Why is social change so difficult?  In Entangled, Ian Hodder outlines four forms of entanglement where people, as it were, become enmeshed in the world in ways that render alternatives or change difficult.  These entanglements are forms of dependency forming series or chains.  There are, first, human – human entanglements (HH).  These are what the social sciences, political philosophy, and political critique largely focus on.  HH entanglements are the realm of representation, norms, laws, signs, and power.  In my last post, I spoke of an HH entanglement with respect to citizenship status.  Although citizenship or being categorized as undocumented is not a material determination but the result of a signifier or what Deleuze and Guattari call an “incorporeal transformation”, it nonetheless has profound material consequences for the person that falls within the web of these signifiers, determining what movements and forms of life are possible for that person.

The signifier “undocumented” is not a property of their being like their mass, but nonetheless this incorporeal signifier presides over the destiny of the immigrant’s being.  Signifiers exist in webs, chains, or series that link all manner of laws, rights, and possibilities of movement within the social sphere together.  Take the signifier “black” as it functioned prior to desegregation in the American South.  “Black” was not a descriptor of the material being of certain humans, but rather was a semiotic marker that defined what jobs you could have, what schools they could attend, but also what water fountains they could drink from, where they could sit on buses, and where they could sit in restaurants.  There was nothing about restaurants, water fountains, restrooms, buses, and school buildings that physically prevented blacks from interacting with these things.  Rather, it is a series of signifying relations that define these things.  In this regard, a signifier like “black” or “undocumented immigrant” is similar to a chess piece.  There’s nothing about the physical properties of a chess piece that makes it a rook.  It’s status as a rook is a semiotic determination, not the result of the wood that it’s made of, it’s shape, etc.  Proof of this is that if we lose a rook, we can always replace it with something else like a quarter.  All that’s required is that the pieces be sufficiently distinguishable for the players.

read on!

Because signifying HH relations are not features of the things themselves, but are serial webs of categories and signifiers in which humans become enmeshed, they can be changed.  We can call this form of politics that unfolds largely at the level of representation, “semiopolitics”.  Semiopolitics challenges the naturalness of significations, showing that they are arbitrary and constructed and can therefore be otherwise.  For example, semiopolitics demonstrated that there is nothing natural or divine about the distinction between nobility and peasantry, but that nobles and peasants are materially the same at the level of human bodies and that therefore this distinction is a socially constructed distinction.  In doing so, the deconstruction of the distinction between showed that there is no necessity to the feudal order.  Semiopolitics targets what Deleuze and Guattari called “collective assemblages of enunciation”.

While semiopolitics has profound emancipatory power, it is notable that despite the fact that a signifying web is overturned, often things remain much the same.  This suggests that the conception of society as an assemblage of signs, communication, norms, and signifiers is too narrow.  There must be other forms of entanglement that lock us into forms of life and ways of relating to one another that– while they might be bound up with signification –are not themselves of the order of the signifier or collective assemblages of enunciation.  This is what Deleuze and Guattari called “machinic assemblages” or relations among bodies or things.  Although Hodder does not talk about Deleuze and Guattari or machinic assemblages, he does discuss three forms of entanglement that fall into this category:  human – thing (HT) entanglements or dependencies, thing-human (TH) entanglements or dependencies, and thing-thing (TT) entanglements or dependencies.  These relations exercise power or gravity, not by virtue of what they signify, but by virtue of what they are.  We get entangled in our relationships of dependence and care for these things.  These three forms of entanglement are incredibly difficult to discuss because they are not themselves discursive or semiotic in character.  You have to have some acquaintance with them and an eye towards practice and doing to get a sense of them.  You cannot learn how to play a guitar by reading a bookYou have to pick up a guitar and play it to learn how to play it.  I suspect, following Bourdieu, theory perpetually tends to overlook machinic assemblages because we primarily deal with texts and concepts, and therefore has a tendency to overlook the domain of practice and doing.  This is a long legacy in Western philosophy that can be discerned as far back as Plato’s Meno and the denigration of the servant’s practical knowledge (and here we should remember that Greek philosophy was an aristocratic discourse implying servants to do labor and leisure).

I cannot here give a detailed treatment of HT, TH, and TT entanglements because we need to make dinner and finish preparing for my trip to Norway tomorrow, however, perhaps an example will help to illustrate the gist of these relations.  Let’s take an example like addressing climate change.  At the level of semiopolitics, enormous effort is expended persuading people that climate change is actually taking place and combating climate change denialists.  While many denialists still exist, these semiopolitical efforts have, in many respects, been highly effective.  More and more people believe in the reality and seriousness of climate change every year.  Given that people are increasingly convinced that climate change is taking place, why is there still so little action meaningfully addressing climate change?  Part of the answer, I think, lies at the level of how machinic assemblages function in our lives.  Like HH relations at the level of collective assemblages of enunciation, relations between things and between things and humans occur in series, chains, or webs of dependency.

Let’s take the example of white flight from the cities to the suburbs.  Here, of course, we have HH relations pertaining to beliefs about race and crime among those who formerly lived in the cities.  However, in moving to the suburbs, a series of human-thing (HT) entanglements emerges that lock people into certain forms of life.  Humans come to depend on all sorts of things in particular ways that they didn’t before.  Things never exist in isolation or alone, but always exist in series of relations with one another.  In fleeing to the suburbs, one might fixate on the home alone, but the home is a web related to all sorts of other things necessary to render life in the home possible or plausible.  In the city, there is a small market you can walk to in every neighborhood and sometimes on every corner.  In the suburbs, by contrast, how to bring food into the home becomes an issue.  Grocery stores are distant from the home, therefore one must have a car and one must have a car large enough to bring goods to the home and to get to and from their place of work which often remains in an urban area.  Moreover you need a larger, energy consuming refrigerator to preserve that food.  Those stores, of course, require an entire transit system and transformation system to bring food in on a daily basis.  If you live in a place like Texas where temperatures can reach 115F (44C), living without air conditioning is not an option.  Now you’re entangled with power grids, coal, the mining of coal, etc., to provide that air conditioning.  This is just a small cartography or mapping of how we become entangled in all sorts of things to sustain a certain form of existence.  We began at the level of the semiotic with the belief or desire that it would be good to live in a suburban house to have a safer environment for our children, but that suburban home turned out to be a web or iceberg that rendered us dependent on all sorts of other things.  At the level of the semiotic, we have the belief that climate change is real and must be addressed, but we find ourselves embroiled in a series of HT entanglements that make it difficult to extricate ourselves from those things that cause climate change.  Of course, at the level of semiopolitics, following Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, it is difficult to discern these relations at all.  We don’t discern these series or set of entanglements because they’re “black boxed” in things, occluding their relations to other things.

The relations between things and things and humans at the level of machinic assemblages are dialectical.  Not only do we become dependent on things in all sorts of ways to maintain the form of life we live, but also we need to maintain these things upon which we depend (TH entanglements).  Those highways, fields, stores, homes, cars, etc., must be maintained.  We thought we were achieving freedom through these fields of corn and grain insofar as they provided us with reliable sources of energy (thermopolitics), but now we find that we must maintain those fields and live according to the temporal rhythms and thing-thing (TT) dependencies that the fields bring into being.  We get caught in these series or assemblages of things, both depending on them and creating a world where they depend on us, thereby losing our freedom.  We’re caught in the gravity of the worlds that we create.

People sometimes ask me “what is to be done?”  That question, I think, presupposes that there’s an a priori answer to such questions.  There’s no a priori answer to how HH, TT, HT, and TH assemblages are put together, and therefore there’s no a priori answer to what’s to change them.  We have to be resolutely empiricist as to how these assemblages are structured, which means that we must go to the world itself to discover how it is with these things.  This is why I entitled Onto-Cartography, “onto-cartography”.  Cartography is a practice of mapping.  If we are to produce any changes, we must map assemblages at both their semiotic and material level to see how they’re organized and how they exercise gravity upon us.  With those maps it becomes possible to practice what I call deconstruction and terraformation.  Deconstruction exists at the semiotic and the level of machinic assemblages.  It consists in severing those assemblages at the signifying and material level that trap us into certain forms of life.  However, there is also terraformation, the creation of alternative assemblages and forms of life at the level of collective assemblages of enunciation and machinic assemblages that allow for new ways of moving, relating, and feeling.  The two often go hand and hand.  In any case, the semiotic alone is not enough to produce genuine change.