Increasingly I am coming to feel that Continental social and political theory– especially in its French inflection coming out of the Althusserian, Foucaultian, Lacanian, and structuralist schools –woefully simplifies the social and therefore is led to ask the wrong sorts of questions where questions of political change is concerned. The problem here is that these theories are often so abstract, in the Hegelian sense, that they end up with overly simplistic schema that then make any change seem like it is either an all or nothing proposition, or in the worst cases impossible and hopeless altogether. This point can be made clearly with reference to Althusser’s famous essay “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus“. In reading Althusser’s essay, we get the impression that the individual, the social subject, is completely formed by the ideological state apparatus to such a degree that his thoughts, beliefs, bodily attitudes, and so on are simply iterations of that social structure. As Althusser writes,

Ideas have disappeared as such (insofar as they are endowed with an ideal or spiritual existence), to the precise extent that it has emerged that their existence is inscribed in the actions of practices governed by rituals defined in the last instance by an ideological apparatus. It therefore appears that the subject acts insofar as he is acted by the following system (set out in the order of its real determination): ideology existing in a material ideological apparatus, describing material practices governed by a material ritual, which practices exist in the material actions of a subject acting in all consciousness according to his belief.

Although their theoretical positions are very different, similar observations could be made about Foucault’s conceptions of power and subjectivization, Bourdieu’s conceptions of power and habitus, and even Lacan’s conception of the agency of the signifier (during his middle period, at any rate). It is clear that if we accept this thesis, issues of social and political change become extremely problematic and we immediately find ourselves in a nearly impossible situation. On the one hand, if change takes place, it takes place through agents. On the other hand, agents themselves, according to Althusser, are simply products or iterations of social formations or the ISA’s. As a result, any change that a group of agents attempts to produce is itself already predelineated by the social structure such that it is no real change at all. The consequence of this conception of how agents are individuated and social formations is that we have to engage in all sorts of theoretical contortions to explain how change might be possible. No doubt it is for this reason that the Lacanian conception of the subject as a sort of void or lack in the symbolic chain has become so attractive, or that thinkers like Badiou have had to imagine an event, a rupture, to explain how any sort of change takes place.

Read on!

At the heart of what I will call the “Althusserian model”, is the old Aristotlean conception of individuation based on the distinction between form and matter. While Althusser’s social structures are historical in the sense that they come to be and pass away and are thus unlike Aristotle’s forms which are eternal and unchanging, social structure is nonetheless conceived as forms imposed on passive matters, giving these passive matters their particular form or structure. The passive matters in question, of course, are human individuals. I am formed by social structures tout court and without remainder. In response to this conception– and I realize that I am unfairly simplifying matters –we should ask if this is an accurate conception of either agency or the social. Does not Althusser and other structuralist inspired Marxists severely simplify both social dynamics and the social itself? When Badiou speaks of the “state of the situation” “counting-multiplicities as one”, has he not severely simplified how the social is in fact organized, creating the illusion that there’s a monolithic structure at work in social formations? Do not Lacanians and Zizekians severely simplify the social by reading all social phenomena through the lens of the symbolic and formations of sovereignity (Lacan’s masculine sexuation)? Perhaps, in these simplifications, we create the very problems we’re trying to solve and end up tilting against monsters of our own creation.

Given that questions of change are today the central question of Continental social and political philosophy, I am stunned that most social and political thinkers have not paid more attention to evolutionary theory. Indeed, it is not unusual to find Lacanians disparagingly rejecting evolutionary theory, claiming to be “creationist”, and denouncing evolutionary theory for being teleological and premised on harmonious relations with the world, thereby revealing their tremendous and shocking ignorance of what evolutionary thought actually argues (Alexandre Leupin and more recently A. Kiarina come to mind). No doubt this hostility, in part, is probably motivated by a superior and arrogant hostility (phobia?) many Continental philosophers have towards all things pertaining to the natural sciences (there seems to be a similar and unwarranted rejection of neurology and cognitive psychology, closing ourselves off to vast bodies of findings, coupled with a deep hostility towards hard sciences like physics). Often this hostility is motivated by well-founded political concerns (in the case of neurology and cognitive psychology worries over the medicalization of mental disorders), and perhaps the influence of Heidegger’s famous meditations on technology. On the other hand, it is likely that there is a well founded suspicion of biology and evolutionary science due to inflated claims coming out of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and, of course, theses surrounding natural selection (with the way in which Social Darwinism odiously picked up and distorted Darwin’s thought).

I certainly have no wish to “biologize” social and political thought or adopt a socio-biological standpoint. Nor am I making a case for applying the principles of natural selection to social formations. Rather, what interests me about evolutionary theory is that it provides a robust and well developed theory of change which might provide fertile analogies for thinking social formations. Moreover, evolutionary theory might also provide far more nuanced ways of thinking about social formations, allowing us to side-step crude oppositions between agents and social structures premised on an implicit opposition between form and matter. In his brilliant (and lengthy) Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Stephen J. Gould provides a sorting of the different levels at which natural selection takes place that I believe provides useful analogies for thinking the nature of the social. There Gould remarks that,

Selectionist mechanics, in the most abstract and general formulation, work by interaction of individuals and environments (broadly construed to include all biotic and abiotic elements), such that some individuals secure differential reproductive success as a consequence of higher fitness conferred by some of their distinctive features, leading to differential plurifaction of individuals with these features (relative to other individuals with contrasting features), thus gradually transforming the population in adaptive ways. But the logic of this statement implies that organisms cannot be the only biological entities that manifest the requisite properties of Darwinian individuality– properties that include both vernacular criteria (definite birth and death points, sufficient stability during a lifetime, to distinguish true entities from unboundable segments of continua), and more
specifically Darwinian criteria (production of daughters, and inheritance of parental traits by daughters). In particular, by these criteria species must be construed not only as classes (as traditionally conceived), but also as distinct historical entities acting as good Darwinian individuals– and therefore potentially subject to selection. In fact, a full genealogical hierarchy of inclusion– with rising levels of genes, cell lineages, organisms, demes, species and clades –features clearly definable Darwinian individuals, subject to processes of selection, at each level, thus validating (in logic and theory, but not necessarily in potency of actual practice in nature) an extension and reformulation of Darwin’s exclusively organismal theory into a fully hierarchical theory of selection.”
(Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, 71-72).

Now what I find interesting in this passage is Gould’s postulation of different levels at which natural selection occurs, each with their own immanent organization. According to Gould, the various processes by which evolutionary change take place occur not only at the level of the individual organism– many variants of evolutionary theory are “organism-centric” in the sense that they take organisms as the basic units of selection –but rather selection processes take place at a variety of levels, including genes, cells, organisms, demes (local populations of organisms of one species), species, and clades (taxonomic groups sharing a common ancestor). Gould proposes to treat all of these levels as individuals, with a history, functioning as a constellation.


To draw the parallel to Althusser and similarly minded theorists– emphasizing once again that I am not seeking to apply natural selection to social formations, but to think the organization and levels of social formations –where the Althusserian form/matter social model postulates two thing (social structure and individuals), where one thing, the social formation, hierarchically imposes form on another (individuals), Gould’s model envisions a number of different levels in which distinct processes take place. As Gould goes on to say, “…[A]djacent levels my interact in the full range of conceivable ways– in synergy, orthogonally, or in opposition” (73). That is, among the different levels processes taking place can reinforce one another, they can be independent of one another, or they can be in conflict or opposition with one another. Were such a nuanced and multi-leveled conception of the biological carried over into social theory, we would no longer engage in endless hand-wringing as to whether or not agency is possible, nor would we need to postulate theoretical monsters like the Lacanian subject or subjects of truth-procedures. If such moves would no longer be necessary, then this is because we would no longer postulate hierarchical and hegemonic relations among the various strata or levels of social formations. Instead, we would engage in an analysis of these various levels and strata, examining the relations of feedback (positive and negative) that function within them, their relations of synergy, orthogonality, and antagonism, and the various potentials that inhabit these relations. Here we would need to look at the variety of different social formations from individuals, to small associations like groups (the blog collective for instance), to larger groupings and institutions, to global interrelations, treating none of these as hegemonizing all the others, but instead discerning their varying temporalities, organizations, inter-relations, points of antagonism, and so on. This, I think, is far closer to Marx’s own vision– or at least the spirit of his analyses in texts like Grundrisse and Capital. Neo-Marxism, it seems, has abjured any empiricism, instead adopting theoretical a prioris that ignore situations. The entire constellation of questions and problems would change, and we would no longer employ abstract reifications like “structure” or “capitalism” (“structure does x”, “structure is x”, “capitalism does x”, “capitalism is x”), instead approaching structure as dynamic and ever changing structure like an ecosystem, and capitalism as a heterogeneous multiplicity with a variety of different levels, often at odds with itself, spinning off in a variety of different directions, calling for nuanced and local analyses and strategies. That, to me, is a breath of fresh air with respect to a number of debates that strike me as, I hate to say, academic.