Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. (Oxford, 2005).

Officially, my reading list calls for “selections from” Reassembling the Social. That turned into me reading almost all of it very, very slowly (hence the delay in posting). Reassembling the Social offers some of the most accessible Latour, but nonetheless provocative, I’ve ever encountered. The theory is profound, but slippery. The book is less about what actor-network theory is and more about what it does—but, even more, it’s about what actor-network theory doesn’t do. It offers exciting new possibilities for how we might conduct our work as historians of religion. But trying to explain it succinctly feels like THIS

Latour first carefully disassembles the concept of “the social.” Note that I didn’t say he “deconstructs” it. For too long, Latour insists, theorists have approached the social as “a kind of material or a domain,” one usually invoked to provide an explanation for some other state of affairs (1). Religion, for example, is said to operate according to its own logic most of the time, but “social context” or “social forces” pop into scholarly accounts to explain some of the erratic behavior of practitioners. To take an example from a book I just read, this understanding of the social says evangelicalism in America looks different than evangelicalism in Canada because of the social context—or even better, the socio-cultural context—in which it “manifested.” “The social” thus stalks behind, or floats above, practitioners and their practices, ready to offer a “social explanation” at any moment. For Latour, this conception of “the social” as a domain, a realm, a kind of thing, blinds us to the associations that actors actually have with each other. Those associations change constantly, as groups are formed, dismantled, and reformed (29). Instead of positing a particular thing or domain as “the social,” Latour asks what kinds of peculiar assemblages might reveal themselves if we carefully trace the associations between actors, if we allow actors to show us what “the social” describes at a particular moment. The term “social,” Latour insists, describes “the name of a movement, a displacement, a transformation, a translation, an enrollment… an association between entities which are in no way recognizable as being social… except during the brief moment when they are shuffled together” (64-65). For actor-network theory, tracing those movements, displacements, transformations, and enrollments, becomes paramount.

ANT brings mediation and materiality to the foreground. In Latour’s actor-networks, actors look very different from what we usually see. Actors need not be human, nor “animate” in the sense we’re accustomed to. Gasp. Latour considers an “actor” to be “not the source of an action but the moving target of a vast array of entities swarming toward it” (46). Actors are those made to act. He uses the example of a pilgrim who claims, “I came to this monastery because the Virgin called me.” The Virgin makes the pilgrim an actor (the actor who travels), but the pilgrim also makes the Virgin an actor (the actor who calls others to action). We should take the pilgrim’s word for what’s happening when she says the Virgin called her: “Recording not filtering out, describing not disciplining, these are the Laws and the Prophets” (55).

This goes further than the kind of uncritical pandering to actors’ claims that we’re accustomed to in religious studies. Rather, as hinted above, Latour wants to understand how social worlds get constructed. So, for example, a Protestant says she believes the bread and wine in communion are mere “symbols” of commemoration, but then fears supernatural retribution for taking communion in an unfit spiritual state. An ANT would try to trace the complex connections between actors natural and supernatural, subjects and objects, persons and spirits, bread and sinners, that such a statement invokes. It’s a painstaking process, but one that pays big dividends for students of materiality because it pays attention to the kinds of agency afforded to things. Latour argues that, rather than insisting on a neat divide between agentive subjects and inert objects, we ought to explore how the relationships between subjects and objects, agents and mediators, get construed. He suggests a metaphysical openness on the question of cause and effect, an attention to how “things might authorize, allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, influence, block, render possible, forbid, and so on” (72, emphasis added). I’m not explaining it well, but tracing an actor-network in religious studies would never permit us to say, for example, that a certain object or image “manifests” religious beliefs. Instead, ANT would demand that we pay careful attention to ways people interact with things, the ways things interact with people, the ways supernatural and natural beings can use things, the ways causality gets described, the ways things can reveal or proclaim or mask or subvert or remind. Latour offers a negative method, in which we don’t take anything for granted about social worlds but instead wait to see what emerges…