A small group of us have recently been working informally on a hypothesis that we have called ‘social precognition.’ In summary, this proposes that the world of STEM cannot make any major advances that have not already been imagined by creative artists. Science fiction precedes science. NASA can send rockets to the moon because this was envisaged in the 1865 novel of Jules Verne or the 1902 film of Georges Méliès. Mobile phones/cellphones are developed on the model of the personal communicators that have been a staple of science fiction for many years. Synthesized life is the theme of Somerset Maugham’s 1908 novel, The Magician. However, my researches have raised the troubling thought that the same might be true of sociology.
In the last 20 years or so there has been much excitement, particularly in science and technology studies, about Actor-Network Theory. One of its most distinctive features is the way in which it ascribes agency to material objects. Things can act on people to organize and direct their actions. A vaccine can, for example, mobilize a network of humans to sustain its journey from a manufacturer to the arm of its recipients. This has proved to be a very powerful way to understand a wide range of activities. There is, however, a problem. Perhaps we should not be crediting Bruno Latour or Michel Callon with the original insight – but an English humourist, Paul Jennings (1918-1989).
Jennings was active throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with a weekly newspaper column and contributions to various magazines. One of his recurrent themes was an exploration of the theory of ‘Resistentialism,’ the innate hostility of Things towards People. In context, this was a satire on the fashion for existentialism that ran through 1950s culture, much as post-modernism has in more recent times. The philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir inspired a generation to wear black polo-neck sweaters, smoke Gauloises and drink over-priced coffee in Parisian cafes. Intellectually, existentialism and post-modernism have a certain family resemblance. Both derive from roots in phenomenology, particularly the work of Heidegger, and adopt a constructionist approach to reality. We know the world through the way we choose to perceive it.
Jennings’s satire derived its force from its reaction to the idea that reality was no more than a human construction. His characters argued instead for the materiality of the world, summed up in the slogan: ‘Les choses sont contre nous’ – ‘Things are against us.’ The Left Bank is captivated by his hero, Pierre-Marie Ventre – ‘ventre’ is French for ‘belly’ and plays off Sartre’s taste for fine living:
Except for his German precursors, Freidegg and Heidansiecker, all previous thinkers from the Eleatics to Marx have allowed at least some legitimacy to human thought and effort. Some, like Hegel or Berkeley, go so far as to make man’s thought the supreme reality. In the Resistentialist cosmology that is now the intellectual rage of Paris Ventre offers us a grand vision of the Universe as One Thing – the Ultimate Thing (Dernière Chose). And it is against us.
The great illusion of the modern world is to suppose that the acquisition of more things means more human dominance. Resistentialism proposes that, in actuality, the increasing number of things around us simply increases their opportunities to make life difficult.
Jennings conjures up a number of scientific experiments that uncover this latent hostility. One of the most celebrated is the Clark-Trimble study that established how the propensity of toast to fall marmalade-side down increased with the value of the carpet onto which it would fall. Similar research in the US had shown how remote was the likelihood that a dropped pencil would end up within reach or that a subway train would stop with its door opposite you on a crowded platform.
Resistentialism also inspired theatre, art and music. Jennings describes the London production of a new play by Blanco del Huevo, The Things That Are Caesar.
He has made Things the characters, and reduced the human beings to what are known in Resistentialist language as Poussés. The nearest English translation that suggests itself for this philosophical term is ‘pushed- arounds’…The tragedy of man’s futile struggle against the power of Things begins to draw towards its fatal climax as we hear a conversation between the piano and the medicine cabinet (the stars of the play) in which the piano suggests an exchange of their respective Poussés…
Jennings goes to discuss the social movements inspired by Resistentialism, generating fist fights in the boulevards and cafes of Paris between supporters of different positions. In the end, he concludes:
It is becoming generally realized that the complex apparatus of our modern life – the hurried meals, the dashing for trains, the constant meeting of people who are seen only as ‘functions’: the barman, the wife, etc. – could not operate if our behaviour were truly dictated by the old, reactionary categories of human love and reason. This is where Ventre’s true greatness lies. He has transformed, indeed reversed the traditional mechanism of thought, steered it away from the old dogmatic assumption that we could use Things, and cleared the decks for the evolution of the Thing-process without futile human opposition.
Of course, this is a satire. On the other hand, like all great satire, there is a serious point. Jennings is drawing attention to the insufficiency with which much social constructionism attends to the material world. Things have an inherent degree of resistance to our human purposes. At some level, the world is recalcitrant and we must live with it, rather than it with us.
Actor-Network Theory is sometimes ridiculed by other sociologists for its so-called ‘flat epistemology’ and its insistence on discovering rather than assuming agency within any constellation of people and things. Jennings’s work might prompt us to wonder where such ideas came from – and whose position is more open to ridicule. Reflect on it next time Microsoft’s blue screen of death appears on your computer…
The quotations are from Paul Jennings, The Jenguin Pennings, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1964.