Notes – ANT and topology

Notes from Law, J. (1999) ‘After ANT: Complexity, naming and topology’ in Law, J. amd Hassard, J. (eds) Actor Network Theory and after, Blackwell

Here John Law addresses the problem of ANT becoming a homogeneous ‘theory’ whose ‘productive non-coherence’ and ‘capacity to apprehend complexity'(8) has been eroded by the very incorporation of ANT. What has come to hardly matter is exactly the tension between ‘actor’ and ‘networ’, which in the process of naming was an oxymoron intentionally created. Drawing on the history of actor-network-theory, he points to two different approaches to what ANT has come to be understood as.

  1. relational materiality (or semiotics of materiality):  As such, ANT represents an anti-essentialist framework whereby entities have no inherent qualities and are produced in relations. Divisions are understood as effects and outcomes and not given in  the order of things.
  2. performativity: entities are performed by and through these relations. The question of how, the how these entities gain their fixity through performativity, is for Law what ANT came to be associated with, a managerial task as he calls it.

What ANT clearly did, and as Annemarie Mol points out, is provide an alternative non-conformable spatiality which wages war to Euclidean topology. And to make this meaningful, stress how Euclidean spatiality carries with it certain understandings and socio-technical discourses and practices.  ANT de-naturalises these notions of the topographically natural and essentialist difference. It is in networks that regions are constituted and networks become this way alternative topological systems (nation-states in Mol are made of telephone systems paperwork etc).

The problem for Law is how the notion of the network has itself become naturalised and by this he refers to the process of ANT studies to refer to the how. For him the network concept leaves the character of relations open, does not aim to fix them, to stabilise them in an interpretation, just to translate them (make equivalents).

It is unclear to me if Law means that the problem with what ANT has come to mean or to be used as is actually its virtue as a form of spatiality. Does he mean that translation is a descriptive and neutral practice? Does he detest the fact that, as an alternative form of spatiality, the network limits the possible links that can be made (and thus the possible entities that can be produced)? Because as I understand this, noting the restrictions and the limits of possible relations is not tantamount to homogenising the links. This is not even my understanding of naturalisation, but on  the contrary, of de-naturalisation.  Seeing the notion of the network as an endless possibility and unproblematically incorporating it as an alternative topology carries itself certain assumptions and has its own underpinnings of socio-technical practices. It is also confusing how object integrity is thought as a matter of retaining the links, and just that. To be frank, I don’t get why there is such an insistence about not looking at the how.


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