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Configurations 8.1 (2000) 1-29

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On the Subject of the Object: Narrative, Technology, and Interpellation

John Law

The distinction between the public and the private is a distinction internal to bourgeois law.

Louis Althusser 1

Critical theory is not finally about reflexivity, except as a means to defuse the bombs of the established disorder and its self-invisible subjects and categories.

Donna Haraway 2

I have been puzzling for some time about the problem of the public and the private, and the role of the personal in ethnography or history. Let's put "the personal" into quotes: I have been puzzling for some time about the problem of "the personal" in social science writing: how it works; what it does. My puzzle presents itself in my own writing. The question is whether I should rigorously try to keep the "personal" out. This would be the most common response. But supposing it were let in, then there are other questions: how should it be done? how might it be handled? and what kind of job should it be doing there anyway?

These are the issues that I investigate in this paper. But let me make a context, or offer a second introduction: [End Page 1]

Donna Haraway and Sharon Traweek teach us that when we tell stories these are performative. 3 This is because they also make a difference, or at any rate might make a difference, or hope to make a difference. Applied in technoscience, the argument goes further; in fact, it is quite radical. It is that there is no important difference between stories and materials. Or, to put it a little differently: stories, effective stories, perform themselves into the material world--yes, in the form of social relations, but also in the form of machines, architectural arrangements, bodies, and all the rest. This means that one way of imagining the world is that it is a set of (pretty disorderly) stories that intersect and interfere with one another. It means also that these are, however, not simply narrations in the standard linguistic sense of the term.

I want to hold the question of the "personal" together with the performative character of storytelling and its material embodiments. This paper is composed of stories--performative stories--about the "personal." The reason for this is that I want to make a difference to the way in which we imagine what we currently think of as the "personal," the "analytical," and indeed the "political." I want to interfere in some of the standard stories. This is because if we do it right then it turns out that the "personal" is not really personal any longer. 4 Instead, it is an analytical and political tool for interfering and making a difference, one among many, that might allow us to defuse some of the bombs of what Donna Haraway tellingly calls the established disorder.

Well, these are familiar tropes. They are to be found in feminist writing, in cultural studies. The novelty is the application of the personal to the material world. For I want to see what happens if we try it out in the domain of machines.


This is a story about politics and an aircraft, an aircraft as seen by a young man. The young man was called John Law. But the past is at [End Page 2] least in part a foreign country, and since they do things differently there, I will recount it in the third person.

The air was heady. In the UK a senile Conservative government had been defeated at the polls. It was a pity that it hadn't been overturned by a larger margin, but the country had a Labour government, a government that was going to undo the harm done by "thirteen wasted years" of Tory rule. It was going to abolish medical prescription charges, renationalize the steel industry, and (most important in the present context) cut out waste on "Tory prestige projects." Such was the promise.
On election night, one of his lecturers told John Law in an all-night café for...


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