Law on fish ponds and multiplicity


“A salmon is … ?” that is the ontological question. 

In this free paper, Jon Law addresses practice and theory, and he does it nice and slow with great care to unpack the context of this paper and the broader fields he contributes to, chiefly, of course, Science and Technology Studies. 

Of all people, of course, Law can direct readers through the maze of ANT, but does an even nicer job than usual. For example, regarding theory as coterminous with practice (rather than an appreciable divide):

… And that is the problem when we start to talk about ‘actor-network theory’, or indeed ‘theory’ tout court. Theory including ANT sounds – and often it is – formulaic. It is as if it were there, sitting in a box fully formed, waiting to be applied whole and ready.

Then he shifts gears and moves to “animals,” … “But let me come to the question of actor-network theory in a different way by thinking about how it relates to animals.” He reminds readers that the differences between people and things like animals is not “natural” so much as the difference is an effect of their relationality (and an important step away from “human exceptionality”). Instead of studying scallops (like Callon in 1986), Law studies farmed Atlantic salmon in Hordaland in West Norway. Still, scallops are not irrelevant: “Starting with a focus on multiplicity, I consider how ANT started to put entities such as ‘animals’ back together again after the 1986 relational storm. This, then, is an exploration of strategies for reassembling objects within the ANT tradition.”

I won’t ruin the concluding remarks for readers, but suffice to say, he concludes trying to answer the basic ontological question: “A salmon is … ?”


11 thoughts on “Law on fish ponds and multiplicity

  1. I find that Law and Mol and all keep all the performative complexity of thinkers like Derrida
    ( ) while providing the concreteness that allows for use/experimentation/intervention and without sacrificing/compromising either ‘pole’. I see these sorts of case-studies not as illustrations of the old physics-envy mode of social ‘science’ somehow discovering/revealing underlying principles/laws but as perspicuous re-minders/re-presentations:
    “This perspicuous representation produces just that comprehension [alt: understanding] which consists in “seeing the connections”. Hence the importance of intermediate cases [alt: of finding intermediate cases].”


  2. Indeed, indeed — there is also some commentary in there that reminds me of a conversation with Stef just yesterday, mainly, commentary on appropriate analytical promiscuity. Law writes: “Two points. First, it is wise to be a little careful when you go fishing for philosophical resources. These indeed have their own context, and sheer eclecticism is pretty risky. This is because it is difficult to know when you are getting yourself in to unless you exercise suitable caution. So that is one argument and it needs to be taken seriously. On the other hand it also pays to be somewhat disrespectful. Philosophy has a tendency to present itself as foundational – or as a ground-clearing exercise necessarily undertaken before particular disciplines can get to work. But this is not how it is in practice, at least most of the time. It turns out that anthropology, or indeed physics, prosper perfectly well in the absence of philosophical clarification. So it is in this spirit that I want to suggest that for our purposes philosophy is best thought of as a source of possible insights. Indeed, if we look at it in this way, then it is not very far removed from fieldwork materials. It becomes a set of specificities, a collection of possible resources, an aid to thinking, and a set of sensitising suggestions. So with this thought in mind, what happens if we stick with this term, monadology?”


    • well as I think I have probably mentioned a time or two (ha!) I prefer to talk in terms of proto-types (vs arche-types) to keep the /manipulated-manufactured/tool-ed part in mind (of specific materials by specfific people in response to particular drives/circumstances) and to emphasize as Mol and others have noted that these all-too-human art-ifacts have very different effects in differing assemblages/environs, and like language get their meanings in their use (mindful of their own affordances/resistances). Also builds on Dewey/Foucault that by setting ourselves concrete tasks/projects we extend the idea(l?) of “problematizing” to include acts of con-struction and not just de-construction, beyond merely academic critique as Latour and others have gestured to making things that can go public.


        • Sharp concluding line that I get criticized for routinely: that the answers to our high-minded theory questions are available to us in the lived world — and there is little room for debate on that for me — after all, it puts scholars in an oddish place, not so much as privileged purveyors of truth.

          “And it does wake us up to the fact that the miraculous processes we had hoped to discover through our theories (to do with meaning, thinking, understanding, remembering, and suchlike), are things which – amazingly – are already in fact being achieved by us in ways we had never thought possible.”


    • might be something in the kinds of relationships one sees between academics, working architects, and architectural engineers (tho I’m not sure how often all three come together).


      • Agreed: there must be pockets of this sort of behavior that could act as models to establish them elsewhere. Still, the academic front that I’m familiar with seem like closeted-Marxists — the type convinced that our subjects cannot see the substructure that they (as Marx) can clearly delineate.

        Also, the other direction: I an imagine professional architects sick of academic work or working with academics …


      • oh yeah lots of self-important-know-nothings to go around but somehow more speculative work occasionally gets translated into off the page/screen projects, we should start a collection/library of working models.


        • Holy hell, that is a great idea — what did this sorts of translation zones get called in old STS? Maybe it even was “translation zone” … Point in case, albeit an odd small one: watching one of those DIY channels the other day and a guy was putting a swimming pool on the second story of a building (in order to keep a great view in CA). Well, a bit part of the show was devoted to “nobody has ever done this, but in theory it ought to work” and he hires some engineers (maybe even an academic was involved during the planning stage or perhaps an academic had produced theoretical blueprints for such a thing), at any rate, eventually, it is built, hence your previous commentary about architecture being a hotspot for such activity.


      • nice, was just talking to someone the other day about Frank Ghery’s work with handworked sketches, CAD, and really pushing materials/boundaries and thinking how close this seems to me to Rorty’s reading (via Kuhn) of Donald Davidson on the manufacture of ‘living’ metaphors which go from being somewhat alien/non-sensical (think how the idea of Christ as man/God was a kind of shocking category error in its time let alone the whole Trinity deal) and yet somehow gripping in ways which flip the gestalt-shift and then with time and use get institutionalized/normalized/instrumentalized and eventually taken for granted.


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