Things Doing Politics: 'Hybrid Energy' in the Philosophy of Technology

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingMeeting abstract (Book)Research


Recent research in philosophy of technology - e.g. Achterhuis, Feenberg, Verbeek - has heralded an
'empirical turn' or a 'return to things,' thereby succeeding to walk the line between an
instrumentalist point of view (technologies are just "neutral" means to human ends) and an
"essentialist" stand (technology is an authoritarian, mostly threatening force). Still, investing things
with agency and even political potency, as Bruno Latour does, goes somewhat further. This seems to
run against our traditional notion of "things" ànd of "politics." We tend to think about "things" as
entities, artifacts and events, essentially produced and/or manipulated by humans. In short: the
world of objects, "nature." And we identify "politics" with a quite self-contained realm of activities,
rituals, rules and person(alitie)s, of which media ("things") render a more or less truthful "image." In
other words: the world of subjects, "culture." All these presuppositions and distinctions are charged
nowadays, and rightfully so. As science studies expose, "politics" exceed their commonly assigned
boundaries of law-proposing and rule-making by far, in governing the world of science and
technical artifacts just as well. Moreover, media and technology themselves are heavily politically
charged, as media and technology studies evidence. What opens up before our eyes is a rich, eclectic
"playing field," where things ànd humans act... or not. This undoubtedly poses a serious challenge
to the future philosophy of technology: how can we come to grips with this "field" In this
presentation we sketch two wholly different, but strikingly convergent approaches to the problem, by
comparing and contrasting the "hybrid" concepts in Bruno Latour and "media philosopher"
Marshall McLuhan. As far as similarity goes, both attend to phenomena that escaped attention "up
to now": on the one hand, the workings of media and technologies; on the other, the proliferation of
"actants" or "hybrids," possibly human and "nonhuman" at the same time. Man and medium,
subject and object shouldn't be viewed as opposing, separate entities, but as elements - solely
discernible in theory - of interdependancies, networks. Both thinkers employ literary means to
examine what's happening in the midst of these "connections." Nevertheless, their views diverge as
they propagate different perspectives on time, and assess the "problem" with hybrids in quite distinct
ways. Yet they meet once more in their suggestions for dealing with it: scenarios of "slow growth,"
becoming conscious of the 'politics of things.' They show us that there's more politics around than
we'd expect, and hand us clues to handle this diversity. As a final word, we consider if this insight
might in one way or another enhance political commitment and involvement. But especially we ask
ourselves what these 'politics of things' may mean for philosophy - a discipline traditionally
concerned with ideas, thoughts, "nonthings." When things do act and "practice" politics, aren't we
to rethink our notions of philosophy (of technology)? Aren't we in need of some 'hybrid energy' - as
the McLuhan idiom goes - in theory itself?
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPhilosophers' Rally
PublisherStichting voor Studieverenigingen Filosofie
Publication statusPublished - 12 May 2009
EventFinds and Results from the Swedish Cyprus Expedition: A Gender Perspective at the Medelhavsmuseet - Stockholm, Sweden
Duration: 21 Sep 200925 Sep 2009

Publication series

NamePhilosophers' Rally


ConferenceFinds and Results from the Swedish Cyprus Expedition: A Gender Perspective at the Medelhavsmuseet


  • politics
  • media
  • Latour
  • McLuhan
  • Actor Network Theory
  • Philosophy of Technology


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