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Questioning Structure

Levi Bryant has a great post on the Instability of Structure.  In it he outlines his own conception of structure, for which a better term is assemblage.  For Levi, structures are objects, constituted by (but not reducible to) their components, and always vulnerable to entropic decay.  This means that the actions of the components reproduce the structure, but also change it:

“… structure is not the rigid and fixed thing that we imagined it to be under traditional structuralist accounts. For if it is true that structure or organization is a product of agency, then each reproduction of structure through action does not merely reproduce the structure as a copy to original, but modifies it as well. My acts of speech do not merely reproduce the system of phonemes and meanings for that particular language, but rather my discourse also modifies that linguistic structure ever so slightly in ways that other discourses might respond to.”

He questions the common conception of structures as containers within which agents must navigate.

I agree with Levi’s assessments here, and I share Levi’s support for the importance of positionality and relations that the concept of structure brings forward – and I think “assemblage” is an apt term for this.  However, I would go even further in questioning the concept of structure (and I think Levi would not object to this).  I would go so far as to question whether something like structure – in the sense of an overarching, non-local system that determines individual behavior – has ever existed.  Empirically, I just can’t see how it can exist or by what mechanism it can affect local, individual behavior – even in the entropic sense described by Levi.  Instead, I would argue that the very dichotomy between structure and agency is wrongheaded – that structure is agency, and this is the possibility that OOO and other post-human, ontological approaches open up for us.

I would follow Latour in saying that every event is local, but the local is overflowing.  Let me offer an example in the speech act.  I’m talking to my friend and I say “Hey, it’s a nice day today!”  Where is the structure of language in this case?  Where is it located, and by what means does it affect my behavior?  The answer is that it’s not – at least not in the simple way that structuralists tend to suggest.  I was born with a brain that is organized to acquire and use language.  Over the course of my life – especially in the first 10 years or so – I developed certain patterns of speech that became more or less stable in my mind.  I learned these through interactions with other people, by reading books, through English classes, and so on.  So in some sense, I carry these patterns in my head, but they are also contained in books, in other people, and in the organization of my brain.  But that’s not all.  On this particular day, when I say “Hey! it’s a nice day today!” I’m responding to a particular set of relations that I have entered into: warm, but slightly overcast weather; a connection to my friend standing by me; a slightly long, awkward silence in which I’ve learned that it is appropriate to talk about the weather; and so on.  This event, then, is a local event where all of these different factors come into play.  We could say that the “structure” lies in those habitual language patterns that are partially innate and partially acquired, but to me these are simply elements in the particular assemblage of the event which contribute to the structuring of the event, not an overarching structure that determines my behavior or permeates all of social life.  In other words, these are agents in an assemblage, and it is the actions and influences of the specific agents in a local assemblage that generates its structure.  Furthermore, the actions of agents may serve to reinforce certain elements.  So, when I say “Hey, It’s a really nice day today!” I’m reinforcing the idea that it’s appropriate to talk about weather during long, awkward silences (among other things, I suspect).  This, then gets carried into another assemblage where it is either repeated – and thus further reinforced – or not.  It’s through repetition (always with difference) that these elements are replicated across time and space (this is where the issue of work comes in).  The same could be said for other structures besides language: the state; Capitalism; mythology; even – I might argue – an organism; an ecosystem; and so on.

What difference does it make to think of structure in this way as opposed to the non-local deterministic forms of structure?  I think it makes all of the difference.  Some may argue that this is apolitical – that I’m not giving enough attention to class, race, gender, and other structural elements that contribute to inequalities and power.  But I would suggest that these too are local elements – existing in books, in specific relationships, in laws, in people’s minds, etc. – that can come into play in a particular assemblage rather than overarching organizing principles.  Understanding them as such, we can better understand exactly how they enter into specific assemblages, what effect they have, and how they replicate themselves in those assemblages to be carried into another.  In this way, we can learn better how to combat them – how to intervene in such a way that harmful elements are not replicated.  To me, this is a more effective approach than critiquing abstract powers and structures – how does one combat something like that?

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  1. dmf wrote:

    very good, I can’t think of anything in the social ‘realm’ that can’t be accounted for in terms of some aspect of individuals and their powers of assembly (habituations/adaptation in a Deweyish sort of way) in relation to their ever shifting environs.

    Tuesday, May 1, 2012 at 6:18 pm | Permalink
  2. Thanks! Yes, I just saw something on Dewey’s concept of habit that caught my eye… need to look more into it.

    Tuesday, May 1, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Permalink
  3. dmf wrote:

    Wednesday, May 2, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink
  4. dmf wrote:

    Saturday, May 5, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

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