Thursday, 28 February 2019

Deleuze and Sociology

A book review of Nick Fox and Pam Alldred's Sociology and the New Materialism appeared with no fanfare last year on the Sociological Review website. Mainly because I'd completely forgot it was due to be published. My bad.

Fox and Alldred open their primer on the resurgence of materialist thinking in the social sciences by observing its clustering around three key insights: that the world is unfixed and relational, that the natural and the cultural inhabit the same plane of materiality, and that the animate and inanimate (living and non-living matter) have agency. As you can find similar observations in Engels (Timpanaro 1975), just what is new about the new materialism? The answer appears to be a restatement of theoretical anti-humanism. That is a shift in analytical focus from individuals and subjects to networks of relations and “assemblages of animate and inanimate affect” (p.4), a recognition that the social is produced in multiple ways, which include the avenues of desire and emotion, and lastly an emphatic dethroning of the human as the fulcrum of analysis vis a vis the environment. Anyone versed in developments around poststructuralist philosophy will be familiar with these themes, but what is ‘new’, perhaps, is their application to fields of burgeoning sociological interest.

To do some violence to the specificities of their contributions, there are four key inspirations of the new materialism, as far as Fox and Alldred are concerned. The first is the work of Bruno Latour and his embedding of agency in networks and assemblages of the human and the non-human. These condense into social aggregations which, in turn, comprise what sociology would traditionally regard as macro-level phenomena, such as institutions and nations. The how of this assembly should be the concern of social scientific analysis. Second is the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari and their strong emphasis upon a monist materialism; the notion that everything exists and becomes on the same ontological plane, and that the status of everything depends on its relationship with everything else. Assemblages are, therefore, everywhere. Because of this, the third contribution comes from Karen Barad. As participants in the assemblages composing the world, researchers are always situated and the research assemblages we set into motion can never be neutral. They are discriminating, imbricated with meaning, and endowed with the power to construct knowledge. Science therefore is as socially produced as any other assemblage. Lastly we come to the posthuman, nomadic philosophy of Rosi Braidotti. Here, bodies are lived and irreducibly material, each of which are dense confluences of social forces. They are participants in, products of, and subjects within assemblages.

Why does this matter for sociology? By adopting what might be described as an ontological turn, the focus of this materialist sociology is social production as opposed to social construction. This is not an insignificant distinction. Instead of the essence/appearance approach to critique that dominated anglophone radical thought up until the 1990s, emphasising the production of the social allows for a more dynamic and finely grained approach concerning capacities, interactions, affectivity, and the properties of self-organisation of entities determined by and given material weight by their relationality. It acknowledges the web of assemblages that make up the social and offers a means of unpicking it without resorting to pre-given forms and identities. Rather these, such as woman, neoliberalism, the nation, and so on are matters to be explained in materialist terms. They are outcomes, characteristics, figurations of assemblages that shift, are contaminated and change shape as they ceaselessly come into contact and cannot help but fraternise with other assemblages.

There is a political, or rather a micropolitical caveat that Fox and Alldred make. Drawing on Deleuze and Guarrari, they note assemblages can never be totalising. As an assemblage specifies itself, be it a set of ideas, a subculture, or a methodological procedure, it gives off affects that tend to structure itself in a particular direction. This process of territorialisation is partial, and is permanently prevented from a complete organisation (aggregation) of sets of bodies and relations. This can be by the disaggregating, or deterritorialising affects given off by other assemblages. Or by singular affects, how the specification and territorialising process does not always aggregate its bodies but produces in them their own dynamics, or lines of flight, that may orient them beyond the organising force of the assemblage. For example, the social life of a strict religious sect is at permanent war with all the other assemblages comprising the world as they impinge on, enter into and disrupt the space it has territorialised and struggles to reterritorialise. Conflict therefore is ontological, a permanent and inescapable clash, as Fox and Alldred note, between specification and generalisation on the one hand, and aggregation and disaggregation on the other.

Fox and Alldred then go on to offer brief overviews of the contributions the new materialism has made with chapters arranged around the environment, creativity, sexuality, emotions, health, research design and methodology, policy, and social structure and stratification. Each are easy to follow, and provide clearly written examples that demonstrate the new approach. This also goes beyond theorising with the inclusion of a number of empirical studies, not least other works by Fox and Alldred, and in so doing they go some way to addressing the scepticism a large number of social science practitioners have toward the theoretical fashions of the last 30 years.

The chapter on social structure and stratification is a good place for such sceptics to begin. Drawing on Latour, Fox and Alldred note that a concern with the assemblage leaves no room for traditionalist sociological concerns with structures and systems, nor space for organicist metaphors. For instance, within an assemblage the swapping out one of its bodies for another changes the collective interactions and capacities of the assemblage, which in turn starts transforming and rearranging the powers of the new body. Similarly a body that assumes certain attributes within one assemblage might well take on others in another, but we cannot suppose or predict what these are without observing it. Secondly, an assemblage is more than the sum of its parts – the relations within it emerge as the assemblage comes together, hence as social scientists we must pay attention to events. Thirdly, power and resistance are properties of the assemblage: they are relational, contingent, dynamic and highly unstable. Given the macro-level focus of much sociology, what does this mean? For example, on institutions and “class structures”, their stability over time is located “in the affectivity of myriad repetitions and habituations of individual work events over time and space. These are continually made present within event-assemblages through aggregative memories and experiences, and continually reinforced by every further act of working” (p.60). And on social divisions and stratification, they note these “are products of implicit or explicit aggregations that deny difference and shoe horn dissimilar bodies and collectivities into arbitrary categories” (p.67).

Nevertheless, Sociology and the New Materialism could almost be read as if it was actively fighting shy of accomplished aggregations and their affects vis a vis world-wrapping assemblages, as if the political can only ever be the micropolitical. For example, Marxist invocations of capital or neoliberalism, or feminist references to patriarchy do not necessarily have to disassemble the assemblage behind each and every category summoned to assist analysis. It is reasonable, for instance, to look at the ways capital and markets deterritorialise and reterritorialise the genome (Haraway 1997) without having to specify the content, bodies, tendencies, and antagonistic relations that compose said capital and markets. That work has already been done, not least in Marx’s Capital. This is where Deleuze and Guattari’s celebrated designations of molecularity and molarity would have been a useful terminological addition to the book, given Fox and Alldred explain well the conflicting movements within assemblages, talking about molar (relatively fixed and exclusionary) entities would be less a matter of ignoring their composition and more a strategy of bracketing them. Secondly, despite naming Latour, Deleuze and Guattari, Barad, and Braidotti early on as key inspirations, the majority of the theoretical heavy lifting done here is by Deleuze and Guattari. While not a problem in and of itself seeing as the social sciences have not yet embraced their work to the extent of Foucault’s, it does mean the other thinkers are somewhat overshadowed. Braidotti’s ontology of sexual difference (Braidotti 1994), for example, is a sophisticated reassembling of Deleuzian materialism as it pertains to gender and sexuality and could easily have been covered in more depth.

This said, Fox and Alldred deserve to be congratulated for this book. For scholars and students put off by the foreboding reputation of Deleuze and Guattari and their novel vocabulary, this book explains clearly the logic of their positions, its break with established traditions in sociology, and does an excellent job of demonstrating its utility for empirical study. It therefore comes highly recommended to those contemplating an encounter with the authors of Anti-Oedipus, and is student-friendly to boot.


Chris Yuill said...

I agree with your review! A refreshing and accessible book to read. We tried to use some of their ideas in the following article exploring the impacts of climate change in north Vietnam. Decentring the human subject was a useful inroad into understanding the various flows that operate in climate change and how humans are just one element in a complex assemablge of vulnerability.

Ken said...

What insight is gained by attributing agency to inanimate things? Dennet, in 'Freedom Evolves', has an interesting thought experiment of an autonomous robot (a Mars explorer probe, say) aquiring increasing degrees of agency as its software is upgraded to make more and more decisions on the spot. But it seems a stretch, and in no way illuminating, so say that the Mars rocks and dust storms that affect it have agency. Unless 'agency' just means 'have effects'.

Boffy said...

I dealt with a similar issue some time ago in Freedom and Reason