What does it take to become an insurgent mind?
Posted on March 02 2018
People often make use of conceptions without knowing what makes these conceptions possible in the first place. They focus on phenomena, not on the mechanisms that make possible these phenomena.
It takes an exceptional mind with a certain insurgent attitude to change the perspective. And it is exactly this kind of attitude that we celebrate.
Let me give you an example of what I have in mind.
Contemporary societies are often conceived as network societies. The network concept has changed the way we view society by fastening thought on relationships and their mutual interdependencies instead of individuals or institutions alone.
You might think that whatever term we use, society’s activities remain the same. But this is not the case.
It is difficult to understand the Western societies of the 1950s and 1960s without taking into account the all-pervasive theme of automation at that time. Adopting a new notion of networks is therefore a question of change in viewpoint. Initially, it might seem of little relevance but in fact transforms everything.
The metaphor of network is not just a descriptive tool. It is also a whole conceptual infrastructure that not only describes societal phenomena but makes them possible in the first place. In this way, it also generates new ways of thinking and modes of operation.
Now, it is important to investigate the infrastructure this metaphor has created, not just its forms of manifestation. There are theorists who have pondered this issue systematically.
Manuel Castells is one of the most well-known social scientists today in the field of network theory. He thinks that the dominating societal processes today are network-like. According to him, network is a set of interconnected nodes without a center. Unlike a hierarchy, a network does not have a predefined structure and boundaries.
Along with Castells, one of the most influential recent theorists of networks is Albert-László Barabási. He has shown that the typical network has some highly connected nodes that he calls hubs and a large number of only poorly connected nodes. In real networks linking is never random.
The actor network theory of Michel Callon and Bruno Latour deepens this thematic while retaining links with the type of networks conceived by Castells and Barabási.
In one of his seminal papers, Callon develops the idea of the actor network through a case study of the introduction of the electric vehicle in France during the 1970s.
According to Callon, it was the task of the a French electric utility company Electricité de France to create a world with a corresponding language that would define the roles of the necessary players, enroll them into the original plan and finally translate the functions of each in order to establish a network needed to accomplish the plan concerning the vehicle.
Callon stressed that the players involved are not only humans. Actor network gathers together both human (for instance, consumers, car manufacturers, and government departments) and nonhuman (electrons, catalysts, and lead accumulators) elements and integrates them into one single functional system.
Yet, the system is functional only if each entity complies with the plan. Any of the entities can resist the enrolment and become inoperative at any moment. Then the whole system would break down.
What is crucial is that we cannot describe technical objects without describing the actor-worlds that shape them.
The idea about actors and the preconditions of action as two distinct dimensions is shown to be misleading. Instead, the actor network directs one’s attention to their mutual constitution and to the mechanisms through which this takes place.
A successful network comes to constitute the precondition of action among a number of pre-existing networks. There is a constant negotiation and contest between a number of powers, each struggling to extend its influence.
The notion of network came out probably in its most notable form through the concept of rhizome, introduced by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in 1976.
This concept was opposed to the tree structure. This seminal theoretical formulation has given a conceptual form to the space that has been subsequently occupied by the concept of network.
Rhizome does not constitute a pre-given order, principle, or structure. The connections it enables are unanticipated and open in their number. Above all, this means that rhizome never allows for a unity. By contrast, unity is typical for tree structures, which are hierarchical systems.
This means also that rhizome lacks a clear beginning and end, an interiority and exteriority, for it begins constantly anew without having respect for boundaries. It operates by ‘‘variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots.’’
Rhizome and tree are not, however, opposite models: ‘‘There exist tree or root structures in rhizomes; conversely, a tree branch or root division may begin to burgeon into a rhizome.’’
In the very joining together and forming unities, rhizome cannot escape from hierarchies. Nor can it avoid ruptures, withdrawals, and separations.
Rhizome is an attempt to outline such thinking in which relation to what is would not be based on given terms, categories and classes. If the metaphor of tree has dominated Western thought, as Deleuze believes, rhizome tries to retain a connection to the externality without which it would not be possible.
Unlike the tree structure, rhizome is not exclusive but brings in what is outside. What is more, this outside is the condition of its existence.
Why is all this important? Although the concept of network do have a number of irreducible origins, these thinkers have given a seminal formulation for the conceptual space that has subsequently been understood in terms of the network.
However, they are not the only persons who have opened up the perspective in question. Moreover, their thinking cannot be connected to most of the different reasons that underlie the metaphor’s becoming popular.
What was at issue here was the rethinking of the relationship between interiority and exteriority during a time that boundary lines seemed to have disappeared or become indistinct.
The metaphor of network makes possible an examination of a number of different theories, techniques, and practices within the same picture, as it were. But at the same time, it opens up the whole world as network-like. It is not external to the way we see the world but is an inherent part of it.
To summarize, then, do not take existing things as given but try to locate the mechanisms, both conceptual and material, that make these things possible in the first place.
Insurgent minds do not comply with established norms but seek to identify the codes underlying them in order to change them.