Apropos my last post and this post by Tom over at Plastic Bodies, I happened to run into my colleague Carl Clark (a rhetorician) who is applying the principles of autopoietic theory that I develop in chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects. His aim is to develop an autopoietic theory of rhetoric. This leads to some pretty startling and disturbing conclusions (not to mention brilliant ones). It will be recalled that I argue that objects are 1) dynamic, processual systems, 2) that they come in two flavors: allopoietic objects and autopoietic objects, and 3) that “size does not matter” with respect to objects. Just as an atom is composed mostly of space and is an assemblage of particles like electrons and neutrons, the fact that something like say my college is composed mostly of air, that it is spread out in space, and that it is assembled out of ever changing components (students, faculty, administrators, facilities management, books, buildings, computers, etc) does not undermine the college as being an entity or substance in its own right.

Here I’m focused on autopoietic objects. One major difference between allopoietic and autopoietic objects is that the latter reproduces its parts and maintains its structure, while the former does not. If an autopoietic object like a salamander loses its tail, that tail grows back. If I get cut, my wound heals. The college perpetually replenishes its students, and when faculty move on their positions are often filled. When a professor or a student steps out of line, administration steps in to push them back in order (discipline them). Autopoietic systems actively produce their elements and relations between their elements. A college does not have students, it makes students. This isn’t the case with allopoietic objects. If an allopoietic object such as a rock is chipped, this wound doesn’t heal. Moreover, rocks do not produce the elements of which they are composed, but draws elements together from elsewhere in the world through forces (the strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity, electro-magnetism, and a variety of chemical processes). To be sure, there are gradations between autopoietic and allopoietic objects, but it’s sufficient for our purposes to keep these two flavors of object in mind.

read on!

Insofar as autopoietic objects produce their own elements and relations between these elements, they are negentropic (“negation of entropy”). Negentropic objects attempt to maintain their order/organization across time. This entails that many of the operations of autopoietic objects consist in combating entropy. Entropy can come from two sources: within the object and without. While there is no object that does not contain a degree of entropy (zero entropy), nonetheless autopoietic objects attempt to combat this entropy and maintain some unity and organization. Here it’s worth noting that these objects do evolve or change, primarily as a result of the entropy they encounter. Organization is not fixed but is dynamic and evolving. In this regard, zero entropy would be undesirable.

Now there are two key points to get about autopoietic objects. First, autopoietic objects are radically a-teleological. They have no further purpose than maintaining or continuing their existence. Fungi, for example, are not for breaking down dead organic matter. Fungi are only “for” producing the elements of which they are composed and relations between those elements. Their “aim” is just to keep the process going. Second, autopoietic objects are “operationally closed” while “structurally open”. Operational closure is an allusive concept that is difficult to articulate. The basic idea is that: Operations that take place within an autopoietic system only ever “refer” to or directly interact with each other. My thoughts are only responses to other thoughts in my mind. Language is only ever a response to language. Processes taking place within a cell only ever refer to other processes taking place within a cell. Economic transactions only ever respond to economic transactions. Political acts only ever refer to other political acts. Imagine a bubble. An autopoietic system is a bubble in which there is only ever interaction, reference, or communication with other elements in the bubble, never directly with other things outside the bubble.

However, autopoietic objects are also structurally open. They can be perturbed, “irritated”, or stimulated, by entities outside of them, yet in being perturbed these stimuli will be transformed within the object according to the structural organization of the object. They will never be received exactly as they were given. Referring to my metaphor of the bubble, events passing from the outside world into the inside world of this object must pass through the membrane or film of the bubble. That membrane will “distort” or transform these stimuli in a variety of ways, such that what passes through is not exactly what it was. In other words, operational closure and structural openness mean that autopoietic objects filter their world. Luhmann says that it is the distinctions operative in a system that filter the world, transforming these stimuli. Economic systems can be perturbed by political systems, but will be perturbed in an economic way (behind an economic filter or “membrane”). Legal systems can perturb political systems but the political system will be perturbed in a legal way. A salamander can be perturbed by a snake but only in a “salamandery” way. And, above all, each system will be entirely blind to some things that exist in their environment, being unable to register them at all.

Operational closure and structural openness are my formulations of the concepts of “withdrawal” and “vicarious causation” respectively. I’m never sure whether Harman and I are saying the same thing, so while we share some affinities I tend to think our ontologies might be quite different.

When these principles are applied to rhetoric as Carl is now doing, you get some startling results. Traditionally rhetoric is understood to be that science which investigates the art of persuasion. The aim of rhetoric here is to persuade. However, if it is true that autopoietic systems are a-teleological and operationally closed, then this thesis must be abandoned (in its traditional form). Rather, as Carl puts it, the aim of rhetoric is not to persuade, but rather to stave off entropy. That is, the aim of entropy is to reproduce the elements composing the object and the relations between these elements. Carl gives the example of providing reasons for a belief. Ordinarily we understand providing reasons for a belief as designed to persuade an audience. However, Carl argues– based on some of his forays into cognitive science accounts of rhetoric as well –that the reality is quite different. We provide reasons for beliefs not to persuade others but to reinforce beliefs for ourselves. In other words, the aim of providing reasons is to stave off entropy threatening our beliefs and further fix our beliefs. Another example would be a church. We might think that the aim of a church is to lead people to salvation, educate them about theological doctrine, etc. However, if the autopoietic theory is right, the aim of a church is simply to reproduce the church. As Foucault observes, its a system of subjectivization (i.e., element formation).

Yet lest readers think I’m picking on churches, the point would be the same with all systems. As Tom recounts in his post, the continental academic system is structured to reproduce itself. As a consequence, it is generally hostile to forms of intervention that depart from interpretive models of engagement and that challenge master-figures. Analytic philosophy has its own version of closure and openness. At a much broader level, the college system in general would not be concerned with educating, finding truth, developing knowledge, etc. Rather, the academic system would simply seek to reproduce academic discourse.

I am not saying any of this is good. However, I think it’s important to articulate problems as starkly as possible so as to develop effective strategies for dealing with these problems. While I think Carl (and Luhmann) go a little too far– we do manage to persuade others on occasion –they also shed light on just how rare persuasion is and why this is so. How often have we experienced frustrating disputes with a colleague where we know we’re right (and they know they’re right too!) and we nonetheless can’t get through? How often have you had an argument with a conservative where basic facts seem completely unable to get through? How often have there been debates between atheists and believers where nothing seems to budge an inch? Autopoietic closure and structural openness explain this.

A rhetorical theory sensitive to autopoietic closure and structural openness would have to develop a number of different things. First, it seems to me that rhetoric would break down into two sub-fields: intra-rhetoric and inter-rhetoric. Intra-rhetoric would investigate how rhetorical events function within a system or object in that object’s self-maintenance. It would bracket any reference to an outside and adopt a systems point of view. Inter-rhetoric, by contrast, would investigate interactions between operationally closed systems. Inter-rhetoric would examine how systems perturb one another, how systems respond to being perturbed, how they can become mutually reinforcing and dependent even when absolutely opposed to each other (schismogenesis), but above all how it might be possible to fundamentally to fundamentally transform another system (revolutionary theory and practice). In my view, this is what Lacan was after in his reflections on the position of the analyst and the structure of the analytic setting. He noticed that patients have a tendency to interpret every statement in terms of their own filters (operational closure) and tried to devise strategies that would redistribute those filters (the theory of interpretation, use of scansion, polysemy, equivocation, surprise, etc).

Further, an autopoietically inflected rhetorical theory would be sensitive to the defense mechanisms of rhetorical systems. Just as bodies have an autoimmune system to fight diseases, social systems have autoimmune systems with their own “antibodies”. For example, conservatives in the States have worked for years to delegitimate education, science, and media. This is an autoimmune system. It functions to axiomatically defuse perturbations from any of these sources, thereby allowing conservative collectives to avoid entropy. Likewise, the concept of “faith” in contemporary Christianity is an antibody for Christian belief. Insofar as it 1) is belief in the absence of evidence, and 2) treated as morally commendable (indeed, as the most important thing to God), it functions to defuse any critique or reason giving within this social system insuring that the elements (believers) won’t wander away or challenge doctrine.

When I brought up autoimmunity to Carl, he immediately jumped on a fascinating possibility: If social systems have autoimmune systems might they also be capable of suffering from autoimmune diseases? An autoimmune disease is a disease in which the body’s immune system attacks the body itself. Isn’t this exactly what we see going on with conservatives today? Conservative delivery systems of ideology (church’s, talk radio, etc) have been so effective in immunizing and radicalizing elements (self-identified republicans), that would-be republican leaders can no longer defend positions that would allow them to reasonably respond to the problems we face and appeal to moderates to get elected. This system is eating itself. And isn’t this what many Marxists hope with Capitalism? That it will suffer from an autoimmune system that would lead it to devour itself? There is a whole contagion model of autopoietic social systems to be developed. This would include not only a theory of autoimmune diseases, but also a theory of bacterial contamination, viral contamination, etc. Here we would find a wealth of strategic possibilities for both changing and demolishing certain systems.