One of the themes, which underpin larvalsubjects’ discussion on objects is change (http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com) From his point of view, which I do share, the enactment of positive change requires a fair understanding of the ways in which objects enter into exo-relations and the ways in which their endo-relations give way to specific local manifestations. According to Levi Bryant, we should not be surprised about the heterogenous nature of social reality, but rather how things, which are expected to tend towards greater entropy, come to form relatively homogenous entities or become stable.

Levi introduces the concept of endo-relations of objects and asks how endo-relations are organized to give way to the forms they assume (with the argument that objects can take different forms in different environments or by entering into new exo-relations). He conceptualizes objects as difference engines because objects’ powers of producing differences in the world at the level of qualities or local manifestations. The generative capacities of the objects can be actualized or not, depending on different circumstances and exo-relations.

One of the interesting examples Levi gives is the cane toad, which originates in South and Central America and is then imported to Australia because of its success in fighting pests. However, due to lack of natural predators in Australia, cane toad populations exploded and killed off other indigeneous species. Levi says that Queensland should be considered as a new set of exo-relations which make possible the emergence of new qualities of cane toad population (acting as almost like a plague rather than fighting pests).

Levi calls regime of attractions the exo-relations between objects. He prefers this term to context/setting/environment and argues that regimes of attraction are temporary and shifting networks of relations in which an object finds itself enmeshed. He says that it would not be possible for objects to enter into new relations if those relations were not external to the objects that are related. Local manifestations are the qualities and forms the objects take in a given regime of attraction. Those manifestations are multiple, because of the multiplicity of a powers, capacities and tendencies an object can produce.

How can this way of looking at things inform our understanding of initiating change? If we want to create a perturbation in a given regime of attraction, we need to first understand how objects are related to each other in this regime. In concrete terms, such understanding can be very difficult, because we may not immediately discern in what ways an object is related to another one, how many function(s) an object assumes, which effect(s) it creates…etc. For instance something, which functions as an impediment/constraint can become a facilitator in another sense. If we want to remove this constraint in order to enact change, we may end up creating a negative effect on something else in the broader set of relations. Or the same object can create a completely different effect in another regime of attraction due to its relation to other objects. The case of cane toad that Levi gives is illustrative of this point.

In the series of Dr. House (which I find brilliant in terms of the differential diagnosis method and recommend to all my students, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_House_episodes), the team cures an illness such as worms. After their cure, suddenly and unexpectedly lesions appear in the brain of the patient. The team discovers that the worms were fighting against a potential brain tumor and after their disappearance lesions, which were previously repressed grew very rapidly.

a)    The (wrong) cure of worms creates a new symptom (lesions) and leads the team to think about the causality between worms and tumor. Thus the cure is for the wrong cause but approaches the team to the correct diagnosis.

b)    Most significantly we learn that something, which is relatively harmful in general for the body organism assumed a healing function in treating the real cause of the other symptoms the patient has. (The patient will be given worms again in order to reduce the size of the lesions until the drug treatment becomes effective)

Such thinking is very useful to reflect on the complex relations in social life. However flexible and transient the exo-relations might be or however the generative capacities of objects can produce different local manifestations, as Levi points out but did not yet develop in depth (at least as far as I read the relevant posts in his blog), when objects enter into relations of dependency, they can become resistant to interventions that disrupt those tendencies. Then, asked Levi, how do you introduce entropy-resistant systems to produce change? The question is not only how to overcome resistance. The point is to find out a more or less accurate picture of the nature and multiple roles different objects and actors (or actants in the vocabulary of the actor-network theory in order to cover human and non-human objects) assume.

Let me clarify with a hypothetical example from the social life. Middlemen are petty traders who act as intermediaries between small peasant producers and urban traders. They have a negative connotation in development studies, because of the high profits they make as compared to the peasant who does the real labour of harvesting, soiling…etc. I will examine two hypothetical cases to approach the problem of middlemen in order to reflect on the main question of this post, the enactment of change.

CASE 1: Let us assume that three villages in the region X, village administrators have joined their forces and made the argument that middlemen exist because they exploit an opportunity presented by transaction costs: the peasants do not have means to travel to the city center. Therefore they introduced free trucks picking up peasants during the harvest time, perhaps once a day during a month or so depending on the type of agricultural product, in order to travel to the city. The administrators did also forbid middlemen in the village stating that they buy the agricultural products at extremely unfair prices. Peasants had a chance to travel to the city in order to sell their products at the market price rather than at the price, which was offered by the middlemen. 

However, the anticipation of the village administrators failed to materialize. The peasants were not equipped enough to bargain individually in the market place. They were not prepared to deal confidently with traders in the city who were themselves used to sell higher quantities than the smaller amount offered by individual peasants. Ironically, several peasants who traveled to the city by the free transport provided by the village administrators ended up contacting a middleman in the city and selling their products to him rather than to large traders.

This brought about the following lesson: Middlemen were not solely exploiters of peasants (even though their activity of buying cheap meant extracting a great share of the value produced by the farmer and thus meant exploitation as well). They had built, over the years, a capacity to make reasonable calculations, find good contacts, had good communication skills, develop personal relationships both with peasants and large traders in the city. Yes, they abused their power vis-à-vis peasants by passing on price changes to the individual sellers, but they sometimes acted as buffer mechanisms against price fluctuations or market instability: even if there was a over-supply of goods, the middlemen could afford to buy and stock for a while those goods from the peasants, whereas individual peasants did not have this chance. Therefore middlemen were not only a solution to transaction costs. They responded to major problems in the market: a) information asymmetries, b) unequal distribution of trading and communication skills c) need for a buffer mechanism in times of instability. I am not saying that long-term projects taking into account those problems can not change the need for middlemen, but excluding simply the middleman in the short run was like cutting an important link in a large network and did not change the situation of the peasant for better.

CASE 2: three other villages in the same region took another path. Village administrators became precursors for the establishment of a peasant cooperative. The cooperative bought regularly agricultural products for the peasants. What the administrators did cleverly was to hire middlemen in the village as the managers of the cooperative. By doing this, they relied on the capacity and skills of the middlemen to bargain with the city traders. Since the quantity of the agricultural good was very high, the cooperative had the power to bargain. The multiple functions of middlemen as cited above were maintained, but this time, for a larger benefit of the peasants in a way to make middlemen win as well.

My two cases tell an important story about change, yet they are still very simplistic. Even a small village life and structure can be much more complex then it first seems, depending on tribal relations and tensions, political situation, resistance or propensity to collective action. The Case 2 could also not be successful due to different factors I did not add to the picture or the Case 1 could have been successful because peasants could have obtained an entrepreneurial culture over the years in their engagement with middlemen….etc. However, my aim was to point out to and underline a difference between the two cases in terms of approaching the social reality and offering solutions: in the first case the perception that middlemen exploited the peasants was very strong and they were replaced by free transport. In the second case, the positive effects of middlemen were recognized and used at the advantage of the peasants. The second case does not deny the negative effect of the middlemen in their relation with the peasants, but by putting middlemen into a new context/setting (manager of the cooperative) they shift the effect to something else.

The actual and potential effect of each of the elements in a regime of attraction has to be examined carefully for a new perturbation into the system. More intellectual energies have to be thus channeled to the concrete analysis of the concrete situations in contemporary world in order to accumulate and record thousands of experiences of successful change and failures. This can be one of the most revolutionary tasks of social sciences today and also of the communist laboratory as I imagine it.

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