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

I do support your move, Greg, (and my protagonist is hypothetical BTW), with two qualifications. (1) It is important in my view and in Vygotsky's that while expanding the notion of mediation to include both tool-artefacts and symbol-artefacts, it is important at the same time to retain the conceptual distinction. (2) As an interactionist you still haven't gone to the point of mediation by means of institionalised practices. Such practices as institutionalised by or even as discourse, that is true, but so long as we are only "doing things with words," then we indeed in the realms of idealism. You cannot, in my opinion, have "an activity" which is only words.


Greg Thompson wrote:
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 for!).

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


    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:


        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

        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.
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-- ------------------------------------------------------------------------
    *Andy Blunden*
    Joint Editor MCA: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/hmca20/18/1
    Home Page: http://home.mira.net/~andy/ <http://home.mira.net/%7Eandy/>
    Book: 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

*Andy Blunden*
Joint Editor MCA: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/hmca20/18/1
Home Page: http://home.mira.net/~andy/
Book: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1608461459/

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