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8/10/2017 Understanding Society: Latour's Invisible Paris

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Understanding Society
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S a t u r d a y, D e c e m b e r 1 , 2 0 1 2

Latour's Invisible Paris About Me

Daniel Little
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I am a philosopher of
social science with a
strong interest in Asia. I have written books
on social explanation, Marx, late imperial
China, the philosophy of history, and the
ethics of economic development. Topics
having to do with racial justice in the United
States have become increasingly important
to me in recent years. All these topics
involve the complexities of social life and
social change. I have come to see that
understanding social processes is in many
ways more difficult than understanding the
Almost the first words of Bruno Latour's Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to
natural world. Take the traditional
Actor-Network-Theory include this intriguing statement:
dichotomy between structure and agency as
an example. It turns out that social actions
This somewhat austere book can be read in parallel with the much lighter
and social structures are reciprocal and
Bruno Latour and Emilie Hermant (1998), Paris ville invisible, which tries
inseparable. As Marx believed, people
to cover much of the same ground through a succession of photographic make their own histories, but not in
essays. It's available online in English (Paris the Invisible City) link. circumstances of their own choosing. So
we cannot draw a sharp separation between
This multimedia essay is fascinating, and equally so for the suggestion that it somehow social structure and social agency. I think
illustrates the main ideas of Reassembling the Social. Since those ideas are fundamental philosophers need to interact seriously and
to "actor-network theory" and to the theory of assemblage, it is worthwhile spending extensively with working social researchers
some time on the multimedia essay. and theorists if they are to be able to help
achieve a better understanding the social
The presentation is described as a "sociological web opera." Here is how Latour world.
describes its purpose:
View my complete profile
The aim of this sociological opera is to wander through the city, in texts
and images, exploring some of the reasons why it cannot be captured at a Open source philosophy

glance. Our photographic exploration takes us first to places usually This site addresses a series of topics in the
hidden from passers-by, in which the countless techniques making philosophy of social science. What is
Parisians' lives possible are elaborated (water services, police force, ring involved in "understanding society"? The
road: various "oligopticons" from which the city is seen in its entirety). blog is an experiment in thinking, one idea
This helps us to grasp the importance of ordinary objects, starting with the at a time. Look at it as "open-source
philosophy" -- a web-based, dynamic
street furniture constituting part of inhabitants' daily environment and
monograph on the philosophy of social
enabling them to move about in the city without losing their way. It also
makes us attentive to practical problems posed by the coexistence of such 1/9
8/10/2017 Understanding Society: Latour's Invisible Paris

large numbers of people on such a small surface area. All these unusual science and some foundational issues about
visits may eventually enable us to take a new look at a more theoretical the nature of the social world.
question on the nature of the social link and on the very particular ways in
which society remains elusive. Recent publications

We often tend to contrast real and virtual, hard urban reality and electronic
utopias. This work tries to show that real cities have a lot in common with
Italo Calvino's "invisible cities". As congested, saturated and asphyxiated
as it may be, in the invisible city of Paris we may learn to breathe more
easily, provided we alter our social theory.

If one wants to work through the presentation it is necessary to download the PDF that
contains the text of the essay, to be read in conjunction with the photography and
images at each stop (link). Now we are ready to run the multimedia version (link).

Here is a screenshot from Plan 9:

And here is the accompanying text:

Currently reading ...
Step two: Aligning


With her eyes Mrs. Lagoutte looks at the name "rue la Vieuville" in white
letters on a blue background. With her forefinger she points at the same
name "rue la Vieuville" in bold type on the map she's holding with her
other hand. With a quick movement of the chin she accommodates her
gaze to these two very different texts: one, written diagonally on the page,
is 1mm big and requires short-sightedness; the other, horizontal, is 6cm
high and requires long-sightedness. A miracle! The two match, letter for
letter, despite the glaring differences. She's arrived! This is the street she
was looking for... and here's number five! In a single glance at her map
she embraces the entire eighteenth arrondissement. By lifting her head she
sees only a white wall, very much like all the others, that she couldnt have
identified without having been born in the neighbourhood or living there
for a long time. Fortunately she also sees the street nameplate and the
name written on it. What does she see? What is she touching with her

The reader navigates the presentation by choosing "Traversing," "Proportioning,"

"Distributing," and "Allowing" on the top bar, and then navigating from Plan to Plan in
the sidebar. It is possible, of course, to go through the presentation in a fully linear
mode; but it is also possible to jump easily from "Traversing" to "Distributing" or from
Plan to Plan.

The images in the frame switch with each movement of the mouse. They do not have Digital editions of Varieties of Social Explanation
an apparent order; instead, the viewer gets a rush of images at each stop. It takes 2/9
8/10/2017 Understanding Society: Latour's Invisible Paris

attention to register even how many images are presented. [It is possible this is an Digital editions of Varieties of Social
artefact of the web engine -- the "Distributing" sequence provides a scroll bar of images Explanation are now available on Kindle
within the frame, but this is lacking in "Traversing." This would be ironic, analogous to and iBooks for iPad. This edition contains
the original text of the 1991 edition along
the representational errors Latour identifies in maps and signposts!]
with an extensive new introduction,
"Philosophy and Social Knowledge."
So go ahead -- take the journey and come back for some discussion!

Here is the Kindle edition

Here is the iBooks edition


So what does the production show us? What has Latour illustrated in this work that
"covers much the same ground" as Reassembling the Social? Here are a few fairly
superficial observations.

1. First, the presentation highlights "invisibility" -- the fact that this complex social
scrum is partially visible, but partially hidden, no matter what perspective we
2. Second, the issue of scale is constantly under scrutiny. We zoom from micro to
macro to meso and back constantly through the presentation.
3. Third, the notion of "representation" is key: maps, street signs, department store Pages
panoramas, satellite images. This is a "knowledge-reality" problematic: what is
the status of the knowledge (veridical representativeness) of the map or the
satellite image?
4. Fourth, there is a persistent attention to technical knowledge and technical
Beijing Forum 2011
specialists throughout the essay: infrastructure specialists, computer experts, GIS
technicians, schedulers, drainage specialists, traffic engineers, ... And much of SSHA 2015
what they do falls on the "invisible" end of the spectrum for most observers. Actors and Outcomes ISA 2016

5. Fifth, there is a recurring theme of "composition" -- the idea that the social scrum
of the city is an amalgam. "In this sociological opera we're going to move over Daniel Little on Medium

from the cold and real Society to warm and virtual plasma: from the entire Paris A climate-change catastrophe
set in one view to the multiple Parises within Paris, which together comprise all An assault against democracy
Paris and which nothing ever resembles" (Plan 4).
Maintaining social resiliency
6. There is a recurring and seemingly important use of temperature -- hot, cold -- as Shameful!
a scale for considering social situations and "data". "At low temperature we have
What will 2017 bring?
the impression of an isolated and fragile passer-by circulating in a frame that's
older, harder and bigger than himself" (Plan 26).
Popular Posts
7. There is the idea that the "players" in social interactions are not uniquely human
persons. The objects and gadgets of the city play their roles: "Should we count Dynamics of medieval
all those gadgets among the inhabitants of Paris? Partly, because they anticipate cities
all the behaviours of generic and anonymous inhabitants whom they get to do a Cities provide a good
illustration of the ontology
number of actions, in anticipation. Each of these humble objects, from public of the theory of
toilet to rubbish bin, tree protector to street name, phone booth to illuminated assemblage ( link ). Many forms of
signpost, has a certain idea of the Parisians to whom, through colour or form, association, production, logist...
habit or force, it brings a particular order, a distinct attribution, an authorization
A new model of organization?
or prohibition, a promise or permission." (Plan 32) 3/9
8/10/2017 Understanding Society: Latour's Invisible Paris

And here is a fascinating bit that places the circulation of French Sociological Theory In Team of Teams: New
Rules of Engagement for
within the city: a Complex World
General Stanley
For instance, here in the group formerly headed by Mr. Raymond Boudon, McChrystal (with Tantum
social phenomena consist of individual aggregations that produce perverse Collins, David Silverman,
effects through a series of involuntary transformations, without for all that and Ch...
forming social structures. Further on, with Mr. Pierre Bourdieu at the
The Guardian drops the
Collge de France, individual action must always be situated within a field ball ...
that may not determine it but that is the only thing to give it meaning. If The Guardian posted a
we go up the Rue Laplace to the CREA, to Mr. Jean- Pierre Dupuy, we short documentary video
on the city where I live,
notice that structures do exist but through a phenomenon of self- Dearborn, Michigan ( link ). The video
organization resembling neither aggregation alone nor the field. There's is, frankly, a careless,...
nothing shocking about this dispersion: a sociogram of Parisian
cosmologists would show no more agreement on the evolution of white Chinese modernization c.
drawf stars or the origins of the Big Bang. Moreover, the matter
At the end of the
identified, isolated, transformed on which each of these laboratories nineteenth century --
works differs entirely: here, statistics and stylized examples; there, which was also of the end
extensive inquiries by questionnaire; elsewhere, models borrowed from of the Qing Dynasty -- China was not
"modern". Its politica...
economics. The word sociology has all the characteristics of a faux ami,
and its definition will change again if we go down the Montagne Ste. Contingency and
Genevive to the GSPM, to Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thvenot, on the explanation
other side of Luxembourg, or at the bottom end of the Boulevard St. Social change and
historical events are
Germain, to visit Mr. Michel Crozier's group, or else if, in a rare act of highly contingent
open-mindedness, we went up the Boul'Mich to have a coffee with the processes, in a specific sense: they are
researchers at the CSI, at the Ecole des Mines. Despite the megalomania to the result of multiple causal inf...
which the social sciences are so partial, there would be little sense in
First generation anti-
saying that just one of these laboratories had summed up all of Society. positivism: Wellmer
(Plan 30) In Critical Theory Of
Society (1969) Albrecht
This is a fascinating and open-ended piece of work -- not philosophy, not sociological Wellmer announced a
theory, not pure artistic creativity; and yet some of all of this. Do other readers have critique of positivist assumptions in the
study of society. Proceedin...
their own interpretations of the work and its significance within ANT theory and the
theory of assemblage?
Subscribe To
Here is a lecture by Latour on ANT theory at USC. (The audio is better when Latour
begins speaking.)

International Seminar on Network Theory Keynote - Bru

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Posted by Daniel Little at 1:21 PM

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