Is There a Common Epistemological Ground of Actor-Network Theory and Media Aesthetics?: A Meta-Phorological Essay1

Is There a Common Epistemological Ground of Actor-Network Theory and Media Aesthetics?: A Meta-Phorological Essay1

Veronika Pöhnl (Department of Literature, University of Konstanz, Konstanz, Germany)
DOI: 10.4018/ijantti.2014100105
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Based on the increased interest in ANT in Media Studies, this paper discusses similarities and differences in the epistemological premises of ANT and German Media Studies, and in particular, Media Aesthetics. Proceeding from well received ANT investigations on the transformational processes of scientific research and the discussion of their importance and suitability for media aesthetic approaches, basic operations and metaphors of the ANT are identified and questioned. By juxtaposing the epistemological premises of ANT and those of techno-philosophically informed approaches of media theory, profound resemblances as well as fundamental differences are outlined.
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At the end of any scientific or epistemological investigation, finalizing the transformational process, there is a text, that has, in dependency of its media specificity, identified, characterized, objectified, and is now aesthetically present to a reader. On the one hand, the text may be treated as mediator or relation inhabiting the in-between of reader and author, as the message, intention or reality, travels from the one to the other - to whatever extent it is distorted, recognizable or transformed: “During transportation, something has been preserved“ (Latour, 1999, p. 36). If, on the other hand, the identifications, characterizations, objectifications and arrangements of the text are accepted as something, that individuated entities according to the perceptive conditions of the medium, the translation is irreversible and the text has to be regarded as an original composition - rather than a representation - of the arrangement of author, reader and reference. Observing this process of individuation necessarily involves self-observation, or as Simondon puts it: “We cannot know individuation in the common sense of the phrase; we can only individuate, individuate ourselves and in ourselves“ (Simondon, 1992, p. 317). Text therefore is no window but becomes a window if 'we' accept the distinctions and decisions that configure the text as well as its outside and us.

Repeatedly, ANT and Media Aesthetics seem to stand on common ground, mobilizing the same concepts. Both have been accused equally to either revel in technophile reduction or flamboyant poetic vocabulary. They share the same difficulty in discriminating good texts against bad ones: much like Latour, who suggests to evaluate a text much like a good or bad laboratory (Latour, 2005, p. 156), Rheinberger (2007) suggests to conceive writing as an “experimental system“ that allows the unforeseen to appear as it is open to an absolute alterity, rearranging, decentering and repositioning what is known.15

Yet the clinging to something real, true, objectively being out there, that merely has to be retrieved into language, the main feature, that strictly separates Media Aesthetics and ANT, culminates at the end of the development of a “deambulatory“ philosophy of science: a smart move shall clear up the bothersome question, if a tree, that falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does make a sound.16

Does this tree truly exist? Of course it does, but without us. To add an observer is no big deal, it is not everything, and it is not nothing. The idealists thought it to be everything. What an extravagant pretension, as if the observer creates the tree in all his parts merely by the power of imagination. The realists thought it to be nothing. Extravagant pretension as well, because the tree transforms being labeled, probed, ascertained, displaced and marked.

It might be called an extravagant pretension as well to confuse a Zen Buddhist invocation to contemplate “ma“ - an “emptiness“ or “gap“ preceding existence, experience or perception – with a tricky task.17 Yet an explanation looms, that seems compatible with both notions of experience:

Like any entity the tree defines itself by its associations. Let us add two or three expeditions to the forest edge of Boa Vista, and all of them are transformed:

But then all the entities, leisurely existing out there on their own, just waiting to be woven into a common network, are listed again:

Trees, plants earthworms, pedologists and botanists (not to mention the anthropologists, the readers of the expedition report, or the readers of this article...).

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