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Marketing Theory http://mtq.sagepub.com/ Consumer culture theory (re)visits actor−network theory: Flattening consumption studies Domen Bajde Marketing Theory 2013 13: 227 originally published online 5 March 2013 DOI: 10.1177/1470593113477887 The online version of this article can be found at: http://mtq.sagepub.com/content/13/2/227

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Article

Consumer culture theory (re)visits actor–network theory: Flattening consumption studies

Marketing Theory 13(2) 227–242 ª The Author(s) 2013 Reprints and permission: sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/1470593113477887 mtq.sagepub.com

Domen Bajde University of Ljubljana, Slovenia

Abstract The vocabulary and tactics developed by actor–network theory (ANT) can shed light on several ontological and epistemological challenges faced by consumer culture theory. Rather than providing ready-made theories or methods, our translation of ANT puts forward a series of questions and propositions that, captured through the metaphor of ‘flattening’, invite a rethinking of how ontologies of consumption—its subjects, objects and devices, content and contexts, materiality and socioculturality—are enacted through precarious networks of heterogeneous relations. Keywords ANT, CCT, assemblage, ontology, epistemology

Introduction Consumer culture theory (CCT) and actor–network theory (ANT), two self-proclaimed theories claiming not to be theories (Arnould and Thompson, 2007; Latour, 2005), share an aversion to nomothetic formalism and an appreciation of the complexity, multiplicity and heterogeneity of social life. The paths they take to pursue these inclinations overlap, but also diverge. We approach ANT as ‘a disparate family of material-semiotic tools, sensibilities and methods of analysis’ (Law, 2009: 141) that are, above all, generative of alternative conceptions of social action and ordering. ANT’s vocabularies, metaphors and tactics are productive not so much due to their deconstructive thrust, but rather due to their insistence for and assistance in ontological and epistemological ‘reform’ of social science.

Corresponding author: Domen Bajde, Faculty of Economics, University of Ljubljana, Ljubljana, Slovenia. Email: [email protected]

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We pursue this invitation with a humble intent to provide a manageable, if inescapably partial, account of ANT. Our accounting begins with a brief outline of ‘Latourian metaphysics’ (Harman, 2009) and Law’s work on ANT’s epistemology. In the second part, we reflect upon ‘our’ assemblage of ANT and its potential contributions to the assemblage called CCT. Captured through the metaphor of ‘flattening’, we see this contribution in rethinking how ontologies of consumption, namely consumption’s subjects, objects and devices, content and contexts and materiality and socioculturality, are enacted in consumption practice and research. Although we possess neither a comprehensive or stable fix on ANT’s ontology and epistemology nor a fully developed idea of how to ‘apply’ them to CCT, we believe that dabbling with ANT can help us pose meaningful questions and tentative propositions concerning the epistemological challenges faced by CCT.

A brief (La)tour of ANT metaphysics We begin our tour by invoking one of the fundamental premises of ‘Latour’s metaphysics’ (Harman, 2009): ‘nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else’ (Latour, 1988: 158). This paradoxical assertion suggests that: (1) nothing is inherently reducible in the sense that nothing can be adequately explained by means of circumvention (by transforming it into or substituting it for something else); (2) nothing is irreducible in the sense that we can always try (and frequently do) to reduce something by showing how it can be linked to or translated into something else (Harman, 2009). Latour’s point is that engaging with the world (in science and in general) means actively linking, transforming and displacing ‘stuff’, rather than partaking in some preexistent ordering of substances naturally deriving from each other or held together by hidden forces and structures (Latour, 2005). As summed up by Law (2009: 141), ANT ‘treat[s] everything in the social and natural worlds as a continuously generated effect of the webs of relations within which they are located’, so that ‘nothing has reality or form outside the enactment of those relations’. To Latour, the term ‘relation’ denotes ‘a movement, a displacement, a transformation, an enrollment’ (Latour, 2005: 64) dependent on and generative of associations in the broadest sense (i.e. between all sorts of stuff). As a result, relations are heterogeneous (simultaneously social, natural, material, discursive, etc.) and problematic in the sense that assembling, extending and stabilizing them requires constant effort and negotiation (i.e. translation is costly and uncertain). Any contact between ‘things’ and ultimately any action is mediated. Yet, in contrast to ‘idealist’ conceptions of mediation (e.g. through language or mental structures), ANT mediation involves heterogonous practices of translation performed by assemblages of human and nonhuman entities (e.g. people, organisms, materials, artifacts and ideas). Translation refers to the social processes needed for something to spread across time and space (e.g. to be transported, distributed, delegated and displaced) through assiduous association and transformation (Kjellberg and Helgesson, 2007). Even simple, seemingly direct interactions require ‘lengthy chain[s] of transformations from one medium into another and on into another’ (Harman, 2009: 40). In other words, complex assemblages of materials, technologies, people and discourse have to be enacted for actors to exist and action to be taken. It is the enactment of such assemblages or actor–networks that attracts the primary interest of ANT. Two observations should be stressed about ANT’s ‘networks’. First, they are not networks in a substantive or technical sense of stable systems connecting enduring entities. For Latour (2005), ‘network’ is neither a thing ‘out there’ nor a description of something, but rather a conceptual

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metaphor that helps us trace and understand action. Accordingly, the term actor–network ‘designates flows of translations’ and ‘traces left behind by some moving agent’ (Latour, 2005: 132). This ties in nicely with Latour’s rejection of actors as substances (i.e. preexisting, ‘finished’ endurable entities) and his conception of actors as events—specific, fully deployed occurrences that are (unlike substances) indistinguishable from their manifestations and their relations (Harman, 2009). Put differently, there are no ex-ante actors existing outside of their heterogeneous relations and deployments. For instance, there is no ‘finished’, durable ‘consumer’ that can exist outside of patterned relations between people, objects and meanings that construct particular subjects, objects, devices, spaces and times. Second, and crucial to ANT, the movements being tracked via networks are not ‘performed’ by human actors alone. One of ANT’s core propositions holds that action always necessitates mobilization of multiple human and nonhuman entities (Callon and Muniesa, 2005; Latour, 2005). Accordingly, conceptions of exclusively human agency are replaced with a ‘flat’ ontology that puts all entities on a similar footing. Since ‘nothing follows directly from anything else, nothing is a transparent intermediary . . . everything is a [potent] mediator, demanding its share of reality’ (Harman, 2009: 18). Latour (2005) grants agency to any mediator that can make other mediators do things. Any human, natural, artifactual or inanimate entity becomes an actor, or actant in ANT terminology, as soon as it can be shown to exert a force on others (i.e. mediate or translate action rather than faithfully ‘transport’ it).1 In the context of ‘consumer behavior’ that could mean recognizing the consumer as an effect, a product, rather than a natural(ized) source of action. This does not imply that there are no consumers, but rather that complex, heterogeneous networks need to do their stuff, for consuming actors to be. When pried open, the consumer does not simply disappear, but rather reveals itself as both an actor and a network (hence an ‘actor–network’), a collective achievement of heterogeneous, sociomaterial actants. In sum, ANT metaphysics is highly apprehensive toward essentialist, monadic substances or even toward any kind of ‘ontic’ networks. Instead of grounding (social) order and continuity in substance, it looks at what it takes for substances to subsist (Latour et al., 2011). Rather than viewing ANT as a totalistic, explanatory metaphysics (see Harman (2009) for an attempt in this direction), it is better seen as a flexible (Lee and Hassard, 1999) and variable ontology (Czarniawska and Hernes, 2005) that is conductive to questioning and tracing differential constructions of reality. Above all, ANT’s invites us to pursue reality by tracing the (inter)action of heterogeneous networks, or ‘WORKnets’, as more recently proposed by Latour (2005: 132). To do so, a set of ontological principles is put forward, chief among which are those of ontological symmetry (e.g. no privileging of subject or object and social or material) and ontological openness (e.g. reality is enacted and distributed in varied ways; heterogeneous elements work together to enact ‘reality’).

Law of ANT epistemology While epistemology of any kind is inescapably entangled in ontological concerns, in the case of ANT the connection is especially potent. So much so, that Law, a persistent surveyor of ANT’s epistemology, refers to the latter as an ‘ontological methodology’ (Law, 2004). Epistemologically speaking, ANT aims to avoid the danger of sliding down two slippery slopes: (1) the slope of radical realism, which leads toward a singular, independent, ‘out there’ reality, cut off from ‘in here’ scientific practice of reality making, or (2) the slope of (nothing but) social constructivism, which leads toward realities fully and independently constructed by humans (Latour, 2005; Law,

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2004). As put by Harman (2009: 58), both positions advance a modernist view of knowledge ‘as a unique site where one type of entity [i.e., humans] magically transcends the world’. In contrast, while ANT wholeheartedly supports the argument that the reality needs to be constructed to come into being (e.g. as an object of study and experience), it refuses to decide in advance the role played by varied entities in constructing reality or the form that such performances might take. Put differently, ANT simultaneously refuses to accept that there is universal, unmediated knowledge derived from self-evident facts and that humans alone construct reality and knowledge. Instead, the making of knowledge requires varied deployment of heterogeneous assemblages of humans and nonhumans (Law, 2004). ANT’s position is empiricist and materialist in its dismissal of causal social forces/structures lurking beneath (or above) observable reality, and in its unwavering focus on embodied practices and events ‘in here’ (Law, 2009). On the other hand, ANT’s realism is a realism of relations, as opposed to the realism of objects that can be grasped ‘out there’, independent of their relations and deployments (Law, 2004). In this sense, ANT subscribes to a relationalist position heavily indebted to semiotic conceptions of ‘relationality’ (e.g. elements of texts define and shape each other; texts ‘produce’ their authors, readers and context) and poststructuralist sensibilities to heterogeneity and multiplicity, dynamics and precariousness and (a)symmetry and power (Law, 2009). To paraphrase a central tenant of science and technology studies branch of ANT: a bunch of ‘stuff’ needs to relate to make any relation to the subject of study possible (i.e. to make science). Yet, while ‘semiotic relationality’ tends to be confined to meaning-making and communication, ANT proposes to extend the performativity, multiplicity and precariousness of texts to the material world. While semiotics studies meaning-producing events (Mick, 1986), ANT is interested in the broader set of association-producing events (Latour, 2005), where association designates any act of ‘translation’, not only those pertaining to (human) signs and meanings. Similar to Latour, Law describes this stand as a ‘principle of symmetry’—an insistence that the material and the semiotic, the natural and the cultural and the objective and the subjective are (in scientific accounts and otherwise) produced together, in the same process, and are in principle irreducible to one another (Law, 2004). Instead of deconstructing texts, ANT sets out to explore how texts, as in heterogeneous assemblages of people, organisms, things, ideas and so on, ‘hold together’ (Law, 2004). This task ultimately leads it to replace the Durkheimian ‘sociology of the social’, where the social is taken to be a special (purely human) domain of reality, a type of substance used for scientific explanation, with the ‘sociology of associations’, where ‘social’ designates any movement that produces momentarily stable associations between humans and/or nonhumans (Latour, 2005). This way, by refusing to confine ‘translation’ to meaning production, nonhuman entities are no longer reduced to ‘hapless bearers of symbolic projections’, passive stuff subjected to the workings of the (exclusively human) ‘social’ (Latour, 2005: 10), but rather become full-blown participants in enactments of reality and knowledge (Law, 2004). Here, Law’s views largely parallel Latour’s (2005: 10) three chief criteria of ANT-icity. (1) Are nonhumans granted the role of true actants? Are they granted agency that is ‘more open than the traditional natural causality’, while at the same time also ‘more efficient than the symbolic one’? (2) What direction is the interpretation going in? Does the social remain stable and is used to explain the state of things, or is it being genuinely reworked to account for the mass of nonhumans that need to be associated to achieve temporary/precarious stability of actors, procedures, institutions, concepts and so on? (3) Does the study aim to reassemble ‘the social’ (in the extended ANT meaning) or is it focused on deconstructing/dispersing it? Along these lines, Law’s epistemology

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faithfully continues the erosion of essentialist distinctions (e.g. between subject/object, social/ material and ‘real’/symbolic) commenced by Latour. Instead of implicitly or explicitly deploying such distinctions to explain phenomena (away), these distinctions themselves become what is to be explained. Returning to the example of a consuming subject (conceived as a relational effect rather than a preexistent self-sufficient actor), Law (2009: 147) evokes Latour’s notion of ‘black boxing’: An actor is always a network of elements that it does not fully recognize or know: simplification or ‘‘black boxing’’ is a necessary part of agency . . . there is no overall social, natural, or conceptual framework or scale within which events take place: as webs grow they tend to grow their own metrics . . . class, nation-state, patriarchy become effects rather than explanatory foundations.

In other words, presupposing fixed, fully formed, ‘finished’ actors prevents us from opening what is essentially a black box, a simplification and a ‘forgetting’ of action that needs to be uncovered. It is thus hardly surprising that instead of devising a formulaic theory of actors, ANT elects to (merely) outline a set of ontological and epistemological provisions that allow for actor making to be traced (Latour, 1996). Extending the argument beyond the notion of the acting subject, ‘there is no [a priori] overall social, natural or conceptual framework or scale within which events take place’ (Law, 2009: 147). Networks grow their own metaphysics and epistemologies by effortfully (but not necessarily willfully!) constructing space and time, subjects and objects, growing their own metrics and standards of truth (Callon, 1997). This, however, does not mean that ANT subscribes to random ‘anything goes’ (plu)realities. Assemblage is always costly. Translation, association and stabilization always carry a price. Although in principle an endless array of actants can be mobilized and a multitude of realities can be enacted (see Latour’s (2005) notion of ‘plasma’), actants mobilized and realities enacted via more affordable networks (e.g. by relying on arrangements that have already been partially ordered and stabilized) tend to outperform those that are more costly and less conceivable within existent conditions of possibility (Law, 2004). Enactments that better connect with preachieved realities will likely prevail (Law, 2004). On the other hand, any connection between multiple enactments will inescapably be partial, and there will always be (some) interference and overflow (Callon, 1997). To paraphrase a poststructuralist tenet, we can only produce presence (reality) through enacting absence, and there are always realities that will resist being ‘Othered’ (Law, 2004).2 To use Callon’s wording, any framing or formatting of reality will inevitably overflow. This means that ANT does not subscribe to singularizing, purifying or totalizing accounts of action and ordering. Quite the contrary, it is foremost interested in tracing the prolific, precarious and inevitably incomplete orderings emerging in an endless sea of disorder (Law, 2009; Latour, 2005). In sum, ANT emphasizes the heterogeneous distributedness and performativity of knowledge, as enacted through heterogeneous networks (Law, 2009). Echoing Latour’s (2005) call to study how metaphysics is ‘done in everyday practice’, Law (2004) invites us to reflect not only upon the relationality and performativeness of scientific knowledge making, but to equally approach any enactment of ‘reality’. Just as people, objects, inscription devices, technologies and so on need to be assembled and collectively deployed to enact scientific knowledge, they have to gather to, for example, produce consumer or marketing knowledge (be it of the scholarly, professional or lay kind). The tact taken by ANT is to shift attention to how reality is concurrently being produced, stabilized and disputed by the workings of heterogeneous assemblages (Lee and Hassard, 1999). ANT suggests foregoing a singular presupposed ontology and epistemology in the interest of

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empirically tracing the extension and contraction of heterogeneous networks enacting a multitude of spaces, times, substances and actors (Callon, 1997). In the second part of the article, we wish to further flesh out ANT’s ontological epistemology by turning it toward the assemblage of ANT as articulated and extended to CCT. We consider the overlaps and interferences between both ‘theories’ and deploy Latour’s (2005) metaphor of flattening to illustrate what we consider to be an important potential contribution of ANT to CCT.

Assembling ANT Thus far, we have treated ANT and CCT as relatively unproblematic stuff—in ANT terminology, we have punctionalized ANT and CCT by enacting them as bounded, coherent and durable things. If we are to translate ANT into a ‘resource’ (that can be used by ‘CCT’), a certain degree of punctionalization or ‘network packaging’ (Law, 2003) is inevitable. This, however, does not mean that we cannot or should not reflect on ANT itself as a curious and problematic netWORK. While exploring, the networked enactment of ANT (or CCT) is not our primary concern, it is important to acknowledge that one does not simply reveal a ‘ready and waiting’ ANT to a ‘ready and welcoming’ CCT, but rather enacts both in particular ways. More specifically, we have split ‘ANT’ into metaphysics and epistemology, only to later forge these two parts ‘back’ together in order to enact an epistemology that traces the making of varied ontologies as the ‘essence’ of ANT. To make the splitting and forging work, that is to convincingly enact the distinctiveness and thrust of ANT, particular elements have been mobilized and specific alliances have been made (e.g. Latour’s and Law’s work, Harman’s translation of ‘Latourian metaphysics’ and the established Anglophone rendering of the foundational ‘authors’ of ANT). In other words, ANT has been enacted as a unified and durable entity, which can be ‘(re)visited’ by CCT and the ‘essence’ of which can be diffused and put to use in CCT (with the latter being enacted as a unified context in which ANT can be placed and deployed). Needless to say, neither ANT nor CCT is a stable and coherent totality (nothing is!). Their existence is owed to continuous translation rather than to a preordained essence. However, this does not mean that ANT (or CCT) is a mere illusion or that the translation, the essentializing, the singularizing and so on surrounding it are somehow unreal or trivial. We can simultaneously question the ‘artificial’, reductive assemblage and take it seriously as a (potentially) efficacious enactment. ‘Our’ assemblage of ANT produces, rather than reveals, particular spatial, temporal and agential configurations. For example, time and space are compressed in particular ways (e.g. by displacing the history/evolution of ANT, Law’s split between pre and post 1990 ANT and ANT’s fragmentation and discontinuity across continents and disciplines), specific authors are figurated (e.g. Latour and Law as the voice of ANT, ‘we’ as the voice of ‘our’ ANT assemblage), their texts and concepts punctionalized as the stuff of ANT. The list is long and would be much longer if the pertinent networks were traced in earnest—beyond the cursory literary exercise conducted here for the purpose of illustration. Seeing as this is not the place to undertake such a task, we contend ourselves with offering the following three points foreshadowed by our previous discussion: (1) arguing, in a deconstructivist fashion, that there is no ANT (or no CCT) does not get you far in explaining how ANT (or CCT) comes to be and what it can or cannot do, (2) there is a difference between taking action to naturally flow from uncontested essence (i.e. ‘This is ANT, therefore this is how it is used’.) and reflective punctionalization (i.e. ‘Our allies and we propose this ANT, and this is how we ‘prefer’ it to be used’.) and (3) punctionalization and the making of essence (as understood here) do not inherently

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preclude reflexivity. On the contrary, it is because we approach punctionalization as a process and take essence to be made, that we can constructively reflect upon it and enact it better, rather than ‘deconstruct’ it into oblivion or ‘relativise’ it into indifference. Following these three assertions, we first consider how ANT is both explicitely and implicitely interwoven into CCT, and how it can power alternative enactments of CCT. Second, we enlist the metaphor of ‘flattening’ to reflect upon the ways in which ANT can constructively inform the epistemological debates relevant to CCT and invite new routes of investigation.

One acronym to another There is considerable intellectual overlap between CCT and ANT, with both traditions readily adopting the semiotic and poststructuralist approach to reality as being multiple, heterogeneous, distributed and dynamic (Arnould and Thompson, 2005; 2007). It could also be argued that both ANT and CCT commit to enacting realities that have been ‘othered’ by rival paradigms. For instance, CCT persistently enacts both its C’s (‘consumer’ and ‘culture’) in ways that interfere with reductionist enactments of culture as a relatively homogenous and static context (Arnould and Thompson, 2005) and with nomothetic formalizations of consumers as utility maximizers (Levy and Rook, 1999) or rational information processors (Holbrook and Hirschman, 1982). While in many respects compatible with CCT, ANT’s ontological epistemology invites several constructive ‘interferences’. We begin by touching upon two: (1) the usefulness of ANT in exploring the ‘assemblage of CCT’ and (2) its usefulness in addressing issues of CCT’s performativity. We have alluded above to the process of assembling ANT. A similar tact can be taken with CCT. While inviting accounts of ‘the assembling of CCT’ may seem to be redundant, given the relatively transparent, reflexive launching of the ‘CCT project’ and the limited resistance among those affected by it (Arnould and Thompson, 2005; 2007; Pen˜aloza et al., 2009), one should not underestimate the value of approaching the making of CCT not simply as an act of labeling a preexisting ‘body’ of work (or researchers), but rather as a patterned network of heterogeneous translations. Some moves in this direction have already been made by Pen˜aloza et al. (2009) and given ANT’s fine record in tracing scientific assemblage (Law, 2004), there is a reason to believe that ANT could help us trace the complex sociomaterial networks that made CCT possible and diffusible. For example, one could ask, what (in the broadest ANTian sense) needed to play a part for Arnould and Thompson to be able to ‘speak’ so convincingly on behalf of PhD students and the manuscripts struggling to imprint themselves in A-level journals? What would the tracing of the ‘CCT network’ tell us about the prevalent stories of CCT’s rise to institutional prominence (Sherry and Fischer, 2009) and the actors and chains of effects that these ‘stories’ put forward? If nothing else, it would redescribe the making of CCT without a priori reducing it to a (re)evolution of a ‘body of ideas’ or ‘epistemic community’. Second, science actively partakes in assembling reality (Law, 2004). Theories never merely describe the world ‘out there’ from ‘nowhere’ (Haraway, 1991), they perform, shape and format the world through and through (Callon, 1997; Kjellberg, 2008). A theory ‘realizes’ the abstractions it posits in a nontrivial manner (MacKenzie et al., 2007) by being ‘used in practice’ and by way of effecting its own verisimilitude (MacKenzie, 2006). The work of Callon, MacKenzie and their collaborators points to the highly performative nature of economic and business theories (Callon, 1997; Callon et al., 2007; Callon and Muniesa, 2005; C ¸ alıs¸ kan and Callon, 2009; MacKenzie, 2006; MacKenzie et al., 2007). It shows how such theories not only change economic action but also render that which was posited in theory more real and true (e.g. actors start to behave (more) in

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accord to the theory’s postulates). Recent advances in economic sociology (C ¸ alıs¸ kan and Callon, 2010; Slater, 2002) suggest that marketing and consumption theory actively contributes to market making and enactment of market spaces, subjects, objects and devices (Andersson et al., 2008; Cochoy, 2008; Simakova and Neyland, 2008). While these contributions have not escaped the notice of marketing theory (Araujo, 2007; Araujo et al., 2008, Kjellberg and Helgesson, 2007), they have failed to attract serious attention in consumer studies. As argued by Arvidsson (2008), cultural consumer studies do not neutrally describe the cultural makeup of consumption. They actively transform the networks of market production (e.g. by giving rise to ‘tools’ for cultural branding), surveillance/power (e.g. monitoring culture and programming consumer agency) and valorization. It is thus imperative to study the role of CCT in ‘the incorporation (or ‘subsumption’) of culture within contemporary . . . capitalism’ (Arvidsson, 2008: 332). Although CCT scholarship rightfully prides itself for being self-reflexive and critical towards naive conceptions of science as ‘objective’ (as in utterly detached and neutral) explanation, the need to account for CCT’s own performativity can be inhibited by a self-congratulating image of CCT as an alternative, convivial paradigm free of myopic managerial concerns and politicoeconomic interests. In the backdrop of CCT’s rise to institutional recognition (Sherry and Fischer, 2009), questioning the role of CCT scholarship in market-making and consumption-making processes, its contribution to the ‘culturing’ of market(ing) and consumption becomes all the more important. Not only to ask if these theories perform faithfully (i.e. in accord with the values and ideals of the sociopolitical movements giving rise to them; Arvidsson 2008) but rather to keep asking how they could perform better.

Flattening CCT One of the strengths of ANT’s resides in its change of metaphor, essential to pursuing its ontological epistemology. As proposed by Latour (1996: 2), ANT can be read as a ‘change of topology’: Instead of thinking in terms of surfaces – two dimension – or spheres – three dimension – one is asked to think in terms of nodes that have as many dimensions as they have connections . . . societies cannot be described without recognizing them as having a fibrous, thread-like, wiry, stringy, ropy, capillary character that is never captured by the notions of levels, layers, territories, spheres, categories, structure, systems. It [ANT] aims at explaining the effects accounted for by those traditional words without having to buy the ontology, topology and politics that goes with them.

Latour (2005) describes this topological shift as ‘flattening’ theory by sticking to tracing associations, rather than breaking it off by under-imposing substances (i.e. infrastructure that substands action) or superimposing ‘sociological’ abstractions (i.e. social superstructures that frame action). As foreshadowed above, the proposed flattening involves a unique ontological stance, wherein the production of topology, time and action is studied rather than being preimposed (Latour, 1996). As clarified by Callon (1997: 8), ANT does not account for ‘a network connecting entities that are already there, but a network which configures ontologies’. It strives to keep ‘the metaphors of reality-making open, rather than allowing a small subset of them to naturalize themselves’ in blinkered methods and theories (Law, 2004: 139). In order to pursue this ambition, several inhibiting hierarchies pertinent to CCT need to be flattened. Progressing through these ‘flattenings’, we also seek to illustrate some of the ANT’s departures from ‘competing’ theories of action, practice and materiality.

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Objects, subjects and devices ANT suggests that we cannot study consumption in an open and balanced manner if we presuppose the metaphysics of (active) consuming subjects and (passive) consumed objects. However, ardently we acknowledge the multiplicity of consumer and however long our list of forms and shapes that consumers might take grows, fixating consumption as an act performed by a consuming subject on/with object(s) of consumption, precludes the onto-epistemic openness and symmetry insisted upon by ANT. This is not to suggest that there is no consumer or no consumption object, or that conceptions of consumers and consumption objects are useless, but merely that an a priori splitting of the world into active subjects and passive objects closes off the possibility of alternative enactments of consumption in theory and practice (Kjellberg, 2008). Put differently, ‘neither bodies nor materialities can be taken as pregiven’, if we are to avoid ‘closing off the discussion by prematurely identifying naturalized objectified fact’ (Joy et al., 2006: 347, 352). As proposed by Bettany (2007: 42), ANT seeks to ‘subvert the dominant Cartesian dualism of subject and object and to develop theoretical tools to examine the entangled co-production and ontological indeterminacy of subject and object in cultural processes and action’ (emphasis added). In other words, ANT opposes the reduction of nonhuman entities to ‘vehicles for meaning’ independently acted upon (i.e. invested/divested of meaning) by meaning-making subjects (Bettany, 2007; Callon and Muniesa, 2005). As Bettany and Kerrane (2010: 1746–47) point out, the sociality of objects’ should be accounted for not only in terms of the meanings that human subjects attach to their objects, but also in terms of how objects ‘co-emerge in relation to other human and nonhuman entities’. Rather than starting off with a meaning-making actor and an object-initself, ANT proposes to start off with uncertain and precarious networks and explore what holds these networks together/apart (i.e. what elements or relations compose it), how they grow stronger or weaker, how they facilitate and shape action and how they are ultimately made into actors—figurated as acting subjects attributed with will, intent, competence, power and responsibility (Latour, 1992). Pursuing these lines of investigation means distributing agency so that it is sought in ‘formations of meaning and materiality in which objects, bodies and other heterogeneous entities are embedded’ (Bettany, 2007: 44), rather than being viewed as a property of human actors (e.g. consumers). As shown by Latour (1992), even the most mundane of objects such as a door groom (i.e. the mechanism that automatically closes/opens doors) can play an active role. Despite being a mere ‘object’, a mechanical groom exercises competences that are in several respects comparable to that of a human groom, and if anything have an even more persistent effect on ‘door matters’. Rather than trading off subjectivism (i.e. visitors use doors) for material/technological determinism (i.e. the door technology is formatting visitors), one can study how competences and performances are distributed across networks (e.g. the automatic door groom þ the visitors passing through the door þ the door sign). Examples of the scarce CCT literature headed in this direction include Bettany’s (2007) work on assemblages of Afghan hounds, coat-raking tools and pet owners, Bettany and Kerrane’s (2010) study of assemblages of chickens, chicken coops and chicken owners, Epp and Price’s (2010) study on networks in domestic practices and Hui’s (2012) study on mobile assemblages of people and bird-watching or quilting equipment. While all three studies effectively distribute action by pointing to the fluidity and dialectic coconstitution of consumption subjects and objects, they are relatively quick in ‘cutting off’ their network tracing. In addition to paying better attention to the dialectic coconstitution of consumption subjects and objects (Miller, 1987), ANT invites us to notice the broader networks that tend to include myriad sociotechnical devices (Callon et al., 2007). These devices play a pivotal role in deploying and

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stabilizing spatial and temporal configurations, wherein consumption subjects and objects can come into being and relation. As such, they are indispensible in ‘qualifying’ objects as exchangeable and consumable, and market actors as capable of exchange and consumption (Finch and Geiger, 2010). While the surveying of such devices (e.g. theoretical concepts, metric scales and apparatuses, protocols, standards and scripts, techniques and machines) is well under way in ‘market studies’ (Araujo et al., 2008), it has been more sluggish in consumption studies (Kjellberg, 2008). A notable exception can be found in Cochoy’s (2008) work on mass-retailing devices, where the author shows how consumption is shaped and negotiated not only by consumers/marketers and objects of consumption but also by devices such as merchandising technologies, shopping lists and shopping carts (Cochoy, 2007; 2008). For example, Cochoy (2008) effectively challenges the common view of a shopping cart as a trivial tool, recognizing instead the role of this mundane shopping device in constituting a particular ‘calculative space’ that profoundly shapes the economic and social patterning of supermarket shopping (e.g. the sequencing/planning of acquisition product choice and collective shopping). This work is a powerful testament to the fruitfulness of broadening the interpretive gaze to heterogeneous networks. In sum, in addition to ‘recovering’ the objects of consumption (Bettany, 2007) and attending to embodiment and ‘materiality’ (understood as a dialectic coconstitution of consumption subject and object; see Miller (1987)), ANT invites a polylectic openness to heterogeneous networks effectuating consumption subjects, objects, devices and so on. Such openness involves taking good advantage of the ‘fibrous, thread-like, wiry, stringy, ropy, capillary’ (Latour, 1996: 2) nature of networks by flattening the subject–object hierarchy to capture the extensiveness of ‘consumption networks’ as fully as possible, thus guarding against the risk of falling flat (McLean and Hassard, 2004).

Materiality and socioculturality The reduction of action to action of (human) subjects on/with (nonhuman) objects goes hand in hand with a division between material (natural or technological) and sociocultural, where, for instance, the framing of ‘the social’ as distinct from ‘the material’ prevents social science from openly tracing sociomaterial associations and the making of material and social, human and nonhuman (Latour, 2005). Therefore, just as Latour (2005) refuses to restrict sociology to accounting for (purely) social life by means of (purely) social explanation, CCT should vary of limiting itself to (purely) ‘socio-cultural’ accounts of consumption and of ex-ante framing ‘the cultural’ as being distinct from the natural and the technofunctional (Kjellberg, 2008). While CCT has undoubtedly shown considerable interest in issues of materiality and embodiment (e.g. Borgerson, 2005, Ger and Kravetz, 2009, Joy and Sherry, 2003), there still remains a lack of theory that would symmetrically dissolve ‘nature and culture as a priori categories [so that] we may inquire into their constitution’ (Kjellberg, 2008: 156). As recently shown by Canniford and Shankar (2013), consumers construct ‘nature’ through practices of purification that displace culture and technology. Purification practices are no doubt common and effectual both in consumption practice and in consumption studies. The important lesson the authors provide is that purification relies on heterogeneous—natural, technological, social and cultural—assemblages (Canniford and Shankar 2013; Law, 2004). Put differently, there is no pure preexistent nature or culture to be revealed or experienced. The natural and the cultural assemblages are constructed, not socially, not materially, but rather heterogeneously: sociomaterially.3 Hence, to argue that ANT denies any difference between material and social, human and nonhuman or that it grants nonhumans the status of the humans (Borgerson, 2005), misses the

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point. We do not read ANT as an ethical code or a ‘status’ arbiter, but rather as a push for epistemologies that do not succumb to a priori ‘status’ hierarchies and to a priori layering of reality (Law, 2004). ANT opposes a humanist epistemology, not humanism as such. It opposes epistemologies of anthropocentric sociology and meaning-centric culturalism, not sociological or cultural studies as such. Rather than aiming to deconstruct the thrust of humanist or sociocultural critique and replacing it with an a-political stand, ANT makes way for the exploration of the politics of humanization and culturalization by questioning how the boundaries, stakes and struggles between human and nonhuman (Giesler, 2012), material and social/cultural are enacted. Along these lines, we see ANT’s distinctive contribution not so much in seconding the existent calls to study materiality or in inverting the asymmetry between the material and sociocultural in favor of the former, but rather in its insistence to approach materiality and socioculturality of consumption symmetrically and simultaneously, rather than preimposing ‘naturalized’ hierarchies and discontinuities. Tackling these issues demands increased reflexivity as to how ‘context’ is enacted in studies of consumption.

Textured contexts Openly and symmetrically exploring the making of ontologies requires flattening context both in relation to ‘content’ (e.g. refusing to naturalize the consuming subject/object or the sociocultural ‘aspects’ of consumption as the content of CCT) and in relation to the nature and form of ‘context’ (e.g. material/social and micro/macro). We propose that contextualization is never simply a process of describing inherently given context(s), but rather a networked setting down of an event—a framing of the event text as distinct from ‘its’ context, connected to it in asymmetric ways (e.g. as foreground to background, a small(er) inside to a big(er) outside, a local effect to a global cause and a momentary event to a enduring force/structure). Rather than starting off with a naturalized contextual frame, ANT proposes to study the process of such asymmetric framing ‘in action’. Ex-ante setting of boundaries, scale and temporality narrows the analytic gaze and tends to force researchers to, at best, haphazardly jump from messy events to purified structures and back (Latour, 2005) (e.g. between the inner sanctum of individually ‘experienced reality’ and the outside of sociocultural/natural forces and restraints). We argue that both placing consumption in a microcontext of consumers’ personal histories or identity narratives and placing these in a broader macrocontext (Askegaard and Linnet, 2011) enact consumption in asymmetric, layered ways. To borrow from Schatzki (2002), such contextualization moves us from ‘texture’ to ‘contexture’, that is from texts among texts to texts within inherently distinct contexts. As shown by Askegaard and Linnet (2011), CCT has often privileged the ‘inside’ and the nearby microcontext over the macrocontext. However, rather than suggesting to ‘contexturize’ more by tilting the table toward macro context, we advance the possibility of avoiding ex-ante contexturizing altogether. ANT invites researchers to bring context ‘inside’—to texturize by employing a consistent analytic stance across the full range of texts (i.e. to afford no privilege to ‘special’ kinds of texts) and by studying context(ure) making in practice (i.e. exploring how texts are circumscribed and how contexts are super or underimposed; Latour, 1992; 2005). The reward for strenuously flattening context comes in the form of increased sensitivity to movements that would otherwise likely go unnoticed or dismissed as minutiae in the ‘grand scheme’ of content/context and text/context; to the masses of mediators (Latour, 1992): material or sociocultural, functional or symbolic, micro or macro, close or far and precarious or endurable. The effectiveness of subverting naturalized content-context and text-context divides can be illustrated

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by Cochoy’s (2008) work on distributed and variable ‘‘calculation’’. Had the author started off with the conventional ‘content’ of consumer calculation studies (i.e. subjects calculating in the context of carts, isles, other people, etc.), the varied processes of calculation, calqulation and qualculation, distributed across carts and shoppers, would have remained invisible. Although Cochoy’s analysis strategically follows a particular object (i.e. the shopping cart) and pragmatically delimits the set of elements studied (i.e. the store’s front stage), the persistent texturing of the relations between carts, shoppers, products and so on remains crucial to Cochoy’s contribution. Flattening context does not mean that ‘macro actors’ are ignored or deflated (i.e. deconstructed). Rather, it advocates that any actor owns its size to networks of heterogeneous relations, which enact it as a coherent, endurable and powerful entity (Czarniawska and Hernes, 2005). No matter whether a macroactor takes the form of a more ‘tangible’ institution or that of an ‘abstract’ structure, the power it exerts is always owed to specific (networked) relations. As argued by Callon and Latour (1981: 281), ‘no actor is bigger than another except by means of a transaction (a translation) which must be examined’. Instead of choosing between descending ‘down’ to microrelations or rising ‘up’ to macroforces, ANT’s insists on tracing flat networks of relations (Latour, 2005) that are neither inherently down nor inherently up, neither micro nor macro, neither before nor after, but rather networks that spatialize and temporalize, growing their own levels and scales, chronologies and timelines. In other words, the researcher is invited to study the unfolding and the ‘growth’ of actors through their attempts to make other elements dependent upon them by bending space and time in particular, enduring ways. Here, it is important to note that actors become and remain ‘big’ through simplification—black boxing relations and hiding traces of their construction (Callon and Latour, 1981). Premature contextualization on the part of social scientists tends to give force to such concealed constructions, rather than examining the mechanism of their power creation (Czarniawska and Hernes, 2005). Contextualization is also where ANT departs from theories, such as Schatzki’s practice theory. As a self-pronounced contextualist, who believes that the character and transformation of social affairs are beholden to contexts (structures, systems, ideologies, practices, fields, etc.), Schatzki explicitly distances himself from ANT’s nominalist claim that a network might exist in the context of other networks merely as a text among texts of equal kind. Put differently, for ANT there is no context that can be distinguished ‘in kind’. In this sense, ANT is highly apprehensive toward the ready-made ‘kinds’ of practices, entities and contexts put forward by Schatzki,4 instead advancing a ‘Deluzian’ reading of practices as ‘forms of ordering located in no larger overall order’ (Law, 2009: 146). ANT insists for researchers to stubbornly tread among particular ‘textures’, instead of jumping ahead by super or under-imposing contexts (i.e. creating ‘contextures’). It insist that context can neither be effortlessly displaced (i.e. pretending that ‘content’ is all that matters) nor can it be credited with an inherent force that is automatically exerted upon content. It recognizes that the separation of content from context itself relies on a forceful network and that the power of context (as any other power) can only be exerted through precarious translation.

Conclusion Like CCT, ANT is hardly a unified theory. It is better viewed as an assemblage of propositions that promote ontological and epistemological openness and symmetry to prevent a premature closing off of discussion—missing out on the ongoing, multiple and precarious makings of reality ‘out there’, ‘in here’ and everywhere! ANT itself is ongoing, multiple and precarious. It is also

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frustratingly slippery and imperfect. If we uncompromisingly adopt its principles of openness and symmetry, its perpetual definitional sliding (Lee and Hassard, 1999), what can we dig our feet in, to actually do something? Trying not to close things off prematurely can be frustrating, especially when having no precise guide as to what ‘prematurely’ might constitute. Delaying closure slows things down and blindly opening ‘black boxes’ can lead to a vortex of infinite regress (Harman, 2009). Nevertheless, several decades of research show that ANT’s ontological epistemology can be rewarding. Enactments of reality are always a compromise. Our intention was to further open CCT to ANT’s ideas and compromises. Specifically, we argue that consumption can be explored as an enactment owed to the deployment of heterogeneous and precarious networks—an enactment that produces (rather than is being performed by) consumption subjects. Such exploration entails persistently textualizing context by following translations and associations, wherever they might lead (Latour, 2005), and taking full note of the performativity of ‘theory’, the CC kind in particular. ANT is costly inasmuch as it suggests that alone, following the trajectory of the consumed object (e.g. in the ‘follow the object’ fashion), the consuming subject (as in phenomenology and consumer observation) or even the practices carried by human subjects (e.g. as in ‘practice theory’) will not suffice. Conceding to a priori ‘made’ objects and ‘acting’ subjects, content and context obfuscate the productive configuration of space, time, action and its subjects, enacted through patterned networks of heterogeneous relations. Tracing these networks might mean following the ‘given’ object or subject for a while, than dispelling it as such, and tracing something else. In other words, a lot of tracing and a frustratingly shifting ground. In the ‘end’, we might arrive to an account that will feature configurations similar to those that we were initially given (i.e. a less radical redescription) or we may not. Even if the former were the case, we would have gained a better understanding as to why and how stuff is (best) enacted as it ‘is’ (i.e. in its preordained, taken for granted ontology). Alternatively, it would enable the researcher to capture aspects of reality otherwise obscured by presupposed hierarchies of time, space, subject and object. In other words, while suspending entrenched metaphysics will unlikely yield a complete metaphysical reconception of the world, it might well yield productive redescriptions of it (Latour et al., 2011). In sum, ANT might help us overcome the analytical limitations owed to ex-ante circumscriptions of consumption along the asymmetric boundaries separating subject and object, material and sociocultural and content and context. It allows for the world to be ordered differentially (Lee and Hassard, 1999). It allows us to trace how multiple heterogeneous networks grow their own ontologies. Rather than satisfiying itself with deconstructing a sigularized ontology, ANT seeks to empirically account for the making of ‘local’ ontologies, tracing their strenghts and weaknesses, trials and tribulatons. In short, it is interested in delving into the mechanics and the politics of heterogeneous relations enacting consumption. Notes 1. ‘Exerting a force’ should not be mistaken with causal determination. Latour insists that an actor can be connected to what made it act without regressing to theories of determinism or subjectivism. 2. To complicate matters, Euro-American realism denies its enactment of reality altogether, so that a singular reality independent of method can be produced. In other cases, ‘othering’ can occur as enactments are routinized (or black boxed in Latour’s terminology) or simply fail to attract interest (Law, 2004). 3. Hence, their distaste for reductionist a-sociocultural enactments of consumption in economics and management research should not preclude CCT scholars from studying the performativity of such reductions.

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In addition to showing how such reductions fail to faithfully describe (sociocultural) reality, CCT is well fitted to take account for how they succeed in shaping particular (heterogeneous) realities. For a stimulating illustration of how such engagements tend to rub anthropology/culture theorists the wrong way see Miller (2002). 4. There are other points of departure between ANT and Schatzki. Although both ANT and theories of practice promote a shift from entities to events (i.e. from human individuals to practices) and share an appreciation of the material aspects of social arrangements, their conceptions of practice differ. In Schatzki’s (2002) theory, as in most theories of practice (Reckwitz, 2002), humans retain the privileged position of ‘carriers’ of a practice, a position that stands in stark contrast to ANT’s insistence that the attribution of action to humans actors be taken as secondary to the work of heterogeneous human–nonhuman actants (Kjellberg, 2008).

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