Subject


    In Which I Suspect a Larval Thesis

~I do not seek, I find. (Jacques Lacan channeling Picasso in an indirect discourse).

~The ‘bricoleur’ is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. The set of the ‘bricoleur’s means cannot therefore be defined in terms of a project (which would presuppose besides, that, as in the case of the engineer, there were, at least in theory, as many sets of tools and materials or ‘instrumental sets’, as there are different kinds of projects). It is to be defined only by its potential use, or putting this another way and in the language of the ‘bricoleur’ himself, because the elements are collected or retained on the principle that ‘they may always come in handy’. Such elements are specialized up to a point, sufficiently for the ‘bricoleur’ not to need the equipment and knowledge of all trades and professions, but not enough for each of them to have only one definite and determine use. They each represent a set of actual and possible relations; they are ‘operators’ but they can be used for any operations of the same type. (The Savage Mind, 17-18).

I suspect that there is an entire materialistic philosophy contained in these remarks, alluding to the emergence of constellations. I wouldn’t be the first. I shall proceed as a bricoleur, collecting what is ready to hand, without any particular project in mind. Perhaps one will emerge after the fact, apres coup, as a whole arising from the parts and existing alongside the set of parts which cannot themselves form a whole.

    In Which I Discuss Some Things So as to Avoid Getting to the Point

In Difference and Repetition Deleuze writes,

The Idea [multiplicity] is defined as a structure. A structure or an Idea is a ‘complex theme’, an internal multiplicity– in other words, a system of multiple, non-localisable connections between differential elements which is incarnated in real relations and actual terms. In this sense, we see no difficulty in reconciling genesis and structure. Following Lautman and Vuillemin’s work on mathematics, ‘structuralism’ seems to us the only means by which a genetic method can achieve its ambitions. It is sufficient to understand that the genesis takes place in time not between on actual term, however small, and another actual term, but between the virtual and its actualisation– in other words, it goes from the structure to its incarnation, from the conditions of a problem to the cases of solution, from the differential elements and their ideal connections to actual terms and diverse real relations which constitute at each moment the actual of time. This is a genesis without dynamism, evolving necessarily in the element of a supra-historicity, a static genesis which may be understood as the correlate of the notion of passive synthesis, and which in turn illuminates that notion. (183)

In many respects it was this very passage that first attracted me to Deleuze years ago. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we accept Saussure conception of language or Levi-Strauss’ conception of cultural. (I am not accepting either, but trying to pose or outline the contours of a particular problem that emerge whenever we talk about systems and structures). For Saussure language is defined as a system, as a set of differential relations between phonemes. A phoneme is not an individual sound, but is rather an opposition: thus, for instance, we have b/p/c. Much to my sister’s delight, my three year old nephew recently discovered Saussurean linguistics. “Mommy,” he said, giggling wildly, “isn’t it funny that if you use b instead of g you can turn ‘boat’ into ‘goat’ and if you use c instead of g you can turn ‘goat’ into ‘coat’?!?” My nephew, the bright young boy he is, had discovered the principle of differentiality. In The Logic of Sense, Deleuze will argue that sense arises from nonsense. It would appear that my nephew is very Deleuzian in the sense that he has discovered that nonsense or the meaningless oppositions among sounds can produce effects of sense. A simple substitution of sound can produce a different meaning.

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Niklas Luhmann on some basic principles of systems theory. (very good despite its brevity)

Niklas Luhmann on the function of theory in relation to science.

In reflecting and reading over the last couple of weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am deeply confused. I am confused as to what is to be explained. I am confused as to what is to be changed. I am confused as to how change takes place. I am confused even as to the questions I am asking. I am confused about my confusion. In many respects, my reflections on meteorology broadsided me, throwing me into a state of quiet reflection and reading, taking me by surprise, leaving me to wonder where I should go next. I don’t know why this was so. I don’t know why I became quiet at that particular point. I felt as if somehow I had been thoroughly dislodged from a paradigm of thought and no longer knew who I was or what I thought. I called this depression, but really it was amnesia. This confusion has been a productive confusion.

Marx famously said that the point of philosophy is not only to explain the world, but to change it. But what is it that is to be explained? What is it that is to be changed? And how is it to be changed? Here in the theory blogosphere, we here talk of these things all the time. We hear talk of radicality. We hear criticisms of liberalism… And with good reason. As Wallerstein recounts in his World Systems Analysis: An Introduction, liberalism emerged as a compromise between the radicalism of the French or Russian Revolution and conservativism, seeking to navigate between the brutality that erupted during the French Revolution through moderate and controlled change and the adherence to authoritarian, centralized structures and tradition (associated with religious institutions and monarchies) characterizing conservativism. Inevitably the liberal position ended up reinforcing conservative authoritarianism in an unwitting fashion. As he puts it, “…[L]iberals, even while accepting the normality of change and supporting (at least in theory) the concept of citizenship, were extremely timid and actually quite afraid of fundamental change” (63). Everyone seems to agree that change is desirable, yet it seems to me that there are seldom any concrete proposals as to what should be changed, how it should be changed, or how an alternative to social system should be organized.

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The Architecture of Theories

At the beginning of his novel Gemini, Michel Tournier writes,

On the twenty-fifth of September 1937, a depression moving from Newfoundland to the Baltic sent masses of warm, moist oceanic air into the corridor of the English Channel. At 5:19 P.M. a gust of wind from the west-southest uncovered the petticoat of old Henriette Puysoux, who was picking up potatos in her field; slapped the sun blind of the Cafe des Amis in Plancoet; banged a shutter on the house belonging to Dr. Bottereau alongside the wood of La Hunaudaie; turned over eight pages of Aristotle’s Meteorologica, which Michel Tournier was reading on the beach at Saint-Jacut; raised a cloud of dust and bits of straw on the road to Plelan; blew wet spray in the face of Jean Chauve as he was putting his boat out in the Bay of Arguenon; set the Pallet family’s underclothes bellying and dancing on the line where they were drying; started the wind pump racing at the Ferme des Mottes; and snatched a handful of gilded leaves off the silver birches in the garden of La Cassine. (9)

What a beautiful way to begin a novel. The first thing to notice is the manner in which the events described here are dated. They occur at a particular time and in a particular place. Yet secondly, note the way in which this gust of wind pulls together a series of entities, linking them together despite their disparity.

Okay, so maybe not a master-science, but rather a master-metaphor or a guiding metaphor for thought. For some time I’ve found myself increasingly frustrated with the terms “structure” and “system” as key terms for thinking social-formations. For me, structure evokes connotations of architecture. I think of architectural structures. I can draw them on a piece of paper, capturing the blue-print of the edifice that I’m trying to think about. If I have some talent in the discipline of topology, I can then imagine these structures undergoing free variation. Yet the problem is that structure, even in topography, remains relatively static and rigid. When I describe the Sears Tower I don’t really need to talk about the outside world, but just the organization of the tower and how all of its parts fit together. Matters are not much different in the case of systems. For instance, the paradigm of a system might be a bureaucracy, where there are a set number of protocols for processing inputs for producing a particular output.

Both of these concepts strike me as too rigid, two subject to closure, for defining the historical present in which we exist. In his beautiful book Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, the ethnographer Arjun Appadurai describes a set of social and cultural circumstances impacted by contemporary media technologies and mass migrations. How can we today speak of “architecture” or rigid structures in a contemporary setting where diverse codes are perpetually being brought into contact with one another through migration and communications technologies? Is it a mistake that the concepts of structure and system emerge right at that historical moment when migration brought on by the industrial revolution begins to erode these structures, calling them into question as a result of codes being scrambled everywhere? Does not structure appear at that precise moment when structure is disappearing? And might not the frantic search for structure and system everywhere be a symptom of the desire to make the Other exist, to put Humpty Dumpty back together again?

Assembly Required

Last night I had one of those thoughts that is probably best to never express out loud. “What,” I thought, “would the world look like if we imagined all entities that exist as variations of the weather?” This is really the sort of thought that can only occur to you when you’re in a sleepy, half drunken stupor, falling asleep on the couch while watching a show about the Galapagos Islands on National Geographic. I should say that meteorological metaphors have often appeared in my writing. In the past I’ve often made reference to phenomena such as hurricanes and tornadoes when trying to think about the nature of systems. On the one hand, hurricanes are of interest in that they have the status of quasi-things. Why is it that we’re inclined to think of a chair or rock as a thing or object, yet when it comes to a hurricane or a tornado we’re inclined to think of these things as events? It seems to me that what’s at issue here is a temporal prejudice or a prejudice pertaining to temporality. If a rock has the status of an object, then this is because it is a relatively slow moving and dense event. Rocks stick around for a long time. By contrast, even though a hurricane might stick around for days and weeks, they lack density and temporal longevity. Nonetheless, hurricanes do have qualities of organization and endurance, even if that organization or internal structure is relatively short-lived.

What interested me in particular about the documentary was their discussion of the ocean currents surrounding the Galapogos Islands. Every year the Islands receive cold currents of water that are particularly congenial for plankton and algae. A whole host of animals depend on these currents from marine iguanas to various sorts of fish to sea lions and a variety of sea birds that feed on these other creatures. Every few years the so-called El Nino effect will occur, preventing the cool waters from reaching the islands and bringing about unseasonable warmth and torrential downfalls. When this occurs the plankton do not arrive and the algae do not grow, and vast numbers of birds, marine iguanas, and sea lions die, leaving only a few to survive. These events then function as selective mechanisms, shifting the trajectory of subsequent development for the various species on the island. Just as vast numbers of sea iguanas die, the land iguanas flourish as a result of tender flowers and plant-life that pop up everywhere on the island as a result of the heavy rainfall. In short, these ocean currents assemble an entire organization among the plant and animal life that populate. What we have here are assemblage mechanisms that generate a particular organization (the ever shifting eco-systems), giving rise to a temporary pattern of relationships among the elements.

There are a variety of levels at which such systems can be investigated and no one level of analysis takes priority over the others. One might think that a discussion of the ocean currents is sufficient to explain the emergent system. That is, why might posit a hierarchical and unilateral form of causality. However, while the ocean currents serve as a condition for the possibility of the resulting assemblage, it must not be forgotten that the elements of the emergent assemblage themselves interact with one another and have dynamics of their own. The resulting assemblage has inter-assemblage relations with an outside (something entirely missing in structuralism and much of systems theory), but there are also intra-assemblage relations among the elements (the plankton, plant-life, sea lions, marine iguanas, land iguanas, turtles, fish, etc).

These intra-assemblage relations contain their own dynamics and tensions that preside over the development as a whole. For instance, there are a number of land iguanas that live in the calderas of old volcanoes. Every year, during mating season, the female iguanas make a journey of sometimes tens of miles to the top of the caldera so that they might lay their eggs. Here timing is everything (again a feature that tends to be ignored in structural approaches). If an iguana comes from deep inside the caldera she will have a longer journey. If she doesn’t make it to the top of the caldera in time, all of the good nesting sites will be taken and she’ll be forced to re-enter the caldera, laying her eggs in the precarious walls of the volcano’s side. These walls are composed of very loosely packed rock and soil where avalanches not only often occur, but are inevitable. In a year where the El Nino effect is operative, there will be a higher number of land iguanas due to the great amount of available vegetation, thereby leading to more intra-assemblage competition among the various iguanas and other creatures, thereby shifting subsequent courses of development. A more striking example of these intra-assemblage relations would be the effect that the Cane Toad has had on the eco-system in Australia. The Cane Toad was introduced into the Australian ecosystem to fight pests. However, having no natural predator of its own, it reproduced rapidly and began devouring much of the plant-life and other desirable animal life. Here we have an example of intra-assemblage relations where one element comes to predominate and shift the organization of the assemblage itself without being catalyzed to do so from elements of an outside. Consequently, it is not enough to simply analyze the inter-assemblage relations between ocean and weather patterns and the organisms that form a system in response to these patterns, but it is also necessary to explore the intra-assemblage relations and the various patterns that emerge as a result of interactions among the elements of these assemblages. Various species and ecosystems here come to resemble weather patterns themselves, like a relatively persistent eddy of water behind the support of a bridge that has its duration and fluctuations as it endures throughout time.

Contingency in the Garden of Forking Paths

The Galapagos Islands have a number of active volcanoes. Among the creatures that inhabit the Galapagos are the famous Galapagos tortoises. Some of these tortoises live exclusively in the calderas of various volcanoes, and have very simple or homogeneous genetic codes compared to tortoises elsewhere on the island. Occasionally you will find these tortoises with rocks actually embedded in their shells from small volcanic explosions that continue to occur in the base of the calderas, where they have lodged themselves in the shell of the tortoise. Biologists hypothesize that the simplicity of the genetic code among these tortoises is to be explained through a volcanic explosion that destroyed most of the tortoise population, leaving only a few to mate with one another.

A volcanic eruption or meteor hitting the earth or group of terrorists destroying the World Trade Center can be thought of as a contingent bifurcation point. Emerging from neither the relatively stable assemblages of weather patterns, nor from within the system itself, these events explode onto the scene, challenging the intra-systematic organization of the assemblage as a whole and bringing it before a point where forking paths of development as a whole are possible. In the days following 9-11, the United States wobbled between alternative paths in moving towards its future. Organization fluctuated back and forth without settling initially on any one particular social configuration. Within a few days the valence of the event was retroactively codified and a vector was chosen, generating a particular organization. Other vectors were possible.

Kaleidoscopes and Textiles

No doubt I will regret having written this post later on this evening. I have gone on about ocean currents, turtles, and iguanas in a rather indulgent fashion. However, it seems to me that social and political theory often suffers from being myopic and reductive, choosing one level of analysis and excluding all others. For instance, in psychoanalysis we are told the signifier reigns supreme and that everything is filtered through the signifier, thus allowing us to ignore contributions from neurology or even historical studies. Theory should instead be thought as a kaleidoscope, where various levels of analysis are thought like a turn of the scope revealing a different pattern. The difference here, of course, would be that these various patterns not be thought as independent, but should instead be thought as inter-dependent networks at various levels, producing effects at other levels, without these levels being hierarchical over overdetermining the others (as in the case of language with Lacan or economics for some classical variants of Marxist thought). Along these lines, Appadurai has proposed that we think in terms of independent streams such as mediascapes, ethnoscapes, financescapes, technoscapes, and ideoscapes, where these various streams are woven together in various configurations, sometimes one dominating, sometimes others, where it is always a question of the relationship between the local and the global and of local configurations like a local weather pattern that is nonetheless dependent on global fluctuations. In this way we can investigate the manner in which certain forms of organization arise and maintain consistency for a time, while also discerning where their points of transformation might lie. To Appadurai’s five streams, I would also add ecoscapes or geoscapes, and perhaps bioscapes, to refer to the Other beyond the Other, the absolute outside of social systems, or those contingencies that shake the earth such as earthquakes, hurricanes, meteor strikes, etc., where ordinary social relations are momentarily suspended and the social system wobbles between possibilities.

In thinking these six or seven streams, we must learn how to think according to the ancient art of textiles in terms of weaving and fabrics, where we ask not which of these streams provides the interpretive key of all the others, but instead look at the patterned fabrics that emerge out of these various threads being woven together. Of course, the fabric here must not be thought as an extant thing like the fabrics we know in our day to day life, but as a specifically meteorological fabric that is an ongoing process of weaving on a shuttle and loom that never ceases to vary itself and which perpetually weaves new fabrics as new groupings or patterns emerge responding to contingencies both within the threads and from without. Weaving must be thought not in terms of its status as product, but process.

The advantage of treating meteorology as a key theoretical metaphor is that it underlines both internal organization and the dependency of every system on an outside, while also capturing the ephemeral nature of all emergent organization in the order of time. The hurricane can only emerge as a hurricane, as an organization, through the heat of the ocean water out of which it arises. Every social group formation, as it produces and reproduces itself in time, needs its heat as well. Some of this heat can be intra-systemic (for instance, the way in which communication technologies function as catalysts that heat up social relations and function as a condition of onto-genesis presiding over entirely new groupings independent of local conditions) or inter-systemic, pertaining to relations between social systems and environmental conditions in which the group exists (for instance, the role that a drought might play in defining struggles among various groups in Africa or placing group identities in onto-genesis as they redefine themselves in fights over resources). All these relations and their dynamics deserve investigation in their own right. These investigations will not unfold universal rules like Newtonian laws, but will be far closer to Levi-Strauss’s “science of the concrete”, investigating a set of emergent regularities that both came to be and that can pass away.

Jodi Dean, over at I Cite, raises the question of what political movements are liable to produce change in their subject’s lives. After a brief discussion of identity politics and its attachment to procedural democratic politics, she concludes with the following:

These days, the only source for transformation seems to be religion. The right gets its energy from its fundamentalist base and religious overtones, but avoids going the extra mile to fascism. The left can’t escape from its envelopment in communicative capitalism–cultural politics is a lot more fun!–and thus abjures any program of political transformation. Besides, cultural revolution seems a bit too scary, the dark underside of left utopian projects–better to accept the liberal framework and advocate half-measures and resistances.

Is it possible to conceptualize, to advocate, a non-democratic program of political transformation with emancipatory and utopian energies today? What would look like? Could it make any promises, hold out any aspirations? Zizek’s emphasis on subjective destitution seems like an important step in this direction–it breaks the binds of identity politics and consumerism in one move. But, how might this sort of destitution figure in a larger kind of solidarity? how might it become a component of a new kind of social link? And what is the next step in conceiving this?

Repeating a comment made over there, I have increasingly found myself skeptical of Zizek and Badiou as accurately theorizing how significant political change takes place. Simply put, I am coming to feel that their understanding of political change is too abstract. Zizek seems to believe that ideology critique will produce a significant transformation of subjectivity such that social subjects become political subjects that can then set about producing significant change in how the social is organized. Badiou seems to wait about for a rupture, an event that cannot be counted within situations, as an impetus for producing “non-interpellated” subjects.

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I haven’t read this yet, but it looks as if it’s potentially very interesting for anyone interested in issues of systems, organization, recurrence, and process.

NOTE: HTML and Lacanian mathemes don’t mix very well. In what follows I’ve used “*” to represent the “losange”, “punch”, or diamond in Lacan’s formulas for fantasy.

Filled with exhaustion from the excitement of last night and the lack of sleep it engendered, I don’t really have much to say today, but I simply wanted to post this passage from Zizek’s Plague of Fantasies as it so nicely encapsulates the Lacanian theory of fantasy, first developed in Seminar 6, Le desir et son interpretation, and culminating in Seminar 14, La logique du fantasme.
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blog trackingJodi Dean has a very interesting post over at I Cite on what holds discursive communities– especially academic communities –together, and what is required to critique these communities. There she writes,

The same holds when one talks about political theory. In American political science, theorists are a separate subfield and generally treated as separate by the rest of the discipline. We are sometimes considered a field among ourselves, perhaps because we read Aristotle and Hobbes while the others think that politics can be a science and try to find formal models that do something besides stating the obvious. Yet, political theorists disagree among ourselves. A big division is between those who do a kind of analytic political theory–or who are still oriented toward Rawls–and those who do continental. Yet, among continental theorists there are also huge debates and disagreements. The Habermasians don’t read Deleuze or Zizek (not to mention Ranciere, Laclau, Agamben, or Badiou). And, while I’m on a journal with a bunch of Deleuzians, they are generally non-sympathetic to Zizek (they think he is not immanent enough and that the notion of the lack is both dangerous and wrong).

Can it mean anything, then, to reject or criticize political theory as a whole? If one is a formal modeler, yes. One is saying that only with formal methods can anything significant be said about politics. But, this is not a critique. It is simply a rejection. I don’t critique formal modeling in my work. I simply reject it. I find it uninteresting and irrelevant. (I’ll add that I do think there is an important role for a lot of empirical political science although I don’t do that sort of work myself.)

Ray Davies makes an interesting point in a thread over at faucets and pipes:

Words aren’t solid tokens which can be extracted from one game and used in a different game while meaning the same thing. Precise definitions are important when rationally arguing against a supposedly rational argument, but can be toxic to community formation, as I’ve personally seen in attempts to establish the boundaries of “science fiction” or “poetry”. A social term is, finally, defined socially, and, in healthily varied communities, allows for unpredictable outliers.

I agree. Terms are markers of discursive communities.

So, can one criticize an entire discursive community by invoking one of their terms? Yes, if one is rejecting the community per se. Here one would be making an institutional argument, that is, an argument about the group existing as a group. But one would not be addressing any of the discursive content through which the group is constituted. Why–because it is precisely the contestation over the content that designates membership in the group. (This is why I never take a stand on alien abduction or 9/11 truth; that would constitute me as a member of the group/discursive community I’m trying to understand.)

I don’t have a whole lot to add to her post; however, in addition to these discursive factors of how a master-signifier is attached to a specific set of signifiers (S2’s) for this or that variant of feminism or variant of Lacanians or group of political theorists, it seems to me that we should also include a discussion of jouissance, or the particular form of enjoyment that bounds a community together. This would include not just the way the community itself enjoys, but also the manner in which the community perceives other groups enjoying and seeks to defend against this enjoyment… That is, the shared fantasy of the group pertaining to how the Other illegitimately enjoys.
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One of the central axioms of sociological systems theory is the thesis that systems process events according to their own internal organization. As Luhmann puts it in his magnificent work Social Systems,

The environment receives its unity through the system and only in relation to the system. It is delimited by open horizons, not by boundaries that can be crossed; thus it is not itself a system. It is different for every system, because every system excludes only itself from its environment. Accordingly, the environment has no self-reflection or capacity to act. Attribution to the environment (external attribution) is a strategy of systems. But this does not mean that the environment depends on the system or that the system can comman its environment as it pleases. Instead, the complexity of the system and of the environment– to which we will later return –excludes any totalizing form of dependence in either directions. (17)

For Luhmann, the fundamental distinction in sociological systems theory is the distinction between system and environment. Systems constitute themselves by distinguishing themselves from an environment. However, the key point is that, to put it in Hegelian terms, the relationship between system and environment is not an “external positing” where the environment is one thing and the system is another thing, but rather the unity of the environment is itself constituted by the system, such that the relation between system and environment is a self-referential relation constituted by the system itself. Any occurance taking place that the system attributes as coming from the environment but which doesn’t fit the frame of this distinction is simply coded as noise or chaos. (more…)

One of the central axioms of sociological systems theory is the thesis that systems process events according to their own internal organization. As Luhmann puts it in his magnificent work Social Systems,

The environment receives its unity through the system and only in relation to the system. It is delimited by open horizons, not by boundaries that can be crossed; thus it is not itself a system. It is different for every system, because every system excludes only itself from its environment. Accordingly, the environment has no self-reflection or capacity to act. Attribution to the environment (external attribution) is a strategy of systems. But this does not mean that the environment depends on the system or that the system can comman its environment as it pleases. Instead, the complexity of the system and of the environment– to which we will later return –excludes any totalizing form of dependence in either directions. (17)

For Luhmann, the fundamental distinction in sociological systems theory is the distinction between system and environment. Systems constitute themselves by distinguishing themselves from an environment. However, the key point is that, to put it in Hegelian terms, the relationship between system and environment is not an “external positing” where the environment is one thing and the system is another thing, but rather the unity of the environment is itself constituted by the system, such that the relation between system and environment is a self-referential relation constituted by the system itself. Any occurance taking place that the system attributes as coming from the environment but which doesn’t fit the frame of this distinction is simply coded as noise or chaos.

It is for this reason that systems are characterized by “operational closure”, such that events are processed according to the organization of the system in such a way that what an event is is always-already predelineated by the organization of the system. As Luhmann writes a bit further on,

Information occurs whenever a selective event (of an external or internal kind) works selectively within the system, namely, can select the system’s states. This presupposes a capacity for being oriented to (simultaneous or successive) differences that appear to be bound to a self-referential operational mode of the system. “A ‘bit’ of information,” as Bateson says, “is definable as a difference which makes a difference.” This means that the difference as such begins to work if and insofar as it can be treated as information in self-referential systems.

Therein lies an immense extension of possible causalities and a discplacement of the structural problematics under their control. the extension goes in two directions. On the one hand, given the capacity to process information, things that are not present can also have an effect; mistakes, null values, and disappointments acquire causality insofar as they can be grasped via the schema of a difference. On the other, not just events but facts, structures, and continuities stimulate causalities insofar as they can be experienced as differences. Remaining unchanged can thus become a cause of change. Structural causality makes self-determination possible. Systems can store up possibilities of affecting themselves and, with the help of schemata that employ differences, can retrieve these at need. It should be noted, however, that structure does not operate as such, on the basis of a force dwelling within it. It merely enters into the experience of difference, which makes information possible, without necessarily determination what will take place there. Thus a system creates its own past as its own causal basis, which enables it to gain distances from the causal pressure of the environment without already determining through internal causality what will occur in confrontations with external events…

As a result of all this, the operational mode of self-referential systems changes into forms of causality that to a large extent reliably prevent it from being steered from outside. All the effects that one wishes to acheive ab extra either in the system or with it assume that the system can perceive impulses from without as information– which is to say, as the experience of difference –and can in this way bring about an effect. Such systems, which procure causality for themselves, can no longer be “causally explained” (except in the reductive schema of an observer), not because their complexity is impenetrable, but on logical grounds. (40-41)

In short, systems do not function according to linear relations of cause and effect such as the transfer of motion that takes place in one billiard ball hitting another, but rather function according to a system specific causality that governs how events “impinging” on the system are received. What counts as information for a system, will depend on codes and programs belonging to the system. Elsewhere, in his beautiful and very accessible work, The Reality of the Mass Media, Luhmann explains that these codes are binary distinctions that determine how events are to be sorted as information. Programs then define how information is to be put to use by the system in question. Thus, for instance, the legal system perhaps organizes all events into information according to the code of legal/illegal, whereas the news media system processes all events according to the code information/non-information, and so on.

One of the key implications of this understanding of operational closure is that information cannot be transferred from one system to another. As Luhman puts it in The Reality of the Mass Media,

If, in addition, one starts out from the theory of operationally closed systems of information processing, the generation of information processing, the generation of information and the processing of information must be going on within the same system boundaries, and both differences to which Bateson’s definition is geared must be distinctions in the same system. Accordingly, there are no information transfers from system to system. Having said that, systems can generate items of information which circulate between their subsystems. So one must always name the system reference upon which any use of the concept of information is based. (19)

The reason for this is immediately clear: If there are no transfers of information from system to system, then this is because information is only information for a specific system by virtue of the distinctions employed by that system. Insofar as different systems employ different distinctions to sort information, it follows that the event sorted according to the operative distinctions produces different information in both cases. It is for this reason that systems are not susceptible to “steering” from the outside, as the manner in which the system receives these events will be governed by the distinctions employed by that system. In this regard, Luhmann has a number of very pessimistic things to say about Marxist ambitions to steer the social system through either the economic or social system.

It seems to me that all of this is highly revelant in the context of Badiou’s theory of the event. Very briefly, for Badiou an event is an occurance that fits none of the predicative categories governing what he calls a situation. In the lexicon or encyclopedia of the situation, there simply is no name for the event. Put in Luhmann-speak, an event is that which evades the binary codes governing how events are to be transformed into information. According to Badiou we can never demonstrate that an event has truly taken place precisely because there are no categories in the situation for counting the occurance. Consequently, the event is little more than chaos or noise. For Badiou, a subject is that agent that emerges in the wake of the event that resolves to count the event as belonging to the situation and to re-evaluate all elements of the situation in light of the implications this event has for the structure of the situation. There is thus a distinction, for Badiou, between subjects and individuals. Prior to nominating and becoming agents of an event, all of us are individuals. However, in being siezed by an event I become a subject by bearing active fidelity to the event, sustaining it through this fidelity, and seeking to transform the situation in light of the event.

In light of Luhmann, two serious concerns arise in relation to this theory of the event: First, if all systems process events in terms of system specific distinctions or codes, how is it possible for individuals to be open to events at all? Individuals are either their own systems or are iterations of the broader systems to which they belong through interpellation (Althusser’s ISO’s). It would seem that an individual must already be prepared to receive an event in order to be capable of discerning an event as an event rather than as mere noise or chaos. Consequently we can ask, “what are the conditions for the possibility of being receptive to an event in Badiou’s sense of the word?” Second, is Badiou, perhaps, overly optimistic about the transformative possibilities of events? If subsystems of a system– society –process events according to their own codes, there is a serious question as to how these subsystems could be open to the re-interpretations undertaken by the subject of an event. I don’t have answers to these questions and am not offering these observations as a way of demolishing Badiou. Rather, these are questions posed for further work and thought.

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