March 2012


In response to my last post, Tim of Fragile Keys makes some interesting remarks. Tim writes:

I think you’re overestimating the power of the system to perpetuate itself and underestimating the actors who disrupt it from within and prevent it from having the self-perpetuating effects you’re pointing out. Or rather, in terms of autopoetic social systems, how do you account actors that disrupt the self-perpetuating mechanisms from within? I’m talking about the student who was a student (say, of Buddhism) before he entered college; once there, he finds a sympathetic professor in Religious Studies who introduces him to Augustine and Nagarjuna, who agrees with him that the college system is flawed and somewhat invested in churning out degrees, but nevertheless leaves room for students like him to design a specialized course of study, etc. Obviously, the college system “filters” and “distorts” the incoming student insofar as he has to take certain courses, fulfill certain requirements, etc. But when the student reflects on his experience there, that is not what he thinks of. If anything, he thinks of how that system, in the end, had nothing to do with his experience. Or take the example of the non-dogmatic priest who, according to doctrine or not, spends his time with the downtrodden in his parish, or the dying, etc. Here, the church may be perpetuating itself through him, but that’s not the only thing it’s doing, or making possible.

I ask because while I can understand how objects (inanimate things) would operate qua closures, boundaries, atomic maintenance, etc., I’m skeptical that social systems ever really accomplish the closures they purport. Isn’t that a bit like ignoring the drunk people that walk out of the bar, saying that bar-owners don’t care about people having a good time, watching sports, and getting drunk, but only with keeping the bar open and profitable? I don’t think, at the very least, that persons (conscious things, free things, thinking things) are so easily absorbed by these social system.

With the exception of the claim that I’m underestimating something, I don’t disagree with any of this. In the post, I explicitly point out that every system suffers from entropy both from within and without. This is all very abstract, but that’s because these categories are designed to generally describe the common features of a broad number of systems. The example of the Buddhist student Tim gives is an example of the educational system encountering entropy in its attempt to produce a certain kind of element. And here’s the key point, the elements that compose a system (in this case, “students”) are created out of nothing. They have to be built out of parts. And what are these parts? They are other systems (in this case, a person). And just as the educational system is operationally closed, this person that the educational system draws on to constitute its elements is operationally closed. This entails that no system can ever fully dominate another system or object. There will always be remainders and these remainders will always introduce entropy into the larger-scale objects that try to enlist and form them.

I find that through my autopoietic framework I’m able to integrate most critical theory (though always with modifications). My discussion of element-formation, for example, could just as easily be discussed in Foucaultian terms in terms of power and subjectivization. Subjectivization and forming an element are one and the same thing. However, there’s a major difference. Take Foucault’s example of “docile bodies” in Discipline and Punish. Foucault talks about body/minds as if they were a purely passive clay that can be formed sans remainder. Yet if I’m right in my claims about operational closure, this can’t be true. Because the bodies being formed are themselves operationally closed systems, no subjectivization will ever be complete or successful (here Foucault can be supplemented by Lacan’s theory of objet a and jouissance as that which evades element-formation). In the first volume of History of Sexuality Foucault mysteriously observes that power is responded to with counter-power. We’re given no real account of how this is possible, we’re just told that it always takes place. The autopoietic framework I propose explains why this takes place: the person’s a larger-scale system strives to enlist as elements are themselves operationally closed, interpreting interventions from these systems in their own way, and thereby are never quite reduced to the status of being an element.

This is the broader point I’d like to make: Entropy is not a negative term. So many of us think of entropy in negative terms as “heat death” and similar phenomena. But while this is one form of entropy, entropy is also the possibility of revolution, revolt, resistance, etc. Entropy is that (un)ground that allows devouring and destructive systems to be resisted. It is the reason that we are never thoroughly duped. Entropy is also the condition of creativity and evolution. It is because systems are always contending with entropy both from within and without, it is because systems exist in environments that are ever changing and who’s behavior can never fully be anticipated, that systems change, create new organizations, create new elements, and that invention takes place at all. There is no system so thorough and successful that it manages to achieve zero entropy or perfect order/structure. This is a good thing.

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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.

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Something peculiar happened at the Louisiana State University Philosophy conference I attended last week. Despite the fact that most of the participants and attendees were analytic philosophers, I felt more at home among this bunch than I’ve ever felt at a conference (aside from the SR and psychoanalysis conferences). Here I felt that we were discussing issues, problems, and positions rather than figures. To be sure, we all discussed figures, but it was the way figures were discussed: They were subordinated to problems and issues that one could take a stand on, a position on, rather than being involved in interpretive disputes. The frustrating thing I encounter among continentals again and again is that all too often (a statistical claim), it seems impossible for there to be a genuine disagreement over positions. If one says “I disagree with X on Y because of Z”, the general response is “you’ve misinterpreted X.” In other words, it seems as if the texts of figures are endlessly transformed into Midas’ labyrinth, where the figure being discussed is granted sovereign authority and is the only one permitted to articulate positions and where any evaluation of positions is infinitely deferred behind interpretive disputes.

At the conference, I didn’t get this at all. People took positions and discussed positions. After my paper one attendee even asked me “where’s the Continental philosophy in your work?” I responded that I don’t think the difference between Continental and Analytic philosophy is a philosophical difference, but a socio-geographical difference. The audience gasped. I then outlined my Continental influences.

At any rate, after all of this I found myself reflecting on why I don’t read more Anglo-American philosophy. After all, I do get a lot out of the Anglo-American thought I do read, so why not read more? And if I’m being entirely honest, I think I’d have to say that it comes down to style. The fact of the matter is that when I do read Anglo-American philosophy I often feel as if I’m reading tax law or a congressional bill. I literally find it mind numbing. It’s style– for me –is all too often just plain offensive.

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There’s a really fascinating post here on OOO and Parfit. For the record, while it’s been years since I’ve read anything by him, I’m quite fond of Parfit and recall being in general agreement with his work. I’ll have to go back and see if this is still the case. I wonder if the Paul Newell at this blog is the same one I went to grad school with.

Sorry, one more. I’m having trouble shutting down tonight. The central triad in Marx is production, distribution, and consumption. This should be understood to apply– in my opinion –ontologically to all entities and not just society and economy. Somewhere early in Grundrisse Marx proposes that these three dimensions be coded against one another. I can’t reproduce the table here, but basically you would have a table composed of four columns and rows with production, distribution, and consumption as the heading of the columns and production, distribution, and consumption labeling each of the rows. Marx’s point is that you get a combination of each. So you would get the following:

Production of Production.

Production of Distribution.

Production of Consumption.

Distribution of Production.

Distribution of Distribution.

Distribution of Consumption.

Consumption of Production.

Consumption of Consumption.

Consumption of Distribution.

I’m not sure what to do with all these combinations (some of them are mind bending to me), but some brief suggestions.

1a. Production of Production: Production doesn’t come ready made but must be produced. In economic terms, production of production wouldn’t be the production that takes place in a factory, but rather would be the production of the condition of production in the first place. For example, in socio-economic terms this would be science, technology, the building of infrastructure (e.g. the factory), the formation of workers, etc. In the natural world, the production of production would be the emergence of conditions that allow certain types of minerals and lifeforms to exist. I guess it would also include production of products. I have to think through this more.

2a. Production of distribution: Production of distribution would be the work required to build distribution networks. This would include both literal shipping routes (the formation of real connections), but also would include– in the socio-economic world –all sorts of media elements that get awareness of the product “out there”.

3a. Production of Consumption: This is probably the most interesting for cultural theorists. Early in Capital Marx is quite clear that needs do not come ready-made but have to be produced. Production of consumption would be all those subjectifying processes that create needs or desires. We can think about Baudrillard’s work in The System of Objects here, but also Deleuze and Guattari’s desiring-machines. Lack does not precede desire/consumption, but requires a prior set of formations to come into being.

1a. Distribution of Production: This probably comes closest to what we think of when we think of economy and production. Products have to somehow be distributed. The “primitive”, feudal, and capitalistic are all various delivery mechanisms through which products are circulated. This requires time, real connections, and infrastructures. Moreover, the distribution of production applies at both the physical level and the semiotic level. Ideas, signs, and linguistic elements (which are themselves products) must be distributed as much as products like cheeseburgers and cars.

2b. Distribution of Consumption: I really have no idea where to go with this combinatorial. Perhaps distributions of consumption refer to class and identity distributions. In other words, there would here be some process by which who/what consumes what comes to be sorted. Bourdieu’s analysis of taste would be helpful here as he shows how class differences structure taste. The beer your drink and the fact that you drink beer at all would not be a personal decision but the result of a distribution of consumption.

3b. Distribution of Distribution: What would distribution of distribution be? I’m not sure. Perhaps distribution of distribution would refer to the networks of distribution that are formed throughout the world… Their continuities and discontinuities. Distribution has to itself be distributed. Think about airline flight paths in and out of cities. Some cities are highly distributed in the sense that they are hubs (Dallas, New York, Los Angeles, etc.), while others are largely undistributed or only reachable through transfer flights (Lynchburg, for instance). Likewise with economy. If this is the case we should avoid the temptation to speak of The Market (as DeLanda notes in his misguided criticisms of Marxism). Because there are distributions of distributions there is not one market but a variety of different distribution mechanisms, some of which indirectly converge, others which are probably entirely discontinuous.

1c. Consumption of Production: This would be exactly like it sounds: A real connection between a sender/producer and a receiver in which a product (effect) is consumed. Consumption of production would require production of consumption. Consumers don’t come ready made, but need to be produced (part of the mistake of Stalinist Socialism in assuming that need is “natural” or pre-given). You have to have consumers that can consume productions. So in a very real sense, consumption of production is very far down in the line of production. Protevi’s “political affect” is important here.

2c. Consumption of Distribution: Again, I’m not sure what to do with this combination. Perhaps consumption of distribution would be the symbolic-value (Baudrillard, Bourdieu) skimmed off distributions of distributions? In other words, consumption of distribution would be the excess consumption we get from our various class positions; and this from the lowest to the highest as there’s a jouissance in each.

3c. Consumption of Consumption: This makes my head break when I try to think about it. I guess this would be one place where we locate surplus-value and surplus-jouissance? I’ll leave it at that.

As usual when I’m in manic mode– usually after something upsetting has happened to me and I’m trying, unconsciously, to gentrify it through the signifier (I always write to and for someone) –I’m writing too many posts today. Anyway, yesterday on Facebook I wrote that “sometimes I just want to bang my head against the desk.” My good friend Joseph Goodson expressed curiosity as to what makes me want to bang my head against the desk. I didn’t respond. But generally the answer is that I’m literally horrified by the fact that collectively we have knowledge (and I’m not making any bullshit, postmodern qualifications about this) or that an argument is better than another, and the fact that changes nothing. We know yet nothing changes. It drives me nuts. We have the better argument (and no, I’m not saying I always have the better argument, though narcissistically I suffer from the flaw of thinking I do) and it doesn’t persuade. It drives me nuts. I’m horrified by this. My horror first began with how the American public responded following 9-11 (especially in the lead up to the Iraq war). It’s grown worse and worse in the intervening years as I’ve watched growing religious fanaticism (which is mainstream Christianity in the States… Sorry Episcopals, UU’s, and UCC’s, you’re the minority), as I’ve watched mainstream responses to our economic problems, as I watch the way in which environmental issues are shuffled off the table. It drives me crazy. No matter how much psychoanalysis I learn, no matter how much ideology critique I learn, it never ceases to amaze me. I never cease to be shocked at how bad our decision making processes are; at how bad our long-term reasoning is; at how malicious we can be. Hence my love of the Stoics and Epicureans: You guys can beat me up for having a “humanistic” ethical philosophy, but in the horror and loneliness that is this life, I have to find some way to at least achieve peace of mind. I have to follow what Epictetus says and recognize what is within my power and what isn’t and let go of what isn’t. Sadly it never quite works. I still despair. And I despair even more, as the Lacano-Freudian in me is knowledgeable enough to recognize that perhaps my despair is self-serving, narcissistic, and a symptom that functions to distract me from the real problems in the immediacy of my own life. Maybe I’m just concocting a grand narrative to distract myself from life and living. What am I supposed to do with that? What are you to do with the possibility that something is both a fantasy (and therefore a defense against “castration”) and true? Halls of mirrors.

So what will we be? If the catastrophe (economico-environmental) has already happened and we’re just awaiting the manifestation of its effects, what will we be following that? Mel says to me “when you use the internet, you’re using oil and coal.” In other words, there’s no “cultural-social” world that’s outside the world of natural resources. Part of the catastrophe will consist in peak oil (and fossil fuels in general) that are no longer available to run all of this: They will no longer be available to ship things as we do now, to produce agricultural goods as we do now, to run air conditioning as we do now (a real issue here in Texas), to drive as we do now, etc. Today Aaron posts the following video clip in comments to another post:

[youtube.com/watch?v=JyO0WS79Xec&feature=player_embedded]

He observes, quite rightly, that there will be no “one-to-one” correspondence between the energy yielded by fossil fuels and the alternative energies we subsequently develop. Hear that cultural theorists? This has massive consequences. When you read a book you’re not just reading a book, but are drawing on trees, all those vehicles and tools used to cut down trees (requiring fossil fuels), and all that transportation needed to distrubute books. When you use the internet you’re burning oil and coal. When you eat a sandwich you’re eating oil and coal (by virtue of the energy required to produce and distribute it). You have to drive to work. You have to burn energy to send a memo and publish an article. You have to burn coal and oil to make an environment that makes Texas feasible as a place to live as it is now (I run my AC almost year round). There’s no nature/culture distinction. Culture always opens on to nature and nature is transformed by culture. Our lives are no different nor distinct than that of beavers building dams. We just build bigger and more intricate damns. And those dams require energy. Hence my remark that philosophy/theory needs a concept of work. Work requires energy and the formation of matters that resist. Us philosopher-theorists have no concept of work. We seem to think that ideas, beliefs, ideologies, signifiers, etc., do it all. We forget these these things burn other things to proliferate. We forget that the lifeworld is not just “meaning” (Heidegger), that it is not just the signifier (Lacan, etc), that it is not just beliefs. We forget that even meanings, signifiers, and beliefs, require their pound of flesh (energy).

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The psychotic is that person that treats words like things.

~Freud

In this the psychotic shouldn’t be treated as mistaken, but as revealing something important about the nature of concepts. In some respects, the psychotic is a better materialist and naturalist than most of us.

Returning to the theme of real connection from a previous post I’m led to ask the question of how ideas can change the world. Marx famously said that the point of philosophy is not to represent the world, but to change the world. Philosophers, as Deleuze observes, work in the medium of concepts and are creators and critics of concepts.

Aside: If it is true that philosophy is the creation of concepts, then it follows that philosophy is not necessarily what takes place in philosophy departments. Just because a person studies philosophers and publishes in philosophical journals and with philosophical presses, it doesn’t follow that one is creating concepts. More importantly, if this definition of philosophy is true, then it follows that philosophy takes place wherever concepts are created. For example, Luhmann and Latour would be doing philosophy despite being called “sociologists” because they create concepts.

The question is “how can concepts change the world?” Now, as a materialist, I’m led to ask some pretty strange questions with respect to these issues. As a materialist, I’m committed to the thesis that 1) concepts are material entities, and that therefore 2) they are geographically located (and I mean this quite literally: concepts occur in/at a particular place, and that 3) concepts must be materially transmitted. In other words, it is not enough for a theorist to have revolutionary or transformative concepts. No, if concepts are to affect the world they must literally travel throughout the world. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, it certainly makes a sound, but it doesn’t affect or change the actions of any sentient entities.

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