Jonathan Sheehan and Dror Wahrman’s Invisible Hands: Self-Organization and the Eighteenth Century presents a fascinating exploration of the proliferating logics of self-organization across various Enlightenment discourses, ranging from metaphysics and political economy to botany, mathematics, and epistemology. The book reinterprets a wide array of well-known figures and recovers a set of forgotten minor characters who, in different ways, attempt “to rediscover a meaningful world beyond the random motions of an Epicurus or Lucretius, beyond the older pieties of Christianity, and beyond the cold world of Descartes.” The complex language of self-organization that permeated the emerging sciences offered a malleable vehicle that was able to grapple with problems of accident and causality, the mysteries of aggregation, the nature of organic life, and the complexity of modern existence.
The authors articulate the spread of these languages of self-organization as a discontinuity, which indexes something peculiarly modern, inaugurating “a revolution in notions of chance and order, accidents and causality, agency and aggregation.” In tracing the radical inventiveness of Enlightenment’s thought of immanent self-organization, they show that it was less a question of novel solutions (although those arose too), than of a crystallization of a new problematic. This force of newness is powerfully felt in their description of, for example, aggregate thinking in mathematics and economics at the end of the seventeenth century, about which, they write, “probabilistic reasoning was … designed to teach us to live under the shadow of enduring risk, to live in a world of such aggregated complexity that the common sense offered by experience trembles and fails.” On the other hand, the entire language of self-organization that the book meticulously reconstructs carries within it an intransigent relation to providence, a fact that the authors never shy away from highlighting. Providence initially gave “a shape and language for thinking about and describing nature’s dynamic processes. Providence was also, in turn, a shelter under which the ideas of self-organization could grow.” If, in theology, however, providence produced humility and faith, it yielded different effects within Enlightenment narratives of self-organization, which used it as a site for endless theoretical and scientific inventiveness.
Reading Invisible Hands, one oscillates: Is this then a certain kind of reoccupation, in which the questions of theology are displaced, and their site is rearticulated anew, no longer tied to the transcendence of God, but to the immanent self-organizations of systems? Or should these discourses of self-organization be thought of as partaking in a certain secularization, in which the theological problematic ultimately can be said to persist, whatever new forms and discourses take up its labors? After all, as Sheehan and Wahrman show, the question of providence persists in such a way that it would be difficult to say that the incredible proliferation of narratives of self-organization ever actually broke with it. It seems more plausible to say that immanent self-organization was anxiously attempting to solve the problem that was earlier solved by theologies of salvation, whose power has declined due to a set of material (e.g. the economic crisis of 1720) and theoretical (e.g. mechanistic philosophy) transformations within the modern world. Indeed, it seems the precise work that these discourses were meant to accomplish is to credibly suture the gap that opened up when the theological answers no longer held the same sway, a suturing accomplished through the ceaseless production of narratives and knowledges that attempted to reconstruct, on novel theoretical grounds, the plausibility of order and meaning.
What do we make of this desire to narrate all fields of reality in a way that would assure a form of secular providence and the persistence of order? Is this not theology’s most powerful, if at times disavowed, legacy to the thought of immanent self-organization? That new fields of knowledge, methodological innovation, and theoretical creativity proliferated is abundantly documented by the book’s exhaustive research, but the fields’ fundamental investment in self-organization reveals a certain faith in the providence of history and of the world. Indeed, this inventiveness generates endless discourses of providence, building our confidence in a secular theodicy in the aftermath of the breakdown of the theological and salvific assurance and the security offered by God. They entail an attempt to reconstruct order and meaning, through a faith that needs the endless inventiveness of knowledge in order to justify an order without appeal to theological transcendence. The earlier example of statistical reason offers precisely such a desire of reconstructing the possibility order in the midst of chaos: “Statistical reason conjures hidden order out of messy experience and gives what cannot be sensed in the ordinary course of things a determinate form.” What we have is an insistence that, despite all complexity and chaos, a coherence can (and must) be attained. This faith produces new artifices of knowledge to legitimate the modern world, to assure that the world will and does work, regardless of those elements that might make it untenable. So even if one agrees that, unlike earlier forms of Christian providence that generated faith, these new systems of self-organization were centered on the production of knowledge, one can still insist that the feverish proliferation of that knowledge contains a desperate attempt at justifying a new faith in the world. Tellingly, the authors often refer to self-organizational discourses as narratives (“self-organizing narratives”): They are narratives that stave off breakdown in order to allow the world to make sense, rendering the crisis (economic, metaphysical, moral etc.) a narrativizable point, a turning point in the narrative, in a broader narrative of self-organization, rather than an indication of the breakdown of the narrative as such. But these narratives persist as narratives of faith, a faith in the narrative itself, legitimated by endless production of knowledge.
One such crisis moment arises in the book in the discussion, at the end of chapter 5, of Erasmus Darwin’s elaboration of the dangers of vertigo as “a constant threat from the world” that marks the breakdown of self-organization. One could say that if the coherence of the world itself depends, in some sense, on self-organizational narratives, then vertigo does not come from the world, but marks a crisis that self-organization attempts to re-narrate in its own terms. This vertigo, the excess, and non-sense that it reveals, and, significantly, its indistinction from reverie, sheds additional critical light on the work done by narratives of self-organization. They are revealed as attempts to make the world, in which salvation is no longer offered theologically, function by suppressing (or narrativizing) non-sense and radical breaks into an immanently meaningful totality. Enlightenment’s narratives of self-organization tell us: don’t look at the vertigos and reveries, but narrate and, then, the self and world will work.
There is another question that must be asked. What is the role of colonialism and slavery, both historically and theoretically, for these emergent discourses of self-organization? Slavery and colonialism are, surprisingly, almost entirely absent from Invisible Hands, and so the book leaves unanswered how the material underside of Enlightenment transforms (or necessarily deforms) the rhetoric and narratives of self-organization that the Enlightenment produces about itself and its world. If, for example, as Sheehan and Wahrman convincingly show, the proliferation of consumer good and choices was one of the areas in which self-organizing discourses came into their own—then how would confronting the dependence of those very novel material realities on colonialism and slavery fundamentally transform the form and viability of the narratives and logics of self-organization? There many more invisible hands across the Enlightenment than the book suggests: for the invisible hands of self-organizing narratives to function they had to render invisible the countless, very real, toiling, and coerced hands across the globe. One could ask whether the problem is that self-organizing narratives have a disavowed underside that allows them to work as self-organizing. A near silence on such exclusions might not be accidental, but precisely the cost of making self-organization a palatable discourse, one that can be read as modernity’s partially epic, partially tragic, attempt to grapple with reality in the aftermath of a theological world that has come undone.
In the book, the expanse of self-organization grows, from the microanalysis of life sciences towards the level of the nation and ultimately to international political economics—but even at this level of scope, the question of the colony and the slave remain outside of the frame of self-organization. As the book’s discussion of Adam Ferguson shows, when self-organizational discourse touches social questions, it remains centered on the society of free men, and the dilemmas of private vices and public goods—problems of liberal political economy and social theory—but cannot address the constitutive foreclosures of civil society—who is counted as human and who is not (282-3, and, more generally, ch. 7). Self-organization functions in the realm of analogy, between the micro and the macro, between individual agency and social collectivity, but it does not query the limits of analogy—those forms of life and death fundamentally occluded by such a perspective. The theoretical question that follows would be how does a field on which self-organization is taken as operative get constituted? Who counts and what elements are seen as deserving of narrativization (which is also a kind of salvation) and open to the flexibility of self-organization? We might say that the logic of immanent self-organization is never quite as all-inclusive or universal as it pretends, but is constituted (historically and theoretically) on the violent exclusion (if not outright annihilation) of a set of elements from the plane of immanence on which the magic and heroism of self-organization is allowed to take place. Even at the moment when the book engages with the American context, namely by showing how the political writings of James Madison rely on self-organization, the question of slavery remains excluded. Again, such an exclusion might not be an accident, but resulting from the fact that if the future-oriented discourse of providential self-organization is forced to confront the reality of slavery in its midst (by, say, trying to incorporate it within itself), it might reveal itself to be a grotesque farce.
The concluding overture to Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a critic of self-organization brings up the question whether the nineteenth century introduces a new arena, in which, as the coda suggests, there is a heightened awareness of the social consequences of self-organizing systems: “Coleridge’s argument turns out to be a radical one. The invisible hand is dangerous. People must be protected from the pernicious consequences of spontaneous order.” I wonder, though, whether such a critique is as radical as is suggested, since such protection seems ultimately to introduce merely another level of management in order to ensure that self-organizing narratives succeed. If there are not only rules, but maybe also a certain post-factum redress (to control the “consequences”), or some amelioration, then the narrative might, if all goes according to plan, finally work. But is this not the latest, most sophisticated, version of the faith in providence—that it all will, in the end, with a bit more care and reform, work? Such ameliorative critiques still retain faith in the narrative of hope, while failing to grapple with the structural occlusions on which such narratives are constructed. If self-organization systems perpetuate, in a new quasi-secular form, the providential desire, the desire for meaning, that produces a certain kind of hope, we might ask who is allowed to have such hope, and who is counted among those to be saved, however secularly. And how do those systems of immanent self-organization appear not from their own (whether triumphalist or reformed) perspective, but from the perspective of those who never had (and never will have) the capacity to partake in their fantasmatic dreams of secular providential salvation?