origin1Over at Speculative Heresy, Nick has a really interesting post up about the possibility of interesting intersections between Marxist thought and Actor-Network Theory. Much of the discussion has revolved around the conflict between actor-network theory and Marxist thought on the issue of totalization. ANT theorists are notorious for making claims like “society does not exist” and “capitalism does not exist”. Of course, such a claim is intolerable from a Marxist perspective insofar as Marxist requires that the social field is totalized by certain modes of production at a particular point in time. A charitable interpretation of these claims made by ANT theorists is that they are rhetorical exhortations to examine the relations among actors in networks. In other words, the ANT worry is that we treat concepts like “society” or “capitalism” as themselves being entities that do things, thereby becoming blind to how societies and modes of production like capitalism are put together. In other words, where these terms should be shorthand referring to complex networks of actors, we instead make claims like “society does”, etc. This reverses the order of explanation insofar as society and capitalism are not what explains but what is to be explained. An appeal to “social forces” in the explanation of a phenomena is a bit like appealing to the somnolent properties of wine as an explanation of why wine makes us sleep. In this respect, Marx is an outstanding ANT theorist. When Marx seeks to explain some phenomenon, he never appeals to “social factors” or “capitalism”, but rather he examines complex networks of actors such as the rise of factories and how they transform bodies and cognition– as Aleatorist informed me last night, Ford spent his time thinking about the most efficient forms of bodily movement on the assembly line –the role of clocks in temporalizing bodies and subjectivity, the conditions under which bodies become partitioned into workers and owners, the formation of trade routes and how they preside over the emergence of particular forms of production, distribution, and exchange in such and such a historical period, the role of memes in negentropically maintaining certain structure and order, and so on. Just look at Marx’s famous analysis of value. Marx refuses a psychological or “social” explanation of value, instead looking at the complex network through which something takes on value and, additionally, takes on the value of representing the value of something else (money). In every instance, we are referred back to the roles of human and non-human actors forming networks.

Unfortunately the issue is not clear-cut where ANT is concerned. If it were simply a matter of a rhetorical exhortation, we could easily forgive, even admire, actor-network-theory, readily agreeing that we should avoid the sorts of explanations so rightly derided by Molière. The problem is that Latour is often less than charitable to certain modes of analysis doing something very similar to what ANT calls for. Thus, it is not unusual to read him deriding Marxist thought. While I would agree that there is a lot of Marxist thought that should be derided because it turns capitalism into something like somnolent qualities or Zeus, there is a lot of really good work out there that avoids this sort of puerile simplification.

Depending on how it is theorized, it seems to me that the Marxists are clearly correct when they talk about totalization. The problem with ANT is that although it places “network” between “actor” and “theory”, somehow networks seem to get short shrift and all the emphasis gets placed on the side of actors. What is missed is the emergence of self-sustaining negentropic networks in which the actors in the network become dependent on one another in the replication or reproduction of the network. Just as Latour would like, these networks are composed of heterogeneous and autonomous actors, but insofar as the relations they enter into are characterized by negentropy, the network comes to organize subsequent adventures of actors in the network. In other words, the network functions like an ecology setting constraints for the actors within the network.

All of this makes me think of the rise of the eukaryotes about two billion years ago. There is a very real sense in which eukaryotes were a totalization of the biosphere, fundamentally transforming the ecology of the Earth. If the rise of the eukaryotes was so significant, then this was because it gradually transformed our atmosphere from one consisting of all sorts of inhospitable gases, to an atmosphere where oxygen came to predominate. Moreover, eukaryotes introduced complex cells enclosed in membranes. The formation of an oxygen rich atmosphere opened up all sorts of new environmental niches, creating new fields for speciation to take place. Similarly, the invention of complex cells with membranes opens a milieu of experimentation, allowing for the emergence of all sorts of multi-cellular critters. If eukaryotes totalized the biosphere, this is not because everything became the same, but because they transformed the very framework of the game of life. What we got was a very different sort of networked system. So too in the case of capitalism.

Lately I have been rereading Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe as my bedtime reading which perhaps accounts for why I have been unable to sleep and am nearly psychotically tired as it is a rich book full of all sorts of fascinating ideas that keep me tossing and turning as my mind spins. Dealing specifically with issues of self-organization, Kauffman’s work strives to theorize the conditions under which we get self-sustaining and organized matter such as we see in the case of living systems. A number of his claims are generalizable to a wide variety of phenomena beyond cells and organisms. Similar principles, for example, would apply to ecosystems, economy, social systems, brain organization and so on. And indeed, Kauffman approaches organization at a high level of abstraction, focusing on self-sustaining or autocatalytic chemical processes while also providing a wealth of formalizations that refer to no specific material substrate in particular. I have made no secret of the fact that I am generally hostile to relational ontologies that reduce objects to their relations. While objects certainly enter into relations, onticology begins from the premise that objects are independent of their relations and can pass out of and enter into new relations. Thus, for example, while being sympathetic to the Saussurean conception of language as a system, onticology nonetheless refuses the thesis that anything is its relations. In short, onticology begins with the hypothesis that being is atomistic or composed of discrete, autonomous, and independent objects that can pass in and out of relations. Yes, there are systems or forms of organization, but these forms of organization are assemblages of objects that enter into certain relationships with one another.

The consequence of this thesis is that one of the central issues for onticology becomes the problem of entropy. Roughly, entropy is a tendency of systems to move from states of higher organization to states of lower degrees of organization, or, alternatively, to move from states of non-equilibrium to equilibrium. The video below illustrates this idea nicely:

At the beginning, the system is in a state of non-equilibrium in the sense that all of the particles are concentrated in a particular region of the chamber. With the passage of time– a mere ten seconds –the particles wander throughout the chamber such that you have an equal probability of finding particles in any particular region of the chamber. The big question for onticology then becomes if being is composed of discrete and autonomous objects, then how is it that certain objects form assemblages that resist this increase in entropy, instead maintaining an organized state across time? A while back I suggested that this is how we should pose questions about the nature of society. There the question was that of how it is that humans bodies just don’t fly off in entropic ways, but instead enter into organized relations that sustain themselves across time. Of course, in order for any system to maintain itself in an organized way work is required. No system maintains itself without work. So the real issue lies in discovering the sort of work through which this organization is re-produced across time. This really gets to one of the central problems with French inflected structuralism and Luhmannian systems theory. Both identify the organization of a social system, how it is put together and how its elements are related, but they remain at the level of social physiology, giving only the skeleton of social systems or how the “bones are put together”. What they don’t give us is the work by which this physiology is maintained. They tell us that these systems somehow resist entropy, but not how. Given that many of us are interested, above all, in the question of how change is possible, the issue of how a social system resists entropy becomes a crucial strategic issue for political engagement. However, even if one is not interested in these political questions of change, the question remains fascinating on its own terms.

read on!