In the after panel discussions, one of the key questions that came up was that of how I account for the work that the concept of structure is trying to do. It was Peter Gratton that raised this important and perfectly legitimate question (both in the Q&A following my talk and in subsequent conversations throughout the remainder of the day). If I understood Peter’s question properly, the worry here is that of how we’re to account for how certain social patterns iterate and reproduce themselves across time and geography if wen dispense with the concept of structure.
I very much like Peter’s way of formulating the question, but for me it’s precisely these sorts of concerns that lead me to reject the concept of structure. In my view, the problem with the concept of structure is that it tells us that there are patterns that reproduce themselves across time and space while telling us little in the way of how these patterns reproduce themselves. As a consequence, structure comes to be treated as an agency in its own right, somehow doing things, without giving us much insight into how precisely structure does these things. And in the absence of an exploded view schematic of how structure reproduces itself, we’re left with little in the way of an account of just how to engage structure.
Structuralism gets it right in recognizing that these patterns exceed the intentions of individual humans, functioning according to it’s own immanent principles, and that these patterns reproduce themselves across time and geography. The problem is that the concept of structure (as well as the theoretical practice that accompanies it) ends up being purely descriptive, failing to illuminate any of the causal mechanisms through which structure does this.
The history of subsequent French thought would have been entirely different had it followed the path of cybernetics, rather than the descriptive formalism of figures like Levi-Strauss. Like structuralism, cybernetics recognized that patterns iterate or reproduce themselves across time and geography. Moreover, like structuralism, cybernetics argued that these systems function in ways that exceed human intentions. Take the form of psychotherapy known as “Family Therapy”. Family Therapy is deeply indebted to cybernetics, seeing the symptom that a patient suffers from not as something localized to that individual, but rather as a product of the family system as a whole. Treating the symptom thus requires treating not the individual, but rather the family.
I’ll use myself as an example. Increasingly I’ve become aware of what a pissy little troll I am. I might go about complaining about the trollish behavior I encounter in others in relation to me, but my posts and comments are littered with snide little offhands that not surprisingly provoke snide behavior in others. I don’t do this consciously or intentionally, but almost as a sort of tick. What we have here then is a sort of symptom and we can ask why is it that I behave in ways to provoke conflict with other people when I find these conflicts so distressing. The family therapist would look at the family setting as a whole, not just at the individual. Thus, for example, perhaps my parents, despite having a very good relationship, were nonetheless prone to bickering. In this system, it could be that my unpleasant system functioned as a feedback mechanism that diffused this sort of conflict. In other words, by behaving in trollish and troublesome behavior conflict was directed my way rather than unfolding between my parents.
Another way of putting this would be that I functioned somewhat as a safety valve within this system, playing a role in how the system regulated and achieved equilibrium. Now there are two points to note in this analysis (and I only offer it as a crude example to illustrate a concept, and not even something that is necessarily true): first, the functioning of this system is independent of anyone involved. For example, it wouldn’t be necessary for me to actually behave in trollish and provocative ways to serve this function. My sister might scream, as we played with our legos, accusing me of pulling her hair or something when nothing like this happened. As an element in this system I am situated within a certain functional framework a priori, such that that function can become operative regardless of what I actually do. It is not necessarily the case that I unconsciously enact a particular action. The unconscious, as Lacan suggests in his seminar on The Purloined Letter, belongs to the system as a whole, not the individual.
Second, and more importantly, the emphasis here, in contrast to structuralism, is on the system as a dynamic system that undergoes all sorts of operations or activities to maintain and reproduce themselves. Rather than a mere description of relations as in the case of structuralism, we instead get relations constantly haunted by the spectre of entropy and which must therefore undergo certain operations to stave off entropy or dissolution. The abstract name for these operations is negative and positive feedback. Negative feedback, somewhat counter-intuitively, refers to self-regulating mechanisms that return a system back to a state of equilibrium. In the example above, the parents bicker threatening the family system with entropic dissolution, the child acts up redirecting marital conflict to the child as a problem, and the system returns back to equilibrium with everyone assuming their roles. Here the acting up of the child occasions the negative feedback that allows the system to correct itself and stave off entropy for another day. Positive feedback, by contrast, refers to sequences where systems spiral out of control, falling into entropy and ultimately destroying themselves. A blog debate, for example, might get so intense and heated that it leads to the dissolution of relations between blogs that hitherto existed. An old system dies, new ones are born. Entropy has had it’s day.
Cybernetics has its problems and systems thought has progressed quite a bit since the early innovations of cybernetics, but its example, when contrasted with structuralism is still instructive. Within the framework of cybernetics, systems are dynamic, entropy is a problem that faces any structure of relations, the emphasis is on the mechanisms and processes by which a system staves off entropy, and elements of a system can always be detached from the system (i.e., entropy can set in). In my view, this conceptual space is far more valuable than structuralist orientations insofar as it doesn’t merely give us a description, but instead gives us what Bogost calls an “exploded view” map of processes and elements while perpetually recognizing the entropy that haunts every system. The fact that every system is haunted by entropy, deflates the appeal of concepts like the Subject or the Event precisely because every iterating system of relations is already a multiplicity.
In my own work, I have thus proposed that we replace the rather crude concept of structure with the concept of “regimes of attraction”. The concept of regimes of attraction does all the work that Gratton thinks the concept of structures does, without falling into abstract descriptivism that ignores mechanisms through which structure (re)produces itself and the constant threat of entropy. By analogy to biology, structuralism is like vitalistic preformism that thinks a fertilized egg already contains the completely formed adult entity the egg will become, whereas the concept of refines of attraction is capable of explaining how pluripotent cells can take on determinate functions through their locality and interaction gradually building a body that was in no way there to begin with. Open to an environment, constantly threatened by entropy, and composed of discrete and independent units, the concept of regimes of attraction draws attention to how structures are multiplicities of activity, how they are built, and above all where their weak points might reside.
What, then, is a regime of attraction? A regime of attraction accounts for how discrete, autonomous, and independent entities are nonetheless drawn into basins of attraction that restrict the freedom of movement that virtually belongs to that unit. A basin of attraction is anoint towards which an entity or process trends as a result of feedback relations to other entities or processes. For example, if you roll a marble down the side of a bowl it will roll up and down the sides of the bowl until gravity finally brings it to rest somewhere in the bottom of the point. The range of places where the marble can come to rest is the marble’s basin of attraction for this system (there will be other basins of attraction for the marble in different systems; hence my distinction between exo-relation, local manifestation, and virtual proper being). Likewise if you are born poor it is likely that you will grow up to be poor, just as if you are born wealthy, it is likely that you will grow up to be wealthy. Poverty and wealth are basins of attraction for individuals (and there are many, many other basins of attraction forming a virtual phase space for each of us), towards which individuals are drawn in their lives. A regime of attraction is a field of feedback relations among entities and processes in an a network that organizes these basins of attraction drawing things in one direction rather than another. The important point is that every regime of attraction is haunted by entropy, by the threat of dissolution, rendering it far from ineluctable and challenging every basin of attraction. Mapping these regimes of attraction or feedback processes allows us to locate those weak links where an increase in entropy for a system is possible, thereby challenging basins of attraction.