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Tag Archives: Daniel Schreber

Conjoined Semiosis: A “Nerve Language” of Bodies

The Polyvalent and Cross-tongued

Chang and Eng Bunker

Chang and Eng Bunker

At times with an idea it is best to come up to a phenomena and embrace it as exemplary, a way of showing to others the heart of what you mean, and something of this comes through in the example of Conjoined Twins. I was discussing with my wife the nature of what I have been trying to put forth, which at the time had come down to the search for a term. A term was needed to crystallize just what sort of ontological distinction I was attempting to make when speaking of the polyvalence of semiotic elements that help form a body. As I explained to her, the very helpful notion of polyvalence lacked something. Yes, semiotic elements indeed could turn in every direction, but this poly-directionality was not fully what I meant. There was a constitutive sharing, a priority of investment and incarnation, a fleshed interweave that was not captured in the idea of a “polyvalent semiotics”. It is much more like Siamese Twins that share an organ, or body parts, aspects of the physical coherence of one body are already functioning as aspects of coherence for another (or really multiple, or illimitable) body/ies. There is a semiotic tugging, or in many cases tearing of bodies. In terms of history, they are not just layered upon each other like cells that lay with cells, composing organs, and with organs, composing bodies. Rather, bodies are already cross-semiotic to each other, their cognitive bodies woven into. We tried words like “inter-phenomenal” or “contra-phenomenal” (in answer to the ever popular “epiphenomenal”), but somehow the image of a shared body kept returning. It was that the semiotic order of a single body was enfleshed with other bodies. Finally my wife offered, expertly as always, How about just “‘conjoined”? So the term was born, Conjoined Semiosis. There is the difficulty that the example of Siamese Twins would override the concept, for what really is meant here is a great abstraction, albeit as concrete as possible, from the condition of such Twins. The questions of personal identity, autonomy, emotional coherence (for instance those so powerfully displayed in the story of Chang and Eng Bunker) are more peripheral to the term Conjoined Semiosis. I say peripheral here, though Conjoined Semiosis has profound effects on descriptions of normativity upon consciousness and questions of personal coherence. It is mostly the way that functioning differences in compositional elements necessarily are shared between bodies, across the cognitive boundary that they would from one coherent perspective form. This is analogous to (though perhaps still exemplified by) conjoined twins.

Autopoietic Closure

In explaining the idea to my wife I realized that if I am to make this clear I am going to have to begin at base concept, that is how semiotic differences can be seen to found the composition of an object. To get my point across we may have to begin in the middle, not with rocks or even chairs, but with the simplest of living structures, the single celled organism. It is biologists Maturana and Varela’s theory of Autopoiesis (much appreciated by later Guattari we might say), that gives us a firm conceptual foothold here. Principle to their theory that living things can be described as Autopoietic Machines is the notion of Organizational Closure. That is, a living thing can be defined as an organizationally closed system of parts whose process it is to make the parts of which it is composed. It’s a machine that makes itself. Events at its boundary work as perturbations of a recursively defined set of relations within its boundary, such that no recourse to external facts are needed to explain the processes of differences that define its behavior. So, an autopoietic machine possess a kind of semiotic autonomy, the differences that make up the order of its internal actions are organizationally closed. The presence of a predator or a food source beyond the boundary of the organism is only a perturbation of its surface. The cascade of effects within need not be definable with reference to either “predator” or “food source”, but rather are in reference to a kind of homeostatic but living recursion. Maturana and Varela illustrate their idea of Organizational Closure with a know well-known example of the submarine pilot. We as observers may watch a submarine carefully navigate a series of reefs and dangers, and thrilled with the display would radio the pilot. “Congratulations on doing such a good job avoiding those reefs and powerful currents!” He is to reply something like, “I have no idea what you mean by ‘reefs’ or ‘currents’. I only moved some levers this way and that, put this factor in balance of that factor” utterly cut-off from the external meaning of his actions. Autopoietic theory is quite detailed, and I present only a bare aspect of it here, enough to point out what semiotic closure would mean. Simply, the differences that make a difference to the coherence of a body, are cognitively closed to the boundary of that body such that the boundary makes a domain. This is the “Recursive View”.

Maturana and Varela get out of this solipsism of organizational closure in several ways. For one, not to be gone into depth here, every autopoiestic systems, although it is organizationally closed, is structurally open. That is external parts of the world enter into boundary and can replace parts within that boundary, without changing its organizational closure, much as like nearly ever human cell you have today in your body is not one you had 10 years ago. This can lead to subtle shifts in organizational closure, as replacement parts can have slightly different properties. But the more systematic way that recursively closed autopoietic systems link up with the world is through what they call “structural coupling”. That is, if each cell is a kind of black box to an observer, experiencing “inputs,” and behavorially expressing “outputs” the internal organizations of one cell can be adapted to the regularities of those outputs (their relations to its own perturbations) such that the two organizationally closed systems become structurally linked. Hence, cells link with cells, cells produce organs, organs produce organisms, etc.  In this way, the regularities of surrounding cells are regularities of environment.

This becomes rather neat hand and glove, boundary to boundary nestling, wherein the semiotic closures of one system produce expressions which in their regularity and coherence serve to stabilize and inform the semiotic closures of another system. The two systems co-depend in this way, or one might say assemble, the differences in the one producing linked differences in the other, despite their own organizational closure. There is much that can be made profound in this kind of nesting, the kind of which which reflects what we see in the biological world, the remarkable way that organisms co-operate in parts, and it is for this reason that the biological body has been effectively used as a metaphor for, and an example of, coherence in both the history of Philosophy and Theology. The powers of communication amid apparent closure, and despite constant change, is a powerful testament. [If we were to make a premature theoretical leap] we could say that the closed organizations with which we combine are “black boxes” of the Latourian or Graham Harman sort, but boxes which are not so much “black” as transparent to the world, and not so much boxes, but spheres. That is, the regularities of expression of other semiotic closures by which we more powerfully act in the world, are the very same regularities that allow us to inhabit, and live through, in a kind of mutual organism of expression, making the world appear clear to us, mutually so.

Conjoined Semiosis

But I would like to go in another direction, a direction in particular counter to the hand and glove, boundary to boundary matching up. The necessity of “conjoined semiosis”. If we return to the base picture of the semiotically closed boundary, we must see that each of the differences which make up this boundary function as specific semiotic units. The ability of the closure to cognitively read the world depends upon the internal coherence of its closed relations.

The horizon of this “thing” is determined by the coherence of its differences, that is, the role of the differences help constitute its being. If any one portion of these constitutive elements cease to perform coherently, in a simplistic sense the system seeks to repair itself of its error, or dies. This is the meaning of the illustration I provided in my last post.

Now I suggest that it is not only the case that the regularities of structural coupling are enough to describe how boundaries relate to each other. Rather – and we leave here merely the examples of living, autopoietic bodies, moving onto the the greater category of any recursively organized cognitive boundary where in the differences that make up its interior serve to produce its horizon of inside and outside – these component differences that make a difference are already serving their purpose within other cognitive bodies. That is to say, the boundary of inside/outside which interprets the differences that make up the whole is insufficient to explain the coherence of behaviors within it. Events in the world that happen outside of it, necessarily happen across it, intersecting its boundary. Hence my second diagram:

The importance of this distinction of cross- or conjoined semiosis is this. Parts within a cognitive body do not simply malfunction, or even out of their plenitude escape the regime of coherence established by the organism (top down), all this can be admitted. More, they possess what is experienced as a zombie-like property, and eruptive autonomy that cannot simply be chalked up to error. This autonomy of report can be both pernicious, leading to paranoiac self-purging, the attempt to cut out the semiotic “cancer” that is no longer “you”, or can be experienced ecstatically, with the sense that one is taken up into a power greater than oneself (itself a coin of paranoia).

The Worker Part

How to envision this. Taking up from a point made by Levi at Larval Subjects, it is important to see that the body of a factory (what he calls an Objec-tile), is made up of other bodies, for instance the persons that work the factory. In a certain sense, the allopoietic automobile factory (making things other than itself) is itself autopoietic, in that it has a recursivity of parts which make the parts that compose it (hire workers, make managerial rules, purchase materials, exact quotas, etc.). It seeks a homeostasis, or even a growth. Now, it is not enough to say that the body of the factory contains within it the bodies of persons. One has to also understand that the behaviors of those persons, as semiotic differences, not only inform the internal coherence of the factory, but also participate in the organization of other bodies, such as a Worker’s Union (or working class masculinity). So, when worker output slows during contract negotiations, the coherence of the factory, as far as it organizes itself upon its cognitive boundary: events outside in the world (like product demand, the social standing of the brand name, the price of oil, logical problems with delivery, the election of a new president) vs. inside the factory (like quota expectations, the means of expressing managerial authority, hiring practice profiles, worker hours), the cognitive answer may not reside in either an external cause or an internal one, but perhaps in a Conjoined Semiosis. That is, workers who are expressing the fitness of internal relations in the factory’s self-critique, and reflecting outside events, are also participating as semiotic units (differences that make differences) in the Worker’s Union. The behaviors of the factory workers – their slowing of productivity – is caused by something other than external factors, or internal coherence, but rather by a cross-semiotic relationship to another body. The “sense” of those behaviors is found in the coherence of a body whose semiotic parts intersect the factory. And the factory will have a sense that it is being pulled apart from within, that there is an autonomy of semiotic parts which is no longer coherently informing an inside/outside cognitive horizon, a zombie-like mutiny of parts. The Worker’s Union pervades within, and threatens from without. The same might be said if a woman is hired, and the behaviors of the male workers begins to exhibit the coherence of working-class masculinity.

So it is not enough just to say that the aggregate possesses a dynamic possibility of forming other bodies or objects. Rather, one has to understand that the aggregate is already cross-sectioned by semiotic polyvalence, its constituent parts are already communicating coherences to bodies other than itself. These are not objects rising up out of the aggregate, but rather pre-existing semiotic investments which interweave any coherent body or object. Even, or one might want to say especially, in instances where the factory is working quite well wherein the factory is transparent to its own internal coherence, only making minor corrections here and there (lobbying for new city council labor statutes, firing the unproductive worker), these cross-semiotic coherences are already operating. They simply are not making differences that make a direct – or threshold-passing – difference on the factory. This operation, the meshing of semiotic coherences across boundaries actually works to stabilize and produce resiliency within the cognitive horizon of the factory. The semiotic roles of objects within the factory are entrenched, become tied down across any number of vectors which inhabit it, all helping produce the transparency of operations. In this sense, the cross-boundary Conjoined Semiosis operates as a kind of field, yet a field always capable of cognitively tearing in any one direction (or multiple directions), upon perturbation, as itself is over-woven at its boundaries (the difference between field and body may be arbitrary to description, a question of focus, fields themselves constituting bodies). The question is one of report and horizon. The differences which make up a boundary are themselves already differences among other external differences, which make up other boundaries. It is the tugging from within towards events which seem external which often signals this trans-Subjectivity condition being stimulated. It is not just that any person (or thing) possesses sub-elements within it that cannot be forced into line, that won’t restrict themselves to the overarching coherence, as if in some primordial anarchy of parts, a multitude ever in surpass of its expression. More, it is that “parts” are already parts of something else, not in hierarchical layers, from simple to complex wherein the complex just has to master and dominate the simple, but that the simple (the simple difference that makes a difference) is conjoined to other complexities which do not reflect the cognitive horizon of inside and outside itself. And it is only by being able to read these conjoined semiotic relations (which are so plenary and largely invisible as not to be read in great detail in advance), that a body can make sense of itself.

To put it one way, when one is experiencing an eruptive, counter insurgence of autonomous effects in an otherwise coherent experience (be they psychoanalytic drives, population protests, a resistance to project), it is best to look not only within, but also across to the points of intersection, the way in which elements which formerly read as coherent, producing transparency of the world, are involved in other coherences, other transparencies, other horizons, in which you already have a concrete, body-sharing investment. One is Siamese to other parts of the world such that your boundaries do not match up. Perhaps this works for the social world, as long as we are talking about persons (subjectivities) or factories, classes of human beings, all the way down to the biotic. But what of the inanimate? Are these bodies, objects, shot through with Conjoined Semiosis?

Nail in the Coffin of Objects

Let us take up an intermediary inanimate, a hammer. It has no obvious cognition of its own, and has a socially constructed role in expectant future actions. Yet we can grant to the hammer the abstract informational distinction that it, like a living cell, is composed of differences that make a difference. If wood did not have the resilient (but still vibrational) quality that it does, it would not be what it is, a hammer. At least it would not be that hammer. So there is a certain internal coherence to its differences that make a difference. These differences are in my view semiotic to the object, that is, they indicate to each other parts of an organization which allow the object to be so constituted (whether we take it’s objecthood as a hammer to be a product of the mind or not, we grant that there is just such an organization of real differences, and that these differences indicate to each other). Now, the question is, do these differences also compose differences cojoined semiotically to other bodies. We have to say, yes. To list a few, the metal head participates in the organizational body of the Earth’s magnetic field, its differences informing the coherence of that body. The wood handle participates in the combustibility of objects in the workshed such that for instance if a fire was started there would be differences that make a difference that could impinge upon whether a fire would go out, or further inflame. The split in its handle may be said to participate in the informing body of broken things in the shed, such that the shed itself becomes a symbol of lost craftsmanship to a poet who writes a prodigious poem on the matter, eventually to land the hammer in a museum.

None of these communitarian differences which cross-hatch the hammer to the rest of the world have a constitutive effect on the hammer itself, that is, it is not tidally tugged in a direction which confuses it, for it lacks an overt self-regularity, in some auto-critique of its own semiology. Though I am not sure how categorical one can get about this, for the composite of differences does cohere, and in a sense read itself. The disintegration of its handle in a shed-fire is a kind of tugging away from its horizon. But there is no agent to the hammer, other than its persistence. (To these differences we need only add the differences that make up the hammer that allow it to participate in the assemblages which make of it a tool and allow it to persist:  its rigidity, its center of gravity, the vibrational quality of its wood, its mass; all of these and an infinite variety of others allow it to participate in the mutuality of its use such that a human being can compose with it a new body – a human body-hammer-nail perhaps – a body which contains its own recursive structure of communicated differences.) In this way, insofar as differences that make differences can be seen as semiotic, that is, as informing wholes, it is requisite not only that such horizoned wholes match up with the boundaries of other horizoned wholes, in a kind of dovetailing workmanship, but also, the informing differences of any object are necessarily conjoined semiotically to wholes that intersect it. In this way, the most ancient of Western Philosophical problems, the relation of the One to the Many, on the grandest of scales, mislead our eyes to an essential binary logic, one that obscures how the Many already historically, and determinatively are invested across any particular One, cross-linking it with another One, whose coherence can tidally rule it, experienced as both outside and inside its horizon. It is not a question merely of matching up two externalized “Ones”. Thus, the Self, and the Other serves as an oversimplification, as does the Self and the World, for it is not only a matter of creating a space where the Self and the Other can fruitfully live as seemingly opposed externalities to each other, but more a question of identifying the hidden, invisible semiotic cross-threads in the fabric of each, the way that trans-boundary bodies tidally pull on the objecthood of each, not into a subsuming whole (although this too can be possible), but into a cognitive direction. If there is anything I would want to emphasize it is the semiotic, and thus material, bodily, Siamese codependence that any coherences is built out of, the way that one’s own constituent parts necessarily act creating differences which inform not only of outside or inside, but of a bit of each. It is that the very groundwork of our own coherence, the substance of which it is composed, and the reserve upon which we draw, is disturbingly conjoined [with no inherent value judgment as to whether this is for the better or the worse]. The signals that we (and others, objects) receive within are necessarily cross-tongued, polyvalent, and tidally pulled. And our most rich transparencies are the products of Siamese, often inseparable boundaries.

This is the sense in which Daniel Schreber’s paranoic “Nerve-Language,” written about his sadly and beautifully powerful Memoirs of My Mental Illness, describes insightfully the subcutaneous semiotic ordering that occurs at a distance. A bit of it:

Apart from normal human language there is also a kind of nerve-language of which, as a rule, the healthy human being is not aware. In my opinion this is best understood when one thinks of the processes by which a person tries to imprint certain words in his memory in a definite order, for instance a child learning a poem by heart which is going to recite at school, or a priest a sermon he is going to deliver in Church. The words are repeated silently [as if in a silent prayer to which the congregation is called from the pulpit], that is to say a human being causes his nerves to vibrate in the way which corresponds to the use of the words concerned, but the real organs of speech (lips, tongue, teeth, etc.) are either not set in motion at all or only coincidentally. Naturally under normal (in consonance with the Order of the World) conditions, use of this nerve-language depends only on the will of the person whose nerves are concerned; no human being as such can force another to use this nerve-language. In my case, however, since my nervous illness took the above mentioned critical turn, my nerves have been set in motion from without incessantly and without any respite.

Apart from the power structure of control which reads as a fantasy product of the invasion of coherence, it is precisely this conjoined semiotic quality and determination which inhabits each body, maintaining and testing its coherence. This conjoined semiosis is something long missed when the primary dyads of subject/object, or object/object, ever attempted to be resolved in growing hierarchies of control and abstraction, predominate philosophical questions. Indeed there is room for subsuming abstractions, negotiations of agreement, the calling together of more coherent wholes, but these projects of affective communication, joining the edges of boundaries to the edges of other boundaries, are advised to be made with as close a view as possible to the fabric of conjoined cross-weave which both supports and tears across every object-body. It is not enough to attribute these capacities merely to the dynamics of aggregates, or even of assemblages.  It is in the nature of the materially coherent to be materially conjoined at a valence of coherence which pulls at the differences that make differences.