Monthly Archives: December 2011

Societies: Some are human, some are living, but most of them are neither

Nanosocieties: One point of this project is to not only discuss how nanoscience and nanotechnologies influence society, but also to pursue some kind of “speculative sociological” thought. Here, we may set off from a simple proposition – that nanoscientists and social theorists/philosophers might share a joint sense of wonder when experiencing/experimenting the world. Indeed: “Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.”

Nanosocieties. This post will discuss this concept of “societies”, but not from the point of view of traditional sociology. Rather, it will lean upon conceptions about “society” and “the social” that were rendered obsolete in the early years of the 20th century. Here, we could discuss Gabriel Tarde, and how his speculative metaphysical sociology was forgotten by mainstream sociology, usurped by the Durkheimian view of “the social”. Bruno Latour has famously written much about this:

Remember that for Tarde “everything is a society” … Durkheim deals only with human societies and borrows his ideal of science from natural scientists with whom he has little occasion to collaborate since, for him, human societies should remain radically different from biological and physical ones. Tarde’s position is the reverse; for him there exist only societies. Human societies are but a particular subset of these societies because they exist in so few copies. (Latour, 2010)

However, this time, we’ll discuss Alfred North Whitehead; the author of the quote above (see Modes of Thought.) As in the case of Tarde, this is also a theorist whose speculative thought remained “dormant” during most of the 20th century. Gilles Deleuze – one of the philosophers who played a role in the rediscovery of this thought, notably through chapter six in The Fold – had a particular, “off the record” view on this fact, suggesting that he was “assassinated” by analytic philosophy. (Williams, 2009)

These ideas have however returned, not least via the work of Isabelle Stengers: Earlier this year, the English translation of Thinking with Whitehead was published. Another, more recent addition to the contemporary Whiteheadian literature is Michael Halewood’s A.N. Whitehead and Social Theory. In what follows, we’ll explore sections in these publications (chapters 19 and 5, respectively) that specifically deal with the notions of societies, the social, and sociology.

First, some definitions. Like the Tarde we touched upon above, Whitehead’s conception of “societies” was wide. Halewood explains that

for Whitehead, societies refer to the achievement of groups of entities, of any kind, in managing to cohere and endure and thus to constitute some kind of unity. The term social refers to the manner and milieu in which such endurance is gained. Rocks, stones, amoeba, books can, thus, be considered to be societies. ‘I draw attention to this lowly form of society to dispel the notion that social life is a peculiarity of the higher organisms’ (PR, 76) Whitehead thus immediately and absolutely refuses to partake in the nineteenth-century settlement whereby the social and sociality are envisaged as primarily a human affair. (Halewood, 2011: 85)


the term “sociology”, although rarely used by Whitehead, refers only to the manner and mode of the endurance (or otherwise) of groups of entities which involve the inter-relations of humans, as opposed to nonhuman societies which are simply “social” rather than “sociological”. (Halewood, 2011: 85)

Already at this point, one can discern what Halewood regards to be Whitehead’s key point when it comes to doing sociology.

So, the important point to stress, and to repeat, is that any discussions on sociology and of the sociological (at the human level) can only be embarked upon after accounting for the wider notions of society and the social which characterise all existance. (Halewood, 2011: 86)

Sociology should thus not discriminate between societies; human societies are invariably interconnected to other societies, which comprise of non-human entities.

Slight digression: Here, it might be tempting to say that this leads us towards a “materialism” – the study of human societies should depart from a study of the physical composition of rocks and stones. Whatever you choose to call this -ism, it is crucial to not lapse into the kind of “idealist materialism” that Latour (2007) has criticised – the one which sets off to reduce matter/societies into “primary qualities”. Instead, the speculative aspect of this thought requires us to reject such notions of a “universe” (united by univocal primary qualities), and instead imagine a “multiverse”. Latour writes that

the multiverse designates the universe freed from its premature unification. It is exactly as real as the universe, except the latter can only register the primary qualities while the former registers all of the articulations. The universe is made of essences, the multiverse, to use a Deleuzian or a Tardian expression, is made of habits. (Latour, 2004: 213)

Back to the Whiteheadian societies. As we have seen, Halewood distinguishes societies/social from the more specific, “humans only” concepts of sociology/sociological. Stengers discusses another specification – from “societies” to “living societies”. “Life”, Whitehead writes in Process and Reality, “is a bid for freedom”, and “lurks in the interstices of each living cell”. Stengers continues:

If life lurks in the intersticies of each living cell, one may say just as well that that the singularity of living societies, what justifies them as such, should be called ‘a culture of interstices’. (Stengers, 2011: 328)

However, not everything is alive. (As Steven Shaviro points out; “Whitehead is not a vitalist – he doesn’t believe everything is alive. But he does argue that everything has mentality”. We’ll leave that panpsychist aspect of his work aside for now.) Further, “living societies” are not necessarily human ones; “living” merely suggests that a particular ‘group of entities’ requires other societies as ‘food’ in order to persist. Therefore, “life is robbery”. This distinction, Stengers writes,

corresponds to the contemporary distinction, associated with the work of Prigogine, between “equilibrium structures” capable of maintaining themselves indefinitely, requiring only that the environment maintains itself more or less as it is, and “dissipative structures”, the price of whose existance is “dissipation”: “something” in the environment must be consumed to nourish the permanent processes whose structure expresses its articulation. (Stengers, 2011: 313)

So, living societies are thriving on – robbing from – other societies. This can be justified by the fact that living societies exhibit novelty, which is sourced from the intersticies. It is from within these in-betweens that the germs of the new emanate, making living societies indeterminate. Here, then, is also the root of the indeterminacy of human societies:

One of the main effects of speculative thought is, in fact, to infect all the questions raised by living societies with the hesitations and uncertainties that are the lot of what we call “sociology”. For Whitehead, it is always societies that we study. Everything is sociology, and human sociology, with all its difficulties, merely exhibits the questions, taken to their full exacerbation, that other sciences can neglect …

This is why Whitehead can no more tell us what a society is than Spinoza could say what a body is capable of. In both cases, “we don’t know”. We only know that the two opposite extremes, “my body belongs to me” and “I belong to my society”, are somewhat misleading simplifications. (Stengers, 2011: 325)

What does this approach then tell us about what it means to do “(natural) science” or “sociology”, in the classic senses of the word? First, Stengers writes, we must acknowledge that

every scientist, but also every novelist, is, in Whitehead’s terms, a “sociologist”, for only societies can be characterised, only social adventures can be recounted. This also means that scientists, if they accept the Whiteheadian proposition, should know that their description, and as the case may be, their explanations, require the social endurance of what they describe; in general, novelists are well aware of this. (Stengers, 2011: 331)

Here we are in classical STS territory: Science is about enrolling various entities, stabilising them – indeed, “socialising” them – through experiments. Yes, experiments are “social” arrangements, but not in the sense that non-humans are passive pawns in a game actively played by humans.

What about the people who study human societies? Well, as they deal with living societies, they have to take the creativity inherent in intersticies into account. Moreover,

when it comes to those that call themselves sociologists, that is, who address human societies, they must know that explaining their stability will merely ratify the categories and justifications produced by this society itself when dealing with what threatens its stability (Stengers, 2011: 332)

Thus, those who call themselves sociologists must steer clear of slapping “pre-fab” social theories onto the world. Going back to Halewood’s points about socities/social vs sociology/sociological: Sociology is fundamental to the “mode of the endurance” displayed by societies of humans. For the sciences, this is less of a problem: Nanoparticles stick together no matter how trendy nanoscience has become.


Halewood, M. (2011) A.N. Whitehead and Social Theory: Tracing a culture of thought. London: Anthem Press.
Latour, B. (2004) ”How to talk about the body? The normative dimension of science studies”, Body & Society, Vol 10, No 2-3.
_____ (2007) ”Can We Get Our Materialism Back, Please?”, Isis, No 98.
_____ (2010) “Tarde’s idea of quantification” in M. Candea (ed) The Social After Gabriel Tarde: Debates and Assessments. London: Routledge.
Stengers, I. (2011) Thinking with Whitehead: A free and wild creation of concepts. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
Williams, J. (2009) “A.N. Whitehead”, in G. Jones and J. Roffe (eds.) Deleuze’s Philosophical Lineage. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Introducing Nanosocieties

Nanotechnology is a growing field of research that holds great promises in a wide range of areas. At the same time, it is also a very young area of research, and researchers of different background can quite liberally brand their research as “nano”. Nanotechnology also has the potential to challenge the way we perceive technology, and at the same time offer new ways of understanding biology. It is important that these issues are tackled not only from a perspective purely rooted in natural sciences, but from other disciplines as well. The idea behind this blog is to initiate a cross-disciplinary discussion on hos development in nanotechnology can be understood and what implications it has for the way we perceive technology

The field of nanotechnology is steadily expanding with an ever-growing number of publications associated with the keyword ”nanotechnology”. A search for the term in Thomson Reuters Web of Knowledge yields 15,696 hits (years 1945 to 2011). However, 9,815 of theses approximately 16,000 are published within the last five years. Funding of research in nanotechnology has also increased over the last few years and recently China overtook USA when it comes to funding research in nanotechnology. Both within and outside of the research community, the potential health risks associated with nanotechnology, especially concerning exposure to nanoparticles and fibers made from carbon nanotubes, are heavily debated. However, there is no consensus regarding exactly how the use of nanomaterials should be regulated in legislation and health issues associated with, for example, nano-scale particles has been a concern even before the growth of nano-science.

Since it seems that the question what should actually be defined as nanotechnology is still debated, it might be useful to approach the subject from another perspective. Let us instead consider length scales in technology in general and see what makes the nanometer scale different. In conventional technology, the properties of an object are not directly related to the properties of the molecules it is built from. A chair, for instance, is primarily an object crafted from a bulk material. Molecular properties are of course important, but they do no define the chair. In nanotechnology, which deals with technological devices with at least one dimension in the size range between one and one hundred nanometer, the properties of individual molecules are of far greater importance. It is also an area where different types of materials meet. George M. Whitesides writes in his 1991 paper “Molecular Self-Assembly and Nanochemistry: A Chemical Strategy for the Synthesis of Nanostructures” (Science, 1991):

Structures in this range of sizes can be considered as exceptionally large, unexceptional, or exceptionally small, depending on one’s viewpoint, synthetic and analytical technologies, and interests (Fig. 1) . To solid-state physicists, material scientists, and electrical engineers, nanostructures are small. The techniques, such as microlithography and deposition from the vapor, that are used in these fields to fabricate microstructures and devices require increasingly substantial effort as they are extended to the range below 102 nm. To biologists, nanostructures are familiar objects. A range of biological structures – from proteins through viruses to cellular organelles – have dimensions of 1 to 102 nm. To chemists, nanostructures are large. Considered as molecules, nanostructures require the assembly of groups of atoms numbering from 103 to 109 and having molecular weights of 104 to 1010 daltons.

Thus, there is an overlap between biological structures on a subcellular level, molecules created by organic synthesis and conventional solid technology constructed using lithography. This means that nanotechnological objects can be constructed using both biological and non-biological material. It can be created on a molecular scale or crafted from bulk materials.

Here, we se one of the interesting aspects of nanotechnology. As the size regime is in the interface between many different types of structures, there is a possibility to expand the types of materials used to create technology to include, for example, biological macromolecules or supramolecular assemblies. An important feature, which is common between nanotechnological and biological objects, is the foundation in self-assembly as a construction principle. This design principle, where the information determining the assembled structure is an emergent property arising from the interaction between the individual building blocks, enables the creation of devices on a scale not accessible by e.g. lithography.

So far, we have seen that biological and nanotechnological objects can be constructed in the same way, using self-assembly. However, the similarities do not stop there, many nanotechnological devices are constructed either to mimic biological functions, or constructed using biological molecules. Examples of the latter involve molecular scaffolds or molecular electronics built from DNA, or nano-scale containers composed of phospholipids, the molecules that make up the cell membranes shielding the interior of biological cells from the exterior environment. Because we have entered the length scale where biological molecules are relevant, it is now possible to consider new materials, which have not been seen as technological before, as such.

At the same time as nanotechnology incorporates more and more of biological functionalities and features there is and opposing trend in the other end of the spectrum: Biological cells are stripped of many of their most fundamental features to more and more resemble purely technological objects. The development of synthetic genomes, a field of research whose most well known representative is the scientist and entrepreneur Craig Venter, challenges the perception of the biological cell as something other than technological devices which can be designed and assembled using man made components.

When the boundaries between technology and biology, between culture and nature, diminish, it is important to also examine the mechanism that is perhaps most closely associated with biological life: Darwinian evolution. Evolution is essentially the process of repetition with error. Stripped down to these basic concepts, evolution is by no means restricted to the realm of biology. There are already examples where evolutionary processes are implemented as fundamental mechanisms in technology. Emphasis on evolutionary mechanisms is perhaps most prominently seen in computer programming in the creation of self-improving code, but also there are instances where this perspective is combined with the manufacturing of physical objects. The process that is perceived as biological evolution comprises a multitude of material relationships in them selves featuring both repetition and error. An in-depth understanding of these processes helps loosening the strong association between evolution and life that is so prevalent. With the growth of technology relying on self-assembly, the ubiquity of the evolutionary process becomes more and more apparent.

Now, what is the purpose of this discussion? We want to raise a discussion on what technology can be. When the borders molecular assemblies and processes from biology are used to create technology and, simultaneously, technology is used to, in a way, manufacture biological cells, it is important to ask the question: What is the effective difference between living and non-living objects? Does there have to be a distinction? The understanding of biological processes on a molecular level, e.g. the replication of DNA, the translation of genes into proteins or the control of cellular processes through chemical signaling, has had a fundamental effect on the way we think about life and all that it means. Nowadays, symbols like the double helix of DNA are ubiquitous, and phrases such as “it’s in our genes” are commonly found in advertising. Does nanotechnology, comprising molecular technology based on self-assembly principles, have the same potential to change what we understand as both technology and biology?

So far there are a lot of open question, we want to investigate if theories from disciplines other than the sciences can provide valuable insight into these questions. We also want to create a cross-disciplinary platform where people active in, or just interested in, nanotechnology, systems biology, science theory, sociology or computer science can meet and share ideas on the implications of novel technologies.