The subject / object distinction fails


In Reassembling the Social, Latour offers a beautiful satire of theorists who divide the world into subjects and objects:

To get the right feel for ANT, it’s important to notice that this has nothing to do with a ‘reconciliation’ of the famous object/subject dichotomy. To distinguish a priori ‘material’ and ‘social’ ties before linking them together again makes about as much sense as to account for the dynamic of a battle by imagining a group of soldiers and officers stark naked with a huge heap of paraphernalia—tanks, rifles, paperwork, uniforms—and then claim that ‘of course there exist some (dialectical) relation between the two’. One should retort adamantly ‘No!’ There exists no relation whatsoever between ‘the material’ and ‘the social world’, because it is this very division which is a complete artifact. To reject such a divide is not to ‘relate’ the heap of naked soldiers ‘with’ the heap of material stuff: it is to redistribute the whole assemblage from top to bottom and beginning to end. There is no empirical case where the existence of two coherent and homogeneous aggregates, for instance technology ‘and’ society, could make any sense. (2005: 75-6)

The ridiculous picture of a crowd of embarrassed soldiers separated from all their material ‘supports’ is made even funnier, to my mind, by the additional of an earnest scholar in the scene, pointing to the ‘relationship between’ the two heaps. The attempted division fails. How, for example, can the soldiers’ training be separated from their bodies? And it’s a completely hopeless way to understand an actual military engagement, because what matters is not only what is present, but how each element—human or nonhuman—acts in that assemblage. The tactics, reactions, and secondary effects of battle remain completely incomprehensible.

The object/subject dichotomy is a completely synthetic artefact of analysis, and it has no place in urban thinking. A city is not a sprawling mass of houses, asphalt, pipes, grass, signs, wires, food, rats, bacteria, radio transmissions and billboards on the one hand, and a collection of raw human subjects on the other; the two heaps ‘relating’ to one another. Any understanding based on this distinction (and I think particularly of the phenomenological perspective that foregrounds the character of an individual human subject’s experience), is going to be of limited use in designing with the myriad agencies and linkages of an actual city.



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