Monads • 17 July 2007

Thanks to those who went in for the what is fashion? Rorschach test the other day. I didn’t give you anything to go on, and you turned up many good and unexpected bits. I have this tendency to seek puzzles and hidden ironies in the things humans do (think Freakonomics, the apotheosis of the academic gimmick), but there’s a non-ironic nub in the things you say: people simply want to beautify, to imitate the beautiful, to copy those around them, to create “in” language that both demarcates a group and demarcates an era.

University is about closing off most thought-worlds in order to nurture and perfect singular lines of reasoning. This makes paradigms robust, but closes the mind. Bringing the conversation here opens me up to charges that I’m assuming too much, that I’m saying nothing but stupid common sense, that I’m forgetting to see the strange in the familiar and the familiar in the strange. Most days, the fact that organized society exists—that we’re not all anarchically killing each other but actually live together in crazy complex (beautiful) organization—blows my mind. But some days, here in the iron cage not only of bureaucracy but of extremely patterned thinking, I forget to be amazed. Could it be that our natural tendency is toward organization—not entrorpy? And that ingroup-outgroup dynamics are the primitive form of organization? Aaah, so.

The main reason I brought you this question is that I’m trying to think of what I might be missing about ethical consumerism movements—especially sweat-free campaigns and (less so) the new environmentalism of green industry and (cough) carbon offsetting. The obvious way to conceptualize this (at least green consumerism— sweat-free movements are harder to nail down) is as a social dilemma: we’re all gonna die when pollution chokes us out, so the best a girl can do is to encourage others to pollute less while herself covertly enjoying the “personal utility” of polluting. Moreover, she can use green consumerism as a coercive device— stigmatizing those who don’t practice it and motivating them to join the in crowd and do it. So it looks like a classic tragedy of the commons: individual rationality (using as much of the free resource as possible) leads to collective irrationality (we hit the margin and go extinct). Very Freakonomics.

Thing is, this doesn’t do it for me. First, it doesn’t help me understand why anyone would give a shit about their T-shirts coming from a sweatshop (whatever that is). And second, I don’t think most people really, practically, believe that we’re all gonna die from pollution. So I opened it up to see what people think about where imitation trends come from. I think the thing about existential anxiety and not wanting to be alone is pretty rich (and corresponds nicely with where neuroscience is going).

I can’t even begin to investigate this stuff, really, until I settle on a unit of analysis. Is it a society (whatever that is)? Is it individuals? Dis, with other tough-minded, clear-thinking individuals who see the social whole as equal to the sum of its parts, says: “Strictly speaking, groups themselves don’t think and act, individuals within groups do.”

Ok, yes. This is the part where I kiss your little typing fingers for letting the monads in by the back door. Monads! A decade ago The Editor and I discovered the little gremlins. I actually have no fricking idea what a monad is, but I do know that “monads have no windows.” What? Ok, so when I say a human is a monad, all I mean is that it’s a self-contained organism. When a human does something, all the “parts” of the human do it. They don’t get to do something else. When I take a bath, my spleen doesn’t get to stay out on the balcony. But, if there even is such a thing as a society, it definitely isn’t a monad. There’s not some dominant volition that necessarily takes its constituients to and fro without any say from the parts. Action at the level of a society just isn’t that clean: some of the subparts are joining the infantry but some are going to Canada. Some pursue only money, some art, and some would trade it all for an ounce of enlightenment. Or sex with Jon Stewart. It just makes more sense to try to explain and predict a monad’s (individual’s) movement than that of a society, especially if all a society is is a collection of monads.

Except, I would submit, it isn’t.Network theorists and biologists (the most cutting edge social thinkers in the game, I’ll admit) see groups as “emergent properties” of interactions. This has the advantages of being beautiful and of focusing analysis not so much on concrete individuals themselves as on the stuff they do. Groups aren’t made of people: they’re made of relationships. That’s a really great idea. And it’s great for explaining how groups form on, say, the playground or the internet. It’s all just interactions, over and over, and with time groups emerge.

Yet…this individual, processual version of reality doesn’t work for everything. Would you study a school of fish like that? (Or junior high girls?) Or a dictatorship? A world trade agreement? A religion? Many groups are more than emergent: they’re institutionalized. We don’t reproduce them merely as individuals: we are born into them and die out of them and the group lives on. Stuff—like the weight of history, or the fact that groups aren’t made of homogenous or equal parts—gets lost when we say a trend is the aggregate of social actions.

I’m interested in what the regnant ideas can’t account for with respect to something as irrational and bizarre as a bunch of US students making common cause with a bunch of Chinese workers. These people are monads… but have they through interaction created a kind of transitory group-level entity? Whose actions and efficacy are not reducible to those of its constitutients? (Mmm… Leibniz meets Whitehead.)

In case you missed it, the implicit question here is: what are the limitations of oneness?

I don’t know. A rote Marxist would say ethical consumerism is just the last gasp of late capitalism—a dialectical move to preserve the system just a little longer while it suffocates on its own contradictions. That’s a little too system-level to me: Capital, alas, is not exactly a monad. As usual, I’m trying to find a middle path between the view from above and that from below.