The notion of wholes and parts has fallen out of favour in critical discourses. It seems to belong to a time indebted to classical ideals of beauty, perfection, and harmony, and to an age fascinated by the living organism as a model to make sense of contradictions and antagonisms. Especially when one thinks of social relations, it conjures up the use of organic metaphors to naturalize the vertical hierarchies and concentration of power in stratified orders. While a whole constituted of co-operating parts promises higher efficacy, meaning, and agency, from which also the parts can benefit, the accent now seems to lie on how the whole constitutes its parts through domination, subordination, and the threat of exclusion. In other words, the whole is seen as (too) much more than the sum of its parts: as an idea that can be realized only through violent coercion and exclusion, if at all.

Insofar as alternatives to individualistic atomization are envisaged, weaker and more open models of association are thus considered to be both preferable and more accurate in (post)modernity. These include models of hybridity, assemblage, entanglement, and intersecting self-organizing systems, in which agency is de-centred and distributed, hierarchies are flat, and constitution happens spontaneously and relationally through interactions or intra-actions.

At the same time, while much critical effort has been spent on deconstructing all claims to wholeness and make space for other potentialities, global challenges – be they financial, economic, political, or ecological – have led to renewed efforts to constitute powerful wholes and secure them through control, surveillance, and discipline both inside and outside their borders. Not only do some of these efforts appear remarkably successful, but they also seem to thrive on the weaker forms of association as if these and their elements were, after all, parts of a larger whole that constitutes them.

If from one perspective, the effort to constitute a whole always seems bound to failure, from another perspective all elements, even the excluded ones, are indeed always already constituted by a whole. Abandoning the critical language of wholes and parts may thus have been just as problematic and premature as the view that some parts of the world have managed to reach a postcolonial, postracial, postgender, and postreligious stage in their ongoing project of enlightenment.

How are wholes and other forms of association differently constituted and how do they constitute their parts and elements? How can one be attuned to heterogeneities and potentialities without participating in the reparation of existing structures of domination? Conversely, how can one maintain a critical position towards persistent wholes without making them inescapable and foreclosing the possibility of reducing violence and arriving at more benign forms of association? The 2013–14 lecture series will address and debate these and similar questions from a variety of perspectives.

The lecture series is part of the ICI Focus Constituting Wholes.

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