Monday, January 21, 2013

Boundaries and the Loop of Circular Causality

A second characteristic to emerge from thinking of boundaries as included middles is circular causality, or the feedback loop. In The Reform of Thought (2008), Morin begins his explanation of circular causality by quoting Pascal: "I hold knowing the whole to be impossible if I do not know the parts nor can I know the parts if I do not know the whole." If I understand correctly, then Pascal is suggesting a loop of energy and information between the part and the whole, the entity and its ecosystem, this side and that. Neither the part nor the whole can exist without this loop, and this loop is greatly responsible for defining both the part and the whole. Think in terms of strings <—> atoms <—> molecules <—> cells <—> organs <—> bodies <—> families <—> societies  <—> planet <—> solar system <—> well, you get the idea.

Boundaries are the zones of engagement that enable the loop of energy and information into the individual and then out again into whatever systems the individual is a part. This loop of energy and information is not benign; rather, it changes both the individual and the system so that the individual develops by feeding and informing itself from its systems, and those systems in turn develop by feeding and informing themselves both from the individuals that make them systems and from the larger systems of which they are parts. Boundaries, then, are not cellophane wrappers, but semi-permeable membranes that help manage the ebb and flow of information and energy from the system to the individual and back again.

This loop is a fundamental characteristic of boundaries as included middles. This circular causality is fundamental to physical, chemical, biological, social, intellectual, and spiritual processes as well. It is the very life-blood of economics and of rhetoric and poetic. It is the eucharistic ground of Reality. We eat that we might engage that we might eat again. As Morin explains so clearly using ourselves as the examples:
An obvious example of this kind of loop is ourselves, because we are products of a cycle of biological reproduction in which we are, at the same time, producers, in order that the cycle continues. We are the product-producers. Thus, society is the product of interactions among individuals, but on the global level, in fact, new qualities emerge which, retroactive to individuals—language, culture— permit them to be fulfilled as individuals. Individuals produce the society that produces individuals. (The Reform of Thought, 25)
Frost's Mending Wall neatly embodies this loop, which by the way, is never resolved, for resolution is death. Mending Wall begins with the narrator's feed forward: Something there is that doesn't love a wall. The neighbor is a bit slow on the return, but finally in Line 27, he feeds back: Good fences make good neighbors. The narrator muses over this return shot, but volleys again in Line 36: Something there is that doesn't love a wall. Unperturbed, the neighbor returns the volley in the last line, Line 46: Good fences make good neighbors. The two mantras anchor the poem in the first and last lines, and they echo through the poem in Lines 27 and 36. And so they loop, round and round, and this circular causality gives the poem its life. It is the game between the narrator and neighbor that keeps them engaged that feeds both with information first, and then with energy. Each brings energy to the wall, exchanging both energy and information in a relationship that seems satisfactory and satisfying to them both. This circular causality is the bootstrap operation that creates the relationship that defines the two of them together and that makes the adjoining farms what they are.

I don't mean to suggest that this particular loop between this narrator and this neighbor is static and unchanging. It is not. Eventually, the exchanges of energy and information through this loop, especially when compounded with all the other loops at other boundaries in the lives of these two men, will lead to enough changes within the men that the exchanges between them will also change, and then the boundary itself will change. But the poem gives us a pleasing snapshot of the dynamic engagement between the narrator and his neighbor, and for me, that captures much of the dynamic nature of boundaries. It also says to me that boundaries are absolutely necessary. We must have those zones of engagement between ourselves and our environments. Otherwise, we die.

Morin draws two important inferences from this circular causality. First, "we have to deal with the product-producer" (25). This is a common theme on the Internet, where consumers of information have been turned into producers of information: or prosumers. More and more, we find it impossible to ignore the loop of energy and information between individuals and their societies as technology moves the means of production into the hands of individuals. At first, technology was only for the elite and privileged, but now it is for everyone. Not everyone likes that.

Second, we need "to understand the notion of self-production and self-organization" (25). This self-organization involves us in one of those fundamental, paradoxical dialogics: independence within dependence. As Morin says, "When we reflect on self-organization, we understand it as an ultimately paradoxical notion: a self-organized, self-producing reality consumed by energy. It therefore deteriorates; it therefore has a need to draw energy from its environment and, by the same token, to depend on this environment, which at the same time provides it with its autonomy" (25, 26).

These inferences capture some wonderful nuances in the relationship between the narrator and his neighbor. First, they are the products of the boundaries that they themselves produce. This production is not once and for all, but it deteriorates and requires regeneration; thus, as the narrator says, "on a day we meet to walk the line And set the wall between us once again." Our boundaries require maintenance. Finally, the boundary defines both the autonomy and the dependence of the narrator and his neighbor. They are both decidedly what they are because of their interactions. They both have the integrity of self, but only within the context of each other. I think I like this loopy thinking.
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