Thursday, 9 September 2010

Learned a new word: holon

Of particular relevance to thinking about DeLanda's ontology perhaps:

Holon: something that is simultaneously a whole and a part.

Thanks Wikipedia.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

More from Žižek

What if, in truth, intellectuals lead basically safe and comfortable lives, and in order to justify their livelihoods, construct scenarios of radical catastrophe? For many, no doubt, if a revolution is taking place, it should occur at a safe distance—Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela—so that, while their hearts are warmed by thinking about faraway events, they can go on promoting their careers. But with the current collapse of properly functioning welfare states in the advanced-industrial economies, radical intellectuals may be now approaching a moment of truth when they must make such clarifications: they wanted real change—now they can have it.
He is referring primarily to Horkheimer and Agamben; the latter I consider to be a particularly important target given his weirdly pronounced fashionability in the last few years.

There certainly are a lot of self-styled 'radicals' in the academy. I myself have no problem with admitting to being a lily-livered leftist who has never been anywhere near genuinely radical, let alone revolutionary, political action. My parochial, rural working class upbringing was about as far from that world as that of private schools and private jets and nothing I have done since has brought me any closer to either of these alien realms. How usual! Indeed, yet what is striking is that so many people who are just as politically irrelevant as me pretend the opposite - these are self-styled radicals.

Times of potential political change, such as the present one, show much self-styled radicalism to be exactly what it is - so much hot air. 'You wanted change and decried its enforced impossibility - now it is there for the taking; take it!' No taking, no changing; there is nothing to say. Nothing in the academic production cycle allows for its relevance: it takes years to publish anything and nobody reads journals anyway. Besides, its not like anyone has anything in particular to say despite spraying words like 'emancipatory' and 'liberating' across their essays like piss up a brick wall.

At least Žižek gets people interested and he usually has something to say.

Žižek on Europe and "Permanent Economic Emergency"

I've not yet heard a better description of the state of the European Union than this piece by Slavoj Žižek:
One often hears that the true message of the Eurozone crisis is that not only the Euro, but the project of the united Europe itself is dead. But before endorsing this general statement, one should add a Leninist twist to it: Europe is dead—ok, but which Europe? The answer is: the post-political Europe of accommodation to the world market, the Europe which was repeatedly rejected at referendums, the Brussels technocratic-expert Europe. The Europe that presents itself as standing for cold European reason against Greek passion and corruption, for mathematics against pathetics. (Slavoj Žižek, A Permanent Economic Emergency, New Left Review 64).

It is difficult to find a place to stand on the EU in the UK. The right are happy to queue up to bash it on almost every conceivable issue, real and imaginary; however, the free market core of the project is generally ignored in terms of scrutiny in favour of ridiculous, spittle-flecked, nostril-flaring stories about straight bananas and the like. The EU's most voracious support comes from the centre with Lib Dems and New Labourites only too happy to endorse technocracy, supporting as they do both the EU's cosmopolitan pretensions and its free market ideals.

The leftist position should be clear: the EU is a neoliberal homogenising operation designed to facilitate the faster, easier appropriation of wealth for a more mobile few and to remove the possibility of political resistance for the (physically and socio-economically) immobile many. Yet it cuts across the political spectrum in an awkward way: it also realises in highly concrete terms a sort of left-leaning liberal cosmopolitanism that, in many ways, is difficult to resist, while, as the other side of precisely the same coin, it eliminates local democratic accountability and communal heterogeneity for the sake of neoliberal free market ideals.

It is easy to love the results of the Shengen agreement, the ability to live and work anywhere in the EU easily and freely, the apparent disappearance of intra-Europe realpolitik, etc. The question is: would the (at least ostensive) disappearance of borders that is so intuitively agreeable (to a social liberal) be possible without the overriding goal of socio-economic homogenisation (which should not imply egality). If one opposes the EU does that automatically make one an unrepentant nationalist?

To oppose the EU in the UK would generally involve aligning oneself with nationalists of all stripes - from moderate Tories to white supremacists via UKIP. It is something of a double bind that catches the most difficult questions for leftists today: how does one oppose neo-liberal economics while embracing broadly liberal values on questions of gender, sexuality, race and religion, etc.? The academic quasi-left of poststructuralists, deconstructionists and hermeneuticists have never come up with an answer for why their 'celebration' of contingency, openness and tolerance accords almost completely with the dominant centrist, liberal status quo. Of course, scratch many a pomo and you'll often find a economic Marxist underneath, which must lead them to declare: To economics, solidarity; to society, freedom and openness. Does this not preclude, as Žižek emphasises "political economy"? Two worlds, two rules - not unlike the nature/society fissure that social theory rests upon. Wherever shall the twain meet? The quasi-left has little or no interest. Where do we go from here?

Žižek continues from the above:
But, utopian as it may appear, the space is still open for another Europe: a re-politicized Europe, founded on a shared emancipatory project; the Europe that gave birth to ancient Greek democracy, to the French and October Revolutions. This is why one should avoid the temptation to react to the ongoing financial crisis with a retreat to fully sovereign nation-states, easy prey for free-floating international capital, which can play one state against the other. More than ever, the reply to every crisis should be more internationalist and universalist than the universality of global capital.
Not this Europe - another Europe. This seems to be the only way ahead. Damn the vicious, knuckle-dragging nationalists but equally damn and blast the suave, smug cosmopolites. Thing is: looks like this must be a Europe built from the ground up.

Levi's review of ch.1 of DeLanda's 'New Philosophy of Society'

Comments on:

Two points:

First, DeLanda's key axis 'material/expressive:territorialisation/deterritorialisation' is very interesting and is quite a powerful starting point for a social ontology. However, I wonder how far the material/expressive dimension can be taken ontologically. It is a fairly easy distinction to maintain cognitively or epistemologically - indeed, it'd be difficult think without making this separation in some way - but just how deeply rooted can we say it is in reality? If we take DeLanda at his word then surely we must say that the gravitational attraction of two asteroids is a material relation while the attraction of a wasp to an orchid is an expressive relation. Moreover, this is a truth quite apart from any human interpretation of the situation - it is not a separation made for our convenience alone - it is how the universe is really divided up. I like the distinction but I'm not sold on its being an ontological as opposed to a cognitive or an epistemological distinction (that is if this is what DeLanda is really saying). I'm not fundamentally opposed to the argument but I think I need to know more about it before being at all convinced. (Admittedly this is the first book by DeLanda that I've read besides A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, which is primarily empirical, so I may be just showing my ignorance.)

Second, I agree with Levi that territorialisation as DeLanda articulates is a very promising linking point with Latour's thought - particularly his notion of black boxes and his distinction between social complication and social complexity.

As Latour and Callon put it:
An actor grows with the number of relations he or she can put, as we say, in black boxes. A black box contains that which no longer needs to be reconsidered, those things whose contents have become a matter of indifference. The more elements one can place in black boxes – modes of thought, habits, forces and objects – the broader the construction one can raise. Of course, black boxes never remain fully closed or properly fastened … but macro-actors can do as if they were closed and dark. (Latour & Callon 1981, p.184-85)
The process of black boxing is, in Latour’s terms, a process of social complication to be distinguished from social complexity: “[C]omplexity [is] the simultaneous taking into account of many variables at once … complication [is] the piling of many simple steps one after the other.” (Latour 2000)
Something is ‘complicated’ when it is made of a succession of simple operations. … [T]he skills in an industrial society are those of simplification making social tasks less complex rather than making them more complex by comparison with other human and animal societies. By holding a variety of factors constant and sequentially negotiating one variable at a time, a stable complicated structure is created. Through extra-somatic resources employed in the process of social complication, units like multinational corporations, states and nations can be constituted[.] (Strum and Latour 1987)
In other words, social life starts out as being enormously complex; in this state societies can only be small, relatively ragtag bands of individuals. Social members (Latour uses the example of baboons as an example of social beings in an almost pure state of social complexity) have to work constantly to maintain their social relationships. No relations endure much beyond the immediate moment of interaction - this is an ethnomethodologist's society; a society whose bonds are constantly being remade on an inter-subjective level.

The more society becomes complicated (and this occurs when humans fold more and more non-humans into their increasingly 'entangled' society) the more social relations can be placed in black boxes, the more forces can be translated over greater distances with minimal distortion, the more tightly disciplined and closely knit humans become and the larger their collectives can grow; in this state societies can take almost any form - from larger tribes to city states to empires. Now relations endure far beyond the immediate moment of inter-subjective interaction and we can say, although Latour largely shuns this language, that social structures develop (and so social mereology becomes a relevant consideration).

The important point here is that Latour, like DeLanda (it seems) and unlike Deleuze and Guattari, doesn't hold territorialisation, organisation, disciplinisation or ordering in contempt so as to 'celebrate' the 'freedom' of deterritorialisation tout court. D&G were always begrudged to allow for anything positive in territorialisation, while for DeLanda and Latour these are more or less neutral terms, circumstance excepted. We can easily translate Latour's arguments here into DeLanda's terminology: territorialisation does not simply gather social beings into tighter, more disciplined, more regimented assemblages, it makes larger collectives possible. Therefore, simply 'celebrating' deterritorialisation as being inherently 'liberating' or whatever doesn't make much sense - we have to think much more about where social organisation must be carefully disciplined and where it must not. Sweeping statements either way are not helpful.

Latour, B. & Callon, M. 1981, "Unscrewing the Big Leviathan: How Actors Macro-Structure Reality and How Sociologists Help Them to Do So," In Advances in social theory and methodology: toward an integration of micro- and macro-sociologies, K. Knorr-Cetina & A. V. Cicourel, eds., Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Latour, B. Progress or Entanglement? Two models for the long term evolution of human civilisation. 2000: Unpublished Work:

Strum, S.S. & Latour, B. 1987. Redefining the Social Link - from Baboons to Humans. Social Science Information Sur Les Sciences Sociales, 26, (4)

Sunday, 5 September 2010


Already the DeLanda reading group is getting interesting with a lot of attention focused on the subject of reflexivity of social beings as distinct from natural beings as DeLanda outlines it in his introduction.

In short, DeLanda argues for a 'realist' conception of society where the social analyst's conceptions meet something intransient and real -- i.e. where the sociologist has a concrete referent object to analyse, not where said sociologist just builds up what society is through hypotheses, ideal types or signifiers. Having said this, DeLanda then immediately acknowledges that in some cases it is not this simple; he uses the case of a refugee as an example of an instance in which the social scientist may affect the referent object of study by altering the system of classification by which 'refugee' qua social subject is constituted. This happens and it is important; however, DeLanda argues, it is the exception rather than the rule. Most object of sociological inquiry are not reflexive in this manner (1-3).

On his blog, Alex Reid picks up this idea from Levi Bryant's introduction to DeLanda's introduction and writes:
[T]here is an interesting reflexive quality to a social realist ontology that it different from an ontology of natural objects. That is, calling a tree a tree doesn't impact what the tree is. Calling a plant a weed, doesn't change the plant (though it may change the way people react to the plant). On the other hand, the way we name things in a social milieu can be cybernetic. For example, students who become labelled as smart or troubled or whatever can tend to take on those roles.
In response Levi writes:
This reflexivity is one of the key features of the social. Social entities are capable of relating to the manner in which they are described, such that their description modifies their nature through this relation. If my doctor, for example, diagnoses me as suffering from depression, I might do research on depression and begin emulating some of these descriptions.

All of which reminds me of an essay called 'Social Thought and Social Action' by the philosopher Martin Hollis that appeared in a book called The Social Dimensions of Science in 1992. In particular I am reminded of what Hollis called 'double' and 'triple hermeneutics.'

"Guinea pigs do not read books", begins Hollis, "Biologists do." Humans react to their observation in a way that non-humans do not; in short, they are reflexive beings. This is a "universal social fact" (68). I think we can all agree that guinea pigs, in fact, do not read books. But this highlights something rather important. For Hollis the reflexivity of social beings divides the world in two: on the one hand, there are intelligent, reflexive humans who, when observed, necessitate 'double' or even 'triple hermeneutics' as we are then layering interpretations on interpretations on interpretations (hence leading to 'double' and 'triple hermeneutics'); on the other, there are mute, prostrate non-humans largely oblivious to their manipulation and utterly incapable of affecting the observer in response to the observer's manipulation.

Both Alex and Levi imply (perhaps they would not agree, but this is how it seems from the discussion so far) that reflexivity is a defining characteristic of sociality and that only social beings can be properly reflexive. DeLanda does perhaps imply something like thus but I do not think this is the right way to interpret him at this point.

DeLanda asserts that some social relationships are reflexive and others are not. Social relationships are reflexive when interpreting them affects the original phenomena. Writing policy guidelines for government refugee legislation is, therefore, a decidedly reflexive act as the category of 'refugee' is being reshaped as it is being observed. If I am sat watching a news report about refugees in Australia, for example, this is not reflexive in this way as my experience has no (or at least negligible) impact on the category of 'refugee.' Fair enough, but none of this restricts reflexivity to the social or, indeed, makes societies defined by reflexivity.

Firstly, DeLanda is clear that reflexivity is the exception rather than the rule. Secondly, I see no reason why, for example, an assemblage of gases locked in a relatively stable cycle of disequilibrium (so that the assemblage is constantly changing but cycles back to repeat itself relatively consistently) cannot be said to be 'reflexive'. Certainly it is not of the order of sentient beings attaining self awareness but nor is it totally different. Various beings in an assemblage react to other beings in such a way that all their properties are altered over time.

For Hollis humans are reflexive and non-humans are not, therefore humans and non-humans are completely different (reality is thereby duly bifurcated). For DeLanda some human relationships are reflexive and some are not and we already know that humans and non-humans are not altogether different. On that basis, I would rather put it this way: reflexivity is a possible property of all assemblages, not just social ones. Although social, human assemblages display unusually enhanced properties of reflexivity this does not place them ontologically apart from less reflexive or even un-reflexive assemblages. All can develop reflex mechanisms of one kind or another.

In this reading, human/human, human/non-human and non-human/non-human assemblages may all attain 'reflexivity' or they may not. It is an open question.

re: DeLanda Introduction

I would certainly agree with mark about the introduction. I don’t really like the way DeLanda begins there, to be honest. The first few pages could have been lifted from any positivist sociologist in the twentieth century (and there have been more than a few). ‘Mind independence’ is in no way a new idea, it is the mainstream view for social scientists of all stripes. DeLanda’s innovation, it seems to me, is nowhere to be seen in the first few pages (though it abounds immediately after).

My criticism of his opening would be that the language with which he outlines his philosophy of science is far too similar to that of most mainstream (i.e. positivist) social theorists. Any given individual mind is not a necessary condition for the existence of society, although minds altogether are – that’s Durkheim’s shtick. It’s all valid enough but it’s not new. In short, DeLanda believes in social facts (a social fact: a social phenomenon that has “an existence of its own, independent of its individual manifestations.”)… Which is fair enough, any realist must believe so (at least in some form), but that is not where his innovation lies.

As soon as he gets into his assemblage theory we realise how different his approach is from any Durkheimians. We begin to see that, yes, minds in the plural are necessary conditions for the existence of society but that doesn’t mean so much. Water is a necessary condition for the existence of oceans, as are worms for the existence of rainforests. Human minds are just parts of vast ecosystems and, as important as they are, the mind independence of society is hardly reducible to social (or human) factors alone! Once we get into the assemblage theory we can think as widely as this, whereas the conventional social theory he flirts with would take collective human minds as (a) on a different (i.e. objective) ontological level to individual (i.e. subjective) minds and (b) as the only significant object of analysis.

But, that aside, this is an excellent introduction to DeLanda’s introduction and I’m looking forward to the rest of the reading!