It seems to me that, heated as it was, the discussion between Antigram and K-Punk regarding education and arguments from experience has prompted a lot of productive discussion, which is a testament to the value of the blogosphere. Although I am interested in the discussions surrounding the relationship between specific educational institutions, class structure, and habitus around which these discussions have centered, I find myself focusing on more abstract questions surrounding the ontological status of structure. In a response to my post, Daniel writes:

I want to respond to this point about individuals and structures.

My position is that individuals have nothing to do with class, because individuals do not exist. I think the idea of the individual is an ideological illusion. I want to radically excise the individual from philosophy; I believe that the individual has no ontological status whatsoever.

I precisely reject the conjecture that we could talk about structure as lying between individuals, in the sense “the individual finds herself enmeshed in a web that exceeds her control, understanding, and intentions.” No – I think (the mirage of) the individual is itself a product of that web, and there is no feedback relation between the individual and that web.

I think if we want to talk about feedback vis-a-vis structure, we need to talk about agents, objects, subjects, not individuals. To my mind, the concept of the individual is utterly compromised, and, since Freud, redundant.

When someone argues in this way, claiming that “the individual is itself a product a product of that web, and there is no feedback relation between the individual and that web [structure, system]”, what is the ontology presupposed by such a claim? That is, what ontological status are we granting to structure? What kind of think is structure? How does structure produce individuals as effects? In what way does structure exist? Given that we never directly encounter structures, what set of considerations lead us to posit the existence of structures?

I suspect that there is a misunderstanding here between Antigram and I, and that he takes me to be saying something very specific when I evoke the category of “individuals”. However, for anyone who has spent time on this site, I hope that it is clear that I am somewhat sympathetic to the claims Antigram is here enunciating. It seems to me that these are precisely the sorts of questions Deleuze is addressing with his account of individuation, where he describes the movement from the virtual to the actual as the movement from multiplicities or structures to actualized individuals. That is, Deleuze, in his early work, is striving to account for the precise way in which the individual is a “product of structure”. For me the question is one of how structures comes to be, how they pass away, and how they maintain themselves over time. Suppose we treat language, following Saussure, Hjelmslev, and Jakobson, as an example of structure. The first question is necessitated because we know that there are different languages and that these languages therefore came to be. Similarly, the fact that we no longer speak Sanskrit tells us that languages pass away. Finally, the fact that languages persist from generation to generation indicates that there must be a way in which structure maintains and transmits itself.

What, then, is it that we’re talking about when we talk about structure? Antigram’s comments suggest that there is one thing, structure, and another thing, individuals, such that structures produce individuals. Or rather, Antigram’s statements suggest that there is only one thing: structure. Yet where do we ever find these structures and what leads us to conclude that they exist? Is structure something that exists in its own right, as Antigram seems to suggest? Is there one thing, Language, and another thing Speech (individuals, individual events), such that Speech is only an instantiation of transcendent structure? Or rather, is structure shorthand for a heuristic device that linguists, anthropologists, political theorists, etc. create to describe pattens common to a group of agents within a particular geographical and historical context, such that there is no such thing as Language independent of Speech, but only speech perpetually reproducing language? When we say that individuals do not exist, are we not also saying that structures would exist regardless of whether or not there were bodies to embody them? Or are structrures only in bodies, yet are emergent patterns that cannot be reduced to any one individual body? That is, what is the explanatory work that the concept of structure is doing? Do structures function like iron and inescapable laws– Saussure suggests as much when he argues that it is impossible for any individual to invent a word –or are structures more like fuzzy aggregates that exemplify patterned activity that the theorist idealizes or purifies and then reifies as a set of iron laws governing social interactions? Do structures have an agency of their own, like Hegelian Geist, or is there something else at work here?

About these ads