Recently Mel’s got me reading Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman, which is rewarding for a variety of reasons (Yes, yes, I know, I should have read this long ago, but damn it Jim, I mean Mel, I’m a philosopher not a cultural theorist!). First, at one of her recent talks she spoke favorably about OOO, so its worthwhile to return the favor and delve into her work so as to see the points of productive cross-over between these different theoretical projects. Second, it’s hands down a first rate book that ably defends a highly provocative and timely thesis, despite being published in 1999. And finally, it’s reminding me of all sorts of things from cybernetics, systems theory, and autopoietic theory that mesh nicely with the ontology of objects I’m groping towards. In particular, Hayles’ analysis sheds light on what it might mean to refer to objects as “withdrawn” or entirely autonomous from one another.

Hayles begins How We Became Posthuman by distinguishing between first, second, and third way cybernetics. First wave cybernetics focused on the phenomenon of feedback or how systems are self-regulating. As described by the online dictionary of cybernetics and systems, feedback is,

A flow of information back to its origin. A circular causal process in which a system’s output is returned to its input, possibly involving other systems in the loop. Negative feedback or deviation reducing feedback decreases the input and is inherently stabilizing (see stability, regulation, homeostasis), e.g., the governor of a steam engine. Positive feedback or deviation amplifying feedback increases the input and is inherently destabilizing, explosive or vicious, e.g., the growth of a city when more people create new opportunities which in turn attract more people to live there. Feedback is not the term for a response to a stimulus rather for the circularity implied in both. (Krippendorff)

The example of the growing city above is an example of positive feedback. By contrast, we can think of the humble thermostat as a system organized in terms of negative feedback. Here the issue is one of maintaining a particular homeostasis within the system. Thus, you set your heat for the desired temperature. When room temperature drops below that set point, the heater kicks on and runs until it rises to the set temperature, shutting off once again.

read on!

Everything changes with second-wave cybernetics and systems theory. Here the focus comes to be not on feedback loops with an environment that is independent and that exists in itself. Rather, systems now play a role in their own construction or auto-production much like the cliched picture of M.C. Escher’s hands drawing one another. As Hayles puts it, “[r]eflexivity is the movement whereby that which has been used to generate a system is made, through a changed perspective, to become part of the system it generates” (8). In Escher’s famous drawing, the hand, that, under first-wave cybernetic theory would be something outside of what it draws, becomes a part of the drawing itself such that it itself is drawn by the drawing. Concretely this can be thought of in terms of psychoanalytic theories of self. Initially we might think of self-image or the domain of the imaginary as a product of how we have sought to form and mold ourselves over the course of our development and life. However, the paradoxical feature of the Lacanian theory of the mirror stage is that the image itself, this point of identification, is itself formative of the self. Far from being a mere product of development, the image (broadly construed) instantiates a sort of teleology within the psychic system such that life comes to be modeled on the image rather than the image being modeled on our life. I become that with which I’ve identified rather than identifying with things similar to what I am.

Hayles goes on to remark that,

…autopoiesis turns the cybernetic paradigm inside out. Its central premise– that systems are informationally closed –radically alters the idea of the informational feedback loop, for the loop no longer functions to connect a system to its environment. In the autopoietic view, no information crosses the boundary separating a system from its environment. We do not see a world “out there” that exists apart from us. Rather, we see only what our systemic organization allows us to see. The environment merely triggers changes determined by the systems own structural properties. Thus the center of interest for autopoiesis shifts from the cybernetics of the observed system to the cybernetics of the observer. Autopoiesis also changes the explanation of what circulates through the system to make it work as a system. The emphasis now is on the mutually constitutive interactions between the components of a system rather than on message, signal, or information. (9 – 11)

Now clearly there are going to be significant points of divergence between autopoietic theory and OOO. In particular, autopoietic theory tends to pitch itself in epistemological terms, focusing on how we observe observers (the moment of reflexivity). Nonetheless, there’s a good deal of overlap here. Within the framework of second-wave cybernetics or autopoietic theory, concepts such as information and environment undergo a fundamental transformation. Where first-wave cybernetics treats information as a real thing out there in the world, second-wave cybernetics will argue that systems constitute their own information. This would be the moment of reflexivity. Like Escher’s hand that does not exist independent of the drawing, information does not exist independent of the system in which it occurs. It is the structure of a system (what I call a system’s “endo-consistency”) that transforms stimuli into information, not the stimuli itself. Moreover, information is no longer a mirroring or representational relation between the system and the other object emitting the stimuli. The concept of environment undergoes a significant transformation as well. Where, in first-wave cybernetic, environments are treated as something that is “out there” in its own right, undertaking the reflexive turn, second-wave semiotics will argue that systems constitute their own environments.

In a number of respects, second-wave cybernetic’s conception of informationally or operationally closed systems shares a lot in common with Leibniz’s conception of windowless monads. Leibniz, of course, is also a powerful inspiration for ontological nominalist wing of the object-oriented ontologists. As Leibniz notoriously remarks in his Monadology,

7. Further, there is no way of explaining how a Monad can be altered in quality or internally changed by any other created thing; since it is impossible to change the place of anything in it or to conceive in it any internal motion which could be produced, directed, increased or diminished therein, although all this is possible in the case of compounds, in which there are changes among the parts. The Monads have no windows, through which anything could come in or go out.

Translating Leibniz’s thesis that monads are windowless into the conceptual space of second-wave cybernetics, we could say that if systems are windowless, if they are withdrawn from the world and autonomous from other objects, then this is because systems are reflexive. And if reflexivity entails “windowless systems” or withdrawal, then this would be because information is not something received from the world or other systems, but rather is something constituted by the system itself. Here, of course, the term “system” is being treated as a synonym for object. Objects are thus withdrawn such that they never touch other objects in two ways: First, they are withdrawn insofar as they constitute their own information rather than receiving information from other objects. Second, because each object reflexively constitutes its own information it never represents other objects. To be sure, objects shoot forth volcanic jets of stimuli, but this stimuli is never in and of itself information. As Harman will say– and I’m not proposing this as a representation of his own position –objects are always behind “firewalls”. It is only by passing through the endo-consistency of the object that stimuli are transformed into information. As Luhmann puts it,

By information we mean an event that selects system states. This is possible only for structures that delimit and presort possibilities. Information presupposes structure, yet it is not itself a structure, but rather an event that actualizes the use of structure. (Social Systems, 67)

If information is not “out there”, then this is because the structure of the system that constitutes a stimuli as information is not “out there”, but belongs to the object alone as its endo-consistency. And it is in this respect, by virtue of the reflexivity of information, that objects can be said not to touch and to be infinitely withdrawn from one another. The subtle difference that Harman proposes– but it is a difference that makes all the difference –is that this withdrawal is not a unique feature of human observers, but is an ontological characteristic of all objects. Within the conceptual framework I’m proposing here– again Harman’s not guilty of this –all objects are behind firewalls with respect to one another by virtue of the reflexivity of information.

This model also sheds light on how objects can both be autonomous from one another and also be parts of another object at a higher level of scale. Within the framework of autopoietic theory, the autopoietic theorists propose the concept of “structural coupling” to describe relations between systems or, in the language of OOO, objects. As described by the Encyclopedia Autopoietica,

Structural coupling is the term for structure-determined (and structure- determining) engagement of a given unity with either its environment or another unity. The process of engagement which effects a “…history or recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems” (Maturana & Varela, 1987, p. 75). It is ‘…a historical process leading to the spatio-temporal coincidence between the changes of state..’ (Maturana, 1975, p. 321) in the participants. As such, structural coupling has connotations of both coordination and co-evolution.

During the course of structural coupling, each participating system is, with respect to the other(s), a source (and a target) of perturbations. Phrased in a slightly different way, the participating systems reciprocally serve as sources of compensable perturbations for each other. These are ‘compensable’ in the senses that (a) there is a range of ‘compensation’ bounded by the limit beyond which each system ceases to be a functional whole and (b) each iteration of the reciprocal interaction is affected by the one(s) before. The structurally-coupled systems ‘will have an interlocked history of structural transformations, selecting each other’s trajectories.’ (Varela, 1979, pp. 48-49)

Structural coupling, then, is the process through which structurally-determined transformations in each of two or more systemic unities induces (for each) a trajectory of reciprocally-triggered change. This makes structural coupling one of the most critical constructs in autopoietic theory. This is particularly true when approaching the phenomenological aspects of the theory. For example, structural coupling is the foundation for Maturana’s account of linguistic interaction as ‘languaging’ (Maturana, 1978)

If an object can both be an object in its own right and a part of a larger scale object, then this would be by virtue of the system properties of informational/operational closure and structural coupling. Take a larger scale object like a society constituted by its own informational/operational closure with respect to the sub-sets or subject objects that belong to it and upon which it depends to exist (persons, natural materials, semiotic entities, technologies, etc). As informationally closed or windowless, it is indeed the case that all these sub-sets or sub-objects (smaller scale objects) provide stimuli (what Maturana and Varela call “perturbations”) for the larger scale object or the social system in question. However, a perturbation is not yet information for information is reflexive and is only constituted by the object itself by virtue of that object’s endo-consistency. The social system is, to use Harman’s language again, behind a firewall with respect to the subsets or sub-objects that compose it. Now when we consider what a firewall is, we note that a firewall in programming is a device that both blocks out all sorts of things from the internet, and that only selectively allows other things to pass through. And this is how it is with the relationship between a social system or social object and its sub-objects. The social system is not “concerned” with the sub-objects in all of their characteristics (in terms of all the “perturbations” that they emit) but only selectively. For example, the government is indifferent to whether I just rubbed my toe.

This relation is bi-directional. The sub-objects that belong to the multiple-composition of a larger scale object only maintain selective relations to that larger scale object such that, in many cases and respects, they don’t interact with that object at all. In both cases the objects do not “touch” because what the social system traffics in are not stimuli or perturbations, and so too in the case of the sub-objects. Rather, what the sub-objects and the larger-scale object traffic in is information and information is always reflexively produced by the system or object in question itself. It is not something that is out there in the world itself. As such, it could be said within the framework of onticology that any relation between objects is vicarious in the sense that no two objects directly touch, all objects are windowless, and any relation between objects is a relation with information that is auto-constituted by the object itself, not by an object that is out there.