Human chemistry

Many concepts span a metaphorical plane across physical, social, and mental space, such as Lefebvre has interpreted space. Others are balance, order, and decay, which can purportedly be explained by another. Structure refers to the constitutive arrangement, relationships, and patterns between the objects, images, and devices present within in our physical, social, and mental space. The structure of molecules, the ways in which atoms are bonded together, can be represented by analytical chemists through molecular geometry, as in this model:

A profusion of molecular structures react. Bacteriologists and pharmacologists perceive in them an emergent structure – a biological organism, situated in a an ecology of interacting structures. The heuristic category of structure as a means to decode chemical, biological, and ecological space already seems capacious, before considering the structures of galaxies, stars, stellar remnants, interstellar gas, dust, and dark matter. But, despite its breadth, looking for ‘the arrangement of and relations between the parts or elements of something complex’ is necessarily a phenomenologically restricted posture. The scientist measures, models, represents, and accords a level of unified coherence to their given conceptual object. The undifferentiated, acting human being on the other hand typically only determines to conceptualise an otherwise overwhelmingly subjective experience through the lens of structure when the encounter with a given phenomenal manifestation seems to necessitate the application of instrumental reason. Though chemical structure is perhaps the only way to think about a molecule, anatomy is just one way to think about an animal – which can also be seen as a cherished pet, a mortal threat, or (for carnivores) as meat. And there are many more ways than theoretical physics to think about the heavens. Just as solipsism can explain nothing, the higher apertures of the structural lens cannot capture the emotional and psychological immediacy of subjective experience. Chemistry contrives order only by deduction from sense, a slanted Faustian bargain – as if to climb the Apollonian tower of reason, without the journey of Dionysian transcendence. Humanism, however, must account for intersubjective modes of consciousness.

Structure assumes the arrangement of and relations between the parts or elements of something are functionally related to each other in such a way as predicates its unified phenomenal manifestation. Most structures lacking a clear physical demarcation lack representational coherence without the predicating unity of metaphor. Ecology, society, and culture resist workable boundaries. Their structures are systematic, networked constellations best understood by drawing out their emergent properties. They restructure themselves through human agency, inevitably producing and being produced by technology – the instrumentalisation of structural knowledge for the purposes of construction, destruction, and reconstruction. The style of structural representation on which such technologies depend is a problem of civic epistemology, for democracy must govern gene therapy, chemical fertilisers, and industrial weaponry. And so democracies, their constituents and its subjectivities, must themselves be structured correctly.

Though disciplined by ostensibly disinterested rubrics such as biology, chemistry, astronomy, and physics, scientists then appear as both the subjects and vectors of political technology. They measure and theorise the arrangement of the constituent parts of structures, represent and communicate their findings in models, and send the results off to the jury – the discipline. Colleagues, peer reviewers, and readers decide whether the scientist perceives the structure according to the agreed methodology. The claim of this social organisation of knowledge to disinterestedness must be spurious, since the beneficiaries are almost invariably the social technicians of capital or the state. The decisive interestedness of the investigation into those structures which impinge on power relations is the cause for the prevailing research subjects in the humanities and social sciences called historical epistemology and techno-politics. Both problematise social structure by attending to its contingent, often iniquitous conditions of conceptual possibility.

Sciences of the social were founded on the premise that by following the interpretive framework of the natural sciences, it would be possible to develop an objective account of the structure of human social organisation. Variants of this view are still carried through the ghosts of Hume, Smith, Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Spencer, Mill, Althusser, Hayek, and Keynes, leaving traces in the organising logic of economic, social, and political science. But two generations of humanists have matured in a new age of epistemological psychedelics – that relativising cult of contradictions, that materialist subjectivism, that is poststructuralism. With it, critical theorists and philosophers of social science have lost faith in the categories that social theorists traditionally isolated as structurally unified, and therefore causally predicated, objects. Latour complains 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.

It is ironic that social theory in its germination took root in physical science, since the ethereal impulses of its natural analogy were easily cheapened by mountains, rivers, drains, soil, fauna, any variety of polluting particulate – the material environment within which real people live. Neo-classical economics had an impressively acrobatic social physics, which managed, deftly, even beautifully, to render an entirely self-perpetuating and self-sustaining object of inquiry, governed even by thermodynamics, to resist the surgical state’s forceps and probes.

Economists’ ethereal descriptions of capitalist relations have a strangely poetic merit, and therefore compel. But they are one instantiation of a more general proclivity of human beings to analogise their relations with inert physics. 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 and order. The hopeful are promised harmony, balance, and growth in the social realm, if natural laws are followed. The historian and cultural anthropologist today sees easily that a naturalised conception of social structure has propagated hierarchies of unjust power: cases are well documented for the Confederacy, the Belgian Congo, the British Empire, Nazi Germany, the USSR, indeed almost everywhere. Yet such a conception also overthrew Louis XVI, and legitimated his execution. It was against Paine’s radical naturalism that Burke adumbrated his organicist teleology. The latter’s phenomenological conservatism comprehended the central dilemma of modern politics: to justify political contrivance in the social, the social must itself be known. For Burke, of course, the social could never entirely be known. He would have been dismayed by the twentieth century. The techno-political state of the post-war period is the climactic realisation of the arguments he saw emerging from the mid-eighteenth century: that it would be possible to outline the underlying structure of social reality in terms of simplified causal relations, governed by a discernible structure. This epistemic assumption had a complex genesis, but was clearly traceable in Ricardians, Benthamites, and socialists from the early nineteenth century, and thereafter in various other guises instrumentalised by powerful organisations and nation states throughout the rest of imperial and world history.

Save for those in economics and political science disciplined in the perversions of rational choice and utility maximisation, exposed so blatantly by psychoanalysis, few critics in the twenty-first century agree on the arrangement of the constituent structuring parts of the most basic categories of social analysis. When asked 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 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. Philosophers and social theorists posit irreducibly complex networks, interlaced with human actors, technologies, images, and material objects, which continuously interact, unconsciously and unpredictably re-structuring their relationships, so that no sub-structures can reasonably be distinguished. Cultural critics describe the representing and re-coding of contingent typologies, in the slippery legitimating aesthetic and discursive architecture of semiotics. Some political theorists and linguists preserve a greater degree of structural coherence by rendering human beings as the intersubjective technology of their own restructuring, through an ethnological interpretation of human social and discursive encounter as an ongoing process of meaningful construction and signification. Some produce quantitative models while acknowledging their structuring assumptions cannot accurately represent the unmeasurable vagaries and shades of social reality. Many others borrow freely from discourse, Lacanian, and Marxist-existentialist analysis. Competing on the market of ideas, free spirits produce their own novel interdisciplinary syntheses. The project of accounting for structure has no end – it is the necessary technology to comprehend, sustain, and transform modernity. But it has shattered into fragments resembling the division of labour and experience in its structuring social context.

A final word on mental space, the only known space where it is possible to conceive of structure as an explanation for the functional order of external phenomena. Testament to the foundations in reality of the metaphorical linkages between structure and cognition are the unthinkingly parroted phrases of everyday speech – to learn the foundations, prepare the building blocks, structure thoughts, as well as the method of enhancing retention by constructing a memory palace. But there are well-known challenges to understanding what kind of structure the mind has. Basic problems in the emergence and processes of sentient experience elude convincing explanations. Defining even the outlines of mental structure has proved controversial since Descartes, and again since Freud. The recent discipline of neuroscience, by identifying the brain as a material structure, mental as physical space, rightly gainsays dualism. Social-cognitive neuroscientists have made little progress in parsing noisier intersubjectivities. We still depend on social psychology, victim to the replication crisis.

Despite the efforts of Diderot and d’Alembert, it is doubtful human beings will be able to agree on an integrated conception of mental, social, and physical structure, which can explain the intellectual genealogies of their emergence, transformation, and disintegration as conceptual objects. To search for structure is to search for the irretrievably lost key to Adamic knowledge, knowing it is preserved only in delicate fragments, in civilisation’s confusion of tongues. Structure is the codex of enlightenment, the language to the universe of possibility. It is our salvation, but also our curse. To proceed, we must continue to develop, taking stock of its dangers, as Nietzsche resisted but finally accepted, ‘a chemistry of the moral, religious, aesthetic ideas and sentiments, as also of those emotions which we experience in ourselves both in the great and in the small phases of social and intellectual intercourse’.