Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Latour and Culture

Latour has written a lot, of which I’ve read only a fraction, not even a quarter, perhaps not even a tenth: We Have Not Been Modern, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, and some essays. He has spent a lot of time studying culture, but I don’t associate him with culture, I associate him with society.

Until now, now that I’ve been once again immersing myself in the problems of conceptualizing cultural evolution. This particular aspect of my thinking goes back to a conversation I had years ago with David Hays in which he suggested that the genetic material for culture is out there, in the environment. It has to be out there, rather than in the mind, because that’s what’s there for everyone to experience; it’s what we hold in common, and culture HAS to be held in common, otherwise it can’t do its job. What I’ve realized is that that cultural genetic material is “painted” all over the “surfaces” of the actors in a Latourian actor-network.

Whether the actors are human beings, or wooden sticks, a stream of water, a television set, a cat, a culture of bacteria, what have you, they have culture written all over them. Without them culture couldn’t exist. Sure, there’s a sense in which culture exists in human minds, but those minds need the support of vast networks of objects in the world, including but not limited to other humans.

So why is Latour so oblivious to culture? Sure, he knows its there, he talks about it, but society is what he (thinks he) theorizes, not culture. The book is entitled Reassembling the Social not Assembling the Cultural.

But then it’s easy to get confused about society and culture, difficult to tease them apart. Pairs of phrases such as “American society” and “American culture” tend to mean the same thing.

Yet there is a distinction to be made. A society is a group of people. Culture is the norms, attitudes, and mores which guide a group’s interactions. But where does that distinction lead? What do you look at when you study society that and don’t look at when you study culture, and vice versa? A tricky question.

Still, it changes how I think about Latour to realize that, in effect, those actor networks are important because they are the genetic substrate of culture.

Finally, I’ve thought from the beginning that Latour is missing a psychology. He has little to nothing to say about the mind, and yet it is the mind that holds those actor networks together. Not transcendentally, mind you, not from above. But without those individual human minds reading culture from the surfaces of the actors in the network (including other humans), the network would not cohere.

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