Bruno Latour’s “Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts” is a playful and fascinating mediation focusing on the relationship between human and artifact. Latour argues that artifacts have, within themselves, the power to affect human action. Through humorous case studies, he demonstrates that because artifacts (like a door “groom”) are designed by humans and effectively stand in for a possible human counterpart, they can exercise a level of control over individual and collective human action. Although the extent and scope of control is wholly dependent upon how an artifact has been designed and constructed, artifacts still deserve consideration as individual actors, capable of imparting change in the world.
Jane Bennett’s jargon-laden chapter, “The Agency of Assemblages”, lays out the author’s idea that artifacts are hardly passive or inert objects. Using the example of a massive 2003 power outage, Bennett illustrates that an object, artifact or even process can be viewed as an agentic actor due to the complex relationships it may have with the surrounding world. By demonstrating the multiplicity of circumstance that had to arise to give way to the outage, the reader is left to conclude that a singular, initial cause is not necessary when describing an object. Moreover, the outage can be seen as yet another cause in itself, capable of making change in the world. Because of this capability, Bennett argues that an object can be understood as an agentic actor.
The ideas extolled by Bennet and Latour are nuanced and refreshing, possibly even capable of bringing about a fundamental change in how humans relate to the nonhuman world. What I want to argue, however, is that the project of checking the human proclivity toward agentic exceptionalism is hardly a new exercise.
When reading Bennet’s section on the power outage, I could not help myself from drawing a comparison between her ideas and one of the core tenets of Indian Buddhist philosophical thinking: pratītyasamutpāda. Roughly, pratītyasamutpāda can be translated as “mutually dependent origination”; it is characterized by the idea that ontological objects can only be understood in terms of their relationships with other objects . Because both the world itself and all things in it — planets, humans, animals, rocks, etc… — are impermanent and continually subject to the causes and conditions of other objects, anything and everything in the world must be void of inherent, independent nature. The universe, therefore, can be seen as a “foundationless web of interconnection” .
So, why do I bring in Pratītyasamutpāda? Because the Buddhists are, effectively, taking Bennett’s argument to its logical conclusion. For Bennett, it is the web of interconnection that constitutes an assemblage’s agency. For the Buddhists, this same web of interconnection constitutes the assemblage’s existence.
Let us take the idea of human agency and run it through the lens of Bennett’s argument. When doing so, we find that this capacity owes its existence to the web of relationships in which it may found. Humans, for that matter, all organic objects or processes are physical entities. They are subject to the same conditions and circumstances as artifacts. Human agency just happens to be a complex and rich assemblage, somehow manifesting self-consciousness and the suite of mental capacities that allow for the idea of exceptionalism. Give or take a few constituent parts, it is clear that the agency of assemblages is of a different level of complexity, not of a different kind, from that of humans.
1. Nāgārjuna. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika. Trans. Jay L. Garfield. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. Print.