First Source of Uncertainty: No Group, Only Group Formation

Latour starts, “in the middle” by using the newspaper as a case study to show that the social is made up of the connections between things. He states, “relating to one group or another is an on-going process made up of uncertain, fragile, controversial, and ever-shifting ties … [in which] actors are made to fit in a group” (p. 28)

Latour identifies that there are contradictory group formations and group enrollment.  And the first uncertainty is thus that “there is no relevant group that can be said to make up social aggregates, no established component that can be used as an incontrevertable starting point” (p. 29).  In other words, there is no there, there. There is no social, just being social.

A List of Traces Left By the Formation of Groups

There are many ever-shifting frames of reference, but that does not mean that sociologists should despair.  Every shifting frame leaves a trace that can be looked at to understand group interaction better. Latour writes “Groups are not silent things, but rather the provisional product of a constant uproar made my the millions of contradictory voices about what is a group and who pertains to what” (p. 31). Social actors are always engaged in mapping their own social context, and thus the context that each actor situates his or herself in is very important.

Here Latour sets up the division between what he calls the “sociologists of the social” and the “sociologists of associations”(p. 33).  Sociologists of the social, see the social as a thing that people interact in, whereas sociologists of associations see the social as something that changes because it is constructed by social actors in and through every interaction.

No Work, No Group

Latour writes, “What we have lost – a fixed list of groups – we have regained because groupings have constantly to be made, or remade, and during this creation or recreation the group-makers leave behind many trances that can be used as data by the informer” (p. 34).

On the other hand, however, it also must be noted, that if a group engages in no action, Latour is very clear that it is not a group.  Being is in action, at least as far as Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) is concerned. Latour calls this a performative definition of the social (p. 35). Latour writes, “neither society nor the social exists in the first place. They have to be retraced by changes in connecting non-social resources” (p. 36).

Mediators vs. Intermediaries

Latour sets up the distinction between the ostensive and the performative thusly, “the object of an ostensive definition remains there, whatever happens to the index of the onlooker. But the object of a performative definition vanishes when it is no longer performed” (p. 37). He sets up two ideas that are crucial to the performance of the social, the ideas of mediators, and intermediaries.

An Intermediary transports meaning without transforming it.  Latour describes an intermediary as a black box. Mediators transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning of the elements they carry. Groups are constructed via many tools, and by many means – but if the tools for group construction are treated as mediators rather than intermediaries it changes the nature of the group. Sociologists of the social, view groups as made up of many intermediaries, and few mediators.  Sociologists of association take the opposite view.


Latour’s Re-Assembling the Social may have marked the last hurrah for Actor-Network theory, but despite the fact that ANT grew in evolved in ways that drew it far from its orignal naissance, there are still many parts of Re-Assembling the Social that are useful for those people who want to try to understand and analyze technology.

For starters, Latour’s idea of a sociology of associations remains an important tool for those people interested in studying online interaction.  Rather than the social being conceptualized as a thing which is out there influencing human interaction, Latour suggests that we look at the connections between people, and thus constitute the realm of the social within those connections. In Internet research, sometimes it feels as though all we have are connections between actors. In this cyberspace, the social becomes ephemeral at best.  But a sociology of associations, which studies interaction and identifies the network of influences present in every subject and object places the social both on and offline, and can take into account also, those connections that are neither simply online nor offline, but rather occur across different media.

Secondly, scholars of technology can benefit from Latour’s assertion that we 1) take objects into account and 2) objectify human actors in the sense that we really take the time to listen to objects and determine their needs in the world. There are a multitude of associations within objects like computers and the Internet.  As such, it is impossible to understand the effects of these devices on the social world if we study them in a vaccuum.  Online activity does not exist in a magical dematerialized space where inequality, race, class, and gender do not exist. By tracking the associations present in every interaction, ANT begins to allow us to make sense of online life in a more holistic way.

This is the biggest stregnth of Re-Assembling the Social. Latour not only re-assembles the social, but re-materializes it as well. This is especially important in the study of social networks, both on and offline. Objects (like the computer you use to access your social network, or the social network program itself) are not neutral, but are made up a long history of associations.  These associations inform the resulting social interactions.  Latour may even say that they do so in such a way that power can be enacted or reinforced in the process. But taking the role of object into account, the one shortcoming of Re-Assembling the Social is the fact that it does not adequately address the human side of power.

Latour suggests that we must interrogate objects in different ways in order to determine their role as social actors, but he ignores the power that gives some people more right than others to speak for objects. He also ignores the power that gives some objects more authority than others, and neglects to say who makes the decision about what objects or people are allowed to speak, and how these power structures are enforced.  In addition, Latour ignores the embodied experiences of gender, race, and disability in his analysis.  Its as though his analysis includes only a white male subject and the objects that form the social world around that white male subject.  Through omission, the different experience of the gendered or racialized body (a body made different, but not through objects) is erased.

This is not to say that Latour is useless for a feminist critical analysis of technologies such as the Internet. In fact, his call for a sociology of associations can be quite helpful in that regard, however, it is up to scholars to ensure that the corporeal reality of those within the associations are taken into account.  We must “objectify” humans, as Latour says, and we must do this in order to draw attention to the different associations that have been a part of human material existence, as gendered, racial, non-able-bodied, feeling, living subjects.

Stories About Origins (pp. 115-116)

Stories about origins (here Foucault discusses origin stories about France with respect to Rome) should be disregarded as tentative histories that are tied up with old belief systems, and they should be seen as discourses with specific functions. They function not to record the past, but to speak of power’s right.

The Trojan Myth (p. 116)

The Trojan Myth is that France and Rome are “two branches that grow from the same trunk.” France and Rome are brothers and heirs by virtue of the right of its peoples

France’s Heredity (pp. 116-117)

The Trojan myth means that the king of France has a power over his subjects inherited from those the Roman Emperor held over his subjects, France is heir to the empire and has the same rights of Rome itself. The Trojan mythology was perpetuated until late in the renaissance.

“Franco-Gallia” (pp. 118-119)

Francois Hotman’s text was published in 1573 in which he reintroduces the Germanic thesis that the franks defeated the romans, rather than the gauls (and so were not brothers to rome but adversaries). This reintroduction of the Germanic thesis resulted in the dealth of some states and the birth of others (insofar as states are connected with origin stories).

Invasion, History, and Public Right (pp. 119-121)

From that point on, all the juridico-political debates began to revolve around the theme of invasion. It became no longer possible to recite a lesson in public right which reinforced the unending power of the king. From then on, the great problem of the right was the problem of what happens when one state succeeds another. Hotman’s thesis outlined a juridicial model of government.

National Dualism (pp. 121-127)

Hotman’s thesis was not designed to establish a national duality. In contrast, it helped establish a link between France and Germany. The ideas of restricting the right of the monarchy, reconstructing a past model and reviving a constitution were brought together in Hotman’s discourse but are not found in a national dualism. However there was a backlash against Hotman’s thesis by the French monarchy, and a reintroduction of the Trojan myth by way of Gallo-centrism. And by the end of the seventeenth century, the idea of unity was shattered with the introduction of the theme of national dualism.

The Knowledge of the Prince (pp. 127-128)

A problem in political pedagogy: What must the prince know, where and from whom must he aquire his knowledge, and who is qualified to constitute the knowledge of the prince? In other words politics concerns itself with the body of information about the State, the government and the country needed by the man who will assume the leadership role of that state.

Boulanvillier’s “Etat de la France”
(pp. 128- 130)

For Louis XIV to obtain the knowledge of the prince, he had an entourage assemble a mountain of reports, and then appointed Boulanvivlliers to present it.  It was so large that they commissioned him to abridge it, and to explain and interpret it. The most important feature of Boulanvillier’s text, in Foucault’s view is a protest against the fact that the knowledge given to the king is a manufactured knowledge. The administration allows the king to rule the country, but through control of information, the administration rules the king.

The Clerk, The Intendant, and the Knowledge of the Aristocracy (pp. 130-133)

Boulanvilier suggested that the nobility needed a counter knowledge to work against the knowledge of the aristocracy. This was knowledge the nobility wished to use to get a grip on the king. The knowledge that the nobility had to get rid of in order to do so, is juridicial knowledge – or the knowledge of the clerk. This is a circular knowledge that derives knowledge from knowledge.  Against this, the nobility wished to use history – a history that gets outside right. This history strives to demonstrate that even the most valid institutions of right were the product of a whole series of iniquities, injustices, abuses, dispossessions and betrayals.

The other great adversary for the nobility is the knowledge of th intendant – the knowledge of actual or potential wealth, taxation, and useful taxes. In both cases of knowledge, what is at issue is the knowledge that is created when the state talks to itself.

A New Subject of History (pp. 133-134)

“With Boulainvilliers and the reactionary nobility of the late 18c. a new subject of  history appears.” This is a subject that has not been able to speak before. This new subject is the “society” and led to a redefinition of a nation – the Nation begins to speak. This notion of a nation gives rise to the notion of class.

History and Constitution (pp. 135- 138)
History moves from something sacred that reinforces power, to a history of power’s lower depths and betrayals.  This provides the foundation of what will later become French right-wing thought. And just as the discourse began to circulate, royal power tried to appropriate and control it. A ministry of history was established between the Prince and the administration in an effort to control the knowledge.

Answer to a Question on Anti-Semitism (pp. 87-89)

Foucault starts his lecture this week by responding to a question his students had about the role of the discourse of anti-semitism. He says that he hasn’t talked about anti-semitism because anti-semitism had little influence on history before the 19th c., but he says that he will be talking about this issue when he discusses politics and war in the 19th c.

Hobbes on War and Sovereignty (pp. 89-100)

Hobbes says we are always at war with each other.  Permanent war exists under the surface of evey interaction.  This occurs precisely because every man is equal, or close enough to being equal.  A permanent state of war exists because “even the weak man knows – or at least thinks- that he is not far from being as strong as his neighbour. And so he does not abandon all thought of war. But the stronger man – or at least the man who is a little stronger than the others- knows, despite it all, that he may be weaker than the other … So the weak man will not abandon all thought of war and the other will … despite his strength, try to avoid it.” But in order to avoid it, the stronger man, must act like his is ready for war all the time, he must make a show of his strength in the hopes that the other man will abandon the thought of war.  This forms a permanent backdrop which gives rise to the state, to sovereignty through the fear of death and will to life.  In other words everyone accepts rule by a conqueror because they feel this choice is the only way to ensure they will survive. This idea is illustrated through the example of a mother-child relationship.

The Discourse on the Conquest in England: Royalists, Parliamentarians, and Levellers
(pp. 100-109)

Here Foucault tells the story of William the Conqueror and the Norman rule over the Saxons during the time of his rule. This was bound up in discourses of race at the time. The Royalists adopted a colonialist discourse informed by the events happening in the Americas (this is a boomerang effect of colonial practices and mechanisms of power). The parliamentarians accepted that William was a legitimate king through his conquest but also adopted a racial dualism and a discourse that made Williams monarchy legitimate by restricting his power. The Magna Carta, the establishment of parliament and the revolution of the 17th century all worked as part of this discourse to establish a Saxon right despite or within Normal rule. However, the levelers opposed both the monarchy and the parliamentarians. They called for a revolution – saying that it is impossible to dissolve power from the inside. Under this discourse, rebellion “is a response to a war that the government never stops waging.” Any form of power leads to domination.

The Binary Schema and Political Historicism (pp. 109-110)

The discourse of the levelers represents a binary schema. This binary schema makes it possible to interpret a number of different institutions in terms of confrontations.  It justifies rebellion as an absolute right – a historical necessity. “It is a response to a certain social order. The social order is a war, and a rebellion is the last episode that will put an end to it.

What Hobbes Wanted to Eliminate
(pp. 110-111)
Hobbes wanted to eliminate war, because he wanted to eliminate the problem of the Conquest of England – he wanted to erase the infinitely dense and multiple dominations that make up a political historical analysis. Foucault says this is just the sort of analysis he wants to both trace the history of and praise.

Historical Discourse and Its Supporters (pp. 65-69)

Historical discourse tends to reinforce power. Genealogy must magnify the names of kings, and recorded history is most often written by the victors. History intensifies power by putting examples (living law) into circulation. History is not simply an image of power, but also a way of invigorating it – it has a magical quality – it dazzles. Until a very late stage in Western society, Foucault says that history was a history of sovereignty – a ritual that reinforced sovereignty. In the 16th and 17th c. however, historical discourses became discourses about races. In this new discourse, sovereignty did not bind everything together as a unity – it enslaved.

The Counterhistory of Race Struggle
(pp. 70-71)

Through this, racial discourses began to offer a counterhistory, it was the discourse of those who were not represented by the sovereign discourse, and it spoke of defeats rather than victories.

Roman History and Biblical History
(pp. 71-77)

To Roman history, the bible provided a protest against the power of kings and the despotism of the church. The bible was a weapon of poverty and insurrection. Historical discourse then has two great morphologies, and thus two political functions. One is the roman history of sovereignty, and the other is the biblical history of servitude and exiles.

Revolutionary Discourse (pp. 78-80)

The biblical discourse of insurrection leads to revolutionary discourses and the production of fields of knowledge around these discourses. Revolutionary discourses are counter-histories. Revolutionary discourses came out of race struggles, and became class struggles, but as these discourses were taking place, so was a recoding of the old counterhistory in terms of races (in the medical or biological sense of the term).

Birth and Transformations of Racism (pp. 80-81)

This new discourse of race focused only on the medical-biologic perspective and crushed the historical dimensions of racial struggle.  This helped to create what will become actual racism. The theme of the binary society rears its ugly head in the form of a struggle for survival between two racial groups, and this binary allowed for the discourse that the state must protect the purity of the race. “Racism is, quite literally, revolutionary discourse in an inverted form.

Race Purity and State Racism: The Nazi Transformation and the Soviet Transformation (pp. 81-84)

As part of a shift from law to norm, sovereignty was able to take over the discourse of race struggle and use it as a technology of power. This was a transformation and an alternative to revolutionary power.  The Nazi transformation established a state racism that is responsible for the protection of the race, the soviet transformation reworked the revolutionary discourse of social struggle, and used it to maintain the hygiene of an orderly society – with the class enemy being the sick, the deiviant and the madman

Theory of Sovereignty and Operators of Domination (pp. 43-46)

The juridical model of sovereignty is not enough to provide a concrete analysis of the multiplicity of power relations. Instead, it sets up a subject-to-subject cycle of power and powers and the legitimacy of law, and it assumes three elements: a subject, the unity of power, and a legitimacy that must be respected.

Foucault says this is not the right way to analyze power. He says that rather than deriving powers from sovereignty, we should be “extracting operators of domination from relations of power (historically and empirically).

“We should not … be asking subjects how, why and by what right they can agree to being subjugated, but showing how actual relations of subjugation manufacture subjects.”  Foucault says we must adopt a different three point view – instead of subjects, power and legitimacy, we should be looking at techniques, the heterogeneity of the techniques, and the subjugation-effects that make technologies of domination the fabric of power relations.

War as Analyzer of Power Relations (pp. 46-51)

War can be regarded as the point of maximum tension for power struggles. Foucault wants to explore the question of who inverted Clausewitz’s principle to suggest that war is behind every state – and he wishes to prove that this inversion is a principle that existed for a long time before Clausewitz.

The State aquired a monopoly on war since the Middle Ages – this led to the army as institution, something that did not really exist before the middle ages. Law is not pacification, for war exists beneath it; “peace itself is a coded war … [and] we are all inevitably someone’s adversary”

The Binary Structure of Society (p. 51)

If we analyze society in terms of war then it is structured as a binary – two groups opposed to each other.

Historico-Political Discourse, the Discourse of Perpetual War
(pp. 51-58)

This creates a discourse of perpetual war, if society is binary – two groups opposed to one another, then there is no reconciliation or pacification that will bring the war to an end, but only the extent that we become the victors. Each side has its own discourse of right, and “in all cases, it is a right that is both grounded in history and decentered from a juridicial universality” Under this paradigm, the winner gets to decide the history, so a link is established between relations of force and relations of truth. “Truth is an additional force and it can be deployed only on the basis of a relationship of force”

The Dialectic and its Codifications (pp. 58-59)

The dialectic is the philosophical and political order’s way of colonizing the discourse of perpetual warfare. It emerged in the 17th c. “The dialectic codifies struggle, war and confrontations into a logic of contradiction … a twofold process of the totalization and revelation of a rationality that is at once final, but also basic and in any case, irreversible.” It creates a universal subject, a reconciled truth and a right.

The Discourse of Race Struggle and its Transcriptions
(p. 59)

The idea of a clash between two races occurs as early as the 17th c. The discourse of race struggle becomes a discourse of power, and is perpetuated through discourses which function both repressively (through exclusion) and transformatively (through normalization. The race that holds the power decides the norm

War and Power (pp. 23-24)

Foucault seeks to investigate whether or not war can provide a way to analyze power relations. He asks, “can we find in bellicose relations, in the model of war, in the schema of struggle or struggles, a principle that can help us understand and analyze political power, to interpret political power in terms of war, struggles and confrontations?  This series of lectures seeks to explore these themes.

Philosophy and the Limits of Power (pp. 24-25)

Foucault asks the question, “how does the discourse of truth, or quite simply, philosophy-in the sense that philosophy  is the discourse of truth par excellence-establish the limit’s of power’s right.

Foucault says, “Power cannot be exercised unless a certain economy of discourses of truth functions in, on the basis of, and thanks to that power.” Power and truth mutually reinforce one another under a system that strives to create truth and reinforce power. Since the middle ages, this has been the monarchy and the judiciary system.

Law and Royal Power
(pp. 25-26)

In the West since the Middle Ages, right is the right of royal command. The general principle to describe law and royal power states that uridicial thought and knowledge were created to maintain and demonstrate royal power. This means that the theory of right also becomes about sovereignty

Law, Domination and Subjugation
(p. 27)

Foucault disagrees with the general principle, saying that it eliminates the idea of domination and its consequences.  Instead he suggests that right is an instrument of domination, but also he tries to examine to what extent and in what form right serves as a vehicle for and implements relations that are not relations of sovereignty, but relations of domination. By domination, he specifies not only a top down model, but also “the multiple subjugations that take place and function within the social body.”

Analytics of Power; Questions of Method (pp. 27-34)

Foucault specifies a certain number of methodological precautions that must be taken in order to get around “the problem of sovereignty” and bypass the general line of the juridicial analysis.

  • First of all, he seeks to understand power by looking at the outer limits – the point where it becomes capillary.
  • Second, he seeks to analyze power at the point where intentions are completely invested in real and effective practices. He wants to see power where it relates directly and immediately to what he calls the object of power. “rather than asking ourselves what the sovereign looks like from on high, we should be trying to discover how multiple bodies, forces, energies, desires, thoughts, and so on, are gradually, progressively, and materially constituted as subjects”
  • Third, Foucault cautions that power is not something that is divided between those who have it and those who do not have it, power is something that circulates
  • Fourth, power circulates and forms networks – at least to some extent- through our bodies. Because of this we should make an ascending rather than a descending analysis of power.
  • Fifth, power cannot function unless knowledge apparatuses are formed, organized, and put into circulation

Theory of Sovereignty
(pp. 34-35)

Foucault suggests that we must move away from the juridico-political theory of sovereignty. This theory dates from the Middle Ages and it historically played four roles:

  1. It referred to an actual power mechanism (the feudal monarchy)
  2. It was used as an instrument to constitute and justify the monarchial administrations
  3. It was the great instrument of political and theoretical struggle in the 16th and 17th c.
  4. It constructed an alternative model to authoritarian or absolute monarchy

Disciplinary Power (pp. 35-38)
In the 17th and 18th c., a new mechanism of power incompatible with sovereignty appeared. It was exercised through constant surveillance, and was the “point-for- point opposite” of what the theory of sovereignty described. This nonsovereign power is disciplinary power.  Despite this, the theory of sovereignty continued to exist as both an ideology and an organizing principle behind juridicial codes. Foucault says this is because the theory of sovereignty was able to conceal it’s mechanism and techniques of domination. So the two types of power – sovereignty and discipline have co-existed since the 19th c.  The discourse of discipline serves to create natural rules, or norms.

Rule and Norm (pp. 38-40)

Disciplines define a code of normalization. Together sovereignty and discipline describe the workings of what Foucault calls “the normalizing society. But the two discourses are hetrogenous and often in conflict with each other – this is where medicine steps in to arbitrate between the two.