Boundaries and agents

by Frances Kafka

(Taking inspiration from What is an agent?”.)

If we were to start with biology, there’s no reason that we might not start with Freud. And such a Freudian biology gives us an apparatus to talk about what it means to be an agent. Being an agent is an achievement, as something that has to be continually fought for. It can never be a done act, and not something an agent can waver on. Each organism has a boundary that separates it from the world, it invests energy into this boundary, so that it can attain this consistency. Even lone cells have cell walls and cell membranes.

There is however, as Derrida put it, an autoimmune” element at play (see Vitale’s Biodeconstruction). The paradox: the boundary cannot be fully rigid, because this blocks off all external impulses, which include food and resources, which would kill the cell, and therefore the boundary has to be at least partly permeable. But it is through this partial permeability that allows toxins, poisons, to enter the organism and kill it. The same mechanism that allows an organism to live off its environment are the same mechanisms which allow the environment to kill it.1

Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle:

But we have more to say of the living vesicle with its receptive cortical layer. This little fragment of living substance is suspended in the middle of an external world charged with the most powerful energies; and it would be killed by the stimulation emanating from these if it were not provided with a protective shield against stimuli. It acquires the shield in this way: its outermost surface ceases to have the structure proper to living matter, becomes to some degree inorganic and thence forward functions as a special envelope or membrane resistant to stimuli. In consequence, the energies of the external world are able to pass into the next underlying layers, which have remained living, with only a fragment of their original in tensity; and these layers can devote themselves, behind the protective shield, to the reception of the amounts of stimulus which have been allowed through it.

There is a primal narcissism where the agent has to make itself the focus of all its energies. The parts of an organism all refer to the whole, as Robert Rosen notes (how can there be a whole without a boundary?) Rosen’s work is in the formalization, in mathematical terms, of living systems as (M,R)-systems: metabolism and repair. This implies that among the products of metabolism are the materials necessary to keep the system maintained due to turn over of its components. What this simple symbolism connotes is truly profound. The system is in a constant turnover. Part of the turnover is the causal basis for the system’s self repair.” (Donald C. Mikulecky)

Freud again:

Towards the outside it is shielded against stimuli, and the amounts of excitation impinging on it have only a reduced effect. Towards the inside there can be no such shield; the excitations in the deeper layers extend into the system directly and in undiminished amount, in so far as certain of their characteristics give rise to feelings in the pleasure-unpleasure series. The excitations coming from within are, however, in their intensity and in other, qualitative, respects—in their amplitude, perhaps more commensurate with the system’s method of working than the stimuli which stream in from the external world.a This state of things produces two definite results. First, the feelings of pleasure and unpleasure (which are an index to what is happening in the interior of the apparatus) predominate over all external stimuli. And secondly, a particular way is adopted of dealing with any internal excitations which produce too great an increase of unpleasure: there is a tendency to treat them as though they were acting, not from the inside, but from the outside, so that it may be possible to bring the shield against stimuli into operation as a means of defence against them. This is the origin of projection, which is destined to play such a large part in the causation of pathological processes.

The agent not only has a membrane on the outside, but also on the inside, so that it can maintain its own self and individuality. Suspended points out that consciousness is a cost for this reason. This is where the entire apparatus of censors comes into place. The Freudian organism has to resort to a set of strategies to reframe the impulses coming from within from without for exactly this.

With boundaries inside and boundaries outside, the agent always finds itself split. It is not aligned with itself any more than it can be aligned with someone, because agency itself implies this fundamental difference which cannot be integrated.

  1. This is the same security paradox we see with computers: the same mechanisms which allow a computer to be connected to or communicate with the Internet, or just another computer are the same mechanisms which allow for its subversion.↩︎