Liquid Networks and the Metaphysics of Flux: Ontologies of Flow in an Age of Speed and Mobility

Theory, Culture and Society 30 (5):3-23 (2013)
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It is common for social theorists to utilize the metaphors of ‘flow’, ‘fluidity’, and ‘liquidity’ in order to substantiate the ways in which speed and mobility form the basis for a new kind of information or network society. Yet rarely have these concepts been sufficiently theorized in order to establish their relevance or appropriateness. This article contends that the notion of flow as utilized in social theory is profoundly metaphysical in nature, and needs to be judged as such. Beginning with a discussion of the accelerating timescape that characterizes the network society, it will then move on to examine three main issues with this ‘metaphysics of flux’. First, that the concept of flows unjustly privileges the process of becoming and, as a result, is unable to account for the materiality, substantiality, and agency of the objects being mobilized, and the contingency of their mediation. Second, that it posits the accelerating tendencies of capital as an ontological inevitability, thus discounting resistance to such forces. Finally, that it ignores the human faculty for reason and speculative thought in developing alternative means of political praxis. The solution, it will be argued, is not to abandon metaphysical accounts of the network society, but rather to challenge those accounts that, in exhibiting a crude empiricism, work to justify the status quo.

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