Networked flesh

Fractal flesh -
Fractal flesh

The question that is pressing in arises from the political problem, the problem of politics in itself, as politics.  Put bluntly, why is there such a thing as ‘politics’?  It is impossible to avoid this problem because we are always caught within the realm of the political.

An individual member of the human species might find themselves able to step aside from the social, even whilst having inevitably derived their minds from it, but only as a result of the social itself, as a result of some brief area left aside, fallow, by the socialisation of the world.  The social spreads, like the viral trace of the species, across the world.  This is no anthropocentrism and it is not restricted to the human species – the ‘environment’ is nothing more than the complex totality of the multiple systems of social tracks left by the various species of organic life, some more dense and heavy than others.

The human species treads hardest however.  In fact, the human species treads so heavily that it marks a qualititative break in natural dynamics.  It is not anthropocentric to acknowledge the specificity of the effects of the human species, the discontinuity between the tracks left by the human species and those of – almost – any other living organism.  It borders on the unnatural.

The discontinuity is able to be understood best when encountering the heaviness of the human tread.  The traces of the social lie on the surface of the natural, the organic formed within the limits of the inorganic.  There are no societies of stones but there are many societies within the stones.  The stones form the fuel for the cells, constitute the surface on which the the social traces of the organic leave their mark.  Each layer rests on the preceding layer.  Yet the human tears through the layers, its weight unable to be borne by the supporting surfaces.

It is this tearing of the surfaces that produces the political.  As the human species develops the capacity to rip open the world, as it transforms from the simply social animal, from the collective swarm of flesh that is each organism, it encounters the counter-effect of its increasing capacity for the transformation of the world.  This counter-effect is the reconstitution of the human flesh swarm as a new surface, no longer a swarm but now a network of nodes, with a variability of connection, a variability that produces differentials of power across the network.  The human swam transforms into a variable network of power and it is as this variability that politics is born.  Politics is the form of the variable human network that has gradually replaced the swarm of flesh from which it arises.  The type of species that we are is a specific result of the counter-effects of the capacities evolution produced in one form of the flesh.  We are, although not in the way Aristotle perhaps thought, the political animal.  Our animality is specific because we are a political flesh.

In this situation politics exists not because of needs needing fulfilment, nor because of ideas that want realisation, nor even because of freedom that requires expression.  Politics results from the counter-effect of our capacities as an organism.  Central to these capacities is collective or social labour.  Our break-point with almost all other organisms lies not in language but in social labour.  Social labour is not merely a quantitative addition of arms and muscles but is instead the re-organisation of specific forms of work carried out by an organism into a social form of work that is qualitatively more powerful, social labour.

Imagine two groups of human beings in conflict, both equally large.  Battle lines are drawn between these two groups as they meet in open territory, maybe a hundred on each side, all armed with little more than bones and clubs.  Now if one side has the capacity to become organised, to act as one, to unite their intentions, to follow orders and to ensure each individual animal acts as a cell within a greater whole, then it is inevitable that they will win the battle.  The more sophisticated that organisation the greater power it has.  Smaller number can overwhelm larger because of their organisation into social labour, into collective labour.  No longer a mere mass of flesh the new organisation brings forth a new organism, one that is now not mere flesh but the network of flesh become body.  It is this simple, basic, fundamental natural fact about social labour that is the ground of our reality, a reality that is inherently, inevitably, political.  Politics exists because social labour exists.  Social labour, however, is the catalyst of a counter-effect, the formation of a new body that rests on the shoulders of the flesh and drives it in its own direction.  For the most part this networked body of the flesh, this body of social labour, operates blindly, and in that sense politics arrives as an externality, as a new force in the world, one that we are still, desperately, trying to master before it drives us off the cliff of extinction.  Our options are to renounce social labour and descend into the earth as flesh once again or to internalise the networked flesh of the body of social labour and become the agents we imagine ourselves to be.

Article written by

philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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