Neologisms and making-sense of ‘the new’

It is frustrating that the push to build a career can, in many cases, motivate the forming of neologisms for the same old concepts, to stake a claim to ‘new ground’ – hijacking history in the name of the ‘new’. Which leads me to ask – when discussing the various ways in which we relate to one another (technically mediated or otherwise) do we really need ideas such as the recently posited notions: ‘weaving‘ or ‘connectors‘? ‘Weavers’ and ‘connectors’ are apparently facilitators of networks or ‘principal nodes’ therein. After brief reflection my first question, for example, might be: ‘can nonhumans (animals or things) be connectors or weavers?’, if so, are we actually talking about intensities of relations? Particularly since ideas of agency (especially tied to ‘intentionality‘) and power subsequently demand consideration. Plenty of social theorists, from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds, have articulated similar ideas in many ways, and so one doesn’t necessarily need to appeal to novelty.

Granted we form different types of relations with a different array of people and that have different durations than we have before (and we will continue to do so), but this can be explained using existing concepts, take your pick: ‘networks’, ‘collectives’, ‘assemblages’ etc. By lumping together all of the different activities and practices under one over-arching activity of ‘weaving’ one can belie the interesting differences and nuances of those manifold practical relations – which is surely what are the topic of discussion?

I have written elsewhere about the tendency to form neologisms (particularly metaphors) and the ways in which they are taken up, specifically the ‘internet’, and how such terms can frame the ways in which we conceive of various forms of relationship. Indeed, there is a drive to name what appears to be ‘new’, and words or ideas such as the ‘internet’ can open new arenas of thought. Furthermore, in making sense of these ‘new arenas’ various interlocuters suggest different ways of describing what they think is taking place. There is a danger however that these descriptions can become prescriptive and stale, leading to a constant re-hashing of the same ideas. My primary concern here is that, rather than engaging in an insightful ‘making sense’, what may be happening is a recapitulation of reduced or even stale ideas masked by various people staking a claim to the apparently ‘new’ by naming it, again.

There are plenty of ways of theoretically framing, then, the variety of relations, that perhaps open up a criticality and allow us to push the debate on. For example, we could look to actor-network theory to theorise ‘collectives’ of people and things (or ‘actants’) in multi-variate relationships, or (arguably) their forerunner – the ‘assemblages’ of Deleuze and Guattari, picked up by a number of social theorists, not least Manuel DeLanda, and ‘assemblages’ as more general notion, which is being picked up by several social scientists. There are, of course, many other conceptual frameworks one can choose from, indeed many that critique the above. My point is really that we do not necessarily have to keep ‘reinventing the wheel’, there is nothing wrong, in fact there are a vast number of positives(!), in ‘doing theory‘. We should of course pitch appropriately to an audience, which is perfectly reasonable and emminantly possible from any of these theoretical positions. Most importantly, conceptually framing these issues in this broader theoretical context almost certainly opens out these discussions beyond disciplinary edges and I am convinced can be an immensely rewarding, if not enjoyable(!), process.

Epilogue – 09/06/07

Further to the above, for those interested in these matters, I suggest the books that offer the most accessible engagements with the relational theorisations of ‘society’ and ‘the social’ are: Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social, Manuel DeLanda’s book “A New Philosophy of Society” (interesting related blog article) and Ong & Collier’s “Global Assemblages“. Those working through more political-economic issues, especially related to more established notions of state power, might also be interested in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s more ambitious books ‘Empire‘ (Please note: I do not accept any liability for your downloading of material from another site) and ‘Multitude‘.

Also, as a foil to positivity of ‘opting in’ to collaborative/participatory media, Anne Galloway recently pointed out this book: ‘Participation: The New Tyranny?‘ – it is, after all, always worth being aware of the critiques.

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3 Replies to “Neologisms and making-sense of ‘the new’”

  1. Sam – I posited weaving as a result of the work of valdis kreb on FYI – this was a simple way to explain current relationships between customer and business as it relates to the way marketers need to behave – i.e. more like humans. I am not a researcher or phd student and have not studied social theory – My 20 minute talk was not meant to stand in for such work.

    Do you have the same opinion on gladwell’s connectors and the catalysts of starfish and spider? Is there anything wrong with simplifying to introduce people to concepts? I am not being flip – but sincere.

    I am trying to ‘make sense’ as you say and am open to learn and be pointed in right teach me!

  2. Thank you very much for your extraordinarily quick(!) reply to my post. I am sorry that your presentation received the full glare of a much broader feeling I have about how we write about and think about technologies, as things and as mediators. Perhaps some other examples of similar ‘neologisms’ should have been offered, I will dig them out and include them.

    So, in response – firstly, there is of course absolutely nothing wrong with explaining concepts to an audience at a level appropriate to the context. If only more people did try and ‘make sense’ by pitching to their audience! I appreciate that you have a different type of experience that you are applying.

    Secondly, with reference to Malcolm Gladwell and perhaps Krebs, there is a different type of ‘theory’ being engaged. I am not claiming a hierarchy, nor do I want to claim superiority for ‘heavyweight’ social theory, that would be pretentious. There are however conceptual ‘debts’ that frequently go unacknowledged – but then it has ever been thus! In some ways Gladwell’s ideas compliment the theoretical articulations of what might be most broadly labelled ‘network’ approaches. Although I think his work probably owes a particular debt to what some label ‘cooperation theory’, for example Robert Axelrod’s work – which I personally think is more pithy and interesting (see: ‘The Evolution of Cooperation’) – also you might like to look at Howard Rheingold’s ‘Cooperation Commons’ website

    Finally, Deleuze and Guattari probably weren’t the first philosophers to think in terms of networks, or in their case the ideas of ‘rhizome’ and ‘assemblages’ (for an opening on this see the first chapter of their ‘A Thousand Plateaus’), although I think they provide one of the most complete and exciting expositions of this mode of thought. One of the more influential (and perhaps more accessible) people writing about relationships as networks in ‘communications’ or ‘urban’ studies is Manuel Castells (see: ‘The Information Society’). Of course in theorising social relations we are theorising ‘society’ which is a significant task! I think some of the more interesting ways of thinking about the role of technology in social relations comes through Science & Technology Studies and specifically Bruno Latour, for example his book ‘Pandora’s Hope‘. Also, whilst I don’t particularly agree with his reading of Deleuze, Manuel DeLanda’s book A New Philosophy of Society provides a very accessible means of thinking about ‘assemblages’.

    There will always be differences in theoretical position, and ‘vive la difference’! There are also plenty of opportunities now through the internet to access all of these different ideas, which I hope will lead to interesting conversations, like this.

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