Monday, February 05, 2007

Discussion questions for Stalder on Castells

I have difficulty creating open-ended questions, having been trained to analyze the language of arguments and make counter-arguments.

So here I'm just marching through the Stalder text with my marginal notes and extracting the questions that occurred to me as I was reading.

For Castells political background, to supplement what Stalder says, I would look at
Feenberg, Andrew. When poetry ruled the streets : the French May events of 1968 / Andrew Feenberg and Jim Freedman ; with a foreword by Douglas Kellner. Albany, N.Y. : State University of New York Press, c2001.

Feenberg is one of the editors of the Modernity and Technology anthology we read for last week, and was living in France in 1968.

One of Castells' colleagues and later antagonists, the French Marxist Henri Lefebvre, is mentioned several times in Stalder's work. I would recommend taking a look at his list of books (including a work translated as The production of space) and some of his background to get an idea of what Castells is revolting against.

1. Does the organization of Stalder's exposition of Castells make sense theoretically?

Both Castells and Stalder use the word Theory pretty freely for what feels like enlightened speculation about social structure. So they have to bring a scientific organization and/or vocabulary to bear in order to make their theory sufficiently theoretical. The problem with this is that the quasi-scientific exposition is confined to the last two chapters, while one would expect it at the beginning if it is important to framing their arguments. I like the foregrounding of the context of Castells' ideas and Stalder's critique, but if the theoretical concepts are secondary to the argument, what is really going on with them (either the concepts or Stalder and Castells)?

2. From p. 7 of Stalder, a good question, "why does this transformation from hierarchies to networks as the dominant form of social organization matter so much?"

I think it does matter, but is this question answered adequately by Stalder as he introduces the network concept? Why does Stalder present in chapter 6 a long digression about networks in biology and markets while he ignores the obvious origin of networks in theory about computing and information (Cybernetics, Information Theory)?

Is faith in the "organic" nature or quality of networks justified? If networks are "organic" does that make them more, or less, beneficial?

3. From p. 39, Castells is quoted as follows, "I believe that knowledge should precede action, and action is always specific to a given context and a given purpose." This belief should be debated. What happens to experiment, either empirical or in thought, if we act only on our knowledge? (Language elsewhere in the book shows that at least Stalder acknowledges that knowledge can be and is created.)

4. About the "Network Enterprise," (p. 55): Stalder describes the emergence in the 1980s of a new type of business organization "in the West," "less hierarchical, more modular, and thus much more flexible." Is this mythology or a fact-based statement?

I don't dispute that there are flatter organizations in the economy in the last 25 years, but I'm struck more by the almost prophetic language used. Out of the West, out of the East: these are images with powerful cultural resonance.

The analysis on pp. 58-59 is helpful. Why isn't the term "outsourcing," (for project organization or organization by project) used?

5. Key point on p. 61: the belief that the logic of networks, where the players are roughly equal, will prevail over the attempt of any single player at a node to assert authority over the players at the other nodes. Can we find examples of this? How could this observation support either reorganization of work or organization by employees within the workplace?

6. PP. 77-81: how about the characterization of social movements as significant due to their mere existence, and irreducible, or without any basis in society? If they are without origin or any reason to exist, then are they different from soccer hooligans, and how would that be?

7. There seems to be a conflict between the idea of diffused power in a network, seen overall as a good thing, and the cultural conservatism of the remark (p. 102), "the more we select our personal hypertext, under the conditions of a networked social structure and individualized cultural expression, the greater the obstacles to finding a common language, thus common meaning." Is the problem to maintain a common language, thus a common meaning, or to get rid of the notion of "commonness" and to create new language and new meaning?

(The composer Ken Gaburo (d. 1993) had a nice performance piece called Commonness and other conceptual dysfunctions.)

8. P. 109, et al.: what is the relationship between the movement beginning in the late 18th century that Stalder and Castells call "liberal democracy" and the concept of the "State"?

9. P. 179: there is an unexplored distinction between "collective" as a disorganized mass at one node and the network. Isn't a network potentially a different kind of collective?

The term collective brings to mind marching hordes out of the 1930s, but I question if "the masses" can really said to be a collective, in the sense that the collective since the 1840s has been seen as an agent with the potential to bring about desirable social change. My mystical bias tells me that actors working in parallel and connected by a network may be more effective in bringing about change and thus closer to a true collective. Castells' example of the WTO/G7 protests indicates this, but neither Stalder nor apparently Castells actually say this.

10. I'm disturbed by the threads of conservatism, pessimism, even helplessness running through Castells' thought, at least in the period 1996-2000 when the first version of the three volume work was created. Stalder says (p. 193), "major social not really represent anyone"--the late Mayor Richard J. Daley could not have put it better. Yet Castells sees the sole social transformative potential in contemporary society precisely in these movements.

I looked at the conclusion of Castells' vol. 3, "End of millennium." In the "Finale" he makes an emotional plea for non-ideological, collective problem solving based on the personal experiences of all of us. His sincerity is convincing, but he utters some troubling, Rodney-King-like phrases, for example, "if business will assume its social responsibility; if the media become the messengers, not the message...." in projecting how world problems might be addressed.

Each of us has to answer personally the question of "what needs to be done," a question posed by various Russian 19th century thinkers, later by Lenin, and by Castells at the end of "End of millennium"--my hope is that some of the analysis we read this semester will give indications of positive directions out of the current situation. Can we talk about what those might be, based on this reading?


natezilla said...

3. From p. 39, Castells is quoted as follows, "I believe that knowledge should precede action, and action is always specific to a given context and a given purpose." This belief should be debated...

I don't believe Castells is advocating action based only on empirical knowledge but that he is stressing the importance of knowledge in tandem with action. The Marx quote that directly precedes this passage is a call for action at the expense of the philosopher: "philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."

I take Marx's comment as an attack on those who critique but don't act, and that Castells feels he needs to rebut in defense of his discipline. That is, I believe he is defending social theory against those who would attack its merit, but he is not saying that empirical knowledge should be the basis of all action.

Electra said...

From a combination of questions 7&9: Weren't the WTO riots in Seattle and subsequent WTO riots that in fact shut down the conferences the same as a bunch of soccer hooligans because it takes the whole nation states and their social conscious to change? Now we are begining to see a shift in attitude about free-trade and all that but I definitely see Castells point about collective society. I mean protesters whether for a bum call at a match or at a pro-life march are nothing until there is a major change in society.

KimNakho said...

Q2 is more elaborated in Stalder's other paper titled "The Status of Objects in the Space of Flows", where he talks about how actual objects also take on a different meaning and be under uncontrolable environments( But still, he raises questions rather than answers...

Catherine Panosh said...

2. From p. 7 of Stalder, a good question, "why does this transformation from hierarchies to networks as the dominant form of social organization matter so much?"

This is a good question, but aren't networks forms of hierarchies? In both networks and hierarchies, members require the same resources in order to take part in both and their levels of participation vary according to which resources are available to them, so has much actually changed?

Jeff Gibbens said...

Thanks for the comments. These are my responses.

1. About "knowledge" preceding "action," what I was trying to get at is another point of view about action, that of experimental action. One can act based on a projected, desirable result, without absolute knowledge of the details of a situation or the exact outcome. Experimental action is not utterly uninformed, just bolder than what Castells seems to suggest.

Here he seems to react to a theme of 20th century French thought, that to break through unreasoning acceptance of social norms, you need irrationality, which leads to the so-called acte gratuit, a leap more or less into the dark.

2. I agree that the proof of direct action is in observable, desirable change to the society. What is debatable as Electra implies is the boundary between protest and mere violence. I think that the protests against the regime of international trade were valid and effective, unlike soccer hooliganism. What I wanted to get at is that soccer hooligans have a concrete point of view that is expressed by their behavior.

If we are willing to look at psychology, motivation, and causes, as Castells apparently is not, we might learn how to extract the energy from hooliganism while limiting the damage from it.

3. About networks vs. hierarchies, I want to set down what I said in class, that the network embodies equality of position, with nodes serving as inputs and outputs, while the hierarchy is represented usually as a pyramid with resources flowing up and power flowing down. Again to repeat, I think Castells sees the emancipatory potential of networks as stemming from those bridging links Greg spoke about, so that power will flow between nodes that are outside the persisting hierarchies of nation-states, international organizations, et al. I'm not sure I agree that this logic of the network will have this transformative effect.