Figuration & Representation in Systems Theory
Figuration & Representation in Systems Theory
Figuration and representation are two modes of thought often used in the ethical and political branches of systems theory. The idea can be traced to the Abstract Machine in Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus. Put briefly, the Abstract Machine is the representation or figuration of the thought-system which makes possible a particular plane of consistency(the realm of what is made possible for philosophy, politics, science, the body, etc.). In this way, our possibilities and our thought-system are connected to particular representations and figurations that allow us to think in those particular ways. This connection with Abstract Machines will be explored in detail in its own subsection.
The authors this article examines both critique and create figurations/representations. Some (Stuart Hall, Vijay Prashad,Rosi Braidotti) critique the representations of minorities in contemporary society. To achieve this critique they examine what possibilities these representations open up, and then make the necessary political and philosophical judgements on the representations. Others (Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway, Biosphere and Noosphere scientists) come up with a host of new figurations for achieving concrete political, scientific and philosophical tasks, again showing us what is made possible by these new figurations and comparing this realm of possibility with the (in their view) limited and inferior realms of possibility offered by other figurations.
A tentative distinction can be made between figuration and representation, though the way these words are used tends to (sometimes) blur the distinction. Whereas representation is used with an emphasis on the passive voice (ie. being represented), figuration is used with an emphasis on the active voice (figuring something, making figures). Thus, representation is often used to critique representations of minorities for the limited possibilities opened up by these representations; figuration is used to produce new figurations to open up newer and (hopefully) better possibilities. This distinction underscores a careful, attentive and powerful integration of politics into philosophy.
This article does not claim to be an exhaustive summary of all the figurations/representations created/critiqued by systems theories. Even important figures such as the rhizome and the nomad (1) (2) have been left out, largely because those notions have articles of their own. The vast majority of individual representations critiqued by these authors have been left out as well, simply because there are too many of them. Rather, the aim of this article is to make visible and trace the operation of this particular form of argument in systems theory as a whole.
Table of Contents
- Feminist Philosophies
- Scientific Philosophies
- Minority Politics
- A Premodern Figuration
- Abstract Machine
To begin, let us refine the definition of figuration offered above by examining the exact definitions offered by our authors. Rosi Braidotti's work provides an adequate starting point for describing this concept, as she defines the term herself and uses it often. Her definition:
"The term figuration refers to a style of thought that evokes or expresses ways out of the phallocentric vision of the subject. A figuration is a politically informed account of an alternative subjectivity. I feel a real urgency to elaborate alternative accounts, to learn to think differently about the subject, to invent new frameworks, new images, new modes of thought. This entails a move beyond the dualistic conceptual constraints and the perversely monological mental habits of phallocentrism" (Braidotti 1994: 2-3).
Figurations provide the "empowering force of the political fictions that are proposed by feminists" (ibid. 3). They are "politically informed images that portray the complex interaction of levels of subjectivity" (ibid. 4). Furthermore, she says, the "figurative mode functions according to what I have called "the philosophy of 'as if' " (see The Politics of Ontological difference). It is as if some experiences were reminiscent or evocative of others; this ability to flow from one set of experiences to another is a quality of interconnectedness" (ibid. 5).
Lastly, reading through Deleuze she argues that Deleuze proposes a "postmetaphysical figuration of the subject. Deleuze argues and acts upon the idea that the activity of thinking cannot and must not be reduced to reactive (Deleuze says sedentary) critique. Thinking can be critical, if by critical we mean the active, assertive process of inventing new images of thought -- beyond the old icon where thinking and being joined hands together under the Sphynxlike smile of the sovereign Phallus. Thinking is life lived at the highest possible power -- thinking is about finding new images, new representations. Thinking is about change and transformation" (ibid. 101).
From the above, we can summarize and state that figuration is: (a.) an active mode of thought that (b.) attempts to create new figurations that enable new modes of thought and (c.) is, in a certain sense, the very task of thought itself and (d.) relies heavily on a sense of play and experimentation.
The notion of representation, on the other hand, can be read most clearly through Stuart Hall, though the definition of that term is much more diffuse in his work. Hall begins by expressing an interest in difference, as difference has been "so compelling a theme, so contested an area of representation" (Hall 225). He looks for the "representation practices which are used to represent 'difference' in popular culture today" (ibid.). The most important representation in this connection is, according to Hall, the stereotype, as it is the best example of the representation of difference. Finally, he claims that the necessary analysis uncovers "stereotyping as a representational practice, looking at how it works (essentializing, reductionism, naturalization, binary oppositions), at the ways it is caught up in the play of power (hegemony, power/knowledge), and at some of its deeper, more unconscious effects (fantasy, fetishism, disavowal)." Additionally, he identifies a political necessity "to intervene in representation, trans-coding negative images with new meanings. This opens out into a 'politics of representation,' a struggle over meaning which continues and is unfinished. (Hall 277).
In summation we can say that representation is, like figuration, (a.) also creative, as it creates stereotypes and then people who fit those stereotypes; yet that (b.) the concept is deployed with a critical edge and an emphasis on the passivity of representation coupled with the (c.) political necessity of intervening in the operations of representation and finding new meanings. This makes this concept nearly identical, or at least analogous, to the concept of figuration, though the critical aspect of this term receives a bit more emphasis than the creative aspect. Perhaps by synthesizing the two terms, we could say that philosophy seeks to critique representations and create figurations.
Feminist philosophers like Braidotti take up the crisis of the subject wrought by postmodernism as a starting point for their task of finding new figurations (Braidotti 1994: 97-98). Some of the figures they come up with are monsters, cyborgs, goddesses and nomads. As previously stated, the nomad will not be covered here due to the existence of articles dealing with the nomad already. For each of these figurations this article will trace, in brief, the figure and what it makes possible or impossible.
The monsters "have for thousands of years undermined the normal and the stable by their deviant appearances.(Lykke/Braidotti 1996: 5). The monster centralizes the "history and philosophy of the biological sciences, and their relation to difference and to different bodies. Monsters are human beings who are born with congenital malformations of their bodily organism. They also represent the in between, the mixed, the ambivalent as implied in the ancient Greek root of the word monsters, teras, which means both horrible and wonderful, object of aberration and adoration. [...] The discourse of monsters as a case study highlights [...] the status of difference within rational thought. [...] The monster is the bodily incarnation of difference from the basic human norm; it is a deviant, an a-nomaly; it is abnormal (Braidotti 1994: 78-79)."
The monster, then, is a figuration that allows for the classification of women as other, abnormal and different. It takes difference, ties it to the body, and relays that difference (often) negatively. There is, naturally, a creative space in that difference, as woman is placed in a category that is already outside the established norms. The end product of this, or what this figuration makes possible is: "Woman/mother is monstrous by excess; she transcends established norms and transgresses boundaries. She is monstrous by lack: woman/mother does not possess the substantive unity of the masculine subject. Most important, through her identification with the feminine she is monstrous by displacement: as sign of the in between areas, of the indefinite, the ambiguous, the mixed, woman/mother is subjected to a constant process of metaphorization as "other-than." (ibid. 83)."
If the monster stresses normality and difference, the cyborg emphasizes the nature/culture divide and technology: "Cyborgs are grotesque post-industrial boundary figures, questioning the boundaries between human, organism, and machine, celebrated cornerstones of the modern, scientific world-view (Lykke/Braidotti 1996:5)." Haraway, in her Cyborg Manifesto elaborates much further. A full citation of that text might be necessary to fully qualify her definition, but a short summary must suffice.
The cyborg collapses the overlapping nature/culture and organism/technology distinctions by allowing us to imagine another possibility: instead of the two categories, we now see technologies not merely as an extension of the organism, but as part of that organism itself. The cyborg is a creative fiction (Haraway 149); is post-gender (150); and does not begin with the original unity of nature (151). Cyborgs may be good or bad: "From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defence, about the final appropriation of women's bodies in a masculinist orgy of war (Sofia, 1984). From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints(155)."
Thus, the cyborg figuration makes possible a world without the technology/organism and nature/culture divisions, allowing us to think of ourselves and the technology we create and deploy in nature that then becomes part of nature as part and parcel of the same system. Ethical cyborgs will have the type of social and political kinship with animals and machines that works for their mutual benefit and does not seek to dominate one in order to assist the other. Unethical cyborgs clearly exist as well, and these will heighten the control and dominance over the human and non-human bodies.
Goddesses are another figuration that deal with the nature/culture and technology/organism divides. Here too, that distinction is seen as harmful, though here the goddess figuration emphasizes an originary unity of these categories. According to Lykke, goddess-feminists claim that: "If we accept that we are part of her, and if we retrace the universal, spiritual-material unity she embodies, we/she can heal the broken bond. [...] It will, they say, be a step forward in human evolution, which they conceptualize as a spiral. They emphasize that they do not want a simple linear turning back of the clock of history. [...] [This] includes present-day techno-scientific knowledge. (Lykke/Braidotti 1996: 26-27)."
Though Haraway critiques the goddess feminists as being anti-technology, it appears as though this is simply not the case on a factual level. Rather, in Lykke's synthesis of the two perspectives, which relies on a close reading of both perspectives and texts from both sides, both the goddess and the cyborg collapse the human and non-human worlds, producing similar effects with regard to technology and the need to envision integrated worlds populated with humans, technologies and non-humans.
The difference between the two figures, for Lykke is this: "The cyborg of virtual reality tends to absorb the material into the semiotic. The material is constructed as potentially changeable by semiotic, sign-producing acts, by programming and reprogramming. The godess is different. When she represents a mythical reality to her adherents, we might say that she, in contrast to her cyborg counterpart, tends to absorb the semiotic into the material. For her adherents, the goddess is not just a name, a semiotic device; she IS (ibid. 27-28). Ultimately, this leads to different emphases: the cyborg emphasizes "technologies which speed up the meaning-changing process (ibid.)" whereas the goddess emphasizes the "basic, natural conditions of our existence (ibid.)." Ultimately, Lykke suggests a new figuration: the cybergoddess (ibid.).
Through all of this, one can see clearly the operation of the process of figuration: one creates a new figuration that works as a concept-metaphor, making possible a set of options and perspectives that would have been impossible without that figuration. Figurations are politically-motivated experiments in philosophy that relate ideas to their real possibilities.
Philosophies of science use figurations as well, coming up with overarching concept-metaphors that serve as a type of short-hand notation for a much more complicated method of modeling. Two such concept-metaphors in systemic science are the Biosphere and Noosphere. Since these topics are already adequately covered by these articles, this article will only go into the role of figuration in these theories.
The figuration biosphere makes possible a new set of scientific questions that focus on integrated approaches that collapse nature/culture and human/non-human distinctions in favor of a holistic approach to the world. Edward Suess, the first user of the term, defines the biosphere as that "which assigns to life a place above the lithosphere, is concerned only with life on this planet and all the conditions in regard to temperature, chemical composition and so forth necessary for its existence, and leaves on one side all speculative hypotheses as to the possible presence of living beings on other heavenly bodies. Determined by these conditions, the biosphere is a phenomenon limited not only in space, but also in time (Samson/Pitt 1999:23)." Like our previous figurations, the biosphere stresses an active and dynamic mode of thought and is an ethically/politically motivated insertion into the discourse of science that changes what sort of science is made possible.
The figuration noosphere adds another layer to the biosphere. The noosphere emerges at the intersection of humans and the biosphere: the changes we make, the ideas we form and the knowledge we acquire allows for different types of interaction with the biosphere and the ecosystems of the Earth. We transform this ecosystem in an aggregate way through the sum total of the content of the noosphere. Simply put, how we live changes the Earth, and the noosphere is used as a figuration to allow us to think about the role of human knowledge-systems, etc. in producing this (good or bad) change (ibid. 3). Again, like the previous figurations, the noosphere also stresses activity and dynamism and is also an ethically/politically motivated figuration that makes a different sort of science possible.
Representation is the key mode of thought used by those involved in activist minority politics. We have already examined Hall's work in this light. Hall gives us a look at different stereotypes of Blacks in Western culture and finds a limited set of figures: musicians, entertainers, athletes, criminals and perverse sexual figures. Clearly, it is easy to see what is wrong with the more overtly negative stereotypes: they make possible a very limited set of possibilities, and these possibilities -- for the minorities in question -- aren't very good. However, many stereotypes operate with a mix of positive and negative values. A single example suffices: the United Colours of Benneton advertising campaign deploys images of multicultural and multiracial children to combat racism, and suggest that their clothes and the world should be for everyone. Though this does send an anti-racist message, it also appropriates difference and race as a thing to be bought and sold in the capitalist market. Anti-racist ideology gets tied to a capitalist ideology, opening onto a possibility for life that, in one reading, suggests that we won't be racist if we buy the right products (Hall 273). The analysis of representation along these lines looks at what that representation makes possible, and how that representation works in all the systems in which it is connected: activist, philosophical, economic, etc.
Vijay Prashad, in his Karma of Brown Folk examines another mix of positive/negative stereotypes: the model minority.Looking across contemporary American culture, he finds that Asian immigrants are projected as the 'model minority:' they are not criminals, they get good grades, they are not perversely sexual, they succeed and get high-paying white-collar jobs. Prashad calls this an example of positive racism -- it deploys stereotypes, essentializes and is completely racist, yet it casts the race in question in a positive role; thus, the minority community often buys into the stereotype. Prashad asks those communities: "How does it feel to be a solution? [...] Obviously it is easier to be seen as a solution than a problem. [...] Nevertheless [...] when one is typecast as a success, one's abilities cease to be a measure of one's capacities. A young Asian child now, like a pet animal, performs his or her brilliance. Those Asian children not gifted in technical arts see themselves as failures and suffer the consequences of not being able to rise to the levels expected of their genes.(Prashad 6)." Here again, the representation/figuration of 'model minority' opens on to a set of possibilities for the real lives of Asian immigrant children: college educated in the science, medicine or engineering, these children are supposed to grow up and get white-collar jobs. In Prashad's analysis, this possibility is often racist, as Asians are pitted against other minorities (typically African-Americans and Hispanics) and are shown to be "better" than them.
Minority politics is often about finding the right representation for a community. This question is the same question that feminist philosophers have raised, and deals with the notion of figuration/representation in systems theory, as it questions stereotypes to find what possibilities they open at all levels of life. Finally, in attempting to formulate better representations, or rejecting the notion of any one representation altogether, minority activists again emphasize the dynamic and creative aspect of figuration.
Rupa Gosvami, a 16th century Indian philosopher writing in Sanskrit, came up with (or rather synthesized, from a variety of aesthetic and theological philosophies and practices) a system of figuration for the devotee. The figurations themselves are impossible to summarize concisely due to the literally hundreds of figurations and sub-figurations expounded upon. Furthermore, a summary would be superfluous: the original text is a precisely numbered and annotated list of figurations; the summary would be the text itself -- a few hundred pages. Rupa Gosvami covers a figuration, the possibilities of that figuration and the materials needed to construct these figurations. Since this is happening in a devotional setting, the devotional practice is a theater-like performance of a dance with the God Krishna. Rupa Gosvami goes to the Ur-Text of the Vaishnava/Krishna-centric tradition, the Bhagavata Purana and looks at all the characters (a host of cows, snakes, farmers, goatherds and shepherds, village women, religious figures, advisors, etc.) involved in the text and examines their relation to Krishna, that is, to God. Each of these characters is suggested as a figuration for the devotee. In a real-devotional setting, the devotee will learn about himself and find out which character s/he should strive to imitate and eventually become. In addition to meditation, this tradition emphasizes collective rituals of dance in which the devotees take up their positions as these characters. Outside of this ritual, the devotee continues to constantly think about him/herself as inhabiting this role. In this way, the devotee is connected to the system of God, maintaining the eternal existence of that system. In a global history of systemic philosophy, the work of Rupa Gosvami could be seen as perhaps one of the first systemic synthesis of ecology, politics, history, theology and technology.
Overall, his philosophy claims that devotion is a special "bhava" or emotional/aesthetic state. He examines what is needed to create this state, mathematically enumerating the possible concatenations of a set of material components, each of which has many forms. In order to create the bhava of devotion, one needs: (a.) Excitants combined with (b.) Indicators which then produce (c.) Responses, (d.) Transitory Emotions and (e.) Foundational Emotions. There are five primary states of devotion, each of which stresses one particular way of relating oneself with God: Peaceful, Respectful, Companionable, Parentally Affectionate and Amorous; in combination with this are seven secondary forms: Humorous, Wonderful, Heroic, Compassionate, Furious, Dreadful and Abhorrent. Once one has this emotional state (bhava), one then needs practice to maintain this state. Here, Rupa Gosvami gives us another complex and mathematically enumerated list of various practices and figuration-possibilities for the devotee which allow for the sustenance of thebhava of devotion.
A concrete example: since the flute is an instrument played by the God Krishna, hearing a flute played properly in a devotional song might be an Excitant for the bhava of devotion. The Indicator here might be the smile that comes across one's face when one is excited into this bhava by the Excitant. But, the process could just stop there; when the right Indicators and Excitants are matched up in adequate ways and amounts, however, they will produce Responses -- one might then be stupefied and tremble, perhaps sweat a little. From here, one will experience Transitory Emotions such as indifference toward oneself. Hopefully, one will then feel a Foundational Emotion: love for God. Since Rupa Gosvami enumerates various specific forms of each of these components, one can find which combination of components one is experiencing, and analyze one's experience of Devotion into its component parts. Doing this, one can then go do the second half of his text, and find the appropriate devotional practice that one should take up, according to Rupa Gosvami's theology.
Why is this a figuration system? It does the same things as the figuration systems above: it emphasizes a link of philosophy with the act of creating and making possible new ideas; shows the material components of figures and how to go about sustaining those figures; emphasizes the need for embodied connections to figurations in order to move thought -- and one's own spiritual life -- forward.
Figuration and representation are tactics used to effectuate changes on a large-scale level, often with the goal of changing society itself. A theory of change underlies all this. The most consistent and thoroughly thought out version of this can be found in Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus on pages 72-73. To summarize even further, the abstract machineis what constructs the matters which happen on the plane of consistency. Assemblages draw together things on differentstrata and connect them to the plane of consistency; therefore they necessarily change that plane of consistency, thus changing the abstract machine. Change, then comes from the creation of new assemblages, and new abstract machines. Furthermore, change is incremental -- a given assemblage may not effect a huge (large scale, societal) shift on the abstract machine, but it will nonetheless effect some change. Well-picked assemblages may change the abstract machine more than others.
Those who practice minority philosophies (incl. feminist) desire to change the abstract machine. This is, explicitly, a politically motivated philosophical shift. By studying representation, they are critiquing the images (which are really much more: concept-metaphors) of minorities in our society which function as assemblages, drawing together items from different strata and thus making possible different things (categories of minority, ways of being minority, ways of seeing minorities) in the plane of consistency, causing slight to enormous shifts in the abstract machine which is the sum total of the organization of that plane of consistency. The Benneton advertisement as one such assemblage draws together race, youth, capitalism, etc. on the level of ideas; and cotton, photography, advertising agencies, minority children in different parts of the world, etc. on the level of concrete objects. The materials drawn together come from different strata from the biological and ecological (cotton) to the political and economic. Thus, the representation is much more than just an image: it is a particular assemblage. It makes possible different ideas about race and capitalism, and this is where it effects changes in the real world (the plane of consistency drawn by the abstract machine). Of course, the assemblage may make more than one thing possible, and some of these possibilities may be good while others will be bad; furthermore, it is easy to see why certain representations may be relatively inconsequential while others will be of much more significance. If there are multiple individual representations that more or less make possible the same sets of things, then those representations are discursive and can be treated as a coherent group of representations. Thus, stereotypes tend to emerge out of particular, historical locatable images (one can track the real history of particular actors in the history of African-American representation in film, for example). The study of representation, then, is a critical look at the assemblages that change the abstract machine.
This critical study is at once a positive and creative effort to create new representations or new figurations. They may be assemblages: a new ad campaign, perhaps, or a new genre of film. These would then effect changes in the abstract machine: explicitly political the film-maker, activist, philosopher, etc. attempts to line up the assemblage to the right change in the abstract machine; of course, one may not be able to predict all of one's changes. The new representations and new figurations may be yet still more abstract: one may choose to make new abstract machines entirely. The task of finding new assemblages to sustain this new abstract machine would be necessary for such a shift. The changes in those cases would be much more paradigmatic. Using this terminology, we could say that Nina Lykke finds that the cyborgs and goddesses are two compatible abstract machines, and she suggests that they be synthesized into a new abstract machine: the cybergodess. For those who believe in such a task, it would then be incumbent to find the assemblages to sustain this abstract machine, that is, the ethics and forms of life, the scientific research, the ecological practice, the knowledge-systems, the material products, etc. Vijay Prashad's rejection of the model minority category is a rejection of an entire abstract machine: he explicitly asks those who may fall (willingly or unwillingly) into the model minority category to produce new assemblages and new abstract machines (in the remainder of his book, he also locates some examples of these new assemblages and machines; he never uses Deleuzian terminology). Rupa Gosvami, another systemic thinker, was also one of the first intellectuals in an explicitly new theological and philosophical movement. Involved in the creation of several new temples and the very real material setting-up of a new religion, his philosophy creates a new abstract machine entirely, and then comes up with the requisite new assemblages. These are the everyday spiritual practices, the joining of a religious order, the collective practice of a new religion, etc. These are just a few examples.
As a side note, it is interesting to see that while Donna Haraway has explicitly rejected the goddess and preferred the cyborg, and others have surely done the opposite, Nina Lykke's synthesis of the two appears to be reflected in Deleuze and Guattari. They propose two terms for the entire system: "'the Mechanosphere, or rhizosphere''" (ATP 740); biological images sit alongside technophilic images, the two systems are really the same system anyway, as biologies change technologies and vice versa.
- Braidotti, Rosi. Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
- Deleuze, Gilles. Foucault. Trans. Paul Bové. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
- Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
- Prashad, Vijay. The Karma of Brown Folk. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
- Haberman, David L. ed. and trans. The Bhaktirasamrtasindhu of Rupa Gosvamin. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2003. [Sanskrit with facing-page English translation]
- Hall, Stuart, ed. Representation. London: Open University, 1997.
- Haraway, Donna. A Cyborg Manifesto. 1991. Stanford University. 23 April 2009. <<http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/Haraway/CyborgManifesto.html>>.
- Lykke, Nina and Rosi Braidotti, eds. Between Monsters, Goddesses and Cyborgs. London: Zed Books, 1996.
- Samson, Paul R. and David Pitt, eds. The Biosphere and Noosphere Reader. London: Routledge, 1999.