Notes on:  Latour, B [Jim Johnson] (1988) Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door – Closer.  Social Problems 35, 298--310

Dave Harris

The general position is that sociology should study associations, including nonhuman ones. This text is itself a machine and the author is 'constructed and deconstructed several times to show how many social actors are inscribed or prescribed by machines and automatisms' (298)

Sociologists tend to ignore the nonhuman, partly because of technical complexity and partly because there is no convenient vocabulary. Nonhuman should be reinserted into the mainstream, however. Sociologists often make assumptions about the social context of machines but this needs to be explored.

Walls clearly need holes, and holes in turn have to be regulated with a door. This is actually a clever invention involving the himge, and it makes passing through walls extremely convenient, with no need for destruction and construction. Doors actually regulate by directing things and people — that is why we do not get equilibrium in terms of the population of adjoining areas. So 'techniques are always involved when asymmetry or irreversibility is the goal' (299), and this is common in social situations.

We can list the work that people would have to do if there was no door, and it would be enormous compared to the small effort involved in opening and closing doors. A major effort has been translated or delegated into a minor one — the hinge shows this delegation or translation or displacement. We can do the work of walking through doors because the door itself 'was delegated by the carpenter'. As a 'general descriptive rule' we can note what work and nonhuman does by imagining what humans would have to do if they were not present, 'imaginary substitution'. In walking through doors, we make a small effort to balance out the very large one, and this can also be seen as 'a very moral story indeed (think of David and Goliath)'. It also illustrates the workings of levers, via Archimedes, and the King of Syracuse who together helped defend the city. This is a better way to understand the '"social construction" of techniques' instead of invoking some hypothetical social context.

Doors do not solve all the problems. Some require humans to close them, but this is by no means routine. The option is to discipline the people to close the door, or substitute 'another delegated human character whose only function is to open and close the door' (300) — a doorkeeper, but they require payment, and even the best doorkeepers are sometimes irregular. Excessive disciplining would be unacceptable and involve large costs. Compare all this effort with the nonhuman hinge, which is equally important, cheaper, and requires no attention except basic maintenance [which he calls 'a reversal of time']. Humans require a time schedule. Some habits are incorporated into their bodies, but this is a continuous delegation, requiring attention in the present tense, whereas the machines have a 'built-in inertia' (301) [again this is talked up as 'a profound temporal shift… time is folded', when nonhumans were involved.

A nonhuman will perform the task of closing the door [for some reason, the door closer is also known as a groom -- in the USA?]. However, this might involve deskilling and the replacement of humans. More generally, whenever humans are displaced and de-skilled 'nonhumans have to be upgraded and reskilled', and this is not easy. The characteristics of door closers affect human behaviour, because you have to get through the door before they close it — this 'presupposes a skilled human user'. We can call this imposed behaviour 'prescription', and they can be put into speech, sometimes in the imperative. They actually look like a programming language. They can appear in instruction manuals, or in training routines as in the military. There is always a 'moral and ethical dimension', and overall, 'no human is as relentlessly moral as a machine' especially if they are user-friendly.

Using a machine like a door closer also stratifies the human users, some of whom know about the characteristics and others don't. Sometimes this stratification is remedied by new design — a weaker spring, for example, but there is a limit to ambiguity in a useful door closer — it is 'an OR not an AND gate' (302). Some door closes are particularly clever with hydraulic dampers, worked by 'extracting energy from each and every unwilling, unwitting passerby'. 'This is as clever as a tollbooth'.

Even the best door closers leave out some human beings, like infants or the very old, so in a way they discriminate against these people. They can also discriminate against people who require them to be open all the time, such as package deliverers. However, they can be blocked or propped open, although this is rarely fully successful.

However, overall, 'three rows of delegated nonhuman actants (hinges, springs, and hydraulic pistons)' will replace an undisciplined human most of the time, 'the technologist's dream of efficient action' although things can still go wrong and door closers can go '"on strike"', and remind us that we must interact again. The term strike was used in a particular university department, and this sort of humour is common — people swear at their cars or talk to their computers. It is common to see sociologists in particular scandalised by this behaviour, may refer to projections of human behaviour, anthropomorphism 'which for them is a scene akin to zoophily but much worse' (303).

This is irritating moralising, because the door closer 'is already anthropomorphic through and through' shaped by humans and giving shape to them, substituting for people, delegating and prescribing. It seems unfair to forbid anyone attributing additional human properties. Indeed, sometimes they have extra properties such as electronic eyes or machine pass readers. In general, it is a problem 'to decide forever the real and final shape of humans' to decide between a real delegation and an imaginary projection. It is a form of discrimination to 'always plead against machines and for de-skilled workers', and he does not 'hold this bias'. So it is accurate to say that the door closer is on strike.

The problem is that the dichotomy between humans and in humans is often confused with one between figurative and non-figurative. The latter arises when we move a personal figure to a less personal one [Hamlet becomes a representative of the aristocratic class]. This does not affect the status of actants when we are talking about humans, and humans can be treated both figuratively and nonfiguratively. It is the same with nonhuman actants, where engineers delegate and prescribe a series of interlocking characters, and face many chances 'for figuring or de-figuring, personifying or abstracting, embodying or disembodying actors'.

We see this in everyday life, when we mistake machines for human beings [the example is a robotic human-looking traffic director on a US highway]. Engineers could do much more of this figuration, supplying electronic eyes or facial expressions, or less figuration, removing the robotic human and just leaving the signal, a variety of signals, perhaps no signal at all.

We can use the term 'enunciator' (304) to combine authors of texts and mechanics who devise machines. They can represent themselves in what they do, or not. It Is no different from adopting a pseudonym, as he did for this article. Or there can be a much vaguer relation between enunciator and product, and sometimes figuration can be left out altogether, even in texts [anonymous narrators].

Generally speaking, people are not all that 'circumspect, disciplined and watchful'. They relate to 'two systems of appeal: nonhuman and superhuman, that is machines and gods'. The people who said the door closer was on strike were first relying on the morality and common sense of humans to use doors properly, then to some nonhuman Court of Appeal — the door closer. When that failed, they had only the 'oldest and firmest Court of Appeal' — they appealed to 'the respect for God' [the notice said for 'God's sake keep the door closed' ](305), but this is not enough these days. Nothing seems to work. There is a tendency towards more and more figurated [personified] delegates, but even they lose their effect. A simple instruction to shut the door might have been sufficient, but its effect weakened and stronger reminders were required.

The movement is not always 'from softer to harder devices' , however, from a reliance on autonomous knowledge through to worded injunctions. Deskilling might be the general case, but it can work the other way. For example red lights are normally respected, and so are delegated policeman. Both rely on car drivers doing a thought experiment — what would happen if there were no regulation [which he says is like the original exercise to work out how important nonhumans are by thinking of all the work required to replace them]. In many other circumstances, we do no thought experiment at all, and take for granted that the car engine will start. The skills are 'so eill embodied or incorporated' that written instructions are unnecessary.

There is no simple direction between humans and nonhuman is, so it is useless 'to impose a priori divisions between which skills are human and which ones are not human', or what is personified and what remains abstract, or what sort of delegation has taken place. Instead, we require 'a few simple descriptive tools'. [He acknowledges the work of a certain Madeleine Akrich here]

We might think about 'scripts'(306) or scenes played by actants, figuratively or not. We do not treat all humans figuratively, as a friend, and sometimes they act as machines. We can think of a 'description' of  a situation as retrieving its script, commenting on a  text, or turning to programming language. Just as with semiotics, these descriptions 'define actors, endow them with competencies and make them do things'.

Most scripts are silent in practice 'because they are intra-– or extra-somatic', but they do not always exist only in the mind of the analyst. They can be 'explicitly uttered'. There is no simple division between intra-and extra somatic skills, as in cases where human beings follow instruction manuals, or do thought experiments. The same goes with innovation where objects begin as projects on paper. The situations are all important and analysts have to deal with them through another thought experiment — 'comparing presence/absence tables and collating all the actions done by actants: if I take this one away, this and that other action will be modified'

Scripts can be transcribed, inscribed or encoded, shifting to a more durable repertoire. Translation here is not just a linguistic operation, but a matter of transferring thoughts or meanings into something more material. This is not just the move from soft bodies to hard ones, but rather a move from something less reliable to something more faithful and longer lasting — sometimes instructions are embodied in human performance, and sometimes the other way around when humans are replaced by machines. This is unlikely to be ever completed one way or the other — 'the pipedream of total automation', because some skills are better delegated to humans, and others the other way around.

'Prescription' is something presupposed from transcribed actors and authors, rather like the role expectation in sociology, but to include nonhumans. Thus Renaissance paintings were designed to be viewed from a particular angle, and so were traffic lights. Traffic lights also presuppose there is some rational operation at work, some reliable author. User input in programming language is another example, where a living character is automated.

It is just the same 'as that of a text'. Authors can be wrongly ascribed, and so can readers – inscribed readers have qualities and behaviour prescribed to them. Sometimes they subscribe to these definitions, but generally, nothing prevents an inscribed user from behaving differently, and sometimes we can even ignore things like traffic lights or instructions. Attempts to close the gap between inscribed and actual can lead to things like appeals to God. Although at other times, prescribed users have been indeed well anticipated and dovetailed into design. We can describe the two alternatives as 'des- inscription'and subscription (307).

Anticipations of use vary with distance — door closers work well when people are close to the door. But scenes do have preconceived ideas, prescribed actors, and this can actually limit individual freedom throughout. 'Pre- inscription'refers to all the' upstream' work by both user and author. So hydraulic pistons were used for years before they were added to door closers. Sometimes this is called '"articulation work"'. In Citizen Kane, the hero bought a theatre for his wife and then bought the journals that do the reviews, then bought off the critics and finally paid the audience to turn up. As that example shows, human indiscipline often triumphs.

Sociologism involves the idea that you can read out the scripts from understanding competence and pre-inscription of human users. A symmetrical claim is technologism which applies to predicting the behaviour of and reactions to nonhuman actors. Both of them assume we can split humans and nonhumans. That society is made up only of human relations is 'bizarre', and matched by the idea that techniques are only nonhuman. Instead there's a variety of characters, delegates, representatives, figurative, nonfigurative, human and nonhuman, competent and incompetent. It is absurd to divide these into society on the one hand and technology on the other.

It is important that other setups are aligned if prescription is to work — the door closer works after people have been directed to the sociology department, perhaps following maps, perhaps being able to locate the University in the correct state. This is a 'gradient of aligned setups' (308), and actors have pre-inscribed competencies in order to produce the '"necessary path"' [also called a ' chreod']. The clearer this necessary path is made, the fewer instructions are required. Actions become routinised. This in turn problematises 'classic debates about freedom, determination, predetermination, brute force, or efficient will'. [He says that a clever author such as himself can lead a reader along these necessary paths — but that does not always work].

There is also [interdependency — chains of obligation], where prescriptions assume the efficient discharge of other actions — like all the parts in a machine working. It is even more important with nonhumans, and we might need to watch out for it if we are looking at relations among nonhumans altogether. We can still use sociological terms such as '"role expectation," behaviour, social relations' even with nonfigurative actors.

So he has used the story of a door closer to make a nonhuman delegate 'familiar' to sociologists. Used semiotic techniques to explain relations between things like inscription and prescription. However there is one important difference between texts and machines — 'machines are lieutenants'(308 – 9) holding places and roles delegated to them. But there is a different way of 'shifting', displacing characters onto other spaces, times or characters. Telling a story can shift the setting to another space and time, enunciators may decide to be represented by a narrator, words like 'I' can position any reader inside the story, and there are many ways to shift a story, through dialogue, for example, or through progress through nested stories.

Engineers do better! They constantly shift characters into other spaces and times, devise different positions, break down competencies and redistribute them, build 'complicate [sic] narrative programmes and sub- programmes' (309). Much of this work escapes the attention of the public, sometimes because when engineers shift, they fix words in a particular matter, they choose between frames of reference, they even permit enunciators to ignore delegated actors. As an example, he has yelled at his child on the motorway to not sit in the middle of the rear seat. Then he came across a special child seat ideal for cars like his. It had been 'nicely analysed by these Japanese fellows', and he is happy to subscribe to the descriptions in the device. It comes into its own on the freeway, where he suddenly realised he needed it — it was pre-inscribed. He can now delegate his own actions to a device. He detoured through his wallet and then to the toolbox, and had to make sense of the instructions. The detours and translations do represent 'shifting out' (310) but not of the same type as in a story — the device has replaced him [without any pleasing ambiguity]. [There's an even better comment in note 3 on page 309. An art historian has described a Scottish Iron Bridge and notes that it remains 'silent (black boxed)' as opposed to the 'rich series of mediators who remain present in a work of art'. This is important for Barad, who seems to think that infinfte possibiiities are always present with each agential cut -- not once previous cuts have been embodied in hardware, black boxed!]].

There are thousands of lieutenants like this. They are important in our social relations — they prescribe. 'Knowledge, morality, craft, force, sociability are not properties of humans but of humans accompanied by their retinue of delegated characters'. Each delegate ties together part of the social world. It is impossible to study social relations without nonhumans, and so sociology has to address them, just as they once addressed 'the masses of ordinary and despised humans that make up our society'. We must add in the mechanism. If we have to change some of our concepts and habits, 'it is a small price to pay'.

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