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30 July 2010

After Method

I recently had a little down time at the office, so, rather than being bored trying to appear busy, I decided to do some reading that's at least somewhat relevant to my work out here. I read After Method, by John Law, and was really glad I did. It does seem to be relevant to what I'm doing, but I'll have to explain more about that another time. For now, I'd just like to explain a few of the interesting (though not entirely unique) ideas presented in the book.

1) Methods compose reality – This isn't new – it's basically the same thing that Latour, Callon, and others of their ilk say. But I like the way Law describes it, breaking down the assumptions of (extreme) positivist view of reality and showing, piece-by-piece, how reality might be different. For Law, Methods (whether of the “hard sciences”or of the “soft sciences”) don't merely influence our perspective on reality – an epistemological stance – they actually work to shape reality by creating new associations – an ontological stance. So when researchers “discover” a new chemical, they have, in a sense created the chemical. The epistemological stance would say that the chemical doesn't really exist, except in the minds of the researchers, but, for Law and others with an ontological perspective, the chemical exists precisely because of the work that's been done to “discover” it. The methodology has composed the new chemical, giving it ontological status because of the new associations it carries.
The other point to make here is that Law talks about “methods assemblages” as opposed to just methods. By this he means to suggest that methods don't exist in isolation, they are multiple and interrelated. So, in order to compose a new chemical, there are several different techniques involved including the written text, and the peer-review process. All of these techniques come together to form a methods assemblage.
Law also takes a broad view of methods assemblages. They are not only what is practiced by scientists (social or physical); methods assemblages are used by everyone, all the time. Anytime someone is composing reality, a methods assemblage is being employed. He uses many examples including the lab work studied by Latour and Wolgar, the medical work studied by Mol, his own research on the military, a Quaker prayer meeting. Right now, I'm thinking about the Environmental Impact Statement, Ethnographic Assessment, and other processes involved in the approval of public works as a methods assemblage – but I'll write more on that another time.

2) The Hinterland – maybe this isn't the best term for what Law is describing, but the concept is intriguing. The hinterland, for Law, is a kind of background of already composed reality that we can build from to compose further realities. His example is the mass spectrometer in the discover of the new chemical mentioned above. The spectrometer has been composed previously – both the machine itself and the physics behind the machine. These have been through rigorous evaluation, and few, if any, scientists call them into questions. The hinterland constrains the potential for new compositions, since they must be built from what has already been composed. So, unlike an extreme epistemological position which might suggest that we can choose what reality we want to see (i.e. if we want unicorns to exist then we simply have to think them into existence), the ontological positions limits the possible realities to those which can be composed from what already exists.
For Latour, Law argues, the hinterland simply exists once it's composed. This makes me think of a clutter of old clothes or other stuff in your bedroom closet. You might not use it anymore, but it's always there. For Annamarie Mol, on the other hand, the hinterland must be continually renewed through practice. Law seems to take a middle position, suggesting that sometimes the hinterland simply exists, and other times it must be renewed.
I think Mol's position here makes the most sense to me (I'm not convinced that Latour doesn't also hold this position, but this is how it's presented in the book). In this context, I think of thermodynamics and Prigogine's systems far from equilibrium. The tendency of systems is to decompose, but systems can be made to compose and made to remain composed for periods of time by continual flowing of energy (work) into the system. The hinterland, it seems to me, would work the same way. Once the thing is composed (after an immense amount of work is put into it), it will tend to decompose if left unused (if it is not practiced) – some faster than others. It's only by continually putting work into it (through continual practice) that it will remain composed.

3) Ontological Politics – Law then goes on to talk about the practical and ethical implications of his view of methods assemblages. He says that, if methods compose reality, then we should select our methods based on what kind of reality we would like to see composed. This smacks a little of the extreme epistemological view that we can create whatever reality we want simply by imagining it to be so, but tied to the concept of the hinterland there are two significant differences. First of all, we have to start from where we are – the reality that is already composed – which provides the materials (literally and metaphorically) from which we can compose a new reality. And, second, composing a new reality will take work.
This reminds me of William Connolly's concept of the resonance machine. We can make a better world, but it will take time, work, a willingness to experiment, and an openness to the possibility for failure. Also, it has to be done little-by-little rather than all-at-once. I'm encouraged by the fact that there are a lot of people out there already, working to build new associations, and new ways of living in the world – the activists, community organizers, and, in some ways, ordinary people – but I would like to see a lot more of it (and I'm criticizing myself here as much as anyone else).

Law has a lot of other interesting things to say that I haven't covered here – hybrid realities, fluid reality, etc. I may cover them another time, but I highly recommend reading the book since he says it all much better than I can.

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