Andy Robinson on p2p relationalities vs. institutionalization

This will be heavy going for some, but many interesting points are made here by Andy Robinson, who disagrees with some basic assumptions about relationality, universality, and difference, which I have expressed here.

In a nutshell, amongst the challenges:

– the existence of human universals

– the generalization of object-oriented sociality

– the existence of a general social field (the ‘collective’, ‘society’) which exists outside of concrete relations and may condition them

Andy Robinson:

“human agents never just ‘relate’ in the abstract, agents always relate around an object, in a concrete fashion”

“This reminds me strongly of a Freirean approach to existentialism, and to some extent of Sartre and early Wittgenstein. I think it’s plausible up to a point, particularly if your aim is to understand or interpret peer-to-peer networks in fields such as free software. A great many collectives come together for a purpose, around an object, and the object exercises a certain regulatory function even if the collective is otherwise unregulated.

I’m not sure that all social action is of this type, for several reasons. The first of these is that most of the interaction I see among ‘normal’/conformist-type people is not explicitly object-oriented at all, but rather, is dominated by phatic types of communication (i.e. where the main purpose of communication is to establish a relation, not to achieve any particular object). It’s actually incredibly inefficient from an object-oriented point of view.

The second is that language-use is often expressive rather than instrumental. This is clearest from looking at interpretive anthropologists such as Geertz, in seeing the vast differences in what the same ‘instrumental’ activities ‘mean’ and how they are symbolised, but it is also clear in everyday communication, for instance from expressions of emotion (e.g. there is nothing object-oriented in swearing).

It also raises the question of why people often form attachments such as friendships, family relationships and other types of intense affinity, which seem to outlast and exceed their instrumental context. And why this happens with some but not all of those with whom one works in instrumental groups.

The other problem here is that I don’t think object-orientation can provide anything like an overarching social whole. It can provide grounds for temporary comings-together around particular objectives, but it does not provide any basis for these collectives to persist or interact. In extreme cases, object-oriented groups are actually counterposed, if they both orient to the same object but with different goals (e.g. one group has the goal of making all digital content freely copiable and another group has the goal of making unbreakable copy-protection). An object-oriented view of sociality also has to accord an almost Schmittian status to the formation of objects themselves. People decide to come together because they share an object, and the object orients their interactions. What if someone does not desire this object? That’s pretty much the end of the discussion. There is no recognised ground for the choice of object. In fact, of course, there is always a ground for the choice of object, because it arises from needs and desires. But these are locked out of the social field by the emphasis on objects. The Schmittian danger is of silencing others’ desires because they are disjunctive at the object-level. There doesn’t seem to be a possibility here either for communicative and dialogical responses to conflict (“peacebuilding”, “conflict transformation”) or for seeking to work through, rather than fight out, differences about objects. (This is also an issue with mammalian analogies – why does the wolf belong to this pack rather than that pack, why has the cat mapped its variable hunting behaviour onto this type of prey-animal (or ball of wool!) rather than that – although normally the answer here would simply be that the choice is biologically pre-programmed, or biologically predisposed to be locked-in at an early age – but it would be distinctly unhelpful and dangerous to try to advance these kinds of answers in discussing human differences since it leads inexorably to biological racism or supremacism once the degree of difference is recognised).

You then refer to: “the macro-field of society itself, which establishes the ‘protocol’ of what is possible and not”.

Basically, I’m not sure there is such a thing as a level of “society” at which protocols are fixed and established. I think there is a myth of such an absent thing, which is used retrospectively to account for comprehension (the Lacanian big Other). I don’t think it’s a necessary myth, because people outside its reach, nevertheless manage to communicate (i.e. the ‘psychotic’ field, which on this analysis would have to include the shamanic also).

We are getting here into the structure-agency problem, i.e. whether phenomena such as “language rules” are aspects of an external structure or are accumulative products of speech-acts. I definitely take an agency position, i.e. the appearance of structure derives from the repetition of actions.

It is true that the agential and contestable nature of the resultant “structures” is often bracketed, particularly when people are engaged in instrumental (object-oriented) action. Therefore, people often assume that they are functioning with the same understandings of what they’re doing. Very often, they aren’t. And if they are, it’s because the group in question is highly monocultural.

I would say firstly, that the “protocol” varies drastically between cultures, in the most obvious way on an anthropological scope, in smaller ways when dealing with subcultural difference, and even in small ways between the patterns of socialisation in particular instances of families, schools, etc., and variant extents of implantation.

Secondly, that the different psychological types as theorised by Lacan have their own protocols or metacommunicative assumptions, so that even speech within a “normal” frame will go amiss if it is between a hysteric and an obsessional, or if, for instance, a hysteric has interpellated another hysteric as master.

And thirdly that this difference becomes even greater when also discussing psychological formations without master-signifiers, in which I would include autism as well as schizophrenia/psychosis.

The real difficulties which arise in social relations very often involve a range of phenomena around the resulting gaps. There’s the problem of conflicts arising because conventional symbols are misunderstood, and because people lack the critical literacy to suspend their assumptions. There’s problems of exclusion which arise from assuming that the people subject to a rule, or targeted by a service, or affected by an action, are working from sameness when they are not. There’s instrumental projects which collapse because of misunderstandings at the metacommunicative level. There’s social rankings which place some cultural or psychological types above others, establishing their dominance in mixed settings. And then there’s the really big problems arising when certain groups are persistently silenced and dominated by others. Ultimately these problems express themselves in social war – one group, determining another group to be beyond meaning or beyond the first group’s protocol and hence silent or valueless, takes control of the whole of existence within its reach (at the object-level), and dispossesses, enslaves or exterminates the other group. The most extreme forms of this phenomenon are only the tip of the iceberg: basically, I see the present world as overwhelmingly characterised by social war.

Hence for me, the big question in constructing non-oppressive social relations (or social peace) is how to relate to the radically other – someone with whom one shares neither object nor protocol, or someone with whom one shares object but not protocol. Obviously this is a question which cannot be answered by referring back to the object (even if it is shared, it does not preclude “bracketed” problems reappearing in practice), or by referring back to the protocol (which we simply cannot assume is shared). My ethical starting-point is the relation to the other as radically different, which precludes both an emphasis on objects (which may or may not be common), and an emphasis on the ‘protocol’ (which is similarly not enabling for everyone). Obviously this precludes any kind of ethical proceduralism, i.e. views that something is right because it emerges from a proper process, because it is endorsed by the majority or comes from the right kind of deliberative public assembly – because these procedures themselves rest on assumptions about what protocols are at work – while such things might be a way to make decisions in a community which is already at peace, they cannot create a state of peace where one does not exist, nor can they themselves be taken as evidence that one exists.

My views on what can be done institutionally stem from this. The maximal way to avoid social war against difference is to replace repressive metacommunication (fasntasy-frames, assumptions of sameness) with critically literate metacommunication premised on assumptions of difference. This is most effectively enabled by a context in which what things “mean” and how they are done is constantly renegotiated by participants, and not institutionally locked-in. If I became convinced that an entirely diffuse society was not possible, I’d still be haunted by worries about the exercise of asymmetrical power in collectives – I think my next stop would be a pared-down or padded-out liberalism with an expansive conception of rights and a strong prohibition on moral regulation, with the main function of institutions being intergroup rather than intragroup (i.e. the purpose of institutions would be to prevent any one group from monopolising discursive or social space and hence to maintain conditions for social peace across difference). Alternatively, some kind of de facto social peace could arise from different groups which are in a state of social war, but with roughly equal power (a Clastrean situation between non-Clastrean units). In this way each community could carry on by whatever institutions suited it, out-groups would simply migrate between or form new communities, and the entire setting would be inclusive… but would depend for its inclusivity on a rather tenuous balance of forces which were outside anyone’s control. If we can’t realise a diffuse world (and I really don’t see why we can’t when humanity lived in primarily diffuse ways for tens of thousands of years), the crucial ethical question becomes intergroup rather than intragroup.

Of course a lot changes if one wishes to argue that the normal/conformist tendency to master-signification, fantasy-framing and resultant status-play is in some way innate… though in that case, the main issue would be how far such people can learn to respect the fact that others are not functioning in this way. If one wished to maintain that both the status-play and the insistence on imagining that everyone else is a part of it are innate – the results become terrifyingly Manichean and zero-sum (one ends up with two coalitions of psychological types, pitted in an endless war for control of the object-world, in which no compromise is possible). I find this rather unlikely for several reasons. One is that the emergence of status-play is demonstrably social, and socially-variant; another, that people can and do slip between “normal” and psychologically-different types; third, that people of the “normal” type seem to vary drastically in their recognition that others do not function on the same basis; and fourth, that if it was true, then struggle among psychological types (rather than groups defined in class terms, culturally, or by political allegiances) would be far more prevalent in history.”

1 Comment Andy Robinson on p2p relationalities vs. institutionalization

  1. AvatarPoor Richard

    “where the main purpose of communication is to establish a relation, not to achieve any particular object”

    What does that mean? What is “a relation”? Is there a generic, abstract relation? I think relations are particular and I think establishing some particular is the objective, even if that particular isn’t obvious to outsiders.

    “there is nothing object-oriented in swearing”


    “It also raises the question of why people often form attachments such as friendships, family relationships and other types of intense affinity, which seem to outlast and exceed their instrumental context. ”

    Who says what the instrumental context is? It probably changes.

    It seems that again and again Robinson’s implied definitions of object-oriented arbitrarily exclude obvious alternative possibilities.

    This doesn’t seem like a serious analysis.

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