Subject


Keith, of Metastable Equilibrium, has done a very nice translation of Meillassoux’s gloss on Badiou’s Being and Event and his forthcoming Logics of Worlds. Although it has been around for a while, I thought I would cross-post it here anyway. For me, the key question can be found in this passage:

The prime objective is to adjoin to a theory of Being , a theory of appearance. It acts in effect, for Badiou, as the confrontation of a problem left in suspense in EE, namely: how is it that Being – pure inconsistent multiplicity – somehow manages to appear as a consistent world? The ontological multiples in themselves are deprived of the order manifested for us in the empirically given: they are only multiples composed in their turn of multiples. A building is a multiple of bricks, which in turn are a multiple of molecules, made of a multiplicity of atoms, themselves decomposable into a multiplicity of quarks – and so on to infinity, since the ontology of Badiou does not hold to the data of current physics – to make of any entity a pure multiple in which no fundamental unit is ever encountered. It is always the count which introduces the One: a house, a brick, a molecule are one because they are counted for one. But this introduction of the One by the count is done setting off from a being in which thought never meets anything other than multiplicities without end. The problem is then to understand why Being is all the same not presented through any such inconsistent multiplicity: because there are many things which come to us through bonds intrinsic between them in the given, as stable units on which we are able to construct a background: material objects, communities, institutions, bodies. These units are not provided in their entirety by an arbitrary act of the subject who brackets them by exterior unity in the count, it really governs if not Being then at least its appearance, its sensible donation.

It seems to me that in this question we encounter a sort of Charybdis and Scylla between, on the one hand, Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason, and, on the other hand, infinite dissemination. Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason eventually leads us to posit the existence of God to explain the necessary existence of this world and no other (despite it’s contingency and the possibility of other worlds). The premise seems to be that order cannot be found in this world itself, but requires a transcendence to be explained. Clearly it is desirable to avoid this conclusion, which often functions unconsciously in thought… This is one way of interpreting Lacan’s thesis of our belief/fantasy that the Other exists. However, it is difficult to see how any consistent multiplicities could arise from Badiou’s infinite dissemination or inconsistent multiplicities. In short, how is it that order ever arises from chaos? It seems to me that this issue arises in Meillassoux as well. What is needed is some way of avoiding the forced alternative between a supremely individuated being governed by the principle of sufficient reason and God as guarantor of order and unlimited chaos and rhapsody of being from which nothing can emerge.

For those who have not been following his posts, Shahar, of Perverse Egalitarianism, has been writing a very thoughtful and clear series of posts on Meillassoux’s After Finitude. The most recent post can be found here. You can find links to the earliest posts embedded therein.

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It seems to me that, heated as it was, the discussion between Antigram and K-Punk regarding education and arguments from experience has prompted a lot of productive discussion, which is a testament to the value of the blogosphere. Although I am interested in the discussions surrounding the relationship between specific educational institutions, class structure, and habitus around which these discussions have centered, I find myself focusing on more abstract questions surrounding the ontological status of structure. In a response to my post, Daniel writes:

I want to respond to this point about individuals and structures.

My position is that individuals have nothing to do with class, because individuals do not exist. I think the idea of the individual is an ideological illusion. I want to radically excise the individual from philosophy; I believe that the individual has no ontological status whatsoever.

I precisely reject the conjecture that we could talk about structure as lying between individuals, in the sense “the individual finds herself enmeshed in a web that exceeds her control, understanding, and intentions.” No – I think (the mirage of) the individual is itself a product of that web, and there is no feedback relation between the individual and that web.

I think if we want to talk about feedback vis-a-vis structure, we need to talk about agents, objects, subjects, not individuals. To my mind, the concept of the individual is utterly compromised, and, since Freud, redundant.

When someone argues in this way, claiming that “the individual is itself a product a product of that web, and there is no feedback relation between the individual and that web [structure, system]”, what is the ontology presupposed by such a claim? That is, what ontological status are we granting to structure? What kind of think is structure? How does structure produce individuals as effects? In what way does structure exist? Given that we never directly encounter structures, what set of considerations lead us to posit the existence of structures?

I suspect that there is a misunderstanding here between Antigram and I, and that he takes me to be saying something very specific when I evoke the category of “individuals”. However, for anyone who has spent time on this site, I hope that it is clear that I am somewhat sympathetic to the claims Antigram is here enunciating. It seems to me that these are precisely the sorts of questions Deleuze is addressing with his account of individuation, where he describes the movement from the virtual to the actual as the movement from multiplicities or structures to actualized individuals. That is, Deleuze, in his early work, is striving to account for the precise way in which the individual is a “product of structure”. For me the question is one of how structures comes to be, how they pass away, and how they maintain themselves over time. Suppose we treat language, following Saussure, Hjelmslev, and Jakobson, as an example of structure. The first question is necessitated because we know that there are different languages and that these languages therefore came to be. Similarly, the fact that we no longer speak Sanskrit tells us that languages pass away. Finally, the fact that languages persist from generation to generation indicates that there must be a way in which structure maintains and transmits itself.

What, then, is it that we’re talking about when we talk about structure? Antigram’s comments suggest that there is one thing, structure, and another thing, individuals, such that structures produce individuals. Or rather, Antigram’s statements suggest that there is only one thing: structure. Yet where do we ever find these structures and what leads us to conclude that they exist? Is structure something that exists in its own right, as Antigram seems to suggest? Is there one thing, Language, and another thing Speech (individuals, individual events), such that Speech is only an instantiation of transcendent structure? Or rather, is structure shorthand for a heuristic device that linguists, anthropologists, political theorists, etc. create to describe pattens common to a group of agents within a particular geographical and historical context, such that there is no such thing as Language independent of Speech, but only speech perpetually reproducing language? When we say that individuals do not exist, are we not also saying that structures would exist regardless of whether or not there were bodies to embody them? Or are structrures only in bodies, yet are emergent patterns that cannot be reduced to any one individual body? That is, what is the explanatory work that the concept of structure is doing? Do structures function like iron and inescapable laws– Saussure suggests as much when he argues that it is impossible for any individual to invent a word –or are structures more like fuzzy aggregates that exemplify patterned activity that the theorist idealizes or purifies and then reifies as a set of iron laws governing social interactions? Do structures have an agency of their own, like Hegelian Geist, or is there something else at work here?

A heated discussion has begun to emerge surrounding the validity of arguments from experience. The entire tussle began with an interesting post by K-Punk on the relationship between class-relations and intersubjective attitudes. In the course of this post, K-punk made reference to his own experience, which prompted Daniel from Antigram to present a critique of arguments from experience based on the Lacanian theory of fantasy. In my view, K-Punk was not basing his position on his own personal experience, but rather illustrating his point through a representative example. In many respects, K-Punk’s thesis reminds me of Bourdieu’s discussions of taste, where Badiou, in Distinction, shows how the milieu of individuation in which an agent emerges within a particular social field gives form to the affects and percepts that populate the agent. That is, it seemed to me that K-Punk was raising questions of individuation. Unless we are to treat affects as innate or as fictions, it is necessary to raise questions such as those of why one agent is filled with rage when seeing an American flag burn, another joy, and yet another indifference. If this point is conceded, if this variability is acknowledged, then there must be some process of individuation agents undergo that produces a system of affects, a system of how the world is affectively encountered, that gives form to ones affective space. It seems to me that this is what K-Punk was getting at, what he was trying to draw attention to. Is one’s affective and perceptual space simply a private affair, an individual and impersonal idiosyncracy, or does it point towards a more collective affectivity produced as a result of processes of morphogenesis, speaking to all sorts of things ranging from economic structures, to class relations, to gender relations, etc? A similar point could be made in relation to Lacan’s theory of affect as presented in Seminar 10: L’angoisse, where Lacan outlines the manner in which affect is structured around the signifier. Nonetheless, Antigram makes an interesting point in drawing attention to the way in which experience is imbricated in fantasy. In Seminar 6: Desire and Its Interpretation, Lacan argues that fantasy is the frame of reality. Reality, for Lacan, is not on the other side of fantasy, but rather the two form a mobius loop, such that fantasy provides the window through which reality is encountered. As Lacan will say in Television, “reality is the grimace of the real.” Fantasy is that which renders the real tolerable, allowing the subject to encounter it. It seems that Antigram treats the term “fantasy” in pejorative terms in a way that is foreign to the psychoanalytic clinic.

In response to Antigram’s analysis, both Jodi Dean and Shaviro jump in, the former surprisingly drawing attention to the way in which fantasy and arguments from experience has played a disturbing role in certain forms of identity politics (this is surprising given the predominence of arguments from experience on I Cite… Recall the discussions about pedestrian traffic in London), the latter offering a critique of Antigram’s position. Of particular importance is Shaviro’s reminder that for Lacan “there is no metalanguage”. This is one of the key features of the Lacanian understanding of transference as it operates in the clinic and is of central importance in differentiating the Lacanian clinic from other psychotherapeutic clinics. Apart from the impossibility of imagining any psychoanalytic clinic that doesn’t focus on the analysand’s experiences, one of the central features of the Lacanian clinic is that the analyst abdicates the position of master or the master’s discourse. To say there is no metalanguage is to say that the analyst too is caught up in the relations of transference, that he or she is not immune from the effects of the unconscious. I suspect that appropriations of psychoanalysis outside the clinic often function not as instances of the discourse of the analyst, but rather as discourses of the master, where the theorist deploying psychoanalytic discourse occupies a position of mastery with regard to the cultural artifacts they analyze and comment on. In this connection, Shaviro’s comments strike me as valuable. It does not seem to me that Shaviro is so much rejecting Antigram’s point as problematizing it. The point seems to be that while experience may indeed be perpetually bound up with fantasy, we are nonetheless unable to escape experience. Consequently, it cannot be a question of escaping or rejecting experience altogether– as Shaviro makes clear in relation to his comments about Althusser’s theses about the inescapability of ideology and the nature of science –but of encountering the problematic status of experience (in the Kantian sense of a regulative ideal or a problem that persists in its solution). To this Antigram responds in a rather heated manner.

In connection to Antigram’s response, I will only say that one of the crucial features of “taking responsibility for one’s subjective position” consists in the affirmation of one’s experience without searching for authorization from the big Other. An analysand who has traversed the fantasy is also an analysand that no longer looks to the Other– as embodied in the analyst but also in the social world as well –as a norm that would tell the analysand what he ought to be or whether or not he is living up to some set of standards. The post-analyzed subject no longer believes that there is a master that contains knowledge of “how to get ahead in the world”, “how to have a successful romantic or sexual life”, “how to make it in academia”, etc. This is because such an analysand has come to recognize that the Other does not exist, or that the Other itself is lacking, incomplete, riven by desire and does not itself know what it desires. It becomes clear that there is no one road to Rome, and that, in any event, perhaps Rome doesn’t even exist. This would include how that analysand understands the sense of their experiences, their meaning, their signification. More fundamental than the discovery of ones own status as a split subject, is the discovery of the Other as split, as not-existing. In this regard, an analysis does not so much divest an analysand of experience, so much as affirm the experience of that analysand. If the analyst respects and honors anything, it is the speech of the analysand for that speech is the site of truth. To be sure, the analyst is always listening for that “Other discourse” in the analysand’s speech– in slips of the tongue, double entendres, dreams, jokes, omissions, contradictions, etc –but the analyst certainly is not in the business of discounting the analysand’s experience or disregarding it. How could he? Not only would the analyst here set himself up as an authority, thereby inviting various conflictual relations, but he would also be adopting the position of the ego-therapist, presuming to be capable of arbitrating between truth and falsity.

Here it is important to recall that for Lacan, fantasy is not so much fantasy pertaining to the subject and the subject’s wants, as it is fantasy of what the Other desires, what the Other wants, with regard to the subject. In this connection, it could be said that the analysand’s entire life, prior to traversing the fantasy, has been structured as a lure for the Other, striving to satisfy or thwart what it believes the Other’s desire to be. The analysand has lived his entire life as the equivalent of fishing tackle, organizing his actions and desires as lures for the Other’s desire so that he might capture that desire. It is in this regard that the analysand is often led to betray his own desire, to renounce it, so as to be the object of the Other’s desire, thereby generating the symptom as the mute witness of that betrayed desire, as the trace that persists and continues to insist. This is precisely why traversing the fantasy can have an effect on the real of the symptom, as the symptom is always addressed to the Other as framed by the fantasy of the Other’s desire. Returning to K-Punk’s original post, it could be said that here traversing the fantasy would not so much entail the worker recognizing that his position is his own subjective responsibility (i.e., blaming the victim), so much as it would consist in the worker being able to posit himself as his own value, as his own condition, rather than measuring himself relative to those who enjoy a position of privilege. That is, it would be a surrender of differentially defined, oppositionally defined, identity. This, for instance, seems to be what Badiou is getting at with his subjects of a truth procedure. In a manner that sometimes echoes Nietzsche’s conception of master-morality, the subject of a truth procedure, as subtracted from the situation, no longer defines itself oppositionally in relation to a set of social and class identities, but is, rather, engaged in the project of producing its own values and truth.

UPDATE Infinite Thought weighs in on the discussion:

Anecdote and reflections upon one’s upbringing in the light of the revelation that not everybody had the same experience as me are frequently of great value: how else do we get to an understanding of class than by comparing the gap between how class is experienced (falsely or otherwise) and the economic and social structures that perpetuate this division? A Year Zero approach to class in which one should simultaneously possess a strict Marxist conception of class combined with an acceptance of responsibility for one’s own position as a subject seems unnecessarily punitive and not necessarily useful for attempting to change entrenched (but crucially not unshakeable) class divisions. (Incidentally, the odd ahistoricism of psychoanalytic categories frequently seems to me to be a major problem for any historical materialist analysis – as does the absence of any notion of a collective subject. But this is rather old-fashioned quibbling, perhaps.)

Why education, then? Education seems to me to be a good way of analysing some of the more concrete elements of class division, the way in which class perpetuates itself ideologically. Here we have a structure (schooling), legally imposed, which creates different kinds of social groups. It is neither based on academic capacity (although it sometimes claims to be via the entrance exam), nor equality at the level of the teaching, curriculum or opportunities provided. It is based on economic differentiation, and the perpetuation of that difference by any means necessary – convincing otherwise not-very-bright children that they are the best thing since primitive accumulation is one of the products that Private schools sell, along with a system of social networks, increased cultural expectation that you will go to university, etc.

Read the rest here. It would be interesting to do a similar analysis of how different tiered universities function in the United States at the level of the sort of subjectivities they produce and the networks of opportunity they engender. Once again, in all of these discussions, Bourdieu– specifically Homo Academicus seems especially relevant. As IT points out, education is one of the ways in which ideological class divisions reproduce themselves. To put it differently, education is one of the conditions for the reproduction of the conditions of production. As I reflect on this discussion, I find myself wondering whether the tools of psychoanalysis are particularly relevant.

UPDATE II Antigram elaborates more.

Let me make myself clear: The social problem of class cannot be understood so long remains understood as a relation between identities. Between the Emperor and a beggar, one cannot see society. Class is nothing to do with individuals; rather, it is a problem contained in the relations persisting between structural forces. The task of critique, the task of argument in general, is to demonstrate the workings of those forces by pulverizing the integral experiences they conjure into their constituent aspects and parts. Arguments from experience are bad and reactionary because argument as such is pitted against experience.

I have to confess that I’m nervous about these claims about structure. A good deal of what I’ve been thinking about lately is the ontological status of structure. What, exactly, is a structure? It is not that I’m here opposing Daniel and siding with the individual. Rather, what I’m wondering if structure is something other than its enactment in and through individuals. Class has a good deal to do with individuals insofar as these structures couldn’t exist without individuals to enact them. Clearly the intuition underlying claims about structure is well founded in that everything is not up to the sovereign individual as the individual finds herself enmeshed in a web that exceeds her control, understanding, and intentions. However, wouldn’t it be more productive to think the relationship between individuals and structure as a feedback relation where structure is perpetually being (re)produced through the activities of individuals and where individuals are being individuated through the effects of structure? When we side with structure or the individual, we end up in a relation that could be described in Hegelian terms as abstract insofar as it fails to think the interdependence of relations in a system. The thesis of interdependence– or, more properly, inter-determination –allows for a much more fluid and dynamic conception of social relations, that might also open other spaces of structure-transforming political engagements. It also loosens, a bit, the iron grip of structure, it’s tendency to be treated as eternal and solid, by opening the possibility of collective relations introducing new forms of structuration in much the same way that Deleuze and Guattari describe the aberrant connections produced through the orchid and the wasp. My worry is that a number of difficulties emerge if structure is reified and treated as something existing in its own right. Perhaps a part of the meaning behind the thesis “the Other does not exist” is the thesis that structure does not exist, i.e., structure would here be an effect of the subject’s belief in Zizek’s sense of the term. Not only does such a thesis open alternatives of engagement, but it also explains the possibility of structural shifts and changes in a way that reified conceptions of structure seem to render impossible. As an added aside… Damn it Daniel, you messed up the link to my blog! :-)

UPDATE III Dominic weighs in:

This leads me to think that some additional mechanism is involved, that the moment of collapse is – again, reaching for the sniper rifle – triggered, and is caused less by the failure by schools to instill the proper level of self-belief and more by their success – or that of society at large – in installing something else. Here I must confront Daniel’s skepticism concerning the social production of affect, which he seems to regard as spontaneously and indifferently woven by the subject of fantasy out of whatever experiential material happens to come to hand. In the first instance, I wonder how it is that corporations ever get to see a return on the millions of dollars they put into advertising if it is literally absurd to suggest that the affective lives of individuals can be prompted, moulded, manipulated and operationalised by outside forces. (Clearly there is something a bit rum about fantasizing that my emotional life is constantly being manipulated by evil corporations, but that is because in the fantasy I am aware of the manipulation but can do nothing about it).

Let us consider the nature of insult. I insult you; you take offense. If I have insulted you effectively, you will take offense in spite of your determination to rise above my petty jibes: the insult is effective to the extent that it causes its target to feel offended in spite of himself. Later you will curse yourself for responding so hastily and angrily to what were, after all, only words. You will, if you are exceptionally disciplined, own that your response was unworthy, that you should not have allowed yourself to become besides yourself with fury. I will then insult you again, making artful use of the humiliation I have already inflicted, and if my aim is true you will again fly into a rage. I enjoy a power over you that you do not wish to grant me, and would withhold from me if you could.

Read the rest here.

    In Which I Suspect a Larval Thesis

~I do not seek, I find. (Jacques Lacan channeling Picasso in an indirect discourse).

~The ‘bricoleur’ is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. The set of the ‘bricoleur’s means cannot therefore be defined in terms of a project (which would presuppose besides, that, as in the case of the engineer, there were, at least in theory, as many sets of tools and materials or ‘instrumental sets’, as there are different kinds of projects). It is to be defined only by its potential use, or putting this another way and in the language of the ‘bricoleur’ himself, because the elements are collected or retained on the principle that ‘they may always come in handy’. Such elements are specialized up to a point, sufficiently for the ‘bricoleur’ not to need the equipment and knowledge of all trades and professions, but not enough for each of them to have only one definite and determine use. They each represent a set of actual and possible relations; they are ‘operators’ but they can be used for any operations of the same type. (The Savage Mind, 17-18).

I suspect that there is an entire materialistic philosophy contained in these remarks, alluding to the emergence of constellations. I wouldn’t be the first. I shall proceed as a bricoleur, collecting what is ready to hand, without any particular project in mind. Perhaps one will emerge after the fact, apres coup, as a whole arising from the parts and existing alongside the set of parts which cannot themselves form a whole.

    In Which I Discuss Some Things So as to Avoid Getting to the Point

In Difference and Repetition Deleuze writes,

The Idea [multiplicity] is defined as a structure. A structure or an Idea is a ‘complex theme’, an internal multiplicity– in other words, a system of multiple, non-localisable connections between differential elements which is incarnated in real relations and actual terms. In this sense, we see no difficulty in reconciling genesis and structure. Following Lautman and Vuillemin’s work on mathematics, ‘structuralism’ seems to us the only means by which a genetic method can achieve its ambitions. It is sufficient to understand that the genesis takes place in time not between on actual term, however small, and another actual term, but between the virtual and its actualisation– in other words, it goes from the structure to its incarnation, from the conditions of a problem to the cases of solution, from the differential elements and their ideal connections to actual terms and diverse real relations which constitute at each moment the actual of time. This is a genesis without dynamism, evolving necessarily in the element of a supra-historicity, a static genesis which may be understood as the correlate of the notion of passive synthesis, and which in turn illuminates that notion. (183)

In many respects it was this very passage that first attracted me to Deleuze years ago. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we accept Saussure conception of language or Levi-Strauss’ conception of cultural. (I am not accepting either, but trying to pose or outline the contours of a particular problem that emerge whenever we talk about systems and structures). For Saussure language is defined as a system, as a set of differential relations between phonemes. A phoneme is not an individual sound, but is rather an opposition: thus, for instance, we have b/p/c. Much to my sister’s delight, my three year old nephew recently discovered Saussurean linguistics. “Mommy,” he said, giggling wildly, “isn’t it funny that if you use b instead of g you can turn ‘boat’ into ‘goat’ and if you use c instead of g you can turn ‘goat’ into ‘coat’?!?” My nephew, the bright young boy he is, had discovered the principle of differentiality. In The Logic of Sense, Deleuze will argue that sense arises from nonsense. It would appear that my nephew is very Deleuzian in the sense that he has discovered that nonsense or the meaningless oppositions among sounds can produce effects of sense. A simple substitution of sound can produce a different meaning.

Read on
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Niklas Luhmann on some basic principles of systems theory. (very good despite its brevity)

Niklas Luhmann on the function of theory in relation to science.

In reflecting and reading over the last couple of weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am deeply confused. I am confused as to what is to be explained. I am confused as to what is to be changed. I am confused as to how change takes place. I am confused even as to the questions I am asking. I am confused about my confusion. In many respects, my reflections on meteorology broadsided me, throwing me into a state of quiet reflection and reading, taking me by surprise, leaving me to wonder where I should go next. I don’t know why this was so. I don’t know why I became quiet at that particular point. I felt as if somehow I had been thoroughly dislodged from a paradigm of thought and no longer knew who I was or what I thought. I called this depression, but really it was amnesia. This confusion has been a productive confusion.

Marx famously said that the point of philosophy is not only to explain the world, but to change it. But what is it that is to be explained? What is it that is to be changed? And how is it to be changed? Here in the theory blogosphere, we here talk of these things all the time. We hear talk of radicality. We hear criticisms of liberalism… And with good reason. As Wallerstein recounts in his World Systems Analysis: An Introduction, liberalism emerged as a compromise between the radicalism of the French or Russian Revolution and conservativism, seeking to navigate between the brutality that erupted during the French Revolution through moderate and controlled change and the adherence to authoritarian, centralized structures and tradition (associated with religious institutions and monarchies) characterizing conservativism. Inevitably the liberal position ended up reinforcing conservative authoritarianism in an unwitting fashion. As he puts it, “…[L]iberals, even while accepting the normality of change and supporting (at least in theory) the concept of citizenship, were extremely timid and actually quite afraid of fundamental change” (63). Everyone seems to agree that change is desirable, yet it seems to me that there are seldom any concrete proposals as to what should be changed, how it should be changed, or how an alternative to social system should be organized.

Read on
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The Architecture of Theories

At the beginning of his novel Gemini, Michel Tournier writes,

On the twenty-fifth of September 1937, a depression moving from Newfoundland to the Baltic sent masses of warm, moist oceanic air into the corridor of the English Channel. At 5:19 P.M. a gust of wind from the west-southest uncovered the petticoat of old Henriette Puysoux, who was picking up potatos in her field; slapped the sun blind of the Cafe des Amis in Plancoet; banged a shutter on the house belonging to Dr. Bottereau alongside the wood of La Hunaudaie; turned over eight pages of Aristotle’s Meteorologica, which Michel Tournier was reading on the beach at Saint-Jacut; raised a cloud of dust and bits of straw on the road to Plelan; blew wet spray in the face of Jean Chauve as he was putting his boat out in the Bay of Arguenon; set the Pallet family’s underclothes bellying and dancing on the line where they were drying; started the wind pump racing at the Ferme des Mottes; and snatched a handful of gilded leaves off the silver birches in the garden of La Cassine. (9)

What a beautiful way to begin a novel. The first thing to notice is the manner in which the events described here are dated. They occur at a particular time and in a particular place. Yet secondly, note the way in which this gust of wind pulls together a series of entities, linking them together despite their disparity.

Okay, so maybe not a master-science, but rather a master-metaphor or a guiding metaphor for thought. For some time I’ve found myself increasingly frustrated with the terms “structure” and “system” as key terms for thinking social-formations. For me, structure evokes connotations of architecture. I think of architectural structures. I can draw them on a piece of paper, capturing the blue-print of the edifice that I’m trying to think about. If I have some talent in the discipline of topology, I can then imagine these structures undergoing free variation. Yet the problem is that structure, even in topography, remains relatively static and rigid. When I describe the Sears Tower I don’t really need to talk about the outside world, but just the organization of the tower and how all of its parts fit together. Matters are not much different in the case of systems. For instance, the paradigm of a system might be a bureaucracy, where there are a set number of protocols for processing inputs for producing a particular output.

Both of these concepts strike me as too rigid, two subject to closure, for defining the historical present in which we exist. In his beautiful book Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, the ethnographer Arjun Appadurai describes a set of social and cultural circumstances impacted by contemporary media technologies and mass migrations. How can we today speak of “architecture” or rigid structures in a contemporary setting where diverse codes are perpetually being brought into contact with one another through migration and communications technologies? Is it a mistake that the concepts of structure and system emerge right at that historical moment when migration brought on by the industrial revolution begins to erode these structures, calling them into question as a result of codes being scrambled everywhere? Does not structure appear at that precise moment when structure is disappearing? And might not the frantic search for structure and system everywhere be a symptom of the desire to make the Other exist, to put Humpty Dumpty back together again?

Assembly Required

Last night I had one of those thoughts that is probably best to never express out loud. “What,” I thought, “would the world look like if we imagined all entities that exist as variations of the weather?” This is really the sort of thought that can only occur to you when you’re in a sleepy, half drunken stupor, falling asleep on the couch while watching a show about the Galapagos Islands on National Geographic. I should say that meteorological metaphors have often appeared in my writing. In the past I’ve often made reference to phenomena such as hurricanes and tornadoes when trying to think about the nature of systems. On the one hand, hurricanes are of interest in that they have the status of quasi-things. Why is it that we’re inclined to think of a chair or rock as a thing or object, yet when it comes to a hurricane or a tornado we’re inclined to think of these things as events? It seems to me that what’s at issue here is a temporal prejudice or a prejudice pertaining to temporality. If a rock has the status of an object, then this is because it is a relatively slow moving and dense event. Rocks stick around for a long time. By contrast, even though a hurricane might stick around for days and weeks, they lack density and temporal longevity. Nonetheless, hurricanes do have qualities of organization and endurance, even if that organization or internal structure is relatively short-lived.

What interested me in particular about the documentary was their discussion of the ocean currents surrounding the Galapogos Islands. Every year the Islands receive cold currents of water that are particularly congenial for plankton and algae. A whole host of animals depend on these currents from marine iguanas to various sorts of fish to sea lions and a variety of sea birds that feed on these other creatures. Every few years the so-called El Nino effect will occur, preventing the cool waters from reaching the islands and bringing about unseasonable warmth and torrential downfalls. When this occurs the plankton do not arrive and the algae do not grow, and vast numbers of birds, marine iguanas, and sea lions die, leaving only a few to survive. These events then function as selective mechanisms, shifting the trajectory of subsequent development for the various species on the island. Just as vast numbers of sea iguanas die, the land iguanas flourish as a result of tender flowers and plant-life that pop up everywhere on the island as a result of the heavy rainfall. In short, these ocean currents assemble an entire organization among the plant and animal life that populate. What we have here are assemblage mechanisms that generate a particular organization (the ever shifting eco-systems), giving rise to a temporary pattern of relationships among the elements.

There are a variety of levels at which such systems can be investigated and no one level of analysis takes priority over the others. One might think that a discussion of the ocean currents is sufficient to explain the emergent system. That is, why might posit a hierarchical and unilateral form of causality. However, while the ocean currents serve as a condition for the possibility of the resulting assemblage, it must not be forgotten that the elements of the emergent assemblage themselves interact with one another and have dynamics of their own. The resulting assemblage has inter-assemblage relations with an outside (something entirely missing in structuralism and much of systems theory), but there are also intra-assemblage relations among the elements (the plankton, plant-life, sea lions, marine iguanas, land iguanas, turtles, fish, etc).

These intra-assemblage relations contain their own dynamics and tensions that preside over the development as a whole. For instance, there are a number of land iguanas that live in the calderas of old volcanoes. Every year, during mating season, the female iguanas make a journey of sometimes tens of miles to the top of the caldera so that they might lay their eggs. Here timing is everything (again a feature that tends to be ignored in structural approaches). If an iguana comes from deep inside the caldera she will have a longer journey. If she doesn’t make it to the top of the caldera in time, all of the good nesting sites will be taken and she’ll be forced to re-enter the caldera, laying her eggs in the precarious walls of the volcano’s side. These walls are composed of very loosely packed rock and soil where avalanches not only often occur, but are inevitable. In a year where the El Nino effect is operative, there will be a higher number of land iguanas due to the great amount of available vegetation, thereby leading to more intra-assemblage competition among the various iguanas and other creatures, thereby shifting subsequent courses of development. A more striking example of these intra-assemblage relations would be the effect that the Cane Toad has had on the eco-system in Australia. The Cane Toad was introduced into the Australian ecosystem to fight pests. However, having no natural predator of its own, it reproduced rapidly and began devouring much of the plant-life and other desirable animal life. Here we have an example of intra-assemblage relations where one element comes to predominate and shift the organization of the assemblage itself without being catalyzed to do so from elements of an outside. Consequently, it is not enough to simply analyze the inter-assemblage relations between ocean and weather patterns and the organisms that form a system in response to these patterns, but it is also necessary to explore the intra-assemblage relations and the various patterns that emerge as a result of interactions among the elements of these assemblages. Various species and ecosystems here come to resemble weather patterns themselves, like a relatively persistent eddy of water behind the support of a bridge that has its duration and fluctuations as it endures throughout time.

Contingency in the Garden of Forking Paths

The Galapagos Islands have a number of active volcanoes. Among the creatures that inhabit the Galapagos are the famous Galapagos tortoises. Some of these tortoises live exclusively in the calderas of various volcanoes, and have very simple or homogeneous genetic codes compared to tortoises elsewhere on the island. Occasionally you will find these tortoises with rocks actually embedded in their shells from small volcanic explosions that continue to occur in the base of the calderas, where they have lodged themselves in the shell of the tortoise. Biologists hypothesize that the simplicity of the genetic code among these tortoises is to be explained through a volcanic explosion that destroyed most of the tortoise population, leaving only a few to mate with one another.

A volcanic eruption or meteor hitting the earth or group of terrorists destroying the World Trade Center can be thought of as a contingent bifurcation point. Emerging from neither the relatively stable assemblages of weather patterns, nor from within the system itself, these events explode onto the scene, challenging the intra-systematic organization of the assemblage as a whole and bringing it before a point where forking paths of development as a whole are possible. In the days following 9-11, the United States wobbled between alternative paths in moving towards its future. Organization fluctuated back and forth without settling initially on any one particular social configuration. Within a few days the valence of the event was retroactively codified and a vector was chosen, generating a particular organization. Other vectors were possible.

Kaleidoscopes and Textiles

No doubt I will regret having written this post later on this evening. I have gone on about ocean currents, turtles, and iguanas in a rather indulgent fashion. However, it seems to me that social and political theory often suffers from being myopic and reductive, choosing one level of analysis and excluding all others. For instance, in psychoanalysis we are told the signifier reigns supreme and that everything is filtered through the signifier, thus allowing us to ignore contributions from neurology or even historical studies. Theory should instead be thought as a kaleidoscope, where various levels of analysis are thought like a turn of the scope revealing a different pattern. The difference here, of course, would be that these various patterns not be thought as independent, but should instead be thought as inter-dependent networks at various levels, producing effects at other levels, without these levels being hierarchical over overdetermining the others (as in the case of language with Lacan or economics for some classical variants of Marxist thought). Along these lines, Appadurai has proposed that we think in terms of independent streams such as mediascapes, ethnoscapes, financescapes, technoscapes, and ideoscapes, where these various streams are woven together in various configurations, sometimes one dominating, sometimes others, where it is always a question of the relationship between the local and the global and of local configurations like a local weather pattern that is nonetheless dependent on global fluctuations. In this way we can investigate the manner in which certain forms of organization arise and maintain consistency for a time, while also discerning where their points of transformation might lie. To Appadurai’s five streams, I would also add ecoscapes or geoscapes, and perhaps bioscapes, to refer to the Other beyond the Other, the absolute outside of social systems, or those contingencies that shake the earth such as earthquakes, hurricanes, meteor strikes, etc., where ordinary social relations are momentarily suspended and the social system wobbles between possibilities.

In thinking these six or seven streams, we must learn how to think according to the ancient art of textiles in terms of weaving and fabrics, where we ask not which of these streams provides the interpretive key of all the others, but instead look at the patterned fabrics that emerge out of these various threads being woven together. Of course, the fabric here must not be thought as an extant thing like the fabrics we know in our day to day life, but as a specifically meteorological fabric that is an ongoing process of weaving on a shuttle and loom that never ceases to vary itself and which perpetually weaves new fabrics as new groupings or patterns emerge responding to contingencies both within the threads and from without. Weaving must be thought not in terms of its status as product, but process.

The advantage of treating meteorology as a key theoretical metaphor is that it underlines both internal organization and the dependency of every system on an outside, while also capturing the ephemeral nature of all emergent organization in the order of time. The hurricane can only emerge as a hurricane, as an organization, through the heat of the ocean water out of which it arises. Every social group formation, as it produces and reproduces itself in time, needs its heat as well. Some of this heat can be intra-systemic (for instance, the way in which communication technologies function as catalysts that heat up social relations and function as a condition of onto-genesis presiding over entirely new groupings independent of local conditions) or inter-systemic, pertaining to relations between social systems and environmental conditions in which the group exists (for instance, the role that a drought might play in defining struggles among various groups in Africa or placing group identities in onto-genesis as they redefine themselves in fights over resources). All these relations and their dynamics deserve investigation in their own right. These investigations will not unfold universal rules like Newtonian laws, but will be far closer to Levi-Strauss’s “science of the concrete”, investigating a set of emergent regularities that both came to be and that can pass away.

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