Unveiling Culture. Actors and Factors in Media Practice
On July 1 2011, the distinguished professor for history Maarten Prak resigned from his position as director of the Research Institute for History and Culture at Utrecht University. He invited ten young scholars to speak at his farewell symposium on the future agendas of the humanities.
In preparation for this symposium we were asked to select a book or a research that had profoundly impacted our respective fields of research. What follows is a reflection on the actors and factors constituting media practice, leading to a plea to finally consider and counter those actors and factors that turn academia into an assembly line of mass education. If we ever want to speak of future agendas for the humanities, we first have to stop the humanities from rendering themselves irrelevant.
While many humanities scholars are trading in a dizzying production of yet another whatever 'turn', or coining neologisms with the prefix 'post', the branch of actor-network theory (ANT) provides a solid approach for conducting empirical research. Championed by Bruno Latour, ANT makes an important contribution by simply acknowledging that the social is assembled by interactions of human and non-human actors (Latour 2005b). By assigning agency to inanimate objects, Latour has been able to show that society in fact was 'technology made durable'.
According to Latour, the key fob represents the translation of a social programme (Latour 1991). Reminding her guests to return their key when leaving the hotel, can be a tiresome and frustrating effort for a reception clerk, and the sign stating the message is easily overlooked, but the heavy key fob makes it literally uncomfortable to ignore the rule. We can see how a non-human actor is transporting a message and actually channelling user behaviour.
Everybody researching new media can immediately relate to the notion that design is structuring user practices. The role of inanimate objects as active constituents of social interaction and cultural production becomes very much explicit in research stimulated or inspired by Actor Network Theory. The ANT approach is also very helpful for investigating larger and more complex relations, as the legendary article 'Life and Death of an Aircraft' shows (Law and Callon 1992):
John Law and Michel Callon consider the agency of different actors related to a military air plane project during the Cold War. From policy paper on budgeting, to design proposals and power issues, the analysis shows how the various human and non-human actors were affecting each other and how they tried to assign various roles to each other. The proposed design for a new strike and reconnaissance aircraft was as much determined by the design of Soviet surface-to-air missile as it was by the UK's geopolitical strategic policy paper. Furthermore, the conflicts within the military, notably between the Navy and Air Force, and between the Treasury's budgetary remit and the competing political agendas of Labour and Conservatives, affected the process of designing the aircraft.
Both of the above mentioned articles cover ground for new media researchers in their efforts to analyse densely populated actor-networks of hardware, software and human wetware.
The emergence of new media has certainly sparked an overly optimistic discourse concerning their inherent promise to change the world for the better. Some scholars got ahead of themselves in the sheer excitement of possible social progress through technological advancement. I have two objections to their approach of labelling the new media as 'enabling technologies', the emerging media practices as 'participatory culture' and various user activities as the production of so-called user generated content.
Firstly, I think that media scholars especially should be keenly aware of media discourses shaping the public opinion and the individual perception of new technologies. The celebratory sound bites culminate in a rhetoric of progress, that affects even calculating minds of venture capitalists. It unfortunately blurs the analysis of scholars as well.
Secondly, I object to the way these scholars are conducting their research, which focuses on the symptoms rather than on the causes. Simply using the terminology provided by ANT already allows scholars to set up research differently and to trace various constituents of emerging media practices. Students of digital culture must not limit their research to merely describe media use. They have to investigate the visual surface, such as the user interface, as well as looking at the agents hidden behind the opaque surfaces, such as software programs, hardware configuration, and technical protocols. Political statements, policies,
corporate white papers, artwork, advertising and even metaphors are invaluable resources, revealing ideological connotations and the framing of technology. When examining technology, it becomes evident that its specific engineering culture has to be considered as well. Political debates, regulations and the promise for participation can be translated into technical design and therefore become an inherent part of the artefacts . This is important since it relates technological design directly to political discourses. We at the research programme for New Media and Digital Culture are aware that the material of inanimate object matters, and that information is therefore matter, constituting reality in politics and economy.
It might sound confusing, but ANT stands out not for providing a theory, but a method to think about methods. It opens up new possibilities for researchers to consider new resources and new texts as invaluable research material, as sources for empirical data that help to provide more accurate results. Additionally the new media are not only a phenomenon to research, they also provide handy tools for collecting, storing and distributing data, and moreover for analysising and visualising data. The alert ANT-minded researchers uses such tools, being very aware of them as actors and potential mediators that could transform the very things they are supposed to depict.
Actor-network theory has been frequently blamed for emphasising description over theory or even for neglecting political critique (e.g. Harman 2009). It is certainly correct to acknowledge the vast extent of description in ANT works. I would argue that ANT analysis in fact does a splendid job in making comprehensible complex and dynamic phenomena of cultural production, social interaction and political agenda. Latour provides here an important intervention with his article From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik (2005a). Referring to the etymological meaning of 'thing' as an assembly, he emphasizes the complicated entanglements and issues an object can contain. Latour's notion of Dingpolitik reminds us that politics is not a domain limited to humans and their actions. Referring to the accident of the Columbia space shuttle Latour reminds us, that the NASA's bureaucracy was an inherent part but easy to overlook ingredient of the space shuttle. The “exploded view” opens up the chance to make these entanglements visible. I feel tempted to ask what an exploded view upon academia could unveil?
Back to the agendas of the humanities. Humanities were located right in the heart of the Humboldtian university, resting solidly on the traditions of Enlightenment.
Academia was already in a process of transformation when in 1999 with the Declaration of Bologna, 29 participating parties decided to homogenize higher education in Europe. The proposed dream sounds great: a Pan-European space of higher education, compatible, flexible and adaptable for the needs of a knowledge economy. Evoking the ideals of Enlightenment, the Bologna declaration acknowledges the crucial role of knowledge for the development of peaceful and democratic societies. However, with the Bologna process, and especially its deliberate distinction of two main cycles of education, a bachelor and a master, a landslide may have been set into motion producing many negative effects, some of them seriously threatening the humanities. A hopelessly unrealistic and unrealisable market ideology has infected academia. A rhetoric of completely misunderstood efficiency and market conformity is polluting higher education. Although the Bologna declaration emphasises explicitly the autonomy of the university, this very autonomy is undermined by an invasion of bureaucratic layers and a managerial class of administrators who try to think education in terms of return on investment. As ANT-minded researcher I would point out those changes by referring to the increasing bureaucratization of education by a class of administrative clerks and their tools. Most prominently the spreadsheet for benchmarking course enlisting with passing grades. Courses with a high number of passing students are consequently declared profitable and are favoured over challenging classes with lower rates. The relentless removal of all democratic institutions within academia is another factor transforming the universities from open-minded, inspiring and living organisms into the top-down structure of assembly line knowledge mediation. Replacing independent media of campus life such as student or campus magazines with a communication department indicates a trend away from uncomfortable debate dedicated to truth to polished public relation dedicated to marketing. The list of actors and factors could be continued.
If we speak of agendas for the humanities we mustn't neglect this most severe threat to our educational systems. When scholars are reduced to simply passing along approved knowledge, when students are forced to choose their studies concerning job opportunities instead of interest, when students are required to limit their learning by specialisation and by simply internalising text books, there won't be much left that justifies humanities. This is the point in my talk where I have to give credit to the research institute of history and culture, for providing young researchers with the time and the space to do research. The OGC has been an oasis to work protected from intellectually insulting market rhetoric and the dragging demands of bureaucracy.
Speaking about agendas for the humanities, first demands preventing us from being rendered irrelevant. It requires defending the chartered autonomy of the university and it calls for a return to traditional academic values, such as holding on to the combination of teaching and researching. It requires giving our students the chance to retrace the steps of knowledge production, exploring together with our students tools for analysis and visualisation, and learning through the process of conducting research rather than merely passing on text-book knowledge.
The humanities have available practices to 'make things public' as Latour would say. A commitment to empirical research, the use of handy tools and resources for analysis and representation can be invaluable to provide knowledge that contributes to socio-political debates in society.
Harman, Graham. 2009. Prince of Networks. Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. re.press: Melbourne.
Latour Bruno. 1991. Society is Technology made durable. In Law, John (ed.). A Sociology of Monsters. Essays on Power, Technology and Domination. Routledge: London.
Latour, Bruno 2005a. From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik. In Latour, Bruno and Peter Weibel (eds.) Making Things Public. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.
Latour, Bruno. 2005b. Reassembling the Social. Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York.
Law, John and Michel Callon. 1992. The Life and Death of an Aircraft: A Network Analysis of Technical Change. In: Bijker, Wiebe and John Law (eds.). Shaping Technology / Building Society. Studies in Sociotechnical Change. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA