Institutional Oceanography

“An oceanography of alternative codes and semiotics, where the new lifeworlds are below the surface of our view”[1]. In contrast to the map and the land, the ocean was an unpredictable expanse known for its destructive potential and illimitable depth. The Hereford Mappa Mundi depicts the oceans as mysterious outer seas, possibly being linkages to biblical lands and the afterlife. Hitler found the limits of blitzkrieg at the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean. “According to Nazi doctrine, strangely enough, there is just one element: the lithosphere, the earth, blood. Despite the war in the air and under the sea, the offensive of the first space weapons, the atmosphere and the hydrosphere remain foreign to Hitlerian ideology”[2]. It is in the map, in the explicitly understood landscape of Europe where Hitlerian ideology remained, a vestige of a limited nomos that only saw a land empire (and a land army) as the primary forces of conquest (despite the irony of Nazi innovation around rocket technology and air-based warfare). The Lebensraum enveloped the Nazi’s institutional cartography, with the sea as its limit, much as the early cosmographers saw the outer seas as liminal places, unpredictable in their potential.

The Origins of Institutional Cartography

Cartography as the process of land mapping is premised on a position of control. Early imperial expansion (particularly Iberian expansion) used cartographic methods for legibility (of their conquests) and legitimisation. In making legible any new discoveries and mapping out the contours and geographies, imperial expansion mixed in with early scientific survey techniques and cadastral organisation. Cartography developed “in order to draw up an inventory of their natural, social and human resources and to set up jurisdictional institutions to facilitate government and state administration”[3]. This institutional cartography found its purposes in both the expansion of scientific understanding of the known world and the development of a more cohesive administrative bureaucracy that relied on maps, charts and cadastral surveys to better control, tax and legislate home and imperial populations.

The early mappa mundi were seen as prestige items, representing artistic renderings of the Earth which were as mysterious as they were enlightening. They represented a pre-Copernican understanding of the world as encapsulated within a wider cosmography of biblical and heavenly worlds, being geocentric. Their power derived from their theological underpinning, presenting a Christian universe. The Hereford Mappa Mundi is the most explicit version of this, with Jerusalem as its centre and the Earth ringed both by outer seas and the spirit world beyond them. Heaven is situated at the top and its depictions of mid-and-southern Africa, Siberia and East Asia show a mixture of myth and geography. The institution and cartography are not strongly mixed, with the map being a metaphysical rather than cadastral representation.

The maps of the early Renaissance and imperial eras instead come from earlier surveys, such as the Domesday Book. This transformation from the metaphysical to the administrative reflects the growing power of European polities in an increasingly post-feudal society. Henry IV’s promotion of map-making for the purposes of central planning, and Sanson’s map of France for Cardinal Richelieu, were representative of this process. “In both the cases described above the desire of the monarchs to obtain detailed, localized information concerning the estates to be found within their territories clashed head-on with the regional power of the nobles who refused to provide the necessary data or to co-operate in the surveys of their private lands”[4]. The fragmented polities of feudalism began to be contested and confronted by growing centralised monarchical power, conflicting with distributed polities like the estate systems and the Catholic Church. Henry VIII’s expansion of power in the dissolution of the monasteries and the enclosure of the commons (affecting a huge redistribution of land and wealth) were achieved through cadastral means.

Virilio posits the transformation of military power in post-feudal Europe to the move from intensive systems of military planning concentrated around city fortresses that acted as urban megamachines to extensive systems of planning focused on the expansion of control over land (into Africa, Asia and the Americas). This was achieved through the greater power of weapon systems, particularly the cannon, the warship and the musket. These weapons accelerated the pace and space of battles, changing the landscape of warfare as the entrenched position of the fortress was outmanoeuvred by the dromoscopy of weapons of speed. In similar manner, the reach and speed of administrative control was transformed through the move from metaphysical representation to cadastral representation in cartographic methods. The imperial expansion of cartography alongside accelerative military planning represented a primitive lebensraum of expansive land-based control.

An institutional cartography then meant the literal expansion of power through legibility, both in imperial conquest but also in centralised monarchical control over metropoles and estates. What was once a fluid territory of fragmented political action (with autonomous bases of power away from capital cities) was transformed into a contiguous state with an associated administrative bureaucracy. The cartographic then is the production of a new surface through which basic facts can be collated and construed. This Weberian transformation produced a base institutionalism, centred around a hierarchical structure with linear flows of communication and command. Institutions are a form of constrained, ranked individualism in this schema, put to the purpose of the expansion and control of particular forms of knowledge. “Professional and scientific claims to possessing privileged access to geographical truth, and therefore superiority over lay and artistic mappings, depend on a specific casting of the world as a calculable, uniformly extended space that exists independently of the observer, can be measured and represented exactly, and does not admit multiple correct interpretations”[5]. Therefore an institutional cartography also meant a transformation of the facticity and agency of individual and collective units in how they are constrained by hierarchies and how the flows of information are secured for particular social purposes. The new surface was both a simple geography of uncontested political control and a simple form of epistemology and ontology, the former in how knowledge is produced and legitimated and the latter in how being is framed in an institutional setting.

However below this surface lie a series of alternative geographies and different forms of knowledge and being. If an institutional cartography is a social violence in the way it constrains these things, holding incontestability and dominance as the primary values of socio-political control, an institutional oceanography instead seeks to uncover what lies beneath the surface, questioning the epistemological monotonicity of this Weberian institutionalism.

Oceanographic Analysis

Oceanography itself is the science of depth as complexity. “The seed of oceanography germinated out of man’s interest about the regions beneath the ocean surface as well as waves, the rise and fall of the tides and other coastal processes. Gradually this curiosity extended to the search for food, minerals, energy, oil and natural gas, which ultimately laid the foundation stone of oceanography”[6]. In the early developments of cosmography (Ptolemy, Aristotle, Oresme) the ocean represented an unknown quantity, a great separator through which cartography had to wrap around. As cartography represents the surface level, the attempt at uncovering, oceanography is always enveloped in its depth of complexity.

“Maritime realities were not easily understood in the early modern era because philosophical and scientific concepts that made the sea appear foreign and hostile enjoyed great prestige and authority”[7]. The contrast between cartography and oceanography was acute as the former provided the means for legitimated political control, while the latter represented an extensive lack of control, a huge expanse that was treacherous. “Contemporary maritime affairs are handled by specialized, professional groups, not just because maritime affairs are so technologically sophisticated, but also because that sophistication is taken to mean that the natural forces of the sea have been domesticated…In this respect modern concepts of the sea have produced the same effect as early modern typologies; both have inhibited a widespread interest in and understanding of maritime affairs”[8]. Whether through the lens of classical cosmographic accounts or through a modern integration of the sea as an industrial conduit for logistics, shipping and military affairs, both obscure the actual relations that have existed within scientific and maritime understandings of the oceans.

Institutional oceanography represents this at the institutional level, as contemporary political accounts as well as classical accounts of the political obscure the full set of relations that existed in its expressions and activities. Whether through Hobbesian or Rawlsian accounts, we are presented a simplified version of the politics of distribution, of the institutionalisation of human affairs. Concepts like the state of nature or the original condition obscure historical institutionalisms and present dichotomous pictures of anarchy vs order or selfishness vs collectivity. This scientisation of politics and of its institutions represents a view of the individual as ensconced and constrained within a series of overlapping institutions, from families, tribes and nation-states to corporations, civil society groups and online fora. In other words a limited subjectivisation is premised. One premised on a Weberian hierarchy of direct relations that scale upwards, from the family to the state.

This is the instantiation of an institutional cartography which can be seen in its attempts to construct a monotonic control. Thus in discussions of the move from feudal to post-feudal and early capitalist Europe, the traditional view sees the growing imperial states sublimating previous institutional structures into its orbit, transforming and/or destroying them. However there is an actual history of constant contestability throughout these developments. The anti-enclosure rebellions in Tudor England encapsulated an anti-monarchic, regionalist conception of political power that fed into the later debates and conflicts informing the English Civil War, particularly those around the powers of parliament and the Putney Debates (as well as groups like the Levellers and Diggers). The growth of millenarian theologies informed new forms of political praxis that arose in the Florence and Ghent rebellions, with Federici seeing these as alternative movements to the developing capitalist hegemony of the European late middle ages. In a world of powerful guild structures, rising wages, communalist land ownership, differential legality and political fragmentation, the rise of capitalist hegemony was not a foregone conclusion but the result of many conflicts, institutional and ideological (i.e. the requirements of primitive accumulation). The implementation of an institutional cartography of control was a primary step toward the types of legal and cadastral centralisation required for an emerging capitalist governance.

In the understandings of an institutional oceanography, the actual interactions of individuals with institutions and with their subgroups show a huge plethora of subjectivities that create and recreate institutions and their members. Institutions themselves become subjects and develop autonomy as agential actors. Codification and law become more than just structuring variables of constraints, but dynamic practices of interconnection associating legality with context and code with interpretation, power, submission and opposition. This moves beyond the Habermasian tetralogy toward a much deeper complexity of institutional configuration and evolution, one premised along breakpoints (i.e. King’s catastrophism) and crises as much as adaptation and linear development.

Agency Through Intercourse and Interaction

Rather than institutions being vehicles for the constraint of individual behaviours and logics, institutions can instead be seen as formative structures of networks of intercourse. Following Wendt’s model of symbolic and linguistic interactionism[9], we can see initial interactions as the building blocks of institutionalised behaviours built through discursive and intercursive mechanisms of dialogue, exchange, ritual and conflict, embedding relations between individuals. These are filtered through concepts of family and tribe (subgroups and groups) as they scale upward. However Wendt’s model limits itself to explicit discursive interaction, ignoring a wider field of action and reproducing the constraints model of a simple institutionalism. Integrating technologies and ideologies as actants within a wider field of action produces a greater understanding of the construction of agency and how it plays out in social actions/interactions.

At the base level, this is the interaction of syntagms and paradigms as described by Latour[10]. Growing fields of action emerge (and submerge) based on their potential to innovate or transform social interactions. Social actors introduce innovations into fields of action based on their desire to control, limit or expand the power of sets and subsets of other agents, developing programs through particular technological and ideological membranes. An expansion of associations in turn creates the necessity of substitutions for placating anti-programmatic actors and systems as opposition develops to programmatic developments, thereby transforming both the programmatic actor (creating associations) and the anti-programs. The depth of these relations i.e. how far down they go, is indicative of an oceanographic analysis in that they produce both hierarchical relations (the OR or longitudinal) and heterarchical ones (the AND or latitudinal) in their translative potential (through innovation pathways). This then expands the fields of agency and action as the membranes are integral actants to programmatic development, as well as being integral to anti-programmatic developments as they reprogram the extension of systems and how their opposition avoids and/or adapts to said systems. It also presents limits on complexity, as the further innovations must scale and placate, the greater the room for oppositional action to undermine or subvert them. The double-edged nature of technology and ideology shows its autonomous agency, as it is fully integrable into different programmatic structures while at the same time fragile in how it can be used and extended. These things can run beyond the initial actor’s control, with these flows developing independence in how they are used and interacted with, both in terms of the cost of their maintenance and in terms of the extent of their influence.

Institutions in this model are particular configurations produced through the needs of innovation and the desires of the actants involved. Rather than constraints, the program/anti-program distinction creates constant feedback loops that produce both an institutional agency (in the sense of a language of orders, logics and norms which go beyond the individual or subgroup) and its opposition. In so constructing, constant negotiation or negation are required to make any innovation successful, either extending a network of relations or limiting it relative to anti-programmatic agencies. The flows of intercourse (of knowledge, information, exchange, semiotics, etc.) are important in not just constraining actors’ choices but also in being autonomous agencies in their own right that human actors must engage with in the production of and opposition to institutions through OODA or 4I[11] feedback loops. These autonomous non-human agencies rewire these loops, requiring new mechanisms of orientation and decision-making.

This can be seen in the Aristotelian definition of law[12] as an autonomous social actant. Aristotle posits a more complex field of political action when he reifies and abstracts the law as a primary subject/onticity. Viewing Aristotelian politics as a cyclical patchwork within a spectrum ranging from honour to tokos, an emergent series of great men/great movements endowed with virtue recreate the independence of a polity, slowly degrading from a free state or aristocracy toward their baser forms. While Aristotle may have seen laws as an emergent phenomenon of virtue, the reality he spells out regarding the best possible government suggests an innate conflict between laws and people, positioning the law as an autonomous subject that is both within and beyond human control. A pre-algorithmic conception that moves us from a political cartography that Aristotle sketches in his various descriptions of the Greek city-states to an institutional oceanography of greater depth and complexity that moves beyond the human subject, policing, variegating and conflicting with it.

This takes institutionalism as a contestable field of action (in contradiction to cartography) in how it delineates norms and logics. A conflict grows from the interactions of the intercursive (the flows of sociality in scalable interactions) and their embedding within institutions. “Universality or order are not the rule but the exceptions that have to be accounted for. Loci, contingencies or clusters are more like archipelagos on a sea than like lakes dotting a solid land”[13]. This means institutionalisation is always conflicting with the desire for choices beyond the existing social field. And this isn’t just the product of human agencies, but of alter-institutional agencies, ideologies and other semiotic codifications and social technologies. In constructing hegemonic structures, alterity is inevitably bred through their construction as alternative modes of living are conceivable. Alter-institutional agencies can be seen in the development of anti-colonial struggles. There is/was no effective polity that combines native interests in Australasia, the Americas or Africa so these were constructed through postcolonial discourses that presented an overarching autonomous agency opposed to imperial control and the colonial construction of a sublimated agency in service to empire. Ideological agencies presented themselves in the Protestant discourses which wound their way through rebellion movements in the Reformation through to the English Civil War and onto the American colonies, informing the future of the English regency (through the Glorious Revolution) and the character of American ideology post-revolution.

Beyond Institutionalism

This conflictual understanding of institutionalism sits in contradistinction to Ostrom’s frameworks of institutional analysis & development and social-ecological systems[14]. These are positioned as explanatory outcomes from an institutional grammar (attributes, aims, deontics, conditions, sanctions). However it simplifies and reifies institutions in much the way rational discourses do, positing them as constraining variables that tie individuals/groups into norms, rules and mental models. A surface-level cartography is presented that doesn’t fully explicate the relations of subjectivisation and interconnection between institutions, their members, their denizens and their opponents. Factors of power, refusal and opposition are tacitly ignored as a commitological constitutionalism forms the building blocks of Ostrom’s/Conway’s institutionalism.

This is seen in the way Conway describes a housing cooperative as a series of established rules that work their way through subcommittees down to the individual participants. But what if the participants disagree with the rules? What if members of the subcommittee are biased toward particular positions? What if members become corrupt? This is not to say the idea of institutional grammar is useless, but it must be expanded to include a wider array of behaviours that encode themselves in institutions as they grow and develop over time. Alongside the grammar elucidated, we must also include the possibility of opposition that devolves into conflict and/or exit. Otherwise institutions become immutable. Conway’s invocation of DNA and its development processes from nucleobases to proteins is revealing as it shows a deterministic frame of understanding in how institutions encode themselves. In reality the interactions of individuals and institutions, as well as individuals within institutions and the interactions of institutions with other institutions, are never clearly laid out through a developmental constitutionalism (instead requiring constant negotiation and reorientation through intercursive flows that present new possibilities and agencies). Changing patterns of behaviour, degradation of norms, conflict, alternate powerbases and other exogenous and endogenous factors expand and fragment an institutional grammar. There is no simple linguistification of governance, as languages naturally evolve, decentralise into different dialects, and become extinct. The relations of institutions are similar in their dynamics.

We see a greater complexity in the interactions between individuals and institutions in discursive institutionalism. Moving beyond rational discourses that posit institutions as constraints and frameworks for the production of specific action pathways, institutions are instead subjectivised as constructed elements that interact with ideas (ideological technologies), individuals and group behaviours. As Emerson[15] noted in the interaction of individuals and institutions, the former in certain historical epochs develop the latter (as in theological and societal reckonings/differentiations). Going further, this can be conceived as memetic interactions with the real itself, with ideas, individuals and institutions constituting mechanisms of understanding and convalescence that develop into forces and counter-forces. “These foreground discursive abilities are essential to explaining institutional change, because they refer to peoples’ ability to think outside the institutions in which they continue to act, to talk about such institutions in a critical way, to communicate and deliberate about them, to persuade themselves as well as others to change their minds about their institutions, and then to take action to change them, whether by building ‘discursive coalitions’ for reform against entrenched interests in the coordinative policy sphere or informing and orienting the public in the communicative political sphere”[16]. In an institutional oceanography, this goes further as these acts of institutional negotiation and negation themselves produce institutional subjects, configuring their own reference languages autonomously of human agency, as per Aristotle’s law.

However discursive institutionalism, like other institutionalisms, fails to account for the contextual character of institutions as caught in cycles of socio-economic activity and crises. Institutions are still given a fixity that doesn’t exist, as instead they peak and trough through intervals of adaptation, replacement and divergence. Thus the evolutionary potentials in the developments of capitalism, the revolutionary activities that overthrow existing orders and the constant conflict of centre and periphery both in a geographic and ideological sense (as ideological forces of hegemony come up against those of counter-hegemony or decentred alterity).

It also tacitly ignores the institutional subject that develops autonomy from the individual subject in the course of institutional development. Virilio provides a useful conception in the evolution of military affairs, as it moves from a state of war to a state of peace through the use of violent dromological infrastructures that penetrate this concept of the state of war (also known as the original condition or the Hobbesian jungle) through the development of a hegemonic centre of power. The development of international and transnational transport infrastructure, long-range missiles, and an expansive control of space create a state of peace, such that violence is externalised toward the nomadic periphery.

Post-historical narratives then begin in this institutional subject, as every activity is now increasingly institutionalised i.e. segmented, quantified and measured. “The size of the market grows and transaction costs increase sharply because the dense social network is replaced; hence, more resources must be devoted to measurement and enforcement”[17]. However here we now reach the limits of an institutional cartography as posited by North’s description of evolutionary institutionalism, where institutions are surface-level constraints that shape individual subjectivities. A deeper structuration as noted by Schmidt is evident in the way institutions constantly require adaptation, as in Virilio’s contrast of states of war and peace. When they conflict, they show both the limits of technological dromology and the potential for its full autonomisation in the sense that it will enter a new state of war (furthering the conflict of institutionalisation and intercursivity).

The state of peace is held together by a patchwork of institutional configurations that attempt at an institutionalisation of lifeways. In Aristotelian terms this is the condition of a perfection of government, as represented in the ideal types of aristocracy or the free state. However this does not escape the degradative condition of the state of war, as the innate complexity of institutional governance and the subsequent routes of de-complexification and collapse create the means for subversion, alterity and renewal. “Path dependence is more than the incremental process of institutional evolution in which yesterday’s institutional framework provides the opportunity set for today’s organizations and individual entrepreneurs (political or economic). The institutional matrix consists of an interdependent web of institutions and consequent political and economic organizations that are characterized by massive increasing returns. That is, the organizations owe their existence to the opportunities provided by the institutional framework. Network externalities arise because of the initial setup costs (like the de novo creation of the U.S. Constitution in 1787), the learning effects described above, coordination effects via contracts with other organizations, and adaptive expectations arising from the prevalence of contracting based on the existing institutions”[18]. This path dependence also shows how these peaks and troughs of growth and collapse develop as interactions between centred and decentred subjectivities.

In conceiving an institutional oceanography, we are both interested in the waves of the surface and their interaction with land (the conflicts and compromises between individual and institutional subjects) and in what lies beneath the surface water, which is conceptualisable as both the inner complexities of institutions in how they configure themselves and concatenate with ideologies, discourses and pre-existing norms, and how institutions growth and decline work in peaks and troughs, developing complexity in times of growth and de-complexifying toward individual and/or tribal subjectivities in times of crisis and collapse (or in other words how they exist above the waves but will also fall underneath them, developing and destroying institutional subjects).

Facticity and Intercursivity

This development of the institutional subject as an autonomous agency alongside other actants in networks of social action/intercourse extends beyond Wendt’s interactionist model as the linguistic markers are transcended via a wider semiotics of interaction. Going back to cartography, the cartographer themselves was the ideal institutional agency in that they were an extension of imperial and intensive political power, creating representations that increased authority and reduced (at the surface level) contestability. The map became an institutional marker as it concentrated intercursive flows (of wealth and trade) through its lines and contours. In drawing the landscape, it created logistical potential through its vector. This concept brings us closer to Latour’s actor-network theory in conceiving technology as an actant in networks of intercursive action. The flows of trade and exchange are intercursive in that they flow upwards from the initial interactions of linguistic and semiotic markers to more scalable levels, developing norms and prescriptions as they do. These then collide with other logics, creating the grounds for hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces, as well as for institutionalisation. The map was a primary actant in prising certain logics over others (in this case the logics of imperial monarchies and established trading companies), being integral to the extension of certain of institutionalised intercursive power against others (such as those of the trading leagues and the independent cities, or in the case of metropolitan governance and statehood the forces of communalism).

The depth of agency and the autonomy of agential properties both in the mechanisms of intercourse and in the use of power suggest a much greater field of social action than established institutionalisms provide. This then isn’t just about complexity, but facticity and the ordering of knowledge in the conflicts between institutions (and how they configure knowledge) and intercourse (in how it dissipates knowledge as per the requirements of innovation in interacting with anti-programmatic actors and systems). The production of facts itself is a consequence of the distribution of social power and how interactions in fields of social action are configured i.e. whether they are hierarchical, heterarchical or both, and how hegemonies and counter-hegemonies conflict and border. “When things go wrong they go wrong because they challenge conventional conceptions of normality – violating codified norms which govern our expectations. These norms and the ontological security they provide are social constructs, albeit typically highly institutionalised social constructions”[19]. This is at the heart of the conflicts surrounding facticity and the distribution of power.

Searle recognises this constructed nature in his description of social facts as the product of institutional patterning. They acquire facticity through the locus of power from which they originate, as with legality or cartography. They can also transform as institutional configurations adapt, revolutionise or are superseded by emerging intercursive flows. Such was the case in the transformation of cartography away from metaphysical representations to cadastral forms, as the importance of trade and as a result tariffs and taxation increased, with the emergence of powerful trading guilds in Italy and Germany, and westward imperial expansion post-Columbus. The outcome of the Hundred Years’ War had shifted European power centres away from England and France, and the rising wages after the Black Death had created new economic impetuses and new hierarchies of economic action, particularly merchants and bankers, which set in place new social facts.

Following from Wendt’s model of social interaction as the building blocks of institutionalism, Berger & Luckmann’s concept of habitualisation as the mechanism for institution building is similar and derives from Searle’s conceptualisation of facticity – “Any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be reproduced with an economy of effort and which, ipso facto, is apprehended by its performer as that pattern”[20]. In habitualising, intercursive flows are set into particular institutional configurations as their fields of potentiality are codified through governance (both formal and informal).

However both Berger & Luckmann and Searle suggest this methodology of institutionalisation is built up through social facts as distinct from so-called brute or natural facts i.e. those entirely independent of human knowledge. However such a distinction seems artificial when considering the constructed nature of institutions. Institutions themselves condition and set brute facts through the same processes of habitualisation that social facts are conducted through. Social interaction in this case becomes epistemic concerning the construction of brute facts i.e. the positing of universal laws. The paradigmatic nature of scientific knowledge shows not an evolutionary development of knowledge as facts became present through better methods of investigation, but different reigns of facticity developed through epistemic communities, such as those of atomism, geocentrism or Newtonian mechanics. Rather than these forms of knowledge evolving or being replaced through greater exponentiation, knowledge developed through the social interactions of hegemonic knowledge opposed by alternatives, with models developing until reaching a breakpoint where further investigation would not yield greater answerability. Paradigm-breaking developments were then integrated into the hegemonic knowledge, altering its core epistemologies and creating a new paradigm. The natural facts are then defined by the social interaction of epistemic communities, their hegemony and their opposing alterity. The social-natural fact distinction breaks down as both are caught up in processes of institutionalisation, and by extension in the movements of intercursive flows of information and knowledge which concatenate around different institutional complexes, thereby altering the epistemic/ideological commitments when breakpoints, crises and new modes of socio-political activity emerge.

This multiplicity of facticity is evident in perspectival ways of seeing the world, such as those elucidated by Chapman (adapted from Piaget). A communal perspective both interprets and constructs facts differently to a systematic perspective. The former is based in the social connections of institutions, the informal parameters of governing norms which allows for circumvention but also for tribal behaviours. The latter is based on the technical connections of a system, seeing the formal mechanisms of governance as the locus for action in an institution. Both represent different logics of action, and as a result different languages of perception, one being tribal and intensive (in that it focuses on the in-group) and the other being mechanistic and extensive (in that the formality of its rules is scalable outside parochial social understandings). Thus the depth of institutions is not just evident in the multiplicity of actors and groups (which undergird or undermine institutional constructions), but also in the multiplicity of social facts that develop within institutions, developing opposing perspectives that conflict and negotiate. As Hay notes with crises, “any specific contextual setting or condition can sustain a variety of different and competing narratives. In principle, each is capable of informing a different policy response (deficit reduction might be a logical response to a crisis of debt but it is most unlikely to be seen as an obvious or logical solution to a crisis of growth). Consequently, policy responses are contingent upon their ideational and political processing”[21]. And these are contingent upon the distributions of institutional power and the conflicts between different agencies over intercursive centrings. The nature of facticity (both brute and social) is part of the flows of knowledge in primary intercourse, forming institutionalised elements of social interaction as they become methodologies through which the world is ordered.

Intercourse in Actor-Networks

The flows of intercourse within an institutional oceanography are the base mechanics of scalable interactionism within semiotic networks. “It is defined by the competence it is endowed with, the trials it undergoes, the performances it is allowed to display, the associations it is made to bear upon, the sanctions it receives, the background in which it is circulating, etc. Its isotopy – that is its persistence in time and space – is not a property of its essence but the result of the decisions taken through the narrative programs and the narrative paths”[22]. In other words it is the constitution of intercourse that makes knowledge and information flow.

This further breaks down the natural-social divide as they are semiotised into parallel loci of action and meaning-making. Semiotics here being the outward extension of network-tracing activities that co-constitute the world through the network’s extensiveness, in turn influencing the flows of knowledge within it. Latour here then sees the network as almost pure extension, in that knowledge related to it cannot be outside of it, instead extending the network through differing interpretations and penetrations of its manifold. However this appears to be too teleological, ignoring the other side of flow, its breaks (through the growth of institutionalisation).

Taking ANT into its full relativistic potential means recognising the ontological capacity for breakage i.e. for destruction of the network through semiotic understandings that invert internal dynamics. Rather than being mere extension, networks exist also in intension. Rather than being a constant flow, we can see rather jagged lines emerging as intensities of understanding are broken or transformed by extensive interventions from those inside/outside the network. This means networks can end (much as institutions), as new templates of knowledge or alternate flows of information create breakdowns in the assumptions of established network’s epistemologies. In Latour’s abstract sense of semiotic sociality, such activity could conceivably be mere acts of continuity of flow, but this ignores the concrete reality of these networks (and associated institutions) in how they instantiate and negotiate concepts of being and knowledge.

Cudworth and Hobden’s reflection on ANT shows a better concretisation of agency as coming from intercursive interactions in actor-networks. They recognise a depth of agency that varies depending on the distribution of power within different institutional configurations, with these differential agential levels cementing institutionalisation in some contexts and transforming or destroying them in others. “First, reproductive agency acknowledges the way in which agential beings, both human and non-human, emerge into a pre-existent web of social relations and unequally distributed power and resources and their practices over time reproduce those situational constraints with relatively minor alterations. Second, there is transformative agency where humans and possibly some other creatures engage in a struggle over resources and social organization to effect differences in that distribution. The human world overlaps with innumerable non-human systems, both animate and inanimate, which can impact and influence, and indeed radically change the structures of the human world. We have described this third form as affective agency”[23].

The author’s critical reflection on actor-network theory and concepts of agency point the way toward understanding the relations of individuals and institutions as one of depth. The depth of agency is seen in different levels of agential potential: the sublimated reproductive agency, transformative agency as the interaction of alternate wills in conceiving alterity, and affective agency emerging through institutional transformation that changes the agential landscape. Agency is depth as it moves through different levels of potential, as well as subjectivising institutions into their constituent parts as wholes of interaction which go beyond as well as constrain their constituents. In understanding language and self-reflection as the bridge from the sublimated agent to the critical agent, we can expand beyond the initial schema of the authors.

Developments in technological linguistics as well as the institutional language of law (as posited by Aristotle) do more than just constrain individuals, but transform agency and as a result the production of activities. The effect of chatbots on political language has transformed the landscape in that fake news and legitimate conversation are increasingly indistinguishable. While this has had limited impact on current political events, as large-scale events become increasingly mediatised, the language of politics begins to decouple from that of reality, transforming the linguistic landscape as these social media activities inform the public sphere as well as the private conversations. The ‘ideal speech situation’ becomes infested with a falsity of potential agency, as fake news and simple AI linguistics alter the conversation, having both affective and (pre-)transformative agencies. And of course this isn’t an unprecedented development. The effects of 24-hour news cycles and media monopolisation have also produced similar agential reckonings in that the mechanisms for political language are altered through institutional configuration, thereby transforming agencies.

Institutional Agency

Agency then is complicated by action (and vice versa), muddying the waters of their distinction as institutional subjectivity interacts intersubjectively with individuals and subgroups. Institutional oceanography is then a moving of the field of agency in terms of what it can act upon, as non-human entities and autonomous systems develop independent logics that interact with and oppose established human agencies. In other words this is the envelopment of agency into the flows of intercourse, in that relations develop iteratively through interaction (as per Wendt), making the agency of individuals and groups a particulate of systems with independent logics and languages. The individual agent (through language and self-reflection) and the institutional agent (and system) are constructed through intercursive mechanisms of material and immaterial flows, with initial understandings building into coherent ideologies and formative conflicts of reflection (as differing ontologies interact as iterative interactions scale upwards). “If the definition of agency is the potential to alter structures, then this exists beyond the human”[24].

Such is witnessable in the originations of coronavirus as a viral agent that emerged from autonomous institutional and intercursive logics. The demonstrative complexity of the governing frameworks that informed the spread of and response to coronavirus, rather than a surface-level cartography of network relations, are a deeper series of epistemic, commoditised and agricultural relations that mix and combine. This oceanographic picture moves beyond the surface into the deeper linkages, particularly that formed the framework for coronavirus to develop i.e. agricultural practices that infringe upon the wild through deforestation, industrial farming, monocultures and trade in wild animal products. These increase the pathways for pathogenic mutation as animal populations are artificially segmented in semi-urban enclaves, increasing animal-to-human contact. Factory farming practices encourage uni-genetic developments and limit natural breeding practices, allowing for mutagens that target wider genetic swathes in what are effectively monocultured populations. These systems are invested in through financial networks that look for greater risk portfolios and longer-term investment strategies (outside of traditional assets i.e. property, land, metals, etc.). These are then inculcated into an epistemic embeddedness through artificial agricultural practices becoming the new norm. The capacity to purchase out-of-season vegetables, the subsidisation of monoculture and large livestock farming, industrial meat processing, large land-owning (as in the huge ranches in Australia and America), state-led and finance-led investment to limit diseconomies of scale that large farms produce. All of these feed into a production-consumption system reliant on tight-profit margins, stock market requirements and the advertisement of all food types as constantly available (with even minimal delays and shortages as through Brexit or COVID lockdowns causing panic).

“The underlying operative premise is that the cause of COVID-19 and other such pathogens is not found just in the object of any one infectious agent or its clinical course, but also in the field of ecosystemic relations that capital and other structural causes have pinned back to their own advantage. The wide variety of pathogens, representing different taxa, source hosts, modes of transmission, clinical courses, and epidemiological outcomes, have all the earmarks that send us running wild-eyed to our search engines upon each outbreak, and mark different parts and pathways along the same kinds of circuits of land use and value accumulation”[25].

This complexity is indicative of the conflicts and negotiations of intercursivity and institutionalisation. No one actor has any significant power in this system, with each instead cohering toward a rational institutional agency premised on profit-making and risk minimisation. Monoculture increases the profits of agricultural firms through specialisation and concentration. Risk is minimised as there is no strong regulatory cost preventing this scaling. Where problems do occur, they can either be ignored or quickly diminished through semi-legal action (mass slaughter, moving production sites, exploiting other crops or animals through similar techniques). Investment strategies follow a similar logic, with limited fixed overheads and potentially high profits available. This is the production of an institutional subject around financial, logistical and regulatory flows that is autonomous of any individual agency. And in expanding into new bounds and borders, it has come up against a viral agent premised on alternative logics, those that use these intercursive flows to break them down and limit them by attacking the individual agents within them.


Institutional oceanography shows the extent of complexity beneath the surface level analysis of base institutionalisms. It takes us beyond the constraints model of institutions premised upon a Weberian hierarchy of sublimated individuation. There is a recognition of the extent and depth of agency, both in how individual agency interacts with the institutional but also how institutions develop their own autonomous agencies away from individual control, as well as how different agential forms (technology, ideology, law) show a wider field of actants. At the base level, it is about the conflicts and negotiations of intercourse that emerges from initial interactions of actants and scales upwards, developing into institutional breakpoints along intercursive flows that attempt to control and make legible these flows. However as their complexity and alterity grow, counter-hegemonies and illegible elements develop that move beyond institutional configurations, creating cycles of order and disorder.

Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is an allegory of an institutional oceanography – the slow devolution from an adventure story mired in the chaos of a shipwreck and mutiny into a fantasy of increasing complexity. Tsalal and the southern region represent unknown and unknowable quantities, with both the natives and the travellers being alien to each other. As Pym and Peters travel further south they then encounter the void to death itself, as the great white figure envelops them. This journey unwinds itself into a complex array of figures and landscapes, much as the surface level political cartography makes way for a deeper institutional oceanography that fractures established forms.


[2] Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology

[3] Marcelo Escolar, Exploration, Cartography and the Modernization of State Power

[4] Marcelo Escolar, Exploration, Cartography and the Modernization of State Power

[5] Simon Ferdinand, Cartography at Ground Level: Spectrality and Streets in Jeremy Wood’s My Ghost and Meridians

[6] Abhijit Mitra, Oceanography: A Journey in Search of Root

[7] Josef Konvitz, Changing Concepts of the Sea, 1550–1950

[8] Josef Konvitz, Changing Concepts of the Sea, 1550–1950

[9] Alexander Wendt, Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics

[10] Bruno Latour, Technology is Society Made Durable


[12] Aristotle, Politics

[13] Bruno Latour, On Actor-Network Theory. A Few Clarifications Plus More Than a Few Complications

[14] Ryan T. Conway, Ideas for Change: Making Meaning Out of Economic and Institutional Diversity

[15] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance & Other Essays

[16] Vivien A. Schmidt, Taking Ideas and Discourse Seriously: Explaining Change Through Discursive Institutionalism as the Fourth ‘New Institutionalism’

[17] Douglass C. North, Institutions

[18] Douglass C. North, Institutions

[19] Colin Hay, Good in a Crisis: The Ontological Institutionalism of Social Constructivism

[20] Colin Hay, Good in a Crisis: The Ontological Institutionalism of Social Constructivism

[21] Colin Hay, Good in a Crisis: The Ontological Institutionalism of Social Constructivism

[22] Bruno Latour, On Actor-Network Theory. A Few Clarifications Plus More Than a Few Complications

[23] Erika Cudworth & Stephen Hobden, Of Parts and Wholes: International Relations Beyond the Human

[24] Erika Cudworth & Stephen Hobden, Of Parts and Wholes: International Relations Beyond the Human


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