Guns and People Kill People

Although I’ve posted on Bruno Latour countless times (here, here and here for starters), I’ve never talked about his guns and people argument I’ve only posted once on his guns and people argument, here, but nevertheless I’ll continue because I really didn’t think I’d talked about it before! In short, and contrary to the opposing slogans ‘guns kill people’ and ‘people kill people’, Latour says ‘guns and people kill people’. It may seem like a get-out from the debate, but assure me, it works better in the context of Latour’s general philosophy. You’ll find it in his 1994 Common Knowledge paper, ‘On Technical Mediation – Philosophy, Sociology, Genealogy’ (available here). It’s basically an example geared to back up his ‘program of action’ concept. If you start reading from page 30 through to page 34 you’ll get the main bulk of the argument, although if you continue on through the paper you’ll get a more conclusive understanding of the whole thing, obviously. He ends this section with:

These examples of actor-actant symmetry force us to abandon the subject-object dichotomy, a distinction that prevents understanding of techniques and even of societies. It is neither people nor guns that kill. Responsibility for action must be shared among the various actants. (34)

I did a quick search for the two slogans above and came across a clip of Eddie Izzard which I thought was pretty funny. I guess it kind of emphasises Latour’s point; you need both of them for a new outcome!



Another episode of the Digital Human aired on Monday. ‘Do we know what all our technology is for or more intriguingly what it wants?’ asks Aleks Krotoski this week. In the opening few seconds you hear Douglas Rushkoff, who I saw defend his PhD in the summer. He talks of technology’s ‘bias’, and provides the example of the gun as having a ‘tendency’ towards killing people. I immediately thought of Latour’s (1994) Common Knowledge article ‘On Technical Mediation’ (available here) where he provides the same example of the gun and the operator. He outlines two symmetrical positions:

The myth of the Neutral Tool under complete human control and the myth of the Autonomous Destiny that no human can master…

Or in other words, that gun is responsible for the killing (‘Autonomous Destiny’) OR the human operator is (‘Neutral Tool’). Latour, of course, proposes a third way. A new path that corresponds to neither of the above:

…[A] third possibility… more commonly realized: the creation of a new goal that corresponds to neither agent’s program of action. (You had wanted only to hurt but, with a gun now in hand, you want to kill.)
I call this uncertainty about goals translation.

Who then is responsible? ‘Someone else (a citizen-gun, a gun-citizen)’ (1994: 32). I’ll quote this next passage in full, because it really is a fundamental constituent of Latour’s argument, and I really think it’s a classic:

If l define you by what you have (the gun), and by the series of associations that you enter into when you use what you have (when you fire the gun), then you are modified by the gun-more so or less so, depending on the weight of the other associations that you carry. This translation is wholly symmetrical. You are different with a gun in hand; the gun is different with you holding it. You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another object because it has entered into a relationship with you. The gun is no longer the gun-in-the-armory or the gun-in-the-drawer or the gun-in-the-pocket, but the gun-in- your-hand, aimed at someone who is screaming. What is true of the subject, of the gunman, is as true of the object, of the gun that is held. A good citizen becomes a criminal, a bad guy becomes a worse guy; a silent gun becomes a fired gun, a new gun becomes a used gun, a sporting gun becomes a weapon. The twin mistake of the materialists and the sociologists is to start with essences, those of subjects or those of
objects. That starting point renders impossible our measurement of the mediating role of techniques. Neither subject or object (nor their goals) is fixed. (1994: 33)