Resistance


Lately I have been rereading Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe as my bedtime reading which perhaps accounts for why I have been unable to sleep and am nearly psychotically tired as it is a rich book full of all sorts of fascinating ideas that keep me tossing and turning as my mind spins. Dealing specifically with issues of self-organization, Kauffman’s work strives to theorize the conditions under which we get self-sustaining and organized matter such as we see in the case of living systems. A number of his claims are generalizable to a wide variety of phenomena beyond cells and organisms. Similar principles, for example, would apply to ecosystems, economy, social systems, brain organization and so on. And indeed, Kauffman approaches organization at a high level of abstraction, focusing on self-sustaining or autocatalytic chemical processes while also providing a wealth of formalizations that refer to no specific material substrate in particular. I have made no secret of the fact that I am generally hostile to relational ontologies that reduce objects to their relations. While objects certainly enter into relations, onticology begins from the premise that objects are independent of their relations and can pass out of and enter into new relations. Thus, for example, while being sympathetic to the Saussurean conception of language as a system, onticology nonetheless refuses the thesis that anything is its relations. In short, onticology begins with the hypothesis that being is atomistic or composed of discrete, autonomous, and independent objects that can pass in and out of relations. Yes, there are systems or forms of organization, but these forms of organization are assemblages of objects that enter into certain relationships with one another.

The consequence of this thesis is that one of the central issues for onticology becomes the problem of entropy. Roughly, entropy is a tendency of systems to move from states of higher organization to states of lower degrees of organization, or, alternatively, to move from states of non-equilibrium to equilibrium. The video below illustrates this idea nicely:

At the beginning, the system is in a state of non-equilibrium in the sense that all of the particles are concentrated in a particular region of the chamber. With the passage of time– a mere ten seconds –the particles wander throughout the chamber such that you have an equal probability of finding particles in any particular region of the chamber. The big question for onticology then becomes if being is composed of discrete and autonomous objects, then how is it that certain objects form assemblages that resist this increase in entropy, instead maintaining an organized state across time? A while back I suggested that this is how we should pose questions about the nature of society. There the question was that of how it is that humans bodies just don’t fly off in entropic ways, but instead enter into organized relations that sustain themselves across time. Of course, in order for any system to maintain itself in an organized way work is required. No system maintains itself without work. So the real issue lies in discovering the sort of work through which this organization is re-produced across time. This really gets to one of the central problems with French inflected structuralism and Luhmannian systems theory. Both identify the organization of a social system, how it is put together and how its elements are related, but they remain at the level of social physiology, giving only the skeleton of social systems or how the “bones are put together”. What they don’t give us is the work by which this physiology is maintained. They tell us that these systems somehow resist entropy, but not how. Given that many of us are interested, above all, in the question of how change is possible, the issue of how a social system resists entropy becomes a crucial strategic issue for political engagement. However, even if one is not interested in these political questions of change, the question remains fascinating on its own terms.

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2718546386_1bebbf7b87Bryan, over at the marvelous Velvet Howler, weighs in on my response to Mikhail, remarking that,

I want to give Dr. Sinthome as much credit as is due to him, but if his main point in regards to the hegemonic fallacy is that reductionism is bad, what’s the point of the hegemonic fallacy and all of the abstract talk of objects? To an extent I agree with Mikhael that LS’s metaphysics obscures the fact that what he seems to be saying isn’t, at the core, all that interesting. If I could crudely summarize, it seems that LS’s point is this: the Ontic principle (“there is no difference that does not make a difference”) does not intend to describes Kantian Things-in-themselves (which would simply be a return to traditional metaphysics), but seeks to overcome the nature/culture divide that characterizes Modernist thinking by asserting (1) the horizontal nature of difference and (2) the “deconstruction” of objects.

In the case of these two points, the first involves the destruction of structure or hierarchy. This is another way of simply restating the hegemonic fallacy: no difference can attain a metaphysical status wherein it determines other differences (Sinthome gives Latour’s example of the Bible and the “savages”). The second point involves a critique of Kant, who, despite his attempt at limiting metaphysics to the scope of the (transcendental) conditions of possibility, nevertheless describes what is outside of consciousness (or what is for-us) as “objects,” which presupposes a modicum of organization that is itself rendered “metaphysical” under Sinthome’s “speculative realist” terms (and the same, for Sinthome, seems to be true of intuitions, but ultimately what I find disappointing about Sinthome’s reading of Kant is that it is simply boring)

There are few charges more damning or upsetting than the charge that one’s thoughts are boring or uninteresting. I truly hope this isn’t the case. At the moment there are a lot of moving parts to what I’m trying to do and there’s a lot of work left to be done. The Ontic Principle is only a starting point. First, in response to Bryan, the aim of the hegemonic fallacy is not simply to overcome the nature/culture divide. In formulating the Hegemonic Fallacy, I was first responding to some remarks that I had received on my blog and in email that seemed to suggest that people were assuming that, in affirming an object-oriented philosophy, I was simply opting for nature over culture or the physical world over the cultural world. The first aim of my post on the Hegemonic Fallacy was simply to dispel that notion.

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N.Pepperell over at Rough Theory has written a truly terrific post musing on some of my recent attempts to work out Lacan’s logic of fantasy. Apart from the fact that it responds to things that I’ve recently written and therefore affords me narcissistic gratification and provides some evidence that I exist, I think what I like most about this post is the way that its both generous in its reading while also remaining critical in a productive way. Responding to some of my comments about objet a and the remainder, N.P. writes,

Sinthome then relates the persistence of this “remainder” to the possibility for critique, arguing, if I’m understanding correctly, that the remainder retains the residue of a presymbolic realm from which the symbolic realm is necessarily constructed. The symbolic realm – including fantasy as desire expressed in symbolic form – therefore necessarily drags along in its wake its own “outside”.

I’d like to suggest that there’s another way of understanding Lacan’s concept of the remainder that doesn’t resort to treating it as a sort of pre-symbolic residue. Rather than treating the remainder as a residue of the pre-symbolic that resists symbolic integration, remainder could be taken in a much more literal mathematical sense as the result of an operation. Suppose we take a simple act of division such as the division of 3 by 5. Our solution is 1.666666667. Here there’s something that escapes the operation, something that is left over when 3 is subjected to 5. Lacan often liked to liken objet a or the remainder to the golden ratio and irrational numbers. He develops this comparison or analogy in detail beginning with the unpublished Seminar 14, The Logic of Fantasy, and makes passing allusion to it in Seminar 20, On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge, when he remarks that,

If there is something in my Ecrits that shows that my fine orientation, since it is of that fine orientation that I try to convince you, is not such a recent development, it is the fact that right after the war, where nothing obviously seemed to promise a pretty future, I wrote “Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty.” One can quite easily read therein– if one writes and not only if one has a good ear –that it is already little a that thetisizes the function of hast. In that article, I highlighted the fact that something like intersubjectivity can lead to a salutary solution. But what warrants a closer look is what each of the subjects sustains, not insofar as he is one among others, but insofar as he is, in relation to the two others, what is at stake in their thinking. Each intervenes in this ternary only as the objet a that he is in the gaze of the others.

In other words, there are three of them, but in reality, there are two plus a. This two plus a, from the standpoint of a, can be reduced, not to the two others, but to a One plus a. You know, moreover, that I have already used these functions to try to represent to you the inadequacy of the relationship between the One and teh Other, and that I have already provided as a basis for this little a, the irrational number known as the golden number. It is insofar as, starting from little a, the two others are taken as One plus a, that what can lead to an exit in haste functions. (48-9)

I cannot get into a careful analysis of this dense passage at present, as my mind is mush and it would require a close commentary on Plato’s various dialectics of the One and the Other in the Parmenides, along with a discussion of certain elements of set theory. Perhaps Bobo or Austin are up to this work. I do give an extremely simplified version of what Lacan is referring to with respect to logical time in a comment replying to Anon, where I discuss the intersubjectivity at stake in mowing my lawn. In addition to this, the Japanese analyst Shingu Kazushige has written a very nice book meditating on this enigmatic line entitled Being Irrational: Lacan, the Objet a, and the Golden Mean. What is interesting about this metaphor of objet a as an irrational number or the golden ratio is that it evokes the notion of a twist, distortion, or ripple in the symbolic that isn’t a hold-over from a mythological pre-symbolic past (how could such a past fail to be mythological, given that we can only approach the world through language?), and that results from operations in the symbolic itself. Perhaps the “cash value” of this concept would be that it offers the possibility of a form of resistance immanent to the symbolic itself… Which is to say, that it shows the manner in which the symbolic is unable to produce closure.