Ephemeralization

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As a nice little rejoinder to the previous post, which in no small part dealt with Bataille’s energeticist diagram of the general and restricted economies, here is a bit from R. Buckminster Fuller’s 1981 book Critical Path on a somewhat related question:

All technical evolution has a fundamental behavior pattern. First there is scientific discovery of a generalized principle, which occurs as a subjective realization by an experimentally probing individual. Next comes objective employment of that principle in a special case invention. Next the invention is reduced to practice. This gives humanity an increased technical advantage over the physical environment. If successful as a tool of society, the invention is used in bigger, swifter, and everyday ways. For instance, it goes progressively from a little steel steamship to ever-bigger fleets of constantly swifter, higher-powered ocean giants.

There comes a time, however, when we discover other ways of doing the same task more economically—as, for instance, when we discover that a 200-ton transoceanic jet airplane—considered on an annual round-trip frequency basis—can outperform the passenger-carrying capability of the 85,000-ton Queen Mary.

All the technical curves rise in tonnage and volumetric size to reach a “giant” peak, after which progressive miniaturization sets in. After that, a new and more economical art takes over and then goes through the same cycle of doing progressively more with less, first by getting bigger and taking ad- vantage, for instance, of the fact that doubling the length of a ship increases its wetted surface fourfold but increases its payload volume eightfold. In- as much as the cost of driving progressively bigger ships through the water at a given speed increases in direct proportion to the increase in friction of the wetted surface, the eightfolding of payload volume gained with each fourfolding of wetted surface means twice as much profit for the same effort each time the ship’s length is doubled.

This principle of advantage gain through geometric size increase holds true for ships of both air and water. Eventually doubling of length of sea- going ships finally runs into trouble. For instance, an ocean liner made more than 1000 feet long would have to span between two giant waves and would have to be doubled in size to do so. If doubled in size once more, however, she could no longer be accommodated by the sizes of the great world canals, dry docks, or harbor depths.

At this point the miniaturization of doing more with less first ensues through substitution of an entirely new art—David’s slingshot over Goliath’s club operated from beyond reach of the giant.

This overall and inexorable trending to do more with less is known sum-totally as “progressive ephemeralization.” Ephemeralization trends toward an ultimate doing of everything with nothing at all, which is a trend of the omniweighable physical to be mastered by the omniweightless metaphysics of intellect. (Critical Path, 233-234)

“Ephermeralization trends toward an ultimate doing of everything with nothing at all”—in conceiving of long-range technical tendencies in such a way, Fuller finds a way to slip through the grasp of the double pincer that has characterized the dominant attitudes towards techno-scientific complexes in the period of late modernity. Two phrases sum up the sides of this pincer: bigger is bigger and small is beautiful. More ideological declaration than something derived from any truly rigorous exegesis, the first is the technocratic zeal at the spectacle of Galbrathian excess (a zeal that is, admittedly, close to this writer’s heart), while the second is the unbearable tweeness of the small and the local, the organicist circuit that lashes the metropolitan hipster to the back-to-the-land trad.

More with less, on the other hand, indexes a progressive involution that charts a simultaneous and interrelated falling number of of  inputs (and wasteful outputs) and increasing efficiency and output capacity. At the level of society development, it’s the raising of carrying capacity—the abstract ability for the earth system to sustain human flourishing—through more effective means that have fewer requirements on the front-end and less negative externalities around back (which is why Timothy Luke is able to argue, quite aptly, that Fuller is presenting an anti-Malthusian environmentalism that takes seriously “human inventiveness against all natural limits with regard to the planet’s cosmic energy, material, and information exchanges in their broadest ecological contexts”).

In John Smart’s strange and perhaps a tad bit woo-y hands, ephemeralization is marshaled under what he describes as STEM compression, the abbreviation drawing together space, time, energy, and matter/mass. For Smart, STEM compression is transcendental structure of universal evolution (that is, the evolution of the universe itself and the things within it); through it the spatial demands that a given system makes fold inward, time horizons rapidly implode to a singularity point, energy rate densities skyrocket (illuminating rising systemic complexity) and the efficiency of matter climbs while the physical density decreases (passing from biological to post-biological, technological substrates). Smart anticipates that the imminent—relatively speaking—horizon flips the Kardashev methodological system on its head by making the “increasing approach to black hole level densities”, not total energy usage, as the measure of civilizational development.

Francis Heylighen, meanwhile, sees in ephemeralization the form of a negentropic mechanism in action:

The net result of the drive towards increasing efficiency is that matter, energy and information are processed and transported ever more easily throughout the social system. This can be seen as a reduction of friction. Normally, objects are difficult to move because friction creates a force opposing the movement, which dissipates energy, and thereby slows down movement, until standstill. Noise plays a similar role in information transmission: over imperfect lines, parts of the signal get lost on the way, until the message becomes uninterpretable.

Physically, friction can be seen as the force responsible for the dissipation of energy and the concomitant increase of entropy (disorder), as implied by the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy increase entails the loss of information, structure, and “free” energy, that is, energy available for performing further work. This energy must be replenished from outside sources, and therefore a system performing work requires a constant input of energy carrying resources. However, the second law only specifies that entropy must increase (or remain constant), but not how much entropy is actually produced. Different processes or systems will produce entropy to varying degrees. Ephemeralization can be seen most abstractly as a reduction of entropy production, meaning that inputs are processed with less dissipation of resources. The result is that, for a given input, a system’s output will contain more usable energy and information, and less noise or waste.

Pearson on Deleuze and Weismann

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Interesting conversation concerning Emile Zola, Weismann, entropy/negentropy, and the theme of the ‘crack’ in Deleuze’s Logic of Sense, from Keith Ansell Pearson’s Germinal Life: The Difference and Repetition of Deleuze:

In the crucial chapter of the novel Doctor Pascal (the final book in a cycle of twenty) entitled ‘The Genealogical Tree’ Zola has the doctor lay out before himself and the young woman Clotilde the entire genealogical tree of the Rougon-Macquart family in order to present her with a ‘terrible lesson in life’. But this tree stretches beyond and over this particular family, encompassing the strata of races and civilizations from the dawn of time to the present and branching out endlessly into unknown futures. This is the ‘whole monstrous florescence of the human tree’. Moreover, this genealogy is presented in the terms of a highly complex, erratic, and unpredictable monstrous descent, a descent subject, to deploy Deleuze’s later terms, to perpetual deterritorialization and reterritorialization. Zola is imaginative in depicting the unfolding of this tree in terms of a complicated entanglement of sickness and health, of death and renewal, a vitality of life that is caught up in destruction, decay, and degeneration. For example, Pascal asks: once the floodgates have been opened by the overflowing river of life (creative evolution as monstrous) and as detected by the emergent science of heredity (as the science of difference and repetition), then is it possible to say that among the weeds and flowers on the bank, there also mingles and floats by—gold? This is, says Pascal, a world ‘beyond good and evil’. The chapter concludes by asking whether it is necessary to burn the tree of genealogy or whether this can be a matter of the future in its affair. 

In the novel Zola presents Dr. Pascal’s work on the new science of heredity moving through Darwin’s confused theory of pangenesis, the peri-genesis of Ernst Haeckel (whose works were avidly read by Nietzsche), the eugenics of Galton (also read by Nietzsche), finally arriving at the intuition of Weismann’s major thesis on the continuity of the germ-plasm in which a portion of this ‘delicate’ and ‘complex’ substance is held in reserve and passed on without variation or mutation from generation to generation. Pascal, however, does not stop there, which is what makes his case especially interesting. He propounds his own theory, which he calls the ‘failure of cells theory’, which consists in granting a high degree of freedom and novelty to plasmic evolution. It is not atavism that Pascal privileges but ‘perpetual change’, the change that denotes an ‘increasing transformation, due to the transmitted strength and effort, that perturbation which imbues matter with life, and which is, indeed, life itself in an abstract sense’. In short, there is no plasmic finality and it is at this point that Zola is able to resist the biological nihilism of Weismann’s continuity thesis. It is in terms of such a nihilism that Wesimann is appropriated in Hardy’s tragic fiction where the anomalous and the aberrant (the ‘unfit’) are not allowed to survive but must face extermination (Tess, Jude, etc.). This biological nihilism amounts, in short, to repetition without difference, to the eternal return of the same, since the germ-plasm is posited as evolving completely independently of perturbations (Deleuze’s ‘crack’) and free of the endogenous powers of the organism itself which may exert an influence on  the character of evolution. 

In Deleuze’s reading of Zola, Weismann’s distinction between the two plasms, soma and germ, operates as a distinction between a love or a body that dies and a movement that creatively ‘evolves’ through germinal intensity. This is a movement from the organized body of the organism to the ‘body without organs’ which involves the release of singularities and intensities from entropic containment. But the two exist in implication and complication; this is life and death lived and died from ‘within the folds’ or ‘on the train’ as in Zola’s La Bete Humaine (published 1890 as the seventeenth of the twenty novels that make up the Rougon-Macquart cycle), where the machines function as the pure death instinct: ‘The instincts or temperaments no longer occupy the essential position. They swarm about and within the train, but the train itself is the epic representation of the death instinct’. In the novel the train is undoubtedly depicted in terms of the demonic power of the death drive:

the train was passing, in all of its stormy violence, as if it might sweep away everything that lay in its path… It was like some huge body, a giant creature laid out on the ground… past it went, mechanical, triumphant, hurtling towards the future with mathematical rigor, determinedly oblivious to the rest of human life on either side, life unseen and yet perennial, with its eternal passions and its eternal crimes.

Unlike the murder of the husband in Therese Raquin, committed by Therese and Laurent simply because he stands in their way and is inconvenient, Zola’s aim in La Bete Humaine was to link murder with an ancient hereditary impulse buried in the sedimented layers of civilization, to show the ‘caveman’ dwelling deep within the civilized man of modernity, as he put it in a letter to a Dutch journalist. In the novel the hereditary ‘crack’ is not simply a matter of ill-health, but is said to be involved in those ‘sudden loses of control’ that lie deep within our being like ‘fractures, holes’ through which the self seeks escape, losing itself ‘in the midst of a kind of thick haze that bent everything out of shape’. At such moments as these, where the self is no longer the master of its own body but the obedient servant of its muscles and the ‘rabid beast within’ it is cast into paying back an ancient debt: 

paying for the others, for the fathers and grandfathers who had drunk, for the generations of drunkards, of whose blood he was the corrupt issue… paying the price for gradual poisoning, of a relapse into the primitive savagery that was dragging him back into the forest.

To the extent that Zola’s novel, with its stress on a hereditary regression and atavistic instincts, anticipates both Freud’s conception of death and his positioning of the death drive is indeed remarkable. On Deleuze’s reading, however, the complicated investment of the erotic instincts in destructive ones—Zola’s novel was read in the precise terms of this complication on its publication—expresses not simply the noise of primal instincts caught up in an involution but rather the silent echoes of a repetition that drives us ever forward and upward. This is why for him the key actor or agent is the train itself (a field of action, a body without organs distributing intensities and producing transformations). The train is a creation of modern civilization, but is also the crack which derails it, making sure that it is the ‘great health’ which lives on in humanity (the dissolutions of the novel, it should be noted, take place against the backdrop of the dying days of the Second Empire). Michael Serres is incisive in detecting in Zola’s epic series of novels with its cycles of destruction, waste, dispersion, irreversible ebbing towards death, disorder, and degeneration, revolving around in La Bete Humaine a veritable thermodynamics of the train, an ‘epic of entropy’. Such an insight, however, discloses on Deleuze’s reading only half the story. Deleuze’s conception of the germinal life aims to demonstrate that entropy is never the final word. Thermodynamics needs to be linked up with good sense since they share the same characteristics: the single direction from the most to least differentiated, from the singular to the regular, so orientating ‘the arrow time from the past to the future, according to this determination’.

In his reading of the literature, therefore, Deleuze is proposing a vital reworking of heredity, in which it is shown that it is not heredity that passes through the crack, which would fix desire to a morbid ancestry, but that heredity is the crack itself. Hence the claim: ‘In its truest sense, the crack is not a crossing for a morbid heredity; it is alone the hereditary and the morbid in its entirety. For Deleuze everything depends on grasping the significance of this paradox, confusing this heredity for its vehicle, that is, the ‘confusion of what is transmitted with its transmission’ (the transmission which transmits only itself). This is what he means when he declares the ‘germen’ to be the crack and nothing but the crack.

(115-118)