31 October 2006

Substance, Process, and Networks-- Dynamic Group Formation

Recently I mentioned that I have been reading Rabinow and Dreyfus' excellent Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, and that it had been filling me with a tremendous depression and despondancy. I think that there are forms of theory that can make one ill by divesting one of their power to act, and for me Foucault's thought-- especially during his middle archaeological period --is an example of such toxic theory (Althusser's account of ideology would be another example of toxic theory for me). My paralysis emerges in response to claims such as the following:
Far from accepting a descriptive theory [of epistemes or historical forms of knowledge], he [Foucault] seems to want a prescriptive one: "The analysis of statements and discursive formations... wishes to determine the principle according to which only the 'signifying' groups that were enunciated could appear. It sets out to establish a law of rarity" (Archaeology of Knowledge, 118). At times he seems to go so far as to demand not merely conditions of possibility but total determination: "One must show why [a specific statement] could not have been other than it was" ("Reponse au cercle d'epistemologie", 17). The archeologist should discover "the play of rules which determine the appearance and disappearance of statements in a culture" (CE, 19). Again and again, Foucault seems compelled to abandon the phenomenological, neutral post hoc description for some sort of explanatory a priori. (84)
What is crushing in Foucault during this period is the manner in which every statement that can be made seems to always already be determined by the anonymous historical a priori in which it occurs. While I am perhaps able to make statements that don't obey the "established laws of rarity", these established laws nonetheless determine what is and is not taken as a serious statement. In the worst case scenerio, I'm not even capable of making non-serious statements, but instead can only articulate what follows these laws of rarity as my very subjectivity is a product of this historical a priori.

Although Foucault marks a substantial advance in seeing these constellations as historical, there are certain respects in which he nonetheless seems to remain tied to a substance metaphysics. As Kant articulates it in the first analogy of The Critique of Pure Reason or "The Principle of Persistence of Substance", "All appearances contain that which persists (substance) as the object itself, and that which can change as its mere determination, i.e., a way in which the object exists" (A182, B224). What Kant is getting at can be illuminated by reference to Descartes' discussion of the wax in the Meditations. There raising the question of how it is possible for us to know the persistence of an object in time (an epistemological variation of the problem of individuation), Descartes writes:
Let us now consider the commonest things, which are commonly believed to be the most distinctly known and the easiest of all to know, namely, the bodies which we touch and see. I do not intend to speak of bodies in general, for general notions are usually somewhat more confused; let us rather consider one body in particular. Let us take, for example, this bit of wax which has just been taken from the hive. It has not yet completely lost the sweetness of the honey it contained; it still retains something of the odor of the flowers from which it was collected; its color, shape, and size are apparent; it is hard and cold; it can easily be touched; and, if you knock on it, it will give out some sound. Thus everything which can make a body distinctly known are found in this example. (Lafleur translation, 30)
This might be referred to as the "bundle theory" of individuation, where I arrive at a knowledge of what individuates an object through the qualities of which it is composed (the epistemological problem of individuation should not be confused with the ontological problem of individuation). However, as we quickly see, this account of how we know the individuality of an object quickly fails:
But now while I'm talking I bring it close to the fire. What remains of the taste evaporates; the odor vanishes; its color changes; its shape is lost; its size increases; it becomes liquid; it gorws hot; one can hardly touch it; and although it is knocked upon, it will give out no sound. Does the same wax remain after the change? We must admit that it does; no one denies it, no one judges otherwise. What is it then in this bit of wax that we recognize with so much distinctness? Certainly it cannot be anything that I observed by means of the senses, since everything in the field of taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing are changed, and since the same wax nevertheless remains. (30, my italics)
Descartes concludes that we cannot know the individuality of an object through the five senses because the qualities of which the object is composed are perpetually changing, while the object nonetheless remains that object there. Something about the object remains the same. Descartes therefore concludes that,
A person who attempts to improve his understanding beyond the ordinary ought to be ashamed to go out of his way to criticize the forms of speech used by ordinary men. I prefer to pass over this matter and to consider whether I understand what wax was more evidently and more perfectly when I first noticed it and when I thought I knew it by means of the external sense, or at the very least by common sense, as it is called, or the imaginative faculty; or whether I conceive it better at present, after having more carefully examined what it is and how it can be known. Certainly it would be ridiculous to doubt the superiority of the latter method of knowing. For what was there in that first perception which was distinct and evident? What was there which might not occur similarly to the senses of the lowest of the animals? But when I distinguished the real wax from its superficial appearances, and when, just as though I had removed its garments, I consider it all naked, it is certain that although there might still be some error in my judgment, I could not conceive it in this fashion without a human mind. (32)
When Kant references "determinations", he is referring to what Descartes calls "superficial appearances" or sense-qualities composing our perception of an object. An object, at any given point in time, comprises a number of different determinations. For instance, I have short brown hair and brown eyes, a goatee, am about 175 pounds and six feet tall, have skin that is a particular shade of olive, wear glasses, etc. These determinations comprise my qualitative appearance, yet could easily change. I could gain or lose weight. I could become pale or darker. My hair is slowly turning gray and I will get shorter as I age, and so on. Yet I am somehow the same. In order for me to be thinkable as enduring in time, I must be thought as a substance (hypokeimenon, a support the lies beneath) that remains the same throughout change.

Foucault, of course, is neither a Kantian or a Cartesian, yet when he describes the episteme governing what is seriously sayable in a particular historical moment, he seems to be referring to a sort of substance that supports variations in speech and discourse and persists throughout these variations. As I discussed yesterday with regard to Badiou's ontology of multiplicity and the count-as-one, however, it becomes possible, after Badiou and Deleuze, to think the identity of something as the result of a series of operations, rather than as a substance lying beneath consistent multiplicities. That is, we must think the individuation of consistent multiplicities as an ongoing process without an underlying substance that remains the same. Perhaps these social organizations are far less rigid, deterministic, and unified than Foucault supposes. As John Law puts it in a nice little article on Actor-Network-Theory or ANT (with which I'm now just playing, and have not yet committed to),

Just occasionally we find ourselves watching on the sidelines as an order comes crashing down. Organisations or systems which we had always taken for granted -- the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Continental Illinois -- are swallowed up. Commissars, moguls and captains of industry disappear from view. These dangerous moments offer more than political promise. For when the hidden trapdoors of the social spring open we suddenly learn that the masters of the universe may also have feet of clay.

How is it that it ever seemed otherwise? How is that, at least for a time, they made themselves different from us? By what organisational means did they keep themselves in place and overcome the resistances that would have brought them tumbling down much sooner? How was it we colluded in this? These are some of the key questions of social science. And they are the questions that lie at the heart of "actor-network theory"-- the approach to sociology that is the topic of this note. This theory -- also known as the sociology of translation -- is concerned with the mechanics of power. It suggests, in effect, that we should analyse the great in exactly the same way that we would anyone else. Of course, this is not to deny that the nabobs of this world are powerful. They certainly are. But it is to suggest that they are no different in kind sociologically to the wretched of the earth.

The ANT theorist begins from the premise that social organizations are improbable in that they come into being and pass away, and that we must look for the sufficient reason for the existence of an enduring organization in the micro-processes and activities through which an organization perpetually reproduces itself in maintaining its networks of existence. Or, put differently, how does a group come to "count itself as one"? That is, rather than looking at a mysterious entity called "statements" that determines social organizations at a particular point in history, why not look at networks of relationships among actors, such as a group of professors that form together at a particular university, determining who gets hired, selected for graduate school, what gets published, what conferences are organized, and so on. Moreover, we might look at the effect of material conditions and technology that impact the ability of various social organizations to maintain themselves. Organizations are possible today that were not possible fifteen years ago due to the internet. Certain formations would become impossible were the internet to somehow collapse due to some natural event like a shift in the planet's gravitational fields. It is these activities that maintain the existence of a particular social configuration (for instance the primacy of analytic philosophy in the United States), and which are themselves liable to change. That is, the formation of a social system and organization-- and here I am questioning Luhmann's thesis that systems constitute their own elements, and instead hypothesizing a reciprocal determination where elements constitute systems and systems constitute element --is maintained and produced through the interactions of the elements of that system. This is something that can readily be discerned here in the blogosphere, where very diverse persons are brought together in an aleatory fashion and where networks and organizations emerge through the interactions of those participants.

For instance, I would have never thought to take the work of Philip Goodchild seriously-- my copy of Deleuze and Guattari: An Introduction to the Politics of Desire is heavily marked up with angry comments pointing out various places where he severely distorts Deleuze and Guattari --and wouldn't have even paid attention to his subsequent developments, had I not encountered Anthony Paul Smith for whom I have both a certain fondness and who irritates the hell out of me. Yet as a result of that encounter, I begin to take Goodchild seriously (while nonetheless disagreeing with him) as this is a precondition for for discussing Deleuze with Anthony (who is always going on about "liking how ecological Deleuze's thought is). Indeed, Adam Kotsko and Anthony Paul Smith appear to be engaged in a sort of missionary work, spreading the signifiers Goodchild and "ecology" wherever they go, trying to push the reading of Deleuze in a certain direction. What results from the formation of these sorts of networks and interactions, is the production of a particular "standard reading" of Deleuze for a community of individuals that discuss Deleuze. This doesn't entail that this reading is agreed with by all. What it does entail is that others have to take that reading seriously in order to engage in discussion. Yet the production of such communities-- communities that share a sort of das Man or "everyone knows" or doxa or set of background assumptions and protocols --is the result of aleatory encounters between individuals that take on a life of their own and which, through relations of feedback, come to become self-reinforcing. The crucial point is that other networks can be formed. This, for instance, is readily discernible in the history of the psychoanalytic movement, where new organizations and "laws of rarity" emerge around certain figures such as Freud, Jung, Adler, Klein, Lacan, and so on.

A speciation takes place, that transforms the entire field. The logic here is not the logic of deterministic epistemes, but rather a logic of the slime mold, where indeterminate elements that existed independently of one another can come to form bonds and self-organize into collectives, that then constitute the valence of their own elements. As Latour points out early in Reassembling the Social, identity is far more conflict ridden and indeterminate than social theorists often suppose.

Relating to one group or another is an on-going process made up of uncertain, fragile, controversial, and ever-shifting ties. Is this not odd? If we simply follow the newspapers' cues, the central intuition of sociology should be that at any given moment actors are made to fit in a group-- often in more than one. And yet, when you read social theorists, it seems that the main, the crucial, the most urgent question should be which group is preferable to start a social enquiry. Should we take social aggregates to be made of 'individuals', 'of organizations', of 'classes', of 'roles', of 'life trajectories', of 'discursive fields', of 'selfish genes', of 'forms of life', of 'social networks'? They never seem to tire in designating one entity as real, solid, proven, or entrenched while others are criticized as being artificial, imaginary, transitional, illusory, abstract, impersonal, or meaningless...

While the most common experience we have of the social world is of being simultaneously seized by several possible and contradictory calls for regroupings, it seems the most important decision to make before becoming a social scientist is to decide first which ingredients are already there in society. While it is fairly obvious that we are enrolled in a group by a series of interventions that renders visible those who argue for the relevance of one grouping and the irrelevance of others, everything happens as if social scientists had to claim that there exists 'out there' one type that is real, whereas the other sets are really inauthentic, obsolete, irrelevant, or artificial. While we are well aware that the first feature of the social world is this constant tracing of boundaries by people over some other people, sociologists of the social consider that the main feature of the world is to recognize, independently of who is tracing them and with what sorts of tools, the unquestionable existence of boundaries. (28, my bold)

Groupings are always performatively enacted or the result of processes, whereby actors strive to form networks. They can be done and undone. They are the result of interactions among participants, and it is always possible for excluded participants to become missionaries after the fashion of Paul, seeking to produce a new furrow, that itself reorganizes the social. Yet none of these networks are ever formed without the activity of participants and acts of seduction.

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Anonymous Maureen said...

I hate to be the first commenter-- particularly with such a nit-picking remark-- but I had always understood Foucault's early, not middle, work to be "archaeological" (and his middle work to be a genealogy). If I've just been mislead all along, please let me know, since I'm curious. (Also, I've been teaching an article out of Beyond Structuralism, and I'd like to not be misrepresenting Foucault too much to the lovely students in my class).

November 02, 2006 7:01 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

I wasn't very clear with what I was referring to. By his middle work I was referring to The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge. The early works Madness and Civilization and The Birth of the Clinic approach the archaeological method, while still suggesting the possibility of a true and genuine object that discourses slide about (for instance, he evokes a genuine experience of madness in Madness and Civilization). By the later work I'm referring to Discipline and Punish on.

November 02, 2006 7:04 AM  

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