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Reading Latour: Reassembling the Social

12 October 2011 William L. Benzon

ABSTRACT Notes on Bruno Latour, Reassembling: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory, with some consideration of compositionism. These ideas are developed with ideas and concepts from cognitive science, literary studies, music, and extensive examples from the world of contemporary graffiti.

CONTENTS Introduction: Reading Latour ..................................................................................................................1 Reading Latour 0: Ontology, Methodology, Compositionism..............................................................3 Reading Latour 1: Tracing .......................................................................................................................7 Reading Latour 2: The Social ..................................................................................................................9 Reading Latour 3: Groups and the Game of Graffiti ...........................................................................12 Reading Latour 4: Society and Culture.................................................................................................18 Reading Latour 5: Things ......................................................................................................................20 Reading Latour 6: Recouping Constructivism .....................................................................................25 Reading Latour 7: A Bit of Reflection..................................................................................................28 Reading Latour 8: Some Conjunctions in the Pluriverse.....................................................................30 Reading Latour 9: The Latour Locus, an Interlude ..............................................................................33 Reading Latour 10: Description & Graffiti ..........................................................................................37 Reading Latour 11: Plug-ins and Couplings.........................................................................................45 Reading Latour 11.1: The Cartesian Individual ...................................................................................48 Reading Latour 12: ANT and Literary Studies ....................................................................................50 Reading Latour 13: ANT and Politics...................................................................................................53 Appendix: Three Objects for OOOIII ...................................................................................................56 222 Van Horne St., 3R Jersey City, NJ 07304 201.217.1010

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Introduction: Reading Latour

No scholar should find humiliating the task of description. This is, on the contrary, the highest and rarest achievement. Bruno Latour
Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. Here then is a series of notes I made over the course of a month and a half in which I worked my way through Reassembling the Social (RS) and then, at the end, Latours manifesto on compositionism. For the most part Ive gathered the notes in the order in which I posted them. But not completely. The first set, RL0, contains my (provisional) thoughts on compositionism, suggesting that it has various precursors, including the cognitive science movement. I conclude those notes by suggesting that the future of compositionism lies precisely in redrawing the boundaries between psychology and sociology, which Latour calls for in RS, but does not deliver in a deep way. And that, in turn, sets the stage, it seems to me, for what I was up in my sets of notes. On the one hand, yes, I was reading RS and commenting on it. But I was also assimilating it to my own work, and my work to it, though an extensive series of reflections on graffiti. Graffiti and its culture is just the sort of phenomenon for which Actor Network Theory (ANT) was devised. It is a relatively new phenomenondating only back to the early 1970sand it is not yet fully institutionalized. It is in flux. My descriptive notes on graffiti stay, for the most part, within the social sphere. Where I talk of cost-benefit calculations, of the significance of so-called pieces, and about stylistic fidelity (RL3), however, I move into psychology. Those notes are about how graffiti writers think about their work. Later on I move more deeply into psychology with discussions of cognitive science, music, and literature. Accordingly, the following listing shows the intrusions of other material into observations directly on Latours ideas. Collectively, this other material suggests ways of extending Latourian analysis and description of society to and through psychology to culture. RL0: Ontology, Methodology, Compositionism: cognitive science RL1: Tracing: origins of graffiti from early 1970s through the early 1980s RL2: The Social: graffiti, art or vandalism; social psychology, game theory RL3: Groups and the Game of Graffiti: graffiti all the way, pictures included, games, masterpieces, styles, and the graffiti community RL4: Society and Culture: society is groups of people, culture is their norms, etc. RL5: Things: power and graffiti, more pictures RL6: Recouping Constructivism: Herbert Simon, Sciences of the Artificial RL7: A Bit of Reflection: enter, literary form, but just a tiny bit RL8: Some Conjunctions in the Pluriverse: evolution, complexity, the ecological psychology of J. J. Gibson, and emic vs. etic (linguistics and anthropology) RL9: The Latour Locus, an Interlude: I comment on five photographs, none of graffiti, indicating lines of being intersecting through the photos RL10: Description & Graffiti: mailer and Naar, The Faith of Graffiti, a proto-ANT account; Graffiti in Jersey City, NJ, a little history, some photographs -1-

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RL11: Plug-ins and Couplings: a neural-level description (composition) of music-making in a group; this is a critical move in the integration of psychology and sociology RL11.1: The Cartesian Individual: basically a pendant RL11 RL12: ANT and Literary Studies: texts and standards, text as intermediary and mediator, oral cultures, written texts, reader as agent RL13: ANT and Politics: all Latour, except for a brief note about graffiti Appendix: Three Objects for OOOIII: the world-wide graffiti wall (with a map and a photo), the music-making group, the literary text I didnt write the appendix as a commentary on Latour. I wrote it during the course of the ObjectOriented Ontology meetings that happened in mid-September in New York City. The three objects I describe in that post, however, provide a convenient summary of my thoughts on cross-border raids between sociology and psychology, between the group and the individual mind.


Reading Latour 0: Ontology, Methodology, Compositionism

Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. An Attempt at a Compositionist Manifesto, New Literary History, 2010, 41: 471490. Though its not so long ago that I decided to read Latour, I dont recall the exact route that led me to his work. It might go like this: I was intrigued by the notion of Latour litanies, read a post by Graham Harman where he referred to one hed quoted in his study of Latour, Prince of Networks, and so downloaded that book, as it was available as a free download. Once I got the book I looked up the specific passage Harman had mentioned, a quotation from Richard Rhodes on p. 103, and then looked around in Harmans book, finally deciding I needed to read Latour himself. I suppose I choose Reassembling the Social both because it is relatively recent (2005) and for the systematic exposition promised by its subtitle, An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. What I read struck me as a fascinating and brilliant, if slightly odd, treatise on method:

To describe the social world, this is what you do, how you do it, and why you do it.
The many examples Latour gave were interesting but, given what he was saying, individually a bit thin (I assume he has thicker descriptive work in other books), as were the specific how-to-do-it suggestions. There was some talk of notebooks in one chapter, but that was as much a thought experiment as a practical suggestion. Its as though the methodological flavor served as an elaborate metaphor for something else, indicated in the whys. And that something else is philosophy, more specifically, ontology. Its as an ontologist that Harman presents Latour, but as a peculiar one. Thus (Prince of Networks, 14):
Latour always insists that we cannot philosophize from raw first principles but must follow objects in action and describe what we see. Empirical studies are more important for him than for almost any other philosopher; later in his career he will even speak of experimental metaphysics.

A bit further on (p. 16):

Whereas Latour places all human, nonhuman, natural, and artificial objects on the same footing, the analytics and continentals both still dither over how to bridge, deny, or explain way a single gap between humans and the world. While graduate students are usually drilled in a stale dispute between correspondence and coherence theories of truth, Latour locates truth in neither of these models, but in a series of translations between actors. And whereas mainstream philosophy worries about whether things exist independently of us or are constructed by the mind, Latour says they are socially constructed not just by human minds, but also by bodies, atoms, cosmic rays, business lunches, rumors, physical force, propaganda, or God. There is no privileged force to which the others can be reduced, and certainly no ceaseless interplay between pure natural forces and pure social forces, each untainted by the other. Nothing exists but actants, and all of them are utterly concrete.

Nothing but actantsmost provocative, and most satisfying. Thats what I didnt (quite) know when I started this project, and, correlatively, thats something Ive learned. And a very important lesson it is. It is, however, one thing to give quick assent to the notion of a flat ontology in which no object is endowed with more Being than any other object. For reasons grounded in my own work -3-

in particular, my work on musicI found that notion congenial when I first found it in posts by Tim Morton. But it is something else to see the idea systemically developed by a different thinker, from a different background. THAT is what I found in Reassembling, that is what gave off an aura of the new. And I can see it there in the Jane Bennetts very different work, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. While the primary scientific literature only shows up sporadically in the book at least as I can see from a quick skimits no more than a citation or two away from what DOES appear in the book. And that literature throws doubt on the nice neat division of the world into human, animal, vegetable, mineral, and all the rest, that division thats embedded in our grammar. What happens if one is so bold as to insist on taking that neat division out of the specialized literature, out of the specialized disciplines, and bring it into the common sphere? But I digress. What Im now wondering is whether or not Latour is neither a philosopher, nor a sociologist, but something new, for which he has provided a new term, a compositionist who thus practices compositionism. In saying this I am not suggesting that compositionism is a new discipline, taking its place along side the various old disciplines, such as physics, geology, history, sociology, and so on. For where would it situate itself in such a scheme, what School? Humanities? Social Sciences? Natural Sciences? Engineering? None of the above, all of the above? No, I am suggesting that compositionism is something else, a new way of being disciplined, rather than yet another discipline trying to force its way into the scheme laid down in the 19th century German university. As an oddly parallel case I offer cognitive science (cf. the section Constructing Minds (Constructing Science) in RL6: Recouping Constructivism). The phrase was coined in 19731 by H. Christopher Longuet-Higgins,2 who was trained in and had appointments in the physical sciences but somehow ended up doing computational work on the human mind. He begins the preface of Mental Process, a 1987 collection of his papers, like this:
This is the log book of an expedition into the mostly uncharted territory of the mind. When in 1967 Richard Gregory and I packed our bags for Edinburgh, it was in the shared conviction that the workings of the mind could not possibly be as tedious as the psychologists made them out to be, or as peripheral as the physical scientists tended to assume.

I have no idea whether or not Longuet-Higgins was the first physical scientist to gravitate to a primary interest in the human mindmost likely notbut he certainly wasnt the last. As for the polyglot field he named, except for a program here and there, it never really took root as a university discipline. It has existed mostly as an interdepartmental mongrel, albeit one with its own journals and professional societies. A cognitive scientist specializing in cognitive psychology is, ipso facto, a psychologist; but a cognitive psychologist is not, ipso facto, a cognitive scientist. And so it goes with various linguists, philosophers, computer scientists, and others. To my mind, for my taste, the steam went out of cognitive science perhaps two decades ago. But thats neither here nor there. My point is that cognitive science was something else, a something else that never fit into the 19th century scheme of intellectual being. That in itself is not so strange. Biophysics, for example, is newer than that, and it is a well recognized specialization. The are many such hybrids in the contemporary university. The department where I was trained, for example, the Department of English at the State University of Buffalo, had programs in Literature and Psychology, Philosophy and Literature and Literature and Society. But these examples all span a relatively compact interdisciplinary arena. Cognitive science sprawls across linguistics, computer science,

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logic, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience, a much wider and somewhat more mysterious and tenuous remit. Compositionism feels more like that. Heres Latours own gloss on the word (PDF): 3
Even though the word composition is a bit too long and windy, what is nice is that it underlines that things have to be put together (Latin componere) while retaining their heterogeneity. Also, it is connected with composure; it has a clear root in art, painting, music, theater, dance, and thus is associated with choreography and scenography; it is not too far from compromise and compromising retaining with it a certain diplomatic and prudential flavor. . . . Above all, a composition can fail and thus retain what is most important in the notion of constructivism (a label which I could have used as well, had it not been already taken by art history). It thus draws attention away from the irrelevant difference between what is constructed and what is not constructed, toward the crucial difference between what is well or badly constructed, well or badly composed.

Compositionism is about construction, about how things are assembled into other things. There is, of course, nothing inherently new in that, as Latour acknowledges in listing kindred precedents: . . . art, painting, music, theater, dance, and thus is associated with choreography and scenography . . . For that matter, mathematics is almost pure construction; one starts with axioms and postulates and builds a mathematical system. Engineering is all about composition, design, and construction, about creating something from nothing, as Ive argued in this post.4 And biology, while classified as a science, has, to my mind, an engineering feel about it. The cell is a chemical factory, multi-celled organisms are constructed of single cells organized into tissues of various types, organisms interact with one another in complex ecological fields, and so forth. And much of cognitive science has this engineering feel about, this compositionist aura. Im thinking about Chomskys notion of a grammar as a set of rules from which sentence structures are composed in the manner of a mathematical proof and of all those simulations of mental models. All this feels much closer to engineering than to, say, physics, where one derives a universe from a handful of laws. If, then, compositionism has been around for some time in various forms, where is the novelty in Latours proposal? That, it seems to me is at one and the same time, obvious and not at all obvious. Its there in the flattened ontology and in the emphasis on description, which is no small thing, no, not at all. In Reassembling the Social Latour mostly urges description upon us rather than producing extensive descriptions himself. That is why Ive introduced graffiti into so many of my posts. While the descriptive work Ive done is relatively informal, there is enough of it, and of enough kinds, to give some sense of what it would be like to describe graffiti-world in some detail. Beyond that, compositionisms novelty can be seen in Latours call to redraw the boundaries between sociology and psychology (213). But, as I have indicated in the appendix, Three Objects for OOOIII, he hasnt really provided any conceptual tools for doing that beyond his metaphor of the plug-in. The cognitive and neurosciences, on the other hand, had plenty of tools for doing that and, in my description of the music-making group (see RL11: Plug-ins and Couplings, RL11: The Cartesian Individual, and in the appendix) I have composed a neural-level object that crosses, and in a sense even dissolves, that boundary. A thorough description of graffiti-world would have to reach into the graffiti itself and deal with those designs, which I have not done in these posts. THAT descriptive work, inscribed on a bridge between the social and the psychological, that would be deeply NEW. Given that description, what THEN, and ONLY then, would we be able to see about graffiti? Of course we do not know. We have to do the work first, but not only for graffiti world, but also, for example, semi3 4 -5-

conductor fabrication world, quilting world, YouTube video world, urban hydroponics world, Arab Spring world, and so forth. In all those cases, and many more, we need to weave our compositionist webs back and forth over the abyss currently separating the psychological and the social. There, on the far side of descriptions as yet unwritten, there, I suspect, is where the compositionist frontier lies.


Reading Latour 1: Tracing

Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. I finally decided that Id have to bite the bullet and read Latour. Not Harman, who is an explicator of Latour, or Bryant, or Bogost, who gave us the Latour Litanizer, nor even Morton, who introduced me too OOO, and whom Ive been reading in blog-sized form. Which counts for more than you might think as not only have I been reading, but Ive been commenting, and Tims commented back. And making my own OOOish posts, on which Tims commented. That dialog is worth, say, 5 thick books, merely read. If you will, where one picture is worth a thousand words, a thousand words of dialog is worth 100,000 words of static text. But all signs pointed to Latour, a sociologist by trade. Who likes flat ontologies. And whom, so Ive read, sees things, mere physical things, as ineluctably part of the social. That, it seems to me, is what I need, for my specific problem is that of the graffiti site, the wall on which the marks are made, time and again. As Ive said time and again, the site is some kind of agent in the graffiti world. And the graffiti world, well graffiti world is just a phrase, a label. That I use the term should not be taken to imply that I understand it. Further, object-oriented ontology is, well, its philosophy. And Im not sure about philosophy. What does it mean to talk about capital B Being, and to do so with a straight face and without crossing your fingers? Heidegger? Ive known about him for years. Never read him. Merleau-Ponty was my man back in the day. Im not sure I how far I can go with thinking that regards Heidegger as a living influence. & Latour doesnt even have Heidegger in his indexIm talking about Assembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory, the book I bought. No, I simply dont know how to negotiate my way in philosophy, not anymore. And Im not interested in reaching philosophical conclusions. My immediate task is to understand graffiti. Such understanding as I manage to scrape together will, I figure, be some kind of informal and discursive social science perhaps with a psychological twist. Its not going to be philosophy. No doubt whatever I do implies some philosophical stance. But Ill let others worry about it, if, that is, theres anything worth worrying about. Latour. I got the book a couple of days ago and leafed through it, wondering how to read it, for one doesnt necessarily start at the beginning and read through to the end. See, here in the index, Third Source of Uncertainty: Objects too Have Agency. Looks promising. Should I start there, you know, get a jump on it? What about How to Keep the Social Flat? Or, Third Move: Connecting Sites? Heck, why not go straight to the finish: Conclusion: From Society to CollectiveCan the Social be Reassembled? So I leafed through the book, reading snatches here and there. And, for whatever reason, I decided to start at the beginning: Introduction: How to Resume the Task of Tracing Associations. Latours distinguishing his approach from that other approach, the one thats fallen to pieces. I suppose thats what I learned as an undergraduate from James Coleman and Arthur Stinchcombe and some guy whose name escapes me, but he introduced me to Centuries of Childhood. p. 8:
... adherents of the first [the position being set on the shelf] have simply confused what they should explain with the explanation. They begin with society or other social aggregates, whereas one should end with them. The believed the social to be made


essentially of social ties, whereas associations are made of ties which are themselves nonsocial. They imagined that sociology is limited to a specific domain, whereas sociologists should travel wherever new heterogeneous associations are made.

Bingo! Wherever new heterogeneous associations are madethats the stuff. New. Heterogeneous. Graffiti on subway cars, new heterogeneous associations. Its there in the histories, such as they are, the associations people made with one another through those marks on the cars. When your tag travels from one end of New York City to the other, people see it; they know your tag before they know you. And you theirs. Latour goes on:
They believed the social to be always already there [who coined this phrase?] at their disposal, whereas the social is not a type of thing either visible or to be postulated. It is visible only by the traces [a Derrida word, no?] it leaves (under trials) when a new association is being produced between elements which themselves are in no way social.

Under trialswhat does that mean? Stress, the traces must survive? Well, you can find stories like that in graffiti. And the trials continue. Another line, p. 11: But in situations where innovations proliferate, where group boundaries are uncertain, when the range of entities to be taken into account fluctuates, the sociology of the social [that is now being put on the shelf] is no longer able to trace actors new associations. Again, graffiti resonance. What are the groups that constitute graffiti culture, their boundaries? Certainly, the writers themselves. But only them? Surely not. A fluctuating range of entitiestags, throwies, pieces, on trains, walls, canvas? So, back in late 1972 Jon Naar was commissioned to photograph graffiti, and Norman Mailer went with him on some shoots. Graffiti abounded in the NYC subway system, on the cars, inside and outside, but also the stations, and other places as well. Do we have graffiti culture yet? With none of its members as old as 20? And these particular styles only two, three, four years old? Graffiti, yes, but only in NYC, and Philly, and no doubt little bits elsewhere. Id say its too early to declare graffiti culture. No pieces yet, the practice hadnt been invented; that was a year or two later. Retrospectively, now that we know, sure, thats easy. But back then, on the ground on, say, 12 December 1972: Did graffiti culture exist? Graffiti yes. But an ongoing self-sustaining cultural formation, no. What about 1982? when Wild Style came out, a fictional story starring real graffiti writers and others on the graffit and hip hop scenefor the hip hop connection had been made by then. Or 1983, when the Style Wars documentary ran on PBS? Graffiti had survived a decade, though the City government was trying to eradicate it. Writers were being roughed up, given jail terms, and cars where being buffed. So, its held up against trials. And masterpieces had become coin of the realm, that is, if you wanted to be a king. Back in 1974 Mailer and Naar published their book, The Faith of Graffiti. It became a bible of graffiti. Writers would pass copies around. The significant fact, of course, is simply that the book existed and was reviewed in The New York Times. Graffiti had become part of a conversation larger than the writers and their acquaintances. It was on the New York City cultural map. Surely THAT played a role in coalescing graffiti culture. A year after Style Wars showed, Subway Art was published. That became the second graffiti bible. It too was passed around from writer to writer, along with videotapes of Style Wars and Wild Style, which would take graffiti to Japan. Do we have graffiti culture yet?


Reading Latour 2: The Social

Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005.

The Question of Graffiti

Public discourse on graffiti tends to be dominated by one question: Is it art or vandalism? My first impulse, as you might imagine, is to note that we dont have an either/or dichotomy here, that graffiti can easily both. I suspect that reaction is both too sophisticated and not sophisticated enough. What Im thinking, of course, is whether or not an image is art is logically independent of where it is and whether or not it is legally there. The people who pose the question obviously dont think that way, otherwise they wouldnt post just THAT question. Still, if you asked them, What is art? what would they say? I dont know, but I can imagine that someone during the conversation at least some of them would say: I know it when I see it. And some might say: You know, its in museums and galleries and sells for lots of money. That first non-answer is what happens when you try to define art by its content and someone pushes you to the wall on it. When I say that the nature of art is independent of its legal status, that sort of thing is surely what I have in mind. And if you pressed me on it, well, seriously, if you REALLY DID press men on it, I wouldnt say I know it when I see it. But Id admit there is a problem. What about Duchamps urinal? What makes that urinal art, but not all the other urinals in the world? Which brings me to that second answer: It hangs in galleries, etc. That, of course, is an institutional definition. And its a very sophisticated sense of what art is, more sophisticated than most people are on such matters. My imaginary interlocutor is not, in fact, offering such a definition. Rather, in desperation, theyre using museums and galleries as shorthand ways of pointing out thousands of examples of capital A Art. And so they point to the institutions that, in the institutional definition, constitute art. And so were back at that question: Is it art or vandalism? If that question is taken as one, not about the images themselves, but about the authorizing institutions, then, YES, it is dichotomous. And the dichotomy is between institutionally authorized and, not merely unauthorized, but entirely outside legitimate society. What I think is that, as ordinarily asked and understood, the question is unclear, indefinite, ambiguous. It is not clearly and explicitly about institutions, but it implies them; nor is it NOT about imagistic content, for the question does implies it.

Social Calculations
The question is a messy one. As is the matter of the social. And that brings us back to Latour. As I mentioned in my previous Latour post, he sets up his argument by countering his position against what he takes to be The Standard view. Heres how he starts that (p. 3):
The first solution has been to post the existence of a specific sort of phenomenon variously called society, social order, social practice, social dimension, or social structure. For the last century during which social theories have been elaborated, it has been important to distinguish this domain of reality from other domains such as economics, geography, biology, psychology, law, science, and politics. A given trait was said to be social or to pertain to society when it could be defined as possessing specific properties, some negativeit must not be purely biological, linguistic, economical, naturaland some positiveit must achieve, reinforce, express, maintain, reproduce, or subvert the social



I suppose hes right about that. And, yes, I can see how people would take about the social almost as though it were a substance, like icing on the cake. Language does tend to push us in that direction. But the existence of such talk doesnt necessarily mean that the accompanying thinking is so nave. But then, Latour does admit that hes creating something of a caricature. I say this by way of indicating that, whatever intellectual baggage I bring to this reading, its not some notion of the social as reified substance. Its, if anything, much odder. Its math, a subject on which my intuitions are deeper than my technical skill. My sense of society derives from my graduate school mentor, David Hays. Yes, as some of you may know, he taught me some computational linguistics. But his training and orignal work was in sociology. In an article he published in Ddalus (Vol. 102, No. 3: 203-216), Language and Interpersonal Relationships, he reports an unpublished experiment he did at the RAND Corporation:
The experiment strips conversation down to its barest essentials by depriving the subject of all language except for two pushbuttons and two lights, and by suggesting to him that he is attempting to reach an accord with a mere machine. We brought two students into our building through different doors and led them separately to adjoining rooms. We told each that he was working with a machine, and showed him lights and pushbuttons. Over and over again, at a signal, he would press one or the other of the two buttons, and then one of two lights would come on. If the light that appeared corresponded to the button he pressed, he was right; otherwise, wrong. The students faced identical displays, but their feedback was reversed: if student A pressed the red button, then a moment later student B would see the red light go on, and if student B pressed the red button, then student A would see the red light. On any trial, therefore, if the two students pressed matching buttons they would both be correct, and if they chose opposite buttons they would both be wrong. We used a few pairs of RAND mathematicians; but they would quickly settle on one color, say red, and choose it every time. Always correct, they soon grew bored. The students began with difficulty, but after enough experience they would generally hit on something. . . . The students, although they were sometimes wrong, were rarely bored. They were busy figuring out the complex patterns of the machine. But where did the patterns come from? Although neither student knew it, they arose out of the interaction of two students.

And THATs what I believe is at the heart of the social. Its an odd sort of gameand it derives from game theoryin which the basic task is simple and the moves are made explicit by the highly artificial material situation, all of which, I assume, Latour would have us take fully into account. And properly so. Those students were immersed in a complex guessing game. And lots of real games are like that. In games as deeply different as poker and chess part of the craft lies in guessing what your opponent is up to. But then, that happens in ordinary conversation. Youre always anticipating your interlocutor, and s/he you. You may even complete one of their sentences, or two. But what happens in an antagonistic interaction where you dont trust the other person? There the guessing can go on and on and on as you try to suss out the angles. These calculations can easily reach a point where they just break down and the interaction collapses, perhaps into violence, or perhaps it just stops and you turn away.

A Three Player Game

What, you ask, has this to do with graffiti? Everything. The writer puts his, or sometimes her, name on a wall. Whos the intended audience? When Cornbread in Philly did it, the story goes, he was trying to attract the attention of a specific young lady. That others too say the name, that was incidental. When Taki 183 tagged the streets of New York, who did he intend to read the tag? Anyone, I suppose. I also suppose that his friends knew his tag, and that he knew that they knew. So this was at heart a comfortable exchange among friends.

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And when a photo of one of his tags appeared in The New York Times, that changed the game. The so-called paper of record took notice, which means society-at-largethe social reified in a single institutional player?took notice. Now it was Taki 183, his friends, and SOCIETY. Its a three-person game. And three-person games are notoriously complex and unstable. Who sets the rules of the game? In theory, its SOCIETY. But if SOCIETY cant catch you, so what? Thats whats at state in the game of graffiti: So Bleepin WHAT? Thats why the site is so very important. Its the site the creates the question: What SOCIETY? Thats whats so very clever, and very mysterious, about graffiti. It has somehow managed to stage a game in which all of (legitimate) society is compacted, distilled, and reified into a single player in THE GAME. That player is at once concrete, the buff that obliterates the writing, and abstract, the full force of The State behind the buff. And its a game thats played all over the world. Any graffiti in Antarctica?

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Reading Latour 3: Groups and the Game of Graffiti

Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. This reading Latour (Reassembling the Social) is tough. Its not that the ideas are particularly tough; theyre not, at least not so far. Its that I read a line or paragraph, and it sets me to thinking, and thinking, and thinking . . . so I put the Latour down and think and think some more. It takes time to run his stuff through (several decades of) my own accumulated thoughts, which include the graffiti thoughts Ive been having for the past few years. And its graffiti I really want to understand, not so much Latour. Im reading him so I can better read graffiti.

On to groups. I talk of graffiti culture as though there is such a thing. There is graffiti itself, on the walls, in photos, in books and on the web. And there are the people who make the graffiti, take the photos, put them in books, and on the web. And others besides, those who look at the graffiti and the photos. Sometimes when I talk of graffiti culture, I mean to indicate a group of people. And that, groups, is Latours first topic after the introduction. So, p. 29:
To sum up, whereas for sociologists the first problem seems to settle on one privileged grouping, our most common experience, if we are faithful to it, tells us that there are lots of contradictory group formations, group enrollmentactivity to which social scientists are obviously crucial contributors. The choice is thus clear: either we follow social scientists and begin our travel by setting up at the start which kind of group and level of analysis we will focus on, or we follow the actors own ways and begin our travels by the traces left behind by their activity of forming and dismantling groups.

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Whats interesting about graffiti is that the graffiti itself is a means through which and around which groups come into being. Considered as a group, or as an irritant or stimulus to group formation, the illegal nature of graffiti is crucial. Lets follow it out.

Ive been going about this the wrong wayisnt it always thus? The illegal nature of graffiti IS an issue, as is the FIDELITY of graffiti style to the NYC and Philly originals all over the world. And the two ARE linked. The question ISNT so much: Why did graffiti persist despite its illegal nature. Rather, the question IS more like: Under what circumstances will the illegal nature of an expressive practice tend to foster that practice? What does the existence and persistence of graffiti tell us about the world? The fact that graffiti is illegal means that the state is going to impose costs on the activity. If graffiti is to persist in the face of those costs, then those costs to the graffiti community must be lower than the benefits of graffiti, however those costs and benefits are counted up. With these considerations in mind, lets take another look. To begin with, we must note that graffiti started as the expressive practice of (mostly) minority young men, young men who were already somewhat alienated from mainstream America. Thus, the disapproval of mainstream America is not new to them and might even conceivably be rewarding to them if they settle on an Oppositional identity.

The Game of Graffiti

So, to define our game a bit: (1) The individual graffiti writer is one player in the graffiti game. (2) The state, as represented by the police and the justice system, is a third player. The state functions as a proxy for the whole of legitimate society. (3) Each writer plays to what I believe sociologists call a reference group, the group of people which a given individual, such as a graffiti writer, considers to be his peers, his homies. This group will be fuzzy and fluid, but will include other graffiti writers, but also those among their immediate associates who may not themselves be writers. Considered as a collectivity, these reference groups are another player. Call it simply the graffiti community. THATs the group whose existence were trying to understand, along with graffiti itself. What are the rewards of graffiti writing, to the writers themselves? Fame and reputation within his reference group. What are the costs? For the purposes of this informal discussion Im going to ignore the costs the reference group can impose (for breaking the informal codes of graffiti writing) and concentrate on the costs imposed by the third player, the state. First, the graffiti can be removed by the authorities thus costing the writer the effort expended in getting up PLUS the opportunity cost of that effort. However, if the graffiti stays up for a sufficient period of time, whatever that is, this may not be a cost at all. That is, the effort expended in getting up was not wasted, as the graffiti was up long enough to earn its increment of fame. The advent of photography further mitigated the cost of buffing. If ones work has been photographed, then its loss is not so high. Think of getting up as analogous to counting coups. Once there is a photographic record, one can always prove that one got up in this or that spot and the removal of the graffiti thus does not negate the count. Of course, the state can impose other costs as well. Informally, writers may get beaten-up by the police without, however, an arrest. The cost of the beating would depend on its severity and the resilience of the writer. Beyond that, the writer can be arrested, and, if convicted, can be assessed a fine and / or jail time. To exact these costs, of course, the police have to catch the writers and they have to be able to convict them. Neither of these is certain.

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We know, in fact, that writers have been arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison. I seem to have heard of at least one case where a writer got two years. I have no reason at all to believe that thats the maximum sentence thats been handed out but I do think that, on the whole, its on the high end. Weve also got to consider the possibility that an arrest and conviction may actually enhance a writers standing within the graffiti community, that is, within a writers reference group. Here Im thinking of a scene from Goodfellas, which, of course, was not about graffiti at all. It was about the mafia. The central character, Henry Hill, gains in stature after his first arrest because he comported himself properly. Id imagine things work out in a similar fashion in the graffiti world. Which takes us back to where we began, with alienated young men. None of this is possible unless society is divided. Graffiti thrives on/in the division.

The Piece, aka Masterpiece

The pieceespecially elaborate graffiti involving a large surface area, complex design, and many colorsdeserves special attention because its very existence presupposes the existence of a meaningful graffiti community. Yes, there is the historical progression from tagging to piecing but we must note that, in that process piecing would not have evolved if there hadnt been a graffiti community ready to reward it. Its not simply that, as a matter of developing technical and aesthetic skill, the writers had to do the simple stuff, tags and then throw-ups, before they could do the more sophisticated pieces. But also that that process brought into being a community of people ready and willing to reward the skill exhibited in piecing.

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Piecing imposes costs on the writer: (1) There is the material cost of all the paint required. One must either pay for the paint or, more traditionally, rack it, that is, steal it. Racking by its nature imposes the cost of exposure to arrest. (2) The opportunity cost of the time it takes to paint the piece. This time also entails exposure to arrest. The reward, as always, is fame. There is also the intrinsic pleasure of doing the work, but I dont know how effective this is as reward.

I thus take the emergence of piecingbetween, say, 1973 and 1975as evidence that something we can reasonably call the graffiti community was taking shape. It is that community

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that rewarded the writers for the risks they took and the skill they exhibited in putting pieces on subway cars in New York City.

Stylistic Fidelity
Given all this, I think I now have a way to approach the question of stylistic fidelity. By that I mean that, when graffiti began to spread away from New York City and Philadelphia, many of the features of NYC and Philly styles went along with it and have been preserved. Im particularly impressed by the fact that many of these features are preserved in Japanese graffiti. Given that 1) graffiti is based on letter-form writing and 2) that the Japanese writing system is radically different from that of America, it seems remarkable that Japanese graffiti nonetheless preserves many of the NYC/Philly features and makes extensive use of romanji characters as well (that is, the Roman alphabet). Why? Well, of course, graffiti spread through imitation and people would imitate they styles they saw, for example, in The Faith of Graffiti, Subway Art, Wild Style, and Style Wars. But Im not sure mere imitation will account for this stylistic continuity and fidelity. I suspect, though I certainly cannot prove, that something else may be going on. If styles drifted a great deal when graffiti spread from one place to another, that would, I suspect, tend to fracture the graffiti community into many more smaller communities. Fame would thus be more localized. The preservation of stylistic continuity allows for a larger community in which fame can circulate. Now, when I thus speak of a world-wide graffiti community, I dont mean to imply that graffiti is one big happy family all over the world. Fact is, I dont know quite what I mean, and so I may be totally wrong on this. But the general idea is simply that widespread stylistic fidelity facilitates the spread of fame, which is still pretty much the major reward that accrues to writers. Stylistic fidelity may also reinforce the oppositional nature of graffiti. All over the world, graffiti is against IT, whatever the local or regional IT may be. Graffiti writers and followers all over the world are bonding with one another in opposition to THE EXISTING WORLD ORDER.

Caveat: The Graffiti Community

Ive been talking about costs and rewards to individual writers. Theyre only one of the three players Ive identified. What about the other two, the graffiti community and the state? I think working out costs and rewards for the state is relatively straight-forward. Or, let us say, I can see how one would set out to do that. But Im not sure about the graffiti community, which, of course, includes the writers themselves. And this is the group whose existence Im trying to understand. One reason Ive been led to postulate such a community as an entity above and beyond the writers is simply that people other than the writers do play roles. Not only do we have friends and associates of the writers, but also the photographers and film-makers who have been so important in graffiti culture. We could, of course, identify these various role players and assess costs and rewards for them. And, I suppose that at some level thats necessary. Perhaps even that thats all there is. But, if Im treating the state as player, albeit an abstract and collective one, then Im not sure I dont have to do the same thing for the graffiti community. But how does one assess the costs and rewards to this community, which lacks any administrative structure for keeping track of and responding to costs and rewards? What can this community do that earns it a reward, and what form does the reward take? Similarly, what can this community do that incurs a cost, and what form does that cost take? Does it make sense, for example, to say that it gives fame to good writers and is rewarded in increments of cohesiveness? Whereas giving fame to poor writers depletes the stock of cohesiveness, as does withholding fame from good writers? - 16 -

***** On stylistic fidelity, see Graffiti Mystery Theatre: Same Old Same Old. Its about a motif found in both Jersey City and Osaka, Japan: See also Graffiti, Signaling, Evolution, and Art.

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Reading Latour 4: Society and Culture

Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. Before I forget, talking of the admittedly awkward label, actor-network theory, Latour observes (p. 9):
I was ready to drop this label for more elaborate ones . . . until someone pointed out to me that the acronym A.N.T. was perfectly fit for a blind, myopic, workaholic, trail-sniffing, and collective traveler. An ant writing for other ants, this fits my project very well!

And ants, we know, leave chemical traces wherever they go. They navigate their world by following those traces. For us larger-brained animals, the process of thinking leaves chemical traces in our brains.

Process and Upkeep

Its become obvious that Latour is reacting against the reification of the social into a metaphysical substance with inherent causal properties (p. 35):
Whereas, for the sociologists of the social, the great virtue of appeals to society is that they offer this long lasting stability on a plate and for free, our school views stability as exactly what has to be explained by appealing to costly and demanding means. . . . The great benefit of a performative definition [is that] it draws attention to the means necessary to ceaselessly upkeep the groups and to the key contributions made by the analysts own resources.

Im a bit skeptical of that last clause-Id like examples of continuing social groups brought into being through the scrutiny of analystsbut otherwise, yes. It has become obvious to me though my thinking about the cultural evolutionary process that, while evolution tends to denote change (of a certain type? through a certain mechanism?), that stability is the first requirement. That is, whenever / however fully human culture first emerged, its first task was to achieve stability, reliable transmission of cultural patterns from one generation to the next. Prior to this achievement, culture would drift aimlessly from one generation to the next. Once stability had been achievedcan we see this in hand axes?well, then it takes real work to create cultural change. Cultural change, evolution in the ordinary sense of the term, becomes a problem to be explained. And the rapid change of cultural forms in the West over the past half-millennium, how odd! And yet weve come to see it as the norm. How odd! Is ANT a sociology of cultural evolution?

Culture Evolves Among the ANTS

p. 66:
The main advantage of dissolving the notion of a social force and replacing it either by short-lived interactions or by new associations is that its now possible to distinguish in the composite notion of society what pertains to its durability and what pertains to its substance. Yes, there may exist durable ties, but this does not count as proof that they are made of social materialquite the opposite. Its now possible to bring into the foreground the practical means to keep ties in place, the ingenuity constantly invested in enrolling other sources of ties, and the cost to be paid for the extension of any interaction.

To revert to my continuing example, graffiti, what do graffiti writers have to do to maintain their expressive activity in the face of buffing by the authorities, and in the face of arrest? And, to the extent that such socio-cultural work, whatever it is, has become central to graffiti culture, how is that culture threatened by the sporadic legitimization of graffiti culture, as expressed in the recent exhibit at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art? - 18 -

On the next page (67):

Sociologists will claim that when they appeal to the durability of social ties they bring in something that really possesses the necessary durability, solidity, and inertia. it is society, or social laws, or structures, or social customs, or culture, or rules, etc. they argue, which have enough steel in them to account for they way it exerts its grip over all of us and accounts for the unequal landscape in which we are toiling. It is, indeed, a convenient solution but does not explain where their steely quality is coming from that reinforces the weak connections of social skills.

There did you see it? Social customs, culture, rulesthe stuff of culture. Of course Latour mentions these as inadequate proposals, but the culture of cultural evolution is not a metaphysical substance, it is precisely a delicate meshwork of neural connections, distributed through many brains, that must be maintained through constant socio-cultural effort.5 To use my favorite metaphor, the busy bees in my brain must buzz, and the busy bees in your brain, must buzz around just so if they are to keep us in touch with other through the medium of a common culture.6

Image courtesy of Nina Paley.7

For posts on cultural evolution:

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Reading Latour 5: Things

No ideas but in things William Carlos Williams Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. From the chapter Third Source of Uncertainty: Objects too Have Agency, pp. 63-86.

Some Passages on Things

p. 68:
It is always thingsand now I mean this last word literallywhich, in practice, lend their steely quality to the hapless society.

pp. 71-72:
This, of course, does not mean that these participants determine the action, that baskets cause the fetching of provisions or that hammers impose the hitting of the nail. Such a reversal in the direction of influence would be simply a way to transform objects into the causes whose effects would be transported through human action now limited to a trail of mere intermediaries. Rather, it means that there might exist many metaphysical shades between full causality and sheer inexistence. In addition to determining and serving as a backdrop for human action, things might authorize, allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, influence, block, render possible, forbid, and so on.

I note that Latour highlights J.J. Gibsons notion of affordance in a footnote to this passage. Affordances are considered to be properties of things out there in the world, but they are the properties that allow us humans to latch on to them, whether perceptuallyhow do we smell, hear, see, touch, taste them?or motoricallyhow to we move to, from, around them, how do we manipulate them? p. 74:
It is true that, at first sight, the difficulty or registering the role of objects comes from the apparent incommensurability of their modes of action with traditionally conceived social ties. But sociologists of the social have misunderstood the nature of such incommensurability. They have concluded that because they are incommensurable they should be kept separate from proper social ties, without realizing that they should have concluded precisely the opposed: its because they are incommensurable that they have been fetched in the first place! If they were as weak as the social skills they have to reinforce, if they were made of the same material quality, where would the gain be? Baboons we were, baboons we would have remained.

Latour is concerned about the stability of so many human social arrangements, and hes pointing out that this stability depends, in so many various ways, on our interaction with things. Think of those stone weapons and tools so prominent in humanitys early archeological record, so prominent that homo faber, man the tool-maker, is one prominent conception of our nature. But think also about books, the written word, stable repositories of specific language strings, not thoughts, no not thoughts. Just strings of characters. We read the thoughts into those characters. The reading may change from decade to decade, century to century, millennium (gasp) to millennium, but where would those readings be is they had only ephemeral atmospheric vibrations as their object? Those things are indispensable. Their physical stability makes them vessels of our social stability. And our mental stability too, for our minds are inextricably intertwined with our society. A bit further down the page (and continuing on to the next, p. 75): - 20 -

. . . any human course of action might weave together in minutes, for instance, a shouted order to lay a brick, the chemical connection of cement with water, the force of a pulley unto a rope with a movement of the hand, the strike of a match to light a cigarette offered by a coworker, etc. [NB: a Latour litany composed, not of nouns, but of noun phrases.] Here, the apparently reasonable division between material and social becomes just what is obfuscating any enquiry on how a collective action is possible. Provided, of course that by collective we dont mean an action carried over by homogeneous social forces, but, on the contrary, an action that collects different types of forces woven together because they are different. This is why, from no on, the word collective will take the place of society.

Heres a big one (p. 75):

. . . we have to accept that the continuity of any course of action will rarely consist of human-to-human connections (for which basic human skills would be enough anyway) or of object-object connections, but will probably zig-zag from one to the other.
There we have it, zig-zag continuity through a flat ontology. And so forth and so on. Really, I cant spend all morning just transcribing BIG chunks of this chapter (pp. 63-86) onto the web. You should read it yourself, for it contains many useful examples. Still, a little more (p. 78): So, we have to take non-humans into account only as long as they are rendered commensurable with social ties and also to accept, an instant later, their fundamental incommensurability. I suppose one might wonder whether or not there is a transcendental social in which the commensurable and the incommensurable are rendered commensurable. But thats babbling. That transcendental social is simply the world.

Power and Graffiti

Latour devotes the last section of this chapter to power relations, a major concern of standardissue social theory. I wont attempt to reprise or condense his discussion. Ill just cut to the chase (p. 85):
There exists, however, an even more important reason for rejecting adamantly the role given to objects in the sociology of the social: it voids the appeals to power relations and social inequalities of any real significance. But putting aside the practical means, that is the mediators, through which inertia, durability, asymmetry, extension, domination is produced by conflating all those different means with the powerless power of social inertia, sociologists, when they are not careful in their use of social explanations, are the ones who hide the real causes of social inequalities.

So, the rich and powerful live in BIG houses, many of them in several BIG houses dispersed over a wide geographical area. The poor and powerless live in small houses, if that. How is it that one gets to live in a big house? What resources does one deploy in ones work? Factories and capital and laborers and raw stuff and tooling and laws, all of that is necessary to the ownership of big houses. Those who live in big houses have large and highly dispersed collections of material stuff at their disposal, the material anchor of their powera Mortonian hyperobject perhaps? The poor are object poor. And then theres graffiti. You rack (that is, steal) fifty or sixty cans of aerosol paint, sneak into a lay-up at night, and paint the side of a subway car. Thats a big hunk of iron youre just laid claim to. Itll cost the authorities a nice hunk of change to buff it clean of your art. They command

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many more objects than you do. And yet you can push them around with a couple of cans of spray paint. These days thats known as asymmetrical warfare. Its how the thing-poor impress their existence on the thing-rich. Now, if the authorities had been willing to chop off the hands of graffiti writers, and with only circumstantial evidence, then they might have been more cheaply effective in cleaning up the New York Subway system. But they werent willing to do that. It would have seemed, and been, barbaric. And it would certainly be unconstitutional, cruel and unusual punishment. Style Wars has an interview with Ed Koch, then mayor of New York City (early 1980s), in which he says that the third offense should get you five days in jail. How many pieces can you get-up on subway cars before youre caught, with good evidence, for the third time?

The Train, the Triceratops, and the Man

As a meditation on power, think of the trains, the piece, and the man in the following photos. Note that many of the cars in that train will have graffiti on them. The man (Michael Brub, founder and chair of the WAAGNFN Party) is a bit over six-feet tall; the piece behind him is 18 feet wide and over seven feet high. What kinds of things, what kinds of power, who commands them? Note that that land is posted as no-trespassing. Thus, Japan Joe was breaking the law when he painted that piece, and Brube and I were breaking the law simply by being there.

The triceratops if by Jersey Joe and is about 7 feet tall and 18 feet wide. Notice the graffiti on the freight car.

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Notice JungLites at the left. That was painted after the triceratops, which is, in fact, a way of clothing the name, Joe.

Michael Brub is a bit over six feet tall. Notice older graffiti showing around the edges, especially at the right.

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I took this photograph at dawn, looking toward the East. The most remote buildings you see are across the Hudson River in Manhattan. The roadway above goes through the Holland Tunnel between Jersey City and Manhattan.

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Reading Latour 6: Recouping Constructivism With a Note on the Sciences of the Artificial
Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. From the chapter Fourth Source of Uncertainty: Matters of Fact vs. Matters of Concern, pp. 87-120. For what its worth, this is the second longest chapter of the book, the longest being the penultimate one, Third Move: Connecting Sites, pp. 219-246. Now Latour confronts the sociology of science, though in its newer guise as science studies. This is where he first made his mark, where I first heard of him, though did not read him. And this, as we all know, has been the site of some of the nastiest intellectual fighting of the past three decades, a war that bled out of the academy and into the general sphere. And it remains there, and in strange forms and strange company indeed. But thats an aside. The set-up (p. 88): We now understand why the word social could entail so much misunderstanding; it confused two entirely different meanings: a kind of stuff and a movement for assembling non-social entities. And its on that distinction that Latour will recoup construct as in science is socially constructed. We all know, of course, that science, like pretty much everything else in human culture, is socially constructed. That, as they say, is banal and trivial. And yet, thats the fulcrum point on which Latour will re-construct social construction. Indeed, thats what hes been doing in the whole book, showing us why the social, but the social considered (constructed?) as assemblages of heterogonous networks of entities, is not at all trivial. That is, when you look, carefully, at how science or anything else is constructed, its not trivial at all. When seen carefully it all looks like those parodic contraptions we know as Rube Goldberg machines, named after, you guessed it, Rube Goldberg, cartoonist, engineer, and inventor.8 That seems innocent enough. But, alas, thats not how the social was construed in much of this newer work on science in its social setting, and thats certainly not how the opponents of this work construed the social. In these discussions it was the other social that was in force, the social as a kind of stuff. In that reading, the social construction of science meant that scientific knowledge was constituted of/by this social stuff and, as such, was pretty much arbitrary with respect to how the world works. That is, science wasnt objective it all. It was just a bunch of ideas that the boys in the club agreed upon. Thems fightin words, and fight they did. But we know all that.

Construction, for Real

p. 89: . . . in all domains, to say that something is constructed has always been associated with an appreciation of its robustness, quality, style, durability, worth, etc. So much so that no one would bother to say that a skyscraper, a nuclear plant, a sculpture, or an automobile is constructed. This is too obvious to be pointed out. The great questions are rather: How well designed is it? How solidly constructed is it? How durable or reliable is it? How

Rube Goldberg machines: Rube Goldberg: - 25 -

costly is the material? Everywhere, in technology, engineering, architecture, and art, construction is so much a synonym for the real that the question shifts immediately to the next and really interesting one: Is it well or badly constructed? And then we go: Even more so than in art, architecture, and engineering, science offered the most extreme cases of complete artificiality and complete objectivity moving in parallel. And thats that. Science is artificial and objective. More, science is objective because it is artificial. Alas, others didnt see it that way. For many (p. 90):
To say that something was constructed in their minds meant that something was not true. They seemed to operate with the strange idea that you had to submit to this rather unlikely choice: either something was real and not constructed or it was constructed and artificial, contrived and invented, make up and false. . . . but it flew in the face of everything we were witnessing in laboratories: to be contrived and to be objective went together.

And thus a simple, but not so simple, confusion about the social led to a mis-construal of construction and from that, the science wars. I agree with Latour, of course, on the constructed nature of science, and of the deep compatibility between artifice and objectivity. Artifice can be used for many ends, objectivity is one of them. But, rather than continue along that line, or continue further into this chapterwere only four pages inI want to look at a different part of the intellectual landscape, the cognitive sciences.

Constructing Minds (Constructing Science)

It is no accident that one of the great informal expositions of cognitivism should have artificial in the title. I refer, of course, to Herb Simons The Sciences of the Artificial (1981). In the first chapter we find these words (p. 6):
Natural science is knowledge about natural objects and phenomena. We ask whether there cannot also be artificial scienceknowledge about artificial objects and phenomena. Unfortunately the term artificial has a pejorative air about it that we must dispel before we can proceed. My dictionary defines artificial as, Produced by art rather than by nature; not genuine or natural; affected; not pertaining to the essence of the matter. . . . Our language seems to reflect mans deep distrust of his own products.

Its not the same as Latours problem with the social, but its cousin to it. That little book has chapters on a number of things, including economics and social planning, but mostly its about human thinking: How do we think? What are the mechanisms and processes? Much of cognitive science, as you know, proceeded by way of computer modeling. Some modeling was done in service to psychology, constructing models intended as accounts of how people thing. And some was done in service to achieving some practical result, like medical diagnosis or translation from one language to another. The latter work tended to be done under the banner of artificial intelligence while the former generally flew under cover of cognitive psychology or linguistics. But often it was, and remains, difficult to tell the difference between the two. And so we have a rather large intellectual community devoted to constructing the mechanisms of (human) thought. And thats what it really was and is, construction, engineering, artificial. So, in one division of the academy, Latour and his colleagues are figuring out how the social and, in particular, scientific practice, is constructed. In another division, Simon and his colleagues are constructing the mental. Complementary activities, no? Yes.

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Culture as the Mental and the Social

But where and how do they meet? The constructors of the mental were not, for the most part, concerned about communication, how minds interact. And I say this knowing that machine translation has been one of the core problems in this domain, as well as designing the man-machine interface: How do humans interact with machines? But these are not conceived as fundamentally problems of communication; rather, they are engineering problems with a communication component. The knowledge models that have been created, have pretty much been construed as knowledge in a transcendental mind that knows everything in the relevant domain and so has no problems about the compatibility of one chunk of knowledge with another. And yet such problems abound in the real world. No one physicist knows all of physics. Nor even does one expert in, say, classical mechanics know that whole domain. So the knowledge of these various experts is partial, even within their respective specialties. Which means that no existing mental representation of scientific knowledge, that is, existing in a real human brain, covers the whole domain. Each representation is partial. So how do these experts, each with partial knowledge, partial representation of the domain, keep current with one another? How does a particular scientific community act AS THOUGH it had access to some transcendental mind? It seems to me that THAT question is firmly in Latours domain, the social construction of science. About that, I offer one thought. Its about the role of replication in scientific practice. Laboratory A conducts an experiment and publishes the result. The result is interesting, and potentially important. So scientists in Laboratory B and Laboratory C attempt to replicate it. That is, if they use the same procedures, will they get the same result? If so, the result will have been replicated. If not, if no replication, then the result will likely disappear. Replication is a way to check the science.9 But just what is being checked? The particular proposition that is regarded as true in consequence of the experiment? It seems to me that thats where the emphasis lies, and perhaps properly so. But it also seems to me that what is in fact being checked is the entire assemblage of things and processes that enter into making and communicating the observation. A replication can fail because the hypothesis is wrong. But it can also fail because the original experimenters inadvertently left out a crucial bit of information about apparatus or procedure. So, when knowledge is distributed among a collection of investigators, just how do we draw the line between the mental and the social? Culture, it seems to me, is like that, both mental and social, residing in individual brains, but allowing them to operate as if they were one. Culture is magic, true magic.

Tyler Cowan has an interesting post on replication of results in biology research. The rate is low and lower: - 27 -

Reading Latour 7: A Bit of Reflection

Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. Reading Latour is both rewarding and frustrating, sorta. Rewarding because yes yes yes. Frustrating because yes yes yes. At this point I almost feel as though I should transcribe large sections of his text into these posts and simply interject yes yes yes here and there by way of commentary. And thats all. For, in a sense I have nothing to add. What he says seems to me, almost / more or less self-evident in the words he uses. ***** Right now I think the best thing is to sit back and reflect a bit. Ive spent most of my career thinking about the mind and about culture, using literature and music and this and that as vehicles for so doing. I know, of course, that mind and culture are intimately bound up in society, but society hasnt been front an center in my thinking. Well, reading Latour I see hes framing the question of society in a way thats commensurate with mind and culture as I have come to think about them. Thus, what he says is at once utterly familiar and utterly strange. It is familiar in that I do recognize what hes talking about, in particular, I recognize the zig-zag network of connections between objects and humans that he points out at every turn. No, its not that I recognize those networks he points out. They are strange to me, things Ive not thought of myselfthough graffitis brought me very close to them. Rather, I recognize them as points of attachment for the mental and the cultural that Ive been examining. So I see the fit. And now I just want to get on with it, to hook it all up. Hence the frustration. For I know its not that easy. That you have to describe it . all . in minute . precious . detail. So much work to do! Hallelujah! So much work to do! Pushing the rock up the hill up the hill up the hill. ***** Both the mental and the cultural suffer from the same disease Latour has diagnosed in the social. And, if anything, the cultural has it worse than the mental. So much talk of culture is as though culture was this substance that does things. It binds people into groupsin this it is much like, if not identical too, the socialit sets groups one against the other, it dictates thoughts and feelings, in its hands, we are puppetsagain, like the social. In fact, culture and society are often confused. To talk of X cultureAmerican culture, Taiwanese culture, Lakota culture, and so forthis almost inevitably to talk of American society, Taiwanese society, Lakota society, and so forth. So why, then, two words? The distinction, I think, goes roughly like this: The society is the group of people; the culture is the norms, beliefs, attitudes, and so forth through which the people in society organize their relations with one another. In practice its all but impossible to think about one without thinking about the other. But they are not the same. The peculiar thing about culture is that it is at one and the same time located in the mind and in the society, if we are to talk that way. It is, if you will, what allows the private minds of a bunch of individuals to open out into one another and so allow those individuals to function in a group. It is what affords the semblance, but/and only the semblance, of a group mind.

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***** What does Latour mean for me as a student of literature? My current hobbyhorse, of course: description, description, description. I went to graduate school in the Department of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo. That department had one program in Literature and Psychology, mostly psychoanalysis. Another program in Literature and Society, which gravitated toward Frankfurt School sociology and cultural studies in the Raymond Williams mold. There were other subprograms as well. And an office door bearing the sign, Center for Peripheral Studies. Getting back to psychology and society. One program asks you to use psychology to explain the text, or, at the time, more like explain the readers response to the text. The other program saw society in the text, the text as an expression of social structures and processes, in particular, social class. Against that background, my own interest in form, the actual formal aspects of texts, might seem hopelessly old-fashioned, except that Ive elaborated that interest with the newest of tools, or, whats pretty much the same, apparently not tools at all, beyond some often strange and elaborate diagrams. So my interest is just strange. In the Latourian context, it seems to me, my interest in description and form is simply a precondition for considering the text as a vehicle for the mental and / or the social. Both and neither are there. They hook-up link together, interact, in the text. To explore that interaction, that networking if you will, you must first describe the text. Well, you dont HAVE to do so, not in any rigorous way. But if you dont, then, same old same old. Thats where literary studies is now: same old same old. Round and round the wheel, keeping the old older oldest ideas circulating. But if we keep this up well never join up with Latourian ANTS, for we wont have the detailed specifications necessary to achieve linkage. Nor will we be able to mesh with Herb Simons sciences of the artificial, and for the same reason. As for evolutionary psychology, Ive beaten that horse enough already10 and dont need to rehearse that here and now. Suffice it to say that the Darwinians do not have a useful appreciation for textual detail and lets leave it at that.

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Reading Latour 8: Some Conjunctions in the Pluriverse

Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. From the chapter Fourth Source of Uncertainty: Matters of Fact vs. Matters of Concern, pp. 87-120. Back in post six in this series, Recouping Constructivism [some URL], I commented on some passages early in this long chapter. In the post Im going to comment on a passage or two near the end of the chapter. As for the middle, as for how Latour got from there to here, briefly and crudely, its like this: Traditionally, classically, the social sciences have proposed accounts of peoples behavior that are quite different from those proposed by people themselves. Thus, Jack buys a BMW because he likes its style and engineering. Mr. Sociologist, however, asserts that Jack buys the BMW to one-up his neighbors, who drive Toyotas and Fords. And so on. In the extreme, one might even say that Mr. Sociologist substitutes his account for Jacks, making it clear that, as far as he, Mr. Sociologist is concerned, Jack doesnt know jack---- about his own motives. These deeper motives derive, of course, from the social. Well, the sociologists of science did the same thing for science, The scientists, unlike ordinary folks, protested: You guys are crazy. Your the social plays no role in our laboratories. What you see is what you get. Latour choose to believe the scientists, though many chose not to. And so Latour was motivated to drop the, or is it a?, standard distinction between the natural and the social. And so (pp. 111-112):
To our great surprise, once the artificial boundary between social and natural was removed, non-human entities were able to appear under an unexpected guise. For instance, rocks might be useful to knock an idealist back to his senses, but rocks in geology seemed to be much more varied, much more uncertain, much more open, and deploy more types of agencies than the narrow role given to them in empiricist accounts. . . . . Empiricism no longer appears as the solid bedrock on which to build everything else, but as a very poor rendering of experience. This poverty, however, is not overcome by moving away from material experience, for instance to the rich human subjectivity, but closer to the much variegated lives materials have to offer. Its not true that one should fight reductionism by adding some human, symbolic, subjective, or social aspect to the description since reductionism, to begin with, does not render justice to objective facts.

Latour ends up with what he calls a second empiricism (p. 115): its science, its politics, its esthetics, its morality are all different from the past. It is still real and objective, but it is livelier, more talkative, pluralistic, and more mediated than the other.

Enter, the Pluriverse

This is the heart of the matter. In this second empiricism objective reality is messier and more complex than it is in the empiricism of the positivists. p. 116:
Such a multiplicity does not mean that scientists dont know what they are doing and there everything is just fiction, but rather that studies has been able to pry apart exactly what the ready-made notion of natural objective matters of fact had conflated too fast, namely reality, unity, and indisputability. When you look for the first, you do not get automatically the two others. And this has nothing to do with the interpretive flexibility allowed by multiple points of views taken on the same thing. It is the thing itself that has been allowed to be deployed as multiple and thus allowed to be grasped through different viewpoints, before being possibly unified in some later stage depending on the abilities of

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the collective to unify them. There are simply more agencies in the pluriverse, to use William Jamess expression, than philosophers and scientists thought possible.

This, it seems to me, is the heart of the matter. Rather than continuing on with Latour I want to shift to some work I did with the late David Hays and some more recent work of my own. For it seems to me that weve arrived at more or less the same place as Latour has, but through a very different route. We arrived there through the computational study of the mind, though I note in passing that Hays had studied with one of the great sociologists of the mid 20th century, Talcott Parsons. Note that I am asserting this intellectual independence, not out of narcissism (I did it myself), but for epistemological reasons. We are in dangerous territory, there might be dragons around the next bend, who knows? In this parlous state the fact that two more or less independent lines of investigation have led to the same place, that strengthens the sense that that place is real.

Complexity in the Universe

Some years ago Hays and I published a brief paper, A Note on Why Natural Selection Leads to Complexity.11 After commenting on a passage in which J.J. Gibson noted that the chief feature of reality, as opposed to dreams and fictions, is that reality changes under repeated scrutiny, yielding ever more to inspection. We then asserted: Reality is not perceived, it is enacted -- in a universe of great, perhaps unbounded, complexity. The formulation, I believe, is Hayss, and I no more know what he was then thinking than I know what I was thinking. But I see nothing in that formulation that is restrictive about just what agencies are doing the enacting and so conclude that we must have meant any agencies whatsoever. Now, it seemed to us that much thinking has regarded complexity as a matter of superficial appearances. In such views, once one sees beneath or through those appearances one encounters a real reality that is inherently simple (e.g. Platonic forms). We argued that, on the contrary, real reality is inherently complex:
Biology is certainly accustomed to complexity. Biomolecules consist of many atoms arranged in complex configurations; organisms consist of complex arrangements of cells and tissues; ecosystems have complex pathways of dependency between organisms. These things, and more, are the complexity with which biology must deal. And yet such general examples have the wrong feel; they don't focus one's attention on what is essential. To use a metaphor, the complexity we have in mind is a complexity in the very fabric of the universe. That garments of complex design can be made of that fabric is interesting, but one can also make complex garments from simple fabrics. It is complexity in the fabric which we find essential. We take as our touchstone the work of Ilya Prigogine, who won the Nobel prize for demonstrating that order can arise by accident (Prigogine and Stengers 1984; Prigogine 1980; Nicolis and Prigogine 1977). He showed that when certain kinds of thermodynamic systems get far from equilibrium order can arise spontaneously. These systems include, but are not limited to, living systems. In general, so-called dissipative systems are such that small fluctuations can be amplified to the point where they change the behavior of the system. These systems have very large numbers of parts and the spontaneous order they exhibit arises on the macroscopic temporal and spatial scales of the whole system rather than on the microscopic temporal and spatial scales of its very many component parts. Further, since these processes are irreversible, it follows that time is not simply an empty vessel in which things just happen. The passage of time, rather, is intrinsic to physical process. We live in a world in which evolutionary processes leading to diversification and increasing complexity are intrinsic to the inanimate as well as the animate world (Nicolis
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and Prigogine 1977: 1; see also Prigogine and Stengers 1984: 297-298). That this complexity is a complexity inherent in the fabric of the universe is indicated in a passage where Prigogine (1980: xv) asserts that living systems are far-from-equilibrium objects separated by instabilities from the world of equilibrium and that living organisms are necessarily large, macroscopic objects requiring a coherent state of matter in order to produce the complex biomolecules that make the perpetuation of life possible. Here Prigogine asserts that organisms are macroscopic objects, implicitly contrasting them with microscopic objects.

That sounds awfully like the Jamesian/Latourian pluriverse.

The emic and the etic

Now, lets take this plurality seriously. In particular, lets think about the plurality of sonic objects, such as the sounds of a natural human language? Thats a problem that linguists have dealt with by distinguishing between phonetics and phonemics. As I noted in one of my notes on cultural evolution, Cultural Evolution 8: Language Games 1, Speech:
The former [phonetics] is about the psychophysics of speech sound while the latter is about phoneme systems. These are obviously very closely related matters, but they arent the same. We tend to perceive the speech stream as consisting of discrete sound entities, syllables and phonemes; this is the domain of phonemics. But the speech signal is, in fact, continuous. If you look at a sonogram of some chunk of speech, you dont draw a series of vertical lines through it separating one phoneme from another; nor can you snip a tape recording into phoneme-long or syllable-long segments and reassemble it into something that sounds like natural speech. The aspects of the speech stream which are phonemically active differ from one language to another, which is why foreign languages all sound like Greek. Independently of the fact that you dont know what the words mean or how the syntax works, you cant even hear the phonemes in the speech stream.12

Yes, you can hear the speech stream. But it is far too feature rich, property rich, for your auditory system to attend to it ALL. Unless you know the language, however, you will not pick up just those properties that allow the stream to encode words and sentences. Its just another complex sonic object. Anthropologists have taken this distinction, between phonetics and phonemics, and generalized it into etics and emics, which, alas, is not very clear.13 In practice it seems to have been used as a way of authorizing anthropologists to provide sociology of the social accounts (etics) for the practices of a people as understood by them (emics). It is not clear to me whether or not such a generalization can be salvaged, and if so, how to do it, but I do think its worth considering. Lets return to the account of experimental replication I offered in an early post [some URL]. I observed that a replication can fail because the hypothesis is wrong. But it can also fail because the original experimenters inadvertently left out a crucial bit of information about apparatus or procedure. That is to say, the original account of the experiments may not have fully conveyed the emic features of the investigation. Indeed, the experimenters may not have fully understood the emics of their procedure and thus failed to distinguish them from the full etic array of features exhibited by their activity. Replication is the only way to ferret out the emics. At this point, of course, the object Im talking about, the many-propertied object, the object florescent in all of its plurality, is the experimental investigation with its full array of agents, human and non-human, interrelated through a staggering array of mediations and translations. This is the object against which Latour banged his head.

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Reading Latour 9: The Latour Locus, an Interlude

One of the things that Latour does in Reassembling the Social is show that the local is deeply ambiguous. This is nowhere more obvious that in photography, where, automatically, at least three loci are conjured into being by every photograph: 1) the locus of viewing, 2) the locus of takingthe-photo, and 3) the locus/loci IN the photo. Consider this photograph:

When I took that photo I was standing at a certain place; at that time the locus of viewing (1) and the locus of taking (2) are/were the same. Now, of course, the locus of viewing has become many, each at the place where a viewer looks at the photo. The locus of the-taking, of course, remains unchanged. But what about the loci IN the photo itself? The lamps were, say, 10 to 20 yards from me. The tall building to the left is the Goldman Sachs Building in Jersey City. Its, say, between a halfmile and a mile from where I stood when I took the photo. The Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building (in the middle) would be, say, five or six miles away on the island of Manhattan. The clouds in the sky, how far away are they? And the sun, it is nowhere visible in this photo, but its existence is implied by the fact that the photo exists. For it supplied the light, the photos, which are the physical basis of the photo. Its 93 million miles away. Just where IS this photo? What is the locus? In asking that question I dont mean to be mysterious, or philosophically deep, or problematic. None of those things. The loci in question can be traced, at least in principle, in a fairly direct fashion. Whats important, at this juncture in our thinking about the world, is that the apprehension of the Latour Locus, if I may, be immediate and intuitive. One should not have to pull out the threads laboriously one after the other. Rather, one should intuit them immediately and be prepared to spin them out as necessary. Heres another example, one thats easy because there arent many objects in it:

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The weed to the left was not far away at all, less than ten yards, and taller than I am as I recall. The trees? Call it 50 yards. But what does it matter if its 30 yards, or 70? After all, the moon is 183,000 miles away, reflecting light from the sun. In that context, whats the difference between 30 yards and 70 yards? As they say in the mobster movies, fuhgeddaboudit. Lets change scale a bit. In this photo the iris is no more than a foot from the camera:

But where am I, exactly? Though Im a short man, Im not so short that I can stand beneath an iris and shoot up through it. I took that photo by holding the camera down below the flower, pointing - 34 -

up, depressing the button half-way until I heard the auto-focus click into place, and then snapped the photo. My eye, thus, was several feet away from where my hands held the camera, which is not the most straight-forward way to shoot with a single-lens reflex. What does that do to locus 2, the locus of taking-the-photo? In a deep way, nothing. Who cares whether or not my eye glued to the view-finder or not? I would think that, for 2, the important locus is where the camera is, not where the photographers eyes are, or his feet, for that matter. Picky? Yes. Its a picky business. But not problematic. Then, of course, we have the out-of-focus background. The foliage to the left was, say, 7 to 10 yards away while the building in the background was perhaps 15 yards away. The entire compass of the loci in the photo (excluding the sky and the implied sun) is thus closer-in than in the loci summoned in the previous photos. Next, what I call a Malick, after the film-maker Terrence Malick. If youve seen his films, youve seen many shots of the sun shining down through the foliage:

While we know that the sun is quite distant, the fact that the sun is obscured by the foliage pretty much obliterates any sense of that distance. It becomes a mere intellectual abstraction, not a visible phenomenon. The only palpable distance is that of the foliage. The suns light becomes a diffuse luminous presence. That, of course, is aesthetics, not physics. Finally:

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Not only is the sun a luminous presence, but any visible distinction between matter and energy bleeds and dissolves about it. Ultimately they are the same, matter and energy, as Einstein has taught us. From that I derive a question which, in the annoying way of mathematics texts, I leave as an exercise for the reader: Does this photograph thus dissolve the distinction between aesthetics and physics?

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Reading Latour 10: Description & Graffiti

Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. From the chapter Fifth Source of Uncertainty: Writing Down Risky Accounts, pp. 121-140. Heres what Im going to do this time out. First Im going to quote from brief passages from the chapter. Then Im going to return to graffiti, my home base for the rest of this post. Thats the only way I can internalize what (I understand of) Latours ideas.

Some Passages
p. 122:
If we want to have a chance to move up all the controversies already mentioned, we have to add a fifth and last source of uncertainty, namely one about the study itself. The idea is simply to bring into the foreground the very making of reports.

p. 124:
Since we are all aware that fabrication and artificiality are not the opposite of truth and objectivity, we have no hesitation in highlighting the text itself as a mediator.

As a matter of methodology, sure, talk about how to write a proper account. But as epistemology and ontology ... be careful about be too reflexively clever, no? p. 128:
To put it very simply: A good ANT account is a narrative or description or a proposition where all the actors do something and dont just sit there. Instead of simply transporting effects without transforming them, each of the points in the text may become a bifurcation, an event, or the origin of a new translation.

p. 129:
A good text elicits networks of actors when it allows the writer to trace a set of relations defined as so many translations.

p. 136:
No scholar should find humiliating the task of description. This is, on the contrary, the highest and rarest achievement.

For my colleagues in literary criticism, let me repeat these words as though they were my own. After all, describe describe describe has been my mantra and my practice for quite awhile. No scholar should find humiliating the task of description. This is, on the contrary, the highest and rarest achievement. Again: No scholar should find humiliating the task of description. This is, on the contrary, the highest and rarest achievement. Third times a charm: No scholar should find humiliating the task of description. This is, on the contrary, the highest and rarest achievement. Note, however, that Im talking about describing texts, while Latour is talking about describing an ontologically heterogeneous network of actors in manifold interactions with one another. Two different kinds of things. But this is not the time and place to discuss the differences. On the other hand, heres where I get off the bus (p. 137):
Either the networks that make possible a state of affairs are fully deployedand then adding an explanation will be superfluousor we add an explanation stating that some other actor or factor should be taken into account, so that it is the description that should be extended one step further. If a description remains in need of an explanation, it means that it is a bad description.

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I dont agree with this. Explanation is always necessary. But it may not always be possible. And THAT, I suspect, is where we are now. Our capacity to describe has out-stripped all our old and familiar explanatory moves. They dont do any work any more, not in the face of our new descriptions. Thats certainly how I feel about literature. In the old days, which are still very much with us, a reading or an interpretation WAS CONSIDERED TO BE an explanation. That move has grown tired and stale. The literary Darwinists think they can explain texts by redescribing actions in terms of evolutionary psychology, a move thats always already stillborn. The cognitivists seem to want the same from their cognitive tropology. Stillborn. Meaning explains nothing. Ive been staring at descriptions for years and years. I have hints and clues about things to be explained. And maybe even a clue to a hint or three about what kind of thing might possibly serve as an explanation. But none of thats very solid. You couldnt toss it over a swamp and expect to walk over the swamp on it. No, the only hope for solidity right now is in the description of the text. And I suspect thats where Latour is as well. When he says no explanations needed he means that reference to the social in any of its many guises does not count as an explanation anymore. You cannot explain graffiti, for example, by drumming up some theory about social marginalization under later capitalism. Sure, thats going on. But we knew that before we even looked at graffiti. And intoning that mantra, or some variation on it, or even an alternative to it, that tells us NOTING about the writing on the walls.

The Faith of Graffiti: A ProtoANT Account

The Faith of Graffiti, photos by Jon Naar and text by Norman Mailer, is the best book thats yet been written about graffiti. I believe that it can serve as a proto-ANT account of graffiti. Actornetwork theory, of course, did not exist at the time. And Naar and Mailer were not engaged in social science. They were engaged in cultural reportage and criticism. And, incidentally, managed to deploy the ingredients of a proper actor-network description. To go from what they did to that proper ANT account one must ONLY provide more of whats already in the book. That, of course, is more easily said than done. Lets start with the photos themselves, for without them Mailers superb text is empty. They depict the graffiti itself and, of course, the surfaces on which the graffiti was painted. Many of them also include the wider context, often enough so that you can figure out where the picture was taken. Naar also got some action shots, so wee see writers themselves, and their tools (markers and spray cans). In a full-dress ANT account one would, of course, like the exact location and the exact time. With modern digital gear time-stamping is automatic and, for some cameras, so is location stamping (via geo-location chips). But Naar took those photos in pre-digital days and he took many of them under circumstances (e.g. running from the police) where making notes about time and place was all but impossible. Still, such things can be inferred and we do know, to the week or so, when the photos were taken. On the whole, this is a pretty good record. Aesthetically, it is superior. As photos, as visual objects, these are among the best graffiti photographs ever taken. Theyre superior to most that Ive seen, and Ive not seen any better. Of course, Ive not seen, and never will see, the vast majority of graffiti photos. As for Mailers text, first, he was with Naar when Naar was taking photos. He talked with the writers and their words are in his text. The title comes from one of the writers. Cay 161 told Mailer, the name is the faith of graffiti. So we know, in their words, what it means to them and why they do it. What of third parties? Well, I took a quick scan through the book and spotted this quote in the margin (p. 14 of the revised edition) They messed up my property three times. If I catch them,

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Ill break their arms with a lead pipe. Mailer also quotes from a variety of articles in various news media, newspapers and magazines. And then theres Mayor Lindsey, Mailer interviewed him and got his views on graffiti. He was against it, but he was also on the way out of office and so couldnt do much about it. The thing is, he wasnt simply speaking as a private individual, like Mr. Lead Pipe Arm Breaker. We was speaking as an elected official, a representative of the body politic. Hes just one man, yes, but one man in a special slash peculiar situation. His words have the force of what Latour will call, in a later chapter, a panorama. Many of the media quotes are panoramic in Latours sense. But theres also some quotes Mailer identifies as being from Chairman Martinez, Hugo Martinez, organizer of United Graffiti Artists, a collective that tried to take graffiti legit. Martinez said, for example, Graffiti writing is a way of gaining status in a society where to own property is to have an identity (p. 30). Not only is that panoramic, it sounds like what it is, a bit of explanation of the social type. Martinez majored in sociology in college (though I dont think Faith says that; I got it from Gastman and Neelon, The History of American Graffiti). Nor is that all. Mailer goes to the Museum of Modern Art and looks a graffiti through those various lenses and he also talks about other developments in the contemporary arts scene. Hes got loads of context (not a particularly good word in Latours world), all particularized through specific examples and comparisons. The fact is, if you start laying ANT trails outward, star fashion, from whats in THAT book, youre going to end up covering a big chunk the world back to the edge of human history for Mailer makes the now-standard connection with cave and rock art. And thats if you trace no trails forward in time from the publication of the book. If you allow yourself forward trails, well . . . conjure with the fact that THAT BOOK quickly became assimilated into graffiti society. Writers had copies and passed them around. Some writers got started by imitating what they saw in those photos. Im afraid that any would-be ANTologist of graffiti has no choice but to start with that book. Mailer and Naar werent sociologists. But they new what they saw and they described it, each with the tools at hand.

Graffiti: Some Jersey City Traces

By way of orientation, Jersey City, New Jersey, is across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan, that is, across the river from the area where Naar took his photos. When I took the following photograph I was within a quarter of a mile of the site where the Holland Tunnel makes ground in Jersey City:

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Im standing beneath one of the viaducts that takes vehicular traffic to or from the Holland Tunnel and Im looking roughly Southeast. The light pole at the center of the photo is, I believe, in Enos Jones park or close to it. Theres a tall building behind the leaves just to the right of that pole, though about a mile away or so. Thats the tallest building in New Jersey, owned by Goldman Sachs.14 It was designed by Cesar Pelli, the architect who did Malaysias Petronius Towers half way around the world and the office buildings of the World Financial Center just across the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan. In a band across the middle of the picture we see buildings with graffiti on them. Just to the left of center you can see the name Rime. Rime also writes as Jersey Joe. Hes one of a small number of graffiti writers who makes a living with his art. But he still keeps his hand in by doing illegals, such as that one, as theyre sometimes called. Now, if you scan down from the middle band and look carefully in the foliage near the center youll see railroad tracks. Theyre an active freight line of the CSX railroad. The land on which Im standing is a CSX right of way. Its illegal for me to be here, as it is illegal for graffiti writers to paint herethey paint on the huge concrete stanchions that support the viaducts to and from the Holland Tunnel:

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The graffiti you see at the left wasnt there two months ago. Well, some of it was, and some of it wasnt. Youre looking at layers that have accumulated over a period of years. The black background and the two pieces on it that dominate the lower third of the stanchion, thats new. Ive been photographing this site for five years and have a rich, if by no means complete, record of whats happened on these walls during that time. They were, of course, well-painted by the time I found them. But those arent the stories I want to tell. Lets move to a site thats roughly mid-way between THIS site and the entrance to the Holland Tunnel:

Theres a variety of graffiti at the bottom of that wall. Notice that painted goal posts at the right and the basketball hoop at the far right. Theres a matching hoop off the photo to the left. The surface in front of the building is thus used as a basketball court and playground. - 41 -

Well get back to the graffiti, but first, take a look at the middle and top of the photo. You can see the remains of Bull Durham ads. The one on the right is for smoking tobacco. What were those ads facing back in the day? Surely they were positioned where they would be seen by men whod buy Bull Durham tobacco. Heres the building that faces those ads (notice the hoops to the left and right):

During the middle of the 20th century that building was a freight terminal. It was two blocks long and one of the largest in the country. At the time Jersey City was a port town and this area was filled with railroad yards. At that time that building would have been crawling with men moving fright to and from freight cars. They were the audience for the Bull Durham ads. The railroad line in our first photograph is about all thats left of those freight yard.. There is, of course, a story about why the freight yards left Jersey City. I know bits of that story, but not enough to retell it, even in brief. Suffice it to say that there is a story, and its relevant to the many graffiti stories I could tell, and the many more I have no trace of. Almost all the graffiti Ive photographed in the past five years, most of which is within a half-mile of these two sites, is either on railroad land, land that once belonged to the railroad, or on buildings that were once served by the railroad. When the railroad left, the land and the buildings were abandoned, though some of the land was rebuilt for other uses. One could mutter, by way of providing context, late industrial capitalism and, yes, thats what were looking at, among other things. The leavings of late industrial capitalism. But just what does that tell us about the graffiti? Lets return to that Bull Durham wall. Heres a shot of the lower left:

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Notice the Puerto Rican flags to the left and right. Those are not common graffiti motifs and, indeed, most of those markings, while they are graffiti in the general sense, arent graffiti in the particular aesthetic tradition that Ive been examining, the NewYork&Philly to the World tradition. The line between graffiti in general and that tradition in particular is a fuzzy one. It would be difficult, for example, to draw such a line on that wall. There are a number of names on the wall. To the left of center we see Chello 14. If you click through to my Flickr page youll see that NOME TMF made an interesting comment: chello 14 gave me my first can. So Chello 14 set NOME TMF off on his graffiti career. Who else did Chello 14 help in that way? How many stuck with it? What about NOME TMF, who did he start off? Now, lets step back just a bit and ask: What chain of hand-offs leads back from Chello 14 to those writers whose work was photographed in The Faith of Graffiti? Since those writers were working just across the river, it seems like theres a good chance that one of them started someone who started someone . . . who started Chello 14. Were now playing six degrees of separation with graffiti writers where the linkage requirement is fairly strict: one person must have helped the other get started as a graffiti writer. We could, of course, loosen the linkage requirement to, for example, both have painted on the same wall (but not necessarily at the same time). I wonder of Chello 14 owns or has seen The Faith of Graffiti? What about NOME TMF? What about a writer whos only a strong link away from either of them? A weak link away? Two links, strong or weak? An interesting little game. Let me add a final move to it. While Norman Mailer is dead, Jon Naar is not. He has a website (google his name, itll come up). I found him through that website and have been corresponding with him for a couple of years. Me and who knows who else. Ive also met him face to face. The second occasion was a panel discussion about graffiti and signage.15 That discussion included Massimo Vignelli, a well-known designer who designed the signage for the New York subway system, and Mike 171 and Snake1, two of the writers whose work Naar photographed.

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As you read this you are only one weak link away from me, which puts you one weak link from Naar, Mike 171, and Snake1. Naar ran with Mailer, Mailer talked to the Mayor. So, just how big is the graffiti world?

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Reading Latour 11: Plug-ins and Couplings

Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. From the chapter Second Move: Redistributing the Local, pp. 191-218. Much as Id like to say something about each chapter of this book. I cant. Dont have time. Read it yourself. Please. Im skipping over 50+ pages so I can rejoin Latour in Redistributing the Local. And Im skipping much of that so I can pick up the trail here (p. 207)with just enough language from the skipped-over text to offer a taste of what youre missing:
Surely the question we need to ask then is where are the other vehicles that transport individuality, subjectivity, personhood, and interiority? If we have been able to show that glorified sites like global and local were made our of circulating entities, why not postulate that subjectivities, justifications, unconscious, and personalities would circulate as well? And sure enough, as soon as we raise this very odd but inescapable question, new types of clamps offer themselves to facilitate our enquiry. They could be called subjectifiers, personnalizers, or individualizers, but I prefer the more neutral term of plug-ins, borrowing this marvelous metaphor from our new life on the Web. . . . What is so telling in this metaphor of the plug-in is that competence doesnt come in bulk any longer but literally in bits and bytes. You dont have to imagine a wholesale human having intentionality, making rational calculations, feeling responsible for his sins, or agonizing over his mortal soul. Rather, you realize that to obtain complete human actors, you have to compose them out of so many successive layers, each of which is empirically distinct from the next.

So thats what we are, a bunch of plug-ins downloaded from the web of our acquaintances. Theres the eat-breakfast module, the pick-up-a-package module, another for writing a research paper, one performing a Beethoven quartet, raising a barn, planting tobacco, canoeing through rapids, and so on. Each of us has our own set of apps, but there are some we all share, at least within a group, such as language. Latour had mentioned language a bit earlier (p. 177) but didnt discuss it much. This one bootstraps though some built-in equipment, as do many others and, in the theory advanced by Vygotsky, is an internalized other (which I discuss in some detail in both this paper, on the self, 16 and this one on Coleridges This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison17). At first the young child listen as others talk around her and to her, directing her movements and her attention through their words. As the infant gains verbal fluency she talks to herself so becomes capable of using language to direct her movements and attention. Then the self-talking goes silent and is completely internal. Now it has become thinking. Plug-in fully installed and ready for submodules and upgrades. Continuing with Latour, still on 207:
As we have witnessed so many times throughout this book, information technologies allow us to trace the associations in a way that was impossible before. Not because they subvert the old concrete humane society, turning us into formal cyborgs or post human ghosts, but for exactly the opposite reason: they make visible what was before only present virtually. In earlier times, competence was a rather mysterious affair that remained hard to trace; for this reason, you had to order it, so to speak, in bulk. As soon as competence can be counted in bauds and bytes along modems and routers, as soon as it can be peeled back layer after layer, it opens itself to fieldwork.
16 17 - 45 -

Yes. And to simulation and modeling as well. Latours point applies, as well, to what has been known in the past as the psychology of the individual. Before the computer we could only think of the mind as this nebulous stuff populated by various agents, many of them frustratingly unconscious. The computer, as both tool and source of metaphors and analogies, has enabled us to construct explicit models of the mind and its processes. What Latour is here proposing is that the same technology can be used as a source of metaphors for interactions between persons and thereby showing how the boundaries between sociology and psychology may be reshuffled for good (212). And a good thing, that. But now, as Ive done several times before, I want to get off the Latour bus and look around in my own backyard. For, back when I was first thinking about music I had to do my own reshuffling of the boundary between the social and the individual.

People in Groups (Music)

Rather than start with the individual mind, which is the traditional starting point for psychology, I decided music is fundamentally and irreducibly social. Its made by groups of people. The fact that for a century or so weve been able to listing to music coming out of various technology-stuffed boxes and contraptions is a rather late development, and one that obscures musics nature in a way worse even than the printed score (for at least a live musician had to play the music hidden in the written notes). Thus I tossed aside the Cartesian individual. No more worrying about whether or not theres a world out there and whether or not there are any people in it. If thats your starting point, theres really nowhere for you to go but in circles, in your mind. To get out, as Wittgenstein knew, you just fly out of the bottle. Done. So I started thinking about a group of people making music together. I further argued that this groupiness is to be understood as a physical connection between brains, albeit mediated by sound waves. Theres no mysterious psychic ether connecting people; no social soup either. Just molecules colliding with one another. But in rhythm. Physicists call it coupling, coupled oscillation. You attach two pendulum clocks to the wall. Start them up so they swing independently of one another. In time, they become synchronized though vibrations passed between them in the wall. Its a purely physical interaction. Fireflies do it too. They start blinking independently of one another. Before too long, their blinks are synchronized. Neurons too. And brains consist of neurons. Some are connected to muscles, some are connected to sense organs, and some are connected only to other neurons. Thus peoples brains are physically synched together through the sound waves they emit (through song, or clapping and stomping, or playing an instrument) and hear. During the musicmaking its all one synchronized physical system. When the music stops, the people decouple and their brains are no longer one tightly coupled system. And, because the connection is a brute physical one, albeit a subtle sort of brute physicality, theres no mystery about how different peoples minds know one another and the world. Thats not what its about. Its about the music and the dance. The rhythm. The coupling. Thats rather sketchy. But you can fill the sketch in by reading chapters 2, 3, and 4 of Beethovens Anvil, my review essay of Stephen Mithens The Singing Neanderthals,18 or by reading about the busy bee brain 19 and about clapping and group intentionality.20
18 19 20 - 46 -

But lets push this discussion just one more step. Lets imagine an idealized society living as a small band of, say, 20 or 30 individuals. Each day, say, in the morning, they gather and sing together for an hour. Everyone, man, woman, and children. They sing the old songs, and dance a bit. And then they disperse and go about their day in ones and twos and fives, whatever. While theyre all together and singing their brains are, as Ive said, one tightly coupled physical system. Once they disperse, the coupling between individuals becomes looser, but its still there. People walk and talk together, dig for yams together, chase down a dear together. Even someone whos alone for a minutesay, behind a bush to urinateis likely being thought of by someone. Thus we can think of the life of the group as a movement to and from the daily hour of song and dance. Think of that hour as the groups psycho-cultural home base. And that home base is a physical thing. A very complex physical thing, composed of trillions of neurons and trillions upon trillions of air molecules in rhythmic motion, but nonetheless physical. And so too is the movement to and from home base a physical thing. There is, I suppose, a trivial and uninteresting sense in which everything is a physical thing. But this is not that trivial. What we know about oscillation and coupling, in pendulum clocks, in vibrating systems of any kind, in neurons and brains, that is not trivial. All Ive done is draw some simple inferences about how music-making fits these things together.

Once Again, a Flat Ontology

Heres the more general significance. Theres a view, a common one, an all but inescapable onethough some of us are on the lam, fugitive style, or at least banging away at the shacklesthat at the bottom of things we have the physical world. And it consists of itty-bitty particles and piles of particles of various sizes. This is the province of physicists. When some of these particles get hooked up just so, we have the more complex world of chemical phenomenon, overseen by chemists. Then comes biology, next up we have psychology, and then, rounding things off at the top, we have society. And society is studied, naturally, by sociologists (and others). The relationships between these various realms are much in dispute, but theres much agreement that some things are higher than others. What I did when I declared music to be fundamentally a group phenomenon and physical one is that I modeled something at the very top of that chain of being in terms of phenomena at the very bottom. I achieved the groupishness through the physical, not in spite of, or around, or on top of it. I conceptualized the irreducible organic group, not by bathing psychological individuals in a soup of social stuff, but by insisting on treating them as physical particles at the same level as the physical particles in the atmosphere and in the wood and skins and metal and sinews of musical instruments. All physical stuff. On the level. One system. Indivisible. Organic. Whole. Human. OOO!

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Reading Latour 11.1: The Cartesian Individual And Why it Must Be Rejected
Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. This is an appendix to my previous installment of Reading Latour. I want to say a bit more about the Cartesian individual, whom I jettisoned when I began to think about music. For it is this individual that has been, I believe, the default starting for most thinking in les sciences de lhomme, including most thinking about music. By Cartesian individual I mean, of course, the individual that Descartes put at the center of his philosophical meditations. This individual mostly sits in his vat, unable to move, and ponders two questions: Is there a world out there? If so, is there anyone else in it? For such an individual society is deeply problematichell is other people, remember that? When examined in the Cartesian shadow, society is conceived as atomic individuals held together by social stuff, that metaphysical substance Latour inveighs against. When I began to read the literature in preparation for writing Beethovens Anvil, I found that it was dominated by this Cartesian individual, though it took me awhile to realize this. Music had been conceived and studied as something heard by a Cartesian individual not as something made by people interacting with one another through sound. Such a conception comes naturally in a society where most people experience many more hours of recorded music than live music and where the making of music is properly done only by children and a few particularly gifted individuals. For the most part music is stuff heard by Cartesian individuals floating in their vats. Now, weve got to be careful. The mere fact that psychologists have spent a great deal of time studying how individuals hear music need not imply that they are revolving in the Cartesian orbit. After all, we DO need to understand how the ear and the auditory system work. The only way to investigate them is to observe individuals listening to musical stimuli. It cant be avoided. That alone does not betoken Descartes shadow. But when I considered the whole array of work, yes, the Cartesian assumption was evident. In the literature that existed over a decade ago, relatively little attention had been given to rhythm and time. Yet without rhythm, no music, which unfolds in time. When I looked for research on rhythm and on our sense of time, much of the best work was in the literature on motor control and on way-finding (navigation), not music. The psychologists and philosophers, not to mention the musicologists, who were interested in music, were much more interested in harmony and melody than in rhythm and time. Nor were they interested in how musicians coordinated their activities. I suppose that might be attributed to the difficulty of investigating such coordination but, in the overall intellectual context, that just didnt wash. No, it was clear to me that Descartes had cast his net over the study of music. But it was only in thinking things through that I realized that the Cartesian individual dominated all. When I started, I too bought the Cartesian storywell, not completely. The Cartesian monster came into view only as I realized that, if I took the existing literature as my starting point then Id be forever explaining how these individuals would ever know whether or not a sound was REAL. And the only way to get them to make music together would be to ADD SOMETHING EXTRA. Yet nothing seemed more basic than the obvious fact that we synchronize our movements together and that we do so easily. I knew that from my own experience. But I also knew it from the all-but-forgotten work of William Condon.21 And thats what allowed me to think my way out of the Cartesian punching bag.
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A few decades ago William Condon had investigated interactional synchrony. He would make high-speed films of people interacting with one another and analyze that interaction. What he discovered is that their movements were closely synchronized. In one investigation he filmed hourold neonates as they listened to someone talking. The infants bodies twitched and jerked in synchrony to the speech pattern. For that to happen, this entrainment of one person to the rhythms of another, this capability had to be basic to the nervous system. It was not something added on. I made Condons interactional synchrony my starting point. Where the Cartesian individual is a passive perceiver, I assumed active movers. Where the Cartesian individual is alone, I assumed people interacting with one another. Society is not an add-on. It is basic. And not just for humans. For animals in general. Even bacteria communicate with one another via chemical means. Interaction is the way of the world. That is certainly the way in Latours account. Agents of all kinds, human and non-human, interacting with one another. Not through some special social stuff, but through their own agency. When Latour sets out to reassemble the social, he is thereby rescuing our thought from the powerful Cartesian dispensation. And that leads to an exercise for the reader. Early in the 18 century Giambattista Vico 22 set himself the task of opposing Descartes. Where Descartes believed that we arrived at truth through observation, Vico believed we arrive at truth through making (verum esse ipsum factum). That truth is made, that is certainly what Latour thinks. Thats what hes said about the scientific laboratory. Is Vico a precursor to Latour?

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Reading Latour 12: ANT and Literary Studies

Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. From the chapter Third Move: Connecting Sites, pp. 219-246. I want to deal with the material in Latours penultimate chapter, Third Move: Connecting Sites, by considering how one might think about literature in ANT terms. These ANTs will not, of course, guide us to deep descriptive knowledge of the texts, the sort of knowledge Ive advocated in my notes on Heart of Darkness, to name one example.23 Thats not what the ANTs are about. The ANTs are about how people interact with one another and with a multitude of environments and objects, texts among them.

Texts and Standards

Latour is interested in what circulates from site to site (p. 222). Texts certainly do that. He starts by thinking about forms: To provide a piece of information is the action of putting something into a form (p. 223). A few pages later hes talking about standards and metrology, the study of measurement. His first example is that of the kilogram. So generalize from that, for the contemporary world is woven through with standards of all kinds (p. 228): Standards and metrology solve practically the question of relativity that seems to intimidate so many people: Can we obtain some sort of universal agreement? One can certainly read large swaths of the recent history of literary studies as a gloss on that question. Does the text have a single true meaning? If so, how do we determine it and so compel universal agreement? If not . . . what then? These matters became acute in the 1960s through the casual, and near universal, observation that critics do not, in fact, agree on the meanings of texts. Logically prior to the problem of interpretation is that of the canon: Just which texts are we supposed to be in agreement about? As a matter of recent history, of course, the problem of textual meaning came to a head before that of the canon. The canon, it seems to me, is just that body of texts around and through which a population of individuals constitutes itself as a group. Canon wars are thus wars between groups or, perhaps more accurately in Latours terminology, wars among collectives attempting to constitute themselves as the hegemonic social group. What we need to think about is how texts can serve such a purpose.

Text as Intermediary
Earlier in the book Latour distinguishes between intermediaries and mediators (p. 39):
An intermediary, in my vocabulary, is what transports meaning or force without transformation: defining its inputs is enough to define its outputs. . . . Mediators, on the other hand . . . transform, translate, distort, and modify meaning of the elements they are supposed to carry.

As a first approximation I take it that the texts themselves are intermediaries while our various explications of the text, from the most casual (as in office chatter about the book you read the night before, or the movie you saw) to the most formal presentation in a professional journal. are mediators.

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Thats my strong position. My weak position is that its the form of the text that is an intermediary; the content may well have the flavor of being a mediator. In Literary Morphology 24 I have argued that texts have a computational form that must necessarily be the same for all readers, a proposition which psychologist Keith Oatley accepts (Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction, p. 71). In making such an argument what concerns me is how texts work in the mind and brain, which cannot be determined through interpreting those texts (cf. Bordwell, Making Meaning). Just how thatworking in mind and brainto be determined, well thats the question, isnt it? We dont know as yet.

Oral Cultures
In thinking about this question, that of the text as connector among individuals, I prefer to start with how texts exist in oral cultures. They are not passed from person to person in the form of marks on paper. Rather, texts summon the group in recitation. The texts to which I refer, of course, are the myths and folktales which are the common heritage of a people, not the every day stories they might tell about the days hunt or a childs first steps. These texts are recited in full public view of the group. The stories are standard ones known by all, the same set of characters, the same episodes and incidents. There is nothing new about the story at all, except the details of a given performance, which might be quite remarkable. In this situation the teller is aware of, and plays to, his audience, as members of the audience are aware of one another. It is the tellers full performance, words, intonation, gestures, all of it, and under these circumstancestraditional tale performed in front of the groupthat acts as an intermediary that couples the many assembled individuals into a coherent group, a society. This does not, of course, happen in a single telling. But in many tellings over weeks and years and decades. Its an ongoing process. Were we to examine each such performance in minute detail, wed discover this coupling in the gestures and movements of everyone in the group. Particularly in the timing. Wed see it in their gazes, their glances at one another, their attention to the story-teller. The laughs and groans, the clapping of hands and slapping of knees. If we could instrument everyones brain, albeit unobtrusively, wed see the coupling in the synchronized neural activity across the many coupled brains (an argument Ive made explicitly with respect to music in Beethovens Anvil and in my review of Mithens The Singing Neanderthals).25 In such an investigation, in Latours formulation, the boundaries between sociology and psychology may be reshuffled for good (212). Over time, the story adjusts to the shifting needs of the group and thus always remain within coupling range (cf. Harvey Whitehouse, Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity, e.g. pp. 49 ff.). As the needs of the group change, so the stories change to that they continue to be effective intermediaries.

Written Texts
Things change, of course, once the stories become written down. The direct connection between story teller and audience is broken. Once a story becomes fixed on the page it can no longer change and adapt. And so texts fall out of fashion as they no longer serve as effective intermediaries. And new texts are created to serve that function. In this view the ability of a written text to survive, to pass the test of time as the saying has it, is its suitability as an intermediary. Texts survive because they are sharable. Just what makes a text sharable, thats something we must discover.

24 25 - 51 -

Some texts, of course, acquire a class of explicators who both stand guard on the texts themselves and serve as mediators of those texts before the larger group. This happens first with religious texts and only much later with secular works much, much, later. The ANT sociologist of the literary would, of course, have to describe all of the threads in the new web of the text, all of the actors. In such a discourse the text itself would have to be allowed agency. It is no longer the dead ashes on paper so beloved of the reader response theorists. And, Im tempted to say, the most powerful agency a text can have is to act as an intermediary. But not as an intermediary between the singular author, on the one hand, and the many readers, individually one by one, on the other hand. This is not a reverse panopticon, as it were, where a single author in the middle shovels the text through tubes to each lone reader in a private cell. Rather, as in the oral situation, the text is an intermediary among all the readers, of which the author, of course, is one. In thus generalizing from oral culture to written culture I realize that Im glossing over many problems. Surely it is not that simple. Surely much hard work will be needed to make such a story work, even in modified form. My point is simply that THIS is the starting point. As such it is very different from the Cartesian starting point, with its many isolated subjects earnestly in search of the world andhope! hope! hope!of another subject, at least one, please!

Reader as Agent
We must abandon the Cartesian starting point and work through all the difficulties anew, from this new vantage point. In the process I believe that well recover the reader as agent, but not as the willful solipsist of reader response theory, but as a social agent interacting with others. Let us return to Latour; hes speaking of art in general and not specifically about literature, p. 236:
Apart from religion, no other domain has been more bulldozed to death by critical sociology than the sociology of art. Every sculpture, painting, haute cuisine dish, techno rave, and novel has been explained to nothingness by the social factors hidden behind them. Through some inversion of Platos allegory of the cave, all the objects people have learned to cherish have been replaced by puppets projecting social shadows which are supposed to be the only true reality that is behind the appreciation of the work of art.

Agreed. But, you might ask, just how does the text connect readers? What does it do? If it is a source of standards, what are those standards about? Good questions all. And there are some answers ready and waiting. The texts provide norms and values, stuff like that. And, of course, we all knew that. Thats what the squabbling of the last 50 years has been about. How deeply do we understand those things, norms and values? Not very deeply, I suggest, not very deeply. I further suggest that this new study of literature will afford us ways of understanding, more deeply, just what those things, norms and values, are, and how they work.

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Reading Latour 13: ANT and Politics

Bruno Latour. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. Comments on Conclusion: From Society to CollectiveCan the Social Be Reassembled? pp. 247-262. I would dearly love to pick up from my post on ANT and Literary Studies (Reading Latour 12) and generalize to culture in general, drawing, of course, on my remarks about graffiti and music as well. The idea would be to recast memes as rigid intermediaries constituted as, shall we say, semiotic codes. The individual code items, then, could be combined into various textsin the extended meaning of that termwhich function as mediators between individuals and the groups of which they are members. But I must leave that generalization as an exercise for the reader. Were I to embark upon it Im afraid I might never find my way back out and thus would never be able to finish these notes. Not a useful result.

Laws and Explanations

So, to the final chapter of Reassembling the Social. And were going to get there by taking a look at the concluding paragraph of the penultimate chapter (p. 246):
The laws of the social world may exist, but they occupy a very different position from what the tradition had first thought. They are not behind the scene, above our heads and before the action, but after the action, below the participants and smack in the foreground. They dont cover, nor encompass, nor gather, nor explain; they circulate, they format, they standardize, they coordinate, they have to be explained.

That last sentence came as something of a rude shock after Latours earlier proscription of explanation. Heres a passage I have already quoted in Reading Latour 10: Description & Graffiti (p. 137):
Either the networks that make possible a state of affairs are fully deployedand then adding an explanation will be superfluousor we add an explanation stating that some other actor or factor should be taken into account, so that it is the description that should be extended one step further. If a description remains in need of an explanation, it means that it is a bad description.

But I stopped reading too soon. That passage continues with this line (and of course more): There is an exception, however, if it refers to a fairly stable state of affairs where some actors do indeed play the role of fully determinedand thus of fully explained intermediariesbut in this case we are back to simpler pre-relativist cases. That is, were back at the sociology of the social, which is about stabilized social worlds, not worlds in flux, for which Actor-Network Theory has been devised. Its those worlds in flux where description must be paramount, for how can there be laws if there is no stability? Well, I think there may be an approach to that question, but Im going to set it aside. I take it that Latours point about laws of the social world is that, when were dealing with a stabilized world, that stability itself must be explained. Those are the explanations Latour seeks. The laws stating the regularities of a stabilized world are the products of somethingforces, structuresLatour fails to name (as far as I can determine). But his final chapter is not about those worlds. Its about the world still in flux.

In Motion, Politics
Latours central point is simply that, where there is social stability, where the sociology of the social is the appropriate conceptual instrument, there can be no meaningful politics. There can be - 53 -

no change, only circulation of agents and actants according to a fixed pattern of intermediaries (250): To put it bluntly: if there is a society, then no politics is possible. Politics, real before-the-end-of-history politics, implies change, hence (p. 252):
Is it not obvious then that only a skein of weak ties, of constructed, artificial assignable, accountable, and surprising connections is the only way to begin contemplating any kind of fight? With respect to the Total, there is nothing to do except to genuflect before it, or worse, to dream of occupying the place of complete power. I think it would be much safer to claim that action is possible only in a territory that has been opened up, flattened down, and cut down to size in a place where formats, structures, globalization, and totalities circulate inside tiny conduits, and where for each of their applications they need to rely on masses of hidden potentialities. If this is not possible, then there is no politics. No battle has ever been won without resorting to new combinations and surprising events.

And that, I submit, is what Ive found in graffiti culture and society. Graffiti artifacts may go back 40 or 50 years, but the people who assemble about and through them, their gropings and groupings are very much in flux. There is political sentiment there, but a politics, no. But Ill point you to William Upski Wimsatt, Please Dont Bomb the Suburbs (Akashic Books 2010). Wimsatt is an experience youth organizer who grew up as a graffiti writer in Chicago and is steeped in hip-hop culture. Upski is a nickname from his graffiti days, derived from to get up, that is, to write graffiti on a wall. What that titles about, thats a convoluted story that runs on for several pages (pp. 13-20). Suffice it to say that bomb has nothing to do with explosives. Its graffiti slang for paint the walls with a glorious vengeance and with style! And not bombing the suburbs is about growing up and crafting a serious political movement capable of changing the course of history. I kid you not. [Been down so long, looks like up to me, no?] But THAT, that cannot be done in a world thats fixed in place. That can only be in a world thats still fluid. Thats the world Latour seeks to describe.

Some Concluding Passages

At this point Im declaring this reading to be all but over. Theres much more to be said about Reassembling the Social, but Im not up to saying it, not here and now. I wont say this reading got me where I needed to go, but I like where it DID get me. Which is one of those many places I didnt know about, but which feels nonetheless almost like home. Almost. But not quite. Its more like a homestead. Some final passages from the book, p. 254:
Whereas the tradition distinguished the common good (a moralist concern) and the common world (naturally given), I proposed replacing the politics of nature by the progressive composition of one common world.

And now Latours written An Attempt at a Compositionist Manifesto and thats where Im going. Im a compositionist through and through (e.g. thats what speculative engineering is about), and Ive got lots to compose. p. 257:
Rather, each discipline is at once extending the range of entities at work in the world and actively participating in transforming some of them into faithful and stable intermediaries.

And Latour runs through a litany of examples from economics, sociology, psychology, geographers, linguists, etc. p. 258:
This does not mean those disciplines are fictions, inventing their subject matter out of thin air. It means that they are, as the name nicely indicates, disciplines: each has chosen to

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deploy some sort of mediator and favored some type of stabilization, thus populating the world with different types of well-drilled and fully formatted inhabitants.

Again, what matters is not that the accounts are constructed, but how well they are constructed. Each discipline has its standards differentiating better constructions from poorer ones. p. 259:
This is where politics again enters the scene if we care to define it as the intuitions that associations are not enough, that they should also be composed in order to design one common world. For better or worse, sociology, contrary to its sister anthropology, can never be content with a plurality of metaphysics; it also needs to tackle the ontological question of the unity of this common world.

Just WTF! is that, the unity of this common world? You can be sure its NOT a successor to Otto Neuraths International Encyclopedia of Unified Science,26 for that was the product of an era that slipped into the deep past when Fukuyama somewhat quixotically declared an end to history. For thats a world composed about a distinction between nature and society, and that distinctions gone. Just what happened to that distinction, and why its going going gone, that discussion is not quite fully present in this book. It IS here, here and there, enough that you can pick it up if youre alert to the signs. But Latours reasoning is not here fully deployed. Heres Latour rounding third base and heading home (p. 262):
. . . if you really think that the future common world can be better composed by using nature and society as the ultimate meta-language, then ANT is useless. It might become interesting only if what was called in the recent past the West decides to rethinking how it should present itself to the resort fo the world that is soon to become more powerful. After having registered the sudden new weakness of the former West and trying to imagine how it could survive a bit longer in the future to maintain its place in the sun, we have to establish connections with the others that cannot possibly be held in the nature/society collections. Or, to use another ambiguous term, we must might have to engage in cosmopolitics.

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Appendix: Three Objects for OOOIII

This is slightly revised from a post I originally wrote in response to the Object-Oriented Ontology III meetings held in New York City in September 2011.27 There were moments during Wednesdays wrap-up panel when I thought to myself I need wonder no more. But, no, Im still wondering. Note, however, that wondering is not doubting. I have no doubts. But I do wonder. Its clear that Im more interested in working with, describing, and understanding specific objects and assemblages than I am in philosophizing about objecthood. I AM glad that theorizing is taking place, but Im not quite sure why. In particular, what is the relationship between that theorizing and the practical business of describing and working with objects (praxis). What is the relationship between the theorizing and the praxis? What can we say about it? Perhaps we can approach that issue by through the question: How do I know whether or not Ive got a proper object by the tail? While this is a question about knowledge, it is not an epistemological question. It is, rather, one of methodology. Once weve got an object, then, and only then, can we worry about knowing that objectkeeping in mind, of course, that it ever withdraws as we ever know. When I originally wrote this post I thought that the question of whether or not one had a proper object by the tail was a philosophical one, or had a philosophical dimension. Now Im not so sure. The question strikes me as more of an empirical question or perhaps, perhaps it is a compositionist question. That is, in proposing some object as appropriate for description and investigation, one is making a proposal about some particular domain. Whether or not the proposed object is a proper object would thus seem to be a matter of whether or not it is reasonably composed from entities known to be in that domain. That is not a philosophical question, unless philosophy itself is the appropriate domain.

Three Objects
In the rest of this appendix I offer three objects that interest me a great deal: the worldwide graffiti wall, the music-making group, and the literary text. Each builds on ideas Ive already advanced in earlier posts in this series as well as on ideas Ive elaborated elsewhere. I do not regard any of these proposals as, shall we say, compositionally complete, but they are plausible. The first proposal, the world-wide graffiti wall, has received the most extensive preparation in these posts and it is the least abstract of the three. I note, however, that the proposal says little about the structure and meaning of the graffiti itself and that is why it is relatively concrete. The second, the music-making group, is concrete enough, but the proposal is pitched at the neural level: what is such a group considered as an arrangement among nervous systems? That rests ultimately on chapters 2, 3, and 4 of Beethovens Anvil, which in turn rests on the neurodynamics theorizing of Walter Freeman. The last proposal is about the literary text. And it is the most abstract of the three. For whatever the text is, it is more than just ink splotches on the page (or vibrations in the air). But just how we can characterize that more, thats difficult. What is not obvious, however, that in my overall thought about culture, whatever kind of object the literary text turns out to be, that is, however we compose it, that composition presuppose the music-making group. For I have argued,

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in Beethovens Anvil, that it was through making proto-music that very clever apes became primitive humans. That created the neuro-behavioral environment in which language, and hence stories, poems, and plays, could emerge. Only the first of these objects more or less exists within the compass that Latour indicated in Reassembling the Social. The others cut deeply into psychology, though, I would submit, not even the literary text exists entirely within psychological. While Latour called for reshuffling the boundaries between sociology and psychology (p. 213) he didnt provide any conceptual tools for doing so beyond the internet-derived metaphor of the plug-in. Thus these last two proposed objects, the music-making group and the literary text, are the primitive beginnings of compositions that straddle that old boundary between psychology and sociology. Perhaps it is in supporting such compositions that compositionism will most deeply prove its worth.

The World-Wide Graffiti Wall (WWGW)

As always, by graffiti I mean the specific tradition that started in NewYorkandPhilly in the late 60s and early 70s. This graffiti goes on walls, mostly by not entirely out doors, often in acts of vandalism. By the world-wide graffiti wall I mean all the graffiti in this tradition considered as a single ever-changing object. Given its large spatial extentsix continents, and, who knows, maybe theres some on Antarctica toothis WWGW is surely one of Tim Mortons hyperobjects.28 One of the things that interests me about the WWGW is its geometry, the spatial distribution of its discontinuous parts. Those arent connected together in one place, nor are they uniformly distributed. They arent, for example, evenly spaced on a rectangular grid. For one thing, they are on land, not in the ocean, though surely graffiti exists on many islands, e.g. the Japanese islands. Graffiti tends to be in urban areas, which are not evenly distributed. Nor is it evenly distributed within urban areas. Given an area with a fair complement of graffiti, it will not be evenly distributed in that area. We must also consider the graffiti thats placed on freight cars (known as freights or fr8s) and on trucks. That graffiti moves from place to place. Which means that the WWGW is fluid on at least two time scales. On a scale of weeks to years we can trace the creation, degradation and destruction of graffiti on the walls. On a scale of minutes to days we can trace the movement of graffiti on trucks and freights. Consider the map below, which indicates the graffiti zones in the Jersey City neighborhood where Ive taken most of my graffiti photos:

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The red pushpin is the entrance for the Holland Tunnel to Manhattan; the green pushpin is the building where I lived for a decade; and the blue pushpin is Dickinson High School, which overlooks the Hudson River. The graffiti zones are outlined in yellow. While there are tags all through the area, those zones are where you find the elaborately worked pieces. The pieces are not uniformly distributed within those zones. In particular, zone HC is thinly populated, but it didnt make sense to be more exact in a map of this scale. Area JC is the Newport Wall that was mentioned Gastman and Neelons recent The History of Graffiti in America. Finally, I note that one wall in area BR has become obscured by a tree that fell on it when Tropical Storm Irene passed through. Now, let us imagine that weve mapped all the graffiti in the world as of some arbitrary date, and that weve mapped it down to, say, the square meter. Whats the shape of this distributed object? In particular, is it a fractal? Further, lets play six-degrees-of-separation with graffiti writers. Two writers can be considered linked if theyve painted the same wall. It doesnt matter whether or not they did it at the same time, or whether or not theyve ever had face-to-face contact. Let us, however, add the provision that their work must have been simultaneously visible for, say, at least a week. Now, how many links between any two writers? As you think about that question, consider the fact that only a few miles from the above area in Jersey City is a building in Long Island City, 5 Points, that has attracted graffiti writers from all over the world. The building is managed by a man who writes as Meres. Meres has gotten up on one of the walls in zone N in that map. Because of his position at 5 Points, where he has, of course, gotten up, Meres is closely links to writers the world over. Finally, politics. Almost all of the graffiti on those sites is vandalism, thus implicating the institutional structure of society. Further, sites BA-BC, BR, CT, and YD are all posted notrespassing zones, which means that I was breaking the law when it walked those zones taking photographs.

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I would hazard to guess the electoral politics of graffiti writers. I suspect its mostly unformed. But I also suspect that much of it would be in sympathy with this piece from zone YD:

To those at OOOIII who worry about alerting the world to global climate change, I say: get graffiti writers to put it up on the WWGW. Seriously.

The Music-Making Group

Ive blogged about this object many times (see, for example, People in Groups in Reading Latour 11), so Im not going to run through it in any detail. I have come to regard people making music together as a single object, a physical system in which signals organize the groups actions. Some of the signals are electrochemical signals in the nervous systems of the individuals in the group. Others take the form of mechanical waves in the atmosphere in the immediate vicinity of the group. The latter signals are, of course, available to non-layers in the area as well. Because of that, they too are part of this system, this object. In particular, I argue that it is the physicality of all those signals, and the paths they travel, that constitutes this assemblage as an object proper. If you examine the various things Ive written about this object, and beyond those, the work I reference, youll see that my argument takes the form of a construction. Or rather, its a neural-level description of how such a music-making group is constructed. In the large, my argument, but not only MY argument, is that at some undetermined time in the past, groups of very clever apes began transforming themselves into human beings by assembling in such groups. Given that as a premise, the history of humanity is, among other things, - 59 -

a history of the coming, going, and transformation of such assemblages. When I take such assemblages, plug them into Latours Actor-Network Theory, and crank up the Generalizer, I get all of humanity (to date) considered as a single hyperobject. Two questions: 1) Is that basic assemblage of people making music together, is that a properly constituted object? 2) What of the grand generalization, all of humanity, is that, or could it be construed as, a properly constituted object? On this second question its not meaningful simply to assert all of humankind as a group. And thats not what Ive done. Ive given the barest hint of how one might describe such a group at the physical level. First theres the music-making group and then theres the grand generalization. That generalization must, however, at least meet the rather stringent requirements of Latours ANT methodology. One must see how it would be possible, in principle at least, that such an hyperassemblage, if I may, could be described. For, language allows us to nominalize anything whatsoever, including arbitrary sets (e.g. every male child born on the third Thursday of even numbered months of the year). One would not thereby declare each such nominalization to be an object in the sense of OOO. Again, how does one recognize a proper object? How does one compose it?

The Literary Text

My third object: the literary text. By which it do not mean only the ink splotches on the paper. Thats a starting point, but not all there is. Again, Ive discussed this extensively elsewhere (e.g. in this paper on Literary Morphology,29 and in Reading Latour 12) so Im not going to run down the whole drill here and now. Norman Holland has used the term sharable promptuary and thats what Im after. Its more than just the ink on the page, but even that ink is not so simple. That ink is arranged in patterns, some of which are traces of the text while others are simply arbitrary artifacts of inscription on paper. Which patterns are which? But that hardly exhausts this thing Im calling the text, this thing I want to describe. The question of whats there beyond the patterns of ink is a deep and thorny one. Etc., etc., etc. Academic literary criticism has organized itself around the search for textual meaning. And has long ago discovered that even the best critics do not agree on what a given text means. I take this as evidence that explication or reading is not the proper way to apprehend, constitute, describe the text as object. When I put it that way, in fact, I suspect that many critics will retort: Well of course not! The page and the ink, theyre objects. But the text, no, the text is . . . Well, just what IS the text if not an object? Surely its not a subject. If its not a subject, then what else can it be if not an object? If it IS an object, then it seems to me that we should, in principle, be able to describe it as such. Thats a question Id like our philosophers to address, the principle. But Im not clear about just what that kind of question that is. I certainly dont want them to give me tips on HOW TO describe the text. Im quite convinced that the only way to learn about describing literary texts is to wade in the waters and start describing. Thats not what most philosophers have done. Even those philosophers whove taken an interest in literature (e.g. Derrida) have not been interested in describing the texts. Theyve been interested in what the texts mean. Welland here Id like the philosophers to step inI take it that meaning arises in the interaction between a subject and an object (an object which, however, may contain a subject; human beings are such objects). Meaning is thus a subjective phenomenon. Note, and note this very carefully, that when I say that meaning is subjective I mean ONLY that it arises in the
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interaction between a subject and an object. I do not mean to imply that, because meaning is subjective, it therefore varies idiosyncratically and capriciously between subjects. It may or it may not so vary. I certainly believe that it is possible for subjects to arrive at substantial intersubjective agreement and understanding on many matters, including the meaning of literary texts. I would argue that, in fact, (fully) human communities are possible only through intersubjective agreements on all sorts of matters, the meanings of literary texts among them. And that intersubjective agreement is possible only because many are mediated by objects that are rigid in a certain way. That certain way can also support the process of producing descriptions of those objects such that those descriptions compel intersubjective agreement. Note that intersubjective agreement about descriptions is different from intersubjective agreement about the meanings themselves. Andperhaps this is where I really need helpit should be possible for critics who disagree about the meaning of a text to reach agreement about the proper description of that same text considered as an object. For the methods by which one constructs a meaning are different from those by which one constructs a description. The disciplines of literary criticism are rich with methods for the first, but poor in methods for the second.

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