4. The Interior of Objects
4.1. The Closure of Objects
In chapter 2, I argued that, far from being a paradox, the very essence of objects consists in simultaneously withdrawing and self-othering. If objects simultaneously withdraw and are self-othering, then this is because, on the one hand, substances never directly manifest themselves in the world while, on the other hand, they perpetually alienate themselves in qualities and states as a consequence of their own internal dynamics and the exo-relations they enter into with other objects. In the last chapter, I analyzed the self-othering of objects in terms of the relationship between the perpetually and necessarily withdrawn virtual proper being of objects and the local manifestations of objects that take place through the internal dynamics of substance and the exo-relations they enter into with other objects. The claim that substances withdraw from one another suggests that it is impossible for objects to directly encounter one another. If this is the case, then this raises the question of how objects relate to one another or how we are to think the interior of objects with respect to other objects.
In this chapter, I will discuss the manner in which one entity, to use Whithead's vocabulary, “prehends” another entity, producing what Graham Harman has called “sensuous objects” on the interior of a real entity. Here “prehension” refers to the manner in which one entity grasps or relates to another entity. Whitehead carefully distinguishes between the subject that prehends (what I call a substance or object), what is prehended (another substance or object), and how that other substance is prehended. In this chapter, I focus on the first and third dimension of prehension in terms of autopoietic systems theory. In underlining the “how” of how one substance prehends another entity, Whitehead implicitly captures the sense in which entities or substances withdraw from one another insofar as no entity encounters another entity in terms of how that entity itself is, but rather every entity reworks “data” issuing from other entities in terms of the prehending substance's own unique organization. However, the position I develop here diverges markedly from Whitehead's own ontology in rejecting the thesis that in “the analysis of an actual entity [...] into its most concrete elements” the entity is disclosed in its most concrete elements “to be a concrescence of prehensions”.  While substances do indeed prehend other entities, substances must exist, it is argued, for these prehensions to take place. In other words, I seek to maintain a much stronger distinction between the subject/substance doing the prehending and the how of prehensions than the one Whitehead seems to suggest in his thesis that substances are a concrescence of prehensions. Part of this distinction was already developed in the last chapter with respect to the endo-structure of objects or their being as multiplicities. While prehensions can, as we will see, lead to the modification of the endo-structure of objects, the point throughout my analysis of inter-object relations is that objects must have a structure for the “how” of prehensions to take place at all and that this endo-structure constitutes the substantiality of objects.
It is to this issue that I now turn by drawing on the resources of autopoietic systems theory as developed by Maturana, Varela, and especially Niklas Luhmann. At the outset, it is important to note that my thesis is not that all objects are autopoietic machines. In their early founding essay, “Autopoiesis: The Organization of the Living”, Maturana and Varela distinguish between autopoietic machines and allopoietic machines.  Later I will explain the distinction between these two types of objects in greater detail, but for the moment it is sufficient to note that when Maturana and Varela refer to autopoietic machines, they are referring to living objects, while when they refer to allopoietic machines they are referring to non-living objects. Luhmann expands the domain of the autopoietic beyond living organisms to include social systems within the purview of autopoiesis, but for the moment this rough and ready distinction is sufficient for our purposes. With a few qualifications, I accept Maturana and Varela's distinction between autopoietic and allopoietic machines. However, if the work of Luhmann is so vital to this project, then this is because he ontologizes autopoietic systems, treating them as real entities, whereas Maturana and Varela advocate a radical constructivism that treats autopoietic systems as constructed by an observer. As Luhmann writes at the beginning of the first chapter of the sublime Social Systems, “[t]he following considerations assume that there are systems. Thus they do not begin with epistemological doubt”.  For Luhmann, systems are really existing objects in the world. I believe that I have shown in the first chapter why, following Roy Bhaskar, this supposition is warranted.
Additionally, it might come as a surprise to enlist a thinker like Niklas Luhmann in defense of object-oriented ontology. In essays like “Identity—What or How?” Luhmann levels a substantial critique against the very idea of ontology. There Luhmann remarks that “ontology is understood to be a certain form of observing and describing, to wit, that form that consists of the distinction between being and nonbeing”.  A moment later, Luhmann goes on to remark that “[a]mong the consequences of an ontological dissection of the world, one that differentiates being and nonbeing is this one: that the identity of what is [des Seienden] must be presupposed”.  I will discuss Luhmann's concept of distinction in more detail in the next section. Here what is to be noted is the manner in which Luhmann deconstructs ontology. Luhmann's point is that a particular distinction precedes the identity of an entity, such that the identity of an entity is an effect of the distinction that allows for observation, not a substantial reality that precedes observation. To understand Luhmann's point we must refer back to Spencer-Brown's calculus of forms. Spencer-Brown opens Laws of Forms with the thesis that indication is only possible on the basis of a prior distinction. As Spencer-Brown writes, “[w]e take as given the idea of distinction and the idea of indication, and that we cannot make an indication without drawing a distinction”.  An indication might be, for example, a reference to anything in the world. Spencer-Brown's point is that any indication requires a distinction if the indication is to be made. A distinction cleaves a space in two, defining an outside and an inside. For example, we can imagine a piece of paper populated by a plurality of x's. We draw a circle on this paper (the distinction), and can now indicate x's within the circle and x's outside of the circle. Every distinction thus contains a marked and an unmarked space. The marked space is what falls within the distinction (in this instance, what is inside the circle), while the unmarked space is everything else. This unity of marked and unmarked space generated by a distinction is what Spencer-Brown calls a “form”. There's a very real sense in which distinction is “transcendental” with respect to indication. Form is the condition under which indication is possible. As a consequence, the indicated does not precede the distinction, but is the condition under which the indicated comes into being for the system drawing the distinction. The point, of course, is that while distinctions or forms obey rigorous laws once made, the founding distinction itself is contingent in that other distinctions could have always been made.
By analyzing ontology in terms of how its indications are possible through a prior distinction, Luhman, in effect, deconstructs the grounding premise upon which ontology, as he understands it, is based. By tracing ontology back to the being/non-being distinction upon which it becomes possible to observe beings as identical, Luhmann effectively shows how this distinction is contingent such that identity is no longer the ground of being but an effect of a distinction that enables observation. The point, then, is that insofar as distinctions are contingent, they can be drawn otherwise, producing other objects as effects. As a consequence, objects become not autonomous substances that exist in their own right, but rather what Heinz von Foester called “Eigenvalues”.  As von Foester articulates the concept,
In other words, the object is not something that exists substantially in its own right, but is rather something that is constructed by the cognizing system through the production of stable equilibria in perception that can be returned to again and again. Elsewhere, Gotthard Bechmann and Nico Stehr sum up this line of thought when they remark that Luhman “describes the old European style of thought as concerned with the identification of the unity underlying diversity [...] Ontology refers to a world existing objectively in separation from subjects aware of it, capable of unambiguous linguistic representation”.  It is precisely this model of being that Luhmann challenges.
What we have here is a variant of the epistemic fallacy and actualism as discussed in the first chapter. In treating objects as Eigenvalues, Luhmann conflates substances with what substances are for a particular observing system. However, he cannot coherently get by without the category of substance. Although Luhmann everywhere focuses on epistemological issues, he requires the existence of systems in order to launch these epistemological inquiries. These systems are characterized by unity, autonomy, and endurance, which are precisely the marks of substance. As a consequence, it is necessary to distinguish between substances as such and what other substances are for a substance. Here onticology and object-oriented philosophy encounters an unexpected ally in the anti-realism of autopoietic theory and Luhmann's autopoietic systems theory in particular. Insofar as Luhmann's systems are characterized by autonomy, they avoid the holism of relationism and therefore present us with a picture of the universe that is parceled or composed of units. As I argued, following Graham Harman, in the last chapter, objects are characterized by withdrawal such that they never directly encounter one another. In their account of how systems always encounter other systems in terms of their own organization, Luhmann and autopoietic theory provide onticology and object-oriented philosophy with powerful conceptual tools for fleshing out the concept of withdrawal. The sort of ontological realism Bechmann and Stehr rightly denounce only pertains to those accounts of substance premised on presence. Yet where substances perpetually withdraw from other substances and from themselves such that they are characterized by closure, we encounter an ontology adequate to the critique of ontotheology and the metaphysics of presence.
What interests me in autopoietic systems theory is not so much its account of life or society, as its account of operational closure. As Maturana and Varela elsewhere define it, “their identity [the identity of autopoietic machines] is specified by a network of dynamic processes whose effects do not leave that network”.  The concept of operational closure as it applies to autopoietic machines embodies two key claims: First, the claim is that the operations of an autopoietic system refer only to themselves and are products of the system itself. For example, if, as Luhmann has argued, social systems are composed entirely of communications, if communications are the elements that compose social systems, then communications refer only to other communications and never anything outside of themselves. Here communication is not something that takes place between systems but is strictly something that takes place in a system. Another way of putting this would be to say that a system cannot communicate with its environment and an environment cannot communicate with a system.
Second, the claim is that autopoietic systems are closed in on themselves, that they do not relate directly to an environment, that they do not receive information from an environment. As a consequence, it follows that information is not something that pre-exists an autopoietic machine, waiting out there in the world to be found. To be sure, objects outside an autopoietic machine can perturb or irritate an autopoietic machine, but this perturbation or irritation does not, in and of itself, constitute information for the system being perturbed. Rather, any information value the perturbation takes on is constituted strictly by the distinctions belonging to the organization of the autopoietic machine itself. As I argue in what follows, this closure of machines or objects in terms of perturbations is not unique to autopoietic machines, but to both autopoietic machines and allopoietic machines. Both autopoietic and allopoietic machines possess only selective relations to the world around them, such that both self-referentially constitute that to which they're open. Thus, while allopoietic machines do not reproduce themselves through their own operations as is the case with autopoietic machines, allopoietic machines nonetheless constitute the way in which they are open to other entities in the world.
In “Autopoiesis: The Organization of the Living”, Maturana and Varela argue that “[a]n autopoietic machine
The unity of a system is what I call the system's “endo-consistency”, its virtual proper being, or a multiplicity. As unities, systems, whether allopoietic or autopoietic, are substances. Autopoietic machines, systems, or substances are unique in that not only are they unities, not only are they operationally closed to the rest of the world, but they also constitute their own elements. As Luhmann puts it elsewhere, “[i]n contrast to what ordinary language and conceptual tradition suggest, the unity of an element [...] is not ontically pre-given. Instead, the element is constituted as a unity only by the system that enlists it as an element to use it in relations”. 
Perhaps no one has gone further in formalizing, radicalizing, and developing the implications of autpoietic systems theory than Luhmann in his autopoietic sociological theory. Although I will here discuss elements of Luhmann's sociological theory, it should be borne in mind that my main aim is to outline the general features of autopoietic and allopoietic systems, rather than to focus on Luhmann's conception of society as an autopoietic system. Before proceeding, it is important to note that there are significant differences between how Maturana and Varela think autopoietic systems, and how Luhmann thinks them. For Maturana and Varela, autopoietic machines are homeostatic in character. “Autopoietic machines are homeostatic machines”.  That is, they are systems that attempt to maintain a particular equilibrium across time. By contrast, Luhmann's autopoietic machines, at least in the case of meaning systems, are inherently characterized by unrest. “[W]e begin, without attempting reductive 'explanation,' from the fundamental situation of basal instability (with a resulting 'temporalized' complexity) and assert that all meaning systems, be they psychic or social, are characterized by such instability”.  In a communication system, for example, the system aims not simply at maintaining equilibrium or homeostasis, but rather it is always necessary to find something new to say if the system is to continue to exist. Consider, for example, a conversation. Were the participants in the conversation to simply keep repeating themselves, the conversation would cease. It's necessary to find something new to say for the conversation, as a system, to continue its existence. Indeed, Luhmann will remark that both absence and remaining unchanged can therefore function as impetuses for change. As Luhmann remarks,
The key problem for any autopoietic system is how to get from one element to another in the order of time. Every autopoietic system is challenged by entropy and must find ways of staving off a collapse into entropy or disorganized complexity. The elements of autopoietic machines within the Luhmannian framework are events. As events, they disappear as soon as they occur. As a consequence, every autopoietic machine faces the problem of how it can reproduce itself or generate new elements from moment to moment. Confronted with an absence of change, that absence of change itself becomes the instigator of new events or elements in the ongoing autopoiesis of the system. Only through the production of subsequent elements or events is the autopoietic machine able to persist or continue existing. It is for this reason that meaning systems, at least, must necessarily be basally unstable. Here it should be noted that the substance of autopoietic systems resides not in the materiality of its parts—these parts can be and are replaced while the substance continues to exist—but rather by virtue of their structure or organization which I have referred to as multiplicities or the “endo-structure” of substances.
In arguing that the elements that compose autopoietic systems are not ontically pre-given, it is argued that these elements are not themselves substances, but rather only exist for the endo-consistency of the substance or multiplicity that constitutes them. The point is not that nothing exists apart from a system—everything must be built out of other things as Aristotle observed—but rather that what constitutes an element for a system does not pre-exist the system that constitutes or constructs it. Luhmann observes that we “must distinguish between the environment of a system and systems in the environment of this system”.  If the distinction between the environment of a system and systems in the environment of a system is crucial, then this is because the former refers to how one substance encounters other substances in the world through its own closure and organization, while the latter refers to actually existing systems or substances that would exist regardless of whether or not the system encountering them existed. These actually existing systems, whether autopoietic or allopoietic themselves, can and do serve as material through which systems constitute their elements.
In his sociological systems theory, Luhmann develops the closure of systems to dramatic effect. For autopoietic systems theory
Insofar as onticology maintains that substances are fully autonomous, it parts ways with Luhmann in the thesis that substances or systems cannot exist independently of an environment. Nonetheless, onticology also recognizes that many systems would produce less than ideal local manifestations were they separated from an environment of exo-relations with other entities of a particular sort. A cat, for instance, is unable to exercise all sorts of powers of acting in the absence of oxygen. The important point here is that the distinction between system and environment is self-referential. Although this distinction refers to two domains (system and environment), the distinction itself originates from one of these domains: the system. The distinction between system and environment is a distinction drawn by each system. This is not only one of the origins of the operational closure of systems, but is also a condition for the autonomy of systems as individual and independent substances.
In the case of autopoietic machines, the distinction between system and environment emerges “because for each system the environment is more complex than the system itself”.  As a consequence, “[t]here is [...] no point-for-point correspondence between system and environment”.  Were there a point-for-point correspondence between system and environment, there would be no distinction between systems and their environments. Moreover, this would require systems to respond or react to every event that takes place in their environment, thereby overburdening the system. Consequently, one way of thinking about autopoietic systems or substances is as strategies of selection or continuance within an environment that they are unable to completely anticipate and which they are certainly unable to dominate or master by virtue of the greater complexity that each environment possesses when compared to the complexity of systems.
A similar point holds with respect to the elements that systems produce or constitute. In the case of elements composing the endo-consistency of a multiplicity or system, these elements only exist in relation to one another. “Just as there are no systems without environments or environments without systems, there are no elements without relational connections or relations without elements”.  Here we must carefully distinguish between substances and elements. Elements are always elements for a substance. They only exist as elements within the endo-structure or endo-composition of a system and do not, as we have seen, have any independent ontological existence of their own. Substances, by contrast, always enjoy an autonomous ontological existence in their own right, and therefore only exist in relations that are external to them. That is, substances are capable of breaking with their relations and entering into new relations, or of existing completely without relations at all. With an increase in the complexity of a system or the number of elements it must maintain to exist, special problems emerge. As Luhmann observes, “when the number of elements that must be held together in a system or for a system as its environment increases, one very quickly encounters a threshold where it is no longer possible to relate every element with every other element”. 
Three interesting consequences follow from this endo-complexity of systems. First, insofar as it is not possible to feasibly connect every element of the system to every other element, it follows that systems must maintain selective relations among their elements, such that, they “[omit] other equally conceivable relations [among elements]”.  These selective relations among elements are thus strategies for contending with an environment that is always more complex than the system itself. Luhmann emphasizes the contingency of these relations and the manner in which they involve risk. However, second, because not every element relates to every other element in a complex system, but rather relations are contingent strategies for contending with the environment, it follows that “very different kinds of systems can be formed out of a substratum of very similar units”.  In other words, when speaking about the virtual proper being of an object or a multiplicity, it is not so much the substance's elements that constitute their substantiality, but rather how their elements are organized or related. It is for this reason that I speak of “endo-relations” in relation to the endo-consistency of the virtual proper being of an object. Finally, third, because systems constitute their own elements it follows that “systems of a higher (emergent) order can possess less complexity than systems of a lower order because they determine the unity and number of elements that compose them”,  along with the relations among these elements.
One paradoxical feature of the system/environment distinction at the heart of any system, whether autopoietic or allopoietic, is that this distinction is not a distinction between two entities in their own right, but is rather a distinction that arises from one side of the distinction. In short, it is the system itself that “draws” the distinction between system and environment. As Luhmann remarks, “[t]he environment receives its unity through the system and only in relation to the system”.  An environment is thus an environment only for the interior of an object or substance. Two consequences follow from this: First, the environment is not a container of substances or systems that precedes the existence of substances or systems. There is no environment “as such” existing out there in the world. Put otherwise, there is no pre-established or pre-given environment to which a system must “adapt”. Rather, we have as many environments as there are substances in the universe, without it being possible to claim that all of these systems are contained in a single environment. As Timothy Morton puts it in a very different context, “[t]here is no environment as such. It's all 'distinct organic beings.'”  The environment is not a container lying there present at hand, awaiting the system to adapt to it. Rather, there are as many environments as there are systems, and the environment is nothing more than other systems that in turn “draw” their own system/environment distinctions. As we will see in chapter six, this leads to the conclusion that the world does not exist. Second, the distinction between system and environment is, as a consequence, paradoxical and self-referential. Insofar as the distinction between system and environment is a distinction “made” by the system, this distinction is also self-referential or a distinction belonging to the system itself. As we will see in a moment, this has significant consequences for how systems or substances relate to other entities.
To illustrate these points, take the example of the humble tardigrade. The tardigrade is a microscopic multicellular organism with eight legs, two eyes, and antennae and which looks somewhat like an alien pig. The tardigrade is particularly interesting because it is capable of surviving extreme variations of heat and cold without dying. Thus, for example, it can be subjected to extremely high temperatures such as those that occur when a meteor enters the Earth's atmosphere. When this occurs, all the water in the tardigrade’s body steams away and it withdraws its legs into its trunk, becoming a hard pellet that appears to be dead. However, if water is introduced back into the tardigrade's environment, the tardigrade plumps back up and is walking around again within a few hours as if nothing happened. Returning to some themes of the first chapter, it is highly unlikely that substances like cats or humans belong to the environment of the tardigrade. As a microscopic organism, it perhaps crawls in and out of the different fissures in the skin and bodies of larger scale organisms, completely unaware that such organisms even exist. Nor, we can say, do these larger scale organisms function as that to which the tardigrade must adapt. The point is not that these larger scale organisms don't exist or that tardigrades get to decide what exists and what does not exist. To claim this, one would be confusing the environment of a system with systems or substances in a system's environment. Rather, the point is that substances maintain only selective relationships to their environment.
The self-referentiality of the system/environment distinction is one of the meanings of operational closure, and is common to both allopoietic substances and autopoietic substances alike. It is a common feature of all substances that they are one and all closed to the world, relating to systems in their environment only through their own distinctions or organization. As a consequence of this closure, systems or substances only relate to themselves. Put differently, while substances can enter into exo-relations with other substances, they only do so on their own terms and with respect to their own organization.
Luhmann draws startling conclusions from this thesis in his analysis of society. If societies are autopoietic systems or substances, and if autopoietic substances both constitute their own elements and are operationally closed, then it follows that humans are not a part of society. Luhmann's conception of society is thus radically at odds with that found in the humanist tradition. As Luhmann writes,
Here it is important to note that, far from denying the existence of humans, Luhmann is defending their existence. Were we to claim that humans are products or effects of society as Althusser, for example, does in his essay on the ideological state apparatus and elsewhere, we would be conflating the existence of humans with that of elements in the system of society. However, just as societies are operationally closed systems, so too are humans. “If one views human beings as part of the environment of society (instead of as part of society itself), this changes the premises of all traditional questions, including those of classical humanism”. 
Humans belong not to society, but rather the environment of society. Paradoxically, then, humans are outside of society. For Luhmann, society, by contrast, consists of communications and nothing but communications. And insofar as humans belong to the environment of society, they do not participate in society. As Luhmann puts it elsewhere, “one could say that the environment of the social system cannot communicate with society”.  Likewise, systems or substances cannot communicate with their environments. If this is the case, then it is because systems only relate to themselves and “[i]nformation is [...] a purely system-internal quality. There is no transference of information from the environment into the system”.  Put a bit differently, systems or substances communicate only with themselves. If, then, society is not composed of persons or humans, what is it composed of? As Luhman remarks, “[i]n the end, it is always people, individuals, subjects who act or communicate. I would like to assert in the face of this that only communication can communicate and that what we understand as “action” can be generated only in such a network of communication”.  The elements that compose society consist of nothing but communications and the production of new communications in responses to communications. It is not persons that communicate, but rather communications that communicate.
To be clear, Luhmann is not advancing the absurd thesis that societies can exist without humans. Social systems are autonomous from humans, they are distinct substances in their own right, but they require the perturbations or irritations of humans in order to come into existence. As Luhmann puts it in Social Systems,
How, then, are we to understand this jaw droppingly counter-intuitive thesis that humans do not belong to society and that they are incapable of communication insofar as only communications communicate? Elsewhere Hans-Georg Moeller explains this point well:
Minds are operationally closed with respect to brains. Minds relate to themselves through thought alone, whereas brains relate to one another through electro-chemical reactions alone. Neither of these systems knows anything of the other. Likewise, the communications of society are operationally closed with respect to minds such that communications can respond only to communications. In each of these cases we have systems and their environments.
To illustrate Luhmann's thesis, I turn to the simple example of a humble dialogue. For the last few years I have been fortunate to have the friendship of my colleague Carlton Clark, a rhetorician at the institution where I teach. Within a Luhmannian framework, this dialogue is not a communication between two systems (Clark and myself), but rather is a system in its own right. In this respect, Clark and I belong not to the system of this dialogue, but to the environment of this dialogue. We are outside the system constituted by this dialogue insofar as neither of us have access to the thoughts or neural system of the other. What communicates in this dialogue is thus neither Clark, nor myself, but rather communications. Moreover, this dialogue continually makes self-references (references to events that are within the dialogue and communications that have been made in the past of the dialogue) and other-references (references to the environment of the dialogue). In other words, the dialogue is organized around what is internal to the dialogue itself, to the system that has emerged over time, and to what is outside the dialogue or in the environment of the dialogue constituted by the dialogue itself. An event that has taken place at the college, for example, is treated as belonging to the environment of the dialogue, as outside the dialogue, while it can also become a topic within the dialogue that is related to according to the meaning-schema that the dialogue has developed over time. Over the course of this lengthy dialogue, the dialogue as a system has evolved its own distinctions, themes, topics, and ways of handling these themes and topics. Some of these topics and themes include rhetoric, teaching, philosophy, family, college politics, politics, and so on. The distinctions inhabiting the dialogue are the implicit ways in which these themes and topics are handled or the meaning schema that regulate the dialogue. Events in the environment of the dialogue can perturb or irritate the dialogue, providing stimuli for new communicative events. For example, a new book can be published that becomes a stimulus for the production of new communications within the system. However, the publication of this new book does not enter the dialogue qua book, but is integrated into the dialogue according to the distinctions and organization of the dialogue itself. In this respect, the dialogue is an entity itself that constitutes its own elements (the communication events that take place within it) and that is something Clark and I are bound up in without being parts or elements within the dialogue. Just as Meno is not himself an element in Plato's dialogue Meno, Clark and Bryant are not elements in this dialogue.
From our discussion of the operational closure of autopoietic objects, we have thus learned four important features of the nature of objects. First and foremost, objects relate only to themselves and never to their environment. Here it is as if the universe were populated by solipsists, Aristotle's First Cause, Unmoved Mover, Leibnizian monads, or, as Harman has put it, vacuums. Second, every substance or system is organized around a distinction between system and environment that the system itself draws. As a consequence, this distinction between substance and environment is self-referential. Third, autopoietic substances, in contrast to allopoietic substances, constitute their own elements or perpetually reproduce themselves through themselves or their own activities. In the case of autopoietic substances, the elements composing the autopoietic substance constitute one another and are constituted by one another. Finally, substances are such that we can have substances nested within substances, while these substances nested within substances nonetheless belong to the environment of the substance within which they are nested. This is the case, for example, with societies. Humans are nested within societies but do not belong to the social system but rather the environment of the social system. In many respects, humans are the matter upon which social systems draw to construct themselves insofar as they constantly perturb social systems, without the humans being the ones doing the constructing. Instead, it is communication that constructs communications. To see this point, think of the way in which our intentions get entangled in communications. We make, for example, a claim that contradicts some claim we made in the past and the subsequent communication that follows points out this contradiction, regulating, as it were, our subsequent communications. We find an analogous case of substances nested within substances with respect to the relationship between cells and the body. Each cell is its own closed autopoietic system, yet the body employs cells in the construction of itself through its own autopoietic processes. Here we encounter, once again, the strange mereology of onticology and object-oriented philosophy where objects can be nested in other objects while nonetheless remaining independent or autonomous of those objects within which they are nested. This mereology destroys organic conceptions of both society and the universe, where all substances are thought of as parts of an organic whole.
One important consequence that follows from the operational closure of substances is that this closure renders unilateral control of one substance by another substance impossible. As Luhmann puts it,
In this context, Luhmann is speaking of subsystems of a system and how they relate to one another. Because each subsystem of a system is itself founded on an operationally closed, self-referential system/environment distinction, one subsystem of the social system cannot control another subsystem of the social system. For example, the political subsystem cannot control the economic subsystem because each subsystem relates to its own environment in its own unique way as a function of its peculiar organization. The economic subsystem of the social system, for example, encounters perturbations from the political subsystem of the social system in terms of economics. What holds for subsystems within a larger system holds equally and even more so for relations between different systems or substances. Each substance interacts with other substances in terms of its own peculiar organization. As a consequence, there can be no unilateral transfer of actions from one system to another system, such that the content or nature of the initiating system or substance's action is maintained as identical. As we will see later in the next chapter, this requires us to rethink relations of constraint between substances in what Timothy Morton has called “meshes” or networks of substances.
4.2. Interactions Between Objects
If, then, objects or substances are operationally closed, if they only relate to themselves, how do objects interact? While substances are closed to one another, they can nonetheless perturb or irritate one another. And in perturbing or irritating one another, information is produced by the system that is perturbed or irritated. However, here we must proceed with caution, for information is not something that exists out there in the environment waiting to be received or detected. Moreover, information is not something that is exchanged between systems. Often we think of information as something that is transmitted from a sender to a receiver. The question here becomes that of how it is possible for the receiver to decode the information received as identical to the information transmitted. However, insofar as substances are closed in the sense discussed in the last section, it follows that there can be no question of information as exchange. Rather, information is purely system-specific, exists only within a particular system or substance, and exists only for that system or substance. In short, there is no pre-existent information. Instead, information is constructed by systems. As Luhmann remarks, “above all what is usually called 'information' are purely internal achievements. There is no information that moves from without to within a system”.  Elsewhere, Luhmann remarks that “[i]nformation is an internal change of state, a self-produced aspect of communicative events and not something that exists in the environment of the system”.  Consequently, information is a transformation of perturbations of an object into information within a system.
This point can be illustrated with respect to my relationship with my cats. When my cat rubs against me or jumps on my lap these events constitute perturbations for me. However, as a system I translate these perturbations into information, registering them as signs of affection. In response, I pet my cat to show my affection. By contrast, my cats might merely be seeking warmth or marking me with their scent so as to establish territory. The point here is that no identity of shared information need be present for this interaction to take place and maintain itself. My cat and I are perhaps occupied with each other for entirely different reasons, completely unaware that we have different reasons, yet an interaction and communication still takes place.
However, two points must be made here: first, substances are not capable of being perturbed in any old way. My eyes, for example, are not capable of being perturbed by infrared light. Dogs and cats, as I understand it, have a very limited range of color vision. Neutrinos pass straight through most things on the planet Earth. Rocks, as far as I know, are unable to see color at all. Electric eels sense the world through various electric signals, whereas cats very likely have no sense of what it would be like to experience the world in such terms. Consequently, all substances, whether allopoietic or autopoietic, are only selectively open to the world. Second, and in a closely related vein, not all perturbations are transformed into information. In the next section we will see that allopoietic machines and autopoietic machines relate to information events in very different ways. In the case of autopoietic machines, however, it is always possible for perturbations to which a system is open to nonetheless produce no event of information such that the perturbation is coded merely as background noise. As I am writing this, for example, my three-year-old daughter is dancing about the room, yet I scarcely notice her at the moment.
Information is thus not something that exists in the world independent of the systems that “experience” it, but is rather constituted by the systems that “experience” it. Nonetheless, this constitution does not issue entirely from the system constituting the information itself. Information is, as it were, a genuine event that befalls a substance or happens to a substance. The perturbations that function as the ground for the production of information can issue from either the environment or transformations in the system itself, but they are always events that must take place for information production to occur. Following Gregory Bateson, Luhmann treats information as a difference that makes a difference.  If information is a difference that makes a difference then this is because it selects system-states. As Luhmann writes, “[b]y information we mean an event that selects system states. This is possible only for structures that delimit and presort possibilities. Information presupposes structure, yet is not itself a structure, but rather an event that actualizes the use of structures”.  Information is thus not so much a property of substances themselves, but is rather something that occurs within substances. In “Pathologies of Epistemology”, Bateson articulates this point nicely. As Bateson writes,
- The system shall operate with and upon differences.
- The system shall consist of closed loops or networks of pathways along which differences and transforms of differences shall be transmitted (What is transmitted on a neuron is not an impulse, it is news of a difference.)
- Many events within the system shall be energized by the respondent part rather than by impact from the triggering part.
- The system shall show self-correctiveness in the direction of runaway. Self- correctiveness implies trial and error. 
Elsewhere, Bateson remarks that differences are “brought about by the sort of 'thing' that gets onto the map from the territory”.  Here we can think of map and territory as system and environment, where the territory is always more complex than the map. Bateson's point seems to be that difference is not an identical unit that is transmitted from one thing to another—for example, from one neuron to another—but rather is a perturbation or irritation that is then transformed into information by the receiving entity. As such, information is constituted by the systems receiving the differences. Situated within the context of the thing-schema developed in chapter three, information, as that event that selects system states, actualizes virtual potentials belonging to the virtual proper being of an object, which are then deployed to produce local manifestations.
Later Luhmann will remark that “information is nothing more than an event that brings about a connection between differences”.  Although Luhmann does not develop his thesis in this way, we can characterize the linkage of difference that events of information generate in terms of three dimensions. First, information differentially links an object to itself in a relation between the withdrawn virtual proper being of the object and its local manifestations. Here we encounter the process by which local manifestations take place within an object; or rather, the process of self-othering and withdrawal characteristic of every object whether that object be autopoietic or allopoietic. Through the selection of a system state, information affects a self-othering in the object whereby the virtual dimension of the object simultaneously withdraws and a quality is produced. These information events can take place both internally or as a result of external interactions of the object with other objects. Second, events of information link difference to difference through the linkage of perturbations to information. Perturbations are never identical to information precisely because information is object-specific, whereas the same perturbation can affect a variety of different objects while producing very different information for each object perturbed. Finally, third, events of information link difference to difference through a linkage of different withdrawn objects to one another. No object directly encounters another object precisely because all objects are operationally closed. As a consequence, no object is capable of representing another object or of functioning as a pure carrier of the perturbations issued from another object. This is because objects always transform or translate perturbations. Nonetheless, information links the different to the different in a substance-specific manner wherever substances relate to one another.
Because information is not a property of a substance, but rather an event that befalls or happens to a substance and which selects a system state, “[i]nformation [...] always involves some element of surprise”.  For this reason, information plays a key role in the evolution and development of autopoietic systems, contributing to the formation of new forms of organization within existing autopoietic substances. Insofar as information selects object-states it always carries an element of surprise. As Luhmann puts it,
Here whether or not a bit of information functions as information depends on the preceding object-state of the substance in question. If, after hearing that the value of the dollar has fallen, I shift to another news channel and hear the same thing once again, this bit of information has lost its status as information because it no longer selects a new cognitive state within my mental system. However, if I hear this bit of information a week or month later it can once again become information by virtue of how it contrasts with my preceding mental state. The value of the dollar has fallen again. And if this information selects a system state, this might be in the form—were I an investor—of not selling stocks at this particular time by virtue of the fact that I won't get a good return on my sale.
In order for information to take place as an event within a system it is thus necessary for distinctions to be operative within the system. As we will recall from the last section, indication can only occur based on a prior distinction that cleaves a space into a marked and unmarked space the unity of which Spencer-Brown refers to as a “form”. Information is a sort of indication that an environment “forces”, as it were, on a system. For example, when I awoke early this morning I saw that it was raining. Certainly I didn't conjure this weather state into existence through my own whim. However, for this weather state to function as information, there had to be a prior distinction at work in my cognitive system. Perhaps this distinction consists of something like the distinction between precipitation (marked state) and non-precipitation (non-marked state). It will be noted that this distinction doesn't tell me in advance what states exist in my environment. It doesn't tell me in advance whether the precipitation will be a torrential downpour, snow, sleet, a drizzle or whether the day is sunny or overcast. Nonetheless, for cognitive and communication substances, it is the distinction that allows for any of these states, and many others besides, to take on significance. Here the environment selects how this distinction will be actualized or filled with content, yet the prior distinction predelineates what environmental states can serve this function for the system.
There are a variety of ways in which such events select system-states. Not only do such events actualize the operative distinction in a particular way (“it's a heavy downpour!”), but they also play a role in subsequent operations of the system. For example, upon seeing that it is raining, I now conclude that I don't need to water my garden for the next couple of days, that I need to bring an umbrella if I go out, and that I need to dress in a particular way to keep warm and dry. In short, the information leads to subsequent events within the system.
Here it is important to note that the subsequent events that take place within the system are not of a determinate nature but could unfold in a variety of different ways. This is especially true of systems organized around meaning such as psychic systems and social communications systems. As Luhmann argues,
Here, in his discussion of “experience”, we encounter Luhmann's basic concept of meaning. Meaning is the unity of a difference between actuality and potentiality. Each actualized meaning simultaneously refers beyond itself to other meanings that could have been actualized. For example, while I conclude that since I am going out I must carry an umbrella, this actualization still refers beyond itself to the possibility of staying in. The phenomenon of meaning is such that while it actualizes a meaning, the negated or excluded alternatives remain, even though under the sign of negation. This is one reason every meaning has an air of contingency about it. Every meaning is haunted by the other potential meanings it has excluded. And this, incidentally, is why ultimate foundations are impossible within philosophy. Insofar as meaning is the unity of a difference between actuality and potentiality, every ground that purports to function as the final ground nonetheless refers beyond itself to other excluded potentials that could have functioned as grounds.
This account of meaning provides us with the means of distinguishing between information and meaning. As Luhmann writes,
Information is an event that reduces uncertainty within a system by selecting a state based on a prior distinction (“what will the weather be like today?” “it's raining!”). Meaning, by contrast, maintains the unity of a difference between an actualized given and other potentialities or possibilities.
Because information is premised on a prior distinction that allows events in the environment to take on information value, it follows that systems, in their relation to other objects, always contain blind spots. What we get here is a sort of object-specific transcendental illusion produced as a result of its closure. As Luhmann remarks in Ecological Communication, “one could say that a system can see only what it can see. It cannot see what it cannot. Moreover, it cannot see that it cannot see this. For the system this is something concealed 'behind' the horizon that, for it, has no 'behind'“.  If systems can only see what they can see, cannot see what they cannot see, and cannot see that they cannot see this, then this is because any relation to the world is premised on system-specific distinctions that arise from the system itself. As a consequence of this, Luhmann elsewhere remarks that, “[t]he conclusion to be drawn from this is that the connection with the reality of the external world is established by the blind spot of the cognitive operation. Reality is what one does not perceive when one perceives it”. 
If reality is what one does not perceive when one perceives it, then this is because (1) objects do not relate directly to other objects, but rather relate to other objects only through their own distinctions, and (2) because objects do not themselves register the distinctions that allow them to relate to other objects in this way. Objects are thus withdrawn in a dual sense. On the one hand, objects are withdrawn from other objects in that they never directly encounter these other objects, but rather transform these perturbations into information according to their own organization. On the other hand, objects are withdrawn even from themselves as the distinction through which operations are possible, the endo-structure of objects, withdraw into the background, as it were, in the course of operations. When I note that it is raining, the distinction between precipitation and non-precipitation is not there before me for my cognitive system, but is rather used or employed by my cognitive system.
The transcendental illusion thus generated by the manner in which objects relate to one another is one in which the states “experienced” by a system are treated as other objects themselves, rather than system-specific entities generated by the organization of the object itself. In other words, the object treats the world it “experiences” as reality simpliciter, rather than as system-states produced by its own organization. Here it is important to note that the foregoing analysis does not require us to follow Luhmann or Spencer-Brown in the thesis that such system-states are produced by binary distinctions. All that is required is that these states be produced as a consequence of an object's endo-structure or virtual proper being. It could be that binary distinctions are only operative in “more advanced” objects such as cognitive systems and communication systems, with other systems simply having an endo-structure composed of networks of relations defining a particular organization that can only be perturbed in various ways along the lines described by Bateson in terms of a transmission (or better yet, production) of differences. It could be that “more advanced” systems are non-linear networks of this sort as well. What is important is not whether or not information is produced through binary distinctions, but rather that information is a product of the organization of the system in question, not a transfer of information as self-identical from one object to another.
Between Luhmann's account of how systems relate to the world and Graham Harman's object-oriented ontology, we find remarkable points of overlap. Like Harman's objects, Luhmann's systems are autonomous individuals that are closed and independent of other systems. In his most recent work, Harman has argued that all objects are quadruple in their structure.  Without going into all the details of his account of objects, Harman distinguishes between real objects and real qualities, and sensuous objects and sensuous qualities. Here we must proceed with caution, for Harman's sensuous objects 1) do not refer solely to objects that are merely fictional, and 2) are not restricted to humans and animals alone. Rather, all objects, whether animate or inanimate, relate to other objects not as real objects, but as sensuous objects. Evoking a sort of quasi-Lacanianism, we can say that “a sensuous object is an object for another object”. Sensuous objects are not the real object itself, but are, rather, what objects are for other objects. In this respect, sensuous objects are very similar to Luhmann's information events and system-states.
Unlike real objects, Harman's sensuous objects exist only on the interior of a real object. These sensuous objects can arise both from the interior of the real object that encounters them or from other real objects. In Prince of Networks, Harman gives the examples of “Monster X” and a friend’s cat that he is taking care of.  Monster X is a monster that Harman generates through his imagination and whose qualities he refuses to share with us (he assures us that this is the most fearsome and frightening monster ever imagined). Now, unlike a real object, Monster X only exists in the interior of Harman's imagination, is not withdrawn, and ceases to exist when he falls asleep at night or ceases thinking about it. Monster X is capable of acting on Harman through a sort of auto-affection of Harman by Harman, but it is not an object out there in the world that is capable of being perturbed by other objects. The case is similar with the cat Harman was taking care of when writing about Monster X. The cat is, of course, a real entity out there in the world that is an “autonomous force unleashed in Harman's apartment” regardless of whether he is aware of its activities. However, for Harman, the cat is also a sensuous object that exists on the interior of Harman. Like Monster X, the cat qua sensuous object ceases to exist when Harman ceases to think about it or when he goes to sleep. However, unlike Monster X, the cat qua real object continues to be an autonomous force unleashed in the world even when he ceases to think about it.
In this context, the important point to take away from Harman's quadruple objects is that objects only ever relate to other objects through sensuous objects. No object ever encounters another object as a real object. If we translate Harman's thesis into Luhmannian terms, we can say that systems or real objects only ever encounter other objects as information and system-states. Harman's fearsome Monster X would be an example of a system-state. Monster X is not an event produced within a system as a consequence of a perturbation from the environment, but rather is a meaning-event that Harman produced on his own. By contrast, Harman's friend's cat is a combination of information and meanings. When the cat perturbs him in a particular way, the cat functions as information, selecting a particular system-state within Harman. Various thoughts Harman might have about the cat would be meaning-events produced by Harman. Yet in both cases, what we have are purely internal system states that differ from whatever other objects might happen to be in the environment. As a consequence, we only ever encounter other objects as sensuous objects rather than real objects, such that we are both withdrawn from these real objects and they are withdrawn from us.
4.3. Autopoietic and Allopoietic Objects
Returning to the themes of the last chapter, we can now situate the functioning of systems with respect to how they produce and respond to information in terms of virtual proper being and local manifestation. As I observed in 4.1, Maturana and Varela distinguish between autopoietic and allopoietic machines. Autopoietic machines are machines or objects that produce their own elements and “strive” to maintain their organization across time. Our bodies, for example, heal when they are cut. The key feature of autopoietic machines is that they produce themselves. Not only do autopoietic machines constitute their own elements, but they paradoxically constitute their own elements through interactions among their elements. By contrast, allopoietic machines are machines produced by something else. Generally the domain of allopoietic machines refers to inanimate objects. Here it's worth noting that the distinction between autopoietic objects and allopoietic objects is not a hard and fast or absolute distinction, but is probably a distinction that involves a variety of gradations or intermediaries.
Despite the differences between allopoietic machines and autopoietic machines, I want to argue that both undergo actualizations through information and both involve system/environment distinctions that constitute their relations to other objects. Here a major difference between autopoietic machines and allopoietic machines would be that allopoietic machines can only undergo actualization through information, whereas autopoietic machines can both be actualized in a particular way through information and can actualize themselves in particular ways through ongoing operations internal to their being. Here it might appear strange to speak of information in relation to allopoietic or inanimate objects. However, we must recall that information is neither meaning, nor is information a message exchanged between objects. Rather, as we have seen, information is a difference that makes the difference or an event that selects a system state. In this regard, there is no reason to restrict information to autopoietic objects, for such events take place within allopoietic objects as well.
Before proceeding to discuss the differences between how these two types of objects relate to information, it is important to make some points regarding the system/environment distinction as it is deployed in autopoietic theory. Maturana, Varela, and Luhmann tend to speak of the distinction between system and environment as a distinction that systems draw such that this distinction allows systems to observe their environment. In my view, these are conventions that should be abandoned, or rather, that should be evoked in highly system-specific contexts. Rather than claiming that systems draw distinctions between themselves and their environment—implying that there's a homunculus that does the drawing—we should instead say that systems are their distinction or form. Here it will be recalled that “form”, as Spencer-Brown understands it, is the unity of the marked and unmarked space produced by a distinction. The distinction that generates the marked and unmarked space is, of course, self-referential in the sense that it belongs to one side of the distinction: the system. Insofar as objects are autonomous and independent, they are necessarily self-referential in that their separation from the environment is produced by the object itself. It is the distinction between system and environment that both constitutes the closure of objects and their particular form of openness to other objects. In the case of more “advanced” systems like cognitive systems, social systems, and perhaps some computers, we get the ability to actively draw distinctions and follow through their consequences or what subsequent operations they generate, but in many other instances it's unlikely that systems have any real freedom in how the distinction between system and environment is constituted.
Likewise, rather than claiming that systems observe their environment through their distinctions, we should instead claim that objects interact with other systems through their distinctions. The emphasis on observation, in my view, is one of the greatest drawbacks of various strains of autopoietic theory. Observation implies a distinction between self-reference or reference to internal states of the system and other-reference or references to the environment. The distinction between self-reference and other-reference, in its turn, requires a doubling of the distinction between system and environment within the system itself. That is, systems that distinguish between self-reference and other-reference are systems where the distinction between system and environment re-enters the system that draws this distinction so that the distinction between system and environment can itself be observed. In other words, self-reference and other-reference requires a self-referential operation whereby the system observes how it observes and thereby distinguishes between what arises from within the system itself and what comes from without. Rather than simply undergoing a perturbation, I now treat this perturbation as something that issues from the environment and register that this perturbation comes from the environment. This doubling of the system/environment distinction is a necessary condition for observation.
In their discussions of autopoietic theory, Maturana and Varela often evoke cells as a prime example of autopoietic systems. However, this example, above all, indicates just why we should not talk about the self-referential distinction upon which any system or object is founded in terms of observation. Although cells cannot exist without a boundary between system and environment that is constituted self-referentially by the cell itself, it is misleading to suggest that there's any meaningful sense in which cells observe their environment or make other-references to the world independent of them. To be sure, cells interact with their environment and are, like any other system, perturbed by their environment, but there's no meaningful sense in which they refer to their environment. To suggest otherwise is to imply that entities like cells operate according to meaning. Rather than speaking in terms of observation and other-reference, both of which are far too epistemological and cognitive in their connotations, we should instead speak in terms of how systems are selectively open to their environment and how they interact with their environment. Other-reference and observation, rather, seems to be something that only emerges with more complicated systems such as tardigrades, frogs, and perhaps certain computer systems.
The term “information” is fortunate in that it contains within itself a certain productive polysemy that allows it to resonate in a variety of ways. In addition to treating information as an event that selects system states, we can also read the term “information” avant la lettre to play on the more literal connotations of the term. When we break information into its units, we can say that information refers to what is in formation. Here information refers to the genesis of local manifestations as ongoing processes rather than as fixed identities. The identity of objects is not fixed, but is rather a dynamic and ongoing identity that is in formation. While there is indeed an identity to the object, in the sense that it has a virtual endo-structure that persists across time, this identity is always manifesting itself in a variety of ways. Similarly, we can also read information as “in-form-ation”. Here information does not refer to the ongoing genesis and openness of objects—that which is “in formation”—but rather refers to the manner in which objects take on new form or come to embody new form with their actualizations in local manifestations. Returning to the distinction I drew between the topology of objects and the geometry of objects in the last chapter, information as in-form-ation here refers to the transition that takes place within an object from the domain of virtual proper being and the potentialities populating virtual proper being to the geometric actualization of a form or quality in an object. In other words, in-form-ation refers to the local manifestation of an object embodied in a specific quality.
In both allopoietic and autopoitic systems, information is an event that makes a difference by selecting a system-state. However, information functions in very different, yet related, ways in the case of allopoietic and autopoietic systems. In both cases, information is non-linear and system-specific, existing only for the system in question and as a function of the organization or endo-structure of the object. In saying that information is non-linear, my point is that it is an effect of the endo-structure of the object as it relates to its environment and how this endo-structure resonates within the field of differential relations that define that structure. Information is not in the environment, but is a product of the system perturbed by its environment. In the case of allopoietic systems, information functions to actualize a degree in the phase-space of the virtual proper being of the substance, leading to the actualization of a particular quality in a local manifestation.
Here the point I wish to make is so basic as to appear trivial. However, this point has important consequences for how we analyze allopoietic objects in the world. When an allopoietic object is perturbed in a particular way, it produces an actuality proper to the endo-structure of its being. One and the same perturbation can produce very different local manifestations in different allopoietic objects. Thus, for example, water behaves differently than rocks when hit by another object or heated up. When water is heated up, it locally manifests itself in the quality of boiling. When a rock is heated up, heat is distributed throughout the rock. When water is hit by another object, it produces waves. When a rock is hit by another object, it begins to roll and perhaps vibrates.
These are obvious and familiar points about the objects that populate our world. We all recognize, even if only implicitly, that different objects or different types of substances respond differently to one and the same perturbation. However, while this is an obvious point, it is nonetheless a point that needs to be accounted for. It is precisely this which the concepts of virtual proper being, local manifestation, and information attempt to account for. When an allopoietic object is perturbed in a particular way, information is produced as a consequence of how the object in question is organized. This information, in turn, selects a system-state which actualizes a potentiality in the virtual proper being of the object in the form of a particular quality or local manifestation.
Now, there are two important points worth making here. First, as in the case of autopoietic objects, allopoietic objects are only selectively open to their environments. Many events can occur in the environment of an object without all of these events being capable of perturbing the object and thereby being transformed into information. While rocks, for example, are certainly open to sound waves, they are not, as far as I know, open to signifiers. Uluru or Ayers Rock, for example, is in-different to its title as Uluru or any special legal status it is given. It does not get offended when a stranger that has never heard of it fails to refer to it by its proper name, it doesn't answer to its proper name, nor does it likely worry itself over any sacred or legal preferences it might gain through being Uluru. Here reference to Uluru's in-difference to its name should be taken quite literally as signifying that Uluru's name cannot select system-states within Uluru. Uluru is entirely closed with respect to its name.
Lest one conclude that this sort of closure to its name is merely a feature of the difference between culture and nature, I offer an example of (non)relations between completely natural beings as well. Neutrinos are extremely small elementary particles that travel close to the speed of light. Because neutrinos are electrically neutral, they pass through most matter completely undisturbed and without disturbing that matter. This causes, of course, massive problems in the detection of neutrinos as most detection devices we might use to detect them cannot be perturbed by them due to the electric neutrality of the neutrino. Here the neutrino is a perfect example of a strongly closed entity that cannot be perturbed by other entities and that cannot perturb many other entities. Between the indifference of Urulu to its proper name and the indifference of neutrinos to most other entities, there's a difference in degree rather than kind. While it is important to recognize that most inanimate objects cannot answer to their name (computers are quickly calling this generalization into question), there is no reason to treat culture as a special domain or distinct realm unlike material interactions. In both cases, the issue is one of how entities are selectively open to their environment.
The second consequence that follows from treating allopoietic objects in terms of self-referential system/environment distinctions that are only selectively open to their environment is that allopoietic objects cannot be treated as bundles of qualities. Qualities are results of how allopoietic objects are actualized by their perturbations. They are things that objects can do, but they do not define the proper being of objects which consists of powers. As I tried to show in my discussion of Bhaskar in the first chapter, objects can be “out of phase” with the events they're capable of producing. When situated in terms of qualities, this means that objects can exist, they can be there in the world, either in a dormant state where they produce no qualities of a particular sort, or in a state where, due to the intervention of other generative mechanisms or objects they produce exo-qualities that inhibit the production of particular qualities of which the object is capable.
The key point not to be missed is that the qualities of an object are variable. Every object, allopoietic or autopoietic, is capable of a variety of different local manifestations. And we can say that perhaps every object is capable of producing an infinite number of different properties. This is among the reasons that we cannot treat objects as bundles of qualities. Qualities are products of how allopoietic objects are perturbed, how those perturbations are transformed into information, and how that information selects system-states producing local manifestations.
The question that emerges here is that of why, if objects cannot be equated with their qualities, we have such a persistent tendency to reduce objects to their qualities. I think there are two basic reasons for this. The first has to do with the type of objects we are. Like all objects, we are operationally closed and relate to the world only through the distinctions that regulate our openness to the world. These distinctions, like all distinctions, have a marked and an unmarked space, such that the unmarked space becomes invisible or disappears. In the case of our perceptual world, one operative distinction seems to be the distinction between identity and change. Here identity functions as the marked state, while change functions as the unmarked state. If this schema plays such an important role in our experience of the world, then this is because, as Bergson observed long ago, our perception is geared towards action and our ability to act on other objects. Since action requires a more or less stable platform to take place, change and difference is thrown over into the unmarked side of the distinction governing our perception and cognition. When I go to grab my beloved coffee mug, I register it not as a series of variations or different local manifestations, but as a blue coffee mug. I register my mug in this way even when the lights are out and the mug is no longer blue. Here the blueness of the mug functions as a marker for returning to the mug. “Oh, there's my mug!”
However, while the manner in which we translate objects plays a role in our tendency to treat objects as bundles of qualities, there are object-centered reasons for this tendency as well. While objects are, in principle, independent of their relations, objects are only ever encountered in and among relations to other objects. Terrestrial existence is such that these relations are more or less stable and enduring. The consequence of this is that allopoietic objects tend to be perturbed by other objects in their environment in more or less constant ways. Insofar as objects are perturbed in more or less constant ways by other objects in their environment, they tend to have fairly stable and ongoing local manifestations. As a consequence, the volcanic powers objects have folded within them remain largely hidden from view.
I refer to networks of exo-relations like this as “regimes of attraction”. Regimes of attraction are networks of fairly stable exo-relations among objects that tend to produce stable and repetitive local manifestations among the objects within the regime of attraction. Within a regime of attraction, causal relations can be bi-directional or symmetrical or uni-directional or asymmetrical. Bi-directional causation is a circular relation in which two or more entities reciprocally perturb one another in response to each other. Like fireflies signaling to one another, one lightning bug lights up and another lights up in response, leading the first to light up again. Similarly, one object perturbs another, producing an act in the second object that in turn perturbs the first object that started the sequence. As a consequence of these sorts of relations, we get constant local manifestations. The moon’s gravity affects the earth and the earth's gravity affects the moon. Likewise, we can have uni-lateral or asymmetrical relations of perturbation that bring about a largely constant state in an object.
Fire is a particularly good example for illustrating the idea of regimes of attraction. In its terrestrial manifestation, fire behaves in relatively predictable ways. It leaps up towards the sky and is characterized by pointed tongues of flame that dance and oscillate. As a consequence, we are led to think of this sort of behavior (these qualities) as constituting the essence of fire. However, in outer space, fire behaves more like water, rolling over things in waves, expanding everywhere like liquid on the surface of a table. In its terrestrial manifestation, fire behaves this way because of the gravity of the earth. Here fire exists within a particular regime of attraction that leads to very specific local manifestations. When situated in different regimes of attraction, fire behaves in a very different way.
The concept of regimes of attraction is of central importance to onticology and has profound implications for how we think about epistemology or inquiry. The concept of regimes of attraction entails that it is not enough for inquiry to merely gaze at objects to “know” them, but rather that we must vary the environments of objects or their exo-relations to discover the powers hidden within objects. Knowledge of an object does not reside in a list of qualities possessed by objects, but rather in a diagram of the powers hidden within objects. However, in order to form a diagram of an object we have to vary the exo-relations of an object to determine that of which it is capable. And here, of course, the point is that knowledge is gained not by representing, but, as Aristotle suggested in a different context in the Nicomachean Ethics, by doing. In the case of Aristotle, this doing consists of repeated actions so as to produce habits or dispositions of action. In the case of other forms of knowledge, by contrast, this doing consists in acting upon objects to see what they do under these conditions.
As should be obvious, the concept of regimes of attraction is crucial to our understanding of both allopoietic and autopoietic objects. In “A Developmental Psychobiological Systems View”, biologist Gilbert Gottlieb recounts his early doctoral research on the sensitive period for imprinting in ducklings.  Imprinting refers to any time-sensitive phase of learning that occurs very quickly and appears to be independent of behavior. As one might suspect, lurking in the background here is the issue of innateness or whether certain phases of imprinting are innate or learned. While Gottlieb did indeed discover a critical period of imprinting before and after which imprinting could not occur, he also discovered that the developmental age for imprinting could be moved around through a manipulation of the duckling's early environment. As Gottlieb puts it, “[t]he sensitive period for imprinting was not exclusively a function of maturation but depended also on the nature and extent of the bird's prenatal and postnatal experiences prior to entering into the imprinting situation”.  Here maturation, of course, refers to factors of innateness. The crucial experiences that played a role in the timing of the onset of imprinting (or, presumably, lack thereof) had to do with whether or not the duckling was reared with visual and social experiences with other ducklings, or whether it was raised in complete darkness and in complete social isolation.
What we encounter here is the importance of regimes of attraction as they function in the development of allopoietic objects. The point here is that, if we don't attend to the regime of attraction in which the autopoietic system develops, we fall prey to a tendency to treat local manifestations as strictly resulting from innate factors in the system, rather than seeing them as results of an interaction between both system-specific properties of the system and perturbations from the environment that are translated into information which then selects system-states. Here the conclusion seems to be that development does not have any one particular attractor in the teleological sense. Rather, through entering into different exo-relations with other objects in the world, an allopoietic object can develop in a variety of different ways. This entails that a key component of inquiry consists in 1) mapping the exo-relations in which particular local manifestations take place, and 2) varying the exo-relations into which an object enters to determine the variations of which it is capable.
Nonetheless, there are significant differences between how autopoietic and allopoietic systems respond to information events. With allopoietic systems, the selection of a system-state is a terminal process. When the water is frozen in response to a change in temperature, it is frozen. There are no additional operations that take place within the system until it is once again perturbed in a new way. By contrast, in autopoietic systems, there are continuous operations that take place within the object even after the selection of a system-state through information. Taking an example from a social system, a news report that the value of the dollar has risen selects a system-state within the economic system. This information event, in its turn, kicks off a variety of subsequent operations within the social system. For example, people begin selling their stocks to maximize their profit. The point here is that, even in the absence of new information events, these subsequent operations continue apace. These system-states and operations are, of course, local manifestations of the autopoietic system in question.
Another, perhaps counter-intuitive, difference between autopoietic systems and allopoietic systems is that there's a way in which the local manifestations of allopoietic systems are more elastic than the local manifestations of autopoietic systems. As I noted in a previous chapter, it is necessary to distinguish between symmetrical and asymmetrical qualities. In the current context, the important nuance of this distinction is that symmetrical qualities are reversible qualities, while asymmetrical qualities are irreversible qualities. While there are certainly asymmetrical qualities that characterize a number of local manifestations for allopoietic objects (paper yellowed with age comes to mind), many qualities of allopoietic objects are symmetrical in character. I turn out the lights and my beloved coffee mug becomes black. I turn the lights on and the mug becomes a shade of blue once again.
In the case of autopoietic objects, by contrast, asymmetrical qualities seem to be the rule rather than the exception. Developmental processes, for example, appear to be largely irreversible, changing the structure of an autopoietic object's local manifestation irrevocably. In communication systems, a statement that is repeated is no longer the same statement, but has now taken on ever so slight new resonances. In the structural coupling of psychic systems and communications systems, I cannot read the same book twice because the very act of having read the book through once to the end already changes how the beginning of the book reads the second time when I begin it anew. As Bergson recognized at the beginning of the last century, the presence of memory as a dimension of all living, psychic, and social experience transforms each event, no matter how apparently repetitious in the brute sense, into a novelty.
However, where allopoietic systems often appear to have a greater degree of elasticity with respect to qualities, autopoietic systems seem to have a greater degree of elasticity with respect to distinctions or what we might refer to as “channels”. It will be recalled that distinctions play a key role in how closed systems are open to their environment or other objects in their environment. One of the crucial features of autopoietic systems is that they have the ability to develop new distinctions, thereby enhancing their capacity to be irritated or perturbed by other objects. This occurs in a variety of ways that are subject to very different degrees of freedom. Thus, for example, it is likely that many plants can only transform the distinctions through which it is possible for them to be irritated by their environment through evolutionary processes of random variation and natural selection. Throughout the animal world, we seem to get increasing degrees of freedom in forming new distinctions through developmental processes that take place through learning rather than innate structure. The same holds true of social systems. And finally, it appears that computers are slowly developing the ability to revise their own distinctions, broadening their ability to be irritated by their environment.
What is important here in these reflections on the difference between autopoietic and allopoietic objects is that both types of objects are organized around a system/environment distinction, both objects are operationally closed, both types of objects are only selectively related to their environment, and both objects transform perturbations into information that selects system-states presiding over local manifestations. In the case of both allopoietic and autopoietic systems, local manifestations are a product of actualizations of virtual proper being rather than fixed properties in substances.
In light of the foregoing, we can now make sense of Latour's thesis, cited in the epigraph to this chapter, that objects “interpret” one another. Insofar as all objects are operationally closed, no object can transfer a force to another object without that force being transformed in some way or another. This generates a specific set of questions when analyzing relations among entities in the world. On the one hand, in any discussion of relations among entities, we must first determine whether the receiving entity even has channels capable of receiving perturbations from the acting entity. Because substances only maintain selective relations to their environment, they are not open to all perturbations that exist in their environment. As we saw in the last section, for example, rocks, as far as we know, are indifferent to our speech. This sort of selectivity is true not only of relations of objects between different sorts, but also of relations between objects of the same sort. Many, I'm sure, have experienced and been baffled by conversations with others from very different theoretical backgrounds and orientations. In such discussions, points and claims you take for granted as obvious seem not even to be registered or noticed by the interlocutor when made. Here we have different forms of selective openness among humans in discourse.
On the other hand, in those cases where an entity is open to perturbations of a particular sort, we must nonetheless be attentive to the manner in which the entity that receives that perturbation transforms it according to its own organization. In other words, we cannot begin with the premise that the effect is already contained in the cause, but must instead be attentive to how the cause is transformed into something new and unexpected. In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan contrasts laws and causality in a way that resonates nicely with this point.  As Lacan remarks,
Lacan goes on to remark that,
Lacan concludes “there remains essentially in the function of the cause a certain gap”.  In characterizing causality in terms of a gap and something that “doesn't work”, Lacan emphasizes the manner in which the effect of a cause always contains an element of surprise or something that can't simply be deduced from the cause. Here there's a way in which the effect is always in excess of the cause. And the claim that the effect contains something in excess of the cause is the claim that the entity being affected translates the cause producing something new.
Lacan's concept of causality is deeply related to his understanding of objet a, the object-cause of desire, and the unconscious. Without going into all the details of Lacan's understanding of the unconscious, objet a, and desire, we can here make a few brief remarks as to how this is to be understood. The first point to note is that objet a is not the object desired, but the object that causes desire. In other words, the object desired can be quite different from the object-cause of desire or the objet a. The objet a is rather that gap that generates desire. Desire is the effect of objet a, and objet a is the cause of desire. Put otherwise, we can say that it is that point where the symbolic fails and that it is the explanation of the effects of this failure. To illustrate this point, take the example of someone who desires an expensive luxury car. The car is the object of desire, but not the object-cause of desire. Rather, the object-cause of the desire for the car is perhaps the gaze of others who will envy the car or attribute status to the owner of the car.
This relation can be illustrated in terms of Lacan's discourse of the master, first introduced in Seminar XVII:
Each of Lacan's four discourses has four positions and defines a structure.  In the upper left position we have an agent, addressing an other in the upper right position, producing a product in the lower right position, with an unconscious truth in the lower left position.
One way of reading Lacan's discourse of the master is in terms of how signifiers relate to one another. We have a master-signifier, S1, relating to another signifier, S2, producing a remainder, a. The point is that in all speech or utterances something escapes. When we utter something, we feel as if we never quite articulate what we wish to say. Indeed, we aren't even entirely sure what we wish to say in our own speech. On the other hand, when we hear another person's utterances, we're never quite sure why they say what they say. This is the gap that lies at the heart of all discourse. One way of thinking about Lacan's discourses is as diagrams of little machines in interpersonal relations. In the diagram above, it is paradoxically the product, the failure, objet a, that keeps the discourse going. Because I never quite feel that I've articulated what I wish to say and because I'm never quite sure if I've understood what the other has said, new utterances are produced that strive to capture this allusive remainder that perpetually recedes in the discourse.
Within a psychoanalytic context, the gap by which objet a functions as the object-cause of desire can be fruitfully thought in terms of the role played by the unmarked side of a distinction as it functions in psychic systems. Put a bit differently, while the unmarked side of a distinction is not indicated by a system employing a particular distinction, this unmarked side nonetheless has effects on how the psychic system functions. In his discussion of the cause, Lacan remarks that “what the unconscious does is show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with a real”.  Here the unconscious is the network of unconscious signifiers, while the gap is the real. The psychoanalytic formation (the symptom) is the harmony recreated with the real.
To illustrate this point, I refer to an example from early in my own analysis years ago. During this time, I was just beginning to teach. This was back in the days when chalk was still used. Much to my dismay, I found that I was breaking multiple pieces of chalk during every class session. Indeed, this symptom was so pronounced and noticeable, that it became a running joke with my students. They even got together and left a chalk guard in my mailbox with a petition written in calligraphy imploring me to stop killing the citizens of “Chalkville” and a picture of a piece of chalk dressed in armor. Now, I found all of this quite upsetting as I felt it was undermining my authority in the classroom and revealing my incompetence. One day, in a session, I was rambling on about this little symptom. “I don't know what my problem is. I can't seem to modulate my pressure on the chalk. I try not to, but I always end up pressing too hard. Why can't I use less pressure?” And so on. As my ramble went on, my analyst, in a flat voice, intoned in a statement that was ambiguous as to whether it was a question or a statement, “pressure at the board?” “Yes”, I responded, completely missing the polysemy of his remark, “pressure at the board! I just can't keep myself from using too much pressure!” After this session, I didn't think about the discussion of the chalk at all. Two weeks later, however, I noticed that I hadn't broken any chalk for two weeks. Somehow the desire embodied in my symptom had been articulated and therefore, from the standpoint of my unconscious, I no longer had to break chalk to articulate that desire.
Now where is the objet a, desire, and the unconscious in this example? Where is the gap through which the unconscious recreates a harmony with the real? Here the objet a is very likely the gaze of my students. That gaze poses a question: what am I for them? This gaze, however, was not the object of my desire, but the cause of my desire. It was that which set the desire in motion. In his various glosses on desire, Lacan said that “desire is the desire of the Other”. This is a polysemous aphorism that has a number of different connotations. It can mean that desire desires the Other. Likewise, it can mean that our desire is not, as it were, truly our own, but rather is the Other's desire. That is, it can mean that we desire as the Other desires, as in the case of an adult who lives her life pursuing the career her parents wanted. Finally, it can mean that we desire to be desired by the Other. In this instance, my chalk breaking symptom did not seem to desire the Other (my student's here standing in the place of the Other), but rather seemed to be an articulation of their desire (or, rather, my fantasy of what they desired). Faced with the opacity or enigma of my students' desire, my unconscious sought to transform this traumatic and enigmatic desire into a specific demand or judgment: “You are not competent, you do not belong here!” In other words, through the breaking of the chalk I was perhaps unconsciously trying to satisfy my fantasy of what I took to be their demand. The breaking of the chalk at the board was both an articulation of how I was feeling (“pressured at the board”) and a potential solution to the pressure I was experiencing: “if I'm incompetent then I won't have to teach!” The unconscious recreated a harmony with the real by giving content to the enigmatic gaze of my students through the symptom of breaking the chalk.
The gap functions in a very specific way in Lacan's conception of the mechanisms of the unconscious, but we can say that Lacan also makes a broader and more profound point about the gap and the relationship between cause and effect that holds for all inter-object relations. Here we can coin the aphorism, “there is no transportation without translation”, or, alternatively, “there is no transportation without transformation”. Here we must take care not to take Lacan's notion of the gaze too literally, but the point in this connection would be that the effects of the gaze as a perturbation cannot be anticipated in advance. Rather the effect that the gaze produces is an aleatory product of the organization or virtual proper being of the system that is perturbed by the gaze. Each substance translates perturbations in its own particular way.
Here, then, we can make sense of what Latour means when he claims that objects interpret one another. To interpret is to translate, and to translate is to produce something new. As Latour remarks, “[t]o interpret something is to say it in other words. In other words, it is to translate”.  The translated is never identical to the original, but rather produces something different from the original. For example, if this book is some day translated into, say, German, it will very likely take on resonances that it doesn't have in English. My discussions of “existence” might be translated into Dasein. Yet the German term Dasein has connotations that English doesn't have, such as “there-being” or “here-being”. In being translated into another language a text becomes something different. Likewise, when a perturbation is received by another entity, it becomes something different. As Latour says earlier in Irreductions, “[n]othing is, by itself, the same as or different from anything else. That is, there are no equivalents, only translations”.  The point here is that no perturbation ever retains its identity or self-sameness when transported from one entity to another, but rather becomes something different as a consequence of being translated into information and then producing a particular local manifestation in the receiving object.
Along these lines, Latour elsewhere draws a distinction between mediators and intermediaries in Reassembling the Social. As Latour articulates this distinction,
All objects are mediators with respect to one another, transforming or translating what they receive and thereby producing something new as a result. By contrast, intermediaries merely carry a force or meaning without transforming it in any way. In this connection, we can say that the concept of intermediaries treats objects as mere vehicles of the differences contributed by another entity. In one of his most recent works, Latour drives this point home, remarking that,
Our treatment of objects in terms of autopoietic and allopoietic machines has explained just why this is the case. Insofar as all entities draw a system/environment distinction and transform perturbations into information as a function of their own internal organization, they always contribute something new to the perturbations they receive.
The concept of translation, coupled with the distinction between mediators and intermediaries has profound implications for both theory and practice. In the docile bodies chapter of Discipline and Punish, we encounter a prime example of theories and practices organized around the conceptualization of substances in terms of mere intermediaries.  There Foucault analyzes a disciplinary structure of power that aims to form the soldier down to the tiniest detail.
This conception of the formation of the soldier is premised on an implausible idea of causation where causes are transported from one object to another without remainder. Here the soldier is a pliable clay that can be formed however we like. Here information is conceived as something that is transported as self-identical, producing a univocal effect in the body of the soldier-to-be. What is entirely missed in such a model is the manner in which the entity receiving the perturbation transforms it according to its own organization.
In a very different context, biologist Richard Lewontin contrasts the difference between how applied biologists approach research into plants and animals and how developmental biologists in the laboratory approach plants and animals.  For the developmental biologist in the laboratory, a lot of research revolves around the manipulation of genes to see how they affect the phenotype. This encourages a conception of organisms in which genes are thought of as already containing the information whereby the phenotype is produced. In other words, genes are thought as a map or blueprint of the organism. By contrast, applied biologists investigating potentially new crops, test these crops for several years by growing variants of the crop in different environments or in different regions. As Lewontin notes, the crop that is eventually chosen for sale is not necessarily the crop that produces the largest yield but the one that produces the most consistent yield when grown in a variety of different regions. 
In Lewontin's example, we find a perfect instance of the difference between approaching the world in terms of intermediaries and approaching the world in terms of mediators. In treating information as already contained in the genes, the developmental biologist treats the organism as a mere intermediary. The blueprint is already contained within the genes and it is enough to merely manipulate the genes in a particular way to produce a particular phenotype. The point here is not that such manipulations don't produce particular phenotypes but that 1) these particular perturbations are a particular environment, and 2) in many instances environmental perturbations can produce similar transformations of phenotypes. As a consequence, we should see genes not as something that already contain information, but rather as one causal factor among others, where information is not already there, but rather where it is produced as a result of operations in the system/environment relation. In this connection, Susan Oyama calls for parity in investigating objects. As Oyama puts it, developmental systems theory (DST),
In contrast to the developmental biologist described by Lewontin, the applied biologist's investigative practice implicitly indicates parity reasoning in its approach to new crops. In growing crops in different environments and regions, the applied biologist works on the premise that genes are not blueprints already containing information, but rather are one causal factor among others that can generate very different effects at the level of the phenotype when grown under different environmental conditions.
For the applied biologist, the entity (the seeds) are full-blown mediators. Between cause and effect there is here a gap, such that the effect is unknown. That is, we don't know what phenotypes will be produced under these circumstances. By contrast, the gap between cause and effect tends to disappear in the research practices of Lewontin's developmental biologist. Lewontin's developmental biologist, of course, begins with the premise that we don't know what phenotype will be produced if we manipulate this gene. The point, however, is that through the focus on genes alone, the developmental biologist tends to create the implicit conclusion that the information is already contained in the genes. In other words, the developmental biologist creates the impression that the effect is already there, requiring only a perturbation to take place. Lewontin's applied biologist, by contrast, works from the implicit premise that the phenotype is something that is constructed and that it is constructed in a way that can't be determined from the genes alone. One and the same genotype can produce very different results when cultivated in different environments. As such, the seed is, for the applied biologist, a mediator. In short, there is no one-to-one mapping between genotype and phenotype. In this regard, we need to think the role that information plays in an object not as something that exists already in the entity, but as a cascade of events where information is simultaneously constructed and where information selects system-states. Needless to say, these selections have an impact on subsequent stages of development, playing a role in the determination of what subsequent information constructions are possible and excluding other possibilities.
Implicit assumptions about the transmissibility of information are rife in various forms of cultural studies as well. Whenever we speak of discourses, narratives, signifiers, social forces, and media as structuring reality and dominating people behind their backs, we speak as if persons were mere intermediaries or as if information can be exchanged without remainder. In other words, we ignore the manner in which systems are closed and how there is always a gap between cause and effect. Yet social systems, which are always themselves objects or substances, have a tough go of it as the objects of which these objects are composed never quite cooperate. All communication, as Lacan said, is miscommunication. And if this is the case, then it is because all systems produce their own information according to their own organization. As a consequence, every object or system is beset by its own system internal entropy as a consequence of the other objects or systems of which it is composed. Because objects are not intermediaries but rather mediators, the elements that a system constitutes never quite behave in the way the system anticipates.
The point here is that society cannot, as Latour said, be treated as an explanation but is precisely what has to be explained.  What is remarkable is that any stable social relations ever emerge at all. In A Sociological Theory of Communication, Loet Leydesdorff raises a similar question with respect to the self-organization of scientific discourse. How is it, we might ask, that something like a Kuhnian paradigm comes into existence? Leydesdorff proposes that first we have a field of heterogeneous communication acts, or a field that might be characterized by a high degree of entropy. Now, one of the remarkable and important features about human communication is that it is self-reflexive. That is, we can communicate about our communications or talk about our talk. At the second stage, reflexive discourse begins to set in. As Leydesdorff puts it,
With the reflexive moment of communication, distinctions and selections begin to emerge, determining a marked state or that which is selected and an unmarked state or that which is excluded. Over time, this talk about talk spreads through the community and becomes a sort of assumed background of those involved in communication, such that communications that deviate from these newly formed norms, themes, and distinctions are simply coded out as noise. In other words, a social system organizes itself and now develops its own capacity for selection at the second-order level through the manner in which talk about talk has become sedimented in those participating in the discourse.
In this way, the system thereby attains closure, both being produced by its own elements and producing its own elements. The system only comes into being from the action of those participating in the communication, but their communications begin to play a constraining role and produce new elements in the form of both new communications within the framework of the distinctions and selections produced by the system, and to produce new communicators capable of participating within that system. The production of these new elements, of course, takes place through the training of those participating in scientific discourse. The important point to keep in mind, however, is that even while such a self-organizing system comes to constitute its own elements, these elements aren't just elements. Rather, they are substances in their own right as well. As a consequence, such systems always struggle against a system-specific entropy. Communications are perpetually emerging that either diverge from the system that has emerged, or that challenge that system. In other words, the elements of the system are never simple intermediaries. Communications within the system perpetually generate surprising results as they pass through the mediators in the form of the persons participating in the discourse.
The concept of translation encourages us to engage in inquiry in a different way. Working from the premise that entities are mediators, it discourages any mode of theorizing that implicitly or explicitly treats objects as mere intermediaries such that effects are already contained within causes. As Latour suggests, all entities are treated as having greater or lesser degrees of agency by virtue of having a system-specific organization that prevents the relation between cause and effect from being treated as a simple exchange of information that inevitably produces a particular result. Likewise, in approaching entities as mediators, we are encouraged to attend to the manner in which entities produce surprising local manifestations when perturbed in particular ways and to vary the contexts in which entities are perturbed to discover what volcanic powers they have hidden within themselves. That is, we begin to investigate the manner in which substances creatively translate the world around them. In this respect, we move from the marked to the unmarked space of much contemporary thought. Rather than treating deviations from our predications as mere noise to be ignored, we instead treat these deviations as giving us insight into the way in which entities translate their world.
4.5. Autopoietic Asphyxiation: The Case of the Lacanian Clinic
To illustrate these points about the nature of translation and the closure of objects, I now turn briefly to some schematic remarks about the ontological foundations of the Lacanian clinic. My aim here is twofold. On the one hand, my aim is to schematically outline why Lacanian analysts conduct themselves as they do with respect to the treatment of their analysands. On the other hand, I wish to head off the criticism that object-oriented ontology ignores humans or the subject. As discussed in the introduction, the thesis of onticology and object-oriented philosophy is not that we should ignore subjects and focus instead on objects, but rather that being is composed entirely of objects or substances. In this respect, subjects are not other than objects, but rather are a particular type of object that relates to the world in a specific way. Far from excluding subjects, onticology is completely able to integrate various theories of the subject. What onticology and object-oriented philosophy object to is thus not the category of the subject, but rather the modernist conception of the subject in which the object is always coupled to the subject or culture in some form or another. Onticology, by contrast, seeks to think a subjectless object or an object that is not merely a correlate of a subject.
The account of autopoietic systems and operational closure developed in the foregoing turns out to be quite consonant with Lacanian psychoanalysis. In many respects, this comes as no surprise for, as a brief glance at the index to Seminar II indicates, Lacan was well aware of cybernetics which is, in turn, deeply related to autopoietic theory.  One of the features that marks Lacan's account of the subject is that it is thoroughly “intersubjective”. The subject is both constituted in the field of the Other and is a perpetual relation with the Other. This is reflected both in Lacan's theory of the various subject-structures (neurosis, psychosis, and perversion) and how analysis is conducted.
Speaking strictly in the context of neurosis, it is ordinarily a symptom that brings a person to analysis. Setting aside the intricacies and transformations Lacan's theory of the symptom undergoes over the course of his teaching, it is important to note that Lacan's conception of the psychoanalytic symptom is not that of an underlying pathology arising from organic causes—for example, a chemical imbalance—but rather of the expression of a repressed desire and a relation to the Other. In this respect, the symptom is a form of speech, an address to the Other, that speaks without speaking. For example, my breaking of the chalk was saying something to my students. In this regard, Lacan remarks “that symptoms can be entirely resolved in an analysis of language, because a symptom is itself structured like a language: a symptom is language from which speech must be delivered”.  The symptom, in short, is a way of speaking or addressing the Other while simultaneously not speaking.
Yet the symptom is also an expression of desire. However, here we must recall that for Lacan “desire is the desire of the Other”. As we saw in the last section, this can entail that desire desires the Other, that desire desires to be desired by the Other, and that desire desires as the Other desires. In each instance, desire marks an intersubjective relation to the Other or a way of relating to the Other. In the case of neurosis, the desire that underlies the symptom is a repressed desire that the analysand, for whatever reason, cannot acknowledge or embrace. In this connection, it is crucial to note that the aim of analysis is not to treat the symptom, but to transform the analysand's relationship to both their own desire and the Other. While psychoanalytic treatment can, indeed, dissolve many symptoms—I ceased, for example, breaking chalk after that session—those symptoms that are dissolved come to be replaced by other symptoms. This is because, in the case of neurosis, the subject very much is its desire. What Lacan aims for rather is an avowal of desire and a separation from the Other.
In many respects, the symptom can be seen as a way of responding to the enigma of the Other's desire. In Seminar X, Lacan asks us to imagine standing before a female praying mantis without knowing whether or not we are wearing the mask of a male or female praying mantis.  As is well known, the female praying mantis devours the male praying mantis after mating with him. This perfectly embodies the dilemma of desire. Insofar as we don’t know which mask we are wearing, we don’t know what we are for the female praying mantis. The symptom can thus be thought as a way of surmounting or filling out this enigma by forming a hypothesis of what the Other desires. Desire, it could be said, embodies our non-knowledge with respect to the Other's desire. Embodied in all intersubjective relations is the sense that despite the fact that we are being addressed by the Other, we nonetheless do not know why the Other is addressing us. Put differently, we do not know the desire that animates the Other's relation to us. In this regard, the desire of the Other closely mirrors the phenomenon of operational closure with respect to systems. The Other perturbs us in a variety of ways, but we are unable to determine what intentions lie behind the Other's interaction with us.
It is this non-knowledge with respect to the desire of the Other that generates the fantasy and the symptom. Within the Lacanian framework, the fantasy is not so much a wish for something we lack, but is rather an answer to the enigma of the Other's desire. Fantasy, we could say, is a hypothesis as to what the Other desires. Through fantasy, the anxiety the subject encounters in the face of the enigma of the Other's desire is thereby minimized. Even where the fantasy is rather grim (“the Other wants to beat and exploit me!”), the answer to the enigma of the Other's desire is nonetheless preferable to the anxiety-provoking non-knowledge of that desire. With the answer provided by the unconscious fantasy, the analysand can now set about either thwarting or satisfying what they unconsciously believe to be the Other's demand, while also providing themselves with a schema for understanding what the Other wants from her.
Within a Luhmannian framework, we can already see that fantasy serves a function deeply analogous to the role of distinction in the continuing operations of a system. Here it will be recalled that distinction is a necessary condition for indication. If a system is to be capable of indicating anything within its environment, then it must first draw a distinction. However, distinction embodies two blind spots. On the one hand, every distinction contains a blind spot in the form of its unmarked state or what falls outside of the distinction. On the other hand, the distinction itself embodies a blind spot insofar as in the use of the distinction to make indications, the distinction itself becomes invisible, disguising the manner in which it renders indication possible. Just as Lewis Carroll said that you can eat your food or talk to your food but not eat your food and talk to your food, distinction is such that you can use your distinctions to make indications or observe your distinctions, but you can't observe your distinctions and use your distinctions. As a consequence, the use or operation of distinctions in making indications or observations produces a “reality effect” where what is observed or indicated appears to be a direct property of the indicated itself, rather than an effect of the distinction that renders the indication possible. So it is with fantasy as well. The fantasy is that which recedes in the background while structuring relations to the Other. As such, fantasy creates an effect whereby the manner in which fantasy transforms perturbations from the Other into information appears to directly result from the Other or to be a property of the Other itself. As Žižek puts it, “[t]he role of fantasy [is to] mediate between the formal symbolic structure and the positivity of objects we encounter in reality—that is to say, it provides a 'schema' according to which certain positive objects in reality can function as objects of desire, filling in the empty places opened up by the formal symbolic structure”.  However, it is not simply the holes in the symbolic structure that are at stake here, but the opacity of the Other in our relations to the Other that fantasy fills. In this regard, it can be seen that fantasy is a direct response to the withdrawal of objects or others, to their constitutive opacity borne out of the operational closure of other persons and the social field as a whole.
The operational closure of subjects and the role played by the fantasy pose special challenges in the analytic setting. If fantasy structures the analysand's interpersonal relations in such a way as to pre-interpret perturbations from others in a particular way, how can the analyst intervene in the psychic economy of the analysand without merely reinforcing the analysand's fantasy and confirming their unconscious conception of the Other? Already we see that this question is a question of how it is possible to relate to operationally closed objects that cannot be dominated or controlled. Expressed a bit differently, the point here revolves around the status of information as it functions in psychic systems. One psychotherapeutic approach might have it that information is something that can be exchanged between therapist and patient such that it retains its identity or the meaning of the message. This seems to have been the premise of Freud's early treatments where he would didactically explain the dreams of his patients and their symptoms as, for example, in the case of Dora. However, as Freud quickly learned, not only did such didactic explanations have little impact on the symptom or in transforming the relationship of the subject to the Other, but in certain instances, such as in the case of Dora, it actually led patients to flee the analytic setting. Somehow a practice had to be devised that allowed the analysands to arrive at these discoveries for themselves, and the reason for this revolves around how information functions in closed systems.
In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Lacan argues that the end of analysis consists in traversing the fantasy and separating from the desire of the Other. In light of the foregoing, we are now in a position to understand what Lacan is getting at with these proposals. Traversing the fantasy consists in a shift in perspective from relating to the Other in terms of first-order observation through the fantasy to second-order observation of the fantasy. The analysand shifts from making indications based on the distinctions drawn by the fantasy, to observing how he or she observes; that is, observing the fantasy itself. Accompanying this shift is a realization of the contingency of the manner in which the fantasy has drawn distinctions or how the analysand might be mistaken about the Other's desire. In other words, the analysand is confronted with the enigma of the Other's desire and thereby freed from the unconscious belief that the Other is making a specific demand of the subject. Accompanying this shift is a separation from the desire of the Other. Where first-order observation based on fantasy creates the impression that it is the Other itself that is making a specific demand, the shift towards second-order observation reveals the manner in which the subject's fantasy formatted perturbations from the Other in such a way as to transform them into a specific demand. Like Harry Angel in Alan Parker's Angel Heart, the analysand discovers that what he took to be the Other's demand was his desire all along.  At this point, the analysand is in a position to avow his desire, which, in turn, is often accompanied by a quite significant shift in how the subject relates to his or her symptom.
Yet how is this shift accomplished within the psychoanalytic setting? This shift is brought about by the manner in which the analyst conducts herself. As has often been remarked, the analyst is an enigmatic and impassive figure who seldom responds to the analysand. Lacan goes so far as to compare the position of the analyst with playing dead. As Lacan remarks, “the analyst concretely intervenes in the dialectic of analysis by playing dead—by 'cadaverizing' his position, as the Chinese say—either by his silence where he is the Other with a capital O, or by canceling out his own resistance where he is the other with a lowercase o”.  This activity of playing dead serves the important function of confronting the analysand with the enigma of the Other's desire. Where the analysand expects the analyst to say something, thereby giving him a framework by which to transform this enigma of the Other's desire into a specific demand that the analysand can then satisfy or thwart, the analyst instead presents the analysand with a blank screen, thereby bringing the analysand before an inscrutable desire or a question: What does the Other want? In the early sessions of my own analysis, for example, I recall asking my analyst how he was doing at the beginning of my sessions or would inquire about some aspect of an article that he had recently published. My analyst would respond with utter silence that would then be punctuated with a drawn out “so?” inviting me to begin free associating. In this way, the analyst gave me no foothold to transform his desire into a demand. Whatever I began talking about issued from me and me alone rather than taking place as a response to a demand. This impassivity of the analyst's position thus gradually brings the analysand before the manner in which he or she projects certain demands on to the Other. Insofar as the analyst makes no specific demands beyond the demand to free associate, the analysand increasingly becomes aware of the manner in which the Other makes a specific demand of him issues from himself rather than the Other. In this way, he gradually traverses the fantasy, coming to see how he throws the net of fantasy over the Other as a way of transforming the enigma of desire into demand.
However, it would be a mistake to suppose that the analyst merely sits there quietly. The analyst does ask questions and make remarks. Yet the remarks that the analyst makes are generally of an enigmatic and polysemous nature, amenable to a variety of different interpretations. Lacanian interpretation does not tell an analysand what such and such means, but is rather an enigmatic and polysemous speech-act on the part of the analyst wherein the analysand or the patient creates the meaning. In this respect, one way of understanding Lacanian interpretation is as systematic misinterpretation. A properly psychoanalytic interpretation does not register that the analyst has understood—this would reinforce the belief that information is transmitted between closed systems—but rather works on the statements of the analysand in a surprising way that creates new meaning. Returning to the example from the last section, when my analyst intoned “pressure at the board”, this statement systematically misinterpreted my discourse and upset my anticipations by taking the discourse I was articulating around physiology and physics (placing too much pressure on the chalk) and formulated a polysemous statement that simultaneously articulated these points about physics and physiology while also transforming the meaning in such a way as to indicate my pressure and anxiety at the board.
This particular form or practice of interpretation serves two important functions within the clinical setting. On the one hand, insofar as the interpretation is never quite what the analysand expects and insofar as it always slightly misinterprets what the analysand is saying, it becomes an event capable of producing information or resonance within the analysand. That is, it functions as an event capable of selecting new system-states. Where an interpretation that merely indicates the analyst has understood produces no new information (information repeated is no longer information), the minimal surprise embodied in a psychoanalytic interpretation carries the possibility of generating new meaning and redrawing distinctions that structure the analysand's experience of the world. As such, it becomes possible to shift the symptom into new basins of attraction that might be far less painful for the subject. On the other hand, insofar as the interpretation seems to misunderstand the analysand, it systematically undermines the analysand's deeply held belief that he has access to the Other, thereby assisting in the process of separation from the Other.
This brief gloss on Lacanian practice hardly does justice to the depth and complexity of Lacanian theory. I have, for example, said nothing about the objet a, jouissance, the various subject-structures, the imaginary, symbolic, and the real, and so on. However, my point is that if Lacan is right, then the quandaries the neurotic subject finds himself in follow directly from the ontological withdrawal of objects and their operational closure as systems. The quandaries of the neurotic subject are quandaries that emerge when psychic systems are coupled to other operationally closed systems such as the social system into which they are born and relations to other people. The subject wonders what their place is in the social system, what they are for the social system, and what they are for other people. Yet because systems are operationally closed, because psychic systems are both outside other psychic systems and exist only in the environment of the social system, there is no univocal answer to these questions. The symptom and the fantasy are ways in which this dilemma is navigated. This is true even where the symptom has an organic foundation in, for example, the neurology of the analysand, for the psychic system must still give these perturbations coming from within its own internal environment a meaning. Lacanian theory and practice gives us insight into just what is entailed by the withdrawal of objects, how this withdrawal is organized, and the reality effect produced as a function of the way in which objects construct their openness to their environment.
- Latour, “Irreductions,” p. 166.
- Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1978) p. 23.
- Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, “Autopoiesis: The Organization of the Living”, in Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1980) pp. 78–82.
- Niklas Luhmann, Social Systems, trans. John Bednarz, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989) p. 12.
- Luhman, “Identity—What or How?”, in Theories of Distinction: Redescribing the Descriptions of Modernity, ed. William Rasch (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002) p. 115.
- Ibid., p. 118.
- G. Spencer-Brown, Laws of Form (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1979) p. 1.
- Luhmann, Social Systems, p. 29.
- Heinz von Foester, Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2003) p. 266.
- Gotthard Bechmann and Nico Stehr, “The Legacy of Niklas Luhmann,” Society 39 (2002) p. 70.
- Maturana and Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, trans. Robert Paolucci (Boston: Shambhala, 1992). p. 89.
- Maturana and Varela, “Autopoiesis: The Organization of the Living”, pp. 78–79.
- Luhman, Social Systems, pp. 21–22.
- Maturana and Varela, “Autopoiesis: The Organization of the Living”, p. 78.
- Luhmann, Social Systems, p. 65.
- Ibid., pp. 40–41.
- Ibid., p. 17.
- Ibid., pp. 16–17.
- Ibid., 25.
- Ibid., 20.
- Ibid., p. 24.
- Ibid., p. 21.
- Ibid., p. 25.
- Ibid., p. 22.
- Ibid., p. 17.
- Morton, The Ecological Thought, p. 60.
- Luhmann, Social Systems, p. 210.
- Ibid., p. 212.
- Luhmann, Ecological Communication, trans. John Bednarz, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989) p. 29.
- Ibid., p. 18.
- Luhmann, “What is Communication?”, Theories of Distinction, ed. William Rasch (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002) p. 156.
- Luhmann, Social Systems, p. 59.
- Hans-George Moeller, Luhmann Explained: From Souls to Systems (Chicago: Open Court, 2006) p. 11.
- Luhmann, Social Systems, p. 36.
- Luhmann, “The Cognitive Program of Constructivism and the Reality that Remains Unknown”, in Theories of Distinction, p. 135.
- Luhmann, “The Autopoisis of Social Systems”, in Essays on Self-Reference (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990) p. 10.
- Luhmann, Social Systems, p. 40.
- Ibid., p. 67.
- Gregory Bateson, “Pathologies of Epistemology”, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) p. 490.
- Bateson, “Form, Substance, and Difference”, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, p. 458.
- Luhmann, Social Systems, p. 75.
- Luhmann, “Meaning as Sociology's Basic Concept”, Essays on Self-Reference, p. 31.
- Luhmann, Social Systems, p. 67.
- Luhmann, “Meaning as Sociology's Basic Concept,” p. 25.
- Ibid., p. 27.
- Luhmann, Ecological Communication, p. 22–23.
- Niklas Luhmann, “The Cognitive Program of Constructivism and the Reality That Remains Unknown”, in Theories of Distinction, p. 145.
- Cf. Harman, Prince of Networks, pp. 188–211.
- Ibid., pp. 189–190.
- Gilbert Gottlieb, “A Developmental Psychobiological System's View: Early Formulation and Current Status”, in Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution, eds. Oyama, Susan, Paul E. Griffiths, and Russell D. Gray (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001) pp. 41–42.
- Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998) pp. 21–23.
- Ibid., p. 22.
- Ibid., p. 21.
- For a detailed discussion of Lacan's discourse theory, cf. Levi R. Bryant, “Žižek's New Universe of Discourse: Politics and the Discourse of the Capitalist,” International Journal of Žižek Studies 2.4 (2008).
- Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p. 22.
- Latour, “Irreductions,” p. 181.
- Ibid., p. 162.
- Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) p. 39.
- Latour, “An Attempt at Writing a 'Compositionist Manifesto'” Available at http://www.bruno-latour.fr/articles/article/120-COMPO-MANIFESTO.pdf.
- Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995) pp. 135–169.
- Ibid., p. 135.
- Richard Lewontin, “Gene, Organism and Environment: A New Introduction”, in Cycles of Contingency, pp. 55–56.
- Ibid., p. 55.
- Susan Oyama, “Terms in Tension: What Do You Do When All the Good Words are Taken?”, in Cycles of Contingency, pp. 182–183.
- Latour, Reassembling the Social, p. 8.
- Loet Leydesdorff, A Sociological Theory of Communication: The Self-Organization of the Knowledge-Based Society (Universal Publishers, 2003) pp. 5–6.
- Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, trans. Sylvana Tomaselli (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1988).
- Lacan, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006) p. 223.
- Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Seminar X: Anxiety (1962–1963), trans. Cormac Gallagher (Unpublished) lesson of 14 November 1962.
- Slavoj Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies (New York: Verso, 1997) p. 7.
- Cf. Žižek, Tarrying With the Negative, pp. 9–12.
- Jacques Lacan, Écrits, p. 357.