Today, as a result of my camping adventure over the weekend, I find myself bruised, battered, burnt, and broken. Although I had a wonderful time– and my daughter Lizzie had the time of her life –I guess my 38 year old body (how did that happen?) locally manifests itself in a quite different way after sleeping on the ground than by 17 year old body did. So it goes. These are things that are worth recovering from.
At any rate, over the weekend I found myself thinking about structure and structural change. Although structuralists had the right idea in drawing our attention to relations, they didn’t, I think, do the best job in thinking structures and structural change. In part, the problem lies in the very term structure. In my mind, at least, the term structure evokes images of something very rigid and firm. When I hear this term, I think of something like steel girders in a building or radio tower upon which accidents can alight (like the way we paint the walls in the office building), while the structure remains the same. In much of the structuralist literature, these connotations come out clearly. In structuralist linguistics, for example, we get all sorts of speech events, but these speech events are often treated as mere accidents that play across the surface of structure while the iron pattern of structure remains the same. We get something similar in Levi-Strauss’s account mythology. We get endless variations of myths, but these variations are variations of the same structure, no different than the way in which we can have an infinity of different triangles, while the same basic structure of triangleness always remains the same. The girding remains the same while variations play upon the surface of that girding with their possible permuations already predelineated.
Here structure becomes something deeply mysterious. We seem to think of structure as a mysterious incorporeal entity that itself has no material reality of its own, but which nonetheless exercises causal influence on everything else determining it. The value of the concept of structure resides in drawing our attention to relationships, in drawing attention to how certain features of things do not reside in the things themselves, but rather arise from positionality of the thing in a system of broader relations. Here I hasten to add that these structures are, for me, themselves objects: They are objects that “interpellate” other objects for their own operations and self-continuance.
In other words, I don’t draw an opposition between objects and structures, but rather hypothesize that objects exist at a variety of different levels of scale and interact in all sorts of complex ways across these scales. In this regard, the structuralist concepts of “positionality” and “value” are only half the story. Viewed from one angle, an object interpellated by another object is a “value” or “position” within that system, i.e., it’s being is defined relationally in that system as in the case of the difference between a private citizen and a government official where the being of these entities is defined diacritically in relation to one another. Viewed from another angle, however, those objects interpellated by larger-scale objects themselves remain independent objects in their own right that exceed any of the diacritical relations that seek to interpellate them and that perpetually introduce entropy into the operations of this higher scale object. Nobody is ever just a police officer and a sound “b” is never just a diacritical relation to other sounds like “p”, “t”, and “d”. They always have a minimal autonomy that threatens to burst the enlistment operations of the larger-scale structure that strives to integrate them for their own continuance.
These points draw attention to the problem with the concept of structure. On the one hand, the concept of structure implies a concept of relations that is just too tight. The elements in a structure, it is said, are never independent of each other. Yet structures are always breaking apart or threatening to fall apart. They are always struggling with entropy or the threat of dissolution. What we need is a concept of relation that draws attention to relations while escaping this notion that the elements related have no independence from one another. The concepts and terms “network” and “assemblage” do this job admirably. Like structures, elements in an assemblage or network are related. Unlike the concept of structure, elements in a network or assemblage can break away and undertake other adventures. The being of the elements is not thoroughly diacritical.
On the other hand, this point about entropy draws our attention to what’s sorely missing in the concept of structure: work. Somehow structures are supposed to persist and exercise their structuring agency like Platonic forms without any material efficacy through which they endure and exercise their structuring agency. When I evoke the concept of work here I’m doing so more in the sense that physics deploys the concept of work as the energy and activity required to produce change in another physical system, rather than the concept of work with respect to labor (though clearly the latter concept of work is important as well). Surprisingly, with few exceptions, philosophy scarcely has any concept of work or energy. The point here is that the work required for structures to exercise force on other entities and to continue their existence throughout time need not be teleologically directed for an aim in the way that labor is. Many of the networks and assemblages that exist will maintain themselves across time without any teleology whatsoever… And this includes a number of “social” relations in the human world.
Here my thesis is that at each point in time structures, assemblages, or networks must reproduce their organization through their actions. In other words, structures– which again, for me, are themselves objects –reproduce themselves through events and events are enabled through structures. Here I am hardly original. This is the thesis of Luhmann who argues that structure must reproduce itself at each point in time through events (in the case of social systems, through communications); it is the thesis of Bourdieu who sees human action as producing structure and structure as enabling action; it is the thesis of Giddens who sees agency as perpetuating structure and structure as enabling agency, and so on. In other words, each action is not only structured and enabled by structure, but each action also reproduces structure across time. Speech produces language and language produces speech. Racist structures produce racist subjects but racist subjects produce racist structures. And so on. The relation between structure and agency is not unilateral and hierarchical with structure determining action from above, but is rather horizontal with action producing structure and structure enabling action.
But if this is the case, it follows that structure is not the rigid and fixed thing that we imagined it to be under traditional structuralist accounts. For if it is true that structure or organization is a product of agency, then each reproduction of structure through action does not merely reproduce the structure as a copy to original, but modifies it as well. My acts of speech do not merely reproduce the system of phonemes and meanings for that particular language, but rather my discourse also modifies that linguistic structure ever so slightly in ways that other discourses might respond to. Here the work of Kim Sterelny in philosophy of biology is of the utmost value. Why, in the biological world, is there no end to evolutionary development? Such a question can only arise if we think of the environment of organisms as a fixed container to which organisms adapt. Working on this unstated premise, we then wonder why species continue to change once they’ve “successfully” adapted to their environments.
However, this conception of the environment as a container misses the point that environments are nothing more than relations between entities. When it is understood that the environment is nothing more than relations between entities, that it is not a fixed container, we then can see that with each successful adaptation other entities must adapt to that adaptation, which, in its turn, precipitates situations in which the entity that modified the previous relations now having to adapt to the other entity’s adaptations to it. But this is not all! Entities must adapt to their adaptations! Humans have modified their environment through the invention of all sorts of technological inventions. These technologies have allowed them to triumph over many aspects of their environment such as hostile climates such as excessively hot and cold environments or places where food is scarce. Yet these technologies are not simply instruments for human use. They take on a life of their own and become features of the environment to which humans themselves must adapt. Through our construction of environments we find that we must adapt to these environments that we have constructed!
This is how it is in all domains. Events are never simply “copies” of structure. Rather, they contribute difference to structure. And as a result, all of the other elements of structure must respond to these events. Some events that take place within an assemblage will certainly be more far reaching than others– as in the case of the introduction of the cane toad into Australia –but each wills contribute structure-modifying differences that lead the structure to develop in unexpected directions. There is thus an inherent instability to structure. For in reproducing itself through events these events will perpetually introduce differences into the structure that lead the structure to develop in new and unexpected ways (to a greater or lesser degree). A structure is thus something that never manages to sit still.