Friday, August 26, 2011

Reassembling the Social - Bruno Latour

Picking apart exactly what he sees wrong with the modern state of sociology, Bruno Latour gives what he considers to be a basic, though still feeling comprehensive, introduction to actor-network theory. Animated by what Latour sees as sociology's reliances on a pre-assembled social sphere, Latour argues that if we assume such a sphere we have already lost the project of sociology. Rather he emphasizes what he terms a sociology of associations, or a picking apart of the manners in which things (this is an important aspect) interact with one another.

Broadening the scope of sociology beyond the strictly human, Latour ensures us that any proper understanding of human interactions requires an incorporation of non-human actors. He sees all associations as being mediated by and flowing through things, and thus a sociology that ignores such actors can always fail at its task to construct the social. Rather, any society (being an understanding of a pre-formed social sphere) will always resist unpacking and understanding. It is by looking not at the smooth flows, but rather at the locations of controversy, that make clear to us what the story of interactions is saying.

Because locations of controversy are the driver of history Latour has a, perhaps very alternative, view of realities. For him it is not difference and instability that requires explanation, but rather stability and continuity that is need of a sociology so that we may understand how different entities have come to be associated with one another. Latour would have us believe that all things are, themselves, actor-networks, and that they are thus an agglomeration of different entities. There is no apparent reason, at the outset, why any two (or three or four) entities ought to become associated with one another. Rather, it is through work and effort that articulations between such entities occur and it is within the scope of such relationships that a choice is made amongst their multiple handles to associate with one another. Two entities cannot but engage in controversy (otherwise they have no meaningful difference and are not worthy subjects of sociology) because they themselves are actor-networks, each with their own host of realities. It is by articulating with one another that they become associated and a veneer of stability of relationships can take form. Latour would have us believe that too much of the "sociology of the social" assumes such relationships and therefore cannot have anything meaningful to say about the social sphere. A pre-formed society preceding sociological inquiry can never grant unique insight into what is occurring in the world. If we assume society we cannot have a sociology; Latour takes this seeming paradox and gives it legs.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Leviathan and the Air-Pump - Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer

Examining the very public disputes between Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle over the value of experimental knowledge and the relationship between knowledge creation and the social sphere, Shapin and Schaffer's Leviathan and the Air-Pump traces the experimental sciences in their infancy, and draws a strikingly modern portrayal over concerns surrounding the manner by which we create facts. Focusing on the experiments of Robert Boyle's air-pump in Restoration England, the book gives free reign to the work of these two and the inter-weaving concerns of politics and science in the nascent Age of Reason.

Of crucial importance to philosophers' disagreements was the role of the social sphere and consensus in the creation of facts. Boyle claimed that the consensus of the experimental community occurred in a public, yet controlled, sphere that allowed for witness, replication and healthy debate. It was in this sphere that experiments could be witnessed and nurtured from the tenuous realm of supposition into the world of settled fact. For Hobbes, all knowledge was dependent upon the work put in to garnering it and was inextricably linked to the political and social realms. Any attempt to address problems of knowledge meant addressing problems of the social order, because the Leviathan - ordered society - could not escape the shadow of conflict, which sprang from disagreement. Living in the shadow of an English civil war both men and indeed much of the populace, was aware of concerns surrounding potential areas of conflict, thus, questions of experimental/scientific knowledge, religion and the social order were all of a piece. This made disagreements that much more acrimonious.

Though Boyle's scientific positions seemed to triumph Shapin and Schaffer eventually give Hobbes his due credit. Whereas Boyle believed that, given the proper circumstances, men could witness and dispassionately rule on the natural world, Hobbes saw that any knowledge creation could never be fully separated from the social/political circumstances of its creation or the work required for coming-into-being.

"The form of life in which we make our scientific knowledge will stand or fall with the way we order our affairs in the state." p. 344

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Cloudsplitter - Russell Banks

An epic fictionalization of the life of America's most famous abolitionist John Brown, as related by his last remaining son Owen Brown at the turn of the twentieth century, Cloudsplitter takes us through the back roads and into the cities of the northern United States in the decades preceding the Civil War. Russell Banks has researched thoroughly and related diligently the events and climate that would bring John Brown and his loyal followers, first to Osawatomie and then into the heart of confederate Virginia and Harper's Ferry. But that is much later, at its heart  Banks' work follows the younger Brown from his childhood, through the development of relationship to his father, and casts a sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrible eye on every man and woman's relationship to the institution of American slavery. Throughout we see Owen Brown wrestle in the shadow of his father's faith and conviction towards bringing an end to slavery. John Brown's convictions, his absolute faith in his relationship to God, and total commitment to abolitionism dominate every aspect of the life of Owen, his brothers and sisters, and indeed, every one Brown comes into contact with. We are left with impression that, without Brown's total commitment and willingness to sacrifice, coupled with his son's willingness to bush violence past the brink, American history would have developed very differently.

Among the many powerful themes of the work, Banks paints a portrait of American's relationships, within and across racial lines, that feels strikingly relevant. Though Owen Brown has committed his life to ending slavery, even as he struggles on the underground railroad, moving escaped slaves to Canada, he cannot escape his inability to deal equitably with black Americans. Wrestling with his faithlessness and inability to love blacks purely, Owen becomes and will remain consumed by his own failings, eventually to live out his days as a shade and wraith of the deeds of his youth. Constantly judging his own shortcomings and failings in the awesome and horrible light of his father's grandeur and certainty regarding his own and all peoples' roles and responsibilities in this life, Owen too often finds himself wanting where he deems it most important. It is the wrestling between Owen and his father, cast in biblical proportions, that is hammered home. A smaller, yet deeply personal tragedy in a tale that will only leave the reader searching for simple answers.

Engaging closely with Russell Bank's great work, one cannot help but question his own moral compass, and to what extent we are all willing to dedicate and sacrifice for what is right? We at once run from the person we are, and towards the person we are trying to become, at times stumbling along the way or even turning aside. For some, the race is won and we come to a place of peace within ourselves and with the world around us. But likewise, this struggle is not always a victory and many times those decisions are written in the stars beyond our control. John Brown remains one of America's most complex and controversial figures: at once liberty's strongest warrior and a slaughterer of men. His story reminds us that heroes and villains are rarely clearly either. Perhaps we can say that even the best of us contain a bit of both.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 - Taylor Branch

Part two in Taylor Branch's three-part opus on the American Civil Rights Movement, Pillar of Fire details the rise of the nation of Islam and the first years of President Johnson's term up to the assassination of Malcolm X. Starting in the oldest of American cities, St. Augustine, Florida, Branch's work ably brings together the disparate elements of the Civil Rights Movement as it burgeoned beyond the March of Washington and spread past the bounds of the SNCC, the SCLC and the NAACP. Throughout the work Branch gives the reader a sense that, at times, the movement was surpassing the abilities of even King, Elijah Muhammad, Bob Moses and Ralph Abernathy to control. Additionally, as President Kennedy exits the scene, struck down by an assassin's bullet, newly sworn-in President Johnson brings his energies and passions to bear on a Voting Rights and Civil Rights Bill.

Not as unified as his first work, Pillar of Fire nevertheless traces the uncertainty and power of the middle and crucial years of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King has moved beyond being simply a famous preacher and become an institution in and of himself: we see him and those around him beset on all sides by the trappings of fame and prestige. Branch ably characterizes the strengths and flaws of the movement and its people, reminding us that though they may have not been perfect, the generation of leaders and unnamed Americans who ushered in a new age, were something much more resonant, they were human.