The Architecture of Theories

At the beginning of his novel Gemini, Michel Tournier writes,

On the twenty-fifth of September 1937, a depression moving from Newfoundland to the Baltic sent masses of warm, moist oceanic air into the corridor of the English Channel. At 5:19 P.M. a gust of wind from the west-southest uncovered the petticoat of old Henriette Puysoux, who was picking up potatos in her field; slapped the sun blind of the Cafe des Amis in Plancoet; banged a shutter on the house belonging to Dr. Bottereau alongside the wood of La Hunaudaie; turned over eight pages of Aristotle’s Meteorologica, which Michel Tournier was reading on the beach at Saint-Jacut; raised a cloud of dust and bits of straw on the road to Plelan; blew wet spray in the face of Jean Chauve as he was putting his boat out in the Bay of Arguenon; set the Pallet family’s underclothes bellying and dancing on the line where they were drying; started the wind pump racing at the Ferme des Mottes; and snatched a handful of gilded leaves off the silver birches in the garden of La Cassine. (9)

What a beautiful way to begin a novel. The first thing to notice is the manner in which the events described here are dated. They occur at a particular time and in a particular place. Yet secondly, note the way in which this gust of wind pulls together a series of entities, linking them together despite their disparity.

Okay, so maybe not a master-science, but rather a master-metaphor or a guiding metaphor for thought. For some time I’ve found myself increasingly frustrated with the terms “structure” and “system” as key terms for thinking social-formations. For me, structure evokes connotations of architecture. I think of architectural structures. I can draw them on a piece of paper, capturing the blue-print of the edifice that I’m trying to think about. If I have some talent in the discipline of topology, I can then imagine these structures undergoing free variation. Yet the problem is that structure, even in topography, remains relatively static and rigid. When I describe the Sears Tower I don’t really need to talk about the outside world, but just the organization of the tower and how all of its parts fit together. Matters are not much different in the case of systems. For instance, the paradigm of a system might be a bureaucracy, where there are a set number of protocols for processing inputs for producing a particular output.

Both of these concepts strike me as too rigid, two subject to closure, for defining the historical present in which we exist. In his beautiful book Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, the ethnographer Arjun Appadurai describes a set of social and cultural circumstances impacted by contemporary media technologies and mass migrations. How can we today speak of “architecture” or rigid structures in a contemporary setting where diverse codes are perpetually being brought into contact with one another through migration and communications technologies? Is it a mistake that the concepts of structure and system emerge right at that historical moment when migration brought on by the industrial revolution begins to erode these structures, calling them into question as a result of codes being scrambled everywhere? Does not structure appear at that precise moment when structure is disappearing? And might not the frantic search for structure and system everywhere be a symptom of the desire to make the Other exist, to put Humpty Dumpty back together again?

Assembly Required

Last night I had one of those thoughts that is probably best to never express out loud. “What,” I thought, “would the world look like if we imagined all entities that exist as variations of the weather?” This is really the sort of thought that can only occur to you when you’re in a sleepy, half drunken stupor, falling asleep on the couch while watching a show about the Galapagos Islands on National Geographic. I should say that meteorological metaphors have often appeared in my writing. In the past I’ve often made reference to phenomena such as hurricanes and tornadoes when trying to think about the nature of systems. On the one hand, hurricanes are of interest in that they have the status of quasi-things. Why is it that we’re inclined to think of a chair or rock as a thing or object, yet when it comes to a hurricane or a tornado we’re inclined to think of these things as events? It seems to me that what’s at issue here is a temporal prejudice or a prejudice pertaining to temporality. If a rock has the status of an object, then this is because it is a relatively slow moving and dense event. Rocks stick around for a long time. By contrast, even though a hurricane might stick around for days and weeks, they lack density and temporal longevity. Nonetheless, hurricanes do have qualities of organization and endurance, even if that organization or internal structure is relatively short-lived.

What interested me in particular about the documentary was their discussion of the ocean currents surrounding the Galapogos Islands. Every year the Islands receive cold currents of water that are particularly congenial for plankton and algae. A whole host of animals depend on these currents from marine iguanas to various sorts of fish to sea lions and a variety of sea birds that feed on these other creatures. Every few years the so-called El Nino effect will occur, preventing the cool waters from reaching the islands and bringing about unseasonable warmth and torrential downfalls. When this occurs the plankton do not arrive and the algae do not grow, and vast numbers of birds, marine iguanas, and sea lions die, leaving only a few to survive. These events then function as selective mechanisms, shifting the trajectory of subsequent development for the various species on the island. Just as vast numbers of sea iguanas die, the land iguanas flourish as a result of tender flowers and plant-life that pop up everywhere on the island as a result of the heavy rainfall. In short, these ocean currents assemble an entire organization among the plant and animal life that populate. What we have here are assemblage mechanisms that generate a particular organization (the ever shifting eco-systems), giving rise to a temporary pattern of relationships among the elements.

There are a variety of levels at which such systems can be investigated and no one level of analysis takes priority over the others. One might think that a discussion of the ocean currents is sufficient to explain the emergent system. That is, why might posit a hierarchical and unilateral form of causality. However, while the ocean currents serve as a condition for the possibility of the resulting assemblage, it must not be forgotten that the elements of the emergent assemblage themselves interact with one another and have dynamics of their own. The resulting assemblage has inter-assemblage relations with an outside (something entirely missing in structuralism and much of systems theory), but there are also intra-assemblage relations among the elements (the plankton, plant-life, sea lions, marine iguanas, land iguanas, turtles, fish, etc).

These intra-assemblage relations contain their own dynamics and tensions that preside over the development as a whole. For instance, there are a number of land iguanas that live in the calderas of old volcanoes. Every year, during mating season, the female iguanas make a journey of sometimes tens of miles to the top of the caldera so that they might lay their eggs. Here timing is everything (again a feature that tends to be ignored in structural approaches). If an iguana comes from deep inside the caldera she will have a longer journey. If she doesn’t make it to the top of the caldera in time, all of the good nesting sites will be taken and she’ll be forced to re-enter the caldera, laying her eggs in the precarious walls of the volcano’s side. These walls are composed of very loosely packed rock and soil where avalanches not only often occur, but are inevitable. In a year where the El Nino effect is operative, there will be a higher number of land iguanas due to the great amount of available vegetation, thereby leading to more intra-assemblage competition among the various iguanas and other creatures, thereby shifting subsequent courses of development. A more striking example of these intra-assemblage relations would be the effect that the Cane Toad has had on the eco-system in Australia. The Cane Toad was introduced into the Australian ecosystem to fight pests. However, having no natural predator of its own, it reproduced rapidly and began devouring much of the plant-life and other desirable animal life. Here we have an example of intra-assemblage relations where one element comes to predominate and shift the organization of the assemblage itself without being catalyzed to do so from elements of an outside. Consequently, it is not enough to simply analyze the inter-assemblage relations between ocean and weather patterns and the organisms that form a system in response to these patterns, but it is also necessary to explore the intra-assemblage relations and the various patterns that emerge as a result of interactions among the elements of these assemblages. Various species and ecosystems here come to resemble weather patterns themselves, like a relatively persistent eddy of water behind the support of a bridge that has its duration and fluctuations as it endures throughout time.

Contingency in the Garden of Forking Paths

The Galapagos Islands have a number of active volcanoes. Among the creatures that inhabit the Galapagos are the famous Galapagos tortoises. Some of these tortoises live exclusively in the calderas of various volcanoes, and have very simple or homogeneous genetic codes compared to tortoises elsewhere on the island. Occasionally you will find these tortoises with rocks actually embedded in their shells from small volcanic explosions that continue to occur in the base of the calderas, where they have lodged themselves in the shell of the tortoise. Biologists hypothesize that the simplicity of the genetic code among these tortoises is to be explained through a volcanic explosion that destroyed most of the tortoise population, leaving only a few to mate with one another.

A volcanic eruption or meteor hitting the earth or group of terrorists destroying the World Trade Center can be thought of as a contingent bifurcation point. Emerging from neither the relatively stable assemblages of weather patterns, nor from within the system itself, these events explode onto the scene, challenging the intra-systematic organization of the assemblage as a whole and bringing it before a point where forking paths of development as a whole are possible. In the days following 9-11, the United States wobbled between alternative paths in moving towards its future. Organization fluctuated back and forth without settling initially on any one particular social configuration. Within a few days the valence of the event was retroactively codified and a vector was chosen, generating a particular organization. Other vectors were possible.

Kaleidoscopes and Textiles

No doubt I will regret having written this post later on this evening. I have gone on about ocean currents, turtles, and iguanas in a rather indulgent fashion. However, it seems to me that social and political theory often suffers from being myopic and reductive, choosing one level of analysis and excluding all others. For instance, in psychoanalysis we are told the signifier reigns supreme and that everything is filtered through the signifier, thus allowing us to ignore contributions from neurology or even historical studies. Theory should instead be thought as a kaleidoscope, where various levels of analysis are thought like a turn of the scope revealing a different pattern. The difference here, of course, would be that these various patterns not be thought as independent, but should instead be thought as inter-dependent networks at various levels, producing effects at other levels, without these levels being hierarchical over overdetermining the others (as in the case of language with Lacan or economics for some classical variants of Marxist thought). Along these lines, Appadurai has proposed that we think in terms of independent streams such as mediascapes, ethnoscapes, financescapes, technoscapes, and ideoscapes, where these various streams are woven together in various configurations, sometimes one dominating, sometimes others, where it is always a question of the relationship between the local and the global and of local configurations like a local weather pattern that is nonetheless dependent on global fluctuations. In this way we can investigate the manner in which certain forms of organization arise and maintain consistency for a time, while also discerning where their points of transformation might lie. To Appadurai’s five streams, I would also add ecoscapes or geoscapes, and perhaps bioscapes, to refer to the Other beyond the Other, the absolute outside of social systems, or those contingencies that shake the earth such as earthquakes, hurricanes, meteor strikes, etc., where ordinary social relations are momentarily suspended and the social system wobbles between possibilities.

In thinking these six or seven streams, we must learn how to think according to the ancient art of textiles in terms of weaving and fabrics, where we ask not which of these streams provides the interpretive key of all the others, but instead look at the patterned fabrics that emerge out of these various threads being woven together. Of course, the fabric here must not be thought as an extant thing like the fabrics we know in our day to day life, but as a specifically meteorological fabric that is an ongoing process of weaving on a shuttle and loom that never ceases to vary itself and which perpetually weaves new fabrics as new groupings or patterns emerge responding to contingencies both within the threads and from without. Weaving must be thought not in terms of its status as product, but process.

The advantage of treating meteorology as a key theoretical metaphor is that it underlines both internal organization and the dependency of every system on an outside, while also capturing the ephemeral nature of all emergent organization in the order of time. The hurricane can only emerge as a hurricane, as an organization, through the heat of the ocean water out of which it arises. Every social group formation, as it produces and reproduces itself in time, needs its heat as well. Some of this heat can be intra-systemic (for instance, the way in which communication technologies function as catalysts that heat up social relations and function as a condition of onto-genesis presiding over entirely new groupings independent of local conditions) or inter-systemic, pertaining to relations between social systems and environmental conditions in which the group exists (for instance, the role that a drought might play in defining struggles among various groups in Africa or placing group identities in onto-genesis as they redefine themselves in fights over resources). All these relations and their dynamics deserve investigation in their own right. These investigations will not unfold universal rules like Newtonian laws, but will be far closer to Levi-Strauss’s “science of the concrete”, investigating a set of emergent regularities that both came to be and that can pass away.

About these ads