N.Pepperell of Rough Theory has been kind enough to plug my recent post “Social Assemblages and Agency“. A while back I wrote a rather whimsical post entitled “Of Cooking, Mixtures, and Milieus“. While the post might have been whimsical in tone– drawing on anecdotes from cooking and examples from Seinfeld –the point I was trying to make was a serious one about the nature of causality in relation to social formation. That is, there seems to be a tendency to adopt top-down models of causality when thinking about social phenomena, such that we are led to think one cause hegemonically dominating the social space. Whether we posit signifiers as determining social relations, the sovereign as determining social relations (a recent turn I find particularly irritating as, following Spinoza and Hegel, there is no such thing as a sovereign that doesn’t draw his power from the consent of the multitudes), language, structure, or more recently the biological, we posit a unilateral causality where one term serves as the explanation for the rest. This, of course, is the essence of metaphysics: to treat a part of the whole as explaining the whole.
Casting about for metaphors to interrupt this pattern of thought, I seized on cooking and chemistry:
If cooking is instructive for the social theorist, then this is because cooking teaches us to think in terms of mixtures, processes, intensive transformations, intensities, and irreversible processes. Tomato, garlic, cumin, and olive oil are not the same after they are mixed and heated. Rather, a qualitative transformation takes place… A transformation that is irreversible. Cooking is chemistry, rather than physics. Where, in classical physics we are enjoined to think atoms impacting one another in relations of force such that the atoms nonetheless retains its identity, changing only in velocity, chemistry leads us to think mixtures, temperatures, pressures, etc., that lead to qualitative transformations of the elements involved. The garlic is not the same after it is cooked and mixed. Nor can I return the garlic to its previous uncooked state. Rather, it has undergoing a qualitative transformation that now has different potentialities. For instance, if I roast garlic in tinfoil and olive oil in the oven, I can now spread it on a nice loaf of sour dough bread like butter, whereas before this would not have been possible. Under these conditions, the flavor becomes sweet, where before it was pungent.
Cooking, chemistry, requires us to think a milieu of individuation where a milieu of individuation is to be understood as the relation something entertains to other things in the world such that it would not be that thing without these other things. If you enjoy wine then you know that where the wine comes from and the year the wine was made make a tremendous difference as to what the wine is. Wine, wine grapes, always emerge in a milieu of individuation defined by the weather, the soil conditions, other plants, animals, and insects in the region and so on. Wine from one and the same vinyard can be radically different from one year to the next. The same is the case with cheese. Each individual entity is itself attached to a world, a local morphogenetic field, through which it produces itself as an ongoing process by interacting with that world.
In cooking or chemistry there is no one thing that causes the rest. Rather, we instead have to think relations of feedback and interaction where all the elements or ingredients interact. This entails that there will not be a “one size fits all” sort of explanation for social phenomena. Rather, following Freud, we might instead talk of “overdetermination”. Of course, this approach to thinking the social and political will cause some to recoil as the complexity of our object is vastly complicated. Social and political philosophers strike me as liking simple answers and schematizations of their objects (I think actual social scientists often fare much better and are much less reductive). On the other hand, an approach that emphasizes interaction at multiple levels, multiple levels of non-linear causation, and complexity might also undermine some of the pessimism (that sometimes seems almost celebratory in tone) that sometimes seems to haunt social and political philosophy (the all or nothing attitude that asks empty questions like “how do we overcome capitalism” and then finds itself impotent when it comes to doing anything at all). That is, such a view might allow us to diagnose false problems that result from overly schematic and simplified conceptions of the social. At any rate, N.Pepperell has recently written a couple of very nice posts on Diane Elson’s work, who appears to be thinking in a similar groove (here and here). Well worth the read!