Barry, as always, you’ve forced me to think more carefully about my meanderings. Indeed, my intention was to append a short reply to your comment, but your questions have demanded more and, predictably, words have got the better of me. This post, then, is my long-winded response. Thank you for giving me the chance to expand on my thoughts.
First, let me respond to your criticisms regarding the interminglings of humans and nonhumans. As I understand it, you are opposed to the idea of a kind of symmetry between the two. I concede, symmetry here raises problems, as does the implication that people and things populate the same single category. With these problems, I realise I need to make my position clearer.
Finding my inspiration in (post) ANT, feminist technoscience and, as Mol now likes to call it, a , you are right to point out that I see the human-nonhuman binary as a peculiar one. However, I see the symmetry trick to be far from, well, a trick. On the contrary, to me it feels a much more genuine and responsive starting point. Let’s consider the category problem. For starters, when would you and I imagine ourselves to share a category? Well, one rather macabre place might be on the pathologist’s bench. Another might be as one of the many millions of commuters passing through London. In both, we are — in different senses — human bodies. We can, though, imagine just as many situations in which we would be lumped into different categories – ethnicity, geography, intellectual auspices, and so on. Likewise, we could repeat this exercise with things: tables and chairs are items of furniture, but at the same time they of course can be categorised, differently, in that they reference particular styles/periods, or are made of distinct materials. Indeed, this category making could, dare we imagine it, lump things and people together: door-men and self-closing door hinges keep cold weather out, police and road humps slow traffic, etc. So the symmetry here is not one that presupposes categorical sameness, or indeed any essential categories — be they the body or mind, or people vs. things.
My obvious point here (and I apologise for belabouring it) is that categories, , are enacted. Chuck Goodwin provides us with such delightful examples of this. I particularly like his description of . So why then would we presuppose that one very particular category distinction – that between humans and nonhumans — should prevail above all others? Surely, we would want to be open minded about the ways categories are done and not to approach any phenomena insisting that one binary must be enforced?
Let me, then, take up another of your related objections and through this return to my piece in interactions and my modestly pieced together point on relationality. You ask whether it is helpful to attribute agency and normative qualities to things – productive in the short term, you suggest, yet eventually leading us into a quagmire of nonsense and confusion. Can I ask you this: in what way is human agency independent of *things*? I find it hard to think of a context in which agency resides entirely in/with humans. A more honest perspective, as I see it, is to see this more like a spectrum in which agency surfaces somewhere amongst a relational configuration of actors/agents. I slow the car down because I am moving in a car, and together we (me and the car) are obliged to respond to the material arrangement of the road, the road furniture (as it is called), and the road hump. True, remove the human and the intention to slow down is gone, but so too when the car or hump are gone. The intention is in the mixture of humans and non-humans. And your power station gives us another helpful example. Why would we want to imagine that a morality and set of accompanying activities (like investing in nuclear energy) are in someway separate to the things themselves? Without nuclear power stations, and all that ’stuff’ that goes into them, where would we find the morality. Of course, we would not. Agencies and normativities arise out of relational entanglements.
Alas, I must agree with you though. These are longstanding arguments, and I’m confident I won’t be the one who satisfactorily answers your objections. Yet I hope to have shown that the proposal is not to simply shift agential capacities from one side of the human-nonhuman binary to the other. Nor is it to blindly lump humans and nonhumans into the same category. I draw on a project that contests any such binaries or essentialist categories, and instead invites a serious examination of how worlds of humans and things are enacted.
It’s this point on relationality that brings us back to the heart of the matter, a rethinking of interactions. As a matter of fact, I’m not all that concerned with the word, as it is generally used, and I, like you, greatly admire sociologists such as Goodwin who show the interactional accomplishments that constitute ordinary scientific business. My concern is with an interaction that narrows its sights on the neatly demarcated interactions humans have with machines, and presupposes that we might easily separate and forget about the relational entanglements that run alongside and interweave with these. What Goodwin so expertly illustrates is how the assembled arrangements of human bodies (plus their talk) and things, occasion ‘worlds’ of materially configured knowing and logic. The rationale and product in science is enacted through the incessant categorising and ordering (i.e. bringing into relation) of people and things. In effect, Goodwin shows us worlds in the making — ‘world making’. As he writes:
Rather than sustaining an opposition between the “mental” and the “material” such activity systems seamlessly link phenomena such as the embodied actions of participants, physical tools, language use, work relevant writing practices, etc. into the patterns of coordinated action that make up the lifeworld of a workgroup.()
So through their linking activities his archaeologists are bringing a very particular kind of ‘lifeworld’ or world into play, one enacted and sustained through materially bound activities that keep certain relations stable and others mutable. If you are advocating this kind of attention to interaction then I am all for it.
My basic premise in the Interactions article builds on precisely this shift from a empirical project that relies on ready-made categories and relations, to one that is genuinely about how the relations are enacted and what the enactments mean for the worlds we live in. I argue this matters for technology because in designing and building technical systems we are affording (and indeed ) certain ways of knowing and doing. We are implicated in that world making that Goodwin observes, but in our case we are giving real shape to the instruments and processes that might bring things, practices, knowings, normativities, etc. into being. We are designing vast arrays of Munsell chart-like systems and the processes that give them authority to claim things about and enforce certain orders in the world.
Finally, it’s this recognition of our inevitable participation in performing worlds, even when we valiantly try to resist a priori categories, that I claim we must show a . The narrow concern for how technical things support or mediate an exceptional human endeavour elides the shear diversity of and possibility for different and new figurings — it is to start too late, it . An openness to the unfolding relations — not just a fixation on a few but in all their varieties — invites us to be far more careful about the worlds we live in; we see that we have some part to play (even though it will always be ) and have a great deal at stake in how we want to live, and how we might make things better.