You are on page 1of 9

BEING DIPLOMATIC:

ON ANT AND LITERARY STUDIES


Talk at “ANT across the Disciplines” conference, SDU, Odense, Denmark, Sept 21 2017

Styles of thought often fall into patterns that suggest specific personae: the sage preaching from

the mountain top; the detective bent on deciphering clues; the warrior fighting against injustice.

Should we now add the diplomat to the mix? A longstanding figure in Latour’s work, the

diplomat moves to center stage in the Inquiry into Modes of Existence. Patrice Maniglier,

meanwhile, has recently seized on this figure in ways that speak directly to the concerns of this

workshop. His aim is to persuade art critics and art historians of the relevance of Latour’s work

to their discipline by assuaging doubts and anticipating objections. In doing so, he proposes that

diplomacy is not just an attitude or a theme, but a defining method.

The scholar as diplomat? At first glance, the idea is hardly scintillating. Diplomats,

surely, are little more than flunkeys of the state, toadying their way into the favor of the

powerful. They are wily, duplicitous, two-faced—those spin doctors who appear on CNN all too

eager to sugarcoat their regime’s latest bungles or atrocities. Latour is not unaware of these

connotations, of course; yet he hopes to reclaim the disgraced figure of the diplomat--as likely to

be accused of betrayal by his superiors as of dishonesty by his interlocutors. What the diplomat

drives home is the need for negotiation: conflicting interests must be accommodated;

compromise—that shameful word!—may be needed if new collectives are to be formed. In short,

the diplomat is the quintessential mediator—and, as envisioned by Maniglier, also the best guard

against reductionism.

This topic seems exceptionally timely in the light of the nascent interest in ANT in the

humanities. What kinds of tactics might we use to smooth its path? Which strategies are likely to

1
succeed? I come to these questions scarred by battles for another interdisciplinary field: cultural

studies. I use this term not in its loose sense—a focus on the cultural politics of race, gender, and

class--but to denote a specific intellectual tradition---- sometimes called British cultural

studies—associated with Stuart Hall, Larry Grossberg, and others. Cultural studies and ANT

have not, as far as I know, been directly compared (though Marianne de Laet has linked cultural

studies and STS.) Yet they share some striking similarities: a wariness of grand theorizing and

abstraction; an interest in nose-to-the-ground methods; a questioning of epistemological

asymmetries and insistence that ordinary people are not dupes or dopes. What defines a cultural

studies approach is articulation, an idea taken from political theorist Ernesto Laclau. An

articulation is a hook: the hook, for example, that connects the cabin of a truck to the load it is

pulling, which could be anything from doughnuts to diapers. It denotes, in other words, a

contingent link between phenomena that is made, unmade, and remade over time. Articulation is

a way of understanding how disparate phenomena come together to form temporary unities

without picturing society as a totality whose essential qualities are mirrored in every one of its

parts. Like ANT, then, cultural studies stresses relations and the contingency and variability of

these relations.

Now when I first encountered this way of thinking, I found it compelling—especially as a

way of capturing how art connects to the world. The general line of argument struck me as

incontrovertible; of course works of art do not possess a necessary or inherent politics, because

this politics depends on the audiences, ideas, institutions they hook up with—on the differing

constellations that are created. Such a line of argument, I thought smugly, would surely win out

over existing approaches in literary studies, especially what I’ve called political formalism;

treating a novel or a film as a microcosm of society whose formal features, if deciphered

2
correctly, will yield the hidden truth of power relations. Yet the impact of cultural studies, thirty

years later, has been far less than I had imagined. It has settled into an established field and

intellectual specialization, with its own journals and conferences, but it did not spark any major

reorientation of literature, art history, or philosophical aesthetics. This is especially true in the

United States, where it is frequently derided, sometimes praised, but rarely engaged. (When I

teach my graduate seminar on critical methods, I find my students are savvy about symptomatic

reading, gender as performance, and postcolonial theory, but none of them have ever heard of

articulation.)

What might we learn from this history? And does a similar fate lie in wait for ANT? It is

here that diplomacy proves relevant. Cultural studies, it’s fair to say, had little interest in

diplomacy; its mode of engagement was often deliberately confrontational, hailing its own turn

to soap operas and MTV as an assault on the values of tweedy, out of touch mandarins. The

vanguard stance of cultural studies took a distinctive form; it was not a matter of vaunting the

authority of intellectuals over ordinary people—a stance that was ruled out by its own egalitarian

values---but of trumping its superiority as an intellectual field vis-à-vis the conventional

disciplines. It could be especially scathing about literary studies; its fastidious formalism,

obsession with close reading, canon-worship, language of the ineffable, “love of literature.” As a

result, though, cultural studies was often seen as elevating politics at the expense of aesthetics; a

perception that was mistaken, in my view, but that in turn helped to justify literary indifference

to cultural studies—which could be waved away as “merely sociological.”

It is against this background that I am drawn to the important questions posed by

Maniglier about defenders of art (or in my case defenders of literature.) What are they attached

to? What [is it that] they cannot give up?. If we are to translate ANT successfully, we will need

3
to respect the modes of existence of literature and art; not just the works themselves, but how

they are discussed, deciphered, curated, and cared for. At the same time, the point is not to leave

these fields exactly as they were. What, then, are we willing to exchange, and what kinds of

deals can we make? It is here that diplomats and brokers are needed, to help ensure a fair trade

and translation without (too much) reduction. Let me sketch out three ways in which ANT can be

taken up in literary studies, assessing in each case what is gained and what is lost.

1) Networks within texts

The most obvious way to bring actor-network-theory into literary studies-- meshing most

smoothly with the practices of the discipline—is to use it as an interpretative key. Rather than

invoking Foucault on power or Bhabha’s ideas about hybridity, the critic draws on the precepts

of actor-network-theory to analyze a literary work. In his elegant commentary on Virginia

Woolf’s novel Jacob’s Room, for example, Gabriel Hankins remarks that “a constant swirl of

furniture, books, lovers, prejudices, social institutions, and landscapes” surrounds the protagonist

of the novel. Here we see the “Latourian list” and the assumptions of flat ontology--the openness

to many kinds of actors—at work. Hankins draws attention to nonhuman voices and material

networks; showing how the agency of a character writing a letter, for example, is displaced

downward to a pen as well as upward to the institutional structures of the postal service. Woolf,

he writes, “like a good Latour anthropologist, gives us individuals, institutions, objects, and

ideologies in the process of formation, in active co-articulation.”

Through a subtle and meticulous analysis, Hankins is able to show how ANT offers a

fresh view of Woolf’s work. In her defense of close reading, Jane Gallop stresses the importance

of such attention to textual detail. “The main idea or general shape of a book,” Gallop writes, “ is

likely to correspond to our preconceptions, but we cannot so easily predict the details. The detail

4
is, I would argue, the best safeguard against projection.” Close reading, in this sense, is not

simply what distinguishes literary studies from other disciplines: it also has ethical and even

political ramifications. The more carefully we read, the less likely we are to simplify, distort,

reduce. We must stick to the text, look at it closely, respect its singularity as a specific

constellation of words.

And yet, to halt the trade at this point—to conclude that ANT’s only or main contribution

to literary studies is to generate new readings of literary works—feels like a missed opportunity.

ANT, we might say, is giving up more than it gains. After all, networks do not abruptly end at

the borders of texts; things pass in both directions. What about the ties that bind aspects of one

novel to another? Or to authors, readers, reviewers, institutions, or other cultural artefacts? Why

is singularity something that only literature is taken to possess? Close reading can help reinforce

a sense of the work as a self-contained artefact, cut off from the relations that sustain it, in a way

that seems at odds with the spirit of ANT.

2) Texts in actor-networks.

A second approach takes a different tack: zooming out rather than zooming in. The

individual work is treated as just one actor among others in the task of reassembling the social by

tracing ties between phenomena. Nathan Hensley has written a very illuminating essay along

these lines, situating the writings of the Victorian polymath Andrew Lang in a constellation of

“distributed agencies.” The essay pays attention to other authors, from Henry James to Marie

Corelli; to nineteenth-century knowledge formations, from Homeric scholarship to trout-fishing;

to institutions from publishing houses to social clubs; and to differing moments in historical

time. Lang and his writings now appear as dense nodes in a hectic network of actors.

5
Such an approach offers an admirable breadth of perspective. The literary work is not

treated as a microcosm of “society”; rather, it associates with many other things to co-compose a

shared world. But how likely is such an approach to gain a wide uptake among literary scholars?

In my earlier advocacy for cultural studies, I would point out the tenuous status of sociopolitical

claims based on readings of one or two novels: the technique of what Larry Grossberg calls

“seeing the world in a grain of sand.” Rather than reading into a single text, I would argue, we

should read –like Hensley-- across texts, audiences, institutions. Only in this way could we get a

better sense of how words connect to the world.

Reservations, however, would soon be aired: what you are saying is all very well and

good—it may even be right-- but how do I put these ideas into practice? And how can I teach

this stuff? Literary curricula are still largely organized around the reading of exemplary works;

students come together to thrash out their responses to Beowulf or Beloved. Meanwhile, teachers

have their work cut out transmitting basics of textual analysis: point of view; narrative structure;

types of irony; how sound affects meaning. How is it possible to read Moby Dick as Jane Gallop

suggests—with careful attention to textual detail—if much of the class time is being allotted to

the networks in which Moby Dick is positioned? And how can English or French majors—drawn

to the subject, after all, by interest in literature—juggle analysis of a work with attention to

institutions, disparate audiences, and the history of ideas in the space of a five to ten page essay?

I used to wave away such questions as tangential, but I have come to realize they are

fundamental. They convey, first of all, what many literary scholars are attached to. The

interpreting of texts is a defining part of a disciplinary identity, of the “thought collective”

(Fleck) of literary studies. Urging literary critics to retool as sociologists of literary networks

fails to respect this attachment; the trade it proposes is fundamentally unequal. Second, I’ve

6
come to think that any approach, ANT included, will only gain uptake if it is teachable—if it can

be taken up into the curriculum. One reason political formalism is so exceptionally successful is

that it offers a literary cake and a political cake too (two for the price of one!): scholars can

demonstrate skills in textual analysis—the sine qua non of the discipline—while also claiming to

decipher the patriarchal unconscious or the logic of neoliberalism

If the first approach I’ve identified—analyzing networks in texts--does not sufficiently

challenge the autonomy of literature and the second—analyzing texts in networks—may be too

remote from the discipline to gain much traction, what other options are available? Any attempt

to forge lasting links between ANT and literary studies will need to fulfil certain felicity

conditions: transmit skills of interpretation; address literature’s relationship to the extra-literary,

including political concerns that animate many scholars; and be achievable in an undergraduate

essay as well as a doctoral dissertation. It is here that Latour’s turn to instauration proves

helpful.

The idea of instauration is akin to construction—emphasizing that works of art are made

rather than found—but without its demystifying undertones. That literature is mediated and co-

produced does not devalue it or diminish its power. Latour writes: “A work of art engages

us…and at no point do we have the feeling that we are free to do whatever we want with it. If

listeners are gripped by a piece. . . it is because the work demands that they become part of its

journey of instauration.” The focus here is on relations between texts and audiences rather than

the text alone (approach 1) or sprawling networks (approach 2). The language of instauration

acknowledges the distinctiveness of literature— a sticking point for its defenders--as being

irreducible to economic, political, or psychological explanation. Yet it also points out that its

distinctiveness is co-produced; the work makes us even as we make the work. Novels and

7
paintings need our devotion; they exist only as art— rather than as black marks on a page or

meaningless smears on canvas--insofar as they are taken up by viewers or readers. The emphasis

on co-production, the diplomat might be pleased to see, resonates—in spite of important

differences—with the thinking of figures such as Gadamer or Iser; what is the hermeneutic circle

if not an account of the co-creation of the art work and the ways it changes those who engage

with it? As Rebecca Solnit writes: ”The object we call a book is not the real book, but its

potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its . .

.home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates.”

Perhaps we can weave something out of these threads that will fulfil the felicity

conditions I outlined earlier. Such an account will be attentive to the literary work and what it

makes possible: its affordances; its thematic obsessions or formal innovations; its styles, moods,

techniques, and quirks. It takes for granted that literature exists in a network of relations; yet in

the spirit of compromise, it recognizes that certain relations will prove more salient to literary

critics than others. To speak well of literature, we need to relate ANT to the touchstones of

aesthetics since the 18th century: the form of the work and the experience of the work. How do

we download from Mrs Dalloway—to paraphrase Latour—the means by which to read it? What

techniques and forms does it use to lure us in? How does it enchant or estrange? (estrangement,

of course, can also be a form of enchantment).

The focus on a work’s affordances –on its distinctiveness as a literary artefact—thus

meshes well with both ANT and the concerns of literary scholars. Here there is room for

attention to textual detail and careful reading (the text remains a central object). The language of

experience, however, gives way to that of attachments. Aesthetic experience is a term too heavily

weighed down by its intellectual legacy. Not only is it commonly conjugated in the singular—as

8
if art afforded only one kind of appropriate response—but it often conjures up a picture of a

purely subjective drama being played out in the cells of individual minds. Attachment,

meanwhile, lays stress on relations; on the various ties that bind us to works of art. Such ties can

be affective, or ethical, or political; thus connecting ANT to a broad range of interests in literary

studies. The emphasis, however, lies on the specific ways in which affect, ethics, and politics are

played out in the bonds between readers and texts. How are we hooked; why are we hooked; and

what are the results of these ties?

You may worry, perhaps, that such questions will encourage students to fall into a

dubious individualism or entrenched identity categories. Such responses, I’ve found, are rare, as

long as one underscores how selves, as well as works, are formed via relations: unstable

composites rather than solid foundations. Over the last few years, my students have produced

some remarkable reflections on their aesthetic attachments: linking techniques of textual analysis

to the complexities of recognition; the urgency and uncertainty of empathy; art’s capacity to

enchant and absorb as well as to trigger shock or disgust: fan culture and forms of collective

identification.

A diplomat is all too conscious that words must be chosen carefully. “Instauration”

strikes me as a slightly clunky word that may not catch on among English speakers. The stress is

on relations; yet “relational aesthetics” has already been claimed by Bourriaud for rather

different ends. Might “activation” be a plausible term? To activate, after all, is to make

something active; in a way that chimes with Latour and Hennion’s language of “faire faire” and

emphasis on distributed agency. We activate a work as it activates us. Perhaps such a language of

activation and attachment will prove appealing to literary scholars, and our diplomatic efforts

may have some modest success.