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.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Comment on: "What Would Flat Ontological Criticism Look Like?"

This question has occupied my mind a fair bit. I think the best place to start is most definitely Latour's critique of critique. (This has been present in his work since at least 'We Have Never Been Modern' but has been most fully expounded in his essay 'Why has critique run out of steam?')

For Latour all critique, whether in the lineage of Kant through Marx to the Frankfurt School and today's poststructuralists or in the tradition of denunciation in the name of Science, results from the same ontological assumption: ontological un-flatness (what is the opposite of a flat ontology?). This is because critique is equated directly with denunciation and to denounce one needs an unreal overlaying the really real to peel back or tear away or unveil (postmodernists still follow this path even though they no longer believe in a real underneath the fabric - it's veil all the way down!). A flat ontology, for Latour, must therefore forego critique.

He makes a powerful point with regard to some elements of what has passed for critique to date. There is a widespread sense among (usually self declared) 'critical scholars' in the social sciences that not only is critique good but that it is the only valid occupation for a true scholar. All other forms of scholarship are seen as being somehow repressive. This is taken to an extreme by deconstructionists who insist that anyone enforcing their interpretation on anything is committing 'symbolic violence' or somesuch. To this extent, critique is a self-marginalising discourse. By this I mean that 'critical' thinkers are bound to ONLY criticise and they can only define themselves in opposition to a fabled 'uncritical' or 'essentialising' Other. For this reason they can never possibly succeed, which is a canny move as it means they never have to stop publishing and we never have to stop reading their work!

Latour makes mincemeat of these cliches but he goes too far. In fact I would say that he himself is too critical of critique - he ends up mirroring the very people he seeks to destroy. He has not one good word to say about critique and has no interest in asking what of it should be saved.

It's disappointing because Latour is at his very best when he takes something he disagrees with, takes it apart, translates it into his terms, puts it back together in the context of his overall system and makes you wonder how you ever thought otherwise. That is the way to proceed with the somewhat sullied word 'critique,' I feel. informs me that 'critique' comes from the Greek kritikos "able to make judgments," from krinein "to separate, decide". The word thus carries connotations of separation and deciding; separation and judgement. Might we say that critique consists in separation and judgment? Judgement by separation? Separation by judgement? Aren't we all critically minded? If we weren't able to separate and to judge we wouldn't be able to get very far in life. If we accept something along these lines then there can be no more pure, exceptional form of critique only known by a chosen few (notice how in this way critique production has mirrored truth production). If this is so then we have to distinguish between different forms of critique and separate the good from the bad (itself a critical act, as I would describe it). This would require no foundation (contra Habermas), it would proceed by a process of critical deambulation, if you like. This would be a better definition (if a broad one) because we wouldn't have 'critical' thinkers opposed to 'uncritical' thinkers and the self-perpetuating dance this necessarily creates.

(Also this is more or less what a music or movie critic does - breaks cultural objects down, analyses the pieces, relates them historically and contextually and judges them (or at least that is the ideal).)

Moreover, this definition wouldn't allow for the assumption that everyone is engaged in a competition to be more critical than everyone else. This is really what critique as a self-marginalising discourse must do - its a perpetual arms race, a race to the bottom that isn't there. No matter how critical you are I must always try to be more critical because that is all there is to do. If we try to do anything else we're committing 'violence' and so must surely commit hara-kari forthwith. As with all practices premised on fundamental bifurcations of reality, it just can't work.

Yet critique is far too valuable an activity to throw to the dogs of excess and stupidity. For all the negligence of those who take critique too far - and far away from where they should - they're not all completely mad - there really are those who would deny critique all licence as a scholarly activity. And these people are the real enemy.

Latour often goes on about how Science Studies was the only field that could foment the breakthrough of transcending bifurcated nature - in other words, refusing sociological idealism without trudging back to the same old realism; of forming a new realism. Science Studies, so he says, was uniquely placed at the midpoint of the 'two cultures' and he and others were thus able to realise how both sides had it all wrong. Well, I think something similar could be said for my field, International Relations, on this subject of critique. If eradication of critique is at all possible or desirable in Science Studies it certainly is not in IR, the field that deals with war, genocide, espionage and all forms of tyranny as a matter of routine. One would have to be an utter sociopath to engage seriously with these issues and not have some sort of 'will to critique' (although, having said that, there are plenty who would attempt to do so in the name of 'political Science', but that's another story).

So, I'm not sure what a flat ontological criticism would look like. First we'd have to figure out just what 'criticism' has meant in other traditions - it doesn't seem to be any one thing. I've been meaning to read Foucault's 'What Is Critique?' for a bit as well as Judith Butler's commentary on it. That might be as good a place as any to start.

DeLanda Reading Group: Cities and Nations (Part Two)

I won’t try to review everything in previous chapters and I will assume that the various technical details and taxonomies are well defined by previous commentaries, however some points deserve revisiting before we crack on with chapter 5.

The first point to raise regards DeLanda’s realism and his definition of this in sociological terms as ‘conception-independence’ (3). In response to Levi’s review of the book’s introduction I wrote:
“‘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).”
I more or less stand by this argument, although I must now make some adjustments. Upon reviewing my notes, it becomes clear that DeLanda does not say that society is ‘mind independent’ – i.e. it has an existence independent of human minds – but that it is ‘conception independent’ – i.e. it has an existence independent of the analyst’s conceptions of it. This distinction is introduced to account for the fact that if human minds disappeared so would society. This is a fair and appropriate distinction but I still don’t accept that it is particularly innovative. It’s still ‘off the shelf’ realism that, to someone trained in social science rather than philosophy, is frankly de rigeur.

To my first comment Michael at Archive Fire argues that:
“While, for the most part I agree with that line of thinking, it must be acknowledged that DeLanda’s audience are not those people [social scientists]. DeLanda is, first and foremost, a philosopher – and specifically a Deleuzian philosopher drawing extensively on what has come to be known as the “continental” tradition. So DeLanda’s project must primarily been seen as philosophical - as an attempt to reach out to those thinkers who, having learned from the intensities of critical theory of the 80’s and 90’s that focused on language and interpretation, may, again, be seeking out a way to supplement their thought with a new concern for material life and the more tangible dimensions of human experience.”
I see his point but I don’t think that I can accept his reasoning. DeLanda makes extensive use of various sociologists’ works throughout the book and declares that his intention is to “elucidate the proper ontological status of the entities that are invoked by sociologists and other social scientists” (8). Far from aiming his book primarily at ‘continental’ philosophers he clearly wishes it to be valuable to social scientists too – he’s working at the edge of both traditions and as such should be evaluated as much as possible by the standards of both. This is consistent with his statement in an interview that “a philosopher cannot take … artificial [disciplinary] limits into account, and … should push multidisciplinary approaches to the limit” (Deleuzian Interrogations, 14). It is not that I find his definitions of realism wrong as such, it is just that they are a little simplistic – ‘clunky’ would be my preferred adjective.

However, this is not the main problem. The greater problem, besides his realism’s ‘clunkyness,’ is that both ‘mind independence’ and ‘conception independence’ appear to be attacks on a position of subjective idealism, whereas poststructuralist inspired orthodoxies (which I would assume are primarily in his crosshairs) must be characterised as intersubjective idealism. This is not a particularly massive difference in the grand scheme of things but it does make a difference in this case. An intersubjective idealist may well agree that society has a reality independent of their individual conceptions of it because their views, they would add, are themselves drawn from (or even produced by) the wider socio-linguistic or discursive field. Of course, because they define society in linguistic terms they remain anti-realist, yet they would still dodge DeLanda’s realist haymaker.

In other words, mind or conception independence is clearly a necessary condition for realism but it is not a sufficient condition.

So, moving swiftly on, what do we already know about assemblages?

“[A]ssemblages [are] wholes whose properties emerge from the interactions between parts” (5). “[A]t each scale one must show that the properties of the whole emerge from the interactions between parts” (32). In keeping with the realist temper of the ontology, assemblage based analysis is causal and is “concerned with the discovery of the actual mechanisms operating at a given spatial scale” (31). ‘Micro’ and ‘macro’ are relative terms, with any given assemblage having micro or macro aspects and there existing an effectively unlimited multitude of gradations between the two throughout the cumulative emergence of levels (32). Importantly, “although a whole emerges from the interactions among its parts, once it comes into existence it can affect those parts” (34). Assemblages thus possess powers of ‘downward causation’ – indeed this property may be what distinguishes them from mere aggregations of parts.

Assemblages are thus characterised by ‘levels’ which are continuous insofar as there is no definite dividing line between them and each higher level comprises all lower levels as parts; however, levels are discrete insofar as one can identify a number of parts which form a larger whole, the properties of which are irreducible to the simple aggregation of the properties of the parts.

Insofar as each level has its own properties and dynamics different analytical resources will be required. For this reason we could say that discrete assemblages are characterised by distinct modalities (L. modus “measure, rhythm, manner”) of existence. The sense of harmonic, rhythmic or musical distinction is a useful one because these notions are easy to imagine in terms of continua, yet at the same time it is easy to imagine distinct aural objects emerging from that milieu. In other words, the notion of modes as rhythms or harmonies allows for both the mixing and imbrication of elements and their distinction from each other.

Analytically, assemblages are analysed through a fourfold structure – that is, two intersecting axes, each of which are envisioned as continua. The first division is between material and expressive properties and the second division is between processes of territorialization and deterritorialization. (I will assume that readers are familiar with what these terms mean.) Each level thus requires an analysis of the following factors:

1) Material components of the assemblage.
2) Expressive components of the assemblage.
3) Territorializing processes at work in the assemblage.
4) Deterritorializing processes at work in the assemblage.

This divides up the empirical analyses quite neatly and intuitively. The analysis as a whole, however, should also indicate what causal mechanisms create, sustain and/or threaten the assemblage as a whole and must, therefore, give some indication of how all these elements work together. With this in place we can get down to business…

DeLanda Reading Group: Cities and Nations (Part One)

So, the DeLanda reading group draws to a close! All that remains is for me (and, independently, Peter Gratton at Philosophy in a Time of Error) to review the final chapter: Cities and Nations. As some of my review has become rather lengthy, I will divide it up between a few posts. After this first short explanatory post will follow:

2) A brief overview of some pertinent points made in previous chapters that will serve as background to the discussions of Cities and Nations.

3) Something approximating a blow-by-blow account of chapter 5 with minimal critical commentary.

4) A conclusion comprising a few comments on the preceding summary but also trying to extend DeLanda’s analysis beyond cities and nations. By this I mean that DeLanda’s “journey from the micro to the macro” (6) goes from individual persons through various types of local and regional organisation to territorial nation states and stops there. In my field, International Relations, this is insufficient. As DeLanda says himself: “an assemblage analysis of singular, individual entities must be complemented by a study of the populations formed by those entities” (107). States themselves form populations; they are usually called ‘international systems.’ I shall not offer anything like a complete (or even adequate) analysis but, utilising the writings of Kenneth Waltz (undoubtedly the most influential if, also, probably the most maligned IR theorist of the twentieth-century), I shall try to sketch out a beginning for this extra level.

EDIT: I've posted parts 2 and 3. Part 4 will follow some time next week. I'll update this post with links as and when I post the rest.