The other day I watched an interesting science documentary on strange liquids that can be found throughout the universe. For example, on Titan, a moon that orbits Saturn, there are oceans of methane that have very different physical properties than our oceans of water. For example, were you swimming in an ocean of methane it’s unlikely that you would see the liquid methane at all as it’s extremely clear due to its low degree of solvency with respect to other forms of matter. Where water, due to its molecular structure, is highly reactive such that it easily dissolves many other forms of matter (thereby leading it to often be rather cloudy), methane is molecularly very balanced, making it a rather non-reactive solvent. Deep in Jupiter scientists believe there is liquid hydrogen. Elsewhere, there are worlds that rain liquid iron.
What I found especially fascinating in this documentary was the example they used to explain the difference between solids, liquids, and gases: sheep. A solid is a relationship between molecules where the molecular structure has a rigid structure or lattice that admits of very little in the way of change or movement. In a liquid, by contrast, the molecules are bound to one another such that they don’t fill all available spaces in their vicinity, but where nonetheless are able to flow or slide across one another. Finally, with gases there is no binding between the molecules, but rather the molecules are able to detach from one another and fill all available spaces in their container.
In terms of a flock of sheep, a solid might consist in sheep tightly packed in a pen where there is very little space for movement. Here a sort of rigid lattice emerges where the sheep (akin to molecules) are unable to move from place to place and therefore retain a specific position. Sheep in a liquid state might consist of sheep being herded, where the sheep more or less remain “attached” to one another, but where they flow over one another as they collectively move from one point to another. Finally, sheep in a gaseous state might consist of sheep grazing in a field where they wander all about.
What I find fascinating in this analogy is that it basically provides a way of thinking about different types of social relations and assemblages. It could be said that there are solid, liquid, and gaseous social assemblages. When thinking about social assemblages, I believe, there’s a tendency to think in terms of solids. That is, the tendency is to treat societies as highly organized or negentropic structures (solids, liquids, and gases are characterized by three different relations to entropy, ranging from entities with very low degrees of entropy (solids) to entities with very high degrees of entropy (gases)). What we often investigate in social and political thought are those mechanisms by which entropy is managed or controlled. Some of these mechanisms consist of ideology, while others consist of power as conceived by Foucault. What we’re really investigating when we investigate ideology, power, economy, etc., are the mechanisms by which solid-state social assemblages are produced and maintained. Luhmann, for example, focuses on organized social systems, and only begins to turn his attention to social phenomena that don’t fit this model of systems– protest movements –very late in his career.
Yet it would seem that there are a variety of different types of assemblages that characterize social assemblages. Social relations can exist in the form of solids, liquids, and gases. Take my college. The institutional apparatus of the college can be thought as the college’s solid state. Here we get a determinate lattice, a structured organization, composed of relations between faculty, students, administration, maintenance, and the board of trustees where molecular relations are maintained across time in a particular form. To be sure, the students change, coming and going, faculty change, administration changes, etc., yet the basic molecular lattice remains more or less the same. The liquid state of the college can be found in students moving from class to class. Here the solid-state lattice of a classroom passes into a liquid state where students flow over one another and mix in different ways as they move from class to class while still maintaining a certain organized viscosity in these movements. Finally, the college might enter a gaseous state in a time of crisis. In this connection, we might think of the Virginia Tech shootings years ago. At this point it’s likely that the Virginia Tech campus become “molecular”, with the lattice of the university in its solid state and the viscosity of the university in its fluid state passing into a gaseous state where students and faculty scattered as individuals without any sort of overarching binding.
I’m not sure what to do with all of this except to raise the question of how these states of social assemblages interact with one another. What are the events, attractors, or intensities that preside over the transition from one of these states to another? What are the possibilities within each of these phases? And how might thinking about the interaction between these phases change our approach to the analysis of social assemblages?