#review Features links to, summaries of, and discussions around academic journal articles and books. This week, I’m reviewing:

Sayes, E. M. “Actor-Network Theory and Methodology: Just What Does It Mean to Say That Nonhumans Have Agency?” Social Studies of Science (2014) Vol. 44(1) 134–149. doi:10.1177/0306312713511867. [Paywalled PDF]

Update: The author, E.M. Sayes has responded to the review in a comment below.

Image from You as a Machine
Image from You as a Machine

A few weeks ago Jathan Sadowski tweeted a link to Sayes’ article and described it as, “One of the best, clearest, most explanatory articles I’ve read on Actor-Network Theory, method, & nonhuman agency.” I totally agree. This is most definitely, in spite of the cited material’s own agentic power to obfuscate, one of the clearest descriptions of what Actor-Network Theory (hereafter ANT) is meant to do and what it is useful for. Its important to say up front, when reviewing an article that’s mostly literature review, that Sayes isn’t attempting to summarize all of Actor-Network Theory, he is focused solely on what ANT has to say about nonhuman agents. It doesn’t rigorously explore semiotics or the binaries that make up modernity. For a fuller picture of ANT (if one were making a syllabus with a week of “What is ANT?”) I suggest pairing this article with John Law’s chapter in The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory (2009) entitled “Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics.” Between the two you’d get a nice overview of both of ANT’s hallmark abilities: articulating the character of nonhuman agency and the semiotics of modern binaries like nature/culture and technology/sociality.

The most astounding thing about this article is the premise under which Sayes claims his review is necessary: “understanding this methodology is absolutely central to understanding the claims that nonhumans are actors and have agency.” and that critiques up to this point “must be understood as weak methodological assertions.” The aim of the article then, is to help everyone “understand more precisely what exactly it is that they are refusing or affirming.” To his credit, Sayes thinks ANT critics and proponents don’t quite “get” nonhuman agency and acknowledges that his “narrative is ultimately partisan.” But one can’t help shake the feeling that the author believes that if he just speaks slowly and loudly everyone will obviously love Bruno Latour.

Sayes also acknowledges that “the proponents of ANT seem reticent to give either a simple or precise definition” of a nonhuman. Given that “the term ‘non-human’ functions as an umbrella term that is used to encompass a wide but ultimately limited range of entities”  it is easier to list “what is excluded from the circumference of the term [which] are humans, entities that are entirely symbolic in nature (Latour, 1993: 101), entities that are supernatural (Latour, 1992), and entities that exist at such a scale that they are literally composed of humans and nonhumans (Latour, 1993: 121, 1998). Sayes also provides this clarifying point in a footnote: “All these entities are nonetheless actors, actants, monads, and entelechies, while only some are hybrids and quasi-objects. The relevant point here is that the term nonhuman does not seem to designate all that is not human and thus that the terms human and nonhuman do not exhaust all entities that exist (Latour, 1988c: 305, 1998; Law, 2009: 141).”

Instead of identifying what nonhumans are, ANT encourages us to consider what nonhumans do. For Sayes it is what things in the world contribute to society that matters most. In other words, instead of focusing on what kinds of things (e.g. scallops, classified documents, unbuilt French transportation systems) are qualify as “nonhuman” for the purposes of analysis, we should just ask what role it plays in the scenario you’re trying to understand. Sayes classifies the contributions of nonhumans into four categories:

“I first consider nonhumans as a condition for the possibility of human society (Nonhumans I). I will then consider nonhumans as acting in three further senses: as mediators (Nonhumans II), as members of moral and political associations (Nonhumans III), and as gatherings of actors of different temporal and spatial orders (Nonhumans IV).”

Nonhumans I are everything that separates human sociality from that of nonhuman animals, although it is unclear if nonhuman animals themselves would fall into this category. Nonhumans I are what make social relations “durable” and visible outside of the momentary interactions of any number of a few humans. They stabilize relationships and direct human action. A well-worn hiking trail is both a metaphor and example of Nonhumans I. It directs people where to go in place of a parks official constantly decided where individuals should go or leading them hirself.

Nonhumans II are mediators. They are not simple substitutions for human actors but entities with their own sets of agentic power. Unlike Nonhumans I, Nonhumans II can be unstable or introduce unstable elements into a network. Sayes writes:

“Nonhumans that enter into the human collective are endowed with a certain set of competencies by the network that they have lined up behind them. At the same time, they demand a certain set of competencies by the actors they line up, in turn. Nonhumans, in this rendition, are both changed by their circulation and change the collective through their circulation.”

Nonhumans III are a part of moral and political networks. Sayes notes that this is not to argue that Nonhumans III have their own morals or will, “[r]ather, the argument only entails that moral choice and the political sphere are not subject solely to the rational restraints of logic, the disciplinary logic of norms, or potential legal sanction – a claim that would seem to be largely uncontroversial.” Sayes does not offer a working definition of either “political” or “moral” and neither does the Latour article he cites. This is especially confusing given that he goes on to say that “attempting to discuss morality and politics from within the framework of ANT may risk fundamentally redefining what it means to speak of both – given that they evoke an element of purposeful action.”

Nonhumans IV, simply stated, means that no one (humans or nonhumans) acts in a vacuum and our own actions are only possible through nonhumans. There are no actors, and there are no networks, there are only Actor-Networks. Therefore, at any given moment, “action is always ‘interaction’ –which is to say that it is shared with variable actors. We are influenced by people long gone because we value their belongings (This was George Washington’s chamber pot!) or what they built still plagues us regardless of significant changes in collective will or desire (Robert Moses is still messing up your commute).

What then, you might ask, is left of agency if it is to encapsulate nonhumans I-IV? ANTs want us to think less of causal or willful agency and “pluralize” agency by “decoupling” it from “intentionality, subjectivity, and free-will.” Sayes concludes that this decoupled, pluralized form of agency is in fact a “minimal conception of agency. It is minimal because it catches every entity that makes or promotes a difference in another entity or in a network.”

So far, Sayes has done a thorough job of describing the A and the N but hasn’t said much about the T. Theory, although not give the full consideration Law gives it in the chapter I mentioned at the beginning, is given due consideration insomuch as it rehashes 21st century Latour’s revisionist auto-history of 20th century Latour. In 1998 Latour wrote “On Actor-Network Theory: A few clarifications” which seemed to mark a decline in his publishing rate and began a sort of collating phase where all of his work was to be synthesized and turned into one coherent project with a singular trajectory that smashed the modern binaries and let us fully realize our we were always, already post-modern selves. The problem, and this is freely admitted in both Sayes and Law, is that Actor-Network Theory is not a theory. The generous description given by proponents is that ANT is a methodology, an approach, and a set of sensitizing concepts. It is a “tool to help explicate, amplify and link — not” according to Sayes “a detaily series of rigorous, cohesive, general, and substantive claims concerning the world.

Using and evaluating ANT as primarily a methodological framework for analysis, and not a theory on nonhuman agency allows its practitioners to assign radically varying levels and intensities of agency that are contingent upon any given instance. Whether it is explaining the outcome of a historical event or the alignment of scientific research with industrial capabilities in situ, ANT can give the researcher a level of specificity and resolution that other methodologies lack. Sayes concludes that this interpretation of ANT absolves it of most of its criticisms [edit: see the author’s comment on this below.]:

“An interpretation of ANT that places an appropriate emphasis on the primacy of methodology goes a significant way to minimizing or deflecting some of the most important criticisms that have been made of the position over the past three decades. However, such an interpretation does raise a different set of issues with respect to the claims of the position and its conception of nonhumans.”

The remaining problems come down to ones of generalizability. “the explicit imperatives of the perspective  render it constitutively incapable of providing a general account of how humans, nonhumans, and their associations may have changed over time and might vary across space.”

The inability to compare and provide general accounts of situations is precisely the fatal flaw in Sayes’ article and ANT in general. Sayes’ contention that his “clarification” sufficiently renders ANT absolved of its major criticisms doesn’t hold water specifically because he ignores a vast majority of some of the best criticisms of Actor-Network Theory. It is not surprising, given he spends so little time on these criticisms. He cites Latour more times than all of the non ANT-practitioners in his bibliography combined. As a literature review and a piece of synthesis it succeeds. It is a great summary of the main points of Actor-Network Theory. But the promise that it will help readers  “understand more precisely what exactly it is that they are refusing or affirming” is a disingenuous one.

I have written on ANT before on this blog and most of the major criticisms I catalog are not mentioned here. Namely, the work of Sandra Harding provides damning critiques of ANT’s inability to locate and thus expose structures of domination and control. This would be understandable, even forgivable, if this criticism did not speak directly to the importance of defining the political and moral components of nonhumans that practitioners of ANT (including Sayes) leave intentionally ambiguous. Indeed, Sayes reiterates throughout his article that part of ANT’s strength is its ability to leave the locus of action uncertain or ambiguous amongst and within Actor-Networks. Instead of acknowledging this important criticism, he uses it as an opportunity to call (largely unnamed) critics “insincere” because they “interpret claims concerning the agency of nonhumans as strict theoretical principles that provide a complete account of all nonhumans equally – let alone of nonhumans and humans together.”

At the 2013 American Anthropological Association meeting Kim Fortun gave a thorough and biting indictment of the Latourian project during the “Ontological Turns” panel. Obviously Sayes could not have included and responded to these remarks since they were given while his article was probably in the final stages of editing, but I want to conclude with them anyway because they deserve close attention and, while original, speak to a long-standing criticism that ANT is ultimately a politically and morally conservative methodology. Additionally, given that Sayes ignored similar arguments, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that he would have confronted the latest one.

Fortun notes that the proprietary vocabulary of Latour’s work isn’t just about breaking from a metaphysically problematic past, but also about gaining efficiency through narrow control. “That’s how controlled vocabularies work” she said, “very productively, but with externalities.”

These externalities are rather alarming. Very little of Latour’s work mentions disaster, toxic chemical exposure, corporate malfeasance, or war. This is not merely a problem of content –topics that could be explained through ANT but are never used as the first example in Latourian texts– but a problem of methodology. Fortun asks, “Can, for example, Latour’s project attend to the monster that is the American Chemistry Council and their recent Essential2Life advertising campaign, which worked to cement a sense that there continues to be, in late capitalism, “better living through chemistry?” She says this under a historical backdrop of people who are both disproportionately over-exposed and over-reliant on toxic chemicals. Poor people live in homes made of cancer-causing plastics that, while giving them essential creature comforts that they otherwise would not have in the short term, are also exposing them to long-term health problems. At precisely the historical moment when we need specificity, we get intentional ambiguity.

“Late Capitalism,” according to Fortun “is characterized, in part, by extraordinary explanatory power, supported with extraordinary quantities of data” but this is also bolstered by organized ignorance. Even under the surveillance state there are enormous piles of toxics and plumes of particulates that are completely unmonitored. Nothing about ANT or Latour’s latest “Inquiry into Modes of Existence” seems particularly adroit at understanding these enormous and proven deadly disasters-in-the-making.

Sayes has provided a fine and tangible text that will surely make it easier to talk about ANT. He does not accomplish this, however, in the way he claims. Instead, his article demonstrates a continuing and persistent desire to ignore criticisms about power and inequity. It does not seem to be aware of the consistent criticisms coming from feminist and disaster studies. Instead it asks us to sit down, be quiet and pay attention. We would agree if we had been reading diligently. We must have been paying attention to something else at the time.

 David is on Twitter and Tumblr.