Network Ecologies

Thacker’s Critique

Against this mathematico-network realism, Eugene Thacker invokes Henri Bergson’s early twentieth century metaphysics of duration. Bergson’s method of intuition seeks to reflect within, and to describe with as little reduction as possible, the living movement of reality. What he refers to as duration is meant in direct contrast to the scientific mode of thought that would abstract from real continuity and, in a wholly ex post facto methodology, artificially demarcate instantaneous, isolated points. [16] In his two-part essay “Networks, Swarms, Multitudes,” Thacker criticizes network science for its uncritical expositions of what he calls “Network Effect.” [17] He defines this as a static pattern based on the spatialization of time, which implicates a transcendent “Law” from outside to orient and to define connections. This spatialized concept of networks as universally commensurable graphs accords with Immanuel Kant’s transcendental aesthetic of time as a pure form that “has only one dimension” and to which the one universal container of space is bound in its structure. Kant of course derived this epistemological category of the transcendental subject from Isaac Newton’s mechanical physics, which posits a single void space, an ether, within which exist corpuscles of matter. By noting the resonance between network science and Kant’s Newtonian Space-Time, Thacker can draw in Bergson’s critique of Kant to assist in conceiving of networks as other than within a simple container such as the Kantian a priori form of Time. Counterposed to Network Effect, Thacker calls “Network Affect” “the living, immanent topology of the network.” Network Affect must be considered in direct existential contradistinction to Network Effect; that is, they cannot be seen to work together as two sides to the same coin or as complementary conceptual rubrics.

The dichotomy between the immanence of affective topology versus the facticity of effective topology gives the impression of a distinction between reality and practical fiction. To appreciate how alien Network Affect is in relation to the idea of the network, consider that even Duncan Watts’ notion of the “dynamics of the network,” or changes to the network itself—as opposed to the “dynamics on the network,” which address individuals within or on a “network as a fixed substrate”—remains beholden to the idealist (i.e. unifying) perspective of Network Effect. [18] Note in the following passage Thacker’s inclusion of “the modification of a network”:

When we want to understand either the effect of a network or the modification of a network (be it the Internet, SARS, or terrorist groups), we require concepts which both totalize the network as a whole, and break down that whole into constituent parts (nodes), from which relations (edges) can then be derived. The pattern that results—the topology—is an index of the fundamental character of that network's measurable effects. [19]

With Network Affect, “the separation between nodes and edges becomes more complicated.” Indeed, the takeaway should be the relativity of this distinction, that nodes and edges can be inverted such that subject-predicate formalisms of substantialism give way to a process orientation. But we need not accept such a constrained idea of the network in its node/edge formulation; in fact, the constraints of Network Effect may derive from Thacker’s critical perspective.

It appears that Bergson’s philosophy is incommensurable with network science, perhaps even with the concept of the network. According to Bergsonist intuition, the moment one chooses to include the idea of the network in a philosophical premise, one ceases to do philosophy and instead crosses over into technical modes of reflection. Thacker’s Bergsonist critique of network science makes a decent point: namely that network science abstracts from the reality it presumes to present directly, and instead measures an effect of a more fundamental and self-propagating network of relations. But in addition to combating the metaphysical presuppositions bound up with such popularized accounts of science, the philosopher (or the theoretical critic) ought to attend to the concepts themselves in order to ascertain the effectivity of their transformation of reality into knowledge within reality. What is ultimately limiting in Bergson’s line of demarcation between the mathematician’s spatialization of time and the philosopher’s intuition of something’s inner duration is that both conceive of the knower as merely that, a knower set at a distance from the known.

By contrast, Louis Althusser informs us that Marx’s “theoretical anti-humanism,” part and parcel of his philosophy of praxis, recognizes how “a double relation: a relation between groups of men concerning the relation between these groups of men and things, the means of production”—how this relation already reduces human beings to categories so far as those people participate in those relations. [20] Socially descriptive categories therefore have an active reality that includes practices of action and of knowledge. This means that the conventional distinction between theory and praxis, between head and hand, is itself an artificial division. Accordingly, the division between Network Effect (on the side of knowledge) and Network Affect (on the side of action) follows formal logic’s definition of contradiction, each leaving out what the other is, but in an exclusionary way such that either side cannot countenance a reciprocal participation. This strong distinction of Thacker’s may ultimately stem from Bergson’s spiritualism, which, no matter how progressive it can get, always returns to a dualistic ontology that stages an eternal struggle between matter and some temporal principle such as memory, spirit, or élan vital.

Within the scope of a materialist dialectic, by contrast, we could propose that it is only by virtue of the Network Effect’s lawful (seemingly transcendent) codification of phenomena that the Network Affect’s immanent topology can be deemed “living.” But let us set aside such problematic variations of the network and return our focus to the idea of the network plain and simple. Network scientists make of the network both an active principle in their investigations and frequently the reality investigated. Now, whereas Thacker rejects the strong realist claim outright, we can reframe the network-scientific claim by rejecting its presupposition that there actually is a “reality itself” à la Kant’s noumenal thing-in-itself. [21] Since knowledge of nature actively changes that nature, and since the human is itself a part of nature, Althusser can write: “The process of knowledge adds to reality at each step its own knowledge of that reality, but at each step reality puts it in its pocket, because this knowledge is its own.” [22] Althusser immediately describes the constitution of this paradoxical and additive “distinction between object of knowledge and real object” as “a cycle, and therefore living, as long as it reproduces itself, because only the production of new knowledge keeps old knowledge alive.” Knowledge, according to this orientation, requires, indeed is, its perpetuation.

This page has paths: