As mentioned previously, I am currently reading Reassembling the Social, by Bruno Latour. I’m most of the way through now, and hope to finish it off this weekend. The thing that strikes me yet again about reading his work is that it is so elegantly laid out that he draws me in to a completely alternative way of thinking that makes perfect sense, even though it contradicts a lifetime of cognitive habits. He provides a new lens to view the world through, and it changes how I look at things. The only issue is that it takes time for him to set up his argument, establish his fortifications and bring in the artillery to take out the habits of thinking I had already established. So it’s unclear I’ll be able to convey his viewpoint in a couple blog posts. But I’ll try anyway.
Today’s topic is the absence of the global, of “culture”, of “society”. I’ve already used Latour’s example, but I’ll repeat it here:
To say â€˜culture forbids having kids out of wedlockâ€™ requires, in terms of figuration, exactly as much work as saying â€˜my future mother-in-law wants me to marry her daughter.â€™ (p. 53)
“Culture” is a convenient (and diplomatic) shorthand stand-in for “mother-in-law” in this instance. And Latour’s point is that every time we say something like culture or society, we are really using this same sort of shorthand. Culture does not exist as a Platonic ideal off in space that intersects the “real” world at specific points of context. He compares this ethereal idea of culture to that of three dimensional objects in Flatland, able to whimsically disappear from the world, and then re-intersect with it in odd and unexpected ways. Instead, he says culture is continuously created anew through the interactions of people who are in turn affected by the interactions of others influenced by “culture”. It’s all very recursive.
It makes sense to me, though. When we think of what “culture” or “society” says is proper, we refer back to specific referents in our own life, most often our parents. Our sense of right and wrong does not get instantiated by some mysterious process from the cultural zeitgeist; it is built into us by repeated interactions with our parents who tell us how to behave. And they, in turn, are not told what is right and wrong by “society” – they learned from their parents or their peer groups.
Viewed this way, society is an awfully fragile thing. It must be continually re-traced anew. And yet it has a certain ponderous presence. How are things like power differentials accounted for? Latour posits that because the “social” is so fragile, people create all sorts of structures to reinforce it. Law is the obvious example – an institution that reflects the current thoughts of a society and enforces those thoughts through the machinery of government, regulations and police forces. But everything from dress to language can be used for the same purposes of reinforcing the immaterial social. One of the ways in which social class differences are reinforced is through the use of language – in most situations, a person that uses proper English will get more respect than someone who uses slang.
How we dress also sends messages about who we are, reinforcing social identity. One of the reasons hipster fashion is so fascinating to me is that it makes apparent this entirely recursive nature of “society”. There is no top-down decision about what is “hip”. It is led by people who are trying to start new fashion trends, yet as soon as the trend gathers momentum and breaks through, it stops being hip. So there is a continuous interactive calculation going on where enough other people have to match you so that you’re not a freak, but not too many because then you’re mainstream. It demonstrates the transience of “fashion” and provides a microcosm of how Latour’s description of society’s operation.
One of the other things that Latour describes vividly is the extraordinary web of connections that radiates outward from even seemingly mundane occurrences. He uses the example of a lecturer at a university teaching a class, and starts asking questions about the physical infrastructure. The structure of a lectern and seats facing the lectern is nominally from some architect’s drawing, but that architect was influenced by other classrooms they have seen, which were probably influenced by the theater, etc. The desks are made out of wood, which was logged from a specific forest and travelled through some complicated transportation network to end up in this desk in this classroom. The classroom was built with the donation of an alumnus, who made their money using knowledge they received at the university and donated money back because of the good experience they had there (and for the plaque on the wall naming them). All of these elements are necessary for a classroom to exist for a lecturer to speak in, yet we rarely think about how these elements interact. And that’s before we even get into the “social”, of how the ideas of the lecturer are being processed by the half-asleep students, etc.
Every object, every person has a story to tell. To treat something as just an object is to cut it off from its history, to try to make simple what is complex, to not fully give its voice a chance to be heard in the assembling of the collective.
Okay, I’m going to stop here for the day. I’m not sure if I’m making any sense at all, but I’ll probably plug away for a couple more posts to see if I can draw things together. It might help if I finished the book also.