Rocheleau: Rooted Networks Bring ANT Down to Earth
by Adam Robbert
I am highly recommending Dianne Rocheleau’s essay “Rooted Networks, Webs of Relation, and the Power of Situated Science” to anyone interested in political ecology, geography, actor-network theory (ANT), or science and technology studies (STS). My own reading of her essay is, as we shall see, heavily influenced by readings of the experimental metaphysics Bruno Latour lays out in Politics of Nature as well as by the cosmology of Alfred North Whitehead. By exploring Rocheleau’s work we can see how Whitehead’s concept of the bifurcation of nature has been effectively deployed (somewhat cryptically) by ANT, and further emphasizes the political import of critical engagements with ontology in thinking ecological issues.
Rocheleau’s essay skillfully maps the strengths, weaknesses, and future trajectories of both ANT and STS as they relate to questions of ecology, territory, geography, and politics. Rocheleau’s opinion of ANT and STS are on the whole positive, though she offers a few, to my mind, accurate rejoinders (both are still too anthropocentric!).
In following her skilled and careful analysis (itself enacted through a case study on farm forestry in the Zambrana-Chacuey region of the Dominican Republic) we find many of the common characters often associated with problems of political ecology (e.g., diverse and conflicting constituencies of humans, plants, animals, and technology). Rocheleau asks us to consider these diverse agents as part and parcel of “complex ecologies” which we must view “from the multiple standpoints of complex actors” where we “need a prism that reflects the combined light and patterns of “social” and “biotic” life, in a way that helps us to get beyond the nature/culture binaries that suffuse our thinking” (p. 209).
On the uses and advantages of ANT and STS I quote Rocheleau at length:
In general, formal models present networks as existing beyond space and place, above the mess of land, water, blood, and soil. Some social scientists treat net- work structures as inherently recent phenomena (Castells 2000), contrasting high-technology, postmodern, postindustrial conditions with prior organic, pre- modern societies. Networks in STS have arisen from social and cultural studies of information and biotechnologies, while much of political ecology has been in the trenches (literally) of rural life. Yet the actor networks postulated by Latour (2005) can allow us to jump scales and to combine humans, plants, animals, machines, and nonliving elements of the planet, from bedrock and hillslopes, to rivers, rain, and sunlight. Political ecology can bring these models “down to earth,” to recon- cile networks with energy flows, nutrient cycles, and movements of people and other beings in territories and ecosystems.
The convergence of political ecology and STS can bring power into network models of assemblages of people, other living beings, technologies, and artifacts. While STS has focused on the power of technologies and the workings of science within societies, political ecology has focused on relations of power between state and corporate structures and local communities whose livelihoods and cultural integrity are threatened by eviction, invasion, resource theft, and environmental degradation (Peet and Watts 2004; Blaikie 1985). Political ecology has also been about popular resistance to this oppression, as well as organized popular move- ments to protect their home ecologies, reassert their own worldviews, and recon- struct their own integrated arts and sciences of “production” and “conservation” (Rocheleau 2008; Brosius, Tsing, and Zerner 2005; Escobar 1999, 2008; Peet and Watts 2004; Robbins 2004; Zimmerer 1996), as in the forestry, agroforestry, and ethnobotany work of the Federation (p. 214)
Rocheleau’s sentiments here bring to mind the two-house problem Latour formulates in Politics of Nature. Recall that the two houses (“Nature” and “Culture”) form the dominate poles of attraction in modern societies, and are split by an uncrossable bridge which seems to make the task of bringing politics and ecology together an impossibility. Latour suggests that this split amounts to a crisis for 1) our social representations of nature by calling into question the discursive and ungrounded nature of human politics; robbing politics of the power to speak to or for an objective external reality (I’m looking at you lobbyists) and 2) the objectivity of the scientific enterprise which must account for the multiple and contested nature of “the sciences” as oppose to a monolithic “Science”.
By articulating the problem of political ecology in terms of these two opposing houses, Latour has, in my opinion, effectively deployed Whitehead’s arguments against the bifurcation of nature in a political realm. I read Latour’s notion of the “actor” as an effective usage of Whitehead’s concept of prehension, creatively resisting the dualistic notion of nature which posits the mental as something wholly separate and distinguishable from the material. For Whitehead, both a mental and material pole are integrally present in every existing entity such that the cosmos is pervaded by prehensibility and experience; all actualities are both materially real and capable of affectivity, even if only on a supremely limited scale.
By politicizing Whitehead’s bifurcation of nature, which I think is a fair interpretation of what Latour is up to, he is able to explain, at an ontological level, why the politics of nature have been contorted into the two house system we have today (i.e., they are products of a Cartesian “event” whose seismic activity still oscillates into the metaphysics and politics of today).
Thus, on the one hand, we have an indisputable and mute “Nature” which is forever beyond negotiation and exists as a sort of formidable and objective a priori to which we must, with our dim scientific awareness, adapt to (or perish). On the other hand, we have “Culture” which is a thoroughly epistemological and discursive affair (postmodern relativism at its worst) and marked by a never-ending recess of argument and negotiation without ground. By segregating Nature from Culture in this way, Latour argues, we are left powerless, unable to construct a real politics of nature that can cross the rubicon of constructivism into an enduring composition of the real; which, according to Latour, is precisely what a politics of nature needs to do.
In other words, the social must extend into the natural without being usurped into an exclusively human (i.e., correlationist) affair. The political must become ecological without forgetting that the ecological exists independent of our conceptions of it, and, indeed, actively resists our conceptions of it. For Latour the central task is, then, to abolish the two-house system by engaging in the work of building a collective through creating an “experimental metaphysics” that resists the bifurcation between Nature and Culture, thereby constructing a cosmopolitical society (e.g., a diverse society of human and nonhuman actors operating on the same ontological plane).
This is exactly the kind of scene Rocheleau’s rooted networks describe. Yet, despite her enthusiasm for ANT, she brings the field to task for what, in her opinion, is an overemphasis on the human and technological agents distributed within what is in fact always a much more diverse ecology of action. Rocheleau calls upon ANT to diversify it’s perspective by including a more ecological (e.g., “rooted”) conception of nonhuman actors (and their perspectives) that, while always implied by ANT, are not always so forthrightly represented. In this way Rocheleau’s perspective is deeply sympathetic to an object-oriented or integral ecology; both of which afford some measure of prehensivity to all entities in the universe (i.e., apperception is rooted in ontology itself). On the further refashioning of ANT Rocheleau writes:
In contrast, we can transform ANT to fashion complex, polycentric network models that both complicate and clarify our visions of possible futures. We can expand ANT to incorporate the distinct positions and perspectives of multiple groups of people and various species and assemblages of plants and animals, along with artifacts, technologies, and physical elements of their surroundings. It’s not just a matter of getting closer, to get the one true story. It’s about “getting it” through the eyes of a diversity of actors in distinct positions, in complex actor networks, that are best described as rooted networks and relational webs. As part of a search for viable alternatives to “sustainable development,” I propose to re- cruit the network construct and stretch it, building on selective elements relevant to social and biological science: power and polycentricity, situated knowledge(s), roots and territory, self-organization, and complex constructs that mesh nature and culture (p. 215).
We can think of “network” and “root” as verbs rather than nouns, to visualize the diverse rooting strategies that connect webs of relation to the surface(s) of the planet, as well as technologies of internal connection within complex entities. Several well-known plants illustrate the varieties of rooting and webbing: tap- roots in pine trees; the perching of epiphytes (“air plants”) in tree canopies; the profusion of new plants produced by “spider plants” outside the pots or the main rooting zone of the parent plants; the soil-building habits of coastal mangroves around their woody stilt roots; and algal mats, which create their own float- ing worlds from microflora and -fauna, making a seafaring macro-being from microconstituents. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) elaborate specifically on the un- derground metaphor of rhizomes6 to describe the entangled realities of connec- tivity and the complex dynamics of social change (pp. 215 – 216).
What Rochelau does well is to push ANT into new and necessary dimensions; moving it away from a strict fascination with humans and technology and into the complex ecologies of animals, plants, and minerals which remain underrepresented in some sociological models (apart from their association with the political power dynamics of humans — an important, though inadequate, accomplishment).
What Rocheleau doesn’t do, and what no one has yet to successfully accomplish, is to describe precisely how to incorporate the needs and perspectives of nonhumans into the political and legal dynamics of human societies. I don’t fault her for failing to solve these problems, but rather highlight them so that we might drive our collective energy and creativity into thinking, practicing, and crossing over into, a thoroughly ecological democracy.