Publishing’s relation to broader society can be characterised as a series of “assemblages” (Deleuze, Guattari and DeLanda) – essentially conjoining elements or relations to create something new. One way to think about this is through Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (or ANT). Today’s blog is a little different to previous ramblings; there will be a particular focus on ANT, and a sort of random jotting of others’ (and my own) ideas about it.
The ANT theory can be described as a “material-semiotic” method; meaning that it “maps relations that are simultaneously material (between things) and semiotic (between concepts) (Wikipedia). It assigns equal positions to social and technological elements, treating human and non-human “actants” as having the same amount of agency within webs/actor networks (Banks 2011).
As this video discusses, ANT is based on 3 principles:
- generalised symmetry
- free association
i.e. social = natural = technological: “it explores ways in which network relations are composed and how they emerge and come into being, are constructed, maintained, compete with other networks, and are made more durable over time.”
One contemporary example of assemblages can be seen through Facebook. Treating human and non-human actants equally, the components that make up Facebook can be seen as a complex and changing relationship between actants such as Facebook headquarters, the web, the internet provider, electricity, the computer, tech support, advertisers and sponsors, users, and data. All of these components are necessary in providing us with the Facebook we see as one single object. This is a much more analytical way than thinking of Facebook as just a social networking device created by Zuckerburg!
However, ANT has received a fair amount of criticism. As Banks notes, there has been criticism for dismissing basic social factors e.g. race, class, and gender. Further, many critics note that there is a difference between human and non-human agents in terms of intentionality, others have said that research based on ANT perspectives remains “entirely descriptive and fails to provide explanations for social processes” (Wikipedia) and does not challenge power structures (Bloor and Restivo 2010).
Personally, although there are a number of flaws in the theory, I think it is generally a good way to analyse and describe the elements that are present in the assemblages of publishing. It forces us to think more specifically as to what really makes up a particular object of publishing that we might’ve previously thought of as a single entity. This means that elements (or actants) can be pinpointed when needed (for example, if Facebook has crashed it could be because of your internet connection or a because of the site itself). EDIT: or does that give rise to the problem of endless and infinite possibilities (sort of like asking what is the smallest number above zero?)
‘Actor Network Theory’, Wikipedia, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Actor-network_theory>
Banks, David (2011) ‘A Brief Summary of Actor-Network Theory’, Cyborgology, November 2, <http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/12/02/a-brief-summary-of-actor-network-theory/>
delukie (2009) ’Actor-Network Theory in Plain English’, Youtube.com