Elias/Thermodynamics/Darwin (with some comments on ANT)

Greetings all,

I have a couple quick questions but, first, a quick response to a previous post on Elias and ANT.

Unfortunately, I don’t know any secondary lit on ANT (at all!) but there no small amount on the relationship between them internal to ANT. Which is most welcome: Elias and ANT have a lot to teach each other. Anyway, from Organizing Modernity onwards, John Law continuously writes on the relationship between the ANT approach and Elias. Most of this is rather veiled. From the top of my head, there are only ever broad references to the The Court Society and TCP . More significantly he writes in Organizing Modernity that what he aims at formulating is a sociology of verbs (It might be necessary to disclaim that this might be aimed more at Michel Serres than Elias. Serres, the philosophical inspiration behind ANT, calls for a philosophy of pre-positions — in the sense of that which lies before the position, constitutes it, demarcates it, or, as Latour says, “makes it be.” For both Serres and Latour, in seeming contrast to Law, time is only ever secondary, it is an effect. Time percolates or, put differently, is filtered by circulating entities). In a later article (where he also cites Elias) Law tellingly writes that one could call ANT process sociology. Finally, in Reassembling the Social, Elias is accused by Latour of not paying due diligence to objects. Objects, Latour says, are not enough to “load the social” for Elias. I will say only that this is rather odd: Elias is explicit in saying that¬† the process of civilization (which, of course, has no start) and the process of technization have always been inter-twined.


I know that Elias wrote a fair amount on science, and am very curious as to whether he was interested at all in nonlinear thermodynamics/complexity theory (i.e. thermodynamics as it is applicable to systems that are open and/or far from equilibrium). I understand that several members of this list knew Elias personally, but am crossing my fingers: the link might be rather obscure.

My reason for asking might be worth supplying. Simply put, there seems to be a rather stunning parallel between process sociology and said theory of complexity. This is especially true when one contrasts nonlinear thermodynamics with its historical precursors (the relationship is far more complex and contradictory than I can presume to know).¬† First among these is Newtonian dynamics — which is characterized by a complete forgetting of time. Each moment is technically replaceable with the next. Insert your least favorite static social theory as an analogy! Second among these precursors is standard thermodynamics (Carnot etc.), which achieved similar results to Darwin in the field of biology, Hegel in philosophy and Comte in sociology. Namely, it introduces time and processes. The analogy between them all is apt because they seem to have the same problem: time is irreversible and uni-linear — and, in the case of the latter two, is conceived as a normative progression. Like complexity theory, Elias disagrees in important respects. For example, for Elias, there is neither a single arrow of time or a final state, no single equilibrium: civilizing and de-civilizing processes are co-present. Moreover, time is nonlinear; no one thing can be said to cause the other in the strictest sense. This is the realm of catalysis; specific events and specific processes create the conditions for their (and other processes) continued existence — or impede them.

Outside of this specific question of time, Elias seems to share the belief that chaos only appears as chaos because we do not have a good enough theory. And similarly, both complexity theory and Elias agree that to think about time we must think/rethink the link between ‘man’ and ‘nature.’ I will stop listing similarities because, frankly, I am getting bored.

My second question is related to the comparison between Darwin and Elias. Elias himself mentions Darwin at least a couple times (he says somewhere something along the lines that Darwin might be understood as one of the first precursors to understanding processes) and I wonder how great or distant this similarity is. Let me say first that Elias seems to be a functionalist in a limited or ex post facto sense. I don’t mean that as a pejorative at all. And this is only important because my question is as to how accurate it might be to suggest that there is something like a “searching mechanism” is Elias. A mechanism, to be more specific, that might be seen to ‘guide’ or ‘steer’ processes. For example, he writes on the double-bind relationships in inter-state relationships (in The Germans and Involvement and Detachment) which seems to have this kind of role. Such a “searching mechanism,” if it would be fair to call it that, would obviously be endogenous to the process itself. Nonetheless it would still “select” or maybe make desirable certain actions and, conversely, foreclose or make more difficult others.

To clarify, my question is partly motivated by the closing sentences of Johan Goudsblom’s The Sociology of Norbert Elias: Its Resonance and Significance. There he talks about how Elias spoke of an “infrastructure” to long term process that guide short term processes. Unfortunately, the reference there is to a lecture which I do not believe has been been published. Is there anywhere else where he picks up this theme?

In any case, I hope my two question emerged in a clear enough fashion. I also thank all who made it this far for their time.



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One Response to Elias/Thermodynamics/Darwin (with some comments on ANT)

  1. edwin sayes says:

    Many thanks for the references. I must admit that I read the 1968 intro sometime last year – but obviously not well enough! The other two look very promising.

    Thanks, again.



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