Fillip 1 — Summer 2005

The Relational Meme
Colleen Brown

It seems to me that in order for a tree to make a sound, there has to be more than one person to hear it. If I were alone in the woods and a tree fell, I would need to turn to someone and ask, ‘Did you hear that’ —from a case study reported by Samuel Gerson

In the quote above, relation has been inserted into the question of the falling tree, a question designed to investigate how we know about the world outside ourselves, and the impact our knowledge has on the exterior world. As a meme, relation has successfully propagated itself through the natural and social sciences, linguistics and aesthetics. What is being propagated

The island floats.

In the “Manifesto of Relational Sociology,” Mustafa Emirbayer makes a series of comparisons between models used in physics and human interaction as a way to mark the impact of relational thought.1 Emirbayer has equated radical individualism with an early physics that relied on the concept of essences. The pursuit of essence was an effort to distinguish between fleeting characteristics and a permanent or core identity. An essence was also a definition that described the characteristics that were unchangeable, inert and therefore authentic to the thing being defined. In this model when substances interacted their core essence remained unchanged. Understanding something was an act of constructing a conceptual blankness around each thing to allow its identity to become visible. This was not unlike searching for the core of painting by carefully isolating each variable to see which disrupted the definition and which was superfluous to it.

The stone rests.

Emirbayer compares the movement from essentialist models toward relational thinking in the social field to changes in physics that conceive of space and time as relative in relation to the speed of light. The once isolated variables of time and space are no longer independent of each other, nor are they a static abstract grid waiting to be filled. It is also now understood that on the very large scale or the very small, all places of observation will influence and limit what can be observed. As a result only interaction can be observed. In Emirbayer’s description “terms or units involved in a transaction derive their meaning, significance, and identity from the changing functional roles they play within that transaction… the unfolding process, becomes the primary unit of analysis rather than the constituent elements themselves.”

Within an essentialist model it was necessary to attribute a kind of will to substances to explain interactions. Within the physical sciences the model was overturned when it was no longer acceptable to attribute will to stones. In relational analysis the question of where identity or will is located becomes difficult to determine or perhaps, more accurately, it becomes an impotent question. Perhaps it is more than “only interaction can be observed,” perhaps it is really that only interaction exists.

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About the Author

Colleen Brown received her BA in Psychology from Simon Fraser University, her Diploma of Electrophysiology from the British Columbia Institute of Technology, and her BFA from Emily Carr Institute. Brown has exhibited work at the Helen Pitt Gallery, Artspeak, and Tracey Lawrence Gallery, Vancouver, and SKOL, Montréal.

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