Aircraft Stories: Decentering the Object in Technoscience

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In Aircraft Stories noted sociologist of technoscience John Law tells “stories” about a British attempt to build a military aircraft—the TSR2. The intertwining of these stories demonstrates the ways in which particular technological projects can be understood in a world of complex contexts.
Law works to upset the binary between the modernist concept of knowledge, subjects, and objects as having centered and concrete essences and the postmodernist notion that all is fragmented and centerless. The structure and content of Aircraft Stories reflect Law’s contention that knowledge, subjects, and—particularly— objects are “fractionally coherent”: that is, they are drawn together without necessarily being centered. In studying the process of this particular aircraft’s design, construction, and eventual cancellation, Law develops a range of metaphors to describe both its fractional character and the ways its various aspects interact with each other. Offering numerous insights into the way we theorize the working of systems, he explores the overlaps between singularity and multiplicity and reveals rich new meaning in such concepts as oscillation, interference, fractionality, and rhizomatic networks.
The methodology and insights of Aircraft Stories will be invaluable to students in science and technology studies and will engage others who are interested in the ways that contemporary paradigms have limited our ability to see objects in their true complexity.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Through this lively text, John Law guides us on a tour of the TSR2 that will be a rich resource for anyone interested in the question of how new artifacts come into being. Writers, readers, engineers, and aircraft are inseparable components of the project, which involves simultaneously achieving the singularities and recovering the multiplicities of stories and things. Crafting together a complex architecture of subject/object relations, Aircraft Stories offers a prototype for a new form of technoscience storytelling.”—Lucy Suchman, author of Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-Machine Communication

“What is a military aircraft? John Law shows in his beautiful analysis that it is a constant oscillation between multiplicity and singularity. It (sometimes) flies, it (possibly) drops nuclear bombs, it (certainly) reproduces a very conservative social order, it interpellates and entices young men, and yet it still remains a military aircraft. John Law invents what could be a monadology in which there is no longer preestablished harmony.”—Michel Callon, CSI Ecole des mines de Paris

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822328247
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2002
  • Series: Science and Cultural Theory Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 264
  • Sales rank: 1,265,679
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

John Law is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Centre for Science Studies at Lancaster University in England. He is the author and editor of many books and articles, including Organizing Modernity and Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change.

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Read an Excerpt


Decentering the Object in Technoscience

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2002 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2824-7

Chapter One


A plateau is always in the middle, not at the beginning or the end. A rhizome is made of plateaus.-Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

No doubt Deleuze and Guattari have got the right idea. Matters grow from the middle, and from many places. But one also has to start somewhere.

With the aircraft? This is a book about specific episodes in a British attempt to build a military aircraft, a tactical strike and reconnaissance warplane, called the TSR2. The project to build this aircraft started in the 1950s and ended in 1965 when it was canceled by a newly elected Labour government. In one way or another, all the stories in this book have to do with the TSR2.

But the aircraft is not the only possible place to start. For though all the stories in this book are indeed about the TSR2, the book is really about something much more general. It is about modernism and its child, postmodernism-and about how we might think past the limits that these set to our ways of thinking. For the book is about a world, the contemporary Euro-American world, in which many have lost their faith in big theories or "grandnarratives," as Jean-François Lyotard calls them (1984b). And, at least to some extent, it is about a world in which many have also lost confidence in the grand projects and plans that tend to go with those grand narratives. Nuclear power, medical practices, food safety, the environment, everywhere, or so the story runs, experts are doubted, and people are skeptical of the claims made by authorities. Including academic authorities.

Of course there are various ways of responding to this. One can wave aside the skepticism of postmodernism and insist that experts-including academic experts-still know best: that it is, indeed, possible to tell grand narratives. One can, in short, remain a modernist. Alternatively, one can insist that expert knowledges are limited in scope, but then go on to say that it is still possible to tell consistent stories so long as one understands that these have only a limited validity and that they will in due course require revision. No doubt this is the dominant response in many of the social sciences, for instance underpinning the theory of reflexive modernity. It is a response that says warrantable knowledge is still possible so long as it is suitably set about with health warnings and it is not used after its sell-by date.

But there is another possibility that I want to explore in this book. This is to take the skepticism of the so-called postmodern condition seriously, which means accepting that "modernism" is flawed even in its more supple versions. It is to accept that modernism never achieved the smoothnesses it sought, that its foundations were illusory, and that when it intervened to try to put things right and make a better world it often-as Zygmunt Bauman has so eloquently shown -wreaked havoc. But then it recognizes, and this is crucial, that the pluralist diaspora apparently favored by postmodernism raises problems that are just as difficult. Not only is it clear that we don't live in a pluralist world in which everyone happily does their own thing, but it is also apparent that the broken fragments celebrated in postmodernism are just as much a product of modernism as its own streamlined coherences ever were. Postmodernism is, so to speak, the mirror image of modernism-and postmodernism's response has simply been to break the smoothness and shatter that mirror. The argument, then, is that modernism and postmodernism exist together. They are each other's creatures. And as they confront one another they tend to press us to make a choice between the homogeneities of centered storytelling on the one hand, and pluralism of fragmentation on the other. This, then, is a second version of what the book is about. It is an attempt to evade that choice.

But to make the argument I need to be more specific. So a third and more concise way of talking about the stories assembled in this book is to say that they are about fractional coherence. Fractional coherence, I will say, is about drawing things together without centering them.

Knowing subjects, or so we've learned since the 1960s, are not coherent wholes. Instead they are multiple, assemblages. This has been said about subjects of action, of emotion, and of desire in many ways, and is often, to be sure, a poststructuralist claim. But I argue in this book that the same holds for objects too. An aircraft, yes, is an object. But it also reveals multiplicity-for instance in wing shape, speed, military roles, and political attributes. I am saying, then, that an object such as an aircraft-an "individual" and "specific" aircraft-comes in different versions. It has no single center. It is multiple. And yet these various versions also interfere with one another and shuffle themselves together to make a single aircraft. They make what I will call singularities, or singular objects out of their multiplicity. In short, they make objects that cohere.

But how do they do this? This is the major question that I tackle in this book. A question that, while speaking to the general issue raised by the so-called postmodern predicament, at the same time much more concisely refuses the pluralism implied by Lyotard's multiple language games.

How, then, to think about this? I deploy a range of metaphors for thinking about the overlaps that produce singularity out of multiplicity. Many of these have grown up in the discipline of STS-of science, technology, and society. Interference, oscillation, Donna Haraway's notions of "the established disorder" or the cyborg-these terms catch something important about the relations between singularity and multiplicity. But let me mention a further possibility here, that of fractionality. In mathematics fractals are lines that occupy more than one dimension but less than two. If we take this as a metaphor without worrying too much about the mathematics, then we may imagine that fractal coherences are coherences that cannot be caught within or reduced to a single dimension. But neither do they exist as coherences in two or three separate and independent dimensions. In this way of thinking, a fractionally coherent subject or object is one that balances between plurality and singularity. It is more than one, but less than many.

I want to suggest that Euro-American culture doesn't really have the language that it needs to imagine possibilities of this kind. Its conditions of possibility more or less preclude the fractional. Indeed this is one of the reasons why the postmodern reaction-though it diagnoses some of the problems of modernism well enough-still finds itself trapped within a version of the modern predicament. For if things don't cohere together to form a consistent whole, then it is usually assumed that they don't cohere at all. So in common sense (as well as much academic and political discourse) the options tend to take the form of the binarism mentioned earlier: between, on the one hand, something that is a singularity because it holds together coherently; and, on the other, something that is broken and scattered, as in some kind of pluralism in which anything goes. Or between order and its antithesis, chaos. Thus our languages tend to force us to choose between centers or dislocated fragments. Between the poles of "drawing things together" and "the decentering of the subject." Or between single containers, such as "society," and plural elements, such as "individuals," that are contained within society. Fractionality, then, is one of the possible metaphors for trying to avoid such dualisms. For trying to wrestle with the idea that objects, subjects, and societies are both singular and multiple, both one and many. Both/and.

This, then, is the hope: that after the dualist contraries of centering and decentering, after the alternates of singularity and multiplicity, we might find ways of imagining fractionality. This, to be sure, is the hope of a number of scholars and is certainly one of the lessons that we learn from parts of poststructuralism. But the program, it seems to me, has not yet found good ways of performing itself-and least of all of doing so empirically. This leads to the fourth significance for the stories that I tell in the book. A fourth way of beginning.

This starts with a question: How should we write? How might we write about multiplicity in a way that also produces the effects of singularity? Or about singularity in a way that does not efface the performances of multiplicity? In this book I do not respond to this question by offering a single recipe or a formula. Instead I choose to proceed less directly and more allegorically. Or, more precisely, I try to make something, to create it rather than simply telling about it. For this book explores complexity, heterogeneity, and interference not simply by talking about them, but also, and maybe more importantly, by trying to perform them.

I believe that if we have not managed to attend very well to the fractional coherences of multiple objects and subjects, this is not simply because we have not properly faced the facts. It also has to do with how we investigate our subjects and objects and, in particular, with the ways in which we tell about them. It has, in short, to do with the character of social-science writing. Notwithstanding work in several social-science traditions, we are, to use a phrase, insufficiently self-reflexive about the way in which we write. And about what is implied when we write in one way rather than another. So my hypothesis is that we have not yet recognized and allowed the difficult subjectivities that are needed for fractional knowing. In this book I also help to bring such less direct ways of knowing into being. The book, then, is an intervention, a performance of fractional ways of knowing.

Perhaps it would have been possible to make a grand narrative about decentered and yet coherent objects. I take it that this is one of the features of Andrew Pickering's work on the "mangle of practice," a metaphor that otherwise does work which has much in common with what is attempted in this book: an inquiry into ontology, into what is made, rather than what is represented. And the thought of working in terms of a single metaphor is attractive because it offers a key to complexity. And such keys, once in place, are easily expressed and applied. Telling directly about what they tell, they are rendered easily transportable. To say it quickly, such is the dream of modernism in its search for foundational (or now postfoundational) grounds, and it is certainly the project of much contemporary social theory, to which the possibilities of allegory are foreign. But here I explore a less direct alternative by growing different stories alongside one another. Smaller narratives-a lot of smaller keys. Working in this way has a cost: we do indeed lose the possibility of an overall vision. But at the same time we also create something that was not there before: we create and make visible interferences between the stories. We bring new and unpredictable effects into being, effects which cannot be predicted or foretold from a single location. New forms of subjectivity.

To do this is to alter the character of knowing and writing. It is to render them multiple, decentered, or partially centered, in this place that refuses both modernism and postmodernism. If single accounts offering single keys make arborescences-treelike structures with beginnings, middles, and ends where everything important is held together in a centrally coordinated way-then multiple storytelling makes rhizomatic networks that spread in every direction. They make elaborations and interactions that hold together, fractionally, like a tissue of fibers. This results in texts that are uncentered, texts that are not singular. And yet, if the bet is right, it produces texts that have intersections, that hold together. That cohere.

So what does all this mean in practice? The answer is that the essays in this book tell specific stories about specific events. In doing so, they play upon recurrent themes to do with partiality, fractionality, interference, and collusion, while doing so in a manner that resists the simplicities of an overall beginning, middle, and end. The book as a whole, then, is not treelike in structure. It is not an arborescence. Instead it takes the form of a rhizomatic network. It makes overlaps and juxtapositions, and it makes interference effects as a result of making these overlaps. So that is the fourth way of introducing the book. It is about writing fractionally.

But this suggests a fifth way of talking about the stories of the book, which has to do with how texts relate to the world. Perhaps, to be simple, we might speak of two possibilities. First, we may imagine that they tell about and thus represent a version of reality. If we think of writing in this way, then we distinguish between texts on the one hand, and what they represent on the other. The latter become something separate, out there, prior, removed. This means that we may stand outside and describe the world, and that when we do so we do not get our hands dirty. We are not in the world.

The alternative is to imagine, reflexively, that telling stories about the world also helps to perform that world. This means that in a (writing) performance reality is staged. And such a staging ensures that, everything else being equal, what is being performed is thereby rendered more obdurate, more solid, more real than it might otherwise have been. It becomes an element of the present that may be carried into the future.

So what do we perform when we write? There are various by now familiar possibilities. We may perform the world as a treelike structure: such is the desire of modernism as it seeks to perform its centered consistency into being. We may make fragments, which is, to be sure, the postmodern response. Or we may enact it rhizomatically, which is the allegorical or poststructural alternative that I am recommending.

In this alternative approach, no matter how stories are told about this aircraft, the TSR2, they do not simply describe something that happened once upon a time. They are rather, or also, a way of helping to perform the aircraft. The stories participate in the aircraft. They add to the crowd of forms in which it was already among us, interfering with and diffracting earlier versions and thereby altering these forms. Perhaps slightly and locally. Perhaps unpredictably. But nevertheless altering them, and making a difference.

So the performativity of writing is a fifth way of introducing the book, of describing the significance of its stories. But this in turn suggests a sixth possibility: that the book is about what it is to criticize, analytically and politically. Its fractional object is, as I have noted, a military aircraft. Why this should have been so is something that I explore in chapter 3. As is obvious, there is much to worry about in military aviation. Had the TSR2 ever been used in its nuclear role, the world would have stumbled into Armageddon. And, leaving aside the horrors of destruction, in the stories that follow we'll come across ways in which the TSR2, even if it never killed, indeed performed social distributions-for instance those of gender or ethnicity. So yes, there is much to worry about here. But there is a problem if we start to criticize from what is supposed to be the outside because doing so ignores the performative character of storytelling that I have just been describing. In particular it ignores the fact that we are all mixed up in what we are describing. That, indeed, in one way or another we are helping to bring it into being. The fact that we are colluding with what we are describing, colluding to enact it into being. The conclusion is that in a fractional and reflexive world the luxury of standing outside, criticizing, and correcting is no longer available. Partly inside, partly outside, we are at least partially connected with our objects of study. And if we seek to criticize then it also becomes important to reflect on the character of that involvement. We need to ask whether, and if so how, we share in what we do not like with those whom we do not like. And whether, and if so how, they share some of our own most valued ways of being.


Excerpted from AIRCRAFT STORIES by JOHN LAW Copyright © 2002 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Objects
3. Subjects
4. Cultures
5. Heterogeneities
6. Aesthetics
7. Decisions
8. Arborescences
9. Pinboards
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