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19 June 2011

Social Objects and the Building of the Social

Levi has a post up about Latour's We Have Never Been Modern in which he summarizes nicely Latour's main thesis of the social sciences: 
This, I believe, is Latour’s core thesis: society must be built. Society does not explain, but is precisely that which must be explained. And wherever we refer to social forces and the like to explain such and such a phenomenon, we’ve skipped this step. Under the most charitable interpretation, Latour’s point is not that there aren’t projections or that there aren’t objective forces, but that 1) the form social relations take cannot be completely explained through projections or naturalizations, and 2) that humans cannot be entirely reduced to marionettes of so-called objective forces. In other words, Latour sides with both the humanist and the antihumanist, while nonetheless arguing that there’s an additional missing term, a missing mass, in their social explanations: nonhuman entities.
In other words, the social sciences have traditionally been caught between two paradoxical positions.  On the one hand, rejecting objective forces as mere social constructions, and on the other positing objective forces (i.e social structures) to explain human behavior.  Many of the recent advances in social theory - Latour being, in my opinion, at the forefront - have been attempts to move beyond this contradiction.

 I want to point out, too - since I'm currently reading Green Mars, the second of Kim Stanley Robinson's (KSR) Mars Trilogy - that this is one of the things I like so much about this book.  It's as much about the construction of a new society as it is a construction of a new ecology - indeed, the two can never be wholly removed from one another.  Thus, the process of areoformation (as KSR's characters call it, in contrast to terraformation) is a social and an ecological practice - and the two processes are intertwined so that changes to the planet - both intentional and unintentional - affect social processes, and vice versa. This is also what was depicted in The Organic Machine by Richard White, which I recently read, except that White's book was more concrete and down-to-earth, in a literal sense.  So, where White presented a wilderness history, KSR has created a wilderness future.

I also like in the book that the process of areoformation is not deterministic - there is no totalizing plan which the process follows.  Rather, there are many different plans being implemented in many different ways on many different scales, and they conflict with one another, reinforce one another, or are simply neutral towards one another in varying complex ways.  Furthermore, there are processes at work outside of the plans, or which cannot be wholly controlled - such as the creation of a Martian atmosphere.  Thus the outcome is never what's planned, but always unexpected and unpredictable. 

Of course, KSR has a plan in mind, and, as the author of the book, is able to implement it however he likes - in that sense only is it deterministic, but that's the nature of writing fiction.  On another level, though, the books become part of a social collective which is just as nondeterministic as that depicted within the books.  There's no way KSR could have known that his book would come to influence Levi - one of the prime movers in object-oriented ontology - and potentially have a profound effect on philosophy and the future of social theory.  And it all gets amazingly complex very quickly!

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