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<nettime> Network, Swarm, Microstructure
Brian Holmes on Mon, 17 Apr 2006 13:00:54 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Network, Swarm, Microstructure

Albert Hupa wrote:

>Let's consciously combine two meanings of a network: a map, a set of 
>analyzed from ecological point of view and the kind of behaviour....  That 
>why I think of using the notion of swarm - its emergent behaviour cannot be
>described as unpredictable. We may find out some patterns in its behaviour 
>thus, learn something out of networks.

Yes, I agree. The static graph of the network map is what 
leads, via the dynamic figure of the swarm, to a certain 
kind of complexity theory as a possible way to understand 
emergent behavior in the real world.

On the one hand, the use of social network analysis tools is 
giving us pictures of very complicated interlinkages between 
individuals and groups. These pictures are quite simply 
fascinating, because they aggregate lots of data and allow 
one to glimpse patterns, or at least, the possibility of 
patterns, of regularities. But the maps are not enough. One 
needs an understanding of the quality of the links 
themselves, of what encourages a group to cooperate even 
when its membership is atomized and dispersed in space. 
Older sociological and anthropological studies tell a lot 
about how institutions organize a group (church, firm, 
disciplinary organization, etc) and they also tell a great 
deal about how family structures and status hierarchies 
organize people in stable localities. However, when the grip 
of institutions and of place-bound hierarchies declines, as 
is happening today, and when society largely becomes a 
matter of dispersions of  mobile individuals in anonymous 
spaces - the big city; the world; the telecommunicational 
space - the only behavior that has really been understood 
very well is market behavior. We know A LOT (too much I 
would even say) about how price signals serve to structure 
the economic behavior of dispersed and mobile individuals, 
who are always portrayed as rationally calculating in order 
to maximalize their accumulation stategies (this is called 
"methodological individualism"). But is individual economic 
behavior the only kind that can be witnessed in the world 
today? Obviously not! Or let us say, rather, that within the 
space of very weakly determined social relations constituted 
by the market and price signals - the space of what the 
network sociologist Mark Granovetter famously called "weak 
ties" - other subsets or relational forms have started to 

This is where the questions asked by complexity theory 
become so interesting and timely. What gives form and 
pattern to emergent behavior? How can we understand the 
internal consistency of self-organized groups and networks? 
The first answer seemed to be offered by the figure of the 
swarm. The word "swarming" describes a pattern of 
self-organization in real time, which seems to arise out of 
nowhere (or to be emergent) and yet which is recognizable, 
because it repeats in a more or less rhythmical way. 
Swarming is an initial image of self-organization. It is 
basically a pattern of attack, and here it's worth recalling 
the classic definition given by the military theorists 
Arquila and Ronfeldt in their book on "The Zapatista 'Social 
Netwar' in Mexico": "Swarming occurs when the dispersed 
units of a network of small (and perhaps some large) forces 
converge on a target from multiple directions. The overall 
aim is sustainable pulsing--swarm networks must be able to 
coalesce rapidly and stealthily on a target, then dissever 
and redisperse, immediately ready to recombine for a new 

What the observation and description of swarming has done is 
to give us a temporal image of emergent activity, decisively 
adding a dynamic aspect which was absent from the static 
network maps. This is very suggestive for anyone looking to 
understand the kinds of behavior that seem to be associated 
with networks, and indeed, with a "networked society." But 
does the dynamic image of swarming really tell us how 
self-organization occurs? No, I don't think so. The proof is 
that the American and Israeli military theorists have made 
dynamic models of what they see as the swarm tactic, and 
they now claim to use it as what they call a doctrine (see, 
for this, the important and sobering text by Eyal Weizman, 
"Walking through Walls," published in the current issue of 
Radical Philosophy). However, I do not believe that the 
miliary can engage in anything approximating 
self-organization, where individuals spontaneously 
coordinate their actions with others. This is antithetical 
to its hierarchical structure of command. Again, the 
"picture" can be misleading, even when it is a dynamic one. 
What is interesting, and perhaps essential to understand, is 
the way individuals and small groups spontaneously 
coordinate their actions, without any orders. This is 
self-organization, this is emergent behavior. But from what 
"ecology" does it emerge - to use Albert's term?

I am beginning to think that there are two fundamental 
factors that help to explain the consistency of 
self-organized human activity. The first is the existence of 
a shared horizon - aesthetic, ethical, philosophical, and/or 
metaphysical - which is patiently and deliberately built up 
over time, and which gives the members of a group the 
capacity to recognize each other as existing within the same 
referential universe, even when they are dispersed and 
mobile. You can think of this as "making worlds." The second 
is the capacity for temporal coordination at a distance: the 
exchange among a dispersed group of information, but also of 
affect, about unique events that are continuously unfolding 
in specific locations. This exchange of information and 
affect then becomes a set of constantly changing, constantly 
reinterpreted clues about how to act in the shared world. 
The flow aspect of the exchange means that the group is 
constantly evolving, and it is in this sense that it is an 
"ecology," a set of complex and changing inter-relations; 
but this dynamic ecology has consistency and durability, it 
becomes recognizable and distinctive within the larger 
evironment of the earth and its populations, because of the 
shared horizon that links the participants together in what 
appears as a world (or indeed as a cosmos, when metaphysical 
or religious beliefs are at work).

Maurizio Lazarrato set me off on this line of thinking, with 
an article that we published in issue 15 of Multitudes and 
for which I suggested this title (just excerpted from 
important phrases in his text): "Creating Worlds: 
Contemporary capitalism and aesthetic 'wars.'" (Since then, 
all that work has been published in French under the title 
"Les revolutions du capitalisme," and bits have appeared in 
English all over the net.) Lazarrato pursues the Deleuzian 
concept of "modulation" to show how corporations strive to 
create worlds of aeesthetic perception and affect for their 
producers and consumers, in order to bind them together into 
some semblance of coordinated communities under the 
dispersed conditions of contemporary life. They do so via 
the media, which create aesthetic environments that are 
internalized within us in the form of recurring "refrains," 
or rhythmically recurring memories of a sounds, colors, 
words, etc. Lazzarato shows how these worlds, even in their 
difference and plurality (Coca-Cola, Nike, Microsoft, 
Macintosh...) conform to a "majority model" which is 
precisely that of capitalist production and consumption as 
structured by the bureaucratic state apparatuses and the 
transnational institutions that have formed between them. 
Nonetheless, the important thing to note is that in 
hyperindividualized societies, even these normalized forms 
of behavior are no longer directly shaped by institutional 
structures. Instead, there are multiple efforts and 
veritable aesthetic battle to create and maintain the 
referential universes within which choices are constantly made.

But this creation of worlds is not only done by 
corporations, and not only at the degree of simplicity and 
sterility that examples from the commercial realm inevitably 
suggest. To describe the specific contents out of which 
richer and vaster worlds of meaning are made, and to detail 
the effects of the specific tools and procedures that make 
it possible to continuously transform them and to coordinate 
actions within their horizons, are the tasks of a complexity 
theory which seeks to understand how groups organize their 
own behavior, when they are no longer decisively influenced 
by traditional institutions. Bateson pointed the way to this 
possibility of a cybernetic understanding, an understanding 
of feedback processes, with his "Steps to an Ecology of 
Mind." Guattari tried to create even more dynamic models of 
such human ecologies, particularly in his great and strange 
book "Cartographies schizoanalytiques." These are still 
probably the most important references for the art of 
composing mutable worlds, where the goal of the participants 
is to carry out continuous transformation of the very 
parameters and coordinates on which their interactions are 
based (this is also understood as 3rd-order cybernetics, 
where the system produces not just new information, but new 
categories of information). Today, however, it is the 
sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina (thanks, by the way, to the 
several people who sent me her recent article!) who has 
expressed all this most clearly and in the most mainstream 
language, which can't just be ignored or tossed off as the 
work of a kook. Her ideas bring us back to networks and 
their concrete operations, with the concept of "global 
microstructures." As she writes in "Complex Global 

"Modern, industrial society created 'complex' forms of 
organizations that managed uncertainty and task fulfillment 
through interiorized systems of control and expertise. But 
complexity was institutional complexity; it meant 
sophisticated multi-level mechanisms of coordination, 
authority and compensation that assured orderly functioning 
and performance. A global society leans towards a different 
form of complexity; one emanating from more microstructural 
arrangements and the rise of mechanisms of coordination akin 
to those found in interaction systems.... The basic 
intuition that motivates the concept of a global 
microstructure is that genuinely global forms, by which I 
mean fields of practice that link up and stretch across all 
time zones (or have the potential to do so), need not imply 
further expansions of social institutional complexity. In 
fact, they may become feasible only if they avoid complex 
institutional structures. Global financial markets for 
example, where microstructures have been found, simply 
outrun the capacity of such structures. These markets are 
too fast, and change too quickly to be 'contained' by 
institutional orders. Global systems based on 
microstructural principles do not exhibit institutional 
complexity but rather the asymmetries, unpredictabilities 
and playfulness of complex (and dispersed) interaction 
patterns; a complexity that results, in John Urry?s terms, 
from a situation where order is not the outcome of purified 
social processes and is always intertwined with chaos. More 
concretely, these systems manifest an observational and 
temporal dynamics that is fundamental to their connectivity, 
auto-affective principles of self-motivation, forms of 
'outsourcing', and principles of content that substitute for 
the principles and mechanisms of the modern, complex 

Knorr Cetina stresses the creation of shared horizons in 
much the way that I described it above, focusing for this 
particular article on the religious horizon of a shared 
orientation to "transcendent time" (eschatology). As in 
previous articles on the microstructures of global finance, 
she also shows how networked ITCs allow participants of the 
microstructure to see and recognize each other, and to 
achieve cohesion by coordinating with each other in time, 
observing and commenting on the same events, even though the 
microstructure is very dispersed and not all the 
participants or even a majority of them are necessarily 
living anywhere near the particular event in question at any 
given moment. Cetina very suggestively reinterprets the 
usual idea of networks as a system of pipes conveying 
contents, to insist instead on the visual or scopic aspect 
of contemporary ICTs: from "pipes" to "scopes." Information 
is important for coordinating action; but it is the image 
that maintains the shared horizon and insists on the urgency 
of action within it (especially through what Barthes called 
the "punctum": the part that sticks out from the general 
dull flatness of the image and affectively touches you).

To understand how all this works, one essential thing is to 
realize that it is different in each case: the "ecologies" 
are very different, depending on the coordinates or 
parameters that give rise to the particular microstructure. 
For one example, take the case of the open-source software 
movement. One the one hand you have a shared ethical horizon 
which is constituted by texts and examplary projects: 
Stallman's declarations and the example of the GNU project; 
Torvald's work; the General Public License itself and all 
the principles it is based on, particularly the indication 
of authorship (permitting recognition for one's efforts) and 
the openness of the resulting code (permitting widespread 
cooperation); as well as essays like The Hacker Ethic; 
projects like Creative Commons; the relation of all that to 
older ideals of public science; etc. Then on the other hand 
you have concrete modes of coordination via the Internet: 
Sourceforge and the innumerable forums devoted to each free 
software project (which I've been getting to know as I 
struggle with my Ubuntu distro, ha ha!). The whole thing has 
as little institutional complexity as possible (nobody is 
really compelled to do anything in any particular way), but 
instead is a situation full of self-motivation and 
auto-affection between dispersed members of a nonetheless 
very recognizable network, coordinated temporally around the 
development of specific projects, where order is obviously 
intertwined with chaos! And clearly, this particular global 
microstructure is influential in the world.

Another great example, though more diffuse and complex, is 
the development of the counter-globalization movements. 
Again you can see the shared horizons of social justice, 
ecological awareness, resistance to hierarchical power (of 
the state and corporations), with reference to a 
constellation of texts and a number of great mythical 
moments of exemplary events (Seattle, Genoa, Cancun, etc). 
Then you see the coordinating systems, including Internet 
channels (indymedia, a myriad of web sites and mailing 
lists), but also forums and meetings (Zapatista encuentros; 
PGA meetings; counter-summits; social forums; activist 
campaigns). Even more clearly than the open-source projects, 
the counter-globalization movements are a universe of 
universes: the entire set of movements tries to distinguish 
itself from so-called "capitalist globalization", while a 
myriad of other, more specific horizons are established and 
maintained within that larger distinction.

Both the open-source software movements and the 
counter-globalization movements have been capable of 
swarming behaviors. Indeed, the very idea of swarming arose 
from the particular form of solidarity between international 
NGOs and the Zapatists. In terms of open-source, one can 
consider all the peer-to-peer projects that emerged after 
the illegalization of Napster as successive swarm attacks on 
the content-provider industries. There is that classic 
pattern of converging, striking (in this case by producing 
new content-sharing programs), then dissevering, only to 
converge again at a different point (a new program, perhaps 
for video-sharing like Bit Torrent, or a hack of a DRM 
system, etc). Of course, different individuals are involved 
each time, different groups, differences of philosophy and 
mode of action; but a shared horizon makes all those 
differences also recognizable as somehow belonging together. 
This is the complexity of self-organization. You would again 
see such processes in action if you traced the history of 
the Mayday processes around flexible labor. But it is clear 
that by looking at these things in "ecological" terms you 
get a much richer picture, which is not limited to the 
visible dynamics of swarming.

Now, I think these tendencies toward the emergence of global 
microstructures in a weakened institutional environment have 
been going on for decades. But it is clear that a 
turning-point was reached when one microstructure with a 
particularly strong religious horizon and a particularly 
well-developed relational and operational toolkit - Al Qaeda 
- was able to strike at the centers of capital accumulation 
and military power in the US (WTC and Pentagon). Suddenly, 
the capacity of networks to operate globally, independently 
and unpredictably, began to appear as a crisis affecting the 
deep structures of social power. At that point, the figure 
of the swarm rushed to the forefront of all the military 
discussions; and in a broader way, the question of whether 
complexity theory could really predict the emergent 
behavior of self-organizing networks became a kind of 
priority in social science. Knorr Cetina's article on 
microstructures is subtitled "The New Terrorist Societies," 
and it is about Al Qaeda (though her earlier work on 
microstructures is about currency-trading markets). But at 
the same time as the interest in swarming and complexity 
theory moved to the forefront of offical social science, one 
gradually became aware (I did anyway) that all over the 
world, serious attempts were underway to "overcode" and 
stabilize the dangerously mobile relational forms that had 
been unleashed by the generalization of the market and its 
weak ties.

On the one hand there is an attempt to enforce the rules of 
the neoliberal world market by military force, and thus to 
complete an Imperial project which has now shown itself to 
be clearly Anglo-American in origin and in aims. This 
attempt is most clear in the book "The Pentagon's New Map" 
by Thomas Barnett, where he explains that the goal of 
American military policy must be to identify the "gaps" in 
the world network of finance and trade, and to "close the 
gap," by force if necessary. The thesis (on which the Iraq 
invasion was partially based) is that only a continuous 
extension of the world market and of its deterritorializing 
technologies can bring peace and prosperity, rooting out the 
atavistic religious beliefs on which terrorism feeds, and in 
the process, rationalizing the access to the resources that 
the capitalist world system needs to go on producing "growth 
for everyone."

On the other hand, however, what we see in response to this 
extension of the world are market are regressions to 
sovereignist or neofascist forms of nationalism, and perhaps 
more significantly, attempts to configure great continental 
economic blocs where the instability and relative chaos of 
market relations could be submitted to some institutional 
control. These attempts can also be conceived as 
"counter-movements" in Karl Polanyi's sense: responses to 
the atomization of societies and the destruction of 
institutions brought about by the unfettered operations of a 
supposedly self-regulating market. They can be listed: NAFTA 
itself; the European Union, which has created its own 
currency; ASEAN+3, which represents East Asia's so-far 
abortive attempt to put together a stabilized monetary bloc 
offering protection from the financial crises continuously 
unleashed by neoliberalism; the Venezuelan project of 
"ALBA," which is raising the issue of possible industrial 
cooperation programs for a left-leaning Latin America; and 
of course, the "New Caliphate"  in the Middle East, which is 
being proposed by Al-Qaeda and the other Salafi jihad 
movements. Perhaps people with more knowledge than I could 
talk about what is happening on this level in the Russian 
confederation, on the Indian subcontinent and in Africa.

I think that in years to come, everyone will increasingly 
have to take a position with respect both to the Imperial 
project  of a world market, and to the regressive 
nationalisms and the more complex processes of bloc 
formation. All these things are contradictory with each 
other and their contradictions are at the source of the 
conflicts in the world today. In this respect, Guattari's 
perception, at the close of the 1980s in "Cartographies 
schizoanalytiques," has proved prophetic:

"From time immemorial, and in all its historical guises, the 
capitalist drive has always combined two fundamental 
components: the first, which I call deterritorialization, 
has to do with the destruction of social territories, 
collective identities, and systems of traditional values; 
the second, which I call the movement of 
reterritorialization, has to do with the recomposition, even 
by the most artificial means, of individuated frameworks of 
personhood, structures of power, and models of submission 
which are, if not formally similar to those the drive has 
destroyed, at least homothetical from a functional 
perspective. As the deterritorializing revolutions, tied to 
the development of science, technology, and the arts, sweep 
everything aside before them, a compulsion toward subjective 
reterritorialization also emerges. And this antagonism is 
heightened even more with the phenomenal growth of the 
communications and computer fields, to the point where the 
latter concentrate their deterritorializing effects on such 
human faculties as memory, perception, understanding, 
imagination, etc. In this way, a certain formula of 
anthropological functioning, a certain ancestral model of 
humanity, is expropriated at its very heart. And I think 
that it is as a result of an incapacity to adequately 
confront this phenomenal mutation that collective 
subjectivity has abandoned itself to the absurd wave of 
conservatism that we are presently witnessing."*

The question that complexity theory allows us to ask is 
this: How do we organize ourselves for a viable response to 
the double violence of capitalist deterritorialization and 
the nationalist or identitarian reterritorialization to 
which it inevitably gives rise? It must be understood that 
this dilemna does not take the form of Christianity versus 
Islam, America versus the Middle East, Bush versus Bin 
Laden. Rather it arises at the "very heart" of the modern 
project, where human potential is "expropriated." Since 
September 11. the USA - and tendentially, the entire 
so-called "Western world" - has at once exacerbated the 
abstract, hyperindividualizing dynamics of capitalist 
globalization, and at the same time, has reinvented the most 
archaic figures of identitarian power (Guantanamo, fortress 
Europe, the dichotomy of sovereign majesty and bare life). 
Guattari speaks of a capitalist "drive" to 
deterritorialization, and of a "compulsion" to 
reterritorialization. What this means is that neither 
polarity is inherently positive or negative; rather, both 
are twisted into the violent and oppressive forms that we 
now see developing at such a terrifying and depressing pace. 
The ultimate effect is to render the promise of a world 
without borders strange, cold and even murderous, while at 
the same time precipitating a crisis, decay and regression 
of national institutions, which appear increasingly 
incapable of contributing to equality or the respect for 

So the question that arises is whether one can consciously 
participate in the improvisational, assymetrical and 
partially chaotic force of global microstructures, making 
use of their relative autonomy from institutional norms as a 
way to influence a more positive reterritorialization, a 
more healthy and dynamic equilibrium, a better coexistence 
with the movement of technological development and global 
unification? The question is not farfetched, it is not a 
mere intellectual abstraction. Knorr Cetina's strong point 
is that global unification cannot occur through 
institutional process, because it is too complex to be 
managed in that way; instead, the leading edge is taken by 
lighter, faster, less predictable microstructures. Clearly, 
nothing guarantees that these are going to be beneficent. 
The forms that they will take remain open, they depend on 
the people who invent them. In his recent book, Lazzarato 

"The activist is not someone who becomes the brains of the 
movement, who sums up its force, anticipates its choices, 
draws his or her legitimacy from a capacity to read and 
interepret the evolution of power, but instead, the activist 
is simply someone who introduces a discontinuity in what 
exists. She creates a bifurcation in the flow of words, of 
desires, of images, to put them at the service of the 
multiplicity's power of articulation; she links the singular 
situations together, without placing herself at a superior 
and totalizing point of view. She is an experimenter."

The close of the book makes clear, however, that what should 
be sought is not just a joyous escape into the 
unpredictable. The point of this experimentation is to find 
articulations [agencements, which might also be translated 
as microstructures] that can oppose the literally 
death-dealing powers of the present society, and offer 
alternatives in their place. My guess is that in most cases, 
this can happen not at the local level of withdrawal (though 
that may be fertile), nor at the level of national 
institutions and debates (though these will be essential for 
holding off the worst), but most likely at the regional or 
continental level, particularly where the core economies 
overflow into their peripheries and vice-versa. This is the 
level where the most important policy is now being made, the 
level at which the major economic circuits are functioning 
and at which massive social injustice and ecological damage 
is happening all the time. What's really lacking are all 
kinds of border-crossing experiments, ways to subvert the 
macrostructures of inclusion/exclusion and to redraw the 
maps of coexistence. Ultimately, new kinds of institutions 
and new ways of relating to institutions will be needed, if 
there is to be any hope of stabilizing things and surviving 
the vast transition now underway. But we're not there yet, 
and it doesn't seem likely that any upcoming election will 
start the process. Instead it seems that much of the danger 
and the promise of the present moment can be found in the 
complex relations between network, swarm and microstructure.

best, BH

*I've altered the (relatively poor) translation of 
Guattari's text "Du post-modernisme a l'ere post-media," 
which is on pp. 53-61 of Cartographies schizoanalytiques, 
and on pp. 109-13 of The Guattari reader, under the title 
"The Postmodern Impasse." The key phrase, "un certain modele 
ancestral d'humanite qui se trouve ainsi exproprie au coeur 
de lui-meme," becomes "is appropriated from the inside"! The 
reverse of the original! No wonder people think Guattari is 
so hard to read...

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