Socect’s Weblog

Unsettled Thoughts/Works in Progress

Agamben’s Errors

Giorgio Agamben’s two treatises Homo Sacer (1998) and State of Exception (2005) have been popping up in many other texts I have been reading of late. So, I have been reading Agamben (in what little spare time I have). While reading Agamben is thought provoking, in this post I dwell on a few interrelated errors in his argument; places where I think he is simply wrong.

The following passage from Homo Sacer is where I focus my attention. In his final chapter (Threshold), he summarizes three provisional conclusions to his inquiry, the first of which is:

“(1) The original political relation is the ban (the state of exception as a zone of indistinction between outside and inside, exclusion and inclusion).”

This conclusion, Agamben argues,  “calls into question every theory of the contractual origin of state power and along with it, every attempt to ground political communities in something like ‘belonging,’ whether it be founded on popular, national, religious or any other identity.”

Agamben’s extended treatise on “the ban” and “bare life” are valuable contributions to social and political theory. But the argument state above is confused and problematic.

First, as an argument about “origins” it implies some sort of historical sequence. If that is the case, then to say that the ban precedes the (contracted) social or political community seems nonsense. I would be willing to grant either that they come into existence at the same moment, or (perhaps better) that knowledge of the contracted social-political body is brought to consciousness through the ban. In other words, we know what it (the community) is by what it excludes. However, to place the origin of the polis (the political community) in the ban and in so doing to exclude the contractual (relational) from that same origin is a discursive sleight of hand that ultimately makes no sense. We can accept Agamben’s argument that the political community requires the ban as origin of its existence (or knowledge of its existence). But Agamben seems to go further, to deny the pre-existence of some sort of social-political “contract” (relationship) prior to the ban. My question is: how does the ban take place if there is nothing to be banned from?

Second, and related, Agamben is crucially confusing and conflating a fundamental distinction between the communal (community, and here I would say polis) with the social (including but not limited to contracted relationship). The communal or community, in the way Agamben uses is, is clearly a matter of identity – of “belonging” – and a matter of ideational boundaries on who is included and who is excluded (banned). In this respect it is very much the sort of “imagined community” of Anderson’s influential writings. Community, however, is not the same thing as society – in the strict sense interconnected (networks) of social relationships. Sociality’s defining feature are relationships (of exchange). Society is stitched together through relational, exchange practices embodied in gifts (which also can be come fetishes – particularly in the form of the commodity fetish). Community, as I (and Agamben) are using it, has to do with identity and belief about belonging (and exclusion).

Therefore, the social (social contract, if you like) can and does exist as a pre-existing condition to the community (communal or in political terms, polis). The polis and the ban may have their origins in the same moment, but both are preceded by the social (society, social relations).

Update to this post: The critique of Agamben that I highlight above seems, to me, very close to Esposito’s critique in Communitas, which is currently on my bedside stand.


November 18, 2011 Posted by | Random Walks, Research | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Agency of Things

One of the basic ideas of actor-network theory is that not only people have agency but that non-human things do as well. This is a pretty simple idea, but also one that people have a hard time getting their heads around. An example occurred to me when I was on sabbatical in Thailand and sat most mornings at a Starbucks overlooking a small shrine along the road in the Siam Square area of Bangkok. I would watch as people passed the shrine, regularly turning and bowing (wai) to the shrine.

From an actor-network theory perspective, the shrine has agency, in so far as agency means the power to act on others in a system of relationships. Actor-network theory would insist that agency lies in the shrine itself, not for example, those who errected or maintain the shrine. If we conceptualize agency this way (and I see no reason not to), it raises a question: do we need to distinguish between agency and intentionality? The shrine, for instance, has agency. It acts on passersby such that the physically turn and bow. But it would seem odd if not absurd to suggest that the shrine has intentionality (whereas intentionality could be attributed those who created the shrine).

I post this now simply because it came up the other day in a conversation about ANT and then today I happend across these pictures buried in my computer files. So, there is just another musing… and a post to keep this blog alive…

October 27, 2011 Posted by | Random Walks, Research, Teaching | , , , , | 2 Comments

The Tangled Webs We Weave

Two problems with Geertz’s classic “web” metaphor of culture.

I’ve been thinking about Clifford Geertz’s oft cited web metaphor:
“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.” (The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973)

In teaching anthropology, I use that as one of the key concept of culture in the modern anthropological tradition (along with Tylors from 1871 and a few others)

Today I am reading Aiwah Ong’s article on cultural citizenship (Current Anthropology, 1996), in which she refers to “webs of power”; wondering to what extent that is a riff on Geertz (who, in turn, credits Weber)?

Two thoughts:
1. Culture and ideology generally refer to the same thing – ideation, and what Geertz is calling “webs of significance” (or webs of signification). The difference between the terms culture and ideology are not in the thing(s) to which they refer (their referent; denotation) but rather in their connotation. Culture hides or downplays power whereas ideology foregrounds it. Culture connotes the sort of taken-for-grantedness of the ways in which we think about the world; ideology makes explicit a sort of struggle over ideas (e.g. think of the difference between “advertising” – a form of culture and “propaganda” – a form of ideology). The problem is that neither of these ways of talking about ideation/webs of meaning is more or less correct. Both have some truth (value) to them, much of the struggle of “ideology” is in fact very hidden from view (“culture”); much of “culture” is actively struggled over (“ideological”).

2. One of the most important problems with the “web” metaphor is that when we think about a spider’s web (I take that to be the prototypical image) such a web has a master intelligence behind it – the spider. Spiders are singular entities, weaving their webs with specific intention and self-interest (to catch flies and eat them). But “webs” of culture, ideology and power are not spun by individuals alone by rather are complex-adaptive networks, spun by multiple agents not governed by a master intelligence or plan (unless one assumes a Diety or some such entity; but even then that is always cast as an unknowable, so for practical purposes there is not a master plan even if one believes in the existence of such in some ultimate sense). Bottom line – the “web” metaphor is a very engaging one; but misleading insofar as it implies a sort of singular agency. I do think that a lot of people (students; perhaps also scholars) project themselves into Geertz’s “web” as a singular agent – a liberal individual (spider!) who can ultimately control the web-spinning; or alternatively, the web image is taken as disempowering… we are flies caught in webs over which we have no control and from which we gain nothing. Neither of these implications of the web metaphor are correct or particularly useful.

October 18, 2010 Posted by | Research, Teaching | , , , , | Leave a comment

Is Nationalism the New Racism?

The great apartheid of twentieth century was an apartheid of race based on an ideology of racism. The great apartheid of the twenty-first century would appear to be an apartheid of citizenship based on an ideology of nationalism. Race and racism remain pervasive. But racism is a largely discredited ideology. Nationalism is an ideology with such hegemonic power that almost no one seriously questions it. Sure, we question the excesses of nationalism. But does anyone seriously question the ideological basis of citizenship? In other words, does anyone question the legitimacy of the territorial nation-state and its right to define citizenship as currently configured? I for one have trouble imagining a world organized in any way other than through nation-states. Some social theorists have for sometime been claiming that the hegemony of the nation-state is dead or dying. They are dead wrong.

Twentieth Century Apartheid


Twenty-First Century Apartheid

Throughout history, at least since the rise of complex agrarian societies, humanity has been divided between haves and have-nots. In the pre-modern, pre-industrial world the ideology of the divine-right-of-kings (or some version thereof) supported a social order of aristocratic haves and commoner have-nots. Over a millennium – roughly the past 1,000 years – popular democratic social movements overthrew the old order. The new order, exemplified by French and American revolutionary fraternal democracy, replaced aristocracy with democracy. The problem, however, is how to define the demos (“the people”)? In early (18th-19th century) European thinking, the people were a “nation” and a “race” (the German people, German race, German nation). Race and nation were synonymous. Race, however, became reduced to biology, in ways which have now been proven to be nonsensical. Nation and nationality took a parallel, but very distinctive path. Nationality became reduced to citizenship, at least functionally if not culturally. We still think (culturally) for example that proper Germans and French should be of “European stock” and Chinese should be of “Asian descent.” But to be a citizen – a national – of Germany, France or the People’s Republic of China is ultimately defined by one’s relationship to the government of the territorially-defined nation-state. If Germany or China grants one citizenship, then one is de jure German or Chinese.

What we see, in the world today, is nation-states becoming territorial zones of relative affluence and deprivation. In zones of relative affluence, the wealthy nation-states (crudely referred to as the “First World”), citizenship is increasingly becoming a thoroughly legitimized mode of defining social privilege and discrimination. Ironically, the meaning of “citizenship” is devolving from French ideals of fraternity (a brotherhood of man) to Greek and Roman forms of citizenship, in which citizens were a small, privileged group (of men) with standing in the city. Everyone else was a slave.

September 15, 2010 Posted by | Random Walks, Research | , , | Leave a comment

Discursive Tai-Chi and Social Assemblages

These are a few notes on reading Bruno Latour (2005) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory.

On pp.141-156, Latour (as professor) recounts a conversation between himself and a graduate student (click on link for the entire dialog); in which he pulls the negativist (in contrast to ‘positivist’) trick of simply negating any attempt at any positive constructive statement. The conversation goes on over more than 15 pages, but discursively consists of something like this:

Student: “So, by Actor-Network-Theory, do you mean X?”

Professor: “No, I do not mean X.”

Student: “So then, you mean Y?”

Professor: “No, I mean not-Y.”

Student: “So you do not mean X and you do not mean Y?”

Professor: “Yes.”

Student: “So what do you mean?”

Professor: “I just told you!”

Et cetera, et cetera, and so on forever. This is the argumentative equivalent to the martial arts of Tai-Chi or Aikiko, in which one (the Professor) never makes any positive statement and does not meet”force with force”, but rather uses a negative construction to deflect every attempt (by the student) to attempt to understand and construe that which is being talked about (ANT) in a positive way. This is very effective in defeating an attacking opponent (either in martial combat or discursive argumentation). But, it is also empty meaninglessness that brings nothing positive into the world (and in martial arts, is criticized for being purely defensive). As an exclusive, sole tactic, it is purely deconstructive, not constructive; uncreative (dis-creative? de-structive?), not creative.

If that is all there is to scholarship, ultimately, nobody isn’t talking about nothing, which makes for a rather boring, meaningless conversation; one that I lost interest in a long time ago… at least when done purely for its own sake. It is useful to be able to engage in this sort of emptying out of all meaningful signification, if one is engaged in deconstructing something such as a theory of race or system of sexism that really should be done away with altogether. But mere deconstruction, leaving nothing in its place is useless when creativity is called for (e.g. in creating public policy or put forward suggestions for ethical action in the world). Deconstruction alone is a belief in all yin and no yang.

To Latour’scredit, in this book, he is working toward a “reassembling” of the social; but the long interlude in the form of conversation in the middle of the book reminded me of too many annoying, pointless conversations I’ve had with “po-mo” professors and colleagues, who seem to think that deconstruction exclusively and for its owe sake is useful (or even more annoyingly, that it makes them look clever).

As for Latour and ANT, the main contribution of ANT is to afford agency to non-human actors (or ‘actants’ as Latour prefers). That is a rather useful contribution, especially for those who are interested in attending specifically to understand systems or “assemblages” involving both human and non-human elements/actors. Although, for myself, since I draw my own understandings or models for systems-theory from Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) theory of the Santa Fe Institutesort, and since most of the systems they deal with are non-human systems to begin with, there is nothing very surprising (or even all that interesting or original) in conceptualizing systems in which non-human things can be actors/agents. (Fully mapping out the parallels and divergences between Latour’s assemblages and CAS theory would take a lot more than a blog post!)

I also find Latour’s argument about “the social” very weak. He seems to setup a straw-man type argument by presenting the common sociological understanding of “the social” as a very vague sort of “context” (in his formulation, “the social” as used by sociologists becomes something of a Derrida-type ‘supplement’; a constitutive outside or context to positive constructs such as economics, law, politics, etc.). While it may often be used in such an undertheorized, weakly constructed way, I would not expect that is how most sociological theorists see it (I’m still trying to figure out what sociologists actually think “the social” is; Giddens’ “structuration” model, for example or Bourdieu’s “habitus” are more substantively defined than mere supplemental “context”).

Latour’ssubstitution of ANT as a means of tracing out ties or significant relationships of things (human and non-human) to identify “assemblages” is fine. But it does not strike me as necessarily substantially different from empirical systems theory. Except, perhaps, in that ANT (correctly) does not assume that the ties we trace will lead us to find a “system” (relationships exhibiting some degree of efficacy, regularity and persistence over time). However, CAS theory (for example) does not assume that either. In fact, CAS theory explicitly includes states (or relationships) of “chaos” which can be described mathematically (insofar as I understand the math involved) but do not produce systemic regularities. Complex adaptive systems are themselves defined as “far from equilibrium” systems that approach (are at the ‘edge of”), but do not become chaotic (i.e. they are not ‘purely random’ patterns).

A final question: From a social science point of view, such “chaotic” (non-systemic) assemblages may be of interest as descriptive histories, but if we are trying to understand power (for example) or efficacy, are not chaotic relational states defined by the absence of both? Isn’t power and efficacy (cause-and-effects), by definition, a systemic state in which outcomes are at least theoretically or probablistically predictable? Is it not just as incorrect to assume that all assemblages are not “systemic” as it is to assume that all relationships and assemblages are?

And, finally, just because I’m interested in studying and understanding systems does not mean that I assume everything is a system any more than just because I’m an anthropologist interested in studying humans means that I assume everything is a human being! It amazes me how often I encounter criticisms – of my work or of others – of the sort that would imply if you are doing systems theory (or any X theory) you are assuming everything is a system (or everything is X).

P.S. – After writing all this and ‘googling around’ the web for ‘social assemblages’… I came across A New Philosophy of Society by Manuel DeLanda. Skimming it for about 2 minutes, it looks like a good introduction to this whole idea of “social assemblages”. More lucid and ‘postively’ constructed than Latour’s Reassembling the Social.

May 29, 2009 Posted by | Research, Teaching | 1 Comment

Mapping Global Connectness… From the Source

So, within 48 hours or so of my previous post on small world syndrome, I get a message from Andy Nelson who is one of the main authors of this work. Thanks Andy! This is certainly evidence that global connectedness is for real. (As far as I can tell, he is based in Europe; and I’m in Singapore).

As a public service, here are the links he sent me:

Time Travel to Major Cities: A Global Map of Accessibility
This is the original map, research and related papers. This should be of great interest and value to all of us who do serious research on globalization. Even if you don’t, you’ll likely be fascinated by the pretty maps and pictures… really, worth a look.

Also, a radio program discussion of the global accessibility map.

April 24, 2009 Posted by | Research, Teaching | Leave a comment

Everywhere (Almost) is 48 Hours Away

The BBC reported this morning (Singapore time) on research by mapping transportation interconnections in the world. Almost all of the earth is accessible within 48 hours (less than 10% of the Earth is not).

We all know this. In the social sciences, this is taken as an important “social fact” with important consequences. In fact this map of connectedness, demonstrates that this is not simply a social fact (in the Durkheimian sense). This particular mapping of that social fact and social reality is worth considering in some detail.

I’m very frustrated, because I am unable to find the BBC report that I heard! (Spent a good hour or more searching the BBC WorldService website for it… if anyone can find it, please let me know!)

The interviewer said something like, “If you can get anywhere on Earth within 48 hours, it’s very hard to say that you are an explorer.” Reflecting – in a different register – the theory that ‘we don’t need anthropologists’ because there are no more ‘primitive’ (remote) peoples. Of course anthropologists know this is nonsense; that anthropology is not “the study of primitive people.” But that is how our discipline is still percieved (and many of us still feed that myth in various ways).

There is really too much on could say about this map and the “small earth” syndrome it demonstrates. So a few points:

1. These maps have incredible potential in the context of teaching/demonstrating this social fact. Beyond that, they have great potential for us as researchers (in anthropology, geography and related disciplines) to imagine our research agendas and projects.

2. One respect in which I am interested in the map and its implications regards my own research on cultural theory. It may be very useful in thinking about culture and cultural diversity. I have made the point before (somewhere in writing… forget where at the moment!) that cultural diversity, at least in the (very limited) way we generally concieve of it, is primarily a product of geographic isolation (just as ‘racial’ difference is; but culture changes at a much more rapid rate… thus, far more diverse than our genetic make-up). What does all this mean for cultural diversity? I believe it forces us to rethink both what we mean by culture in general and cultural diversity (cf. Wesch on YouTube). 

3. This map (the data and methodology behind it) could be used to produce a “remoteness index”. It would be a empirically grounded way to think about all these vague notions of ‘global flows’ and such we are all keen to talk about. I imagine a project to construct such an index such as the following: For any point on the map, one could produce a set of other points (maybe n = 10?), then measure the average proximity from those 10 points. This would produce a “global proximity index” (or remoteness index; whichever one wants to call it). How would this be useful? It would demonstrate the global, networked interconnections of humanity. It would also provide substantial findings to consider in how we think about what places are truely “remote” and central/peripheral in the world today. (It reflects a recent discussion at a seminar here, where a colleague was talking about “working from the periphery” here in Singapore… I – only half-jokingly – said, “you should try living in Kansas, where I grew up… relatively speaking, Singapore is not a peripheral site!” The point being: working with this map in a form of a “global proximity index” would provide at least one method for actually addressing the question: Which is more “peripheral” in our global society, Singapore or Kansas? (Yes, of course, there is much more to it than mere transportation networks; still such an index might push us to consider more seriously what we mean by center/periphery relationships.)

4. The methodology of the map itself raises major questions. In fact, what the researchers have done is to measure “time to nearest population center of more than 50,000” (hmmm… Manhattan, Kansas almost counts as one of those!). The time measures are based on several factors of ground/surface transportation: roadwaysrail connections, shipping laneswaterways, and topography. They exclude air transportation from their mapping! (Assuming that when you reach an urban center of 50,000 population, one can then easily fly to anywhere? Haha, not from Manhattan! Though one can fly to Kansas City from there.) Nevertheless, the map they have constructed is very impressive and valuable. “They” are apparently the EU’s Joint Research Centre; but I can’t find any of this on their website at the moment!

At the very least, this research is interesting enough, it gave me reason to blog again. 🙂

P.S. – In case anyone missed it; I was born and raised in Manhattan, Kansas. Which is, of course, the center of the universe.

April 22, 2009 Posted by | Research, Teaching | 2 Comments

Society Reconsidered…

(Note: I’m cross posting this here and on the Sociology blog Singapore)

 “Understanding Singapore solely in terms of its citizen population is an unwarranted sociological fiction.”

 A couple days ago, I got back a first round of edits to proof for book chapter coauthored by myself and Zhang Juan (who completed her MA at NUS a couple years ago and is now doing a PhD based in Australia).

The chapter is: “Navigating Transnationalism: Immigration and Reconfigured Ethnicity” In: Impressions of the Goh Chok Tong Years in Singapore, Bridget Welsh, James Chin, Arun Mahiznan, and Tan Tarn How, eds. Singapore: NUS Press (forthcoming, January 2009)

The quote above, from the chapter, reflects one reason why I think Singapore is a great place from which to do sociology (and anthropology) and thinking about society and culture generally.

Last time I looked (admittedly, about 5 years ago now) I came across statements in introductions to Sociology describing different levels of society, in which “the nation” was described as the highest level or largest form of social organization. IMHO, this is an untenable, deeply culture-bound theory of “society”.

That idea comes from Euro-American folk-theories of “nation”.

If we understand “society” to be defined by “social relationships” (relationships of reciprocity, exchange, interaction, etc.) then I would contend that any attempt to understand “society” in the context of Singapore will be extraordinarily incomplete if defined by the territorial borders of Singapore-as-nation-state.

The challenge (and opportunity) of doing sociology in Singapore (as our place/position from which to think about the world) is that this and many other sociological constructs developed in Europe and America do not fit the context we live in. Understanding Singapore also means that we need to think seriously about some common, oft-repeated, yet questionnable cliches about Singapore. For example, that “Singapore does not have a hinterland”. If by a hinterland, we mean those places outside of urban areas on which cities depend for labor and commerce, then this cliche is simply not accurate. Rather, the interesting point is that Singapore’s hinterland lies beyond the territorial boundaries of the nation-state (and it is worth thinking seriously about all the consequences this entails). Of course, I’m far from the first to think about this – many social researchers in FASS @ NUS have been addressing this and similar issues for sometime. But the idea remains a common one in Singapore generally (e.g. in some great discussion on the Anthropology and the Human Condition Wiki).

The point of raising this in the Sociology blog Singapore is to challenge all of us doing sociology and anthropology in Singapore to use our research to challenge (and we hope improve on) traditional sociological concepts – not just adopt them and try to squeeze the social realities of Singapore and Asia more generally into them.  (Yes – this means you, our intrepid grad students 🙂 ).

FYI a draft of the chapter is attached (that is if I can get the linking function to work…). (But later, please go out and buy the book!)

Navigating Transnationalism

August 23, 2008 Posted by | Research, Teaching | , | 1 Comment