In reflecting and reading over the last couple of weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am deeply confused. I am confused as to what is to be explained. I am confused as to what is to be changed. I am confused as to how change takes place. I am confused even as to the questions I am asking. I am confused about my confusion. In many respects, my reflections on meteorology broadsided me, throwing me into a state of quiet reflection and reading, taking me by surprise, leaving me to wonder where I should go next. I don’t know why this was so. I don’t know why I became quiet at that particular point. I felt as if somehow I had been thoroughly dislodged from a paradigm of thought and no longer knew who I was or what I thought. I called this depression, but really it was amnesia. This confusion has been a productive confusion.

Marx famously said that the point of philosophy is not only to explain the world, but to change it. But what is it that is to be explained? What is it that is to be changed? And how is it to be changed? Here in the theory blogosphere, we here talk of these things all the time. We hear talk of radicality. We hear criticisms of liberalism… And with good reason. As Wallerstein recounts in his World Systems Analysis: An Introduction, liberalism emerged as a compromise between the radicalism of the French or Russian Revolution and conservativism, seeking to navigate between the brutality that erupted during the French Revolution through moderate and controlled change and the adherence to authoritarian, centralized structures and tradition (associated with religious institutions and monarchies) characterizing conservativism. Inevitably the liberal position ended up reinforcing conservative authoritarianism in an unwitting fashion. As he puts it, “…[L]iberals, even while accepting the normality of change and supporting (at least in theory) the concept of citizenship, were extremely timid and actually quite afraid of fundamental change” (63). Everyone seems to agree that change is desirable, yet it seems to me that there are seldom any concrete proposals as to what should be changed, how it should be changed, or how an alternative to social system should be organized.

Read on

On the one hand, there are a few out there that seem to advocate some form of authoritarian radicalism, such that a post-capitalist society would be highly structured and centrally controlled. These sorts of recommendations appear to come from those who appreciate Zizek’s playful references to Stalin and Lenin, and often emphasize discipline and sacrifice. There are seldom any concrete proposals as to just what such a discipline would look like or what sacrifices would be necessary, yet we are told that we must become disciplined and make sacrifices. It is difficult for me to understand the thought process of those who advocate such views, for those who wish to champion a strong function of the state, for it seems obvious to me that bureaucracies almost inevitably give poor solutions to the problems they attempt to solve. It seems to me that we perpetually get the wrong people in positions of power within bureaucracies and that the persons that occupy these positions give highly simplified solutions to the problems that the bureaucracy is designed to solve. Because the chain of command moves from top to bottom in such systems, they are very slow to correct or change themselves in response to communications coming from the bottom among those who have their “boots on the ground”, pointing out the problems with the proposed solutions as they enact themselves in practice. To make matters worse, communications coming from the bottom are often received by those occupying superior positions not as legitimate problems with the proposed solutions, but as forms of resistance borne of laziness, resentment, or personal self-interest.

Thus, for example, the high school teacher in the United States that complains about how learning outcomes are structured such that they distort material and the classroom practice of teaching is interpreted by the administrator not as a flaw in how education has been conceived, but as a complaint on the part of the educator who wishes to maintain their easy life and mediocre standards. The educators, in this case, are seen as the problem rather than the assumptions the administrator has as to what education is and the procedures implemented on the basis of these assumptions. Of course, the administrators and legislators designing these procedures often have no experience in the classroom themselves, nor have any scholarly experience in core disciplines in the sciences and humanities, but nonetheless they know better what education is: the mere exchange of information and facts. Do we really want a world organized in this way? Do we really want to submit our lives, our freedom, our autonomy, to bureaucrats like this?

Although I am sympathetic, anarchists and libertarian solutions seem to fair poorly as well. I confess that I have a fetish for the emergence of self-organizing collectivities without centralized authority or bureaucratic hierarchy. I like those forms of social organization that are problematic in the sense that their organization is a function of a collective problem(s) they grapple with that gradually takes on definition and solution in much the same way that a group of engineers navigate the relationship between the principles of physics and the environment in which a bridge is to be built, progressively synthesizing the available materials to be used, the distance between the shores, the incline of the banks, the solidity of the soil, aesthetic considerations, etc. The virtue of anarchistic approaches is that they allow for non-centralized forms of emergent self-regulation in relation to problems that emerge within the collective field, rather than top-down, authoritarian, hierarchical forms of regulation often removed from the field of engagement. The problem with the authoritarian models is that they often treat the map and territory as being identical, failing to recognizing differentials that appear as a function of the map, often locking us in bad solutions. The proximity to the territory in de-centralized collectives allows for a greater sensitivity to these differentials, allowing for less abstract solutions.

However, once again problems emerge. In anarchist-libertarian models we often get different forms of regulation that can be no less stifling, as in the case of the consolidation of power and wealth in the hands of a few. This is clear with the current media system in the United States, corporations, and other sundry elements of the social system.

I do not have answers to these questions, and part of the problem is that I am unsure as to which questions are even the right questions to ask. Returning to Marx’s conception of the aim of philosophy, it seems that there are three relevant and interrelated issues:

1. What is to be changed?
2. How is it to be changed?
3. Why does the world take the form it takes at this particular point in history?

It seems to me that these are essentially questions about the attractors that govern a particular social system. The term “attractor” is potentially misleading as it can be taken to suggest a teleology, goal, or purpose towards which a system is drawn. However, an attractor should instead be understood as the states produced by a particular process. Suppose you take an ordinary soup bowl with sloping edges and roll a marble down its edge. With sufficient force the marble will roll down the side of the bowl and slightly up the other side, moving back and forth, eventually settling towards the middle. This resting point is the attractor of this particular system. There is nothing teleological here, just the relations between gravity, the incline, and the force with which the marble is pushed.

A number of issues haunting social and political theory pertain to questions of attractors. When the social and political theorist raises questions about the “reproduction of the conditions of production”, these are essentially questions of attractors referring to the social system in a state of equilibrium. Equilibrium here simply refers to a social system that is able to maintain its particular organization over a stretch of time. Equilibrium need not be a virtue of a system. We can have exceedingly ugly and intolerable systems that nonetheless have a relatively stable equilibrium in the sense that they are able to reproduce themselves from system-state to system-state. It is simply a question of the social system having relatively fixed attractors. In this connection, there seem to be two relatively important attractors:

1. On the one hand, there are attractors pertaining to social organization or relations among elements composing the social system. These are attractors pertaining to relations among economic classes, status-groups (various ethnic and religious groups), family or kinship structures, structures of governance, economic relations (are there corporations, guilds, feudal systems, etc?). Here the issue pertains to the persistence of various social-formations or forms of organization. When analyzing a social-formation it is necessary to identify the attractors towards which these systems tend.

2. On the other hand, there are attractors pertaining to the elements composing the social-formations. These attractors pertain to the various social identities, whether ethnic, religious, gendered, professional, etc., etc.

It is clear that these two types of attractors cannot be thought independently of one another. Being-a-son or being-a-professor is not independent of a particular sort of social organization, and it differs from social organization to social organization. Being-a-son has a different structure among the Kaluli of Papau New Guinea than it has in the United States and being-a-professor doesn’t exist at all among the Kaluli. Consequently, these different attractors cannot be studied independently of one another, but require a convergent and contextual analysis.

The question of attractors is necessarily complimented by the analysis of vectors. An attractor is reached along the lines of a vector through which it is produced. A vector can be thought as analogous to directions in a recipe. When cooking you have the ingredients that you use and the directions for combining and transforming these ingredients according to a particular attractor. Vectors thus pertain to a particular process through which an attractor comes to be. The analogy between cooking and social-formations and social-elements, however, breaks down in that in cooking there is a defined set of rules carried out by a cook, whereas there is not a hierarchical set of rules defining social-production. I am not simply a friend, but rather I am made a friend and make myself a friend through my interactions with the other. The organization and identity is emergent and ongoing. This is one of the reasons why social change is often so difficult or why social systems are often so resistant to change. An agent might have made an internal transformation, yet the other agents composing the social system continue to relate to the agent in the same way. Thus, an alcoholic might have made an internal resolution to no longer drink, yet the alcoholic’s relations continue to relate to him as an alcoholic, steering him back into this activity. A key element that characterized late 19th and early 20th century social relations was that of the worker belonging to the social-formation of capitalist production. Workers are not something that simply exist like rocks lying about to build a wall, but must be produced. What are the vectors through which the proletariat is produced? How do you take a rural farmer and turn him into an industrial worker? What sorts of social institutions need to be in place for the production of these identities? What sort of family structure or kinship relations? What sorts of interactions need to be present among persons in order for this form of subjectivity to emerge? Could this identity have been produced without the invention of the clock? And so on. These are questions of how human beings in a free and wild state (i.e., newborns) come to take on a certain identity, set of capacities, affects, desires, etc.

Lacan paid a good deal of attention to social vectors. From the beginning of his teaching until the end, one of Lacan’s key questions was that of the formation of an analyst. What are the conditions under which an analyst is produced? What processes must a subject undergo to become an analyst? What were the historical conditions under which psychoanalysis emerged as a form of social relation between an analyst and an analysand? These are all questions pertaining to vectors by which a particular form of subjectivity is produced and a particular form of social organization reproduces itself. Indeed, we could go one step further and say that Lacanian psychoanalysis is a theory of attractors, where each subject-position (neurosis, psychosis, and perversion) describes a different topology of attractors with regard to the social field and the symptom is a particular attractor within the economy of a subject’s life that perpetually returns to the same spot (repetition compulsion).

All of these concepts pertain to my third initial question: “Why does the world take the form it takes at this particular point in history?” It is my hope that this sorting brings a little bit of clarity to questions of social transformation. It is clear that some social theories focus on vectors. Foucault and Butler are often interested in vectors pertaining to the formation of social-elements or different types of agencies. That is, they often focused on questions pertaining to processes of “subjectivization”. Zizek appears to be interested in questions pertaining to reproduction in time, or our attachment, through jouissance, to various social-formations. Those engaged in identity politics are interested in attractors pertaining to elements of the social system, or the relative place of a status-group within the social-formation. Here the status-group (the ethnic or gendered subject) is treated as a given (i.e., the vectors of production are ignored, if acknowledged at all), and the question is one of how to reconfigure the place of the status-group within the social-formation while preserving the identity as it is. Badiou is interested in transformations of the social-formation itself and consequently with those vectors pertaining to how new social-formations, new social-organizations, might emerge. Etc.

The point of these distinctions is not merely sociological and anthropological. While it is certainly the case that a rich sociology and ethnography could be developed using these concepts– indeed, it could be said that economics, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, etc., study nothing but various types of attractors and vectors without using this precise language –the aim is ultimately a response to the first and second questions: “what is to be changed?” and “how is change to be produced?” At what points, in a particular social system, do disequilibriums appear, such that new attractors either become possible or appear? What dimensions of a social formation are to be targeted? Can particular attractors and vectors be strategically targeted, or is the cadence of change an inexorable process immune to social engineering? Can the formation of new attractors be targeted in a precise way, or are we necessarily faced with the demon of unintended consequences when targeting the vector-fields of a particular social system (i.e., we end up with a situation like Pol Pot)? Why is it that certain strategies of transformation are often so unsuccessful? For instance, the protests throughout the world leading up to the current Iraq war? What is it about the current social system that was able to absorb these events without a disruption of the dominant attractors, as if they didn’t even exist or occur? Why did protests have a much greater impact during the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements of the 60s? Is there a relationship, a social memory, that annulled the efficaciousness of the contemporary protest movements? Without posing questions of disequilibrium, it is difficult to pose any of these questions clearly.