Latour and the Social

[This is a reading reflection for HIST946: Digital Humanities with Professor William G. Thomas during the Fall 2011 semester. This week’s reading was Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. You can find related posts here.]

Bruno Latour asks scholars to consider more fully the entanglement between human and non-human actors. Rather than the “social” being an experience consistent over time or explained by rigid theory, “social” is an experience of actors having to deal with specific issues without a clear logic or demarcation. Scholars should, he argues, reassemble social connections as they existed among the actors themselves, rather than insist upon a framework that seeks to explain the totality of experience. In other words, Latour is concerned about the very definition of “social” and the tendency among social scientists to use the word as if it were a sort of material. The framework that social scientists speak of are not necessary at all. The only goal of the scholar is to describe the state of affairs under study.

The social world, according to Latour, is flat: every aspect of “the social” is constructed step by step among the actors (human and non-human) in an environment. By entering the virtual space, there are connections in virtual-actual objects beyond the formal structures of social theory. These virtual social connections highlight that social is not a given state of affairs. Within something like the medim of television there exists a variety of social assemblages that do not fit into tidy frameworks. One can easily trace the meetings between producers, broadcast networks, script writers, directors, actors, agents, and audiences.

Latour does not frame his argument around traditional humanism. He argues that social scientists can look to natural sciences who do not “muffle their informants’ precise vocabulary into their own all-purpose meta-language” but insted “take into account at least some of the many quirks of their recalcitrant objects” (125). In other words, the task of social scientists is not to elevate humans but to consider humans on par with non-human objects (225). Instead of a sociology of the social (those methods that seek hidden social forces to explain the world) Latour argues for a “sociology of associations” that traces networks and shows the world as it really was (128, 117). “Hermeneutics,” he writes, “is not a privilege of humans but . . . a property of the world itself” (245).

With this in mind we can return to last week’s reading on “distant reading” offered by Franco Moretti and the concept of topic modeling. Moretti’s method of “distant reading” attempted to depart from the close reading (or depth) that is meant to be descriptive of events and environments. Moretti seeks broader trends in textual items through his tracing of the rise and fall of publishing. This method considers what texts say more broadly. Looking at Rob Nelson’s project on the Richmond Daily Dispatch, certain topics are revealed through the clusters of words that the machine finds associated together. Nelson (and Moretti) are not attempting to presume something that is unsaid within the texts but rather assess them based on what the text says. Latour and Moretti are perhaps useful contrasts because both suggest a descriptive method that, in some form, is similar to close reading but without depth. Close reading takes a form that is spread out over hundreds (or in some cases millions) of texts to reveal patterns or connections not otherwise visible, but are only virtually or anecdotally suggested. As Latour suggests, information technologies “allow us to trace the associations in a way that was impossible before. Not because they subvert the old concrete ‘humane’ society . . . [but because] they make visible what was before only present virtually” (207). The “realistic whole is not an undisputed starting point,” he writes, “but the provisional achievement of a composite assemblage” (208).