Update: Circling Squares and Jeremy over at Eidetic Illuminations further riff on these themes pertaining to mereology and emergence here and here. I especially like Circling Square’s Latourian point about how flimsy entities like “Muslim Culture” are, i.e., how much work is required to maintain their existence. This, I think, is one of the problems with an over emphasis on the signifier. The signifier is treated as an all powerful entity that, of its own accord, brings entities into existence through an act of nomination. The point here is not that signifiers aren’t components in many assemblages, but that this power of the signifier is way overblown. It takes a lot of work, for example, to hold an organization or social assemblage together. The name alone doesn’t do it, though it does contribute.


As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been getting over a rather brutal cold and have therefore been behind on discussions taking place in the blogospheres. Now I’m finding myself feeling extremely depressed, pervaded by a sense of hopelessness and overwhelmed by cynicism as I look at the political situation in the United States and the disappointment of the Obama administration (especially on issues pertaining to the environment, political economy, and GLBT politics). Hopefully this is just a residual effect of the cold and it will soon pass. For the moment I’m finding it difficult to motivate myself to do much of anything, wishing I didn’t know certain things, and could just happily turn my back on the world and tend my garden. Right now it increasingly seems to me that the only solution is for the left to abandon the democratic party and form its own version of the tea party (without the ignorance and hate) that refuses compromise (compromise that, incidentally, always seems to benefit corporations). Top on the list here would be the abolition of private funding for elections. So long as leftists in the United States continue to be held hostage to the idea that any vote for a third party is a vote for republicans there will be no way to halt the endless tilt towards the right in the democratic party. The really irritating thing is that it’s pretty clear that the administration and its apologists are setting up the left to be the fall guys and gals for the coming losses in November. The narrative will be that the left talked down the policies of Congress and the Administration, depressing voter turnout. An alternative theory would be that pro-corporate policies in health insurance reform and an economic team packed by Wall Street shills did far more to depress voter turnout than anything the nearly non-existent left did.

At any rate, over at Eidetic Illuminations Jeremy Trombley has a terrific post up raising questions about the strange mereology of OOO and DeLanda. There’s much in Jeremey’s post that I’m sympathetic to, though I wonder if he isn’t being somewhat unfair. Jeremy begins by remarking that,

Whenever we get into discussing mereology – the relation of parts to wholes – I get confounded. I’ve mentioned this in the past, but let me explain. Whenever we start talking about how wholes affect their parts I start to feel as if the explanations become magical in a way, as opposed to causal. For example, when De Landa says that social assemblages constrain and enable their components or that they can be thought of as creating a “space of possibilities” I ask, how do they do it? By what mechanism? De Landa himself says that he’s interested in causal explanations, but I can’t seem to find the causal mechanism for the kind of relationship between part and whole that he’s discussing.

Here I’m in agreement with Jeremy that discussions of the relationship between parts and wholes are underdetermined in DeLanda. DeLanda, like OOO theorists, wants to argue that wholes cannot exist without their parts, but that there’s an important sense in which they cannot be reduced to their parts. The trick is to formulate a theory of emergence that isn’t magical. In other words, when it’s argued that higher scale objects cannot be reduced to their parts what is to be avoided is the idea that something magical is taking place in the transition from smaller scale objects to larger scale objects.

read on!

First, in defense of DeLanda, my initial reaction to Jeremy’s worries is to point out that the question of causal mechanisms is an empirical question. In other words, there is not one answer to this question as these mechanisms will function in a variety of different ways depending on the assemblage that we’re talking about. The mechanisms that allow an organism to be something more than its subatomic parts will be different than the mechanisms that allow a city to be something more than the people, buildings, infrastructure, etc., that make it up.

Second, it seems to me that the notion of emergence can be illuminated with reference to my distinction between virtual proper being and local manifestation. The concept of local manifestation is designed to account for the manner in which objects can actualize themselves in a variety of different ways depending on the relations it enters into with other objects. Water is now a liquid, now a solid, and now steam. The properties it actualizes differ depending on the relations that it enters into. This, I suggest, is how we should think about emergence. Emergence is a result of relations between smaller scale objects. Two criteria have to be met in order for us to talk about emergence or the formation of a distinct object: First, the higher scale object has to illustrate new powers or capacities that aren’t present in the smaller scale objects. Second, the higher scale object has to exercise a constraining influence on the lower scale objects of which it is composed (what Protevi and DeLanda refer to as “downward causation”).

My hypothesis is that emergence takes place as a result of smaller scale objects entering into relations in such a way as to constrain the sorts of local manifestations of which they are capable in a particular context. Take the example of chimpanzees. In Sex at Dawn Ryan and Jetha take umbrage at Jane Goodall’s thesis that chimpanzees are biologically (i.e., “naturally”) violent and aggressive. This issue isn’t merely academic, for given that chimpanzees, along with bonobos, are our closest relatives among the great apes, the discovery that chimpanzees are biologically aggressive would function to establish that humans too are biologically aggressive, thereby justifying the rejection of all sorts of political theory (so it goes with sociobiology).

Jetha and Ryan note that this aggressive behavior had not been noted in chimpanzees until Goodall’s research team began placing bananas in concrete containers around their camps that would only be distributed at particular times of day so as to bring the chimpanzees closer to the camp for observation. Prior to this, interactions among chimpanzees had been observed to be peaceful and collaborative with little incidence of violence among the chimps. After the placement of these concrete containers full of bananas, chimps began to hang out around the camp all day long, fight amongst one another, and devise all sorts of strategies to get the containers open.

Now the point to be drawn from this example is not that the violent interaction between the chimps is “unnatural”, but rather that whether the chimps are peaceful or violent is a local manifestation of their relations to other objects. What we get here is a clear case of emergence. The intervention of the bananas in the chimp’s environment leads not only to the chimps relating to their environment in a new way, but also relating to each other in a new way. New aggregate qualities (violence) arise from the intervention of this new object in their environment (the bananas) and this shift creates a series of self-regulating feedback loop that make it difficult to break out of this particular local manifestation. For example, one particular chimp might wish to continue relating in peaceful ways, but as a recipient of violence from other chimps in the tribe, is nonetheless “attracted” (in the sense of attractors in complexity theory) to violence in response. As a result, we get the formation of an assemblage or a higher level object that makes it very difficult for lower scale objects in the system to break out of particular local manifestations.

Fleshing out his worries about higher scale objects, Jeremy goes on to remark,

Here’s an example of the kind of magical thinking that I’m talking about from Levi’s blog a while back (not Levi’s thinking, just an example he was using). When Muslims engage in terrorism, a common explanation is that there is a culture of terror inherent in Islam itself. This is to say that an entity “Islamic Culture” causes Muslims to behave in a certain way. Now the claim is, of course, ridiculous in itself since that would mean that all Muslims are terrorists which is clearly not the case, and as the author points out, since the same claim is not made of white terrorists like Tim McVeigh – instead these acts are generally blamed on the instability of the individual or something of that nature. But that’s not exactly true either. Rather it could be said that there are cultural effects which interact with the individual’s personality to cause him or her to act as a terrorist. But even to say that there are “cultural effects” is not to explain the cause – it’s just to say that at least part of the cause is external to his or her individuality. In order to explain the cause we have to describe the proliferation of agencies – both internal and external to the individual – which interacted to produce the terrorist act or any other phenomenon (a la Latour). To simply say an effect is “cultural” or “social” might be okay shorthand in some circumstances, but it’s overly simplistic and magical as I mentioned before. And if we have to do this anyway to have a meaningful causal explanation, then what’s the point of talking about “culture” or “the social” in the first place?

As I’ve remarked to Jeremy in the past, I’m extremely suspicious of the concept of culture for precisely the reasons he seems to outline in his post. We shouldn’t work from the premise that the world is composed of the same units through which our language parcels the world. Just because we have a word “Muslim”, it doesn’t follow that this word univocally refers to a single referent. Here Alex’s recent observations on taxinomical conceptions of species and assemblage based conception of species are extremely valuable. The taxonomist enumerates a list of shared qualities to define memberships in a class, ignoring any questions of whether or not there’s any real connection between these things. The OOO theorist, by contrast, focuses on real connections generating an enduring object in time. The two approaches are entirely different.

Can we speak of a “Muslim Culture”? Would the OOO theorist attempt to even speak of such a thing? I don’t think so. Lately I’ve been emphasizing the concept of real relation and its importance for concrete analysis. In order to claim that such and such is an object, you have to show that there are real connections, real relations. The problem with talk about “Muslim Culture” is that it doesn’t do the work of tracing real relations.. It’s lazy. We shouldn’t speak of terrorism as being a product of some nebulous entity like “Muslim Culture”. If we can speak of terrorist objects, we would have to speak of terrorist organizations. Muslim or Christian religion (we have plenty, if not more, Christian terrorists in the States) might be a component in these objects, but they are not the object themselves. Here we would have to examine all sorts of associations among people, institutions, communications technologies, etc., in the formation of a terrorist organization. We would have to trace the real relations that lead to the formation of an emergent entity that functions as an entity of its own. This is precisely what is missed in structuralist accounts and in talk about things like “culture” in the abstract.

A good OOO theorist thinks like a Darwinist. Here I am not talking about natural selection, but rather about how Darwinists think about species. Linnaeus (to be unfair) talked about species as abstract types where the issue was one of simply enumerating a list of shared resemblances among entities. The process by which the species is built is totally ignored in this sort of approach. Darwin, by contrast, is interested in the real relations formed that generate a more or less enduring object in the order of time. The finches on one island and another island are two entirely different assemblages.

My hunch is that we’re going to find– as OOO style analysis is applied to the analysis of concrete objects –that few of the types suggested by language correspond to entities that exist in the world. Rather, as we trace, in a genealogical fashion the real relations that generate higher scale objects we’re going to discover that entities that appear to be the same are, in fact, very different entities. Here I return to my favorite example of the cane toad. It is not self-evident to me that cane toads that exist in Northern Australia and cane toads in South America can be said to be the same object. Rather, in both contexts I suspect that we have very different higher scale objects with very different powers and tendencies. Yet this conclusion can only be reached by examining the actual nuts and bolts of real relations among objects rather than speaking in terms of abstractions that give the impression of resemblance when the two things couldn’t be further apart. We speak of agriculture in the context of pre-revolutionary France and agriculture in the United States, yet is there really any resemblance between agriculture that uses ox and plow and agriculture that uses genetic engineering, corn threshers, and migrant labor? Are they at all the same thing? Do they produce the same local manifestations at the level of the broader social setting? Does it make a difference that fields can be plowed and harvested well through the night as a result of these technologies? Given these new mediums, what new “messages”– to riff on McLuhan –are generated for humans, insects, animals, plants, and soil? These are the sorts of questions that OOO’s conception of objects draw us to, and the answers to these questions are often very surprising.