Sunday, September 4, 2011

Reading Latour 11: Plug-ins and Couplings

Bruno Latour. Assembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford UP, 2005. From the chapter “Second Move: Redistributing the Local,” pp. 191-218.

Much as I’d like to say something about each chapter of this book. I can’t. Don’t have time. Read it yourself. Please.

I’m skipping over 50+ pages so I can rejoin Latour in “Redistributing the Local.” And I’m skipping much of that so I can pick up the trail here (p. 207)—with just enough language from the skipped-over text to offer a taste of what you’re missing:
Surely the question we need to ask then is where are the other vehicles that transport individuality, subjectivity, personhood, and interiority? If we have been able to show that glorified sites like global and local were made our of circulating entities, why not postulate that subjectivities, justifications, unconscious, and personalities would circulate as well? And sure enough, as soon as we raise this very odd but inescapable question, new types of clamps offer themselves to facilitate our enquiry. They could be called subjectifiers, personnalizers, or individualizers, but I prefer the more neutral term of plug-ins, borrowing this marvelous metaphor from our new life on the Web. . . . What is so telling in this metaphor of the plug-in is that competence doesn’t come in bulk any longer but literally in bits and bytes. You don’t have to imagine a ‘wholesale’ human having intentionality, making rational calculations, feeling responsible for his sins, or agonizing over his mortal soul. Rather, you realize that to obtain ‘complete’ human actors, you have to compose them out of so many successive layers, each of which is empirically distinct from the next.
So that’s what we are, a bunch of plug-ins ‘downloaded’ from the web of our acquaintances. There’s the eat-breakfast module, the pick-up-a-package module, another for writing a research paper, one performing a Beethoven quartet, raising a barn, planting tobacco, canoeing through rapids, and so on. Each of us has our own set of apps, but there are some we all share, at least within a group, such as language.

Latour’d mentioned language a bit earlier (p. 177) but didn’t discuss it much. This one bootstraps though some built-in equipment, as do many others and, in the theory advanced by Vygotsky, is an internalized other (which I discuss in some detail in both this paper, on the self, and this one on Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”). At first the young child listen as others talk around her and to her, directing her movements and her attention through their words. As the infant gains verbal fluency she talks to herself so becomes capable of using language to direct her movements and attention. Then the self-talking goes silent and is completely internal. Now it has become ‘thinking.’ Plug-in fully installed and ready, of course, for new submodules and upgrades.

Continuing with Latour, still on 207:
As we have witnessed so many times throughout this book, information technologies allow us to trace the associations in a way that was impossible before. Not because they subvert the old concrete ‘humane’ society, turning us into formal cyborgs or ‘post human’ ghosts, but for exactly the opposite reason: they make visible what was before only present virtually. In earlier times, competence was a rather mysterious affair that remained hard to trace; for this reason, you had to order it, so to speak, in bulk. As soon as competence can be counted in bauds and bytes along modems and routers, as soon as it can be peeled back layer after layer, it opens itself to fieldwork.
Yes. And to simulation and modeling as well.

Latour’s point applies, as well, to what has been known in the past as the psychology of the individual. Before the computer we could only think of the mind as this nebulous stuff populated by various agents, many of them frustratingly unconscious. The computer, as both tool and source of metaphors and analogies, has enabled us to construct explicit models of the mind and its processes. What Latour is here proposing is that the same technology can be used as a source of metaphors for interactions between persons and thereby showing how “the boundaries between sociology and psychology may be reshuffled for good” (212).

And a good thing, that.

But now, as I’ve done several times before, I want to get off the Latour bus and look around in my own backyard. For, back when I was first thinking about music I had to do my own reshuffling of the boundary between the social and the individual.

People in Groups

Rather than start with the individual mind, which is the traditional starting point for psychology, I decided music is fundamentally and irreducibly social. It’s made by groups of people. The fact that for a century or so we’ve been able to listing to music coming out of various technology-stuffed boxes and contraptions is a rather late development, and one that obscures music’s nature in a way worse even than the printed score (for at least a live musician had to play the music hidden in the written notes).

Thus I tossed aside the Cartesian individual. No more worrying about whether or not there’s a world out there and whether or not there are any people in it. If that’s your starting point, there’s really nowhere for you to go but in circles, in your mind. To get out, as Wittgenstein knew, you just fly out of the bottle.


So I started thinking about a group of people making music together. I further argued that this ‘groupiness’ is to be understood as a physical connection between brains, albeit mediated by sound waves. There’s no mysterious psychic ether connecting people; no social soup either. Just molecules colliding with one another. But in rhythm.

Physicists call it coupling, coupled oscillation. You attach two pendulum clocks to the wall. Start them up so they swing independently of one another. In time, they become synchronized though vibrations passed between them in the wall. It’s a purely physical interaction.

Fireflies do it too. They start blinking independently of one another. Before too long, their blinks are synchronized.

Neurons too. And brains consist of neurons. Some are connected to muscles, some are connected to sense organs, and some are connected only to other neurons.

Thus people’s brains are physically synched together through the sound waves they emit (through song, or clapping and stomping, or playing an instrument) and hear. During the music-making it’s all one synchronized physical system. When the music stops, the people decouple and their brains are no longer one tightly coupled system.

And, because the connection is a brute physical one, albeit a subtle sort of brute physicality, there’s no mystery about how different peoples minds know one another and the world. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about the music and the dance. The rhythm. The coupling.

That’s rather sketchy. But you can fill the sketch in by reading chapters 2, 3, and 4 of Beethoven’s Anvil, my review essay of Stephen Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals, or by reading about the busy bee brain and about clapping and group intentionality.

But let’s push this discussion just one more step. Let’s imagine an idealized society living as a small band of, say, 20 or 30 individuals. Each day, say, in the morning, they gather and sing together for an hour. Everyone, man, woman, and children. They sing the old songs, and dance a bit.

And then they disperse and go about their day in ones and twos and fives, whatever. While they’re all together and singing their brains are, as I’ve said, one tightly coupled physical system. Once they disperse, the coupling between individuals becomes looser, but it’s still there. People walk and talk together, dig for yams together, chase down a dear together. Even someone who’s alone for a minute—say, behind a bush to urinate—is likely being thought of by someone.

Thus we can think of the life of the group as a movement to and from the daily hour of song and dance. Think of that hour as the group’s psycho-cultural home base. And that home base is a physical thing. A very complex physical thing, composed of trillions of neurons and trillions upon trillions of air molecules in rhythmic motion, but nonetheless physical. And so too is the movement to and from home base a physical thing.

There is, I suppose, a trivial and uninteresting sense in which everything is a physical thing. But this is not that trivial. What we know about oscillation and coupling, in pendulum clocks, in vibrating systems of any kind, in neurons and brains, that is not trivial. All I’ve done is draw some simple inferences about how music-making fits these things together.

Once Again, a Flat Ontology

Here’s the more general significance.

There’s a view, a common one, an all but inescapable one—though some of us are on the lam, fugitive style, or at least banging away at the shackles—that at the bottom of things we have the physical world. And it consists of itty-bitty particles and piles of particles of various sizes. This is the province of physicists.

When some of these particles get hooked up just so, we have the more complex world of chemical phenomenon, overseen by chemists. Then comes biology, next up we have psychology, and then, rounding things off at the top, we have society. And society is studied, naturally, by sociologists (and others). The relationships between these various realms are much in dispute, but there’s much agreement that some things are higher than others.

What I did when I declared music to be fundamentally a group phenomenon and physical one is that I modeled something at the very top of that chain of being in terms of phenomena at the very bottom. I achieved the groupishness through the physical, not in spite of, or around, or on top of it. I conceptualized the irreducible organic group, not by bathing psychological individuals in a soup of social stuff, but by insisting on treating them as physical particles at the same level as the physical particles in the atmosphere and in the wood and skins and metal and sinews of musical instruments. All physical stuff. On the level.

One system. Indivisible. Organic. Whole. Human.


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