Auden & ANT

It already is some time ago when I raised the idea of Auden’s literary universe to be a kind of Actor-Network. As I still think this is an interesting idea, but as I cannot go into it in the context of my final essay, I want to go a bit into it in a post at our blog.

Definition ANT

As described by Wiebe Bijker, “[t]he actor-network approach, associated with Callon, Latour, and Law, describes sociotechnical ensembles as heterogeneous networks of human and nonhuman actors” (Bijker, 1995, p. 251). Furthermore, the development of a network is the result of translation-efforts by actors in a given network to move other actors to different positions and thereby translating the meaning of these actors as well (p. 251).

According to Callon, the composition and functioning of an actor-network is extremely complex in that dynamics of society are described in a different manner than those usually used by sociologists. As such ANT describes given heterogeneous associations in a dynamic way, abandoning the constricted framework of typical sociological analysis of limiting relationships to a restricted range of sociological categories (Callon, 1987, p. 100). In this sense ANT can be described to be hypothetical and speculative in character because it simplifies reality and constantly creates new entities in a network (Callon, pp. 96-100).

Each network is composed of a multitude of entities which stand in mutual relationships to each other and which can redefine elements in new ways. In this connection Callon identifies two key-characteristics of these networks: First, there is a mechanism of simplification. This means that in theory reality is infinite, but in practice actors always limit their associations to a series of discrete entities in order to be a bale to cope with an infinitely complex world. However, this simplification never is guaranteed, it must be tested (Callon, pp. 93-94). The second characteristic of a network as identified by Callon is, the mechanism of juxtaposition: A simplified entity can only exist in a certain context, which means, in juxtaposition to other entities to which it is linked. If one element is removed, the whole structure of the network is affected and consequently changes. Hence, it is the context, the various relations between entities that give significance to each one entity (pp. 94-95).

In this connection John Law emphasizes that “(…) entities take their form and acquire their attributes as a result of their relations with other entities. In this scheme of things entities have no inherent qualities: essentialist divisions are thrown on the bonfire of dualism” (Law, 1999, p. 3). Thus, entities are produced in relations and they are performed in, by and through those relations which effectively means that everything is uncertain and reversible. In this sense, ANT has no fixed points or identity, it transforms itself. Because of this characteristic, Bruno Latour argues that ANT actually cannot be understood as a theory, but rather as a method of learning from actors by ‘following’ them. In this we can learn from actors without imposing on them a priori definitions of their world-building capacities (LAtour, 2005, pp. 19-20). Thus, similar to Law, Latour points out that ANT is an anti-essentialist movement; by following circulations we do not get definite entities but insights in what, how and why entities develop in a certain way (pp. 20-21).

Having tried to provide a basic description of what ANT is and what it does, I now want to have a look if these definitions can be transferred to Auden’s specific style of writing visible in his works.

Auden’s literary universe as ANT?

As I have laid down, one crucial characteristic of an ANT is that it is made of heterogeneous networks of human and nonhuman actors. I think we definitely can find this idea in the realm of Auden’s works; for in his prose he discusses aspects of both human and non-human actors. As such he crucially differentiates between the (modern) human world and the natural world (animals, flowers etc.). However, importantly those two worlds do not exist in complete isolation; it is human experience that provides a bridge between the two realms. For instance, in Auden’s essay The Virgin and The Dynamo (1962), he argues that the feeling of love for another person partly is the result of the natural world of involuntary, recurrent events (the inborn human drive for reproduction), but it also is the result of the historical world of voluntary, unique events (our personal choice of a specific person).

However, this ANT characteristic of Auden’s literary works hold not only valuable in terms of their content. Also the formal-theoretical construction of his works follows this line. In this connection I want to refer to the example of Auden’s idea on the act of writing a poem. He describes this activity as being analogous to “(…) God’s activity in creating man after his own image. It is not an imitation, for if it were so, the poet would be able to create like God ex nihilo; instead, he requires pre-existing occasions of feeling and a pre-existing language out of which to create” (Auden, 1962, p. 70). In this sense each poem is a reflection of aspects of evil and good in an attempt of verbal analogy to a paradisal state of harmony (p. 71). The reconciliation of these contradictory feelings in a paradisal condition is Auden’s aim in writing. However, one has to be aware that in each one work of him this paradisal state chages, it is not fixed in meaning but depended on a specific situation, namely only one moment in time.

In this connection we can understand Auden to reject any essentialist foundation of human experience. As I have laid down earlier, this characteristic is crucial in the workings of ANT’s. Furthermore, this means that for Auden in the act of writing a poem, ever new relations between entities in the human and the natural world are created. By describing or ‘following’ for instance the behaviour of mice (Talking to Mice, 1971) or plants (Progress, 1972) a hypothetical and speculative relation is derived simplifying reality. In this connection we also can identify the aspect of simplification and juxtaposition, as emphasized by Callon, in Auden’s literary works. For Auden generally likes to categorize behaviour and aspect of our world in general. This procedure truly enables him to cope with an infinitely complex world. However, what is crucial in this respect is that for him, those simplification never are guaranteed; in his works he first creates these entities but at the same time he also questions them to then enable the reader to ‘find his own way out’. In this context the mechanism of juxtaposition plays an important role in Auden’s works; he consciously juxtaposes entities as emerging in his works as a whole. This means that in his literary network every poem or essay can be understood as standing in mutual relation to each other. This aspect becomes very obvious to people who are not familiar with Auden’s works. When those people start reading his prose they cannot immediately make sense of issues he is addressing, because those aspects (most of the time) as being visible in one poem are very much interconnected to thoughts as developed in other poems written at an earlier or later stage of his life.

As such, one can argue that Auden’s literary universe is a very complex one, with the writing of a new piece his whole literary network was affected and subject to change. As a result we are left with uncertain and reversible notions, Auden does not provide any kind of fixed points but instead creates room for transformation. Hence, by delving into the Auden-ANT his readers get insights in how and why human and non-human entities develop in a certain way. Therefore I argue that Auden’s work truly can be understood as being an ANT.


Bijker, W.E. (1995). Sociohistorical Technology Studies. In Jasanoff, S., Markle, G.E., Petersen, J.C. & Pinch, T. (Eds.), Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. London: Sage.

Callon in Bijker, Hughes & Pinch (1987). The Social Construction of Technological Systems. New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA. [etc.]: MIT Press.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: an introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford [etc.]: Oxford University Press.

Law, J. & Hassard, J. (Eds.). (1999). Actor Network Theory and after. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

W. H. Auden (1972). Progress.

W. H. Auden (1972). Talking to Mice.

W. H. Auden (1962). The Virgin and The Dynamo.

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