In light of a discussion Tim and I have been having via email, I’ve found myself reflecting on my core obsessions. What is that thing or those things that haunt me at the core of thought, those issues that always return, those things that I can never quite get out of my head? This question might appear easy to answer. I’m obsessed with the nature of substance. I’m obsessed with local manifestation and virtual proper being. I’m obsessed with dynamisms. I’m obsessed with questions of why people treat each other in such horrific and cruel ways and with questions of why we tolerate so many forms of brutal oppression. While I’m certainly obsessed with all of these things, they also feel like embroidery on the edge of a pillow surrounding a deeper and more fundamental obsession. Reflecting on a recent exchange between us, Tim asks
I’m still inclined to ask, just out of curiosity, if you feel an anxiety when you have to “define your terms,” since I think that is the root anxiety I’m dealing with.
Sometimes a question, while seeming to be unrelated, can have the effect of bringing things into relief that were before too close to be seen. Despite appearances to the contrary, when asked to “define my term” or pin my positions down I do experience a sudden overwhelming flood of anxiety. I don’t think this is because I can’t do so. Clearly I can. Rather, I think I have this reaction because I don’t experience my writing and thought in this way. I don’t experience my work as a fixed and stable set of positions and terms, but as a sort of territory that I’m wandering across with a great deal of uncertainty and as a terrain that’s ever shifting and undergoing modification. I feel as if I’m perpetually forgetting things, as if things are constantly shifting and slipping away, and as if everything is constantly on the verge of flying apart or exploding. Yet as harrowing and as frustrating as this might be– somewhere Deleuze and Guattari remark that there is nothing more distressing than thoughts that slip away or fall apart –I also experience this precarious nature of the territory as a source of creativity that provides me with the energy and desire to keep writing and thinking. If I sometimes become overwhelmed by anxiety when being asked to pin things down, then this is because I experience such fixity as death. As Wayne of Wayne’s World says “to define me is to negate me!” This would, of course, entail that to define oneself is to commit suicide (in this regard, I really detest movement labels like “object-oriented ontology” or “onticology”; they reek of the obituaries).
Yet, in the spirit of committing suicide, Tim’s question leads me to think that if there is one persistent theme that is at the heart of everything that obsesses me, I would say that theme is entropy. This already says too much, however, because I find that the thought of entropy is always slipping away from me. Rather, I would say that the thought of entropy elusively borders everything I obsess over and try to think about it. It is thus not substances, local manifestations, dynamisms, machines, regimes of attraction, systems, processes, etc., that absorb me. Rather, all of these things are ways of trying to think entropy, the significance of entropy, the reality of entropy, and the promise of entropy.
People have the wrong idea about entropy. They hear the term “entropy” and they immediately think “heat death”. While this is not wrong, it doesn’t say nearly enough for entropy is so much more than mere heat death. Entropy is the measure of order in any system. In this regard, to take a rough and ready criterion, the more probable it is that a particular element is located anywhere in a system the more entropy that system embodies. By contrast, the more improbable the location of an element in a system, the less entropic that system is. Thus, systems characterized by high entropy are highly chaotic or disordered, while systems characterized by low entropy are highly ordered. Finally, those systems that maintain the improbability of the location of their elements over time are referred to as “negentropic”. “Negentropy” is a sort of portmanteau word combining “negation” and “entropy”, signifying “the negation of entropy”. In other words, negentropic systems like my body or a corporation are systems that maintain their order.
All of this is very abstract, so some examples might help. A crowd is a highly entropic system. The reason that crowds are highly entropic systems is not that they have suffered “heat death”, but because among the elements that compose the crowd (people), there is an equal probability that any particular person can be found in any place within the crowd. In this respect, crowds are like gaseous clouds. Think of it this way. If we had all the members of the crowd in a bag like different colored marbles, when we reached into the bag and grabbed a person there would be no way of measuring the probability of which person we picked out. There would be an equal probability of pulling out a man or woman, a poor person or a wealthy person, a religious person or an atheist, a white person or a black person, etc. A crowd is a highly disordered aggregate.
By contrast, while my college might superficially resemble a crowd, it is ordered in a very different way. In a college the elements that compose the college– the president, deans, secretaries, custodians, professors, students, etc. –are characterized by improbability. It is improbable that one person should retain the fixed identity of being the president, another of being a professor, another of being a student, and so on. Yet they do. As a consequence, colleges are characterized by a high degree of negentropy or are highly ordered across time. It’s not just that these systems have a low degree of entropy, but that they’re highly negentropic. A gas pumped into a glass box is initially characterized by a low degree of entropy because the gas particles are improbably located in one corner of the box. Yet as these gas particles are distributed throughout the entire glass box the the system evolves to a state of high entropy. It is for this reason that gas clouds in their initially stages are not negentropic. The difference between a low entropy system and a negentropic system is that the latter somehow maintains its order across time.
For me, substances, entities, or objects are negentropic systems. An object is a highly ordered system. Or, amounting to the same thing, an object is a highly improbable being. I am deeply interested in questions of how there’s any order in the world at all and of the sort of work required by negentropic systems to stave off entropy. How do they do it? Why do improbabilities (highly ordered objects) persist? And if my hypothesis that objects are negentropic systems, it also follows that objects are not stupid clods that just sit there. Rather, objects must be a work, an activity, a process. A brute, motionless clod that sits there would be the exact opposite of negentropy, for entropy is the evaporation of all work, its disappearance, or the descent into equaprobability. Work is the maintenance and continuation of improbability; the unlikely arrangement of parts in a particular order.
Yet what fascinates me here is not order or negentropy simpliciter, but the fact that coiled within order there is always entropy or disorder. Objects or negentropic systems are never so successful that they stave off all entropy. Rather, they are in a perpetual state of disintegration or collapse into equaprobability. We should avoid the temptation to code the terms “entropy” and “negentropy”, “chaos” and “order”, on to the terms “bad” and “good”. If I would like to know about the work negentropic systems perform to maintain improbability or order, then this is because there are a number of negentropic systems I would like to see destroyed. Such systems would include systems like global capitalism, corporations, segregated communities, and so on. All of these systems are characterized by a high degree of improbability in how bodies are organized, coded, or partitioned. Perhaps if we knew something of the work these systems perform to sort and segregate persons in this way we could devise ways to introduce entropy into these systems so as to destroy them.
Likewise, we shouldn’t assume that “entropy” signifies “bad”. A moment ago I mentioned the promise of entropy. This is counter-intuitive for those who immediately assumes that entropy signifies “heat death”. “How could one possibly think that heat death is a good thing?” However, while heat death is radical entropy, entropy is the same as heat death. A little bit of equaprobability within a negentropic system is the promise of revolution, of change, of escape from despotic systems or objects, but is also a source of creativity, invention, and novelty within negentropic systems. Language has a high co-efficient of both negentropy and entropy within it. It is both improbable that sounds should be organized in the way they are in a language and language is subject to a great deal of equaprobability in the process of interpretation. I say one thing to another person. That person takes what I said in a completely unexpected way, finding resonances and connotations in my words that I did not notice or intend. Far from being the ruin of communication, this appearance of equaprobability of interpretation, this eruption of polysemy, becomes both an engine that maintains the relation between myself and the other person (we must communicate further to clarify our meanings) and that leads to the creative dimension of communication (the “misinterpretation” opens up new associations and connections of meaning that leads us to co-produce something neither of us anticipated, nor could have anticipated). There is a promise to entropy.
In many respects, the role that entropy plays in my thought places me close to the metaphysical, political, and ethical conclusions of Ray Brassier. In Nihil Unbound, Brassier argues that the ultimate truth of existence is extinction. In making this claim, he’s not simply pointing out that we all die, but is claiming that at some point the human species will become extinct and that the universe itself will undergo heat death.
While I am unsure whether or not the universe will eventually suffer heat death– I tend to side with Deleuze’s arguments about certain illusions of absolute entropy as presented in Difference and Repetition –I do think Brassier’s observations hold important ethical import as a thought experiment. Brassier argues that the thought of radical extinction carries with it an enlightenment. What might this enlightenment be? Why might this horrific thought of erasure, extinction, be enlightening and ethically invigorating? I think this question can be answered by situating Brassier’s thesis in the context of classical materialisms such as we find in Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, and Marx. Today a student came to my office after reading Book I of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura wondering why, when he begins the book with remarks about ethics and how to attain happiness, he spends the rest of his time discussing scientific matters such as atoms?
The answer to this question is that for Lucretius questions of the nature of physical reality are not distinct from questions of ethics. The two are intertwined. I must know the nature of physical reality to answer the question of how best to live, how best to organize society, what to aim for, what to hope for, etc. Lurking in the background of all materialist thought is the hunch that one of the central sources of human suffering is, on the one hand, the “two world hypothesis”, and, on the other hand, what might be called “messianism” and salvation. The two world hypothesis is the thesis that being is divided between two worlds, the domain of the corrupt world of becoming and change and the afterlife. If this is a source of suffering, then it is because it teaches us that our bodies don’t matter, that the bodies of others don’t matter, that we needn’t attend to the earth, etc., because all of these things are temporary and illusory compared to the world of afterlife. If messianism is a source of human suffering and cruelty, then this is because it teaches us that our present circumstances and world are of no miracle compared to the apocalypse or that point of turning where salvation will finally take place and we’ll be rescued. As a consequence, we reason that all our actions should be directed at this end, not at the world and persons about us.
If we situate Brassier’s radical nihilism in this context, we can see why it is a sort of enlightenment. The truth of extinction is not the gloomy thought that all is pointless because everything is going to be destroyed anyway. Rather, the thought experiment of radical extinction hopefully accomplishes three aims. Insofar as the truth of every person’s life is death (i.e., there’s no afterlife), we should not direct ourselves to an afterlife, but rather should devote ourselves to this life. How can we live in relation to ourselves, to others, and to the earth in order to best live this brief spark that we possess? How should society be transformed and organized to maximize this existence? Second, the truth of extinction with respect to the existence of the human species has the effect of decentering us. We can imagine a world where we are absent. As a consequence, we are not at the center of existence. We are one being– certainly important to ourselves –among others, and we are a being like the others destined to pass away. This discovery encourages us to both respect other beings, but also to recognize the fragility of ourselves and the world we rely on and therefore attend to the preservation of that world. Finally, the extinction of the universe cures us of messianism. There is no apocalypse, no final revelation of the truth, no final salvation, just this world. As such, we should squarely direct ourselves at this world and the work required to maintain this world, not at a world to come or an afterlife.
But I’ve wandered far here from my discussion with Tim. Although Tim and I might speak very different vocabularies, on the theme of entropy I think the two of us are very close together. Tim likes to emphasize the density of language, its opacity, its thickness, its polysemy, and the manner in which it fails to pin things down or master what it seeks to discuss. In my dialect, this is a statement about the presence of entropy at the heart of discourse, communication, theory, and language. I find nothing to object to here as language is subject to entropy like anything else. I only insist that this play of chaos and order is at work in all things, including language, including my own practice of thought.