A lot of people have been perplexed by the idea of operational closure I discussed in a previous post and why it entails that there is no direct transformations of information between systems or objects. Maturana and Varela give a nice analogy that might shed some light for some on this concept. As they write,

Perhaps an analogy will clarify [the concept of operational closure]. Imagine a person who has always lived in a submarine. He has never left it and has been trained how to handle it. Now, we are standing on the shore and see the submarine gracefully surfacing. We then get on the radio and tell the navigator inside: “Congratulations! You have avoided the reefs and surfaced beautifully. You really know how to handle a submarine.” The navigator in the submarine, however, is perplexed: “What’s this about reefs and surfacing? All I did was push some levers and turn knobs and make certain relationships between indicators as I operated the levers and knobs. It was all done in a prescribed sequence which I’m used to. I didn’t do any special maneuver, and on top of that, you talk to me about a submarine. You must be kidding!”

All that exists for the man inside the submarine are indicator readings, their transitions, and ways of obtaining specific relations between them. It is only for us on the outside, who see how relations change between the submarine and its environment, that the submarine’s behavior exists and that it appears more or less adequate according to the consequences. If we are to maintain logical accounting, we must not confuse the operations of the submarine itself and its dynamics of different states with its movements and changing position in the environment. (The Tree of Knowledge, 136 – 137)

This is operational closure. For us, the observer, there appears to be a correlation between the movements of the submarine and the reefs in the environment. For the submariner, by contrast, there is no submarine nor any reefs, there are only the events that show up on the submariners dials and instruments and the operations that he carries out on his levers. Take the submariner out of the picture– he’s too much of a homunculus –and leave just the operations and the instruments and you have an operationally closed system.

read on!

When I say that operations within an object only refer to other operations in the system, the point is that they only refer to– following the analogy –the read outs on the “instruments” and the operations that follow from these events on the instruments. The pings on a sonar are nothing like the coral reef that exists in the environment of the system. The operations that follow from those pings (turn left, pull up, push down, etc) are nothing like that reef. Clearly something outside the submarine is stimulating or trigger these instruments, but it is nothing like what takes place on these instruments. Drawing on Graham’s schema, sensual objects are never like the real objects that trigger them and sensual objects exist only on the interior of another real object; in this case the submarine is the real object and the events on the instruments are the sensual objects that exist on the interior of the real object (cf. Harman here and here). The sensual object (event on the instrument) is always a caricature of the real object that stimulated it (the reef). For an example of what I’m getting at here see my remark on biological experiments with frogs here.

This is how it is with all objects. They only refer to themselves or their own internal world and never directly to the stimuli that might trigger events within them. It is for this reason that information cannot be exchanged between objects. The concept of traditional concept of information treats information as something that remains the same that is exchanged between two systems like a dollar bill might be passed on to another person. In the classical semiotic model there is a self-identical message transferred from one person to another in a medium (air for example) across a channel (sound) that is then decoded according to a shared code.

Within the framework of operational closure, however, this can’t work as objects are never able to get outside themselves to get at the world apart from them. Like our submariner, they have only their internal world to go on. Communication isn’t possible because there is a shared code, but rather communication is an accomplishment that emerges over the course of many failed communications between two structurally coupled operational systems. The meaning is not there at the outset in the form of a shared code, but is rather a result that unfolds as a result of a great deal of mutual “tuning” between the two coupled systems (and even then the meaning is never quite the same between the two participants; rather it’s close enough to allow each system or object to “steer the reef” of the other system). This is why Lacanian practice takes the form it does. Because both analysand and analyst are operationally closed systems the analyst conducts himself with respect to the analysand in such a way that he might gradually come to realize that what he takes to be the intentions of other persons are but his readings on his instruments. Discovering that he does not truly know the desires and intentions of others the analysand can begin to imagine other possible intentions and separate himself from paralyzing beliefs as to what others want from him. Analysis does not lead us to knowledge– well it leads us to knowledge of our own instruments, but not of others –but leads us to an encounter with our own ignorance: that we do not know what others desire. That’s what traversing the fantasy is all about.

If social systems are objects as I’ve been at pains to argue, then it follows that social systems are operationally closed as well. This means that people belong to the environment of social systems just as the reef belongs to the environment of the submarine. People are outside social systems. As I’ve remarked elsewhere, I find this thought absolutely horrifying because it entails that the way social systems register us and the operations that follow from that registration are nothing like our intentions and desires and sense of self-identity. Just as the ping of sonar is nothing like the whale out there, the manner in which a social system would register us would be nothing like us. A friend of mine had an experience like this back in graduate school when Loyola hosted SPEP a decade back. People would come up to him to be signed in for the conference and would freak out if he didn’t have the information there on the sheet. “What do you mean I’m not listed there? You must know that I’ve paid in advance!” From the standpoint of the social system (the SPEP conference apparatus) he had been reduced to a role that must therefore have transparent knowledge of the functioning of the entire system. In my view, Franz Kafka is the great explorer of this non-relation between social systems and persons in The Trial and The Castle. The judicial system and the Castle respectively “count” Joseph K. (i.e., register him on their “instruments”) in a particular way that entails all sorts of further operations within those objects, but how he’s been counted and what those operations might be are entirely opaque to him. He’s become entangled in these systems, but nonetheless only exists in the environment of these systems.

To make matters worse, systems do not even register all things that take place within their environment. Our submarine can be perturbed in two ways: through sonar and sound. It can’t be perturbed by electro-magnetic or visual stimuli. As such, these types of stimuli don’t even exist for it. Likewise, social systems are unable to register all sorts of phenomena because they don’t fall anywhere in the range of its channels or distinctions. This is the case with climate change with regard to a number of social systems. Due to the temporal and geographical structuration of these systems the changes that are taking place in these systems are too small and gradual to be registered and operated on. As a consequence, climate change continues apace eating away at the milieu these systems rely on to continue their existence. At a certain point a breaking point will be reached and the changes will become too great for these systems to sustain themselves.

Operational closure is not a happy thought. It presents us with a world in which we’re entangled with all sorts of entities that we can hardly communicate with yet which nonetheless influence our lives in all sorts of ways. One key political question is the question of how we can engage these systems to either destroy them or modify them so as to advance our own welfare.