Attribution and Causality

In a previous post, I wrote about Brian Massumi’s idea of preemptive logic, which he also describes as a kind of affective (rather than rational or deliberative) logic. Preemptive logic, according to Massumi, is not like normative logic in that the rule of noncontradiction doesn’t apply. In Massumi’s words,

Because it operates on an affective register and inhabits a nonlinear time operating recursively between the present and the future, preemptive logic is not subject to the same rules of noncontradiction as normative logic, which privileges a linear causality from the past to the present and is reluctant to attribute an effective reality to futurity.

Now I want to take a closer look at this statement about linear causality. This kind logic arises from a particular semantics of time; it’s based on the idea of a “flow of time” that can be divided up, at least for practical purposes, into past, present, and future. But what if, following Luhmann, we describe the modern observation of time as the distinction between past and future, and leave the present out of it? This would be a move from analog to digital--just two, mutually exclusive possibilites. The present in this case is the blind spot that makes the observation of past and future possible. This means that nothing can actually be done in the present, at least not a present as distinguished from the past and the future. Whatever happens happens simultaneously.

The present is not a time interval; it is the observation position that cannot itself be observed, at least not a first-order level. This changes how we think of causality.

According to Luhmann,

Every attempt to specify causalities engenders ever greater difficulties. What will happen never depends on a single event. It is always a concatenation of circumstances, so that uncertainty multiplies in proportion to the rigour of the analysis. (Risk: A Sociological Theory, 41)

Elsewhere Luhmann wrote,

The time span between past and future in which change become irreversible is experienced as the present. The present lasts as long as it takes for something to become irreversible. (Social Systems, 78)

As I wrote in another post, causality is all about attribution. An observer attributes an effect to a preceding event or cause. But attribution of causality isn’t simply retrospective, looking into the past for causes. Attribution can be retrospective or anticipatory. In the first case, we look at something that has occurred and attribute a preceding cause to it: We say that A has caused B. We say, for instance, that regular exercise and a good diet have caused improved health. But in the case of anticipatory causality we look forward and expect A to cause B, and this expectation can be fulfilled or disappointed. I might buy a new car because I anticipate that the purchase will make me happier. So I can say this anticipation caused me to buy the car. This is one possible attribution among many. Or I can exercise because I anticipate that exercise will be help me feel better.

When Massumi describes “a nonlinear time operating recursively between the present and the future,” he seems to be talking about anticipatory causality. In his example, the United States military invades Iraq because the government anticipates that Saddam Hussein will at some point use weapons of mass destruction. We cannot be proved wrong because we can always say, He could have or would have used WMD.

I can also say that buying that new car could have or would have made me happy under different circumstances, so my decision was right.

But, even if this logic is recursive, I see no need to speak of “nonlinear time.” It makes more sense to speak of twin horizons–the horizon of the past and the horizon of the future. Cybernetic systems operate recursively by forming expectations, testing those expectations (they are fulfilled or disappointed), and modifying expectations. These expectations constitute the structures of the system.


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