theory.

For a great number of theorists, however, things can and do become objects – they are just radically changed in doing so. Julian Bleecker, in “Why Things Matter” writes about blogjects, or, objects that blog. When nonhumans exercise agency and start to matter to humans: “they slowly [creep] out of the primordial soup of passive, low-impact thing-ness.” (169). Things inspire one with awe of the unknowable; apart from that they don’t do much. In contrast, objects they do things, they matter. Bleecker’s blogjects are just like human bloggers: they “participate in a network of exchange, disseminating thoughts, opinions, ideas – making culture – through this particular instrument called the Internet” (166).

Bleecker nicely captures that the fluidity between object and thing has to do with whether non-humans are active or not. To relate this back to libraries, it’s the practical use of materials and our thoughts about them that determine objecthood. Libraries that contain millions of unread books – which are unknowable, ineffable things wrapped up in the package of a known object. However, it is the ethical obligation of libraries to foster objecthood. To give a voice to those as yet untouched resources and turn them into useful resources that matter and make an impact. To connect patrons with objects, imbue culture in nonhumans, and in culture, imbue nonhumans.

 

Bleecker, Julian. “Why Things Matter.” The Object Reader. Candlin and Guins, eds.             New York: Routledge, 2009. 165-174. Print.

Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” The Object Reader. Candlin and Guins, eds. New York:            Routledge, 2009. 139-152. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Thing.” The Object Reader. Candlin and Guins, eds. New            York: Routledge, 2009. 113-123. Print.

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.