I am reading Melissa Cefkin's "Close Encounters: Anthropologists in the Corporate Arena" (Journal of Business Anthropology, Vol. 1(1). As Cefkin approaches the end of her article, she mentions a paper by Nina Wakeford, a British sociologist, titled, "Replacing the network society with social foam: a revolution for corporate ethnography?" (EPIC Proceedings 2011). The abstract of that article reads as follows,

What would it mean for corporate ethnography to think of society not as a network, but rather as an agglomeration of bubbles that constitute foam? The article offers a comparison of the metaphors of network and foam and their implications for the analysis of contemporary sociality. It draws on the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s theory that we live not in one mono-spherical society but rather in a plurality of micro- spheres to be described as social foam. An emphasis on atmospheres,affect and contagiousness follows from this conceptualization of the social world. These consequences are discussed, and some suggestions offered of how Sloterdijk’s ideas might shift the focus of corporate ethnography. Although primarily a conceptual intervention, the article also describes how organizational theory has started to deploy the concept of social foam. It concludes with a reexamination, through a focus on atmospheres, of a previous study undertaken at Intel, which shifts the emphasis of the analysis.

Never having heard of the Dutch/German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, I look him up using Google and wind up buying a book about him, Jean Pierre Couture's Sloterdijk (Key Contemporary Thinkers), in which I discover that Sloterdijk describes himself as

a Zietdianostiker, a "specialist physician of the pathologies of the opinion apparatus"....In this self-assigned role, he seeks to decode the prevailing mental illnesses of his time and to prescribe a cure for the consequences of having overlooked the prevailing mental illnesses of his time....

I instantly think of Lee Drummond, who suggests that the proper role of the anthropologist is that of cultural pathologist. But Lee's thinking is grounded in that of Claude Lévi-Strauss, i.e., in structuralism. Sloterdijk has affinities with later French thinkers of the postmodern, poststructuralist, posthuman variety. To compare the works of these two self-proclaimed "pathologists" and compare how they diagnose the maladies of our times seems like an interesting project Could anyone else here be tempted to participate?

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Foam.  Really intriguing image.  And one near and dear to me.  In the theory chapter of American Dreamtime I posited a semiotic multiverse along the lines of Andrei Linde’s concept (I know, more of my physics envy.)  In both physical and semiotic multiverses, which we might call cosmos(es), new worlds are constantly forming, some tiny bubbles, some indescribably large, and, as in actual foam, they often merge, bubble membranes reform to encompass formerly separate spaces (or semiospaces).  A question is then whether any sort of communication is possible between and among separate bubbles.  Lacking any mathematical sophistication, I posited an (appropriately So Cal) analogy:  Fill the immense Rose Bowl stadium with foam, in which new bubbles form, reform, grow, diminish.  Then introduce a slight inhabitant of the Rose Bowl, one very unusual ant, which I named René after cogito fame.  René sets out to explore his new multiverse world of foam, breaking through one membrane after another.  And remember, each bubble may contain its own distinct physical laws and semiotic configurations.  Ah, it’s a complicated business.  And what happens if our boy René bumps into another character, itself negotiating the foamy realm?  What are their intersystemic conceptualizations? 

    Regarding Sloterdijk and social thought as a pathological dissection of society – my guy!   And when could be a better time to pursue that line of cultural analysis as cultural critique?

    Finally, re multiverses.  I’m not sure how physicists go about exploring the physical variety, but for anthropologists – who, let’s face it, will have to be rechristened as semioticians – we may not need to wait until SETI comes through and E. T. lands on the White House lawn.  Just be patient, dial the clock of what we like to call “humanity” ahead, say 10,000 years, 100,000 years, a million years, ten million – well, you get the point.  René, meet your sort-of fellow traveler.  In the meantime, images to conjure with:   

bubble universes  


read all about it 

Foam is an intriguing image, with its focus on the walls that divide bubble, which may sometimes merge and more often collapse — in contrast to networks or webs of meaning imagery that draws our attention to the links connecting points and the flows of information/goods/memes from one point to another.

I can see how structuralist binaries like the ones you [Lee Drummond] use so successfully in American Dream Time define multidimensional spaces in which networks form. I am still wrestling with how to think about foams analytically. The ant exploring his multiverse is great, but how to we track, let alone explain, its path?

The ant and the bubbles is a great metaphor and it is like Latour's bubbly cosmoses too--ant cannot really compare cosmoses because she is always in one or other cosmic bubble, or halfway between. My problem is with the position from which we can 'see' ant--because, following through the bubble analogy, 'synopsis' is impossible. Focusing first on the ant laboriously pushing itself into and through all those 'semiotic' chambers then we must put ourselves in two positions. One is ant's; 'I,ant, am pushing my way through many cosmo-bubbles'. Or from the position of the person up in the commentator's box; 'look at ant go! She has made it into bubble no. 5000'.

Here is the problem: ant can only be seen to be doing this Sysiphean thing from the point of view of commentator; ant can only see bubbles and more bubbles and has no awareness of its own 'total' situation. So ant needs commentator for its 'semiotic' bubbly interpretation to be true, but commentator cannot exist for ant -- ant's environment is just bubbles. Thus the 'semiotic' situation does not exist for ant, just bubble feels; indeed the entire scenario does not exist either unless we posit commentator taking their synoptic view on it from above. How can commentator live outside the totality of the system? So, either the semiotic synopsis is a fantasy made up by ant, or ant has more total awareness of the wider panorama than we are allowing and is capable of doing their own transcendental semiosis on a par with commentator which makes ant as much a commentator on commentator's own enclosure, as commentator is on ant's. Thus the total 'semiosis' collapses that way too. As Bateson repeats; a category cannot be a member of the group that it defines, but neither can we posit content for a category (bubbles in an enclosure) without positing the category (bubble enclosures). You feel me?

Suppose, however, that like real bubbles, our metaphorical ant's bubbles are fundamentally similar, all being formed of the same universal mixture of the cosmic equivalents of soap and water. Allow, too, the possibility that there are other ants, so that ants may meet, exchange information about what they have experienced, and develop theories about the walls they must penetrate to move from one bubble to another. . . . . . .Doesn't seem like a bad metaphor for the human condition, breaking through cultural barriers and discovering more humans on the other side. . . .


    These are some really tough questions, or, as The Donald would say, very, very tough – he seems to like that redundancy.  Incredibly, the saga of René the ant seems to have legs here; his journey through the ocean of foam to the nose bleed seats of the Rose Bowl. Perhaps the toughest question is what, if any, semiotic encounters occur between bubbles – is any sort of intersystemic communication possible?  Then there’s the matter of perspective:  a commentator in the press box vis-à-vis René and possible fellow travelers negotiating the sea of foam.  My analogy is admittedly a balancing act.  Pushed too far and we have  bubble worlds with no or limited connection.  In other words, warmed-over Whorf and Benedict – all those self-contained, coherent little “cultures.”  With my limited understanding, physicists seem to confront a similar problem in wrangling over what if any relationship may exist between parallel universes.  Regarding the detached commentator, I do assign such a role to the operation of what I grandly call semiotic antinomies that transect the semiospace of the Rose Bowl.  Animal - Artifact/Tool,  Self-We – Other/Them, Creation/Life Force – Destruction/Death Force are dynamic generative principles whose push-pull assigns diverse, always conflicted and contested identities to beings possessed of semiosis.  Those antinomies operate within a certain expanse of a wider multiverse.  They define, as I see it, extreme boundaries of the possibly human, limiting condition.  I know, pretty rarefied and vague, but I like the formulation for two reasons.  First, it rejects any sort of fixity to an ever-changing construct, “humanity,” and in the process gets rid of any lingering thought that there exists a “human nature.”  Second, the geometric/topological model (something like Leach’s of old) unseats language (and, ah yes, the “linguistic turn”) from its privileged position in cultural analysis.  Language, as I’ve suggested before, may be just a flash in the pan, a hiccup in the unfolding semiotic enterprise that encompasses, for the time being, the human species. 

    On an entirely different note, my point about retooling cultural anthropology as a pathology of the social does not derive from structuralism and Lévi-Strauss, but from Nietzsche and Camus (and, yes, that grand theoretician, William Burroughs).  And I reject as self-serving posturing pomos’ claim that Fritz is  their intellectual ancestor.  He is not.  Apart from slicing and dicing his texts, simply compare Fritz’s excoriating treatment of a Germany on its way to fascism with the wooly discourse about the ontology of this or that favored by today’s crop of, what are we to call them?  Post-pomos?  

"Allow, too, the possibility that there are other ants, so that ants may meet, exchange information about what they have experienced, and develop theories about the walls they must penetrate to move from one bubble to another. . . "

ANT 1: (poking head through bubble wall). WEESH, this stuff gets in your antennae... oh, hey, yo where are you from? (focussing a fuzzy gaze on ANT 2)

ANT 2: Well, erm... originally I am from bubbleville

ANT 1: Oh, there's a place called that where I come from

ANT 2: hmm... you don't say, The Commentator must have handed out more than one place with that name then, who knew.

ANT 1: errmm 'The Commentator' -- what's that?

ANT 2: you know -- the Transcendental Semiotician, the Great Explainer, the One Who Set It All Up

ANT 1: set what up? Where does The Commentator live--somewhere down your way?

ANT 2: No, The Commentator made bubble world, they don't live here. They gotta see what is going on... Up... (gestures tangentially with antenna)... up, up in the Commentator's box...

ANT 1: OK, I see... well maybe... whatever you say, Brother... Be seeing you, then (the ants clamber past each other, laboriously pushing through the membrane in opposite directions.

I am reminded both of possibly apocryphal stories about tribes whose names for themselves all mean "human,"in contrast to the inhuman others next door, a motif picked up in science fiction stories in which future galaxies are filled with planets whose names can all be translated "Earth."


    Foamy multiverses seem to be overshadowing the conceptual scalpel Sloterdijk employs as a Zietdianostiker, or pathologist of the social.  I’ll have to do some background reading here – but then that would spoil all the spontaneous fun – but when you think about it, isn’t that what any really good journalist or anthropologist of contemporary society should do – document the underlying disease/neurosis that is civilization?  Hey, this isn’t just morbid me – blame Papa Sigmund.  I think anthropology should produce thinkers/writers on a par with I. F. Stone and Seymour Hersh.  Also, for more “cultural” analysis, Camille Paglia and Tom Wolfe. 

    Really like Huon’s ant-ecdote.  But I do think it assigns too much commonality to the denizens of separate bubbles.  Popping in for a chat is extremely unlikely.  When E. T. lands he probably won’t disembark and say, “Take me to your leader.”  (And boy would he be in for a shock when that happened!).  Let me give you a homey example, yep, a homily:  I live in a house with birds and cats and sea monkeys (brine shrimp, don’t ask).  I’m sure that semiosis occurs among us, that is, utterances and actions of one that carry significance for the others.  But there is nothing like a shared language (the birds can’t even cuss) or even a “grammar” of behaviors.  Still, I’m pretty sure the birds and cats understand each other – each other’s actions, motivations, intentions.  So semiotic processes are underway.  Things get trickier when we ponder get-togethers among sapient beings with their own communicative codes (“languages” as a gloss).  The 10th generation of Siri, say, or chimeric human-animal beings coming out of CRISPR labs.  Maybe E. T. will even make that long-awaited appearance; we are clearly fascinated by the idea – just try to count the number of alien movies that have come between The Day the Earth Stood Still and Arrival.  So, on and on into those bubbly multiverses.  

Agreed. I missed out the scenarios in which ANT 1 kills ANT 2 with formic acid in horror at seeing something so like itself; or ANT 1 builds an enormous wall with spittle so it doesnt have to communicate with ANT 2; or ANT 1 and ANT 2 find some fermenting fruit and, even though they cannot talk to each other, they get rip-roaringly drunk and go off together to build Bubbleville 3.

Should we pause this soapy discussion and prepare to move it to the new OAC?

That might be a good idea. There are some things that clearly need to be ironed out on the new site. but there are some good features too which will help discussion. The more we use the new site the more we can get things to work to do the basic things well. http://openanthcoop.net/forum/index.php/board,5.0.html

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