Back to interaction (a reply to Barry)

I’m grate­ful to Barry Brown for his com­ments on my short Inter­ac­tions piece, After Inter­ac­tion”.

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.

Mol, A. (2013). Mind your plate! The onton­orms of Dutch diet­ing. Social Stud­ies of Sci­ence, 43(3), 379 – 396.
My favour­ite in this thread of think­ing is: Bowker, G. C., and Star, S. L. (2000). Sort­ing things out: Clas­si­fic­a­tion and its con­sequences. MIT press.
Good­win, C. (2000). Prac­tices of col­or clas­si­fic­a­tion. Mind, cul­ture, and activ­ity, 7(1 – 2), 19 – 36.
Good­win, C. (2000). Prac­tices of col­or clas­si­fic­a­tion. Mind, cul­ture, and activ­ity, 7(1 – 2), p. 21.
I like the way Despret writes about this: Despret, V. (2004). The Body We Care for: Fig­ures of Anthropo-zoo-genesis. Body & Soci­ety, 10(2 – 3), 111 – 134.
On care, this art­icle has been import­ant for me: Puig de la Bel­lacasa, M. (2011). Mat­ters of care in tech­nos­cience: Assem­bling neg­lected things. Social Stud­ies of Sci­ence, 41(1), 85 – 106.
Barad, K. M. (2011). Erasers and eras­ures: Pinch’s unfor­tu­nate uncer­tainty prin­ciple’. Social Stud­ies of Sci­ence, 41(3), p. 449
Har­away, D. (1988). Situ­ated know­ledges: The sci­ence ques­tion in fem­in­ism and the priv­ilege of par­tial per­spect­ive. Fem­in­ist stud­ies, 14(3): 575 – 599.

13 thoughts on “Back to interaction (a reply to Barry)

  1. Alex – inter­est­ing stuff, and I am not without sym­pathy for your basic pos­i­tion about con­sid­er­ing encoun­ters and assem­blies of people and mater­i­al arte­facts with­in real set­tings in all their rich­ness (if I have that down cor­rectly). I think how­ever that you need to fol­low through on your ana­lys­is in a couple of places. Firstly, cat­egor­ies and cat­egor­isa­tions have cer­tain con­nec­tions, that entail and restrain cer­tain sorts of rela­tion­ships. For example, if I am a woman that implies I am also human, neces­sar­ily, but don’t treat me like an object because it denies me my human­ity. In your 2 examples of human bod­ies’ it is worth con­sid­er­ing that in the first case you have 2 corpses (or cada­vers) – which does not imply neces­sar­ily that these are ex-living humans (although it is com­monly the case) but rather that they had to be liv­ing (organ­isms). Cars and cups, com­puters and smart phones can only die meta­phor­ic­ally. In the second case I would argue that humans’ or cit­izens’ or people’ is prob­ably a more rel­ev­ant cat­egory than human bod­ies’.

    But to return to first example – and the idea of liv­ing organ­isms’ is import­ant. If we extend agency to mater­i­al objects (often cre­ated by people, which is import­ant because the way people might be said to cre­ate’ babies is rather dif­fer­ent than cre­at­ing a machine) rather than simply con­sid­er­ing them to have effects upon us, and effects we respond to and that shape our assem­blies of action and inter­ac­tion what are we say­ing? It is a spe­cial type of agency that isn’t the same as human agency. For me agency would imply anim­al­ity, and at min­im­um the abil­ity to make choices and exer­cise those choices con­sciously . If there is no con­scious con­trol around things like that what sort of agency is there? (And by the way I do believe that anim­als have some form and degree of agency but would stop at plants because although they have propensit­ies to thrive, and are liv­ing, I just don’t think they can be said to exer­cise choice in any sens­ible way that relates to our notions of choice). I do agree with you that the human-object bin­ary onto­logy can lead to all sorts of sim­pli­fic­a­tions but so can your flat­ten­ing and equat­ing move (the sym­metry stuff), because there are real dif­fer­ences. Only humans can worry about the mor­al implic­a­tions of nuc­le­ar power – anim­als and the envir­on­ment can be dev­ast­ated by it, cit­ies also – but nuc­le­ar power plants don’t choose wheth­er they will be built, decide to situ­ate them­selves close to a tsunami zone etc. Now, our inab­il­ity to real­ise that we may not be able to con­trol nuc­le­ar power the way we would hope may mean that Fukushi­ma comes back at us and bites us on the back­side, but it didn’t have a choice and it didn’t decide to melt­down. We need to try and clear away con­cep­tu­al con­fu­sions and I’m not quite sure how attrib­ut­ing agency to objects does this.

    1. Dav­id, it’s good of you to con­trib­ute to this dis­cus­sion. Thank you.

      I like the way you raise some of the finer points around cat­egor­ies and cat­egory mak­ing. In fact, I think the way that you fol­low through’ on the two examples of bod­ies helps a good deal. You show that if we pay close atten­tion to the rela­tions, we can­’t in any use­ful way talk about a simple, pre­formed cat­egory that lumps humans togeth­er. There are all sorts of ways that we humans can be cat­egor­ised and these are always con­tin­gent on a sprawl­ing web of rela­tions.

      What’s import­ant to me is that you point to the ways these cat­egor­ies come about because of their mater­i­al pres­ence in the world, not in spite of it. In oth­er words, cat­egor­ies like liv­ing’ or death’, or cit­izen’, are accom­plish­ments that come to mean some­thing and indeed be some­thing when humans are put into rela­tion to things. For instance, we know well from Sud­now that dying is a socially organ­ised affair, con­tin­gent on a vari­ety of mater­i­ally bound med­ic­al pro­ced­ures and insti­tu­tion­al arrange­ments.* You’re right of course to say that cars and cups, com­puters and smart phones don’t dye in the same way. The implic­a­tion here is that it is our job (fol­low­ing on from the greats like Sud­now) to under­stand the phe­nom­en­al state of affairs that author­ise things to be liv­ing or dead, not to assume such cat­egor­ies are in some magic­al way pre­de­ter­mined.

      So let me be clear here, my claim is in no way to sug­gest that humans and things are, de facto, the same sort of thing (i.e., that they fall into a com­mon stable cat­egory). It is that the worlds we encounter are, unavoid­ably, enacted through unfold­ing rela­tions between things and people, and that it is hard to ignore that, in these worlds, things have some role to play: they are in a whole range of ways act­ive, lively, volat­ile, untame­able, etc. These qual­it­ies don’t per­mit us to class them as human, but they do give us a pretty good basis for think­ing about them as agen­tial.

      Now, you raise some cri­ter­ia you would need met to see agency in objects. Or it sounds like you may be for­giv­ing here and accept there may be a spe­cial type of agency’ for things. Nev­er­the­less, for you, human/animal agency demands anim­al­ity, and at min­im­um the abil­ity to make choices and exer­cise those choices con­sciously” — a con­scious con­trol” —  as well as the abil­ity to worry. I would broadly agree, and say this is a help­ful way to think about the capa­cit­ies we as humans have for being in the world. But, tell me, where do these ideas of agency come from? Aren’t we doing just the kind of cat­egory work that Sud­now observes in his morgue (or that Good­win sees amongst his arche­olo­gists)? And, as such, should­n’t we be sub­ject to pre­cisely the same kind of ana­lyt­ic­al treat­ment? We must see here that we are busy­ing ourselves with very par­tic­u­lar kinds of rela­tion­al achieve­ments by sep­ar­at­ing humans from things. This is not to ques­tion wheth­er our claims are wrong or untrue, but to see that we are mak­ing cuts that bring with them their own worlds”. And, just as we would ask of patho­logy, we would want to know what oth­er kinds of cuts/worlds might be made here. Could there be oth­er ways in which we might sep­ar­ate life and death, or make the divi­sions between act­ors?

      One last thing. If the Fukushi­ma power plant did­n’t decide to melt­down”, then who did make that con­scious decision? I’m not famil­i­ar with the details, but my assump­tion is no one did and cer­tainly we would­n’t be able to pin the blame on any one per­son. Such cata­strophes are usu­ally attrib­uted to a chor­us of events (some in par­al­lel and oth­ers in sequence) that must get worked out. The experts and law­yers come to be the arbit­ers of where liab­il­ity (as I see it, a kind of agency) lies, and at times (for bet­ter or worse), the fin­ger is poin­ted at a thing. What are we to make of that?

      I see my pro­ject to be one of thick­en­ing accounts like these. I want to be care­ful about clear­ing away and tidy­ing, know­ing that we can nev­er stand out­side of it all to, once and for all, sort things out. My choice would be let the con­cep­tu­al con­fu­sions thrive, let us stay with the trouble”, and see what pos­sib­il­it­ies arise; what oth­er worlds we might allow for.

      * I like this work for rais­ing sim­il­ar issues around people who are cat­egor­ised to be in veget­at­ive and min­im­ally con­scious states:

      Dons, J., & Kräft­ner, B. (2011). The pre­val­ence of patients in a veget­at­ive state and min­im­ally con­scious state in nurs­ing homes in Aus­tria. Brain injury, 25(11), 1101 – 1107.

      Sud­now, D. (1967). Dead on arrival. Soci­ety, 5(1), 36 – 43.
      Sud­now, D. (1967). Passing on: The social organ­iz­a­tion of dying. Pren­tice Hall.

  2. Hi Alex,

    It’s nice to be involved in a con­ver­sa­tion like this – and these are not easy mat­ters to get an uncluttered view on… I needed to try and think about it all overnight!

    And I do believe that we have really quite close views on this. One thing I wanted to cla­ri­fy on the social organ­isa­tion of dying’ top­ic is, of course, there is a bio­lo­gic­al fact, or at least from a mundane human view a brute fact about human status. It may be dif­fi­cult bio­lo­gic­ally to define exactly what life is but we don’t need to be doc­tors to recog­nise the dif­fer­ence between liv­ing and dead. So it is abso­lutely true that how dying is organ­ised and recog­nised and dealt with, and what sig­ni­fic­ance it should have and what cere­mon­ies we fol­low, and of course cent­rally how we treat the dying per­son, is fun­da­ment­ally a set of social and cul­tur­al phe­nom­ena all situ­ated and embed­ded in mater­i­al cir­cum­stances. Objects and arte­facts are com­pletely implic­ated in this. How­ever, let’s be care­ful not to say death and dying are social con­struc­tions – more like our responses, activ­it­ies and prac­tices around death and dying are social con­struc­tions. Your point draw­ing atten­tion to locked-in syn­drome is inter­est­ing because it reminds us that there are a num­ber of mar­gin­al cases where we are posed onto­lo­gic­al prob­lems both sci­en­tific­ally and prag­mat­ic­ally, and that the changes in the way we clas­si­fy people and con­di­tions can have real impacts on how we treat and inter­act with people, and so for their qual­ity of life.

    Back onto objects and agency. I think that I find the use of agency’ in rela­tion to mater­i­al things (as opposed to e.g. anim­als) is awk­ward because I think agency neces­sar­ily implies some form of free will and sen­tience, so if we are to use agency for mater­i­al things we say it is the abil­ity to have impact upon humans and human prac­tices (and of course be impacted by) without any form of inten­tion or con­scious reac­tion. My dif­fi­culty is that this robs agency of what I think of as neces­sary char­ac­ter­ist­ics. It is a sort of dumb agency, but that would seem to be a con­tra­dic­tion in terms. I take my onto­lo­gic­al view on this from con­sid­er­ing how agency is used in mundane prac­tice. I would always try to look at the con­tinu­it­ies and dis­con­tinu­it­ies between assem­blies of humans, anim­als, objects etc. in how they inter­act, work togeth­er, react and so forth, and what the role of thought – broadly speak­ing – might be. I agree that it is vitally import­ant that we don’t over­state the pos­i­tion humans in the equa­tion such that everything else amounts to bit play­ers and playthings but of course the lan­guage we use to describe it is our thing so there is a neces­sary bias straight­away. Do anim­als have a concept of death? Well they don’t have the concept of death in one form (i.e. they don’t have a lan­guage with the word death) but they do seem to have an under­stand­ing – we just don’t know how it maps out and fits with ours exactly. Again, plates and apple watches don’t. I think ulti­mately this is about care­fully describ­ing actu­al mater­i­al arrange­ments, what type of cat­egor­ies and dis­tinc­tions are rel­ev­ant and in play in those situ­ations, and how those situ­ations unfold. When we spend too much time at a meta­phys­ic­al level we lose sight of the phe­nom­ena in ques­tion and try and map things out in too abstrac­ted a fash­ion.

    There is an inter­est­ing point here. When we try and deal with these onto­lo­gic­al mat­ters in the abstract it may actu­ally be indeed dif­fi­cult to ulti­mately choose between pos­i­tions. We seem to have 2 pos­i­tions here: (1) that there is a clearly mapped out onto­lo­gic­al dif­fer­ence between humans and mater­i­al objects, and that one of the things it turns on is that humans have agency and objects don’t; and (2) the pos­i­tion that there may be dif­fer­ences between humans and objects but they both have agency (but that this agency may dif­fer in form and nature between the two). An import­ant thing to note is that these are 2 human con­struc­ted meta­phys­ic­al state­ments. State­ment 1 may veer towards an overly human cent­ric con­cep­tion and 2 towards object anim­ism – and I’m not sure the puzzle or choice can ever be solved in prin­ciple. Although I do think that a more extreme ver­sion of pos­i­tion 1 has helped get us into our cur­rent envir­on­ment­al dif­fi­culties — i.e. we have treated the plan­et more as an object than an organ­ism. One way to try and let the fly out of the bottle is per­haps through Mike Lynch’s idea of onto­graphy – the study of onto­lo­gic­al mat­ters in the wild, as they arise in every­day set­tings. How do onto­lo­gic­al mat­ters play out in prac­tice – when and in what ways do cat­egor­ies, attrib­utes and rela­tion­ships apply, or get applied to people, anim­als, nature, and mater­i­al objects and arte­facts? When and for what pur­poses and in what cir­cum­stances are equi­val­ences drawn, dis­tinc­tions made? Are there dynam­ic or situ­ation spe­cif­ic aspects to onto­logy (yes I ima­gine)? Where do we have trouble – like with locked-in syn­drome or with advanced inform­a­tion tech­no­logy or genet­ic engin­eer­ing? These issues can be mapped out and giv­en some form of res­ol­u­tion in con­crete situ­ations and maybe that is where we should focus our ener­gies – I think that this could well be a point of full agree­ment.

    1. Ah, con­struct­iv­ism! That is a thorny but import­ant issue to bring up here. I should say straight out that I am not a pro­ponent of social con­struct­iv­ism, in any of its fla­vours. Inspired by the likes of Har­away and Barad, to my mind con­struct­ivisim had its value, but ulti­mately, it is just the oth­er side of the determinist/reductionist stand­point — it served as a counter bal­ance to old school mater­i­al­ism, but in the end it simply restates the clumsy social-material, subject-object divi­sions we are deal­ing with here. Har­away deals with this so neatly in her piece from way back in 88, which still seems so full of truths. Bel­lacasa (2011) and Barad (2011) give us some slightly more con­tem­por­ary points of ref­er­ence.

      So, as for death, my interest is in pre­cisely how we can come to be con­fid­ent about death, and what it is. I would not dis­pute that death has some biological/organic basis; this is, indeed, a mat­ter of fact. How­ever, can­’t we — should­n’t we — ask ourselves how we are able to determ­ine, use and talk about these kinds of facts? Surely, it has been a pro­gres­sion of instru­ments, organ­isa­tion­al align­ments, expert­ise, etc. that has giv­en rise to the fact that death is just this sort of thing? The ques­tion is not wheth­er these facts are true or not, but how they have come to be true — and in being true what oth­er worlds are being sub­or­din­ated, over­shad­owed, cast aside, etc., and what oth­er worlds might we come to, or want to, live in?

      I sup­pose I see these meta­phys­ic­al mean­der­ings being about get­ting us back to the phe­nom­ena. Yes (Lynch’s short­sighted­ness aside*), let us get back to how these things are done on the ground, how worlds are made, always already made. What (and who’s) pur­pose does it serve to keep find­ing ways to sep­ar­ate things and people? It does exactly as you say and imposes a view from out­side (or as Har­away would call it nowhere’). In this light, can I offer a 3rd pro­pos­i­tion to the two you state? What if we did­n’t worry about the dif­fer­ences between humans and objects at all, and as you say con­cen­trate on the phe­nom­ena? It’s not, i., that we should come with some pre­formed ideas of both, or, ii., that we should see degrees of dif­fer­ent sorts agen­cies, but that in the end we might still ima­gine some line of sep­ar­a­tion. Rather, it’s an open­ness to see­ing how worlds are made and recog­nising it is always the bri­c­ol­age of act­ors (of all kinds) that brings them into being. The ques­tion is always how, and we must ask that of ourselves too, along with the ques­tion how it could be oth­er­wise” (Wool­gar and Leza­un 2013).

      * I feel remiss in not tak­ing this on, but it is a big fish/salmon to fry, so I will leave it to oth­ers far bet­ter qual­i­fied to do so. No doubt you have seen art­icles in the same spe­cial issue and it is also worth tra­cing the fol­low up dis­cus­sion here.

      Barad, K. M. (2011). Erasers and eras­ures: Pinch’s unfor­tu­nate uncer­tainty prin­ciple’. Social Stud­ies of Sci­ence, 41(3), 443 – 454.

      Bel­lacasa, de la, M. P. (2011). Mat­ters of care in tech­nos­cience: Assem­bling neg­lected things. Social Stud­ies of Sci­ence, 41(1), 85 – 106.

      Har­away, D. (1988). Situ­ated Know­ledges: The Sci­ence Ques­tion in Fem­in­ism and the Priv­ilege of Par­tial Per­spect­ive. Fem­in­ist Stud­ies, 14(3), 575 – 599.

      Lynch, M. (2013). Onto­graphy: Invest­ig­at­ing the pro­duc­tion of things, deflat­ing onto­logy. Social Stud­ies of Sci­ence, 43(3), 444 – 462.

      Wool­gar, S., & Leza­un, J. (2013). The wrong bin bag: A turn to onto­logy in sci­ence and tech­no­logy stud­ies? Social Stud­ies of Sci­ence, 43(3), 321 – 340.

      1. Hi Alex, just as I think we approach maybe we drift fur­ther apart. I must admit I find Lynch on onto­graphy the most con­vin­cing and the only prob­lem I have with him is that he does­n’t want to make his moral/political pos­i­tion clear, and instead he poses a few ques­tions and makes a few points that indic­ate his stance without push­ing through a mor­al cri­tique of defin­i­tions of nat­ur­al, GM mod­i­fied, labelling etc. as allowed by cur­rent US law. So here is a point where a fem­in­ist read­ing also has it’s foothold, the cri­tique of cer­tain onto­lo­gic­al arrange­ments that e.g. favour men in some way, as being nat­ur­al’.

        It’s weird, I know she has many fans, but I haven’t been able to see what’s so impress­ive about Barad — I see some inter­est­ing things but I don’t think she is cor­rect in her pos­i­tion, onto­lo­gic­ally. I need to read Har­away (and some of the oth­ers) and get back to you.

        Final point, on your third way pro­pos­al: I’m totally fine about the idea that we should­n’t pre­sume an a pri­ori human/material object sep­ar­a­tion when doing our stud­ies but I do want to point out that over­whelm­ingly the people we study draw vari­ous clear sep­ar­a­tions — and one of the clearest is around sen­tience, think­ing, mor­al­ity, emo­tion, reas­on­ing, agency and so forth. There are bor­der­line cases, and there are spe­cial cases when ele­ments of these things, in lim­ited, dif­fer­ent capa­cit­ies are found in objects (a vodoo doll for example), but that does not mean there is no dif­fer­ence in between people and vodoo dolls to those involved in those activ­it­ies. And these are not the most com­mon cases. In most cases there are some very clear sep­ar­a­tions.

        1. Ah, well this makes me think we are still in the same ball park. Your only prob­lem’ with Lynch is mine as well, though for me it is not a whim­sic­al over­sight on his part, but a very big and import­ant one. It demon­strates a refus­al to recog­nise he is in some way inside all this mess, and very much a part of the sort­ing and organ­ising of things/people that he would claim to be study­ing — from where I do not know. Moreover, and relatedly, it shows he fails to recog­nise that he him­self oper­ates in and sus­tains what Good­win calls a life­world’. He enacts, along with an assort­ment of tools and pro­ced­ures, a cer­tain kind of world with its epi­stemes and ontics, and the norm­ativ­it­ies that travel with them. It is pecu­li­ar to write this out of his oth­er­wise deeply insight­ful accounts of sci­ence and ordin­ary life. And, I agree too, this is where fem­in­ist read­ings would offer a pro­duct­ive coun­ter­point. So, per­haps we have some com­mon ground here?

          I do find Barad dense in her writ­ing (pos­sibly overly so), but I admit to sub­scrib­ing to her kind of (agen­tial) real­ism and her insist­ence on the pos­sib­il­ity of bet­ter worlds’. It is worth read­ing Pinch’s review, if you haven’t, and Barad’s retort. If any­thing it shows some of the dif­fer­ences between their two sides, and how they choose to engage with the troubles’. I would be very inter­ested to hear your thoughts on Har­away’s 1988 piece as it is in line with your prob­lem with Lynch.

          And, I would agree with you about the many set­tings in which people com­fort­ably ref­er­ence subject-object pos­i­tions (for lack of a bet­ter phrase) and human-thing bin­ar­ies. There are cer­tainly no short­age of places, activ­it­ies, events, etc. in which that idea of being in the world is present. I have two brief things to say about that. One, if we were the kind of anthro­po­lo­gists who spent their time in far flung places, not like ours, would we accept after long enough that their voo­doo’ had some truth in it? Per­haps we might, but the point here is that we might be just as inter­ested in how their truth claims (along­side and inter­leaved with ours) come into being — not wheth­er they would be actu­ally true or not, but how they con­sti­tute a kind of life (I like Helen Ver­ran’s work in this realm). Two, what I find in my own empir­ic­al work is that people seem to work with mul­tiple registers, for instance, talk­ing about subject-object pos­i­tions and in the same breath do some­thing that start­lingly unravels any stark dis­tinc­tion between the bin­ar­ies. I’m not inclined to priv­ilege either of these, but instead to won­der how we work with mul­ti­pli­city and the ways this opens us up to oth­er ways of being.

  3. Thanks Alex and Dave for this dis­cus­sion — I hadn’t quite expec­ted all his from a Fri­day after­noon email!

    Agreed that cat­egor­iz­a­tion is a valu­able and per­en­ni­al con­cern, I worry though wheth­er it can really be sens­ibly treated as a sin­gu­lar thing — like rep­res­ent­a­tion, its diversity might be too much. Cat­egor­iz­ing fish I sus­pect is quite dif­fer­ent from the final prices of the Par­is Bourse.

    As for the agency dis­cus­sion —like Dave I was mainly con­cerned with the dif­fer­ent attrib­utes and actions that go along­side those cat­egor­ies. And at times poet­ic license may lead us to a muddle. Mor­gan Ames very nice paper on cha­ris­mat­ic tech­no­logy at the århus con­fer­ence, was the case I was think­ing of. I wasn’t con­vinced that attrib­ut­ing cha­risma to OLPC helps our under­stand­ing (which I thought was a straight­for­ward cat­egory mis­take), unlike Morgan’s field­work which surely does.

    To be hon­est though what I found most inter­est­ing in Alex’s ori­gin­al art­icle was the poten­tial to reflect­ing again upon inter­ac­tion as a concept. And the poten­tial that such a thing might have for trans­fus­ing a little from STS without killing HCI. The con­ver­sa­tion ana­lysts have this thing where they emphas­ize the primacy of *the next turn* in talk for build­ing and under­stand­ing of inter­ac­tion, and I wondered if HCI’s focus on inter­ac­tion had sort of had a sim­il­ar affect. It lim­its the abil­ity to attrib­ute and expand dis­cus­sion without lim­it. As fam­ously in three mile island, the inter­face of the nuc­le­ar power sta­tion mat­ters. Yet in turn as Alex points out, the inter­ac­tion is part of all these dif­fer­ent things going on around (say) the deploy­ment of city bikes. So I wondered if the term might be a good place to work out some of our con­fu­sions.

    But thanks again!

  4. Alex — judging by your last post we are closer on these mat­ter, most I agree with but I think you are hard on Mike mainly because he is a pro­ponent of not let­ting your polit­ic­al affil­i­ations pro­duce an ana­lys­is that mis­rep­res­ents the situ­ation for your own pur­poses. This can lead you into the oppos­ite prob­lem of iron­iciz­ing without mak­ing a pos­i­tion clear. Mary Midgley talks about how a sim­il­ar prob­lem occurred when ana­lyt­ic philo­soph­ers approached mor­al philo­sophy — good on describ­ing the land­scape but disin­geni­ous in count­ing them­selves out from hav­ing any­thing pro­duct­ive to say. Can you really not take sides in a dis­cus­sion of mor­als, the nature of the top­ic kind of demands it? And thank you for con­trib­ut­ing too Barry. Now I need to have a think about this as well, go and read some of the ref­er­ences, and since it’s Sat­urday I wish you both a good week­end!

  5. What an incred­ibly thought­ful and engaged set of com­ments to a blog post — this flies in the face of all received wis­dom about online com­ment­ing! Many thanks to all of you for try­ing to work through some of these com­plic­ated issues in a pub­lic for­um where we may all bene­fit from it, and espe­cially to Alex, for your ori­gin­al piece in Inter­ac­tions which sparked it all.

    This debate for and against what we might call rela­tion­al’ or mater­i­al semi­ot­ic’ approaches sprouts peri­od­ic­ally in dif­fer­ent places, but I found this iter­a­tion inter­est­ing and help­ful for think­ing about a couple of the key points of the debate. I should note that I am closer to Alex in think­ing than to Barry or Dav­id.

    The first dif­fer­ence that always arises is over the nature of real­ity — wheth­er, as Barry argues, people and things, bod­ies and minds, are really dif­fer­ent and it is a dan­ger­ous cat­egor­ic­al mis­take to behave oth­er­wise. This one seems to be an intract­able prob­lem, nev­er suc­cess­fully resolved. To me, Sci­ence Stud­ies has shown repeatedly that there are many ways of doing the world, of which the mod­ern Euro-American ver­sion of mat­ter set in time and space and a dual­ity of mind and body, is only one, and not neces­sar­ily the most suc­cess­ful. Ques­tions of truth and real­ity are import­ant with­in this Euro-American frame, but not with­in many of the oth­ers, includ­ing the ones mobil­ised by some of the the­or­ists Alex has been ref­er­en­cing. It is hard to resolve an issue (the nature of a stable real­ity) which for one side is cru­cial, and for the oth­er is some­what irrel­ev­ant.

    Anoth­er prob­lem seems to revolve around agency, and the pat­ent absurdity of assign­ing human-like agency to objects. I agree with Barry that this has a cer­tain shock value which can be use­ful in lim­ited cases, but that oth­er­wise if we take things as behav­ing in human-like ways we will mostly be lead into dif­fi­culties. It seems to me that a re-doing of the human/non-human bin­ary requires a sim­ul­tan­eous re-doing of the closely related object/subject bin­ary, and of what it is to act. The sorts of agency that we attrib­ute to humans in a mod­ern Euro-American frame, with their under­ly­ing implic­a­tions of free­dom and choice, are clearly not appro­pri­ate when the dis­crete human sub­ject is aban­doned as the source of action. (Abra­hams­son et al’s recent piece in Envir­on­ment and Plan­ning D: Soci­ety and Space, Liv­ing with omega‑3: New mater­i­al­ism and endur­ing con­cerns, talks about this.) A dif­fer­ent frame needs to mobil­ise dif­fer­ent con­cepts of how acts hap­pen, and how such acts are dis­trib­uted among entit­ies.

    I would tend to agree with Alex that the term inter­ac­tion’ is prob­lem­at­ic, embed­ding as it does implic­a­tions of two sep­ar­ate and pri­or entit­ies (people and things) which then inter­act. But then lan­guage always embeds with­in it a set of meta­phys­ic­al assump­tions, in some cases ones we wish to embrace, and in oth­er cases ones that we find prob­lem­at­ic.

    1. This led to a nice off­line conv with Stu­art reeves who was vis­it­ing us last week — he men­tioned that bob and Wes have a nice unpub­lished piece which touches on many of the points here.


      One little last thing is to men­tion latour’s use of humor. From a con­tin­ent­al per­spect­ive latour is try­ing to keep in play a skep­ti­cism towardst claims.

  6. I want to come back to inter­ac­tion’ in the ori­gin­al art­icle: I agree whole­heartedly with the point of the art­icle but I don’t think the more rad­ic­al take on agency is required to get there (maybe it is just your par­tic­u­lar route). It is abso­lutely clear that a nar­row focus on inter­ac­tion at an inter­face is an incred­ibly sim­pli­fied way of con­sid­er­ing things. It has led to people extend­ing the inter­face’ bey­ond a screen and input device (as you note) to some­thing that relates to wider socio-material assem­blies, soci­et­al func­tion­ing, whatever. It can also be hard to loc­ate just where an inter­face might be. Think about high fre­quency algorithmic trad­ing –algorithms com­pet­ing with oth­er algorithms that forms the major­ity of trades in mar­kets. Can we under­stand it by look­ing at a ter­min­al screen? Nope. What can we under­stand about it by under­stand­ing traders inter­ac­tions with tech­no­lo­gies for show­ing some­thing of its oper­a­tion? I don’t have an answer to that but it’s an inter­est­ing ques­tion. What do the design­ers of the algorithms under­stand about their oper­a­tion and poten­tial impact? Anoth­er good ques­tion. There is anoth­er inter­est­ing thing that comes out of this though – the fail­ure or suc­cess of tech­nic­ally instan­ti­ated and driv­en mar­kets that work in this way has real impacts on peoples’ lives such that their agency (free­dom of choice) may be curbed, as they suf­fer wage pres­sure, etc. These are sort of rever­ber­at­ing impacts rather than prox­im­al or dir­ect ones.

    This hap­pens in a far more mundane and dir­ect way, when call centre work­er inter­ac­tion with cus­tom­ers is con­strained by scripts embed­ded on tech­no­logy. This is motiv­ated ideo­lo­gic­ally – the idea is that there is a prob­lem if agents are giv­en too much autonomy. Too much autonomy means they are not under con­trol. This is often posi­tioned like it is just about ensur­ing stand­ard­isa­tion, ensur­ing uni­form cus­tom­er ser­vice, pro­tect­ing against agents going off-script and mis­rep­res­ent­ing the com­pany or giv­ing bad advice. How­ever, while there is some truth in this it is also about de-skilling – exper­i­enced and know­ledge­able agents are expens­ive. Through scripts and stand­ard­isa­tion you sell the dream that the script takes care of the work so the agent does not need to think for them­selves. This reduces you labour costs, but in my exper­i­ence (and I have quite a lot of it in this domain) it gen­er­ally lowers the qual­ity of ser­vice, par­tic­u­larly for com­plex and idio­syn­crat­ic inquir­ies. It makes call centre work low paid, high sur­veil­lance and con­trolled work, and so in this way tech­no­logy is rather dir­ectly employed to take work­ers’ agency away (and their sense of self-worth etc.). But people are behind it too. And by the way it is pre­cisely these types of move that gut and shape a ser­vice to such an extent – i.e. render it robot­ic and of poor qual­ity — that the chal­lenge for auto­ma­tion becomes a lot more simple, i.e. out­per­form­ing a crap ser­vice with a dis­en­gaged work­force is a less­er chal­lenge for an auto­mated agent. So while I don’t think tech­no­logy has agency, it cer­tainly has the poten­tial and the actu­al­ity to provide or take away human agency. And I do strongly agree that a nar­row focus on inter­ac­tion pre­vents people from see­ing things of wider import­ance in terms of impact, and I would even go as for to say that some of this way of think­ing is designed pre­cisely as a set of blinkers to stop people think­ing about the wider (polit­ic­al) import of what they are doing.

    On the sub­ject of onto­logy – I kind of agree with both Alex and Alis­on in a gen­er­al sense – but I think that in mak­ing this move there is a danger that you rep­res­ent a West­ern view as mono­lith­ic when it is very far from this. If we con­sider reli­gion, faith and spir­itu­al­ity in the broad­est and most diverse sense you will see that human/material object dicho­tom­ies sud­denly break and become a lot more com­plex, which is one of the very clear points that Winch made in (his sar­castic­ally titled) Under­stand­ing A Prim­it­ive Soci­ety’. And sim­il­arly when I read things like Eduardo Viveir­os de Castro I think there may be an over-emphasis and mag­ni­fic­a­tion aimed at mak­ing the strange, stranger and in a way that is too neat. Back to Winch – a key point of his was of West­ern anthro­po­logy doing two things sim­ul­tan­eously – sim­pli­fy­ing and exag­ger­at­ing West­ern sci­entif­ic ration­al­ity like it was uni­ver­sal in West­ern life while at the same time paint­ing the tri­bal cul­ture as exot­ic, irra­tion­al and bizarre, when it was actu­ally pretty under­stand­able and had its own ration­al­ity.

    There­fore in my book there isn’t a sat­is­fact­ory onto­lo­gic­al’ answer to these types of ques­tions – they need care­ful work­ing out in rela­tion to par­tic­u­lar instances. In many cases, it may well be doing a dis­ser­vice to raise these endo­gen­ous defin­i­tions with­in every­day set­tings of the con­cep­tions of dif­fer­ences and rela­tions between people and things and their attrib­utes to an onto­lo­gic­al level. Can these really be seen as onto­lo­gic­al ques­tions for those involved? What would indic­ate that a ques­tion was onto­lo­gic­al rather than purely prac­tic­al (or maybe polit­ic­al)?

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