This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies 9(6) 796–802 © 2009 SAGE Publications Reprints and permission: http://www. sagepub.com/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/1532708609348581 http://csc.sagepub.com
Abstract Employing Actor-Network Theory as an analytical framework, this article explores presumptions of reality, power and authority expressed by the Bush collectif. The article demonstrates both successes and failures of the Bush administration's attempts to define the terms and contexts of its actions. The author discusses the Obama administration's success in building of a strong network of alliances and challenges towards its maintenance. Keywords translation, network power, politics We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do. Anonymous Bush insider (reported by Suskind, 2004) Reality: Revealed in the practice of relations, reality is demonstrated and measured by lines of force drawn in the performance of relations (Latour in Kien, 2009). Although many statements made by George W. Bush and his insiders map an 8-year tragic comedy of ignorance and misunderestimations, the above quote is perhaps the most revealing and astute illustration of the Bush collectif’s ontological and epistemo logical assumptions. Why collectif? Because in labeling themselves history’s actors
California State University, East Bay
creating reality, the Bush collectif accidentally began its own actor network theory (ANT) analysis of itself.1 I take it as my task here to finish what they started. It turns out that this anonymous insight may have been the most accurate hubristic prophecy of the lot, for here we are dutifully studying the realities they constructed for us, as if we actually are the passive reactionaries we’ve been portrayed as. What the Bush collectif didn’t realize is that in so doing we allocate a new position of dominance for ourselves in the hybrid network, for it is only in our acts of turning the actor network—its histories, struggles, victories, and everyday energy—toward our own ends that we can position ourselves as the rightful voices in translating the events and moments that comprise us, United States in the biggest sense, as a people. Collectif, hybrid: An array of relations, links interpenetrations, and processes. A hybrid collectif can be contrasted with a collective, which is a thing. A collectif includes all that inspires, influences, and touches it. In this understanding of agency, differences and dualism are generated out of partial similarities. Collectifs allocate agency to a particular area of their network, and the actants located there are then said to be agents (Callon & Law in Kien, 2009). It may seem tritely simplistic to retranslate the Bush legacy as a comedy of ridicu lous statements and attempted redefinitions of the world we inhabit.2 Such reduction ism risks insulting people living out the often tragic consequences of these same statements. Yet, whenever I’ve directly asked people to comment on the Bush legacy, a list of Bushisms has unfailingly been the first response. Admitted, a casual survey among my clearly nonconservative circle of friends, highly intelligent as they might be, is hardly a scientific way to construct a credible definition of the former presi dent’s time in office, but then we don’t need to go that far. We can again turn to the anonymous insider for an understanding of why this seems to be an automatic first response: The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” (reported by Suskind, 2004)3 The Bush administration invited an automatically comedic interpretation of their activities by fighting ridiculous, quixotic battles for all the public to see. In their hubris, the inner sanctum believed they could actually change the rules of reality by simply saying the rules were changed, as if to inscribe its own translation of reality into the citizenry through mere utterances. In their milieu of semantic claptrap, horribly cata strophic issues were redefined as mere punctuation marks in the fairytale story the administration told about itself: 9/11, eavesdropping on the citizenry, Hurricane Katrina,
Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies 9(6)
the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, preemptive secret incarcerations, tacit approval of torturous methods in American-made penal colonies populated indefinitely by the elderly and youths, rampant corporate corruption and billions of dollars worth of no-bid contracts, a willful ignorance toward environmental concerns, a mind-boggling public debt, and an unprecedented economic catastrophe with global ramifications. The Bush collectif did not understand that inscription works as a process, an experience perhaps similar to interpellation. Inscription is not a string of wishful statements with no firm contextual grounding. Interpreting their words and actions as comedy became one of the few responses open to an otherwise cynical, disempowered populace; it became the only avenue open for participation in the daily affairs of democracy. In their world, it is our own fault that we could not grasp or could not fit into the new reality that had been invented, which can be basically summed up in a single worn-out mantra: “The whole world changed on 9/11!” Inscribed reader: A person in whom a translation has been inscribed, thus an inscribed reader is prepared to perform the relations the translation has prescribed on encountering the context described by the translation (Latour in Kien, 2009). Like Benjamin’s angel of history, there is a certain aesthetic to the way the citizenry acts that might suggest we have indeed been watching tragedy upon tragedy pileup in our wake as we advance toward destiny. However, such fatalistic language only buys into one of the greatest mistakes of the Bush collectif: that the public passively stands apart from the state, rather than stabilizes it as its base. The language of we versus you describes a naïve interpretation of power as something one entity holds over another. It plays on technocratic notions of a core of powerful actors who manipulate and manage a passive public through a basic hypodermic needle model of communication. It ignores basic findings and premises well known to communications scholars: that media effects are actually weak and that cultural factors rather than the content itself will determine the way that people interpret and use media. Above all, it misjudges the audience by ignoring the agency of every individual working to stabilize the network by building alliances with the intent of becoming the dominant voice: No actant is so weak that it cannot enlist another. Then the two join together and become one for a third actant, which they can therefore move more easily. An eddy is formed, and it grows by becoming many others. (Latour, 1988b, p. 159) We are living in a networked world in which all human space has come to be metaphorically represented by network, which works according to a system of network power (Hardt & Negri, 2000). This is a dynamic system, the word network itself describing transformations, translations, and transductions in constant mutation (Latour, 1999). To rule by decree as the Bush administration operated is perhaps the best way to make sure no one is part of the network voluntarily. It effectively turns
everyone into an enemy. It is to rule by fear. It may enlist some new actors in the network who fear estrangement, but it is even more effectively a sure way to aesthetically split off part of the network into its own entelechy. However, on a primary level, it fails to recognize that for all practical purposes there is nowhere else for them to go. Entelechy: A matrix of networked actors and actants that appears as a singular entity (Kien, 2009). In essence, the Bush analysis of how our reality works misunderstands the nature of network as the model of contemporary society in the context of a globalized world: 1. It assumes something called a nonactor can be part of the network. Rather, networks are created by actors and actants. 2. It fails to comprehend that all actors and actants unceasingly strive to assert their own translation and dominate the network with their voice. 3. It misunderstands the enlistment of actors and actants as a conquering of will, the quashing of individual agency, and the abatement of resistance when the very opposite is the fact: Even the most brutal force is a form of persuasion, not dominance, and Newton’s third law is in effect (delayed effect shouldn’t be misinterpreted as no effect). After 9/11, we were told that network was the enemy; the Al Qaeda network in particular. We were told that anyone within our personal networks could be a terrorist. We were told that we needed policing for our own safety. Moreover, we were shown that our safety networks were woefully inadequate (especially so in the cases of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the collapse of the housing market, and later the financial system). The Bush administration posited its authoritarian voice as the solution to the insecu rities of the nation, but in so doing reified for itself a notion that it could contain within itself all that it needed to succeed on its own terms. As if they believed they had magical powers and merely needed to say some magic words, the Bush collectif did not see itself as subject to a reality outside of its own desires. It must be recognized that to some degree this strategy actually succeeded. Enlistment: When one actant persuades another into an allied network (Latour in Kien, 2009). As if commanding a cult or mafia rather than the world’s self-declared defenders of freedom, Bush stated, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” This tried and true colonial strategy of divide and conquer worked for the past 8 years in so much as anyone who was not deemed in was out, and once out of sight, out of mind. For aesthetic purposes, this was a neat and tidy way to sweep problems under the carpet in Guantanamo Bay, the federal courts, and other places out of the public’s view. Unfortunately, that strategy also entailed ostracizing half the nation (deeply repressing some segments of society) and systematically offending almost every nation that did
Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies 9(6)
not declare itself part of the coalition of the willing. This strategy was doomed to repeat the same failings that brought the collapse of colonialism: It would be impossible through this method to consolidate a network as vast as the United States, even if the claim to empire were true. That wouldn’t stop them from trying though. Network consolidation: The appearance of singularity of a network, since networks are ordered with materials and strategies, creating aesthetic patterns of generated effects of power and hierarchy (Kien, 2009). The weight of the system on an ever-shrinking inner core of authority figures con sidered trustworthy would inevitably lead to less capacity for checks, balances, and enforcement even as policy demanded increasingly stricter oversight. The results: cronyism that put ill-prepared yes men and women into positions of power in agencies whose oversight arms had been ignored if not cut outright (case in point, the silencing of CIA evidence that ran contrary to the justification for the war in Iraq). This strategy left Mr. Bush at the end of his presidency sitting in the middle of a crumbling house of cards, ironically somewhat alone as his former confidants began to see the wisdom of distancing themselves from Bush’s legacy. Authority figure: An actant that resists individuation in its performance as part of an institution’s administrative machinery (Latour in Kien, 2009). The Bush collectif’s heavy-handed approach lacked what Callon (1986) called “generalized symmetry,” the explanation of conflicting viewpoints and arguments using the same terms or voice for all points of view, not changing voices to highlight or privilege specific understandings of a phenomenon. Rather, it shuts conflicting viewpoints out of the system completely, forcing them to form their own collectifs. The Bush collectif had misunderstood the very nature of opposition, seeing it as a force pushing in from the outside. In a networked world, opposition comes from inside the array, as new alliances form and struggle to usurp the array from which they came (Latour, 1988b). Under the philosophy of the Bush collectif, there could be no unifying vision for the nation, let alone for a world in which entire nations and cultures had been labeled evil, and here is exactly the point on which the Obama collectif was able to capitalize so grandly. As many pundits pointed out, the John McCain collectif realized early on that he was running a presidential campaign not only against Barak Obama but also against the entire 8-year Bush legacy. He scrambled to become a voice Americans could identify as their own, but in his overzealousness blundered into the same habit as Bush, defining a real America that somehow stood as more authentic than fake Americas, such as New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Truth: A declaration whose alliances are intact. A sentence with insufficient allies appears false (Latour in Kien, 2009).
However, in spite of attempts to characterize him as inauthentic, Barak Obama spoke of a real America that wasn’t split by notions of validity but rather was fueled by hope and opportunity. He spoke of real hopes and dreams, of real problems that seemed to suggest real answers. He spoke clearly to the reality-based community that characterizes everyday America. For most Americans—perhaps even for many global citizens—Barak Obama appeared to be a figure prepared to speak truth to power. In so doing, his national network found a broad and willing populace ready to use their long-maligned agency to allocate him as their agent for change. Agent: An actant located in an area that has agency allocated to it by a collectif (Callon & Law in Kien, 2009). To what extent can we expect Obama to remain an agent of change? Success depends on how inclusively we’re inclined to think of the network. The ANT principle of relativity (Latour, 1988b) tells us relations between actants are always unequal, that everything is relative and imbued with inequity, that there are winners and losers in every relationship. However, lines of force don’t have to be adversarial in nature. Positive bonds of love, friendship, and loyalty on the whole outperform negative relations of brute force. That’s not to say there aren’t unequal relationships but rather that we have it in us to give and take as we see fit. If we take the ANT measure of success to be the growth and maintenance of the largest array possible, the Obama collectif will be best advised to pay attention to create authority figures who take it as their task the enlistment of actors through emphasis on their commonly inscribed experiences. At the same time, Obama the agent must be mindful of voices within the actor network that threaten to rise and claim part of it as their own collectif, to keep present in mind that the struggle for dominance among actors is unceasing even in networks deemed virtuous. In short, it would do Obama well to deal with reality as the reality-based community experiences it—as the everyday practice of relations that demarcate lines of force—and to be flexible in the range of techniques used to persuade the network into maintenance and stability. Declaration of Conflict of Interest
The author declared no potential conflicts of interests with respect to the authorship and/or publication of this article.
The author declared no financial support for the research and/or authorship of this article.
1. With apologies to Michel Callon, Bruno Latour, John Law, and the remainder of the actor network theory collectif. 2. For example, see <http://www.plattbridger.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/bushisms.htm> or <http:// www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jRSQLtDQr4QS6lNdlP3ZGZlMloMQD 95FORSG0>, or simply search the keyword Bushism on the Internet.
Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies 9(6)
3. See <http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address= 103x105517>
Callon, M. (1986). Some elements of a sociology of translation: Domestication of the scallops and the fishermen of St. Brieuc Bay. In John Law (Ed.), Power, action and belief: A new sociology of knowledge? (pp. 196-233; Sociological Review Monograph 32). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Hardt, M., & Negri, A. (2000). Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Kien, G. (2009). Global technography: Ethnography in the age of mobility. New York: Peter Lang. Latour, B. (1988). Mixing humans and nonhumans together: The sociology of a door-closer. Social Problems, 35, pp. 298-310. Latour, B. (1988b). The pasteurization of France (A. Sheridan & J. Law, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Latour, B. (1999). On recalling ANT. In J. Law & J. Hassard (Eds.), Actor network theory and after (pp. 15-25). Malden, MA: Blackwell. SUSKIND, RON. (2004) “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush”. New York Times Magazine Online. October 17, 2004.<http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/ magazine/17BUSH.html>.
Grant Kien, PhD, is an Assistant Professor with the Department of Communication at California State University, East Bay. His research focuses on Technography, qualitative approaches to technology research, globalization, communication and culture, mobility and communications networks as performative, symbolic, and interpretive spaces. Recent works include a full-length book entitled Global Technography: Ethnography in the Age of Mobility (Peter Lang, 2009), guest editing a partial special issue of the scholarly journal Qualitative Inquiry (Sage, 2008) on technology and qualitative research, and co-editing the volume Everyday Life and Post-Global Network (Peter Lang, in press).
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.