Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Objectivity, construction, agency

“Our atrocity is exactly the reverse of that of earlier centuries. It consists in eradicating the blood and cruelty by use of objectivity. A colourless, programmatic, bloodless atrocity, like the white-noise of torture of sensory deprivation cells” (Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories, published 1990, from Chapter October 1980)

As I read this today, I was struck by how much I now find myself not relating (anymore) to Baudrillard’s sense of the violence of objectivity. I find it sometimes difficult to see whether this is a result of my growing up intellectually (mind you I was in Kindergarten when Baudrillard wrote this), whether the environment in which I operate has changed, whether theory has more broadly moved on or something else entirely.

Today I am sick and indulging in reading theory I have no current use for, which recently has been against the rules for the sake of efficiency. So I was also reading Bruno Latour (2005), and jumped back to the section on constructivism versus social constructivism. In this Latour distinguishes between a scheme in which the reality that all knowledge is socially constructed enables the creation of a site for sociological investigation – that is, how did people come to know this, how did they construct it, did they construct it well, kind of thing (constructivism) as opposed to social constructivism that acts as an accusatory (sort of…) tool, declaring the fictive state of all knowledge – that is, it is “constructed”, not real. So thereafter there are endless boring debates with scientists who declare that facts exist and a bunch of humanitities wankers (like me…) declaring they are constructed. And Latour kindly points out that both are right – the fact of construction does not prevent reality (in fact it created…or constructed…reality) nor does it need to imply that facts do not exist (and this is absurd anyway).

It reminds me of a criticism of a work-in-progress I had once: “Hannah it sounds like you think it is real, not constructed.” I had trouble answering this – as a well-brung-up arts graduate of the 1990s of course I think it is constructed but…isn’t it time to move on? Just because it is constructed doesn’t mean it isn’t real and I don’t want to be stuck doing what Meaghan Morris once described as the (boring…well, she didn’t say that, but everything in the article did, really) coded/decoding task that simply demonstrates what we all already know: that this, too, is constructed.

But then I was thinking about why construction was (see, I’ve decided it is inherently past tense…) important. For in, say, the 1980s this was a new-ish idea and it meant that cultural meanings were not immutable. This is important in a political sense, for when meanings are structured and made to seem natural (as many a social scientist has shown) social construction offers a set of tools that can highlight this process of naturalization and enable political agency.

My feeling is that agency is not a problem for Latour, in the way that prompted social constructivism/ anti-objectivity to be a significant thing for the likes of Baudrillard and others in the 1980s (who then went on to teach me in the early-mid 90s). Why is this? I guess I sort of think it is because, for Latour, agency is assumed and, in fact, any structure that emerges is a result of agency, rather than needing to somehow figure out how agency fits into structure.

A little bit like, I have sometimes wondered, if educational constructivism is a statement of fact (that is, learners really do construct knowledge themselves) then there is absolutely no necessity for adopting a constructivism approach to teaching, as it will happen anyway. (Of course, adopting an approach that aligns to the mechanisms of learning might be more efficient). But some seem to suggest knowledge is individually constructed only comes about when the teacher takes a constructivist approach, which seems utterly absurd. But, without wanting to move onto yet another topic, perhaps the idea of affordances assists in this: perhaps knowledge construction is afforded more readily in one environment than another.

There is no stopping agency, it simply is. But perhaps it is possible for some agents to contribute (or even construct) an environment that affords more agency than others.


ailsa said...

I am a PhD student in New Zealand and am also studying Latour and agency. I am not sure that agency is non problematic or 'just is' for Latour. I think he suggests agency can only be known retrospectively.

Hannahland said...

Hmmm, I wonder what the implications of only knowing about agency retorspectively might be? I mean, it is sort of fine for a social science researcher where we look at stuff that is already happened - but what about for political agency? On a mundane level, we can't vote retrospectively (but it would be pretty cool if we could). I'd be interested to hear your thoughts, since you're looking at it much more closely than I am.

Justin said...

I really enjoyed this post, Hannah, and I share you're suspicions about a unbridled constructivism.

My hunch has long been that the defense of the facts (or brute nature) against reduction to culture or language has been really poorly expressed.

I'd like to see it articulated in terms of a kind of ethics or responsibility that goes beyond convention and even deep sub-conventional structure, rather than a kind of access to something (brute facts) beyond all interpretation. But I have awful trouble making that clearer.

Elizabeth Grosz has a really interesting take on this kind of thing (different from mine, but I suspect hers is smarter). She now thinks of nature as inciting culture. Nature isn't made of facts, it's a difference engine, constantly differentiating itself into ever richer variations. Culture and language are ways of slowing down this process. They don't construct anything, but they do territorialise and institute these differences. So "naturalising" is still a central cultural process, but it doesn't exhaust the sense of nature.