Brief thoughts on discourse networks

Every age has its metaphors. Ideas or notions around which related phenomena seem to crystallize easily. Descriptions and concepts that seem to explain what’s going on by means of a waxing common sense, if not sound logic and reason. It’s no accident that in our time, the term “network” frequently provides the strange attractor that gathers up all loose ends of the lineage of conceptual linkages, weaves a web or nets a nest of interconnected machine and social graphs. For interconnectedness is indeed the productive fabric of the internet age. Networks are its warp and woof, a smooth and flat space of decentralized meshwork, felt to replace the striated and hierarchical social patterns of yore.

But in the use of metaphor for conceptual illustration, logical argument should not be mistakenly ascribed to structure alone. Networks may handily account for non-hierarchical and flat organization, for distributed activities and even the tipping points and thresholds so often observed in the networked social processes of the day. This is not only the age of networks and networking. It is also the age of communication and mediated socialities, an era rapidly supplanting the information age that was its predecessor.

For this, there is already a rich post-structuralist field called “discourse networks.” It’s one of several disciplines interested in discursive regimes — talk in its large form, post meta-narratives, even post “subjectivity” and authors. Discourse networks seem a fitting approach to some of the pseudo-objective forms of talk currently produced by social tools by means of which communication transcends the individual to stretch relations across space and time.

For the emphasis should not be on the network but on the communication and action that it facilitates. Not on topologies but the subjectivities that networked relations enable. Socialities are not smooth and equally distributed, but are lumpen clumps — knots balled or fraying as if tufted by wear and use. It’s not in the architecture of connections (networks) but in the distribution of statements and responses that networked socialities bind their relations and fashion their fabrics. Discourse networks — not topological, but sociological. Try that on for size.

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