The DeLanda reading group (which I’ll abbreviate as ANPSRG) is now going forward, with the following blogs writing post(s) on each of the chapters:

1. Assemblages against Totalities
Larval Subjects (Levi)

2. Assemblages against Essences
Digital Digs (Alex)

3. Persons and Networks
Archive Fire (michael)

4. Organizations and Governments
struggles with philosophy (Mark)

5. Cities and Nations
Philosophy in a Time of Error (Gratton)
Circling Squares

Today my goal is largely just to outline DeLanda’s introduction. In the next couple of days, as time permits, I will post on the first chapter, “Assemblages Against Totalities”. I wanted to do a reading group on DeLanda’s New Philosophy of Society because his work has influenced my own thought nearly as deeply as Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy. This will be clear, I think, once The Democracy of Objects is released. My thought behind the reading group– and all of the participants will, of course, have their own motives –was that a series of posts on DeLanda would help to clarify my own positions on social theory, process, and so on. At the outset, I’ll say that I am more or less on board with DeLanda’s assemblage theory. While we have a few ontological disagreements here and there, I think these are largely minor and that his thought points in the right direction as to how the social should be thought. A number of my own views about the mereology of objects come directly out of DeLanda’s assemblage theory. We use different language– for reasons that will become apparent in my post on “Assemblages Against Totalities” –but basically our positions are, I believe, largely the same.

Right out the gate, DeLanda tells us that the aim of this book is to present us with a new ontology of the social and that this ontology is a realist ontology. To the attentive and thoughtful reader, this thesis will already sound strange. Often the debate between realists and anti-realists is portrayed as code for a debate between those who champion natural beings and those who champion the social and mind. Within this framework, one is an anti-realist if they hold that mind, society, or language constructs reality. Most anti-realists, of course, argue that something other than mind, language, or society exists, but hold that we have no access to this existence but only have access to our own constructions. By contrast, the story goes, a realist is someone who holds that beings apart from the human are what they are regardless of how we think about them, how society relates to them, or how language talks about them, and that we can have access to these entities as they are. Within this framing of the realist and the anti-realist debate, everything revolves around the opposition between subjects and objects. Anti-realists are those who favor subjects (or the social or language), while realists are those who favor objects or the natural.

read on!

It is this frame– a frame so familiar and close that it is as invisible to thought as the glasses on my nose –that renders DeLanda’s call for a realist ontology of society so strange and refreshing. What could it possibly mean to call for a realist ontology of society? Society, the familiar story goes, belongs to the domain of the subject. The real, the story goes, belongs to the domain of the natural. DeLanda, you’re confusing categories! You’re confusing domains!

In calling for a realist ontology of society, DeLanda brings about a short-circuit, crossing wires that aren’t supposed to be crossed. Within the frame that defines the discourse of Modernity as articulated by Latour, DeLanda draws a transversal line across the heterogeneous domains of subject and object. A transversal line is a line that crosses two other lines. In calling for a realist ontology of society, DeLanda declares that the social, too, is real, that it exists, that it has being, that it isn’t simply mental.

Let’s take the example of a text such as this blog post to illustrate this point. This blog post is not simply about something, this blog post is something. It is a real entity that exists in the world, that circulates throughout the world, that can be reposted on other blogs, that can be printed out, that can be read in classes, that can be cited, etc., etc., etc. This blog post has a substantial existence of its own as a real entity within the world. As we’ll see in discussions of subsequent chapters, DeLanda draws profound and important consequences from observations as simple as the observation that a text is a material entity that must circulate throughout the world.

What, then, does it mean to claim that societies are real. At the outset DeLanda remarks that realism is that “…stance… defined by a commitment to the mind-independent existence of reality” (1). Presumably, then, a realist ontology of society would argue that societies are mind-independent. Already our perplexity increases. How could society possibly be mind-independent? Doesn’t society require minds to exist? If minds ceased to exist, wouldn’t society cease to exist? A realist ontology of society is therefore impossible. QED.

As plausible as this argument seems to be on the surface, it fails to recognize the manner in which social phenomena have an objective existence over and above mental existence. Social entities are every bit as real, every bit as independent of us, as the wall over there through which I am unable to walk. “Yes, yes, one will respond, but this just means that social phenomena are collectively dependent on minds!” This argument as true, so far as it goes, but note that the continued existence of trees, for example, is dependent on the existence of a variety of other things. Trees require rain, carbon dioxide, nutrients in the soil, a certain range of temperatures, gravity, and atmospheric pressures, sunshine, and so on in order to continue the adventure of their existence. Yet no one suggests that trees do not exist or that they are unreal because they draw on all sorts of entities in order to exist. Why is it, then, that so many of us claim that money is “unreal” because it requires all sorts of minds in order to exist. Minds, as it were, are like sunshine for money. Yet just as the leaf is no less real because it requires sunlight to engage in photosynthesis, money is no less real because it requires minds as one of the components contributing to its existence.

Yet if social phenomena are real entities, if there’s an important sense in which they are mind-independent, how is it that the way in which we talk about the social world can affect the objects that we talk about. As DeLanda puts it,

There are… important cases in which the very models and classifications social scientists use affect the behavior of the entities being studied. Political or medical classifications using categories like “female refugee” or “hyperactive child”, for example, may interact with the people being classified if they become aware of the fact that they are being so classified. (1)

Unlike categories used to describe natural entities, social categories seem to be characterized by reflexivity. When a geologist classifies a rock as “obsidian” that rock doesn’t begin to emulate the qualities of the category of obsidian, yet when an economist says that the market is beginning to go south (a descriptive claim), investors might begin rapidly selling their stocks to avoid losing money, causing those stocks to lose value. Did the economist’s description really describe a social reality, or did it create a social reality? Similarly, when a person is diagnosed with depression (a description or categorization), they might begin to view all of their cognitive and affective states through the lens of this categorization, thereby intensifying their depression. Did the diagnosis describe a reality or did it create a reality?

Given the manner in which society reflexively relates to its own descriptions, given the manner in which descriptions often seem to create their own reality, how can we claim that social entities are real or mind-independent? To this DeLanda rejoins that,

…accepting that the referents of some terms may in fact be moving targets does not undermine social realism: to explain the case of the female refugee one has to invoke, in addition to her awareness of the meaning of the term ‘female refugee’, the objective existence of a whole set of institutional organizations (courts, immigration agencies, airports and seaports, detention centres) institutional norms and objects (laws, binding court decisions, passports), and institutional practices (confining, monitoring, interrogating), forming the context in which the interactions between categories and their referents take place. In other words, the problem for a realist social ontology arises here not because the meanings of general terms shape the very perception that social scientists have of their referents, creating a vicious circle, but only in some special cases and in the context of institutions and practices that are not reducible to meanings. (2)

DeLanda here proceeds with a light touch, a touch far lighter than the one I’ve often deployed in my discussions of flat ontology in the context of social theory. He does not reject the role played by meaning. He readily agrees that meaning is a genuine component of social entities. Rather, he points out that meaning is only one component of these assemblages and that these assemblages and phenomena are only possible in the context of all sorts of other components that are entirely real: Institutions, laws, technologies, natural entities (society can’t run without energy in the form of food and resources), etc., etc., etc.

The point, then, is very simple. If we focus exclusively on meaning we are doomed to miss the role played by these other agencies. As a consequence, we will be led to a thoroughly distorted understanding of the social and, no doubt, will be led to pose our political questions very poorly. Here DeLanda levels a trenchant critique against the concept of “social constructivism”. As DeLanda writes,

…sociologists use the term ‘construction’ in a purely metaphorical sense, ignoring ‘its literal meaning, that of building or assembling from parts’. By contrast, the realist social ontology to be defended in this book is all about objective processes of assembly: a wide range of social entities, from persons to nation-states, will be treated as assemblages constructed through very specific historical processes, processes in which language plays an important but not a constitutive role. (3)

The history of the concept of “constructivism” has had a truly tragic history within social and political theory, as well as philosophy. Interpreted by detractors within the modernist frame of the opposition between the subject and the object, culture and nature, constructivism has been equated with the concept of artificiality and the unreal. Even many advocates of constructivism have proceeded in this way. The unconscious reasoning is very simple: “If the real is the natural, and the constructed is the artificial, then the constructed is unreal.” Arguing that something is constructed amounts, in this framework, that it is not real. To claim that something is constructed here amounts to a form of debunking.

Yet DeLanda proposes a very different concept of constructivism that is deeply in line with the constructivisms of Latour and Stengers. Within the frame of Modernist ontology, constructivism denotes the sovereign power to construct whatever we might like through the sheer power of thought and language. By contrast, the concept of constructivism advocated by DeLanda, Latour, and Stengers refers to the arduous work of building out of real components. It is not a sovereignity of thought that creates reality however it might like, but is rather a grappling with entities that always resist in their own ways and that constrain what can be built. I am unlikely to be successful if I try to build a house out of rubber chickens. Not only does it bounce about all over the place, it easily collapses.

In the first chapter, DeLanda gives a nice example of this sort of constructivism in terms of markets. Although I take umbrage at DeLanda’s critiques of Marx– I think he gets Marx wrong, though perhaps he’s right about Marxisms –he hits the right note in his discussion of markets. There DeLanda argues that we often speak of markets abstractly, treating them as ghostly forces that are everywhere and nowhere. DeLanda doesn’t deny the existence of markets, but rather is attentive to how they must be assembled or constructed. The market begins, argues DeLanda, following Braudel, with small village markets. Here their power does not extend beyond the village marketplace wherein these transactions take place. In order for a market to expand, roads, boats, carriages, etc., must be built, linking smaller markets to one another, forming ever larger markets that contain a variety of different scales within them (more on this in my next post).

DeLanda’s point is that linkages must actually be built and formed for these entities to arise. If, for example, either Graham or I had no internet, we would be able to form no linkage between one another and this absence of linkage would prevent certain entities from coming into existence. A realist assemblage theory of society thus enjoins us to examine the manner in which these relations, structures, and forms of organization are built such that they come into existence. Language and meaning are components, but, as in the case of my relation to Graham, language or meaning cannot function at all if they cannot be transported and that transportation requires some sort of technology of communication whether in the form of the internet, books, phones, etc., and all the other entities, in turn, required to maintain these things. If DeLanda is right– and obviously I think he is –then the domain of what is relevant to social and political thought is far broader than the domain of content, meaning, and language and we would deal well to attend to these other agencies in seeking to both understand and change the social world within which we find ourselves enmeshed.

Hopefully this post is a good start in kicking off the reading group. Enough for now.