Category: Radical Constructivism


First I would like to apologise for holding up the reading group on Manuel DeLanda”s A New Philosophy of Society. Completing my PhD corrections and preparing for job interviews have consumed my time. As normal, the material conditions of life come before philosophy.

In this post I will dicuss the second section of chapter 4: Orgnaisations and Government and then proceed to put forward some critical remarks about the chapter. I hope my critical remarks can provide stimulus for further discussion of the chapter and I invite comments. My first post on the chapter is here.

Organisations interacting with other Organisations:

After providing a brief analysis of organisations that share an authority structure from a Weberian perspective, DeLanda moves up the scale in his social ontology of assemblages to examine the interactions between organisations as a different type of assemblages.  DeLanda writes:

‘beside an authority structure organisations also possess an external identity as enduring, goal-directed entities. As such organisations exist as parts of populations of other organisations with which they interact, and in these interactions they will exercise capacities that belong to them as social actors, capacities that cannot be reduced to those persons or interpersonal networks. The question now is, when organisations exercise their own capacities within a population of other corporate actors hierarchies and networks of organisations with properties and capacities of their own?’ (p75).

As we later find in the chapter, DeLanda ‘s answer to the above question is yes. According to DeLanda, the interaction between corporate organisations produces an emergent whole/assemblage, where different singularities are actualised that are not evident in assemblages of persons or social networks. To examine the emergent assemblage of interacting assemblages DeLanda concentrates on how hierarchical and network organisations cope with resource dependencies. The reason is that a hierarchical or network assemblage of interacting organisations represent two extremes on the continuum and display different strategies for coping with resource dependencies.  Of course, in reality, an assemblage of interacting organisations is usually a mixture, rather than being hierarchical or networked. DeLanda defines the two different coping strategies:

‘The first coping strategy involves the elimination of dependencies by the direct absorption of organisations through vertical integration, that is, by the acquisition or organisations that either supply inputs to, or handle outputs from, the absorbing firm. This strategy yields large organisations that are relatively self-sufficient and that can use economies of scale to become dominant nodes in their network…

…The second coping strategy involves not avoiding but benefiting from resource interdependencies. This strategy yields networks of relatively small firms in which no organisations is clearly dominant and in which  the lack of economies of scale is compensated for by economies of agglomeration: many small firms agglomerated in the same geographical region tend to attract talented people who can find a variety of jobs ‘ (p77-78)

Although not explicitly stated, the influence of Fernand Braudel is detectable in this part of the chapter and enables DeLanda to differentiate between the two extreme forms of interacting organisations. In both DeLanda’s A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History and his article ‘Deleuze, Materialism and Politics’, DeLanda replaces Deleuze and Guattari with Fernand Braudel to understand economic interactions. DeLanda argues that Braudel is able to differentiate between market and anti-market economies, where the former is small-scale industry and the later is large-scale industry.  The point is that DeLanda wants to argue that concepts like ‘capitalism’ fail to acknowledge the difference between market and anti-market economies/industries.  I will return to this point later in my critical comments, but it is fair to say that assemblage theory argues against the existence of one economic model and instead puts forward the argument that different types of economies exist that are dependent on scale.

To illustrate the difference between organisational markets an hierarchies, DeLanda discusses two empirical examples from the USA: Silicon Valley in California and Route 128 in Boston.  The former representing a network of organisations where economic of agglomeration is practiced and the later is a hierarchical assemblage of organisations. In Silicon Valley there are a high density of small-scale firms where firms compete and learn from one another, and in Boston 128 a few relatively integrated corporations dominate the region. A key argument that DeLanda makes in his analysis of Silican Valley and Boston 128 is one about geography. According to DeLanda, assemblages of small-scale firms are ‘married to a geographical region where the organisations and skilled workforce agglomerate’ and the large-scale hierarchical firms ‘having internalized a large number of economic functions, have for that reason acquired a certain freedom from geographical location’ (p81). I do not want to tread too much on the content of the next chapter (i.e. cities and nations), but DeLanda’s point about geographical ties implies that large-corporations are geographically more deterritorialised than small-scale firms. In A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, DeLanda discusses the capacity of large-firms on specific geographical areas when they decide to relocate. In particular, DeLanda discusses the notion of city-killing, and how large-firms relocating have the capacity to cause economy decay in that region. An example we could use is the experience of Detriot, which is still attempting to recover from an economy based on large-scale firms.

The last section of the chapter moves towards an assemblage theory of government. I am running out of time, so I will only say one thing about DeLanda’s analysis. The key point is that assemblage theory would make it impossible to speak about the ‘state.’ As a concept the ‘state’ is too monolithic and would neglect to examine the heterogeneity of government with different and competing organisations.

Critical Remarks:

  1. The issue of time, and control of time, is a key element in DeLanda’s assemblage theory analysis of organisations. DeLanda does mention that the specific use of physical time is related to coercive procedures (p72). For example, an organisation could impose a strict timetable to forbid the wasting of time (p73). Another example, is that academics are being required to record research diaries so that the university has a record of how their workforce is organising their time. I want to make the point that DeLanda’s focus on time does bring him close to Marx’s analysis of the working day in Capital. Unlike a lot of organisational studies and theories of political economy, both DeLanda and Marx regard the organisation of time as a key element. In addition, both DeLanda and Marx have the capacity to understand time as a form of discipline and as a potential source of struggle.  I would also like to add that the control of time within an organisation is further complicated when we consider the issue of consent and volunteering. For example, seminars and conferences that are held at university are usually consensual, and members of the organisation decide if they like’d to turn up. However, if members do not attend then this could be viewed as unprofessional and their position could be at risk.
  2. I would have liked DeLanda to put a more comprehensive defense of him selecting Weber to examine organisations. Organisations studies is a large scholarly activity and I am sure there is a lot of competing theories.
  3. Although DeLanda is not a naive complexity theorist, there seems to be an implicit preference for market economics where small-scale firms interact through an economy of agglomeration, rather than economies of scale. Although DeLanda regards himself as being part of the ‘left’, I feel his economics is more similar to that of Fredrick Hayek. Both speak about self-organisation and critique large monopolies. Personally, I am not ready to reject the concept of capitalism. Could we not think of capitalism as a virtual/external object with different potentialities that can be manifested? I fear that DeLanda’s political economy only wants to estbalish a market economy with no dominant actors/corporations.
  4. Is the question between external relations and internal relations a relative one and scale dependent? In other words, the internal elements of an object and external relations is determined from which scale we are examining. For example, if i am examining an assemblage of interacting organisations then the internal elements would the interior of the specific organisations and the exterior would be how that organisation is relating to other organisations in that assemblage.

I’ve enjoyed the DeLanda reading group for A New Philosophy of Society (ANPS) and it is my turn to write about chapter 4: Organisations and Governments. So far there have been excellent contributions from Levi on chapter 1, Alex on Chapter 2 and Michael on Chapter 3. My post on the fourth chapter of ANPS will be in three  parts First, I will summarise DeLanda’s analysis of organisations, I discuss DeLanda’s analysis of relations between organisations and governments, and finally offer some critical comments. I hope the critical comments can continue the productive discussion the book symposium has already stimulated.  I will post part one here and the two other parts over the weekend.

1)      Summary of Chapter 4 (Part 1 Organisations)

In chapter 4 DeLanda continues his journey and moves up the ontological scale of assemblages to consider organisations and governments. DeLanda makes it clear that the organisations he is going to examine will primarily focus on the last two or three centuries, especially organisations that use commands to coordinate collective activity (p68). In addition, DeLanda furthers narrows his analysis from selecting to focus on what different command organisation share in common: an authority structure (p68). According to DeLanda, the expressive axis of organisations within an authority structures express the legitimacy, and the material axis is involved with the enforcement of authority. In other words, organisations have legitmacy dimension and an enforcement authority.

One of the most important decisions that DeLanda makes is to incorporate Max Weber’s typology of authority structure. According to Weber there are three  types of authority-structures: rational-legal, traditional, and charismatic. To accommodate Weber’s three authority-structures, DeLanda regards them as extreme forms (or ideal types) that are in a continuum. The result is that organisations and populations will usually have a composition of all the authority types. It is now worth outlining the characteristics of each extreme form.

 

Rational-Legal – Is an organisation where there is complete separation of the position and the person occupying the position. The role of the positions within the organisation will be clearly outlined and there is a clear hierarchical structure with relations of surbordination between positions (not persons) made legitimate in some form of legal constitution.

Traditional – Some organisations have authority structures where ‘positions of authority are justified exclusively in terms of traditional rules and ceremonies inherited from the past and assumed to be sacred’ (p69). Examples of this type of authority structure are evident in religious organisations or monarchical governments.

Charismatic – The final authority structure is when an organisation is led and mobilised from a strong and charismatic leader. According to DeLanda, ‘historically, the kinds of individuals that have played this role have ranged “prophets, to people with a reputation for therapeutic or legal wisdom, to leaders in the hunt, and heroes of war”’ (p69).

 

 

In terms of the rationa-legal authority structure, DeLanda makes the observation that this type has become popular in the contemporary world, and the last 200years has seen the propagation of the rational-legal form. In addition, we also see the significance of the idea of redundant causality for examining and understanding rational-legal organisations. The idea of redundant causality is that a person can be removed from a position in a rational-legal organisation and replaced with another without altering the identity of that assemblage. In other words, I could be removed from my position as a teaching assistant at Newcastle University and replaced with another person without altering the authority structure where people have well defined roles. The result is that organisational analysis of rational-legal authority structures, which follows assemblage theory, ought to be concerned with different positions of the organisation, rather than the specifics of the persons that fill these roles.

In his analysis of rational-legal authority structures, DeLanda argues that the daily following of commands is an expression of legitimacy (p71). He also suggests that forms of disobediance are a direct challenge to the authority structure of the organisation. I would suggest that there is an influence of David Hume in this section, which follows on from DeLanda’s Humean subjectivit y outlined in the previous chapter. In the third chapter, DeLanda suggests habits are one possible method for analysing and understanding a person. The same could also be suggested for examining organisations with an authority structure. We could imagine that organisations are a bunble of non-essential habits and the habits are related to the command structure of the organisations. For example, if my position requires I turn up at the office at 9am everyday this becomes a repetitive habit that also expresses the legitimacy of the organisation. If i decide to break the habit and refuse to turn up at 9am I am directly expressing disobedience and challenging the habits of the  authority structure.

In addition to Weber, Michel Foucault is an important influence in DeLanda’s analysis of organisations that have an authority structure. Unsurprisingly, DeLanda finds Foucault’s Discipline and Punish a helpful resource and notes how contemporary rational-legal organisations has two different historical sources:

“Speaking of the rational-legal form of authority, Michel Foucault discusses how the legitmacy of this form evolved as lawyers and legal scholars elaborated justifications for the contractual relations at the basis of voluntary submission, but also how these legitimating discourses had to be complemented by a nondiscursive, disciplinary component, which had quite different origins, not in judicial or legislative organisations but in miltary ones” (p72)

From Foucault, DeLanda observes two important developments in organisations. First, the spatial and temporal partitional of human bodies. The model for organising space was from the military, where paths, barracks, entrances, etc where organised to manage the subordinates and assign then a definite place, and a model of time was incorporated so that ‘working rates were established, occupations imposed, cycles and repetitions regulated (p72). Second, a new threshold of description (i.e. the minimum of significance which a piece of information must have been worthy of archiving emerged where the actions of ‘normal’ individuals were recorded.  No longer do we only record the achievements and movements of heroes, but all types of individuals are regarded as being significant and worthy of recording in contemporary rational-legal organisations. Although not explicitly expressed from DeLanda, assemblage theory would have to consider the material elements that make possible the recording of individuals. For example, contemporary supermarkets use loyality cards to eletronically record the purchases of consumers and help with their market research.

The last main point that DeLanda makes about organisation is about the jurisdication of organisations. According to DeLanda, the stability o f an organisation’s jurisdication is dependent on their legitimacy and the continuous enforcement. Processes that call into question the stability of an organisation as sources of deterritorialization. DeLanda lists the examples of organisations clashing over territory and a crises of succession, where a leader’s death could destabile an organisation and its jurisdication.

I recently came across this lecture from David Harvey. I admire his Marxism, which seems to avoid reductionism. His thesis puts forward the convincing argument that change cannot be brought about from focusing on one singular relation. For example, the relation between man and technology. Change requires that we focus on changing a multitude of different relations in order to produce a new assemblage (e.g. communism).

*[Update, Levi has written a recent post that is relevant for this post, discussing how objects act and the actual and virtual dimensions of objects, read here]

I have recently been thinking about what political praxis object-oriented philosophy (herein after OOP) can offer political analysis. In conjunction, I have been thinking about the differences between how an object is defined from reading Levi Byrant, Graham Harman, and Steven Shaviro. In the following post I want to focus on Shaviro’s reading of Whitehead’s “eternal objects’ in his book Without Criteria and his post (here). The aim is to defend an OOP that argues objects are both actual and virtual.

One of the main debates within OOP is between actualists (Harman) and virtualists (Byrant & Shaviro). My reading of the debate concerns if an object-oriented ontology requires a virtual dimension. Criticism of OOP arguing for a virtual dimension seems to put forward the argument that virtualists limit an object to what is possible. However, it seems that this confuses the difference between possible and potential. For an object-oriented philosopher of the virtual, the virtual is a crucial (and real) ontological dimension that enables one to contemplate how an object is not reducible or exhausted by its actual existence. In other words, any ontology that includes a virtual dimension attempts to account for potentiality.

Following Deleuze, Shaviro asserts that we should not differentiate between the virtual and the real, ‘the virtual…is altogether real in its own right…it is just that this reality is not actual. The virtual is like a field of energies that have not yet been expended, or a reservoir of potentialities that have not yet been tapped’ (Without Criteria, p35). As a reservoir of potentials, there are processes of actualisation, when certain potentials of the virtual are actualised. However, actualisations of the virtual do not exhaust the potential of the virtual. Shaviro is aware that Whitehead never uses the word virtual, but does argue that Whitehead’s distinction between the actual and the potential resembles the Deleuzian distinction between the actual and the virtual (Without Criteria, p37). Therefore, for Whitehead the potential is a real (virtual) ontological dimension of the world that needs to be acknowledged. We cannot only focus on actual identities (although actualists will contend this point).

We may then ask what Whitehead claim composes the virtual/potential aspect of his ontology. One answer is that the virtual is a composition of eternal objects. As Shaviro notes, ‘alongside events or actual entities, Whitehead also posits what he calls “eternal objects.” These are “Pure Potentials.” Shaviro defines Whitehead’s eternal objects in the following:

“’any entity whose conceptual recognition does not involve a necessary reference to any definite actual entities of the temporal world is a called an ‘eternal object’ (Whitehead, Process and Reality). This means that eternal objects include sensory qualities, like colors (blueness or greenness) and tactile sensations (softness or roughness), conceptual abstractions like shapes (a helix, or a dodecahedron)…eternal objects are ideal abstractions that nevertheless (in contrast to Platonic forms) can only be encountered within experience, when they are ‘selected’ and ‘felt’ by particular actual occasions” (Without Criteria, p39)

At least two things are noteworthy about eternal objects. First eternal objects are virtual, but nevertheless real. Second, eternal objects are actualised in particular occasions, but are not reducible to these particular local actualisations. To understand why eternal objects are virtual and not reducible to their local manifestations in particular point in time, it is necessary to regard eternal objects as neutral and indifferent:

“’Eternal objects ‘involve in their own natures indecision’ and ‘indetermination’ (Whitehead, Process and Reality); they always imply alternatives, contingencies, situations that could have been otherwise. This patch of wall is yellow, but it might have been blue. This means that their role is essentially passive…You might say that yellowness  ‘in itself’, understood as a pure potentiality, is utterly indifferent to the actual yellow color on this particular patch of wall…Eternal objects, like Deleuze’s quasi-causes, are neutral, sterile, and inefficacious, as powerless as they are indifferent” (Without Criteria, p41)

There seems an important argument that eternal objects need to be thought of as neutral. At one level, the neutrality ought to mean that the virtuality of eternal objects is not reduced to local or particular manifestations. In other words, we need to be careful about equating the virtual with the actual. In terms of thinking ‘yellowness’ as both an eternal object with particular manifestations it seems unproblematic. Therefore, the book that sits in front of me with a yellow cover does not exhaust the potentiality of ‘yellowness’ as an eternal object. However, it is perhaps worth considering if the neutrality of eternal objects has any significance for an OOP political analysis. We can maybe draw the political significance of eternal objects from a (re)reading of Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon in Discipline and Punish. [I have also selected this example to provocatively suggest Foucault has the potential to be read as a type of object-oriented philosopher].

It might seem odd to (re)read Foucault’s analysis of the Panopticon as an example of discussing an ‘eternal object.’ At one level, Foucault is examining the physical attributes and design of a particular building. Foucault’s fascination with Bentham’s Panopticon is that the design of the building allows an observer a fixed central position that makes it possible to gaze upon those people confined within the Panopticon. The result is that Foucault is able to consider how the Panopticon functions as a form of disciplinary power that produces the subjectivity of those confined. One of Foucault’s main findings is that as a form of imprisonment, the Panopticon differs from a dungeon as ‘full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately protected. Visibility is the trap’ (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p200). However, Foucault is aware that merely focusing on the Panopticon as a means of imprisoning delinquents is in itself a limitation. We could suggest that this type of analysis of analysis is too empirical and remains at the level of actual objects. In other words, it fails to conceive of the Panopticon as a (Deleuzian) virtual idea or (Whiteheadian) eternal object. Indeed, Foucault is aware that the potentiality of the Panopticon is more than particular local manifestations of a Panopticon. Foucault writes that the Panopticon ‘is polyvalent in its applications; it serves to reform prisoners, but also to treat patients, to instruct schoolchildren, to confine the insane, to supervise workers, to put beggars into to work (Discipline and Punish, p205). In other words, the Panopticon as an eternal object is not reducible to those experiences that actualise a manifestation of panopticism, and Foucault warns that the Panopticon ‘is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use’ (Discipline and Punish, p205). In order to detach the Panopticon from any specific manifestation there requires the need to conceptualise as an ‘eternal object’ or what Deleuze and Guattari would refer to as an abstract machine. The effect is that a Panopticon is both virtual and actual.

One other issue needs addressed. Whitehead and Shaviro both understand eternal objects as ‘neutral’ and ‘indifferent’ to their manifestations in particular occasions, and it seems strange to claim that Panopticon – as an eternal object – is ‘neutral’ and ‘indifferent’. Indeed the Panopticon seems overtly political and not neutral. Yet such a criticism I would suggest would be too concerned with the particular and actual uses of panopticism in our actual experience. As an eternal object the Panopticon is indeed ‘neutral’ and ‘indifferent’, we need only think that particular manifestations of the Panopticon could be used from different and antagonistic political ideologies (Fascism, Liberalism, Socialism). Therefore, as an eternal object, panopticism is indifferent to particular manifestations and is not exhausted from these previous manifestations.

Arguable,  constructivism or construction is a loaded term in academia. Whenever one uses constructivism or construction it usually means they are social constructivists. However, like Deleuze and Latour I find value in using the term and would like to see it detached from social constructivism. Maybe we could propose there are social constructivists (e.g. Berger & Luckmann) and (radical) constructivists (e.g. DeLanda, Latour, Deleuze). I would claim the difference between the two are the following:

Social Constructivism  is concerned with the social construction of reality

(Radical) Constructivism is concerned with the construction of reality

The two ‘schools of thought’ appear similar, but their differences are significant and leads to two different positions. Social constructivists argue that reality is always social mediated and mind-dependent and Radical contructivists argue that mind-independent entities exist and they are knowable.  It is along these dividing lines that the battle of constructivists are drawn. The former is anti-realist and the later is realist.

Following the previous post that introduced a hybrid model of analysis I would now like to consider why this type of analysis is required. Larval has alrealy outline his reasons for object oriented philosophy (read here)

In ‘We have Never be Modern’ Latour discusses the problem for the social scientists that attempt to explain the world in terms of either subject/society or object/nature. His generally thesis seems to be that modernity has created a constitution that separates, and purifies, Society from Nature and Nature from Society. If Latour is correct then we are required to reject this purification and distinction of Society and Nature and come to realise modernity is not real. The implications of ‘We Have Never Been Modern’ runs counter to a lot of common knowledge; think about university departments and the segmentation of knowledge production. A common distinction that plays out the Society and Nature distinction is separating Social Sciences (politics, sociology, cultural studies) from Natural Sciences (biology, chemistry, physics). Interestingly, one of the subjects that really questions the division of Natural Science and Social Science is Geography, a subject that I was lucky enough to study at undergraduate level.

How then does the nature and society distinction play out in explanations of the world? Consider the question, ‘what creates human’s needs and interests?’ An ‘ordinary person’ might argue that it is the object that determine the needs and interests of the subject,  referring to the object, for example, as either God or the economy. In this explanation the “flow of determination” goes from the object to the subject. However, the social scientist could argue that the ‘ordinary person’ is misguided and the “flow of determination” goes from the subject to the object, where ‘Gods. money, fashion and art only offer a surface for the projection of our needs and interests’ (Latour, 1994;p52). Accordingly, the social scientist claims that ‘the inner properties of objects do not count, that they are mere receptacles for human categories’ (Latour, 1994; p52). We may classify this argument, where the subject determines the object, as social constructivism, which holds the position that it is the meanings, categories, and classifications that are important to explain the world.

In contrast, the ‘ordinary person’ could argue that it is society that determines the object, claiming that they have ‘free will’ and are a ‘rational actor.’  For example, the ‘ordinary person’ could claim that it was their  own ‘free choice’ and not economic needs that made them purchase a commodity. Critiquing this view of the ordinary person, the social scientist will claim that ‘free will’ and ‘rational choice’ are myths that conceal the real turth of how the object determines the subject. We only need to imagine a Marxist social scientist arguing that the subject is experiencing is nothing other than false consciousness where the material/economic base determines the superstructure (beliefs, views, culture…).

We seem to be at an impasse. Either the social scientist is left arguing that it is the subject that determines the object or it is the object that determines the subject. This situation is largely sterile as it generates a master/slave dialectic reliant upon the separation of nature and society. In reality the separation of nature and society is a myth and hybrid analysis aims to demystify this embedded myth of modernity.

The example of smoking is a clear phenomenon that transcends, or at least questions, the nature/society divide. As an (quasi) oject smoking is too real to be social and too social to be merely real. In otherwords, smoking is a hybrid that is objective and subjective. It is objective in the sense that smoking has real effects and non-discursive dimensions.  It is subjective as smoking has as categories, classifications, and meanings. The empiricism of hybrid analysis has to account for, at least, the objectivity and subjectivity of smoking, or whatever object it is examining.

In a future post I will propose a model/diagram for hybrid analysis…

 

After reading Larval’s post about the hegemonic fallacy , thinking about object oriented philosophyand Bruno Latour I came up with the thought that the researcher requires a hybrid model for analysis. A model that avoids prescribing a determined mode of analysis and is capable of accounting for all, or at least the majority, of the dimensions of the object.


Overall, the hybrid model of analysis does not outline a metaphysical ontology, but it does hope to achieve pragmatic analysis that can cope with ontology (or at least the ontic entities that compose the world).


 

Here are my first brief thoughts about “Hybrid Model Analysis”


 

The main objective of hybrid model analysis is to construct an object-oriented approach for researchers that avoids what Larval has termed the “Hegemonic Fallacy.” Instead of the researcher relying on one style of analysis, the hybrid model forces the researcher to explain the object of analysis in its diversity. For example, when the researcher is examining the object of cars in the world, the hybrid model would not allow the researcher to select one particular dimension of cars to explain their existence. The problem of selecting one dimension is that it would only reveal and prioritise one aspect of cars and neglect other factors. Imagine if I analysed the discursive construction of cars in various discourses. While the analysis of these discourses would prove invaluable, its language bias would fail to capture the hybrid nature of the object in question. The result of examine the discursive construction would be to remained traped within the hegemonic fallacy. The hybrid model would not neglect the importance of discourses disseminating meaning about cars, but it would claim there are other dimensions (political economy, environmental factors, technological capability, and so on) that construct the object. The challenge for the researcher is to conceptualise how all these dimensions interconnect and influence one another in the object of analysis.



How then is hybrid analysis connected, or related, to an object-oriented approach? In general, I claim that hybrid analysis is object-oriented due to the fact that it forces the researcher to approach (and hopefully explain) the real (and diverse) dimensions of the object of analysis. Hybrid analysis is a form of empiricism that does not assume` pre-given entities (subject, language, mind…) and has to begin anew for every researched object. What the researcher ought to discover is that there is some transference from the object that ‘communicate’ what dimensions compose the object.


 

* For now I want to sidestep the important question of “what is an object?” Presently, I would only infer that an object  is similar to the concept of an assemblage that DeLanda outlines in A New Theory of Society.


(More to follow soon…)

 

Media as Discourse – Lacau and Mouffe’s social constructivism ‘message without a medium’

In a follow up to a previous post on Deleuze and Guattari’s third major group of strata – alloplastic strata – I will now critique LacLau and Mouffe’s social constructivism. In general, while I see the merits of discourse analysis, I cannot but help feel it is a limited approach to understanding how the world is literally constructed, which is a limitation found in other forms of social constructivism.  The aim of considering Deleuze and Guattari’s model, or diagram, of stratification is it offers one a way out of language-dependent understanding of how the world is constructed and a more comprehensive idea of articulation. Hopefully, Deleuze and Guattari can help to demonstrate the limitations of Laclau and Mouffe specifically and social constructivism in general. 

 

            Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse analysis is an example postmodern theorising that insists on what Derrida terms as the structural undecidability of the social. Laclau and Mouffe do no deny that there is meaning and grounds in ‘social life.’ Instead, their point is the social lacks a foundational centre, or transcendental signifier. This lack within the social allows for an infinite play of meaning and different forms of articulation to co-exist and compete with one another. This is what Laclau and Mouffe, in Derridean terminology, refer to as the structural undecidability of the social.  To demonstrate the structural undecidability of the social Laclau and Mouffe embrace deconstruction as a methodology and adopt the view that everything can be regarded as a text (in the Derridian sense of text). In a deconstructionist reading a double reading of a text is preformed. It is at this point the text is thought to contain a discourse. The first reading of the text is faithful and attempts to follow the dominant interpretation. The second reading is unfaithful; attempting to find what is excluded, neglected, and repressed within the text. It is the second reading that is crucial for undercutting the first reading, demonstrating how the dominant interpretation depends on what it excludes. Ultimately, LacLau and Mouffe’s deconstruction is a textual analysis, and argues that any object can be discursively constructed. How then do Laclau and Mouffe define a discourses?

            Overall, a discourse is defined as a ‘differential ensemble of signifying sequences in which meaning is constantly renegotiated.’ Discourses, in Deleuzian terminology, are regimes of statements that attempt to signify and give meaning to the world. For example, there are neo-liberal discourses that are composed of statements (regimes of signs) that contain views about trade, freedom, human rights, states, and so on. These (multiple) neo-liberal discourses function to give meaning to social life and compete with other discourses to achieve dominance in a discursive field. It is this attempt, and tendency, of discourses to dominant discursive fields that allows Laclau and Mouffe to discuss the practice of articulation.

            On the whole, articulation (and especially hegemonic articulation) seeks to define meaning within a discursive field. Articulation acts to both modify and fixed identities. A Caribbean example can help explain the process of articulation. Imagine a newspaper reporter was asked to compose a summary of the Jamaican sprinters performance in the Beijing Olympics. What is being asked of the reporter is for a regime of statements to be produced that articulate how the sprinters’ performed. LacLau and Mouffe’s structural undecidability and infinite play is evident from there being no ‘correct’ way to articulate the sprinters’ performance. Theoretically, a multitude (even infinite) ways of articulation are available for the reporter. What could emerge is a dominant/hegemonic discourse in the discursive field. For example, the reporter, and other media, might predominantly articulate the success of the Jamaican sprinters through focusing on Usian Bolt. The effect of this dominant discourse would restrict, repress, and neglect other forms of articulation that become marginal discourses. The Jamaican women sprinters, for example, could become marginalised as the dominant articulation of the Jamaican sprinters is a discourse constructed on the ‘nodal point’ of Usain Bolt.

            The aim of Laclau and Mouffe deconstructionist discourse analysis is to reveal the dominate discourse in a discursive field (first reading) and identify what is excluded in the articulations of these dominant discourses (second reading). In terms of media analysis LacLau and Mouffe offer a textual/deconstructionist method that concentrates on the ‘messages’ (articulation) within the media. The major problem Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse analysis is it fails to move beyond a language-centred approach and remains in what Frederic Jameson refers to as the ‘prison-house of language.‘ Despite defenders claiming that Laclau and Mouffe are not reductionists, their approach has little to say about the content (i.e. first articulation) in the stratification process. It is for this reason that LacLau and Mouffe are idealists.

            It would be error to agree with Norman Gera’s claim that LacLau and Mouffe are invoking a shamefaced idealism. However, it would also be an error to claim that LacLau and Mouffe’s discourse analysis is a path towards a non-idealist constructivism. Instead it would be more appropriate to label LacLau and Mouffe as idealist because their discourse analysis concentrates on how interpretations and meanings are given to the world from humans. This is their ‘constructivist idealism’ and is based upon the argument that objects (or the world) do not reveal their meaning to us in a direct and automatic fashion; their meaning has to be given and articulated. Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse analysis is therefore interested on how meaning is socially articulated and given to the world. Unlike Deleuze and Guattari, Laclau and Mouffe are more concerned with discourse than they are about geology (inorganic), biology (organic), and technology (alloplastic). It is for this reason that Laclau and Mouffe are not radical constructivists and remain social constructivists. Their discourse analysis can only explain the construction of the world when there is discourses and articulation of meaning. Deleuze and Guattari radical constructivism moves beyond this limitation, evident in their abstract diagram of stratification, and account for how construction of the world occurs geologically, biologically and socially. A radical constructivist approach, therefore, does not ask what discourses are constructing the social and analyses what processes of stratification are constructing the world.

            An additional problem of Laclau and Mouffe is there structural undecidability and claims of an open (non-totalising) world are constructed on the impossibility of a discourse achieving complete dominance and closure. The objection is not against there position of structural undecidability, or there claim of an open world. Instead, the problem is Laclau and Mouffe cannot explain their positions outside the realms of discourse analysis. It is language, and the impossibility of meaning, that provides Laclau and Mouffe with evidence that the (social) world is structurally undecidable and open. In contrast, Deleuzian complexity theory, as a process ontology, offers a more complete, and convincing, account of structurally undecidability and openness of the world (and not only the social world), which is achieved from the incorporation of non-linear dynamics in DeLanda’s assemblage theory. Arguable, where Laclau and Mouffe only achieve openness and structural undecidability in language, Deleuzian complexity theory achieves a material openness and undecidability. [I explain is this material openness in another section, which will focus on Deleuze and complexity theory]

            Why is this problem? In terms of political transformation Laclau and Mouffe only provide a project that is interested in the politics of meaning. For Laclau and Mouffe the structural undecidability of the social provides the opportunity to transform and challenge dominant discourses. Politics is therefore about a fight over meaning and interpretation. However, LacLau and Mouffe’s (radical) political project is limited from concentrating the significance of meaning. DeLanda provides a critique of such social constructivist projects:

           

The reason such a change is important for members of a given movement is not because categories directly shape our perception (as social constructivists would have it) but because of unequal legal rights and obligations which are attached by government organisations to a given classification, as well as practices of exclusion, segregation and hoarding of opportunities which sort people out into ranked groups. Thus, activists trying to change a given category are not negotiating over meanings, as if changing the semantic content of a word automatically meant a real change in the opportunities and risks faced by a given social group, but over access to resources (income, education, health, services) and relief from constraints

 

The point of DeLanda’s critique is that political struggles are largely aimed as transforming the machinic intermingling of bodies and not only caught in a dispute about semantic meaning. Political struggle is not only the construction of new meanings, but, and more importantly, about the construction of new realities achieved from deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation. Struggles about racism, for example, were not only about the meaning of a categorical definition (black/white), but were about constructing new machinic assemblages of bodies where access to resources and relief from constraints was not hierarchically ranked in terms of ones race. It is because Deleuze and Guattari’s account for the intermingly of bodies in alloplastic strata that they offer a way out of LacLau and Mouffe’s politics of meanings, which is a language-oriented approach to politics. Deleuze and Guattari do not deny there are discourses in alloplastic strata (i.e. regime of signs), it is just that Deleuze and Guattari identify that the ‘social’ is more complex than is present in Laclau and Mouffe discourse analysis.

            Following DeLanda critique of social contrustivism I can also identify the constraints of LacLau and Mouffe’s discourse analysis when it comes to analysing technology. In McLuhanian terminology Laclau and Mouffe only provide a means to understand the message (i.e. expression) and not the medium (i.e. content). If the dissertation were to adopt Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse analysis it would fail to move beyond classifying technology as a text. This is a fundamental problem for any research that is attempting to examine technology. Technology, and specifically, media technology, is not merely mediums that disseminate meanings and discourses. It is important to recognize that new media technologies actualize a new reality (e.g. the simulation of virtual reality). Deleuze, in his book on foucault, refers to this as the construction of new visibilities. 

            Overall, Laclau and Mouffe provide an effective framework for achieving a discourse analysis of media. In terms of alloplastic strata, to a certain extent, Laclau and Mouffe can help for analysing the expressive components of alloplastic strata, providing the second articulation is a discourse. However, as the Google chapter illustrates, the second articulation is not always in the form of a discourse. It is at this point that Laclau and Mouffe ideas of articulation become ineffective and limited in comparison to Deleuze and Guattari’s defining articulation as (at least) a double articulation process. In conjunction, Laclau and Mouffe are unhelpful for understanding the content (first articulation) of alloplastic strata. Their language-centred discourse analysis fails to provide a method for analysing (media) technology and how it literally constructs the world from focusing on the messages and not the (material) mediums (e.g. the symbiotic relationships/assemblages formed with technology).  


See Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London: Verso, 1985), Ernesto LacLau, New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time (London: Verso, 1990), Jacob Torfing, New Theories of Discourse: LacLau, Mouffe, and Zizek (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), and Martin, J. 2002. “The Political Logic of Discourse: A Neo-Gramscian View”. History of European Ideas. 28, 21-31

Jacob Torfing, New Theories of Discourse: Laclau, Mouffe, and Zizek (Oxford: Blackwell) p62

Jacob Torfing, New Theories of Discourse: Laclau, Mouffe and Zizek p65

Jacob Torfing, New Theories of Discourse: Laclau, Mouffe and Zizek p85

Cited in Mark Bonta & John Protevi, Deleuze and Geophilosophy: A Guide and Glossary p8

Norman Geras, “Post-Marxism?” New Left Review 163: 1987 40-82, p65

Jacob Torfing, New Theories of Discourse: LacLau, Mouffe, and Zizek p45

Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity p62


According to Deleuze and Guattari there is three major groups of Strata. These are inorganic (geology), organic (biological), and alloplastic (social). In the following post I will attempt to concentrate on the latter of these three and hope to outline its main features. I will also attempt to consider its significance for approaching technology. My belief is that Deleuze and Guattari’s third grouping of strata allows a way out of postmodern theorizing that regards everything as a text. [My next post is a critique of this type of postmodern theorizing in Ernesto LacLau and Chantal Mouffe, who i regard as social constructivists and not radical constructivists, despite their project of radical democracy]. 

 

         In accordance with Deleuze and Guattari’s model of stratification alloplastic strata contains (at least) two articulations of content and expression. What is specific about alloplastic strata is a new distribution of content and expression in comparison to inorganic and biological strata. Deleuze and Guattari define the content and expression of the alloplastic grouping as the following:

 

There is a third major grouping of strata, defined less by a human essence than, once again, by a new distribution of content and expression. Form of content becomes “alloplastic” rather than “homoplastic”; in other words, it brings about modification in the external world. Form of expression becomes linguistic rather than genetic; in other words, it operates with symbols that are comprehensible, transmittable, and modifiable from outside

 

Overall, the alloplastic grouping of strata is the combination of machinic assemblages of bodies (content) and collective assemblages of enunciation (expression). The machinic assemblages of bodies are the various and temporal assemblages formed between tools and hand (e.g. hammering) that modify the external world. The fact that machinic assemblages of bodies modify the external world means they are regarded as productive. These machinic assemblages of bodies have both substance and form. The bodies in the alloplastic strata are regarded as the substance, which have been captured or/and attracted into the strata. The form of the machinc assemblage of bodies is the actions and passions of these bodies once they are interialised into the alloplastic strata. In the second articulation, the collective assemblages of enunciation (expression), there is an operation of symbols that gives alloplastic strata a ‘linguistic’ dimension that is not an expressive component of inorganic and organic strata. The form of expression is alloplastic strata is a regime of signs and the substance is the emergent ‘social institution.’ Importantly, Deleuze and Guattari warn against reducing expression to words in the alloplastic strata, and argue it is reducible ‘to a set of statements arising in the social field considered as a stratum (that is what a regime of signs is).’ Overall, words, for Deleuze and Guattari need to be attributed to a regime of signs, or what Foucault would refer to as a discursive formation. At this point I will now describe an actual example of alloplastic strata from Deleuze’s book Foucault, which will help to illustrate how content and expression is emergences in alloplastic strata from a process of stratification.

            The example that Deleuze uses to illustrate the realness of content and expression is Foucault’s analysis of the panoptic prison in Discipline and Punish. Deleuze ‘maps’ the content and expression in the following:

 

The content has both form and substance: for example, the form is prison and the substance is those who are locked up, the prisoners (who? why? how?).  The expression also has a form and a substance: for example the form is penal law and the substance is ‘delinquency’ in so far as it is the object of statements. Just as penal law as a form of expression defines a field of sayability (the statements of delinquency), so prison as a form of content defines a place of visibility (‘panopticism’, that is to say a place where at any moment one can see everything without being seen)

 

It is from this example that Deleuze and Guattari’s process of stratification can be traced in the alloplastic strata. In the first articulation (content) there are the prisoners, as substance, being (literally) captured into the prison (form of content), which causes a modification in the external world. In conjunction the alloplastic strata also demonstrates expressivity. In this example the regime of signs is the penal law, acting as a form of statements to qualify what constitutes crimes and their punishments and the substance is the institution that transforms a person into a delinquent. Deleuze and Guattari refer to this process as the incorporeal transformation of a body that performed using order-words. The above example of the incorporeal transformation is when the judge, or jury, disseminates the order-word ‘guilty,’ which transforms the body from a suspect into a delinquent.

            How then do Deleuze and Guattari approach the phenomenon of technology in the alloplastic strata? Unsurprisingly, Deleuze and Guattari are interested in what assemblage is produced when technology connects and plugs into other bodies. It is this approach to technology that allows Deleuzian and Guattari to avoid an object oriented approach. The problem with an object, medium, oriented approach is that is would resemble technological determinism. Deleuze and Guuattari outline their approach to technology in the follow:

 

We think the material or machinic  aspect of an assemblage relates not to the production of goods but rather to a precise state of intermingling of bodies in society, including all the attractions and repulsions, sympathies and antipathies, alternations, amalgamations, penetrations, and expansions that affect bodies of all kinds in their relations to one another…Even technology makes the mistake of considering tools in isolation: tools exist only in relation to the interminglings they make possible or that make them possible. The stirrup entails a new man-horse symbiosis that at the same time entails new weapons and instruments. Tools are inseparable from symbioses or amalgamations defining Nature-Society machinic assemblages

Two important points emerge from this quotation. Firstly, the connections and assemblages produced between tool (technology) and (hu)man are literally regarded as a form of symbiosis. According to Deleuze and Guattari the machinic assemblages of bodies in the alloplastic strata ought to be seen as a similar to the symbiotic assemblage, for example, between the wasp and the orchid. Importantly, it is helpful to remember that wasp and orchid assemblage is not an essential relationship and a historical constituted phenomenon, where there is a becoming wasp of the orchid and a becoming orchid of the wasp. Similarly, the symbiosis of man and tool is also historically constituted that is both non-essential and non-totalising. In other words, the (present) connections made with (particular) tools are not the limit because there is always room for more alloplastic assemblages to emerge. Secondly, approaching tools from their relations to other bodies allows Deleuze and Guattari a ‘flexibility’ that avoids them either being technological determinist or social determinist. Tools, for Deleuze and Guattari, at the same time make possible the intermingling of bodies in the alloplastic strata and are only possible because there is an intermingling of bodies in the alloplastic strata. Tools (technology) therefore construct alloplastic strata and are constructed from alloplastic strata, which avoids the either/or argument between social determinism and technological determinism. Deleuze and Guattari would therefore take the view that technology is social and the social is technological. It is here that Deleuze and Guattari’s radical constructivist materialism becomes evident. The emergence of new symbiotic relationships in the alloplastic strata is a process that literal constructs the world. It is here that Deleuze and Guattari encourage analysis to focus on morphogenetic processes (human and inhuman) that give rise to a new products and a new reality. In other words, it is the intense immanent flows of matter in and through assemblages/strata that provides the ‘foundation’ for Deleuze and Guattari’s constructivism. 


Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus p68

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus p74

Gilles Deleuze, Foucault trans Sean Hand p41

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus p99-100

This approach of radical constructivism differs from social constructivism. The crucial difference is that social constructivism aims to understand how humans give meaning to the world, while radical constructivism aims to understand how the world is literally constructed/stratifed