Jon Cooper


Structure as Metaphor

Many concepts are metaphorical coequals across physical, social, and mental space. One, for sure, is space. Others might be balance, order, and decay. But perhaps the most important is structure. Structure accounts for and describes the arrangement, relationships, and patterns between the objects, images, and devices present within in our physical, social, and mental space. Perhaps the clearest example of structure is provided by the physical structure of chemical substances. A molecule comprises atoms held together by chemical bonds, whose arrangement can be explained by molecular geometry; a three-dimensional molecular structure can be represented in models like the one in this two-dimensional image:

Comprised of many heterogeneous molecular structures reacting to each other are living organs and organisms, from bacteria to human beings, which bacteriologists and macrobiologists also think of as material structures. The concept of structure seems already to have an overwhelmingly capacious scope. And this is before we talk about how physicists understand and represent the structures of galaxies, gravitationally-bound systems of stars, stellar remnants, interstellar gas, dust, and dark matter.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines structure as ‘the arrangement of and relations between the parts or elements of something complex’. But this definition doesn’t quite evoke the sense of how, when we use the word ‘structure’ to describe chemical substances, animal bodies, and galaxies we do so with a particular and contingent way of seeing the world. Structure is about how we measure, model, and represent physical phenomena, and therefore about the unified coherence we accord to particular objects, some of which more than others we speak into apprehension. It would be perfectly ordinary not to consider a cow a kind of biological structure. One could see a cow as a physical danger, an environmental threat, or simply as meat. In either case, the structure of the cow is somehow relevant to the subject of discussion: its mind, strength, physiology, digestion, and its constituent protein. But whether or not we intuitively conceptualise an object in terms of structure depends on how we encounter them. Though chemical structure is, save for absurdity, the only way we can think about a molecule, anatomy is just one of many ways we can think about an animal.

As a heuristic device in modern English, the word structure tends to imply the arrangement of and relations between the parts or elements of something are functionally related to each in such a way as predicates the existence of that unified thing. Some objects we call structures, such as buildings or engines, are relatively simple. But many are incredibly complex, and not necessarily as unified as we make them out to be – such as DNA, society, or culture. These cases in particular suggest not only the endless variety of ways to think about the interdependent functional relationships which lie behind visible phenomena, but how science tends to confer control over phenomena through the use of some sort of technology, which often supports some ulterior form of social, economic or political motivation (examples including genetic engineering, agricultural technology, and industrial weaponry).

Science restrains itself from explicit engagement with the political, organized by ostensibly disinterested disciplinary rubrics such as biology, chemistry, astronomy, and physics. Whatever their method, scientists measure the arrangement of and theorise the relations between the constituent parts of the structures with which they are concerned, before representing and communicating these structural arrangements and relations in models. Whether they have done this successfully is moderated through a costly signal in peer review, publishing and job markets, institutional politics, and that hallowed hyperobject – credibility.

Science’s claim to disinterestedness in a world of clashing interests is noble. Its not infrequent tendency to fail is the object of the research programme prevailing in anthropology called technopolitics. For my part, I’m interested in the intellectual history of social structure, the domain of something called social science. Disciplines like sociology, economics, and political science were founded on the premise that by following the interpretive framework of the natural sciences, it is possible to theorise the arrangement and relations between the constituent parts of social space in a disinterested and, if not entirely objective, then at least in a positivist way. An extreme variant of such a view is found in authors as diverse as Smith, Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Spencer, and Keynes; it is survived in the organizing logic of intellectual inquiry in the social sciences.

But the project is notorious, mainly because the postmodern academy defines differently the unified phenomena we wish to label the social, economic, or political. An ever-growing number of critical theorists and philosophers of social science are losing faith in the unified categories social science accords to the arrangement of and relations between the parts of the things it decides to isolate as as a structurally unified phenomenon. Even race, class, and gender, the organising devices of modern theories of politics and and power, only appear to us as unitary. They are in fact cultural typologies whose real, material bases are intersected and embedded in actor networks, represented in discourse and symbols. Bruno Latour has written that

Everyone seems to know with what sort of forces and in which sort of materials the social world is made. I have always been struck, on the contrary, by the huge gap between the vast variety of attachments with which people elaborate their different worlds and the limited repertoire we possess in social science to account for them.

The problem is widespread. Most in the contemporary academy struggle to agree on, or even maintain conviction in, the most basic categories of social analysis, like class or power. When one asks whether it is possible to properly define the arrangement of and relations between the constituent parts of the theoretical object we are willing to call society, the economy, or the polity, the answer in the humanities is assured: it is hard to know which parts of the symbolic order, and its codes of trust, violence, exchange, labour, and authority, can be treated as phenomena sufficiently unified by structural relations to warrant their own theoretical objects in the mode practiced by natural science. Ironically, as they would claim, despite social science borrowing metaphors from natural stuctures, the environment within people live – mountains, tectonic plates, rivers, drainage, soil, irrigation, fauna, pollution, towns, and villages – can all too easily cheapen the ethereal impulses of social physics. No one understands all the complex ways in which we are related to one another – from wither will we ever?

Owing to this basic problem, the traditional heuristics of the social sciences have been replaced by complex networks, interlaced in gender and critical studies with heterogeneities of cultural, ethnic, and social identities. Its central nodes include human actors, technologies, images, and material objects, which continuously interact. Ever more, the social theorist strives to dissolve the entire edifice of structured society by interpreting human experience as an ongoing process of construction and signification. Competing on the market of ideas, many produce their own novel interdisciplinary syntheses.

But accounting for social structure, or what overarching category should exist in its place, remains a core problematic of civic epistemology. Drawing on metaphors from natural science, economists like Paul Samuelson have argued the principles of classical thermodynamics, especially that of general equilibrium, can be entirely profitably applied to economic theory. Historians from Philip Mirowski to Timothy Mitchell highly doubt it; as do the descendants of theory-conscious libertarians such as Friedrich Hayek. What are we to believe? The historical fact remains that analogies with nature help social theorists find the language to explain the way human beings seem mechanistically, fluidly, and structurally related together. It helps them build credibility with their colleagues, the public, and therefore also governments.

Even overlooking the tendency of economists to ignore questions about the environment, social cohesion, and justice, it is hardly controversial to claim that, historically, the proclivity of human beings to analogise themselves with inert physics has had tragic consequences. A veritable raft of theories about how societies should attempt to order and govern their populations have been articulated in the ontologically-assured phraseology of innate structure, order, and natural science. The hopeful are promised harmony, balance, and growth in the social realm, if only certain allegedly natural laws are adhered to. This kind of impulse is the proper object of cultural anthropology. But without too much theorisation it is plain to see that the assured claims of structure have propagated hierarchies of unjust power. A gaze at Tudor England, Napoleonic France, British India, the Confederacy, the Belgian Congo, Nazi Germany, or the USSR confirms that such a logic of scientific reason has had a devastating humanitarian track record. 

Let us finally turn to structure as a metaphor for mental space, as expressed in everyday speech: to learn the foundations, prepare the building blocks of knowledge, or to structure our thoughts. The classical method of enhancing memory, imagining a ‘memory palace’, is testament to the enduring metaphorical relationship between structure and cognition. Even more so than for social structures, however, we face major interpretive problems in understanding and representing such mental structures. Even the most basic questions about the structural emergence of cognition and sentience, whether we are free-willed or environmentally-determined agents elude easy answers.

Defining the individual constituent parts of mental structures, whose arrangement and relationships we have historically sought to measure, model, represent, and explain, has proved impossible. Attempts can be found in indigenous cosmogonies, medieval meditations on the soul, Cartesian dualism, speculative phrenology, Husserl’s structural phenomenology of consciousness, Freud’s psychoanalysis of the tripartite unconscious mind, Daniel Dennett’s unconscious automatons, and a million other generic clusters of psychadelically induced spiritual revelations. All have failed to ascertain widespread credibility and assent as explanatory models in the way those produced by sciences like biology and economics have. Unlike psychology, which also has to be applied, but like theoretical physics, which usually doesn’t, neuroscience has not achieved a level of consensus in its model-building for a narrative of established facts to be fully credible. I wonder likewise whether social structures would have aroused more suspicion, had they not had such an involved institutional logic.

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