Week 1: Organic Social Machines

In the preface to The Order of Things, Foucault delineates a methodology that seeks the trace the “pure experience of order” (xxi) as it has developed since the 16th century. Specifically he seeks to pursue “in what way […] language as it has been spoken, natural creatures as they have been perceived and grouped together, and exchanges as they have been practiced; in what way then our culture has made manifest the existence of order” (xxi; emphasis added). When read alongside the Spencer, Tylor and Malinowski, the stakes involved in Foucault’s project become immanently evident. Ordering, as an empirical or scientific practice, in the emergence of the social sciences in general and anthropology in particular, is inherently cultural: the scientific study of culture uses a culturally a priori order of things.

Returning to the Spencer, we can see almost see how his project is to prove the existence of a preexisting site where culture can be ordered. Articulated differently, Spencer wants to show that the order of culture – the “organization” of society – is the natural, undeniable order of things. Using an organic metaphor of ‘living being’, Spencer superimposes the organization of nature onto the organization of society. According to Spencer, “the principles of organization are the same” (16) between living bodies and society. And, the more complicated the living being the more complicated the society (of course English society, being the most highly evolved, is compared with the human brain). He even compares the recent development of communication technologies, specifically the telegraph wire, to nerve threads, arguing that the more closely connected the different “parts” of the living being, the more highly evolved. Savage or childlike societies are compared to simple living structures, mainly because neither possesses communication capacities, whether they are natural or man-made. In Spencer’s work, we can almost see the different rhetorical moves that he makes in order to naturalize the various “stages” of societal evolution that he is delineates. In retrospect, the ubiquity of the metaphor of the social body speaks to the overwhelming success of Spencer’s project.

While Spencer aims to delineate anthropology as scientific discipline through an organic analogy, Malinowski is attempting to draw the boundaries of the discipline of anthropology through a comparison of practices or as he terms it: “pragamatic performance” (10). For Malinowski, the “real meeting ground of all branches of anthropology is the scientific study of culture” (4; emphasis added). According to Malinowski all of the different ‘branches’ (note his arboreal imagery) can be understood as coalescing on (using Foucault ‘s term) the “common ground” (Foucault, xvi) of science, where science is defined as “the use of previous observation for the prediction of the future” (Malinowski, 8). Moreover, Malinowski locates this scientific ethos as present within “primitive knowledge” (9) such as fire-making, proving that science is the universal ground upon which all performances or practices are organized. By this logic, anything that is habit or tradition is inherently scientific, making anthropology an always-already scientific discipline. Malinowski is wary of projects that use metaphor (Spencer) to naturalize the social (14) and argues that his own “minimum definition” (14) presents anthropology as a discipline unto itself that does not need to lean on other ‘harder’ disciplines, which in Spencer’s case, would be biology or natural philosophy. I see Malinowski and Spencer, rhetorically, doing very similar things, Malinowski is just more aware the fact that he needs to erase his footprints.

Among the many interesting and problematic things/tropes/thematics/concepts that emerge from these readings, it might be fruitful to concentrate on the emergent biopolitical order in all of the readings; there is an underlying reliance on statistics as scientific data that I find troubling.

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2 Responses to Week 1: Organic Social Machines

  1. juliagw says:

    Foucault writes, “I am concerned here with observing how a culture experiences the propinquity of things, how it establishes the tabula of their relationships and the order by which they must be considered. I am concerned, in short, with a history of resemblance” (1966, xxiv). This week we read how Spencer, Tylor and Malinowski differently experienced the propinquity of things in their scientific anthropologies of the study of human life. For example, Spencer ordered societies into different parts and types of living organisms. Through the analogy of the living organism, Spencer compared complex organisms to urban, civilized societies and simple organisms to rural “primitive” societies. As Spencer articulates, “in complexity, our large civilized nations, as much as exceed the primitive savage ones, as vertebrate animal does a zoophyte” (2000 [1860], 14). To Spencer, “primitive” nations were composed of racialized, nonwestern individuals while the pinnacle of a “civilized” nation was exemplified by the non-racialized male-dominated Brittish empire.
    Contrary to Spencer who ordered civilized/primitive by location and skin colour, Tylor perceived societal resemblance as deriving from tools. As Tylor states, “it appears both possible and desirable to eliminate considerations of heredity varieties or races of man” (2003 [1873], 29). This is because, “to the ethnographer the bow and arrow is a species, the habit of flattening children’s skills is a species” (2003 [1873], 29). Hence, to Tylor, classifications of identity, similitude and difference are defined by objects. According, it is the ethnographers job to search out and classify the geographical allocation of specific objects, to chart their transmission across the globe, and to study them like “the naturalist studies the geography of his botanical and zoological species” (2003 [1873], 29).
    Regardless of the differences in systems of ordering, Spencer and Tylor draw from the same tabula in their conviction that it is the anthropologist’s job to explore, discover and reveal the order of things. Hence, these anthropologists believed that there was an inner law, a coherence, a structure, that as Foucault writes, was “already there, waiting in silence for the moment of its expression” (1966, xx). As Tylor states, “a first step in the study of civilization is to dissect it into details, and to classify these in their proper groups”. Thus, it is the ethnographers business to “classify such details with a view to making out their distribution in geography and history, and the relations which exist among them” (2003 [1873] 29). Malinowski steps off of this grid in appreciating that “there is no such thing as a description completely devoid of theory” (1944 [1941], 7). Accordingly, to Malinowsky, classification coagulates with conjecture. This notion lends to a reflexive reformulation of the purpose of the anthropologist to ask, as Foucault does, “on what table, according to what grid of identities, similitudes, analogies, have we become accustomed to sort out so many different and similar things?” (1966, xix).
    I would like to spend some time thinking about this quote and it’s relation to this week’s readings. Each text that we read, conceptualized and articulated the role of science in anthropology by deploying a particular analogy. Even Foucault used Borges to conceptualize “heterotopia” and the “operating table” to explain the order of things. Thus, I ask: what is the role of analogy in the order of things? Does analogy create the operating table for science and anthropology? Is analogy the language of order? Is it the stirring ground beneath our feet? Would science and anthropology be an unthinkable empty space, a heterotopia, without it? Is analogy the syntax that hold’s science and anthropology together?
    In footnote 14 of Spencer’s text, the commentator writes, “Spencer’s argument is simply an argument by analogy and is not scientific at all” (2000 [1860], 17). Does analogy preclude being scientific, or is analogy a central part of what constitutes science? As literary theorist Marcel Dansei states, “when a physicist says an electron is like a particle…. He [sic] is making a metaphorical comparison like the poet who says ‘love is like a rose’” (1993, 135). Following this train of thought, in Nancy Leys Stepan’s exploration of the sciences of human differences in the nineteenth century, she argues that “metaphors functioned as the science itself,” and that without them, “the science did not exist” (2000, 42). As someone who is not a scientist and is new to the field of anthropology, I am curious as to what it means to be an anthropologist of science. I am also curious to know what defines these two field’s respectively. Moreover, I am interested in figuring out what the significance of analogy is within science and anthropology and what this might mean in the order of things.


    Dansei, Marcel. (1993). Vico, Metaphor, and the Origin of Language. Bloomington& Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

    Stepan, Nancy Leys. “Race and Gender: The Role of Analogy in Science” (2000). The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. Ed. Kirkup, Gill, Janes, Linda, Woodward, Kath & Hovenden, Fiona. London: Routledge.

  2. tashlet says:

    wonderful start to the reflections! really looking forward to reading alongside you two!

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