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Dynamic systems theory: Deleuze and Guattari

Employing the neologisms of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, I will argue that identifiable unities and entities are no more and no less than dynamic systems themselves. This is another way of saying that existent objects are simultaneously stable and unstable, structured and unstructured, closed and open, complete and incomplete. Or again, as Deleuze and Guattari tend to call them, they are abstract machines, composed of unformed deterritorialized flows or the Body without Organs (BwO) that are drawn onto a surface or plane of consistency in which recognizable identities emerge. Determinate identities are inseparable from the lifeblood or intensive flow that creates and sustains them, but it is at the same time the very condition that contributes to their adaptation or collapse. In this sense dynamic systems are best thought of as strata at the “edge of chaos”, what Jeffrey Bell will describe as a fundamental both/and chaos-mos, simultaneously ordered and chaotic.

Difference or the BwO is presupposed as a requisite condition for dynamic systems to function at all. According to Deleuze and Guattari, every existent individuation or determination presupposes a dark precursor or an indeterminate substance as its necessary condition of possibility, an indeterminate reality of the virtual that can in turn be actualized through differing modes of itself. For this reason, concrete objects must maintain both stable strata as well as unstable deterritorializing flows in order to exist.

Although the creative chaos or BwO enables the plane of consistency to be actualized in a recognizable form, the success of the constitution of perceivable objects is not guaranteed, it can go one of three ways. The most obvious outcome is, of course, properly functioning dynamic systems. However, the abstract machine is also vulnerable to failure at actualizing such systems and “instead collapses into either the cancerous body of uncontrolled proliferation and chaos or the fascist body of smothering identity” (Bell, Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos, p. 5). That is, pure chaos or inert orderliness.

The essential point in the last resort is the connection between the two facets of the double bind, the process whereby the nomadic distributions come-into-being or become determinable and known. In effect, production can actualize dynamic or chaosmic systems by filtering and containing the purely unformed substance of the BwO, but it also runs the risk of producing destructive forces or lifeless objects when the two aspects of self-contained identities, chaos and order, are not properly balanced.

The double articulation through which the given is given, to be more precise, is much more nuanced as Deleuze presents it than expressed above. In the first articulation the body without organs becomes determinable as such. That is, the chaos is rendered into something that can be connected, linked and assembled. The second articulation, on the other hand, enables the given substance of the first articulation “to be actualized into identifiable, functioning states and systems” (Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos, p. 7). In other words, pre-given discrepant quasi-objects can then be unified and classified into meaningful systems or statements. In this precise sense the philosophy of Deleuze occasions a significant improvement on previous philosophies of difference which seem to lack an account of the production or genesis of difference in itself.

In the remainder of this section I will give scrupulous attention to the precise character of dynamic systems at the edge of chaos or, as Deleuze and Guattari call them, abstract machines. It will be argued that said identities are both self-contained and excessive, containing the intensive depth or fullness of difference that simultaneously preserves and transgresses itself. Ontology, for Guattari and Deleuze in particular, is an odd accord of nomadic singularities and, as such, the condition for the possibility of identifiable entities or systems to come into being. This is said to take place by an act of restraining and funneling the non-integrable forces or vectors of chaos into consistent and unified objects or partial-objects. Furthermore, given the univocity of being, we also know that the existent individuations of being are distributed points of difference itself, that is, mere nodes of intensive force that have been slowed down to a degree that is identifiable to recognition. All of this suggests that the filter of selection from which familiar unities emerge can never fully master the infinite speeds or non-integrable vectors of chaos. In short, we can never wholly totalize, identify or complete the integration of singular individuals. There always remains an excess of chaos that goes unfiltered, which implies the surmountable undermining of those very identities.

Given that being is restless and that actual determinations in the world are inseparable from this being, identifiable dynamic systems are equally anxious. As a result, identities are never assured of their permanence. Rather they are always already in jeopardy of becoming otherwise than they currently are. As already seen, stable strata are merely precarious equilibriums of cosmos and chaos.

Moreover, neither chaos nor cosmos are apprehended to the omission of the other. Given their reciprocal determination, both are necessary for the realization of either one. Indeed, dynamical systems operate best at this dangersome and delicate harmony: “A functioning system would collapse under either of the two possibilities – pure chaos would destroy just as readily as pure cosmos, for to function a system needs order and predictability (cosmos), but to be able to adapt to novel, unforeseen situations a system needs to experiment with untried, uncommon methods (chaos)” (Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos, p. 36). It suffices to show that the uncommon is immanent to the common or that chaos is in the cosmos. Therefore, no system is completely protected from transformation, variability or collapse. All identifiable meanings are subject to uncommon change and subversion.

Derrida on Lucretius and modern genetics

Our perception of dynamic systems theory in Derrida is further confirmed in his discussion of atomist theories as outlined in Mes chances [Taking Chances]. Lucretius’ cosmological account readily presents us with a theory of system that directly parallels Derrida’s ontology of writing:

In the cosmology of Lucretius, the pre-phenomenal, primordial state of undifferentiated matter is represented as an infinitely descending cataract of atoms. Because these atoms move in parallel trajectories, from top to bottom, in a continuous stream, there is no contact between them, and therefore no possibility of existence as such. The clinamen is the oblique deviation or departure (in French, one would say ‘écart’) from this parallel and non-interacting descent of particles. The collision and combination (or ‘agglutination’) of atoms resulting from this swerve leads to the creation of the world and its phenomena. It is important to note that the occurrence of the clinamen is purely arbitrary…1

What is of peculiar interest here is Derrida’s reading of the clinamen as an indeterminate occurrence that yields maximum consequences. Although the deviation is minimal and arbitrary, the chance inauguration is retrospectively legitimized and translated as necessary. That is to say, the accidents of the event become frozen.

All of this suggests furthermore that the emergence of order from atoms is not fixed in totality but can dissolve and enter into new combinations. Derrida’s theory of system in relation to the Lucretian atom is characteristically meaningless, which is to say it possess no intrinsic meaning. Given that all relations are in the end arbitrary it goes without saying that all minimal elements can emigrate from their identifiable compositions and join a different articulating structure. Consequently, all atoms, marks or traits of a given relation are repeatable from one environment to another. In Derrida’s terms, they exist as traces.

The atomist “combinatorial principle” of chance and necessity in all complex systems serves as a comparable model to “the scriptural metaphors of modern biological and cybernetic theory” insofar as both are concerned with the double articulation of indeterminate excess and self-regulating code.2 In this respect all systems are “necessarily conservative (the condition of their existence and persistence) but equally inherently unstable (the condition of their dynamism).”3 This oscillation between disrupting chance and regulating containment is no less true of linguistic systems, but Derrida’s argument is much broader: the random process of condensation and combination of heterogeneous elements can be generalized to encompass all systems.

Although Derrida is hesitant to take positivistic steps that would identify him too strongly with the natural sciences his atomist materialism is nevertheless implicated in the field of molecular biology, specifically in modern genetics. As the genetic ‘script’ of DNA that transmits genetic information and contributes to hereditary processes of evolution suggests, organisms always contain a certain logic of chance mutation in the reproduction and perpetuation of themselves. Genetic theory shows, in other words, that the “process of copying or editing” a ‘text’ is always susceptible to errors: “additions, deletions, transpositions”.4 Johnson’s analysis demonstrates, moreover, that Derrida’s initial idiom of inscription is noticeably altered to include “what one might call…‘bio-genetic’ metaphors”, such as germ(ination), insemination and seed, particularly in ‘La dissemination’ [Dissemination], ‘Glas’ [Glas] and subsequent texts.5 However, Johnson is correct to point out, in my judgment, that Derrida’s implicit consideration of modern genetic theory and atomistic dissemination are supplemental articulations of a wider theory of writing proper. That is to say, Derrida is not concerned with bio-genetics or the atomist tradition per se as much as he is interested in a broader ontology of writing.

This at once brings us to Derrida’s proposed program for rewriting the constraining logocentric heritage of Western metaphysics. As the metaphoricity suggests, Derrida’s strategy of deconstruction involves tampering with the code in its process of reproduction.6 On this bio-technological basis, one forces the telos of an entity to stray from its intended destination by means of cutting and transplanting its codes to form new sequences. In fact, this means of interventional transformation can also be found in Derrida’s scriptural lexicon: the meaning of texts are, after all, amplified and contaminated by subsequent works or citational grafts that reproduce textual chains in new contexts. Or, to refer back to Derrida’s interpretation of Lucretius, the creation of variegated things in the world is a result of atoms or particles colliding and agglutinating into random combinations.

In all these examples the strategy remains the same: philosophy evolves by selecting and recombining the “continuous drift of differences” handed down by the system.7 More specifically, Derrida’s practical intervention involves choosing sequences of texts that do not follow the conventional trajectory of Western philosophy: “Derrida’s own selection of forces is intended to keep the system moving, to ensure the continual transformation of the code, the continuous differentiation of the ‘supplément de code’.”8 Expressed in other terms, Derrida is sensitive to pick marginal, suppressed, ‘tout autre’ forces and prove how they are in fact more powerful, which, it goes without saying, strangely approximates deconstruction to Darwinian natural selection. In short, Derrida’s program is to accelerate the process of discontinuities!

1 Johnson, System and Writing, 134.

2 Johnson, System and Writing, 137.

3 Johnson, System and Writing, 138.

4 Johnson, System and Writing, 166.

5 Johnson, System and Writing, 166.

6 “If Derrida’s bio-genetic metaphor is followed to its logical conclusion, then his proposed rewriting of the logocentric programme could be expressed in terms of genetic manipulation. In genetic technology, alternations in the DNA of a cell are obtained by means of the splicing and grafting of sequences of the genetic code, and this recombination of sequences can serve to modify aspects of metabolism or anatomical structure.” Johnson, System and Writing, 182.

7 Johnson, System and Writing, 163.

8 Johnson, System and Writing, 186.

Dynamic systems theory: Derrida

The problem with how Derrida has been (mis)received by others is a concern Christopher Johnson is all too familiar with. The emphasis in literary criticism as concerns Derrida, for instance, has largely been on deconstruction, and understandably so. That is to say, criticism has almost exclusively focused on the instrumental power of deconstruction as a potential and radical critique in writing. However, the error with reading Derrida in this limited and biased way is that we miss the second moment of deconstruction: a general theory or ‘ontology’ of writing itself. As will become evident, this question of writing is integral to deconstruction itself.

The other side of the Derrida equation is a positive and general structure of writing. In contrast to the ‘orthodox’ interpretation of Derrida’s work that construes his texts in terms of “destructive criticism, a philosophy of nihilism, or a theory of infinite polysemy”, Johnson is ready to propose a scriptural model that strikes a strong similarity to dynamic systems theory.1 In this case Derrida comes much closer to a wider episteme of the life sciences, something that would significantly short-circuit the ‘critical’ reputation he has suffered under.

Taking as an example Artaud’s account of the painful experience of writing and his struggle to inscribe words given the infinite possibilities grammar provides, Derrida notes that the inauguration of all creative productions arise from this excessive condition. This anguishing experience of writing for Artaud, according to Derrida, is generalizable for all advents of inscription because it requires one to cut out a plethora of possibilities that jostle for actualization. In other words, the crisis of cleaving and dividing the infinite heterogeneity itself into determinate irruptions is always and necessarily violent.

This cruelty, however, must not be understood in an exclusively moral or anthropological sense. Derrida’s broad sense of the term violence in his model of inscription is, rather, meant to suggest that it is rigorous, implacable, calculating and applied. For Derrida, it is the “passion of inscription”.2 Although the passion and anguish of inscription are applicable to spoken as well as graphical expression, Derrida privileges writing because it bears a stronger intensity. As we all have likely experienced, writing is more restricting, constraining and difficult than speech. Additionally, scratched and clawed graphical inscriptions are more enduring than speech. After all, it leaves a permanent, tangible mark upon its selected medium.

This account of Derrida’s general economy or theory of system, however, still leaves out its exact functioning. That is to say, how does it work? By way of contrast, Derrida corrected the flat, static and univocal method of structuralism by employing his own voluminous and hydraulic metaphors. What was lacking in structural analysis, according to Derrida, was force and overflow—two elements structuralism had a proclivity for subordinating and suppressing. This simultaneous movement of two extremes—force and form—can also be thought of in terms of the opposition between the respective traditions of Apollo and Dionysus in Western metaphysics; a distinction famously made by Nietzsche. On the one hand, Apollonian philosophy has a “tendency towards synchronism, reductive closure and the hypostatization or reification of structure” whereas Dionysian philosophy tends toward unrestrained force.3 But it is noteworthy, Derrida’s economy vigilantly avoids presenting these two as mutually exclusive alternatives. The strategy of deconstruction, after all, is the undoing of complimentary opposites. For Derrida, Dionysian force and Apollonian form function as an inseparable pair.

Returning to our analysis of graphical inscription it can be said that the Dionysian force flows vertically. However, this ascensional force must eventually come down and stabilize in the necessary support of an Apollonian form. To be more precise, the undifferentiated force eventually must descend and stabilize in a temporary equilibrium or homeostasis. This combined movement of hydraulic ascension and fall is, for Derrida, the very process or economy of writing. What is more, their intersection is the very condition of possibility for inscription: by themselves these dual polarities produce nothing. For Derrida, and characteristic of Nietzsche as well, the carving of a graphical inscription requires descent, work and bending. That is to say, it is the very process of cutting into a resistant medium.

The originary moment of inscription, however, cannot be thought simply as a pristine and total origin. Rather, after force has descended and made an etching in the earth this same force survives by circulating within the economy. The moment of determination therefore is both singular and persevering. Derrida characterizes this continuation and circulation of force as repetition. It would be erroneous, however, to think of this repetition merely as the return of the same. In contrast to “a second apparition identically doubling the first”—a characteristic move of logocentrism—Derrida argues that a lesser effect or ‘trace’ is preserved out of the violent descent from infinite excess to finite form.4 In brief, it continues as ‘differing nuances’. In this way, the temporary homeostasis or Apollonian form is always open to destabilization and further transformation given its complicit contamination of Dionysian force.

1 Christopher Johnson, System and Writing in the Philosophy of Jacques Derrida (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 9.

2 Johnson, System and Writing, 23.

3 Johnson, System and Writing, 42.

4 Johnson, System and Writing, 56.

Systems theory

Systems theory, to be brief, originated as a response to the Western analytic science of the seventeenth century that was characteristically ‘closed’ and mechanistic. That is to say, using broad strokes, classical science sought to isolate entities from their environment in order to observe them in their ‘purity’. However, this scientific methodology of detaching units from their context or ecology was exhausted once it was found to be an inappropriate form of inquiry and came to be effectively replaced by processes of interchange and exchange. Of particular significance was the collapse of vitalism or essentialism that held individual entities to be timeless and fixed, doubtless a product of the Darwinian natural selection of species.1

The alternative that systems theory offered to science was, in contrast, significantly more open and ‘living’: “The system is regulated, restrained, contained by control mechanisms such as negative feedback, both internal and environmental, but at the same time is able to depart in different degrees and on different levels from the regulatory norm.”2 The system, stated differently, is simultaneously limited and free. Or again, it is in a strange sense both finitely closed and infinitely open.

So while a given system is constrained by its own self-governance and internal rules it is always possible to transgress these positive determinations without completely undermining the whole organization. Moreover, systems theory, like modern technological science, rejects teleological premises that unequivocally determine the finality or future of an entity.

However, in line with traditional Western science since the seventeenth century, systems theory does accept a certain form of direction inherent to all organisms or programs: “it seeks primarily to preserve, to reproduce itself, that is, to perpetuate and reproduce an invariant structure (the code or programme). The code is, in a very special sense, the memory of the system, and its function is essentially a conservative one: to transmit an invariant structure.”3 But as Johnson goes on to say, the structure is always susceptible to contamination, interference and mutation. The point here is that there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ system or code. Rather, the drift of minimal difference—a differing with itself—is integral to the process of transmission and reproduction in any given system and is the necessary precondition for new structures or life to emerge at all.

1 “To give a more specific example – which is also more general, but in the present context by no means arbitrary – one could say that the process of evolution is not an ascent of species towards some determinate apex of development, but the selection after the event of mutations most amenable to environmental constraints. By virtue of a feedback process (both positive and negative) the genetic code is therefore regulating (before) but also regulated (after) in the sense that its pro-gramme is executed in a context that is perpetually changing, hence perpetually modifying the conditions of possibility of the code.” Christopher Johnson, System and Writing in the Philosophy of Jacques Derrida (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 169.

2 Johnson, System and Writing, 146.

3 Johnson, System and Writing, 147.