Structure


Recently Mel’s got me reading Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman, which is rewarding for a variety of reasons (Yes, yes, I know, I should have read this long ago, but damn it Jim, I mean Mel, I’m a philosopher not a cultural theorist!). First, at one of her recent talks she spoke favorably about OOO, so its worthwhile to return the favor and delve into her work so as to see the points of productive cross-over between these different theoretical projects. Second, it’s hands down a first rate book that ably defends a highly provocative and timely thesis, despite being published in 1999. And finally, it’s reminding me of all sorts of things from cybernetics, systems theory, and autopoietic theory that mesh nicely with the ontology of objects I’m groping towards. In particular, Hayles’ analysis sheds light on what it might mean to refer to objects as “withdrawn” or entirely autonomous from one another.

Hayles begins How We Became Posthuman by distinguishing between first, second, and third way cybernetics. First wave cybernetics focused on the phenomenon of feedback or how systems are self-regulating. As described by the online dictionary of cybernetics and systems, feedback is,

A flow of information back to its origin. A circular causal process in which a system’s output is returned to its input, possibly involving other systems in the loop. Negative feedback or deviation reducing feedback decreases the input and is inherently stabilizing (see stability, regulation, homeostasis), e.g., the governor of a steam engine. Positive feedback or deviation amplifying feedback increases the input and is inherently destabilizing, explosive or vicious, e.g., the growth of a city when more people create new opportunities which in turn attract more people to live there. Feedback is not the term for a response to a stimulus rather for the circularity implied in both. (Krippendorff)

The example of the growing city above is an example of positive feedback. By contrast, we can think of the humble thermostat as a system organized in terms of negative feedback. Here the issue is one of maintaining a particular homeostasis within the system. Thus, you set your heat for the desired temperature. When room temperature drops below that set point, the heater kicks on and runs until it rises to the set temperature, shutting off once again.

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Between editing my share of The Speculative Turn, writing The Democracy of Objects, and other obligations things have been pretty hectic for me these days. At the moment I am putting together an article on Deleuze’s ethics of the event as developed in The Logic of Sense. The ethics Deleuze develops there is particularly interesting as it marks a departure from the starkly naturalistic ethics he developed in his earlier work on Nietzsche and Spinoza, but you’ll have to read the article to get that story and what motivated this shift, as brief as it was. At any rate, in investigating his ethics of the event I was drawn back to Deleuze’s 1967 essay, “How Do We Recognize Structuralism?” I had forgotten just how good this essay was. In certain respects it constitutes a cliff-note version of Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense, outlined in a mere thirty pages of crisp and clear prose. Not only is the essay remarkable for the manner in which it is able to distill the essence of structuralist thought, but it also amazes with its breadth of profound, sensitive and informed references to structuralist thinkers such as Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Foucault, Althusser and a host of others.

In short, “How Do We Recognize Structuralism?” is a must read for anyone interested in Deleuze’s thought and these thinkers. This essay is even more remarkable for the manner in which it anticipates so many contemporary themes and theses haunting thinkers like Zizek, Badiou, Ranciere, and so on. Fortunately it is now available online. I have some quibbles with the Desert Island translation– it really botches the difference between differenTiation and differenCiation, making what Deleuze is getting at pretty obscure for readers not familiar with Difference and Repetition –but overall it does a terrific job. Some readers will, by now, be familiar with AAAARG.org. From their webpage:

AAAARG is a conversation platform – at different times it performs as a school, or a reading group, or a journal.

AAAARG was created with the intention of developing critical discourse outside of an institutional framework. But rather than thinking of it like a new building, imagine scaffolding that attaches onto existing buildings and creates new architectures between them.

AAARG.org also has a massive library of complete primary texts, including my very first article, “The Politics of the Virtual”. Deleuze’s essay “How Do We Recognize Structuralism?” can be found in Desert Islands and Other Texts which is available in complete form in the “D” section (what a surprise!) of the library. Those interested in the library will have to join, but it is very easy to do so. This is a tremendous resource and a huge contribution to the democratization of ideas. Whoever’s done all this scanning is to be applauded for all their hard work.

I am still experimenting with the diagram below, but as I was teaching the concept of translation in Harman’s Prince of Networks today, I found it to be a useful heuristic device for thematizing just what is new or interesting in Latour’s concept of translation. Scroll past the Scribd diagram for a bit of commentary.

Clearly I have adapted this diagram from Hjelmsleves model of the sign. All of us are familiar with the relation between the signifier and the signified in Saussurean linguistics (to the left). In naive theories of linguistic translation (NTTs), the idea is that the concept remains the same (content), while it is only the signifier (expression) that changes. There are any number of reasons that this concept of translation is mistaken. I outlined some of these shortcomings in a previous post, so I won’t repeat them here. Latour’s concept of translation is broader than that of translation as it applies to linguistics or the transposition of texts from one language to another. The key point to take home from his analysis– and he doesn’t spell these implications out himself –is not so much the fact that a translated text always differs from the text that it translates, but rather that the process of translation produces something new, regardless of whether the relation is between texts in different languages, conscious minds to world, or relations between objects. What Latour wishes to do, I think, is generalize the concept of translation, such that translation is no longer restricted to the domain of language, nor requiring the involvement of living beings of some sort, but rather involves any relations among actants, human or nonhuman, living or material.

Hjelmslev’s key innovation in the domain of linguistics and semiotics was to recognize that both the plane of expression (loosely the signifier) and the plane of content (loosely the signified) have a form and substance that can enter into different relations with one another. Here I am partially basing my analysis of Deleuze and Guattari’s treatment of Hjelmslev’s model of expression and content as developed in “The Geology of Morals” in A Thousand Plateaus. This discussion would require a far more developed analysis than I’m capable of giving at the moment. For those who are interested, it would be worthwhile to refer to DeLanda’s early work on this essay (here and a number of Delanda’s articles, podcasts, and talks can be found here), as well as the first chapter of A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Brian Massumi. While I don’t entirely share the ontological commitments of either of these thinkers, their works nonetheless provide some pointers in the direction I’m thinking.

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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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In my post “Individuals and Scale” I outlined a nested model of individuals, following the work of Harman and DeLanda. Under this model we would have individuals within individuals at different levels of scale, with individuals at a higher level of scale often regulating or constraining those individuals of which they are composed. Like Russian dolls we would have individuals within individuals, with the important difference that the individuals at a lower level of scale are a condition for the individuals or objects at a higher level of scale and that the individual at a higher level of scale constrains or regulates the individuals at a lower level of scale. However, this is a strange sort of dependency, for the elements or individuals that make up an individual or an object at a larger level of scale can pass in and out of existence, and can leave the network or the object at a higher level of scale, without the object at the higher level of scale ceasing to exist or losing its essence. A body continuously loses and gains new cells, but nonetheless remains that body. A society or social individual loses or gains individuals of which it is composed, but still remains that network.

Indeed, in the case of both cells in the body and human individuals in a society, it is not even necessary that the cells or the human individuals perfectly execute a plan or a rule in order for the larger level individual to maintain its existence. In this respect, we have a strange nesting of objects within objects where the objects at a smaller level of scale enjoy a degree of freedom or autonomy that isn’t rigidly determined or constrained by the individual or object at the larger level of scale. No doubt it is this that led Luhmann to claim that individuals belong to the environment of social systems, or that social systems are not composed of individuals. If Luhmann is led to this claim in his marvelous Social Systems, then this is because social systems persist and endure independent of the individuals that compose them. The smaller scale individuals that compose a larger scale individual are a condition for the larger scale individual, but they do not make the larger scale individual the object that it is. Likewise, it is no doubt this observation that led the structuralists to their anti-humanism. Insofar as a social system has attractor states of its own, it has an autonomous dynamic stability that is in many respects impervious to the acts of smaller scale individuals. Indeed, in most instances the dissident actions of smaller scale individuals actually function as fodder to reinforce the internal organization of the larger scale individual or object.

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04121501_01In response to my post on Darwin’s Copernican revolution, Joe writes:

Is that to say that the individual is prior to the species then? I just wonder how easily this could pair itself with some liberal-capitalist bootstrapism with a human face, as with any number of naturalized consumerist gimmicks: from straight-up greenwashing that gets done in the name of LEED certification to hip inner-city farmers’ markets and their localist brand-campaigns, to sociobiology and its adaptationist apology for our historical misery. When you say that for Darwin there are only individual differences, my mind jumps to those little boxes you sometimes see at the cash-register that tell you that you can really make a difference by donating your change.

At the outset, I think it’s worth noting that it’s a mistake to let one’s politics dictate ones ontology. This is a bit like suggesting that we should reject the thesis that atoms are composed of electrons because we find something in this thesis politically objectionable. Nonetheless, I do sympathize with Joe’s concerns about liberal-capitalist political orientations. It is indeed true that Darwin adopts, for lack of a better word, a sort of “metaphysical nominalism” where only individual differences exist, and in which there is no difference in kind between individuals and species. However, it’s a mistake, I think, to leap from this thesis to the thesis of liberal-capitalist politics where we can reduce the social to atomistic individuals.

In my view, there are individuals at a variety of individuals at different levels of scale, and there are individuals embedded in or nested in other individuals. This is significant because it entails that you can have emergent systems (individuals at a larger level of scale) that exercise downward causality and constraint on individuals at a smaller level of scale. Take the example of a body. A body is composed of cells. Each of these cells is an individual in its own right. However, the body is itself an individual as well. Here we have individuals (cells) nested in another individual (the body). The body has system-specific powers and capacities that differ from those of an individual cell. Take one muscle cell, for example, and you don’t get much in the way of expressivity or strength. Network a bunch of muscle cells together and suddenly you get a face capable of making all sorts of different expressions and an am with the power to lift all sorts of objects.

However, it is not simply that we get emergent powers or affects from networks of individual cells, it is also that these networks exercise a constraining force on the individuals that compose it. In the example of cells, initially cells, in the course of development, begin as pluripotent. This is to say that early on cells have the capacity to be a variety of different types of cells such as nerve cells, bone cells, muscle cells, and tissue cells. How, then, do cells shift from this pluripotency to being irreversibly differentiated into particular type of cells? Cell differentiation occurs in networks of cells where cells chemically signal to one another turning the individual cells off and on in particular ways that lead to differentiation into muscle, nerve, tissue, and bone cells. In other words, the network takes on a constraining role with respect to the individual cells that compose it. Here we have a relationship between two individuals: the network of cells and an individual cells, where the organization of the former individual exercises downward causality on the individuals that compose it.

The problem with liberal-capitalist political theory lies not in the ontological category of the individual, but rather in the manner in which it restricts the ontological category of the individual to human subjects, ignoring and failing to recognize individuals at different levels of scale and the relationship between these different levels of scale. For this reason, it ends up being blind to network specific forms of organization that play a constraining role with respect to individual human subjects, or the manner in which individuals at a higher level of scale play a regulating role with respect to their elements through processes of negative feedback. It thus turns out that questions of scale and emergence are key issues for any object-oriented philosophy.

For the last couple of years I have increasingly become hostile to structural models of the social. The reason for this is not that I do not think that the concept of structure doesn’t often present highly useful and illuminating models of social relations. Like any formalization, a model allows us to discern patterns and relations that are not immediately evident from the standpoint of the buzzing confusion of the empirical world, and to discern possibilities of combination that would otherwise be impossible to conceive. Problems with the concept of structure arise, however, from two sources: 1) as employed in Continental social and political theory, the concept of structure all too often renders too much invisible, leading us to ignore the work of engineering or public works through which social networks are organized, maintained, and reproduced. As a result, we end up asking the wrong sorts of strategic questions in our political theorizations. When we look at a mathematical category, for example– a diagram that is not remarkably different from a structure –we are dazzled by the elegance and the simplicity of the model, the manner in which it brings a sort of clarity to the world, forgetting that the elements related by these arrows require painstaking processes through which they are brought together.

2) When we ontologize structures, treating models as realities rather than descriptions of realities, we are led to ask all sorts of misguided questions. Suddenly it is the map that does all our explanatory work, rather than the map functioning as the tracing of a set of fuzzy patterned interactions that themselves require explanation. This is always the problem when we appeal to “social factors” to explain some phenomena. We treat the very thing to be explained as what does the explaining, making appeals not unlike appeals to Zeus to explain lightening. But worse yet, when we ignore how patterns, relations, and ongoing forms of organizations are formed, our social explanations lead to a sort of theoretical pessimism as a structure or a network of power takes on the appearance of an iron law of necessity from which escape is impossible. The crystalline beauty of a diagram or a structure takes on the appearance of a pre-established harmony. However, what we should aim for is not a pre-established harmony, but, as Latour puts it in Irreductions, a post-established harmony. The real mystery is not how it is possible to produce change, but rather how certain networks manage to hold together at all.

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