Network, swarm, microstructure

Let’s consciously combine two meanings of a network: a map, a set of
relations analyzed from ecological point of view and the kind of behaviour…. That is why I think of using the notion of swarm – its emergent behaviour cannot be described as unpredictable. We may find out some patterns in its behaviour and thus, learn something out of networks.

The static graph of the network map is what
leads, via the dynamic figure of the swarm, to a certain
kind of complexity theory as a possible way to understand
emergent behavior in the real world.

On the one hand, the use of social network analysis tools is
giving us pictures of very complicated interlinkages between
individuals and groups. These pictures are quite simply
fascinating, because they aggregate lots of data and allow
one to glimpse patterns, or at least, the possibility of
patterns, of regularities. But the maps are not enough. One
needs an understanding of the quality of the links
themselves, of what encourages a group to cooperate even
when its membership is atomized and dispersed in space.
Older sociological and anthropological studies tell a lot
about how institutions organize a group (church, firm,
disciplinary organization, etc) and they also tell a great
deal about how family structures and status hierarchies
organize people in stable localities. However, when the grip
of institutions and of place-bound hierarchies declines, as
is happening today, and when society largely becomes a
matter of dispersions of mobile individuals in anonymous
spaces – the big city; the world; the telecommunicational
space – the only behavior that has really been understood
very well is market behavior. We know A LOT (too much I
would even say) about how price signals serve to structure
the economic behavior of dispersed and mobile individuals,
who are always portrayed as rationally calculating in order
to maximalize their accumulation stategies (this is called
“methodological individualism”). But is individual economic
behavior the only kind that can be witnessed in the world
today? Obviously not! Or let us say, rather, that within the
space of very weakly determined social relations constituted
by the market and price signals – the space of what the
network sociologist Mark Granovetter famously called “weak
ties” – other subsets or relational forms have started to
appear.

This is where the questions asked by complexity theory
become so interesting and timely. What gives form and
pattern to emergent behavior? How can we understand the
internal consistency of self-organized groups and networks?
The first answer seemed to be offered by the figure of the
swarm. The word “swarming” describes a pattern of
self-organization in real time, which seems to arise out of
nowhere (or to be emergent) and yet which is recognizable,
because it repeats in a more or less rhythmical way.
Swarming is an initial image of self-organization. It is
basically a pattern of attack, and here it’s worth recalling
the classic definition given by the military theorists
Arquila and Ronfeldt in their book on “The Zapatista ‘Social
Netwar’ in Mexico”: “Swarming occurs when the dispersed
units of a network of small (and perhaps some large) forces
converge on a target from multiple directions. The overall
aim is sustainable pulsing–swarm networks must be able to
coalesce rapidly and stealthily on a target, then dissever
and redisperse, immediately ready to recombine for a new
pulse.”

What the observation and description of swarming has done is
to give us a temporal image of emergent activity, decisively
adding a dynamic aspect which was absent from the static
network maps. This is very suggestive for anyone looking to
understand the kinds of behavior that seem to be associated
with networks, and indeed, with a “networked society.” But
does the dynamic image of swarming really tell us how
self-organization occurs? No, I don’t think so. The proof is
that the American and Israeli military theorists have made
dynamic models of what they see as the swarm tactic, and
they now claim to use it as what they call a doctrine (see,
for this, the important and sobering text by Eyal Weizman,
“Walking through Walls,” published in the current issue of
Radical Philosophy). However, I do not believe that the
miliary can engage in anything approximating
self-organization, where individuals spontaneously
coordinate their actions with others. This is antithetical
to its hierarchical structure of command. Again, the
“picture” can be misleading, even when it is a dynamic one.
What is interesting, and perhaps essential to understand, is
the way individuals and small groups spontaneously
coordinate their actions, without any orders. This is
self-organization, this is emergent behavior. But from what
“ecology” does it emerge – to use Albert’s term?

I am beginning to think that there are two fundamental
factors that help to explain the consistency of
self-organized human activity. The first is the existence of
a shared horizon – aesthetic, ethical, philosophical, and/or
metaphysical – which is patiently and deliberately built up
over time, and which gives the members of a group the
capacity to recognize each other as existing within the same
referential universe, even when they are dispersed and
mobile. You can think of this as “making worlds.” The second
is the capacity for temporal coordination at a distance: the
exchange among a dispersed group of information, but also of
affect, about unique events that are continuously unfolding
in specific locations. This exchange of information and
affect then becomes a set of constantly changing, constantly
reinterpreted clues about how to act in the shared world.
The flow aspect of the exchange means that the group is
constantly evolving, and it is in this sense that it is an
“ecology,” a set of complex and changing inter-relations;
but this dynamic ecology has consistency and durability, it
becomes recognizable and distinctive within the larger
evironment of the earth and its populations, because of the
shared horizon that links the participants together in what
appears as a world (or indeed as a cosmos, when metaphysical
or religious beliefs are at work).

Maurizio Lazarrato set me off on this line of thinking, with
an article that we published in issue 15 of Multitudes and
for which I suggested this title (just excerpted from
important phrases in his text): “Creating Worlds:
Contemporary capitalism and aesthetic ‘wars.'” (Since then,
all that work has been published in French under the title
“Les revolutions du capitalisme,” and bits have appeared in
English all over the net.) Lazarrato pursues the Deleuzian
concept of “modulation” to show how corporations strive to
create worlds of aeesthetic perception and affect for their
producers and consumers, in order to bind them together into
some semblance of coordinated communities under the
dispersed conditions of contemporary life. They do so via
the media, which create aesthetic environments that are
internalized within us in the form of recurring “refrains,”
or rhythmically recurring memories of a sounds, colors,
words, etc. Lazzarato shows how these worlds, even in their
difference and plurality (Coca-Cola, Nike, Microsoft,
Macintosh…) conform to a “majority model” which is
precisely that of capitalist production and consumption as
structured by the bureaucratic state apparatuses and the
transnational institutions that have formed between them.
Nonetheless, the important thing to note is that in
hyperindividualized societies, even these normalized forms
of behavior are no longer directly shaped by institutional
structures. Instead, there are multiple efforts and
veritable aesthetic battle to create and maintain the
referential universes within which choices are constantly made.

But this creation of worlds is not only done by
corporations, and not only at the degree of simplicity and
sterility that examples from the commercial realm inevitably
suggest. To describe the specific contents out of which
richer and vaster worlds of meaning are made, and to detail
the effects of the specific tools and procedures that make
it possible to continuously transform them and to coordinate
actions within their horizons, are the tasks of a complexity
theory which seeks to understand how groups organize their
own behavior, when they are no longer decisively influenced
by traditional institutions. Bateson pointed the way to this
possibility of a cybernetic understanding, an understanding
of feedback processes, with his “Steps to an Ecology of
Mind.” Guattari tried to create even more dynamic models of
such human ecologies, particularly in his great and strange
book “Cartographies schizoanalytiques.” These are still
probably the most important references for the art of
composing mutable worlds, where the goal of the participants
is to carry out continuous transformation of the very
parameters and coordinates on which their interactions are
based (this is also understood as 3rd-order cybernetics,
where the system produces not just new information, but new
categories of information). Today, however, it is the
sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina (thanks, by the way, to the
several people who sent me her recent article!) who has
expressed all this most clearly and in the most mainstream
language, which can’t just be ignored or tossed off as the
work of a kook. Her ideas bring us back to networks and
their concrete operations, with the concept of “global
microstructures.” As she writes in “Complex Global
Microstructures”:

“Modern, industrial society created ‘complex’ forms of
organizations that managed uncertainty and task fulfillment
through interiorized systems of control and expertise. But
complexity was institutional complexity; it meant
sophisticated multi-level mechanisms of coordination,
authority and compensation that assured orderly functioning
and performance. A global society leans towards a different
form of complexity; one emanating from more microstructural
arrangements and the rise of mechanisms of coordination akin
to those found in interaction systems…. The basic
intuition that motivates the concept of a global
microstructure is that genuinely global forms, by which I
mean fields of practice that link up and stretch across all
time zones (or have the potential to do so), need not imply
further expansions of social institutional complexity. In
fact, they may become feasible only if they avoid complex
institutional structures. Global financial markets for
example, where microstructures have been found, simply
outrun the capacity of such structures. These markets are
too fast, and change too quickly to be ‘contained’ by
institutional orders. Global systems based on
microstructural principles do not exhibit institutional
complexity but rather the asymmetries, unpredictabilities
and playfulness of complex (and dispersed) interaction
patterns; a complexity that results, in John Urry?s terms,
from a situation where order is not the outcome of purified
social processes and is always intertwined with chaos. More
concretely, these systems manifest an observational and
temporal dynamics that is fundamental to their connectivity,
auto-affective principles of self-motivation, forms of
‘outsourcing’, and principles of content that substitute for
the principles and mechanisms of the modern, complex
organization.”

Knorr Cetina stresses the creation of shared horizons in
much the way that I described it above, focusing for this
particular article on the religious horizon of a shared
orientation to “transcendent time” (eschatology). As in
previous articles on the microstructures of global finance,
she also shows how networked ITCs allow participants of the
microstructure to see and recognize each other, and to
achieve cohesion by coordinating with each other in time,
observing and commenting on the same events, even though the
microstructure is very dispersed and not all the
participants or even a majority of them are necessarily
living anywhere near the particular event in question at any
given moment. Cetina very suggestively reinterprets the
usual idea of networks as a system of pipes conveying
contents, to insist instead on the visual or scopic aspect
of contemporary ICTs: from “pipes” to “scopes.” Information
is important for coordinating action; but it is the image
that maintains the shared horizon and insists on the urgency
of action within it (especially through what Barthes called
the “punctum”: the part that sticks out from the general
dull flatness of the image and affectively touches you).

To understand how all this works, one essential thing is to
realize that it is different in each case: the “ecologies”
are very different, depending on the coordinates or
parameters that give rise to the particular microstructure.
For one example, take the case of the open-source software
movement. One the one hand you have a shared ethical horizon
which is constituted by texts and examplary projects:
Stallman’s declarations and the example of the GNU project;
Torvald’s work; the General Public License itself and all
the principles it is based on, particularly the indication
of authorship (permitting recognition for one’s efforts) and
the openness of the resulting code (permitting widespread
cooperation); as well as essays like The Hacker Ethic;
projects like Creative Commons; the relation of all that to
older ideals of public science; etc. Then on the other hand
you have concrete modes of coordination via the Internet:
Sourceforge and the innumerable forums devoted to each free
software project (which I’ve been getting to know as I
struggle with my Ubuntu distro, ha ha!). The whole thing has
as little institutional complexity as possible (nobody is
really compelled to do anything in any particular way), but
instead is a situation full of self-motivation and
auto-affection between dispersed members of a nonetheless
very recognizable network, coordinated temporally around the
development of specific projects, where order is obviously
intertwined with chaos! And clearly, this particular global
microstructure is influential in the world.

Another great example, though more diffuse and complex, is
the development of the counter-globalization movements.
Again you can see the shared horizons of social justice,
ecological awareness, resistance to hierarchical power (of
the state and corporations), with reference to a
constellation of texts and a number of great mythical
moments of exemplary events (Seattle, Genoa, Cancun, etc).
Then you see the coordinating systems, including Internet
channels (indymedia, a myriad of web sites and mailing
lists), but also forums and meetings (Zapatista encuentros;
PGA meetings; counter-summits; social forums; activist
campaigns). Even more clearly than the open-source projects,
the counter-globalization movements are a universe of
universes: the entire set of movements tries to distinguish
itself from so-called “capitalist globalization”, while a
myriad of other, more specific horizons are established and
maintained within that larger distinction.

Both the open-source software movements and the
counter-globalization movements have been capable of
swarming behaviors. Indeed, the very idea of swarming arose
from the particular form of solidarity between international
NGOs and the Zapatists. In terms of open-source, one can
consider all the peer-to-peer projects that emerged after
the illegalization of Napster as successive swarm attacks on
the content-provider industries. There is that classic
pattern of converging, striking (in this case by producing
new content-sharing programs), then dissevering, only to
converge again at a different point (a new program, perhaps
for video-sharing like Bit Torrent, or a hack of a DRM
system, etc). Of course, different individuals are involved
each time, different groups, differences of philosophy and
mode of action; but a shared horizon makes all those
differences also recognizable as somehow belonging together.
This is the complexity of self-organization. You would again
see such processes in action if you traced the history of
the Mayday processes around flexible labor. But it is clear
that by looking at these things in “ecological” terms you
get a much richer picture, which is not limited to the
visible dynamics of swarming.

Now, I think these tendencies toward the emergence of global
microstructures in a weakened institutional environment have
been going on for decades. But it is clear that a
turning-point was reached when one microstructure with a
particularly strong religious horizon and a particularly
well-developed relational and operational toolkit – Al Qaeda
– was able to strike at the centers of capital accumulation
and military power in the US (WTC and Pentagon). Suddenly,
the capacity of networks to operate globally, independently
and unpredictably, began to appear as a crisis affecting the
deep structures of social power. At that point, the figure
of the swarm rushed to the forefront of all the military
discussions; and in a broader way, the question of whether
complexity theory could really predict the emergent
behavior of self-organizing networks became a kind of
priority in social science. Knorr Cetina’s article on
microstructures is subtitled “The New Terrorist Societies,”
and it is about Al Qaeda (though her earlier work on
microstructures is about currency-trading markets). But at
the same time as the interest in swarming and complexity
theory moved to the forefront of offical social science, one
gradually became aware (I did anyway) that all over the
world, serious attempts were underway to “overcode” and
stabilize the dangerously mobile relational forms that had
been unleashed by the generalization of the market and its
weak ties.

On the one hand there is an attempt to enforce the rules of
the neoliberal world market by military force, and thus to
complete an Imperial project which has now shown itself to
be clearly Anglo-American in origin and in aims. This
attempt is most clear in the book “The Pentagon’s New Map”
by Thomas Barnett, where he explains that the goal of
American military policy must be to identify the “gaps” in
the world network of finance and trade, and to “close the
gap,” by force if necessary. The thesis (on which the Iraq
invasion was partially based) is that only a continuous
extension of the world market and of its deterritorializing
technologies can bring peace and prosperity, rooting out the
atavistic religious beliefs on which terrorism feeds, and in
the process, rationalizing the access to the resources that
the capitalist world system needs to go on producing “growth
for everyone.”

On the other hand, however, what we see in response to this
extension of the world are market are regressions to
sovereignist or neofascist forms of nationalism, and perhaps
more significantly, attempts to configure great continental
economic blocs where the instability and relative chaos of
market relations could be submitted to some institutional
control. These attempts can also be conceived as
“counter-movements” in Karl Polanyi’s sense: responses to
the atomization of societies and the destruction of
institutions brought about by the unfettered operations of a
supposedly self-regulating market. They can be listed: NAFTA
itself; the European Union, which has created its own
currency; ASEAN+3, which represents East Asia’s so-far
abortive attempt to put together a stabilized monetary bloc
offering protection from the financial crises continuously
unleashed by neoliberalism; the Venezuelan project of
“ALBA,” which is raising the issue of possible industrial
cooperation programs for a left-leaning Latin America; and
of course, the “New Caliphate” in the Middle East, which is
being proposed by Al-Qaeda and the other Salafi jihad
movements. Perhaps people with more knowledge than I could
talk about what is happening on this level in the Russian
confederation, on the Indian subcontinent and in Africa.

I think that in years to come, everyone will increasingly
have to take a position with respect both to the Imperial
project of a world market, and to the regressive
nationalisms and the more complex processes of bloc
formation. All these things are contradictory with each
other and their contradictions are at the source of the
conflicts in the world today. In this respect, Guattari’s
perception, at the close of the 1980s in “Cartographies
schizoanalytiques,” has proved prophetic:

“From time immemorial, and in all its historical guises, the
capitalist drive has always combined two fundamental
components: the first, which I call deterritorialization,
has to do with the destruction of social territories,
collective identities, and systems of traditional values;
the second, which I call the movement of
reterritorialization, has to do with the recomposition, even
by the most artificial means, of individuated frameworks of
personhood, structures of power, and models of submission
which are, if not formally similar to those the drive has
destroyed, at least homothetical from a functional
perspective. As the deterritorializing revolutions, tied to
the development of science, technology, and the arts, sweep
everything aside before them, a compulsion toward subjective
reterritorialization also emerges. And this antagonism is
heightened even more with the phenomenal growth of the
communications and computer fields, to the point where the
latter concentrate their deterritorializing effects on such
human faculties as memory, perception, understanding,
imagination, etc. In this way, a certain formula of
anthropological functioning, a certain ancestral model of
humanity, is expropriated at its very heart. And I think
that it is as a result of an incapacity to adequately
confront this phenomenal mutation that collective
subjectivity has abandoned itself to the absurd wave of
conservatism that we are presently witnessing.”*

The question that complexity theory allows us to ask is
this: How do we organize ourselves for a viable response to
the double violence of capitalist deterritorialization and
the nationalist or identitarian reterritorialization to
which it inevitably gives rise? It must be understood that
this dilemna does not take the form of Christianity versus
Islam, America versus the Middle East, Bush versus Bin
Laden. Rather it arises at the “very heart” of the modern
project, where human potential is “expropriated.” Since
September 11. the USA – and tendentially, the entire
so-called “Western world” – has at once exacerbated the
abstract, hyperindividualizing dynamics of capitalist
globalization, and at the same time, has reinvented the most
archaic figures of identitarian power (Guantanamo, fortress
Europe, the dichotomy of sovereign majesty and bare life).
Guattari speaks of a capitalist “drive” to
deterritorialization, and of a “compulsion” to
reterritorialization. What this means is that neither
polarity is inherently positive or negative; rather, both
are twisted into the violent and oppressive forms that we
now see developing at such a terrifying and depressing pace.
The ultimate effect is to render the promise of a world
without borders strange, cold and even murderous, while at
the same time precipitating a crisis, decay and regression
of national institutions, which appear increasingly
incapable of contributing to equality or the respect for
difference.

So the question that arises is whether one can consciously
participate in the improvisational, assymetrical and
partially chaotic force of global microstructures, making
use of their relative autonomy from institutional norms as a
way to influence a more positive reterritorialization, a
more healthy and dynamic equilibrium, a better coexistence
with the movement of technological development and global
unification? The question is not farfetched, it is not a
mere intellectual abstraction. Knorr Cetina’s strong point
is that global unification cannot occur through
institutional process, because it is too complex to be
managed in that way; instead, the leading edge is taken by
lighter, faster, less predictable microstructures. Clearly,
nothing guarantees that these are going to be beneficent.
The forms that they will take remain open, they depend on
the people who invent them. In his recent book, Lazzarato
writes:

“The activist is not someone who becomes the brains of the
movement, who sums up its force, anticipates its choices,
draws his or her legitimacy from a capacity to read and
interepret the evolution of power, but instead, the activist
is simply someone who introduces a discontinuity in what
exists. She creates a bifurcation in the flow of words, of
desires, of images, to put them at the service of the
multiplicity’s power of articulation; she links the singular
situations together, without placing herself at a superior
and totalizing point of view. She is an experimenter.”

The close of the book makes clear, however, that what should
be sought is not just a joyous escape into the
unpredictable. The point of this experimentation is to find
articulations [agencements, which might also be translated
as microstructures that can oppose the literally
death-dealing powers of the present society, and offer
alternatives in their place. My guess is that in most cases,
this can happen not at the local level of withdrawal (though
that may be fertile), nor at the level of national
institutions and debates (though these will be essential for
holding off the worst), but most likely at the regional or
continental level, particularly where the core economies
overflow into their peripheries and vice-versa. This is the
level where the most important policy is now being made, the
level at which the major economic circuits are functioning
and at which massive social injustice and ecological damage
is happening all the time. What’s really lacking are all
kinds of border-crossing experiments, ways to subvert the
macrostructures of inclusion/exclusion and to redraw the
maps of coexistence. Ultimately, new kinds of institutions
and new ways of relating to institutions will be needed, if
there is to be any hope of stabilizing things and surviving
the vast transition now underway. But we’re not there yet,
and it doesn’t seem likely that any upcoming election will
start the process. Instead it seems that much of the danger
and the promise of the present moment can be found in the
complex relations between network, swarm and microstructure.

Note
*I’ve altered the (relatively poor) translation of
Guattari’s text “Du post-modernisme a l’ere post-media,”
which is on pp. 53-61 of Cartographies schizoanalytiques,
and on pp. 109-13 of The Guattari reader, under the title
“The Postmodern Impasse.” The key phrase, “un certain modele
ancestral d’humanite qui se trouve ainsi exproprie au coeur
de lui-meme,” becomes “is appropriated from the inside”! The
reverse of the original! No wonder people think Guattari is
so hard to read…

Holmes Brian

Critique d'art, essayiste et traducteur, il vit à Paris et s'intéresse aux croisements entre art, économie politique et mouvements sociaux. Il a effectué un doctorat sur les langages et la littérature romantiques à l'Université de Berkeley ( Californie ) et a été l'éditeur en anglais du receuil {« Documenta X»}, Kassel, Germany, 1997. Membre du groupe d'art graphique {«Ne pas plier"} de 1999 à 2001, il travaille depuis peu avec le groupe d'art conceptuel parisien {« Bureau d'études »} avec lequel il a fondé la revue {«Autonomie artistique»}. Il contribue régulièrement à la liste de diffusion {« Nettime »} et collabore à diverses revues : {Springerin} (Vienne), {Parachute} (Montréal). Auteur d'un receuil de textes, {« Hieroglyphs of the Future : Art and Politics in a Networked Era »} ,Zagreb: Arkzin, 2003, il prépare un livre en français : {«La personnalité flexible : pour une nouvelle critique de la culture»}. Membre du comité de rédaction transnational de Multitudes. Il a dirigé son numéro spécial {«l'Art contemporain : la recherche du dehors»}, Janvier 2004, Exils.