In response to The Democracy of Objects, Marisol, of Fractured Politics fame, asks an interesting question. Marisol writes:

Oh no, I’m going to be the first person to ask a specific question about the contents of the book! But here goes! Over at fracturedpolitics.com, Kris Coffield posted a discussion question about change within an ‘OOO’ framework. Here’s my response, which I hope doesn’t bastardize your ideas too heavily: “I actually like where Levi Bryant goes with this, with regard to his discussions of entropy and autopoiesis (coming from his blog and the HTML version of his new book). He argues that every substance must deal with its own internal entropy, or ability to break apart. Defining entropy as a measure of order over time, he argues that highly ordered systems have a low degree of entropy, while highly disordered systems have a high degree of entropy. For entities to exist, they must sustain their order through processes of self-differentiation.

From here, Bryant distinguishes between allopoietic and autopoietic objects-as-systems, where the former are produced by something else (inanimate, manmade, etc.), while the latter are self-reproductive. Two key points come into play: First, the operations of an autopoietic system relate only to themselves, and second, receive information from their environment in a manner that is based on their constitutional organization. This second point is still a little difficult for me because when the term “environment” remains ill-defined, though I think a basic distinction can be made between “environment” as objects and conditions external to a substance and “objectworld” (Kris’s term from prior posts) as the inner, constitutional, organizational system internal to an object.

With regard to change, one of Levi’s many points, is that to being is difference, is differing. That active process never ceases because of entropy. I’m not sure if the identity of an object can be said to be the local manifestation of self-differentiation or is simply the processes themselves, but the point is that the question is reversed; difference precedes existence ontologically. Change, in the sense of difference, is unceasing. And I’m pretty sure this is what Kris is getting at, though he’s being sneaky about it.

Social systems, like a state, are autopoietic objects (see previous posts on this site and over at Larval Subjects) that deliberately maintain their organization – boy do they ever! For change to occur within a social system (like, for example, when disenfranchised populations gain visibility), objects comprising the system (I almost want to say “caught within” the system) assume a different identity or position than the one dictated by the system, increasing the system’s degree of entropy. This could cause the system to collapse or be overthrown, but I think we need to acknowledge that system can adjust to accommodate the new “rogue” objects(s), having the effect of bringing the degree of entropy back down to a manageable level, or a level that allows the system to survive. Slavery is a good example here – slaves were freed, but the government withheld rights from black citizens, maintaining some degree of homeostasis.”

And here’s my question: I understand the self-sustenance autopoietic systems, but how do these systems ensnare objects that pose a challenge? In other words, how would your systems analysis account for things like Jim Crow laws enacted to politically marginalize a newly emancipated people, or should this be obvious to me already?

In my view, laws are second-order protocols that arise within social systems to introduce redundancy into the ongoing autopoisis of those systems. Like the regulators of steam engines invented by Watts (?) that prevented the steam engine from flying into positive feedback where the engine keeps increasing in speed until it is destroyed, laws function like regulators that strive to keep autopoiesis functioning in a particular way.

At the level of first-order autopoiesis there are no laws but only habits. Take four-way crossings on roads prior to the existence of traffic laws. It would be silly to suppose that prior to traffic laws there was a pure chaos when people drove on these roads and encountered each other. Rather there were, it is likely, habits. People slowed down, perhaps stopped, looked both ways, etc, based on a set of habits the system had developed. Laws intervened at a later point, formalizing these habits, so as to introduce a level of redundancy into the operations these habits evoke. In other words, the traffic laws did not invent these habits, but now provided a mechanism wherein those elements (drivers, riders) that happened not to act according to the habit (entropy) either through fatigue, lack of attention, myopia, or ignorance could be steered into the particular functioning of the system. Laws, in addition to this, provided a means for assigning blame through a system of inscriptions in the social system, i.e., the laws are less about ordering a social system than of assigning blame and debt in a system where the habit breaks down.

At the level of first-order autopoiesis, the production of elements takes place through the interaction of all sorts of parts producing and being produced by one another as elements. Like stem cells that are pluripotent such that they can become any type of other cells (liver cells, muscle cells, bone, nerve cells, etc), humans as parts begin as pluripotent such that they can become a variety of different elements in a particular social system. They become a particular type of element through interactions with other elements in the social system in which they find themselves. As Marx taught us, production is never simply production but is always a reproduction of social relations as well. Different gendered, racial, class, etc., elements are produced as these elements through the interaction of these elements. This reproduction of social relations will also involve all sorts of nonhuman elements such as where different places of life and work are located, how roads and communication paths are configured, etc., etc., etc. Prior to Jim Crow laws, there is thus a system of Jim Crow habits in these social systems that consists of how people performatively relate to one another thereby reproducing social relations.

The introduction of Jim Crow laws becomes a second-order moment in the social system designed to catch those events in the system that fail to conform to these habits and steer those elements back into structured patterns of interaction. As such, something like Jim Crow laws serve a dual function: On the one hand, it introduces redundancy into the system so as to regulate and diminish entropy in that particular system. On the other hand, laws themselves participate in autopoiesis, becoming an additional material component that intensifies development in system along a certain trajectory or vector, foreclosing other developmental possibilities in the system. The whole question becomes one of how to produce differences in massively redundant social systems where the system is actively organized to prevent certain events from resonating or being anything more than noise.