What’s missing?

The second part of my previous essay did not venture into things, rather remaining on a more general level of discussion. I’ll see to this in this essay, covering Bruno Latour’s somewhat provocatively titled text ‘Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts’. It was first published in ‘Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change’. It was republished in ‘Technology and Society: Building our Sociotechnical Future’. This essay refers to republished text, in case you want to look things up yourself.

The title of Latour’s text hints at what he thinks is missing in social studies. What is missing is the mass of items, this and that, all the stuff that we interact (or don’t interact) with on a daily basis. The editors, Johnson and Wetmore (151), summarize Latour’s approach and align it with the actor network approach, or actor network theory (ANT), in which artifacts (things) are taken into account alongside people, institutions and organizations. I didn’t intend to include their comments in this essay, but I think it’s helpful to get the cat out of the bag, that is that his approach is also known as the ANT, even if it’s probably overly simplistic to call it a single theory, as if he alone dictates it.

I believe this is the first text written by Latour that I’ve read. It’s certainly unorthodox in style. As I hinted at the end of the previous essay, he takes a lot of liberties and might upset the reader, being intentionally provocative. It will induce plenty of those ‘oh, too bad’ moments if you are not willing step down from any pedestal you may have set yourself up on. You just have live with the naughtiness or stop reading. Is it a bad thing? Well, it is if you think it is, but it isn’t if you think it isn’t. He is just trying to get you to dismount from your high horse, in case you are on one that is, which I take a lot of academic people in his readership are on. Of course they probably won’t present themselves as such (I mean who does?), but that’s sort of the point here, making fun of the immobility of people who take their position for granted. Once again I start to think that taking things for granted is often at the heart of the issue. In my opinion the text is actually quite lighthearted, even if the topic isn’t. Well worth reading.

To get somewhere with this essay, throughout the text Latour discusses artifacts, such veritable inventions such as seat belts, door closer devices, meat roasters and locks. Starting from the beginning, Latour (151-152) examines seat belts and offers his own narrative on them:

“Early this morning, I was in a bad mood and decided to break a law and start my car without buckling my seat belt. My car usually does not want to start before I buckle the belt. It first flashes a red light ‘FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELT!,’ then an alarm sounds; it is so high pitched, so relentless, so repetitive, that I cannot stand it. After ten seconds I swear and put on the belt.”

The narrative goes on and on about his irritation aimed at the seat belt, so I curtailed his example. Anyway, what is interesting here is that he, a person, a human, is interacting with an artifact, a thing, and getting upset in the process. I can only confirm this phenomenon. I believe I’m a calm person, but then again for sure I have had my temper flare at inanimate objects. Hockey sticks and bicycles come to my mind for starters. Anyway, he (52) laments this relationship with an artifact:

“Where is the morality? In me, a human driver, dominated by the mindless power of an artifact?”

Indeed, it’s actually quite funny to find yourself swearing at a thing, feeling dominated by its mindless power. Of course, it’s worth noting that, as I previously covered in the work of Michel Serres, the things are nothing by themselves, or rather, they are nothing more than what they are by themselves. Latour (152) does not fail to take this into account as he continues:

“Or in the artifact forcing me, a mindless human, to obey the law that I freely accepted when I get my driver’s license? Of course, I could have put on my seat belt before the light flashed and the alarm sounded, incorporating in my own self the good behavior that everyone – the car, the law, the police – expected of me.”

There’s a difference here already. After juxtaposing the mindlessness from the thing, the seat belt, to the human, himself, it seems as if the thing is mediating the will of other humans. Now, he (152) goes on to point out that the car ignition could be engineered to take all this into account, necessitating that the driver put the seat belt on before the engine can be started. The driver would just be turning the key and nothing happens until the seat belt is put on. This then forces the driver obey the law, well, unless the driver opts to manipulate the mechanism, as he (152) does point out:

“I feel so irritated to be forced to behave well that I instruct my garage mechanics to unlink the switch and the sensor.”

Countering his own clever solution to this moral imposition, he (152) adds that he failed to take into account that the engineers saw this coming:

“They now invent a seat belt that politely makes way for me when I open the door and then straps me as politely but very tightly when I close the door. Now there is no escape. … It has become logically – no, it has become sociologically – impossible to drive without wearing the belt. I cannot be bad anymore. I, plus the car, plus the dozens of patented engineers, plus the police are making me be moral[.]”

With some clever wordplay in the mix he is making the case that the seat belt or the car that are not just the things they are or that they have the intended utility, saving your life in case of a crash and helping you to get from point a to point b. They not only are, but they do. In the seat belt example, the thing is designed to have an effect on the driver. In Foucault’s parlance one could say it’s disciplining the driver. Yes, the inanimate object is disciplining the driver. Of course, this does not mean that the thing has a will or intention to do so, it just does, it has that effect on a human if the human wishes to be a driver. The humorous part of this is the human reaction to things, treating them as if they were out to get you, to mistreat you, to fail you, to mock you and the like. Sure, taking a close look at whether something is broken is not out of the ordinary, but then there is this, for example, blaming things for your own shortcomings, even getting verbal with it. I for one have never blamed an inanimate object for my own shortcomings, not to mention voiced it.

His second example focuses on doors or rather their highly important role in filling the holes in walls. The example may seem hilariously trivial, but as he (154) points out:

“Walls are a nice invention, but if there were no holes in them there would be no way to get in or out—they would be mausoleums or tombs. The problem is that if you make holes in the walls, anything and anyone can get in and out (cows, visitors, dust, rats, noise[).] … So architects invented this hybrid: a wall hole, often called a door, which although common enough has always struck me as a miracle of technology. The cleverness of the invention hinges upon the hingepin: instead of driving a hole through walls with a sledgehammer or a pick, you simply gently push the door.”

Indeed, having walls without the holes that we take for granted would be rather awkward, to say the least. You’d have to choose between being entombed inside, which is hardly practical, or having little to claim there to be an inside differentiated from the outside, which would also be rather impractical. He (154) points out that, sure, yes, you could always fix the gaping hole in the wall once in or out, but it would still be very impractical and wasteful, having to do that all the time. I’m not going to explain his argument in more detail than necessary here, so do yourself a favor and read it yourself. It’s quite entertaining. Anyway, the point is that you should appreciate doors. That said, a door is merely a thing. He (155) reminds us that the problem with doors is that while they can fill the gap when needed, sealing or opening the wall when it fits us, yet people tend to forget to do something as simple as to close the door behind them, failing to seal the gap, leaving the inside exposed to the outside. He (155) emphasizes that this should not be much of a problem, simply close the door behind you, yet it keeps happening, despite all the effort going into making sure it doesn’t happen, including sign-posting reminding people to close the door behind them. He (155-156) adds that you can either discipline people, which takes quite a bit of effort and people still forget, or position someone by the door to make sure the door gets closed. He (156) then points out that the problem still persists if someone is positioned by the door as people can be unreliable, especially if the pay is not good for that monotonous task. In other words, a porter is a solution, but it’s not a fool proof solution. It’s also costly, so in terms of the money involved it’s inefficient. While discipline is a solution, it’s costly to make it work for this purpose. I think even Foucault would agree on this, considering the efficiency angle that more or less pervades everything these days. Surely, as noted by Latour (155-156) not every door is equal, so, for example, hotels may have the resources to have someone by the door, say a concierge, who’s going to be there anyway. Then again, even concierge may end up distracted, so discipline is not the ideal solution here.

To solve the issue caused by eventual lapse in discipline, Latour (157) turns to non-humans, replacing the person closing the door, the porter, with a mechanic door closer device:

“A nonhuman (hinges) plus another nonhuman (groom) have solved the wall-hole dilemma.”

This makes sure that even in a hotel the staff can be left “to their erratic behavior”, as characterized by Latour (157). That said, he objects once more. This time he (157) argues that the mechanic door closing device that relies on a spring is rather crude solution, one that emphasizes the door being shut. At first this part seemed odd to me, but it’s because I’m not that familiar with mechanic door closers. I had to look up what he is on about. So, if it is not clear, the door closer is the metal arm often found at the top of doors, where the upper part of the door meets the wall. The problem with these is that the spring mechanism leads to bloody noses as the doors slam shut, as Latour (157-158) puts it. Adding a hydraulic piston to the mix alleviates this, but again he (158-159) finds it lacking as it requires a degree of physical strength, something that, for example, children and the elderly might be lacking. In addition, he (159) finds them problematic when there is nothing preventing them from closing when an open door is required, which then leads to all kinds of makeshift solutions.

What is peculiar in this development? Latour (159) first praises the combination of hinges springs and hydraulic pistons for it’s close to as perfect as you can hope efficiency, but then points out that oddly enough, if out of operation, people treat the non-human as human:

“The hinge plus the groom is the technologist’s dream of efficient action, at least until the sad day when I saw the note posted on [a] door with which I started this meditation: ‘The groom is on strike.’”

He (159) then ponders this:

“On strike… Fancy that! Nonhumans stopping work and claiming what? Pension payments? Time off? Landscaped offices?”

Fancy that indeed! Oddly enough, as already hinted, we, or at least I confess that I do (or have done), treat non-humans as humans. Come on, how does an inanimate object go a strike? Since when? Does it have agency, not to mention intentionality? I think not, yet these strange things keep happening. Latour (159) doesn’t consider himself beyond this either:

“I constantly talk with my computer, who answers back; I am sure you swear at your old car; we are constantly granting mysterious faculties to gremlins inside every conceivable home appliance, not to mention cracks in the concrete belt of our nuclear plants.”

More importantly, however, he (159) adds that:

“Yet, this behavior is considered by sociologists as a scandalous breach of natural barriers. When you write that a groom is ‘on strike,’ this is only seen as a ‘projection,’ as they say, of a human behavior onto a nonhuman, cold, technical object, one by nature impervious to any feeling. This is anthropomorphism, which for them is a sin akin to zoophily but much worse.”

Ah, yes, that’s the word. I could have thrown that in earlier on, but that would have spoiled this segment a bit. To be more specific, he (160) further clarifies this view:

“[A]nthropos and morphos together mean either that which has human shape or that which gives shape to humans. The [door closer device] is indeed anthropomorphic, in three senses: first, it has been made by humans; second, it substitutes for the actions of people and is a delegate that permanently occupies the position of a human; and third, it shapes human action by prescribing back what sort of people should pass through the door.”

Importantly, it is pointed out that it means not only something that has human shape, but also something that shapes humans. So, it works both ways, not only as a static substitute. He (160) then continues with an objection:

“And yet some would forbid us to ascribe feelings to this thoroughly anthropomorphic creature, to delegate labor relations, to ‘project’ – that is, to translate – other human properties to the [device].”

This objection continues with further examples that support his claims. He (160) points out that more recent innovations, such as motion sensors and scanners, even sense you and request identification, as well as possibly prevent access in case of danger. He (160) can’t help but to poke the social scientists:

“But anyway, who are sociologists to decide the real and final shape (morphos) of humans (anthropos)?”

Skipping over a bit here, he (160) then bluntly asks an important question:

“Are we not shaped by nonhuman [devices], although I admit only a very little bit?”

Without going into further detail here, yet, it’s worth emphasizing that he is not simply stating that non-humans are as important as humans, at least to humans, or that they have a great influence over humans. What he is stating here is that they do have an effect and it should be taken into account, not simply ignored or rejected, as he (160) points out as he continues:

“Are they not our brethren? Do they not deserve consideration?”

Again, he points out that they deserve to be considered in the equation. He (160) then advances the case against sociologists for being biased against non-humans:

“With your self-serving and self-righteous social studies of technology, you always plead against machines and for deskilled workers – are you aware of your discriminatory biases? You discriminate between the human and the inhuman.”

It’s not hard to grasp how he ruffles feathers among the academics. The last time I found such explicit criticism against others was the time I read Richard Hartshorne criticize early landscape studies, namely Carl Sauer and the Berkeley School. Anyway, to be fair, I’ll let Latour (160) finish his arguments:

“I do not hold this bias (this one at least) and see only actors – some human, some nonhuman, some skilled, some unskilled – that exchange their properties. So the note posted on the door is accurate; it gives with humor an exact rendering of the [device’s] behavior: it is not working, it is on strike (notice, that the word ‘‘strike’’ is a rationalization carried from the nonhuman repertoire to the human one, which proves again that the divide is untenable).”

Anyway, to summarize his arguments, I don’t think he is attempting to devalue humans, but rather to give value to the non-humans. I don’t find it at all strange that humans are fascinated by humans, what it is to be human, how does the human body function, how do humans (and their bodies) function in relation to one another etc., but that’s not the point in any of this. It’s really rather obvious to me that humans are fascinated by all things human. It does, however, involve a sort of a self-elevation, which itself isn’t that hard to understand. I mean to the best our knowledge humans are on the top, or I guess at least so we like to think, so it only makes sense to focus on the ones on the top, us humans. That’s very relevant to us, fair game, to be honest. That said, it may involve undue attention to ourselves, neglecting all things considered non-human, which in turn may prevent or hinder us from understanding ourselves.

Moving on, after elaborating his views further in clear a metatext (including how some of it is in jest) in a couple of pages, he (162) offers a lucid characterization of what he is on about in general:

“We deal with characters, delegates, representatives, lieutenants (from the French ‘lieu’ plus ‘tenant,’ i.e., holding the place of, for, someone else) – some figurative, others nonfigurative; some human, others nonhuman; some competent, others incompetent.”

I have to admit, once again, my admiration of clever wordplay. Explaining the role of non-humans by the use of lieutenants is just brilliant. This is probably improper conduct in serious scientific research, simply out of question (it makes me think of discipline, and I don’t mean in the field of study sense), but, at least to me, he couldn’t have said it any better. There are other points in the text that are very fitting, yet also comedy gold, but I’d rather people encounter them on their own. I fail to see how one cannot be humorous and serious at the same time, but then again perhaps I’m missing something that only those superior to me are aware of. Anyway, he (162) continues:

“Do you want to cut through this rich diversity of delegates and artificially create two heaps of refuse, ‘society’ on one side and ‘technology’ on the other? That is your privilege, but I have a less bungled task in mind.”

Once again, one must wonder whether it makes sense to think in binaries: nature/society or natural/human. Is it not humans that consider themselves humans, as in excluding themselves from what remains after the exclusion, nature? This was, at least in part, the point about self-elevation and how it may be counter-productive to humans.

I’m not covering the whole text by Latour as I believe this should suffice. If it doesn’t, then … too bad. From the start, the purpose of this essay was to address the role of artifacts, the non-human entities, in relation to humans. I think Latour does a good job at pointing out their importance, not only for what they are, or what they represent, but also for what they do. I think explaining why, excuse the pun(s), things matter is an important matter in landscape studies, especially in linguistic landscape studies as they tend to focus on various objects, that is to say things. I believe that even if one opts not to elaborate what landscape is, which I prefer people not do (for reasons already explained in detail in previous essays), one should nevertheless be able to explain why studying the artifacts in the landscape matters. Why should anyone take the claim that things matter seriously if their role in the mix is not explained? Latour offers clear explanations (with examples), so his work might be of interest and value to researchers. His style might be off putting to many, but then again, when did form become more important than content anyway?


  • Latour, B. ([1992] 1997). Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts. In W. E. Bijker and J. Law (Eds.), Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change (pp. 225–258). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Latour, B. ([1992] 2009). Where Are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts. In D. G. Johnson and J. M. Wetmore (Eds.), Technology and Society: Building Our Sociotechnical Future (pp. 151–180). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.