Looking Out For Each Other, Jamming, 02/09/2013

I’ve spent most of Sunday cleaning up (a little, not a lot) my friends’ place in Waterloo that I’ve been looking after this week. Mostly laundry and cat maintenance, while editing chapter five of my ecophilosophy project manuscript. 

I also spent this weekend reading the second chapter of my friend T’s MA thesis, which he was generous enough to send me, and which remains excellent. He’s one of the few people I know, in this difficult university labour market, who I’m still encouraging to go full doctoral and full professor in his career. He has the skill and the insight to pull it off. I only hope I’m not still hunting for permanent university work when he eventually goes job hunting himself, because we’re so similar in the content of what we study (at least as far as our CVs would go) and in our approaches to philosophical writing generally, that we’d be in direct competition. I want to be able to write T a kickass reference letter, not have to go full Francis Underwood on him.

The content of his MA chapter two was even similar to my ecophilosophy chapter five, largely an examination of the biological concept of autopoiesis and some of its philosophical implications. I’m using it as a conceptual building block of my philosophy of subjectivity and selfhood, the minimal physical condition of perception. I’ve been working with this idea for six years now, to the point where I can probably say that it’s incredibly important to my philosophical profile.

Niklas Luhmann is the rare example of the brilliant man
who I desperately wish would have agreed with me,
because his influence perpetuates what I think is a mistake
that's very easy to repair.
The problem is, autopoiesis is another idea that is most widely understood in one way, but my own take on it is very different. The version of the concept that exists in systems theory is very useful for mathematically modeling organic behaviour, but as a conception of subjectivity, it’s the purest form of alienation from other people and the world in general that I think I’ve ever come across. So I’ve had to argue against it pretty vociferously. The concept implies such deep alienation because the most influential writer on the matter, Niklas Luhmann, had a strangely mainstream conception of communication. For him, communication was a matter of sending a packet from one body to another without that packet altering; otherwise, you haven’t said what you wanted to say. And he thought this was actually impossible to achieve, because whenever an autopoietic system (like a person) takes in some affect or transmission from her environment, her body translates it into her own terms of reference. The message itself never survives translation, because Luhmann defined that translation as inherently changing the message past the point where it was recognizable to the sender as what he wanted to say.

I think most people think of communication in terms of transmission and delivery of discrete information packages. This is a shame because it makes no sense with real experience. None of us actually send packets of semantic content back and forth like we’re linguistic postal workers. We create patterns of writing and speech that the people we speak with can understand and use themselves. Communication is the feedback of harmonizing our patterns, making sure the proper mental and physical responses follow from what we say. That's how we so often misunderstand each other, or perceive implications and subtleties in what someone says to us that may not have been consciously intended, but are still meaningful. Sentences don't carry semantic meanings like the clothes in a suitcase. Language is far more slippery than that. This is how language works, and it’s how all affectivity works. 

There may be some freaky implications to my view of language as affect pattern, but I’m willing to follow through on those at some point. My only problem with following this up is that I came to the conclusion while studying philosophy of ecology, biology, and systems theory. The major debates in philosophy of language are about completely different topics. Frankly, I don’t have the time right now (or in the foreseeable future) to become an expert on yet another massive philosophical sub-discipline, just to test this odd implication of an idea I developed while working on a biology-influenced philosophy of subjectivity and perception. 

I guess it’s just one more example of how phenomena in the real world relate to each other without paying heed to the neat and tidy disciplinary boundaries in which we’ve trained ourselves to define the world. The more I’ve worked on the various inter, trans, and multi-disciplinary aspects of the ecophilosophy project, the more I realize that our disciplinary divisions may obscure aspects of the world that are equally important as what they illuminate.

I sure am glad I invented that Jamming label.

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