Rune Nydal: Making Things Public
In the exhibition «Making Things Public – Atmospheres of Democracy» Bruno Latour awakens our memories of things to make us more conscious of our history and opportunities.
There’s something intriguing about picturing the bulletin-board as a moral touchstone. A decision or an action – will it stand the trial of strength? Can it survive the attention of the others, their awareness, evaluation or scrutiny? The bulletin-board metaphor captures crucial aspects of why we value transparency in democratic societies. Bruno Latour’s exploration of this political ideal in the exhibition «Making Things Public»1, requires a fairly literal understanding of «things»; that it’s quite literally things that must be made public. The conclusion follows from the observation that things are not as delimited as they appear at first sight. Things are at their best when in use, but appear as delimited objects because their efficient use depends on the forgetting of their social, material and temporal architecture.
From «Making Things Public» at ZKM, Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, 2005. Photo: Franz Wamhof, © ZKM (2005)
From black boxing to actor-networks
To understand Latour’s notion of things it can be wise to turn to one of his first and most powerful notions, namely «black boxing», which he borrowed from engineers. «Black boxing» refers to the process where a set of complicated operations are concealed inside a box and where the user of the technology need only relate to simple input-output relations. In user-friendly technologies, the user doesn’t need to know how the technology works. Latour describes research as a black boxing process in Laboratory Life (1979). When a research community for instance, recognises a certain chemical formula of a hormone to be the correct formula, they refer to it as a fact. Facts travel light because all the complicated reasoning is packed away and hidden. Whenever qualifications like «perhaps» or «possibly» no longer appear appropriate, all reference to persons or experiments that substantiate the facts are simultaneously rendered superfluous.
Successful research results in a form of self-effacement or oblivion. All work and invested effort to produce a convincing result –often a collective effort – is forgotten as the result is taken into use, since the complexity of reasoning only functions as a disturbing element in the context of both its use and in any further work on solving new problems.
Latour further develops these insights in The Pasteurization of France (1988). Successful research is also conditioned by how much it is valued beyond the research community. Pasteur’s microorganisms would have remained a laboratory curiosity, if he hadn’t demonstrated that concerns like beer brewing and husbandry would benefit from reorganizing their respective practices with regard to the existence of these microorganisms. The successful demonstration of the microorganism’s existence simultaneously caused a thorough change in French society. These processes create dynamic networks of people, discussions and objects, networks that Latour and his colleagues called actor-networks.
In the exhibition «Making Things Public» focus is on the stories of things that surround us. Curators Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel examine the history of objects by considering them as actor-network things; the network of people, language and objects. Photography: Franz Wamhof, © ZKM (2005)
Given Latour’s analysis, techno-scientific research has social transformative powers without a sufficiently developed democratic counterpart. The actor-networks are already established when powerful techno-scientific things appear on the political agenda. When Latour clarifies democratic deficiency, he mobilises two aspects of the word «thing» as it appears in a language like Norwegian. On the one hand we have techno-scientific objects, for example vaccines, which should be considered as dynamic actor-network-things. On the other hand we have political and legal assemblies, referred to in Norwegian as “ting”, like our Storting or Lagmansting.2 In this manner «thing» draws attention to both techno-science’s particular power to summon and assemble, and to the legal and political nature of techno-scientific things.
Will things stand the trial of strength?
Making things public therefore is to be understood literally. In order to understand one should bear in mind that things have vague boundaries. One doesn’t understand what a mobile telephone, a car or an airplane is, if one thinks about it as a delimited object. These things are made to appear simple and ahistorical. They function better when we forget their history and all that was put in place to make them function the way they do. Making things public is about dismantling, opening up, so that we can more easily remember our own history and better evaluate what we’ve become, and what we wish to become through alternative forms of arrangements. And not least, it’s about how political and legal «things» can be shaped and practiced in ways that counteract democratic deficiency.
1 «Making Things Public‒ Atmospheres of Democracy» was displayed in ZKM Karlsruhe in 2005 with Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel as curators. The project is also published in book form under the same title.
2 In Norwegian ting has multiple meaning, the following are relevant to this text:
Physical object (fixed or moveable property).
Term for the Old Norse assembly of the people.