Against Self-Organization

Life on earth is doomed, according to the biologist Peter Ward in his new book The Medea Hypothesis. This book is meant to be polemical and provocative; I lack the knowledge to evaluate its particular scientific claims. But just as a thought experiment, it is bracing.

Ward’s book is a critique of the quite popular Gaia Hypothesis, originally developed by James Lovelock, which claims that the Earth as a whole, with all its biomass, constitutes an emergent order, a self-organizing system, that maintains the whole planet — its climate, the chemical constitution of the atmosphere and the seas, etc. — in a state that is favorable to the continued flourishing of life. Essentially the Gaia Hypothesis sees the world as a system in homeostatic equilibrium — in much the same ways that individual cells or organisms are self-maintaining, homeostatic systems. Gaia is cybernetically, or autopoietically, self-regulating system: continual feedback, among organisms and their environments, keeps the air temperature, the salinity of the sea, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, etc., within the limits that are necessary for the continued flourishing of life.

Ward’s Medea Hypothesis directly contests all these claims. According to Ward, the ecosphere is not homeostatic or self-regulating; to the contrary, it is continually being driven by positive feedback mechanisms to unsustainable extremes. Most of the mass extinction events in the fossil record, Ward says, were caused by out-of-control life processes — rather than by an external interruption of such processes, such as the giant meteor hit which supposedly led to the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Mesozoic. The great Permian extinction, for instance — the most catastrophic of which we have knowledge, in which 90% of all species, and 99% of all living beings, were destroyed — was caused by “blooms of sulfur bacteria in the seas,” which flourished due to greenhouse heating and poisoned the oceans and the atmospheres with increased concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, which is extremely toxic.

More generally, Ward claims that life processes have destabilizing effects, rather than homeostatic ones, upon the very environment that they rely upon for survival. This is largely because of the Malthusian basis of natural selection. Traits that give any organism a selective advantage over its rivals will spread through the gene pool, unless and until they overwhelm the environment and reach the limits of its carrying capacity. An organism that is too successful will ultimately suffer a crash from overpopulation, depletion of resources, and so on. The success of sulfur bacteria means the poisoning of all other organisms; or, to give another example, the rise of photosynthetic organisms 2 billion years ago poisoned and killed the then-dominant anaerobic microbes that had composed the overwhelming majority of life-forms up to that time.

Now, biologists in recent years have given careful attention to the evolution of cooperation and altruism as means of averting these dangers. For instance, in an environment of cooperating organisms, a cheater will outperform the cooperators, and through natural selection will eventually drive them into extinction, thus leading to an environment of cheaters who no longer have access to the benefits for all of cooperation. But this prospect can be averted, and altruism can be maintained within a group, if the cooperators evolve mechanisms to detect, and punish or otherwise discipline, the cheaters. Scenarios like this have led to something of a revival of the once-discredited notion of “group selection” (a group all of whose members benefit from cooperation will be able to outperform a group dominated by cheaters).

Be that as it may, Ward does not see any evidence that cooperation or altruism can evolve on a meta-, or planetary, level. He argues, counter-intuitively but with impressive statistical analyses, that in fact the total biomass, as well as the diversity of species, has been in decline ever since the Cambrian explosion. And he suggests that life on Earth is doomed to extinction long before the heating and expansion of the sun make the Earth too hot to live on. The depletion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to the extinction of all plant life, the decline of atmospheric oxygen, the consequent extinction of all animal life, and finally the evaporation and loss to outer space of the oceans, could happen as little as 100 million to 500 million years from now — a span far less than the 1.5 billion or 2 billion years we have before the sun roasts the planet to a cinder. The Earth will end up much like either Venus or Mars — both of which initially had conditions that were favorable to the origin and sustenance of life, but no longer do (in this regard, it would be quite interesting if we were to discover, as has often been hypothesized, that Mars once did have life but no longer does).

Now, even 100 million years from now seems too far off in the future for us to worry about today. And, as Ward points out, our current problems — for the next century or so — have to do with too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, even if ultimately the Earth will die from too little. Nonetheless (and regardless of whether or not the book’s arguments stand up in their scientific details, which is something, as I already said, that I am unable to judge), Ward’s replacement of Gaia (the good mother Earth) with Medea (the ultimate bad mother, who murdered her own children) makes an important point. In critiquing the Gaia Hypothesis, it is really questioning our contemporary faith in self-organizing processes and systems.

I use “faith” here in as strong a sense as possible. The widespread contemporary belief in “self-organization” is almost religious in its intensity. We tend not to believe any more in the Enlightenment myth (as it seems to us now) of rationality and progress. We are skeptical of any sort of “progress” aside from technological innovation and improvement; and we no longer believe in the power of Reason to dispel superstition and to make plans for human betterment. The dominant ideology in these (still, despite the economic crisis) neoliberal times denounces any sort of rational planning as “utopian” and thereby “totalitarian,” an effort to impose the will on matter that absolutely resists it. This also entails a rejection of “grand narratives” (as Lyotard said in the 1980s), and an overall sense that “unintended consequences” make all willful and determinate action futile.

Instead, we turn to “self-organization” as something that will save us. The anarchist left puts its faith in self-organizing movements of dissidence and protest, with the (non-)goal being a spontaneously self-organized cooperative society. Right wing libertarians, meanwhile, see the “free market” as the realm of emergent, spontaneous, self-organized solutions to all problems, and blame disasters like the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the current Depression as well, on government “interference” with the (allegedly otherwise self-equilibrating) market mechanism. Network theory, a hot new discipline where mathematics intersects with sociology, looks at the Internet and other complex networks as powerfully self-organizing systems, both generating and managing complexity out of a few simple rules. The brain is described, in connectionist accounts, as a self-organizing system emerging from chaos; today we try to build self-learning and self-organizing robots and artificial intelligences, instead of ones that are determined in advance by fixed rules. “Genetic algorithms” are used to make better software; Brian Eno devises algorithms for self-generating music. Maturana and Varela’s autopoiesis is taken by humanists and ecologists as the clear alternative to deterministic and mechanistic biology; but even the harcore neodarwinists discover emergent properties in the interactions of multiple genes. Niklas Luhmann, in his turn, applies autopoiesis to human societies. This list could go on indefinitely.

Now, it is certainly true that many phenomena can be better understood in terms of networked complexity, than in those of linear cause and effect. It is rare for an occurrence to be so isolated that linear models are really sufficient to explain it. And it is also certainly true that unexpected consequences, due to factors that we did not take into account (and in some cases, as in chaos theory, that were too small or insignificant to measure in advance, but that turned out to have incommensurably larger effects), interfere with our ability to make clear predictions and to impose our will. The best laid plans, etc. But still —

I think that we need to question our reflexive belief — or unwarranted expectation, if you prefer — that emergent or self-organizing phenomena are some how always (or, at least, generally) for the best. And this is where Ward’s Medea Hypothesis, even if taken only as a thought experiment, is useful and provocative. Lovelock is almost apocalyptic in his worries about environmental disruption; his recent books The Revenge of Gaia and The Vanishing Face of Gaia warn us that human activity is catastrophically interfering with the self-regulating and self-correcting mechanisms that have otherwise maintained life on this planet. For Lovelock, human beings seem entirely separate from, and opposed to, “nature,” or Gaia. From Ward’s perspective, to the contrary, human beings are themselves a part of nature. Human-created climate change and ecological destruction are not unique; other organisms have caused similar catastrophes throughout the history of life on earth. All actions have “unintended” consequences; these consequences may well be destructive to others, and even to the actors themselves. Presumably bacteria do not plan and foresee the possible consequences of their actions, and discursively reason about them, in the ways that we do; but this does not mean that ecological catastrophes caused by bacteria should be put in a fundamentally different category than ecological catastrophes caused by human beings. [I am enough of a Whiteheadian that I am inclined to think that bacterial actions have a “mental pole” as well as a “physical pole” just as human actions do, albeit to a far feebler extent; there is definite scientific evidence for bacterial cognition.] Rather than separating destructive human actions from “nature”, Ward suggests that “nature” itself (or the organisms that compose it) frequently issues forth in such destructive actions. The mistake is to assume that the networks from which actions emerge, and through which they resonate, are themselves somehow homeostatic or self-preserving. Rather, destructive as well as constructive actions can be propagated through a network — including actions destructive of the network itself.

Of course, on some level we are already aware of this destructive potential — as is witnessed in discussions of the propagation of both biological and computer viruses, for instance. Yet somehow, we tend to cling to the idea that positive self-organization somehow has precedence. And this idea tends to arise especially in discussions that cross over from biology to economics. Both Darwinian natural selection and economic competition tend to be celebrated as optimizing processes. Stuart Kauffman, for instance, the great champion of “order for free,” or emergent, self-organizing complexity in the life sciences, has no compunctions about claiming that his results apply for the capitalist “econosphere” as well as for the biosphere (See his Reinventing the Sacred, chapter 11). The highly esteemed futurist Kevin Kelly, a frequent contributor to Wired magazine, has long celebrated network-mediated capitalism, analogized to biological complexity, as a miracle of emergent self-organization; just recently, however, he has praised Web 2.0-mediated “socialism” in the same exact terms.

But the most significant and influential thinker of self-organisation in the past century was undoubtedly Friedrich Hayek, the intellectual progenitor of neoliberalism. For Hayek, any attempt at social or economic planning was doomed to failure, due to the inherent limitations of human knowledge, and the consequent prevalence of unintended consequences. In contrast, and inspired by both cybernetics and biology, Hayek claimed that the “free market” was an ideal mechanism for coordinating all the disparate bits of knowledge that existed dispersed throughout society, and negotiating it towards an optimal outcome. Self-organization, operating impersonally and beyond the ken of any particular human agent, could accomplish what no degree of planning or willful human rationality ever could. For Hayek, even the slightest degree of social solidarity or collective planning was already setting us on “the road to serfdom.” And if individuals suffer as a result of the unavoidable inequities of the self-organizing marketplace, well that is just too bad – it is the price we have to pay for freedom and progress.

Hayek provided the rationale for the massive deregulation, and empowerment of the financial sector, of the last thirty years — and for which we are currently paying the price. But I have yet to see any account that fully comes to terms with the degree that Hayek’s polemical argument about the superiority and greater rationality of emergent self-organization, as opposed to conscious will and planning have become the very substance of what we today, in Europe and North America at least, accept as “common sense.” Were the anti-WTO protestors in Seattle a decade ago, for instance, aware that their grounding assumptions were as deeply Hayekian as those of any broker for Goldman Sachs?

I don’t have much in the way of positive ideas about how to think differently. I just want to suggest that it is high time to question our basic, almost automatic, assumptions about the virtues of self-organization. This doesn’t mean returning to an old-fashioned rationalism or voluntarism, and it doesn’t mean ignoring the fact that our actions always tend to propagate through complex networks, and therefore to have massive unintended consequences. But we need to give up the moralistic conviction that somehow self-organized outcomes are superior to ones arrived at by other means. We need to give up our superstitious reverence for results that seem to happen “by themselves,” or to arrive “from below” rather than “from above.” (Aren’t there other directions to work and think in, besides “below” and “above”?).

Whitehead says that every event in the universe, from the tiniest interaction of subatomic particles up to the most complex human action, involves a certain moment of decision. There are no grounds or guidelines for this decision; and we cannot characterize decision in “voluntaristic” terms, because any conscious act of will is a remote consequence of decision in Whitehead’s sense, rather than its cause. Decisions are singular and unrepeatable; they cannot be generalized into rules. But all this also means that we cannot say that decision simply “emerges” out of a chaotic background, or pops out thanks to the movement from one “basin of attraction” to another. No self-organizing system can obviate the need for such a decision, or dictate what it will be. And decision always implies novelty or difference — in this way it is absolutely incompatible with notions of autopoiesis, homeostasis, or Spinoza’s conatus. What we need is an aesthetics of decision, instead of our current metaphysics of emergence.

Biopolitics and political economy

A new paper proposal:


In The Birth of Biopolitics, his 1978-1979 lecture course at the College de France, Michel Foucault makes a surprising turn towards the critique of political economy. At the start of the lecture series, Foucault sets out to trace the genealogy of the “art of government” in bourgeois society, with its ever-expanding attempt to manage bodies and populations. But as the series progresses, Foucault ends up giving an account, instead, of the logic of neoliberal economics, and of the new version of subjectivity (a mutation in the form of Homo oeconomicus) that corresponds to this logic. Foucault doesn’t explicitly denounce the logic of neoliberalism; but he dissects it with the cool distance of an entomologist discussing the life cycle of parasitic wasps. Foucault’s focus upon neoliberal economic rationality is quite prescient, coming as it does shortly before the accession to power of Thatcher and Reagan, and the US Federal Reserve Bank’s turn towards monetarism. This turn in Foucault’s thought is also surprising, because it cuts against the grain of the veiled anti-Marxist polemic that is present in many of Foucault’s other works. It almost seems as if Foucault were being forced, in spite of himself, to return from his usual concerns with governmentality, power and domination, and the incitation of discourse, to the fundamental grounds of the critique of political economy.

In taking a new look at Foucault’s lectures, I want to argue two points. First, that Foucault’s account of neoliberal rationality, centered upon the market, provides an important missing piece to a Marxist understanding of capitalism under the regime of flexible accumulation. And second, that Foucault’s own turn to the critique of political economy is, ironically enough, precisely what is missing from contemporary, post-Foucaultian accounts of biopolitics and biopower. My ultimate aim in this paper is to place biopolitics within the framework of capital accumulation and the contemporary regime of finance capital.

A Brief History of Celebrity (with special reference to Asia Argento)

Asia Argento is a post-cinematic celebrity, and she inhabits movie and video screens in a far different way than older generations of actresses did. A classical female movie star, like Greta Garbo, is an image of purity and perfection. She is an object of infinite desire; she seems “descended from a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light (Roland Barthes). She keeps us away from her at an infinite distance — a distance out of which we worship her. It is no wonder that Garbo concluded her career by withdrawing entirely from public view. Coming to the screen several decades later, Marilyn Monroe is unable to match Garbo’s transcendent perfection, or to maintain the same degree of distance. Instead, Monroe supplements her beauty with her performance as a comedic ingenue. Her seeming unconsciousness of her own sexual allure gives us permission, as it were, to approach the mystery of this allure. Even as Monroe retains a definite aura, she also — unlike Garbo — brings this aura down to earth. This descent from the heavens to the earth is what allows Monroe to commodify her image, to multiply it and make it signify — as Andy Warhol so clearly understood. In contrast to both Garbo and Monroe, however, Asia Argento no longer retains even the slightest trace of transcendence. She is directly carnal, directly present in the flesh. And her ferocious intelligence cannot be separated from this carnality. Argento collapses the seductive distance between star and audience, and instead offers us her own hyperbolic presence. Her performance is excessively immanent and embodied. Even her irony is too immediate, too close for comfort.

Argento acts in a double register. She turns acting conventions inside out, at once stylizing and naturalizing her performances, entirely inhabiting her roles, while at the same time distancing herself from them with a deep, who-gives-a-fuck irony. She manages to radiate sexuality in an entirely unselfconscious way; yet this unselfconsciousness is a deeply knowing one, not in the least bit naive, and “completely without innocence” (as Donna Haraway says of the figure of the cyborg). Argento’s knowingness ‘alienates’ us from her sexiness, but also allows it to remain intact. Argento is able simultaneously to display a method-acting intensity of commitment to her role, and at the same time to put her entire performance into postmodern “quotation marks.”

Argento fearlessly and knowningly exemplifies what Jean Baudrillard rather hysterically denounces as the “obscenity” and “transparency” of postmodern society. Baudrillard seems caught in the throes of heterosexual panic, as he describes, with great unease, the way that “the body is already there, without even the faintest glimmer of a possible absence, in the state of radical disillusion; the state of pure presence.” In opposition to this, Baudrillard much prefers the old-style feminine mystique and rituals of seduction, as exemplified by the older-generation movie stars. Seduction is “simply that which lets appearance circulate and move as a secret”; it “makes things appear and disappear.” Garbo and Monroe are seductive, therefore, because they are never simply and wholly present; they allure my gaze, beyond visibility, into the realm of that which is secret and hidden. But Baudrillard is not seduced by someone like Argento, because she is self-demystified, and all too fully there. For Baudrillard, seduction is a sort of metaphysical striptease, a play of revealing and concealing. In opposition to this, consider Argento’s own performance of striptease: in a cameo appearance as a stripper in Abel Ferrara’s Go-Go Tales, her character’s pole-dancing act culminates in an artfully provocative French kiss she exchanges with her Rottweiler. Here, the play of seduction is itself detourned into a literal “obscene transparency.”

Belatedly, Ballard

I was greatly saddened by J. G. Ballard’s death, but I didn’t get a chance to write about it, and him, until now. I am sorry that there will not be anything more; but Ballard did live to be 78, and he left us a lot of extraordinary works.

Lots of people wrote about his great works of the 1960s and 1970s, like Crash, The Atrocity Exhibition, Concrete Island, and High Rise. But I’d like to call attention, as well, and in particular, to Ballard’s four last novels — Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003), and Kingdom Come (2006) — which still have not received quite the attention they deserve. These books are closely related (although they are all narratively independent of one another), and stand apart from Ballard’s other work. For one thing, they are all set in the present, in decidedly non-exotic settings, and even without the extreme “pathologies” that are the subject of so many of Ballard’s other books. They all tell relatively humdrum stories; they are detective narratives without much mystery — or for which the only mysterious thing is the relative obtuseness of the narrators, who are all rather plodding and take much longer to figure out what is going on than the reader does. And in each case, what is really going on is some form of “transgression”, or sacrificial violence, that actually serves the deeper purpose of shoring up the capitalist-consumerist social order.

Each novel focuses on a different social class in today’s UK. Cocaine Nights is about middle-aged, middle-management Brits (and Germans) who have taken early retirement and moved to condo communities on the Spanish Costa del Sol in order to enjoy a life of leisure; Super-Cannes has to do with high-level business executives (largely British, but including the elites of many countries) working in a high-tech “industrial park”-cum-“managed community” on the Riviera; Millennium People focuses on upper-middle-class professionals living in condos in relatively swanky (but not super-rich) London neighborhoods; and Kingdom Come on lower-middle-class suburbanites in the ring of outer suburbs surrounding London (which is where Ballard himself lived).

In all four novels, some sort of community is sanctified, or at least solidified, by acts of violence. The retirees of Cocaine Nights are drawn together by a collective act and pact of murder, a sort of Rene-Girardian substitutive sacrifice; their shared guilt releases them from unstated anxieties, and allows them instead to enjoy their “creativity” (which Ballard describes mostly in the form of cornball arts-and-crafts activities, like amateur theater productions of Beckett and Pinter plays, and homemade sculptures for sale in local boutique galleries). The business executives of Super-Cannes get “therapeutic” release from the stress of their demanding, 24/7 jobs, and from their boredom with the usual bourgeois transgressions of adultery and drug use, which don’t give them frissons of naughtiness any more, by organizing themselves into fascist paramilitary gangs that beat, torture, and murder North African immigrants and “guest workers.” The professionals of Millennium People rise up in mildly nihilistic rebellion against the programmed sameness and continual stress of their lives, by trashing their own possessions, and other symbols of consumer culture, as well as by engaging in more destructive acts of terrorist bombing — all of which only has the effect of making their consumerist lives more bearable. Finally, the blue-collar suburbanites of Kingdom Come develop a kind of fascist cult based around shopping at the mall, rooting for their favorite football (i.e. soccer) teams, and (again) beating up and killing South Asian and Eastern European immigrants. In all four novels, violent “rebellions” are really sorts of stimulants to get the capitalist order on track again — the business execs are enabled to be more focused and vicious in their corporate planning, and the consumers get stimulated to buy again, despite (as well as because of) their boredom with what they have already purchased.

In all four novels, the narrator is an outsider: an older, fussy, and — I am not sure how to describe this with the proper degree of irony — somewhat insufficiently “virile” man, who eventually finds himself becoming complicit (to a greater or lesser degree) with the violence that originally puzzled and disturbed him, and the crimes that he initially (and naively) had hoped to “solve.” All of these narrators are almost parodies of Ballard himself, with his perpetual stand as an outside observer of all the perversities and entropic processes of decay that are his perpetual subjects. Ballard always wrote with an odd sort of clinical detachment; and this detachment was not a cover for, or defense against, his evident fascination with all the weirdnesses he wrote about, so much as it was a perfect expression of that fascination. Detachment is the best manner in which to approach experiences of dissociation and self-detachment; Ballard’s pseudo-clinical prose is a way to diagnose the “pathologies” of contemporary culture without thereby implying any norm or healthful state to which those pathologies might be opposed, or in respect to which they could be denounced as deviant. It’s a way to avoid the moral revulsion of the self-righteous satirist, to suspend the revulsion or outrage with which readers might be prone to arm themselves in order to think that what they are reading applies only to others, not to themselves. This tone was a constant in all of Ballard’s writings — there was never that great a difference between his first-person narratives (like Crash) and his third-person ones (like High Rise). But I think that the position of the Ballardian narrative voice is itself dramatized on a meta-level in these four last novels, to a greater extent than was ever the case before. I see this as a deepening of Ballard’s analytical focus. He grants his narrative voice a degree of agency, precisely (and only) to show that agency is itself a hollow fiction.

In any case, the four final novels all turn upon the narrators’ reactions to the violence that they belatedly discover. These reactions range from actively joining in, and trying to lead and shape, a fascist rebellion (in Kingdom Come) to plotting acts of counter-violence as an expression of moral revulsion, in order to make the statement that this must stop (in Super-Cannes). Of course, none of these narrators’ gestures are successful, or even adequate to the situations they are responding to. “The suburbs dream of violence” (opening line of Kingdom Come), of a vast convulsion which the imagine as a purgative or transformational Event. Ballard’s great subject, in his final four novels, is the hollowness of this dream, the emptiness and inevitable disappointment of any fidelity to the Event, every bit as much as of any loyalty to the ruling order. This is the way that Ballard remains unassimilable (despite the reverential treatment that he received in death from portions of the literary Establishment, such as it is, or from fans of Steven Spielberg). He casts a bleak light upon any naive optimism and hope for change (but what optimism or hope for change is not “naive”?); while at the same time corrosively destroying any sort of faith in rational norms or in the worthiness of the ruling order. His fiction is equally antagonistic to utopian idealizations, and to those (all-too-common) disgustingly fatalistic assertions that There Is No Alternative, or that the Eternal Human Tragedy is something that we must bravely and grimly bear. [Though he did write one sort-of utopia: an odd and somewhat neglected novel, The Unlimited Dream Company]. The only (very slender) hope that his novels offer is a hope in the value in itself of a disillusioned and demystified clarity of regard — one that his narrators in these last four novels do not themselves attain, but that the attentive reader just might get to. Even the narrator of Kingdom Come, who more than flirts with fascism, ends with the warning that the nightmare of violence that works to reproduce the very social order and social hierarchies against which it is a protest will recur, “unless the sane woke and rallied themselves.” I don’t think that the narrator himself can be included in this “sane,” but the phrase points to the way that Ballard still clings (rightly) to a kind of Enlightenment ideal, even as he tracks the horrific legacy of what Adorno and Horkheimer were perhaps too narrow to call “instrumental reason.” Ballard is (if anything) far bleaker than Adorno, but he’s also refreshingly free of Adorno’s high-European snobbery. I would want to argue, finally, that Ballard was a greater social theorist than Adorno, or than such contemporary sociological diagnostians of postmodernity as Bauman, Beck, Giddens, or Castells. And Ballard was a great social theorist not in spite of, nor even in addition to, but precisely because of, his aestheticism, or the fact that he was writing novels rather than engaging in empirical research. His four final novels really only deal with a small corner of Europe, and not with the rest of the world. But they rigorously anatomize, and shock us into a deeper awareness of, the social nightmare that, if alien to most of the world’s population, is nonetheless hegemonic over them.