Contra Spatiality

Tom Trevatt

Today, in the European context, the questions of inside and outside are not just pertinent but conditioned by a host of pernicious and at times violent attacks on what it means to live together. Whilst not the subject of this paper as such, the EU referendum speaks not just to the question of membership of the 28 strong group of member states that constitute an expanded Europe, but to questions of identity, nationality, belonging and precisely what it means to be “inside” something greater than ourselves. These questions are as important today as they were when the EU was setup. Leaving aside the economic commitments this group has, that is to free-market capitalism and neoliberal economic policies that has, in great part, been responsible for a Europe wide project of austerity by the north on the south, the EU was setup to bring an end to the violent conflicts of the early part of the twentieth century. As such, membership of this collective is a commitment to the project of living peacefully together. It is in this context that I speak today—not to dwell on this ridiculous and divisive vote, but to bring a theoretical claim about how we construct our descriptions of politics to bear on a very current debate.

This paper has a very specific aim; to reappraise the language we use to describe this dichotomy between inside and outside. It is broadly accepted that the language we use to describe the world shapes our very understanding of that world, if not, at times, the world itself. We just have to think about how the way decisions are posed, between one choice and another, to understand that these categories determine the ways we construct our socio-economic, not to mention political, systems. It is of utmost importance, then, to employ semantic acuity. It is to this end, then, that I wish to speak against the spatial descriptors “inside” and “outside”. To do this I shall employ arguments from economic and ecologic theory that argue against the clear delineation between spheres of activity, precisely looking at the critique of neoclassical economics—a school of economic theory that wished to hygienically separate itself from other areas, producing a “pure science” protected from political or social implications.

Within neoclassical economics the individual is the base unit of determination of price, and therefore value, as such the individual consumer’s desires are at the forefront of the logic, moving the focus from production (as in classical economic theory) to consumption and distribution (Chang: 121). Privileging the individual, seen as an indivisible unit, neoclassical economics is allied with the ideological category of competitive individualism. As political theorist Jeremy Gilbert explains, ‘individualism is not primarily a moral or ethical category, but an ontological, phenomenological and epistemological one’ (Gilbert: 31). The concept implies autonomy from the social relations that structure society and culture, purposefully divorcing individuals from their place in an arrangement of others. In this theory there is a blindness to the reliance we have on the efforts and successes of others, the cultural, historical, linguistic, and technological advances made by others, or the collective labour required to produce conditions right for personal development. Competitive Individualism holds that success is necessarily down to the entrepreneurial acumen of each individual, creativity is held privately, not by groups and that rational decision making is best done by the individual, not a collective (33). As Gilbert points out, this has radical implications for democracy and collectivity. As individuals only enter into social relations voluntarily and through the frame of the market, they are conditioned by that frame to understand the basis of their relation to others through the ineradicable basis of private property. Thus to understand their relations to the collective as a matter of ownership and the drawing of definite boundaries.

So, not only does neoclassical economics wish to draw a boundary around itself as a discipline, but the logic of competitive individualism, that is promoted by this economic school draws clear delineations around individuals, refusing to acknowledge their debt to the broader socius in which they find themselves. In this paper I hope to show that the very structure of society, and its material basis in economy, culture and ecology is relational rather than individuated, thus to make the argument that boundaries between the individual and the socius are not and cannot be strongly marked. But furthermore, to suggest a new mode of thought to counter this dichotomy that we have inherited from modern philosophy. The Latourian counter to Cartesian modern philosophy, that promotes a hybrid view of the world is instructive here, but won’t form the main thrust of this argument. For me the term hybrid is wrong. Hybridity presupposes a temporal primacy to division that then gets resolved in the conjoining of the two sides. Despite Latour’s claims that we have never been modern, that is never been pure, differentiated, divided or secularised, his insistence on the use of the term hybrid undermines this temporal distinction. Instead, I want to attenuate an economic reading of the biological term “metabolism” through the work of American Pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce’s pragmatism precisely attempts to overturn the individualism he saw in what he names nominalist thought. And metabolic theory, or my telling of it at least, seeks to understand the truly dialectical relation that exists over borders and boundaries.

To understand the metabolic, I will turn to an essay on the grandfather of neoclassical economic thought, William Stanley Jevons. In a book about Jevons’ Paradox—the claim that increased energy efficiency counter intuitively often leads to a rebound effect where more energy is eventually consumed—Mario Giampietro and Kozo Mayumi discuss in some detail complex adaptive systems. Concerned with the organisation of living systems over hierarchical levels and multiple scales, they make the claim for a more complex epistemology capable of understanding the complexity of evolving adaptive systems. In line with this they underscore the concept of the metabolic system with the concepts of holons and holarchies. The chapter asks how we orient ourselves for the best course of action, making the claim that it is impossible to use efficiency to do this. As they suggest:

when representing and analysing evolving metabolic systems organized in nested hierarchies, innovative theoretical frameworks are needed that can properly take care of the analysis of circular […] and multiple scales. This requires going beyond the paradigm of reductionism (81).

What this theoretical development speaks to is the capacity to understand the complex relationship between the micro and the macro scales, when a particular event or occurrence at a micro level has macro level effects. As we shall see, this has significant implications on the conceptual apparatus required to think the individual as separate and non-relational. Precisely, it collapses. My claim is that through the framework I will develop in what follows, it is increasingly impossible to speak of an inside or an outside. Where neoclassical economic science seeks to purify and particularise, to understand economic activity as separate from its ground in nature or its effects in society, a metabolic theory demands that we think any division between the inside and outside as contingent, temporary and revisable. Under these terms, then, the conceptual buttress of competitive individualism, the ontological claim that we are all alone and make our own lives for ourselves without help from anyone, loses traction.

Society, the economy, culture and nature are all metabolic systems; they are in a constant state of autopoietic flux, not in thermodynamic equilibrium, they constantly exchange matter and energy from the environment around them and between each other, and are organized in a nested hierarchy based on the concept of the “holon” (Giampietro and Mayumi). A holon is something that is simultaneously a part and a whole, autonomous from the environment, but connected to it via a mereological relation. Developed by Arthur Koestler in his book The Ghost in the Machine, the holon is a combination of the Greek “holos”, meaning whole and relating to the macroscopic and the suffix “on”, meaning particle or part, relating to the microscopic. Thus a holon is a part-whole that combines constraints of both the macro and the micro. Individual humans, their societies, and cultures are all organised as holoarchic systems—as nested hierarchies, not as distinct systems apart from each other. Every autonomous example of an economic activity, an individual action or cultural phenomenon is in a part-whole relation to the epistemological system of society as such. Which itself is nested within broader spheres such as nature to the extent that the actions and effects are indiscernibly located, instances of economic activity for example have macro-political effects (this is something, incidentally, Margaret Thatcher knew only too well; her hearts and mind speech being an indication of this). Thus, when we analyse the systemic nature of society we must be aware of the modalities of relations between the individual parts and the whole, as such we cannot express axiomatic statements about individuals divorced from their relation to the whole system in which they find themselves. Nor can we make similar statements about wholes that are derived from experience of individuals. Such as, individual (x) in category (a) is blue therefore all of the individuals in category (a) are blue.

As Mario Giampietro and Kozo Mayumi suggest in their essay for the book on Jevons,

The phenomena of emergence, […] points at the obvious, but often neglected, fact that a metabolic system must be necessarily a ‘becoming system’ and therefore requires a continuous update of the selection of attributes together with proxy variables and their relationships—the formal identity assigned to the observed system—used to describe its behaviour […] Therefore, once the attributes selected for the formal identity of the observed system become no longer relevant for predicting behaviours of the system, the proxy variables and their analytical relations must be automatically discarded. Then a new set of attributes with a new set of proxy variables and relations should be introduced. After these selections are made, both a new formal identity (a given and finite set of relevant attributes which can be represented using a given and finite set of proxy variables) and a new inferential system (a finite set of axioms, rules and algorithms) must be introduced

(Giampietro and Mayumi: 92)

A metabolic system thus requires constant updating of its variables and epistemic boundaries, none of which appear as historically necessary, nor independent from revision. These occur as a continuous emergence of proxy variables that reach a tipping point to create a phase change. Systemic change is thus achieved by the constant revision of boundaries and formal qualities to create new forms of framing that allow the introduction of a new inferential system. Therefore, systemic change cannot occur by fiat, nor as an evental or revolutionary eruption, but through the constant updating of variables to create the conditions of systemic change. Politician and political theorist Roberto Unger, himself an inheritor of the Peircian legacy of pragmatism, describes a form of thought against an institutional dogmatism that denies ‘the truth that the promises of democracy can be kept only by the ceaseless experimental renewing of their institutional vehicles’, suggesting this form of necessitarian thinking ‘nails our interests, ideals, and collective self-understandings to the cross of contingent, time-bound institutions’ (Unger: 23). Unger’s claims revolve around a reappraisal of the pragmatist claims to the revisablity of democratic limits, suggesting that neoliberal ideology that seeks to occlude it’s own historically contingent nature, or indeed to naturalise its existence, is precisely engaged in a rhetorical production of what he calls false necessity. And against this we must assert the capacity for systemic political change through continual revisability and not through catastrophe or crisis. The latter, as we know, favours a regressive, or reactionary form of politics that can emerge to apportion blame, predominantly on to the weakest in society. It is this form of thought that Reza Negarestani promotes when he says,

It is the space of reason that harbors the functional kernel of genuine collectivity, a collaborative project of practical freedom referred to as ‘we’ whose boundaries are not only negotiable but also constructible and synthetic

(Mackay and Avanessian eds.: 434)

There are of course caveats to this form of pragmatism. Any attempt to produce change at the micro level must be mindful of the rebound effect that Jevons’ paradox speaks to. That within any system micro actions may produce unwanted outcomes, often in contradistinction to the initial intention. As such, one cannot rely only on an individual to produce socio-political change in a beneficial way at the macro-level. We find claims to competitive individualism in everything from the political discourse of volunterism, to self help manuals; it crosses political borders. The failure of this type of political thought to produce systemic change should be well known by now, and it is precisely because of the argument outlined above. Individual actions can become tipping points in systems, but not reliably nor rationally. To exercise oriented political change requires a rational commitment to a pragmatism that understands the entwined relation of the inside and outside, that is between actions that occur within the given system and effects that those actions produce outside of that system.

Peircian pragmatism poses itself against nominalist philosophy, calling the latter ‘the most inadequate, and perhaps the most superficial […] the silliest possible’ (Peirce cf. Forster: 2). For Peirce, nominalism represents an anti-scientific, anti-realist object to progress, a worldview with disastrous consequences. Nominalism is the assertion that universals or abstract objects do not exist, and are merely the products of the mind, only individuals exist, shorn from their relation to each other through the universal. Such that two objects that share the same colour, say green, cannot share the universal greenness because, for a nominalist the universal “green” does not exist except (in some variation of nominalism) as a predicate to nominate something green. For Peirce and many of his followers this is something that must be defeated. Not only because it is logically fallacious, but because it has seeped into the ‘average modern mind’ (3). It is in this way that Peirce can be seen as a critic of neoliberalism before the fact. He says this:

The question of whether the genus homo has any existence except as individuals is the question of whether there is anything of anymore dignity, worth, and importance than individual happiness, individual aspirations, and individual life. Whether men really have anything in common, so that the community is to be considered as an end in itself, and if so, what the relative value of the two factors is, is the most fundamental practical question in regard to every public institution the constitution of which we have it in our power to influence

(Peirce cf. Forster: 3)

Nominalists would argue, this quote suggests, as humans we have nothing in common, just particular occasions of individual existence—the mind organises a chaotic rush of independent data into a coherent whole, but there are no laws or universal qualities that hold across those individuals. Individuals are not in a part-whole relation to the categories they exist within, but are foremost singular and divorced from commonality. As Paul Forster explains ‘[n]ominalists hold, then, that the choice of conceptual scheme is determined by knowers’ interests rather than by objective features of the world’ (Forster: 5). For a nominalist, desire is a subjective expression of individuality, but, and this is important, value is not determinant of desire, merely conferred on an object by desire. That means that value is set by the individual’s desire of it, not by any inherent quality of the object. Here we must draw direct comparisons between nominalism and neoclassical economics which understands price as a function of supply and demand, i.e. desire. An object is worth only what the market will pay for it.

Contra to this form of individualism, Peirce is committed to a project that upholds the conceptual category of continuity. The continuum, he asserts, exists against the notion that knowledge claims can be exhausted by individuals, instead it is a special type of generality that is not contingent on particularity but on universal adherence to an Idea (42). The continuum is not a collection of individuals, but transcends individuality through the synthetic weaving of local contexts into generality. In this way, it is not additive, but synthetic. One cannot reach continuity by the addition of more individuals, but by the assertion that there exists commonality between individuals. For Colombian mathematician Fernando Zalamea, reading Peirce, this forms what he calls a neighbourhood logic:

‘Peirce’s continuum—generic and supermultitudineous, reflexive and inextensible, modal and plastic—is the global conceptual milieu where, in a natural way, we can construct hierarchies to bound possible evolutions and local concretion of arbitrary flow notions’

(Zalamea: 23, italics in original)

The continuum is that which binds individuals to each other, the reflexive generic quality of thirdness, or mediation. Peirce links this to the rational ability to reason about the world in an abstract way, rather than an acceptance of immediacy or actuality, nor the direct or trivial collection of particularities. The continuum is the name given to the site in which both abstract and concrete, particular and universal are woven together in plastic ways. Yet it does not describe a holism, where the individual is flattened into the universal, but, I suggest a holarchic, from the concept holon, field where individuals and universals exist in dialectical relation to one another. A part-whole function, where the boundaries are precisely revisable and fluid—that is they are plastic. This is a metabolic system. The parts are reflexively interwoven, where they each reflect the whole, and where the whole reflects the parts. Where information and energy flows over borders, where the individual does not exist divorced from the socius, where commonality is not spoken in tragic refrains about a lost past, but embraced through the knowledge that the limits of what is common are both revisable and reflexive. Political discourse must be able to accommodate this complexity and not rush to reductionism, not side with competitive individualism which pits one against the other, but rejoices in a commonality shared through the dialectical interweaving between the individual and the general.


Tom Trevatt is a researcher, writer and curator. He is a PhD candidate in the Visual Cultures department at Goldsmiths (London), and has taught at Goldsmiths, The Royal Academy (London) and Parsons (Paris).