LATOUR ON AGENCY (2): Performance vs Competence

From the preceding video: 4m46 to 6m44

« On the contrary there is going to be enormous differences concerning the question of agency. I shall use the English word because « puissance d’agir » is a little bizarre. To define the term let’s take an extremely simple example: if I take some cotton and I put it in water, that is a trial. I dont’t know what this is, this cotton, I put it in water, and I observe that the water is absorbed by the cotton. To use the language of semiotics, it’s a performance. If I call it…if I say that the cotton is « hydrophile, then I am endowing it with a competence. The difference is obviously philosophical, but it is also temporal. In one case the extraction of competences of an actor, or more exactly of an actant, is the moment when I don’t know, a group of witnesses doesn’t know, what the behaviour of this product is. When we speak of a competence we have something that in philosophy we would call a « substance » that has attributes. But what is important is not to use the philosophical distinction between substance and attributes but the temporal distinction. When we are in ignorance about an object we are necessarily obliged to start from its performances, that is to say I test it – that is what one does in a laboratory, one does that, one hits it, one shines a light on it, one mobilises it in a thousand ways, and its « competence » will be a certain moment, this moment obviously depends on a scientific institution and on the difficulty, the heterogeneity, the originality of the new product. This is obviously not the case for the word « hydrophile ». But there is always this moment which is temporal. So agencies are all born in the form of performances, and are transformed into competences ». Bruno Latour: Contre la Culture Générale.

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