Tekhnema 5 / "Energy and Chance"/ Fall 1999


Richard Beardsworth

In memory of Jean-François Lyotard

The origins of this issue of Tekhnema go back a couple of years when it was deemed important by members, contributors and readers of the journal to elaborate a multidisciplinary space in which philosophy, the thinking of technics and technology, the physical and life sciences, and the humanities could exchange ideas and positions on the question of energy. An issue of Tekhnema to that end was thought appropriate. Why the immediate interest in such a space? And why "energy" as its term of articulation? The Sokal hoax of 1996, together with its reverberations within the scientific and academic community, were present to the mind of anyone concerned with the necessity—but also complexity and difficulty—of establishing inventive relations between the sciences and the humanities. Sokal’s hoax as well as the unexpectedly large number of responses that it elicited were, as Hegel would have put it, "shot[s] from a pistol" (Preface to The Phenomenology of Spirit) that took advantage of a particular cultural constellation, certainly complex in its determinations, but that did not contribute to any furtherance of knowledge. A debate that elicited in turn measured, but precise engagements in the epistemologies of the sciences and that rehearsed, as far as each contributor felt possible, relations between philosophy, science, technology and the humanities seemed, in the light of this immediate cultural past, important, and of course, beyond this past, remains ever more so. Why energy? Energy—rather than, as previous issues of Tekhnema have done, "matter" or, explicitly, "technics"—appeared a rich framework to structure multidisciplinary exchange for several reasons.

First, being the "common denominator," of any mass—prior, that is, to any categorial distinction between developments of mass (electromagnetic, material, organic, inorganic, technical, and so on)—energy necessarily underpins the objects of all disciplines. Given this generality each discipline is concerned by energy, whatever the differentiations that must then ensue in the individual discipline’s appraisal of the particular way in which it is concerned. This generality of energy calls, in other words, for exchange between philosophy, the sciences and technology since energy has thereby become a modern or contemporary equivalent for "nature" or "being" as such.

Second, since energy can however only be traced "phenomenally" in terms of its effects (at every level: sub-nuclear, nuclear, electromagnetic, gravitational, molecular, cellular, organic, sexual), that is, since there is no direct access to this "being" of energy, and, therefore, no straightforward ontology of it, energy constitutes something like an enigmatic "x," a mystery impossible to categorize in classical terms of ontology, but that is nevertheless present in every micro- and macro-event (in all being). The theme of energy is thus all the more a good vortex through which to exchange and test relations between the sciences, technology, the humanities and philosophy since it harbors a "domain" so difficult, but so interesting to think within, and across, these relations.

Third, and consequently, this thinking, to be inventive, can only emerge between the thought of energy and its effects. Enigmatic, the "x" of energy does not lend itself to "a philosophy of energy" in classical terms because, first, energy is neither objectifiable nor conceptualizable as such, and because, second, it can only be thought from out of its effects, and these effects make up the constant complexification of energy, from the subatomic to the "human" and the "artificial." There is thus no choice here between an ontology of energy, on the one hand, and what Martin Heidegger would wrongly call a "regional" science of energy, on the other. As soon as it is a question of thinking energy, its very enigma demands a multidisciplinary exchange between philosophy and scientific (and other) thought of energy’s effects. Critical reflection upon energy is, in other words, necessarily disciplinary and trans-disciplinary, nonhistorical and historical. This is the third reason why such an exchange on energy seemed more than resonant in the uninteresting climate of the Sokal affair.

Hence any multidisciplinary reflection upon energy has in turn to deal with three problems. Since these problems are either directly addressed or indirectly borne out of this issue, let me schematically elaborate them before turning to the contributors’ articles:

1. The difficulty of thinking energy in general is that of how to configure, categorize or conceptualize energy, given that it "lies" prior to the technics of language and to that of measuring instruments in general, and will, therefore, always remain irreducible to them.

2. This difficulty also lies in the fact that, above and beyond the abstract laws of thermodynamics procured by the physical sciences, and refined by the biological sciences, to theorize it well one must also determine and locate the level at which one is theorizing. From the subnuclear to the organic, from the organic to beyond the organic (human civilization, the prosthetic, artificial life, etc.), one considers a vast spiral of complexifications of energy. This spiral is "historically" real. As such, however, it can only be "speculated" upon (in the Kantian sense of speculation), despite more and more sophisticated measuring instruments that supplement and extend our knowledge. There is, therefore, only a limited epistemological value in generalizing the energetic, across these "twists" in the spiral, beyond the basic rhythms between entropy and negentropy, law and chance. For, together with this generality, it is equally important to argue that the question of "law" and "chance" at the level of particle physics is not of the same order as that at the level of human civilization, and therefore that, at each twist of complexification, relations between determination, the determinate and the indeterminate change and need to be accounted for. Chance in genetic modification is not of the same order of chance as chance in André Breton’s Nadja. The relations between determination, the determinate and the indeterminate have themselves undergone modification, although both determination and indeterminacy provide the rhythm of the energetic as such. Thus, generalization concerning the energetic must always be tempered with individuation and differentiation. We must talk about the laws of entropy and negentropy in general, and all figures of energy fall under one or both: but, at the same time, we must also theorize "movement" within each figure as a "regional" affair given the specificity of the determinations and indeterminacies particular to an energetic domain. To swallow all under the one conceptual determination of "chance and necessity" is uncritical and unphilosophical. Hence the further need, when thinking energy, to think between ontology and science.

3. This said, and finally, it is vital when thinking energy both from within and without its effects always to consider its relation to "chance." As several of the contributors to this issue will remind us, the classical, epistemic concept of chance understands the latter as that which arises beyond our knowledge such as it is. Chance is in this perspective the name for a provisional demarcation between the knowable and the unknowable, the unknown terrain beyond this demarcation awaiting scientific law with more precise instruments of determination. Chance in a nonclassical, nonepistemic sense is, conversely, either the radically unknown beyond any provisional demarcation dependent on the history of epistemic determination (the "why" of negentropy, for example) or designates, within the "laws" of energy, an indeterminable element that makes these laws no more, essentially, than statistical probabilities. It is, furthermore, this indeterminable element that is something like the condition of the history and complexification of energy in the first place. Now, if within the short history of human civilization these two orders of radical chance have often been placed within the domain of what we call "religion," and if, with the pervasive technicization of the human world today, this domain again attracts many a heart, it is important here to recall that the "x" of energy remains an enigma precisely because of its chance(s), and not, like the name of God, its necessity.

The exchange, articles and images in this issue form an important, but only partial configuration of this debate envisaged at the time of the Sokal affair. For reasons of time and commitment, several contributors had to desist, and my own conversation with Jean-François Lyotard that opens this issue was never edited by him due to his sudden death in 1998 after many months’ reprieve. That said, a considerable part of what was originally intended comes to the fore.

The issue begins with my exchange with Jean-François Lyotard on the importance of Freud for the French philosopher’s work in the general context of a thinking of "energy and chance." It is in this discussion that the various levels, difficulty and implications of a thinking of energy today are rehearsed. Taking as pretext and context Lyotard’s work from the seventies to the nineties on energetics, a philosophy of the other, and processes of complexification (what he calls "development"), the exchange brings out a thinking of energy qua remainder that is shown to have diverse and wide consequences for the individuality of, and relation between human and technoscientific constellations of energy. What is of particular interest in the exchange is the way in which Lyotard situates the question of energy as one of rhythm and continues to refine his theses of the nineties on art and politics in the context of "development." Lyotard led the conversation with great generosity, wit and care, as was his wont. This issue of Tekhnema is dedicated to his memory and to his inimitable philosophical spirit.

The issue then divides into a series of articles each of which, with one exception that I will come to at the end, concern the way in which energy is to be thought both generally and particularly from out of the modern history of energy that gave rise to the scientific discipline of quantum mechanics and its theorization of subatomic energy.

In "Techno-Atoms: ‘The Ultimate Constituents of Matter’ and the Technological Constitution of Phenomena in Quantum Physics," Arkady Plotnitsky situates the question of the thinking of energy in relation to the specificity of quantum physics. In a most knowledgeable and lucid account of the quantum universe, Plotnitsky locates this specificity in the "decisive break" that takes place between classical and quantum physics and that emerges in the constitutively technical nature of the world that quantum mechanics determines. The radical irreducibility of the "ultimate constituents of matter" to phenomenalization and categorization finds expression, according to Plotnitsky, in the necessarily technical nature of quantum epistemology and its theories (following Niels Bohr, "complementarity," the "quantum postulate")—a thesis underestimated by Bohr himself, and his followers, and one that stages inventive interplay between philosophy, physics and the thinking of technology. In a highly provocative, but justifiable move within the terms of the argument, Plotnitsky then maintains, avoiding the pitfalls of both formalism and ontological realism, that in quantum mechanics the classical attributes of "reality" and "causality" are replaced by "technology" and "chance." As the reader will see, such an argument does not prevent, however, a final, crucial hesitation on the part of the author as to the very category of "irreducibility" to describe the "inconceivable" nature of subatomic energy.

In ways that partly rhyme with Plotnitsky’s work, Suhail Malik’s ambitious "‘Tekhné is Fond of Túkhé and Túkhé of Tekhné’: Energy and Aristotle’s Ontology," shows the necessary, if hitherto unarticulated relations between physics and philosophy, and between philosophy, its thinking of energy and technological processes. He maintains with great verve that modern and contemporary doctrines of energy perpetuate the predominantly anthropological principles of ontology, while the modern formation of technics, correlative with these doctrines, propose at the same time a dimension of matter qua energy that is irreducible to them. This dimension appears through the modern specificity of technics—the unleashing of tekhné from the human hand—and is figured by the irreducible relation between technology and chance. The main weight of Malik’s argument falls in a profound reading of Aristotle’s theory of energéia and dúnamis in the Metaphysics and Physics. From this reading, especially that around Aristotle’s notion of hylo-eidetic kinésis, Malik proposes a rethinking of energetics, one that, for him, includes both the classical and quantum physical universes, and that assumes the nonpurposeful and noneidetic kinésis of technics. In strong philosophical vein, he concludes by suggesting that this understanding of technics is the condition of the subsequent distinction between the material and the eidetic, together with other ontological distinctions, and that, therefore, energy should be considered in terms of technical modernity rather than anthropo-ontological principles of kinésis. It is for the reader to judge whether, with such a classically philosophical, if immediately attractive claim, the article ends up flattening out what I termed earlier "levels" of energetic order, and this despite its rigorous concern with historical specificity.

Similar in gesture, but different in conclusion to the above articles, Howard Caygill and Victoria Allen argue for an ontology of energy, although both in nonclassical ways. Caygill’s short but pithy "Non-Epistemic Chance: Karl Popper’s Ontology" tackles the relation between philosophy and physics, and energy and chance, through Karl Popper’s philosophy of quantum mechanics in such works as Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934) and Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics (1982). Caygill carefully shows how Popper’s claim to a nonontology of science contradicts itself on two fronts in his earlier and later work given his use of Kant and Aristotle to think, respectively, statistical probability or an objective theory of kinetic movement. (The detail of Caygill’s argument is to be compared, here, with both Plotnitsky’s theoretical understanding of quantum physics and Malik’s work on Aristotle.) Caygill concludes that, without an ontology, chance remains a function of ignorance, the other of our (present) knowledge. The argument is crucial with regard to Popperian philosophy of science. The article leaves unarticulated, however, what this nonclassical ontology of chance could mean across levels of energetic determinations.

Victoria Allen’s "Place, Energy and Rhythm: On Energy without Movement" also argues for a nonclassical philosophy of energy at least in the sense, for her, that energy can be only thought in its "essence" if it is first removed from its configuration within an (Aristotelian) ontology of movement. In a thesis that thus partly echoes Malik’s article, Allen argues, precisely and convincingly, that energy, since Aristotle, has always been aligned with movement, but that, once removed from this alignment, it can be communicated by rhythm. The philosophy of Bergson has continued importance at this juncture. The rhythm of energy, its essence, can be found from under the relative temporization and spatialization of time and place in the absolute difference between the vectors of "mobility" particular to the latter and the "immobility" of the rhythm of energy. While, therefore, condemned to the conceptual and categorial strategies of these vectors, the representation of energy that eschews the ontology of movement admits the play between immobility and mobility that constitutes rhythm’s pulse. In the context of this issue, Allen’s thesis nicely turns the reader back to the exchange with Lyotard and his insistence on the rhythm of energy.

Bernard Vaudeville’s article "The Folly of Structures: An Apology for Rigidity" is the one article in this issue that is not directly concerned with the (technico-)conceptual problematic of reflection upon energy. The piece is no less interesting, however, in the context of the necessary relation established here between energy and chance. As an engineer and architect reflecting on the specificity of the figuration of energy in his domain, Vaudeville wishes to give a nontechnical explanation of a highly singular phenomenon: the rigidity of a structure (a bridge, a tower, a concrete mould) and its concomitant proneness to sudden, functionally absolute disintegration. This phenomenon is predicated, Vaudeville argues, on the paradox that the more energy is figured according to precise, foreseeable laws, the more it is unable to adapt to the unforeseeable. Hence, in difference to physical and biological phenomena, a structure will break absolutely. The piece’s apology for rigidity thus constitutes, ironically as it were, an apology also for chance. For it points to the fact that, in the domain of structure, the intense figuring of energy in matter can only "evolve" entropically. It is within this paradox that Vaudeville suggestively situates the aesthetics of structure and chance.

It is highly apposite to an issue that both assumes and avoids the figuring of energy in thought that every other page should recount in the corner, in the amusing form of a flipbook, the above law of the exclusion of chance. Our thanks, finally, to Jacques Raynaud, a colleague of Bernard Vaudeville, for giving this law such aesthetic form throughout this issue.