Imagined Networks, Glocal Connections
“Networks” has become a defining concept of our epoch. From high-speed financial networks that erode national sovereignty to networking sites like facebook.com that transform the meaning of the word “friend,” from blogs that foster new political alliances to unprecedented globe-spanning viral vectors that threaten world-wide catastrophe, networks encapsulate the “new.” Intriguingly, they are used both to describe and to elucidate the ever-increasing connections and flows within and among social, political, and technological structures. They are both diagram and planning tool, both actually existing phenomena and theoretical abstraction. However, not only do they compromise the distinction between description and explanation, they also make porous the boundaries between the many disciplines that employ networks, from economics to media studies, from political science to biology. The study of networks thus oddly mirrors its subject, making it even more difficult to separate network analysis from networks themselves. The benefits of such a multi-disciplinary engagement with networks have been clear: it has created points of contact between disciplines that are often isolated from each other. Nonetheless, by emphasizing networks’ ubiquity and by overlooking their odd rhetorical structure, many scholars (including myself) have risked blunting their potential for critical work.
In Imagined Networks, Glocal Connections, I seek to renew the conceptual potential of networks by focusing on the importance of the imagination and images to the experience and conception of networks. Rather than treating networks as things to be mapped, this book asks: what does mapping do? How do network maps also effect what they claim merely to trace? By focusing on networks as imagined, this project is not arguing that networks are imaginary, fanciful objects that do not exist, but instead that the force of networks stems in part from how they figure connections and flows that both link and breach the personal and the social, the political and the technological, the biological and the machinic. To understand this force, I analyze the different types of collectives networks help organize, as well as the differences between networks and communities. So, this book draws from and revises Benedict Anderson’s influential but much critiqued formulation in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism that nations are “imagined political communities.” They are imagined, Anderson argues, “because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”; they are communities because, regardless of actual disparities, they are imagined as a horizontal fraternity. Anderson, in making this argument, stresses the importance of print capitalism to the rise of nationalism, for print has made possible extraordinary mass ceremonies such as the daily reading of the morning newspaper which make possible this collective yet anonymous imagining. As the current crisis in print publications has made clear, we can no longer be certain of these extraordinary mass ceremonies. Individuals, however, still imagine themselves as part of larger groupings—of networks, if not communities.
Imagined Networks, Glocal Connections explores how networks are both more and less than communities: how they are “glocal” combinations that form definite, traceable lines of connection (or connections imagined to be so) between individuals across disparate locales. Network maps mediate between the local and the global, the detail and the overview—their resolution makes it possible for us to imagine concretely the relationship between two vastly different scales, which have hitherto remained separate: the molecular and the molar. The collective “we” imagined through networks is thus not an anonymous “we” but rather a series of connected “yous.” “You” is both singular and plural; in its plural mode, however, it still addresses individuals as individuals. In this sense, networks are very different from communities, which create a new identity, a “we,” from what is held in common. Networks are also based on asynchronous events, instead of simultaneous, collective experiences. Instead of enabling a “homogeneous empty time”—a time that buttresses notions of steady progress—they produce a series of crises or “nows” that create bubbles in time. In these bubbles, the new quickly ages and the old is constantly rediscovered as new, societies “leapfrog” intermediary technologies, and our archives of knowledge expand rapidly through vernacular tools, which also undermine the authority and stability of these archives. Network time, that is, is not conducive to imagining a collective entity traveling together through time, but rather a series of individuals that respond in their own time to singular yet connected events. In addition, networks are not limited to human actors: as Bruno Latour has argued, they include non-humans as agents. Through the act of imagination, the cultural is brought together with the technological, the political with the social.
Benedict Anderson, _Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism_, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991.
Tiziana Terranova, _Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age_ (London, Pluto Press, 2004)