My thoughts are a bit scattered this morning as I got little sleep last night, but nonetheless I wanted to underline something with respect to my last post. There I suggested that every system– where “system”, in my thought, is a synonym for “object” or “substance” –is haunted by entropy. Entropy measures the degree of disorder within a system. The short clip below gives a sense of the nature of entropy:
When the particles are first shot into the box they exist in a highly ordered state (i.e., they are strongly localized in the box). As a consequence, the particles begin with a very low degree of entropy, which is to say that there is a high probability that they will be found in one particular region of the box. As the system evolves, however, the degree of entropy or disorder within the system increases. It becomes more or less equally probable that the particles will be found anywhere within the system.
The claim that every social system faces the problem of entropy is the claim that every social system faces the question of how to maintain its organization over time. The relations that constitute a social system or object 1) establish or produce a low degree of entropy such that it is improbable that social actors will be found anywhere within the social system, and 2) are relations between external or independent objects. Take the geographical distribution of wealth in the city of Chicago. On the South Side you tend to find rather poor individuals, while on the North Side you find wealthy individuals. These concentrations represent a low degree of entropy insofar as the probability is low that you will find poor people evenly distributed throughout the city, just as the probability is rather low that you will find wealthy people evenly distributed throughout the city.
The mystery, then, for social and political thought, is why entropy doesn’t increase in such systems. With the passage of time, why doesn’t the distribution of poor and wealthy people become evenly distributed throughout the system. Put differently, what are the mechanisms at work within the social order that maintain a low degree entropy? Gratton maintains that our disagreement over structuralism is merely a disagreement over nomenclature. In short, the social and political theorist should begin with the premise that every social order is improbable.
Gratton likes the word “structure”, I prefer terms like “regimes of attraction” and “feedback loops”. However, I don’t think these are mere differences over nomenclature. Nowhere, among the great structuralist thinkers, will you find reference to anything like the problem entropy. The reason for this is very simple. As Derrida reminds us in Differance when discussing Saussure, structural relations are differential relations without positive terms. The phoneme “b” is literally nothing independent of the phoneme “p”. Or rather, we should say that there is no phoneme “b” or “p”, only the phoneme b/p constituted by internal differential relations. Such a thesis also holds for how Levi-Strauss analyzes kinship relations and myths, or how Althusser analyzes social structures.
However, if you begin from the premise that social relations are differential relations without positive terms, then you’ve already erased the problem of entropy. Why? Because there are no independent or positive terms being related that constantly threaten to fly apart increasingly the probability of distribution throughout the system overall. Because the being of the terms is already constituted entirely by the differential relations there is no issue of how a system maintains an improbable organization over time. It is only when you begin from the premise of a strange mereology where larger scale objects are composed of smaller scale objects that are themselves independent of the larger scale objects that they constitute that the problem of entropy or why the smaller scale objects don’t fly apart destroying the larger scale objects emerges.
The debate, then, is not whether or not there are patterns that reproduce themselves in time, but rather whether or not relations relate positive terms, terms that could be detached, or whether there are only negative or differentially constituted terms. If you take the first route, then the problem of entropy comes into full view and you’re faced with the mystery of how low probabilities of equal-distribution are maintained. If you take the latter route, the problem of entropy doesn’t appear at all as there are no independent terms that could fly apart. As a consequence, the latter route leads you to look for a “supplement”, “event”, “subject”, “act”, etc., because it’s impossible to conceive an immanent entropic dissolution of systems as there are no positive terms for a system to dissolve into. I’m not being unfair to the structuralists here– with whom I’ve worked obsessively for over a decade now in my research –but am taking them at their word with respect to the ontology that they themselves embrace.
In response to my post the other day, Mel worried that my thesis that every system or object is haunted by entropy might strike others as pessimistic. However, I think precisely the opposite is the case. The entropic dimension of every system entails that, as a matter of principle, every system can be dissolved, can be otherwise, can fall apart. Ontologically, then, there is no such thing as a natural social order (nor a “natural” natural object, if by “nature” one means “incapable of being otherwise”). Rather, every social order is a temporary victory over entropy that is perpetually threatened by dissolution. If the essence of ideology lies in treating as natural and therefore inevitable a historically contingent social order, then the entropic dimension of every social system marks the ruin of any inevitable or ineluctable social order. As such, the entropic dimension of every social system marks the ontological ground for revolutionary hope.