Can you have a seminar series on 'ANT'?
In August I will start my position as Post Doctoral Fellow at the African Centre for Cities (ACC) of University of Cape Town. I am really keen to make myself able to contribute to ACC's ambitious and important goal to re-write urbanism from an African and Global South perspective.
Together with Nancy Odendaal and Lisa Kane we are thinking of starting a discussion seminar on actor-network theory (ANT), partly based on the one I am giving with Jacob von Heland and Carole Crumley at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. However, constructed intentionally as a wonderfully slippery body of work, ANT has generated a composition that keeps us academics on our toes of what ANT 'is', what it 'wants', and how to 'use' it. In our e-mail conversations we have started to engage this healthy uncertainty, and I thought I publish one of my answers.
In "Actor Network Theory and after" (eds. Johan Law and Johan Hassar) these (unwilling) 'masters' of ANT (Law, Callon, Latour), wants to trash what they have built. That is to say that they argue that ANT should not 'be a thing in itself', it should not exist as a 'body of work', as a comprehensive 'approach'. This urge to trash what they have built is exactly what they need to do according to what they have built... One way to succeed in trashing is not to call 'it' anything, or to constantly re-name 'it' so others - and themselves - can be kept on their toes on what 'this' is; so as to constantly stay preoccupied of what 'it' is and how 'it' can be used...; so as not to reify this 'it' as a 'method' or 'approach' or 'perspective', or other type of 'black-boxing'. The reason lies in that such 'black-boxing' would pre-organize our belief of the world in before-hand and researchers would once again come and explain the world to the actors (and not vice versa, which is one key-point of ANT (or whatever we call it)). As researchers doing field work, this 'black-boxing' would mean to just apply a framework onto the world and make us bad listeners to the actors we are following; we would loose out on becoming sensitized to the actors' "world-making capabilities" as Latour puts it (Re-assembling the Social, 2005).
But still, somewhere you need to start disussing this. Why not a seminar? You can start telling the "story of ANT" as an academic project and see how that can inspire others; and discuss all its open questions, its ability to serve as The Jester of Academia that puts everything on its head and use that confusion as creative moments for field work and writing... Later in the seminar series you can start discussing why you need to destroy what you have built, in order to 'see' again.
In Bruno Latour's new version of ANT (!?), in the talk he gave here in Stockholm, he calls it "compositionalism" from 'compose'. He uses it as an alternative to 'construction' and claims - and I support him - that it severs as a better metaphor for what we are studying. Actors are not constructors, but part of a composition that generates certain actions; and there (should) not be room for any hegemonic composer (I guess). Probably, in a couple of years we need to do away with composition as well, but it does not matter. What "ANT" is, or what it seems to urge us as researcher to do, is what counts for me, to trace associations between temporally stable entities that we can refer to as 'actors' so as to be able to write textual accounts of the world that are contestable and contested.