Postsocial Relations: Theorizing Sociality in a Postsocial Environment

Karin Knorr Cetina. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

What is more evident than the boundaries of the social world? The social world is the domain of human interaction, human institutions, human rationality, human life. As Luckmann pointed out in 1970, we take it for granted that social reality is the world of human affairs, exclusively. But why should we take this for granted? Why has no one ‘in the main traditions of Western philosophy’ (1970: 73) ever seriously questioned these boundaries? Luckmann raised the issue from a phenomenological perspective, arguing that the boundary we see between the human social and the non-human, non-social was not an essential structure of the lifeworld. One reason for this was that our sense of humanness itself is not an original or universal projection but arises from revisions and modifications of other distinctions, for example that between living and non-living things. Since living things tend to be seen as social beings, as the evidence of animism, totemism and early childhood classifications suggests, our own narrowing-down of the social to the human must be the result of historical and ontogenetic processes of ‘de-socialization.’ Scheler ([1913] 1948: 257f.) saw it as given that (cultural) learning was a process of mounting disappointment with the fact that so little remained of the animated social worlds of more original states of humanity.

This chapter is based on the assessment of two structural conditions of Western societies which render Luckmann’s question about the boundaries of the social world more acute today than when he posed it. The first is the current process of de-socialization; a process not bearing on the world of living things which Luckmann had in mind but on the human world itself, in which the social principles and structures we have known ‘empty out,’ lose some of the meaning and relevance they had. The second structural condition is that of an enormous expansion of object words within the social world—of consumer goods, technological devices and scientific objects; an expansion in sheer volume, but also in the value we attribute to these things. Natural objects have also become, if not more numerous, then at least more ‘present’ in public discourse and concern. The two conditions provide the backdrop to the idea of a postsocial environment. In a postsocial environment, social principles are not simply thinned out; ‘other’ cultural elements and relationships take their place, mediate between them, and in some measure collapse in on social relations and structures. Among these ‘other’ elements I want to include objects; in this chapter, I shall develop an analysis of object-relations as a social form that constitutes something like the reverse side of the coin of the contemporary experience of de-socialization. Postsocial theory analyses the phenomenon of a disintegrating ‘traditional’ social universe, the reasons for this disintegration and the direction of changes. It attempts to conceptualize postsocial relations as forms of sociality which challenge core concepts of human interaction and solidarity, but which none the less constitute forms of binding self and other. The changes also affect human sociality in ways which warrant a detailed analysis in their own right. Though I cannot offer this analysis within the confines of this chapter, I will briefly come back to this issue at the end.

In the following, I will first discuss several dimensions along which the current retraction of social principles and structures can be made apparent. I will then go on to place these retractions in the context of the enlargement of the space of the individual subject and the rise of a ‘subjective imagination’ in social theory and practice. In the third section I will begin to develop a framework for the analysis of postsocial environments by proposing a conception of the subject that contrasts with the ‘I-you-me’ system that dominates the literature. The fourth extends the analysis to non-human objects, which we can no longer understand, I maintain, as material entities of a fixed nature. The following two sections put the pieces together by addressing postsocial relations. To provide a sense of how we might conceive of them, I will pick my way through different interpretations of binding self and other. The final section summarizes the argument and points to a more general understanding of postsocial environments.

Sociality as a Historical Phenomenon: Expansions and Retractions

Sociality is very likely a permanent feature of human life. But the forms of sociality are none the less changing, and the regions of social structuring may expand or contract in conjunction with concrete historical developments. Modernity has often been associated with the collapse of community and tradition and the onset of individualization. Central to our experience today are similar retractions of social principles in different regions of social life. These are not usually discussed together, and they do not have the same roots. But they may none the less work together in emptying out previous categories of social ordering, and in creating the space in which postsocial developments take hold. In evaluating these developments, we need to be careful to place them in a larger historical context not only of retractions of social principles but also of expansions, and of the changing institutional focus of these movements. While a systematic history of these movements has yet to be written, we can at least say that the current retraction of social principles comes in the wake of an apparent expansion of the regions of social structuring during the course of the nineteenth century and throughout the early decades of the twentieth. These expansions refocused social definitions and social thinking on the newly emerging nation-state and on modern organizations. Thus, while communities and traditions may have been emptied of social meanings during industrialization, the larger scale social organizations attracted and expanded such meanings. Before considering the current situation, let us briefly review this expansion.

The first region of expansion of social principles in the nineteenth century was that of social policies, and it is intricately linked to the rise of the nation-state. According to many authors, social policies and social problem solutions took shape as nation-states (which may themselves have been formed by such interventions) attempted to deal with the social consequences of capitalist industrialization. Social policies as we know them today derive from what Wittrock and Wagner (1996: 98ff.) call the ‘nationalization of social responsibility.’ What these authors mean is the formulation of social rights alongside individual rights and the positing of the state as the ‘natural container’ and provider of labour regulations, pension and welfare provisions, unemployment insurance, public education and so on. Social policies existed at the local level before, but increases in social mobility and migration and the related changes in production patterns made these practices appear inadequate and often unjust. Wittrock and Wagner accordingly see the construction of national social policies as an extension of the idea of community. A second region of expansion, connected to the first, is that of social thinking and social imagination. A corollary of the institutionalization of social policies were new concepts of the forces that determine human destiny: they were now more likely to be thought of as impersonal, social forces. Rabinbach has argued that the idea of individual risks, poverty and inequality as a socially induced phenomenon entailed a decisive break with preceding individualist liberal ideas (e.g. Rabinbach, 1996). Rather than assuming the automatic adaptation of individuals to changing environmental conditions these ideas focused on the prevailing imbalances and their social causes, for example on the social causes of occupational accidents. Sociology played an important role in bringing about the shift in mentality through which individuals came to be seen as the bearers of the individual costs of collective structures. For example, the German Verein fr Sozialpolitik and the English Fabian Society played critical roles in bringing to public attention the problems created by capitalist industrialization as the central challenge of the new industrial order, and in the initiation of modern social policies in their countries (Rueschemeyer and Van Rossem, 1996). Durkheimian sociology and its grounding of a theory of society in ‘social facts’ exemplifies the new attention to the social as a distinctive layer of relationships with causal efficacy, which Durkheim and Mauss (1963) held responsible for the structuring of cosmological beliefs. When Mills argued for a ‘sociological imagination’ (1959), he tried to capture in one concept the phenomenon of societal processes which individuals do not recognize but which affect and change their lives.

A third area of expansion of social principles and structures is that of social organization. The modern nation-state has its roots in the history of European societies, with the reference case being France with its tradition of early centralization and political consolidation. This consolidation dates back to the period after the French Revolution when Napoleon ‘set in motion… a modern institutional and administrative structure [that] was superimposed on the society’ (Ashford, 1982: 13). The social form brought into existence at the time was that of public bureaucracies, forms of collective organization based on the formalization of procedures and authority and underpinned by institutions for socialization and rule enforcement that reached deep into society (Wittrock and Wagner, 1996: 105). As Rueschemeyer and Van Rossem (1996) argue, state structures preceded industrial society in continental Europe, while the reverse appears to have been the case in Anglo-American societies. If the rise of the nation-state implied the rise of bureaucractic institutions, the growth of industrial production brought with it the emergence of the factory and the modern corporation. Similar organizational forms also characterize modern science, which became embodied in the research university and the scientific laboratory. The rise of health care corresponds to the establishment of the clinic, and the disciplining of a modern workforce was accompanied by the expansion of the prison (Foucault, 1977). Industrial, nation-state societies are unthinkable without complex modern organizations. Complex organizations are localized social arrangements serving to manage work and services in collective frameworks with the help of social structural means.

Now the contemporary situation. Central to our experience today is that these expansions of social principles and of socially constituted environments have come to some sort of a grinding halt. In many European countries and in the the United States the welfare state, with its many chapters of social policy and collective insurance against individual disaster, is in the process of being ‘overhauled,’ some would say ‘dismantled.’ In Bauman’s words, the new constellation is one of nations divided between premium payers and benefit recipients in which the services for those who do not pay are resented by those who do (1996: 56). Social explanations and social thinking run up against, among other things, biological accounts of human behaviour against which they have to prove their worth. If Freud thought that the fixations and nervous ailments he studied resulted from individuals not coming to terms with a rigorous inner ‘censor’ that represented society (Lasch, 1978: 37), today’s psychologists are more likely to seek the cause of compulsive disorders in the expression of genes. The mobilization of a social imagination was an attempt to identify the collective basis for individuals’ predicaments and dispositions to react. This collective basis is now more likely to be found in the similarity of the genetic makeup of socially unrelated members of the population. Most interesting, perhaps, is the phenomenon that social structures also seem to be losing some of their hold. When complex organizations are dissolved into networks of smaller independent profit centres, some of the layered structural depth of the hierarchically organized social systems that organizations used to represent gets lost on the way. When person-provided services are replaced by automated electronic services, no social structures at all need to be in place—only electronic information structures (see Lash and Urry, 1994). The main arena and site of some global transactions such as stock or forex market trading appears to be the electronically mediated computer—or telephone—conversation. In these cases, the massive social resources of multinationally operating corporations are replaced by conversational and interactional microstructures which carry the transactions. The expansion of societies to global societies does not imply, it appears, further expansions of social complexity. The installation of a ‘world-society’ would seem to be feasible with the help of individuals and social microstructures, and perhaps becomes plausible only in relation to such structures (see Bruegger and Knorr Cetina, 2000).

The retraction of social principles and structures also manifests itself in new problems of individualization, having to do with primordial social relations. Individualization is not, of course in itself a new phenomenon. In fact, individualization is frequently considered to be the immediate result of industrialization and modernization. One of the great legacies of classical social thought is the idea that the development of modern societies involves the transformation of traditional, group-based, kinship-dominated communities into systems characterized by the growing dominance of private ownership, profit motives, industrial production, mobility, large urban centres and bureaucratic professionalism—all undermining the embeddedness of individuals in traditional communities (MacFarlane, 1978). Berger et al. (1974) portrayed the individual of an industrialized, technological society as a ‘homeless mind’—an uprooted, confused and inchoate self, whose predicaments contributed to the expansion of social principles discussed before. But well into this century, this self found refuge in the private spheres of life and was sustained by traditional family relations. What analysts see disintegrating today are these ‘primordial social relations’ (Coleman, 1993). Recent individualism can be distinguished from earlier breakdowns of community by what Lasch considers the ‘collapse’ of the private sphere, the ‘devastations’ of married and family life (see also Giddens, 1994a). Bauman puts this in a broader context:

Everything seems to conspire these days against… lifelong projects, lasting commitments, eternal alliances, immutable identities. One cannot build long-term hopes around one’s job, profession, skills even; one can bet that, before long, the skills will cease to be in demand … One cannot build the future around partnership or the family either: in the age of ‘confluent love,’ togetherness lasts no longer than the satisfaction of one of the partners, commitment is from the start ‘until further notice,’ and today’s intense attachment may only intensify tomorrow’s frustrations. (1996: 51f.)

Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1994, 1996) see the historically new in contemporary individualization in the challenges this poses for individuals: ‘something that was earlier expected of a few—to lead a life of their own—is now being demanded of more and more people.’ Individuals are thrown back on their own resources to construct forms of togetherness, and a coherent life course and identity. Like others (Hage and Powers 1992: 133f., 179f), Beck and Beck-Gernsheim emphasize the difficulties this presents. The demise of tradition leaves the individual in the lurch – without the psychological means to deal with the great freedom of choice and the contingencies of modern life, in which this freedom rebounds (Bauman, 1996: 50f.). The do-it-yourself biography, they say, is always a risk biography, a state of permanent endangerment (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1996: 25).

It may be interesting to note that at least some authors ‘blame’ some of this development on the nation-state itself and its bureaucratic institutions. Thus Berger et al. (1974) borrowing a notion from Gehlen, maintain that the private sphere has been ‘deinstitutionalized’ in part as a result of the dominance of large-scale bureaucratic organizations. Foucault’s notion of a pastoral state can be seen as a variant of this position. Bureaucratic state organizations are continuous with industrial organizations not only in institutional form, but also in that they drain areas of social life of the meaning content they once had (see also Beck, 1992). Already a generation ago, Giddens (1990: 116) reminds us, Horkheimer argued that ‘personal initiative plays an ever smaller role in comparison to the plans of those in authority.’ The result is a turning inward toward human subjectivity and the search for meanings in the inner self.

The Rise of a Subject-Centred Imagination

One of the most important elements in the development described so far may well be the loss of a social imagination, the slow erosion of the belief in salvation by society. The expansion of a social imagination involved, from the beginning, not only the idea of impersonal social forces affecting the individual but also the notion of universal human perfection through society. This idea was put forward by Rousseau and Enlightenment thinkers such as Condorcet ([1795] 1955: 173, 193), who announced the possibility of an ever-more rapid progress towards a perfect form of human society marked by ‘the abolition of inequality between nations, the progress of equality within each nation, and the true perfection of mankind.’ The notion is best epitomized by Marx’s vision of a socialist age which he thought would begin once capitalism reached its peak and collapsed under its own self-created contradictions. The collapse of Marxism as a creed signifies the end of the belief in salvation by society, the end of a social imagination that transposed itself into a ‘secular religion’ (Drucker 1993).

Marxism also failed in practice, but its failure as a creed that supports the belief in society may be vastly more consequential. The modern welfare state is a massive machinery for the redistribution of resources based on solidarity principles. This solidarity, however, is not rooted in the experience of community as perhaps it was in premodern times. It is an abstract principle instituted in tax systems and legally based welfare provisions that rest at best on the ideals of the ‘commonality of fate’ of the imagined community of nation-state societies. Without visions of the possibility of ‘social salvation’ within these communities, the redistribution of resources which lies at the core of the modern welfare state loses legitimacy. What gains legitimacy, one assumes, are theories of utilitarian and expressive individualism—theories of the desires associated with self-interest of individuals and the feelings or intuitions associated with self-expression and authenticity. The phantasized unit, in such a scenario, is the person and his or her relational options.

If we are adequately to grasp postsocial environments, I want to argue, we have to start from the emptying out of the social imagination of the past and to consider its replacement by an imagination centred more strongly on individuals. One can think of several developments that support such a view. First, even from within the state-oriented political camp, voices and slogans have emerged which advocate individual self-reliance in regard to personal welfare and non-governmental avenues to the achievement of collective goals. The former is illustrated by Etzioni’s new golden rule (1996), offered to a democratic government, which urges individuals to commit themselves voluntarily to a moral order that society cannot enforce; the latter by the attempt, in the United States, to implement market mechanisms for the purpose of environmental protection. Another example is Tony Blair’s model of a deinstitutionalized welfare state and a socialism that reinstitutes individual responsibility while curtailing the possibilities for benefit seeking and social rights.

Secondly, just as a social mentality was elaborated and extended by social science, so individualizing ideas are unfolded by particular disciplinary traditions. Such ideas are constitutive of disciplines such as psychology; but there has also been a seemingly unprecedented growth of such programmes in sociology and social theory. One example is the rise of rational choice theory (e.g. Coleman, 1990), which draws on concepts long prominent in economics that have been imported into sociology and political science. Self-interest concepts of rationality define rational action as that which serves the actor’s interest. The approach rules out self-damaging and irrational preferences, and has often been criticized for its inability to comprehend moral or cooperative choices which actors also seem to make. The model also suffers from assuming too much about the information a rational actor must have or find in order to infer from it which is the best course of action. Rational choice theory can be discussed by reference to a long tradition of such criticisms, as it usually is (e.g. Coleman and Fararo, 1992), but within the present framework we can also see it as a programme that contributes to an individualcentred imagination. It empowers the individual as the unit that seeks information, calculates behavioural outcomes, engages in rational deliberation, and through all these mechanisms, engineers his or her fate. It contributes a strong model of ‘agentic actorhood’ which has been unfolded further over time to include individual ‘non-rational’ functions such as emotions (e.g. Barbalet, 1998). The exaggerated emphasis in these models on ‘high reason’ and complete information, and the attempt to translate collective and cooperative choices into individual utilities may be ‘phantasmatic’ (not warranted by data or plausible argument) from a traditional sociological perspective, but these phantasms are also the ones that empower subjectivity thinking and cast doubt on social thinking. Theories of identity and identity politics (e.g. Calhoun 1994a), of the self and subjectivity (e.g. Calhoun, 1994b; Giddens, 1991; Lash, 1999; Wiley, 1994) provide other examples of such trends.

Thirdly, subjectivity thinking and subjectivity imagination is manifest in the vast numbers of self-help books and manuals that counsel individuals on self-improvement and engage them in the discovery of their own selves:

As the world takes on a more and more menacing appearance, life becomes a never-ending search for health and well-being through exercise, dieting, drugs, spiritual regimens of various kinds, psychic self-help and psychiatry. For those who have withdrawn interest from the outside world except in so far as it remains a source of gratification and frustration, the state of their own health becomes an all-absorbing concern. (Lasch, 1977: 140)

This literature is massive and diverse and requires an analysis in its own right. But some principles are recurrent; for example, the literature consistently affirms individuals’ right and obligation to make a strong commitment to themselves. A person who loves him/herself, who makes a commitment to him/herself before making a commitment to others, who is in touch with him/herself, so the argument goes, will not only experience more self-fulfilment and satisfaction in life but will also be able to love, help and manage others better than someone whose first commitment is to others. The literature affirms subjectivity thinking rather than social thinking by theorizing sociality as something that flows from self-commitment and is secondary to it. The popular literature on the self is often esoteric in its claims but it may play a considerable role in shaping people’s self-understanding. Giddens offers an interpretation of this role through his version of a theory of reflexive modernization. Post-traditional societies, in his view, are marked by expert systems, ‘systems of technical accomplishment of professional expertise that organise large areas of the material and social environments in which we live today’ (1990: 27). Such systems are, for example, technological complexes such as airports and planes and everything associated with air travel, but Giddens also means the softer forms of professional advice to which people turn in confronting the ‘ontological insecurities’ of modern life. For him, ‘a world of intensified reflexivity is a world of clever people,’ of individuals who engage with the wider environment and with themselves through information produced by specialists which they routinely interpret and act on in everyday life (1994b: 7).

The conclusion I want to draw from the contemporary re-imagining of the individual contradicts postmodern social theories which tend to postulate the eclipse and death of the subject. As a first approximation, we can associate a postsocial environment with an expanding sphere of the subject, where ‘subject’ stands not only for mental or existential conceptions of individuals but for an open-ended series of individualcentred significations and processes. The remarkable rise of subjectivity thinking and the concomitant emptying out of a social imagination and of social principles and structures act in concert, so to speak, to create and unfold the space for this expansion. Postmodern thinkers understand the death of the subject in a variety of ways. For example, the literature on ‘cyborgs’ (e.g. Haraway, 1991; Heim, 1993; Virilio, 1995) is concerned with ‘endocolonization,’ the colonization of the human body from within through such things as the implantation of various microtechnologies, the replacement of body parts by transplants and machines, etc. Other variants of the death of the subject theme include Jameson’s, which speaks of the extinction of such figures as prophets, seers, great cultural producers or charismatic leaders in our ‘post-individualistic age’ (1991). A third group of authors takes the ‘decentring’ of the Enlightenment version of the subject as an autonomous, self-conscious agent as an indication of its end. Thus, the discovery of the unconscious by Freud, or Foucault’s conception of the subject as produced in networks of power, or the subject’s ‘fragmentation’ into multiple functions and selves, may be taken as requiring us to abandon ideas of agency (Ashe, 1999). Enlightenment thinkers drew the ‘circle of humanity’ tightly, as Seidler puts it (1994: 16), defining the subject in terms of reason that underpinned the subject’s capacity to exercise agency. It seems plain that current thinking, in making claims about the unconscious and emotional sides of the individual, about his or her technoscientific and biological parts and his or her normalized features and fragmented self, is drawing the circle much more widely, opening up the notion of subjectivity and in fact enlarging the space of individuals in society by working out their ‘non-rational’ aspects and processes. The traditional sociological notion of an actor, with its emphasis on subjective intentions, may indeed be too limited to allow us to conceptualize this enlarged space. But the rise of the individual subject, however technologically (and biologically) enhanced, cognitively distributed and emotionally torn, needs to be recognized as structural ‘presence’ and ‘node’ in postsocial environments, a density region in which things cross and to some degree converge.

From the Inner Censor to the Mirror Image Self: The Self as a Structure of Wanting

One of the elements of the subjectivity thinking presented so far is that the modern and postmodern individual is conceptualized in terms of relational deficiencies (the terms used were ‘uprooted,’ ‘disembedded,’ ‘thrown back upon its own resources,’ ‘inward turning,’ ‘individualized,’ ‘atomized,’ ‘ontologically insecure’). The individual is swept out of all traditional types of relationships and ends up recoiling in his or her own inner space. But this view of the subject as the bearer of relational deficiencies is selective and plausible only if we focus exclusively on human relationships. It ignores the degree to which the modern untying of identities has been accompanied by an expansion of object-centred environments which situate and stabilize selves, define individual identity just as much as communities and families used to do, and promote forms of binding self and other that supplement the human forms of sociality studied by social scientists. In this section, I want to propose a conception of the self that allows us to explore these postsocial relations.

I shall begin by distinguishing two models that have been used to understand the self. One is the idea of the self as composed of an ego and an inner censor, which we can associate with Peirce, Mead and Freud, among others. In Mead, the inner censor is called the ‘generalized other,’ by which he means the internalized norms of the community or society. The ‘generalized other’ in Mead’s terminology is closely coupled to what he calls the ‘me’; the self as object and as the intrasubjective conformist past of the self. At the opposite end of the ‘generalized other’ and the ‘me’ lies what Mead calls the T, the spontaneous, unpredictable, disobeying side of the self. The T has the power to construct reality cognitively, and by redefining situations, can break away from the ‘me’ and the norms of society. The ‘me’ and the ‘generalized other’ can be likened to Peirce’s ‘you’; Peirce held the ‘you’ to be a critical self that represented society and to which all thought was addressed. These notions are also roughly similar to Freud’s ‘super-ego,’ the rule-carrier which functions as a regulative principle in an internal dynamic of morality and deviance. In Mead’s theory, the self first originates from such a dynamic. The internal conversations we engage in when we think are transformed versions of interpersonal communication. The self arises from role-taking, from taking the perspective of the other first interpersonally, when engaged with a close caretaker, and then also intrapersonally. Wiley (1994: 34ff., 44ff), merging Mead and Peirce, elaborates this structure into what he calls the ‘I-you-me’ system of the self.

The second model understands the self not as a relation between the individual and society but as a structure of wantings in relation to continually renewed lacks. The notion of the self as a structure of wantings can be derived from Lacan (e.g. 1975), but it can also be linked to Baldwin ([1899] 1973: 373ff.) and Hegel. Like Freud, the psychoanalyst Lacan is concerned with what ‘drives’ the subject, but he derives this wanting not as Freud did from an instinctual impulse whose ultimate goal is a reduction in bodily tension, but rather from the mirror stage of a young child’s development. In this stage the child becomes impressed with the wholeness of his or her image in the mirror and with the appearance of definite boundaries and control – while realizing that she/he is none of these things in actual experience. Wanting or desire is born in envy of the perfection of the image in the mirror (or of the mirroring response of the parents); the lack is permanent, since there will always be a distance between the subjective experience of a lack in our existence and the image in the mirror, or the apparent wholeness of others (e.g. Alford, 1991: 36ff; Lacan and Wilden, 1968).

The two conceptions may seem similar in that both emphasize the discrepancy between the I and a model, but they are in fact quite different. From the idea of the self as composed of an inner censor results an ego subjected to feelings of guilt, experiencing rebellion and attempting to ‘live up’ to social expectations. In contrast, the self as a permanently reiterated lack gives rise to the desire, also permanent, to eliminate the lack. The former model would seem to result in actions that are perpetually curtailed as an ego attempts to adapt them to internalized norms; it will also result in deviant actions that transgress boundaries of which the actor is well aware. The second model yields actions spurred on by the unfulfill-ability of lacks, or by new wants opening up simultaneously with the (partial) fulfilment of old ones. In the first model, the actor’s free fall from society is continually broken as she/he catches himself (or is caught by others) in compliance with social rules and traditions, and returns to their ontological security. In the second case, no society of this sort is in place any longer to provide ontological security. The ‘you’ is the idealized self in the mirror or the perfect other. The actor would seem to be freed from any guilt complexes; but she/he is like a vagrant in a state of perpetual search, stringing together objects of satisfaction and dismantling the structure again as she moves on to other goals. With the first model, we can associate primordial social relations of a kind that foster normative models, compliance and security. With the second model, we can perhaps associate postsocial relations.

Having said this I should add immediately that if these two conceptions make sense as models of the self they make sense in conjunction; in Western societies, both the I-you-me system of the socialized self and the lack-wanting system of the reflexive (mirror image) self would seem to identify important features of identity. On the other hand, one can make the argument that the lack-wanting system is better suited to characterizing self-feelings and self-problems in a general way in contemporary societies than the I-you-me system. To historicize the argument, one might venture the hypothesis that the lack-wanting system of self-formation is in the process of displacing and reshaping the I-you-me system. Why would this be the case? Possible reasons for such a scenario are not difficult to come by. If the lack-wanting system describes contemporary selves better than the I-you-me system then this might result at least in part from the problems of primordial social relations, which no longer offer the kind of normative models and tight structures of social control that are needed to give rise to an inner censor and a dynamic of guilt and rebellion, compliance and transgression. The liberalization of partnership and family life which Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1994, 1996), Coleman (1993), Lasch (1978) among others describe, the detraditionalization of education and the individualization of choice (Gross, 1994), all conspire to prevent a strong I-you-me dynamic founded on the internalization of a censor. Mead, Freud and others contributing to the I-you-me model were not only proposing abstract theories of the self. Their conceptions were also rooted in existence, in particular patterns of attachment and socialization practices which are no longer dominant in contemporary society.

There is also a second development that may account for the declining grip of the I-you-me system on the self. This is what we may call the ‘exteriorization’ of the ‘mirror’ that psychoanalysts and social psychologists deem important, its institutionalization and professionalization in the external society. For the analysts concerned with self-formation, the mirror is either a physical mirror or the caretakers’ activity of’back-projecting’; their activity of ‘reflecting,’ like a mirror, the child’s being through responding to it as a person and through articulating and defining the child’s behaviour in relation to parental idealizations and expectations. These reflexive ‘judgements’ should not be seen as reflected upon opinions of the sort reached through thinking. A caretaker’s mirroring response that matters to a child may be entirely emotional as opposed to cognitive, or as in Cooley’s looking-glass self analysed by Wiley (1994: 111), it may contain ideas associated with feeling, but not be based on distantiated thinking. The source of the power of the mirror lies not in the cognitive superiority or objectivity of the judgements made but in its projection of an (idealized) image that differs from the subject’s self-feeling and self-experience. The mirror reveals the subject to him/herself as a piece of unfinished business composed of ever new lacks.

Now in today’s societies, this sort of projection is no longer only supplied by primary reference persons who do their work in the initial stages of life. The mirror is instituted in the media and other displays which project images and stage ‘wholeness,’ and it is permanent: the media provide a continual flow of images of the sort Lacan attributes to the early childhood. The mirror also is present in the ‘cathedrals of consumption’ Ritzer analyses (1999: 8ff), in the shopping malls and other places that offer enchanted displays of possible selves. And it is there in simulations, the life-like reality processes in a purely symbolic space in which many of the insufficiencies of real life can easily be forgotten and erased (Baudrillard, 1983; Turkle, 1995). To a considerable extent, the mirror response has changed hands altogether and is now articulated by complicated and dispersed machineries of professional image production—of industries that produce movie stars and fashion models, TV programmes and films, shopping catalogues and advertisements. These industries are, of course, not motivated by parental considerations but by a variety of other goals which include extending the subject’s lacks and desires.

To conclude this section, I want to make one point about the model I have foregrounded. While the mirror idea appears plausible as a characterization of fictive external elements around which we build an ego as a life project, it may be less plausible when it is applied in the way Lacan intended it, as a description of what happens to the infant when it first recognizes itself in a real mirror. As Anderson (1983), Wiley (1994: 172) and others have stressed, no one knows what the child experiences at this stage, and what the consequences of this experience are. We need not find Lacan’s account of the lack of subjectivity as rooted in the child’s narcissistic relationship to him/herself persuasive in order to find the idea of a structure of wanting plausible. The latter is simply a convenient way to capture the way wants have of continually searching out new objects and of moving on to them—a convenient way, if you wish, to capture the volatility and unstoppability of desire. The idea of a structure or chain of wantings has the advantage of bringing into view a whole series of moves and their underlying dynamic rather than isolated reasons, as the traditional vocabulary of motives and intentions does. Plainly, one can make the argument that these moves, or the unstoppability of wants, is continually re-incited by the lures and images that society generates. Accordingly, the self need not be seen as frozen into a lacking subjectivity for life at the mirror stage. It is at least as plausible to conceive of lacks in a more sociological idiom as permanently recreated by relevant institutional processes in a post-industrial society.

Objects are Unfolding Structures of Absences

We have now discussed the reflexive mirror image self which we have moved away from the mirroring response of particular or generalized others, emphasizing instead the pervasiveness of the images themselves in a media and information society. In a world that is continually formulated and exhibited through object displays and technological processes, humans take second place as mirror response providers. What we are hitting here is another source of the retraction of social principles and structures, but also, at the same time, the rise of object worlds (in the form of displays) that take the place of these principles and structures. These object worlds are also manifest in the displays themselves: the mirror images tend to point to objects we are missing and which others have. They rarely base their messages on moral virtues or social behaviour. The exteriorized mirror foregrounds objects at the expense of social principles and structures. What we need to do in this section is to conceptualize these objects.

Let us remind ourselves of why these objects are important in the present context. Postsocial transitions imply that social forms as we knew them are becoming flattened, narrowed and thinned out. But as indicated before, they do not imply a straightforward loss of sociality in the areas marked above. What one needs to put forward against the scenario of simple ‘deserialization’ is that the flattened structures, the narrowed principles, the thinned out social relations also coincide with, and are propelled by, the expansion of ‘other’ cultural elements and practices in contemporary life. The retraction of social principles leaves no holes, one imagines, in the fabric of cultural patterns. There has been no loss of texture for society, though what the texture consists of may need rethinking. If this view is correct, the idea of postsocial transitions no longer simply describes a situation where the social is shut out of history. Rather, it describes a situation where social principles and structures (in the old sense) become intermeshed with and perhaps displaced by ‘other’ cultural principles and structures to which the term social has not been extended in the past. In this scenario, postsocial forms are not a-social or non-social forms. Rather, they are forms specific to late modern societies, which are marked by a massive expansion and recasting of object worlds in the social world. While postsocial relations are not limited to object relations and postsocial theory pertains to a much wider nexus of developments, I am confining my attention in this chapter to object relations.

But what do we mean by objects? To start things off we can simply consider objects as non-human things. As indicated before, there has been an enormous increase in the volume of such non-human things in the social world—technological objects, consumer goods, instruments of exchange, scientific things, all exemplify this expansion. Consider just briefly scientific objects such as biologists’ molecular structures, physicists’ quarks or their Higgs mechanisms, astronomers’ black holes and dark matter of the universe. Most of these objects (and they are internally differentiated further) have become available to us for discussion and enquiry only relatively recently, and they enrich and enlarge the natural world as a conglomerate of evermore detailed, more distant and invisible things. The social world has equally been enlarged by consumer objects and exchange commodities (for example, the objects of financial markets), whose role in Western societies can easily be glossed by simply comparing their presence everywhere in our daily life with the massive gap their absence has created in the former socialist states.

The expanded presence of objects in the social world offers a sort of background substantiation for the claims made in this chapter, but it does not provide a conceptual basis for the discussion of postsocial relations. The second point I want to make is more pertinent to this issue, and it has to do with the features of objects which we encounter today in professional and daily life. The definition I want to offer of large classes of objects in contemporary life breaks away from received concepts of objects as fixed things of a material nature. In fact, I want to go in the opposite direction, and characterize the objects relevant here by their indefiniteness of being. To make this clearer let us turn for a moment to scientific objects as defined by Rheinberger (1992: 310). Scientific objects lie at the centre of a process of investigation; they are characteristically open, question-generating and in the process of being materially defined. They are processes and projections rather than definite things. The central characteristic of these kinds of objects, from a theoretical point of view, is their changing, unfolding character—in the present terminology, their lack of ‘objectivity’ and completeness of being, and their non-identity with themselves. The lack of completeness of being is crucial: objects of knowledge in many fields have material instantiations, but they must simultaneously be conceived as unfolding structures of absences—as things that continually ‘explode’ and ‘mutate’ into something else, and that are as much defined by what they are not as by what they are.

I want to propose that technological objects, consumer goods and exchange commodities also show these qualities. Consider first technological objects, which are often perceived as fixed; Rheinberger considers them to be the stable moments in an experimental arrangement. But this conception is highly problematic, in light of contemporary technologies which are simultaneously things-to-be-used and things-in-a-pro-cess-of-transformation: they undergo continual processes of development and investigation. Computers and computer programs are typical examples; they appear on the market in continually changing ‘updates’ (progressively debugged issues of the same product) and ‘versions’ (items marked for their differences from earlier varieties). These objects are both present (ready-to-be-used) and absent (subject to further research), the ‘same’ and yet not the same. They have a dual structure that was not available to thinkers like Heidegger, who drew a sharp contrast between instruments and knowledge objects. In sum, technologies must be included in the category of unfolding objects.

If we turn now to consumer objects, we can also put them in this category. There is, of course, a great variety of consumer objects that matter in day-to-day life. But a significant portion of these objects are subject to transformations and to ‘technological development’; many of them are in fact technologies, or are technologically prepared and upgraded goods. They are changing as we buy them and their changed versions stimulate further demand. Fruit and vegetables are as much examples of this as are television sets or software programs. We can perhaps say that in a knowledge economy, most objects will be mass-produced ‘copies’ of technoscientific originals that undergo continuous transformation and exemplify the lack of completeness of being described above. This dual structure contradicts notions of consumer society such as Baudrillard’s, which conceptualize the objects of mass-consumption as copies without original (see Ritzer, 1999: 97). But then Baudrillard ignores the knowledge base of contemporary products. There are also consumer objects that are not technological or knowledge-driven in the sense indicated. One example is perhaps fashion products, but their continual transmutation and indefmiteness is even more apparent than that of other objects. Fashion pieces are always in the process of being materially defined through activities of ‘design’ which lean toward art (or are art) and about which we know little (but see Henderson, 1998). The important point here is that objects of design are continually redesigned; their fixedness is a matter of moments of stability in a chain of changes and it is always in danger of disappearing.

A similar situation obtains with many objects of exchange that are not subject to consumption. Consider, for example, the financial ‘instruments’ that are traded in stock, option and foreign exchange markets. These are ‘instruments’ in the sense that they insure the owner against the risks of adverse currency movements, allow bets in speculative activities, faciliate shifts between financial positions and so on. But these instruments are also knowledge-based. They are developed by specialists in the research and development centres of large investment banks and similar institutions. Their ‘indefiniteness of being,’ the changing risk calculations they involve, lies at the heart of these instruments’ adaptability to changing financial scenarios and needs.

Are there objects in contemporary society that still have the stability of fixed material structures? There are, and we can give an example of them by considering ‘tools’ like the Heideggerian hammer, which we need to distinguish from the technical and financial instruments discussed before. In his analysis of thinghood and equipment ([1927] 1962), Heidegger proposes that equipment (Zeug, the term he uses for tools), has the property of being not only ready-to-hand but transparent: it has the tendency to disappear and become a means when we are using it. Equipment becomes problematic only when it is unavailable, when it malfunctions, or when it temporarily breaks down. Only then do we go from ‘absorbed coping’ to ‘envisaging,’ ‘deliberate coping’ and to the scientific stance of ‘theoretical reflection’ of the properties of entities. Heidegger’s goal here is to contrast tool-use with the ‘theoretical attitude’ that we bring to bear on objects of knowledge, and that entails a ‘withholding’ of practical reason. This view is limited when it comes to understanding science, which can no longer be equated with theorizing as a by now substantial number of empirical studies demonstrates (e.g. Galison, 1997; Geison, 1997; Knorr Cetina, 1981, 1999; Latour, 1988; Latour and Woolgar, 1979; Lynch, 1985; Todes, 1997; Traweek, 1988). It is suggestive with regard to tool-use and objects like a hammer.

Heidegger also had something to say on the existence of ‘things’ within systems of objects (see also Baudrillard, 1996) which should be mentioned. The indefiniteness of objects comes about through their manufacture in series and models, as suggested. But it also comes about through the referential nexus of objects, the phenomenon that one object refers to another, and this one to a third, in an unending series of referrals. Heidegger tried to capture this with his notion of a referential whole ([1927] 1962). He used the idea to suggest that our instrumental being in the world implies not a single tool but the ‘whole’ of a workshop, where one tool refers to another and the whole constitutes an instrumental environment in which we are embedded. In a similar vein, we can argue that the objects we want to complete our being always refer to further objects in an unending series. When an advertisement suggests ‘all we need’ is a car of a particular brand which has completeness of being in that it satisfies all wants and will very nearly run forever, then other images suggest that with the car go other objects enmeshed in particular lifestyles and career trajectories, and so on. If a fashion model projects the perfect look, his or her visually suggested completeness of being always rests on further products and qualities which she/he has, and which may become foregrounded as our lacks. This referential nexus of objects can be seen as an unfolding series, much like single objects.

To return now to single consumer objects: these should not be seen as expandable only through new models and versions. The notion we started out with is that many consumer goods have a dual structure of the sort where these objects can simultaneously be ready-to-hand usable things and absent objects of enquiry developed further by research. The point is that this duality repeats itself, so to speak, in the ready-to-hand state in an interesting way. Consider again a computer or a software program. These instruments are by now at least moderately ‘ready’ to be used even by the uninitiated when they are bought, but their potential is often much larger than what we can do with them in one or even many tries. The object has an interior indefiniteness of being in the sense of a potential for further ‘discovery’ and extension. As we ‘discover’ the object, it may change, for example when we go from using the computer to entering the Internet made accessible by it—the situation is much like in science, where knowledge objects are similarly changeable. But even within the ‘same’ umbrella object like a computer the possibilities of extension seem inexhaustible. The lack of completeness of being can literally mean a lack or insufficiency of some consumer object which begs to be replaced by a newer version. But the notion also allows us to see objects as expanding environments of realization. This is perhaps most obvious in the case of scientific objects which almost always ‘lack’ completeness in the sense that they have vast undisclosed areas of further parts and mechanisms. What I want to claim is that many contemporary consumer objects also are expanding objects—and they make relational demands associated with their expandability.

Postsocial Relations

We now have all the ingredients in place to discuss postsocial relationships more directly, while at the same time summarizing the discussion thus far. Consider again the referential connectedness of objects, their existence in temporal series and their extendability into the depths of a dark closet. Objects melt into indefinite beings and become transmutable for different reasons. In a knowledge economy goods tend to be knowledge-based and bear the characteristics of knowledge objects. This is significant, since it not only accounts for the changeability and sophistication of a vast number of consumer objects, it also legitimizes the constant turnover of products through which consumption is stimulated under market conditions. The market itself is, in some domains, an object of interest to which buyers and sellers (traders, investors) are oriented, and which continually changes its shape and moves in new directions (Knorr Cetina and Bruegger, 2000). Finally, the objects of science are transmutable entities on yet other grounds, having to do with the complexity and connectedness of natural objects. The point is that all these conditions converge in contributing to the phenomenon that the objects sought can never be fully attained, that they are, if you wish, never quite themselves. What we encounter are representations or stand-ins which compensate for a more basic lack of completeness of the objects we encounter. On the subject side, this lack corresponds to a structure of wanting, a continually reiterated interest and desire that appears never to be fulfilled by a final object. Some theories see the self as frozen into a lacking subjectivity for life at the infant stage, but we can also link the self as a structure of wanting to the mimetic reflexivity (see Lash, 1994, 1999) of contemporary society and its ‘mirroring’ projections and images.

The argument about the ties that bind subjects to objects builds on the correspondence between the two series. In a nutshell, the argument is that the incompleteness of being which I have attributed to contemporary objects uniquely matches the structure of wanting by which I have characterized the self. The touchstone of the argument is what we mean by this ‘match.’ As we shall see, what is involved is a form of reciprocity: of objects providing for the continuation of a chain of wantings, through the signs they give off of what they still lack and ‘hide’ within themselves; and of subjects providing for the continuation of objects which only exist as a sequence of absences, as unfolding possibilities. To start from the beginning, I will first examine the structural affinity between subject and object, which provides a sort of backbone for the idea of a reciprocity, and then go on to discuss the deeper sense of the mutualities involved. I will then bring into play a sense in which solidarity can be a defining characteristic of object relations, and argue that object worlds can be embedding environments for individuals. Postsocial relations and postsocial forms, I maintain, are ‘social’ in all of these senses. But they are also/wsocial in that not all of the links in the patterns of human sociality readily apply. If recent assessments are right, some links may also be lost or replaced in human sociality, which is changing as people encounter each other in new ways in, for example, the purely symbolic space of electronically mediated communication. In the next section, I will draw attention to such postsocial human relations.

The notion of a structural affinity between subject and object captures the equivalence in form between subjects conceived as structures of wanting and objects that are unfolding things, continually in the process of being defined. Both are moving entities that provide ‘ports’ and targets for one another. A subject that develops an intrinsic connection to a consumer object like a car, a computer or a fashionable outfit will be lured into further pursuits by the referential nexus of objects and their continuous transmutation into more attractive successor versions. In that sense objects not only attract a person’s desire, they also allow wanting to continue, giving it its ‘serial,’ chain-like structure. On the subject side, a string of vagrant, insatiable wants, in demanding new things, provides for the creation of new object varieties. Note that this structural equivalence fulfils one condition of a relationship, which is that it should continue over time and not be reducible to a short experience.

The significance of the formal correspondence of two structures which I have outlined lies in what this correspondence facilitates—a potential binding of a subject to an object in which the two sides ‘feed’ and sustain one another. But when this binding relationship comes about, it always involves more than the formal equivalence. It has, for example, a semiotic dimension: for the relationship to continue, the object must be signalling what it still lacks and the subject must be interpreting these signals (and his or her own wants or dissatisfactions). Moreover, for the interlocking of signs and interpretations to come about we may need to introduce something like role-taking or perspective-taking. For how is the subject to interpret the signals if not by putting him/herself in the position of the object? Mead devised his famous role-taking formula for an interpersonal sociality, which he thought comes about when a person sees the world from the perspective of the other, includes in his or her perspective-taking the other’s attitude toward him/herself, and when the process is mutual, involves both parties in an interaction. Mead meant his formula to extend to physical objects (1938: 426ff.; Heintz, 2000; Joas, 1980); he thought that the child that treats objects as if they were human beings, putting gestures if not words ‘into their mouths’ and anticipating what they were about to say, illustrated role-taking (Wiley, 1994: 34). But childplay or anthropomorphization is not crucial to the applicability of role-taking to non-human others. On the basis of what we know about how experts ‘figure out’ their objects of knowledge, it seems plain that we can do even less without positioning ourselves on the object’s side when the object is non-human than when it is human. We do not have the same natural familiarity with a Higgs mechanism or a chromosome that we have with a fellow human being from our culture, a familiarity that may allow us to understand the other ‘instantly’ and shortcut role-taking. Initially anyway, we will have to make an effort to apprehend the object’s behaviour by placing ourselves in its position, by somehow cognizing and visualizing its needs and dispositions.

The process of position-taking involves the subject’s ‘becoming the object,’ a sort of crossover through which the subject attempts to see the object world from the inside, to ‘think’ as it does, and to feel its reactions. In the words of a biologist, ‘if you want to really understand about a tumor, you’ve got to be a tumor’ (Fox Keller, 1983: 207). But is the object also taking the subject’s position and ‘becoming the subject,’ as Mead’s notion of reflexive role-taking in intersubjective communication suggests? We can only make sense of this by applying Mead’s formula in a less than completely symmetric way. A knowledge object may indeed be seen to come to the subject to ‘live in it.’ As the biologist Barbara McClintock put it, as you look at these things (tumours, chromosomes, etc.) they become part of you. And you forget yourself (Fox Keller, 1983: 117ff). McClintock describes how the object occupies her mind and attention until she disappears into an ‘I am not there’ state. My way of putting this is to say that the object of knowledge has become an internal object situated within a person’s processing environment. It may preoccupy the subject even when the subject is unaware of it, working away in a person’s unconscious. Many scientists have commented on sudden surprise insights seemingly arising from such subconscious preoccupations. Now Mead’s formula would seem to apply to this if we could say that an object preoccupying the subject takes over the person’s attitude toward it. But can we say this? What objects will find in a person’s mind is their thinking oriented toward them. Yet non-human objects do not generally take over these thoughts, rather they are taken over by them, they become defined in terms of them and in that sense a person’s attitude is transferred onto them. But on the other hand, something other than a subject ruminating on his or her own thoughts must occur when an object comes to the subject. McClintock, for example, appears to have felt that the object transferred some of its patterns of existence onto her mind in the process of ‘occupation.’ What we can perhaps say is the subject partakes in the object world and the object world partakes in the subject in different ways. The reciprocity is there but it is somewhat skewed, since the subject and the object are not structurally doing the same thing. Perhaps we can summarize this in the notion of a crossover that takes place through two different mechanisms—position-taking and transference.

We have now added a form of symbolic exchange ‘between species’ to the interlocking of wants and lacks we started out with, and from here it is only a small step to considering the idea of solidarity as also relevant to conceptualizing postsocial relations. But first we must bring out a dimension implicit in the discussion thus far, which I think is a major source of postsocial relations as solidarity relations. Mead’s ideas about perspective-taking imply a standpoint theory according to which one’s thoughts and viewpoints are dependent upon one’s social or existential position in life—and they imply that the ensuing differences of viewpoints between different persons must somehow be recognized and perhaps smoothed out for something like sociality to come about (I am ignoring here Mead’s concern with self-formation to which his insights were also linked). But with many non-human objects, the problem would not seem to be merely different standpoints but different worlds which need to be bridged. Such a bridging process involves knowledge in a much more extensive and direct sense than the standpoint scenario. In order to take an object’s position, we must already know something about it, and we extend this knowledge through position-taking and by opening ourselves up for transference. The interlocking of wants and lacks is intermeshed with knowledge processes which make the interlocking possible. Mead could ignore this to some degree since a massive amount of shared knowledge can be presupposed in intracultural human relations.

Now the point I want to make is that the knowledge we acquire of non-human things can also give rise to sociality with objects as a form of solidarity with them. Solidarity has been conceptualized in various ways in social theory (e.g. Durkheim, [1893] 1964); but the notion may be most widely applicable to object relations when the moral dimension is foregrounded; when solidarity means cooperation and altruism between self and other. When applied to objects, this sense of solidarity easily extends itself to human relationships to nature, to the environmental attitudes of social movements, etc. The knowledge base of this sort of postsocial relatedness through feelings of solidarity with objects can best be made apparent by a further illustration—by working our way through another set of quotes from McClintock, the scientist mentioned before (Fox Keller, 1983: 198f).

Every time I walk on grass I feel sorry because I know the grass is screaming at me.

Why does McClintock feel sorry for the grass? The answer appears to lie not simply in the civility of her character or her general love of nature (though she might have had both), but rather in her knowledge of plants and their ‘ingenious mechanisms’ of responding to an environment. McClintock made the above utterance in the context of a series of others in which she describes these reaction mechanisms as extraordinary:

Plants are extraordinary. For instance … if you pinch a leaf of a plant you set off electrical pulses. You can’t touch a plant without setting off an electrical pulse … There is no question that plants have all kinds of sensitivities. They do a lot of responding to an environment. They can do almost anything you can think of.

If my interpretation is right, then we have hit here the epistemic source of an object-centred solidarity—its rootedness in knowing something about an object. I do not wish to argue that feelings of moral solidarity toward nature cannot also spring from, or be accompanied by, a lack of knowledge, for example in the case of romanticism or rapturousness about the world. But I would argue that the latter kind of relationship lays itself open to critique and dismissal precisely on the grounds of its lack of knowledge. In a knowledge society, deep emotional investments in nature draw their legitimation from knowledge rather than from ‘blind’ admiration; the two processes of solidarity become interwoven, reinforcing one another.

An individual looping his or her desire through an object and back is not only likely to learn something about the object in the process. He or she is also likely to develop a shared lifeworld with these objects, a larger context of practices and things within which the relationship is enacted. A shared lifeworld that is continually reaffirmed through the sort of processes described would also seem to provide embeddedness to individuals, even if the embedding environment is non-human. I will turn to embeddedness now because the notion has been strongly associated with human sociality in the past, yet it also provides another way of filling in what we might mean by postsocial relatedness. In the current literature, embeddedness tends to be associated with networks of social ties. An individual that has at his or her disposal a network of human relationships into which he or she is tied is embedded; the network provides a resource on which the individual can draw (e.g. Granovetter, 1985). Embeddedness is also linked to human ‘traditions,’ seen as traces of practices, signs of beliefs and images of continuity revealed in human thought or action (Luke, 1996). Accordingly, we have been embedded in the past when traditions were intact, but experience disembeddedness as previous traditions disintegrate and our age moves beyond tradition (Heelas et al., 1996). But it seems plain that traces and continuities of the sort found in traditions can also arise from interactions with non-human environments. In fact, this possibility is implicit in the detraditionalization literature; what prevents it from being recognized is the tendency to focus on individualization as a direct consequence of detraditionalization. Here theories of integration may be better positioned to recognize this possibility, for example when they address common prosperity as a new form of integration (e.g. Peters, 1993). Turning now to network concepts of embeddedness, object worlds can also be conceived as networks into which individuals are tied, as indeed they are by the actor-network theory (e.g. Callön, 1986; Latour and Johnson, 1988). If the criterion for embeddedness is the existence of networks, then object-dominated networks should deliver the embeddedness experience.

Postsocial Human Forms

The understanding of ‘postsociality’ is not only pertinent to human-object relations but also to domains that are both human and non-human or even exclusively human. I want to emphasize this in concluding, and, starting from the idea of embeddedness just discussed, give some illustrations by turning to studies of Internet users. What these studies emphasize are the spatial features of this ‘environment’ and the virtual (disembodied) interactions in it as giving rise to community (Hornsby, 1998; Jones, 1998; Stone, 1996: 36f). These ideas of collective disembodied systems generated in a symbolic space illustrate an important instance of what we might mean by postsocial forms—forms of human interaction mediated by and constituted through communication technologies. We may call these postsocial forms since they arise in circumstances where interaction, space and even communication appear to mean something different from our accustomed understanding of the terms. But what exactly are the new characteristics of these forms? How do the characteristics of social interaction change when the technological is the natural, and ‘social space is a computer code, consensual and hallucinatory’ (Stone, 1996: 38)? Empirical studies of this question are only beginning to emerge, and we will have to await their results. But as this author suggests, one chief difference is the decreased density of the communication, coming about through the narrower bandwidth of electronic communication, where fewer signalling channels are availabe than in face-to-face interaction. In narrow bandwidth communication the interpretative faculties of the person become more powerfully, even obsessively engaged in the effort to provide closure on a set of signals. Perhaps a more powerful engagement, and the interpretative fantasies opened up, translate not into the poorer experiential quality of virtual systems but into ‘higher’ experience and greater attraction.

It is not difficult to find evidence of this attraction. Heim provides indications of it in his work on virtual reality (e.g. 1993), as does Turkle (1995). An early, more literary rendering can be found in Gibson (1984: 4-5):

A year [in Japan] and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly … [S]till he’d seen the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void … [H]e was no [longer] console man, no cyberspace cowboy … But the dreams came on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he’d cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, his hands clawed into the bedslab, … trying to reach the console that wasn’t there.

As Turkle (1995: 83ff.) aptly suggests, during the early stages of the personal computer’s entrance into everyday life, the young person’s response to computers centred around the question of whether or to what extent the computer was alive, and adults and philosophers were concerned with the degree to which computers could or could not emulate human beings (Dreyfus, 1967, 1972; Searle, 1980). These issues have moved into the background in the countries where computers have gained wide acceptance, and where their ‘future presence’ in every household and every aspect of our life seems inevitable. In these countries the notion of the machine has been expanded to include enough features of social actors to make them acceptable as business partners in all kinds of interaction, even intimate ones. Turkle describes a new pragmatism and nonchalance with a view to expert systems in the 1990s, as people come to terms with the idea that machines can be intelligent, helpful, trustworthy etc. They have, one might add, in any case become a ‘presence’ against which our defensive redefinitions of what is special about people may be the wrong track to take. And while they may have become the ‘selfless and loyal butler’ (Turkle, 1995: 123) for some, for others they offer the possibility of the sort of intimate relationships described by Heim (1993), of self-experience and parallel lives.

Could postsociality also be understood as a negative social form, a form of human relatedness not based on ‘crossovers,’ reflexivity and solidarity but on hatred and self-negation? Could it be ‘post’ in the sense of new and beyond received concepts of sociality? Consider a fictional case. In the movie Fight Club which was screened at the turn of the millennium, aggression and violence between persons were portrayed as something that binds self and other. The forms of violence were physical and extreme; binding seemed to be based on others providing for the self the negative part that perhaps a parent once played, the part of an interiorized, alien ‘other’ who refused to recognize the self, behaved in ways the self admired and dreaded, and to whom the self was related in a dynamic of challenges and fights. These fights when exteriorized became a force that bound the self to others with similar tendencies, and that was instituted in fight clubs. The deliberate interpersonal violence was also made plausible as an alternative to one kind of object relations, that of consumer objects. One can intepret the resorting to violence as an attempt to break out of some kind of lack-wanting dynamic with objects, human or non-human, to free oneself of its holding power by resorting to the level of what Gibson (1984) called ‘the meat,’ the level of the physical suffering (and inflicting) of pain and blows. Goffman saw physical assault as the stopping point for all symbolic exchanges; as a way, we might say, to absorb all lacks and erase all meaning (Goffman, 1974; see also Baudrillard’s notion of a fatal strategy, 1990).

At the same time, this sort of symbolic disintegration simply gives rise to another variant of a postsocial form. Fighting might not be based on role-taking, but in the case of fight clubs, it easily fits the Meadean idiom of a ‘conversation of gestures’ that involves turn-taking, rules, limits, reciprocity and an audience (it is structured like a spectacle or an ‘event’). Here we can see a variety of mechanisms which have traditionally been associated with social forms at work. These are also evident when we consider the fact that fights are staged in cycles that establish the continuity and expectedness of the behaviour. Where things begin to differ somewhat from the conventional picture is the point at which we consider the mechanism that gives rise to the other. In the case portrayed, this mechanism is transference; the other is constituted as a fighter by the projection onto the other of experiences of the self. A second distinction concerns the content of the exchanges, which are physical. As indicated, participants make the attempt to deliberately ‘reduce’ exchanges to non-symbolic levels of interaction. Though gangs and violent activities have long been analysed by sociologists, they are often seen to enact status concerns, engage in ‘deep play’ (Geertz, 1973) or profit-seeking and the like—this points to motives which are entirely conventional but are enacted in the alternative world of deviant behaviour. Yet such interpretations would not seem adequately to capture the sort of ‘opting out’ and ‘letting go’ of senseless fighting.


We have come full circle now, returning from postsocial reciprocity, solidarity and embeddedness to the self as a structure of wanting that plays itself out as it ‘moves into’ object worlds, and to forms of self-relatedness realized in violent physical engagement with others. Postsocial relations are relations to computers and expert systems and their holding power. They are forms of attraction articulated in relation to shopping malls of the sort described by Ritzer (1999; see also Falk and Campbell, 1997; Miller, 1994, 1997) in which we feel embedded, ‘mirror’ our identity and spend our time. They include attachments to nature and the environment whose characteristic feature may be the moral slant that sociality takes in this case, and which perhaps indicates the continued relevance of the inner censor model of the self (discussed above). Postsocial forms address the fascination the market has for traders and investors, who perceive the market as a ‘greater being’ which they enter as they strap themselves to their seats in front of dealing screens (Knorr Cetina and Bruegger, 2000). But they also encompass understandings of human relatedness and engagement that stand as alternatives to, or perhaps supplant, traditional understandings of human sociality. Note that in all these cases, I have not derived relatedness from the satisfaction postsocial individuals may experience from the attachment. We should be careful not to construe object relationships simply as positive emotional ties, or as being symmetric, non-appropriative, etc. The characterization one must look for should be more dynamic, allow for ambivalence and account for the durability of people’s engagement with objects and the sort of symbolic environments described. I have suggested that we can theorize postsocial relations more through the notion of a lack, and a corresponding structure of wanting, than through positive ties and fulfilment.

I have also argued in this chapter that postsocial forms ‘step into the place’ of social relations where these empty out, where they lose some of the thickness and meaningfulness they have had in earlier periods. These forms and the objects they involve may also simply be the risk winners of the relationship risks and failures that many analysts of contemporary life associate with human relations. A condition for understanding this role of objects is that we develop, in social theory, concepts that break with the tradition of seeing objects in certain ways. In the past, we have seen them as abstract technologies that promote the alienation of the worker (e.g. Berger et al., 1974), as fetishized commodities (Marx [1887] 1968) and spectacles that freeze and numb any human or political potential (Baudrillard, [1976] 1993), or as transparent tools which theory can disregard if only it focuses on instrumental action (Habermas, 1981). In this chapter, I have tried to provide an initial framework for a different conception of objects; one that sees their ‘hooking power’ as lying with their indefiniteness of being and their expanding potential in contemporary life. This power matters in relation to a self that is structured by a dynamic of reiterated wantings and lacks of fulfilment—in addition to other dynamics it may also be caught in. From a sociological perspective, this dynamic is sustained by the mimetic reflexivity of contemporary society and by changes of socialization practices that only recreate a waning version of the ‘inner censor’ self.

The shift from social to postsocial relations is not the only way of envisaging the epic character of the changes now in the making, but it is one that ‘specializes,’ as it were, in shining the analytic torch on the concept of the social. This view of things does not stand in any necessary contrast or contradiction to assessments that associate current transitions with a shift from industrial to postindustrial life, from nation-states to global societies, or from modernity to postmodernity. What it stands in contrast to are attempts to hold on to the concepts of the social which have been important to us in the past. Interestingly, such tendencies are quite prominent in what Ritzer aptly calls the ‘gloomy view of postmodernists’—of thinkers who denigrate trends like the consumerist bent of Western democracies (1996: 256; see also Lipovetsky, 1994) or the evanescence of contemporary human relations (Bauman, 1993, 1996). To develop an understanding of current changes in sociality, I maintain, we need to mobilize new concepts and to refuse to adopt an attitude of denigration.

I want to emphasize in concluding that the changes in the way we live and understand sociality also pertain to human relations. Jameson, who has no nostalgia for modernism, has characterized postmodern life as a waning of emotion or affect, a tiring of the search for meaning associated with the modern world, a wanting ‘to live on the surface for a while’ (1991: 151; Ritzer, 1996: 182). Such characterizations may be joined by those of other theorists who take as their starting point a shift in authority from without to within, from a pre-given social order to authority resting with the self (Heelas, 1996: 2), and who analyse the type of marriage and family relations that ensue from such shifts (e.g. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1996). Other bits and pieces for an understanding of postsocial forms of human collectivity are beginning to emerge from the studies of Internet communities and shopping malls I have cited. The characteristics of all these forms of human collectivity may not be discerned easily through the mists of history and of existing concepts. Yet we ought to develop a sense of postsocial forms in social theory if we are not to ignore significant assessment of postmodern life by authors who are not sociologists, and who challenge our conceptions.