Systems


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Towards the beginning of Capital, Marx writes:

Human labour-power in its fluid state, or human labour, creates value, but is not itself value. It becomes value in its coagulated state, in objective form. The value of the linen as a congealed mass of human labour can be expressed only as an ‘objectivity’, a thing which is materially different from the linen itself and yet common to the linen and all other commodities. (Fowkes trans, 142)

Exhaustion prevents me from commenting at length on this passage, so I just wanted to draw attention to certain turns of phrase Marx employs, detaching them from their immediate context with regard to questions about the origins of value, and situating them in a broader philosophical context. Throughout Capital terms such as coagulation and the congealed perpetually appear in Marx’s thought. Indeed, alongside concepts such as relation, exchange, and differentiality, the congealed and coagulated seem to be key concepts at work in his thought, even if these concepts are never explicitly thematized for their own sake. While Marx does not himself use the term, the concept of differentiality is perpetually at work as it is one of the necessary elements in the value-relation. As Marx likes to point out, 100 yards of linen does not, in itself, have a value, but rather it takes on value only relatively in relation to the coat that it can produce. In short, for value to be produced, there must be relations of exchange and difference. One would not, for instance, conceive of exchanging 100 yards of linen for another 100 yards of linen. There must be a difference between the commodities for value to emerge.

To put the matter very crudely in a way that does not at all do Marx’s account of exchange-value justice, the comparatively higher value of the coat made of the linens is greater than that of the linens themselves, while nonetheless being made of these same linens, by virtue of the labor that goes into transforming the linens into the coat. Despite the fact that the matter present in the coats and the linens is identical, this process of production engenders a transformation of value. There is thus a morphogensis, a process of individuation, through which exchange-value is produced as an effect. This effect is the result of a transformation of a multiplicity into a specific form through labor.

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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?

In response to my post on resonance and my other post on assemblages and emergent organizations, ktismatics writes,

For Prigogine emergent order is still deterministic, isn’t it? Though structures emerge that are qualitatively different from their precursors, the process by which the transformation occurs is repeatable and can be described mathematically.

As ktismatics points out, for Prigogine chaos is really shorthand for “deterministic chaos”. The idea is that apparently random behavior nonetheless is governed by a principle of some sort. However, Prigogine also seems to suggest that emergent orders are genuinely creative or that they bring something new into being. The organization has a structure or a lawfulness to it, but it is a local organization. This is one of the more interesting aspects of Stengers and Prigogine’s work. As they put it,

The dialogue between man and nature was accurately perceived by the founders of modern science as a basic step towards the intelligibility of nature. But their ambitions went even farther. Galileo, and those who came after him, conceived of science as being capable of discovering global truths about nature. Nature not only could be written in a mathematical language that can be deciphered by experimentation, but there would actually exist only one such language [my emphasis]. Following this basic conviction, the world is seen as homogenous, and local experimentation can reveal global truth. The simplest phenomena studied by science can thus be interpreted as the key to understanding nature as a whole; the complexity of the latter is only apparent, and its diversity can be explained in terms of the universal truth embodied, in Galileo’s case, in the mathematical laws of nature. (Order Out of Chaos, 44)

This would be one understanding of the philosophical conception of logos. The thesis here would be that every local manifestation is an instantiation of a global logos, such that one and the same logos applies to the apparent or manifest diversity of appearances. As such, the investigation of the case (the local) discloses the global logos, such that all diverse appearances are homeomorphic to one another or are variations of the same. Thus, for example, one and the same set of principles applies to the falling apple and the movement of planets and galaxies. I have tried to argue against this position in a variety of contexts, arguing that a whole or a global logos does not exist (here, here, here, here, and here).

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    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.

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Today finds me teaching once again, back in the classroom, in an endlessly surprising dialogue with students. It seems that I persistently find myself trapped in paradox, yearning for time off when I am teaching, yet despondant and depressed when I have time off. I suppose I should just accept that I need some sort of minimal conflict, some sort of obstacle to complete satisfaction, in order to maintain my desire.

In response to my post on attractors and vectors, a friend angrily said that she does not believe that change takes place at the level of the human and that I am utopian. I was quite taken aback by this criticism as I couldn’t see where I had suggested that change takes place at the level of the human (presuming this to mean the human individual) or how I was being utopian. If anything, I worry that there might be a pessimistic undercurrent to these thoughts. I think this issue is brought out with relative clarity in my reference to the friend and the alcoholic:

I am not simply a friend, but rather I am made a friend and make myself a friend through my interactions with the other. The organization and identity is emergent and ongoing. This is one of the reasons why social change is often so difficult or why social systems are often so resistant to change. An agent might have made an internal transformation, yet the other agents composing the social system continue to relate to the agent in the same way. Thus, an alcoholic might have made an internal resolution to no longer drink, yet the alcoholic’s relations continue to relate to him as an alcoholic, steering him back into this activity.

What is at issue here is that the attractors defining subject-positions are never simply a matter of the individual occupying these positions, but are rather the result of ongoing processes of individuals in relation to one another, such that a change in subject position is not simply a matter of the individual decision, but of the ongoing processes by which the subject is produced as a subject in relation to other subjects. What I am trying to think through in this connection is the issue of the ontological status of social structures or systems. It is all well and good to study social structures after the fashion of Saussure or Levi-Strauss as a structure, but what, ontologically, are these structures? A language, for instance, is not in any particular individual. Language, as it were, is not up to me. Yet language nonetheless could not exist without individuals. It only exists in and through the individuals that use the language. As such, language only exists through the ongoing operations of language in its use by speakers. Ontologically there is nothing but individuals, nothing but bodies, yet certain relations of feeback emerge among these individuals such that language takes on an emergent reality.

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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.

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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.

N.Pepperell of Rough Theory has written a beautiful clarification of a number of her positions regarding capitalism, immanence, the self-reflexivity of theory, and social transformation as a salvo in an ongoing discussion with Joseph Kugelmass and Ryan/Aless that I would like to post in full here as both a way of preventing it from flying under the radar and drawing some connections to Marx and other trends in emancipatory political thought. While much of this post can stand on its own, readers will find it worthwhile to return to N.Pepperell’s original post to get the full context of the discussion. In a lengthy post, N.Pepperell writes:

Fantastic stuff, folks – my thoughts are running in all sorts of directions. Many thanks for this. Let’s see how much sense I can make here.

Joe –

Yes, the term “outside” could be reappropriated to be compatible with an immanent critique. I tend personally to reserve the term “outside” for “nonsymmetrical” theoretical approaches – for approaches that basically offer two different theories – one that explains what capitalism is, and another that explains the standpoint of critique. The issue is that many theories have no idea that they are asymmetrical – whether because they take so for granted a certain notion of human nature, or because they claim not to have a normative standpoint, or because they theorise a “margin” or a potential for “rupture” that is so completely unspecified on a qualitative level that it has no determinate qualitative relationship to capitalism. So, effectively, I tend to use the term “outside” for what, in a Hegelian framework, would be an “abstract negation” – for an approach that rejects something, without explicitly thematising its own determinate relationship to what has been rejected.

I then use terms like “transcendence” or “determinate negation” or similar for the concept you’re trying to capture with the Mobius strip metaphor. No one owns the words, of course – and my terminology isn’t in any way standard. The concepts are the important thing – and you’re correct in taking my point to be that an immanent dialectical theory thematises the way in which something can arise within capitalism, and even fill some determinate role in the replication of that system – and yet, as Benjamin argues, we can still “brush history against the grain”, and use these very things against the context that has given them birth.

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In Process and Reality Whitehead writes:

…we always have to consider two meanings of potentiality: (a) the ‘general’ potentiality, which is the bundle of possibilities, mutually consistent or alternative, provided by the multiplicity of eternal objects, and (b) the ‘real’ potentiality, which is conditioned by the data provided by the actual world. General potentiality is absolute, and real potentiality is relative to some actual entity, taken as a standpoint where the actual world is defined. It must be remembered that the phrase ‘actual world’ is like ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow,’ in that it alters its meaning according to standpoint. The actual world must always mean the community of all actual entities… (65)

My thought process is murky today, so I just wanted to throw out a few points in response to this passage as placeholders for future thought. It seems to me that Whitehead’s distinction between general potentiality and actual potentiality is useful in articulating what Deleuze sort of ontological work Deleuze’s category of the virtual is trying to do. Suppose we take a canonical example of potentiality from the Aristotlean tradition: the acorn. It is said that the acorn has the potential to become an oak tree. However, this would be an example of general potentiality. When we think of the acorn in this way, we are thinking of the acorn abstractly, divorced from its environment or the way in which it is related to other entities. The question remains: will the acorn become an oak tree? We have no idea. We only know that the acorn has the potential to become an oak tree. I am still unclear as to what Whitehead has in mind by “eternal objects”, so hopefully I am not distorting his conception of general potentiality too much.

There are conditions under which the acorn has the potential to become an oak tree and conditions under which the acorn does not have the potential to become an oak tree. These conditions do not belong to the internal constitution of the acorn, but rather are defined by the relations the acorn entertains to its environment: soil conditions, mineral conditions, light conditions, heat conditions, water conditions, air conditions, etc. Whitehead would say that the acorn must “prehend these other actual entities so as to concress into an oak tree.” That is, it must integrate the world about it so as to creatively actualize itself as an oak tree. This process is creative in that it will be a novel event each time it takes place. As Leibniz famously observed, no two leaves are exactly alike. The reason for this is that each leave, each oak tree, integrates the “data” of its environment in its own unique way. In this connection, Whitehead is quick to emphasize that real potentiality is closely connected to place and time (he develops an elaborate and original account of space and time that I cannot develop at this moment):

Actual entities atomize the extensive continuum [the real potentials of the world]. This continuum is merely the potentiality for division; an actual entity effects this division. The objectification of the contemporary world merely expresses mutual perspectives which any such subdivision will bring into real effectiveness. These are the primary governing data for any actual entity; they express how all actual entities are in solidarity in one world. With the becoming of any actual entity what was previously potential in the space-time continuum is now the primary real phase in something actual. For each process of concrescence a regional standpoint in the world defining a limited potentiality for objectifications, has been adopted.

The acorn does not possess the potential to become an oak tree on the moon. Nor does the acorn have the potential to become an oak tree in the Sahara desert. If these conditions are not met, then the acorn is not actualized and no processes of individuation take place. These latter conditions thus constitute real potentiality. This, incidentally, would be the problem with political theories such as we find in figures like Rawls. They only speak of general potentiality and therefore give no account of whether or not such egalitarian ideals have the potential to be realized in really existing situations. As such, they remain entirely abstract. We can ask the question of why such theories became thinkable at such and such a time and what potentialities of their own they produce, but there can be no honest question of these theories dealing with concrete situations. Such are the philosophies of the armchair. These potentials always have their somewhere and their somewhen. These potentials are, moreover, limited depending on the conditions governing the situation. As such, they function as the sufficient reason for the actualized occasion, or the reason for the actuality’s being.

Real potentiality would thus consist of the real potentials population a situation at a given point in time. It is for this reason that Whitehead is quick to emphasize that the term “actual world” is an indexical like yesterday or tomorrow. It is an indexical in the sense that its content perpetually changes. Similarly, relations among actual entities are perpetually changing, thus leading to transformations in the real potential of situations. With the actualization of virtual potentials, new potentials are produced that are, in turn, opportunities for further actualizations. All of this comes very close to what I’m trying to get at when speaking of “constellations“. A constellation refers to the real conditions encountered within a situation, and is committed to the thesis that thought must proceed from these conditions rather than from universalizing abstractions that ignore the actual world.

It seems to me that all of this resonates very closely with Deleuze’s concept of the virtual and the concerns that motivate this ontological category. Discussing the virtual in Difference and Repetition, Deleuze writes,

We opposed the virtual and the real: although it could not have been more precise before now, this terminology must be corrected. The virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual. Exactly what Proust said of states of resonance must be said of the virtual: ‘Real without being actual, ideal without being abstract’; and symbolic without being fictional. Indeed, the virtual must be defined as strictly a part of the real object– as though the object had one part of itself in the virtual into which it plunged as though into an objective dimension… The reality of the virtual consists of the differential elements along with singular points which correspond to them. The reality of the virtual is structure. We must avoid giving the elements and relations which form a structure an actuality which they do not have, and withdrawing from them a reality which they have. We have seen that a double process of reciprocal determination and complete determination defined that reality: far from being undetermined, the virtual is completely determined. When it is claimed that works of art are immersed in a virtuality, what is being invoked is not some confused determination but the completely determined structure formed by its genetic differential elements, its ‘virtual’ or ’embryonic’ elements. (DR, 208-209)

Deleuze’s account of structure requires an extended commentary that I cannot provide at the moment, as it diverges markedly from “structuralist” conceptions of structure, allowing for dynamism, development, and evolution. What Deleuze is striving to think with the virtual is the concreteness of a situation and the differential relations that an entity entertains with its milieu in undergoing development. What, then, are these “genetic differential elements”, these “embryonic elements”, if not the real potentials that haunt a situation? The question then becomes one of how these real potentials might be awoken.

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