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.

The wind blows.

Norbert Elias (as cited in Emirayer) suggests that there is a persistent shortcoming in Western languages in expressing processes that are in constant motion. When encountering constructions like, the wind blows, essentialist thinking suggests that there is a patient wind always waiting to be set into motion. Essentialist thought begins with nouns, things, essences that are preformed, isolated and independent before any action. These are the Figures that move over the Ground of dynamic forces. When looking at a relation using this line of thinking, it may be impossible to hold both noun and verb (essence and process) in the mind at once, as either verb or noun inevitably becomes the ground for the other’s figuration. Nouns, at least in Western language, are preferred to verbs—an abstraction is developed in isolation and motion is painted on afterward. The danger is that the naming/looking/rendering transforms a process into an essence in an act of spontaneous reification. This places limits on what else we might know if we did not need to name the noun (figure). Relational analysis takes away the figure/ground problems by using framing as a device. However the danger here is that artificial, arbitrary boundaries must be erected and a new set of problems emerges, one of inclusion versus exclusion.

The river flows.

Cynicism as a strategy has passed. The cause for cynicism still exists, but the parallel stream of defensive laughter has dried up. The syntactic chain, a giddy meaningless whorl of signifiers unhinged from a referent continues to constitute meaning’s flotsam, but it is now possible to be content while being skeptical of semiotics. This ability to nod at syntax and carry on is a result of the re-introduction of pragmatics. When the intent and reception of language is included while considering the fluid process of signifying, there emerges a coherent rambler. From this perspective deconstruction of signs is no longer of interest; signs have become ground to the figured process. The sign is like a rock in the riverbed that alters the flow of signification around it. The stone itself is not the figure; it is the stone’s place in the chain, and how meanings flow around this stationary blockage or respite that is of interest.

The person speaks.

There was a time when rationality, authenticity and ethical behaviour were formed within the individual, who achieved a place of isolation where these ideas were honed without the direct influence of others. Nowhere has the concept of relation had more impact than in theories of the self. Within psychoanalytic theory a new primary need, the need of being known, has been introduced to express the fundamental importance of others in both developing and maintaining a conception of self. Through the expression of this drive we bring each other and the world into existence.The rewriting of the self-concept has completely altered the understanding of the therapeutic relationship. In classical psychoanalysis a perch of objectivity was conceived from which the analyst could sit and watch the analysis take place. When the relational meme is incorporated into psychoanalytic theory, the subjectivity of the therapist becomes a tool in clinical practice; therapy becomes an extended form of reciprocal “selving.” Work with groups has inspired a complete reconfiguration of the unconscious as a relational entity in flux responding to this constant reciprocity. In this model, the self is constituted when it is recognized and named by others.

The tree falls.

And to know it now requires two. By requiring two, relation has been inserted into both how we come to know the world and also the nature of the world itself. There are three basic possibilities for the how the relational meme works. The meme could be a fruitful narrative producing analogies between a number of different fields of study. More fundamentally, this confluence could be the result of changes in basic tools of thought reaching similar conclusions in different fields. The strongest claim would be that questions of the human interior and the exterior describe not an analogous landscape but preciously the same territory.

  1. Mustafa Emirbayer, “Manifesto for a Relational Sociology,” American Journal of Sociology 103, no. 2 (1997): 281-317.
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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