Noise; Mutation; Autonomy: A Mark on Crusoe’s Island

This mini-paper was given at the Escapologies symposium, at Goldsmiths University, on the 5th of December

Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe centres on the shipwreck and isolation of its protagonist. The life Crusoe knew beyond this shore was fashioned by Ships sent to conquer New Worlds and political wills built on slavery and imperial demands. In writing about his experiences, Crusoe orders his journal, not by the passing of time, but by the objects produced in his labour. A microcosm of the market hierarchies his seclusion removes him from: a tame herd of goats, a musket and gunpowder, sheafs of wheat he fashions into bread, and a shelter carved from rock with all the trappings of a King’s castle. Crusoe structures the tedium of the island by gathering and designing these items that exist solely for their use-value:

“In a Word, The Nature and Experience of Things dictated to me upon just Reflection, That all the good Things of this World, are no farther good to us, than they are for our Use…” [1]

Although Crusoe’s Kingdom mirrors the imperial British order, its mirroring is more structural than anything else. The objects and social contrivances Crusoe creates have no outside with which to be exchanged. Without an ‘other’ to share your labour there can be no mutual assurance, no exchanges leading to financial agreements, no business partners, no friendships. But most importantly to the mirroring of any Kingdom, without an ‘other’ there can be no disagreements, no coveting of a neighbours ox, no domination, no war: in short, an Empire without an outside might be complete, total, final, but an Empire without an outside has also reached a state of complete inertia.

Crusoe’s Empire of one subject, is what I understand as “a closed system”…

The 2nd law of thermo dynamics maintains that without an external source of energy, all closed systems will tend towards a condition of inactivity. Eventually, the bacteria in the petri dish will multiply, eating up all the nutrients until a final state of equilibrium is reached, at which point the system will collapse in on itself: entropy cannot be avoided indefinitely. The term ‘negative entropy’ is often applied to living organisms because they seem to be able to ‘beat’ the process of entropy, but this is as much an illusion as the illusion of Crusoe’s Kingdom: negative entropy occurs at small scales, over small periods of time. Entropy is highly probable: the order of living beings is not.

Umberto Eco:

“Consider, for example, the chaotic effect… of a strong wind on the innumerable grains of sand that compose a beach: amid this confusion, the action of a human foot on the surface of the beach constitutes a complex interaction of events that leads to the statistically very improbable configuration of a footprint.” [2]

The footprint in Eco’s example is a negative entropy event: the system of shifting sands is lent a temporary order by the cohesive action of the human foot. In physical terms, the footprint stands as a memory of the foot’s impression. The 2nd law of thermodynamics establishes a relationship between entropy and information: memory remains as long as its mark. Given time, the noisy wind and chaotic waves will cause even the strongest footprint to fade. A footprint is a highly improbable event.

Before you read on, watch this scene from Luis Buñuel’s Robinson Crusoe (1954):

The footprint, when it first appears on the island, terrifies Crusoe as a mark of the outsider, but soon, realising what this outsider might mean for the totality of his Kingdom, Robinson begins the process of pulling the mark inside his conceptions:

“Sometimes I fancied it must be the Devil; and reason joined in with me upon this supposition. For how should any other thing in human shape come into the place? Where was the vessel that brought them? What marks were there of any other footsteps? And how was it possible a man should come there?” [3]

In the novel, it is only on the third day that Crusoe re-visits the site to compare his own foot with the print. The footprint is still there on the beach after all this time, a footprint Crusoe now admits is definitely not his own.

This chain of events affords us several allegorical tools: firstly, that of the Devil, Crusoe believes to be the only rational explanation for the print. This land, which has been Crusoe’s own for almost 2 decades, is solid, unchanging and eternal. Nothing comes in nor goes beyond its shores, yet its abundance of riches have served Crusoe perfectly well: seemingly infinite riches for a Kingdom’s only inhabitant. Even the footprint, left for several days, remains upon Crusoe’s return. Like the novel of which it is a part, the reader of the mark may revisit the site of this unlikely incident again and again, each time drawing more meanings from its appearance. Before Crusoe entertains that the footprint might be that of “savages of the mainland” he eagerly believes it to be Satan’s, placed there deliberately to fool him. Crusoe revisits the footprint, in person and then, as it fades, in his own memory. He ‘reads’ the island, attributing meanings to marks he discovers that go far beyond what is apparent. As Susan Stewart has noted:

“In allegory the vision of the reader is larger than the vision of the text; the reader dreams to an excess, to an overabundance.” [4]

Simon O’Sullivan, following from Deleuze, takes this further, arguing that in his isolation, a world free from ‘others’, Crusoe has merged with, become the island. The footprint is a mark that must be recuperated if Crusoe’s identity, his “power of will”, is to be maintained. An outsider must have caused the footprint, but Crusoe is only capable of reading in the mark something about himself. The evocation of a Demon, then, is Crusoe’s way of re-totalising his Empire, of removing the ‘other’ from his self-subjective identification with the island.

So, how does this relate to thermodynamics? To answer that I will need to tell the tale of a second Demon, more playful even than Crusoe’s.

In his 1871 essay, Theory of Heat, James Clerk Maxwell designed a thought experiment to test the 2nd law of Thermodynamics. Maxwell imagines a microscopic being able to sort atoms bouncing around a closed system into two categories: fast and slow. If such a creature did exist, it was argued, no work would be required to decrease the entropy of a closed system. By sorting unlikely footprints from the chaotic arrangement of sand particles Maxwell’s Demon, as it would later become known, appeared to contradict the law Maxwell himself had helped to develop. One method of solving the apparent paradox was devised by Charles H. Bennet, who recognised that the Demon would have to remember where he placed the fast and slow particles. Here, once again, the balance between the order and disorder of a system comes down to the balance between memory and information. As the demon decreases the entropy of its environment, so it must increase the entropy of its memory. The information required by the Demon acts like a noise in the system. The laws of physics had stood up under scrutiny, resulting in a new branch of science we now know as ‘Information Theory’.

Maxwell’s Demon comes from an old view of the universe, “fashioned by divine intervention, created for man and responsive to his will” [5]. Information Theory represents a threshold, a revelation that the “inhuman force of increasing entropy, [is] indifferent to man and uncontrollable by human will.” [6] Maxwell’s Demon shows that the law of entropy has only a statistical certainty, that nature orders only on small scales and, that despite any will to control, inertia will eventually be reached.

Developed at the peak of the British Empire, thermodynamics was sometimes called “the science of imperialism”, as Katherine Hayles has noted:

“…to thermodynamicists, entropy represented the tendency of the universe to run down, despite the best efforts of British rectitude to prevent it from doing so… The rhetoric of imperialism confronts the inevitability of failure. In this context, entropy represents an apparently inescapable limit on the human will to control.” [7]

Like Maxwell, Crusoe posits a Demon, with faculties similar in kind to his own, to help him quash his “terror of mind”. Crusoe’s fear is not really about outsiders coming in, the terror he feels comes from the realisation that the outsiders may have been here all along, that in all the 20 years of his isolation those “savages of the mainland” may have visited his island time and again. It is not an outside ‘other’ that disturbs and reorganises Crusoe’s Kingdom. A more perverse logic is at work here, and once again Crusoe will have to restructure his imperial order from the inside out.

Before you read on, watch this second scene from Luis Buñuel’s Robinson Crusoe (1954):

Jacques Rancière prepares for us a parable. A student who is illiterate, after living a fulfilled life without text, one day decides to teach herself to read. Luckily she knows a single poem by heart and procures a copy of that poem, presumably from a trusted source, by which to work. By comparing her memory of the poem, sign by sign, word by word, with the text of the poem she can, Rancière believes, finally piece together a foundational understanding of her written language:

“From this ignoramus, spelling out signs, to the scientist who constructs hypotheses, the same intelligence is always at work – an intelligence that translates signs into other signs and proceeds by comparisons and illustrations in order to communicate its intellectual adventures and understand what another intelligence is endeavouring to communicate to it…

This poetic labour of translation is at the heart of all learning.” [8]

What interests me in Rancière’s example is not so much the act of translation as the possibility of mis-translation. Taken in light of The Ignorant Schoolmaster we can assume that Rancière is aware of the wide gap that exists between knowing something and knowing enough about something for it to be valuable. How does one calculate the value of what is a mistake? The ignoramus has an autonomy, but it is effectively blind to the quality and make-up of the information she parses. If she makes a mistake in her translation of the poem, this mistake can be one of two things: it can be a blind error, or, it can be a mutation.

In information theory, the two ways to understand change within a closed system are understood to be the product of ‘noise’. The amount of change contributed by noise is called ‘equivocation’. If noise contributes to the reorganisation of a system in a beneficial way, for instance if a genetic mutation in an organism results in the emergence of an adaptive trait, then the equivocation is said to be ‘autonomy-producing’.

Too much noise is equivalent to too much information, a ‘destructive’ equivocation, leading to chaos. This balance is how evolution functions. An ‘autonomy-producing’ mutation will be blindly passed on to an organism’s offspring, catalysing the self-organisation of the larger system (in this case, the species). All complex, what are called ‘autopoietic’ systems, inhabit this fine divide between noise and inertia. Given just the right balance of noise recuperated by the system, and noise filtered out by the system, a state of productive change can be maintained, and a state of inertia can be avoided, at least, for a limited time.

According to Umberto Eco, in ‘The Open Work’:

“To be sure, this word information in communication theory relates not so much to what you do say, as to what you could say… In the end… there is no real difference between noise and signal, except in intent.” [9]

This rigid delineator of intent is the driving force of our contemporary, communication paradigm. Information networks underpin our economic, political and social interactions: the failure to communicate is to be avoided at all costs. All noise is therefore seen as a problem. These processes, according to W. Daniel Hillis, define, “the essence of digital technology, which restores signal to near perfection at every stage.” [10] To go back to Umberto Eco then, we appear to be living in a world of “do say” rather than “could say”.

Maintenance of the network and the routines of error management are our primary economic and political concern: control the networks and the immaterial products will manage themselves.

The modern network paradigm acts like a Maxwell Demon, categorising information as either pure signal or pure noise. As Mark Nunes has noted, following the work of Deleuze and Guattari:

“This forced binary imposes a kind of violence, one that demands a rationalisation of all singularities of expressions within a totalising system… The violence of information is, then, the violence of silencing or making to speak that which cannot communicate.” [11]

To understand the violence of this binary logic, we need go no further than Robinson Crusoe. Friday’s questions are plain spoken, but do not adhere to the do say logic of Crusoe’s conception. In the novel, Crusoe’s approach to Friday becomes increasingly one sided, until Friday utters little more than ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers, “reducing his language to a pure function of immediate context and perpetuating a much larger imperialist tradition of levelling the vox populi.”[12] Any chance in what Friday “could say” has been violently obliterated.

The logic of Ranciere’s Ignoramous, and of Crusoe’s levelling of Friday’s speech, are logics of imperialism: reducing the possibility of noise and information to an either/or, inside/outside, relationship. Mark Nunes again:

“This balance between total flow and total control parallels Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of a regime of signs in which anything that resists systematic incorporation is cast out as an asignifying scapegoat “condemned as that which exceeds the signifying regime’s power of deterritorialisation.” [13]

In the system of communication these “asignifying” events are not errors, in the common sense of the word. Mutation names a randomness that redraws the territory of complex systems. The footprint is the mark that reorganised the Empire.

In Ranciere’s parable, rather than note her intent to decode the poem, we should hail the moment when the Ignoramus fails, as her autonomous moment. In a world where actants “translate signs into other signs and proceed by comparison and illustration” [14] the figures of information and communication are made distinct not by the caprice of those who control the networks, nor the desires of those who send and receive the messages, but by mutation itself.

Michel Foucault, remarking on the work of Georges Canguilhem, drew the conclusion that the very possibility of mutation, rather than existing in opposition to our will, was what human autonomy was predicated upon:

“In this sense, life – and this is its radical feature – is that which is capable of error… Further, it must be questioned in regard to that singular but hereditary error which explains the fact that, with man, life has led to a living being that is never completely in the right place, that is destined to ‘err’ and to be ‘wrong’.” [15]

In his writings on the history of Heredity, The Logic of Life, Francois Jacob lingers on another Demon in the details, fashioned by Rene Descartes in his infamous meditation on human knowledge. François Jacob positions Descartes’ meditation in a period of explosive critical thought focussed on the very ontology of ‘nature’:

“For with the arrival of the 17th Century, the very nature of knowledge was transformed. Until then, knowledge had been grafted on God, the soul and the cosmos… What counted [now] was not so much the code used by God for creating nature as that sought by man for understanding it.” [16]

The infinite power of God’s will was no longer able to bend nature to any whim. If man were to decipher nature, to reveal its order, Descartes surmised, it was with the assurance that “the grid will not change in the course of the operation”[17]. For Descartes, the evil Demon, is a metaphor for deception espoused on the understanding that underlying that deception, nature had a certainty. God may well have given the world its original impetus, have designed its original make-up, but that make-up could not be changed.

The network economy has today become the grid of operations onto which we map the world. Its binary restrictions predicate a logic of minimal error and maximum performance: a regime of control that drives our economic, political and social interdependencies. Trapped within his imperial logic, Robinson Crusoe’s levelling of inside and outside, his ruthless tidying of Friday’s noisy speech into a binary dialectic, disguises a higher order of reorganisation. As readers navigating the narrative we are keen to recognise the social changes Defoe’s novel embodies in its short-sighted central character. Perhaps, though, the most productive way to read this fiction, is to allegorise it as an outside perspective on our own time?

Gathering together the fruits of research, I am often struck by the serendipitous quality of so many discoveries. In writing this mini-paper I have found it useful to engage with these marks, that become like demonic footprints, mutations in my thinking. Comparing each side by side, I hope to find, in the words of Michel Foucault:

“…a way from the visible mark to that which is being said by it and which, without that mark, would lie like unspoken speech, dormant within things.” [18]

References & Bibliography

[1] Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, Penguin classics (London: Penguin Books, 2001).

[2] Umberto Eco, The open work (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, n.d.).

[3] Defoe, Robinson Crusoe.

[4] Susan Stewart, On longing: narratives of the miniature, the gigantic, the souvenir, the collection (Duke University Press, 1993).

[5] N. Katherine Hayles, “Maxwell’s Demon and Shannon’s Choice,” in Chaos bound: orderly disorder in contemporary literature and science (Cornell University Press, 1990).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jacques Rancière, The emancipated spectator (London: Verso, 2009).

[9] Umberto Eco, The open work (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, n.d.). (My emphasis)

[10] W Hillis, The pattern on the stone?: the simple ideas that make computers work, 1st ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

[11] Mark Nunes, Error: glitch, noise, and jam in new media cultures (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010).

[12] Susan Stewart, On longing: narratives of the miniature, the gigantic, the souvenir, the collection (Duke University Press, 1993).

[13] Mark Nunes, Error: glitch, noise, and jam in new media cultures (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010).

[14] Rancière, The emancipated spectator.

[15] Michel Foucault, “Life: Experience and Science,” in Aesthetics, method, and epistemology (The New Press, 1999).

[16] François Jacob, The logic of life: a history of heredity?; the possible and the actual (Penguin, 1989).

[17] Ibid.

[18] Michel Foucault, The order of things?: an archaeology of the human sciences., 2003.



  • http://twitter.com/tomcolls Tom Colls

    Beautifully written essay. 

    Perhaps it’s the point not to, but what I don’t understand is the connection between the metaphor of physical error / mutation and the actual case with language. 

    I mean, if you just can’t understand me – because there’s a loud buzzing noise or something – it’s not necessarily that interesting. Perhaps you’ll hear something else interesting, perhaps not, but then that would also be understood. You cut up the bible and throw the pieces on the floor – it is only because you understand language and have a creative imagination that this could be a fun pursuit. 

    The perfection of digital media doesn’t prevent you from producing ambiguous things – art, poems, so forth. Ambiguity in language and art is a totally different kind of thing to ambiguity in biology or physics (if that is even a concept).

    What I mean is, we don’t need physical error to change, because we have an imagination and we can learn and teach. Why does it matter if the information is do say? The person understanding it isn’t. 

    Am I missing the point? 

  • http://twitter.com/therourke Daniel Rourke

    Thanks for reading Tom..

    I’m not promoting noise as a way to communicate. The problem is political, I believe, and it’s ontological, as in, completely embedded in the very ‘being’ of how we communicate.

    Mutation is the very ‘being’ of biology, but the ‘being’ of information theory, of digital networks and communication technology is implemented by a  pretty rigid architecture that fights against noise at all levels of execution. That is, the material world has entropic tendencies and so in order to function, in order to not descend into chaos pretty quickly, computer data constantly un-errors itself. (That last sentence reads like I am applying a kind of intentionality, or autonomy to computers, to binary functions. This of course is another problem I hope my essay deals in, i.e. how hard it is to talk about pretty much anything without invoking an intentional stance) .

    As I say, without this rigid implementation computers would not be possible, so, we can’t very well get rid of it and allow noise to propagate in the hope that some kind of digital equivalent of evolution would occur. But, that doesn’t take away from the fact that this rigid architecture now acts as the foundation for our society, our culture, everything we do say and could say. It therefore warrants ontological attack! That’s my position anyway.

    Where this leads me, I’m not sure yet. Some kind of paradigmatic map that can be followed. The problem is taking things as they are given, formalised systems that then formalise thinking, and doing. But the approach I am taking to analyse this stuff, philosophically, may become a formalism in itself. I’ve got to avoid that. 

    I wrote a long introduction to this rigid implementation / flexible materiality paradigm. If I can jazz it up a bit I might post it here.

  • http://twitter.com/ThoughtKnot ThoughtKnots

    Tom again, sorry. Thanks for the explanation, but I’m still not clear. 

    You seem to talk about the message and the medium interchangeably, but surely all worries about vagueness come on the language side of things. 

    Ahh I see, it’s about that. Like how the book created something static? But then couldn’t it just be that the internet put things back to being flexible again? like with talking?

    Perhaps I’m trying to say that I think the important fluidity is at the level of perception, not the level of code. That what is important is whether we can play with the message, or whether it is fixed.