ENTROPEMENT

ON COVID-19 & ENTROPOLOGY

The manner in which media have been reporting on the current Covid-19 epidemic has been unique, insofar as the new crisis quickly focused the western media-scape on this one single story in a very short span of time. This effect is highly unusual & differs from the standard tempo & manner of reporting & can yield some unique insights. This essay will attempt to situate the Covid-19 pandemic within a general “entropology,” showing how the crisis is being spun in the months following the first reports, & will focus on the manner in which the event of the disease has become, in Louis Armand’s lexicon, “entroped” within contemporary information networks – entropement will be shown to consist in the framing of a “dissipative” object-signifier within a network of parasitic relations.[1]

Matter (1)

The first mention of the term “entropology” comes from Claude Lévi-Strauss’ best-selling book Tristes Tropiques (1955), where he coins the term as an alternative to anthropology. After years of performing anthropological work in the Amazonian region, Lévi-Strauss becomes disenchanted with the work of the anthropologist who ventures beyond the ramparts of civilization to observe, note, & analyze:

Taken as a whole, therefore, civilization can be described as a prodigiously complicated mechanism: tempting as it would be to regard it as our universe’s best hope of survival. Its true function is to produce what physicists call entropy […] “Entropology,” not anthropology, should be the word for the discipline that devotes itself to the study of this process of disintegration in its most highly evolved forms.

Lévi-Strauss considers “the human” within its modernist envelope, as a particular force which has, through processes of technical exosomatization, created instruments for the exploitation of “nature.” He considers the relationship of nature to culture, “man” to animal, & other cognate dialectics as transparent. This dialectic split is largely rooted in a structuralist paradigm & applies equally to Lévi-Strauss comment on language & communication which he expands in the same passage. According to Lévi-Strauss, the structure of communication (stratified, but still dichotomous) breeds entropy:

Every scrap of conversation, every line set up in type, establishes a communication between two interlocutors, levelling what had previously existed on two different planes & had had, for that reason, a greater degree of organization.

Lévi-Strauss‘ understanding of entropy here is limited in its structuralist oppositional logic, which considers entropy as a science which bridges the material with the informational, much like the signifier “entropy” straddles both the thermodynamic & informational registers. This misunderstanding makes “entropology” a science which charts a point of convergence between the material traces of the human animal & its communicational apparatus, drawing a direct relationship between the two. As will be shown, this is a dubious reality form the perspective of the sciences (particularly physics & information theory), but lends itself nicely to linguistic & philosophical analysis.

Signal (1)

Although “entropy” has been notoriously hard to define since its first framing by Carnot in 1824, it has since appeared both in the context of information theory & the physics of thermodynamics – but both speak of different things. Informational “entropy” is a concept first developed by Norbert Wiener & Claude Shannon, most notably in Shannon’s work “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” where he posits it as a relationship between the “information” & “redundancy” tied to the “chance” of an element of communication occurring at a given time & in a given place within the message. In his classical schema of a “general communication system,” Shannon describes a signal as a discrete packet which can be transmitted from source to destination with some intervening noise potentially scrambling the messages’ coherence, decreasing its structuration & increasing its “entropy.”

Where Lévi-Strauss’ understanding of entropy was still largely rooted in the thermodynamic frame & the “disintegration” which the human ultimately perpetrates on the Earth’s chthonic organs & natural structures, communication in Shannon’s take becomes a measure of predictability. This notion that humanity, as a speaking & communicating species, carves out little islands of negentropy can be traced to Shannon’s colleague Norbert Wiener who presented the thesis that human culture is a Maxwell’s Demon whose structuration of the world can resist “nature’s statistical tendency to disorder, the tendency for entropy to increase.” Wiener thus considered communication & the structuration of the environment as a negentropic force, one which counters the macroscopic tendency of the universe towards equilibrium as maximum entropy.

Shannon’s & Wiener’s sublimation & appropriation of entropy into a measure of information moves away from a grand scheme of thermodynamic equilibrium & introduces a much more microscopic, nuanced & relational approach, opening the way towards a systems theory of entropy. This transition towards a systems theory of modelling entropy went hand in hand with the new science of cybernetics (a term coined by none other than Wiener) which aimed to bridge the gap between living & artificial systems on the basis of their analogous functions & the study of their systems of relations.

Matter (2)

This tension between the ordering of matter & of information constitute a basis for the study of entropology, & this short genealogy will follow the work of Michel Serres who considered “entropy” as a ubiquitous component of his materialist & predatory information theory.

In his work The Parasite, Serres conceived of the “parasitic cascade.” This cascade expands the simple dialectic framework which Lévi-Strauss sets up in his original framing of entroplogy & introduces an expanded frame from Shannon’s model. Serres builds on his previous work on entropy & technology & offers the model of the parasitic cascade as a dynamic process which underwrites the relation between a series of systems & instils noise as a source of displacement driving the processes of Production. His ecological & materialist grasp of ‘entropy’ is fundamental, as it shows systems as always being nested & encroached upon within a wider assemblage of other systems.

In Serres’ treatment, the parasitic cascade introduces two things to the more technocratic schema of Shannon: 1) it works within a wider ecology of systems & their processes of entropic exchange, & 2) it inaugurates a properly entropological frame in its conjunction of an ecological & informational ontology, expanding on Shannon’s preoccupation with the technical apparatus.

For Serres, it is through the noise, the parasite, that information about the real is gleaned – this noise is the force which pushes back against the locus of Production, & “entropy” becomes a modular quality which can increase or decrease based on the disequilibrium among the systems within the cascade. Serres pragmatic materialism thus straddles the boundary between the anthropological understanding of entropy (which is physical, & which Lévi-Strauss originally associated with the human) & the informational understanding as found in Shannon. These two tendencies counter each other or, as Serres writes, “one parasite chases another out.” Serres:

One parasite (static), in the sense that information theory uses the word, chases another, in the anthropological sense. Communication theory is in charge of the system; it can break it down or let it function, depending on the signal.

Within the parasitic cascade, noise is not something which needs to be purged, as in Shannon’s project of communicational relay, but is rather the very motor of communication & exchange – the message never says merely what it intends to say, but always fundamentally posits a field of actors which further calibrate the parasitic chain.

Serres’ schema is then a formulation of a materialist informational theory, one in which the parasite (the noise) has agency of its own & is indeed the included third which conducts the exchange of information, integrating this informational logic within the multi-agent system of his materialist ontology.

Signal(2): Entropement

The informational platforms filtering contemporary digital-era media channels are not as easily decomposed into their individual elements & actors as Lévi-Strauss‘ afore-mentioned bipartite communication schema would propose – a “new dark age” of opaque media ecologies & the creative destruction of post-truth fake news has clouded the relationship between the various discourses & their underlying infrastructural vectors. The moment of the pandemic was indeed novel in a number of particular techno-social aspects – the stack of informational databases, relays & channels of virtually all contemporary media coming together around a single issue served to shed some of the media’s camouflage & generated a news feed predicated on a particular type of timeliness.

Mainstream Czech media, for example, started seriously tackling the issue once Covid-19 reached Italy, & the illness became a binding point for virtually all media coverage once the disease reached the Czech Republic in March 2020, especially after the government declared a state of  emergency on March 12. In the world media coverage, the effect was similar: the moment of the pandemic when media largely reported stats & figures gradually became integrated within other discourses, being spun in political (US vs. China), economic (liberal values vs. technocratic control), social, or environmental directions. Due to the highly limited information originally available about the virus, the event of the pandemic became, in its early stages, a linchpin for the wider communicational ecology, only to then be appropriated & detailed into myriad sub-discourses, turning into what the WHO has termed an “infodemic,” generating “excessive access to information, sometimes not thoroughly screened.” The pandemic quickly turned into an intersectional issue.

The very quick shift from the sensing of the event of the disease-in-itself into a largely informational & narrative phenomenon can be considered as an example of entropement& will be discussed presently.

Within the context of Serre’s predatory informational theory, one in which informational/material systems are nested in & adjunct to other systems, Louis Armand’s conception of ‘entropement’ becomes much clearer. Entropement carries three major semiotic elements: it is first a neologism which evokes the standard noun of the English “entrapment,” but does so by incorporating the informational & literary concept of the “trope” as a “a common or overused theme or device.” This lack of information which the trope carries is also the mark of “entropy,” & has direct effect on the western media apparatus & its treatment of the current Covid-19 pandemic.

To better understand the concrete mechanisms of entropement, a quick analysis of a recent Guardian article by Adam Tooze observed in parallax to the much sparser facts is in order. According to the currently official version of the WHO (which is however being contested by not only numerous “fringe” theories, but also none other than the US government) the tracks of Covid-19’s first occurrence of lead to Wuhan’s Huanan wet market, where close proximity of humans & animals may have led to the first human infection. The origins of the virus have been traced to bats, as was the case with the previous & similar 2002-2004 SARS virus, bats being one of the major viral vectors due to the robustness of their immunity system. From bats, the virus most likely spread to other, consumable wildlife traded in the wholesale markets of China.

The encroachment upon wildlife & the disruption of remote habitats has indeed been for a long time considered one of the vectors through which pathogens, such as the SARS-CoV-2 can spread. The wilderness has been the source of various illnesses throughout history – AIDS, for example, came from the close contact between humans & the blood of chimpanzees during slaughter – & experts now say that another 10 000 – 600 000 viruses have the potential to spread to mammalian wildlife & infect the human, warning that the current pandemic is mild compared to what might be lurking in other distant corners of the planet, not only in wildlife, but also hidden under permafrost. The general fact that human extractive practices throughout history have led to close cohabitation & easy transmission between humans & Emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) is correct, but certain recent articles have presented the crisis as, for example, a crisis of the ‘Anthropocene,’ or have in another way politicized the pandemic in ways which are more manipulative than they are informative. The media environment began to spin the few facts available about the diseases & has, since its turbulent irruption into the world’s populations, made a discursive issue of it, prompting the WHO to call the media storm an “infodemic” in its own right.

In his article “We Are Living Through the First Economic Crisis of the Anthropocene,” Adam Tooze writes that “What we are living through [at the moment of the Covid-19 pandemic] is the first economic crisis of the Anthropocene. This is the era in which humanity’s impact on nature has begun to blow back on us in unpredictable & disastrous ways.” There are a few nested assertions in the whole article as well as in this short excerpt: Tooze adopts a vulgar understanding of the virus as a direct effect of ‘humanity’s impact’ on wild life & the wilderness. The seeming novelty of such a moment in time, as Tooze dates the Anthropocene from 1945 to the present, creates the idea that epidemics & close contact between animals & humans, a fact which facilitates zoonotic transfer, has no precedent in the past. This is not true, as the appearance of numerous diseases which had appeared throughout previous eras of humanity’s existence as a result of the close co-habitation of humans & animals make clear. Tooze is thus conflating speed of transmission facilitated by the technologies of displacement & the conditions of high-density co-habitation with the very existence of diseases which occurred in the past & could also be termed “pandemic.” His argument is that the “great acceleration that defined the anthropocene” is somehow responsible for the very fact of zoonotic transfer taking place.

The question of a time-frame within which to speak of novelty & the dissemination of information is fundamental here, as Bogna Konior makes clear when she writes that

As blessed as we are to have books & other media that transmit knowledge & stretch temporality for us, we are still trapped within the span of an individual lifetime, & a limited perception of history. Even if pandemics happen throughout history, what appears to us in perception appears as a novelty, as a problem for thought, & it indeed has new variables each time.

The journalistic frame of The Guardian within which Tooze’s essay appears thus latently positions the phenomenon of SARS-CoV-2 as being 1) an “unprecedented” & 2) a phenomenon of the Anthropocene. This is a particular spin which is predicated on the media industry’s curatorial practices. That is not to say that Tooze’s article is invalid in & of itself, but rather that the inferences which Tooze makes on the pandemic have undergone factual distortion & have become contained within pre-determined templates, or tropes, which peddle in novelty as much as they  work with largely evacuated information – specifically “the Anthropocene” can now contain just about anything without necessarily saying anything either, as Rosi Braidotti has made clear.

Entropement is a structural secretion of the contemporary communicational ecology & its function in the wider entropological field functions as follows: The more entroped the signifier is, the more redundant it becomes & the less information it carries. Entropement is thus the generation of enclosed informational objects which are “dissipative” & of discursive systems which are parasitic in their logic. Entropement is a particular discursive phenomenon which fuses infrastructural & material systems with informational apparatuses in a way which in their effects on society may, in the words of Armand, “be said to be constitutive of a general ecology of mind”. The dissipation of the originally largely coherent concept of Covid-19 (a coherence largely predicated on necessity) thus becomes dissipated through the parasitic mechanisms of the contemporary media apparatus. This makes the original signifier overdetermined (meaning it is vested with more causes than there are effects) & Armand writes that “such an overdetermination of structural logic” is the very mode of “entropement.

Entropement is thus a phenomenon which spins the original event of the Covid-19 pandemic along various party lines, all of them predicated on an underlying infrastructural platform of contemporary distributed & hybrid media. Entropement as a concept works through the ideological values of the discourse while taking into account the underlying material networks & infrastructure which make such a discourse possible & which situate it firmly within the wider study of entropology.

Conclusion

The essay aimed to show the genealogy of entropology with the backdrop of the current Covid-19 pandemic as a case study. The analysis moved through some of the central milestones of information theory in order to show the non-transparency of the term “entropy” & its resulting abduction for philosophical speculation – the science of entropology. The treatment of the pandemic within the western media apparatus served as a case study for framing the Armandian concept of entropement as a fundamental component of entropology & has been utilized to show the implication it carries for thinking the media both as an infrastructural space as much as an ideological arena whose logic oscillates between the crystallization & subsequent dissipation of meaning.

CELIA SPHINXTER

*Published in ALIENIST 9: THIRD WAVE


[1] Louis Armand, “Entropology,” Alienist 7 (2020): 56-77 & above. See also Louis Armand, Incendiary Devices: Discourses of the Other (Prague: Karolinum, 2001 [1993]).

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