S.C. Hickman (earth_wizard) wrote,
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) 


Tags: graham harman, levi r. bryant, object-oriented philosophy

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.