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