In Aramis, or the Love of Technology, Bruno Latour traces the mysterious death of Aramis, a promising public transportation project that in the end was never built because its proponents dogmatically held onto the notion that technology is divorced from society, and vice versa. The (human) actors, in other words, insisted upon a technological essence called ‘Aramis’ that was immune from negotiation, translation, and change, thereby failing to recognize that technological projects are assemblages of human and non-human components whose ‘essence’ constantly shifts as they try to embody changing demands and circumstances. Such a radical splitting of the technological from the social, of the noumenal from the phenomenal, cannot recognize the care and love needed to bring technological projects into existence. Aramis becomes Frankenstein’s monster, unloved and unwanted by its creator who has disavowed it.
The question of essence here is central. For Latour, there is no essential Aramis, no Aramis who exists independently of the actors imagination; there is only a series of potential Aramises who may or may not come to be. The notion of essence is too rigid to describe the slippery, transitory nature of Aramis as it ping-pongs in, through and around various actors who try to cobble together enough support to breath life into their particular Aramis. We might speak, instead, of an assemblage of human and non-human actors that work to hold together long enough to become solid, as Latour notes on page 213, to replace the clunky notion of essence. These assemblages change in accordance with the changing needs and desires of those who make it up and are not stable across time and space.
Latour’s disavowal of the technology/ society split as it is formulated by those involved in the Aramis project and by classical sociologists/ positivists leads him to develop a ‘flat ontology,’ where causes are assumed to reside in local, particular and internal interactions (how the actors understand and define what is happening) rather than in transcendental, external conditions (Capitalism, Essence, Modernity, Politics). “Technological projects,” Latour writes, “are deployed in a variable-ontology world,” (Latour, 173). Worlds, in other words, are made through the historically situated practices that actors engage in as they try to translate, negotiate and bring about certain kinds of possibilities. Whereas classical sociology assumes technological development is stable, fixed, and human-independent, Latour argues that technological projects are always in the process of becoming, of stabilizing and destabilizing, realizing and derealizing, a process whose outcome is never guaranteed.