The Victory of Entropy

Accompanying my project about the reawakening of memory and history in the context of the Euro crisis is an essay consisting of twelve chapters on subjects ranging from the origins of nationalism to the nature of chance. Individually dealing with disparate subjects, the idea is that together they combine to pose questions about the nature of memory, history, photography and time. They are designed to be printed as separate unbound chapters, which can be shuffled and read in any sequence, further underlining the idea of chance and synchronicity in our understanding of the past. Here is one of several I will be publishing on the blog.

The Victory of Entropy

‘…knowledge comes only in lightning flashes,
the text is the long roll of thunder that follows’1
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

Ryounkaku tower, Japan’s first western style skyscraperTokyo 1923

Ryounkaku tower, Japan’s first western style skyscraper
Tokyo 1923

A key principle of modern physics is that, as time passes, disorder in a closed system increases irreversibly, the level of this disorder is known as entropy. Entropy can be reduced in an open system, for example by the act of arranging historical facts into chronological order entropy is reduced compared to if those facts were left unordered. However the act of ordering an open system only increases entropy in a bigger closed system, for example the universe, because the ordering those facts uses energy, creates noise, heat, produces waste and so on. This concept strangely both seems to confirm the view of time as linear because it rests on the concept of ‘the arrow of time’ that is that time is irreversible2  and at the same time seems to undermine the ideas of progress and order that are implicit in historicist views of linear time by refiguring time as a process of relentless decay.

Photography is an interesting example of some of these principles in action. Photography appears to offer a way to record and order the events of a seemingly chaotic world, but in doing so it increases that disorder. Photographic film is in a state of low entropy, but exposing it and developing it increases entropy through the expenditure of energy required to perform this act and because the relatively ordered physical structure of the film is replaced with the more disordered, silver halide crystals that appear as a result of the developing process.3  Similar issues effect a digital image, which although requiring less expenditure of energy produces vast quantities of information, perhaps thousands of pages of data per photograph. This effect becomes more profound over time, as image making proliferates and the volume of images increases. It has been estimated that as many photographs were taken in the whole of the nineteenth century as were taken last year.4

Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, a vast work on nineteenth-century Parisian shopping arcades, left incomplete at his death, offers similar insights into entropy and history. In writing The Arcades Project Benjamin was seeking to bring together the ‘refuse and detritus’5 of history and to explode ‘the nineteenth century’s conception of history [as] an endless series of facts congealed in the form of things’.6– In leaving the work incomplete he almost achieved this aim more effectively than if he had finished it, leaving behind him a work of a thousand pages of fragments, the remains of an unparalleled literary edifice, the very embodiment of the chaotic historical scrapheap he alluded to in his earlier works.

1 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Boston, 1988) p. 456
2 Huw Price, The Thermodynamic Arrow: Puzzles and Pseudo-Puzzles, accessed 3rd November 2012, available at
3 Robert Wright, The Entropy Distinction: or the Heat of the Moment, published 16th September 2006, accessed 6th November 2012, available at
4 Jonathan Good, How Many Photos Have Ever Been Taken? Published 15th September 2011, accessed 10th November 2012, available at
5 Foreword in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Boston, 1998) p. ix
6 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Boston, 1998) p. 14

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