by Claire Blencowe
Yesterday I attended a conference run by Warwick colleague Will Davies, at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies. The idea of the conference was to explore the relation between two senses of the term ‘social’. On the one hand there is ‘the social’, which framed political aspiration and policy interventions through much of the twentieth century, and which constitutes the object and ideal of socialism and social democracy (alongside, as Nik Rose pointed out later, nationalism, welfare-capitalism and all the attendant arts of normalisation). ‘The social’ is related to caring about ‘social issues’ such as inequality, public health, alienation and demography; and with locating the causes of the most important things in human life (both good and bad) in the realm of collective, transindivdual, forces and contexts. Many believe that ‘the social’ – at least as an ideal – is dead (Rose, 1996); and that both socialism and sociology are in crisis as a result. On the other hand there is ‘social’ as adjective, in social media, social finance, social marketing and the like (summarised by Will as ‘the social economy’). These forms are burgeoning. At the same time, the ‘hard sciences’ and the ‘life sciences’ are adopting much more social, or sociological, modes of explanation. For example, neuro-scientists describe the brain as social. Contemporary physicists and biologists emphasise the complexity, sociality and contextually of matter. Relationships – not essences – are the centre piece of scientific investigation and causal explanation. The conference was asked to consider if there is a link between the two senses of the term ‘social’ – is there a new socialism, or social ideal, that is emerging within the new social economy?
Speakers included Nikolas Rose, Yuval Millo, Nick Taylor, Liz Moor, Adam Arvisson, Evelyn Ruppert, Noortje Marres and David Stark. Most of the papers concentrated on outlining aspects of the ‘new social’ that is being constructed in the context of social media, social finance and the like. The papers departed from the usual angle of the critical social sciences - which is be to denounce all aspects of the social economy as components of ‘neoliberalism’. Such a broad brush characterisation of everything as neoliberalism (and thus basically evil) was set-aside as unhelpful and inaccurate. Instead the papers attempted to give an empirical outline of the ontologies – the relationships, knowledges and modes of evaluation – that are becoming established in contemporary practices of governance. Whilst the social economy might deploy aspects of market logic or ignore the domains of transindividual life associated with the social; they are not necessarily just about exploitation and commodification and might even do some good (see Ferguson 2011 for a good statement of this case). Generally the speakers didn’t say much, however, about the more difficult question of what the positive, ‘socialist’, aspects of the new social might actually look like or how we could identify them.
The key note paper by Nikolas Rose set out a narrative of shifting forms and figures of governmental knowledge of recent decades. He was keen to point out that, in 1996, he had proposed the idea of the ‘death of the social’ as a question not a conclusion. At the time it appeared that ‘community’ had replaced ‘society’ as the spatialisation and ideal of government (see Powers of Freedom, 1999), but today ‘community has lost its allure’ - so what now? What is the new social? Rose offered some speculative reflections. Whilst the new socials are very much geo-political, and bound up with the geo-political problems of security and inequality, he claimed, they are ‘deterritorialised’ - unlike the old social which was firmly terrotrialised on nation-state borders. In the new social, he added, ‘traces’ have replaced ‘public opinion’. In the 20th Century ‘public opinion’ was a key ‘thing’ in the creation of the political subjects of the ‘old social’. From the 19th Century idea of public opinion as the coffee-shop chatter of the bourgeois classes, there was a ‘democratisation of the opinionated attitude’ in the 1930s as sample survey techniques were used for producing/recording the opinion of the masses (Osborn & Rose, 1999). In this context ‘experiential opinion’ acquired a kind of ‘super-objectivity’. Today, in the new social, a new type of objectivity (or ‘objectivity effect’) is emerging. This is the traces of activities recorded in ‘big data’ sets, including records of online activity, consumption practices recorded by shops, and digitalised records of interactions with health services (see Uprichard, 2013). The question is whether these traces are mere aggregations of individual experiences or if they can constitute a new collective, political subject – like public opinion did? Is there a new political subjectivity based on traces, that could replace the failing form of the political party? Rose went on to link the issue up with his more recent work on the neurosciences (The Politics of Life Itself, 2007; Neuro 2013). The governance of society through psychological theories and forms of knowledge, what he calls the ‘psy-complex’ (Governing the Soul, 1990), is being supplemented or displaced by a ‘neuro-complex’. Governmental practices (such as child protection services) are no longer concerned with the attempt to access the deep underlying psychology of subjects, rather they refer to the theories of neuro-science and ‘go straight to the brain’. Rose stressed the existence and importance of social neuro-science. Whilst neuro-science is materialist it is not (or not always) reductive, individualist or deterministic. Rather there is the idea that the human brain is ‘evolved for sociality’ and programmed for and through interaction with other people and environments. Contrary to popular social-science opinion, Rose maintains, the neuro-sciences do not simply treat people as ‘dividuals’ (sub-parts of people). In the new forms of subjectification, created through social neuro-science, people are seen as ‘emergent collectivities’ existing within complex networks of relations. The real difference between the old social and the new social (of the neuro-complex) is not about a shift from collective to diviudal, but from trans-individual categories and forces to network-collectivity that is emergent from multiple dyadic (one-to-one) relations.
Whilst I found Rose’s paper fascinating (especially for what it says about the multiplicity of objectivity effects), I am, as ever, skeptical of the epochalising periodization implied in his narratives of changing modes of governance. The differences that Rose draws between forms of knowledge (such as psychology and neuro-science) and the types of intervention they make possible are hugely incisive. But I struggle to see the rationale (beyond that of providing a nice narrative) for treating these as historically distinct stages in a linear sequence of ‘modes of governance’ – even if they do mark different periods in the history of UK health care. The invention of new forms of power/knowledge, new techniques of subjectification, or authority production, does not magically do away with and replace all previous forms. Rather new forms exist alongside old forms, sometimes working with them, sometimes against them, sometimes coexisting in state of oblivion and indifference - and this is true of the 'new' and 'old' socials. Indeed, throughout yesterday’s discussions of ‘the new social’ speakers were constantly referring to the concepts and categories of early 20th Century sociologist Georg Simmel. We were able to do that because ‘the new social’ has been in existence for a very long time alongside ‘the old social’. Moreover, it is all too obvious that ideas, identities and emotional investments associated with the ‘old social’ and transindivdual investments continue to be immensely important – for example the issue of nationalism and its attendant demonization of immigrant populations.… Narratives in which a new form of power/knowledge is assumed to replace a previous form, always confuses our comprehension of the specificity of each, effacing the specific contexts and struggles from which they emerged. Positing different types of power as equivalent always implies, at some level, a reductive functionalist analysis, and it always does violence to history - generalising the specific with all the 'centric' implications that entails. Of course Rose knows this really, and before he sat down at the end of his talk stressed the import of detailed empirical analysis and the not-necessarily generalizable nature of his account. Nonetheless, he does keep telling those stories! He gets away with it because the ‘specific’ from which he is generalising is health care, which is draws upon such an enormously pervasive and persuasive set of values (biopolitical values of caring for life). Rose’s ephocalising narratives have the effect of eclipsing political questions that are not to do with health, and, in the process, obscuring the need for pluralistic, genealogical/critical reflexivity about the value of values associated with health itself. See my book (Biopolitical Experience 2012) for a detailed critique of Rose’s problematic epochalisation of forms of biopolitics and an alterantive account of recent developments of transindividual biopolitics in the UK (pertaining to cultural racism) - pdf of the relevant chapter here.
Noortje Marres paper ‘what is social about social media’ was especially interesting for sociologists (see her book Material Participation, 2012). She stressed the fallacy of accounts that posit a move from sociological knowledge to digital computation. In fact sociological knowledges and theories are central to the modes of reasoning deployed in computing. In computing (like biological science) there has been a ‘rise of sociology as a paradigm’. This means that we sociologists need to take some kind of responsibility for the modes of sociality that are being produced through computing – computing is partly down to our paradigms! As such it is partly down to us to engage critically and reflexively with computing. More controversially (!) Marres argued that we sociologists might actually learn something from computing. In particular she suggested that we could learn from social media, amazon and the like how to engage with the social in a style that is more open – leaving the question of what the social is open to constant redefinition and constitution by its users. I understood this to mean, that we might learn something about how to work critically and reflexively on the social without applying rigid categories of sociological analysis, which presume-in-advance what is important and interesting in the things we investigate.
Closing remarks from David Stark were some of the most interesting of the day – and perhaps the first real attempt to address the question the ‘two socials’. The question, as he framed it, is ‘what’s socialist about the new social?’ Challenging some of the claims made throughout the day, Stark argued that ‘the social’ within the new disciplines of network analysis, computer science, physics etc is precisely not the reductive forms of dyadic relations, quantification or surface traces. For the staff at Google, ‘the social’ is what escapes obvious analysis, it is what emerges, what we can’t see, what we need a sophisticated methodology to even begin to grasp. This sense of ‘the social’ as that which escapes easy perception, is in fact very similar to the way that Durkheim and Marx used the term social. In ‘suicide’ Durkheim was trying to establish the idea of the ‘social fact’, because the social was precisely the not-obvious, not-apparent dimension of the reality in question. The social is not psychology, not individual rationality, not obviously apparent and not-reducible. Further, Stark suggested that it is the fact that the social is not reducible, especially not reducible to market logic, that makes it so valuable - not only as a value in socialism, but also as valuable to capitalism. The social is always escaping and beyond commodification, as such it is always valuable to the capitalist market – because markets are always seeking new things, outside the market, to commodify and capitalise. Stark's comments here were (as he noted) reminiscent of Marx, but made me think also of A.N. Whitehead, the philosopher of science for whom everything (animal, molecule, human) is composed as society and sociality is something like the creative capacity of the universe (see Process & Reality). Stark suggested that the conference had rather missed the most crucial aspect of the new social, which is to say the ‘intensified socialisation of production’. Digital media, big data and network analysis make sociality itself (being connected) an object of commodification. Contrary to general opinion, Stark concluded that when it comes to thinking critically about the new knowledge technologies we should be talking about privatisation, not obsessing about invasions of privacy. The intensified socialisation of productive is happening - that is the ontological transformation and it brings with it enourmous potential. The political question is whether the results (the data sets, the knowledges, the insights) are being privatised (in the service of pharmaceutical companies etc), or being put into public service.