On the Entropement of COVID-19 (an Entropology)

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The manner in which media have been reporting on the current Covid-19 epidemic has been unique, insofar as the new crisis quickly focused the western media-scape on this one single story in a very short span of time. This effect is highly unusual and differs from the standard tempo and manner of reporting and can yield some unique insights. This essay will attempt to situate the Covid-19 pandemic within a general ‘entropology’, showing how the crisis is being spun in the months following the first reports, and will focus on the manner in which the event of the disease has become ‘entroped’ within contemporary information networks – entropement will be shown to consist in the framing of a “dissipative” object-signifier within a network of parasitic relations.

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Matter

The first mention of ‘entropology’ comes from Claude Lévi-Strauss’ best-selling book Tropiques Tristes (1955)where he coins the term as an alternative to anthropology.[1] After years of performing anthropological work in the Amazonian region, Lévi-Strauss becomes disenchanted with the work of the anthropologist who ventures beyond the ramparts of civilization to observe, note, and analyze:

Taken as a whole, therefore, civilization can be described as a prodigiously complicated mechanism: tempting as it would be to regard it as our universe’s best hope of survival. Its true function is to produce what physicists call entropy […] ‘Entropology’, not anthropology, should be the word for the discipline that devotes itself to the study of this process of disintegration in its most highly evolved forms.

Lévi-Strauss considers ‘the human’ within its modernist envelope, as a particular force which has, through processes of technical exosomatization, created instruments for the exploitation of ‘nature’. He considers the relationship of nature to culture, ‘man’ to animal, and other cognate dialectics as transparent. This dialectic split is largely rooted in a structuralist paradigm and applies equally to Lévi-Strauss comment on language and communication which he expands in the same passage. According to Lévi-Strauss, the structure of communication (stratified, but still dichotomous) breeds entropy:

Every scrap of conversation, every line set up in type, establishes a communication between two interlocutors, levelling what had previously existed on two different planes and had had, for that reason, a greater degree of organization.[2]

            Lévi-Strauss‘ understanding of entropy here is limited in its structuralist oppositional logic, which considers entropy as a science which bridges the material with the informational, much like the signifier ‘entropy’ straddles both the thermodynamic and informational registers. This misunderstanding makes ‘entropology’ a science which charts a point of convergence between the material traces of the human animal and its communicational apparatus, drawing a direct relationship between the two. As will be shown, this is a dubious reality form the perspective of the sciences (particularly physics and information theory), but lends itself nicely to linguistic and philosophical analysis.

Signal

Although ‘entropy’ has been notoriously hard to define since its first framing by Carnot in 1824, it has since appeared both in the context of information theory and the physics of thermodynamics – but both speak of different things.[3] Informational ‘entropy’ is a concept first developed by Norbert Wiener and Claude Shannon, most notably in Shannon’s work “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” where he posits it as a relationship between the ‘information’ and ‘redundancy’ tied to the “chance” of an element of communication occurring at a given time and in a given place within the message.[4] In his classical schema of a “general communication system,”[5] (img. 1) Shannon describes a signal as a discrete packet which can be transmitted from source to destination with some intervening noise potentially scrambling the messages’ coherence, decreasing its structuration and increasing its “entropy.”

covid - Claude Shannon’s “General Communicative System”
(img. 1) Claude Shannon’s “General Communicative System”

Where Lévi-Strauss’ understanding of entropy was still largely rooted in the thermodynamic frame and the “disintegration” which the human ultimately perpetrates on the Earth’s chthonic organs and natural structures, communication in Shannon’s take becomes a measure of predictability. This notion that humanity, as a speaking and communicating species, carves out little islands of negentropy can be traced to Shannon’s colleague Norbert Wiener who presented the thesis that human culture is a Maxwell’s Demon whose structuration of the world can resist “nature’s statistical tendency to dis­order, the tendency for entropy to increase.”[6] Wiener thus considered communication and the structuration of the environment as a negentropic force, one which counters the macroscopic tendency of the universe towards equilibrium as maximum entropy. 

Shannon’s and Wiener’s sublimation and appropriation of entropy into a measure of information moves away from a grand scheme of thermodynamic equilibrium and introduces a much more microscopic, nuanced and relational approach, opening the way towards a systems theory of entropy. This transition towards a systems theory of modelling entropy went hand in hand with the new science of cybernetics (a term coined by none other than Wiener) which aimed to bridge the gap between living and artificial systems on the basis of their analogous functions and the study of their systems of relations.[7]

Matter1

This tension between the ordering of matter and of information constitute a basis for the study of entropology, and this short genealogy will follow the work of Michel Serres who considered ‘entropy’ as a ubiquitous component of his materialist and predatory information theory. 

In his work The Parasite, Serres conceived of the “parasitic cascade.” (img. 2) This cascade expands the simple dialectic framework which Lévi-Strauss sets up in his original framing of entroplogy and introduces an expanded frame from Shannon’s model. Serres builds on his previous work on entropy and technology[8] and offers the model of the parasitic cascade as a dynamic process which underwrites the relation between a series of systems and instills noise as a source of displacement driving the processes of Production. His ecological and materialist grasp of ‘entropy’ is fundamental, as it shows systems as always being nested and encroached upon within a wider assemblage of other systems. 

In Serres’ treatment, the parasitic cascade introduces two things to the more technocratic schema of Shannon: 1) it works within a wider ecology of systems and their processes of entropic exchange, and 2) it inaugurates a properly entropological frame in its conjunction of an ecological and informational ontology, expanding on Shannon’s preoccupation with the technical apparatus. 

(img. 2) Michel Serres, The Parasitic Cascade
(img. 2) Michel Serres, The Parasitic Cascade 

For Serres, it is through the noise, the parasite, that information about the real is gleaned – this noise is the force which pushes back against the locus of Production, and ‘entropy’ becomes a modular quality which can increase or decrease based on the disequilibrium among the systems within the cascade.[9] Serres pragmatic materialism thus straddles the boundary between the anthropological understanding of entropy (which is physical, and which Lévi-Strauss originally associated with the human) and the informational understanding as found in Shannon. These two tendencies counter each other or, as Serres writes, “one parasite chases another out.” Serres: 

One parasite (static), in the sense that information theory uses the word, chases another, in the anthropological sense. Communication theory is in charge of the system; it can break it down or let it function, depending on the signal.[10]

Within the parasitic cascade, noise is not something which needs to be purged, as in Shannon’s project of communicational relay, but is rather the very motor of communication and exchange – the message never says merely what it intends to say, but always fundamentally posits a field of actors which further calibrate the parasitic chain. 

Serres’ schema is then a formulation of a materialist informational theory, one in which the parasite (the noise) has agency of its own and is indeed the included third which conducts the exchange of information, integrating this informational logic within the multi-agent system of his materialist ontology.

Signal1: Entropement

The informational platforms filtering contemporary digital-era media channels are not as easily decomposed into their individual elements and actors as Lévi-Strauss‘ afore-mentioned bipartite communication schema would propose – a ‘new dark age’[11] of opaque media ecologies and the creative destruction of post-truth fake news has clouded the relationship between the various discourses and their underlying infrastructural vectors. The moment of the pandemic was indeed novel in a number of particular techno-social aspects – the stack of informational databases, relays and channels of virtually all contemporary media coming together around a single issue served to shed some of the media’s camouflage and generated a news feed predicated on a particular type of timeliness. 

Mainstream Czech media, for example, started seriously tackling the issue once Covid-19 reached Italy, and the illness became a binding point for virtually all media coverage once the disease reached the Czech Republic in March 2020, especially after the government declared a state of  emergency on March 12. In the world media coverage, the effect was similar: the moment of the pandemic when media largely reported stats and figures gradually became integrated within other discourses, being spun in political (US vs. China),[12] economic (liberal values vs. technocratic control),[13] social,[14] or environmental[15] directions. Due to the highly limited information originally available about the virus, the event of the pandemic became, in its early stages, a linchpin for the wider communicational ecology, only to then be appropriated and detailed into myriad sub-discourses, turning into what the WHO has termed an “infodemic,”[16] generating “excessive access to information, sometimes not thoroughly screened.”[17] The pandemic quickly turned into an intersectional issue.

The very quick shift from the sensing of the event of the disease-in-itself into a largely informational and narrative phenomenon can be considered as an example of entropement and will be discussed presently.

Within the context of Serre’s predatory informational theory, one in which informational/material systems are nested in and adjunct to other systems, Louis Armand’s conception of ‘entropement’ becomes much clearer. Entropement carries three major semiotic elements: it is first a neologism which evokes the standard noun of the English ‘entrapment,’ but does so by incorporating the informational and literary concept of the ‘trope’ as a “a common or overused theme or device.”[18] This lack of information which the clichéd trope carries is also the mark of ‘entropy,’ and has direct effect on the western media apparatus and its treatment of the current Covid-19 pandemic.

To better understand the concrete mechanisms of entropement, a quick analysis of a recent Guardian article by Adam Tooze observed in parallax to the much sparser facts is in order. According to the currently official version of the WHO (which is however being contested by not only numerous ‘fringe’ theories,[19] but also none other than the US government[20]) the tracks of Covid-19’s first occurrence of lead to Wuhan’s Huanan wet market, where close proximity of humans and animals may have led to the first human infection.[21] The origins of the virus have been traced to bats, as was the case with the previous and similar 2002-2004 SARS virus,[22] bats being one of the major viral vectors due to the robustness of their immunity system. From bats, the virus most likely spread to other, consumable wildlife traded in the wholesale markets of China.[23]

The encroachment upon wildlife and the disruption of remote habitats has indeed been for a long time considered one of the vectors through which pathogens, such as the SARS-CoV-2 can spread.[24] The wilderness has been the source of various illnesses throughout history – AIDS, for example, came from the close contact between humans and the blood of chimpanzees during slaughter[25] – and experts now say that another 10 000 – 600 000 viruses have the potential to spread to mammalian wildlife and infect the human,[26] warning that the current pandemic is mild compared to what might be lurking in other distant corners of the planet, not only in wildlife, but also hidden under permafrost.[27] The general fact that human extractive practices throughout history have led to close cohabitation and easy transmission between humans and Emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) is correct, but certain recent articles have presented the crisis as, for example, a crisis of the ‘Anthropocene,’[28] or have in another way politicized the pandemic in ways which are more manipulative than they are informative. The media environment began to spin the few facts available about the diseases and has, since its turbulent irruption into the world’s populations, made a discursive issue of it, prompting the WHO to call the media storm an “infodemic”[29] in its own right. 

In his article “We Are Living Through the First Economic Crisis of the Anthropocene,” Adam Tooze writes that “What we are living through [at the moment of the Covid-19 pandemic] is the first economic crisis of the Anthropocene. This is the era in which humanity’s impact on nature has begun to blow back on us in unpredictable and disastrous ways.”[30] There are a few nested assertions in the whole article as well as in this short excerpt: Tooze adopts a vulgar understanding of the virus as a direct effect of ‘humanity’s impact’ on wild life and the wilderness. The seeming novelty of such a moment in time, as Tooze dates the Anthropocene from 1945 to the present, creates the idea that epidemics and close contact between animals and humans, a fact which facilitates zoonotic transfer, has no precedent in the past. This is not true, as the appearance of numerous diseases which had appeared throughout previous eras of humanity’s existence as a result of the close co-habitation of humans and animals make clear.[31]Tooze is thus conflating speed of transmission facilitated by the technologies of displacement and the conditions of high-density co-habitation with the very existence of diseases which occurred in the past and could also be termed ‘pandemic.’ His argument is that the “great acceleration that defined the anthropocene”[32] is somehow responsible for the very fact of zoonotic transfer taking place. 

The question of a time-frame within which to speak of novelty and the dissemination of information is fundamental here, as Bogna Konior makes clear when she writes that 

As blessed as we are to have books and other media that transmit knowledge and stretch temporality for us, we are still trapped within the span of an individual lifetime, and a limited perception of history. Even if pandemics happen throughout history, what appears to us in perception appears as a novelty, as a problem for thought, and it indeed has new variables each time. 

The journalistic frame of The Guardian within which Tooze’s essay appears thus latently positions the phenomenon of SARS-CoV-2 as being 1) an “unprecedented” and 2) a phenomenon of the Anthropocene. This is a particular spin which is predicated on the media industry’s curatorial practices. That is not to say that Tooze’s article is invalid in and of itself, but rather that the inferences which Tooze makes on the pandemic have undergone factual distortion and have become contained within pre-determined templates, or tropes, which peddle in novelty as much as they  work with largely evacuated information – specifically ‘the Anthropocene’ can now contain just about anything without necessarily saying anything either, as Rosi Braidotti has made clear.[33]

Entropement is a structural secretion of the contemporary communicational ecology and its function in the wider entropological field functions as follows: The more entroped the signifier is signifier, the more redundant it becomes and the less information it carries. Entropement is thus the generation of enclosed informational objects which are “dissipative”[34] and of discursive systems which are parasitic in their logic. Entropement is a particular discursive phenomenon which fuses infrastructural and material systems with informational apparatuses in a way which in their effects on society may, in the words of Armand, “be said to be constitutive of a general ecology of mind”.[35] The dissipation of the originally largely coherent concept of ‘Covid-19’ (a coherence largely predicated on necessity) thus becomes dissipated through the parasitic mechanisms of the contemporary media apparatus. This makes the original signifier overdetermined (meaning it is vested with more causes than there are effects) and Armand writes that “such an overdetermination of structural logic” is the very mode of “entropement.[36]

Entropement is thus a phenomenon which spins the original event of the Covid-19 pandemic along various party lines, all of them predicated on an underlying infrastructural platform of contemporary distributed and hybrid media. Entropement as a concept works through the ideological values of the discourse while taking into account the underlying material networks and infrastructure which make such a discourse possible and which situate it firmly within the wider study of entropology. 

Conclusion

The essay aimed to show the genealogy of entropology with the backdrop of the current Covid-19 pandemic as a case study. The analysis moved through some of the central milestones of information theory in order to show the non-transparency of the term ‘entropy’ and its resulting abduction for philosophical speculation – the science of entropology. The treatment of the pandemic within the western media apparatus served as a case study for framing the concept of entropement as a fundamental component of entropology and has been utilized to show the implication it carries for thinking the media both as an infrastructural space as much as an ideological arena whose logic oscillates between the crystallization and subsequent dissipation of meaning.


[1] Bernard Stiegler, Neganthropocene (Open Humanities Press, 2018) 25.

[2] Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tropiques Tristes (Paris: Plon, 1957). The relationship of such communication to Lévi-Strauss’ own anthropological career is explicit, and begs questions on the parasitism of the post-war anthropologist, their working mode of interrogation, analysis, notation and feeding off the bodies and politics of the objects and communities they are studying.

[3] It must be said that the nebulous concept of ‘entropy’ as a measure of information has been problematic and ultimately shown to be inaccurate as a measure which may be used to discuss information, some experts opting for a the unit SMI, or Shannon Measure of Information (see Arieh Ben-Naim, “Is Entropy Associated With Time’s Arrow?” arxiv, Cornell University (May 2, 2017). That is why ‘entropy,’ as used in this essay within the context of entropology, is written with quotation marks.

[4] “Can we define a quantity which will measure, in some sense, how much information is ‘produced’ […] Can we find a measure of how much ‘choice’ is involved in the selection of the event or of how uncertain we are of the outcome?” in C. E. Shannon, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” The Bell System Technical Journal (Vol. 27, 1948) accessed 8 June 2020< http://people.math.harvard.edu/~ctm/home/text/others/shannon/entropy/entropy.pdf> p. 10. Shannon calls this variable ‘entropy’ and correlates it with the spectrum of probability which works on the gradient of information/redundancy. The more redundancy, the less information, and a resulting increase in entropy. 

[5] Shannon, 2.

[6] Norbert Wiener, Human Use of Human Beings (London: Free Association Books 1989) 28.

[7] This fusion of the biological with the mechanical is integrally present in Bernard Stiegler’s project of a ‘general organology’ which is a determinative concept for his subsequent analysis and re-framing of entropology.

[8] Michel Serres, Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982).

[9] The cascade is in this sense the predecessor of more robust models of network theory, such as Latour et al.’s Actor-Network Theory or Deleuze and Guattari’s Assemblage Theory.

[10] Michel Serres, The Parasite (University of Minnesota Press, 2007) 6.

[11] James Bridle, New Dark Age (Verso, 2019).

[12] “Coronavirus: Trump gives WHO ultimatum over Covid-19 handling,” BBC, 19 May 2020, accessed 12 June 2020<https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52718309>.

[13] Gus Burns, “Soggy protesters demand Michigan Gov. Whitmer end the coronavirus ‘lockdown’,” MLive, 14 May 2020, accessed 12 June 2020<https://www.mlive.com/public-interest/2020/05/soggy-protesters-demand-michigan-gov-whitmer-end-the-coronavirus-lockdown.html>.

[14] “COVID-19: protecting health-care workers,” The Lancet, 21 March 2020, accessed 12 June 2020<https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30644-9/fulltext>.

[15] Gaia Vince, “After the Covid-19 crisis, will we get a greener world?” The Guardian, 17 May 2020, 12 June 2020<https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/may/17/after-the-covid-19-crisis-will-we-get-a-greener-world>.

[16] The Department of Global Communications, “UN tackles ‘infodemic’ of misinformation and cybercrime in COVID-19 crisis” United Nations, 31 March 2020, 8 June 2020<https://www.un.org/en/un-coronavirus-communications-team/un-tackling-%E2%80%98infodemic%E2%80%99-misinformation-and-cybercrime-covid-19>.

[17] Concetta Papapicco, “Informative Contagion: The Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Italian Journalism,” Online Journal of Communication and Media Technologies (Vol. 10, No. 3, 2020) 1.

[18] ‘trope,’ Merriam-Webster Dictionary, accessed 12 June 2020<https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/trope>.

[19] Alexander Morgan, “What is the truth behind the 5G coronavirus conspiracy theory?” euronews, 15 May 2020, accessed 8 June 2020<https://www.euronews.com/2020/05/15/what-is-the-truth-behind-the-5g-coronavirus-conspiracy-theory-culture-clash>.

[20] Riyaz ul Khaliq, “China may sanction US officials for virus probe: Report,” AA, 14 May 2020, accessed 8 June 2020, <https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/china-may-sanction-us-officials-for-virus-probe-report/1840386>.

[21] WHO, “Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19): Situation Report – 94”, WHO, 23 April 2020, accessed 8 June 2020<https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200423-sitrep-94-covid-19.pdf?sfvrsn=b8304bf0_4>.

[22] Lin-Fa Wang et al., “Review of Bats and SARS,” Emerging Infectious Diseases (Vol. 12, December 2006) accessed 8 June 2020<https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3291347/>.

[23] Graham Readfearn, “How did coronavirus start and where did it come from? Was it really Wuhan’s animal market?” The Guardian, 28 April 2020, accessed 8 June 2020 <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/28/how-did-the-coronavirus-start-where-did-it-come-from-how-did-it-spread-humans-was-it-really-bats-pangolins-wuhan-animal-market>.

[24] Peter Daszak, et al., Emerging Infectious Diseases of Wildlife—Threats to Biodiversity and Human Health Science 287, 443 (2000).

[25] “Where Did HIV Come From?” The AIDS Institute, accessed 8 June 2020<https://www.theaidsinstitute.org/education/aids-101/where-did-hiv-come-0>.

[26] Colin J. Carlson et al., “Climate change will drive novel cross-species viral transmission,” 25 January 2020, accessed 8 June 2020<https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.01.24.918755v1>.

[27] Bruce Rothschild, “The Sixth Extinction: Global Warming Release of Disease from the Permafrost?” Open Access Journal (Vol. 2.1, 11 February 2019) accessed 8 June 2020 <https://www.boffinaccess.com/open-access-journals/journal-of-emerging-and-rare-diseases/JER-2-113.pdf>; Jasmin Fox-Skelly, “There Are Diseases Hidden In Ice and They Are Waking Up,” BBC, 4 May 2017, accessed 8 June 2020<http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170504-there-are-diseases-hidden-in-ice-and-they-are-waking-up>.

[28] A term whose genealogy shows a similar pipeline from the denotation of a geophysical phenomenon to a largely politicized article of currency which has since been reworked for various purposes and treated to various spin-offs, such as Chthulucene (Haraway, 2016), Plantationocene (Tsing, 2015), Necrocene (McBrien, 2016), and others.

[29] The Department of Global Communications

[30] Adam Tooze, “We are living through the first economic crisis of the Anthropocene,” The Guardian, 7 May 2020, accessed 12 June 2020<https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/may/07/we-are-living-through-the-first-economic-crisis-of-the-anthropocene?fbclid=IwAR35xsq_cU-Sm1VUcFOmX17Ym1KpfDZWdVOo2z9EmsP0JlnTBqWS1xdft9k>.

[31] D. Enard and D. Petrov, “Ancient RNA Virus Epidemics through the Lens of Recent Adaptation in Human Genomes” bioRxiv(March, 2020); John Tooby, “Pathogens, Polymorphism and the Evolution of Sex” Journal of Theoretical Biology (1982).

[32] Vít Bohal, Dustin Breitling, Bogna Konior, Borbála Soós, “Pandæmic Speculations: A Multilogue,” Agosto Foundation, 14 May 2020, accessed 12 June 2020<https://agosto-foundation.org/mediateka/speculative-ecologies/thinking-the-pandaemic>.

[33] Rosi Braidotti, “A Theoretical Framework for the Critical Posthumanities,” SAGE, 4 May 2018, accessed 8 June 2020< https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0263276418771486>.

[34] Louis Armand, “Entropology,” Alienist (Vol. 7, 2019).

[35] Armand, 72.

[36] Armand, 72.


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