J.L.Lemke On-line Office
Jay L. Lemke
The Graduate Center
City University of New York
The meanings we make are a product not only of our immediate needs but also of the modes of social organization in which we participate. We fill out forms, give job-talks, write essays, and make small-talk because we participate in larger- and smaller-scale social institutions from the nation-state to the family and the business office. Within these settings we deploy the resources appropriate to various more- and less- prescribed written and spoken genres as our immediate needs and longer-term ambitions dictate. What is true of the meanings made specifically with language is true more generally of the meanings made with every form of human action: each act participates in local constructions of meaning on shorter timescales at the same time that it also participates in the systematic networks of interdependent activities that sustain institutions and societies over much larger distances and longer times.
The high modern world is characterized by standardization: different people in widely separated times and places recreate similar forms and documents, acts and practices. As I have argued elsewhere (Lemke 2000a, b, …), it is the material embodiment of meaning in physical texts, documents, tools, artifacts, architecture, designed land- and city-scapes, and in our own human bodies that enables us to coordinate activities over long periods of time and so over global societies and virtual communities of millions of people and billions of artifacts. There is standardization of infrastructure and classification schemes (Star & Bowker 2000…), standardization of instruments and measures, standardization of textual genres both written and spoken, and standardization of the routine activities of daily life and specialist practice. The making of texts and tools, the using of texts and tools, the enactment with our own bodies of familiar rituals and routines does not just get some job done in the here and now. It also repeats key features familiar to others, which they in turn can make sense of and make use of, often for very different purposes in other times and places. In this basic way activities remote in time and space come to be articulated, coordinated, interdependent.
Not surprisingly many of us rebel against this standardization. We magnify the significance of small variations, we seek novel meanings and creative practices. We also worry that over-standardization makes our social system too rigid, too little able to respond to the waves of change that pass through it, many of its own unplanned making. We live in practical terms only by conforming to standardization; we depend on the predictable practices and products of others in every aspect of our lives. We are caught in the web. Within the prescriptions of our modern genres of text and action, our standard templates for artifacts and institutions, we do find latitude. We can deploy the constituents of these genres in different ways that are still meaningful and still useful, and we sometimes deploy them tactically against the strategic interests of institutions we find oppressive (de Certeau 19..). More importantly perhaps, we can mix and combine genre templates and their components in novel ways with results unpredictable even to ourselves. Insofar as genres and standardized forms represent institutional idealizations, we do in fact never produce perfect instances of them, but always instead some sort of hybrid bricolage that is, we hope, functional enough to get by on, perhaps personal enough to be proud of, sometimes odd enough to be interesting in its own right.
Standardization is our solution to the problem of ecosocial scale. In many ways it is Nature’s solution also. Large ecosystems are not simply made from the diversity of species, but from the endlessly repeated webs of relationships among different members of the same species (plural), identical enough for ecological purposes. Nature hedges her bets with many layers of redundant diversity: there are many phenotypically and genotypically different individuals of each species, each ready to play its role in the great webs in a slightly different, but often enough functionally equivalent manner. There are many species that occupy homologous niches, not quite but almost equally good as substitute food-source, competitor, predator, decomposer, or transporter. There are many fractally self-similar ecological patches on many spatial scales, each ready to function as the seed for regeneration of the larger ecosystem after its periodic and predictable local traumas. In species with wide ranges, individual organisms can in principle pick up their lives and survive even if artificially transported far from their native habitat. This is perhaps less true of the most highly social species, who may have individual attachments to particular mates and troops, or hives and broods. Human cultural standardization extends our range as individuals and as members of social subgroups, not yet as widely as our species range (linguistic and cultural barriers are still serious obstacles), but much more widely than in earlier eras of the human past.
Standardization is here to stay, but it is not the last word in human organizational technologies or social forms. The logical endpoint of this strategy is global uniformity on such a scale as to diminish the diversity of the human ‘meme-pool’ to dangerously low levels. There must be countervailing tendencies at work. Those which operate solely within the tolerances of standardized genres and templates, the limited creativity of ‘normal science’ and ‘normal life’, while wondrously diverse under the microscope of micro-analysis, cannot account for the emergence of radically new ecosocial and cultural-natural phenomena. What can account for them, in the view of complex systems theory, is the unpredictability of strong-coupling, of multiple feedback loops and nonlinear reinforcement of small effects toward the larger scale by the collective and cooperative phenomena of whole systems (Kauffman 19..; Lemke 2000a, b; Bar-Yam 2000). Most simply it is new networks, new couplings, connections, and interdependencies that can surprise us.
What do new networks look like in their embryonic forms, before we can say whether they, too, will in their turn become standardized? Do they need to become standardized in order to play a significant role in ecosocial systems? in culture, identity, and behavior? or as grounds of meaningful activity?
I wish to propose here a new class of theoretical object, which I am calling traversals. Traversals are temporal-experiential linkings, sequences, and catenations of meaningful elements that deliberately or accidentally, but radically, cross genre boundaries. A traversal is a traversal across standardized genres, themes, types, practices, or activities that nevertheless creates at least an ephemeral or idiotypical meaning for its human participants, and represents at least a temporarily functional connection or relationship among all its constituent processes and their (human or nonhuman) participants (i.e. actants).
I believe that traversals are becoming a particularly significant ecosocial and natural-cultural phenomenon in this period of world history, the late 20th and the 21st century, in the same sense in which genres and standardization became particularly significant in the high modern era of the 19th and early 20th centuries. As there have come to be in the high modern period more genres, more standardized types, and so stronger and more rigid boundaries and principles of classifications to define and separate them, so there have also come to be more more resources for hybridization, for creative and stylistic combination and catenation of these types as elements separated from their usual contexts.This is one of the principles of post-modernism in art, literature, architecture, and other avant-garde pursuits: to wrest genre-specific elements away from their genre contexts and expected partnerings and jumble them in new ways. By and large, however, post-modernism emphasizes mainly the static juxtaposition of familiar elements in unfamiliar combinations and settings. Only occasionally does it serialize its generative principle, moving from synchronic novelty to new diachronic possibilities for action and for life.
The contemporary impulse toward life-by-traversals comes from sources at many levels of social organization. We may speculate that part of our biological survival repertory is a disposition toward new experiential combinations under conditions of severe repetition. When too much of our life simply repeats the same sequences of action, with small variations, again and again, something in our phylogenetic wisdom may impel us not to follow action A with action B yet again, but at least now and then to see how it feels if we follow A with Q or V. This could be a source at the infra-organismic scale of organization. At the organism level, where we define ourselves as whole social beings by our interactions with others and with things (the human and nonhuman partners of our ecosocial being), we value the security and predictability of standardized patterns of inter-activity, but only up to the point of boredom. We are curious and perverse primates. Put us together and we are likely to goad one another to dangerous and improbable forms of behavior; link our diverse individual interests and perversions, and combinatorially, which is to say socially, we create for one another a much larger space of possibilities for action. Each step outside our familiar routines leads us into unknown territory where we cannot know even what we will want next, much less what we will get by acting. We move out into the unpredictable spaces of our relations to our companions, and we move also into spaces mediated by artifacts which bear the traces of others’ choices in other times and places.
I believe that it is becoming safer to break the rules that were formerly necessary to the survival-by-standardization of nation-states and national cultures because the global economy and its emerging meta-culture provides a stabilizing outer-envelope within which transgressions need not be disastrous for individuals or social networks. Traversals are, I believe, the characteristic form that is becoming salient and significant in the transition to globalization; the form that will truly characterize the successor to modernism.
Global society will not be the nation-state writ large. The technologies of social organization that reached their apex in large national societies were already strained past their limits of feasibility for such unprecedentedly large and diverse ecosocial systems. The ‘pyramid schemes’ of top-down social control through large ramifying bureacracies (administrative, military, educational, corporate) must depend on too many buffering/filtering intermediate levels of organization for there to be successful communication upwards of the information needed to manage the total system from the top down. Those nearer the bottom know what needs to be done, but cannot command the resources needed to act. Those near the top who do command those resources can only respond to the perceptions of their immediates and secondary subordinates, who are already excessively buffered from relevant information coming up from the bottom by the many levels of intervening interest, habit, and institutional culture that insulate them from the perspectives of those further down and bias their upward translations of the information they do receive from below.
Global culture will not be standardized, indeed it will not be ‘a culture’at all in the modernist sense, but rather some sort of meta-culture or culture-of-cultures. It is not entirely clear yet just what its new principles of organization will be, but there is a likely relationship between traversals as a post-cultural form and the principles that will define the global meta-culture, the organizational logic of global society, and the new modes of social control that must inevitably emerge to regulate and coordinate distributed action. This ultimately is why an inquiry into traversals as a meaning-phenomenon seems to me to be worth the effort of study and conceptualization.
What are traversals?
Definitions belong to the end days of theory-building; they are never truly starting points. I gave a notional definition of traversal above; do not regard it as definitive or generative, but as a way into the examination, the intellectual construction of a putative phenomenon.
Examples are more helpful. Traversals include such phenomena as:
hypertexts, experienced in time as jumping
from one element in one modern genre or type to another that may be quite
disparate, e.g. narrative to poem to diagram to table to dialogue to video to
quantitative graph, etc. (Landow
19.., Lemke 19.. etc.)
websurfing, which generalizes the simple hypertext across radically different content categories, linguistic registers, and domains of human activity, but with some logical connective relations at each juncture or link, and with a sense, like that for hypertext, of a coherent meaning-experience along a whole experiential trajectory
channel-surfing, the immediate predecessor of
web-surfing, in which the viewer jumps at various rates among the widely
different television programs and genres (adventure to cooking to news to
talkshow, etc.), again creating a unique and in some sense coherent
meaning-making experience, in which the viewer is a more active creator of the
trajectory than s/he could be in relation to any single program
mall-cruising, an architectural experience, or ‘reading’ of assembled space, in which, whether as shopper or social visitor, over a relatively short span of time, individuals move from food-court to clothes-mart to movie theatre to furnished public space, again assembling the trajectory of a coherent visit-to-the-mall
To these we can add such less radically heterogeneous precursors as: video montages, disco sound and record ‘mixes’, the distinctive mixed-period-style of some postmodern architecture, and even that hybrid reality of all texts that leads to the famous dictum of Derrida that you cannot not mix genres. Let me analyze this dictum as a way of making salient the role of scale in defining and characterizing traversals.
Of course you can produce a pure, idealized genre (boring and predictable as that is likely to be), but only if it is short, brief, or simply repetitive with prescribed limits of variation. Every standardized bureaucratic document-form is such a pure genre. So are simple genres like the sonnet, sonata, or haiku, extending perhaps to the folktale, to ritual speech genres, the simple mathematical proof, the patent application, perhaps the typical scientific research article. We can produce pure instances of ideal genres of indefinite length by recursion, as with dictionaries, linked folktales as in the 1001 Arabian Nights, etc. But once we try to produce really long texts, or really long-term sequences of action, the inherent messiness of life intrudes. There are always ‘circumstances beyond our control’, lapses of memory, errors of production, interruptions, intrusions, our own perverse need to diverge, and digress. There are improvisations, irrefusable opportunities to improve, create, individualize. There is the simple impossibility of prescribing in sufficient detail all the elements of a text or activity that is semantically heterogeneous (i.e. does not keep repeating the same meaning patterns over and over) or functionally developmental (i.e. having got to some point in the sequence of action, new possibilities emerge just because of what we have done so far, possibilities that could not have been foreseen before we did it). There is simply no functional point in trying to pre-specify the total course of a lengthy activity or the total shape of a lengthy text. Lengthy activities must allow for unforeseeable opportunities and contingencies, for emergent goals. Long texts are written to make meanings that do not serve only standardized functions (Lemke, in preparation).
The novel is not a genre; even the most predictable ‘genre novel’ is not actually written to a formula, or if it is, it does not serve for us all the important functions of a novel. No book which develops a related cluster of themes for its entire length of hundreds of printed pages can be said to be an instance of a predictable, formulaic genre. An ode or an elegy may be highly standardized, but an epic is not. The interest of a long text lies partly in its unpredictability, whether narrative (the novel, the drama) or informational (the essay, the treatise). Standardized scientific textbooks are perhaps the longest texts to realize pure genres in both form and content; they represent an epitome of modernism, texts so similar in form and content that they are more like translations than original works.
What is important, however, for the theory of traversals, is that we make new kinds of meanings across very long texts which are qualitatively different from those we make with short texts. If every possible meaning could be made in a single clause, we would have no need of complex sentences. If moderate length sentences afforded the entire meaning potential of language, we would have no occasion to create longer texts. It is a very important and largely unanswered question in the theory of text semantics just what kinds of meanings we can and do create with longer-scales texts that we cannot make with shorter texts? (Lemke, in preparation). Traversals are also conceptualized as meaning-makings, and what characterizes a traversal is precisely that some kind of coherent meaning is made in the unpredictable sequencing of unlike types over ‘text-scales’ that are longer than the scales of the standardized elements which are strung together along the traversal.
Hypertext and its extension to hypermedia afford the most text-like instances of traversals. The user’s trajectory or pathway through a hypertext environment (a set of texts or other media objects, with specific links among them) may afford the possibility of moving from text page to video playback to map display, and from poetry to expository argument to narrative, in many possible sequences, some planned by the creators of the hypertext and many not. Of course hypertext also affords, like print, the simultaneous display of different genres of text and other media, and we know that the reading experience of print is also one in which our eye and attention move at different rates along various visual and logical pathways to attend to these elements sequentially (including alternately, back and forth). Hypertext simply extends this affordance but also make it possible for reader-users to create much more original and unpredictable traversals through the resources of the hypertext environment. What is most important about hypertext traversals, and traversals in general, are the kinds of meanings that we make, coherently and cumulatively, along the traversal, on its longest scales.
Organized hypertexts often have relatively thematically constrained textual and other media resources. But the WorldWideWeb is itself the largest scale hypertext known, or probably today imaginable. Following its links across only a few webpages can readily shift the thematic domain quite radically and unpredictably, and many of us have often found ourselves enjoying ‘surfing the web’ in this way. A complete surfing ‘session’ may have for us, retrospectively or even in real time as it is occurring, a sense of meaningfulness, of idiosyncratic coherence. Taken as a whole, or perhaps retrospectively and more selectively assembled from various of its constituent experiences/pages, we can feel that we have ‘done something’ or ‘got somewhere’ or just had a good exploratory tour. This experience is I think akin to ‘channel-surfing’ and the cumulative experience of a unique juxtaposition (really serialization) of moments from programs and commercials of widely different genres (weather, beer, comedy, action, feminine deodorant, news). Sometimes the results are hilarious, sometimes depressing; sometimes we linger, sometimes we keep moving along, but this is ‘an activity’ – it is ‘viewing’ or ‘surfing’ and not simply a meaningless instrumental interlude en route to real viewing. It is a mode of television use or experiencing, and one that has a lot of popularity, especially among younger people for whom the organized content of television is often boring or irrelevant.
My notion of traversal first began to make sense in a
conversation with Jerome Bruner about his useful notion that our identities are
constructed along narrative principles, and often constructed and reconstructed
in the actual telling of stories about ourselves in daily life, in family
groups, etc (Bruner 19..; see also Gergen 19.., Wortham 2001). There is a
critical tradition in the theory of autobiography, as also for the evaluation of
testimony in trial law, which points out that we organize the stories of our
lives, what we have done and what we have witnessed, according to the
standardized genres of culturally valued narratives (Refs 19..). We want to make
our lives sound heroic or tragic, or at least interesting, as stories. We tell
stories of events in ways that seem to make sense because they fit familiar
patterns in which sensible motives seem to lie behind actions and events. So on
this view, while constructed identities very likely are narrative effects, there
must be a pre-narrative mode in which we actually experience our lives as
meaningful as they happen, rather than retrospectively. My proposal to Bruner
was that ‘we tell our lives as narratives, but we experience them as
So it is not just the more specialized forms of traversal experience in channel- and web-surfing that I have in mind, but the way in which we experience the meaningfulness of a day in our lives as having some wholeness or coherence to it, being some sort of a unique ‘text’-- retrospectively seen and told as a narrative, perhaps, but originally experienced meaningfully as a traversal or hypertext. I believe that we are now passing historically from the era of simply making sense of our lives as they happen, at various timescales, to a more deliberate and artificial, historically specific, cultural practice of creating days of our lives as works of art, or at least as works of craft. It may not of course be the whole day, though I rather suspect that the day is a culturally salient scale for traversal meaning. The work of ‘making the day interesting’ may well be partly responsive to or in reaction against those parts of it that were boring or unpleasant, or began and promised to be so. Leisure days are the most obvious instances of this, but I think that increasingly some people, perhaps again younger people, are looking at all of their days in this way. Not necessarily to make a good tellable story of the day, though we also do that, but at least to make a day that has a certain satisfaction to it, taken as a whole.
Beyond days, of course, there are longer timescales in our lives, and I think traversals happen meaningfully for people, and perhaps to some degree deliberately, on the scale of the week and on some much longer if more indefinite scales … those on which we feel that we are ‘in a rut’ or ‘need a change’ or just ‘have to get out and do something’. Perhaps the longest such scale is the biographical one, on which our whole lives seem to us to have a cumulative ‘quality’, to have a progression or sense of meaningful sequence, development, or variation that is not defined by narrative conventions, and which is not so much an explicit retrospective evaluation (which tends to be narrative, I think) as an on-going sense of our life insofar as it is a ‘work-in-progress’ that is happening now, on some timescale, in a way that ‘works’ for us in relation to our sense of the emerging whole, or doesn’t.
More concretely, on the biographical scale, we can consider attitudes toward careers. In the ideal form of high modernism, there were standardized career paths much as there were standardized forms for all significant modes of social coordination of activity. These career paths were like textual genres in that they had definite stages and predictable progressions, with expected features (salary, responsibility, perks) associated with each stage. One could tell the prospective story of a career in a very standardized (anticipatory, future-tense) narrative form. But this is no longer the case for people, especially those at the early stages of a life-career, today. One consequence of the globalization of the economy is that enterprises, even large-scale ones, must respond much more quickly than in the past to threats and opportunities, if they are to survive. This implies for those who work for firms today that job security is not an expectation, much less a lifetime career in the same company. Younger workers today, especially those with the highest career ambitions, imagine that they will rarely work more than a few years for the same company, or even in the same industry or economic sector. Whereas before globalization it was an important part of economic stability in urban or national societies for relatively able (or at least highly culturally capitalized) people to be predictably locked into standardized career paths, now it is not only permissible, but necessary for most such people to ‘career surf’ across what were formerly major structural boundaries between different industries and economic sectors, in relatively unpredictable sequences. ‘Career-surfing’ is another, and very significant, long-timescale example of a traversal.
How do traversals matter to the larger ecosocial system? What difference does it make if this person or that makes some sense of a traversal across a disparate and unusual collection of genre fragments and otherwise standardized activities or events? More specifically, how do traversals have consequences on much longer timescales?
Let us go back again to the case of genres and standardized activities. These too take place, instance by instance, on relatively short timescales, times of the order of hours or days in most cases. How does it happen that their forms recur in different times and places, so that the typical lifetime of influence of the form is decades or centuries? As I have argued elsewhere, this heterochrony or linkage across radically different timescales is always mediated by the temporal persistence of material artifacts, including the human body itself (Lemke 2000). In brief, material texts and other semiotic artifacts persist and circulate in society over timescales much longer than the characteristic timescale on which they are written or read and used in shorter-term activities. The conventions for making meaning with these artifacts (i.e. meanings above and beyond, yet made by reference to, their strictly physical and biological affordances) are themselves also preserved and circulated through such artifacts. Ecosocial systems, at least insofar as human culture matters in them, are made both more complex and more tightly coupled at larger scales by this by these practices/processes, these material technologies of ecosocial organization.
A particular traversal may of course be the precursor to a future standardized genre. It may be repeated, exactly or with some tolerable variation, by the same person, or by other persons, on occasions nearer or more remote in time and place. It may become regularized by word of mouth, by written accounts, by arrangements of artifacts and land- or city-scapes that make it more likely for a similar traversal to be made again. The traversal must leave some enduring trace, in an account or record of itself (symbolic signs), or by its effects on the world (indexical signs). Its near-replicas, of course, are also (iconic) signs renewing its meaning and possibility for us.
But all this is distinctly a matter of timescale, and timescales are matters of degree, however much discrete, order-of-magnitude differences of timescale are the basis of system organization. A single traversal persists on its own timescale; its memory may persist in an individual, there may be indexical traces of its having occurred that persist in the environmen, it may be visible to others, accounts of it may circulate. This does not mean that it will ever be replicated or imitated. But in addition to standardized genres and institutionalized repertoires of activities, ecosocial systems are characterized on shorter timescales by repertoires of possibility. Sometimes called ‘the thinkable’ or ‘the imaginable’ in contrast with the presumptively not-imaginable, doings that have no meanings, and which therefore cannot be imagined through their meanings and so can only be encountered by circumstance or accident. There are things we can fall into that we could not have imagined. Most times these happenings are not, for us, events at all, just confusions, lacking even so much meaningfulness as identifiability as discrete or segmentable occasions or events. But sometimes we encounter an event, a happening in the world, even one in which we find ourselves an unintentional participant, that has meaning during or after the experience even though it had no place in our system of possibles and thinkables before. The repertoire of possibles is thereby expanded for us. Sometimes its structural organization is even overturned or modified, though probably more often such events are added as singulars, still not part of any generative systemic potential.
Traversals can enlarge the repertoire of possibles. This is, after all, part of the motivation I gave at the beginning for their species survival value. And in particular what they can do is to create local and ephemeral possibilities of meaningful connection or catenation among otherwise radically distinguished and separated genres and domains of activity. And not just one to another, but whole sets of genres, domains, topics, themes, categories of person, categories of experience, of action/activity that are united by the thread of even a single traversal that passes through all of them.
Local and ephemeral (on some timescale), traversal repertoires can potentially become regularized, standardized, repeated, and disseminated over larger scales and for longer times. Or they may not. A traversal repertoire may portend a new category-in-the-making or a new activity-genre-in-the-making, or it may not. History is contingent, at many scales. There may be a place or function for the new activity in some larger-scale structure, or not. The smaller-scale enabling events need to promote institutionalization may occur, or they may not.
But this way of thinking about the sequelae of traversals is still modernist, still privileges the way of standardization, as if all that mattered in human life or the dynamics of an ecosocial system were its relatively fixed invariant forms. This importance, I believe, attaches to invariants because they mediate social control. Social control under modernism, as Foucault has often described it (Foucault 19..), consists essentially of technologies of standardization: artifactually mediated means of comparing people and events to idealized standardized forms and rewarding closer matches and sanctioning divergences outside some narrow range of tolerance. Society prescribes for us ideal patterns of conformity; some we internalize, some we resist, but they all take this same form. This is a historically specific mode of social control. Although no doubt something like it has existed through all of human history, it only became the dominant mode of social control in modern times. It is part and parcel of the technology of social organization for large-scale, modern mass societies. In smaller-scale societies it is usually sufficient to assemble ad hoc applications of precedent and abstract values for each particular instance. There is no special need to enforce widespread conformity to codified norms, only to adjust individual instances within local social tolerances (cf. tribal dispute resolution, witch-doctoring, mandarin courts, qadi justice).
Is there a mode of social control analogously associated with traversals and traversal repertoires? If so, then it may well become the dominant mode in a future where global meta-culture operates above, beyond, and to some extent outside of traditional modernist norms of conformity and standardization. I would no more expect norm-conformity to disappear in such a future than I would expect standardization to do so, but just as the emergence of higher levels of organization in the global economy permit relaxing the rigidity of many standardized practices such as standardized career paths or loyalty to national cultural ideals, so the corresponding global meta-culture will depend less on strict predictability of longer-term traversals (such as biographical-scale ones) and more on these traversals sharing some less restrictive features.
Here, finally, is my guess and my quandary about what seems to me to be the mode of social control that will grow in importance as traversals are added on top of activity genres and conformity to genre norms grows less important, at least on the timescales now to be dominated by traversals instead. My guess is that traversals will be characterized by something like their style. Something more like a holistic esthetic judgment rather than, as with genre-like norms, by objective conformity to codified criteria that specify analytical components. We judge genre-conformity by looking at the separate parts and their criterial features; if all the parts are present, if each has the canonical features, if they are all ordered in the normative manner, the text or activity passes muster. There is no special sense of the whole; no emergent quality of the whole that is taken to be more than the sum of the parts. Genre-conformity is an eminently linear and summative strategy, true product of the machine age. Traversal judgments, on the other hand, are eminently holistic, or at least they operate ‘in the large’, with the meaningfulness and quality of the longer-scale portions of the traversal more important than the smaller-scale ones. Traversals are emergent all the way down. They are characteristic of the age of complex (including biological and ecosocial) systems understanding.
Late modernist technologies of mass social organization require a historically unprecedented degree of social control and widespread standardization and conformity. In smaller-scale societies and their ecosocial systems there may have been a great deal of similarity, because there were relatively few differentiating resources available, but there did not need to be a high degree of control in the sense of coercive enforcement of codified norms of standardized conduct. Such norms were restricted to a few specialized domains of life, such as sacred rituals (note that by this definition Roman society and classical Chinese society were in many ways already ‘modern’ in scale and technologies of social organization). Modernist societies as they expand find that each effort to enforce standardization runs afoul of the messiness of complex systems, their inherent unpredictability arising from multiple cross-couplings and interlinked causal loops. Each effort to enforce conformity requires that more and more aspects of life must in turn also be controlled. Totalitarianism is the logical endpoint of modernism. Indeed it is the necessary endpoint of modernism. A global society built on modernist principles will be highly precarious, teetering permanently at the edge of collapse, requiring the most minute control of every aspect of human life and ecological processes. We will, I think, never reach this stage. Rather we will shift uneasily among the last gasps of modernism, the periodic crises of regional-global collapse and crisis (economic and ecological) arising from over-control, and the growing counter-system predicated on relaxing control over people and ecosystems, reducing expectations, accepting disasters as inevitable rather than increasing control in futile efforts to prevent them that only make for other greater disasters. We will have to finally let go of the Faustian fantasy and embrace a value system which privileges the whole over the part, the complete ecosocial system over humanity alone, and the quality of a day or a life over the standardization of a word or an action.
Another domain in which the notion of traversals has possible uses is in theorizing the completion of political economy. By this I mean that political economy as it has been developed classically has mainly been about control of the means of production and its ecosocial implications, but that, as Baudrillard has argued (very persuasively to me if not to many orthodox marxists), the classical theory (and I do mean Marx, for whom I have great admiration as a theorist, and his successors) is asymmetric in neglecting the social organization of consumption as a critical factor in political economy and indeed in ecosocial dynamics generally.
Baudrillard (1988: 39) quotes J.K. Galbraith, “Man
has become the object of science for man only since automobiles became harder to
sell than to manufacture.” Galbraith was speaking of marketing psychology, but
his larger point applies to the social sciences as a whole, and particularly to
cultural studies: the critical problem of the ecosocial systems which market
capitalism has built is not any longer the organization of production but rather
the organization of consumption. That is what the new sciences of postmodern
times set out to study, and it is what classical political economy could not
foresee. We too easily see power only from the perspective of its effects on
individuals, but at the larger scales of ecosocial systems, there is a balance
of power between the few producers and the many consumers. Individually, the
great capitalists, or their managerial successors, have power and use it to the
harm of many people, very visibly. But collectively, what is produced has no
value unless it is bought, and its actual market value depends more on the
inclination of large numbers of people to buy it than it does on the cost of the
raw materials that make it, or even on the labor value that shaped it. Whether
we think of dot-com stocks, software, entertainment titles, most intellectual
property, or really almost anything else today in advanced capitalist societies,
it is mass inclinations toward consumption which rule value. More is spent, e.g.
in the case of drugs, software, entertainment, and a host of other commodities
on creating a market than on creating a material-intellectual product.
The great problem of the first era of capitalism was to control and organize labor. That problem has been solved; there is a sort of uneasy equilibrium of capital and labor and an associated uneven development geographically that shifts with larger-scale trends of politico-economic development from gross exploitation to negotiated exploitability. The problem of organizing consumption, however, is not really solved. Labor costs are much more predictable and controllable than is market share or total demand. A shift in market demand can today easily make or break a company, and this effect will grow larger in the ‘information economy’. Increasingly there is little difference among products except ‘image’ and ‘branding’. Bourdieu’s sociology of Distinction provides the definitive modernist scientific analysis which Galbraith’s capitalist social science has looking for: it says in effect that we are raised to have particular consumer preferences, far more than we are educated to be labor producers. The great unfinished work of capitalism today is to control consumer behavior on a mass scale through mass culture, with formal schooling as a minor adjunct, a holdover from the days when it was the production of labor capacity that mattered most. Labor is well-disciplined today; consumption is not.
Consumer preferences, or habitus in Bourdieu’s term, are not just a matter of what breakfast cereal or brand of automobile we prefer; they include also what brand of news and politician we prefer, and which social opinions we profess. These, too, are marketed to us, high and low, in highbrow journals and lowbrow television and newspapers. Just as Marx correctly deduced that capital would not go to such lengths as it does to produce, organize, and control labor unless labor intrinsically possessed a tremendous power dangerous to capital, so we must recognize that the collective of consumers equally possesses such great and dangerous power. Indeed greater and growing, a fact which represents I think a historically new contradiction in market capitalism: profits are coming to depend more and more on the consumption of non-necessary commodities and non-necessary added features of necessary commodities, giving consumers greater collective power in disciplining producers because we do not materially need to buy these products and features. Withholding our labor is extremely difficult, painful, and risky under capitalism, but because we increasingly spend far more on consumption than what we need to survive, withholding or cutting back consumption is more and more freely discretionary. If consumers en bloc were to reduce consumption to the bare necessities and place all the rest of their income in savings, most modern economies would collapse rapidly. Even as capital is liberating itself from the power of labor, through technology and global labor markets, it is making itself totally dependent on the much more freely exercisable power of mass consumption. The boycott today is a far more poweful political weapon than the strike because its costs are so much easier to bear for those wielding it. Its use is limited by access to mass media and strategies of mass persuasion, whereas labor actions are easier to instigate locally and depend more on local organizing and appeals to local conditions. Capital is far ahead in its power to organize mass consumption, as it must be to survive and grow.
It is worth noting, I think, that historically in Marx’s time the control of consumption was entirely secondary to the organization of production. There were very few people with significant surplus income. The mass of people could not consume luxuries; their income barely sufficed for necessities. There was no point in organizing their consumption; it was organized by Want. There was also no urgency in organizing the consumption of the rich; their interests were already aligned with those of capital (except for the vanishing aristocracy). Firms cultivated ‘custom’ more through service and quality than by attempting to control the elite culture of their market. It was only, as Galbraith remarked, when mass production outstripped mass consumption that, first, wages had to rise to enable a growth in consumer demand commesurate with the productive capacities of mass production, and, second, someone had to figure out how to get that money back again. Note the complexity of this problem for capital. Each individual capitalist has an interest in keeping his own workers’ wages low, but he has equally an interest (perhaps not readily recognized at first) in all other workers’ wages rising, so they can buy his products. It took a long time for capital to begin to recognize that consumer spending was the motor of the economy, far more so than simple cost-efficiency of production. In any case it is not clear that individual capitalists did recognize the higher-scale interest in higher average wages, or even that they do today. Indeed it probably took a long time for it to become a fact that consumer spending dominated the economy, and of course it does so even today only in advanced economies. In earlier eras industrial goods and agricultural production were the largest part of the economy. Not so today, when increasingly it is not only consumer spending but discretionary consumer spending that cycles capitalism from fat years to lean ones and back. This is the basic change driving the great cultural shift from a focus on the organization of production (wage labor and machine technology) to a focus on the organization of consumption (mass culture and mass media).
The basic strategy for the organization of consumption, by which I mean directing consumer preferences into predictable channels and dispositions, is that of cultural modernism, and the ruling principle of cultural modernism is again standardization and codification by means of analytical categorizations and distinctions. Bourdieu has this well described in Distinction. But cultural modernism, as I have argued above, is a part of the wider modernist mode and technology of ecosocial organization, which leads us, at the global scale and even probably at the national scale, to unworkable hierarchies of power and control. Traversals represent a possible next stage beyond control by strict categorization, creating new long-term resource repertoires but not necessarily new long-term institutional structures or practices. Traversals are ephemeral, but the expanded repertoires of possibles that traversals represent are maintained over much longer timescales.
Traversals therefore also represent a principle for the re-organization of consumption. Instead of consuming ‘pre-packaged sets’ of experiences or goods all of which belong to “our” category (i.e. that determined by our fixed class and class-fraction habitus in Bourdieu’s terms), we can increasingly “mix and match” across formerly untraversable boundaries. We can ‘split our ticket’ in political parlance. Traversals can un-do the power for organizing consumption that capital has developed in the late modern period. They will also to some degree undo the power of class-based politics, and indeed of all category- or identity- based politics. We may still have classical class interests as producers/laborers, but we no longer need to express these in categorially fixed and predictable ways as consumers. In fact, the most desired social and individual life goal is already starting to be extending traversals across the lines dividing production from consumption, so that in our productive work we not only surf across roles, sectors, and careers on many timescales, but some of our productive work begins counts for us as a kind of consumption, i.e. as the choice of a good, a desirable experience or activity ‘purchased’ with our labor, and conversely, some of our consumption (e.g. the path we create through a hypertext) starts to become a product others are willing to pay for.
These notions also show us again how humans and nonhumans are mixed, for though we have been speaking of ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’ as common parlance proposes, what we are really talking about is the organization of consumption and production as processes-of-ecosocial-systems, and in that organization, both in means and in effects, it is never the isolated human organism which is the unit of analysis. It is only with tools and raw materials, and other people and the world, that any of us produces anything that is consumable or exchangeable. We are producers only as part of a ‘collective of humans and nonhumans’ in Latour’s phrase. Even more obviously there can be no consumption without a consumable, a medium of exchange, and a market. We are producers and consumers only as members of two related but distinct collectives. The relations between these collectives and their networks is part of what traversals potentially make different. Traversals weave them together into a single larger network, but not a stable one. Traversals make it possible to connect them ad hoc, again and again in many different ways. They can no longer be naturalized as distinct; the boundary work of separating them is undermined when unlimited connections between them are always part of our repertoire of possibles, even though any particular connection is ephemeral (it may be institutionalized on some longer time scale, or not).
It follows from the preceeding arguments that mass culture and mass education must have important, interesting, and rapidly changing relationships at the present time. Most simply put: mass education is the remnant of the system for producing organized, disciplined labor, and mass culture is the presently dominant mode of production of organized, disciplined consumption. Mass education is designed to produce factory labor and lower-level managerial labor. As advanced technical and lower level managerial labor has become a larger fraction of the population, university education has shifted from non-mass, elite education with a non-labor function (the production of class distinction and preparation for leisure) to become part of the apparatus for production of disciplined labor. Mass culture, on the other hand, delivered through the mass distribution media, continues to produce to some degree class distinction, but on a finer grained scale, rather divorced from class except in broad outline (as Bourdieu shows); it is really producing dispositions toward consumption on various timescales.
Timescales are important to this analysis. Bourdieu considers, for example, the ‘trajectory’ of individuals’ habitus, the biographical changes and development of habitus as people move through the system of social statuses and the typical lives and material conditions associated with them, allowing for upward and downward social mobility with and between generations. But as Marx clearly recognized, capital requires growth, and economic growth can be accomplished in two ways: by expanding markets (e.g. through imperialism, colonialism, and also as a last resort through raising wages) and by accelerating circulation. When we apply this to consumption (as Marx already did), we see that while there is some profit to be made from stable predictable consumer dispositions, there is even more to be made from predictable (because controlled and artificially manipulated) but rapid changes in dispositions on shorter timescales. These are what we know as the cycles of ‘fashion’ in all consumables (including political opinions and politicians). Bourdieu, and many others, have analyzed this obvious ploy: a new fashion creates a profit of distinction for the early-adopters; this profit is sought by others, diminishing the distinction, until there is no more to be gained by anyone, and meanwhile the early adopters have moved on to something newer to retain their distinction. Mass culture is in the business of organizing consumption on multiple timescales, from relatively enduring dispositions (support for capitalism, its ‘democratic’ constitutions, the principle of standardization, certain key principles of categorization, such as gender, and so on) to those that flux on the decades scale (antipathy to the current national enemy or nemesis) to those that vary on the yearly scale (typical consumer fashions). Long term dispositions, such as acceptance of naturalized gender categories, or age differentiation, provide the basis for shorter-term consumer dispositions – what is constructed in mass culture as ‘masculine’ this year or this generation, what is considered ‘age-appropriate’ on some shorter timescale.
But what are the relationships between mass culture and mass education? In the past they were radically dichotomized (another categorization principle for control purposes), just as production and consumption were, and as we were encouraged to see no connection between our identities and behaviors as producers and as consumers. But like many of the classical dichotomies of modernism, this one is also breaking down. It will be important to examine the avant garde of mixing and traversals between mass education and mass culture among the young, but that is another project.
Traversals are not ephemeral-by-definition; rather we simply cannot know whether they will have longer-term sequelae or not. If they do, it is also not essential that they become regularized and repeated or institutionalized. It is enough if they enlarge the repertoire of possibles, if they thread together a new set of domains of text, action, people, or things. It is enough if they replicate their “style” or holistic criteria of quality, not their specific components.
There are a lot of interesting things to investigate about traversals. What are the valued styles that are propagating, and how are they circulated from occasion to occasion? What kinds of meanings are made and valued at the longer timescales of traversals of various sorts (channel-, web-, experience-, activity-, career- surfing)? How do traversals play off of the components and distinctions created and maintained by the genre-conformity system? How does the emergence of a higher level of ecosocial organization create the conditions for a relaxation of genre-conformity which promotes traversals? What do traversals look like from the viewpoint of nonhuman participants?
This last question raises some much larger theoretical issues. Traversal theory is heavily phenomenological in inspiration, despite its grounding in semiotics and complex systems theory. It is therefore, on the surface, asymmetrical as between meaning-makers, who produce traversals by meaning and feeling, and other participating actants whose roles are nonetheless equally essential to the configurations and dynamics that are recognized as these meanings and feelings. Our habits of language make it easier to speak in these terms, but in principle a traversal is not an effect of human agency, nor is it a phenomenon of or in human organisms as such. A traversal is a phenomenon in some subsystem of the total ecosocial system, on some set of time- and space-scales. It is itself an emergent of the dynamics of the total system or subsystem, but it is not necessarily a stable emergent.
Transients are none the less systemic phenomena for being transient. And a transient, like the famous Salthe dust-devils (Salthe 19..), may still leave a trace in the system (e.g. erosion contours) that alters the probability of similar phenomena in the same locale in the future. No one doubts that these transients are effects of the larger system of atmospheric conditions and landscape contours, themselves changing on timescales long compared to the life of any one dust-devil. We may see ourselves as the agentive dust-devils shaping the inert landscape around us, but that is only conceit, not science. We, too, are but slightly longer-lived transients, with substantially more auto-regulative autonomy, but still the product of larger-scale structures and dynamics, still alive only by virtue of flows of matter, energy, and information that pass through us, as we too are part of the flows that pass through other portions of the system. As isolated organisms (a conceit of biology, not an observable phenomenon) we are not, properly speaking, units of ecosocial systems at all. It is only the processes and flows that define the units and scales of organization of a dynamical system, and the relevant unit of analysis for traversals, while it may be described from the viewpoint of an individual human, is always some larger subsystem of interdependent processes and flows that as much constitute the human component as they are constituted by it. They in turn are totally dependent on the many other material actants and structures of the system that participate in them, co-constituting one another and, by chance, us.
Traversals are new-spun threads through the system of meaning-makers, human and nonhuman, with present value on their own timescale of emergence, and potential value on timescales indefinitely longer. Hapax or arche, once-only or the first-of-a-line, eye-opening-flash-in-the-pan or inspiration-for-imitations-and-variations, singleton or one-of- many, each traversal is a sign that the space of possible meanings is growing larger and the modernist principles of social control are growing weaker. In traversals, I hope, we can begin to see the transhuman future, letting go of the will to power, so that our world of possibles may grow large enough to find within it our common path to survival and our different paths towards wisdom.