The question that really fascinates me is that of how social assemblages hold together. When we look at the world about us we notice that social assemblages are patterned, that they have a certain degree of regularity, and that they have a certain durability in time. Why don’t they fall apart? Why do human beings maintain regular and ongoing patterned relations in the way that they do? Why don’t they succumb to entropy? There’s a scene from the Travolta film Michael that gets at this point. The arch-angel Michael is talking about his contributions to human history, and among them he lists the invention of standing in line. “Before that”, Michael remarked, “people just kinda milled about. It was a mess.” So that’s really the question. Why don’t people just mill about? How do people come to routinely stand in line? How do regular patterned relations that endure in time emerge when, by all rights, the social world should just be a sort of chaos with people milling about in a sort of endless Brownian motion without order?
Social theory and the social sciences give us a lot of answers to these questions. Sometimes we’re told that it’s the domain of representation and meaning that holds people together. Representation is here treated as the glue of social assemblages. Here I use representation very broadly to include norms, laws, signs, beliefs, narratives, ideologies, myths and all the rest. While clearly these must be important components of social assemblage, I think we need only look at any online discussion list to see why it falls short. Even among discussion lists composed by people who have very similar aims– say a political discussion list devoted to a particular party –we encounter just how diverse the representations are that inhabit people. Endlessly we encounter just how different people are in their beliefs, their understanding of the world, the narratives that inform them, their interpretations of others, and so on. Doesn’t this reveal that the domain of representation is a pretty weak glue? Can representation really account for why people don’t just mill about in Brownian motion, in a high state of entropy? We are elsewhere told, in a similar vein, that society is held together by “structures”. Yet the concept of structure doesn’t really seem to tell us very much. In a way structure is like Newton’s concept of gravity. Newton’s told us that there are certain regularities in the motion of objects, but it did not tell us the mechanism by which gravity is exercised. For many centuries this was a question quietly brushed under the carpet. We also talk about power, yet here we face again the question of why people internalize power, how different people internalize it in a regular or similar fashion, and why we recognize it at all.
It seems that social theory needs a shift similar to that between the shift from Newtonian physics to Einsteinian physics. Newton conceived of gravity as a sort of force that somehow attracts bodies to one another. The big mystery was how such connections could take place between objects located vast distances apart in space. Einstein’s revolution consisted of seeing space-time as a sort of fabric that is bent, warped, and curved by the mass of the objects that populate it. Here there is no force that exercises gravity, but rather, there is a curvature of space along which objects “roll” in relation to one another. The manner in which the sun curves space creates a sort of curve along which the other planets “roll”, keeping them in the orbit of the sun. Likewise in the relation between the moon and the earth.
Increasingly I find myself thinking about the regularity of social assemblages by analogy to this sort of curvature of space that we call gravity. Under this model, it is not so must the domain of representation that holds the social realm together, but rather the manner in which nonhuman objects “curve space-time”, channeling human bodies in particular ways, generating patterned regularities. Here representations can be quite diverse, people can fundamentally disagree, fail to understand one another, etc., yet their motion is still channeled in particular directions by the nonhuman entities (technologies, environment, institutions, microbes, natural resources, food, etc.) that structure their environment. Just as it is very difficult to escape the gravity of the earth, the manner in which these entities organize the environment make it very difficult to escape the regular pattern of the social assemblage. We literally “fall” in certain directions due to the material topography of the world in which we live. It would not be ideology that holds us in place– though that too –but this material topography that channels us in particular directions.
In this connection, I’m led to think of Braudel’s analysis of rice production in Asia. The benefit of rice, unlike many other grains (especially wheat), is that it is a hardy grain that has a fairly reliable and abundant yield. Rice can be harvested two to three times a year. The drawback of rice is that it is an extremely labor intensive grain to both plant and harvest. A social assemblage that attaches itself to rice as the source of energy that will sustain it is thus led to organize itself in particular ways. Rice production will, on the one hand, come to organize spatial and temporal relations. Braudel recounts how the Chinese highlands weren’t developed as a result of the abundance that rice provided, while the raising of livestock took on a highly secondary status so is not to take up valuable land where rice can be grown (spatial relations). Similarly, rice production comes to structure time due to the harvest and planting patterns. Finally, because of the labor intensive nature of its planting and harvesting, rice lends itself to a certain form of collective organization and social stratification. Here a nonhuman entity exercises a sort of gravitational field that channels people in a particular direction. While people might find this form of life abominable and envision all sorts of alternatives, because they are dependent on both rice and their social relations, they find it very difficult to escape the orbit of this sort of life. To do so would require a restructuring of the material field, of how the world has geographically been put together as a result of labor and the cultivation of the land, along with the social organization that has arisen around this field.
In proposing such a thesis, my intention is not to reject the domain of representation, nor the domain of the phenomenological. Nor do I wish to propose a relation between base and superstructure, where materiality is treated as a base upon which superstructure arises like a sort of illusory foam. Rather, I want a sort of modified Borromean knot composed of three interlocking rings– the material, the symbolic, and the phenomenological –where we analyze the interpenetration and interaction of these domains in relation to one another. Sometimes the material will outpace and structure the symbolic and the phenomenological in certain ways, as in the case of being trapped in an ally where your movement is restricted to either going forward or backward. At other times the symbolic will outpace the material as we saw in Egypt last week, where the evental declarations of revolution challenged the existing state of power, but where institutions still need to catch up and be restructured and where economy is such that 40% of the population is living on less than two dollars a day. These evental delcarations in the order of the symbolic, no doubt, will provide an impetus to the restructuring of the material. Here all sorts of questions will emerge surrounding the inertia of the material, how it patterns social relations, and whether and to what extent it might be possible to overcome that intertia. At other times it will be the phenomenological that outpaces both the material and the symbolic. This, for example, would be Ellison’s Invisible Man where the lived experience of the social world is well beyond the symbolic structuration of the world about him in terms of institutions, laws, ideologies, and so on, as well as material conditions.
How do all of these domains interact and influence one another? What sort of topology must we develop to think them? How can we simultaneously think materialist forms of criticism (Marx, Kittler, Ong, McLuhan, Braudal, Diamond, Latour, etc), symbolic forms of criticism (Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Zizek, Adorno, etc), and phenomenological forms of criticism (Husserl, Heidegger, Uexkull, the cyberneticians, the autopoietic theorists, Luhmann, etc), without trying to reduce the other two rings to one privileged ring?