Hermeneutics & Feedback

"There are no facts, only interpretations."

—Friedrich Nietzche

To live, one must complete enactments; in a fabled "state of nature" we must forage, build, defend ourselves, run away, and in the world we live in today the number of potential functions one may perform in order to survive is orders of magnitude higher. What we do, rather than what we may or may not "think" of something, is what ultimately determines if and how we can get from point A to point B. It therefore doesn't necessarily matter how truthful one's alleged beliefs are, but whether the actions they result in are helpful to the relevant enactment.

This leaves a bunch of questions: why is this or that the relevant enactment? Is this just a matter of survival, or can it be something else? And where does a belief become action? Is it even necessary for action in any meaningful sense of the term?


While it might not answer every question, one way to begin unpacking this is to focus on something necessary even if not sufficient: whether or not "life" encompasses more than physical survival, the latter is a prerequisite for the former. And in order to survive, there are certain things that must remain kept in some range, and one such thing is one's body temperature. The body and mind alike must therefore work to regulate this dynamic. Mammmals, being warm blooded, have bodies that by and large do this for them, but the effort to regulate doesn't stop there; should we feel too hot or too cold, we may put on or take off layers of clothing or go outside or stay inside. We may in fact even create new inventions such as fans or air conditioners just to meet this goal of regulation. This of course oversimplifies it, the air conditioner didn't just come from someone saying "I'm so hot I need to fix this", but the idea remains that in the quest to maintain homeostasis, any and all actions that could help are on the table.

The paradigm of cybernetics describes this phenomenon as feedback: an entity will, when pushed outside of some desired state, take corrective action to return to that state. This is specifically negative feedback, since it involves doing things that diminish the perturbation. A thermostat may, for example, give turn on the heat when it gets too cold and turn it off once it gets hot enough, or maybe even turn on the air conditioner if it gets too hot. Similar behaviors can also sometimes (but by no means always) be seen in markets: a rise in the demand or a drop in the supply of widgets may result in a rising price, which in turn may result in more people making more widgets because the increased price is an opportunity for profit, which may result in the supply going back up and the price subsequently going back down.

Of course it's not just body temperature but a whole host of other processes that must remain stable for life to go on. In many ways, one can think of running away from a predator as a type of feedback: in order to maintain the equilibrium of not being mauled to death, one must take the corrective action of escaping of neutralizing physical threats. Of course, different threats may require different actions: sometimes it's so cold that your body alone can't keep you warm and so you need, if nothing else, gloves to prevent your fingers from getting frostbite. Similarly, escaping or defeating someone who has a gun might require different skills and tactics than defending yourself against a hungry tiger. One therefore requires, in order to survive, a sufficient variety of responses to address a variety of situations, a principle known as Asbhy's Law of Requisite Variety.

And that in turn means that in order to preserve constancy, increasing variety is needed insofar as one must adapt to new potential threats to stability, and this creates a potential paradox unless one is able to define specific things that must remain constant as opposed to other things that should vary. The preservation of equilibrium must therefore be seen as something that, outside of simple narrow systems such as thermostats, transpires in a local rather than a global sense.

But local to what? Another simple system may give a hint: the concept of negative feedback easily applies to the idea of guiding a missile to its target; as it veers further off course, some corrective mechanisms steers it back to where it's supposed to be. But the goal is not to keep the missile alive indefinitely, it's just to make it detonate in the right place. So in this case, the negative feedback is local with regards to the action of firing a missile at a target.

So long as a system, such as a thermostat, continues to fulfill its function, its identity in any other sense of the word is irrelevant. Similarly, more complex systems such as organisms perform actions in order to adapt to novel stressors and utilize negative feedback in order to make such actions possible; even something as simple as hunting requires neurological feedback to accurately aim a spear and the negative feedback of sweating to continually cool one's self off when chasing prey (a number of biological features, including the ability to sweat, give humans a gigantic advantage in endurance over many other animals, which allows hunting to be a process of wearing prey out before closing in.) Negative feedback therefore matters for organisms insofar as it enables the actions that allow it to survive.

But at the same time, any reasonable definition of being alive is more or less the extent to which something is able to do things: a corpse, no matter how well preserved, is simply not alive. Therefore, in order to stay alive, an organism utilizes negative feedback not to maintain any kind of arbitrary fixed identity, but to maintain no more and no less than its own capacity for action; furthermore, it follows that this capacity for action isn't merely just something that helps it survive, but is the definition of any kind of "survival".

And since the organism can and will continually change in any number of ways so long as this fundamental dynamism is preserved, an organism is not a fixed thing but itself a process; this in turn means that even an individual body may be willingly expended, since the dynamics of the process can continue on even if it's happening through a different substrate; that could mean a male angler fish willing to get killed and absorbed into its female counterpart or a parent giving their life to save their child; or for that matter, a person being willing to die for their home or even for an idea.

I'm not saying that you get to literally live on as a subject through some copy: only that you may one day for whatever reason decide in your bones that there's something more important than your own physical self-preservation and that rather than being "irrational", this is simply the rationality of the process that defines you. In any event, stability in itself cannot be seen as a basis for desire, but only as a supplement that gives cogency to the manifold actions that constitute the proliferation that characterizes life.

In the local contexts where negative feedback reigns, the concept of interpretation is then relatively straightforward: a perturbation is corrected in order to maintain coherence. There is no reason in this case to assume that there's any kind of "idea" in the loop beyond the action: a thermostat readjusts the temperature because there is a mechanism activated when the mercury in the thermometer drops either too high or too low, the price of a commodity (usually) stays very close to the cost to produce it because if the price is high enough the opportunity exists for somebody to sell at a lower price and make a profit and somebody somewhere will take that opportunity regardless of whether or not the average person is a "rational actor".

In these relatively simple situations, the "meaning" of any event or action is denotable entirely in terms of how much closer to or farther from the correct course it brings the trajectory in question. Beyond that, however, the question remains about the meaning of the action being regulated. It's possible, of course, that this action too is some kind of negative feedback with regards to something else, but this cannot always be assumed. For something to be an act of negative feedback, one must identify some variable which is smoothly and reliably steered into some acceptable range, something that does not in any way define the ultimate dynamism of life; even if one were to naively formulate this as maximizing one's range of possible responses (whatever that would mean), this would still be positive feedback: a response that amplifies some perturbation.

For one to define feedback as either negative or positive, one must identify some kind of numeraire—a total ordering by which to arrange things—such that one is even able to talk about whether something is getting closer to or further from a particular target. That being said, it would be reductive to assume that feedback must have one of these qualities: in everyday life, there are all kinds of things we do in order to see what happens where the information we get doesn't necessarily tell us whether or not we're getting warmer or colder, but it does in some way change the enactment, perhaps because we have a new idea or because we have to make some change in order to keep going; the latter of which might sound a lot like negative feedback but is not quite since a necessary change in action is not the same thing as smoothly adjusting some measurable difference.

It's therefore not a question of correcting or amplifying a measurable perturbation, but of making a fundamentally qualitative change. In these nebulous cases where the map in one's hands is not a simple servomechanism, feedback is that which forces a further elaboration of action.


Unlike trivially quantifiable perturbations, where any such "interpretation" is entirely coextensive with the mechanical process by which they are respectively corrected or further amplified, this other kind of feedback presents a zone of indetermination with respect to one's ways around or through the obstacle or affordance in question, and the choice of how to traverse this altered landscape is one that will not only change the enactment going forward by affecting the course in progress, but also the whole of the enactment by changing the context in which past actions are framed.

This last part may sound like an arbitrary shifting of goalposts, but the fact that it is anything but that is an important clue to why interpretation is fundamentally active. To use an example that makes it clear how past actions can be changed by the future, imagine that I have a bunch of nails lying around but no hammer. Without a hammer, the nails can do very little. Suppose now that I buy a hammer; regardless of my "intent" when buying said hammer, the nails that were lying around now present new affordances, and so the action by which I acquired those nails in the first place now has a relationship to the present that it didn't before.

In other words, the significance of any event is a question of functional relationships: even if one cannot in the normal sense of the term cause anything to happen retroactively, one can still change what a past action entails with regards to an enactment in which it is situated, and therefore events always remain mutable in an intensional sense even if in other ways they maintain an immutable grip on how things subsequently transpire. This relational substrate by which affordances and events acquire significance through such relationships to one another constitutes a text through which an enactment travels.

Feedback is always an enactment mediated through a text, as in order for one to identify or act on something in any meaningful way it must be in some way parseable in terms already known. When feedback amounts to nothing more than a chain of mechanical entailment, its movement through the text is a simple syntactic operation. In the absence of a fully sufficient mechanism, however, feedback is a caesura, an irreducibly material and temporal break in the page, impassible to blind formal permutation, intelligible enough to identify but not to address. Only a visceral act of writing, not a new line of code plugged into a function, but a direct marking of the page, can bridge this chasm and enable the show to go on. This act has many different names and faces: undecidability, abduction, bricolage, singularity, bifurcation, catastrophe, choice, conatus, will, art, faith; none of them truly synonymous, but all of them different acts of interpretation by which one moves through a narrative by materially elaborating a membrane that simultaneously relates and differentiates actors and matters.


A text is in many ways what other philosophers would call a "map", but only if one drops the idea of a map as something abstract, representational, and ontologically disjoint from both user and territory. Any map (or text) in real life is first and foremost a tool: insofar as it gets you to your destination, it doesn't necessarily need to have any kind of congruence or resemblance to what it's ostensibly mapping. Being a tool, it's also something one can choose to pick up, put down, annotate, fold and save for later, annotate, glue to another map, give to someone else, leave in the corner for a stranger, and so on. To suggest, as so many philosophers tiresomely have, that a map could be an insurmountable representation standing between cogito and reality, is to ignore that any such "map" is itself part of the territory and no less materially real than anything else. It therefore is not inherently some kind of attempt to correspond to some external truth but simply a body of affordances that engenders new relationships which themselves constitute an umwelt, a clevage between actor and matter, to the degree that these relationships integrate into some locus of agency.

Being not merely an abstract interface (though under the right conditions it can fulfill this function) but a materially embodied manifold, a text is neither something that directly points at some "actual" reality nor some closed system of formalisms by which one is cut off from any reality beyond the axioms. One's interactions with any material are ultimately mediated through something, but that something is always itself material in nature as well. A text is in fact never inherently formal, formalism only existing in the form of a syntactic kernel of the otherwise material substrate; even when such formalisms exist, the many material affordances of a text that do not fit into some formal system offer a multiplicity of degrees of freedom with respect to the world one lives in. A text is therefore not a closed system of concepts that contains all conceivable possibilities, but a metabolism by which an agent and its environment can co-exist and make contact despite potentially radical qualitative differences.

As such, a text has no interior. No book, document, artwork, institution, network, cortex, or song "contains" content any more than Wittgenstein's box contains a beetle; "the medium is the message." But there is a meaning to getting "inside" the text: to read a book is to bear witness to a story that exists beyond patterns of letters on a page, to know a person, insofar that one can (intimacy requires respecting any true privacy that one cultivates), is to let one's guard down along the enactments and affections that define the roads of their subjectivity. At every step of the way, there's no door to unlock: one gets "inside" by traversing the surface one affordance at a time, simultaneously creating and navigating an invagination of the umwelt, the field of potential interactions between actor and text, composed of folds made from the twists and turns the reader's own path of enactment.

While not containing anything, the text is nonetheless porous, enabling interiors that can be accessed by sufficiently diligent grazing along the surface. Each such interior, coextensive with an active process of its "discovery" through skillful evaluation, with an act of reading, is the actualization of a latent potential between the reader and the text that both reveals and determines the "meaning" of the text, that is to say, nothing more and nothing less than the story being told.

I say skillful because reading is indeed a skill: to be able to see affordances, to tell different stories by modulating the way in which one utilizes them. Judgment, rather than mere opinion or reaction, is the range of possible affections. One therefore tells more nuanced stories, carves finer and more intricate paths by acting on a more developed judgmental faculty. Hermeneutics is bricolage, neither of these defined as one single skill but as a kind of skill, a multiplicity of skills, and possibly the essence of skill in general insofar as one could define it as the actor's grasp of various matters. Nor is it hierarchical: one does not fine tune one's mental negotiation with materials as a way to tell a "better" story, but as a way to have more stories to tell, more tools for navigating the psychic, social and epistemic tempests of life; to become not a better edge crawler but more fully an edge crawler.