Liquid metaphors

by CarlD

I’ve been meaning to pull stuff of possible interest out of various unpublished bits of this and that I’ve got lying around (see Stuffed Voles), and John’s appreciation in a recent comment of Zygmunt Baumann’s use of liquid as a metaphor for social relations offers on occasion. I should say Baumann’s one of those guys I know a lot about second hand, admire, should have read but haven’t. The following is from a piece I wrote to synthesize what I was figuring out from doing a lot of interdisciplinary reading on identity. It’s one of the orienting sections:

The interactive field is basically an arrangement of objects in space and time. As a general principle, emerging selves and identities can be expected to expand to fit the available space within the field of interactive possibilities. This suggests a continuous structuring dialectic between expansion and available space. Like water hitting the ground, people and peoples find an interactive field already in place and flow into the basins, gaps, and cracks therein, soaking in, pooling, or running off. In general, we become what it is possible for us to become, filling the space that is there to fill. (‘Failure to become’ is hence immediately diagnostic of a saturated or blocked field in some dimension.) With this image in mind, we may think of identity as the principle that no two objects can occupy exactly the same space at the same time and remain two objects. Objects are identical to themselves, or identifiable, only insofar as they can be distinguished from other objects. “Social identity lies in difference, and difference is asserted against what is closest, which represents the greatest threat” (Bourdieu, Distinction). Identity is at the core a name for differentiation.

Previous occupancy is obviously a huge advantage in the availability and desirability of space for self and identity to emerge into. Latecomers fill up the spaces that are left (finding their place in the sun, so to speak), unless they are possessed of sufficient expansive power to shove the previous occupants aside. This is as true in sibling dynamics as it is in international politics. Conflicts occur over space along the borders. When pressure is low borders are fractally diffuse and are hence readily permeable (affording the possibility of reciprocal ‘assimilation’). Borders become less fractal and more durably, linearly compressed, one-sided, and impermeable the more pressure is put on them, with results ranging from accommodation to genocide. In some sense, then, recognizable selves and identities are always signs of pressures at the
borders, without which selves and identities would tend to blur into one another. The first few weeks of a love affair should be an evocative illustration of such a state.

Selves and identities can be extraordinarily resourceful in finding spaces to expand into, although this is no more remarkable, intentional, or romantically dignified than the resourcefulness of water in finding a route to the sea. Nevertheless, the configurations produced by such resourcefulness are inherently more exotic and exciting than the comparatively smooth, placid surfaces produced by privileged access to space. Formative resourcefulness also obviously constructs more sensitivity to the way space works. It is precisely this dynamic of self and identity formation that leads critical theorists of class, race, and gender to argue that marginality enables better social theory. Of course, any constraint on self and identity formation (including, for example, a rich tradition) will tend to produce this effect, and the total privilege of unlimited space is rare indeed.


8 Comments to “Liquid metaphors”

  1. I like this model, Carl. There’s probably some sort of push-pull between the safety of occupying an already-established identity within the field vis-a-vis the risk of staking out the unclaimed territories. Weren’t the conquistadors made up of non-firstborn sons who, since they stood to inherit neither farm nor title, had to stake a different claim? Also, I saw that Goffman was a key influence on you. Different social settings present different interactive fields, suggesting that an individual can settle into a different identity in each one. This I think is true, families again being an example. Parents regard the firstborn as more responsible, more mature, blah blah blah, but that’s because firsborns really are older than the other siblings. Outside the family these birth-order stereotypes don’t hold up to empirical scrutiny.

  2. Thanks, John. The conquistador example is terrific. And you’re right, Goffman is very good for getting getting down to the practice of this: as I sometimes remark to my students, it’s a dang good thing identity is situated because otherwise they’d need to be the same person for their moms and their boy/girlfriends, which is a wicked creepy thought.

    The birth-order stereotypes don’t work as well as advertised for explaining scientific revolutions, but they work pretty well for some basics of interactive style. I sometimes play the guess-their-birth-order parlor trick in class. It looks like magic to kids who don’t know how to read the intersubjective dynamics, and opens some legitimacy space to start teaching them.

  3. No wonder you win teacher of the year if can accurately guess birth order, since the empirical evidence supporting these differences is equivocal at best. Maybe the kids in your classes have already heard the profiles, and so they present themselves to you in a way that confirms the bias. That way they let you look good in the class demonstration, which might buy them your approval and a bit of grading leniency on the next assignment. Birth order effects are strongest within the family interactive field, so maybe the students perceive you as a paternal figure and adopt their familial personae in class. On a related note, have you seen Randi’s debunking of astrology? Maybe you should replicate it for birth order.

  4. JD, I can guess birth order about as accurately as any psychic, and using the same techniques. Starting with the fact that out of any given group of 20-odd people at least a couple will have notable little-dog interactive styles and later-birth is one of a few very common situations that can promote that psychology. Control for authoritarian parenting and stigmatized out-group membership and we’re still in a scatterplot but with a pretty favorable distribution. A couple of leading questions and we’re there.

    You’re also right to note the classroom setting, and in my experience the important dynamic is indeed that many students will project me into their parent/authority role, and tell me a whole lot about themselves by how they do that. Performance expectations, approval-seeking, level and type of emotional involvement, all that good stuff. Then in a discussion-heavy class there’s even more information in the way the students interact with each other. As a term develops so too does a certain ‘family’ feel in the classroom and everyone brings theirs along with them, because that’s the schema they have handy to handle the situation with.

    Anyway, as I say the birth order exercise is little more than a parlor trick, but as with Randi the education starts when the magic is explained and the students glimpse another level of mindfulness about themselves, others, and our interactions.

  5. That’s great. Clearly off the topic now, but I’m picturing how you could further mystify your young and impressionable charges by inventing something like a Lacanian variant on birth order. It would be sort of like the theory of sexuation, where masculine/feminine aren’t about raw biological gender but about something far more abstract and profound and transcendent that only the Master can possibly understand. “But Professor Vole, I really am 3 years older than my sister.” From the dais Prof. Vole waves his fingers dismissively: “Irrelevant. Trivial.”

    Back to the liquid metaphor… I should read your longer manuscript before commenting in detail, but Deleuze & Guattari’s territorialization fits this model I think. Instead of a flat and featureless plain, the territory has been carved into channels. Liquid desire is permitted to flow only through these designated channels. In order to flow out of the channel and into the fertile valleys and plains you have to introduce (or benefit from) some sort of a schiz.

  6. One of the things that’s holding me up on that manuscript is that its ambitions and value are broadly synthetic, I’ve got a pretty good swiss-cheesy grasp of a lot of stuff from all over, but some of the holes are big obvious necessary things like Deleuze & Guattari. At the moment I’m reinventing them and I need to sit down and get solid on them at some point.

    That schiz idea was very important for certain strands of second-wave marxism, Sorel in particular, who Badiou (another hole in my education) is apparently channeling nowadays. The shock to jump the banks – violence, the General Strike, something.

    I love your Prof. Vole scenario. Would this be a ‘truth procedure’?

  7. “Would this be a ‘truth procedure’?”

    I think you should add this question to your next multiple choice exam, Dr. Vole. Possible answers:
    a. Don’t be absurd.
    b. Who wants to know?
    c. No, it’s a ‘bullshit procedure.’
    d. …

  8. I’m liking this Dr. Vole persona more and more. He’s like my Mr. Hyde, or evil Kirk.

    d. I’ve got a procedure for your mama.

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