Monday 18 October 2010

Comment on: "Structuralism, Cybernetics, and Regimes of Attraction"

In my view, the problem with the concept of structure is that it tells us that there are patterns that reproduce themselves across time and space while telling us little in the way of how these patterns reproduce themselves. As a consequence, structure comes to be treated as an agency in its own right, somehow doing things, without giving us much insight into how precisely structure does these things. And in the absence of an exploded view schematic of how structure reproduces itself, we’re left with little in the way of an account of just how to engage structure.
Structure is a difficult concept mostly, I think, because it has habitually been defined in terms of an opposite: agents. In this respect it is just another bifurcation of nature. If agents are what act and if structures are what constrain them (or, in some more sophisticated accounts, also enable them) then how are they linked? ‘Structuration’ is easily the most popular answer in sociology these days: the two halves mutually constitute themselves by a dialectical movement, thus avoiding the reification of each side but completely failing to address the problem that no one can tell us why these two things are absolutely separated in the first place. That said, I am aware that some dispense with agents altogether and see only structure but this seems to be a case of choosing one side over the other without recognising that it was a silly divide to begin with.

However, I think we can partially rescue the concept if we do away with the idea of structures as entities distinct from some other natural kind and just use it to discuss how things are structured – i.e. reclaim it in its adjectival form. Everything that is related in a coherent way can also be said to be structured. Now, there is more to it than that because structure is not simply an arrangement or configuration – it is an arrangement or configuration that effects the elements that comprise it; it is an aspect of the whole in causal relation to its parts. But nevertheless, it is a supervening mechanism that cannot be abstracted from its parts and thus cannot be wholly estranged from them as in the conventional model. A strength of assemblage theory is that it can talk about the ‘structured’ aspect of wholes without imagining them as two distinct kinds of entities.

Structure in this view is different to a ‘regime of attraction’ but still somewhat related. A regime of attraction would seem to be a largely virtual organising principle, whereas structure in this model is actual.