Introduction on Individuality, Relationality, and Collectivity

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This is an excerpt from the P2P Foundational Essay which also appeared in our blog

"This articulation of modernity, based on a autonomous self in a society which he himself creates through the social contract, has been changing in postmodernity. Simondon, a French philosopher of technology with an important posthumous following in the French-speaking world, has argued that what was typical for modernity was to ‘extract the individual dimension’ of every aspect of reality, of things/processes that are also always-already related . And what is needed to renew thought, he argued, was not to go back to premodern wholism, but to systematically build on the proposition that ‘everything is related’, while retaining the achievements of modern thought, i.e. the equally important centrality of individuality. Thus individuality then comes to be seen as constituted by relations , from relations.

This proposition, that the individual is now seen as always-already part of various social fields, as a singular composite being, no longer in need of socialization, but rather in need of individuation, seems to be one of the main achievements of what could be called ‘postmodern thought’. Atomistic individualism is rejected in favor of the view of a relational self , a new balance between individual agency and collective communion.

In my opinion, as a necessary complement and advance to postmodern thought, it is necessary to take a third step, i.e. not to be content with both a recognition of individuality, and its foundation in relationality, but to also recognize the level of the collective, i.e. the field in which the relationships occur.

If we only see relationships, we forget about the whole, which is society itself (and its sub-fields). Society is more than just the sum of its “relationship parts?. Society sets up a ‘protocol’, in which these relationships can occur, it forms the agents in their subjectivity, and consists of norms which enable or disable certain type of relationships. Thus we have agents, relationships, and fields. Finally, if we want to integrate the subjective element of human intentionality, it is necessary to introduce a fourth element: the object of the sociality.

Indeed, human agents never just ‘relate’ in the abstract, agents always relate around an object, in a concrete fashion. Swarming insects do not seem to have such an object, they just follow instructions and signals, without a view of the whole, but mammals do. For example, bands of wolves congregate around the object of the prey. It is the object that energizes the relationships, that mobilizes the action. Humans can have more abstract objects, that are located in a temporal future, as an object of desire. We perform the object in our minds, and activate ourselves to realize them individually or collectively. P2P projects organize themselves around such common project, and my own Peer to Peer theory is an attempt to create an object that can inspire social and political change.

In summary, for a comprehensive view of the collective, it is now customary to distinguish 1) the totality of relations; 2) the field in which these relations operate, up to the macro-field of society itself, which establishes the ‘protocol’ of what is possible and not; 3) the object of the relationship (?object-oriented sociality?), i.e. the pre-formed ideal which inspires the common action. That sociality is ‘object-oriented’ is an important antidote to any ‘flatland’, i.e. ‘merely objective’ network theory, on which many failed social networking experiments are based. This idea that the field of relations is the only important dimension of reality, while forgetting human intentionality . What we need is a subjective-objective approach to networks.

In conclusion, this turn to the collective that the emergence of peer to peer represent does not in any way present a loss of individuality, even of individualism. Rather it ‘transcends and includes’ individualism and collectivism in a new unity, which I would like to call ‘cooperative individualism’. The cooperativity is not necessarily intentional (i.e. the result of conscious altruism), but constitutive of our being, and the best applications of P2P, are based on this idea.

Michel Bauwens, June 2006


Relational Identity

"In traditional atomistic/mechanistic ontologies, things are construed as having an independent existence apart from their relationships. Things have properties, and some of those properties may be relational. By contrast, the newer relational ontologies that pervade many disciplines from physics to biology, view relationships as part of what a thing is. In this light, a thing not only enters into relationships, but is in fact constituted by them. Relationships are fundamental to a thing's identity, or self." (

Gergen on the Primacy of Relationality

- Kenneth Gergen: a view of the relational self and bottom-up social processes

The following view stresses relationships as constitutive of social reality. On a superficial reading, this definition seems not to include the distinct existence of a social field, nor any object-centeredness, but the last paragraph shows a P2P-like understanding of social processes.

Traditional theory of the civil society is built upon an ontology of bounded units or entities - specifically "the individual," "the community," "the state," and so on. Such a theory not only creates a world of fundamental separation, but invites the use of traditional cause and effect models to comprehend relations. One is either an actor, directing the course of events, or is reduced to an effect. How can we comprehend the social world in such a way that it is not composed of entities, but constituted by processes of relationship? This is no easy task for we at once confront the implications of Wittgenstein's pronouncement that "The limits of our language are the limits of our world." Our common language of description and explanation virtually commits us to understanding the world in terms of units (nouns) that act upon each other (transitive verbs). Even the concept of relationship, as commonly understood, is based on the assumption of independent units. If and when such units act upon each other we speak of them being related. Thus, for example, we say, "A relationship developed between them," or "They no longer have a relationship." If we turn to relevant social theory, we find that perhaps the most significant candidate for relational understanding, namely systems analysis, is lodged in the view of systems as a collective array of entities linked through processes of cause and effect. Thus, systems diagrams, flow-charts, feedback loops and the like… There is much to be gained by commencing our analysis with a focus on relational processes from which ontologies and ethics emerge, and from which certain actions become favored while others are forbidden. Such processes of creating and carrying out meaning/full worlds are at all times and everywhere under way. In this sense, civil movements are always in the making. As any two or more persons negotiate about the nature of their lives, what is worth doing or not, they are establishing rudimentary grounds for civil life in their terms" (source: Kenneth Gergen website)

Object-Oriented Relationality

"[There is a] profound confusion about the nature of sociality, which was partly brought about by recent use of the term 'social network' by Albert Laszlo-Barabasi and Mark Buchanan in the popular science world, and Clay Shirky and others in the social software world. These authors build on the definition of the social network as 'a map of the relationships between individuals.' Basically I'm defending an alternative approach to social networks here, which I call 'object centered sociality' following the sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina. I'll try to articulate the conceptual difference between the two approaches and briefly demonstrate that object-centered sociality helps us to understand better why some social networking services succeed while others don't.

Russell's disappointment in LinkedIn implies that the term 'social networking' makes little sense if we leave out the objects that mediate the ties between people. Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it's not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term 'social network.' The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They're not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object. That's why many sociologists, especially activity theorists, actor-network theorists and post-ANT people prefer to talk about 'socio-material networks', or just 'activities' or 'practices' (as I do) instead of social networks.

In my experience, their developers intuitively 'get' the object-centered sociality way of thinking about social life. Flickr, for example, has turned photos into objects of sociality. On the objects are the URLs. EVDB,, and evnt focus on events as objects.

For a much more elaborate academic argument about object-centered sociality, see the chapter on 'Objectual Practice' by Karin Knorr Cetina in The practice turn in contemporary theory, edited by Theodor R. Schatzki, Karin Knorr Cetina, and Eike von Savigny (London 2001: Routledge.)" (

Cooperative Individualism and the 'P2P Self'

A debate between John Heron and Ted Lumley:

Lumley quote 1: "We are each unique, and each have a unique and authentic role to play because we are each uniquely situated within and included in, a common hostspace dynamic. When we move, the shape of the hostspace dynamic we are included in transforms... Our individual movement = transformation of the common hostspace dynamic."

Lumley quote 2: "Rather than having an absolute center of self, our center of self is defined by where our inside-outward asserting meets the outside-inward accommodating of the dynamical hostspace....Our assertive movement is relative to the (simultaneous mutually influencing) assertings of our fellows, together constituting a community hostspace dynamic from which our individual actions push off (rather than pushing off from the 'absolute center of our self')."

JH comment: Lumley has two definitions of the self. Quite rightly, because I think both are necessary and interdependent. In quote 1, the self is defined in term of its unique situation within a hostspace, prior to any assertive movement within it. In quote 2, the self is defined in terms of this assertive movement. In my worldview, the first definition relates to the autonomy of the self in terms of its idiosyncratic appraisal of and response to its unique situation within a hostspace; and the second definition relates to the co-operative mutuality of the self in terms of its interactions with the others in a hostspace. The autonomous and the co-operative accounts are correlative and interdependent.

Lumley quote 3: "A 'peer' is usually thought of as an abstract entity that is capable of behaviour in-its-own-right, and particularly of peer-to-peer collaboration, ...none of which alludes to the common hostspace dynamic as the prime influence in the evolution of the peer-to-peer dynamics."

Not by me and others, e.g. Spretnak. Here's a quote from my book Sacred Science, pp 10-11

"The distinctness of a person is to do with him or her being one unique focus, among many, of the whole web of interbeing relations. Personal autonomy is grounded in this unique presence, participating resonantly in an unitive field of interconnected beings, within the presence of Being, and in the individual perspective necessarily involved in imaging a world. It is manifest as the individual judgement inalienably required for a person to appraise what is valid and valuable; and as individual responsibility in choosing to act. This is not the personal autonomy of the Cartesian ego, an isolated, self-reflexive consciousness independent of any context - what Charlene Spretnak calls the Lone Cowboy sense of autonomy. It is, rather,

The ecological/cosmological sense of uniqueness coupled with intersubjectivity and interbeing…One can accurately speak of the ‘autonomy’ of an individual only by incorporating a sense of the dynamic web of relationships that are constitutive for that being at a given moment. (Spretnak, 1995: 5) (Pluralities/Integration newsletter, issue 65, archived at )

Ted Lumley on David Bohm's vision on wholism and individuality

"Bohm cautions that this [undividedness of the whole] does not mean the universe is a giant, undifferentiated mass. Things can be part of an undivided whole and still possess their own unique qualities. To illustrate what he means he points to the little eddies and whirlpools that often form in a river. At a glance such eddies appear to be separate things and possess many individual characteristics such as size, rate, and the direction of rotation, et cetera. But careful scrutiny reveals that it is impossible to determine where any given whirlpool ends and the river begins. Thus Bohm is not suggesting that the difference between 'things' is meaningless. He merely wants us to be aware constantly that dividing various aspects of the holomovement into 'things' is always an abstraction, a way of making those aspects stand out in our perception by our way of thinking. In attempts to correct this, instead of calling different aspects of the holomovement' things', he prefer to call them 'relatively independent subtotalities'."

Indeed , Bohm believes that our almost universal tendency to fragment the world and ignore the dynamical interconnectedness of things is responsible for many of our problems, not only in science but in our lives and society as well. For example, we believe we can extract the valuable parts of the earth without affecting the whole. We believe it is possible to treat parts of the body and not be concerned with the whole. We believe we can deal with various problems in our society, such as crime, poverty, and drug addiction, without addressing the problems in our society as a whole, and so on. In his writings Bohm argues passionately that our current way of fragmenting the world into parts not only doesn't work, but may even lead to our extinction."
(personal communication, March 2005; see also