Bruno Latour delegating to Jim Johnson

OK, this is my first post made here. It is probably not interesting for anyone else then those wanting to know roughly what Jim Johnson argues for in his article “Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer” published in the journal Social Problems in 1988. It is a really interesting article, however, and I do not pretend that I am making it justice in any way. Well, this blog is just a technique to which I am delegating some of my self-disciplinary skills of which I am not a master of any kind. Or maybe I am delegating them to a possible reader? Whatever.

Doors, hinges and grooms

In the article, Jim Johnson (1988) starts with walls. Walls are great! They create asymmetry and irreversibility when it is needed. However, they tend to keep humans (and nonhumans) either in or out a little bit to well. The effort to get through to the other side is usually too great (blow a hole?). Hence, you need the Doors … sorry, a hole-wall hybrid: a door. And a door needs hinges to work smoothly. So there has been some kind of transformation going on here. A major effort has been translated into a minor (blow a hole in the wall –> open a door). This Johnson calls translation or delegation. We (or at least someone) have delegated the effort of creating the asymmetry needed (e.g. warm inside – cold outside) to the door and the hinges.

So OK, the techniques and mechanisms are according to Johnson the nonhumans created through delegation. Humans delegate to nonhumans, thus reducing the needed efforts by the former to (in this case) create asymmetry. This “reversal of forces” (299), i.e. that the small (hinges) are made stronger than the large (humans with sledgehammers), is according to Johnson what to look at to understand the social construction of techniques.

There is a problem with the hole-wall hybrid, however: it remains open once you have opened it. Thus, there is some disciplining that has to be done! People need to be disciplined to close the door behind them. But since people are unreliable, we might find a better solution in disciplining one person to close the door after all the others. Well, this (young, working-class boy) will probably not be disciplined enough to always be counted on (and he also costs money). This delegation to the bellboy also differs from the delegation to the hinge in that there are two different aspects of time being actualized. Time is folded when delegating to a nonhuman as the hinge; it is installed and then it works. Time is continuous when delegating to a human as the bellboy; he needs continuous disciplining to stay at his post. In the latter case the reversal of forces is not the same as in the first. To make the bellboy stay and perform a simple task, a great disciplinary apparatus needs to be put in place.

Enters the Door-Closer. Exits the Bellboy. Now “we” have delegated to the door-closer the work of keeping the door closed. However, the problems solved do not imply that there are no other problems. In deskilling humans, nonhumans need to be reskilled (or upgraded). And this seems to be a quite tricky task. As example Johnson takes the rude door-closer closing the door to fast and with a to great force. This discipline humans to use the door carefully and thus we have some kind of prescription going on. Prescription is what Madeleine Akrich (1987) calls the behavior nonhumans delegates to or imposes on humans, and this is “the moral and ethical dimension of mechanisms” (Johnson 1988: 301). Some people cannot use the door since it has become too heavy. Kids, elderly, people carry stuff etc. are being discriminated. This can in turn be solved by delegations to folded carpets, foots or automatic door-openers. You can see it going on forever, can’t you?

Sociologists discriminate between the human and the nonhuman!

But mechanisms are not so reliable as we (sometimes) believe. The door-opener might be on strike, that is, stop working. We seem to have delegated the lack of discipline as well as the work of opening doors.

Wait what?! This is anthropomorphism! the sociologist of Johnsons imagination (and probably reality as well) yells. And this yelling Johnson calls moralizing. Anthropomorphic means “what has human shape or what gives shape to humans” (303) and the door-opener thus is anthropomorphic from the start: it is made by men, it substitutes the actions of people (description), and it shapes peoples actions in return (prescription). The moralizing of sociologists is a discriminatory action by creating a sharp (but still blurry) boundary between what is “’real’ delegation and what is ‘mere’ projection” (303). This alleged bias, Johnson does not hold: he sees only actors.

The label “inhuman” applied to techniques simply overlooks translation mechanisms and the many choices that exist for figuring or de-figuring, personifying or abstracting, embodying or disembodying actors. (303)

Johnson’s central point is that since there is no one direction of delegation (humans and nonhumans delegate to each other back and forth), the a priori division of human and nonhuman skills is useless. Instead of such dichotomous distinctions, Johnson suggests some “descriptive tools” to guide us in a sociology of social relations not dodging the fact that nonhumans are as important actors in these relations as humans. First he defines script or scenarios as what humans or nonhuman actors play, either figuratively (my daughter, SIRI, etc.) or non-figuratively (a policeman playing the administrative machinery, intersection red lights). Description is the retrieval of the script from the situation in the form of words that define actors, “endow[ing] them with competences and mak[ing] them do things”. Transcription is the translation of “any script from one repertoire to a more durable one”, for instance through translating car manuals to cultural tradition, knowledge and skills of humans (how often do you need to reed the car manual?) or replacing a policeman with a traffic-light. Prescription is what the “scene presupposes from its transcribed actors”, for instance at what pace you pass through automatic doors, where you watch when you drive through an intersection, etc. There might of course be a huge gap between the prescribed user (transcribed actor) and the “user-in-the-flesh”. Here is the opening of what Judy Wajcman calls interpretive flexibility and what Cynthia Cockburn has shown in the case of the micro-wave oven. Pre-inscription is what Johnson calls all the work needed to be done “upstream” the actual scene, that is to inscribe, assimilate and learn skills, knowledges and behaviors needed to act as the transcribed actor of the scene. And last, chreod is the alignment of set-ups that “endow actors with the pre-inscribed” competences to find its users (all the set-ups needed to bring competent drivers to the traffic-light).

Machines are lieutenants. That is, they are holding places delegated to them. That is what a lieutenant is: the holder of a place: If, in our societies, there are thousands of such lieutenants to which we have delegated competences, it means that what defines our social relations is, for the most part, prescribed back to us by nonhumans. Knowledge, morality, craft, force, sociability are not properties of humans but of humans accompanied by their retinue of delegated characters. Since each of those delegates ties together part of our social world, it means that studying social relations without the nonhumans is impossible … (310)

I might come back to this article later, presenting some thoughts of my own on the subject. As it is now, this post has served me well. I have started to write. For now.

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2 Responses to Bruno Latour delegating to Jim Johnson

  1. Just read that text for my discussion class. As you reading list is very similar to mine I was wondering whether you are a student of STS at Vienna University?

  2. snwefk says:

    No, I’m in Sweden … Guess the quarrel over Moses’ bridges is a classic. And that there is a STS-canon. I’ll probably continue to follow your reading list.

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