Network Ecologies


One cannot think the network without a grounding organism; nor can one think the organism without an organizing network. The idea explored here is essentially that the organism relates to its milieu in accordance with a network. Gilbert Simondon provides a straightforward vocabulary for this line of thinking in his Du mode d’existence des objets techniques (1958). Before the mediation between man and world is either objectified in the technical object or made the subject of religion, there is a first stage, what Simondon calls the magical phase, “which is only the simplest and most fundamental of structurings of the living being’s milieu: the birth of a network of privileged points of exchange between the being and the environment.”[1] Putting the idea of the network into relation with that of the organism designates the network a variation on the notion of structure, a move toward relative theoretical practice which displaces the network-realism problem (Is reality a network? Is the network a mode of objectivity? Is reality better considered in terms of nodes or edges?). By structure I mean to indicate the relationship of indistinction between organism and milieu. Where metabolism designates a somewhat unilateral relationship of materials and energy, structure refers to an index of values that logically precedes, or has existential priority over, the living-milieu boundary. Simondon terms these structuring values, these “privileged points,” the “key points” (les points-clefs) of a “reticulated reality” (un realité en réseau) that “precedes the world’s segregation into unities…, as if all the power to act by man and all the capacity for the world to influence man were concentrated in these places and these moments.”[2]

One cannot begin to describe the world as merely networked or constituted by networks. A world of networks, to paraphrase Raymond Ruyer’s line on symbols, is a world as explored by networks. And that exploration may be accomplished by the motility and sensation of a relatively simple living being as well as by reflective consciousness. The very idea of the network should directly oppose an identification of existence with networking. On the contrary, it eludes the question of reality’s constitution when it abstracts a certain structural description from what is there. Instead, the network concept facilitates a non-substantial modeling of phenomena from the level of metaphysical speculation to that of contemporary capitalism’s dispersing corporate structure and derivatives markets. However, the achievement of this abstraction requires the concept of organism to introduce into the network’s mathematics of graph theory a weighted measure of actual organization. Such weighted actuality comes as prerequisite for any discussion of networks. In Isabelle Stenger’s thorough exploration of Whitehead’s writings, Thinking With Whitehead, she recapitulates how in the 1920s Whitehead explored the concept of organism as a replacement to the traditional notion of the scientific object (see esp. Ch. 11). For instance, Whitehead refuses Einstein’s single metric of space-time and instead “affirms that every body defines its own spatio-temporal stratification.”[3] Physical laws privilege “the abstraction that separates an organism from its environment,” which abstraction highlights what Whitehead calls “external relations.”[4] For phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead’s exposition of the cosmologically significant sense of organism in The Concept of Nature offers to guide a philosophy of perception in its access to Nature in order to provide an alternative to “the ontology of the pure thing.”[5] On one hand, this echoes Eugene Thacker’s critique of network science in that the organic addendum to the idea of the network recognizes that the network model in and of itself delimits the efficacy of actuality-in-process to a finite set of environmental relations. But on the other hand, it also maintains the efficacy of that delimited domain by associating it with both a center that is its own ground as well as with the infinite relations excluded by that particular rendition of the network. In short, the node of a given network is simultaneously a creature in its own right and a key point involved in the structuring of a world.

When I above described the network as “non-substantial,” I meant that the network concept redounds to a materialism without the concept of matter. In lieu of presupposing a being qua presence, that is to say, as a substance, we have a becoming that is articulated, in a given philosophic scheme, by networks of creatures and key points. Once we replace the notion of matter with the endurance involved in the notion of organism, the creaturely reticulation of key points can present a range of relations in process. Raymond Ruyer’s Néo-finalisme makes this abundantly clear in his titular philosophy of subjective domains and beings that abide by a “harmony finality” instead of an “intentionality finality.”[6] Every real existence requires an ideal dimension to complete purely causal unfolding with a “meaning and end that survey the unfolding…and organize it into a signifying whole.” But the overlapping of organism and network in Ruyer’s neo-finalism becomes even more patent when he invokes Whitehead:

Every being, every center of activity, is its own subject, possesses itself. Every being that is not an aggregate, every ‘organic’ being in the broad sense in which Whitehead employs this term—which also comprises the individualities of physics and chemistry—is a form, that is to say, directly self-possession, ‘for-itself’ as well as ‘in-itself’. Brute, blind and deaf existence must be understood starting from this presence of forms that possess themselves, in the same way that the laws of classical physics can be rediscovered starting from the data of microphysics. They derive from them by virtue of the multiplicity of beings which, having become foreign to one another, only touch on another by their edges, superficially, only act on one another step by step and can thus form clusters, processions, or crowds incapable of auto-conduction. [7]

We can attempt to expand this into network terminology. There are edges of consisting, which mark the superficially joined aggregates whose component beings retain their individual forms; and there are edges of possession, which describe the reticulated reality stemming from the autonomy of a form of process and its situation in the world. Distinguishing between the two—the former as existing edges, the latter as sensational or thematic edges—works only in terms of analysis. In actual fact, the two versions of edges are mutually inclusive. Every being-activity exists as the self-possession of a form defined as an ideal dimension of meanings or ends, of key points, to cross into Simondon’s vocabulary. There is no substance that functions in one way or another, shifting possession of forms while remaining the self-same substrate or stuff. Forms, as really existing activities immanently in possession of themselves, are material. Material is in-forming. And a philosophy that endeavors to schematize such materiality must account for idealities as trans-formal, that is as both processual and actual, and so neither fixed nor virtual.

A network approach to phenomena, wherein the phenomena themselves are organisms and the order of appearing is open to exploration as a network, brings to bear the materialism innate to the Idea. For Plato, of course, being resides in the Ideas: they order all possible forms of existence, and from them derives the reality of any spatiotemporal particulars. From the perspective of networks and organisms, however, it is the fact, which Whitehead helpfully calls a “mere matter-of-fact,” that tends toward the realization of the idealist isolation and stasis of a pure particular thing. Since such purity from in-forming relations is impossible, every being-activity, i.e. every “having” of form, participates within the “multiplicity of havings” (read: beings-there), which “havings” (read: “every being, every center of activity”) reciprocally constrain and open possibilities for reality’s in-forming activities. So many scales of existences and differentiation of thematic domains, which are in possession of themselves by virtue of the “harmony finality” of relatively autonomous “reticulated realities,” defer the completion of a network eidetics. Both concepts, of the organism and of the network, enable the exploration of such active, participatory domains.

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