A couple months ago I wrote a post on Marx’s triad of production, consumption, and distribution.. When investigating “societies”, is in terms of production. Not only must societies be produced (they don’t come ready-made), but social subjects must be produced (beings that identify themselves as members of the assemblage and who are identified as members of the assemblage), and relations between these subjects must be produced. The advantage of the concept of “hominid ecology” as opposed to “society”, is that, in addition to semiotic components, beliefs, and norms, it draws addition to the nonhuman components that play a role in the production and continuation of these assemblages. Within many reigning social and political orientations, the role these agencies play in the production of hominid ecologies goes unrecognized. Recognizing them opens new possibilities for engagement and change beyond the dominant strategies of debunking and critique.
These agencies of production are obvious once you begin to think about them, but strangely we seem not to think about them nearly as much as ideologies, texts, and signifiers despite the tremendous role they play in sustaining power and certain types of repetitive social relations and hierarchies. A good example of such an agency is paths. No society or hominid ecology can form or sustain itself without paths that link one person to another, that link people and institutions to one another, and that link hominids to various natural resources. Paths take the form of dirt, gravel, and paved roads, ocean and river shipping lanes, flight paths, mountain passes, train routs, and so on.
A path is never simply a path but is both a diagram of power and a mechanism of of social morphogenesis. Paths are diagrams of power because they decide who links to who, what is linked to what, and thus play a role in the genesis of various social hierarchies and relations of domination. Towns die when railroad lines that pass through them close downs. Ports like Amsterdam become flourishing centers of culture and wealth because of their place as a central node in a network of paths. Other places develop incredibly unique cultures because of there are no direct paths that lead to them.
It is sometimes asked why China didn’t kick off the industrial revolution despite having the technology and rich coal and iron reserves. A vaguely racist culturalist account would talk about the beliefs and ideologies preventing these cultural transformations. An ecological approach sheds a different light on these issues by drawing attention to geography and paths. The coal of China is located deep inland, far from the major cities, and is behind difficult to pass mountains and turbulent rivers. While geography and paths do not explain everything here, the absence of readily available paths certainly played a role in what development was possible. Such an observation also raises questions about the validity of those cultural approaches that talk about the uniqueness of belief systems in the West. Was it Occidental uniqueness as people like Zizek argue (and Heidegger even moreso), or was there a big role played by geography and feasible paths here?
Paths also play a central role in the morphogenesis of cultures and identities. Morphogenesis refers to the processes by which entities and types are produced. There is a morphogenesis of iron atoms that takes place at the heart of stars. The theory of evolution is a morphogenetic account of species. Geologists give a morphogenic account of different rock types. A manual gives a morphogenetic account of how to produce a Lego spaceship. Freud gave a morphogenetic account of symptoms, dreams, and slips of the tongue.
Paths play a morphogenetic role in the genesis of cultures, identities, and hierarchies. Aristotle said that we learn by imitation and Hume said we are bundles of habits. Paths play a role in generating those encounters that will afford the opportunity of imitation and the habits we can form. They do this by deciding what links to what and what doesn’t. There are distinct cultural, economic, and ethnic differences between the north and south sides of Chicago. Why? Why doesn’t entropy set in and create a more random distribution? Why does this pattern reproduce or sustain itself across time? Part of the reason is paths. Travel between the north and south side of Chicago, whether by highway or public transit is difficult. On the one hand, with highways there is the issue of traffic and the fact that many in Chicago don’t own cars because parking is scarce, and expensive and public transit is so great. On the other hand, the routes between the north and south side via public transit are indirect and difficult and timely to navigate. These features of paths have the effect of localizing and separating populations of people. Those localizations of populations, in turn, lead to the formation or production of shared social characteristics of people through regularly interacting with each other. It also perpetuates economic differences: the northside remains wealthy because people from this region create opportunities for each other and those like them, while the south side remains poor.
It is a nonhuman ecology that sustains and organizes these relations; an entire array of material entities that organize hominid relations and power dynamics through mechanisms different than those of ideology, the signifier, and texts (though they are imbricated with all these things). Similar points hold for energy sources, types of food produced, power lines, climate conditions, etc. part of changing things consists in understanding these ecologies. The signifier and ideology can change– as it did during the Enlightenment –while the social relations and their hierarchies remain largely the same because the ecology of no humans hasn’t changed.