The Life of Lines: A Review

By Chris Hausmann Ph.D.

Timothy Ingold. 2015. The Life of Lines. Routledge. Taylor & Francis Group.
Paperback $44.95
Hardcover $140.00


Summer is a good time to read The Life of Lines. The book will urge you to see summer’s events—from brewing storms clouds and burrowing worms to rattling box fans, as central to theory-building.

This book might seem like an odd recommendation on Mobilizing Ideas; it includes only occasional references to political mobilization. What it offers, instead, are stunningly detailed insights into how living beings entangle one another and with their surroundings. This specificity is a useful reminder of what falls through the cracks when we talk and write about collective action; it also gives a glimpse of what how our theories could move forward. To understand the entanglements of living, Ingold argues, one must learn about lines.

Ingold sets up his “study of lines” as an alternative to what he calls the study of blobs, which depicts social life as discrete and externally-bounded entities. In its general form, this critique of mainstream science is not new to the study of social movements and contentious politics. In fact, many of the recent advances in our field have intentionally pursued a “relational sociology” (Diani & McAdam 2002; Fligstein & McAdam 2012; Mische 2009). But an emphasis upon relations is a persnickety task; concepts like social ties and strategic action fields risk becoming new skins for the old challenge of reification. For Ingold, specifically, the problem with blob-based science is not primarily analytic; more fundamentally, blobs cannot “live together.” Blobs can only articulate at their edges or fuse together into larger blobs, which obliterates the previously existing smaller blobs. Thus, blob-like conceptions lead us astray from the study of living: lines that inhabit the world by enmeshing their way through it.

Anatomically, lines offer the capacity to cling to objects, heaving animals’ rotund bodies through surroundings. This movement is itself a line. Its extension generates growth, trajectory, and knowledge, which thread through rather than trace upon an effective environment. The movement also allows living organisms to wrap around to one another, to engage in knotting, which is “about how contrary forces of tension and friction, as in pulling tight, are generative of new forms” (18).  Knotting, Ingold emphasizes, does not involve containers, building blocks, or chains that social scientists often invoke to theorize emergence. Knots get their shape through contra-puntal force rather than their external crust. Their binding is in the interstices of the strands, which do not reduce the stands themselves but instill memory within the so that even when tension is released, the strands still wrap as if toward one another. Ingold illustrates that the practice of knotting is central to carpentry, architecture, and human knowledge.

Although knots might seem like a synonym for social networks, the two concepts are rooted in very different intellectual projects. Under an “anti-categorical imperative,” network theorists sought to bypass spurious social categories, such as social identity and political affiliation, getting at the more concrete and meaningful underlying patterns of relations (Emirbayer & Goodwin 1994). As Ingold reworks key aspects of James Gibson’s ecological theory of perception and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s later work, he seems driven by a different principle: disallowing distinctions between the “inside” and “out.”  He writes, “We live in a world turned outside in—what I shall call an inverted world—in which all that moves and grows, shines or burns, or makes a noise has been reconstructed within as a simulacrum or image of the exterior” (41). As a corrective, Ingold’s essays continually reground the stuff of the world—skyscrapers, education, religion, and so on—back into the practice of living.

Ingold’s concern with inversion is most apparent in the second section of the book, where he explores the continuity between lines and the weather, linealogy and meteorology. If one reads “meteorology” with an eye toward social movement theory, the intellectual heavy-lifting in this section seems to offer substantial payoff. Ingold writes of modern meteorology, “It is the operation of inversion that leads us to think of movement not as an issuing forth along lines of growth or becoming, but as the displacement of an already congealed mass or blob from one point to another” (53). Neither storms nor people move as discrete entities. In an inverted world in which weather is understood as masses that bump into one another and humans interact with other humans, air is empty “atmosphere.” It is impossible to conceptualize air as the medium through which we undergo, act, and perceive our surroundings. Breathing, for Ingold, involves successive weaving motions that tie bodies and minds to their environments through and through. Inhaling pulls the world close; exhaling reaches out through speech and song. In this and many other ways, living things “whirl” through the world.

At moments, Ingold’s notion of whirling bears a striking resemblance to Summers-Effler’s (2010) theory of emotional rhythms of social movement groups. That book goes farther than any other in depicting the relationship between speed, emergence, and the collapse of social activism. More generally, this section of Ingold’s book reminded me that the emotions of politics are very much breathed responses. We huff and fume in anger, gasp in surprise and sigh in despair.

The final section of this book brings earlier insights to bear more directly upon human activity, what Ingold calls “humaning.” Because this section is the culmination of the book, it is especially resistant to summary. Two ideas seem especially fruitful. First, drawing upon theologian Henry Wieman (and perhaps through him, John Dewey) Ingold argues that human activity understood as a process of both acting and undergoing, but that acting unfolds within undergoing. As in my comments above, inhaling precedes exhaling. From this perspective, perhaps our subfield’s emphasis upon “action” is misplaced, or at least imbalanced. Second, Ingold introduces the notion of mid-streaming, the coiling “in-between” of living which is not (located between structures) but arterial, like eddies flowing along a river. Insofar as undergoing is logically prior to acting, even deliberate actions are best understood as a sort of harvesting at the in-between of material and humans. Finally and most importantly, this section reveals the full force of ecological and phenomenological work for understanding what it means for lives to “grow one another” (120). As an alternative to the elegance of syntactic explanations through variables, Ingold offers intimacy—an intense awareness of what it means to be moved by one’s surroundings, and to move within them. Seeking, documenting, and theorizing that intimacy is integral to understanding collective action.

Before closing, I’ll note one additional feature of this book. The craft of the argument reflects its central thesis: It is a series of thirty very brief essays, which weave together themes in a loop de loop pattern. That this, the essays respond to their immediate predecessor and point toward the successor. Thus, the argument nudges the reader to experience him or her own knowing as a line—as a traveler of sorts, way-faring through the text in fits and starts, undergoing and responding to the text and poignant images.

Read The Life of Lines this summer. Explore “lines” as metaphors for understanding your research, your discipline, and the entanglements through which you live.

Chris Hausmann is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Northwestern College. His research has appeared in Symbolic Interaction, The Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, and The Journal of Peace Research. His current project seeks to reconstruct the field of experiential learning, based on the premise that students have experiences of interactional inequality; what they lack are tools for recognizing those experiences and situating them within broader patterns.

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