evolving ecological media culture(s)

Week 7: Theorizing global network society


Marshall McLuhan argued that the world was becoming a “global village.” For the theorists we are examining this week, the world has certainly become global, but it is less a village — which implies a stability and a taken-for-grantedness of “what’s what” and “who’s who” — than it is a tempest or a whirlwind. It is a world of ceaseless flux, flow, and modulation, a world of interconnected networks within which we might not know who we ourselves are, let alone who others are.

There are three required readings for this week (due March 12, with March 4-8 being Spring Break). They are:

1. Jeremy Gilbert’s Anticapitalism and Culture, chapter 5, “Ideas in Action: Rhizomatics, Radical Democracy and the Power of the Multitude.” (This is the longest reading and will require the most time.)

2. Gilles Deleuze’s “Postscript on the Societies of Control” (1990), which can be read here or, as a PDF, here.

3. Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker, “Prolegomenon: ‘We’re tired of trees’,” in The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (U. of Minnesota Press, 2007). Read at least pp. 1-6 of this, but feel free to continue with (or at least skim) the rest of the chapter.


Following a brief overview of four key concepts (power, complexity, hegemony, and creativity), chapter 5 from Gilbert presents three sets of thinkers who, in different ways, attempt to understand the possibilities for social change in a globally networked society.

We will spend some time in class going over the similarities and differences between these three sets of authors. To understand all of them, however, it is essential to have a grasp of French philosopher Michel Foucault’s arguments about the immanence of power. In Foucault’s view, power is not something possessed by someone and withheld from others; it is not something by which one person or group controls or dominates another (though this does not mean that domination doesn’t occur). It is not something that transcends or precedes human relations. Rather, power is immanent to relations, dispersed and dynamically produced and shaped in every encounter between two entities. Every relationship is in this sense political — a matter of the exercise of agency, the actualization of capacity, the production of possibility — even if it is not reducible to the political.

French philosophers Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) and Félix Guattari (1930-1992) were two of the most prominent thinkers to emerge in the wake of the events of ’68 in France. Drawing on radical political theory, psychoanalysis (Guattari was a practising psychologist as well as a deeply involved political activist), and a wide variety of philosophers and scientists (including biologists, ecologists, and complexity theorists), they developed a vocabulary to describe a world that was complex, relational, and always in motion — a vocabulary that is especially well suited to the world of networks (informational, social, global) that have grown immensely over the last four decades.

We’ve read about Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe before — theirs was the second category of “radical democracy” theories, the “agonistic,” examined in the article by Dahlberg and Siapera. And Gilbert provides a good enough background to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, who have been particularly influential as theorizers of the anti-capitalist globalization movement.

The brief “Postscript” essay by Deleuze is only a small fragment of his thinking, almost an afterthought, but it has been widely read as an account of the shift from what Michel Foucault called the “disciplinary society” of the nineteenth century to the “society of control.”

As with Foucault’s notion of power, so with Deleuze’s notion of control: what he doesn’t mean is that there is someone doing the controlling and someone else (the rest of us) being controlled. Instead, the society of control is one in which social relations have become permeated by coding systems that allow for a kind of internalized and modular control of identity, subjectivity, and selfhood across all the domains of life. These domains — the family, the school, the church, the factory, prison system, et al. — had once been kept relatively separate from each other. Each was a distinct domain within which individuals were confined, trained, and disciplined. Each “molded” us to fit its purposes.

Now those domains have started to melt into each other. We have become (for the most part) willing participants in a single system that is not locatable — precisely because it is everywhere. We supply our passwords and identity numbers to access information, pay for things using credit cards, announce our views and our “likes” to our Facebook friends (and FB’s invisible data collectors) and political pollsters, allow our online movements and purchases to be monitored so that advertisements can be tailored to our interests, and so on and so forth. Instead of being “molded” to fit a pre-existing model — teacher or student, doctor or patient — we are now caught in a state of constant modulation, responding to the ebbs and flows of networks as wide and deep (or shallow) as the stock market, the World Wide Web, the array of educational, political, and healthcare options we can access, and so on. Whether all of this is liberating or insidious is a question for us to consider.

Here’s a video that makes Deleuze’s argument a bit more explicit. We will watch part of it in class, but feel free to watch it all.

Finally, the Galloway/Thacker reading provides something of an update and a geopolitical take on the kind of network thinking that the others have outlined, implicitly or explicitly.

Our main task in class will be to tease out what Deleuze & Guattari, Laclau & Mouffe, Hardt & Negri, and Galloway & Thacker think we can do to change anything — and to change everything — for the better, in the society they describe and critique.

Is all action creative, as Deleuze & Guattari sometimes imply? In a society of control, can any action be truly creative? What kinds of processes of articulation (Laclau & Mouffe) can effect socio-environmental change today? What do we make of Hardt and Negri’s “multitude”? Who is the multitude and who isn’t it? In the context of Galloway’s and Thacker’s reflection on American unilateralism and the global network society, how well does Hardt & Negri’s term “Empire” capture the state of the world in 2013?

Finally, if the networks we live within are, as Galloway & Thacker claim, beyond our capacity to control or even comprehend, then how can we do anything to shift those networks in a desirable direction?



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