martes, 24 de agosto de 2010

Some Questions for Levi Bryant: Withdrawal, knowledge, meaning.

Some Questions for Levi Bryant:
- Withdrawal, knowledge, meaning -

Over at Larval Subjects, Levi has succinctly replied to my last post, where I follow up on Pete’s discussion of OOP and withdrawal. First, I should thank Levi and apologize for any misreading of his position, and only hope I can approximate the detail of his view better now. I’ll cut right to the issue and point out where I still see some questions could be raised, since I think some of the problems I pointed out nevertheless persist. Levi writes:

“The first point to make here is that within my framework there is no such thing as information transmitted between systems. Information is not something that exists out there in the world, floating about, but exists only for a system … information is an event that selects a system or object-state. One object perturbs another object, the object receiving the perturbation translates that perturbation into information, and that information selects a system-state, generating a quality or local manifestation. The manner in which this takes place will be unique for each type of object.”

The shortcoming of my reading seems to be that I followed Pete’s lead in associating the withdrawal thesis too hastily to the question of miscommunication, and thus of how translation implies information which is necessarily system-specific. The relevant passage he provides is the following one:

“In essence, Levi holds that causal interactions between objects involves some form of communication between the proper being of each object, but that this communication is indirect, or subject to translation, insofar as the information involved is dependent upon the specific virtual structure (i.e., proper being) of the affected (or receiving) object. The withdrawal of each object’s proper being in relation to the other thus consists in the system specificity of information.”

If I am reading Levi correctly here, withdrawal and the excess thesis should not be understood, as in Graham’s case, in terms of the relation between objects, but merely in the constitutive excess of an object’s proper being against its manifest qualities. I will return to this below, but for now I’d merely point out that my initial misreading seems to have arisen from an illegitimate extension of withdrawal to ‘interobjective’ relations. This is what Pete called ‘the withdrawal of each object’s proper being in relation to another’. I emphasize this last bit because it seems Pete was implying that in addition to the withdrawal of an object’s virtual structure against its manifest qualities, the concept of withdrawal is to be understood in terms of the miscommunication between objects. I’d like to know if Levi accepts this characterization of withdrawal. If not, I’d ask on this account whether there is still a relevant connection between miscommunication and withdrawal. Guided by Levi’s reply, I will assume no such connection is obvious, so I will reformulate a few questions on the basis of what is concretely clarified. The following questions I provisionally address to Levi:
1) Is there any sense in which anything is transmitted or communicated between systems in relation, i.e. in an a) object’s reception of a perturbation or b) its subsequent translation into information which actualizes/chooses a local manifestation?
2) What exactly perturbs an object: is it another object as such, or a local manifestation of an object? Levi writes that ‘one object perturbs another’, but also that an object ‘receives the perturbation’. The first formulation seems to imply objects are perturbations, while the latter tells us perturbations are inputs, received by objects and thus presumably infiltrating them in some form where they become subject to translation. But surely it is not the objects themselves which are received, unless i'm very far off the mark here. The obvious question concerns the metaphysical status of perturbations. Are perturbation objects or merely local manifestations in objects? Or are perturbations rather distinguishable from the dyad objects/manifestations? Since perturbations are translated into information, is there any sense in which any perturbation is specific and thus differentiable from others prior to the act of translation? If not, then isn't it something of an annonymous force passing between objects and their manifestations? Assuming some differentiation is in order, and since all perturbations are causal agents anchored in concrete objects, what is the relation between a system’s local manifestations and the perturbations it produces and which other objects receive? If perturbations are only those objective manifestations which affect other objects upon relation, couldn’t we say that what gets translated is simply a local manifestation affecting an object? It seems strange to say even local manifestations are ‘received’, however, so there must be a sense in which the perturbation produced by the object differs from the local manifestation on which that perturbation is anchored. So I’d simply like to know a) what exactly are the structural features of a perturbation, how b) it is not simply coincidental to manifest qualities, and finally c) whether perturbations are in the receiving object, in the object causing the perturbation, or whether it 'passes' from one to the other in some way. These are all obviously linked.
3) I understand information is the result of the translation process, but I’m more curious as to how exactly an object’s virtual structure manages to turn perturbations into information which then select a system state. This is mainly a result of not being clear on the relation between local manifestations and perturbations. Is every perturbation correspondent to a single objective manifestation which causes it? Or are perturbations general features abstracted from a set of local manifestations (sunlight is a perturbation, but it is not a local manifestation, but a series of local manifestations)? Or yet again, is a perturbation simply the total ‘input’ of causally affecting local manifestations which an object receives prior to an act of translation, and which may thus involve more than one object as its source?
These are all questions which I’m sure Levi can answer, assuming I haven’t mixed things up.

Following up on his reply, Levi gives a general outline describing his basic stock of concepts schematically: virtual proper being, local manifestation, withdrawal, information, translation. Here is where he expressly clarifies that the withdrawal thesis is merely meant to illustrate that the object’s virtual potentiality exceeds every actual local manifestation, i.e. an object is always capable of more than what it does and manifests. Since manifestations change while objects retain their powers, Levi salvages substance against the stock of qualities or accidents manifest at any given time. Of course, we would also need an account of how the powers of an entity change over time, and not just its manifestations, unless we can be given an account of essential powers and accidental ones. I won’t pursue this issue here, since it would be premature. I’d just point out that this characterization more sharply distinguishes Levi’s version of withdrawal from Graham’s own version of the thesis, which is formulated in terms of an object’s irreducibility to its relations. Levi writes on this account:

“These properties are all local manifestations of my body. If these are manifestations then this is because they are events or acts that my body actualizes in the world. If they are local, then this is because they occur under specific conditions. The fact that the qualities of an object can change requires us to give an account of what substance is like in order for these changes to take place. We can’t equate the being of a substance with its qualities precisely because those qualities change while the substance remains the same. Consequently, I argue that an object is split between its virtual proper being and its local manifestations. The virtual proper being of an object is its powers or capacities. My body must have the capacity to darken in order for my skin to grow darker. My body does not, as far as I know, have the power to “green” like a leaf.”

This is all good and paves the way for Levi’s account of withdrawal, information and translation, which is the crux of the issue, and where the bulk of my uncertainties stemmed from:

“The concept of withdrawal as I understand it merely underlines the point that no object ever actualizes all of its powers in local manifestations. When my skin darkens it doesn’t pale… If I insist on a distinction between the perturbation of sunlight and the information that my body produces, then this is because the information the sunlight produces in my body necessarily differs from sunlight itself. The biochemical processes sunlight initiates in my body is nothing like sunlight itself. Moreover, the quality that sunlight produces in my body in a local manifestation (tan skin) is nothing like sunlight.”

This suggests that a perturbation received in a host-object is then analogous to objective manifestations in agent-objects, like we surmised before. Since every time, as in the case of sunlight, what will affect an object is another object’s actual manifest state, the identity between manifestations and perturbations seems provisionally warranted. What is less clear, however, is how this identity is construed, for the reasons outlined above in question (3) above. Namely, does a perturbation coincide with a single local manifestation, or many? Levi writes of sunlight and biochemical processes; is there any sense in which the sunlight constitutes a single perturbation or many? Or inversely, is there any sense in which a perturbation is anchored on a single objective manifest state, or is it a concept enveloping globally the totality of local manifestations interacting causally with an object?

“If local manifestations are acts, activities, or doings on the part of an object, then we might ask why we are nonetheless inclined to treat local manifestations as qualities that an object has or possesses, or as qualities that are in an object. My answer to this question is that most objects we’re familiar with exist in what I call regimes of attraction that are fairly stable. I tend to think my body, for example, has a particular enduring shape because, on the planet earth, I exist under fairly stable conditions of temperature, gravity, and pressure. Change these conditions significantly and my body begins to manifest new properties (perhaps leading to the destruction of my body or my body becoming many new objects)."

Here I’d just like to ask whether the ‘acts’ in question refers to the selection of a system-state by produced information. The reason why identical systems/objects is enigmatic at this juncture is because it’s not clear how exactly the process of translation produces information which then determines local states. Can two objects produce an identical local manifestation? How does translation process the perturbation through the virtual being of the object into specific information which then chooses a system state? Since the notion of information mediates between the virtual domain of the object receptive of perturbations and the actual, local manifestations produced by information’s choice, I’d want to know how a received perturbation is translated by an object’s virtual apparatus, and how translated information ‘chooses’ a state. In case of the former link, the question is one of specifying what exactly is received by an object from another. In the case of the latter, it is a matter of specifying how the production of a new system state is articulated on the basis of information, and how the latter individuates objective power into qualitative actuality. Finally, are all local manifestations unique to the system translating them, so that no two local system manifestations are ever identical? In what sense can we speak about shared qualities between objects, or of the difference in shared qualities between objects? If all qualities are system specific instantiations, but are nevertheless subject to generalization, then we need an account of what specifies a local manifestation. I can probably produce an infinity of suitable descriptions to coin the actual state of any object, so one may ask whether objects exhibit infinite local manifestations at a given point, or whether there is any sense to say each object is limited as to what it may locally manifest. Levi continues to inquire on knowledge:
On the question of knowledge, Levi retorts that in this notion is not related especially to revolutionary movements or invention. I'm not sure why he is saying this, so I might have not been sufficiently clear: I was simply replying to Pete’s claim that to conceive of knowledge as an act is vitiated by considerations of experimental science, where there is no current pragmatic use of its results. As I understand it, Levi’s notion of an ‘act’ is not limited to pragmatic use in the sense that scientific results serve some social human purpose. On the contrary, theory would be just as ‘active’ in its production of knowledge as the examples of cooking Levi suggests. My qualms with the account was rather that if one stipulates common qualities may exist between objects, or that qualities may repeat themselves over time (I can get a tan every summer…), then one can force a distinction between manifestations of previously actualized qualities and unprecedented actualizations. There is a sense in which every local manifestation is unique, but another in which it can be said to be a repetition of a general feature proper to many objects, i.e. both Levi and I can presumably get tanned, and probably do so from time to time. And there is also a sense in which objects might exhibit unforeseen or unprecedented features, just like innovation produces all sorts of new things for which we must come up with new terms to describe. So my suggestion was simply that however knowledge is construed within the axis of virtual-actual objectivity, it must distinguish between mere instantiations of readily existing powers and the production of new powers. Hopefully this is clearer now. On this account, Levi writes:

If it is true that objects are structured compositions of powers and that properties or local manifestations are acts, then I believe it follows that knowledge consists in a set of prescriptions or practices for producing qualities in an object. To know an object is to know the powers that inhabit or structure an object. How do I know the powers that structure or inhabit an object? I know this by acting on the object or observing how other objects act on the object to produce specific local manifestations. By acting on objects we gradually discover what objects are capable of doing or what local manifestations they produce under specific conditions.

Everything turns here on how we are to read the notion of a ‘prescription’ or ‘practice’, and whether the notion of an ‘act’ here has the same sense as the selection of a system-state by information. If so, one may ask whether there is any sense in which knowledge is nevertheless distinct and under which criteria. This is closely knit to the question of how ‘meaning’ operates on Levi’s account. To this purpose, he has previously explained that the production of meaning in humans involves the consideration of alternate possibilities which differ from actual states in objects; i.e. the reflexive recapitulation on the gap between the object’s virtual structure and local manifestations. But of course at this point ‘choice’ seems exceedingly abstract as a notion, and especially in the distinction between systems endowed with the ‘reflexive’ structure described by Levi and those which lack it. In any case, Levi claims that the reason for construing knowledge as an act is to resist the theoretical-bent of philosophical privileging of knowing-that, which too often obviates or trivializes the qualitative distinctness of knowing-how. Significantly, the examples he gives to separate the two are circumscribed to human activity, while he emphasizes that meaning is not the domain of humans alone: gardening, rock climbing, etc. The disconcerting aspect in Levi’s description is that he models the distinction between theory and activity on how the former fails to ‘engage materials’.

Although Levi is obviously targeting the aristocrat notion that knowledge is restricted to the ‘logical space of reasons’, giving arguments and engaging in armchair-reflection, it seems strange it should play the metaphysical role it does. This is because Levi would surely accept that theory, as I described above, is not qualitatively abstracted from a material exchange with the world, since it is clearly articulated, expressed and developed through material means and engagements: no one would suggest theory is either external to matter either in my production of utterances, writing of formulas in paper, typing blog posts, or quietly reflecting (my brain activity is surely material). Of course language, and not just argumentative dialog, is distinct than rock-climbing in its specific address, source or destination, but it’s not clear we can call theory any less ‘productive’ than climbing rocks, simply because the latter deals with rocks and the former with utterances, written symbols, or internal projections. When Levi writes that “
Because we are sitting still and the rock is not being acted upon, we conclude that knowledge of the rock consists in being able to enumerate the properties that the rock has” he seems to be resting on a more concrete notion of what counts as acting or engaging an object than what he has produced so far.

Then again, if not all objects produce knowledge, and if the latter is not merely equivalent to state-selection, we must make better of what ‘discovering the power of objects’ means. If the latter is meant to illustrate that any occasion of knowledge involves ‘grasping’ which local manifestations an object may actualize when acted upon, then this notion of grasp must not simply be propositionally articulated for Levi to fall right back into Wolfendale’s epistemological exigency. That is, if knowing that a local manifestation is possible is reducible to being able of gradping ‘x is the case’ then he seems to presuppose that knowledge is finally inferentially established by tacit normative criteria which regulate conditions for epistemic warrant. What is it, then, to grasp that a local manifestation is possible on the basis of powers if not to rationally cognize it within an inferential network of relations which ground and qualify conditions for epistemic success? My worry is thus that in trying to strip knowledge away from its propositional/inferential purchase the distinction between knowledge producing activity from non-knowledge-producing events is left, for the moment, exceedingly obscure.
Finally, Levi addresses the issue of meaning, where he broadens the scope away from the individual human domain and clarifies its role. Here Levi is succinct and clarifies his account effectively:
I have perpetually emphasized, following Lacan, that “all communication is miscommunication”. In my view, meaning is not a shared propositional content, but is an event that takes place within a system capable of producing a variety of different interpretations. Meaning is not something that a proposition, utterance, or event has but something that an utterance produces. This will differ for every system of reference. Over time, different systems can begin coordinating their reactions to one another as the United States has done with various terrorist cells, but it doesn’t follow that the content is the same for both parties involved. Utterances generate meanings within specific systems, but these meanings are not identical. What is important is the coordination of action that takes place as a result… A coordination that might very well be antagonistic.”

I stand corrected on my earlier claim that only humans produce meaning, since at least also social-systems manage to do the trick. I am less clear on the question of what unique role meaning comes to play, as some of my earlier questions resurface. In particular, the claim that what determines meaning is the effect that utterances (or other ‘units’) produce on specific systems, and that this production will necessarily be unique to the reacting system, i.e. the thesis that contents are unique for the system. My approach to this point will be brief, since I fear I might end up repeating myself too much. I’ll only say beforehand that I have similar concerns to Pete on this matter, and similar questions to the ones I raised in yesterday’s post. Concretely:
The notion of miscommunication implies failure. Since failure is measured against a standard for what would be in theory direct, successful communication, I’d ask what exactly is being communicated which is fails to attain this standard every time? Judging from Levi’s construal, it seems the reception of utterances is just the receiving of perturbations, which in knowledge-producing systems translate into a system specific grasp of a spectrum of possible reactions, and thus possible actualized manifestations. Since every system will, however subtly, uniquely produce an interpretation on the basis of specific structural conditions, meanings are said not to be shared, but merely a function of the possibilities envisaged in the choice which guides the actual production of a system state upon translating it. This is all good, but we need a clearer account to distinguish the choice of system states in non-knowing systems, and the reflexive choice of meaning systems (where pressumably the crucial fact is that it 'grasps' the alternative possibilities). It seems like the final 'choice' of a system state is left as an ephermal characterization of subjective/intelligent will or freedom. But this is very rudimentary and probably can wait.

In any case, it is far from clear what exactly accounts for the fact that the content of meaning cannot be identical between systems, if we stipulate they posses sufficiently similar virtual structures, and that thus translations could produce comparable states. That is, unless we advance the thesis that no two systems are ever identical, and that translation involves the whole of the system. If two systems were identical, couldn’t there be identical local manifestations, or two identical productions of meaning? Levi denies such identity is possible nevertheless, but problems ensue in non-identical systems.

For even assuming such identity were not possible, couldn’t there be
sufficiently similar systems so that they would produce qualitatively identical states. Just like we can say both Levi and I share the quality of being tanned, couldn’t we say we could share the meaning of multiplication tables, insofar as we produce identical answers on the basis of indistinguishable grasp of how are to use these mathematical rules, as exemplified in our common results in a single test, for instance? Even if we may have to assume our reasoning proceeded analogously in producing such result, nothing seems to prevent this possibility from happening, however rarely (I’m sure one can think of simpler examples where such coincidence wouldn’t be so implausible). In any case, we seem lead back on the issue Pete raised: if all it takes for a meaning-state to be unique is that it belongs to a unique object, then the same seems to hold for all qualities, not just meanings.

If the fact that no local manifestation is ever identical to another suffices to make meaning utterly unique, then the question returns: how or in what sense can there exist common properties between objects? Seeing that we previously stipulated that not all qualities are necessarily haecceities, one needs an account of what exactly fails to be identical in the local manifestations, beyond the fact that they happen in a particular system and not another. Only then we can decide whether there is any standard to gauge similarity between contents of meaning, or any sense in which anything like direct communication is necessarily impossible. For unless we want to say that each quality or instantiation is unique, then we either elide the idea that objects share states at all, or else we must a) distinguish between abstract features of objects which may be shared from qualities which are inexaustible/unique, or b) that qualities exhibit essential and generalizable and accidental properties. Under the latter view, Levi would have to say that although objects share common qualities on the basis of commonly translated general 'essential' features, every state also includes a totality of additional accidental properties which are contingently native to the host-object and its regime of attraction.

It should be noted that although Levi hasn’t invoked the notion of withdrawal at all in this occasion, Pete seemed to think this was a second construal of the notion:
“Levi initially described withdrawal as being a split between proper being and local manifestation, much as Graham describes it as a split between real objects and sensuous objects. However, the way it is described here suggests that it is a split between the local manifestation (or perturbation) and the information it produces. This is reinforced by Levi’s suggestion that information plays the same role in his system that sensuous objects play in Graham’s.“
In retrospect, this reading appears to miss the mark, since communication failure, or the split between a local manifestation and the information it produces (as well as the state it selects) seems to rest on the incommensurability between the virtual structure of any two systems, and so the impossibility for an occasion of meaning to be identically reproduced, i.e. every local manifestation is new, and no production is reproduction. The crucial question seems to be finally whether the virulent multiplication of qualities leads Levi’s account into uncomfortable corners, but this will have to wait for a future occasion. Once again, I’d like to thank Levi for his attention and apologize for my hasty misgivings which, I hope, I have done some good to clarify.

1 comentario:

Anónimo dijo...

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