Why Did Actor-Network Theory Run out of Steam?

Lately, I've been consumed by analyzing the biggest story of the decade:  financialization and the ensuing economic crisis which now seems likely to be with us for a decade. In thinking about the #domusweb project, I've been struck by how the critical tools that have been en vogue during the last decade have proved bankrupt in the face of the economic crisis.

What strikes me most about this is how clear the crisis was to anyone who reads materialist historians. Take Giovanni Arrighi's brilliant The Long Twentieth Century. The description he gives of financialization and systemic cycles of capital accumulation in the Introduction should be enough for anyone to make reasonable sense of what happened in the last decade. What's more remarkable is that it was written not this year but in 1994.  

Or take Fernand Braudel, the other great inspiration for Arrighi beyond Marx. Arrighi points out that in observing the development of the capitalist cycle in eighteenth century Holland in the third volume of Civilization and Capitalism, Braudel writes "At all events, every capitalist development of this order seems, by reading the stage of financial expansion, to have in some sense announced its maturity: it was a sign of autumn." (Braudel, Civilization & Capitalism, volume 3, 246). 

In contrast to Alan Greenspan's boldfaced lie that nobody could have seen the crash coming, materialists understood full well what was on the way. What puzzled us was the dimension and duration of the boom.

But in certain ways, the academy did miss the obvious. Cogent analyses of capitalism were never part of the discourse in most fields. Instead, capital became too abstract a force, divorced from reality. Everything could be read as a manifestation of capital and rote critiques made for an easy conclusion to "critical" essays. Such deep reading wasn't deep at all, really, and thus its understandable that such "lite" criticism was rejected wholesale under network culture.

Instead, other explanatory models rose to the fore, models like actor-network-theory. Famously, Bruno Latour asked the rhetorical question "Why has Critique Run Out of Steam?" For Latour and most other advocates of Actor-Network-Theory, capitalism was as much a construct produced by Marxists as an actual entity. Instead, they argued, agency had to be traced across a network of actors, both human and non-human. 

The sad thing about all this is that Actor-Network Theory wound up about as useful as lite criticism, which is not very much. To be mean: how is it that Actor-Network Theory proves so irrelevant to the contemporary crisis? Why, in other words, did it run out of steam? 

Let's turn all the talk about Marxist analysis being irrelevant in the 2000s on its head, where it belongs: Marxist analysis was way ahead of the game. It proved far more relevant than monetarism in the end. Our contemporary crisis is a crisis of overaccumulation. If that's not clear to you, then go and read Marx or Arrighi or Mandel or Braudel or any one of a number of thinkers who explain it well. For here perhaps Latour might have something if we read him against the grain: see, it wasn't Marxism that was irrelevant—it was the construction of Marxism's irrelevance. A world beholden to the bubble—including in academia—simply never understood that nothing had really changed, except for the level of delusion.  

 

Comments

Pingback

[...] Why Did Actor-Network Theory Run out of Steam? | varnelis.net varnelis.net/blog/why_did_actornetwork_theory_run_out_of_steam – view page – cached Lately, I've been consumed by analyzing the biggest story of the decade: financialization and the ensuing economic crisis which now seems likely to be with us for a decade. In thinking about the #domusweb project, I've been struck by how the critical tools that have been en vogue during the last decade have proved bankrupt in the face of the economic crisis. Tweets about this link Topsy.Data.Twitter.User['rykalski'] = {"photo":"http://a1.twimg.com/profile_images/72498544/Orange_and_Yellow_by_Mark_Rothko__normal.jpg","url":"http://twitter.com/rykalski","nick":"rykalski"}; rykalski: “RT @kazys: Why Did Actor-Network Theory Run out of Steam?: Lately, I've been consumed by analyzing the bigges... http://bit.ly/cH2Qeg on ... ” 13 minutes ago retweet Topsy.Data.Twitter.User['arcadeproms'] = {"photo":"http://a1.twimg.com/profile_images/87547040/benjamin_normal.jpg","url":"http://twitter.com/arcadeproms","nick":"arcadeproms"}; arcadeproms: “RT @kazys: Why Did Actor-Network Theory Run out of Steam?: Lately, I've been consumed by analyzing the bigges... http://bit.ly/cH2Qeg on ... ” 15 minutes ago retweet Topsy.Data.Twitter.User['kazys'] = {"photo":"http://a1.twimg.com/profile_images/69643986/concretecubes_normal.jpg","url":"http://twitter.com/kazys","nick":"kazys"}; kazysHighly Influential: “Why Did Actor-Network Theory Run out of Steam?: Lately, I've been consumed by analyzing the biggest story of the d... http://bit.ly/cq22kN ” 22 minutes ago retweet Topsy.Data.Twitter.User['kazys'] = {"photo":"http://a1.twimg.com/profile_images/69643986/concretecubes_normal.jpg","url":"http://twitter.com/kazys","nick":"kazys"}; kazysHighly Influential: “Why Did Actor-Network Theory Run out of Steam?: Lately, I've been consumed by analyzing the bigges... http://bit.ly/cH2Qeg on varnelis.net: ” 27 minutes ago retweet Filter tweets [...]

A Timely Question

Yes, yes, and yes. It's very hard to understand any rationale for deploying ANT (other than how it helps to interrogate issues of objectivity versus subjectivity). And as I had mentioned before, what is really irksome about the application of ANT is how it is offered as a conclusion as opposed to a mode of analysis.

I wonder if the application of ANT as an analytical mode amounts to nothing but the uncovering of a very thin veil that barely obscures anything. Again, Latour has made himself quite a career with this kind of "thin veil lifting."

wrong or ineffective?

Are you saying ANT is wrong, or just ineffective? Is it 'irrelevant to the contemporary crisis', or has it not been exercised in respect of the crisis?

I'd class it with a host of

I'd class it with a host of theoretical apparati—critical and post-critical—that divert attention from matters of fact to matters of curiosity. In other words, even as ANT purports to deal with material concerns, it is unable to give us any significant contribution to knowledge of such matters. Its lack of performance with regard to the economic crisis underscores that it is an epistemological dead end in comparison to some of the more advanced Marxist analysis that I cite above. 

What's deeply sad about all froms of post-critical thought and much of what passed for "critical" postmodern thought is its inability to face up to the stark reality that the more it wanted to avoid economic history as a metanarrative, the higher up it retreated into the Ivory Tower. Academics need to remember the now twenty-year old phrase that helped get Bill Clinton elected: "It's the economy, stupid."  

Let's put it this way: reading Aglietta instead of Latour, Arrighi instead of Badiou, and Brenner instead of Zizek and then wrestling out the relations and contradictions between this first group of thinkers is just a way, way more productive use of time.

When I was 20, I took a class at Cornell with Don Eddy, the rare books librarian, and I remember well that he counseled us that when we graduated we would read far less then we would ever expect. Maybe a dozen serious books a year, maybe five or six hundred in our lifetime, a poor library to be sure. Of course we all thought this was a ridiculously small number, but I think he inflated the number so we'd believe him. And I teach in a university! There's too little time in this world: better not spend it chasing down rabbit holes. 

irreduction

Perhaps i'm retreating up my ivory tower, but I have trouble accepting economic history as some kind of baseline reality. It's not just a postmodern aversion towards metanarrative to think that the classic marxist emphasis on certain manoeuvres of capital is a reduction of the complexity of the world. One of the most attractive aspects of Latour's description of the world is his principle of irreduction: everything that operates must be shown to operate in particular ways. I understand his argument for a shift from 'matters of fact' to 'matters of concern' not as a skeptical move, but as an injunction for more rigour.

I haven't read the writers you recommend, so 'advanced marxism' might be different from my grasp of classic marxism. I'm going to be sure to look them up.

Well, yes, that seems like a

Well, yes, that seems like a retreat into the ivory tower.

Who was it who said "It's the economy, stupid?" 

 

failure to engage

'Retreating to an ivory tower' is an accusation of failure to engage with the world. I don't see how the reduction of all the complex matters of fact and concern that confront us to an imagined economic bedrock is any less a failure to engage.

Not being american, I don't feel like I owe Clinton any particular debt.

The failure of ANT to

The failure of ANT to understand the (then) impending financial crisis was due to incomplete information about the "network"--we didn't know what the bankers were cooking up behind closed doors then. Using Goldman Sachs as an example, we didn't understand that Goldman had created these investment funds through an intermediary that were essentially vehicles to make them money as the fund lost value (through hedging or whatever other methods they use). Goldman didn't represent this in public, either, instead passing the fund off as backed by real-estate. There was a lot of misrepresentation going on there, so it was hard to see what served who and in the end, how much Goldman would gain no matter what happened.

I think the failure of ANT isn't in the theory itself, but lies in the fact that we couldn't determine the new "actants" Wall Street had entered into the network. Whether that's a failure of ANT or not, I'm not sure--but Latour definitely understands the importance of government transparency and the role of the press in making this information known; his book Making Things Public touches upon this role.

Love your perspective on all of this--I agree it's the biggest story of the decade.

Actants unknown

Not knowing derivatives are the crucial piece in financial theory is not a failure of ANT but a sign of sheer ignorance and laziness of research among the NAT theorists. ANT itself obviously can't even recognize the actants let alone recognize that to say there are networks of actors is rather trite. Who is going to say that everything is not connected in the world? But how to navigate ourselves within that network to notice the intensities, conflicts, accommodations? And how to produce some notion of power which is enriched by the analysis of the uneven network?

Having read almost all of Latour, I feel we have been taken for a long ride (may be the academic counterpart of sub-prime loans?).

Pingback

[...] to be made quickly, ANT theorists will have to consider each relationship equally. As seen in a blog entry by Kazys Varnelis, he considers how ineffective ANT is with the economic [...]

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

Type the characters you see in this picture. (verify using audio)
Type the characters you see in the picture above; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.