Thoughts on Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and Entanglement: Latour vs Hodder

*Cover photo: Lake Baikal, Russia, by Sergey Pesterev

ANT (Actor-Network Theory) is one of Bruno Latour’s, most influential contributions to social theory. The French sociologist has been developing his theory over the years making adjustments and changes, although the main components of the theory are still there. ANT as its name suggests, is a network theory that seeks to tear down the walls that separate culture and nature within a semiotic materialist theoretical framework. Many theorists have also troubled themselves over the same issues as ANT coming from different angles. The ones I am more familiar with, are archaeologist Ian Hodder and anthropologist Tim Ingold. Ingold drawing inspiration from Deleuze and Guattari has developed his own meshwork theory, while Hodder’s work has focused on what he defines as entanglement.

My main focus here will be Latour’s ANT as opposed to Hodder’s entanglement. As an archaeology student, I have encountered Hodder’s work multiple times in the past and I have always found it very interesting. Latour has been mainly known to me through secondary sources but during the last few months I managed to study his work a bit more closely. My understanding of ANT stems mainly from his book “Reassembling the Social” (Latour 2005). The idea for this post came after reading the article “Entanglement and Relation: A Response to Bruno Latour and Ian Hodder” by Graham Harman (2014), which was illuminating in bridging Hodder’s and Latour’s theories and underlining their differences.

Actor-Network Theory

In ANT an actor is “the moving target of a vast array of entities swarming toward it”
(Latour 2005, 46). Actors interact with each other forming complex networks. Possibly ANT’s most important idea is that actors can be both humans and non-humans (2005, 63-86). At a lecture in 2013, he stressed out that we tend to deanimate nature and dissociate it from having goals, and went on to say that: “One of the main puzzles of Western history is not that there are people who still believe in animism, but the rather naive belief that many still have in a deanimated world of mere stuff” (Latour, 2014, 7).

Latour pushes even deeper in the idea of non-human agency with his principle of symmetry between human and non-human actors. This means that within a network all actors are treated equally. Humans and non-humans are ontologically indiscernible and their differences, just as every other actor’s, are not presupposed, but occur within the set of relations that take form inside the network. ANT in this sense, is a purely relational theory as actors are defined solely by their relative position to other actors of the network (Latour 2014). As such, actors do not exist as autonomous entities, or ‘things in themselves’ in the Kantian jargon. Harman (2014) draws our attention to the problems that arise from defining actors by their relational status in a very straight-forward way:

In fact, entities are no more related than nonrelated, no more composed than noncomposed. This can be seen from the consideration that if a given actor were entirely identifi- able with its actions, there would be no way for it ever to engage in new actions. For Caesar to be first on the far side of the Rubicon and then on the near side implies that Caesar is defined by neither of these relations to the river; instead, Caesar with respect to the Rubicon is always an unexpressed or indifferent surplus that shadows whatever relation to the river he currently has. The rejection of autonomous substances or things-in-themselves has become such a mandatory commonplace in the human sciences that my objection may sound retrograde or vulgar. But without an unexpressed surplus in the heart of any entity, there will be no principle of change in the cosmos, though change is indeed what we see.



Harman 2014

Harman’s point that ” entities are no more related than nonrelated, no more composed than noncomposed” is just on point. It draws attention to a major problem of ANT that Hodder’s approach has successfully avoided.

Entanglement

Taking a short-cut, I will here use Hodder’s own words to describe entanglement:

I define entanglement as the sum of four types of relationships between humans and things: humans depend on things (HT), things depend on other things (TT), things depend on humans (TH), humans depend on humans (HH). Thus entanglement = (HT) + (TT) + (TH) + (HH). In this definition it is accepted that humans and things are relationally produced. But the focus on dependence rather than on relationality draws attention to the ways in which humans get entrapped in their relations with things. Humans get caught in a double bind, depending on things that depend on humans.



Hodder 2014, 19

Hodder in this definition has already distanced himself from Latour’s theories by defining humans(H) and things(T) as two different taxonomical entities. He further distinguishes four different types of relations one of the most interesting ones is undoubtedly the one between things and things. The key aspect in Hodder’s thought is his focus on dependence rather than relationality. Hodder wants to study the ways in which humans and things interdepend and in this quest,  he provides space to autonomous entities.

Hodder goes one step further and distinguishes between two forms of dependence, one positive and one negative. The first form of dependence is enabling, allowing humans to improve their living conditions and overall quality of life. In this relationship things are ready-to-hand and humans can withdraw at any point without major consequences. However, as time passes things lead to a second form of dependence, dependency. Dependency has a negative charge as it is form of dependence from which humans cannot disengage easily without causing the collapse of multiple other relations. Dependency is a constraint and an obstacle for societies and individuals to evolve and further their goals.

Hodder brings an example to explain these dependencies. As hunter-gatherer’s, humans have been relying on a limited number of things to survive. Humans were living in small groups of ten to thirty people travelling from one place to another. This mobility was possible because of the limited number of things they carried that were mostly easy to replace if worn out, as they were taken from the surrounding environment. This period came to an end with the so-called Neolithization between 12,000 and 7,000 BCE when humans started relying more and more on things, thus becoming “entrapped”. The homes built to house humans now required constant maintenance and materials, which required more labor and organisation. Hodder observes a constant increase in the number of things on which humans depend reaching a peak by our time.

Dependency (the negative form of dependence) for Hodder has led humans to become more and more entrapped, depending on things that depend on humans. This double bind seems to be running in endless circles, and humans in our time are almost inescapably entrapped. Hodder notes that:

Because humans rely on things that have to be maintained so that they can be relied on, humans are caught in the lives and temporalities of things, their uncertain vicissitudes and their insatiable needs. Things appear as hydra-like, requiring Herculean skill to stop them multiplying and entrapping, and yet the entrapment is enticing and productive.


Hodder 2014, 20

To get the sugar to the table, to maintain the electricity grid, and to assure supplies of slippers, smartphones, and bikes, a massive mobilization of resources, humans, dependencies is involved.


Hodder 2014, 26

Problematic here is that in Hodder’s thought, almost every relation between things and humans in our day and age is a dependency. Furthermore, Hodder seems to have ‘entrapped’ himself in his dialectics of dependence and dependency. My main objection here is that Hodder has charged dependency with a negative and dependence with a positive tone and this is not necessarily true. Thinking about the present, there must be dependencies that are in themselves enabling, or at least part enabling part restrictive.

An example that instantly comes to mind is computers. PCs and laptops are today embodying multiple functions, for which multiple machines and human labour were necessary a few decades ago. I am now using a laptop to write these lines instead of a typewriter. I am using my laptop to listen to music instead of a record player and I am communicating from a distance with most of my friends through social media and apps like Skype, instead of relying on the post, the telegraph and so on. Computers themselves are of course entangled in their own sets of relations and they surely create more and more dependencies as time passes and we store bigger amounts of information in a digital format. However, it would be wrong to assume that by entangling ourselves with computers, we are not disentangling from multiple other entanglements. Computers are enabling us in the sense that they can take on tasks which would otherwise require hundreds of hours of human labour thus allowing us to focus on other things.

Just to be clear, I am not here claiming that computers are not producing negative dependencies. I am just trying to point out that there is another dialectical relation within dependence, which both enables and restrains. I think it would be wrong to see things one dimensionally and conclude that dependency equals negative, equals restriction. This is in my opinion the loophole in which Hodder fell. This is mirrored in the fact that relations for Hodder seem to almost always be relations of domination. This is why the relation between T-H and H-T are different in Hodder’s theory. Thinking of Veen’s (2014) article on plant materiality, it is very easy to disprove these suggestions. Veen successfully demonstrated that there are relations of mutual dependence between humans and plants which aid both in furthering their goals.

Harman also notices that Hodder’s dependency leans towards the same direction as deep ecology, which Latour has in the past critiqued. Another theorist whose critique here meets Latour but from a very different angle is that of Murray Bookchin. Bookchin refused to answer the call of deep ecology for a return to the primitive, understanding that there are problems, such as nuclear waste, climate change etc., that humanity can address only through socially organised action.

Discussion

Edward Leach (1970) once blamed Levi-Strauss for developing theories which act like self-fulfilling prophecies that cannot be disproved. He further critiqued the French anthropologist for assimilating into his semiotic analysis examples that contradict it. It could be argued that this problem is present in both ANT and entanglement, as they are ‘all-inclusive’ theories, which cannot be disproved since they can incorporate everything. This is not the direction I would like my critique to take as I do not find it especially constructive.

Harman has done a great job in addressing all the inconsistencies and contributions to knowledge both ANT and entanglement offer. Although most of my points followed Harman’s, my aim was not to rewrite Harman’s article. What I wanted, was to review both theories and address some of the issues that I felt were more interesting and/or promising. As an archaeologist I am inclined to lean towards Hodder’s work as it appears more practical and realistic. This can be seen and by his application of entanglement in his study of Çatalhöyük (Hodder and Mol 2016). Furthermore, I have found Hodder’s critique of ANT very convincing and I could not agree more with the objections of Harlan as to the limitations of defining everything based on relationality. ANT has some brilliant moments such as the idea that culture and nature can be treated as equally important entities. It also however invites us into a system of bizarre paradoxes. How can agency even exist in a system where autonomy is absent? It seems almost impossible to understand how change occurs in ANT. That is not the case in entanglement, where the dialectics of dependence and dependency constantly give birth to new results and actors preserve their autonomy.

As Harman has pointed out, Latour’s theory is better equipped politically-wise. For Hodder freedom seems to weirdly correlate with distance from material entrapments. When it comes to Latour, his idea is more of “middling and fixing” our relationships with the “highly complex workings of many enmeshed living organisms the whole of which is called “Earth system science”, or more radically, Gaia”(Latour 2014, 3). Latour wants us to renegotiate our relationship with Gaia, which appears more plausible and mutually beneficial for Gaia and humans. Hodder’s suggestion on the other hand is more radical and overall I do not find compelling his proposition that “the moral choice is substantial: to change what it is to be human, to become something other than ourselves” (Hodder 2014, 34). Bookchin’s idea although distinct and more political seems to agree with Latour here. Bookchin saw a link between domination of human by human and the domination of nature by human and through his social ecology called for a movement towards a relationship of mutual respect between humanity and nature. Bookchin would probably agree that human nature is built on mutual aid and empathy and that these traits would naturally flow to affect our relationship with nature if set free from their constraints. In that sense and to distort Hodder’s proposition, the moral choice is substantial: to be human, to be ourselves!

Bibliography

  • Harman, G. 2014. Entanglement and relation: A response to Bruno Latour and Ian Hodder. New Literary History. 45(1). 37-49, 153.
  • Hodder, I. 2014. The entanglement of humans and things: a long-term view. New
    Literary History. 45(1). 19-36.
  • Hodder, I. 2011. Human-thing entanglement: towards an integrated archaeological
    perspective. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 17. 154-77.
  • Hodder, I. and Mol, A. 2016. Network Analysis and Entanglement, Journal of
    Archaeological Method and Theory. 23. 1066-94. 
  • Latour, B. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 63-86.
  • Latour, B. 2014. Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene. New Literary History.
    45(1). 1-18.
  • Leach, E. 1970. Levi-Strauss. London: Fontana.
  • Van der Veen, M. 2014. The materiality of plants: plant–people entanglements. World Archaeology. 46(5). 799-81.

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