Reading ANT, multiplicity and policy”

Some notes on:

Law, J., & Singleton, V. (2014). ANT, mul­ti­pli­city and policy. Crit­ic­al Policy Stud­ies, 1 – 18.


ANT, multiplicity and policy

I’m in two minds about this art­icle by Law and Singleton (2014) that tar­gets policy mak­ing through the example of the foot and mouth out­break in the UK, circa 2001. It’s a use­ful and simply put pre­cis of and its devel­op­ments since the 1980s. It help­fully threads togeth­er the con­cepts of het­ero­gen­eity, rela­tion­al­ity, mul­ti­pli­city and  — and attrib­utes the con­cepts to the lead­ing lights in . Aim­ing to speak to a (pre­sum­ably unini­ti­ated) policy audi­ence, the authors are clearly try­ing to make three dec­ades of STS schol­ar­ship approach­able. I’m also sym­path­et­ic with the points made about the rel­ev­ance of ANT to policy mak­ing and policy stud­ies, neatly align­ing as they do with left­ist, lib­er­al aca­dem­ic sens­ib­il­it­ies (I’ll come back to this).

Yet the art­icle has two weak­nesses that raise some anguish for me. One is quite simple; the art­icle doesn’t quite do what’s writ­ten on the tin’. In the abstract and through­out the text, there is a repeated ref­er­ence to fem­in­ist mater­i­al semi­ot­ics and the paper is presen­ted as an effort to draw ideas from a meta­phys­ics that stitches togeth­er this semi­ot­ic fram­ing with ANT. The trouble is, there is really only a curs­ory ref­er­ence to what I prefer to call a . Donna Har­away is used as a sin­gu­lar stand in for an immense and lively lit­er­at­ure that makes up the fem­in­ist tech­nos­cience cor­pus. Of course, both of the article’s authors know this very well, so it dis­ap­points me (a little) to see it not dealt with a bit more sens­it­ively.

More troub­ling for me is the way onto­logy is worked through in the art­icle. I worry that the work from schol­ars like Mol, Stengers, etc. has been boiled down to some­thing akin to stand­point­ism. What I think Law and Singleton suc­ceed in demon­strat­ing is that ways of know­ing are enacted by ever-changing con­fig­ur­a­tions or assemblages of actors/things (i.e., mater­i­al prac­tices). Yet, des­pite their undeni­able efforts, they fail to pro­duce a con­vin­cing argu­ment (for me, at least) of the value of onto­lo­gic­al mul­ti­pli­city. I hear a fic­tion­al read­er (to match their fic­tion­al ANT Prime Min­is­ter) ask­ing: Why does onto­logy mat­ter here? Surely this is just still about dif­fer­ent per­spect­ives, and the stuff about onto­logy just com­plic­ates things?” As a mat­ter of fact, the ima­gined back and forth between civil ser­vant and Prime Min­ster leaves me sid­ing with the anxious offi­cial: So what’s your point Prime Min­is­ter?”

As I see it, what needs more care in the art­icle is what mul­ti­pli­city might allow for. I don’t think it’s enough to say Prime Min­is­ters or policy makers should allow for mul­tiple real­it­ies’ to co-exist — a policy mak­ing that is more tol­er­ant”. This feels too much like a lib­er­al polit­ics con­veni­ently wrapped up in meta­phys­ic­al the­or­ising. My sym­path­ies lie with such a polit­ics to be sure, but I have to ask wheth­er the tol­er­ance pro­pos­al is simply likely to rein­force the same old dis­tinc­tions between the right and left. What I think mul­ti­pli­city does, and that the authors try to con­vey, is allow a reima­gin­ing of the very basis for how things are. So it’s not just that there are dif­fer­ent real­it­ies or worlds at play, but it’s that you can change the basis on which these worlds are pro­duced and, cru­cially, then set the ground work for some­thing rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent. It’s here where I think a more care­ful detail­ing of fem­in­ist tech­nos­cience might ) and is also encap­su­lated nicely in her retort to Tre­vor Pinch ().

Let me offer, then, anoth­er very roughly sketched out example case to think through. Around about the same time as the , with the growth of online media shar­ing and, in par­tic­u­lar, the use of peer-to-peer chan­nels to dis­trib­ute con­tent like music, TV shows and films, broad­cast­ing organ­isa­tions faced ser­i­ous threats to their integ­rity and con­trol. In this light, the BBC saw the policies it had writ­ten into their Charter to be ones designed to pro­tect con­tent, copy­right, etc. and thus lim­it access.

How­ever, over time some­thing quite remark­able happened. I’ve yet to find any­thing that doc­u­ments it, but some­where with­in the organ­isa­tion it was real­ised that its Charter (its writ­ten policies) could be per­formed’ dif­fer­ently. That rather then pro­tect­ing con­tent, the pub­lic organisation’s primary role could be one of freely (with­in cer­tain con­tested lim­its) dis­trib­ut­ing it. I believe it’s this change that we now see hav­ing such a wide impact on con­tent pro­vi­sion from the BBC. With innov­a­tions in online broad­cast­ing and con­tent dis­tri­bu­tion, the BBC appears to be push­ing hard at what dis­tri­bu­tion (and pro­duc­tion) is, it appears to be really trans­form­ing how con­tent is both shared and con­sumed. Yes, many of these changes have been driv­en by broad­er mar­ket shifts, but as I under­stand it, the BBC would nev­er have been able to pur­sue some of its ini­ti­at­ives if it hadn’t seen its Charter to be some­thing fun­da­ment­ally dif­fer­ent. Through an assemblage of organ­isa­tion­al act­ors, agents and pro­cesses, the Charter and indeed the BBC as a broad­cast­ing ser­vice was ima­gined to be some­thing dif­fer­ent. In turn, this led to wide sweep­ing changes, organ­isa­tion­al and industry wide.

This then, is a mul­ti­pli­city in policy-making, and one with pro­duct­ive trans­form­a­tions. Although I’m not privy to the details, its clear that an organ­isa­tion (made up of agents and prac­tices) found a way of treat­ing its charter as fun­da­ment­ally mul­tiple, and in doing so, it chose a ver­sion of it (a mode of being) that opened up some immensely pro­duct­ive pos­sib­il­it­ies. The point here is the same as Law and Singleton’s, but my hope is it demon­strates that mul­ti­pli­city isn’t lim­ited to pro­fess­ing a lib­er­al tol­er­ance for mul­tiples; more than this it sets out an onto­lo­gic­al where worlds are open to trouble and, as a con­sequence, dif­fer­ence can be reima­gined. Where Law and Singleton are incon­tro­vert­ibly right is that: real­it­ies are prac­tised into being... but this takes a lot of effort, many resources and a great deal of hard work.”

Sci­ence and Tech­no­logy Stud­ies or Sci­ence, tech­no­logy and soci­ety
Avoid­ing the bag­gage that comes with semi­ot­ics’. See Wiki­pe­dia on fem­in­ist tech­nos­cience
A favour­ite example for me comes from Kar­en Barad (Barad, K. (2007). Meet­ing the Uni­verse Halfway. Lon­don: Duke Uni­ver­sity Press.
Barad, K. M. (2011). Erasers and eras­ures: Pinch’s unfor­tu­nate uncer­tainty prin­ciple’. Social Stud­ies of Sci­ence, 41(3), 443 – 454.
It’s prob­ably later than this. I need to look into the exact tim­ing.

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