Latour’s Reassembling the Social

Colin Brooke has a solid summary of Latour’s book here, so I am not going try producing another summary. Like Brooke I also think the book should be read by more people in different disciplines. I whole-heartedly recommend it for anyone who wants to put some of the crazy French thought to work (Deleuze, Foucault, etc), especially undergraduates trying to come to terms with the so-called post-structuralists (or, more properly, philosophies concerned with the non-literary ‘event’)! The below is really only for those that have read the book.

My concern with Latour’s book is the absence of any proper consideration of the social machinery that leads to asymmetrical movement or distribution across chains of associations. I shall give examples of this below, but it appears as if this sort of phenomenon would contradict one of the central tenets of ANT as Latour has laid it out — no ‘jumping’. Or maybe it is an example of exactly what Latour means. I am not sure.

I shall use the example of a magazine as Latour actually raises the example of a generic ‘fashion’ magazine as a mediator, but on the other ‘consumer’ side of the relation to that I am interested in. My PhD has had to contend with the nature of enthusiast magazines — their function and the ‘popular archive’ — I am concerned with the 3) commercial synergies produced through 2) the mass assembly of consumer subjectivities through 1) the social machinery of the magazine. Latour’s book has been execeptionally useful in forcing me to think about this in a very precise way.

Mass assembly of consumer subjectivities

He raises the example of the magazine to discuss 2) in the short list above. He writes about a fashion magazine:

Without the avid reading of countless fashion magazines, would you know how to bake a cake? And what about putting on a condom, consoling your lover, brushing your hair, fighting for your rights, or picking out the right clothes? Magazines help here as well. If you take each of the rubrics as the mere `expression’ of some dark social force, then their efficacy disappears. But if you remember that there is nothing beyond and beneath, that there is no rear-world of the social, then is it not fair to say that they make up a part of your own cherished intimacy? We are now familiar with what should no longer appear as a paradox: it’s precisely once the overall society disappears that the full range of what circulates ‘outside’ can be brought to the foreground. (209)

Firstly, magazines work by sometimes constructing but mostly capturing particular relations or what Latour calls ‘associations’. There are no ‘objects’ or ‘subjects’ only relations between them, that is, discourse captures the order of things. Other media work the same. For example, the ‘male gaze’ captures a certain relation through representations of ‘objectified’ cars (and sometimes women). OK, obvious, basic media studies. The connection of these relations produces entire worlds (hence the Leibneizian influence on Latour’s notion of ‘panoramas’), or what Lazzarato has described as an event. Is there a difference between knowing how to bake a cake because you read a fashion magazine and following the instructions that came with an IKEA bookshelf or how to operate a digital camera?

Especially important is that which allows actors to interpret the setting in which they are located. No matter how many frames are pouring through localizers to format a setting, no matter how many documents are flowing from this setting to oligoptica and back, there is still a huge distance between the generic actors preformatted by those movements and the course of action carried out by fully involved individualized participants. Everyone has this common experience when they try and make sense of even the most carefully written user’s manual. No matter how many generic persons an assembly drawing has been designed for, you will surely start grumbling after hours on your newly purchased digital camera and feel that you are not one of these persons. By measuring the distance between instructions addressed to no one in particular and yourself, you have been made painfully aware of what Don Norman has called ‘the gap of execution’. It would be foolish to ignore that which gave the impression that face-to-face interactions were so ‘concrete’ and on such a `real life’ scale, and which gave the feeling that it was individuals who were carrying out the action. (205)

The difference between the two (magazine and technical document) is precisely my concern. Latour calls these relation-fragments ‘subjectifiers’ and writes that

What I am trying to do here is simply show how the boundaries between sociology and psychology may be reshuffled for good. For this, there is only solution: make every single entity populating the former inside come from the outside not as a negative constraint ‘limiting subjectivity’, but as a positive offer of subjectivation. (212-213)

Media must be considered a special problem within ANT because there is a massive jump in scale between the local organisational movement of the magazine editorial offices (which could be studied easily enough) and the local processes of readers as they are individualised through the differentiations of subjectifiers. It is of the order of roughly 6 permanent magazine staff to a circulation of about 80,000 magazines (and a readership of five to eight times this figure) for my car enthusiast magazines. It would be a nightmare to consider, or in Latour’s parlance ‘trace’, the social associations produced by the minimum 80,000 people who read and incorporate (or not incorporate) various relations (to the ‘outside’) captured by the magazine. This is how ‘media studies’ has traditionally sought to uncover the specific relation of influence between media and consumers of media. I stopped doing interviews because I realised it was relatively futile to attempt to trace the movements of associations through the media by following the magazines in the hands of enthusiasts. I would never be able to interview enough people to come up with any meaningful result regarding the function of the magazine in the culture. IN ANT speak: I needed a new actor.

So I thought about the relation between the magazines and the readers a little more. The relation doesn’t only flow one way, from the ‘one’ of the overcoding magazine masthead to the ‘many’ of the poor little readers, it also flows the other way, back (or, actually, forward) through the media apparatus. Latour writes:

[A] newspaper editor’s cubicle resembles a command and control room but only a bit, since what goes out and what comes in is not formatted and binding as a military order or a dispatch. (182)

Indeed. However, it is not the editor that is the important actor in the media apparatus. Who does the editor eventually connect with? Writers. Freelancers. This is the other side of the circuit to that of the ‘reader-consumer’. Those ‘subjectifiers’ have to be selected from the ‘common world’ of the ‘special interest’ (of the ‘special interest magazine’, which I have already argued includes ‘general interest’ as a ‘special interest’, or what I call an enthusiasm). The recipe and photoshoot, chef and writer for the recipe of the cake that appears in the fashion magazine needs to be selected, organised, enveloped and territorialised. (The current failure of the MSM media apparatus is not necessarily the complicity of the media in neo-conservative stupidities, rather there is a relative absence of ‘freelancers’ who belong to different social milieus.) Via the freelancer, a magazine is an operator that processes the multiplicity of a scene.

Magazines actually publish programmatic stories every now and then about being a freelancer writer or photographer. I wonder why…

Commercial synergies

Magazines sell advertising space by promising to deliver to advertisers particular populations of readers. The content selected for the magazine needs to be congruent not only with the ‘special interests’ of enthusiasts but the banal ‘commercial interests’ of advertisers. This is a second asymmetrical relation. Businesses sponsor the cake-making section of the fashion magazine to facilitate product placement. Does it work? Why else would businesses pay or provide resources for the honour? There are many different types of commercial interest depending on the nature of the business. However, both the businesses and the magazines are interested in maintaining a given population of reader/consumers. Latour is silent about this. Maybe he is not interested, however it is a traditional concern of Cultural Studies.

My PhD seems like it is eventually going to be about the role of enthusiasm in the maintenance and manipulation of populations of enthusiasts so they become a reources across a number of institutional apparatuses (eg 1) a readership to sell to advertisers or 2) a crowd to attend an event like a festival or show and closely related 3) part of the scene (territory of the ‘special interest’) for other enthusiasts, or 4) the territory of the commercial interest of the ‘market’, etc.).

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