Archive for the ‘Sociology’ Category

On Latour and Simondon’s Mode of Existence – fragments of a fictional dialogue yet to come

4 February 2013

On Latour and Simondon’s Mode of Existence – fragments of a fictional dialogue yet to come.

Yuk Hui, intervention given in a Workshop on Latour@ Denkerei, 28 Jan,2013

This intervention from its outset searches a dialogue between Simondon and Latour, a fictional dialogue, that nevertheless exists though it hasn’t happened. It hasn’t happened, or should I say it was once about to happen, when Latour praised Simondon’s Du Mode d’existence des objets techniques, and commented that it is a work that didn’t yet find its successor. But it does exist, this fictional dialogue, or at least we can talk about its mode of existence if you prefer since being fictional is also a mode of existence. We cannot draw a squared circle but we can think of a squared circle, it has meanings, this was an example given by Husserl as a critique of Frege’s logism. The secrete philosopher of Bruno Latour, Étienne Souriau hold a similar idea in his Les différents Modes d’existence. A fictional object or character doesn’t occur in time and space as a physical object, or a historical event, but it does exists in works, in the socio-psychological life and the imagination of their readers and witness. Modes of existence is always plural, it doesn’t follow the rule of contradiction, it is rather key to what Latour calls ontological pluralism.

The Device: The Social Life of Method

20 December 2012

Keep an eye out for this forthcoming special issue of the Journal of Cultural Economy, edited by John Law and Evelyn Ruppert: “The Device: The Social Life of Method.” Two articles seem to be already available: “Provocative Containment and the Drift of Social-Scientific Realism” by Javier Lezaun, Fabian Muniesa & Signe Vikkelsø, and  “Anticipating Failure: Transparency devices and their effects” by Penny Harvey, Madeleine Reeves & Evelyn Ruppert.

Material Participation

10 November 2012

Check out Noortje Marres’s new book, Material Participation: Technology, the Environment and Everyday Publics from Palgrave. A recording of the book launch (involving Javier Lezaun (Oxford), Celia Lury (Warwick), Alex Wilkie (Goldsmiths) and moderated by Monika Krause (Goldsmiths)) can be listened to here.

What is the role of things in political participation? This innovative book develops a fresh perspective on everyday forms of engagement, one that foregrounds the role of objects, technology and settings in public involvement. It makes a distinctive contribution to debates about the role of things in democracy, but it also offers empirical analyses of contemporary devices of participation, such as smart meters, demonstrational eco-homes and sustainable living gadgets.

Somewhere in Russia…

14 July 2012

…to be more precise, at the Piotrovsky Bookstore in Perm, books on speculative realism, ANT and the like are part of the effort to restore “book culture to its height during the Soviet times.” Hat tip OOP.

Latour’s plasma bubbling up…

4 July 2012

First at Circling Squares: Latour revisiting ‘Paris: Ville Invisible’, and then at Object-Oriented Philosophy: Latour’s plasma.

P.S. Actually I’m sympathetic to both arguments, even though they seem antithetical at first. Circling Squares says plasma is a sociological concept, while Harman says it’s  a metaphysical concept.

In The Prince and the Wolf Latour gave primarily a sociological and epistemological explanation:

So plasma is what appears once the so-called natural sciences are added to the pot, so to speak, and made to circulate, not to cover the whole.  (…) So, what people don’t understand is that when you do science studies you have completely different views of all that. The whole space is actually empty. And then in this very, very empty space where ignorance is the rule basically, you have circulating in the full vein, the very, very, very full vein, which is the circulation of active and formatted knowledge about mathematics, and about chemistry, and about physics, and about sociology, and about economics. So it is a reversal of background and foreground. Plasma is what you do when,  to  your  shock,  you  make  all  of  the  formatted  knowledge circulate  inside  the  landscape. (p. 81)

Now, how do you call what is not formatted plasma? I mean, you can abandon the word if you want. But I think that’s the point with our criticisms: we are never in awe of or in dispute with the natural sciences. We like them because they occupy so little space! And when you’re struck by the ecological crisis, immediately you recognize  a  completely  different  territory.  Here  we  know  barely anything; we are in a state of complete ignorance. And then you have this very, very small channel of knowledge in the middle of a completely empty space. So suddenly you breathe (lots of space!) but then you are terrified by our shared ignorance, and then the question  of  reassembling  the  collective  becomes  central. (p. 82)


So  if  you  take  an  organization  (I’m  very  obsessed  by  the question of organization now). No organization would work one minute if it were not constantly drawing on this reserve of… so-called unformatted plasma. The point is just that we don’t know what  it  is  exactly,  of  course. (p. 83)


So, plasma is completely… I mean it is a concept. If you want to show where the plasma is, I say everywhere
because it is… it’s not the unformatted that’s the difficulty here. It’s what is in between the formatting. Maybe this is not a very good metaphor.  But  it’s  a  very,  very  different  landscape,  once  the background and foreground have been reversed and the sciences have been added to the landscape, instead of being what defined the landscape. (p. 84)

So this passage would seem to support Circling Squares’ argument. However, in Reassembling the Social, just after he first mentions “the strange figure of the ‘plasma'” (p. 50), Latour goes on to say

Most social scientists would adamantly resist the idea that they have to indulge in metaphysics to define the social. But such an attitude means nothing more than sticking to one metaphysics, usually a very poor one…” (p. 51).

He constantly argues for sociology to practice metaphysics and praises Tarde for doing so: “What is most useful for ANT is that Tarde does not make the social science break away from philosophy or even metaphysics” (p. 15). Harman therefore is also right to consider the concept of plasma within the metaphysics that Latour puts forward.

So is plasma a sociological or a metaphysical concept? I would say it’s both. This however doesn’t necessarily have to mean that it does work as such. Remember that Latour advocates the use of ‘weak terms’ as infra-language. So a concept like plasma is kind of a probe: it is sent forth as part of an experiment, the result of which can be either success or failure (and probably there is some zombie state in-between the two). My guess is that Latour probably wanted to use the concept as both sociological and metaphysical, but it is designed in such a way that if it fails as one (e.g. as a metaphysical concept when put under scrutiny by a philosopher like Harman), it can still carry on as a sociological concept. (After all Latour did say that “Maybe this is not a very good metaphor. ” ) I heard some people criticise this strategy as flip-flopping or being slippery, but it is consistent with Latour’s pragmatist commitments.

New book: Agency without Actors?

24 April 2012

Passoth, J., B. Peuker & M. Schillmeier (Eds) (2012) Agency without Actors? Rethinking Collective Action. London/New York: Routledge


Note on Contributors 1. Introduction Part 1: Events, Suggestions, Accounts 2. Suggestion and Satisfaction: On the Actual Occasion of Agency by Paul Stronge and Mike Michael 3. Science, Cosmopolitics and the Question of Agency: Kant’s Critique and Stengers’ Event by Michael Schillmeier 4. Questioning the Human/Non-Human Distinction by Florence Rudolf 5. Agency and “Worlds” of Accounts: Erasing the Trace or Rephrasing the Action? by Rolland Munro Part 2: Contribution, Distribution, Failures 6. Distributed Agency and Advanced Technology, Or: How to Analyze Constellations of Collective Inter-Agency by Werner Rammert 7. Distributed Sleeping and Breathing: On the Agency of Means in Medical Work by Cornelius Schubert 8. Agencies’ Democracy: “Contribution” as a Paradigm to (Re)thinking the Common in a World of Conflict by Jacques Roux 9. Reality Failures by John Law Part 3: Interaction, Partnership, Organization 10. “What’s the Story?” Organizing as a Mode of Existence by Bruno Latour 11. Researching Water Quality with Non-Humans: An ANT Account by Christelle Gramaglia & Delaine Sampaio Da Silva 12. Horses – Significant Others, People’s Companions, and Subtle Actors by Marion Mangelsdorf

Videos of recent Latour talks

21 April 2012
  • Watch video: “Ecological Crises, Digital Humanities and New Political Assemblies,” Azim Premji University, 23 March 2012
  • Watch video: “Reenacting Science,” Science Gallery, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, 20 February 2012
  • Watch video: “From Critique to Composition,” Dublin City University, 17 February 2012

At the limits of individual human rationality…

3 April 2012

…the social steps in and takes over – at least in my home town of Bournemouth. Should you get so drunk on a Saturday night between 10pm and 3am that you can no longer rely on your cognitive and physical capacities or your gadgets to get home, do not despair: Safe Bus will come to your rescue.

Bournemouth Safe Bus aims to help drunken party-goers

POLICE in Bournemouth say the Safe Bus will be hitting the town centre every Saturday night this year to help the town’s vulnerable people and drunken partygoers. (…) Inspector Dean O’Connor, of Bournemouth and Poole Police, said: “The Safe Bus helps people who are drunk, injured or lost. Those who have come out, had too much to drink, lost their mobile phone and can’t get home. It’s for those who have fallen over and are injured, those who have become a victim of an assault, or those who are just so intoxicated they are unable to look after themselves.”

Policy meets ANT workshop

24 February 2012

Call for participation
Policy meets Actor Network Theory: doctoral student workshop

Policy has become “increasingly central concept and instrument in the organization of contemporary societies [and] now impinges on all areas of life so that it’s virtually impossible to ignore or to escape its influence” (Wedel et al 2005: 3). It has been closely associated with the political in terms of decision making, yet it stems into specific domains for setting goals and means of achieving them.  Policy occupies space at the crossroads – for some it is at the overlap of authority, expertise and order. For others it merges politics, science, technology, and society. And for yet others, policy is associated with administration, management and organization. It conveys deliberation and purpose, competence as well as rationality.

The analytical approach known as Actor Network Theory (ANT), born in science and technology studies, is notoriously known for not being a theory in the strict sense of a testable, predictive and explanatory model. Starting as a negative reading of what is the world enacted in much of social theory ANT offers a set of ontological considerations in the larger scheme of things and associated methodological propositions at the level of research design. In the 1990’s, ANT inspired analytics have also ventured to studies of policy via the governmentality studies and their interest in mentalities as well as technologies of government and in the action at a distance. However, governmentality studies today as a mainstream body within policy analysis are more associated with the former interest in ‘mentalities’ of governing.

Our workshop wants to build on these traditions. We want to ask how ANT may enhance our understanding of policy beyond the rationalist vs. social constructionist debate which has marked policy analysis. This question also implies interest in innovative research design for studying policy which would move beyond the traditional commitments to either global or local scaling of research. We want to engage with some of the key propositions of ANT as deployed in our own empirical analyses of complex realities in the making. Here we refer to a series of methodological commitments applied to the study of policy worlds:

  • principle of symmetry as a way of working in the same analytical register with both success and failure of a policy or a reform
  • study of translations as a way of working with the complexities of new and often unexpected realities crafted in policy process and implementation
  • study of socio-material arrangements with a revised concept of agency which allows for materialities to have effects rather than merely index the social and the symbolic; the question extends to what materialities are engaged in holding policy worlds together
  • study of ‘ontological politics’ as a way of working with non-coherent realities and their co-ordination,
  • question of ‘performativity’ as a way to rearticulate analytical focus on the ‘existence’ of policy worlds in the making

Each participant will have 60 minutes allocated to their work. During this hour they will introduce their paper, providing an overview of the content and argument (approximately 10-15 minutes), followed by critical comments and questions from a predefined main discussant (approximately 10-15 minutes). The author then has a ‘right of reply’ (approx. 10 minutes), before general discussion of the paper (approx. 20-25 minutes).

All papers (max 8000 words) will be electronically circulated to all participants two weeks in advance of the workshop. Participants are required to read the papers. Organizers will name main discussants for each paper who will prepare a detailed reflection of the allocated paper.

PhD students interested in joining the workshop should email an abstract (500 words) to the organizers which will show how their research project fits within the parameters of the workshop and provide a brief summary of their paper.  Selected participants will be asked to submit full paper two weeks prior to the event for circulation. Deadline for abstract submission is 30 March 2012.

Workshop will be held on 21 and 22 June 2012.

Venue for the workshop will be confirmed. Currently, funding is being raised to support workshop participants in attending. There will be no attendance fee.

This workshop is part of University of Kent, South-East ESRC Doctoral Training Centre Advance Training in sociology of policy.


David Kocman, School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent,
Aleksandra Lis, Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Central European University,

Toscano on capitalism and panorama

18 February 2012

Alberto Toscano’s forthcoming lecture at Simon Fraser University on 6 March 2012, among others deploying Latour’s concept of the ‘panorama:’

Capitalism and Panorama: Staging Totality in Social Theory and Art

Can, or should, social theory try to ’see it whole’? This paper addresses the representation of social totality along theoretical, political and aesthetic axes. It considers the demand for orienting and totalizing representations of capitalist society present in the programmatic notions of ’sociological imagination’ in C. Wright Mills and ‘cognitive mapping’ in Fredric Jameson. Mills and Jameson converge on the need to mediate personal experience and systemic constraints, knowledge and action, while underscoring the political urgency and epistemic difficulty of such a demand.

This lecture will contrast these perspectives with the repudiation of a sociology of totality in the actor-network theory of Bruno Latour. It will explore this contrast through the ‘panorama’, both as a theoretical metaphor and as the object of different visual and artistic practices.

Bio: Alberto Toscano teaches in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Fanaticism (2010) and The Theatre of Production (2006). He is an editor of the journal “Historical Materialism”.