Structuralism has been valuable in drawing our attention to the importance of relations. However, the cardinal sin of structuralist thought– and these assumptions still remain pervasive today –lies in its tendency to, as Bateson would put it, confuse the map with the territory. That is, the structuralist makes a map of relations among nodes in a network, but then treats this map as if it were itself a real and abiding thing such that these relations are abiding and eternal. The entities inhabiting the network then get treated as epiphenomena of this map of relations, such that it is the structure that is real and the entities populating the network that are illusions. This is a specifically Platonic tendency within structuralist thought.
In ontologizing structure in this way, the dynamics of structure through which structure is both produced and reproduced in time. In short, what is missed is the manner in which nodes in a network must be related. That is, the links among elements of a network must be forged for the network to function. Part of the great value of structuralism has been to draw our attention to the manner in which there are emergent properties of networks that exceed the intentions of any of those participating in the network (for example, patterns of wealth distribution). However, by ignoring the dynamics of networks and the fact that they have to be built, structuralists have drawn the wrong conclusion. Thus, for example, Althusser drew the conclusion that humanism must be mistaken as these networks function anonymously and not according to the intentions of those participating in the structure. The individual person thus becomes, under this reading, a sort of illusion and nothing more than its place in the social structure.
Althusser, however, is wrong on both counts. On the one hand, insofar as entities are prior to their relations, they are not simply illusions (though their effect might be negligible from the standpoint of the functioning of the network). Moreover, without the interactions among these individuals, the network could not exist at all. Thus, while a network cannot be reduced to the action of these individuals, it also can’t exist without the actions of these individuals forging links, making decision, becoming hubs, and therefore attracting more relations that then come to preside over the future course of the networks development. This last point is especially important. One thing network research has discovered is that those nodes in a network that possess more relations to other nodes within a network also attract more relations as the network evolves and develops. For example, wealth tends to attract more wealth such that it comes to be localized in one segment of the population. Thus, during the early stages of network development, the relations that can be forged among entities are relatively open. But, networks are defined by times arrow such that the forging of relations introduces elements of accretion that limit the direction in which the network can develop in the future.
From the standpoint of political theory, this simple observation is of tremendous importance. First, it underlines a point of strategy for targeting oppressive social systems in that a network will be weakest at those points where relations to a particular node or set of nodes are most extensive. Take out that node and the rest begins to fall (as we have learned from the California power outages). Second, it also underlines the importance of developing group relations in engaging a network and changing it. In other words, it is of vital importance to generate networked relations that will attract more relations to other nodes if the overall evolution or development of a network is to be affected in a significant way. This shows, for example, why forms of political theory written in such a way to interrupt discourse and communication so as to fight the metaphysico-politico structure in language itself are so misguided. By adopting this rhetorical strategy they limit the ability for links among nodes to be formed, thereby preventing the accumulation of relations within networks that are the best chance for shifting the organization of the network as a whole.
On the other hand, if Althusser’s anti-humanism is mistaken it is because it treats the individual within a structure or network as a sort of illusion or effect of the structure. Althusser’s point is well taken. There are emergent properties of networks that can’t be reduced to the intentions of the individuals caught like a fly within these networks. However, this is very different than the conclusion that the individual is nothing but an effect of its place within a network. First, individuals are prior to their relations, and as such cannot be reduced to their relations. Indeed, in the world nothing ever functions as smoothly as our maps of networks suggest (Bourdieu analyzed this point to great effect in his critique of structuralist models of kinship relations in The Logic of Practice). Second, individuals move among different networks that are discontinuous to one another, thereby indicating that they are irreducible to their relations. This does not mean that the ongoing relations among elements in a network don’t play a tremendous constraining role on individuals participating (whether or not they know it) in a network; but to point this out is different than claiming that the individual is its place in a network.