In the spring of 2019 I wrote an entry on the relation between film and personal worldview. How can a film inform the way someone theorizes and thinks about the world?
How Existential is ANT (Actor-Network Theory)?
‘Theory’ between Deleuze, Law and Enter the Void
I recently read Ian Hodders take on Bruno Latours Actor-Network Theory (ANT). I was already familiar with Latour but my knowledge of ANT was only superficial. I recall that I was intrigued by the approach [a much better term than ‘theory’, if I follow John Law]; however, I felt unable to really grasp the core of ANT in a text that I would mainly remember for its fundamental passages on ‘things’ and entanglement as entrapment.
With my initial hesitance towards ANT in mind, it was refreshing to read John Law’s Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics (2007) only three weeks later. This text was brought in by another student [in a course on Materiality in the study of religion, red.], who justly anticipated that the insights of Law could possibly provide a take on ANT that is less abstract and more concrete. In fact, this entry will serve to explain how an interview and a film brought me back to ANT (and additionally, to Deleuzes nomadic philosophy) as something more than mere ‘theory’. The main question here is as concrete as it is ambiguous: how ‘existential’ are ANT and nomadic philosophy?
One of the magazines that I read every month is ‘De Filmkrant’ [Dutch]. This magazine entails reviews, interviews and longer articles on current cinema releases. Most arthouse theaters in the Netherlands offer free copies. When I opened edition #418 (March 2019), my eye immediately fell on the recurring rubric ‘Humans of Film Amsterdam’. The idea is that a citizen of Amsterdam highlights one particular film that has been important for him or her and tells why that is. I always love to read these short texts, because they move from the domain of opinions into the domain of meanings, effects and life perspectives. The films that are mentioned here eminently matter to people.
This is my English translation of the Dutch piece:
‘’The film that speaks to me the most is Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void (2009), starring Paz de la Huerta and Nathaniel Brown. Brown plays a French man called Oscar, a drug dealer, who lives in Tokio with his sister Linda. When Oscar is betrayed by a friend, he dies, but his floating soul remains to observe the actions and the life of his sister. I like this film because Gaspar Noé and I think in a similar way. I don’t think in straight lines and the film is very psychedelic and non-linear. It reminds me of my dreams. Moreover, I believe that Noé uses a postmodern theory that I appreciate, which is called Rhizome, a term coined by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. In essence this theory is about embracing multiple perspectives and viewpoints rather than perpetuating linear and chronological successions. I am exactly like that. I look beyond the things and the people standing in my way. It is a pleasure to look at the world through a broad and ever widening lens. I mean, why would we have to set everything in stone? Why would everything have to move in one direction? There are many different destinations. You can choose whatever you want, you don’t have to stick to anything. At this moment I’m an exchange student. Before a Dutch student lived at my house in Russia and now I’m living here in Amsterdam. I absolutely love this city. Everything’s free and open here, which is precisely what I needed.’’
For this girl, who remains anonymous, Rhizome informs and (re)shapes a way of living and a mode of looking at the world. Through the postmodern vision of the filmmaker, film and theory come together, causing both Enter the Void and Rhizome to be much more than mere ‘entertainment’ and ‘theory’. Any elaboration on the film itself is beyond the scope of this entry, but I will explain how the Filmkrant text paved the way for my main question.
Deleuze is the key link between the interview and Law’s take on ANT. Law states that ANT can be conceived as an empirical version of Deleuzes nomadic philosophy (1988), adding that Latour considered the construction actant-rhizomes instead of actor-networks. There is thus an intrinsic link between ANT and Deleuzes poststructuralist philosophy.
‘’Successful puzzle-solving extends the culture, which thus reflects both physical reality and social practices. But success is a practical matter: the issue is, does the paradigm work or not? In this way of thinking the absolute truth of a theory is irrelevant.’’
Law’s discussion of ANT matches the girl’s view on Enter the Void. ‘’Theory is embedded and extended in empirical practice, and practice itself is necessarily theoretical’’, Law writes. The interview demonstrates how a theory can instantly become practical, or, in a more rigorous sense, existential. I argue that the girl’s discussion of rhizome is nothing less than a way of seeing, a mode of living. Since we are eventually working within a Religious Studies context, I would be interested to consider whether this line of thought could be labeled ‘religious’. ‘Religious’ is not meant to be imply normativity here – to the contrary. This is a not a question of categorization, but one of comparison and similarity. If we would, for a moment, conceive of religion as an entrance to a way of living that is both existential and practical/material, Law’s discussion of ANT through the double lens of Deleuze and Latour certainly opens up to the more personal domains of human practice and meaning-making.
The empirical examples that Law uses are concrete yet distant. The ideas shared in the interview, however, are both concrete and nigh. Translation is an insecure process, and thus she questions the necessity of translating (setting things in stone) after all. The girl in the interview believes that different (relations between) humans and things may be loosely rather than rigidly associated. They extend in time and space. She is looking for contact zones and spaces of circulation. She feels free because there are no boundaries.
the street interview in mind, one could possibly move beyond theory and do anthropology. In the end,
I did not really need the theory to approach reality; instead, it was reality
that brought me back to theory.
 J. Law, ‘’Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics’’, 2.
 Law: ‘’We are no longer dealing with construction, social or otherwise: there is no stable prime-mover, social or individual, to construct anything, no builder, no puppeteer’’. J. Law, ‘’Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics’’, 13.
 J. Law, ‘’Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics’’, 4.
 J. Law, ‘’Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics’’, 6.
 ANT assumes that nothing has reality or form outside the enactments of these relations between humans and things. J. Law, ‘’Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics’’, 2.
 J. Law, ‘’Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics’’, 14.