Bangalore Thinkathon Surrogacy: Bodies, States, Networks

Posted by Wendy Chun & Nishant Shah at Jul 18, 2012 10:45 AM |
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The first workshop of the Habits of Living project will be a Thinkathon (Thinking Marathon) focused on the notion of surrogate structures that have become the visible landmarks of contemporary life and will be hosted by the Centre for Internet & Society, in Bangalore, India.

Scheduled from 26th to 29th September 2012, the event will bring together a range of multidisciplinary scholars and practitioners from the Global South. The aim of the workshop is to produce new conceptual frameworks to help us understand networks and the ways in which they inform our everyday practice and thought.

The Habits of Living project begins with this workshop in Bangalore because Surrogacy is central to the ubiquity and universality of contemporary networks. A surrogate is "a person or … a thing that acts for or takes the place of another" (OED).  A surrogate is a "simplified" substitute that represents and wields power for another: a deputy, an authorized stand-in. In contemporary network science—widely used in (and drawn from) sociology, economics, biology, and industry—networks operate as surrogates. Surrogate structures that transcend the material boundaries of modernist concepts like Nation States and Bodies have emerged as a way by which new social, cultural, political and economic configurations get assembled. The idea of networked information societies has forced us to revisit the ways in which we understand fluid and aporetic structures that facilitate flow of ideas, capital and ideologies in the rapidly globalizing world.

As the influential network scientist Duncan Watts has pointed out, "rather than going out into the world and measuring it in great detail, [network scientists] want to construct a mathematical model of a social network, in place of the real thing…" This substitution means "making drastic simplifications" in which real world phenomena are "represented in almost comic simplicity by dots on a piece of paper, with lines connecting them." These simplifications, which cause us to miss real world details, enables network scientists to "tap into a wealth of knowledge and techniques that will enable us to address a set of very general questions about networks that we might never have been able to answer had we gotten bogged down in all the messy details."

Surrogacy supports the self-referential universe that networks create, where all conditions of exteriority are obliterated and each phenomenon is explained only through its relationality with the other phenomena in that networked condition. This co-dependence promotes the idea of universalized networks which are diverse but homogeneous, and specific but replicable. Simultaneously, there is a contained analytical framework that proposes to offer a comprehensive view but only manages to mimic (Bhabha, reference) the status quo of the dominant power structures. Networks become the reified forms and functions of this condition of Surrogacy.

Surrogacy is thus central to making "networks" universal at both a macro and micro level, for not only do networks stand in for other phenomena, the very basic units of network analyses, nodes and edges, depend on the substitution (and thus universalization) of actors and interactions.

Intriguingly, the direction of this substitution is unstable.  Modern networks stem from structures, such as electrical grids and highway systems, deliberately built to resemble nets. Remarkably, though, networks have become both constructed technical structures and actually existing phenomena that are empirically discovered.  Systems biology, for instance, presumes the existence of networks in animals, from the genetic to the multi-cellular. Similarly, ecology conceptualizes food webs and less lethal animal interactions—or more precisely the potentiality of these interactions—as networks. This insistence on networks as actually existing empirical entities happens even as network scientists’ analysis itself is framed as an abstraction that replaces real world events with a mathematical model. Networks are thus both theoretical diagrams and things that exist out there.  Indeed, they compromise the distinction between the constructed and the natural, the theoretical and the empirical. Like Borges’ imfamous map, the map—the surrogate—has become the territory.

Surrogacy, however, localizes as well as abstracts. A surrogate — something that stands in for more complex and often unsustainable forms of life — is often a potent being that is both temporary and unending. The surrogate emerges as an alternative form of producing specialized life and habits, while also performing a universal viability that stands in for the local specificities. Specific surrogacy networks range from:

  • Global networks of biological surrogacy and reproductive care that mobilize and orchestrate new conditions of labor (in all senses of the word)
  • Digital networks that help mobilize certain bodies and skills into the larger conditions of contemporary globalization
  • New combinations of State-Market partnerships enabled by digital and internet technologies that define the precarious conditions of life and living for the citizen subjects
  • Complexes of emotional surplus and affective relationships that get codified in massive social network systems, redefining the ways in which we understand relationships and relationality
  • Consortial state and state-like structures that transgress the territorial sovereignty of the nation-state and produce new forms of governance and belonging

For the Bangalore Thinkathon, we are bringing together scholars and practioners whose work touches on at least one of these types of surrogacy in order to outline and comprehend the work networks do. With a special emphasis the emergence and proliferation of large scale networks enabled by the digital turn, the Thinkathon is designed to start a dialogue between these different un-disciplined perspectives and produce a compendium of perspectives on the changing habits of living in contemporary times.


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