The last few days I’ve been out of commission with a rather nasty cold that has left me feeling weak and listless, so I haven’t had a great deal to say… Except that there are times when I truly despise having a body. Occasionally I wonder whether experiences such as this aren’t the real origin of mind/body dualism. Given living conditions prior to the 20th century, wouldn’t there have been a genuine desire to escape the constraints of the body, to escape sickness, hunger, the deafening clamor of the passions, and the general wretchedness of embodied existence? I confess that I would like nothing more than to be pure thought. Few things, I think, are as joyous as that moment when I solve a problem in calculus or when I suddenly see how to proceed in a geometrical theorem, or those adrenaline pulsing moments where I come across an amazing concept in a text I’m reading and am suddenly able to put a word or a developed thought to something I’ve been trying to think without having been able to say it. I suppose I’m the poster-child of Nietzsche’s ascetic priest. I’d prefer not to have a body as the body only distracts. Oh, it’s certainly true that the body affords its pleasures– the tastes of an outstanding meal, a kiss, that first sip of a great wine, making love or sleepily cuddling. Yet these joys often seem to pale in comparison to the joys of thought. Although I love to cook, eating is often a chore done to provide my body with energy. The body grows hungry and clouds thought. Fatigue sets in, demanding rest right when your thought is at its peak, tearing you away from what you were doing. Alchohol and drugs hang you over, ruining the next day. And, of course, the body is subject to sickness. Yes, I understand, I think, why these ancients might have found a distinction between body and mind attractive.
During this time, I’ve been distractedly reading Oyama’s The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution, which is a truly amazing book. Oyama is making an intervention into the so-called “nature versus nurture” debate, attempting to show how biological systems are interactive systems, such that development cannot be understood as a unilateral process where genes function as a master-code defining the final form that an organism will embody, nor such that environment determines the final outcome of form, and through which the resulting organism is a unique and unpredictable result. Of course, everyone says that it is a combination of both, the question is whether they rigorously follow this program through. Oyama’s thesis is that our tradition of thought ineluctably leads us to distinguish form and matter, treating form as a master-plan imposed on brute matter (there’s fertile ground for a critique of certain aspects of Lacanianism here). In the case of genetic theory, the form, of course, would be genes that function as the information in-forming matter over the course of its development; but the primacy of form as information– as a sort of homoculous governing development –can be located in a number of other areas of inquiry as well (for instance, we might think of the role that the concepts of code and structure often play in social and political theory).
Oyama’s thesis is that we must give an account of the ontogeny of information itself, or that we must give an account of how something can come to function as information. In this regard, there is no preformed or a priori information, but rather every system constitutes its own information. For instance, whatever is capable of functioning as a signifier must result from an ontogeny, such that we must account for the processes by which it comes to be individuated and take on the function of information. Here I think structuralism often suffers by virtue of not distinguishing system and environment, and therefore generalizing elements of structure well beyond their boundaries, applying them to individuated beings to which they don’t apply… That is, structuralism too often fails to think situated structure.
Wherever form is conceived as independent of matter, we end up in all sorts of irresolvable questions as to how matter comes to take on form, leading us to assume teleology or some sort of homoculous presiding over the imposition of form on matter (it’s not difficult to see that this is where Badiou will end up by virtue of his claim that consistent multiplicities result from an operation, i.e., the question of the operator necessarily arises). I should point out that I have no special interest in biology and the nature/nurture debate, nor am I a neo-vitalist interested in making the overly broad generalization that “all is life”. Generally I see the nature/nurture debate as a stupidity, and I see this neo-vitalism as being based on an overly broad generalization that has a correct intuition but which does injustice to other types of systems such as physical systems. What interests me in Oyama’s book isn’t what she has to teach me about biology, but rather her critique of the form/matter distinction relevant to any theory that makes use of the concept of “code” in one of its variants, her account of causality and interaction, and her account of individuation. I thus read Oyama not as a contribution to vitalistic ontologies, but rather as a contribution to the ontology of aleatory materialism.
I came across a beautiful example of this sort of ontogenesis from a cultural anthropologist who I sometimes have the privilege of teaching with. This anthropologist has led a rather interesting life, being the son of a high-ranking intelligence officer under the Nixon administration, and thus having had the opportunity to live all over the world. On the first day of class he tells a story about moving to Africa and how his mother wanted to grow green bell peppers. Now, if we adopt the geneticist thesis, we’re led to the conclusion that where bell peppers are grown has very little impact on what bell pepper seeds become. Where genes function as an architectual blueprint presiding over development, the only environmental factors that are relevant are those of water, soil conditions, and sunshine. However, these environmental conditions only determine whether or not we successfully grow bell peppers, not the form that these genes shall take. The first generation of peppers turned out precisely as one would expect– as nice, large, green bell peppers. However, my anthropologist’s family was in for a surprise with the second generation: Rather than large, green bell peppers, the family instead got very small peppers, that were shaped differently than green peppers, and which were extremely hot like serrano or jalapeno peppers.
What this example illustrates is that very different phenotypes can be produced out of one and the same genotype, such that we have to question the primacy of the code (the genotype) in determining the final phenotype. Rather, if we are to properly think the individuation of entities, we must instead think a complex interaction between the entity in question and an environment as an ongoing process, where the individuated being comes to be produced. This gives rise to all sorts of micro-level questions– What genes are adjacent to one another during the process of development? What substances reach this or that cell at this or that particular time? What actualizations does the arrival of this or that substance lead to in this or that cell? What is the effect of this actualization with regard to neighboring cells, and how does this effect the developmental trajectory? Questions of timing, relation, materiality, and so on become crucial to understanding ontogenesis, such that we can’t properly think development as the simple unfolding of a pre-determined program. Similar questions need to be raised at the level of social theory, thinking inter-relationships between social structures or codes, social networks or fields, physical environment, biology, and so on. To take things a step further, we must not conceive the environment as something that is simply there, present-at-hand, such that it is passively adapted to just as cookie dough is made to adapt to the cookie cutter (which is identical to the geneticist thesis, but simply locates form elsewhere). Rather, we must think the environement as something that comes to be constituted as information by the system in question. As Zizek puts it in the awkward language of German idealism, “…[O]ne can never reach a ‘pure context prior to a decision; every context is ‘always-already’ retroactively constituted by a decision (as with reasons to do something, which are always at least minimally retroactively posited by the act of decision they ground –only once we decide to believe do reasons to believe become convincing to us, not vice versa)” (The Ticklish Subject, 19). This is simply the thesis of operational closure, wherein a system constitutes its own environment. An ant and a snake might be in one and the same abstract space, but they have entirely different environments. Oyama expresses this point about individuation well when she remarks that,
A corrective for a person who tends to think too much in terms of potters molding clay or of computers printing out messages might be the idea of campers raising and stabilizing a tent pole by pulling in opposite directions. Stability is dynamic, clearly depends on both participants, and may be maintained to the extent that variation from one or both directions can be compensated for. Attributing the general outcome to one camper and trivial details to the other would falsify the process. I hasten to add that I don’t consider this an adequate metaphor for ontogeny, but rather an illustration of a fairly simple point about causation: that it is multiple, interdependent, and complex. Even the potter, in fact, does not command absolutely. An artisan respects the qualities and limits of the material as much as he or she does his or her own; much of artistry, in fact, lies in just this respect for, and sensitivity to, the medium and the developing form. Finally, a program, to be useful, must be responsive to its data; outcomes are jointly determined. (37)
It seems to me that this simplification of causality and metaphor of the computer program is far from being restricted to biology. We find similar patterns of thought in social and political theory– especially among structuralists in their worst moments, but also in many applications of the Oedipus in psychoanalysis, along with certain “hard” readings of the role played by the signifier in the unconscious –that lead to poorly posed problems and inaccurate accounts of individuated beings such as persons and social systems. We suffer from a fetish of the individuated entity thought abstractly as independent of its environment (thereby leading to perpetual talk of what’s “inside” and “outside”), but also from a fetish for form (such as Kant’s categorical imperative or invariant social structures or genetic codes) that fails to account for the genesis of forms themselves. As such, it becomes necessary to think the individuating as an ongoing process, where form and information are themselves constituted dynamically and in relation an environment or ontogenetic field.
In correcting this formalist view, Oyama goes on to say that,
What we are moving toward is a concept of a developmental system, not as the reading off of a preexisting code, but as a complex of interacting influences, some inside the organism’s skin, some external to it, and including its ecological niche in all its spatial and temporal aspects, many of which are typically passed on in reproduction either because they are in some way tied to the organism’s (or its conspecifics’) activities or characteristics or because they are stable features of the general environment. It is in this ontogenetic crucible that form appears and is transformed, not because it is immanent in some interactants and nourished by others, or because some interactants select from a range of forms present in others, but because any form is created by the precise activity of the system. Since even species-typical ‘programmed’ form is not one but a near-infinite series in transition throughout the life cycle, each whole and functional in its own way, to refer to the type or the typical is also to refer to this series and the constant change that generates it. (39)
What Oyama calls for is a conception of individuation as an activity of systems in tandem with an environment (such that the environment must be thought as a “part” of the system), where stability is dynamic rather than static, or an ongoing process. It seems to me that this thesis calls for a sustained critique of the form/matter distinction that underlies so much thought, and massive revisions in ontology, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, and social and political theory. Ontologically, it becomes necessary to undermine the thesis that there is a world already there, pre-existing, with respect to which systems adopt multiple perspectives. If information itself is the result of an onto-genesis, then it follows that there is no world in-itself. It makes no sense, for instance, to speak of sound in-itself, prior to bats (or other creatures) forming sonar systems that constitute sound as information. Similarly, it becomes necessary to avoid the tendency to think in terms of reality being composed of atomistic individuals, independent of one another. The “minimal being” is not an individual, but an individual-environment relation. Finally, it becomes necessary to think being in terms of ongoing processes of individuation, rather than finished products of the individuated. In epistemology, knowledge must no longer be thought as a representation of the world, but as itself resulting from individuating processes where systems constitute their own environments. This, for instance, is the significance of Lacan’s account of fundamental fantasy, where fantasy isn’t the opposite of reality, but rather the frame through which the subject continues processes of individuation with regard to an environment. In social and political theory, it becomes important to avoid the primacy of the code, and to look for more nuanced accounts of individuation where the social is perpetually regenerating itself and where it social structures are far more open ended and subject to the aleatory. Ethics… I don’t even know where to begin.