ANT and situated, subjective knowledge

by Jesper Magnusson

Bodies, as well as objects, are always situated, at least in the material world. It is from the body “the world unfolds”, not from “Husserl’s study” (Ahmed 2006). One starts to realise the world through learning about how the body perceives, responds to and affects objects and other bodies. To study an apple falling from a tree by measuring its size, form, weight and the speed at which it falls, doesn´t guarantee an understanding of gravity, nor the practical effects of gravity. Holding the apple, feeling its weight, throwing it up in the air and catching it coming down offers a vastly more significant knowledge about the nature of gravity. Additional information, like the smell of the apple, the texture of its skin and how the wind affects its trajectory we get for free. This is to say that situated knowledge can emerge from interaction; of being partial and using all senses to unveil what´s there and examine it. Situated knowledge is then to reveal actor-networks.

The physiological, objective data of a table (Husserl´s or anyone´s) tells me very little about what a table is and its affordances. When watching children playing with a table, turning it up side down and convert it into a boat, with the tablecloth mounted as a sail and the kitchen floor transformed into an ocean tells me more. Watching the play I notice a new and unexpected affordance and furthermore I observe how heavy the table is, where it might break if not handle carefully, how the legs are mounted to the board, etc. (I can even note how it may be improved to match this new use!) This is situated knowledge about a table. The actor-network is a key to situated and subjective knowledge.

Heidegger’s notions on objects as tools or “equipment” attaches the object with it´s predetermined or intended uses (Ahmed 2006). When the object is handled the way its intended it becomes an extension of our bodies and cease to be an object “in itself”. This is a useful notion from some aspects but at the same time slightly deterministic and limiting. The object emerges as an objective object when it fails to function as intended or when it´s broken (Ahmed 2006) – this is a bit mysterious. Sarah Ahmed remarks that a hammer might be too heavy for one person to use, and then fail as an equipment, but it might be perfectly adequate for another (Ahmed 2006). This is to me relational thinking. The hammer becomes a hammer when connected to someone that use it as a hammer, and it gains its properties from a situated network, not from a preconceived idea about its use. Another person can use the hammer to stir a soup and the hammer will still be a hammer, but used in another context, being part of another network.

Arjun Appadurai suggests that “We have to follow the things them selves, for their meanings are inscribed in their forms, their uses, their trajectories” (Appadurai 1988: 5 in Ahmed 2006) and that we need to “supplement phenomenology with an ‘ethnography of things’” (Ahmed 2006). This coincides very well with Haraway´s notions on situated knowledge (Haraway 1988) as well as with an Actor-Network-Theory perspective.

As a respons to the following texts:

– Donna Haraway, ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspectives’, in Feminist Studies, pp. 575–599, 1988.
– Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2006
– Rosi Braidotti, ‘Discontinuous Becomings: Deleuze on the Becoming-Woman of Philosophy’ in Nomadic Subjects, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.