Paris: Invisible City and Actor-Network Theory
Latour, Bruno, Emelie Hermant, and Patricia Reed. "Paris: Ville Invisible | Paris: Invisible City." Paris: Ville Invisible/Paris: Invisible City. Site Web De Bruno Latour | Bruno Latour's Web Site, 2004. Web. 18 Jan. 2011. <http://www.bruno-latour.fr/virtual/index.html>.
A combined work of visual art and sociology, Paris: Invisible City, is a web-based document that works toward orchestrating the methodology Latour proposes in Reassembling the Social, namely Actor-Network-Theory, as a mapped hypertext. A collaboration among Latour who wrote the text, Emelie Hermant who took the photographs; and Patricia Reed who handled the web design, this piece presents an overlapping of the multiple gestures of the gaze, administered uncritically by the visitor to Paris and vigilantly by the invisible support systems of the French capital; these “internal” glances by those involved in the infrastructure of municipal functioning are ones that both make all other gazes possible and yet administer as well their own kind of view, as modes of surveillance, contingent to the proper carrying out of daily life. The combined semiotic/material gazes that Latour’s project maps are much more elaborate and encompassing than those based on any single instance of gazing, and the project works toward describing the nature of these varied and multiple views as well as significance they render. Through this we see that Latour’s theory includes the collaborative/combined viewing positions beyond the three persons creating the document that is Paris: Invisible City, to include the people, routes, streets, bureaucracy, and cafes of Paris, creating an oligopticon that includes all actors involved in the relationships of the Parisian socius, however long-standing or fleeting they may be.
Entering the site, we are confronted with a soft-focus image of a table containing a collection of models of the Eiffel Tower, painted black and positioned in front of a rack of postcards. Iconic and kitschy, these objects introduce the first layer of experience of the place, where a casual observer engages a city that is at once an object, “the subject of so many glossy books,” and an actor with history and movement that evades casual regard: this multi-actor/place/idea we find establishes an “oligoptic” view, picturing the relationships that comprise the City from many positions, through varied lenses, and without expectations that reduce and dismiss, or miss entirely, what is not readily visible. Further this view as a hypertext is destabilized as merely the first page of a website, by both the addition of printer’s crop marks at the corners of the introductory image, and the addition of a pdf file offering the complete text of the work, detached from its context as a hyperlinked component of the website.
In his essay “Taxonomadism,” Talen Memmott discusses various types of digital poetry, carefully demonstrating that difference rather than similarity is the most effective way to critically understand texts historically defined as hypertext, cybertext, technotext, click poems, and web art, to name a few. The key is to understand that the writing/picturing/organizing technologies involved in these works lend themselves to constant, shifting reinvention, and this material fact has signifying effects on the content of any work utilizing them for production. Presenting Paris: Invisible City as a web-based work, rather than as a long poster mapping the knowledge trajectories Latour has used for other projects, presents this work as both navigable as a complex and yet mappable labyrinth and as a text that regards the viewer/reader as an actor. Nevertheless, this work also disrupts its own hypertextuality by taking the viewer out of the confines of the internet and nodding to the printed book, either subtly with the crop marks or vigorously with the pdf file, an object which launches another software program all together and takes on a much more traditional “codex” presentation; in this way Latour and his collaborators offer something that disrupts even the “liquid delimiters” describing web-based work or “creative cultural practice through applied technology” (Memmott 295).
Continuing with the introductory page, over the top half of the image lies translucent type spelling out “PARIS” and over that with less transparency is the phrase “VILLE INVISIBLE,” declaring that the touristic gaze consuming Eiffel Tower salt shakers or book ends or letter openers is about to collide with that which is normally rendered imperceptible by the assumptions and blindnesses informing the unattended glance of the consumer or the opinionated knowledge gatherer. This work will investigate and map what is not readily seen, even when one is looking. Because Latour’s Actor-Network Theory is a methodology for understanding how we produce knowledge as much as it is a theory for representing sociological data, the title itself tells the viewer/reader immediately that something not seen, something contributing to the entire notion of “Paris,” will be explored and potentially revealed or rendered invisible in another way; the title itself is an notification as to what must be attended to understand both the way of looking/reading and the type of gaze that that will develop toward a singular and multiple map of one aspect of the city. We are to understand now that the gaze becomes an active gesture, although at this point, how that gesture is to be expressed is still invisible.
Just to finish describing the first page, across the middle of the image, the site offers the possibility of engaging the work in French, English, Italian, or Castillian, a strangely nomadic, polyglottal series that at once evades the standard European language offerings (French, English, Italian, Spanish and German) found on many sites addressing an international or at least European Union audience, and at the same time hones a specificity that might be related to the history of the languages of Spain, to the politics informing choice of linguistic assimilation, or to the physical and linguistic geographies of Europe as they might be differentiated from the linguistic geographies of the Americas. Considering that the collaborators call this piece an opera, the choice to publish it in so many translations is interesting. Presumably written by Latour in French, the language options function as a “subtitling” or translation of the kind one sees on video monitors at contemporary staged productions of classical opera. The texts rely further on the nuanced engagement of the translator, whom one must again consider an actor in the Latourian sense of the term. An actor is defined by Latour as “a unique event, totally irreducible to any other” (Latour 153); offering a way to engage with the work through the avenues of various languages, active looking/gestural gazing, and multiply navigating the data/narrative the website attempts on many levels to acknowledge the way in which actors, including the reader, “are rendering virtualities actual” (155).
Certainly considering himself an actor in this particular project, Latour makes a very pointed and material relationship between his own surname and the iconic architectural element that semiotically stands in for “Paris.” Repeated representations of the Eiffel Tower, or “La Tour” as it is called locally is not a simple adherence to the kitschy semiotics of popular culture, but also a material reference to the author himself. This kind of intertextual embodiment perhaps serves as a hyperlink for Latour where sociology also functions as a kind of operatic and even problematic autobiography. Because the city, the tower, the architect, and the world fair for which it was constructed would all be considered actors in Latour’s schema, perhaps he further identifies this network of relations in terms of kinship and historical parallelism. Regardless, this additional gesture before one has even “entered” the site, become a participant in navigating the labyrinthian cartography of these multiple gazes, one must understand that every element is engaged in what is revealed and there are no mere placeholders “realizing potentialities” and replaceable by any other placeholder. Every element has a kind of relevance however mobile or fleeting, and “if they act, they leave some trace” (150).
Now equipped to enter the site and engage in the mapping of the gaze, after one chooses a language through which to experience the opera, one navigates the work as a diagram. Page one, if the site were a book, shows a man seated before a table on which a map of the city is spread. He is cropped so that just his hands and tie are visible with the emphasis instead on the small iconic blocks arranged on top of the map, with which he appears to be working. The credits and the title of the piece are overlaid on this image. The entire image is dissected by a white grid and when the mouse moves to a grid box that portion of the image enlarges, appearing to offer a link to something: that is they appear “clickable;” executing this gesture however has no effect, creating a dead end before the navigation has begun. This kind of disruption in expectation is an interesting way to begin the site. Again, the gesture informs the gaze: expectations for where a typical hypertext movement will lead are disrupted and the reader is required to look again. Further the gaze is continually expressed as a gestural move of its own, one that is both stuck and that must reinvestigate the image, unsettling expectations.
A bar is situated to the left with four stripes of color, in which a secondary title appears when the mouse rolls over. They are numbered one to four and further clicking on them executes the “acts” of the opera, the progressive narrative of the sociology. This is a kind of structuring that Espen Aarseth references when he speaks of labyrinths as a model hypertext can, ideally, evoke. Finding a complexity of definition in ancient and medieval labyrinths lacking in those from the Renaissance, Aarseth describes two types of mazes: “the unicursal, where there is only one path, winding and turning, usually toward a center, and the multicursal, where the maze wanderer faces a series of choices, or bivia” (6). This description, Aarseth argues, allows a work to be non-linear, forking, and chaotic and to offer a teleos that might be winding and convoluted but that eventually leads to a “rewarding” conclusion. Aarseth evokes the possibility of an “harmonic duality where the figurative likeness of the narrative text as unicursal coexist[s] with the tropology of multicursal aspects, such as repetition, interlaced narrative threads, prolepsis, and so forth” (7), allowing for the rich complexity of textuality that a hyperlinked artifact can generate by virtue of its multiple and mobile structure. So unlike a traditional opera, structured for the audience in acts that follow one upon the other, Latour’s sociological opera presents both of these models of labyrinth. It is presented with linear sequencing that can be followed or ignored where the navigation and therefore building of the narrative depends largely on the due diligence of the operator. Further, internal to the linearity is a complex of signifying movements like bounces and zoom-effects, overlaps and translucencies, and linked pathways that either open to further pathways or form repetitive and unstable gestures that loop until another move is made by the reader. This second structure, while contained by the pathway of the map to the left of the page, is a kind of multicursal labyrinth that engages and moves away from the linear narrative at the same time.
To complete the basic structural description, at the bottom of each page, a text appears in a bar that expands when clicked to cover the photograph. This is the lexia of blocked data that Landow considers a component of hypertextuality. It describes the project, presenting both the touristic and superficial navigation of Paris as a travel destination, as well as the more complex but dull bureaucratic functions that make it possible for the “City of Light” to be available to the gaze of the sightseer, the artist, the sociologist, the lover, the hacker, and the worker. The text does not direct the gaze, but inquires about it, overlaying the image in such a way that each becomes another plateau, both surface and trajectory, informing the gaze. Since the links in the image stay active after the text is launched, the signifying movements of flickering and bouncing for example, continue when moving the mouse to scroll the text, simultaneously activating the looking actions involved in the image-text and the word-text.
Getting to the navigation of the detailed piece and proceeding in the unicursal manner, one clicks on the top bar, “1. Traversing,” and begins to navigate something that looks like a Metro line diagram with stops marked by squares. These “stops” are called Plans in the vernacular of the work and present sociology as cartography through the site: a map of the network of actions, semantic and material, offering a certain kind of look, but also looking gesture, at the city, one that seems familiar but which is quite unknown to the tourist or the resident in the end. A scrolling film spool depicts a panorama of a portion of the city, without the iconic towers or churches in the distance and with a kind of speed that one experiences riding the Metro when it is above ground and the landscape is observed only fleetingly before the train is underground again. This is a disorienting gaze. Landmarks are not clear. It is France, Paris even, but where in this famous city are we? It is difficult to locate oneself and one must trust to the stylized map on the left that mimics that issued by the transit authority. This beginning movement through the landscape characterizes the kind of gaze required to see the invisible. While the panoramic implies a panoptic glance, the viewing position does not appear static. Moving the mouse into the space of the scrolling panorama alternately slows the scrolling and makes it move in another direction. The image is superimposed on graphic indicators that imply a paste up board or mechanicals; this again references the design process, this time one utilized, before digital page layout programs, to create camera-ready art. Revealing layers of the apparatus that makes presentation possible (film sprockets, page layout indicators) offers a moment where the viewer must become aware of a layer of functioning, acting as it were, that is normally not visible, in fact preferably invisible. It is now revealed and issued forth as an aesthetic element.
Working through Plans 1-19 in this section involves navigating both static images and an invisible grid that forces a transitory and destabilized view: moving the mouse and clicking compel a change in images that involves bouncing, moving from macro to micro views, and doubling or blurring of subjects in favor of an ambiguous presentation of many objects that might be maps, function as maps, or could be mistaken for maps. Often iconic images of couples in cafes, leaning in close over tables are bounced out in favor of the screens of city bureaucrats managing the flow of water to the espresso machines and the replacement of signage apparently stolen regularly by the gazing tourists. It is difficult to fix the gaze in this case and this contributes to the “oligoptic” vision that Latour finds necessary to see what is invisible. Because this vision is not available from a fixed point of view and requires a willingness to experience disorientation, destablization, even nausea, it evokes the kind of “non-trivial effort” required to read what Aarseth calls the “ergodic” text. In this case though, the effort begins with the movement of the cursor but immediately activates somewhat random actions on the part of the images, which are difficult to replicate. While many of them are redundant, the same image resolving at the end of each bouncing sequence for example, the logic of the action that occurs between the reader’s effort and the settling of the image movement is not as clear as the grid in which the images are organized. In fact, it appears to foil the grid while at the same time functioning inside its parameters. This is the multiple logic of the harmonic labyrinth activated by various choices, random and deliberate, made by the viewer.
Latour’s text is always available, hovering at the bottom of the screen, ready to contribute to the travels of the gaze the opera observes and wonders about, before it moves on to other songs, vistas, gestures, cartographies. For example, the first text associated with Plan 1 begins “ ‘You can find anything at the Samaritaine’” and it ends with “’But where’s the Centre Pompidou’”. This is another moment where Latour uses both intertextual and locational relations to unfold something unexpected. La Samaritaine is a fin de siecle department store with elegant architecture and situated in the First Arrondisement, a kind of gateway to the iconic luxury brands associated with French design. The building itself has a relation to imperial France at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. This basic information about the building, the geography, and the shopping industry transversally intersects with the reference to la samaritaine, or the Good Samaritan from tales of the life of Christ, but also to the Arabic region and religion from which the tribe of peoples described by this identity originate. While the exact region merely neighbors French colonial northern Africa, the relationship of France to the region cannot be escaped entirely due to geographical slippage anymore than the notion of shopping in the 1st Arrondisement can be avoided even though La Samaritaine has been closed for renovations since 2005. So beginning the travels from this point signifies more than the tourist destination; it implicates the colonizing gaze along with the consuming. A gaze that is reflexively, self-consciously, critical of its own activity is certainly a strange kind of looking; what kind of play occurs when the activity of looking understands its own perspective to be sticky and fraught with history, desire, oppression? The gaze is not retired in favor of irony or blindness; for Latour it appears to be activated further as it maps its own semantic and physical trajectories, as burdened as they may be.
Observing the city in this methodical but narratively haphazard way, plotting a course with the help of touristic maps but also via the unseen informatics that keep the city clean, demarcated, and moving with a degree of order to accommodate ten million residents and perhaps three times that many annual visitors, Latour and his collaborators present a view that is both scientific and aesthetic. It further opens the oligoptic panorama, and while not all-inclusive, it allows observation to occur at many levels, both physical and discursive, and through many kinds of eyes. Those performing the labor of surveillance, like police, traffic administrators, and writers, are overlaid with those surveilling as play: some are narrow and focused; some are broad and sweeping; some are informed by computer renderings and real-time connections; others are shaped by dreams and desire. The network that these many types of gazes create by overlapping only begins to address the kind of circulation of information, the channels through which any given actor observes and is observed. Power structures are unveiled that are certainly not the purview of a visitor or even a long-time resident. Further, by flattening the form of observation performed as labor with that performed as play, that which is detailed with that which is sweeping, Latour opens trajectories for further inquiry into how “the former tubes of the pneumatic dispatch system” might convey relationships, constantly undergoing reconstruction, and continually returning “to incarnation, to virtualities.” Clearly the gaze is not fixed and neither is the sociological functioning that might be observed or noticed by any given actor.
Latour does not propose an answer to how one might evade power structures coalescing around moments of information, transportation, distribution, and observation; rather he offers, through his collaboration with a Swiss artist/web designer interested in experimental curation and multi-actor aesthetic interventions, working and living nomadically from Japan to Canada to Germany; and a Canadian photographer who is really a fiber artist interested in digital media. Together with Latour, these multi-sited actors occupy the ambiguous space of artist/tourist/scientist/bureaucrat visiting and documenting, mapping and rendering the City of Light like many other artists/visitors before them, from Picasso to Hemmingway.
By rendering a kind of affect of displacement and enchantment, a modern dream-space as experienced by hackers and reporters, and returning through their structured relationality, an active, ricocheting cartography of visual sociology, data gathering, observation, and reporting, this work presents a model for epistemological engagement that evades teleological understanding. Performative and irregular, unpredictable and non-heirarchical, the research and depiction involved in Paris: Invisible City does not complete a cartographic rendering of the city, but instead incites the act of questioning through a gentle but rigorous navigation of actions, networks, objects. Embracing uncertainty, Latour tries to follow his own advice and allow the actors (people, cities, objects, movements, crimes) to speak, telling the project (also an actor in the process) what is informing their existence.
This piece puts Actor-Network-Theory into practice, building a tension among aesthetics, scientific inquiry, and discourse. Bringing to bear the material and semiotic engagement desired by ANT, the work moves summarily though not superficially through a section of the city, one that notices the personal and the bureaucratic, objects and people, technologies and images. As the text progresses across the four “Lines,” framed by the cyber-window and reiterated by the photographs, the sociological study unfolds. Often repetitive, the piece works toward movement that, while not entirely linear, does advance a perspective, which reveals, without summarizing, various trajectories of association and their related vistas. Again, detached from teleological drives, the work maintains the intention of illuminating without abridgment, describing without explaining, and proposing without answering. The hyperlinked, layered, animated structure comprising Paris: Invisible City, functions to transform scientific inquiry into an odyssey of wonder and to activate the notion that all information is transformation, key to ANT. By offering aesthetic practice a place in relation to the informatic elements of scientific inquiry, the project galvanizes the contribution of all actors, begins to articulate the ways in which every gaze, every rendering, every engagement affects the territory under investigation. Curiously, Latour is not satisfied with only the web piece: he also issues a pdf, available on the Paris: Invisible City” index page or through his main website, www.bruno-latour.fr. The format is that of galley proofs, clean, printable, and bindable. Divested of the images and the movement, the poetry of Latour’s translated prose becomes rather more self-conscious than it was when those relations were in place. More than fifty pages long, this text feels oddly hubristic and detached from Latour’s project of relational, moving sociology. It seems to represent a moment where Latour forgets his own theoretical practice as he romances (exclusively privileging) his own prose. Further, it loses the multiple uncertainty,
As an active, participatory and operatic movement, the cybertext demonstrates the force of various trajectories inscribed by nomadic movement that is both unpredictable and ephemeral. The piece itself speaks of flattening the layers, visible and invisible, not to homogenize them but to reveal them in relation to one another, through transparency, overlap, and moving dimensionality. This is part of the descriptive methodology of ANT and it is well-served by the form of the hyper-text/image. Additionally the piece is connected by virtue of structural association to every other data set about Paris, bureaucracy, ocularism, “the gaze,” and tourism on the web simply by being part of the “network” or data field. All trajectories intersect and link together, building new convenings where description can reveal potential ontologies. Concretizing a single aspect, for the purposes of clarity, repetition, or emphasis begins the striation that privileges certain voices or gesture over others in a way that makes the work less interesting, less complex, and more didactic.
 I wonder if their choice to call this work an opera is in any way related to the operaistic movements in Italy in the 1960s and 70s and which have continued to be important to late Marxist activitists like Antonio Negri. Concerned with a kind of protest through small actions and a concept of living labor, post-operaism might be interesting relative to ANT as it would engage another level of action and another concept of actors whereby hierarchies are, even momentarily, destabilized.