Althusser famously argued that ideology isn’t simply a false consciousness or mistaken belief about the truth of our social relations, but rather that ideology is the means by which a social system reproduces its conditions of production. What Althusser saw so clearly was that social relations perpetually need to reproduce themselves if societies are to persist across time. In this regard, the biological organism ordinarily referred to as “human” is not sufficient to constitute a social system. As the example of the feral child demonstrates, there’s little resembling a person in a child raised outside a social network system. Rather, this organism must undergo a process of individuation that constitutes it as a social subject or an en-bodiment of social relations. (Incidentally, I also think this responds to Nick’s concerns about solipsism or communication, raised by Peter Hallward in Out of This World, over at the brilliant blog “The Accursed Share”. Insofar as individuation always occurs within a mileux or what Luhmann calls an “environment”, there can be no question of an inside unable to communicate with an outside. In Hegelian terms, that conception that treats the relation of the individuated individual to its mileux or environment as an external relation, is “abstract” and fails to see that the individual is only individuated in drawing a distinction between itself and an environment. Rather, the inside is itself constituted in relation to this outside, which includes other persons in its environment. This is the significance of Lacan’s understanding of the operations of alienation and separation and the constitution of the subject in the field of the Other, which is essentially a thesis about the structural coupling of a merely biological organism to a social world that precipitates a subject. As Bruce Fink expresses this point in The Lacanian Subject, a subject is a particular way of relating to or orientation towards the Other. Subjects are individuated in the mileux of the Other and forever retain the trace of this ongoing individuation in much the same way that the trees behind my home retain the trace of wind and weather patterns here in Texas. Moreover, fundamental fantasy can be seen as the particular strategy a subject has “emerged” for provoking certain perturbations/responses to the ideal Other the subject is structurally coupled to. This would explain why there is no such thing as “self-analysis” in psychoanalysis, and how analysis is a technique for transforming the structural coupling organizing a particular subject by creating a situation in which particular responses in the Other are not where the subject expects them to be. The analyst is that person who is there on the essential condition of not being there and who resembles a person without being one. It is for this reason that an analyst is able to assist in the precipitation of new subjectivities, as s/he doesn’t play the systemic game– the structural coupling –that organizes regular social interactions).
Regardless of what one might think about the particulars of Althusser’s theory of ideology, what is interesting here is that structures must perpetually reproduce themselves across time through mechanisms that bring human organisms to em-body these relations in a system of attitudes, postures, identities, and dispositions of action. Human organisms must be constituted as subjects, and apparently social relations only exist in and through the productive activity of interpellated subjects. In this regard, Althusser functions as a necessary corrective to structuralist conception of organization that tended to see structures as functioning of their own accord, forming some new third type of entity or being that is neither subject nor object, but which overdetermines both. As I argued in a previous post on Deleuze, it was this latter conception of structure that initially motivated Deleuze’s category of the virtual, for the concept of structure requires us to determine how, precisely, it’s possible for synchronous structural relations to exist in a world of actuality that unfolds diachronously.
However, the idea of structure reproducing itself in and through the actions of its elements (social subjects in Althusser’s case) promises the possibility of dispensing with the metaphysically idiosyncratic conception of the virtual, so as to think the world purely in terms of actuality. It is Luhmann who best describes this possibility:
One of the most important results of this encounter [of sociology with systems theory]… resides in the radical temporalization of the concept of element. The theory of self-producing, autopoietic systems can be transferred to the domain of action systems only if one begins with the fact that the elements composing the system can have no duration, and thus must be constantly reproduced by the system these elements comprise. This goes far beyond merely replacing defunct parts, and it is not adequately explained by referring to environmental relationships. It is not a matter of adaptation, nor is it a matter of metabolism; rather, it is a matter of a peculiar constraint on autonomy arising from the fact that the system would simply cease to exist in any, even the most favorable, environment if it did not equip the momentary elements that compose it with the capacity for connection, that is, with meaning, and thus reproduce them. (Social Systems, 11)
What counts as an element must be specified for each type of system analyzed. For instance, human beings are not elements of a social system. Rather, subjects are elements of a social systems. The social system constitutes human beings as subjects or elements of the social system. Put a bit differently, we can say that the social system uses human beings as the material by which to produce social subjects. In Badiou’s language, it is not human beings that are counted by the social system, but rather subjects. It is for this reason that it is said that humans are not elements of a social system. Ellison’s Invisible Man, for instance, might be seen as a novel about a man who experiences the split between how the social system counts him as a member and his status as a human being or individual, which isn’t counted at all.
What we have here is the thesis that elements of a system are perpetually being reproduced across time through the actions of those elements with respect to one another, which amounts to a dynamic stability. For example, in being counted under the class element “professor”, there is no intrinsic or enduring property that makes me a teacher. Rather, I am perpetually being constituted as professor by my own actions, the actions of my students with regard to me, the actions of the administration, other professors, and the actions of the community in which I teach. All of these processes must be perpetually renewed and repeated to constitute me as a particular type of element, just as the cells of a biological organism are perpetually producing themselves, producing other cells, and being produced by other cells. The structural relations defining identity are thus the results of ongoing activity that has its center and origin nowhere, but where identities can only be seen as an emergent result borne of certain relations. Consequently, we have a paradox in which elements are both constituted and constituting, where they are both products of a system and productive of system. In conceptualizing organization in this way, we are able to dispense with the unlateral determination of the actual by the virtual as thematized by Deleuze, replacing it with a model where events occuring among the elements can have an effect on structural organization (feedback loops). We also get a picture of how structural drift occurs over time, through systemic variations and with an “encounter” with the environment (allowing for a reconciliation of Badiou and Deleuze, where Deleuze’s thematization of the “encounter” in Difference and Repetition can be seen as serving a role analogous to that of Badiou’s event). It’s also worth noting that this account of emergent elements accords nicely with Badiou’s ontology of inconsistent multiplicities, and overcomes the descriptivism Hallward criticizes Badiou for in Logiques des mondes (in Badiou: A Subject to Truth, Hallward argues that Badiou’s use of category theory might describe social structures or organizations, but it doesn’t explain them or their mechanisms). Such an approach also explains why we never see perfect embodiments of structure, but always fuzzy variations approaching a statistical norm without encapsulating an absolute mechanistic determinism (a point sometimes ignored by structuralists in their heyday). Finally, we are able to see structural organization as a way of maintaining boundaries in a distinction between system and environment, by drawing a distinction between system and environment (a system, as articulated by Luhmann, perpetually reproduces a distinction between system and environment, or inside and outside, as a way of producing itself across time). As Luhmann puts it, “Systems must cope with the difference between identity and difference when they reproduce themselves as self-referential systems; in other words, reproduction is the management of this difference” (10). In short, one of the central questions of politics becomes that of how this management of identity and difference can be transformed. No longer is the question one of simply changing structure, but rather it becomes one of changing the relationship of structure (system) to its outside or environment (how structure reproduces the difference between identity and difference). What we would have here, then, would be an ontological vision that preserves Deleuze’s key intuitions without forcing us to commit to some of the more eccentric aspects of his ontology (it’s Bergsonism, ontological memory, the virtual, etc).