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Re: [xmca] Mike Cole on Instrumentalist understanding of mediation

If I may stand in for Andy's interactionist protagonist (assuming he is not
referring to me ;-) ), my primary concern with Latour has to do with the
treatment (or lack thereof) of discourse. This need not be a concern and it
has a quick fix.

The concern is that this takes us down a road that leads toward an
increased ignorance about linguistic and discursive forms as mediating
artifacts. Neither language nor discourse nor forms of either are
considered as "technologies" in this paper by Latour (and I haven't seen it
in his other writings, but I haven't read much either). To put it simply,
his focus on the "hammer" comes at the expense of the "word".

The quick fix comes in recognizing that language and discourse (and the
forms of these) are technologies and artifacts. With this fix, Latour makes
perfect sense to me. I can see the kinship with Silverstein and Urban's
book Natural Histories of Discourse which traces out "the secret live of
texts" (which also happens to be the title of Silverstein's chapter). In a
sense it seems we could say that Latour is pointing to "the secret life of
objects," but I just wish he would make clear that those objects can be
"texts" and language, and forms of discourse and so on. This would also
make relevant Foucault and Bakhtin and so many others that have looked at
how forms of talk are consequential in their own right. Linguistic and
discursive forms, far more than simple intermediaries that fill a function,
are true mediators, they speak back to the speaker (and hearer). They are
not mere instrumentality but rather they have a life of their own.

Can anyone help me make this leap with Latour?
Or am I jumping into a great abyss? (of idealism?).

p.s., I believe that this post articulates with a prior post about the
process of writing as if words are simple instruments that express one's
ideas in one's head. If only it were so... (but be careful what you wish

On Sun, Mar 11, 2012 at 8:04 PM, Andy Blunden <ablunden@mira.net> wrote:

> Thanks for that, Martin. How timely was our recent conversation about
> Hegel, mediation and the "cunning of reason"!
> I was interested to know who this "accusation" was directed against, i.e.,
> exactly what an "instrumental" social theory would look like, and in
> particular how ANL vs LSV came into the picture. Mike answered this nicely
> for me. My understanding of this issue was in terms of the source of a
> person's motivation in activities. As I tell the story, LSV showed how
> cultural norms enter an action via the tool/symbol and its use, but ANL
> pointed out that the artefact does not provide the ends to be pursued (only
> affordance to use a modern term). ANL situated these ends in society (in
> the 5 Year Plan, to parody somewhat) and the Activity is the pursuit of
> this "objective" motive; the person's "subjective" ends are distinct from
> these "objective" ends, and it is down to the mode of production to
> harmonise objective and subjective ends. My position is that rather being
> objective and suibjective, the aim must be seen as /immanent/ in the
> activity, rather than external to the activity. I had not thought of this
> as "instrumentalism" but I can now see that this exactly characterises
> ANL's approach. So great. I am on the same page after all!
> The other reason I asked for further explanation was my persistent
> struggle to get my interactionist protagonist to see the importance of
> artefact-medation in human life. They see it in a way which could be called
> "instrumentalist" and your exposition of Latour's critique fits the bill
> nicely. But there are two different kinds of "mediation" aren't there? and
> two different species of "ideal": the tool-artefact - material
> instantiations of the universal, and the institution, forms of practice
> organised by means of symbolic-artefacts. How does Latour see mediation by
> activities?
> Andy
> Martin Packer wrote:
>> As Mike mentioned earlier, it was me who sent around the Latour article,
>> so I feel a certainly responsibility to also respond to Andy's question
>> about avoiding a reduction to instrumentalism. Here goes...
>> Latour's article was published in a special issue of Theory, Culture &
>> Society on the topic of "the status of the object" - that is, the
>> ontological character of the material world - the "co-performance of
>> sociality/materiality." In his contribution, Latour is keen to break away
>> from the means-ends instrumentalism in which humans are said to form 'ends'
>> - goals and purposes - and objects then serve as the 'means' to satisfy or
>> procure these ends. Part of his argument is based on the phylogenesis of
>> tool use, part is based on an ontological analysis of tools.
>> Starting with the first, Latour points out that it's becoming
>> increasingly clear that homo sapiens evolved from earlier species that were
>> already using tools. I just showed my students the wonderful YouTube
>> excerpt from a BBC documentary on capuchin monkeys:
>> <http://www.youtube.com/watch?**v=ABqRg_RbQlM<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABqRg_RbQlM>
>> >
>> As Latour puts it, biologically modern humans "appeared within a nest or
>> a niche already inhabited by abilities, by know-how and technological
>> objects." One consequence of this is that we will not be able to draw a
>> line between being human and using technology. We grew from technology, not
>> the other way around. As Latour puts it, "A being that was artificially
>> torn away from such a dwelling, from this technical cradle, could in no way
>> be a moral being, since it would have ceased to be human."
>> So, any model that puts humans first and then posits us taking charge of
>> the material objects we encounter in the world around us has things back to
>> front: "the image of a human being at the helm manipulating inert objects
>> to achieve ends through the intermediary of ‘efficient action on matter’
>> appears increasingly muddled." We are, in fact, children of technology
>> (really technolog*ies* plural); tool use was the cradle of humankind. Our
>> human ends are not prior to or independent of the tools we grow up with,
>> the objects that we inherit.
>> Next, the ontological analysis. Latour picks up a hammer (he's read his
>> Being & Time) and argues that it "folds" various temporalities - that of
>> the ore from which the metal was abstracted, that of the wood of the
>> handle, that of its production for the market. It also folds various
>> spatialities: of forest, mine, factory, and store. These connections have
>> become invisible, and they are especially invisible when we simply heft the
>> hammer and use it, but they are nonetheless operative, and they can be
>> traced and unfolded.
>> Furthermore, the modern hammer "has inherited" the variety of forms of
>> its ancestral tools - so when a human uses a tool we should think not just
>> about the origins and evolution of the human, but also the phylogeny of the
>> hammer.
>> Contra any proposal that a tool, or an artifact, such as a cup, perhaps,
>> comes with some kind of specific practice somehow built in to it, Latour
>> points out that any tool "overflows the strict limits" of every attempt to
>> define a specific function for it. The hammer has many affordances, all of
>> them both "permission and promise," and so it can be used to a wide
>> variety, perhaps an infinity, of ways.
>> Equally important, if not more so, is the fact that a person becomes
>> changed by using a tool such as a hammer. This is why any notion that a
>> tool is simply an extension of a limb (or even an extension of the whole
>> person) doesn't make sense: the person is *transformed* by the tool.
>> Recalling the moment in Kubrick's movie 2001 when the bone, flung high into
>> the air, to the fascination of the early hominids, becomes the slowly
>> rotating space station, Latour suggests that "all technologies incite
>> around them that whirlwind of new worlds." Kubrick grasped something
>> central to human existence.
>> Things are mediators "precisely because they are not simple
>> *intermediaries* which fulfill a function." Technological systems
>> proliferate and they become opaque, and this makes it clear that a simple
>> transparent means-ends rationality is not what they involve. But their
>> invisibility makes as think that this *is* what they amount to. In fact,
>> though, tool use  is not a matter of "mastering" technology as means to our
>> ends. Using a technology inevitably transforms, displaces, and modifies our
>> original intention, our plan, our end. We must "detour" through the
>> technology, and we are transformed in the process. We become more god-like,
>> in the cunning of mediation (if I may smuggle in a little Hegel), and we
>> also become more entangled with and dependent upon other people.
>> And it is all this that makes human beings what we are. Without
>> technologies we would be "contemporaneous with our actions, limited solely
>> to proximal interactions." Our existence would simply be like that of
>> primates, "a passionate, intense existence"  but one that we would not call
>> truly human.
>> Latour then goes on to provide a third argument against the means-ends
>> instrumental account of tools and technology: namely that there is a
>> morality in our apparatuses. The standard story, of course, is that
>> morality is about the choices among ends, so that it is all about human
>> beings, and tools and their means are outside moral consideration. Latour
>> argues that on the contrary, there is a morality in technology.
>> Consider a simple example: Latour has one of those desks where to open
>> one drawer one must close the others. He is bound by this constraint,
>> designed into the device itself. Not a super-ego, but an "under-ego."
>> Morality, Latour proposes, is based not on obligation (because we find
>> obligation in other domains as well, such as law and economy), but on the
>> uncertainty about the relation between means and ends that is inherent in
>> any technical apparatus. The electricity we use is generated by nuclear
>> reactors, whose possibilities, whose consequences, we can only guess at.
>> The guessing is a moral matter. We shouldn't assume, then, that
>> technologies are neutral, to be put to good or bad uses by good or bad
>> people. But nor should we assume that technology is inherently evil.
>> Technology engenders new worlds, new dispositions. In doing so, it pulls
>> everyone and everything together into a common fate. We humans can face up
>> to and acknowledge the concerns that this fate gives rise to, or we can
>> ignore them, but they are there nevertheless. Morality deals with the same
>> materials as technology, but from a different viewpoint, with a different
>> concern. Morality is about *how* we live with the things of this world.
>> Latour, B. (2002). Morality and technology: The end of the means. Theory,
>> Culture & Society, 19(5-6), 247-260. doi:10.1177/**
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> --
> ------------------------------**------------------------------**
> ------------
> *Andy Blunden*
> Joint Editor MCA: http://www.tandfonline.com/**toc/hmca20/18/1<http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/hmca20/18/1>
> Home Page: http://home.mira.net/~andy/
> Book: http://www.amazon.com/gp/**product/1608461459/<http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1608461459/>
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Gregory A. Thompson, Ph.D.
Sanford I. Berman Post-Doctoral Scholar
Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition
Department of Communication
University of California, San Diego
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