Over at Digital Digs Alex Reid has an interesting post up discussing genres as assemblages.

As Levi notes, there is an interesting reflexive quality to a social realist ontology that it different from an ontology of natural objects. That is, calling a tree a tree doesn’t impact what the tree is. Calling a plant a weed, doesn’t change the plant (though it may change the way people react to the plant). On the other hand, the way we name things in a social milieu can be cybernetic. For example, students who become labelled as smart or troubled or whatever can tend to take on those roles. Clearly institutions play integral roles in maintaining those identities. For DeLanda I think this is why we have not only the axes of material/expression and territorialization/deterritorialization, which he borrows from Deleuze and Guattari, but a third axis of coding/decoding that deals specifically with the role that symbolic behavior has among social assemblages.

This reflexivity is one of the key features of the social. Social entities are capable of relating to the manner in which they are described, such that their description modifies their nature through this relation. If my doctor, for example, diagnoses me as suffering from depression, I might do research on depression and begin emulating some of these descriptions. I think this reflexivity of the social is one of the key issues Chris and I are exploring in relation to my post entitled “Being and Time” (which isn’t about Heidegger).

read on!

Alex goes on to quote DeLanda’s position on the ontological status of species. As DeLanda writes:

Much as biological species are not general categories of which animal and plant organisms are members, but larger-scale individual entities of which organisms are component parts, so larger social assemblages should be given the ontological status of individual entities: individual networks and coalitions; individual organizations and governments; individual cities and nation-states. This ontological manceuvre allows us to assert that all these individual entities have an objective existence independently of our minds (or of our conceptions of them) without any commitment to essences or reified generalities.

For DeLanda, species aren’t descriptive categories, but are themselves real entities that exist in their own right, regardless of whether anyone knows about them or talks about them. Here, readers of Stephen J. Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory will recognize this thesis. At any rate, this concept of species leads Alex to wonder whether or not we can’t describe genres as species. Here genres would not be abstract conceptual entities, but would be genuine entities in their own right, such that individual works in a genre would be parts of that larger scale entity.

DeLanda’s concept of species is, I think, among his most interesting. Moreover, I find Alex’s extension of this idea to genres compelling. However, I do feel that a lot of work needs to be done outlining just what is meant by the claim that species are real beings in the world (similar work would have to be done for Alex’s proposals about genres). When DeLanda says that species are individuals, that they are real entities, he is not speaking like the Platonist who argues that, on the one hand, there are individual entities and, on the other hand, forms such that individual entities are copies of these ideal forms. No, DeLanda’s concept of species as really existing individuals is entirely different. DeLanda is arguing that species are real material individuals (not types which a number of individuals share in common) that exist in the world.

However, just how are we to think species as individuals that really exist in time and space? If we put DeLanda’s thesis in geographical terms, I can somewhat understand what he’s claiming. In South America you have a population of cane toads that forms a sort of collective entity that both rebounds back on individual cane toads (they compete with one another for mates and food, for example) and that places pressures on other entities. Things become more difficult for me, however, when I note that cane toads have been transported to Australia and Hawaii among other places. When this geographical connectivity no longer exists do we now have a new species in DeLanda’s term, or the same species? This question arises because, for DeLanda, species aren’t types but populations. If we say that cane toads in Australia are component parts of the same individual (the same species) as cane toads in South America, in what meaningful sense are we entitled to this claim? I honestly don’t know.

Here I hasten to add that I am not offering these remarks in the spirit of criticism or out of a desire to reject either DeLanda’s proposals or Alex’s. DeLanda’s concept of larger scale assemblages is more or less identical to my own claims about mereology or objects wrapped within objects. In raising these questions I am thus raising questions that arise within my own ontology.

Update: Tying everything together, presumably the issue of the reflexivity of social categories would be relevant to how genres emerge and come into being. Drawing on Heidegger, we are partially thrown into a world that is not of our own making. We always find ourselves pervaded by traces of the social that we ourselves did not make. This ecosystem of the social can be found in buildings, roads, technologies, television, print, and digital media, traditions, etc., etc., etc. On the other hand– and this is the reflexive moment –we identify with various elements of the social world in which we are thrown. For example, we identify with various styles, various ways of writing, various movements, etc. Through this identification we both begin to form ourselves and form that genre. The reflexive moment of this identification would be a part of how the genre comes into existence. As a consequence, we have genres forming the individual and individuals forming genres.

One of the most important points that DeLanda makes, I think, is about connectivity. DeLanda is virulent in his critique of talk about entities like “the market”. It is not that markets don’t, according to DeLanda, exist. It is because when we talk about “the market”, we turn it into a thoroughly abstract entities, ignoring all the linkages that needed to be formed for the market to come into being. Additionally, we ignore the specific technologies that allowed existing markets to come into being (roads, boats, shipping routes, fiber optic cables, etc) as well as all the contingencies that intervened in these processes (natural disasters, personalities, discoveries, etc).

It is crucial to emphasize just how concrete such an analysis would have to be to be adequate (and adequacy here would have to be a regulative ideal, never something fully accomplished). The whole point is to draw attention to real connections that were forged in the world. It is not enough to say that a genre came into existence through this or that technology, through certain relations, etc. No, real connections have to be investigated just as the evolutionary biologist attempts to investigate real connections and events, despite the limitations of the fossil record. Take OOO. Perhaps OOO is a sort of genre that belongs to a larger genre of realism. It is not enough to say “OOO is a genre to account for this”. We’d have to look for the real connections that were forged, leading processes of “social speciation” to take place. This would involve talk of random encounters (such as the encounters between Bogost, Harman, Morton, and I), technologies that allowed that to take place, influences on students, dissertations, etc., journals that disseminated ideas, conference events, air travel (for example, Harman’s grounding due to the volcanic explosion in Iceland would be relevant here), institutions, conversations that took place electronically and where a trace is preserved, broader social and cultural events that allowed OOO to resonate, etc., etc., etc. All of these things would be relevant to both how a genre is real and how the speciation of a genre took place.

The major difference here would be that we wouldn’t talk about genres as free floating, Platonic entities. Rather, we would look at how they grew, how they expanded, what mutations they underwent, where the branchings occurred that might allow for new speciations, and so on. None of this is restricted to genres, of course. This way of thinking about the world could be deployed for any sort of social group or institution or identity. The key point is that we would seek, as much as possible, the real connections that were forged and the trace of these encounters. Psychoanalysis resulted from five people meeting in Freud’s living room every week. Five cranks. In the spirit of the “six degrees of Kevin Bacon“, these five people forged the links that led to the contamination of a good deal of the rest of the world. During these meetings psychoanalysis did not exist. It was in the process of coming to exist, just as certain small changes in other animals took place to bring octopuses into existence. These are the things that we need to become cognizant of and attentive to.