Thursday, May 13, 2010

Reading :: A Theory of Power

A Theory of Power
By Jeff Vail

I don't remember exactly how I got to Jeff Vail's blog - probably one of those Google chains that started with Ronfeldt's work on TIMN - but I was intrigued by his use of Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome concept to develop ideas about nonhierarchical organization and resilient communities. Based on the blog, I ordered Vail's book A Theory of Power.

This slim (50pp excluding references) monograph is quirky in many ways. For instance, it's written in English Prime (p.1, footnote 1), and thus includes no "be" verbs except in quotations. More broadly, it's iconoclastic enough to be described as "anarchist theory" - and to be endorsed by anarchist theorists. Two endorsement quotes grace the back cover: anarchist philosopher John Zerzan calls it "rich, stimulating, and ambitious," while Noam Chomsky, simply declares it "fascinating."

Personally, I found it fascinating too, but I'm afraid I was not persuaded by it. Vail makes an unusual argument that is made more unusual because it uses the concept of rhizome in a way that I think directly opposes Deleuze and Guattari's intention. If you've read my review of A Thousand Plateaus and my book Network, you might have some inkling of how startling it is to read Vail's declaration that he'll use the rhizome concept to "illuminate the fundamental clockwork of our minds, bodies, and societies, revealing principles of power-relationships that govern all aspects of what we perceive as reality, from the environment and economics to politics and psychology. It will unravel the bonds that hold humanity in slavery to the patterns of history - and ultimately provide the key to our freedom" (p.3). Vail reads A Thousand Plateaus and sees a foundationalist account of reality. This foundationalist account, like Engels' version of dialectics, characterizes the whole of reality: "The same concept of power-relationships that defines sub-atomic structure also seems to define the larger world we live in - ecologies, societies, and economies. It acts like opening a watch to reveal the works inside" (p.5).

Vail contrasts two "fundamental methods of organization," which are "hierarchy and rhizome" (p.7). And in contrast to Deleuze and Guattari's caution that a rhizome is an antigenealogy and an antimemory (see D&G p.11, 21), Vail takes "a developmental, historical approach in the deconstruction of our world" (p.8). His Chapter 3 provides a brief history of the world, drawn primarily from Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (which I haven't read). Here, the argument goes something like this: The gene uses organisms to reproduce itself; we organisms are the junior partner in this power relationship, then, controlled by the gene (p.9), evolving in order to ensure the gene's survival. Group entities, or cultures, are meta-individuals - but here, following Dawkins, Vail says that the controlling power is the meme, "the cultural equivalent of the gene" (p.11). And just as genes control organisms to ensure their self-reproduction, memes control cultures to ensure their own replication (p.11). Genes and memes coevolve, but memes are more rapid, flexible, and adaptable; nevertheless, memes interact strongly with genes, triggering genetic functions (p.12). (Although Vail doesn't use the term, the relationship sounds quite dialectic in an Engelsian sense.)

With writing, memes could expand "beyond the linguistic confines of their human host" (p.16). Vail cautions: "We must not, however, forget that memes do not serve humanity - rather, they use us for their propagation" (p.16).

(An aside here: Neal Stephenson brilliantly uses a version of this scenario in his book Snow Crash. But that book is dystopian science fiction.)

In Vail's account, the evolution of memes led to agriculture, which "ended the genetic evolution of humanity as it existed for millions of years, and finally completed the transition of power over human action from the gene to the meme" (p.19). In agriculture, the meme controls food production and therefore the individual (p.20). Under agriculture, evolution switched from individual to group selection, and "the makeup of our genome froze in the Pleistocene era of hunter-gatherers" (p.21). Technologies, as memes, also "follow a hard-wired path" of "selfish interest" (p.30) - and here Vail tries to be radically symmetrical, but comes across as a technological determinist.

At this point, Vail argues: "The understanding that self-awareness exists to serve the meme breaks that bond of servitude - it acts as the realization of enlightenment. Reread that last sentence," he orders. Have you done that? Great. From a theoretical standpoint, I am extremely dubious. But the good news is that this is the turning point of the monograph, because Vail turns from overarching (and arboreal, in the Deleuzean sense) theory to the more practical question of constructing resilient communities via networked organization.

Vail forges on to describe an alternate arrangement: "The path to stability and sustainability in human society lies in the conscious manipulation of memetic control structures" (p.40), and here he turns to the rhizome, which is hierarchy's "opposite" (p.40). According to Vail, "Rhizome acts as a web-like structure of connected but independent nodes, borrowing its name from the structures of bamboo and other grasses" (p.41). It is incompatible with hierarchy (p.41). (And here, when Vail says "rhizome," I hear "network" in the Ronfeldtian sense.) At the same time, Vail declares that "Rhizome structure has no inherent instability, but it will quickly reorder into hierarchy if we do not address the institutions within our society that serve to perpetrate hierarchy" (p.41). He goes on to discuss rhizomes as the basis for what John Robb would call resilient communities.

At this later, less theoretically ambitious portion of the monograph, Vail is actually describing a particular kind of networked organization. And here, if we set aside the Snow Crash style historical narrative, we can realize some gains. Vail draws on diverse examples to describe how a "rhizomatic" (networked) community focused on individual empowerment might look. The result is a cross of John Robb's resilient communities, Bobbitt's entrepreneurial market-state, and vintage Heinlein. Then again, I think Arquilla and Ronfeldt's work does a much better job of examining the same sort of phenomenon in more qualified, better theorized ways.

In sum, I found this to be a very strange monograph. Like Chomsky, I would call it "fascinating," but not in a wholly positive sense. I regret that I can't recommend it to the casual reader, but those who are interested in anarchist theory or resilient communities may want to pick it up.


David Ronfeldt said...

many good points, clay. i agree.

i've not read this book, but i have followed his blog a bit -- it's interesting -- and recently read his "the new map" (.pdf via his site) because it refers to bobbitt's market-state concept.

in my timn view, that writing draws too sharp a distinction between hierarchies and rhizomes (networks), and seeks too big a replacement of the former by the latter. but at least his thinking is headed in network directions, which i appreciate.

Tom Haskins said...

Clay, I'm gratified you explored Vail's voice in A Theory of Power. I found his voice very difficult to read. I wondered if the book was an homage to a much admired professor, an attempt to legitimize himself as a theorist or some other hidden agenda that disregarded the reader. His writing on his blog is far more readable.

Since then (2004), Vail has been litigating cases that arise from energy geopolitics for a Denver law firm. His more recent writing has explored what he's calling the diagonal economy, but that's been interrupted by the birth of a second daughter. He has become more sensitized to the entrenched power in hierarchies and repercussions of peak oil contractions which impede smooth transitions to rhizome-mode communities.

Clay Spinuzzi said...

David and Tom - Thanks. Yes, I think Vail's at his best in discussing networked resilient communities, as he does on his blog. The blog is interesting and enlightening in these terms, and so is the last chapter of the book. I think Tom's right that Vail's trying too hard to plug into a Theory of Everything, and David's right that consequently Vail thinks of rhizomes as an utterly clean break from hierarchy rather than another form that is usually hybridized with previous organizational forms. The book's actually been a clarifying moment for me as it's spurred me to think through why I disagree so much with that latter point.

On a side note, Tom, I picked up Harman's The Prince of Networks based on your mention, and just finished reading it. You're right, it's strong work - thanks for pointing it out! I'll review it sometime soon.

Tom Haskins said...

Likewise Clay, I've started Bobbittt's The Shield of Achilles this week, having been inspired by your review (and David's non-reading of it in his latest post). Mucho gracias.

Jeff Vail said...

Hi Clay,

Thanks for making me think critically about some of my past writing. 6 years older and (maybe?) wiser, your critiques are remarkably similar to my own.

On specifics:

- I agree that my use of "rhizome" and D&G's is fairly dissimilar. I'm OK with that, but agree that I've done a poor job calling out the differences. For me, rhizome is a label for scale-free self-sufficiency arising out of massivley parallel and overlapping peer-to-peer networks. I think there are more similarities there to D&G's concept than might be readily apparent, but also some significant differences...

- It was not (and is not) my intent to juxtapose "hierarchy" and "rhizome" as completely separate modes of organization, though again probably something I did not adequately explain. My intent is that hierarchy and rhizome are two directions (rather than poles) on a continuum that describe one axis of any system. Very generally, I think movement of any system in a rhizome direction creates greatly amplified and positive results in several measures (mostly measures of potential: sustainability, equality, freedom, resiliency, etc.).

My current project (hopefully a bit less of an attempt at a theory of everything, but that's a challenge for me to resist!) is a book updating my thoughts on the Problem of Growth.


Clay Spinuzzi said...

Jeff, thanks so much for weighing in. I'll definitely look forward to that next book! CS