Escaping the Trepidation Trap

In the first sentence of his chapter “On Recalling ANT,” Bruno Latour lists four things that “do not work” with actor-network theory: “the word actor, the word network, the word theory and the hyphen! Four nails in the coffin” (p. 15). Apart from its bluntness, this sentence stands out because Latour is one of the creators of actor-network theory.

Any theory has its proponents and critics. One person finds a particular theory useful to inform a worldview or structure a research project, while another finds that theory bunk and proclaims so loudly. Such is the world of academia. We read what others have written, we think about it, sometimes supporting that thinking by studying something empirically, and we write. Often, our writing engages directly with what others have written — affirming, refuting, re-interpreting, critiquing the work of others, taking their work in a new direction, arguing that their work is flawed.

It is a world I happily inhabit, largely because of this focus on writing. I wrote poems and novels as a child, studied journalism as an undergraduate, and consider writing for the public a core part of my personal mission. I’m a published writer, and I don’t fear being published. I entered a PhD program in part to connect my writing with theory, yet I also approached this work with some trepidation.

Actor-network theory is well known and widespread. Actor-network theory is also recent enough that the people who created are still alive. Meaning they can see and respond to the ways that others use or critique their theory. While reading “On Recalling ANT,” I envisioned myself in Latour’s shoes. How would I feel if I invested countless hours into developing a theory, only to see others misunderstand or misinterpret it, or take it in directions that go against its original intention? How would I respond if people challenged my work or pointed out its flaws? Publishing theoretically informed research felt more vulnerable to me than other types of writing because it meant opening myself to critiques that my thinking was wrong. Which to me felt tantamount to critiquing my existence.

Last year, I wrote a paper in which I took a theory in a different direction. I wasn’t sure whether I correctly applied the theory, but the paper survived the peer review process and was published. Shortly after publication, I was invited to present the paper at a workshop that the theory’s founder helped organize. If I had applied the theory incorrectly, I’d find out now. The theorist gently critiqued a few other presentations, but mine proceeded unscathed. Though relieved, I wondered what would happen the next time I used a theory in my work. And the next time. Approaching my research with trepidation seemed exhausting.

Earlier this year, I found my way out of the trepidation trap. I was at another workshop, this time sitting in the audience listening to a theorist whose work has resonated with me for years. While summarizing her research, she remarked, offhandedly, “I’m still figuring out” the theory.

This stunned me. This theorist has published books and articles on this theory; her name is almost synonymous with it. If she’s still figuring it out, that means that any of us who use the theory are also figuring it out. And that means there’s no one “correct” way to interpret or apply the theory.

Someone may dedicate their entire professional life to developing a particular idea; indeed, their name may become synonymous with the idea. But ideas don’t belong to one person. The acknowledgements page in any book reveals the multitude of people involved in developing an idea. And, in the spirit of ANT, we must not forget that non-human actors also play a role. The library, my computer, and my glasses deserve as much credit as the people around me for bringing ideas to fruition.

So if ideas exist separately from authors, then critiques of ideas exist separately from critiques of authors. There’s no reason for me to equate a critique of my thinking to a critique of my existence. I escape the trepidation trap by letting go. I let go of the assumption that thoughts define me. I let go of the sense that there’s a “right” answer. And most important, I let go of the fear.

After re-reading the theory I used in the paper last year, and reading other work that engaged with the theory, I recently wrote another paper on this theory. In it, I critiqued my prior use of the theory and offered a more nuanced analysis. I felt comfortable doing so because theoretically informed research is not some pedestal I’m trying to climb onto. It’s a messy, iterative practice, just like everything else in life. We read, we write, we engage, we reflect, we read more, we write more, we revise, we clarify. We change. Bruno Latour himself moved away from the social constructionist views that pervaded his earlier work.

But separating the idea from the author is not a license to disengage. On the contrary — Latour ended his chapter, “On Recalling ANT” with this:

“[Y]ou cannot do to ideas what auto manufacturers do with badly conceived cars: you cannot recall them all by sending advertisements to the owners, retrofitting them with improved engines or parts, and sending them back again, all for free. Once launched in this unplanned and uncharted experiment in collective philosophy there is no way to retract and once again be modest. The only solution is to do what Victor Frankenstein did not do, that is, not to abandon the creature to its fate but continue all the way in developing its strange potential” (p. 24).

And that strange potential includes possibilities for illumination, not just openings for critique. One person recently told me they found the theory paper I published last year helpful because they had never thought of using the theory in that way. And that, more than anything else, is why I do this work in the first place.

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