25 August 2006

Of the Reproduction of Structural Relations

Althusser famously argued that ideology isn't simply a false consciousness or mistaken belief about the truth of our social relations, but rather that ideology is the means by which a social system reproduces its conditions of production. What Althusser saw so clearly was that social relations perpetually need to reproduce themselves if societies are to persist across time. In this regard, the biological organism ordinarily referred to as "human" is not sufficient to constitute a social system. As the example of the feral child demonstrates, there's little resembling a person in a child raised outside a social network system. Rather, this organism must undergo a process of individuation that constitutes it as a social subject or an en-bodiment of social relations. (Incidentally, I also think this responds to Nick's concerns about solipsism or communication, raised by Peter Hallward in Out of This World, over at the brilliant blog "The Accursed Share". Insofar as individuation always occurs within a mileux or what Luhmann calls an "environment", there can be no question of an inside unable to communicate with an outside. In Hegelian terms, that conception that treats the relation of the individuated individual to its mileux or environment as an external relation, is "abstract" and fails to see that the individual is only individuated in drawing a distinction between itself and an environment. Rather, the inside is itself constituted in relation to this outside, which includes other persons in its environment. This is the significance of Lacan's understanding of the operations of alienation and separation and the constitution of the subject in the field of the Other, which is essentially a thesis about the structural coupling of a merely biological organism to a social world that precipitates a subject. As Bruce Fink expresses this point in The Lacanian Subject, a subject is a particular way of relating to or orientation towards the Other. Subjects are individuated in the mileux of the Other and forever retain the trace of this ongoing individuation in much the same way that the trees behind my home retain the trace of wind and weather patterns here in Texas. Moreover, fundamental fantasy can be seen as the particular strategy a subject has "emerged" for provoking certain perturbations/responses to the ideal Other the subject is structurally coupled to. This would explain why there is no such thing as "self-analysis" in psychoanalysis, and how analysis is a technique for transforming the structural coupling organizing a particular subject by creating a situation in which particular responses in the Other are not where the subject expects them to be. The analyst is that person who is there on the essential condition of not being there and who resembles a person without being one. It is for this reason that an analyst is able to assist in the precipitation of new subjectivities, as s/he doesn't play the systemic game-- the structural coupling --that organizes regular social interactions).

Regardless of what one might think about the particulars of Althusser's theory of ideology, what is interesting here is that structures must perpetually reproduce themselves across time through mechanisms that bring human organisms to em-body these relations in a system of attitudes, postures, identities, and dispositions of action. Human organisms must be constituted as subjects, and apparently social relations only exist in and through the productive activity of interpellated subjects. In this regard, Althusser functions as a necessary corrective to structuralist conception of organization that tended to see structures as functioning of their own accord, forming some new third type of entity or being that is neither subject nor object, but which overdetermines both. As I argued in a previous post on Deleuze, it was this latter conception of structure that initially motivated Deleuze's category of the virtual, for the concept of structure requires us to determine how, precisely, it's possible for synchronous structural relations to exist in a world of actuality that unfolds diachronously.

However, the idea of structure reproducing itself in and through the actions of its elements (social subjects in Althusser's case) promises the possibility of dispensing with the metaphysically idiosyncratic conception of the virtual, so as to think the world purely in terms of actuality. It is Luhmann who best describes this possibility:
One of the most important results of this encounter [of sociology with systems theory]... resides in the radical temporalization of the concept of element. The theory of self-producing, autopoietic systems can be transferred to the domain of action systems only if one begins with the fact that the elements composing the system can have no duration, and thus must be constantly reproduced by the system these elements comprise. This goes far beyond merely replacing defunct parts, and it is not adequately explained by referring to environmental relationships. It is not a matter of adaptation, nor is it a matter of metabolism; rather, it is a matter of a peculiar constraint on autonomy arising from the fact that the system would simply cease to exist in any, even the most favorable, environment if it did not equip the momentary elements that compose it with the capacity for connection, that is, with meaning, and thus reproduce them. (Social Systems, 11)
What counts as an element must be specified for each type of system analyzed. For instance, human beings are not elements of a social system. Rather, subjects are elements of a social systems. The social system constitutes human beings as subjects or elements of the social system. Put a bit differently, we can say that the social system uses human beings as the material by which to produce social subjects. In Badiou's language, it is not human beings that are counted by the social system, but rather subjects. It is for this reason that it is said that humans are not elements of a social system. Ellison's Invisible Man, for instance, might be seen as a novel about a man who experiences the split between how the social system counts him as a member and his status as a human being or individual, which isn't counted at all.

What we have here is the thesis that elements of a system are perpetually being reproduced across time through the actions of those elements with respect to one another, which amounts to a dynamic stability. For example, in being counted under the class element "professor", there is no intrinsic or enduring property that makes me a teacher. Rather, I am perpetually being constituted as professor by my own actions, the actions of my students with regard to me, the actions of the administration, other professors, and the actions of the community in which I teach. All of these processes must be perpetually renewed and repeated to constitute me as a particular type of element, just as the cells of a biological organism are perpetually producing themselves, producing other cells, and being produced by other cells. The structural relations defining identity are thus the results of ongoing activity that has its center and origin nowhere, but where identities can only be seen as an emergent result borne of certain relations. Consequently, we have a paradox in which elements are both constituted and constituting, where they are both products of a system and productive of system. In conceptualizing organization in this way, we are able to dispense with the unlateral determination of the actual by the virtual as thematized by Deleuze, replacing it with a model where events occuring among the elements can have an effect on structural organization (feedback loops). We also get a picture of how structural drift occurs over time, through systemic variations and with an "encounter" with the environment (allowing for a reconciliation of Badiou and Deleuze, where Deleuze's thematization of the "encounter" in Difference and Repetition can be seen as serving a role analogous to that of Badiou's event). It's also worth noting that this account of emergent elements accords nicely with Badiou's ontology of inconsistent multiplicities, and overcomes the descriptivism Hallward criticizes Badiou for in Logiques des mondes (in Badiou: A Subject to Truth, Hallward argues that Badiou's use of category theory might describe social structures or organizations, but it doesn't explain them or their mechanisms). Such an approach also explains why we never see perfect embodiments of structure, but always fuzzy variations approaching a statistical norm without encapsulating an absolute mechanistic determinism (a point sometimes ignored by structuralists in their heyday). Finally, we are able to see structural organization as a way of maintaining boundaries in a distinction between system and environment, by drawing a distinction between system and environment (a system, as articulated by Luhmann, perpetually reproduces a distinction between system and environment, or inside and outside, as a way of producing itself across time). As Luhmann puts it, "Systems must cope with the difference between identity and difference when they reproduce themselves as self-referential systems; in other words, reproduction is the management of this difference" (10). In short, one of the central questions of politics becomes that of how this management of identity and difference can be transformed. No longer is the question one of simply changing structure, but rather it becomes one of changing the relationship of structure (system) to its outside or environment (how structure reproduces the difference between identity and difference). What we would have here, then, would be an ontological vision that preserves Deleuze's key intuitions without forcing us to commit to some of the more eccentric aspects of his ontology (it's Bergsonism, ontological memory, the virtual, etc).


Anonymous bobo:) said...

hi Levi,

i have to say that i am perplexed by your desire to dispense with the category of the virtual in favour of an ontology of pure actuality. in a way i think this is indicative of a general tendency in your recent thoughts towards functionalism, which i can't help but disagree with. an ontology of pure actuality makes for the wrong kind of materialism, i think.

i say this mainly out of concern for modality. if actuality is all there is, then clearly modal categories are empty. the key point of deleuze's concept of the virtual is that it attempts to offer an alternative to the category of the possible. and just as it takes quite a bit of work to take possibility and necessity seriously, so too does it with the virtual. people tend to speak of 'the logic of the virtual' without actually thinking through what the semantics of such a logic would look like. acceptance of possibility and necessity as logical operators leads to essentialism--does the same go for the virtual? clearly deleuze wants to avoid essentialism, particularly of the leibnizian brand, which is why he rejects the category of the possible. however, he also wants to avoid the kind of brute materialism that would reject modality altogether. i think that this is one of the most important problems that animates deleuze's thought.

deleuze might seem like a functionalist with his emphasis on relations, but it's important to keep in mind that these relations aren't the same kind of relations that make up Turing machines. they are not materially inscribed except at the infinitesimal level. if actuality is all there is, then the symbol 'dx' means nothing. actually, an infinitesimal IS nothing--it's only there virtually. deleuze's decisive gesture is to pronounce that this 'nothing' is nonetheless real. if one accepts this thesis, the reality of the 'pure past' isn't so difficult to accept. the pure past operates similarly on an infinitesimal level with respect to the present, i think. the past is always virtually there as the time in which the actual present passes. in a sense this is similar to the attribution of predicates to proper names. the proper name is the virtual object=x as in borges' story: "in one world, i am your friend; in another, i am your enemy." the predicates 'friend' and 'enemy' are both would-be actualities; the potential bearer of them, however, possesses them both in the space of the virtual, by virtue of his haecceity or trans-world identity.

August 25, 2006 4:57 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Bobo, Perhaps you could say a bit more about what you mean by both "functionalism" and the "virtual". It sounds like your concern is that I'm being led into a materialistic determinism and that you feel the virtual avoids that problem. Show me how. I'll have to think more about modal categories. Right now I'm inclined to think them primarily in terms of symbolic systems or meaning systems, which don't require anything ontological, as far as I can see.

August 25, 2006 5:16 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Bobo, the basic thesis of category theory is just that an entity is nothing more than its activity or trajectory. This is not a functionalism in the sense of serving a purpose or a turing machine. Category theory, of course, is a foundational math that is capable of grounding differential calculus (which is itself a "functionalism"). Put otherwise, it can be said that A alone is nothing independent of B where there is an arrow between A and B (i.e., there are no substances or atoms underlying these relations). An ontology of pure actuality encounters no problem with regard to the category of possibility as it rejects such a category (as any true materialism should), here it's worthwhile to refer to my discussion/criticism of Badiou. You're going to have to give a more detailed account of both why we should accept the category of virtual and what, *precisely*, it is doing. On the basis of actuality alone, is it possible to do the same work? For instance, am I able to argue that the present only ever is, and still do the work I'd like to do with virtuality? My criticisms of the virtual go back to my discussion of Hallward a week back and the manner in which the actual doesn't feed back into the virtual.

August 25, 2006 5:38 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

The thesis that the virtual is a modal category comes from DeLanda. Interestingly, I don't think DeLanda is ever able to quite make the case that the disciplines he talks about need this category... It's a strange supplementary dimension in his thought. He wishes to grant it a sort of causal efficacy, but is unable to show how it adds anything to what he's discussing. Deleuze, of course, does not anywhere (that I can tell) discuss the virtual as a modal category.

August 25, 2006 5:42 PM  

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