Friday, December 10, 2004

Networks, flows and fluids

Networks, flows, and fluids - reimagining spatial analysis? by Kirsten Simonsen, 2004

"In a very complex field spanning diverse subjects such as social theory, cultural studies, sociology, economics, geography, and planning, these spatial concepts - networks, flows, and fluids - are used as building blocks of a new orthodoxy of the theorization of social life; a theorization that is argued to favour a focus on process, connectivity, and mobility at the expense of an alleged former focus on boundedness, hierarchy, and form ...

[T]hree strands of work (more or less interwoven) are contributing to this theoretical development. These are the identification and celebration of network organization as a superior form in several fields, the import of new sociotechnical hybrid ontologies, first and foremost from French poststructuralist philosophy, and the development of relational urban and global theories often incorporating elements from both of the other strands ...

[But researchers need to] go beyond the moment of fascination, reflect on their theoretical and political implications, and reconsider the proper domain for their application."

My research falls within the second strand, drawing on "hybrid 'nonessentialist' ontologies" and spatial concepts of flow - all outlined clearly and concisely by the author. But the rest of the paper is where it gets interesting, as it focusses on "the degree to which a language of geometry infuses the discourse."

The author argues that while the types of geometry favoured in these concepts of networks, flows and fluids is much more unstable and messy than Cartesian space and Aristotelian place, they similarly result in a "universalization of spatial form (or movement) indifferent to the (human or nonhuman) entities they connect." Ostensibly predicated on the understanding that it is impossible to talk about space as something separate from social processes and practices, ontologies or paradigms based on spatial elements like networks, flows and fluids can have the effect of returning our focus back to matters of space rather than the social.

If I agreed that the spaces of networks, flows and fluids are "indifferent" to humans and non-humans, I would have to agree that this is a possible, and unfortunate, outcome. But I don't think they are indifferent.

I've definitely been suspicious of the language of geometry and systems -- not least because I think it does, inadvertently or not, lend a positivist authority that is neither necessary nor compatible. But as I understand things, hybridity does not imply any sort of absolute lack of difference, and especially not indifference in the sense of impartiality, neither right nor wrong. (Hyper)Relativism has always been criticised because of the implication that all things are equal - or even worse, that all values are equally good or true. But relativism is not the same as relational thinking, which I understand to be at the heart of theories of networks, flows and fluids. The very premise of relational thought is to understand the relations between people, practices, objects and ideas -- or, more precisely, the ways in which difference is organised over space and time in these hybridised mangles and messes.

I think that we can do better than rely on the language of the complexity sciences in our explications of the social - and if not, at least admit that what is being proposed is neither particularly novel nor enlightening.** But to claim that notions of networks, flows and fluids ultimately demote the social is to misunderstand the arguments and stakes at hand.

** Okay, that's harsh and not really so. But my point is that this language, this rhetoric, makes social and cultural theory appear fashionable and sexy - and I don't think that should be our goal. Plus, it puts the complexity sciences on a pedestal where they appear beyond the reach of critique - and that's not productive for any discipline.

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