ANT/Gramsci, pt. 5: Emergency!

by CarlD

I mentioned in pt. 3 that Gramsci’s goal of a homogeneous collective revolutionary consciousness might itself be what he called an ‘Enlightenment’ error. And in pt. 4 I poked some fun at the distinctive wigglings of Left intellectuals hoist on this petard. The problem is a fundamentally doomed and therefore frustrated command-and-control model of political action. With Actor Network Theory we get closer to something that can illuminate politics’ unintended consequences by showing how multiple actors in various modes at various scales bump and ooze their way into particular emergent configurations and trajectories.

Emergence is not linear. What you can hope for in non-linear dynamics is outcomes (themselves moments in longer-term emergent processes) somewhere within a range of possibility. Momentum builds, tipping points are reached, little causes produce big effects. In the more ‘ethnographic’ notes in the Notebooks Gramsci shows this happening for capitalism and begins to theorize it for communism. But because in the more synthetic notes he premises capitalism and communism as the procrustean beginning and ending points, there’s only so far he can get with it before defaulting to stretching and cutting expedients. This is a cautionary tale for ANT/Gramscian blogging praxis. The trick would be to keep your options open and your feet moving, that is, to build links across a range of sites and to nudge it all toward tendential assemblages with lots of little angular pushes. Sort of like herding cats.

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6 Comments to “ANT/Gramsci, pt. 5: Emergency!”

  1. Don’t have time right now to read the previous parts. But the key sentence, IMHO, is: “Emergence is not linear.” We experience/live linearly, however, and we had best have notions of causality that have linear aspects to them, but the notion that emergence doesn’t work that way makes it hard for us to get our brains around it.

    In other worlds, I don’t know if I can stand to watch the game tonight. Though I would dearly love for Utley to break RJ’s record, no matter what else happens.

  2. That’s a good point, Narya, but I wonder if we do live linearly. I’m aware of all sorts of things coming at me at once, stuff stacked up from before, rotating different ‘faces’ toward moments and situations, often almost simultaneously.

    I do think that we narrativize linearly, however – we select and stylize a line about our experience/life that gives it a certain superficial coherence and manageability. And this is existentially important.

    The value I see in an assemblage/network/alliance approach to analysis and action is that it’s distributed — no one node has to encompass the whole or keep it all straight. I tend to think that the overload from trying to do so under volatile conditions has been a key contributor to the terrors of past well-intentioned revolutionary adventures. But what has to be surrendered for an emergent approach to work is the standard of total control and specific outcome.

    I’d like Utley to get that record too. Sadly I will be on the road heading toward the conference this evening and unable to watch the action.

  3. I wonder about how linear life is, too. My own experience of life is so not-linear that when people say they experience life in a linear, forward-march narrative fashion, I wonder what on earth they could possibly mean. It really fascinates me, actually, that some people have a story about themselves and it unfolds just like a history. Every day they add a chapter to their story and so on. I envy them, really.

    Then I wonder if maybe this is another personality type issue, where the linear folks are going to be the ones who find, say, Hegel (or Gramsci’s “collective revolutionary consciousness”) very appealing. The ANT folks are people who tend to experience life as a dynamic, non-linear process where all sorts of unexpected connections are made, things link up and pull apart at random, the system disequilibriates constantly and is never entirely stable/static.

    But if we get into this, I’ll be dragging the discussion back to my behaviorist neuropsychology tangent…don’t mind me!

  4. I think you’re right about the linear/non-linear neurocognitive orientations and their theoretical correlates, AL. I even think there’s an argument to be made that this strategic diversity is healthy from a species standpoint, like babies who get attention by wailing vs. babies who get attention by chortling, and finches with narrow beaks vs. finches with thick beaks.

    But it’s really hard to translate between those two orientations, and especially from non-linear to linear, which is definitely a complicator from a collective action standpoint.

    Btw just as an indication of how out of it I am, it’s tonight I’m traveling and I did catch some of the game last night, not that it was a satisfying experience as it turned out.

  5. Carl,

    I like your appeal to the non-linear in this. Deterministic, but acutely sensitive to pre-existing conditions, the facts of which cannot ever be surely known. All one can do is perturb and model, perturb and model. Also a feature of the non-linear would be the continual tendency to over estimate the value of opposition.

  6. I think there’s a difference between how one experiences one’s life and the actual living of it, in at least the (non-trivial) sense that one lives before one dies, and there’s a particular sort of progression there, unless one is Merlin. One cannot get divorced unless one marries first. And so on.

    Perhaps what is happening is that the piling on of linear things/lives/experiences means that certain kinds of things will emerge only when enough linear paths have crossed over the same space.

    Or something like that.

    And I ended up going to bed before the game was over, figuring that I did not want to watch the Yankees celebrate, if they won, and if the Phillies won, well, I’d be able to find an account of it and then watch Game 7. Now I must distract myself w/ hockey until the pitchers and catchers report.

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