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Information, Spinoza’s “Idea” and The Structure of the Universe

Ideas as Information

This is a difficult post to write, particularly because the ideas it addresses are just plain large. And these large ideas have such permeating ramifications, both towards Spinoza philosophy and contemporary Science it is indeed very difficult to do any justice to them. Instead it must be taken as a kind of rough draft, a sketch, of what may be conceptually possible when bringing the philosophical concepts Spinoza employed into contact with the Information. The thoughts here must be taken as provisional conjecture, but this is not to say that I do not find the comparisons offered here to be valid. Rather, I suspect strongly that what Spinoza was talking about, the relationships in the world that he was attempting to systematize, are very much the same ones that Science today talks about when thinking in terms of information.

All this comes into view with Tom Stonier’s radical Scientific proposal that Information is an essential component of the Universe, found in his speculative book Information and the internal structure of the universe: an exploration (1990). I’ll cite at length from his work below to present the core of his ideas about information, but first I need to make a conceptual leap which will make future thoughts of my application of Stonier’s ideas more clear.

Stonier’s abstraction on the left, Spinoza’s on the right:

Matter = Extension

Energy = Conatus (striving)

Information = Idea

I don’t want to justify these equalizations, but rather just let them remain as starting points, at least until Stonier’s vision of information is made more clear. I will say that the first of these seems obvious. What we mean usually by matter is precisely what Spinoza is attempting to describe through the Attribute of Extension. The second of these is both instinctively appealing but also has some difficulties in translation, mostly due to the much debated theoretical role conatus plays in Spinoza’s philosophy. Perhaps though in reading conatus as energy in the specific context of information theory important aspects of Spinoza’s conatus thinking may come into relief. And lastly, most importantly, the third of these, the equation of 21st century information with 17th century Spinozist idea, is the keystone of the entire comparison, and hopefully will reveal as much about what Spinoza was thinking, as about what he was trying to describe.

But now let us present Stonier’s idea that “information” comprises the universe just as much as matter and energy does.

Information is Real

Stonier spends much of his time hewing out a concept of elemental information from the concept of “energy”, leaving “matter” to remain relatively self-evident. It is in particular the way that we are able to see energy as existing in different forms yet to remain an objective measure of how things are composed, that provides the footing for how information is to be conceived. Much of what Stonier argues is that some of our energy descriptions are better handled as information transformations:

Just as there exist different forms of energy – mechanical, chemical, electrical, heat, sound, light, nuclear, etc – so do there exist different forms of information. Human information represents only one form of information..human information itself, maybe stored and communicated in a wide variety of ways and represent many different forms (9)

Right of the bat we have a very important idea, and one that communicates itself quite well with Spinoza’s notion on the limits of human thinking and epistemology. What we commonly refer to as “meaning” which is ever context bound, is only a form of information, just as mechanical energy is just a form of energy. The ideas we have as human beings are not reducible to the meaning of their expression in language. Rather, as Spinoza sees it, the ideas we have are rather best seen as dispositional relations to really only one thing, the whole of the Universe. The ideas we have are informational or organizational states, what Stonier will call “structure”. Let me quote at length what Stonier describes as the “heart of the concept”. I quote at length both because Stonier’s book is not accessible on-line, and also because he does a pretty good job of expressing himself on what he means:

Information and organization are intimately interrelated.

From this axiom we derive the following theorems;

  1. All organized structures contain information, and as a corollary: No organized structure can exist without containing some form of information.
  2. The addition of information to a system manifests itself by causing a system to become more organized, or reorganized.
  3. An organized system has the capacity to release or convey information.

Let us examine the above theorems, beginning with the first. Any physical system which exhibits organization contains information. Information organizes space and time. The definition of the term “information” becomes analogous to the physical definition of the term “energy”: Energy is defined as the capacity to perform work. Information is defined as the capacity to organize a system – or to maintain it in an organized state. As we shall discuss later, it becomes impossible to perform “useful” work without an input of both energy and information. Conversely, all work brings about a change in organization, hence information.

Organization is a reflection of order. A structure or system may be said to be organized if it exhibits order. Order is a non-random arrangement of the parts of the structure or system. Randomness is the opposite of order, keeping in mind that certain forms of apparent randomness exhibit significant order, eg, a perfectly uniform distribution. For this reason, the terms chaos and disorder are preferable. Any quantitative analysis of information must be based, at least in part, on measuring either the order, or the chaos of the system.

Analyzing the information content of a chaotic system is made more problematical by the fact that a system may only appear to be chaotic: That is, such a system actually is responding to a simple algorithm – the apparent unpredictability reflects the fact that trivial variations in initial conditions may have a major impact on the system’s final behavior.

Organization and information are, by definition, closely interlinked. However, they are different: One cannot have a shadow without light, but a shadow and light are not the same thing. A shadow is the manifestation of light interacting with an opaque object. Likewise, organization is the manifestation of information interacting with matter and energy.

It is important to emphasize the conceptual necessity for an abstract term such as “information”. Information is a quantity which may be altered from one form to another. Information is a quantity which may be transferred from one system to another. This is not true, at least to the same degree, for the more concrete terms “order”, “organization”, “pattern”, or “structure”. The matter parallels the difference between the terms “energy” and “heat”. Energy is being capable of being transformed from one form to another, as well as being transferred from one system to another. In contrast, the limitations of the less abstract concept “heat” (a quantity directly perceptible to our physical senses), cannot explain how heating a boiler causes a locomotive to move, or a light bulb to light up in response to the electricity generated by a steam turbine.

Likewise, “information” maybe transformed from one form to another, as for example, when dictating a manuscript: Patterns of sound waves end up transcribed as words on a printed page. It’s easy to understand that the information was transformed via the stenographer and printer, from the spoken to the written word. It is not clear how the oscillating molecules of air comprising the sound pattern end up as apparently unrelated patterns of dye molecules on a printed page. The matter becomes even more mysterious when one eliminates the human intermediaries and speaks into a voice-to-print device. The structure of the phonemes making up a word is not the same as the structure of the printed syllables making up the same word. The information content, however, may be considered the same for both.

Information, like energy, is an abstract quantity. Communications engineers have recognized since Hartley’s time, over half a century ago, that information may be treated as an abstract quantity. What the present work proposes is more than that, viz, that information, like energy is a physical reality.

To be more precise, heat (involving uncorrelated photons in a crystal or randomly moving molecules in a gas) is the product of the interaction between matter and energy. Structure is the product of the interaction between matter and pure information. Energy, in pre-relativity physics, was considered as the more abstract quantity which, when added to matter, manifests itself as structure (organization).

As will be discussed in a later chapter, such a conceptualization of information leads to a different quantitative definition from that of the communications engineers. Such a definition also differs from the standard dictionary definition which defines information as, for example: knowledge, news, or what is told. Dictionaries go on to define knowledge as all that is, or maybe known. Knowing is defined as: recognizing, perceiving with certainty, being aware (of), being acquainted with. There are other, more specialized meanings provided by dictionaries, but the gist is that information is either a form of knowledge, or equivalent to it. Dictionaries define knowledge and information purely in implicitly human terms. This is in marked contrast to the principle that information is a property of the universe – that it comprises the “internal” structure of the universe.

Human information may involve the perception of that “internal” structure. Every time scientists define a constant such as the gas constant, Avogadro’s number, Boltzmann’s or Planck’s constant, etc, they have discovered another aspect of the organization of the universe. Each such discovery represents the human perception of the information contained within physical systems.

Aspects of human information systems, including the terms knowledge, meaning, significance, intelligence, etc will be explored in a future work, Beyond Chaos. The present work is concerned with the physics of information systems – systems whose reality is independent of human perception and which therefore transcends it.

To sum up: All regular patterns contain information. The mathematics of chaos had demonstrated that even apparently highly irregular patterns, may be the product of some rather simple algorithm which underlies the chaos. To the argument that what we are really talking about is “patterns” and “organization”, the answer is that “information” is a more abstract generalization which, in the long run, one needs in order to measure it by some universal measure such as “bits”. It becomes as difficult to measure quantitatively a pattern or a structure in terms of bits without the aid of the abstract concept “information”, as it is to measure in joules the output of light by a lamp without the more abstract concept of “energy”.

Information is an implicit component in virtually every single equation governing the laws of physics. (25-28)

The first thing that needs to be addressed if we are to make a successful comparison between Stoniers concept of information and Spinoza’s notion of Idea is the thought that information can be “transferred”. I think that this is related to the way in which we view energy as some form of primal substance that can be poured into (or drained out of) various containers. I’m not sure how helpful this image is in either the case of energy or information. The addition of energy to a system is a transformative one. The system itself is changed. And I think Stonier is onto this with his idea that information itself, when added, changes the structure of what it is added to. There is, therefore, something of competing images here, images that have to do with how we view the boundaries of things. From a Spinozist point of view, therefore, when Stonier says:

  • The addition of information to a system manifests itself by causing a system to become more organized, or reorganized.
  • An organized system has the capacity to release or convey information.
  • I think it is better said that an organized system has the capacity to improve the organization of (the adequacy of the ideas of) systems outside of it. Information does not pour out of a system, into another, but rather communicates itself, interactively, through the improvement of the organization of things beyond it. In this way the physical object of a book does not “release or convey” but rather through interaction, re-organizes the materiality of the reader. Key to changing the metaphor we use to describe informational relations is to see that when there are such interactions nothing is being passed back and forth, but rather what is involved is the substantive change in the relational capacities of each distinct thing, in the context of something larger than each (be it a larger system, or the Universe itself).

    Stonier in his re-imagining of information uses the concept to address itself to the problem of entropy. He works to show that entropy is not strictly equivalent to “heat” (which is one of its manifestations), a difference that actually marks out the need for an information science as structural changes in matter do not exclusively follow heat changes. As such he places organization and heat at odds to each other (heat, the move towards randomness, works against the move towards organization), but energy and information are actually part of a triangle of universal elements:

    The application of energy expresses itself as heat which causes particles (molecules, photons, plasmons, etc) to vibrate and to move at random. In contrast, the application of information causes particles to be bound into fixed patterns and ordered motion. In that sense, heat may be considered as the antithesis of organization.

    If heat is the antithesis of organization is heat, and by implication, energy the antithesis of information, that does not preclude the possibility that energy and information may interact to provide a mix which might be viewed as “energized information”, or alternatively as “structured energy”. INFORMATION and ENERGY must not be viewed as the opposites of a bipolar system, rather, they must be considered as the two angles of a triangle, with MATTER comprising the third (74-75)

    This is problematic to a Spinoza/Stonier comparison, and I think Spinoza actually helps out here. Stonier wants to see something like a crystal at very low temperature as possessing an ideal of information, a structural coherence with very little entropy (heat). I think that this is a mistake in his visualization. Because I view the conatus as equivalent to energy, actually all things that exist possess both informational structure (what I want to call informational or ideational lean towards the Universe), and also the energy (tendency) to maintain that lean (entropy will be handled at another time). In fact the informational and energy dispositions are mutual expressions of each other. The introduction of heat (randomness) is actually an informational transformation from the outside. Instead of thinking of information as merely the internal structure of a thing, it is both the internal and relationship organization of a thing.

    We can see this on the most fundamental level in examples of “energy” transfer, reconfigured to reflect exchanges of information. Stonier uses the classic of billiard balls: 

    …consider two billiard balls, one red, one white, rolling along on a billiard table at equal speed. The red one is moving in a north-easterly direction, while the white one is moving in a south-easterly direction. Let them meet in such a way, that the collision results in a reversal of direction: The red one now traveling south-east, while the white one travels north-east.

    The question that one may ask is whether the two balls exchanged energy, or whether they exchanged information. Certainly the collision, involving a glancing blow, seemed not to affect appreciably the energy content of the system as a whole. Nor did the energy content of the individual balls appear to be affected appreciably since they continued moving at virtually undiminished speed. What was altered however, was the direction…To restate the question: Is the conservation of momentum a reflection of the fact that the two bodies merely exchanged information? (81)

    Instead of seeing energy as conserved and “transferred” between objects, one can also describe such an interaction as an exchange of information. In fact, I suggest it is not the exchange of information so much as the informational re-orientation of each. The ideas of each ball, its informational properties, has changed through interaction. We can see the foundations of Spinoza’s panpsychism wherein each thing “thinks” (is made of ideas that make a difference in its capacities in the world).

    Stonier himself provides an interesting example of the primary dichotomy he would like to set up between heat and organization, with an implicit tension between energy and information, that if warm-blooded mammalian brains. This is more than a mere exception I would suggest, but rather points to the problem of Stonier absolute contrast between energy and information itself. As he writes of the mammal and heat (randomness):

    Present-day biological systems, with minor exceptions (eg, certain chemosynthetic bacteria), obtain their energy from the sun. Light, as we shall discuss later, is a form of energy with a high information component. In general, biological systems eschew heat – either as an energy input, or as a product. When heat is generated, it is the by-product of metabolic reactions and usually reflects an inefficiency in the system. The one clear exception is the production of heat to maintain efficiency of advanced metabolic systems operating in highly organized environments. To maintain the very high levels of structural information in the system, the changes in entropy associated with changes in temperature must be kept to a minimum. The most advanced information processing system known is the mammalian brain. When the temperature rises only slightly above a critical threshold (as with a high fever), the system begins to fail as the individual hallucinates. A relatively slight drop in temperature, on the other hand, leads to narcosis. Thus even relatively minor (heat-inducing) changes in entropy, change the delicate organization of the system so as to interfere with effective information processing.

    Therefore, in the one exception where biological systems do produce heat and utilize heat, the function of the added heat is not to provide energy, but to maintain a stable temperature so as to minimize externally induced entropy changes. In other words, heat is used to help stabiliize organization – it is the one instance where the controlled application of heat constitutes an input of information. (66-67)

    As I have argued elsewhere when considering Spinoza as a Chaoplexicist, Is Spinoza a Cyberneticist, or a Chaocomplexicist?informational increases cannot be seen solely in terms of an internally defined relation, for instance the structure of crystal. Instead they have to be read as edge-riding properties at the border of chaotic distributions. For instance there cannot be any such heat/organization polarity. If the Universe achieve a degree zero state it would not have reached a state of maximum information. Instead, the heat (randomness) use by mammalian lifeforms is not an exception, but an expression of the informational transformations that make up the structure of the Universe. Organization is best not seen in contest with Energy, but rather Energy expressions are necessarily informational ones. Even a purely random, equilibrium distribution is informational. And information increases (what for Spinoza would be increases in the adequacy of ideas) are not expressed sheerly as “structure” but rather the ability to bestride structure and chaos. This is precisely what lifeforms do with “heat”, not eschewing it, but surfing it.

    The locus of this reasoning I believe is found between the two, conflicting theories of Information and its relationship to entropy. Shannon, famously, linked the information content of a message to the surprise factor of its distribution. So if you received absolutely random message (taken to be utterly entropic), its information would be at maximum. Stonier, because he is not dealing with messages, but states, but an absolutely random distribution as the minimum of information structure. Truth be told, the answer lies between these two. A distribution, when seen as a message and measured for information, carries with it its relational capacities found in the reader of that distribution. In keeping with Shannon, the work that must be done in application of informational decoding of a random message is very high, so the message contain maximum information. If one is surprised very little by a message, it is composed of very few differences that make a difference to the reader. Its information is low. With Stonier, a random distribution of gas molecules composes very few differences that make a difference to the observer, so the information is low, but the reader/observer and the system/message have to be taken as a whole. The antithesis between these two perspectives is in their framing. If for instance we were to play a game where the exact distribution of gas molecules in a box near equilibrium state provides clue the game’s aim, suddenly the box is brimming with information, differences that make a difference. In fact, real world information differences, organizational relations that make a maximum of differences in the world, are those that oscilate or rather surf between both Stonier concept of fixed, structural, very low energy information, and Shannon’s very high entropy notion of message information. Maximal information, as lived, rides between this balance between structure and chaos. It is as Spinoza says,  

    E4p38Whatever so disposes the human Body that it can be affected in a great many ways, or renders it capable of affecting external Bodies in a great number of ways, is useful to man; the more it renders the Body capable of being affected in a great many ways, or of affecting other bodies, the more useful it is: on the other hand, what renders the Body less capable of these things is harmful.

    To use a Stonier example, for a crystal at low temperature to be in a maximum state of information its constellations of elements would have to be in state in which they can effect or be affected in the greatest number of ways, and one is not sure that this is the case. Such a state is not just useful, I would say that it demarks the greatest adequacy of ideas , or informational orientation, as is historically possible. Part of this is because for Spinoza there is such thing as a state that has no information or organization.

    There are additional difficulties to be handled in the equation between Spinoza’s “Idea” and Stonier’s “Information”, for instance the reality of entropy and the ultimately question of whether, or to what degree a “closed system” actually exists, has to be worked through. And there are several other aspects of Stonier’s theory that lend themselves to an elucidation of Spinoza’s thinking, for instance the way in which he re-reads changes in “potential energy” as changes in “information”, the moving of a system into a less probable state. These are things I cannot take up right here, hopefully in the future. It is more that Stonier’s view that information comprises an essential, transformational component of the Universe, just as energy and matter does provides a highly effective backdrop for understanding just what Spinoza means by Idea. What he means by Idea is Information. And it is precisely the distinction between human information and information as an abstraction that best brings out the differences Spinoza meant in both his epistemology and his ontology, the way in which there are distinct limits to what we know, but also that in knowing anything we are changing our informational relationship to both it and the world. Improving the Adequacy of our Ideas is perhaps best seen as improving our Informational organization of ourselves, thinking is position altering. And all things must be regarded as, in some sense, thinking.

    I hope that this presentation has not be unfair to Stonier whose theory and book deserves much better treatment. I am not one who enjoys the detailed summaries of positions, and have used Stonier only as a peering into the possibilities of Spinoza’s thinking, both in terms of what he really meant, and how it might help us understand how things are. But Stonier’s theory is beautiful in its own right worth serious study for what he claims. My Spinozist adaptation is at best provisional.

    From Ideal Networks to Real Ones: Al Qaeda and Chaoplexic Warfare

    Are Networks Networks?

    One of the weaknesses of a Latourian sense of the world as Networking is that though such sociological analytic takes its traction from the fashion in which actual networks have been coming to dominate our communications and industry, it is not really the Internet or other literal networks Latour and ANTS are talking about. Indeed, everything is to be explained by the transformations of networks, and it may be that literal networks are some of the things that are least explainable in such terms. Which is to say that the dispositions of any of the actants and their various trials of strength really are not the best, or at least the most compelling causal narratives by which we should come to understand them. For while it does something to undress prima facie non-network social phenomena such as Scientific discovery so as to reveal their networked, actant natures, something else seems to occur when we consider networks themselves, things that don’t nearly have to be demystified to such a degree. In the past I have argued that Latour is in need of a Spinozist rationality of cause (here, here and here), but Latour is not so much the aim here as the context for an interesting historical example which gives me pause to ANTism.

    The source of my series of thoughts is The Scientific Way of Warfare by Antoine Bousquet. I got the title from Nick at Accursed Share. I can say that he does a much better job then I ever would in reviewing the book. Instead I would like to take a very small snippet from the quite interesting analysis which attempts to expose the conceptual schema of modern warfare organization, as exemplified or inspired by the four devices: clock, engine, computer, network. Really the first two are only cursorily handled without much historical depth, providing only conceptual framework for the latter two of which the author has the most knowledge and interest.

    What Antoine Bousquet contends is that with the advent of the computer military organization took on a largely cybernetic concern of command and control. Under this command and control approach, like a computer, military action was thought of as a closed organization whose interrelatability of parts had to be perfected in terms of information processing so as to best rule out informational “noise” from the environment. And this closed-circuit organization is achieved through negative feedback, the steering of the closed system away from events that disturbed its homeostasis. Bousquet thus suggests that historically with the rise of real networks in the world – principally the Internet which began as a military program that become civilized – coupled to the increased applicability of Chaos Theory and Complexity Theory, decentralized organization was discovered to be far more resilient and adaptable than the Closed System. Decentralized modeling followed Positive Feedback instead of the computer model’s Negative Feeback, and became the new paradigm for vital military and security organization. As he traces it, this paradigm has been adopted by the United States military to only a limited degree, as hierarchical, topsight priorities have used growing network connections for increasedly centralized control, in a kind of culturally entrenched conceptual backlash.

    Deviations From Homeostasis

    Rather, the better example of military chaoplexic warfare seems to be that of al Qaeda, the description of which I will quote at length:

    Since September 11, the focus has naturally been on al-Qaeda and the wider movement of radical Islamist militancy and terrorism. The nebulous and dispersed nature of these organizations has invited their analysis in terms of decentered networks and complex adaptive systems. Thus al-Qaeda is seen as a decentralized and polymorphous network “with recursive operational and financial interrelationships dispersed geographically across numerous associated terrorist organizations that adapt, couple and aggregate in pursuit of common interests” [citing “Observing Al Qaeda Through the Lens of Complexity Theory: Recommendations for the National Strategy to Defeat Terrorism,” Beech]. For Marion and Uhl-Bien, interactive non-linear bottom-up dynamics are behind the self-organization of al-Qaeda in which bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership are an emergent phenomena: “leaders do not create the system but rather are created by it, through a process of aggregation and emergence” [citing “Complexity Theory and Al-Qaeda: Examining Complex Leadership,” Marion and Uhl-Bien].While a diffuse movement of Islamic radicalism coalesced to create terrorist networks from which the leadership could spring, the latter has also assisted the continued development of a decentralized movement by maintaining and fostering “a moderately coupled network, but one possessing internal structures that were loosely and tightly organized as appropriate.” The authors distinguish between loosely coupled networks in which the parts have functional independence, thus granting the system great resilience to large scale perturbations, and tightly coupled networks in which the leadership imposes control mechanisms that enable it to direct activities and receive regular reports. In between these two poles, we find moderately coupled networks which allow some degree of directing by leadership but retain great resiliency. [note the rhetorical disbalance here: modest “some” vs. the still threatening “great”]. If the wider radical Islamist movement is only loosely coupled and individual terrorist cells are tightly coupled, the pre-9/11 al-Qaeda leadership network sat somewhere in between, performing the function of a galvanized interface.

    Even in the case of [a] single operation such as September 11, it has become increasingly clear that its planning and execution were far more decentralized than initially supposed. The different cells in the plot, although tightly coupled internally, functioned quasi-autonomously, and although they received some financial, logistical and training support from other parts of the organisation, were not exclusively dependent on them. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, said to be the operational “mastermind” behind September 11 (a designation which, although commonly used in the media, is problematic as it suggests highly centralized planning and control) and now in American military custody, is alleged to have claimed that “the final decisions to hit which target with which plane was entirely in the hands of the pilots.” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was only then subsequently informed of their decision in July 2001. According to this same testimony, bin Laden and the high ranks of the al-Qaeda organisation were only loosely informed of specific details and had only a very limited directing role. Many of bin Laden’s close associates were never even made aware of the plot. This form of organisational and operational structure is one that is particularly alien to Western states and their heirarchial military and security apparatuses, as Mohammed himself recognises, “I know that the materialistic western mind cannot grasp the idea, and it is difficult for them to believe that the high officials in al-Qaeda do not know about operations carried out by its operatives, but this is how it works.”

    The Scientific Way of Warfare, 208-209

    And here are three worthy quotes explaining how complex organization is to be thought of…

    Complex adaptive systems constitute a special case of complex systems that are capable of changing and learning from experience. Complexity theorist John Holland defines a complex adaptive system as a dynamic network of many agents acting in parallel, constantly acting and reacting to what the other agents are doing. Since the control of a complex adaptive system tends to be highly dispersed and decentralized, any coherent behavior in the system arises from competition and cooperation among the agents themselves. It is the accumulation of all the individual decisions taken by the multitude of agents which produces the overall behavior of the system, which can thus be said to be emergent. (175)

    The worldview constituted by chaoplexity marks a seismic shift away from the dominant conceptions of the natural world. No longer is order to be seen a product of the natural tendency towards equilibrium. On the contrary, it is with non-equalibrium that order emerges from chaos, at the point where instability and creative mutation allow for the genesis of new forms and actions. Consequently, the systems produced through these processes of self-organisation have distinct emergent features which cannot be understood solely through an analysis of their atomized components since it is their pattern of interaction which constitute their complexity. (181)

    “Up to a point, tightening the connections between elements in the system will increase efficiency when everything works smoothly. But, if one small item goes wrong, then that can have a catastrophic knock-on effect throughout the system. The system literally switches over, from smooth functioning to interactively complex disaster”

    Global Complexity, Urry

    We can see the beauty of this particular kind of networked conception one which Bousquet reads as perched between order (systematic, heirarchial, negative feedback restrictive control) and chaos. A non-equilibrium juxtaposition that uses its very instability as an advantage of its own becoming. And indeed there is something of a parallel to philosophies of becoming that want to read things in terms of primary deterrorializations. When one considers something like Latour’s notion of actants in network somehow the critical analogy which seems to hide within many of our non-network seeming processes don’t really seem to explain what is happening, or how information and organization is acquired in al Qaeda:

    in order to spread far…. an actant needs faithful allies who accept what they are told, identify itself with its cause, carry out all the functions that are defined for them, and come to its aid without hesitation when they are summoned. The search for these ideal allies occupies the space and time of those who wish to be stronger than others. As soon as an actor has found a somewhat more faithful ally, it can force another ally to become more faithful in its turn. “despite everything, networks reinforce one another and resist destruction. Solid yet fragile, isolated yet interwoven, smooth yet twisted together, [they] form strange fabrics.” (199)

    The Pasturization of France

    Beds of Chaoplexic Organization

    It is not enough to say that bin Laden has performed a trial of strength and created allies, or that each of the cell groups have identified with his cause, and then carry out “the functions”. There is something more going on here. It is true that networks such as al Qaeda are resilient and reinforced (though their persistent media image as THE threat no doubt goes a long way in preserving and overstating this); yet this is not just a story of alliances. As Bousquet tells it, it is a story of patterns. It is the very distinct pre-Chaotic level of al Qaeda organization that the figure of its strength lies, such that it cannot be either predicted (only perturbed), nor destroyed (only fragmented). One suspects rather strongly that it is not even in the pattern itself that the whole causal story is told, but as well in the ideological substrate, the entire imaginary, affective pool of Middle Eastern, and indeed global Islamic realities, as well as very concrete political-economic stratifications, which serve as immanent possibility for such a Chaoplexic organization. It is not just that they are braided into alliances, but also that the ideological well-spring is rich enough that fragmentation does not kill operation.

    In this way the initial conditions prove significant sources for the possibilities of Chaoplexic collectivity, whole-cloth ideational dispositions that work as a body upon which organization can express itself so as to arise with emergent (and fluctuating) powers of action. There is something more than actants and their transformations.

    In this way ideology and economy serve as a kind of perspective intermediate stage between full-blown metaphysics (which once only had the State as its avatar), a pseudo-divinity of effects which is neither object (actant) or its relationships (network). Not a material plasma, but an affective/conceptual coherence between bodies that readies actants for a change in the degree of order/chaos ratios, hence adaptive intelligence. In a sense, al Qaeda structures exhibit the very radicality of democracy itself, perhaps governed (made possible via Negative feedback) as it is by other significant anti-Western cultural factors.

    Addendum: Here is a interesting, well-summed blogged review by Chet Richards, over at Defense and the National Interest, an electronic source even cited by Bousquet, with mention of Boyd’s OODA loops which is perhaps the most compelling aspect of the book, something I hope to post on soon. Included in the review is link to the influential essay by Linda Beckerman “The Non-Linear Dynamics of War” (1999), also cited by Bousquet.

    The Unrare, Assemblage and Implicate Power: Kairos, Complexity and Ethical Greatness



    Spinoza, Nietzsche, (Jesus and Satan) on the “Right Time”

     Therefore Jesus said to them, my kairos has not yet arrived, but your kairos always is ready.

    John 7:6

    Our investigation begins at a moment when Nietzsche seems to question, in a fully dialectical moment, the spearhead of his discourse, that is, an assumed rarity of genius (of which he seems to help make up a type). Could it be that genius after all is not so rare? I aim to use this occasion as decisive, a vital and possibly critical moment in his thought, a window which opens, but which he properly then closes, yet a window nonetheless, a kairos into what is possible. What is possible if genius is not so rare?


    The Problem of Those Who Wait.–Happy chances are necessary, and many incalculable elements, in order that a higher man in whom the solution of a problem is dormant, may yet take action, or “break forth,” as one might say–at the right moment. On an average it does not happen; and in all corners of the earth there are waiting ones sitting who hardly know to what extent they are waiting, and still less that they wait in vain. Occasionally, too, the waking call comes too late–the chance which gives “permission” to take action–when their best youth, and strength for action have been used up in sitting still; and how many a one, just as he “sprang up,” has found with horror that his limbs are benumbed and his spirits are now too heavy! “It is too late,” he has said to himself–and has become self-distrustful and henceforth for ever useless.–In the domain of genius, may not the “Raphael without hands” (taking the expression in its widest sense) perhaps not be the exception, but the rule?–Perhaps genius is by no means so rare: but rather the five hundred hands which it requires in order to tyrannise over the “the right time”–in order to take chance by the forelock!

    The passage in question lies near the end of his Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. It concerns the question of waiting. In section 273  Nietzsche has returned to one of his favorite themes, that of solitude, and he sketches out the dilemma that a man pursuing greatness faces. Such a one sees others as “means or as a delay” and his question becomes that of timing and of proximity. “This type of man knows solitude and what is most poisonous in it”. Nietzsche is examining the locus of a person, he is inspecting, as he is ever to do, the nature of this ideal type, a philosopher of the future. And such a man, a rarity, is caught between his own concept of himself and its employ. How to bring it forth?

    It is here that Nietzsche teeters on the “problem of those who are waiting” (section 274). There is a bemoaning that “strokes of luck” and the “incalculable” seem to rule “action in time,” as if the seemingly rare man is simply tossed about, incapable of finding the right moment, the moment to apply his genius. And what is more, all over the earth there are others who are waiting, but unconsciously, yet it is likely that the “accident which gives permission to act—comes too late”. It is as if there is a precocious sea, threatening to over-ripen, waiting for its catalyst for change.

    But then Nietzsche shifts his perspective. Perhaps, he wonders, genius is not so rare. Could it be that the esteemed brilliance of a soul, is something other than it seems?:

    In the realm of the genius, could “Rafael without hands,” taking that phrase in the widest sense, perhaps not be the exception but the rule?  Genius is perhaps not really so rare, but the five hundred hands needed to tyrannize the kairos, “the right time,” to seize happenstance by the forelock! (translation modified)

    – Sollte, im Reiche des Genie’s, der “Raffael ohne Hände”, das Wort im weitesten Sinn verstanden, vielleicht nicht die Ausnahme, sondern die Regel sein? – Das Genie ist vielleicht gar nicht so selten: aber die fünfhundert Hände, die es nöthig hat, um den kairós, “die rechte Zeit” – zu tyrannisiren, um den Zufall am Schopf zu fassen!

     Such a precious thought, of the kind that Nietzsche is so capable. I would like to look at it closely. First, it is necessary to understand the phrase, “Rafael without hands”. It is taken from Lessing’s play, “Emilia Galotti” (Act I, Scene 4). Notably this play is a classic example of enlightenment Bürgerliches Trauerspiel, wherein everyday people have taken the place of aristocratic protagonists. In such a dramatic form the long-standing assumption that only the upper classes were capable of feeling deeply enough to propel tragedy was being overtuned. “People” were suddenly “dramatic”. The “heroic” became more common, and this, in theme, is in keeping with Nietzsche’s momentary reflection on the nature and rarity of genius. 

    Raphael With Hands

    The Nature of Genius: “We cannot paint directly with our eyes”

    The context of the quote is that of a painting of a beautiful woman, as it is being discussed by an enchanted viewer, Prince Gonzaga, and its artist. The Prince immediately recognizes the image of a woman he has fallen in love with, an image of remarkable accomplishment:“By God! As if stolen from a mirror!;” but the artist, Conti, replies that he is not at ease with his achievement, but also that this dis-ease has a comfort:

    And yet, this piece still leaves me greatly dissatisfied with myself.—Although, on the other hand, I am also greatly satisfied with this dissatisfaction with myself.—Ah! Would that we were able to paint directly with our eyes! On that long path from the eye through the arm to the brush, how much is lost!—But, as I say, the fact that I know what was lost and how it was lost and why it had to be lost: of that I am as proud as I am of all that I did not allow to be lost. Prouder even. For in that knowledge, more than in this product of my art, I recognize that I am a truly great artist, athough my hand is not equally as great.—Or do you believe, Prince, that Raphael would not have been the greatest artistic genius if he had had the misfortune to have been born with out hands? (7)

    So what is “Raphael without hands”? Nietzsche asks us to take such a phrase in the widest sense. Lessing’s Conti tells us of the transmission of an impulse, what we might call an affect of aesthetic experience, which travels down from the eyes, through the arm, to the hand and to the brush. And he speaks of his knowledge of the particular ways in which this aesthetic certainty is lost, the pleasure and pride of this knowledge. Raphael, an exemplar of human genius, is seen here to represent the possible incompleteness of genius, that as the man without hands, he might have lacked the very means by which his genius would come to be known.  We cannot “paint directly with our eyes” as Lessing puts it. This image of Raphael without hands invites us to think differently about the nature of genius. On one level of import it allows us to see genius as something that floats beneath the surface, something “in the eyes,” which according to historical contingency, Nietzsche’s “lucky stroke,” either makes its appearance or does not—for Raphael indeed might never have had hands, and we might never have known him—and even when it does make its appearance, its appearance is flawed, lost, broken, to some degree. One might wonder if there are thousands upon thousands of Raphaels around us, ephemeral and fractal un-becomings. But Lessing’s Conti allows us to see something more. Because he takes such pleasure in the knowing of the nature of his failing, the way the transmission is lost, the “how” and the “why” of its distortion, it calls attention precisely to the question of what are the “hands” of the genius?  It is this that Nietzsche has his eye on.

    Titanomachy and The Titans of Completion

    If we imagine that the hands of Raphael were not only his two physical hands, but in the “widest sense,” all of the events, minds and acts which conspired to bring him forth in history, the hands of Raphael suddenly become a perplexing involution of hands, all working together with remarkable perspicuity of effect. But something of them is monstrous, inordinate, beautiful. We are invited to not see Raphael in the traditional, and even Nietzschean image, of a great man who imposes his will upon the fresco wall, and then upon history, but rather as a collection of hands, hands that collude together.  Nietzsche tells us what genius possibly is, or rather what “rarity” is: “Genius is perhaps not really so rare, but the five hundred hands needed to tyrannize the kairos…” . He conflates genius, the rarity and the image of 500 hands into a single thing. Genius might be everywhere, but what is rare is the assemblage of hands which might bring it into appearance.

    Here one is drawn, in the image of the five-hundred hands, to the association of the four Greek chthonic Hecatonchires (hundred-handed ones, sons of Uranus) which Zeus released from the underworld to help him overthrow the Titans; but also come to us thoughts of Typheus, the hundred-headed son of Gaia and Tartarus – Nietzsche marvelously conflating head and hand – the one who later warred against the Zeus and the Olympian gods. Read Hesiod’s informed description of the polycephalean effect:

    Strength was with his hands in all that he did and the feet of the strong god were untiring. From his shoulders grew an hundred heads of a snake, a fearful dragon, with dark, flickering tongues, and from under the brows of his eyes in his marvellous heads flashed fire, and fire burned from his heads as he glared. And there were voices in all his dreadful heads which uttered every kind of sound unspeakable; for at one time they made sounds such that the gods understood, but at another, the noise of a bull bellowing aloud in proud ungovernable fury; and at another, the sound of a lion, relentless of heart; and at anothers, sounds like whelps, wonderful to hear; and again, at another, he would hiss, so that the high mountains re-echoed (820-835, Theogony)

    The cacophonic assemblage of hands, voices, head, parts and pieces seems to be what Nietzsche is thinking of in terms of the rarity that makes up what we call the presentation of genius. It is a moment of revolution, one that makes sense to the gods a times, but then does not. The hands of coincidence are com- and im-plex, that is full of folds that threaten.

    a circa 160 C.E,, representation of the allegoric statue made by Lysippos, in pentelic marble, Museum of Antiquities of Turin (Italy);

    a circa 160 C.E,, representation of the allegoric statue made by Lysippos, in pentelic marble, Museum of Antiquities of Turin (Italy);

    The duty of such a creature is to grasp the forelock of kairos. Kairos was the god of opportunity, depicted by a famed, lost statue by Lysippos as winged (above), having a long lock in the front, yet being bald in the back. The meaning of the visual trope is of course that one must seize the lock as it is coming, for it cannot be seized after it has passed. To understand the full meaning in Nietzsche’s use of kairos, so that it is not just conceived as a moment of any possible event, what can be called ‘plain opportunity,’ one should remember its meaning in Christianity. The kairos in the New Testament is closely associated with the “right moment” when Jesus as the Christ will reveal himself to the public. It is akin to our idea of mementousness. Jesus uses it in particular to tell his disciples why he will not go up to the Feast of the Tabernacles, just yet. His kairos is appointed, whereas theirs is somehow constant and immanent:

    “Therefore Jesus said to them, my kairos has not yet arrived, but your kairos always is ready” (John 7:6), [and then], “You go up to the feast; I am not going to this feast, because my kairos has not yet been fulfilled (7:8).

    Jesus indeed waits until the feast is half-way over before he arrives, and begins his ministry. The kairos is a moment of public appearance. Paul speaks of the return of Christ in just such terms: “I charge you to keep this commandment without spot or blame until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ, which the best and only sovereign will show in his own kairoi “ (I Timothy, 6:14). As such the New Testament notion of kairos is entirely messianic. There is the unfolding of time, and then there is the exact moment when history is incised [interesting comments on the English word “intercession”]. The full-development of time works as a field wherein no particular act is important, that is, the kairos of disciples is always prepared/preparing. Christ’s is the flint moment.

    Milton and Satan Speaks of Time

    Of interest is that Milton, with whose work Nietzsche was familiar, takes up just this notion of the forelock of opportunity, and places it in the mouth of Satan, who is attempting to goad Jesus into acting too soon, before his kairos. An appeal to nationalism has failed to seduce, but Satan urges him on:

    If Kingdom move thee not, let move thee Zeal,

    And Duty; Zeal and Duty are not slow,

    But on occasion’s forelock watchfully wait.

    Paradise Lost. III 171-173

    But Jesus has a sure conception of his Time, one which lies beyond common opportunity:

    If my raign Prophetic writ hath told,

    That it shall never end, so when begin

    The father in his purpose hath decreed,

    He in whose hand all times and seasons roul.*

    III 184-187

     *[It is not for you to know the times (chronoi) and seasons/moments (kairoi) which the father placed in his own authority  – Acts 1:7]

    Satan’s view of time is not of necessity, not of “must” but rather what appears to be best. In argument, he does not comprehend something more than that which brings advantage, one in which time is seen as a struggle of advantages, as each is conceived, for one’s own:

    Each act is rightliest done,

    Not when it must, but when it may be best.

     IV 475-476

    How does Nietzsche aim to reconcile these views of time in a single conception of kairos? Against the Christ view of linear time, he has taken up the epistemological relativism of Milton’s Satan, a sense of time that waits and looks with Zeal for opportunity alone, such as can only be seen and argued for from a particular perspective. Yet like the Christ he has a dramatic sense of entrance and effect, that there is a moment that is appointed for him, not in terms of opportunity, but transformation. There is the sense that for others the right moment is everywhere, but for the man of greatness, it is precise. But what Nietzsche does in this small window of thought is upend his heroic conception of the man of greatness, of an isolated and rare genius, and make of him an infinite complexity. The singular becomes diffused across an entire field of action. What is rare is not genius, but the assemblage of hands which monstrously, cacophonously, produce its appearance. The forelock of kairos is slippery and fast. Only a five-hundred-handed-one could grasp it.

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