For the last few days I’ve been a bit remiss in responding to comments and email due to being swamped with other things. I apologize for this. Today, in response to my post on Orientalism, Jerry the Anthropologist writes:

Allow me to wonder how this post might look to someone reading it at Universitas Kebangsaan Malayu or at Gadjah Mada or at San Carlos. Its not that I don’t appreciate (or that they might not appreciate) the elegance of the argument.

Put another way, somewhat over 50 years ago, after having examined somewhat over 300 definitions of culture, A. L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn wondered whether its not so important what culture is as what culture does.

Hopefully my friend Jerry will say a bit more about his distinction between “culture being” and “culture doing”. For my own part, I have become suspicious of concepts like “society”, “culture”, “economy”, “language”, etc., because I think all too often these concepts tend to hypostatize phenomena that are really complex networks of interactions. South Park recently had an uncharacteristically good episode on precisely this issue with respect to the economy that is well worth watching. We treat the economy as if it itself were doing something, as if it were an entity– the episode is all about how we have “angered” the economy and must repent –when, in fact, the economy is us. The thesis of this post is that we tend to hypostatize things like “culture” and “society”, turning them into entities when, in fact, they’re processes. In developing this line of thought, I am not denying phenomena like orientalism, but raising ontological questions about the conditions under which it is possible.

This, I think, is part of the importance of the concept of “assemblage” or “network”, as opposed to that of “system” or “structure”. By system or structure I understand a form of organization where the elements are inseparable from one another such that their being is purely a function of their relations within that organization. For example, in structural linguistics the phoneme p is nothing apart its differential relation to the phoneme b. Indeed, according to this account we already speak poorly by referring to “b” and “p” as phonemes as there is only b-p or the differential relation defining the two terms. This sort of concept then gets applied to social phenomena as well, such that no element in the social exists apart from the other elements, or rather, all of the elements are what they are by virtue of belonging to the organization. From a system theoretical perspective, the analogy is generally to biology where all the elements are understood to have a functional role and set of interdependencies within the social system. From the structural perspective the analogy is to structural linguistics where the elements are inseparable and only take on identity differentially.

read on!

While I think both of these approaches can be fruitful research models, I also think they make for bad social ontology. That is, if we hypostatize the model and treat it as an entity in its own right– speaking of “culture” as doing something, for example –we’re led to all sorts of poorly posed questions and problems. The notion of an assemblage or network is at once cruder than that of structure or system and more fluid and open. Like the concepts of system and structure, the concept of network or assemblage recognizes the importance of relation. Unlike the notion of system or structure, the concept of network or assemblage rejects the thesis that the elements participating in a network or assemblage are constituted by that network or assemblage. The elements of a network or assemblage, unlike a structure or a system, can and do withdraw from their social relations and can enter into new social relations. In other words, relations in a network based approach are not internal to their terms but are always external to their terms.

Moreover, unlike the notion of structure (matters are more complicated with the systems theoretical perspective in the social sciences), assemblages or networks sustain themselves through ongoing interactions among their elements. Although Gregory Bateson does not himself formulate a concept of network or assemblage, his essay “Morale and National Character” in Steps to An Ecology of Mind provides a nice example of what a network based analysis of social phenomena might look like. If Bateson is relevant in this connection, then this is because he emphasizes the genesis of patterned forms of organization, rather than treating these forms of organization as transcendent and sedentary organizing structures. In other words, for Bateson pattern or organization is a product or result— which, of course, the scientist is free to examine as a snapshot of becoming just as a scientist might study a caterpillar for its own sake, ignoring how it becomes a butterfly –and is not a cause or a condition.

If there is a “cash-value” to the concept of network or assemblage, then it lies in the manner in which it draws our attention to the manner in which social relations must be made and re-made over time through the ongoing activities of their elements. It was this that I tried to get at in my post Entropy and Locality, where I attempted to make the case that the concept of entropy should play a central role in our understanding of social phenomena. In other words, 1) under what conditions do we move from a state of high social entropy or a low degree of organization to conditions of mid-level and low-level social entropy or high coefficients of organization, and 2) what are the processes by which these low and mid-level degrees of social entropy are produced and maintained?

In my view the shift from a system based or structural based model of social relations to an assemblage based model of social relations significantly changes the nature of the questions we ask with respect to phenomena like Orientalism. In both system based and structural based models, relations are understood as being internal to their terms such that terms do not exist independent of their relations. For the systems theorist, say Niklas Luhmann, there will be an emphasis on operational closure where information is constituted by a code belonging to the system. Insofar as any social system is held to be a totality organized around its own codes, any portrayal of the “other” as in another culture will be akin to the essentializing phenomena of Orientalism. Similarly, a structural approach, also endorsing the thesis that relations are always internal to their terms, will examine the way in which relations between one social organization and another social organization are diacritically constituted. In both cases the researcher begins with an idealized model of the social that is transcendent and determinative of interactions and then proceeds to interpret phenomena in terms of that transcendent model.

By contrast, insofar as an assemblage based approach begins with the thesis that relations are external to their terms, it begins with the question “to what sorts of assemblages do phenomena such as Orientalism belong?” Here the emphasis is on elements of an assemblage and interactions among those elements. The assemblage based theorist will be happy to concede that texts like Kant’s Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, and Lectures on History, and Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation are characterized by a high coefficient of Orientalism. However, the reason for this is not to be located in the legibility of their texts per se, but rather in the assemblages to which these texts belong. Crudely put, these are assemblages where the East is present more or less only as a signifier and thus where all the construction of pattern, social relations, and identity comes from within the assemblage. Just as speciation can take place through geographical isolation, social assemblages can shore up their relative identity through a relative lack of interaction with other elements from other assemblages. In short, in these situations there is no inter-assemblic communication.

The situation changes significantly when we do have inter-assemblic communication or interaction. Since elements are external to their terms, the encounter of new elements forming a new assembly also sets socio-genesis in action such that all elements in the assemblage become bricoleurs. Here you get not re-production of a particular assemblic organization, but you get new forms of socio-genesis and psycho-genesis where new identities and forms of organization are produced. If the bricoleur differs from the engineer, then this is because while both draw on local materials, the former has no fixed or sedentary rules to draw upon. This is the case with inter-assemblic interactions where there are indeed pre-existent customs, traditions, history, etc., to draw on, but where the heterogeneity of the relations sets all participants involved in becoming-other, inventing something new out of the amalgam of these materials. Due to the profound migrational shifts that characterize our own age, coupled with the unprecedented developments of information and communications technology, our world is increasingly characterized by these inter-assemblic relations.