Sunday, March 27, 2016

Studies in Human-Thing Entanglement

This 2016 book by Ian Hodder, Dunlevie Family Professor and Professor of Anthropology, Stanford University, might have been subtitled, "An Approach to Directionality in Human Affairs". I've not yet had a chance to read it, but I've been looking around in it. Here's how Hodder characterizes it:
This book, published only online (download PDF), explores further the entanglements between humans and things. It contains theoretical and methodological developments including a redefinition of human-thing entanglement and the application of formal network analysis. The book also contains a series of case-studies regarding the formation of settled life in the Middle East, the adoption of agriculture, and the study of power and poverty, creativity and religion. The book ends with a critical dialogue regarding the issues raised by studies of entanglement.
Here's a concluding paragraph from the introduction (p. 9):
Entanglement proves to be a fruitful and productive lens through which to explore a va- riety of contemporary issues in the social sciences and humanities, from archaeology and anthropology to history, philosophy and classics. What entanglement offers is the study of large-scale and long-term issues solidly grounded in the socio-material practices of daily life. While other writers, such as those influenced by Actor Network Theory, have explored how daily practices take place within a heterogeneous mix of human and non-human processes, entanglement adds the notion that the human-thing relationship is fraught and constraining so that directional change is generated. Other approaches to materiality have focused on relationality, ontology, engagement, symmetry (Graves-Brown et al. 2013; Malafouris 2013; Olsen et al. 2012). Entanglement accepts these contributions but argues further that human and things do not just relate to each other. Rather they are dependent on each other in ways that are entrapping and asymmetrical. Entanglement argues that things are so caught up in other things and in other human-thing dependences, that daily practices are directed down specific pathways, that humans are drawn in specific directions that create further entanglements. Entanglement teaches us to look away from whatever is the immediate object of study, to explore the networks of dependencies that constrain and drive the human condition. It invites us to trace the threads that spread out from each action, entangling that action within wider socio-material realms.
Of course, it is the reference to directional change that caught my attention. Here is the conclusion to the book as a whole (p. 150):
Other accounts of directionality in human affairs have often argued for a progress toward higher civilization, or increases in the ability of humans to harness energy from the environ- ment, or increases towards greater complexity. These are all directions that have positive con- notations, and such approaches have been criticized for stacking societies in relation to more and less advanced forms, ultimately justifying the expansive reach of empires. While there are positive aspects of entanglement linked to flows of energy and information, and to innovation and problem solving, there is also a focus on a ‘darker’ or more negative entrapment. This is because the networks and flows also get caught up in each other’s temporalities and in their thingness. There are the grids and dependencies that entrap and constrain. So it is not at all clear that the ‘hubs’ at any one place and time are ‘better’ in some sense. 
There is of course an understandable fear of the dangers of social evolutionism and of thinking of humans as things. And with these dangers and fears I of course thoroughly con- cur. But in contrast to ANT, one of the distinctive aspects of entanglement as I have defined it is that humans and things differ. The focus is on how humans are drawn or dragged along by things and their needs and entanglements. The theory starts with the ways in which hu- manity is thingly, but it does not argue that humans are only things. Rather it sees humans and things in dialectical tension; humans needing things in order to ‘be’, but also needing not to ‘be’ things. It seems to me to be important to move beyond our fears of the reductionism of social evolutionism so that we can recognize and deal with our contemporary entrapments in thingness. 
Most social evolutionary theory has the directionality of development going towards something better. Progress is towards higher civilization, more just states, greater democracy. Or there is movement towards more complex systems in which societies are better able to har- ness energy or manage information, be more resilient, more sustainable. Increased entangle- ment has its positive sides, affording greater use of energy, providing longer and better lives, but it also has the darker side of increased constraint and entrapment. Increased entanglement is not automatically something better, something to be strived for. To discuss entanglement is to talk critique. While other commentators such as Harman have understood this, and while in many ways I learned much from the debate in Berlin, I am disappointed that I was not able to persuade my critics of this key point.


  1. Excellent book; I look forward to reading it in entirety. Having checked out the chapter on religion ( and given it a "yes"), I'm struck by the statement that "increased entanglement is not automatically something better, something to be strived for." I think that religious practices work to stabilize or mitigate the effects of increased entanglement. That what is "beyond" is always just as much beyond regardless of complexities here and now. Whether these practices produce more tensions of dominion and power or are syncretic and produce acceptance and curiosity -- all the more to question! No end to material for comedy.

  2. I wonder, does increased knowledge (e.g. science) necessarily mean increased entanglement? Or, does it, perhaps, reveal a greater degree of already existing entanglement? Morris Zapp said that "any decoding is another encoding", though; so perhaps entangling sth. also involves disentangling sth else.

    1. Well, consider the structures through which knowledge supports itself, the libraries, research institutes, journals, etc. The recent discovery of the Higgs boson – an example Hodder uses – involved thousands of workers around the world in support of an enormous instrument in Switzerland. Or NASA's space telescopes – what was required to create and support them?