The word “network” has become a ubiquitous designation for technical infrastructures, social relations, geopolitics, mafias, and, of course, our new life online.[footnote Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).] But networks, in the way they are usually drawn, have the great visual defect of being “anemic” and “anorexic,” in the words of philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who has devised a philosophy of spheres and envelopes.[footnote Peter Sloterdijk, Sphären III – Schäume (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2004) [partial translation: Peter Sloterdijk, Terror from the Air, trans. Amy Patton & Steve Corcoran (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009)]]; see also Peter Sloterdijk, “Foreword to the Theory of Spheres,” in Cosmograms, ed. Melik Ohanian and Jean-Christophe Royoux (New York and Berlin: Lukas and Sternberg, 2005) 223–241, see →.] Unlike networks, spheres are not anemic, not just points and links, but complex ecosystems in which forms of life define their “immunity” by devising protective walls and inventing elaborate systems of air conditioning. Inside those artificial spheres of existence, through a process Sloterdijk calls “anthropotechnics,” humans are born and raised. The two concepts of networks and spheres are clearly in contradistinction to one another: while networks are good at describing long-distance and unexpected connections starting from local points, spheres are useful for describing local, fragile, and complex “atmospheric conditions”—another of Sloterdijk’s terms. Networks are good at stressing edges and movements; spheres at highlighting envelopes and wombs.
Of course, both notions are indispensable for registering the originality of what is called “globalization,” an empty term that is unable to define from which localities, and through which connections, the “global” is assumed to act. Most people who enjoy speaking of the “global world” live in narrow, provincial confines with few connections to other equally provincial abodes in far away places. Academia is one case. So is Wall Street. One thing is certain: the globalized world has no “globe” inside which it could reside. As for Gaia, the goddess of the Earth, we seem to have great difficulty housing her inside our global view, and even more difficulty housing ourselves inside her complex cybernetic feedbacks. It is the globe that is most absent in the era of globalization. Bad luck: when we had a globe during the classical age of discoveries and empire, there was no globalization; and now that we have to absorb truly global problems...
So how can we have both networks and spheres? How do we avoid the pitfalls of a globalization that has no real globe in which to place everything? In a work presented at the Venice Biennale in 2009, Tomas Saraceno provided a great, and no doubt unintended, metaphor for social theory. In an entire room inside the Biennale’s main pavilion, Galaxies Forming along Filaments, Like Droplets along the Strands of a Spider’s Web (2008) consisted of carefully mounted elastic connectors that produced the shape of networks and spheres. If you were to avoid the guards’ attentive gaze and slightly shake the elastic connectors—strictly forbidden—your action would reverberate quickly through the links and points of the network paths, but much more slowly through the spheres. This is not to say that spheres are made from different stuff, as if we must choose between habitation and connection, between local and global, or indeed between Sloterdijk and, let’s say, actor-network theory. What Saraceno’s work of art and engineering reveals is that multiplying the connections and assembling them closely enough will shift slowly from a network (which you can see through) to a sphere (difficult to see through). Beautifully simple and terribly efficient.
We should have known this all along: a cloth is nothing but a finely-woven network, with a clear transition between one thread and the next, depending on the density of the stitching. By deploying this “obvious” truth within the main exhibition space of the Italian Pavilion, Saraceno performed precisely the task of philosophy according to Sloterdijk, namely of explicating the material and artificial conditions for existence. The task is not to overthrow but to make explicit. As Deleuze and Guattari have shown, a concept is always closely related to a percept.[footnote Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, trans. Janis Tomlinson and Graham Burchell III (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).] By modifying our percept, Galaxies Forming along Filaments allows those who try to redescribe the loose expression of globalization to explore new concepts. Instead of having to choose between networks and spheres, we can have our cake and eat it too. There is a principle of connection—a kind of movement overlooked by the concepts of networks and spheres alike—that is able to generate, in the hands of a clever artist, both networks and spheres; a certain topology of knots that may thread the two types of connectors in a seamless web.
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