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The Attraction of “Phase Space”, Levi’s Missing Objects

In his usual grasp at the sciences for metaphors Levi has touched on something of interest I think, as I have been reading Stonier’s extremely compelling book Information and the Internal Structure of the universe  (1990), upon which I hope to post soon. In his still vestige symptomatic Lacanianism, Levi uses the “matheme” (the desire to “talk” in the analogy of an algebra) of the crossed out “O” to indicate the “object” that is ever in retreat. In a very nice passage we get a sense of the sense he is trying to make of the idea that objects retreat from their interactions:

At any rate, some differences between Harman’s ontography and my onticology are readily evident in the second paragraph quoted above. With Harman I argue that objects withdraw from other objects, however I arrive at this position for a very different set of reasons. In my view, the withdrawal of objects is the result of the difference between dimensions of objects or Ø and O1. Within the framework of onticology Ø or the matheme for the split or barred object refers to the endo-relational structure of the object. This endo-relational structure consists of a system of attractors defining the phase space of an object or all possible ways in which an object can actualize itself. Attractors are states towards which a system tends, whereas a phase space consists of all possible states a system can occupy. Thus, for example, if you roll a marble down the side of a bowl, the final point at which the marble comes to rest is a fixed point attractor of this system. By contrast, the phase space of this system is all the points the marble can occupy as it rolls up and down the sides of the bowl. I argue that objects are split or divided– or in Harman’s parlance, that they “withdraw” –because no object actualizes all possible points within its phase space. In this connection, O1 refers to an actualized point within a phase space that the object currently occupies.

I think that this is an excellent place to start, but there are a few problems with the borrowing of these analogies from statistical mechanics. The first is these descriptors are used to describe very specific things, “closed systems”. In order for Levi to apply such a thought to his idea that everything is an object, EVERYTHING would have to be a closed system. My passing thought of my grandmother and a combustion engine would BOTH have to be a closed system, each with its own phase space and attractors. Under current understanding such a position would be more than pure invention, it would be, I think, wild analogy. Does the monetary policy of Brazil, and my dog scratching at a tick each have a “phase space”? Does “the flying spaghetti monster“? I suspect that Levi is conflating two things: one, the Idealist oriented notion of whether something is the “same” because we perceive it to be the same, giving it an idenity (something implicitly imported into Harmanism from Husserl), and the very specific energy and informational designations that cause us to regard something as a “system”.

But I do not think that this conflation is unimportant or unhelpful. There does seem to be something interesting about putting these two things into one box “identity” and “phase space”. From my perspective what is compelling comes from Spinoza’s view that a thing is a thing, and remains a certain thing due to a certain ration of motion and rest that persists over time. I think that some rough, but perhaps still very substantive comparisons can be made between this notion and the informational and energy requirements to regard something as having a “phase space”. The notion of “closure” is somewhat missing (a part of which that imports from his Idealist, Lacanian heritage). What makes things “closed”? Is it our perception of them as closed, the subjective boundary that we drawn around them, seeing them as we do, or is it some essential “phase space” and “attractor” that forces them to have a ghost-life beneath our view? This notion of closure is an important one, and the way that Levi plays with both the psychological/perceptual sense of the word and the scientific sense is problematic.

Because this is problematic ground I have been and would like to tread, this analogy to phase space is something worth paying attention to. And while I find difficult (or unhelpful) the notion that “the twinkle in her eye” is a closed system, and would like to treat closed systems as very specific things that can be considered “closed” because such an analysis yields valuable information about them (and not because they solve our philosophical question of identity), Spinoza’s definitional idea of what a body is makes the comparison between individuals and such spaces appealing. I have argued elsewhere that the closure of objects is best seen as “Semiotic” that is, making differences that make “the” difference rather than simply “a” difference: The “ens reale” and the “ens rationalis”: Spelling Out Differences, The Necessary Intersections of the Human Body: Spinoza and Conjoined Semiosis: A “Nerve Language” of Bodies. In each I take up the consequences of Spinoza’s definition of a body that I have referred to here:

Definition: When a number of bodies of the same or different magnitude form close contact with one another through the pressure of other bodies upon them, or if they are moving at the same or different rates of speed so as to preserve an unvarying relation of movement among themselves, these bodies are said to be united with one another and all together to form one body or individual thing, which is distinguished from other things through this union of bodies. E2p13a2d

What is key in our consideration is, I believe, the notion of communication, that the parts communicate their motions to each other (this can be found in the Latin phrase ut motus suos invicem certa quadam ratione communicent, translated by Curley as “that they communicate their motion to each other in a fixed manner”). This idea of communication is an important one because it opens up the “informational” dimension of what makes up a closure. What makes up a thing so as to be an “individual” is not only its material existence, but also its energy (motion/rest) AND its information (!), its communications. And yes, I do think that there are reasons to speak of the differences that make “a” difference in the world, and differences that make “the” difference (internal to a system or a taken to be recursive relationship).

But this is the thing that I think that Levi is missing, and missing rather dramatically, in his question to make objects retreat from all their relations (and gain some sort of affinity to Harman’s Idealism). Although it pays to treat objects as separate from others, because their “phase space” is informational phase space (if we even grant the more wild aspects of the analogy from Science), and as such there is no reason to suppose that such a space of relations is closed off from the rest of the universe, or composes a difference that makes NO difference to other things, other systems, other phase spaces (Levi Uses Greek Fonts Nicely, but…). In fact, such a phase space, I would suggest, is necessarily understood to be permeated (and interactive) at several levels. I think I would deny that there is ANY system that is completely closed (that although it pays to treat them as closed, they never are entirely closed at all). This is the case in terms of scale (smaller component events can have consequences both on larger component scales, and thus across boundaries that would otherwise define the system), and also in term of the boundary itself. A political population of citizens can and will intersect with a population of disease, metallic elements in a machine will be effected by magnetic fields, etc., etc, etc. IF there is going to be a “phase space” analogy of the possible distribution of material elements in any “object” it is going to be a phase space that is so complex and interwoven with others (amenable to other vectored descriptions) that the ultimate solution of the “identity” problem in philosophy will never be found. Someone like Levi would like to simply deposit the identity of objects over time in such a system space, really for almost aesthetic reasons (the desire to cross out the “O” in objects), without significantly considering what a “phase space” is and what such a reality of objects would mean for identity itself. It seems that far from making objects have a “ghost” existence outside their manifestations, an existence which would make no difference to other objects, it seems to be much the opposite. Indeed objects may be described as specific manifestations of matter, energy and information that express the possibilities of their distribution, but such a phase space actually connects them to all other objects and all other phase spaces, and has a determined effect upon them.

(A sidenote: There is the additional problem from Levi whose objects are forever in retreat that if indeed each object has a phase space, a mathematical description of such a space – using the statistical mechanics from which the analogy is derived – itself becomes an “effect” of the space itself. That is, far from being in retreat, such a space is not only expressing itself in the “object” that it underwrites, but also it is expressing itself in the mathematics, and the mathematician, that is describing it. It does not compose a difference that makes no difference, as itself has expressive properties. And one has to ask, does a “phase space” constitute an “object” as well, and have its own phase space and attractors – this is an interestng question?)

Much as in Spinoza view in which essences are expressed modally, but also remain somehow latently immanent to any one manifestation, the information space within expressions is actually that which connects things to all other things, and to take it to be in continual retreat is, I believe, a fundamental mischaracterization. If anything such a space is what, in Deleuzian fashion can be called a “distaff” space, an information space out of which all things can be and are woven. It is ultimately a space intersected with all other spaces, undermining just what the Idealist notion of “objecthood” is (a notion founded upon Brentano’s Intentionality Thesis and Descartes opticality of consciousness). At the very least, and in the most obvious fashion, because entropy is defined in statistical mechanics as the tendency of a system to pass through all the phrase space that constitutes it, an “object”, what Levi wants to call O1, by virtue of its supposed Ø phase space status, could pass into a state of extreme element distribution, all of the atoms that might constitute it floating in an entropy soup O2, and still be regarded as the same object Ø (beyond any common sense of identity). A tornado passed into mere breezes. This is somthing that might only be meaningful to say of one thing, Spinoza’s Substance. I hope to post on information, Stonier and Spinoza soon.

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Aggregates, Groups and Trans-semiotics

The Antinomy of Objects

Levi at Larval Subjects makes an very interesting post which seeks to point out the constitutive difference between “objects” (or “groups”) and assemblages, how a Unity can be seen to come into being out its “sub-assemblages”; and how this antinomy between an Object and its parts can be best described in a kind of Logical Binary. This is a significant point:

“In this respect I’m inclined to say that every object is a split-object written as A, such that it is divided between its elements and its unity or status as One in such a way that there is a tension between parts composing an ob-ject-al and the Unity or One of the ob-ject-al that constantly needs to be reproduced in time.”

Below is my response to this love of the Object as binary constitution. I post it here because it grew in concept from a mere objection to the sufficiency of such an object reduction, to a much richer idea which I think has to be put forth. There is a chance that I am misreading Levi’s reductive talk of Unity and Aggregate under a binary logic, but at the very least it’s emphasis brought out important distinctions:

There is one great difficulty I have for the love for the binary, The thing that is and is not what it is. It is not that the United States is just an A, and then all its bubbling assemblages (composing a neat pair, the unity and its negation). Far too neat and tidy giving one the impression that logic is somehow transcending the object, getting to the underbelly of its conditions, qua logical form. It is that the borders that make up the object A are cross sectioned by the borders that make up other objects constituted by parts of its elements. That is, the elements that make up an object are not simply part of a Set Theory Relation, but polyvalent participants in other Objects (I prefer “bodies”). To speak of the Group that is not reducible to its elements is only part of the potential for description, for members of that group are participating in, making up the bodies of other groups, so that the determination of any one group is overlapped with the forces at play in another. To be simple minded about it, the “group” of African Americans is affected by legislation passed in bias against women (unspecified as Black), because African American Women help compose the group “American Women”. This consequence has ramifications on the “group” African Americans. This is so much the obvious, but any binary reduction of the “group” to a fundamental relation of “a term and its crossed out term” (nicely Hegelian or Lacanian), obscures this very important interdependency and cross semiotics of bodies (the elements in one body can be semiotically, though now non-epistemically, altered through their role in another body, such that one does not know where the change is coming from). That is, the constitutive elements start coherently acting in the epistemic service of something other than the group, without entirely betraying it either, neither purely reflecting states of the group nor states of the world, but other relations.

Here, the simple inside/outside epistemic binary is shown. Events within the group help reflect what is going on outside of it.

That is why there is something dissatisfying about speaking of merely objects (or bodies) and assemblages. It is not just that objects cohere, having bubbled up through assemblages, from the molecular to the molar, but that the reason why the molar cannot be reduced to the molecular (so to speak) is not a point of logic or Set Theory, or even a question of levels, but that the elements of a molar body are already caught up in other molarities, playing out their informing, semiotic role in those groups, often to great invisibility.

In my opinion, (and this is a reason why I find something of Graham’s object-world difficult to swallow), the failure of Identity is not the existential crisis or tension, or the mere necessity of crossing out a term, but rather the already vital and historical investment of constituent parts in other bodies.

There is a kind of blind spot that any recursively organized group suffers. There is an inside/outside epistemic boundary. Events within the boundary are taken as semiotic to the internal workings, the stability or coherent dynamism of the group, but also are readable as reflectant of events outside the group. States within the group then in a general sense “reflect” states outside the group, or when in error lead to self-criticism of elements (something within is broken, and needs to be purged). But this primary epistemic dichotomy is traversed by the fact that the elements that semiotic ally make up the group (informing it of its own states, and the states of the world beyond it) are already, often in huge veins, participant in other groups which cross section it. In this way, the semiotic dichotomy of inside and outside becomes confused (overdetermined one might say). Corporate structures which help compose the elements of the political powers of the United States but also the International economic community are both “inside” and “outside” of the group. Events outside ripple through the informing elements in a way that is not merely that of “reflection”, but affect directly the internal semiotic states, at times with great power. The cognitive boundary that makes up the informing quality of the group, allows it to be classified, can become dissolute, or momentarily possessed. Or, the very fine person that I am, let us say as a religious ethicist, my elements, could suddenly start semiotic ally behaving in a way that is incoherent with that “person” if the body of “race” (in which many of those elements are shared) suddenly is moved. The coherence of my object as an ethicist has not simply broken down into its assembled parts, but rather some of its elements are now reporting as parts of other bodies in such a way that that Identity is very hard to coherently maintain. What the simply binary of Identity and Assemblage occludes is the fundamental powershift in semiotic polyvalence.

I think that the implicit reason why we turn to Deleuzian notions of flow and assemblage is not only to eroticize energies and present a bubbling world, but also to have key to this trans-semiotics, this overdetermination of informing elements that compose a cognitive body. The constitutive parts that make up a body, an inside and an outside of epistemic division, are doing double duty (not only double, but infinite duty) to any number of informing bodies. It is not just that the molecules that make of the functioning spleen are working at a difference of molecular and molar levels, but that due to their capacity to serve as semiotic elements (sub-assemblages, perhaps), they can be and already are  taken up as informing elements of other bodies (perhaps the “body” of the auto-immune system, or the “body” of virus populations in Kansas City) Events within the horizontal body which is ever reading the world are not just reading the world, or reflecting back internal states of that body, but are also already performing epistemic virtues in cross section. This polyvalence of report, this trans-semiotic overdetermination is I believe glossed over by any logical binary appeal of irreducible Identity and elements. What makes this significant is that the failure of Identity does not direct us to an essential negation (the reality of the negation), but to the plentitude of semiotic indications and the vast overlapping, and interwovenness of bodies. It is not just a question of the boundaries of objects matching up perfectly with the boundaries of other objects (a flat notion of pure objectivity), or a question of levels of description being reducible or irreducible to other levels, but really a question of how semiotic events internal to one body are necessarily internal to other bodies which intersect one’s own cognitive boundary, lying neither within or external to it.

 

I think that this inherent essentialization of “object” (whether it be of the species that Graham Harman puts forth, or the binary logic version that Levi leans to at times), is one founded upon a primary optical metaphorization of the world, one that hides not a “hidden” never reachable shadow, in the way that the Moon always has a darkside (or an inside), but that this very notion of “hidden” negation directs one’s eyes away from the primary trans-semiotic character of cognitive bodies in the first place. An object (or as I prefer “body”) is always in part, part of another body, not to mention the ways in which a body is in whole part of other bodies, like cells in an organ. In a sense, an object can always change dimensionality or vector, when taken up by an other (or many other) semiotic regimes, over determining its informing elements. 

Perhaps an example will help clarify my point. Levi provides an illumination of something what he means by Unity and aggregate:

The film The Mist can be read as depicting the morphogenesis of groups or as being a study of the process of groups-in-formation making the transition from the status of aggregates to the status of assemblages. At the beginning of the film you have people belonging to the same town but in such a way as to primarily be an aggregate. That is, any unity or One among these people is minimal and weak, consisting of being members of the same town without these members thinking of themselves as an assemblage or One. As the film progresses and the people trapped in the store encounter more and more of the creatures in the mist, polarities begin to form within the population. The process here could be analogized to one similar to the process an egg undergoes as the yoke gets progressively differentiated over the course of development. Eventually fairly well defined assemblages are produced, consisting of secularists on the one side and the religious on the other side, as well as racial divides. These identities did not pre-exist the formation of the assemblages- or if they did it was only with a low degree of intensity. The people that side with the ultra-fundamentalist religious woman were not themselves ultra-fundamentalist at the beginning of the film. Likewise, the people that form the secularist assemblage were not significantly related to one another in any particular way. Rather, the identity that forms the aggregates instead emerges from out of the Brownian motion of this nebulous population of the city and reinforces itself as a One or Unity as it comes into being.

Unfortunately I have not seem the film The Mist  so will have to speak at the level of generalites so described. One would have to say that instead of the town operating only as a loose aggregate, it already was operating as a cognitive unity without directed intention (no firm, pressing, inside/outside epistemic directionality). But it was still a cognitive unity, one that generally read itself in terms of inside and outside. Instead of imagining this aggregate as a soupy, rather interdeterminate mix, a yoked egg, one has to realize that its semiotic elements were already trans-semotically working in other constitutive bodies. Again, I have not seen the film so I cannot comment upon the exact differentiations that begin to occur within the town “group” but all of those differentiations are expressive of the semiotic role elements were already  playing in groups, objects, bodies that constituted the town in the first place, be they race, religion, gender, class, sexuality, family, legality, biology or really any number of other unnameable bodily vectors. The Town is not JUST an egg, but is rather already a functioning inside/outside entity, cross-sectioned by other dominant bodies. Semiotic elements are already semiotic and cohering (and not just traveling in Brownian randomness). The importance of this is that if one is to understand the nature of the polarities that Levi sees rising up in the “egg” of the aggregate, understand, explain and anticipate them, it is the pre-existing functionality of elements in already cognitive bodies that determines these faultlines…they don’t just bubble up. One may not be a “religious fundamentalist” person at time x, but one’s person is already shot through with semiotic polyvalence in bodies which given new circumstances will make you one in the future. Your “religous fundamentalist,” unity status is not merely a sharpening of a vague Brownian effervecence, although this is a beautiful image, but rather the expression of so many other embodied semiotic investments, intersecting your own religious fundamental identity.

“The Mist”- like experience, like the Red Scare, is the sense of invasion that comes from strongly trans-semiotic conditions. The threat comes out of no-where because it is coming both Outside our Identity and from Within it. What is within seems to have not just the possibility to produce error, but to work with a seeming (often) pernicious autonomy. (This autonomy can be revelatory as well.) The sense becomes that one is reacting from within to coherence which is to some degree unseen.

In this way, for instance, the Obama phenomenon is not only a sudden cohension upon the great Egg of the American scene (though poetic). Obamism is not just Brownian motion suddenly producing coherent direction (I don’t even think that Levi would say this, as much as a unity/aggregate analysis might put it forth). Rather, it is the growing cognitive, self-defining object come out of so many of its polyvalent elements, the intersection of so many other bodies sharing elements, or finding agreements (when not). The real interpretive key I believe to a notion of Hegelian negation is not just that some internal part is going to betray its whole, and not quite be subsumable (although this is no doubt a useful description of some experiences). It is rather than whole cloth of constitutent elements what for some time did a very good job of reporting back states of the world, and internal states of the group, will be shown to be  already serving  as semiotic parts for other cognitive bodies, so when there is a disturbance, a real cognitive disturbance from within, it cannot be coherently located inside (as error) or outside (as event), but rather seems to be both at the same time, creating the illusion of a perfectly invading influence, (and deep malfunction).  

(Digression: This is why Hegel’s progressional sense of the State gives  a rather pale reading of the Antigone. Antigone is not simply the failure of the State to incorporate all of the ancient familial organizations and the childbirthing roles of the female into its new boundary, but rather is the presence of living, cognitive relations, whole bodies, which are not simply anterior to the State, but cutting across it. When she is buried alive in the tomb, she is not heroically outside the Symbolic, as Lacan wants to say, but rather one could say heroically manifesting the polyvalence of an incestuous semiotic power, signifying in too many tongues at once, a tragedy for the State. This capacity is not merely a perculating potentiality in the soup, or an antiquarian haunt, as some like to have it, but rather vital, tidal semiotic investments in presently existing bodies)

It is not just that the object is ever erupting from within, like an egg, never reducible to its sub-assemblages and flows, but rather that the object is always torn semiotically across itself, its parts already making up the parts of other objects (bodies). At many times these cross investments work to produce an invisible sense of stability, as external objects and our agreements with others report with an incredible transparency, but when these semiotic responsibilities shift, when our elements start reporting the world with tidal inaccuracy (according to unseen bodily investments elsewhere), otherwise assumed cognitive wholes can undergo extreme revision, and self-critique, sharpening into unexpected re-organization, sometimes desperately breaking down altogether and becoming dissolute, sometimes making new bodies and alliances out of parts which unbeseemingly are already invested in so many other bodies, as such is the case when so many political and economic forces seemed to invisibily dovetail into an apparent Obama unification, a new fabric of inside/outside (and at many times an occluded intersection).