Heather Muckart, University of British Columbia
As a theoretical social concept, the idea of the network is most closely associated in the humanities and social sciences with the post-structuralist work of Michel Callon and Bruno Latour, and their Parisian colleagues, particularly with their development of the actor-network theory (ANT) in the 1980s (Latour, 1987). ANT—which can be understood as both methodology and theory—focuses on the processes of interrelations between various things and subjects, understanding these interrelations as being both materially and conceptually informed as well as being generative in kind. This methodology for human/thing interaction as a form of knowledge-production (for this is the most common application of the approach) emerged from within Science and Technology Studies in the decade that also saw a dramatic shift in media and technology, particularly with the popular production and marketing of the home computer as well as the public release of the internet. This convergence of events has likely led to some of the problems associated with the social concept of the term ‘network’, namely, that it has been strongly associated with the media concept of the network: “broadly, an interconnected group of people or objects” (Oxford: A Dictionary of Media and Communications, 2016). Indeed, critiques of this idea of the network have generally followed this understanding of the network as being a parallel to the technological term and the limitations that then ensue: that there is a certain degree of stability associated with the concept of the network; that there is clear and accessible information that is relayed in the network; that while pathways may alter, the network is often conceived of as both a closed-system, as well as one having relatively stable—if optional—pathways of connection; that such an understanding of interrelations between peoples and things is too rigid, and doesn’t follow the variables associated with lived movement. It is for these reasons that the idea of the network has come under recent criticism and reevaluation.
Latour himself argues that ‘network’ should not be conceived of as having a technical basis, such as those found in “sewage, or train, or subway, or telephone” systems, nor should it be understood to be the same as a social network (Latour, 1996, 369). Indeed, for him the network is ontological in nature, as there is “literally…nothing but networks, there is nothing in between them, there is no aether in which the networks should be immersed” (Latour, 1996, 370). As such, Latour’s intervention can be understood as part of a larger project of philosophical revision to resituates our understanding of the relations of things and subjects as based in this concept of the network. Latour has expressed regret in translating the original term—acteur réseau—into the English word ‘network,’ noting that when the term was chosen it was understood to function not dissimilarly from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s idea of the rhizome, as “a series of transformations—translations, transductions—which could not be captured by any of the traditional terms of social theory” (Latour, 1999, 15). ‘Network,’ then, if we understand it with Latour’s original intent, should be seen as something that is continually becoming and forming and lived in its parameters. It is a way of viewing relations between things and peoples as fundamental to how we both understand and make worlds.
The agency given to things as well as people is fundamental to this concept of the network. For those scholars engaged in material studies, such a methodology has been seen to hold great potential, allowing the objects of study to be resituated as both potent things, and as actors. The Latourian idea of the network, then, has particular potential for art history because the discipline often focuses on the production and uses of things, and the relationship between manufactured things and peoples. The term itself however could use some revivification in order to jettison the baggage of misapplications and associations with the media concept of the network.
A particularly evocative intervention has been cast by Tim Ingold, who notes that réseau encompasses ‘netting’ in addition to that of ‘network’. Ingold suggests an intriguing way of thinking of this double meaning with his analogy of the spider and its web. “The lines of the spider’s web,” he argues, “unlike those of the communications network, do not connect points or join things up. They are rather spun from materials exuded from the spider’s body and are laid down as it moves about. In that sense they are extensions of the spider’s very being as it trails into the environment” (Ingold, 2010, 12). The double meaning of réseau as network/netting, then, may move us closer to Latour’s original understanding of the network as not just conceptual but as lived, fundamental, bodily, and continuous.
© Heather Muckart, last modified 15 July 2016
Ingold, Tim. “Bringing Things to Life: Creative Entanglements in a world of Materials.” In NCRM Working Paper Series. Aberdeen: University of Aberdeen, ESRC National Centre for Research Methods, 2010.
Latour, Bruno. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Milton Keyes: Open University Press, 1987.
____. “On Actor-Network Theory: A Few Clarifications.” Soziale Welt 47, no. 4 (1996): 369-381.
____. “On Recalling ANT.” In Actor Network Theory and After, edited by John Law and John Hassard, 15-25. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.
Oxford: A Dictionary of Media and Communications. 2nd Edition. s.v. “Network.” Accessed March 23, 2015.
Fig. 1. Branch of a guava tree with leaf-cutter ants, army ants, pink-toed tarantulas, huntsman spiders, and a ruby-topaz hummingbird, in Maria Sybilla Meriaen Over de voortteeling en wonderbaerlyke veranderingen der Surinaemsche insecten, Transfer engraving, hand-colored , 1719, Maria Sibylla Merian, 1647-1717. Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.
Fig. 2. Insect, Tulip, Caterpillar, Spider, Pear, from Model Book of Calligraphy, (text in Latin), Joris Hoefnagel, Illuminator; Georg Bocskay, scribe, Flemish and Hungarian, illumination 1591–1596, script 1561–1562, Watercolors, gold and silver paint, and ink on parchment, 6 9/16 x 4 7/8 in., Ms. 20, fol. 25. Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.