Castells: enfolded nodes and networks

The idea of the ‘network’ is an important one for discussions of the new scopic regime that I argue is being set in motion by actants including the jpeg protocol. Whether it is used with or without the definite article, singular or plural, capitalised or not, the concept is an active force in most, if not all discourses and practices around software, ‘new media’, digital communications and information. As a ‘black box’, an actant that has become an everyday, an object where its relations, alliances and translations are not hidden so much as so transparent as to be overlooked, ‘network’ is powerfully enfolded in discourses, practices, businesses, governmentality and biopower. It is also a site of struggle.

For the Wall Street Journal” “Adam Smith explained how capitalism worked, and Karl Marx explained why it didn’t. Now the social and economic relations of the Information Age have been captured by Manuel Castells”. Its blurb for the back cover of ’ The Rise of the Network Society (Castells 2010) captures a sense that Castells’ meticulous account of information relations across the economy, politics and culture is more than a critical account of information technology or even how technology “embodies society” (p5). Castells’ multi-volume  magnum opus like Capital before it has bigger ambitions because our present moment demands it.

For Castells: “Networks constitute the new social morphology of our societies” (p500). His sociology like his illustrious predecessors expands beyond the particular. Just as Marx took terms such as ‘commodity’ and made them do extra work, so Castells takes the concept of ‘nodes’ from information theory and uses it to build a critique of the flows he and others (cf Hepp 2008) see across financial markets, political structures and institutions, media and… well that is why his title includes the simple phrase “network society”. A new space. A new dawn. A new concept for a new time.

Castells builds his analysis on the concept of ‘nodes’ and “flows”. “A network is a set of interconnected nodes, “ he says. In an almost Latour litany he lists what can be nodes in different spaces, scales and topologies:

“They are stock exchange markets, and their ancillary service centers in the network of global financial flows. They are national councils of ministers and European Commissioners in the political network that governs the European Union. They are coca fields and poppy fields, clandestine laboratories, secret landing strips, street gangs, and money-laundering financial institutions in the network of drug traffic that penetrates economies, societies, and states throughout the world. They are television systems, entertainment studios, computer graphics milieux, news teams, and mobile devices generating, transmitting, and receiving signals in the global network of the new media t the roots of cultural expression and public opinion” (p501).

Felix Stalder argues that, Castells “tends to offer very broad and general definitions that shift much of the explanatory work to the empirical application” (2006: 170). Certainly his voluminous data and empirical focus carries his analysis but arguably this is only possible and powerful if the definition of network (and node and flow) is sufficiently dynamic to engage with networks at different scales. It is not that his definition is ‘general” so much as it is, itself enfolded. Expanding on the mathematical concept of node in information theory, Castells makes it work as a sociological concept, expanding his analytical reach into the sort of flows that Hepp et al and Lash{Lash 2002} discuss. Here networks and nodes are interdependent, like actor and network.

  • Castells, M., 2010, The rise of the network society, 2nd ed. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, West Sussex ; Malden, MA.
  • Hepp, A. et al., 2008, Connectivity, Networks And Flows : Conceptualizing Contemporary Communications, Hampton Press, Cresskill, NJ.
  • Lash, S., 2002, Critique of information, SAGE, London; Thousand Oaks, Calif..
  • Stalder, F., 2006, Manuel Castells : The Theory Of The Network Society, Polity, Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA.