Thursday, 24 November 2016

Bowie: More than one, but less than many. The beginning of a Cracked Actor-Network Theory

Bowie: More than one, but less than many. The beginning of a Cracked Actor-Network Theory

David Bowie once claimed that: “But anything that Western culture has to offer – I’ve put myself through it.” What happens, then, if we take Bowie at his word? What if the cracked-actor can be used as a mechanism to consider a general account of the cultural logic of late capitalism?

In Aircraft Stories, John Law, the Sociologist and pioneer of Actor-Network Theory gives an account of the development of a British military aircraft, the TSR2. However, this is not a mere account of military technology. Instead, Law argues, the aircraft is used to frame a more general description of the social system of the “Euro-American world” in the 2nd half of the 20thCentury. His project is to use the TSR2 to think: “about modernism and its child, postmodernism – and about how we might think past the limits that these set to our ways of thinking.”

Law describes his method of Actor-Network Theory in the following terms:

“Actor-network theory is a disparate family of material-semiotic tools, sensibilities and methods of analysis that treat everything in the social and natural worlds as a continuously generated effect of the webs of relations within which they are located. It assumes that nothing has reality or form outside the enactment of those relations. Its studies explore and characterise the webs and the practices that carry them. Like other material-semiotic approaches, the actor-network approach thus describes the enactment of materially and discursively heterogeneous relations that produce and reshuffle all kinds of actors including objects, subjects, human beings, machines, animals, ‘nature’, ideas, organisations, inequalities, scale and sizes, and geographical arrangements.”

Conceived in these terms, the TSR2 is an object that can be understood as positioned within a complex set of networks and relations. It is “a fractionally coherent subject or object is one that balances between plurality and singularity. It is more than one, but less than many.”

The proposal, then, is to consider David Bowie in similar terms; that is, as similarly fractionally coherent and more than one, but less than many.” In doing so an account of the social systems of late capitalism might emerge as the medium and context within which the identity of David Bowie was framed and constituted.

[These ideas will be explored in an MA Seminar for Art in the Contemporary World lead by Francis Halsall and Vaari Claffey]