Systems


Responding to one of Anxiousmodernman’s comments in my post on BP, Circling Squares writes:

Estimates vary but its been reported recently that 27 million Americans are on anti-depressant drugs. (1) That is a heck of a lot of people who are medically numbed; it is pretty difficult to be angry, righteous and politicised when you are taking drugs to stop you from feeling. (2) Besides the direct effect on those specific people, this indicates a far wider tendency, as you said, to individualise blame, to accept failure as one’s own fault and thus, because one is trapped into that circle (there’s no way out, nowhere else to go from there), self-harm and self-medication follow.

There’s more to Circling’s response, so please go read it. There are a few points worth making in response to Circling’s remarks. First, anti-depressants don’t prevent feeling, but rather depression prevents feeling. When, in the grips of depression, everything is bland or gray. Nothing interests, nothing motivates, nothing excites, nor is there much in the way of any affect whatsoever. The depressed person is more or less paralyzed or completely numb. It is thus a mistake, I believe, to suggest– if this is what Circling is implying –that if only we weren’t medicated, if only we embraced our depression, we would be capable of acting. The reverse rather seems to be the case. Moreover, when anti-depressants are at their best, far from turning one into a numb zombie, they actually liberate affect and the capacity to engage with the world. It becomes possible to care or be engaged with the world around us.

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One of the more compelling themes that punctuates Fisher’s Capitalist Realism is the linkage between the rise of certain mental illnesses and post-Fordist capitalist modes of production, identifying it as a key site of the political (at least virtually). Now, for readers familiar with French inflected social theory, this thesis will not, in and of itself, appear new. In An Introduction to Marcel Mauss Levi-Strauss had argued something similar with respect to schizophrenia and psychosis, going so far as to suggest that in certain “primitive societies” this phenomena doesn’t exist. Canguilhem suggested something similar, as did Foucault. But in each of these instances the emphasis was put on the social and discursive production of mental illness. If one adopted these accounts of mental illness, then it became necessary to reject materialist or neurological accounts of mental illness. The story goes that either one adopts the neurological account and is thus subject to an ideological illusion that de-politicizes something that is in fact social (mental illness), or you adopt the social account of mental illness and reject anything having to do with the neurological or psychotropics as ideological mystifications. Fisher’s analysis, by contrast, is far more subtle. As Fisher writes,

The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its de-politicization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low seratonin. This requires social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism. (37)

In many respects, Fisher’s analysis of affectivity here mirrors Marx’s critique of commodity fetishism. Just as commodity fetishism treats relations that are truly between person’s as if they were relations between or to things (when I buy a diamond I think I’m just relating to that commodity and not enmeshed in a set of social relationships), “affectivity fetishism” could be construed as treating relations that are, in fact, social and political, as relations to mere neurons. The instantiation of certain neuronal structures and relations is here confused with the cause of these instantiations. Here I would express what I take to be Fisher’s point a bit differently by referring to Aristotle’s four causes. The problem with neurological accounts of mental illness is that they confuse what Aristotle referred to as the material and formal cause of a thing with its efficient cause. Depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia are all certain structures of mentality (formal cause) that are embodied in a certain stuff (material cause), but this in and of itself does not account for why these particular embodied structures come to exist as they do (efficient cause).

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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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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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A very interesting discussion is shaping up between Harman and Shaviro concerning the ontological status of objects and relations in Whitehead. Shaviro’s latest post defending Whitehead can be found here. At the outset, it’s worth emphasizing that Whitehead is essential reading for OOO. Whitehead is perhaps the greatest realist and object-oriented philosopher of the last century. In many respects, Whitehead is the most resolutely anti-idealist thinker in the last two hundred years. Unlike those poor cowardly souls that advance arguments to the effect that the distinction between idealism and realism is meaningless (translation: they’ve sided with idealism), or that seek to escape idealism by deconstructing the self-transparency of the subject while still treating everything in terms of the signifier, power, signs, etc., Whitehead resolutely speaks of the objects themselves without conflating the ontological and the epistemological register, leaving the reader with no doubt that he’s perfectly happy to speak of the being of beings that have no relation to the human whatsoever. As Harman has recently noted, this is the litmus test of whether or not one is an idealist:

Stated differently, you can’t say: “I’m not an idealist. I believe the human subject is a passive recipient of the world, not its constitutor,” or “Human and world are co-produced,” or “world produces the human.”

Why does the human need to be involved all of these cases?

Even worse is when the game is played of replacing the human with falsely neutral-sounding terms such as “subject”, “thought”, “Ereignis,” or any equivalent thereof.

If people always have to be involved in any situation being discussed in your philosophy, then you’re an idealist. The problem is that it’s become such a reflexive assumption that the human must be one ingredient in any situation under discussion that people immediately scream “positivism!” as soon as you start talking about inanimate relations. So much contemporary continental philosophy has been built as nothing but a firewall against the natural sciences, and unfortunately Husserl (a truly great philosopher) is one of the worst violators on this front.

If you find yourself immediately talking about language, signs, subjects, co-constitution, power, the nature of inquiry, etc., then you are an idealist. There is no ambiguity here. The implicit thesis in all these moves that the being of being cannot be even entertained independent of the human. Whitehead passes this litmus test with flying colors. For Whitehead humans are one being among many others, one event among many others. All philosophical questions do not revolve around the human. Nor is there any conflation of questions of access in Whitehead with questions of ontology. The question of how we have access to such and such a being, say a rose, is irrelevant to the question of what constitutes the being of beings. I find myself utterly baffled as to why philosophers seem to have such a difficult time distinguishing these two issues. They should know better. Everyone who teaches ethics knows how to debunk the students claim that values are purely subjective and whatever beliefs a person possesses within minutes. In other words, everyone who teaches ethics knows that the question of what values are, how we deliberate about right and wrong, etc., is independent of the question of our access to values and norms. Yet oddly this same simple insight isn’t carried over into the realm of ontology.

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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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