This essay will elaborate on Bruno Latour’s philosophy in regard to Actor-Network Theory and its sociological goals. To do this there will be an analysis of the context surrounding Latour’s writing on the subject and its theoretical implications. Through ANT’s emphasis on circulation, it offers a unique perspective on the analysis of one form of the contemporary documentary. In particular the documentaries of Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, specifically J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry (2014), which through their emphasis on rendering the sensory experience into a cinematic form they tend to treat the non-human actors as embodied with a form of agency.
“When we believed that we were modern, we could content ourselves with the assemblies of society and nature. But today we have to restudy what we are made of and extend the repertoire of ties and the number of associations way beyond the repertoire proposed by social explanation.” – Bruno Latour
What Bruno Latour proposes throughout Reassembling the Social is a wider definition of the social, which is one of detailing micro-associations between actors instead of utilizing broad social labels as explanations for their behavior. For Latour this is the difference between the ‘sociology of the social’ and the ‘sociology of associations’. The difference between the two is that the former tends to explain behavior and attempts to actively mobilize its data while for the latter there is an emphasis on a return to empiricism and the value of description.
Latour’s writing on philosophy and sociology rose to prominence in the Early Nineties during the height of the Science Wars. In We Have Never Been Modern Latour argues with the rhetoric of the postmodernist. For Latour the problem with the ‘modernist’ and the ‘post-modernist’ was that their framework overlooked non-human actors and the networks between the different forms of actors. This was because, “Instead of moving on to empirical studies of the networks that give meaning to the work of purification it denounces, postmodernism rejects all empirical work as illusory and deceptively scientific.” In preferring to be a ‘non-modern’ or an ‘a-modern’, Latour attempted to create a new theory that was more liberating.
This brings us to actor-network theory. But what exactly is it? Latour even announces the difficulty of defining its label in the introduction of On recalling ANT, “I will start by saying that there are four things that do not work with actor-network theory; the word actor. the word network, the word theory and the hyphen!” One of the goals of Latour’s sociology of associations is to learn from the actors and let them speak for themselves, and this is without imposing on them an a priori definition of their social world. Latour offers in more detail what makes for a good ANT account,
a narrative or a description or a proposition where all the actors do something and don’t just sit there. Instead of simply transporting effects without transforming them, each of the points in the text may become a bifurcation, an event, or the origin of a new translation. As soon as actors are treated not as intermediaries but as mediators, they render the movement of the social visible to the reader. Thus, through many textual inventions, the social may become again a circulating entity that is no longer composed of the stale assemblage of what passed earlier as being part of society.
What is specific to ANT in contrast to other forms of sociology is that the actor can take many forms: human or object, insect or animal, microbe or machine. Latour cites the 19th century French sociologist Émile Durkheim (even though Latour is not really Durkheimian) as providing a good definition of what is an actor, “The first origins of all social process of any importance should be sought in the internal constitution of the social group. [italics in text]” It is this internal constitution that is fundamental in defining the actor. For Latour, this emerges through their, actantiality which is “what provides actants with their actions, with their subjectivity, with their intentionality, with their morality.”
What ANT analyzes are the performance of the actors and the movements that they create. But one of the critiques of ANT is its flattening of the social and its potential to disregard class, socio-economic background, race, and gender because it strives to compose a common world which extends political participation to nonhumans. Similarly to the emancipatory potential of Jacques Rancière’s concept of the distribution of the sensible, Latour’s argument for this flattening is, “But it is just because we wish to explain those asymmetries that we don’t want to simply repeat them – and even less to transport them further unmodified. Once again, we don’t want to confuse the cause and the effect, the explanandum with the explanans.”
Latour traces the pre-cursor of ANT back to the 19th century in France to the sociologist Gabriel Tarde who defined society as, “every thing is a society and that all things are societies.” Tony Sampson elaborates on this quality of Tarde’s though when he writes, “Tarde does not completely dismiss the idea of social wholes but argues that the whole is a manifestation of habitual repetitions of social invention and imitation.” Latour building upon Tarde would form his own definition of the network as,
Thus, the network does not designate a thing out there that would have roughly the shape of interconnected points, much like a telephone, a freeway or a sewage ‘network’. It is nothing more than an indicator of the quality of a text about the topics at hand. It qualifies its objectivity, that is, the ability of each actor to make other actors when it allows the writer to trace a set of relations defined as so many translations.
ANT concentrates attention on a movement because ANT transforms the social from a surface and territory into a circulation. The dual definition of the social is then its substance and its movements. Its emphasis is on the space between the tiny trajectories. This ‘in between’ of the networks “are the most exciting aspects of ANT because they show the extent of our ignorance and the immense reserve that is open for change.” The network is then the series of transformations-translations that are recorded. Actor-network theory is then the summing up of interactions through various kinds of devices and inscriptions into a very local and practical locus. Latour’s examples in Reassembling the Social includes the novelist Richard Powers in his novel Gain on what constitutes a business firm through the monologue of a CEO and the analysis of eight photographs of a young woman voting in France.
Actor-Network Theory and Documentary
Latour compares ANT to perspective drawing as it “does not tell anyone the shape to be drawn – circles or cubes or lines – but only how to go about systematically recording the world-building abilities of the sites to be documented and registered.” So in the process of animating ANT into the documentary form there are some preliminary questions that need to be asked: How to give agency to a non-human actor? How would Latour’s concepts of actors, circulation and networks look in a documentary? How would it differ from other documentary forms? What type of forms should be prioritized?
Before proceeding to analyze the work of the Sensory Ethnography Lab as examples of ANT-like documentaries, I want to focus on Alain Resnais’ Le chant du Styrène (1958) as an example of a documentary that gives agency to a non-human actor. As Latour has stated numerous times, it is the actors themselves that make up everything. Le chant du Styrène accomplishes this through its study of styrene, a colorless oily liquid that is used to make plastic, and then from its material bases the documentary examines its relationships and traces at this one manufacturing factory. The documentary begins with shots of its plastic creations, and with an authoritative commentary guiding the viewer, it moves onward throughout the factory to observe its multiple evolutions from pigmentation, storing, and finally its development into a product.
Relevant to this discussion is Martin Heidegger’s Insight Into What Is and the conception of presence and the ‘Thing’. Heidegger’s thesis on objects is similar to Latour’s emphasis on the agency of non-human actors. Graham Harman in Heidegger Explained emphasizes Heidegger’s main idea in it as being the distinction between a thing’s mysterious internal constitution and its explicit appearance. Heidegger elaborates on the concept of the fourfold (of earth and sky, gods and mortals) and how the ‘Thing’ is a mirror-play of all four terms. Harman writes, “Heidegger’s four are present at all times in all things, though they may be more concealed in some cases than in others.” For Harman the Heideggerian concepts ‘earth’ and ‘gods’ represent the past or the concealed realm and the concepts of ‘mortals’ and ‘sky’ the future or the revealed realm. Harman writes, “These bulky-sounding terms simply refer to a kind of thinking that does not represent things as objects viewed from the outside, but points toward their mysterious inwardness as unique events.”
It’s this independence of the thinghood of the thing to use Heidegger’s terms or the emphasis on non-human actors and its surrounding networks to use Latour’s, which should be the focus of identifying an ANT-like sociological documentary. Its aims should be also empirical, descriptive and un-imposing. But what should it not look like?
Contemporary documentary seems to be experiencing a renewed golden age due to the plethora of human activity occurring in the world, the international connectivity due to globalization, affordability of digital cameras to record these events, and new ideas to engage with this unique film form. Some of recent highlights include Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (2014) on the Indonesian genocide, Joaquim Pinto’s What Now? Remind Me (2014) on his year on an experimental AIDS medicine in Portugal, and John Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010) on the environmental contamination of an abandoned American army base in the Philippines. Though all of these are interesting in their own right, in regard to both content and form, they do not necessarily necessitate an ANT approach to analyze them.
For the purpose of my argument, Frederick Wiseman’s most recent documentary In Jackson Heights (2015) will be used as an example of a ‘sociology of the social’ type of documentary. Wiseman has been making documentaries since the Sixties and since then, even though they all share a general poetic quality and as he likes to describe them are more ‘reality fictions’, they are generally filmed in a cinéma vérité method as they chronicle a broad spectrum of institutional behavior. In Jackson Heights is set in, as the title indicates, the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens, New York and it focuses on the organizing of the Queens Pride Parade and the effects of gentrification on its local business owners who are being forced to relocate. Wiseman in this documentary is invested in broad social labels, as much of the film takes place at identity-based group meetings and in activist groups in opposition to the negative effects of the city’s neoliberal policies. This interest in broad social statements and its disregard to non-human actors makes it that In Jackson Heights is not representative of ANT.
This leads to the Sensory Ethnography Lab which in their innovative visual ethnography propose a more satisfactory answer of what an ANT-like sociological documentary would look like. The SEL emerged in the mid-2000s and some of its most known documentaries are Sweetgrass (2009), Foreign Parts (2010), Leviathan (2012), Manakamana (2013), and The Iron Ministry (2014). There is an emphasis on travelling the world and rendering an exotic setting into a visually compelling documentary: Sweetgrass follows a group of shepherds and their sheep through the Montana wilderness and mountains, Foreign Parts looks at a junkyard in Willets Point, New York which is in crisis due to a new re-development project, Leviathan explores the marine life and activities of an industrial fishing ship, Manakamana gently rides along with the locals and tourist who are going both up and down a chairlift in India, and The Iron Ministry travels along the public train system in China.
SEL describes their practice in opposition to those of broadcast journalism and the standard discursive practices of visual anthropology. On their website, they describe their work as, “Harnessing perspectives drawn from the arts, the social and natural sciences, and the humanities, the SEL encourages attention to the many dimensions of the world, both animate and inanimate, that may only with difficulty, if it all, be rendered with propositional prose.” There is a general disregard for commentary, broad social labels and stereotyping. And for the purposes of this essay, the most direct connection between ANT and SEL is that Véréna Paravel, who is part of the SEL faculty and director of two of their films, studied directly under Bruno Latour.
How The Iron Ministry animates ANT is through its emphasis on non-human actors and the circulation within its networks. Non-animate objects such as fans, cigarette butts, miscellaneous animal parts, and the merchandise of a food vendor receive agency as actors who can create action. It is also sociologically descriptive for the human actors as through casual conversations and interviews they can reveal their own interests and social reality. One passengers describes what it is like being Muslim in contemporary China, another man describes his concerns with the increase in housing cost in the urban centers, and another woman describes her worries about China’s slow ascension into Tibetan society.
The networks of The Iron Ministry include the passengers, trains and its infrastructure in Mainland China. The documentary begins in darkness and all that can be heard are the noises of the train’s progression and its vibrations. J. P. Sniadecki, the director of The Iron Ministry, in an interview with Mark Peranson discussed how the project emerged out of what he described as ‘encounters’ in the Chinese railway system, with the central one being Ning Ying’s Railroad of Hope. Sniadecki spent three years filming train rides in China and turned his footage into one long continuous ride where different passengers of different classes pass through different trains going through different landscapes – all of this seamlessly coming together in The Iron Ministry. Sniadecki describes his approach as, “I took trains throughout China, striving to be thorough without a need to be exhaustive, compelled more by the desire for movement and encounter than by any documentary notion of ‘coverage.’”
ANT’s objectives offer a stimulating entry into these SEL films as its non-conventional emphasis on non-human actors and networks match some of their documentaries’ more experimental approach to render the sensory into a cinematic form. Latour’s call for a return to empiricism and description and letting the actors speak for themselves is a guiding force for his ‘sociology of association’. This clearly parallels Sniadecki’s approach in The Iron Ministry which reaches a peak when the camera carefully captures the monologue of one little Chinese boy riding a train at night. As the train is about the depart, the child, rolling around in his bed compartment, speaks out to nobody in particular,
All passengers, your attention please. The 3838-438 Train from the United States to Afghanistan is about to depart. We ask those who are not aboard please take someone else’s luggage, take someone else’s wife, and hurry aboard. Those who have explosives, bombs, and other inflammable materials with them. Please hurry aboard. And ignite them where there are crowds, to contribute to our nation’s population control policy. The train is moving fast so please extend your hands and head out of the window as far as possible, making it easier to lose them all at once. This is a civilized train, so please feel free to piss, shit, and throw trash all over the aisle. Other passengers may spit in your face and you may spit in the mouth of others, which is good for the thorough absorption of protein.