March 3rd, 2011

S.C. Hickman

Levi R. Bryant: Autopoietic and Allopoietic Machines; or, the Renewal of Objects

"One of the more interesting things to watch in the debates surrounding OOO in the last couple of years is how strongly people react to the term “object”. "
     - Levi R. Bryant, Don't Just Sit There! Some Remarks on Objects

"I will show that objects themselves, far from the insipid physical bulks that one imagines, are already aflame with ambiguity, torn by vibrations and insurgencies equaling those found in the most conflicted human moods."
   - Graham Harman

What is an Object?  

Levi R. Bryant in his latest post on Larval Subjects describes objects as autopoietic and allopoietic machines. He defines these terms after the work of Niklas Luhmann, as well as Maturana and Varela. The key to this use is based upon both time, events and novelty. He is trying to work out a theory of causation, one that goes beyond either the forms of occasionalism (the God fearing dogmatists or Humaen empiricists). Instead of a vicarious causation (occasionlism) that Harman champions, Levi is opting for a "difference that makes a difference": 

"If information is the difference that makes a difference, then information repeated twice is no longer information. Consequently, if objects or objectiles are to maintain their existence across time, they must perpetually renew themselves through the production of novel events." 

This temporal reproduction of objects through a process of renewal is similar to Maturana and Varela's "living machines":

"An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produces the components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in the space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network." (Pp. 78-79) [1]

Explicating on this passage Niklas Luhmann in an essay tells us something interesting:

"Autopoietic systems, then, are not only self organizing systems. Not only do they produce and eventually change their own structures but their self-reference applies to the production of other components as well. This is the decisive conceptual innovation. It adds a turbo charger to the already powerful engine of self-referential machines. Even elements, that is, last components (individuals), which are, at least for the system itself, undecomposable, are produced by the system itself. Thus, everything which is used as a unit by the system is produced as a unit by the system itself. This applies to elements, processes, boundaries and other structures, and last but not least to the unity of the system itself. Autopoietic systems, of course, exist within an environment. They cannot exist on their own. But there is no input and no output of unity." [2]

Let's try an experiment and translate this autopoietic metaphorics into Object-Oriented terms: an Object is a self-organizing living machine, one that is organized as a productive network that continuously creates new objects through translation and absorption, thereby constituting itself as an irreducible entity occupying a space within the system of forces that is the world.  Levi tells us that a key feature of this process is that these machines being both autopoietic and allopoietic ultimately maintain both the integrity of the object itself and also create other objects that exist independent of the system itself through a "production of events."

Think of our physical body as one of these machines. From the time we are born we begin creating and maintaining all kinds of objects within the horizon of our fleshly envelope. We also translate objects from the surrounding environment into terms that our internal being can use (i.e., the intake of food and water; or, the transfer of bacteria from a mosquito bite). Homeostasis is a fancy word meaning "equilibrium," and it entails many interwoven variables that are amazing to consider. Temperature is among the most straightforward of these. The body sweats to keep cool and shivers to stay warm. But the human body is masterful at balancing many other factors. Most are subtler, involving the regulation of hormones and other bodily chemicals. All of the body's systems self-regulate using an intricate coordination of three principle roles: signal reception, centralized control and action.

All of the body's systems work together to maintain balance in the body, but various systems do have specific roles. Two of the most important systems for maintaining homeostasis are the nervous and endocrine systems. Basic bodily functions such as heart rate and breathing may be stimulated or slowed under neural control. The nervous system helps regulate breathing and the urinary and digestive systems, and it interacts with the endocrine system. For example, part of the brain triggers the pituitary gland to release metabolic hormones in response to changing caloric demands. Hormones also help adjust the body's balance of fluids and electrolytes, among other key roles in all the body's systems. Less energetically expensive, but no less important, roles in the maintenance of homeostasis include the lymphatic system's ability to fight infection, the respiratory system's maintenance of oxygen and proper pH levels, and the urinary system's removal of toxins from the blood.

The human body fends off many challenges to its maintenance of balance. A diet that lacks the right nutrients in the right amounts will induce the body to compensate or become sick. Exposure to drugs, alcohol and other toxins kick the excretory functions into high gear, lest these substances accumulate and damage the body's cells. Stress and depression can challenge the respiratory, cardiovascular and endocrine systems, and thereby weaken their respective abilities to maintain homeostasis. And insufficient sleep can work all of the body's systems too hard, impairing the body's balance. So, while the human body is an amazing entity with exquisite abilities it is still a machine that needs maintenance.  

The body is not some solid substance in the Aristotelian sense, but more of an object-effect of this homeostatic, as well as novel, process; it  is more an assemblage of objects or systems of objects working in unison to maintain a body-effect in which certain machines come together and are "plugged into certain limited systems of machinery while excluded from others", so that every object "exerts a determinate and limited range of effects in each instant, and is equally determined by the equipment that surrounds it" (TB, p. 10). [3] One could say the the body is an object that hides within itself an infinite regress of other machines. This is just one instance of the system of forces that hide below the surface effects of the sensuous realm, in the depths of a subterranean world that "is an invisible realm from which the visible infrastructure of the universe emerges" (TB, p. 11).   

As Levi tells us "objects come and go, sometimes getting destroyed, at other times moving out of the object and landing elsewhere, while that substantial form, that processuality, remains." This Whiteheadian concern with process is more of a gesture toward the processual philosophers in the SR community it seems, and it shows an aspect of conciliatory thinking on the part of Levi toward those others in our community. As he says, if "that’s not “evental” and “processual” enough for you, I just don’t know what you’re asking for." It seems the pressure of others brings out the depths of one's investment in certain forms of thought, and the democracy of an egalitarian mind as well. This is not meant as a critique, only an observation of the pressure of philosophical community and the day to day process of working with a network of fellow laborers. 

The Entropic Effect

"All complex order seems to be wrested from decay."
     - Niklas Luhmann

Levi also remarks on the "problem of entropy". As he relates, the "life of an object is such that it is always a question of how it can get to the next event. How is it that an object can produce the next event, the next components, that will allow it to continue its adventure or life through time for a moment longer?" To continue the ability to produce objects a dynamic system (autopoietic and allopoietic machines) must convert energy into productive force, as well as allowing for that accumulation of entropy within the system to dissipate in the form of waste or heat.

Levi seems to be following Niklas Luhmann and Whitehead again when he states that "every object is called a society." Levi sees a temporal aspect to this entropic effect of the disintegration of objects as waste or heat. Objects for him as part of a process in which "disintegrating events" become the "fodder to create new events." Niklas Luhmann tells us that social "systems use communication as their particular mode of autopoietic reproduction. Their elements are communications which are recursively produced and reproduced by a network of communications and which cannot exist outside of such a network" (ibid.). For Luhmann a society is founded on communication; yet, communications are not living units, conscious units, or actions. As he iterates it communications is "the network of events which produces itself, and structures are required for the reproduction of events by events" (ibid.). Communications is self-referential is is based on three aspects: information, utterance, and understanding; they are aspects which for the system cannot exist independently of the system; they are co-created within the process of communication. An object is a recursively closed system with respect to its communication among its components

Back to my body metaphor. The formal definition of autopoiesis gives no indication of the span of time during which components exist. Autopoiesis presupposes a recurring need for renewal. On the biological
level, however, we tend to think about the process of replacement of molecules within cells or the replacement of cells within organisms, postponing for some time the final, inevitable decay. As Levi tells us objects "thus “use” their entropy as a way of (re)producing themselves, but perpetually face the threat of entropy from the outside. What distinguishes different types of objects is thus not whether they are processual or not, but rather the degree of negentropy they enjoy." One could say that negentropy is the force that seeks to achieve effective organizational behavior within the object and lead to its steady predictable state of equilibrium. Ultimately it is the instability of the system that makes the system viable and novel, as well as productive and active. As Luhumann tells us:

"Events, too, occupy a minimal span of time, a specious present, but their duration is a matter of definition and has to be regulated by the autopoietic system itself: events cannot be accumulated. A conscious system does not consist of a collection of all its past and present thoughts, nor does a social system stockpile all its communications. After a very short time the mass of elements would be intolerably  large and its complexity would be so great that the system would be unable to select a pattern of coordination and would produce chaos. The solution is to renounce all stability at the operative level of elements and to use events only. Thereby, the continuing dissolution of the system becomes a necessary cause of its autopoietic reproduction. The system  becomes dynamic in a very basic sense. It becomes inherently restless. The instability of its elements is a condition of its duration" (ibid.).

An object maintains itself through its connection to time and irreversibility, which are built into the system not only at the structural level, but also at the level of its components and elements. Its elements are operations. Disintegration and reintegration, disordering and ordering require each other. It is this processual aspect that I think Levi is supporting of the polar effects of this systemic interplay of entropy and negentropy, disintegration and reintegration which is the self-organization of the object and its components. Time is the key to this whole process. And as Luhmann confirms systems "based on events need a more complex pattern of time" (ibid.). This is where I believe Levi implies his "difference that makes a difference", when Luhuman tells us that events "are happenings which make a difference between a  'before' and a 'thereafter'. They can be identified and observed, anticipated and remembered only as such a difference. Their identity is their difference" (ibid.).  

Levi explores the use of SR blogs as a metaphor for this process, but I'll leave that for the reader to explore. He finally closes his thoughts saying " objects are operationally closed but dynamically open. “Operational closure” is one of the terms I use for withdrawal. Objects are operationally closed insofar as they never encounter other objects directly, but always as a function of their own internal organization. ... Every object always encounters the world under conditions of closure, translating it in its own particular way. However, objects are nonetheless dynamically open insofar as these perturbation provide impetus for the evolution and development of objects, contributing to their growing complexity over time."

As Luhmann remarks the "problem, then, is to see how autopoietic closure is possible in open systems. The new insight postulates closure as a condition of openness, and in this sense the theory formulates limiting conditions for the possibility of components of the system. Components in general and basic elements in particular can be reproduced only if they have the capacity to link closure and openness." It's this dynamic tension between openness and closure, interaction and withdrawal, dormancy and action, information and knowledge: the communication of a difference that makes a difference, which seems to be what Levi is striving for within his philosophical discourse.

Yet, one must not forget that each and every object in the universe is fully deployed and fully actual; and, that an object's relations or non-relations are based upon its autonomy: relation implies perception, whether that relation is with the components of its own interior life, or the interactions with other objects exterior to itself through the distortions of its own active negotiations in participating in the 'system of forces' that is the world.  

It is premature to provide critique, we must await a full reading of Levi's new book The Democracy of Objects to gain a better understanding of this fine philosopher's intricate and unfolding system of speculation. I must commend him for detailing day by day many of his new thoughts on Larval Subjects. He is a bright and powerful mind that hones in on the central motifs of the SR movement and in particular its outgrowth within Object-Oriented Philosophy's thought and praxis.  

1. H. R. Maturana and F. J. Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 1980.
2. The Autopoiesis of Social Systems (N. Luhmann, The Autopoiesis of Social Systems, in: F. Geyer and J. van der Zouwen
(eds.), Sociocybernetic Paradoxes, Sage, London, 1986, 172ff.)
3. Tool-Being: Elements in a Theory of Objects by Graham Harman (TB) ( 1999 UMI Company) 


S.C. Hickman

Cengiz Erdem: Quote of the Day!


"Mimicry tries to regress to a world before the separation between nature and culture, the signifier and the signified, the subject and the object. The desire to play with spectres results in a becoming spectre. The subject leaves behind all individuality and becomes one with the world. Mimicry wants to take the shape, colour, and the structure of nature. And it wants to do this through cultural products. Mimicry erases the boundary between life and literature and even when there is no head, there is the subject automatically doing what it has to do."
     - Cengiz Erdem, A Pineal Eye Soliloquy, or, The Critique of Surrealism Continued 

S.C. Hickman

Bacchanalia: Another OOO enthusiast on LJ

Over at Bacchanalia I've discovered recently another OOO enthusiast. This time a literary creature who is pursuing some interesting tie-ins between literature, objects, and scholarship.  As he says, "I’ve been considering for awhile now crafting a new writing sample to use for my graduate school applications, one that better reflects my present interests in the field. I’ve had a life-long infatuation with stone, with rocks and pebbles, gemstones and crystals, and with my growing passion for OOO, I realized I could fuse those interests together and search for the agency of stones in medieval literature (which lends itself nicely to the sort of post-humanism of OOO and the dark ecology of Timothy Morton, considering the middle ages existed before Kant)." In his current essay Some Notes on Object Horror and Vibrant Matter in "The Franklin’s Tale" and Historia Regum Brittanniae he explores an intermixture of ideas ranging from post-human(ist) to OOO to Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter.

Check it out:

S.C. Hickman

Ian Bogost: Unit Operations

"I will suggest that any medium - poetic, literary, cinematic, computational - can be read as a configurative system, an arrangement of discrete, interlocking units of expressive meaning. I call these instances of procedural expression unit operations."
     - Ian Bogost 

I must confess I've left a blank in my preoccupation with reading Graham Harman, Levi R. Bryant, and Timothy Morton over the past months: the work of Ian Bogost. These four philosophical thinkers make up if not the four horsemen of SR, then at least the empowered object-effect of their ghostly absence as key members in its offshoot: Object-Oriented Philosophy.

But I finally purchased two of Ian Bogost's works on videogame theory: Unit Operations: An Approach to Video Games and Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Already I'm fascinated by his clear and precise expositional style, that is neither ostentatious nor full of that arcane terminology I find in a lot of computer theory. Instead this is the work of an insider and an enthusiast, who has learned through experience the darker demarcations that interpenetrates differing fields of endeavor without ever overstepping the limits of those domains. Yet, this is one of the keys to his unique approach, he walks between the regional worlds of literature and philosophical speculation on the one hand, and the highly sophisticated and technological savvy realms of the computer literati like a dark diver in a postmodern chaosmos where cyber-theory and  speculative realism meet in the twilight lands of our posthuman(ist) age. But don't confuse this with some pie-in-the-sky idealism, no he knows the nuts-and-bolts of the cold hard economics that underwrites the production of both domains, and as he tells us both the "hardware and software tools that underwrite the production of these and other works of digital art and software remain rooted in the moil of the marketplace." [1]

I just received both books today, so will have to reserve my commentaries for later, but what I see so far is intelligent, energetic, and formidable. I see why now he is not only a key asset within this weird realism that has taken many into that metaphysical return to speculations on the great outdoors, but offers a theoretical clarification and teasing out of the implications of OOO within both the literary and technological domains as well.

And, lest we forget, of gaming, too!

Visit his blog today:

1. Ian Bogost, Unit Operations: An Approach to Video Games ( 2006 Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
S.C. Hickman

Martial Arts and Philosophy?

Levi felt a little sheepish in asking about martial arts as a form of exercise in his recent post Sheepish Questions, saying:


Dang Rang"A martial art seems like it would solve all these problems. The thing is, I have no idea what to look for or what I should be pursuing (how do you choose a school?) and I wonder whether this is only something kids do. Do adults really take these sorts of classes? And if I go to one of these places will I find myself surrounded by a bunch of militant fascists? Any advice?"

Oh for the days... in my more formative years I did work through some of the same dilemmas and decided on Kung Fu and its unique traditions as conveyed within the Shaolin Temples of China. My master, Grandmaster Chul Woo Jung from Korea, whom I had the honor of working with in Denver, Colorado for several years retired in 2004. The tradition he taught steeped in ancient history as it was descended from a disciple of the original Indian monk named Bodhidharam (Dalma in Chinese) who came to Northern China around 540 A.D. where he built a temple called "Young Forrest" (Shaolin in Mandarin, Sil Lum in Cantonese, and So Rim in Korean). 

Approximately 400 years ago, a disciple of So Rim named Wong Long (Dang Rang in Korean) developed the Praying Mantis style of Kung Fu. His code of attack and defense was based on the tactics of the insect. Oral tradition dictates that Wong Long entered an annual contest in which many highly trained and skilled practitioners of Kung Fu took part. Invincible in his style of self-defense, he fought and defeated some two-hundred Kung Fu martial artists who challenged him to a duel. He later went into seclusion to further systematize his martial art. The details are recorded in the book of divination called Suk Yang Pi Kup from which the style was handed down through many generations.

The guiding principles of their charter from So Rim Dang Rang Kwan, states: Reverence for life is as important as offense and defense within the Dang Rang Kwan. Our basic charter charges all members to protect life, even that of an enemy. Training goals held forth by the charter encourage reverence for nature, and emphasize beauty, speed, and rightness of action."

As for advice... one must discover through the awareness of one's own unique body and mind the form within which your art can be both enacted and realized. Of Kung Fu there are many styles and one should check out the accreditation of the Masters in your area against the World Registry of Grand Masters before truly committing to the discipline of any one teacher.

There are many styles from hard to soft, and each offers its own rewards, and varies according to one's own ability to become disciplined in practice and theory. It does, to me, relate well to both a western/eastern philosophical practice. Zazen and the daily ritual of forms practice has always been a daily affair for me, a way of focusing and emptying my self of the detritus of effects that so subtend our lives and minds, leaving within me that ability to concentrate and awaken the discipline necessary to be aware of each moment as it emerges. Being surprised by existence at all times, this is the key to zazen and the arts. 
Some of the more self-defense paths as in Tae-Kwan Do (Korean), or other national favorites is of course a sure bet as well; for each offers a great openness to a region of thought and being that stems form the ancient worlds of the Buddha to this day.