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In a very nice response to my paper on assemblages and networks, Joe Clement remarks,

I liked the paper too. However, could you say a bit more about how post-structuralists like Deleuze understand networks as opposed to how structuralists understand, well, structures. At a certain point, it sounds like they are different names for the same pomme de terre. I can get behind networks and assemblages being “things” of change, while structures are usually talked about as quasi-eternal forms. However, what is to stop us from saying that a network is structured, not according to an identity with some sort of totality, but according to its symptomatic deadlocks/exclusions/slippages? I’m thinking of Zizek’s very rudimentary lesson in commodity fetishism in the first chapter of The Sublime Object of Ideology

“rather, it [commodity fetishism] consists of a certain misrecognition which concerns the relation between a structured network and one of its elements: what is really a structural effect, an effect of the network of relations between elements, appears as an immediate property of one of the elements, as if this property also belonged to it outside its relation with other elements” (24).

You know Zizek then goes on to quote Marx on commodities A & B, and then tie that into an allusion to the mirror stage. All of this falls very neatly under the conventional structuralist rubric, but it’s the point about misrecognition that perks my interest. Zizek says misrecognition occurs as a structural effect, though this really does not pre-suppose a “structured network” (i.e. what I take to be the conventional structuralist line) anymore than it pre suppose that “this property also belonged to it outside of its relation with other elements.” That is to say, the misrecognition is about the “structured network” as much as the individual element, though that means we aren’t stuck having to unravel the “structured network” anymore than we are stuck having to stabilize the individual element. They are both “structural effects,” whose unified expression is the symptom. With my Buddhist hat on, subject and object are “structural effects” caused by ignorance (avijja), whose symptomatic expression is suffering/dissatisfaction (dukkha).

There is some similarity between structure and networks, but also quite a difference. A network is something more than atomistic individuals and something less than a structure. A structure is a set of interdependent differential relations where the terms have no existence independent of one another. Thus, for example, in language the phonemes that make up a language are not /b/, /p/, etc., but differential relations between these units. Neither /b/ nor /p/ form a phoneme, but rather only b/p forms a phoneme within a specific language. As such, /b/ has no existence independent of /p/ and vice versa. The minimal condition for being a phoneme is that the substitution of a unit produces a difference in sense: /b/at, /p/at. Sense is thus not something that precedes these differential relations, but is an effect of these differential relations.

Read on

Deleuze sums the matter up in his earlier structuralist work The Logic of Sense (granted, a unique structuralism), when he argues that in the case of structure a language is either there all at once or not at all. That is, because the elements making up a structure depend on one another, because their being is relational in character, it cannot be built up out of elements (because there are no elements that pre-exist the structure), and can only occur all at once. It is this that would lead Levi-Strauss to later argue that structures are universals of the human mind that are invariant across all cultures as they cannot be built up or produced from parts due to the interdependence of their elements. This is a key reason as to why, I believe, those working in the structuralist tradition were compelled to seek a void within structure to explain change. They had to find some structural empty space wherein it might be possible to act on the hegemony of structure organizing a social field due to the manner in which structures are interdependent relational totalities.

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In addition to the properties of differentiality and totality (the interdependence of elements in a relational whole), structure is also ideal. Structure has a strange sort of ontological reality. Structure is neither subjective (in minds), nor objective (a thing), but rather collective. Objects are individuals or substances– what exists in and through itself independently –so they cannot be structures. But structures also cannot be subjective because they are shared collective entities. Thus Saussure emphasized that structures are both objective and subjective, and have a collective existence. Consequently, phonemes aren’t found in physical sounds, but are ideal differential relations that govern sounds within a particular language. For the structuralist there are three ontological orders: minds, objects, and the collective (though generally minds and objects get short shrift as actors, falling under the hegemony of a structuralist correlationism).

A network is, in a sense, a much cruder entity than a structure. Unlike structures, networks do not form ideal differential totalities because the elements that make up a network are real actors in a network. Thus, where Saussure would argue that the phonological linguist studies nothing but the system of ideal differential relations between phonemes for a specific language such that we can ignore the embodied agent making the sound, the medium through which the sound travels such as air, water, the geography where the sound is produced, and so on, Latour would see our articulatory organs, the air, the water, the ear, the brain, geography and so on as all being actors in this network.

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Likewise, where a structure forms an ideal differential totality that either exists all at once or not at all, a network is constantly being made and unmade through the actors in that network. In other words, a network only exists in the doing or performing of the network. It doesn’t have an ideal existence exhausted by structure, but is rather a dynamic process that is continually being made and unmade, actualizing ever shifting virtual potentialities or singularities in various organizations. Moreover, the actors in a network are not just human beings, but are any entities that act in the network, human or inhuman, cultural or natural. For example, Latour would argue that there is a big difference in networks in a bureaucracy between a bureaucratic network that uses a paper filing system, a computer database, or a digital internet database. The person’s within the bureaucracy are not the only actors in this network, but rather the paper filing system, the computer data-base, and the digital internet database are actors as well. As actors these non-human agencies also have an organizing effect on the network as well. They are not simply recipients of cultural significations and codes, but push back on the other actors, organizing it in different ways that exceed the intentions of human actors. That is, the network produces and reproduces itself in very different ways depending on which sort of agency it uses (here Latour is very close to media theorists like Kittler and Ong who argue that writing technologies have a very important impact on how thought and social relations are organized).

Finally, unlike structures that are self-enclosed totalities, networks can always have actors added and subtracted, leading to greater or lesser differences in the overall organization of the network. Thus, for example, for an assemblage or network in Deleuze and Guattari or Latour, it is not enough to talk about the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, but we must also talk about the clock, the factory, the tools used, money, etc., as actors within this network. The clock, for example, acts on the work day and money, assisting in the transformation of labor into a commodity and a unit. The net result here is that in analyzing networks we cannot restrict ourselves to the analysis of ideal semiotic entities– as is done in the case of, for example, a Zizekian ideological analysis –but must practice an empiricism where we get our hands dirty and examine the actual actors– human and inhuman, cultural and natural –that participate in the production and the reproduction of the network.

In short, a network is a far more fluid, dynamic, and open assemblage than a structure, thereby subject to more sources of change than a structure. In this connection, Bruno Latour’s Re-Assembling the Social, We Have Never Been Modern, Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, and DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy are very rewarding reading in understanding networks. What I tried to argue in the paper was that figures such as Žižek and Badiou are led to their particular problems precisely because they exclude the notion of actors (in Latour’s sense) and presuppose a structuralist model of the social where the social is something that both exists and explains, rather than something to be explained through the agency of actors.

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