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Dbordements - The ontological priority of mediation - Presses des Mines

Presses
desMines
Dbordements|MadeleineAkrich,YannickBarthe,Fabian
Muniesa,etal.

Theontological
priorityof
mediation
GeoffreyC.Bowker
p. 61-68

Fulltext
Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next
wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundations of
all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of
snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of
the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros, fairest among
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the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and


overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods
and all men within them. From Chaos came forth
Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born
Aether and Day, whom she conceived and bare
from union in love with Erebus. (Hesiod,
Theogony, 116)
1

I walked into the Center for the Sociology of Innovation


at the Paris School of Mines in 1984 as a fully working,
self-contained, human subject. I walked out six years
later as a mediated entity, constituted by and
constitutive of networks of things of all kinds human
or non-human each being awarded equal status in the
emergent semiotics of the Center. And the best thing in
this, as Antoine Hennion said as I despaired of even
wanting the change, is that it doesnt even hurt. A key
actor in helping me work through this transition was
Michel Callon his work especially on the St Brieuc Bay
scallops but more generally. Through Michel, I came to
understand the centrality of ontological issues. This
essay marks the place where I (or rather this particularly
constituted me) am with my ontological thinking.
There was a cartoon in the NewYorkera while back that
showed a chicken and an egg in bed together. The
chicken is lying back smoking a cigarette looking well
pleased, and the egg says grumpily: Well, I guess that
answers that question . Which came first, order or
chaos? In the Judeo-Christian tradition order takes
precedence as day follows night in Genesis, the God of
order creates and classifies the world through a series of
acts of binary division. Our secular cosmogony agrees
the universe rapidly wends its way from maximal order
to entropic end. Order out of chaos or chaos out of
order?
Binary divides define us. Nature/society tells us that
there is a realm of the social which is in some way
outside of nature, and a nature which can be fully

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described without taking humans into account.


Mind/matter tells us that there is a realm of thought (a
particularly efficient Turing machine) which exists
outside of the realm of matter or more precisely which
is indifferent to its material seat. I/Thou tells us that
there is a me here and a you there, as if I and thou were
self-contained. Posing these divides as ontologically
prior tells us that the act of ordering itself is natural: it
came first. Only once we posit these can we begin to
think.
The realm in which chaos came first is more fluid
historically. In this realm there is a primordial soup
made up of humans and non-humans, Is and thous,
nature and society. It is only through the particulars of
an historically contingent act of mediation that society
and nature me and my shadow fall out as entities in
the world. As the particular set of mediations change, so
do the resultant categories which drop out of them. As
Latour argues, nature and society drop out as categories
from the act of mediating between the two.
The central arguments of this essay are that the
Enlightenment is indeed an epoch and that the epoch is
to be defined in terms of mediation. Although my
trajectory has been the inverse of the many other authors
(I look to the past in order to understand the present),
we collectively have met along a tunnel being
constructed between the eighteenth century and the
twenty-first.
There have traditionally been two ways of conceiving
epochs as advances in human thought (think Hegel,
John Stuart Mill) which have material effect, or as
changes in the political economy broadly conceived and
mediated by tools (the relationship between us and
nature) which in turn influence culture. For the latter, as
Siskin adumbrates, think Bacons gunpowder, printing
and compass or Marxs technological determinism.
Michel Foucault spans the two. His wonderful discussion

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of the difficulty with transhistorical categories such as


the state or the individual reaches a similar conclusion
to Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:
categories are incommensurable between epochs (cf.
Veyne, 1971). They are different because the constitution
of selves and states varies with the tools through which
we experience them in our terms they fall out of the
acts of mediation which subtend them.
Let us trip for the nonce over the notion of epoch. It is an
especially difficult notion, since the historicizing
Enlightenment itself gave a new twist to the concept
superceding eternal returns (Eliade, 1969) and
progressive degeneration ages of gold, silver, bronze
(Kurke, 1999). There are two difficulties with an epoch
defining itself, both of which can be illustrated out of the
history of media. First is that the people who get to tell
the story are the true believers. Clanchy argues brilliantly
that the humanists who laud the spread of the printed
word as a necessary specific against ignorance and
intolerance were themselves teachers and spreaders of
the word: there is just as good an argument that the
spread of writing and as I will argue the growth of the
database were key to the development of totalitarian
states (Clanchy, 1993). Secondly, they are often true
believers with axes to grind. As Geary argues in
PhantomsofRemembrance, the people who gave us the
shift to writing in eleventh century France were pushing
the agenda of favoring certain property claims over
others. In the act of doing so, they artificially operated a
break between before and after the written record which
has since been reified by historians as an historical,
ratherthenamediational,transformation(Geary,1994)
thepastwasdifferentrather than that those who were
mediating the past had changed. In similar fashion,
when Lavoisier wrote his textbook on chemistry, he
deliberately obscured live traditions which had informed
him (the alchemists of previous centuries) by creating a

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new language which rendered past writing unintelligible


(Bensaude-Vincent, 1989). In true baroque fashion,
every act of clarity is simultaneously an act of obscurity.
Guillory (2010) gives us a good picture of the claims of
the epoch-makers to the nature of the change they both
experienced and caused: Condorcets claim that with
print: Men found themselves possessed of the means of
communicating with people all over the world. A new
sort of tribunal had come into existence. Babbage, who
gave us the difference and analytical engines, extends
this vision in his fragmentary, outrageous Bridgewater
treatise. He proclaimed that until the invention of
printing: the mass of mankind were in many respects
almost the creatures of instinct (Babbage, 1837: 59).
Now, the great were encouraged to write, knowing that:
they may accelerate the approaching dawn of that day
which shall pour a flood of light over the darkened
intellects of their thankless countrymen, seeking: that
higher homage, alike independent of space and time,
which their memory shall for ever receive from the good
and the gifted of all countries and all ages (Babbage,
1837: 54). As in Landors Imaginary Conversations (or
E.M. Forsters imaginary reading room at the British
Museum), the enlightened would be in constant
productive dialogue: mediated by print. (Unfortunately,
none of the above saw that the field of the enlightened
would soon beget an impenetrable thicket there are far
too many of them for anyone to read, as the breakneck
publication rate of the modern academy attests).
What I like about Babbage is that he puts time as well as
space on the table. He was writing in the full flower of a
period which wrote about space and time being
destroyed, annihilated by the steamship and the railroad
as well as print. What stands between here and there,
now and then had changed. Moral qualities drop out
differently in this new equation. Trust is different if it is
mediated through word of mouth, text or database entry.

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Clanchy describes the moves that were needed to give


the first precedence over the second a series of
technical inventions such as the chirograph made it
possible to say that the words of a contract were less
likely to be forged then the words of a trusted witness to
be suborned. Laplace, creating probability theory,
laboured hard on the question of how many and what
kind of witnesses it takes to make a miracle believable.
Where for Laplace it was the technique of probabilities
that could stand between a person and the world in the
realm of effective belief, for Boyle (Shapin & Schaffer,
1989) it was the protected laboratory (outside of space
and time) with its implements; and for governments the
technology of statistics.
Building on Manovich as variously do Eliassen and
Jacobsen explicitly and Blair and Stallybrass implicitly
we can say that this was the epoch of the database.
Scientists (les voyageurs naturalistes, Napoleons trip
to Egypt) were collecting and collating information on an
unprecedented, scale. The natural resources of the
empire should be managed. As Serres argues in Le
ContratNaturelthis was an epoch where we began as a
Western civilisation to begin to think about the
management of our planet in the face of everincreasing population and limited resources. At the same
time, states were beginning to create qualitatively new
quantitative measure of their citizenry. A chief tool was
the science of statistics data about the state. In
Foucaults turn of phrase, this was the epoch of
governmentality.
So how to define the epoch, and how to ground it in a
form which enfolds both the material and the cultural?
We need to play with temporality in order to do it.
Though its highly convenient to name a moment of
instauration of the Archive (Derrida, 1995), it is
particularly
misleading.
Any
new
information
infrastructure for an interest in such is central to this

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volume is a slow process. Braudel and the Annalists


offer useful language here. For them, the rhythms of
history can be grouped into the punctual (the vagaries of
political change, the memoirs of St Simon), the material
(variations in modes of production), and the
environmental (climate change for example). Precise
dates only really go with the first of these. Modes of
production change over long periods so that the first
member of the bourgeoisie can be traced with some
assurance anywhere from the twelfth to the nineteenth
century. Or again, how do we know when we have an
environmental disaster in, say, Los Angeles? Is it when
we first overpopulated the land, when asthma reaches a
given mark, or when water begins to dry leading to
future wars between the states? So to offer a beginning
for the Enlightenment is precisely the wrong thing to do
to do so is to shift it out of its native temporality.
Rather, as Siskin so eloquently sustains, infrastructures
persist in long nows. The latter being a reference to the
clock of the long now being built by Stuart Brand inter
alia that glorious clock which will chime every
thousand years and complete a cycle every ten thousand
years to the gentle susurration of Brian Enos airport
music (Brand, 1999). It is a long now precisely because of
the act of mediation which gives rise to categories and
classes, words and things. The easiest way into this
argument is an essay by Paul David (1990). The essay is a
consideration of the so-called productivity paradox: you
bring computers into the workplace and productivity
goes down for about twenty years. I witnessed this
personally in the 1970s when a company I worked for
which had been an early adopter of computers decided to
decomputerize the gains were not worth it. He
compares this to the development of electrical dynamos
in factory production at the turn of the twentieth
century, which displayed the same paradox. You bring in
something new and better and you do the old things

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worse. And that is precisely the point for David


dynamos are second-rate steam generators, and
computers are second-rate typewriters. Only when you
can truly think the new technology can you begin to do
things which were otherwise inconceivable. In so doing
you often need to change the concept of productivity
as we have done as the service economy has overtaken
the manufacturing in the first world.
When written record was preferred over memory at the
precise date for Clanchy (1979: 23) of 3 September 1189
a lot already had to be in place. Not only the collection
of manuscript material, but also its archiving. Not only
the signed statement, but also the chirograph. Similarly,
with the spread of the book it took a few hundred years
to develop the armature of footnotes which facilitative
conversation over time and space earlier references
were more akin to the orphan page numbers of Ezra
Pounds cantos. Today, we did not suddenly become
different with the invention of email. We are different
now in significant ways. My memory is enhanced by
this prosthesis. I can access any email I sent over the
past 20 years; my fleeting thoughts are now part
should I ever choose to access them of my
consciousness in ways unimaginable in the past. I once
wrote two papers with a colleague whom I had never
met. I am distributed in space and time in ways I never
could have been in the past. However, my early email
was like letters in the dawn of the era of SMS I fear
mine will never fully make the transition. So
Enlightenment doesnt have a date. What kinds of things
are these momentous, undatable events? They are
precisely those which result from the generation of new
mediations. It is a historiographical error to say that the
categories (humanity, nature and so forth) come first
and then the mediations come after.
The more complex question is what occasions a new set
of mediations. To consider this, I juxtapose three

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entities: Thomas Arnold, the post office and the ticker


tape. Thomas Arnold father of Mathew was
headmaster at Rugby an elite school which trained the
leaders of the British Empire. The childrens classic Tom
Browns Schooldays describes the life of a boy growing
up under a transforming institution. When Tom Brown
went to school, there was a given social order in place
(fags serving their sybaritic superiors, inordinate capital
punishment) which dissolved over the period that Arnold
served. In Thomas Hughes classic, Arnold engineers
root and branch change at Rugby without anyone
realising it was happening. The social engineer par
excellenceworked his magic through the accumulation of
small changes all pointed in his chosen direction. Let us
abandon at once this picture of heroic change foresight
through mediational change is awarded retrospectively,
not earned contemporaneously. There is no visible hand
which creates an epoch, nor is there intelligent design
which molds our future. Next is the more interesting case
of the post office. Richard John argues persuasively that
it was through the infrastructure of the post office, and
more particularly the cheap postal rate for newspapers,
which permitted the creation of the American state
suddenly folks from California or Oregon could join in
with events in Washington or New York in a single
national dialogue (John, 1995). The case for Australia is
as strong when sailboats took six months to venture to
Australia, the Governor had a lot of leeway in his
decisions, with the steamboat this went significantly
down and with telegraphy the center could hold the reins
of power (Blainey, 1966). This pushes us closer to the act
of mediation whereby the state itself is constituted by the
fabric of its information and communications
infrastructure new infrastructure means a new state,
new people, new relations. John, though, rests at the
institutional level. Finally consider the ticker tape. In a
brilliant paper, Alex Preda argues that the invention of
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the stock ticker which permitted the rapid distribution


of stock market figures from Wall Street to investor via
investment houses forged a new temporality and
spatiality for the profession of broker (Preda, 2006). For
Preda, the technology itself provides affordances for a
new kind of sociality subtended by a new temporality
and spatiality: the remorseless ticking of the ticker
engaged with previous practices and transformed them.
Much as Arnold did, but blindly.
How blind, then, is the change that comes from the
primordial soup before which there is no mediation?
This is of course the wrong question mediations beget
mediations, and if the act of mediation is indeed
ontologically prior then the real question is that of the
nature of the transformations that occur. This leads to
the heart of the historiographical problem.
The way into this for me is through a consideration of
historical voice. The two great historiographical
traditions can be cast as Herodotus opposed to
Thucydides. The former gave us a great and for many
modern readers a confusing history in which multiple
stories were told from various voices, without the
historian choosing a single description of the truth.
Thucydides on the other hand gave us the single-voiced
authoritative account. If we turn to the Baroque
philosophers who preceded the Enlightenment
Montaigne or La Mothe Le Vayer we get a multiplicity
of voices. For Montaigne it is a string of juxtaposed,
contradictory anecdotes which nonetheless tell a story. If
there is one thing about Enlightenment historiography,
whose baleful influence we still experience, it is that
there is a one true right and only history of the human
mind or of the forces of production. It produced a new
landscape of mediation in which the categories which fell
out as outside of space and time were the universal
truths of science and history. Latour and Woolgar wrote
about the deletion of modalities in scientific texts as

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facts become more and more true, they are assigned


fewer and fewer dates and times and conditions of
experiments they become established truths for all
time (Latour & Woolgar, 1979). By parallel,
Enlightenment historiography can be described as a
continuous process of the deletion of mediation. The
categories which fall out from the act of mediation have
never been mediated. This is not a necessary feature of
the work of mediation: it is an historical fact about a
particular epoch in that history. The act of creating an
archive is, within our current configuration,
automatically an act of exclusion from the archive
(Derrida, 1995) in the process of creating unmediated
truth.
The key figure which provides the nature of the
relationship is that of the trader as Hnaff (2002)
discusses so beautifully. The trader is the stranger within
the state the person who by their very otherness within
defines what is inside and outside of polis. In TheGreat
Wall of China, from History to Myth, Arthur Waldron
explores the myth of the wall as a barrier which keeps the
barbarian hoards ravaging an unprotected countryside
(Waldron, 1989). First, he notes, the barrier itself acted
also as an entranceway. Several times central powers lost
wars to the nomads beyond, who then became the
central powers, who then etc. At any given temporal
scale, movements of lesser or greater magnitude can be
seen. Secondly, the wall was never a continuous stretch
of patrollable boundary it was shored up wherever the
current threat was and elsewhere fell into desuetude. The
apprehension of a single wall stretched across the
landscape has always been a political statement in the
present rather than an historical representation. Thirdly,
the site of exclusion the wall itself was a rich and
stable trading zone between the nomad barbarians
beyond and the civilized within. It was a site of
interpenetration of people, artifacts, food, disease. So the

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barrier between, and the concomitant set of trading


relationships, defined a stable historical relationship
between nomads and the civilised which continued to
reproduce itself whatever the historical vagaries of the
collection of folks each side of the wall. With new
information and communications infrastructures, we get
new forms of mediation between people, new forms of
insides and outsides. What is great about these
infrastructures is that they are precisely that out of which
truth emerges (encyclopedic knowledge of the world,
statistics about our citizenry) and that which best
expresses our current set of mediations.
The Enlightenment is alive for us today precisely because
it gave us a set of tools for mediating between people and
between humans and nature. As empires expanded,
more and more voices were brought into play and the
new tools gave ways of understanding and describing
those voices, transforming them in the process. One
example of this is classification. The era of binary
classification which Linnaeus ushered in (as he showed
the door to heteronomous cabinets of curiosity) spread
along with information technologies throughout the
nineteenth century: so that we came to see species and
knowledge organization in tree form. The tree of life and
the tree of knowledge. Patrick Tort writes wonderfully
about the proliferation of genetic, binary classification
across multiple sectors of science and bureaucracy (Tort,
1989). He writes traces the filiation of the systems how
genetic classification moved from biology to linguistics to
mineralogy. He does not unfortunately ask the question
of what made that filiation possible: the common new
mode of organizing knowledge out of which new
transhistorical entities were created. If we turn our
attention to the deleted mediations, we can see the
inevitability of the unity of the myriad faces of the
Enlightenment without having recourse to an
epistemology of Truth. What we see is a historically

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contingent new way of ordering the world.


The era of the past two hundred and fifty years in the
West is very much the era of the database. What is
interesting about the new forms which are emerging
today still in the very infancy of their long now is the
possibility of creating new forms of ordering, perhaps
even forms which permit polyphony. With our new
information infrastructure we should reach back to the
Baroque before we are blinded by the light.

Bibliography

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Blainey, G. (1966), The Tyranny of Distance: How
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Brand, S. (1999), TheClockoftheLongNow:Timeand
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David, P. A. (1990), The Dynamo and the Computer,
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Author
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GeoffreyC.Bowker
Presses des Mines, 2010
Terms of use: http://www.openedition.org/6540

Electronicreferenceofthechapter
BOWKER, Geoffrey C. The ontological priority of mediation In:
Dbordements: Mlanges offerts Michel Callon [online]. Paris:
Presses des Mines, 2010 (generated 17 March 2015). Available on
the Internet: <http://books.openedition.org/pressesmines/724>.
ISBN: a:1:{i:0;s:13:"9782356711878";}.

Electronicreferenceofthebook
AKRICH, Madeleine (ed.) ; et al. Dbordements:Mlangesofferts
MichelCallon. New edition [online]. Paris: Presses des Mines, 2010
(generated 17 March 2015). Available on the Internet:
<http://books.openedition.org/pressesmines/703>. ISBN: a:1:
{i:0;s:13:"9782356711878";}.
Zotero compliant

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