August 26th, 2012

S.C. Hickman

Object Relations: The Theory of Operational Closure.

"Obviously, no autopoietic system can 'adapt' to its environment. It only operates as if it were adapted. This is the reason why modern society slides into more and more problems with its individuals and its ecological conditions. Autopoietic systems are operationally closed systems. But they can observe, that is, communicate about whatever comes into their span of attention. They oscillate between external references and self-reference by focusing on the constative and the performative aspects of communication, on information and on utterance."
    - Niklaus Luhmann, Globalization and World Society

What if Objects exist by way of operational closure? What if how an object is depends on its own self-production, and how it relates to its environment also depends on its non-relation and differentiation from that environment. By constructing itself as an object-system, an object also constructs its communicative strategies, or how it relates with the environment as part of its systemic self-relation and self-production. And because of this there is no overarching totality, or environment for all objects that can ever be "represented" within any singular system. Every object exists by differentiation and thus is different and differing from other objects and has a different environment within which this self-production is mobilized. Reality becomes a multitude of object-environments within which self-production is the singular case.

The operational closure of self-producing object-systems does not prevent them from being "open" to their respective environments. Operational closure rather enables objects to generate an openness towards their environment, but no operational openness. As Niklas Luhmann once said "reality emerges if you have inconsistency in your operations". An object cannot come into immediate contact with its environment by way of its own operations. The biological operations within a cell, for instance, are only connected to and in continuation with the other biological operations within it.
The operational closure of self-producing objects allows them to build up mechanisms with which they can relate to their environment. Thus the relation of an object to its environment depends on the differentiation of an object from this environment. To reformulate this: relation is only possible because there are no relations, no operative relations to the environment. How an object relates to the environment is entirely dependent on its own structure. Every object is irreducible to any other object, yet each object reduces the complexity of what can be related in a specific way - and thus builds up internal systemic complexity.

This is why every object, in accordance with its own internal structure, relates differently. The specific openness of objects towards the environment is always an effect of the internal activity of those objects processes. The external complexity of the environment is reduced by unit operations, and this reduction is accompanied by an internal increase of systemic complexity of the objects themselves. Here I relate what Ian Bogost means by "unit operations" as unit "modes of meaning-making that privilege discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems" as opposed to "system operations," which he defines as "totalizing structures that seek to explicate a phenomenon, behavior, or state in its entirety". 1 An object is never in direct contact with other objects, yet it does exchange information with these other objects by internal mechanisms of pure relation. As Graham Harman has iterated "when two objects meet they can only relate through the interior of a third object. The intention of each object meets through a unified relation; the intention as a whole is a real object, because the content of the intention is arbitrary to the fact of the intention itself."2 Or as Harman stipulates in another passage, stating that "even inanimate things only unlock each other's realities to a minimal extent, reducing one another to caricatures...even if rocks are not sentient creatures, they never encounter one another in their deepest being...", which leads us to his use of the term 'Vicarious Causation':

"Vicarious means that objects confront one another only by proxy, through sensual profiles found only on the interior of some other entity. 'Asymmetrical' means that the initial confrontation always unfolds between a real object and a sensual one. And 'buffered' means that [real objects] do not fuse into [sensual objects], nor [sensual objects] into their sensual neighbors, since all are held at bay through unknown firewalls sustaining the privacy of each. from the asymmetrical and buffered inner life of an object, vicarious connections arise birth to new objects with their own interior spaces." (ibid. 187-221)

Operational closure allows for constant environmental “irritation” between the real and the sensual object. The objects, by means of their operational mechanisms, can then produce information about the environment within themselves. The communication between real and sensual objects can only come about because they are structurally coupled. I take this term over from Humberto Maturana's use as the term for structure-determined (and structure-determining) engagement of a given unity with either its environment or another unity.3 During the course of structural coupling, each participating object is, with respect to the other(s), a source (and a target) of perturbations. Phrased in a slightly different way, the participating real and sensual object reciprocally serve as sources of compensable perturbations for each other. These are ‘compensable’ in the senses that (a) there is a range of ‘compensation’ bounded by the limit beyond which each object ceases to be a functional whole and (b) each iteration of the reciprocal interaction is affected by the one(s) before. Structural coupling, then, is the process through which structurally-determined transformations in each of two or more unit operations, as exemplified by the interaction of a real and sensual object within a third object, induces (for each) a trajectory of reciprocally-triggered change.

Structural coupling is a state in which two objects shape the environment of each other in such a way that both depend on the other for continuing their self-production and increasing their structural complexity. Structural coupling establishes specific mechanisms of irritation between objects and forces different unit operations to continuously resonate with each other. Under the conditions of structural coupling, irritation and resonance gain the status of permanent influences between objects. In this way, the structural development of both objects is interrelated. Structural coupling allows for both objects to develop a higher complexity.If a continuous irritation-resonance relationship between two objects is established, then increases in the structural complexity of one object will bring about increases in the structural complexity of the other. Through structural coupling, objects cannot steer other objects or directly interfere in their unit operations. They can, however, establish relatively stable links of irritation that force other objects to resonate with them. There are always two sides to structural coupling. A object that irritates another cannot, in turn, avoid being irritated. That objects are interrelated primarily through structural coupling means that no singular object can dominate another; no object can exert influence without itself being influenced.

Object-oriented theory describes objects not on the basis of an underlying unity but on the basis of underlying difference. Objects are not made up of small units that constitute a larger unit, it is rather based on differences that constitute more differences. Object-oriented is a theory of distinction. The thesis invokes the idea that a object is not a unit, but a difference, and that one thus ends up with the problem that one has to imagine the unity of a difference. An Object is not a unit—it is a difference, consisting of differences. Object-oriented theory is, strictly speaking, not a theory of objects, per se, but of object-environment distinctions. A object only comes to exist by distinguishing itself from its environment. A object exists by virtue of being distinct; withdrawn from all relation. The theory of a object is, more precisely, the drawing of a new distinction. Object-oriented theory distinguishes itself from traditional ontological attempts by orienting itself on difference rather than on unity. Objects have no “being” as such—they are a difference, a distinction.

Objects have no fundamental nature or “being,” no final core that represents their essence. An Object is not composed of relations; it is the reality that results from systemic differentiation. Yes, differentiation produces relations,  but these are relations of difference, not of unity. An object is what it is, not by virtue of its inner nature, but by how it distinguishes itself from its relations to the environment. Objects emerge on the basis of contingent differences drawn by emerging relations. An Object distinguishes itself from other objects and things outside its relations and thus it establishes itself within an environment. It becomes another difference within the differences already made. None of these differences “have to be” made, but once they are made, they make a difference. The existence of an object is not by its “nature” dependent on other objects or its relations with other objects. Object-oriented theory is a complex multiplicity without a center, an essential core, or a hierarchy. It is a complex multiplicity of a wide variety of object-environment realities. Objects change, they come and go, yet there is no telos no goal to objects as they emerge and are entangled with other objects. Objects are.

According to Object-oriented theory, the sense and essence of the world do not precede the being of objects: the being of objects rather precedes the sense and essence of the world. The world is nothing specific as such. It only becomes something that makes sense by being observed as such by unit operations. It is not the world that determines the sense that objects make, it is rather the objects that determine the sense the world makes—and thereby its reality. Or as Levi R. Bryant in his new book The Democracy of Objects calls this articulation a form of the ontological thesis which stipulates that "the world must be a particular way for certain practices and activities like perception, experimentation, discourse, and so on, to be possible and that the world would be this way regardless of whether we perceived, experimented, or discoursed about it."4 Ian Bogost tells us that a unit operation is always fractal, that a unit is never an atom, but a set, a grouping of other units that act together as a system...", and that it names a phenomenon of accounting for an object. It is a process, a logic, an algorithm if you want, by which a unit attempts to make sense of another.5 He explicates it in detail:

"In Badiou’s terms, it is the sense of a situation rather than the counting-for-one that establishes it. In Whitehead’s terms, it is a prehensive capability. In Husserl’s terms, it is noesis divorced of consciousness, cogitation, intention, and other accidents of human reasoning. In Lingis’s terms, it is the inner formula by which a thing invites its exploration. Since objects are all fundamentally different from one another, each one has its own approach, its own logic of sense making, and through this relation they trace the real reality of another, just as the radiation around an event horizon helps an astronomer deduce the nature of a black hole. “Unit operation” names the logics by which objects perceive and engage their worlds."(ibid.)

If objects perceive and engage the world through the logics of unit operations, then it proceeds that observation is performed as the drawing of a distinction—a distinction between what is observed and the “unmarked space” of what is not. This operation is the observation of something as distinguished from something else. The operation of observation not only distinguishes the observed from the unobserved, it also distinguishes the observed from the observer. Through continuous operations of observation, a system constructs what it observes—and it constructs itself as an observation system. The observer may observe operations—but at the same time is also an operation: “other than as an observation the observer cannot exist. The observer is a formation that constitutes itself by linking operations to each other”(Luhmann 2002a, 143). Unit operations produce reality by producing object/environment distinctions. Reality thus emerges as an effect of the operational closure of object relations. Once objects are able to link their observational operations, they establish their own operational closure, their self-productive relations with other objects, and themselves. Unit operations produce operational closure and thus systemic autopoiesis, and systemic autopoiesis produces relation. In this way a complex systemic reality, not based on singular “being,” but on multiple differences emerges. The question how objects are able to produce unit operations within an environment can then be reformulated as the question how objects can uncouple themselves from their environment. The uncoupling of a object from its environment establishes a system/environment distinction and thereby constitutes the condition for the possibility of a unit operation, and thereby the condition for the possibility of relations. Once more: reality is a product of unit operation differentiation—not of a singular world that is given “at hand.”  In some ways the self-production of objects is the way things are, their mode of being in the world.

1. Bogost, Ian (March 2006). Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism.  The MIT Press
On Vicarious Causation (OVC) from Collapse II, full article available HERE
3. Maturana, H. R. 1970. Biology of cognition. BCL Report 9.0. Biological Computer Laboratory. Department of Electrical Engineering, University of Illinois
4. Levi R. Bryant. The Democracy of Objects (Open Humanities Press, 2011) p. 65
5. Ian Bogost (2012-04-03). Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a Thing (Posthumanities) (Kindle Locations 655-656). University Press of Minnesota. Kindle Edition.
6.  Operational Closure and Structural Coupling: The Differentiation of the Legal System, by Niklas Luhmann (OC) (Cardoza Law Review Vol. 13:1419 1991 -1192)