The Actor is the Network

Goffman’s dramaturgical model for social interaction and face-to-face communication is interesting from the point of view of actor-network theory (ANT) because for ANT social actors are not “individuals,” but networks. Being a network, instead of a unitary, in-divisible, immediately self-transparent subject of knowing and doing challenges the modern understanding of face-to-face communication as an encounter between two people in which the individual social actors communicate directly with each other without being puppets of macro social structures, such as organizations, families, nations, norms, institutions, and so on.

It is an omnipresent assumption of modernity that interaction and face-to-face communication describe a situation in which two people meet each other, exchange opinions, agree to cooperate or not, etc. on the basis of freedom, equality, and, as Habermas would say, “undistorted communication.” Communication is undistorted when no one and no thing interferes with the intentional speech acts of the autonomous rational subjects who are thereby not hindered in forming and expressing their opinions. Two speakers meet, look each other in the eye, and make claims to validity against commonly accepted criteria of truth, truthfulness, correctness, and meaning. This is the modern myth of interaction. And this is also where Goffman is interesting because role theory claims that social interlocutors are like actors on a stage, who never appear as naked subjects, but are replete with costumes, props, scripts, settings, narratives, audience selection mechanisms, and many more “others” that enter into, participate in, become a part of, and condition communication. Were this not so, communication would be without “context,” or as Wittgenstein would say, we wouldn’t know what language-game was being played, and the actors themselves wouldn’t know what to say.

Goffman’s social actors look a lot like Bruno Latour’s actor-networks. They are composed of a more or less fragile and heterogeneous association of humans and non-humans held together for certain purposes. John Law describes this succinctly: “If you took away my computer, my colleagues, my office, my books, my desk, my telephone I wouldn’t be a sociologist writing papers, delivering lectures, and producing ‘knowledge’. I’d be something quite other – and the same is true for all of us. So the analytical question is this. Is an agent an agent primarily because he or she inhabits a body that carries knowledges, skills, values, and all the rest? Or is an agent an agent because he or she inhabits a set of elements (including, of course, a body) that stretches out into the network of materials, somatic and otherwise, that surrounds each body?”

Francois Cooren (Action and Agency in Dialogue, John Benjamins B.V., 2010) comes to much the same conclusion on the basis of speech act theory and discourse analysis. But for Cooren it is not the human individual that is doing the talking with the help of a few supporting props, but instead it is all those Goffmanian “others” that as Law puts it “surround” the individual speaker. The others are doing the talking. It is this multiplicity of agencies that “make” social actors speak. He describes this as “ventriloquism.” Although speech acts are usually attributed to intentional human individuals, humans are actually more like the puppets that a ventriloquist causes to say things. A judge speaks for the law, a priest for God and Holy Scripture, and a scientist for the truth. It is the law, God, or the truth that is speaking through individual humans. For such speech acts to be accepted and to function in social interaction there is, as Goffman pointed out, a lot of stage setting, casting, costuming, mobilizing of props and reciting of scripts going on.

For Goffman, Latour, and Cooren social interactions can be said to “constantly mobilize entities…making them present in the here and now” (Cooren 3). Cooren, however, claims that “this way of conceiving of interaction precisely allows us to free it from the hic et nunc, from the present in both senses of the term (spatial and temporal” (3). Ventriloquism implies that interactions are never purely local. To say that the actor is the network means for Cooren the “dis-location” of interaction.

What are we to make of this unexpected claim that face-to-face communication is not temporally and spatially constrained? Does this mean social interactions do not need to take place in the “same” place and at the “same” time, that is, on a dramaturgically organized “stage” in which all those props and supports that Goffman describes are not really present? Does face-to-face communication not need to take place synchronously and in a physically shared space, even if “others” are participating in communication and not just the intentional human speakers?

Cooren’s thesis of the dislocation of speech acts under the conditions that the actor is the network is only then plausible when the fictitious hic et nunc of pure intentionality and disembodied subjectivity is assumed to be the premise for understanding presence and action. But why make this assumption? The pure presence of modern metaphyisics and epistemology, which Derrida was so concerned to debunk, has nothing to do with real life social interaction.

The fact that many usually unseen and unacknowledged actors are involved in social interactions, and the assumption that these actors make up a network extending beyond any particular place and time, do not imply that when these actors go to work, start moving things, participate in an interaction, space and time are no longer constraints. Quite the contrary. Social interaction “takes place” not just anywhere, but in clearly defined localities, specific, well prepared stages, at more or less appropriate times. It may be true that when the rubber hits the road, the existence and varied associations of the cars, traffic lights, laws, reckless drivers, regulations ,and much more are not limited to the corner of 5th Ave. and Broadway. But the social event of the car crash is. This particular car crash is not dis-located, distributed, and free from the limitations of space and time. The actor is indeed the network, but social interaction remains local. Cooren’s thesis is nonetheless important because it prompts us to ask: What does “local” mean? It certainly does not mean immediate presence of the transcendental, intentional subject to itself in some mythical hic et nunc,

Maybe what is needed is a new way of thinking about the space and time of networked communication? Maybe we don’t need to dislocate interaction as much as reconceptualize communication altogether on the basis of the concept of actor-networks. In ANT the space of interaction is the “collective” which can, from the perspective of new media theory, be termed a “socio-sphere” (see post on the socio-sphere). The socio-sphere is independent of the conceptual parameters of modern social theory and philosophy including assumptions about intentionality that plague speech act theory until today.



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