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Re: [xmca] Mike Cole on Instrumentalist understanding of mediation
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- Subject: Re: [xmca] Mike Cole on Instrumentalist understanding of mediation
- From: Larry Purss <firstname.lastname@example.org>
- Date: Mon, 12 Mar 2012 22:18:13 -0700
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Martin, Thanks for that summary of Latour exploring the relation of means
and ends and the place of both technology and morality in creatng
unexpected and unintended DETOURS that *transform* our conscious intentions.
You wrote in your summary of Latour,
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 these
transformations gives rise to, or we can ignore them but the unintended
consequences materialize either way. Morality is the realm which responds
to this technological transformation but from a different viewpoint, and
with a different concern. Morality is about *how* we live within this
transformed world that was not planned or forseen.
Latour describing morality as not fundamentally the realm based on
obligation [how we should proceed] because law and economy are realms that
are also based on obligation. Latour suggests morality is the realm that
explores the UNCERTAINTY about the relation between means and ends that is
INHERENT in technical devices. Therefore morality and technology are
intimately related and both CREATE DETOURS. We can guess at the
consequences that will follow from technical devices because the future is
inherently uncertain. This guessing at the consequences is a moral matter.
Tools as apparatuses [not the use OF tools] are inherently *transformative*
but not in intentional ways. The transformations are always DETOURS that
arise and transform social relations which MUST be engaged. Technology is
neither "good" or "evil" but is *transformative* and engenders novel worlds
and new dispositions [new kinds of persons] As we socially participate
in the practices that technological devices mediate, the devices
themselves [as devices] unintentionally transform existing worlds. How we
come to understand these unintended technological detours is the realm that
morality explores. Since we are all transformed by these technological
unintended detours the way we try to understand and respond to these
detours will also be multiple and uncertain.
Latour's approach to morality as a realm intimatly related to
technological realms and the unintended consequences of the transformative
detours inherent within devices offers a new perspective on how to
understand the realm of morality. I'm left reflecting on my previous biases
on how I understood morality.
Latour leaves me wondering,
"How are we to live within transformed and transforming worlds that are
neither inherently good or inherently evil but are the result of unintended
Latour gives no DIRECT routes or paths to follow as technology and
morality are inherently realms of detours that cannot be approached
directly. Alterity, alteration, and alienation are inherent to these
detours and basic to our humanness.
>From Latour's perspective, how do we choose how to proceed if pre-figured
ends are not reliable indicators? Where do we turn for alternative ways to
One possible answer comes from a comment Greg suggested a few weeks ago.
If I can remember the point Greg made in an earlier post, we must
consciously take a position such as "humans are basically good" as an "act
of faith" that can NOT be verified. From this basic foundational
perspective we can choose to act as if this foundation is true. There can
be no empirical proof that this basic assumption can be verified but it is
still necessary to take this position as a place from which to begin.
The example of Japan that has shut down all its nuclear reactors in the
past year, because of a shared experience of disaster, and Germany's
response to Japan's disaster by also closing down their reactors shows the
power to change directions when detours are placed in our way. Do these
wide spread responses to detours point to the possiblity of one day
responding within a planetary consensus to technological detours. Is this
the point Latour is trying to make? As technology transforms the planet
with unintended detours [with no one at the helm], will we be called to
respond to the shared threats. It may be these technical disasters or
detours that may be the catalyst for transformative moral detours which
will embrace our emerging alterity, alteration, and alienation as responses
to our transformed worlds.
On Sun, Mar 11, 2012 at 11:07 PM, Andy Blunden <email@example.com> wrote:
> 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
>> On Sun, Mar 11, 2012 at 8:04 PM, Andy Blunden <firstname.lastname@example.org<mailto:
>> email@example.com>> 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.
>> xmca mailing list
>> firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com>
>> -- ------------------------------**------------------------------*
>> *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/ <http://home.mira.net/%7Eandy/<http://home.mira.net/~andy/>
>> Book: http://www.amazon.com/gp/**product/1608461459/<http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1608461459/>
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>> firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com>
>> 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<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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