Guest post: Chuck Dyke on Edgar Morin

by CarlD

By Chuck Dyke, Temple University. This is a draft of an essay scheduled for publication. All rights reserved.

The dread of nothing is pretty ironic. The average density of the universe comes out to a couple of hydrogen atoms per cubic meter, so almost nothing is what we’ve got: cosmic minimalism; a huge canvas with a few specks on it. Fortunately (one supposes) at small scales the specks aren’t spattered evenly. Some places the almost nothing has clumped up into the something.

In the same vein, they tell us that the whole shebang is just a particular configuration of the quantum vacuum. Then they tell us that the quantum vacuum, while being nothing, is far from being nothing. Nothing is unstable, so at incredible rates and in incredible profusion it reconfigures itself, as if there were a manic quantum Jackson Pollack in a meth frenzy: swish, swoop, splash and drip. Out of the frenzied blur of combination and recombination came space and time, the possibility of painting and sculpture, and the possibility of music – eventually. So here we are. And for all that, we’re still in the quantum vacuum; and as it expands, faster and faster, it appears, it gets ever more vacuous.

To help me think about vacua, voids, emptiness, and the meaning of nothing, I’d like to enlist the help of Edgar Morin. He’s not all that widely known or remembered these days. That’s a shame, since among writers of the 20th Century he may well provide more that we could profitably learn than most of the others. At a time when arguably the most critical problem facing us all is that of coming into some viable harmony with the planet we live on, I don’t think it would be wise to ignore one who has taken such a deep look at our place in earthly existence. Because his work is so wide ranging, I won’t embark on a silly attempt at a synopsis of his work. Rather, we’ll sample him, and dwell on a few passages useful for the route we want to travel. In fact, we’ll confine ourselves to one of the most central topics in Method: Opening [notes omitted].

The context for understanding opening is embedded in the following:

Thus, the key idea is evident: the environment is permanently constitutive of all the beings which feed in it; it permanently cooperates in their organization. These beings and organizations are, therefore, permanently eco-dependent.
But, in a paradox which is proper to the ecological relation, it’s in this dependence that the autonomy of these beings is woven and constituted.
Such beings can build and maintain their existence, their autonomy, their individuality, their originality only in ecological relation, that is to say in and by dependence on their environment; whence the alpha idea of all ecological thought: the independence of a living being necessitates its dependence with respect to its environment. (p. 202)

For example, the give and take between independence and dependence can go like this: The more I’m willing to engage with my natural environment productively, the less dependent I am on other humans and their institutions. I avoid these dependencies by opening up to the environment through my productive interaction with it – by gardening, for example. But then the wheel turns, I become dependent on the environment, the whims of weather, and so on. You can’t outrun the dependency no matter how hard you try to close yourself off from it. You can only create the illusion of independence. The alternative is to examine the patterns of interaction – the openings – that are ultimately inevitable.

Said thus, the view looks commonsensical enough: you have to eat to live, and there has to be something to eat. Then autonomy, philosophy, and science are connected as follows:

…. What, or who is the subject? Must we really come to know and acknowledge it? Or is it a mere epiphenomenon or an illusion? I would answer with the following proposition: I believe in the possibility of a scientific, rather than a metaphysical, grounding for the notion of a subject, one which involves what I call a “biological” definition of the term in question, though not in the sense of contemporary biological discourse. I could say biological, by which I mean corresponding to the very logic of living beings. And why are we now able to conceive of the notion of the subject in a scientific manner? To begin with, because it is possible to reconceptualize the notion of autonomy, something that was impossible within a mechanistic and deterministic world view.

For this reconceptualization, the concept of inevitable openness is fundamental: the starting point. Opening fundamentally characterizes existence; existence fundamentally characterizes us along with everything else. Over the long haul, we’ve managed to learn a lot about the environmental terms of that existence.

What sort of fundamentality is existence; and why “opening?” The reasons for the term “opening” are several. One is historical. At a particularly formative period of Morin’s intellectual life, Sir Ilya Prigogine and others began to understand the thermodynamics of open systems: open, that is to a flux of energy and matter. The possibility of self elaboration and self-organization of these systems began to be understood. Bertalanffy developed his general systems theory. Schroedinger published his speculations on the origins of life. Thinkers from Jacques Monod to Teilhard de Chardin began to work with these ideas. Morin’s views in Method grew out the study of those thinkers. Indeed, they grew out of a dissatisfaction with the theories insofar as they failed to go beyond the canonical distinction between open, closed, and isolated systems: often just another exercise in taxonomy.

Therefore, we are going to speak here, not of open system but of systemic, organizational, and also ontological, existential opening. We are going to start from energy/matter opening, then informational, but in order to associate it with organization, being, existence. The idea of opening, by not being isolated or hypostasized, will not be reduced thereby. We are going to see that it will take on a radicality and an amplitude unknown in theories of “open system.” … The distinction between open system and closed system is not only too simple; it hides what in the reality of systems and above all polysystems involves, here opening, there closing. (p. 197)

One thing we have managed to learn about is the thermodynamics of existence: the cosmos as a big heat engine. Everything plays the thermodynamic game. The important questions all concern how various things play it. We play the thermodynamic game, for example, in terms of the energetics of life. Lots of things in the world aren’t open to the energetics of life; lots of things besides us are. So there’s no question of reducing ourselves to, say, simple heat engines. But, by the same token, there’s no question of reducing amoebae to simple heat engines either. Thermodynamics is fundamental in the sense that it establishes the basic conditions of our placing ourselves, even as different as we are, within existence. We can’t be so concerned to affirm our autonomy against the rest of the world that we fail to appreciate our autonomy in the world.

Accurate placement requires a careful understanding of the differential openings and closings that constitute us, and those that constitute other things. Placement within existence thus isn’t an exercise in ontological taxonomy, but a ground-up assessment of the conditions of our existence: an evaluation of our dependencies as well as the scope of our independence.

The second major source of Morin’s view is Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics. But, here again, Morin goes beyond the bare contributions of Wiener’s systems theory. Wiener’s theory is too static and linear for Morin. It’s a theory for thermostats and aiming guns. Certainly many of the relations that Morin emphasizes can, in some sense, be glossed as feedback loops, but Morin sees these loops as dynamic and creative. Where Wiener’s emphasis is on the restoration of stasis (for negative feedback) or the production of a linear trajectory (for positive feedback), Morin emphasizes the capacity for feedbacks to produce novelty, especially when they promote interactive learning. Thus, Morin sees all openings as bi-directional: cognitions, in his view, are characteristically two-way, and only degenerately reducible to a knowing subject confronting an object being known, but unknowing. So cognition dynamically changes both parties to the cognitive act: for example, both learn, modify their behavior with respect to one another – feed off one another in a process of mutual learning. For him, cognition can’t be isolated from other generative, nurturing, threatening, and other relations, but is intertwined with them – in existence. Thus, despite of all his use of thermodynamics, information theory, and systems theory, in general, Morin can be characterized not as trying to reduce our existence to them, but as attempting an evolving humanization of them. Richly embedded in layer upon layer of the particularities of human openness/closedness to the world, we’re human not by being outside the world looking in but by being inside the world (more or less intelligently) looking around.

Not surprisingly, Morin reads human history as the history of openings and closings. This aligns him with those (many) these days who are trying to understand the technological trajectory that’s led us to our present circumstances. The short version of the overall picture is that we, in effect, have been trying to enclose human life, especially the middle class life of the last few centuries, in a big bubble, with all interactive relations with the environment at the surface of the bubble. Writers on the city have long thought along these lines. In the long run, the variety of environmental interaction with the environment has decreased, but the rate of interaction with the environment has increased enormously. In a real sense, we ourselves have reduced our opening to the environment to basic thermodynamic terms – except insofar as we’ve reduced the environment to a decorative and recreational site, thinking that in doing so we do justice to it.

Morin knows that justice requires more than that from us. For him, existence is a lot deeper, and, as I said before, he’ll have nothing to do with existence that loses sight of its existential conditions. He sets a tough job for himself, as he tries to get us to take the fundamentals of our existence seriously. To a great extent, throughout the course of technological “advance,” fantasies were allowed. Perhaps the most familiar nowadays is the Lockean fantasy of god the provider of abundance, but that fantasy follows many earlier ones to the same effect. Existence never seemed to be radically threatened, except by equally fantastic apocalyptic nightmares. Even at the time Morin began writing Method, the fantasies still had a purchase. But before most other people he saw the fantasies for what they are. The bankroll of existence isn’t infinite. At some point there really will be nothing left, if we’re not careful. That particular nothing genuinely is to be feared.

But nothing isn’t always to be feared. It can be a creative source. For the artist, one of the most significant nothings is called “negative space,” the shapes between shapes. These are truly openings: openings to the meaning of relationship. We can explore this with an example, the sculpture “Shade,” [not] shown here. Shade started out as an apple tree, but is now only a shade of its former self, unable to afford the cooling shade it once did. Nearing death, the tree was cut down and cut up, leaving the bottom part of the trunk – full of rot. The tree was dead, but, for the wood carver, wood is never dead until it completely decays away or is burned up. So something had to be done to make it live again. Chopping away at the outside of the trunk to create the normal three dimensional form was out of the question. I’d just have hacked my way down to the rot. So the sculpture had to be inside out. So I took out most of the inside. The nothing left inside was the opening to any possible second life for Shade.

The result is that what’s left between the inside and the outside is the negative space between Shade and the world around it. That negative space bears all the marks of Shades former life, with all their meanings. We now can’t understand Shade’s life by looking at it from outside. We have to be inside looking around. When we get in there, we find Shades own old openings to the world: the rhythmic grain and apertures marking where it sent out its branches, and, eventually its shade. We also see the marks of its struggle for existence in the presence of other organisms that were making their living and their home. A tree can’t hope to live forever. Other things have to live as well, and the tree affords them the opportunity to do so. But the tree can hope to live a long and noble life, as Shade did, in mutuality with things whose individual lives were, as a matter of fact, far more ephemeral than Shade’s. Of course the lineages of the ephemeral things live on. Shade afforded them the chance to do so. I often wish more people would think of themselves in that way.

Moreover, not all voids are spatial. Some are temporal, the negative spaces between sounds that we call silence. It’s real quiet between galaxies, but thinking about the silence of the spatial void is one of the ways of opening ourselves to the enormity of the cosmos. It also opens us to how spatial and temporal voids are intermixed. We shouldn’t have needed Einstein for that insight. Of course, nowadays we think that we’ve beaten back the threat of silence across the void, because we “talk” electronically. We’re busy filling the cosmic void with our conversations, trivial and otherwise, all waving goodbye as they wiggle off into the intergalactic nothingness.

But it’s not the huge silences that are important, in most cases. It’s the little silences at our own scale that matter most. A good example is music. There’s some music with no spaces: bagpipes are made to keep the sound going continuously, for example. But in most music, the silence between tones is one of the main ways music is made beautiful. When a composer wants a silence, he puts in a rest, but every competent musician leaves little spaces where there are no rests, in the course of creating his or her interpretation. It’s common to say that this is one of the ways that the music is opened up to show itself. Far from being voids to fear, these tiny silences are precious.

The most important silences, though, are interpersonal silences. Thirty-some years ago, Danilo Dolci gathered a group of young Sicilians together to reflect on – well, all sorts of things. At a certain point the conversation drifted into a discussion of silence and silences; at night; in church; at graveside; silences of solitude or fear; silences of reflection; the silence of the sense of space; and so on. It slowly dawns on them that most silences are meaningful and valuable; not voids to be avoided or feared. Toward the end of the conversation, Dolci remarks, “If you say that silence must be in conditions where we’re not deaf, then I agree that silence doesn’t exist. While in common language you attribute the possession of a voice to humans, poets, not by chance, speak of the voices of nature.” The implied conclusion is that for someone who’s not deaf, there’s always something to be listened to. Morin would put it that there are always potential openings for those attentive to them. In any case, silence is seldom a nothingness to be feared.

There are exceptions: E.g., the horror vacui of the talk show host, who dreads “dead air.” Remember, if you’re ever on a talk show, that you can do pretty much anything you want; but don’t stop and think! More seriously, we can think of the mother in Fritz Lang’s M, who waits for the sound of her child’s footstep on the stairs. As the young Sicilians say, the fear of silence is the fear of death. From that point of view, prospects of biosphere decay threaten silences that will make Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring sound like “The Rite of Spring.” Total death is indeed a silence to be feared. Individual deaths, like Shade’s, and mine, and yours, on the other hand, can be openings.

To say something more about opening to the environment, in the brief compass we have, we’ll have to sample again. This time we’ll make use of an analogy that conveniently picks up the issue of autonomy and biology raised earlier. We can start by remembering that in his discussion of the subject, Morin wanted to ground the subject biologically, but not biologically (or, so the translation had it.) Then we can consider what Morin thinks of experimental science:

It is remarkable that we, open beings opening ourselves onto the world by our science, have in this very science developed a knowledge which dissociates, isolates, separates, and finally encloses objects in themselves. That is because what comes out of the scientific opening through which we strive to know the world is at the same time the iron arm of experimentation, which surgically tears the object from its environment and its adherences and, in so doing , manipulates and enslaves. It is because the disciplines have closed down upon mutilated objects. Thus, closed knowledge has everywhere destroyed or hidden the solidarities, the articulations, the ecology of beings and of acts, existence! Thus we have become blind to openings, so true is it that the most difficult to perceive is the evidence which a dominant paradigm hides. (Method, p.205)

In exactly the same vein, Heinz von Foerster made the distinction between “banale machines” and “non-banale machines.” Banale machines can be fully accounted for in terms of linear deterministic mechanism, clockwork; non-banale machines cannot. To rephrase the earlier discussion of autonomy, when Morin is confident that autonomy can be reconceptualized scientifically, he’s talking about a science of non-banale machines: a biology of beings who defeat experiment. Non-banale machines cease to exist when they’re subjected to experimental closure. In their normal existence they monitor the state of their environment and their own state, and respond recursively and creatively to both. Experimental closure prevents them from doing so, hence thwarts their existence. Experiment isolates them from contingency and “noise.” Normally, they live off of contingency and noise. Thus, experiment closes them off from the production of self.

Now, this is all said in the context of Morin’s deep appreciation of, and dependence upon what experimental science has learned. Morin paid his dues at the Salk Institute, and was, at least informally, a colleague of Monod. Still, the point stands. To believe that humans are banale machines is both foolish and evil. (On the other hand, to believe that humans aren’t non-banale machines, is to believe in miracles; and Morin doesn’t believe in miracles.)

This rejection of the totalization of experiment and its closures is, of course, at the same time a rejection of the totalization of positivism in favor of a much more active and creative view of science. More deeply, it’s the rejection of an ethos: the ethos of technological domination of the planet. Here we’ve come full circle, for in analogy with the laboratory experiment, our modern way of life is an experiment – with all the same sorts of closures, erasures, and systematically mandated ignorance.

We’re beginning to see how the experiment turns out. Closing ourselves off from both praxically and cognitively from the conditions of our existence paid off for a while, when we could delude ourselves into thinking that the bankroll was infinite, but the payoff is collapsing. The interactive openings defining our dependence/autonomy have turned out to be fragile as we’ve reached our current level of one-sided exploitation. In fact, it isn’t clear that we can restore the openings, the loops and the recursions that constitute the conditions for the very existence of life itself on the planet, let alone our own existence. At the very least, we’d do well to think about those conditions in some new ways; and Morin is a good place to start. Of course starting there may be risky. We may find out that the most horrific void – the one most to be feared – is in ourselves.


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