Class 3 (English 238 – Fall 2020)

Class Business

Plan for class:   :   discussion of Hughes    discussion of Latour

Epigraphs for Class

Yet there remain philosophers who believe there are such things as objects. (Latour 38)

Westinghouse Transformer, c. 1887, as pictured in Thomas Hughes, Networks of Power, p. 104
Westinghouse Transformer, c. 1887, as pictured in Thomas Hughes, Networks of Power, p. 104
Monolith in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Science Technology Studies | Science Technology & Society

Electric power systems demanded of their designers, operators, and managers a feel for the purposeful manipulation of things…. (Hughes 1)

In the myth of Daedalus, all things deviate from the straight line. (Latour 29)

Discussion 1 — Thomas P. Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 (1983) Alan’s annotated version

Of the great construction projects of the last century, none has been more impressive in its technical, economic, and scientific aspects, none has been more influential in its social effects, and none has engaged more thoroughly our constructive instincts and capabilities than the electric power system. A great network of power lines which will forever order the way in which we live is now superimposed on the industrial world. Inventors, engineers, managers, and entrepreneurs have ordered the man-made world with this energy network. The half-century from 1880 to 1930 constituted the formative years of the history of electric supply systems, and from a study of these years one can perceive the ordering, integrating, coordinating, and systematizing nature of modern human societies. Electric power systems demanded of their designers, operators, and managers a feel for the purposeful manipulation of things, intellect for the rational analysis of their nature and dynamics, and an ability to deal with the messy economic, political, and social vitality of the production systems that embody the complex objectives of modern men and women. Robert Venturi, the contemporary architect, has asked architects to embrace the complexity and contradictions of the modern world and to make of that world a habitable environment. Leading engineers and managers have also recognized that their drive for order must be tempered by tolerance of messy vitality. Modern electric systems have the heterogeneity of form and function that make possible the encompassing complexity. (Hughes 1)

Hughes’s Model (pp. 14-17)

Discussion 2 — Bruno Latour, “On Technical Mediation—Philosophy, Sociology, Genealogy” (1994)

In the myth of Daedalus, all things deviate from the straight line. The direct path of reason and scientific knowledge — episteme — is not the path of every Greek. The clever technical know-how of Daedalus is an instance of metis, of strategy, of the sort of intelligence for which Odysseus (of whom the Iliad says that he is polymetis. a bag of tricks) is most famed. No unmediated action is possible once we enter the realm of engineers and craftsmen. A daedalion. in Greek, is something curved, veering from the straight line, artful but fake, beautiful and contrived…. Daedalus is our best eponym for technique — and the concept of daedalion our best tool to penetrate the evolution of civilization. His path leads through three disciplines: philosophy, sociology, genealogy. (Latour 29-30)

Full-fledged human actors, and respectable objects out there in the world, cannot be my starting point; they may be our point of arrival. Does such a place exist? Is it more than a myth?… [I]f inventing myths is the only way to get on with the job, we should not hesitate to invent new ones. (Latour 35-36)

You may object that this is not surprising. To be transported in imagination from France to Bali is not the same as to take a plane from France to Bali. True enough, but how great is the difference? In imaginative means of transportation, you simultaneously occupy all frames of reference, shifting into and out of all the delegated personae that the storyteller offers. Through fiction, ego, hic, nunc may be shifted, may become other personae, in other places, at other times. (Latour 40)


It is neither people nor guns that kill. Responsibility for action must be shared among the various actants. And this is the first of the . . . meanings of mediation. (Latour 34)

Who or what is responsible for the act of killing? Is the gun no more than a piece of mediating technology? The answer to these questions depends upon what mediation means. A first sense of mediation (I will offer four) is the program of action, the series of goals and steps and intentions, that an agent can describe in a story like my vignette of the gun (fig. 1). If the agent is human, is angry, wants to take revenge, and if the accomplishment of the agent’s goal is interrupted, for whatever reason (perhaps the agent is not strong enough), then the agent makes a detour, a deviation: as we have already seen, one cannot speak of techniques without speaking of daedalia. Agent I falls back on Agent 2, here a gun. Agent 1 enlists the gun or is enlisted by it — it does not matter which-and a third agent emerges from a fusion of the other two.

The question now becomes which goal the new composite agent will pursue. If it returns, after its demur, to Goal 1, then the NRA story obtains. The gun is a tool, merely an intermediary. If Agent 3 drifts from Goal 1 to Goal 2, then the materialists’ story obtains. The gun’s intent, the gun’s will, the gun’s script have superseded those of Agent 1; it is human action that is no more than an intermediary…. But a third possibility is more commonly realized: the creation of a new goal that corresponds to neither agent’s program of action. (You had wanted only to hurt but, with a gun now in hand, you want to kill.) I call this uncertainty about goals translation…. Like Michel Serres, I use translation to mean displacement, drift, invention, mediation, the creation of a link that did not exist before and that to some degree modifies two elements or agents. (Latour 31-32)

Bruno Latour, Fig. 1 in "On Technical Mediation". Latour's caption is: "First Meaning of Mediation: Translation"


If ever one comes face to face with an object, that is not the beginning but the end of a long process of proliferating mediators, a process in which all relevant subprograms, nested one into another, meet in a “simple” task (e.g., pipetting). Instead of the kingdom of legend in which subjects meet objects, one generally finds oneself in the realm of the personne morale, of what is in English called the “corporate body” or “artificial person.” Three extraordinary terms! As if the personality becomes moral by becoming collective, or collective by becoming artificial, or plural by doubling the Saxon word body with a Latin synonym, corpus. A body corporate is what the pipette and I, in my example, have become. We are an object-institution. (Latour 44)


Fig. 3 from Bruno Latour's "On Technical Mediation" (p. 37)
Fig. 3 from Bruno Latour’s “On Technical Mediation” (p. 37)


Fig. 8 from Bruno Latour's "On Technical Mediation" (p. 68)
Fig. 8 from Bruno Latour’s “On Technical Mediation” (p. 68)

Every activity implies the principle of symmetry between humans and nonhumans or, at the least, offers a contradictory mythology that disputes the unique position of humans. The same uncertainty bedevils techniques, which are human actions that end up being actions of nonhumans. Responsibility for action must be shared, symmetry restored, and humanity redescribed: not as the sole transcendent cause, but as the mediating mediator. (Latour 54)

We have not abandoned meaningful human relations and abruptly entered a world of brute material relations—although this might be the impression of drivers, used to dealing with negotiable signs, now confronted by nonnegotiable speed bumps. The shift is not from discourse to matter because, for the engineers, the speed bump is one meaningful articulation within a gamut of possibilities among which they choose as freely as one chooses vocabulary in a language. Thus, we remain in meaning but no longer in discourse: yet we do not reside among mere objects. Where are we?

Detour, translation, delegation, inscription, and displacement require our better comprehension before we can even begin to elaborate a philosophy of techniques; and understanding these requires that we understand what semioticians call shifting. If I say to you, for instance, “Let us imagine ourselves in the campus engineers’ shoes when they decided to install the speed bumps,” I transport you nor only into another space and time but translate you into another actor. I shift you out of the scene you presently occupy. The point of spatial, temporal, and “actorial” shifting, which is basic to all fiction, is to make you move without your moving. You made a detour through the engineers’ office, but without leaving your seat. You lent me, for a time, a character who, with the aid of your patience and imagination, traveled with me to another place, became another actor, then returned to become yourself in your own world again. This mechanism is called identification, by means of which the “enunciator”—I—and the “enunciatee”—you—both contribute to our shifting delegates of ourselves in other composite frames of reference (Fig. 4). (Latour 39)

Related Methods, Fields, & Resources

Systems Theory

Hughes on systems:

The rationale for undertaking this study of electric power systems was the assumption that the history of a large-scale technology—not only power systems—can be studied effectively as a history of systems. (Hughes 7)

A system is constituted of related parts or components. These components are connected by a network, or structure, which for the student of systems may be of more interest than the components. The interconnected components of technical systems are often centrally controlled, and usually the limits of the system are established by the extent of this control. Controls are exercised in order to optimize the system’s performance and to direct the system toward the achievement of goals…. Because the components are related by the network of interconnections, the state, or activity, of one component influences the state, or activity, of other components in the system. (Hughes 5)

All of the systems, it is important to stress, share the characteristic of interconnectedness—i.e., a change in one component impacts on the other components of the system. (Hughes 6)

Edison preferred to invent systems rather than components of other persons’ systems. During his long career as a professional inventor-entrepreneur, he turned to the invention of systems to such an extent that preference for systems can be identified as a salient characteristic of his approach. (Hughes 21)

[Quotation from Thomas Edison:] “It was not only necessary that the lamps should give light and the dynamos generate current, but the lamps must be adapted to the current of the dynamos, and the dynamos must be constructed to give the character of current required by the lamps, and likewise all parts of the system must be constructed with reference to all other parts, since, in one sense, all the parts form one machine, and the connections between the parts being electrical instead of mechanical. Like any other machine the failure of one part to cooperate properly with the other part disorganizes the whole and renders it inoperative for the purpose intended.
The problem then that I undertook to solve was stated generally, the production of the multifarious apparatus, methods and devices, each adapted for use with every other, and all forming a comprehensive system.” (Hughes 22)

In Luhmann’s formulation, this can be stated as follows: on both sides of the distinction medium/form there are elements that in the medium are coupled loosely and in the form are coupled more tightly—like, for instance, grains of sand in a beach that have no connection to one another and therefore are fit to receive the form left by a footprint or like light rays making objects visible. (Esposito 11)

Media arise only when it becomes possible to break the compactness of a unity into a multiplicity of loose elements that can be recombined in different ways, that is, when new possibilities to generate forms arise. Media are only potentialities, and their fundamental function is to make contingent something that was formerly indispensable. (Esposito 11-12)

  • Ilya Prigogine — e.g., Grégoire Nicolis and Ilya Prigogine, Exploring Complexity: An Introduction (1989)


Poststructuralist & Postmodern Messiness

  • Robert VenturiComplexity and Contradiction in Architecture. 2d ed. The Museum of Modern Art Papers on Architecture. New York : Boston: Museum of Modern Art ; distributed by New York Graphic Society, 1977. (1st ed. 1966) — [from chap 10, pp. 88-105]
  • Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) — on Frank Gehry’s Santa Monica house:

Such discussions imply a displacement of architectural space such that the positioning of its contents — objects and human bodies alike — becomes problematical. It is a feeling that can only be properly evaluated in a historical and comparative context and, in my opinion, on the basis of the following proposition: if the great negative emotions of the modernist moment were anxiety, terror, the being-unto-death, and Kurtz’s “horror,” what characterizes the newer “intensities” of the postmodern, which have also been characterized in terms of the “bad trip” and of schizophrenic submersion, can just as well be formulated in terms of the messiness of a dispersed existence, existential messiness, the perpetual temporal distraction of post-sixties life. Indeed, one is tempted (without wishing to overload a very minor feature of Gehry’s building) to evoke the more general informing context of some larger virtual nightmare, which can be identified as the sixties gone toxic, a whole historical and countercultural “bad trip” in which psychic fragmentation is raised to a qualitatively new power, the structural distraction of the decentered subject now promoted to the very motor and existential logic of late capitalism itself.
At any rate, all these features—the strange new feeling of an absence of inside and outside, the bewilderment and loss of spatial orientation in Portman’s hotels, the messiness of an environment in which things and people no longer find their “place”—offer useful symptomatic approaches to the nature of
postmodern hyperspace, without giving us any model or explanation of the thing itself. (116-117)


STS and “Messy” Science

  • Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)
  • Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975)
  • Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science (1995)
  • cf., Greek mētis.


The New Criticism

The structure meant is a structure of meanings, evaluations, and interpretations; and the principle of unity which informs it seems to be one of balancing and harmonizing connotations, attitudes, and meanings. But even here one needs to make important qualifications: the principle is not one which involves the arrangement of the various elements into homogenous groupings, pairing like with like. It unites the like with the unlike. It does not unite them, however, by the simple process of allowing one connotation to cancel out another nor does it reduce the contradictory attitudes to harmony by a process of subtraction. The unity is not a unity of the sort to be achieved by the reduction and simplification appropriate to an algebraic formula. It is a positive unity, not a negative; it represents not a residue but an achieved harmony.

The attempt to deal with a structure such as this may account for the frequent occurrence in the preceding chapters of such terms as ambiguity, paradox, complex of attitudes, and—most frequent of all, and perhaps most annoying to the reader—irony.


Heidegger on Technology




Cultural Evolution Theory

—Description (from Alan Liu, Friending the Past, 165):

Created for the cultural evolution studies field, Seshat facilitates the longue durée study of the rise of civilizations from the Neolithic era on. Though not a corpus that would allow for the bottom-up analysis of documents and other materials witnessing the experience of history, it includes structured, annotated metadata encoded by domain experts and others according to a controlled vocabulary to describe the social, political, cultural, military, and other “variables” … of geographical and political entities. Seshat’s goal is to use computation to analyze such metadata to understand the interactions “between social complexity, hierarchy, and inequality” that drive the rise of “centralized polities, chiefdoms, and … archaic states” from “small-scale polities, foraging bands and farming villages.” But because that is too much to bite off in one chew, the project has started with a reduced “World Sample 30” database whose variables are chosen just for particular research questions about a “selected 30 areas across the globe …  stratified by world region and history of social complexity.”


Annales Historiography

  • Fernand Braudel,  The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1976) [Table of Contents]