In a discussion of how actor-network theory addresses, but does not overcome, the dissatisfactions within the social sciences with, on the one hand, the micro level, focused on the actor or agency, which turns attention away from norms, values, culture and so on, and, on the other hand, with the macro level, focused on structure or system, whose abstractions gloss over incarnated, in the flesh practice, Bruno Latour (1999) proposes that maybe the social is not made of agency and structure at all, but rather is a circulating entity. If this is the case, he continues, then, “actantiality is not what the actor does…but what it provides actants, with their actions, with their subjectivity, with their intentionality, with their morality”.
In interpreting this passage, David Webster (2002) argues that ‘actantiality’ refers not to agency but to the facticity of agency through which results come to pass, that is, affordance. Webster models his conception of affordance upon Derridean differance, specifically, “the minimal event of the articulation [of] timed-space and spaced-time that takes the form of the generation of differences and the deferral of the meaning of those changes having taken place.” In so doing, he sets up an ontological framework of affordance as agency in medias res, a reformulation of distributed agency as agency-in-the-middle-of-things, as ergon (work) in the framework of parergon, that which is beside or in addition (supplementary) to the work, its ‘context’. For Derrida, the work (ergon) is not primary and the ‘outside work’ (parergon) secondary. Both are (paradoxically) fundamental to one another: it is the parergon that renders the ergon self-same, a self-sameness arising through (Derridean) differance and supplementarity (adding to and displacing or replacing).
“What a thing is (quidditas) is what it does (haecceitas), its agency. Agency, in its most general form, depends upon placement within the frame of a parergon, constituted by an “absent” centre as historicity, and an “absent” circumference as potentiality to be, the parergon supplements the thing to make up for what it will always lack to be what it would be, i.e., a framework of past facticity and future possibility.”
Furthermore, a thing’s self-identity, what it is, is what it can do, its agency, given what it is and what it can do. In this case, ‘is’ equates to structure while ‘does’ equates to agency. As a consequence, ‘is’ and ‘does’ cannot be stratified in either time or space. A thing is the summation of difference at that point, its historicity. What it does, is to endure through the ‘invariance’ of being the same but not identical, by deferring the meaning of that lack of self-identity.
Webster concludes, “Affordance does not happen to something, for the thing is co-terminus with affordance: Activity is built through the concatenation of affordance.”
The relationship between actantiality and affordance is central to what actually happens or transpires, between the ‘I can’ and the ‘I did’, between potentiality and actuality. Might Jerome Bruner’s conception of ‘agentivity’, as a focus on agent and action, and Husserl’s notion of ‘I cans’, as in I can throw, I can calculate, I can judge and so on, contribute to the development of this nexus?
Husserl, E. (1989) Ideas pertaining to a pure phenomenology and to a phenomenological philosophy. Second book: Studies in the phenomenology of constitution. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.
Latour, B. (1999). On recalling ANT. The Sociological Review, 47 (S1), 15–25. Available from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-954X.1999.tb03480.x/abstract [Accessed 13 July 2014].
Webster, D. S. (2002) Affording expertise: integrating the biological, cultural and social sites of disciplinary skills and knowledge. [PhD thesis] Durham University. Available at: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/4096/ (Accessed: 8 April 2021).