- Confessions of a Print Modern (on Bruno Latour's AIME)
Bruno Latour—or at least the collective author of the front page of An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (aime)—calls this project "an anthropology of the Moderns."1 Not surprisingly, I learned something about myself as a "Modern" as I worked my way into its layers: the more I tried to embrace the digital experience, the more my orientation to print was confirmed.
Confession One: I Started with the Print Book
The website describes the print book as an "interim report"—a temporary, provisional stage—that the digital, "augmented" version will supersede.2 The claim is an inversion of the usual association of print with permanence, digital with ephemerality. If it is an interim report, then why publish and distribute a print book—a hefty print book, I might add—at all? Well, perhaps Latour's audience has largely formed through the print networks of twentieth-century scholarly communication. At least this describes me, I realized, in pondering why it was that I did not encounter aime through any digital networks but instead learned about Latour's digital project on the first page of the print book published to accompany it. So am I out of touch, or is aime not focused on social-media forms of dissemination? Both, it seems. Reading Latour on networks in a digital humanities context makes me appreciate how Latour's actor-network approach to science and technology seems to be, on one hand, comprehensible precisely because electronic communication [End Page 114] is described and experienced as a "network society" and yet, on the other hand, is defamiliarizing because Latour uses it to describe an earlier mode of knowledge construction. A network, for Latour, is the set of heterogeneous associations that make an action possible, not the technological links that are its end result. The way that the Internet is so often taken to be immaterial, just the (end result) links between people and information, is thus a sign of how much we are still Moderns.
My arrival at the website after the print site felt belated, presumably because I associate the digital with a speed and timeliness I do not expect from print scholarship. But now I think that Latour is working at a slower pace than print. The argument has been constructed, but the supporting documentation and tests of the hypotheses are still underway, incrementally appearing on the digital site. I chose to abandon the print book for the digital version, although more for practical reasons than in thinking that I might contribute to the "progressive drift" of the ideas into new questions and problems by way of the digital site.3 My interlibrary loan period for the print book was a meagre three weeks, which did not give me enough time in the middle of a teaching semester to read An Inquiry into Modes of Existence in its entirety. For someone like me, at a small university campus with a small print library collection, a digital turn would seem to offer greater accessibility.
Or so I thought, until I tried to read it.
Confession Two: Linear Narrative (and How I Presumed the Digital Was Not)
On my first foray, I barely skimmed the front-page introduction before clicking on "Access the Crossings" to dive into the material. I did not understand a thing. Strange notations were in use: [tec • fic], for example. The categories did not seem parallel, so no logic was immediately apparent. And the narratives were all in media res—so much already in the middle of things that I was lost. I had assumed that the digital universe was arranged for browsing—that I could start with any thread that interested me, read in small pieces, and have no need to appreciate the greater whole. Wrong! At least for this reader, self-conscious of herself now as a print modern, it was all too necessary to start with the book, to start at the beginning, to read carefully from one point to the next, and to read a lot in each sitting. Indeed, Latour describes the role [End Page 115] of the book as the...