Systems


inquisition-wheelIn listening to the daily flood of new documented insights about the former Bush Administration’s “Enhanced Interrogation Technique” practices, one of the most frustrating elements of the whole discussion is that it has been pitched in terms of the question “does torture work or not?” Although it strikes me as obvious that torture does not work– one need only read the first volume of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to get this –the truly frustrating thing about the whole debate is that it shouldn’t be a debate at all. Why don’t we see more people standing up and saying “It doesn’t fucking matter whether or not it works! It’s wrong!” Not only are there countless utilitarian reasons as to why this is bad policy, there is the, above all, the simple point of our own dignity and the dignity of other humans. However, perhaps part of the reason such a debate is so upsetting has to do with the very nature of topics and how they function in the social field. All of this brought me to reflect on a passage from Niklas Luhmann’s wonderful Reality of the Mass Media today. Luhmann writes:

Topics… serve the structural coupling of the mass media with other social domains; and in doing this they are so elastic, and so diversifiable that the mass media are able to use their topics to reach every part of society, whereas the systems in the inner social environment of the mass media, such as politics, the economy or law, often have difficulty presenting their topics to the mass media and having them taken up in an appropriate way. The success of the mass media throughout society is based on making sure that topics are accepted, regardless of whether there is a positive or a negative response to information, proposals for meaning-making or recognizable judgments. Interest in a topic is frequently based precisely on the fact that both positions are possible [my emphasis]. (12 – 13)

stem_cellIt’s a real pity that Luhmann’s sociological theory has not gotten more attention, though not a surprise given the difficulty of some of his work. In works like his monumental Social Systems, Luhmann following the work of Maturana and Varela in biology and cognitive science, sought to understand the social field as a dynamic, autopoietic system composed of nothing but events that both produce and reproduce the system in time. Luhmann’s heretical sociological thesis was that the social is composed of nothing but communications. In other words, in the parlance of autopoietic systems theory, individuals and persons do not belong to social systems, but rather belong to the environment of social systems. They are, as it were, entirely outside social systems. As a result, communications are not, according to Luhmann, the product of persons, but rather communications are the product of other communications. Persons can irritate social systems– Luhmann’s technical word for “stimulate” –but persons as such never provide information— difference that make a difference –for social systems. This is because what counts as information is always based on a code that is self-referential in character. If the codes determining whether or not something counts as information (an event) is self-referential in character, that is because information does not belong to the environment of the system– it is not in the “things themselves” –but is rather constituted by the system itself. Put otherwise, there must be an “ontogeny” of information that is system specific. In short, systems are “organizationally closed”. Just as the elements of a biological cell both are a product of and reproduce the cell itself, and just as the cell is only selectively open to an environment or other cells about it, social systems are characterized by an organizational closure that renders them only selectively open to the world about them.

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entropyWe really differ very little from the so-called pre-moderns. This is above all the case with our social sciences and in many of the orientations of philosophical thought. When encountering phenomena such as lightning or a terrible storm, the early Greek might have evoked Zeus or Neptune. When seeking to explain some sort of social phenomenon, we evoke things like “social forces”, “power”, “ideology”, “structures”, etc. When seeking to account for some form of thought or knowledge, we evoke things like “categories”, “reason”, “intuition”, and so on. In both cases we believe that we have explained something, but all we’ve really done is provide a short hand name for the phenomenon we wish to understand. In naming it we believe that we have somehow accounted for it. These names are our Greek Gods. What we have here is what Hegel called “tautological ground”:

Five year old: “Why do the planets move about the Sun and objects fall to the Earth?”

Parent: “Because of gravity!”

Child: “What is gravity?”

Parent: “The manner in which planets move about the sun and things fall to the earth.”

Child: (discouraged expression)

This sort of practice sticks out to me with special clarity when I reflect back upon my days among Lacanians. If there was one sort of question that was off limits, it was questions pertaining to ontogeny or development. Ontogeny, the Lacanians declared, was always necessarily off limits because it was inherently “mythological”, retrojecting the very thing it seeks to ground back into origins. Such was the argument. One wonders whether the vehemence with which they denounced questions of ontogeny wasn’t more a defense formation than anything else.

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duchamp_bride1Based on the recommendation of my friend Jerry the Anthropologist, last week I picked up a few books by the neuroscientist Gerald Edelman. Yesterday, during the day and on the flight from Dallas to Dayton, I was able to get through about half of A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination. Like most of Jerry’s recommendations, the book does not disappoint, and presents a rich and sophisticated discussion of consciousness at both the phenomenological level and the neurological level, which is informed by debates surrounding mind in the history of philosophy and contemporary philosophy of mind, along with a vast array of material from neurology and psychology (Edelman himself is a Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist). Edelman and Tononi are at pains to develop a neurological account of consciousness.

If their approach is so interesting and provocative, much of this has to do with a simple shift in how they pose the question. I have been taken to task by some for claiming that the neurological foundation of consciousness is a done deal or largely established conclusion. It has been pointed out to me that this remains a hotly debated issue and that, as of yet, we do not yet have a neurological account of how consciousness emerges from neuronal activity. I am, of course, aware of this. If I am led to claim that there is no serious dualistic contender for the physicalist hypothesis, then this is not because we have an account of how consciousness arises from the brain, but because massive bodies of observational evidence have emerged with respect to various brain injuries and whatnot showing that consciousness is a physical phenomena. The state of neurology with respect to its ability to account for consciousness is analogous to the state of biology following Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution through natural selection. All of the evidence gathered in the wake of Darwin’s theory indicated the truth of his account (broadly construed). What was lacking was an account of the mechanism by which traits could be passed on. Despite Mendel, we would have to wait nearly a hundred years before that mechanism was discovered and before we began to understand how, precisely, it works. The situation with neurology is very similar. We largely know that brain produces consciousness, but there are a number of big and mysterious “x’s” as to how the brain does this.

One of the things that makes Edelman’s approach so promising– and such a departure from many other assumptions about consciousness –is that he shifts the issue from the question of how consciousness is produced, to the question of when consciousness is produced. To be sure, an answer to the question of “how?” is still the ultimate aim, but if the question of when is so promising, then this is because it helps us to zero in on those processes and their structures generative of consciousness. Edelman’s enquiry proceeds along both phenomenological and neurological axis. Phenomenologically he is attentive to the lived experience of consciousness, its indivisible unity, our sense of self, its internally differentiated nature (not unlike Bergson’s description of multiple durations in Duration and Simultaneity), etc. But most importantly, he is attentive to when consciousness arises at the phenomenological level of experience and when it passes away or disappear. The issue here isn’t simply one of falling asleep, but ranges throughout a number of states in our lived experience. Thus, to take a trite example, when I was learning to type I was highly conscious of the movements of my fingers, the letters on the keyboard, the screen, and the text that I was transposing on to the computer screen. Now, unless I am typing about typing, I am non-conscious of most of these activities, simply doing them in an automatic way.

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In recent discussions here and elsewhere surrounding neurology, I get the sense that many approach neurology with a highly specific set of assumptions that very much color their reaction to this field. Turn the television to the Discovery channel on any given evening and you will find documentaries dominated by the theoretical orientation of psycho- and socio-biology. Within this theoretical orientation, any particular human practice, psychological phenomenon, or form of social organization is explained in evolutionary terms as a biological adaptation that promotes reproduction and survival. As a result, this form of psycho- and socio-biology ends up naturalizing and essentializing human practices, social organizations, and forms of subjectivity in ways that can only be described as reactionary.

Those of us who have developed intellectually in the milieu of the last century’s revolution in the social sciences– whether in fields like ethnography, psychoanalysis, cultural studies, linguistics, etc –cannot but encounter this form of theoretical explanation profoundly ignorant by virtue of the way it is commonly unaware of both the findings of ethnography where we discover that if you can imagine it there is probably some group of people somewhere or somewhen that have organized their social, exchange, and kinship relations in this way, and, as a consequence, ideologically debilitating as it ends up naturalizing the contingent forms of subjectivity, social organization, amorous relations, etc., that characterize our contemporary historical and cultural moment.

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andy-warhol-marilynOver at the inaccurately named Struggleswithphilosophy, Edward proposes the sort of analysis necessary for avoiding the Hegemonic Fallacy and demanded by object-oriented philosophy. Meanwhile, Carl, over at the amusingly named Dead Voles (why this name, Carl?), chants “object-oriented philosophy, what is it good for?” As Carl puts it,

Among the various things ideas may be for, what they’re nearly always for is constituting discourse communities, conversations and like minds. For ideas in the present, then, that I don’t have a professional obligation to backtrack through all their assembled agendas and contexts, the questions for me are first: whether they’re getting anything done I see a need to get done; and second, whether I find the conversation and/or conversants compelling. In the case of the new philosophy I’m solid on the latter, which is why I’ve been engaging with it. But I’m really shaky on the former, which is why I keep feeling so dissatisfied. What the hell is this stuff for?

To this, Edward, without realizing that he’s responding, remarks,

The main objective of hybrid model analysis is to construct an object-oriented approach for researchers that avoids what Larval has termed the “Hegemonic Fallacy.” Instead of the researcher relying on one style of analysis, the hybrid model forces the researcher to explain the object of analysis in its diversity. For example, when the researcher is examining the object of cars in the world, the hybrid model would not allow the researcher to select one particular dimension of cars to explain their existence. The problem of selecting one dimension is that it would only reveal and prioritise one aspect of cars and neglect other factors. Imagine if I analysed the discursive construction of cars in various discourses. While the analysis of these discourses would prove invaluable, its language bias would fail to capture the hybrid nature of the object in question. The result of examine the discursive construction would be to remained traped within the hegemonic fallacy. The hybrid model would not neglect the importance of discourses disseminating meaning about cars, but it would claim there are other dimensions (political economy, environmental factors, technological capability, and so on) that construct the object. The challenge for the researcher is to conceptualise how all these dimensions interconnect and influence one another in the object of analysis.

Quite right. My particular version of Object-Oriented Philosophy arises primarily from a dissatisfaction with the social and political theory that has been my bread and butter for over a decade. Here it’s important to keep in mind, as Harman has repeatedly emphasized, that there is no entity floating about called “Speculative Realism”, such that all Speculative Realists share these positions. Between Graham Harman, Iain Hamilton Grant, Ray Brassier, and Quentin Meillassoux there is no discernible shared position to be found. Indeed, there is a great deal of conflict among these positions, such that each of them is making very distinct ontological claims about the nature of the world. If, as Graham argues, there is some unity among the Speculative Realists, this is not to be found among their shared positions but rather in what they are against. That is, the common thread linking the Speculative Realists is a dissatisfaction with correlationist and anti-realist paradigms of thought. In this respect, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to claim that there are a number of “Speculative Realists” that don’t refer to themselves as Speculative Realists. For example, Deleuze, under one reading, could be classified as a Speculative Realist. DeLanda certainly fits the bill, as does Alfred North Whitehead. Harman argues that Latour fits the bill, and I would add Stengers to this list as well.

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contagion1In Definition 3 of Part III of the Ethics Spinoza writes, “By emotion (affectus) I mean the modifications of the body, whereby the active power of the said body is increased or diminished, aided or constrained, and also the ideas of such modifications. N.B. If we can be the adequate cause of any of these modifications, I then call the emotion an activity, otherwise I call it a passion, or state wherein the mind is passive.” This is an extraordinary and remarkable definition of emotion, that goes well beyond associations we might have between emotions and feelings.

From the outset it can be discerned that the definition has two parts. On the one hand, affectus refers to modifications of the body. Insofar as Spinoza references the active power of the body, we should not understand feelings, but rather the capacity of the body to act and be acted upon. bats1 Thus, for example, the affects of a bat consist, on the one hand, in its capacity to encounter the world in terms of sonar, but also in its ability to fly, grasp, tear with its teeth, etc. Likewise, my fingers pounding away on this keyboard constitute an affect or capacity of my body. Or rather, my body here enters into an assemblage of affects produced through the conjunction– the “and” –of my hands and the key board, the two acting upon one another and being acted upon by one another. Through this conjugation of affects the power of bodies, according to Spinoza, is either enhanced or diminished, checked or assisted.

For this reason, Spinoza will write, in a beautiful passage, that “…nobody as yet has determined the limits of the body’s capabilities: that is, nobody as yet has learned from experience what the body can and cannot do…” (Prop 2, Scholium, Part III). It is notable that Spinoza here uses the indefinite article, indicating that bodies aren’t to be restricted to human or living bodies, but to all bodies. If, then, no one knows what a body can do, this is because the assemblages into which bodies can enter are limitless. alice_krige-borg_002 And in entering into an assemblage or a network, the body’s about of acting is increased or diminished, assisted or checked. We can thus think of a body as being akin to a field of potentials, such that in entering into an assemblage with another body, potentials of the body are drawn forth or pulled forth from the body, manifesting themselves for the very first time. Already we can sense that Spinoza’s entire theory of the emotions is contained in this conception of the body as a power of acting and being acted upon. As Spinoza will say, emotions are also composed of the ideas that accompany these affects (thoughts, feelings). Those assemblages that enhance a body’s power of acting will be accompanied by joyous ideas of these affections, while those that diminish the body’s power of acting will be accompanied by sad ideas of these affections.

In a recent National Public Radio story it was reported that ideas of affects are themselves contagious between bodies:

A new study by researchers at Harvard University and the University of California, San Diego documents how happiness spreads through social networks.

They found that when a person becomes happy, a friend living close by has a 25 percent higher chance of becoming happy themselves. A spouse experiences an 8 percent increased chance and for next-door neighbors, it’s 34 percent.

“Everyday interactions we have with other people are definitely contagious, in terms of happiness,” says Nicholas Christakis, a professor at Harvard Medical School and an author of the study.

Perhaps more surprising, Christakis says, is that the effect extends beyond the people we come into contact with. When one person becomes happy, the social network effect can spread up to 3 degrees — reaching friends of friends.

It would thus appear that emotions, far from being internal, private affairs, but are the result of collective assemblages where my own happiness is dependent on the happiness of those about me. But what, we might ask, is going on at the level of affects, what is going on at the level of bodily assemblages, to produce these ideas of affections accompany these affections?

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In a very nice response to my paper on assemblages and networks, Joe Clement remarks,

I liked the paper too. However, could you say a bit more about how post-structuralists like Deleuze understand networks as opposed to how structuralists understand, well, structures. At a certain point, it sounds like they are different names for the same pomme de terre. I can get behind networks and assemblages being “things” of change, while structures are usually talked about as quasi-eternal forms. However, what is to stop us from saying that a network is structured, not according to an identity with some sort of totality, but according to its symptomatic deadlocks/exclusions/slippages? I’m thinking of Zizek’s very rudimentary lesson in commodity fetishism in the first chapter of The Sublime Object of Ideology

“rather, it [commodity fetishism] consists of a certain misrecognition which concerns the relation between a structured network and one of its elements: what is really a structural effect, an effect of the network of relations between elements, appears as an immediate property of one of the elements, as if this property also belonged to it outside its relation with other elements” (24).

You know Zizek then goes on to quote Marx on commodities A & B, and then tie that into an allusion to the mirror stage. All of this falls very neatly under the conventional structuralist rubric, but it’s the point about misrecognition that perks my interest. Zizek says misrecognition occurs as a structural effect, though this really does not pre-suppose a “structured network” (i.e. what I take to be the conventional structuralist line) anymore than it pre suppose that “this property also belonged to it outside of its relation with other elements.” That is to say, the misrecognition is about the “structured network” as much as the individual element, though that means we aren’t stuck having to unravel the “structured network” anymore than we are stuck having to stabilize the individual element. They are both “structural effects,” whose unified expression is the symptom. With my Buddhist hat on, subject and object are “structural effects” caused by ignorance (avijja), whose symptomatic expression is suffering/dissatisfaction (dukkha).

There is some similarity between structure and networks, but also quite a difference. A network is something more than atomistic individuals and something less than a structure. A structure is a set of interdependent differential relations where the terms have no existence independent of one another. Thus, for example, in language the phonemes that make up a language are not /b/, /p/, etc., but differential relations between these units. Neither /b/ nor /p/ form a phoneme, but rather only b/p forms a phoneme within a specific language. As such, /b/ has no existence independent of /p/ and vice versa. The minimal condition for being a phoneme is that the substitution of a unit produces a difference in sense: /b/at, /p/at. Sense is thus not something that precedes these differential relations, but is an effect of these differential relations.

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No doubt I am behind the curve on this one, but if you want to read a book that will make your hair literally stand on end, take a look at David Harvey’s Brief History of Neoliberalism. Harvey deftly traces the history of neoliberalism, showing how contemporary capital systematically deregulated business and dismantled collective labor movements, and how people were convinced that this was in their interests, giving us the marvelous world we have today (I say that sarcastically). Of course, as a function of this, we also witness the rise of identity politics (on both the left and right– nationalist and fundamentalist religious movements on the right, gender and ethnic politics on the left) and postmodern politics. In the meantime, questions of class antagonism become almost completely hidden or clothed (as evidenced by the recent flair up over Obama’s “Bitter” comment, where he hit the true third rail in American politics: class). Books like this make me wonder if theory is asking the right sorts of questions or questions that are even relevant to our contemporary moment. At any rate, I think I need to go drink now.

A Disclosure

One of Heidegger’s central contributions to philosophy was his concept of truth as aletheia. Ordinarily truth is understood as a correspondence between a proposition and a state-of-affairs. For instance, the proposition “the sun is shining” is true if, in fact, the sun is shining. A key feature of this conception of truth is that the state-of-affairs to which the proposition refers is transcendent to the proposition, independent of the proposition, and exists in its own right regardless of whether or not the proposition is enunciated. The proposition in no way effects the thing itself. Another theory of truth treats truth as coherence. A proposition here is true if it coheres with a body or web of propositions as in the case, perhaps, of Hegel’s system.

For Heidegger, by contrast, truth is aletheia or the disclosedness or revealing of being. Lest I earn the condemnation of the Heideggarians, I will say upfront that I will not here do Heidegger’s conception of truth as aletheia justice, nor is it my intention to give a careful analysis of his claims. Rather, I wish to indicate how it might be of use in thinking certain rhetorical phenomena.

To claim that truth is aletheia or disclosedness is to claim that an entity must first disclose or reveal itself as a particular sort of entity prior any statements we might make about it. Perhaps this idea can best be elucidated by way of the human body. In encountering the body as a seat of action, an object of medical intervention, a sexual object, and so on, is the body disclosed or revealed in the same way? In living my body, there’s a way in which its physicality, its nature as a volume, flesh, a surface, disappears. Far from being an object like other objects in the world, there’s an invisibility about my lived body, a specific bodily intentionality, such that it is not my body that is the focus of engagement, but rather the destinations towards which I move and the objects with which I am engaged. My hand is not this geometry of flesh, bone, and sinew, but rather is a grasping that is entirely exhausted in this act of typing or this grasping of my coffee cup. To say that my lived body is “exhausted” in this act of typing or in taking hold of the coffee cup and drinking is not to say that it is fatigued, but rather that it disappears in these acts by virtue of the very activity of revealing the world that it is engaged in. It is the coffee cup that is disclosed, the words on the screen, the destination towards which I am moving, not the lived body itself. As such, the lived body is more a collection of vectors, trajectories, directions, illuminating the world independent of it, rather than a geometrical shape and configuration of flesh, bone, and sinew.

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I am thoroughly exhausted and should be falling into bed, yet somehow I won’t let myself rest. There are times, especially when fatigued or sick that I’ll will myself to stay awake as if I resent the implication or thought that life is being robbed from me. I stubbornly go on, as if in defiance of my physical limits. Or again, perhaps this stubbornness arises from knowing that next week I’ll be returning to classes and will be exceedingly busy.

In preparation for the After Music conference at University of Newcastle, I’ve been rereading A Thousand Plateaus, with fresh and excited eyes. The “Geology of Morals” plateau, while obscure in parts, is especially good… Or perhaps I only think this because it deals heavily with questions of individuation or morphogenesis, which seem to be my obsession. Deleuze and Guattari mobilize Hjelmslev’s linguistics, rereading it in a highly original fashion, to develop a metaphysics of matter undergoing morphogenesis. It seems to me that this particular schematization nicely thematizes a number of points N.Pepperrell has made about abstraction and her critiques of demystifying approaches and ideology critiques.

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