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Technology and the Environment  

Timothy James LeCain

Technology and environmental history are both relatively young disciplines among Americanists, and during their early years they developed as distinctly different and even antithetical fields, at least in topical terms. Historians of technology initially focused on human-made and presumably “unnatural” technologies, whereas environmental historians focused on nonhuman and presumably “natural” environments. However, in more recent decades, both disciplines have moved beyond this oppositional framing. Historians of technology increasingly came to view anthropogenic artifacts such as cities, domesticated animals, and machines as extensions of the natural world rather than its antithesis. Even the British and American Industrial Revolutions constituted not a distancing of humans from nature, as some scholars have suggested, but rather a deepening entanglement with the material environment. At the same time, many environmental historians were moving beyond the field’s initial emphasis on the ideal of an American and often Western “wilderness” to embrace a concept of the environment as including humans and productive work. Nonetheless, many environmental historians continued to emphasize the independent agency of the nonhuman environment of organisms and things. This insistence that not everything could be reduced to human culture remained the field’s most distinctive feature. Since the turn of millennium, the two fields have increasingly come together in a variety of synthetic approaches, including Actor Network Theory, envirotechnical analysis, and neomaterialist theory. As the influence of the cultural turn has waned, the environmental historians’ emphasis on the independent agency of the nonhuman has come to the fore, gaining wider influence as it is applied to the dynamic “nature” or “wildness” that some scholars argue exists within both the technological and natural environment. The foundational distinctions between the history of technology and environmental history may now be giving way to more materially rooted attempts to understand how a dynamic hybrid environment helps to create human history in all of its dimensions—cultural, social, and biological.


Actor–Network Theory  

Annelies Kamp

Actor–network theory (ANT) is an approach to research that sits with a broader body of new materialism; a body of work that displaces humanism to consider dynamic assemblages of humans and nonhumans. Originally developed in the social studies of science and technology undertaken in the second half of the 20th century, ANT has increasingly been taken up in other arenas of social inquiry. Researchers working with ANT do not accept the unquestioned use of “social” explanations for educational phenomena. Rather, the social, like all other effects, is taken to be an enactment of heterogenous assemblages of human and nonhuman entities. The role of the educational researcher is to trace these processes of assemblage and reassemblage, foregrounding the ways in which certain entities establish sufficient allies to assume some degree of “realness” in the world. Aligning most closely with ethnographic orientations, ANT does not outline a method. However, it could be argued that a number of propositions are shared in ANT-inspired approaches: first, that the world is made up of actors/actants, all of which are ontologically symmetrical. Humans are not privileged in ANT. Second, the principle of irreduction—there is no essence within or beyond any process of assemblage. Actors are concrete; there is no “potential” other than their actions in the moment. Entities are nothing more than an effect of assemblage. Third, the concept of translation and its processes of mediation that transform objects when they encounter one another. Finally, the principle of alliance. Actants gain strength only through their alliances. These propositions have specific implications for data generation, analysis, and reporting.


New Materialisms  

Liedeke Plate

New materialism (and new materialisms) is part of the material turn currently sweeping through the humanities and social sciences and entails a paradigm shift toward a more material(ist) understanding of social and cultural life. From new materialist thinking, new (empirical) approaches, methods, methodologies and objects of study ensue. The new materialisms emerge from feminism, philosophy, and science and technologies studies and critique the foundational binaries of modern thought, especially the nature/culture, object/subject, human/thing dualisms, whose anthropocentric biases are seen to have led to the current ecological and civilizational crisis and the incapacity to think through and adequately engage with them. Proposing to give things their due, new materialisms are interested in “the force of things” and debate “the agency of things.” The post-anthropocentric interest in the vitality of things parallels the non-dualist modes of thinking of indigenous ontologies on which some new materialisms may in fact be based, but whose influence has so far insufficiently been acknowledged. At its most radical, new materialism is posthumanist, part of the nonhuman turn. A number of scholars have sought to bring the insights and concerns of new materialism(s) into the fields of literary theory and criticism, developing “thing” or “stuff” theory and seeking to conceptualize and operationalize a new literary materialism. For this, they draw on insights from a range of disciplines, including material culture studies, book and print culture studies, and comparative textual media studies. Given the importance attached to the linguistic turn as the cultural moment and textual approach in relation to which new materialists agonistically construct the newness of their material(ist) endeavors, the publication context of Roland Barthes’s famous essay “The Death of the Author”—the multimedia magazine in a box Aspen 5+6—is highlighted as an important site for critiquing a nonmaterial approach.


Actor-Network Theory  

T. Hugh Crawford

Actor-network theory (ANT) is a methodology developed in the 1980s by scholars working primarily in the sociology of science and technology. It is a novel approach as it attempts to redefine actors not so much as willful or intentional agents but instead as any entity—human or nonhuman—that in some way influences or perturbs the activity of a techno-social system. Most effective when examining limited systems such as ship navigation, electrical network failures, and the like, ANT resists large generalizations and categories, including the very notion of the “social” which, according to actor-network theorists, is never an explanation but instead is that which must be explained. Well into the 21st century, practitioners have both embraced and critiqued ANT, but it remains a useful form of inquiry.


Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO)  

Graham Harman

Object-oriented ontology (OOO) is an intellectual movement in the arts and humanities sharing certain affinities with both phenomenology and Actor-Network Theory (ANT). It is a philosophically realist position often at odds with existing currents in postmodernism and critical theory. The best-known idea of OOO is that objects “withdraw” from all direct human and non-human contact, so that relations between things are always indirect and must be accounted for rather than taken for granted. More broadly speaking, however, OOO is a theory of two kinds of objects (real, sensual) and two kinds of qualities (real, sensual). Real objects and qualities are not directly accessible to thought, perception, practical use, or even causal relation, and must be approached by more allusive means. Sensual objects and qualities, by contrast, exist only for some other entity, human or otherwise. Each type of object has troubled relations with each of the two forms of qualities, resulting in four basic tensions, the analysis of which is the heart of object-oriented method in every field and not just literature. OOO literary theory has a special fondness for the weird: especially the writings of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, whose work is taken to exemplify two of the key ontological tensions. Dante and Edgar Allan Poe are also key OOO figures, due to their manner of theatrically investing their characters and readers in sincere relations with objects. OOO’s relation with the formalist aesthetics of Immanuel Kant is ambivalent, since Kant is admired for cutting off the aesthetic object from its surroundings but challenged for his modernist assumption that the human and non-human must never be mixed.