Sunday, March 15, 2020

Hermes: The God of Exchange and Emergence

I'm reading through Michel Serres' collection of essays entitled Hermes: Literature, Science, and Philosophy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), and I need to write it out. It's a slow way to read that I don't use with most works, but Serres is one of those thinkers that I must take my time with, and I've always been rewarded.

What attracts me immediately about the book is the focus on exchange between domains that are usually separated: literature, science, and philosophy. Of course, you can throw economics, religion, and most any other domain into the mix, and Serres seems to do so whenever it suits his purposes. By its nature, exchange opens any domain to other domains. Moreover, regular and systematic exchange within a domain is a large part of what defines that domain. That's the nature of exchange: the pathway by which  entities move energy, matter, information, and organization among or within themselves. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that exchange is the way that entities facilitate the flows of energy, matter, information, and organization. And don't think of flows as laminar and unidirectional. Nature provides for plenty of backwash, misdirection, redirection, and resistance. Flow is not simple.

The Greek god Hermes is the dominant agent standing at the crossroads, gateway, or bridge of the points of connection across which exchanges are made. Hermes is the god of exchange. Whenever two atoms exchange electrons, there is Hermes. Whenever two Instagram users swap memes, there is Hermes. Whenever people share bread, there is Hermes. Uhhh .. and Jesus, who has clear hermetic properties. Connectivity means exchange, and networks and rhizomes are mapped by their exchanges, their points of connection across which things flow, back and forth. Hermes, then, is the God of Emergence, presiding at all the points of connection and exchange which enable the emergence of entities, from ions through societies to galaxies. Hermes is one busy dude. I suspect he is worthy of serious consideration.

The second attraction for me is how Serres explores the connections and exchanges between the humanities and the sciences. As the editors of this volume explain it:
There exists a passage (or passages) between the exact sciences on the one hand and the sciences of man on the other. This thesis in itself is not new. Since the pre-Socratics and Plato, there have always been attempts to link these two domains, to overcome an unfruitful division. (Harari and Bell xi)
It seems to me that the principle of exchange runs through all domains and through all our systems for modeling and expressing our knowledge of those domains: natural language, number, music, image, statues, scale models both real and computer, and so forth. And exchange scales. This blog post, for instance, is composed of letters which exchange data to combine and form words, which exchange data to form sentences, which exchange data to form paragraphs, to form posts, to form a blog, to form a blogosphere, to form ... well, you get the idea. Numbers do the same, exchanging information and organization to enable the emergence of new entities at multiple scales. Bodies do the same: particles to atoms to molecules to cells to organs to me to family to community to ... well. Understanding any domain through words corresponds to understanding any domain through numbers. Words and numbers are not the same. Each has its own strengths and abilities, but they each use exchange and connectivity to combine and recombine in ways that generate and move information and organization and that describe matter, energy, information, and organization. We can do words about words, numbers about numbers, and words about numbers and numbers about words.

Image: © NRAO Outreach/T. Jarrett (IPAC/Caltech);
B. Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF
So there are passages from domain to domain -- from science to literature, for instance. Energy and information and organization flow across the domains, but the exchanges are not easy and seldom obvious -- in part, because the exchanges always require a translation. According to the editors of the book, Serres is suspicious of "a homogeneous space of knowledge ruled entirely by a single scientific or universal truth" (xiii). Rather, for Serres, the space of knowledge and, indeed, physical space itself are in tatters, with pockets or islands of coherence and truth scattered about and with treacherous passages from island to island. Anyone who has travelled much in an archipelago of islands such as I have in the Bahamas and Caribbean will understand this fractal image: each island has its own character, just reminiscent of the last island, but too different to make the similarities reliable, and the passages from island to island are fraught with currents, eddies, tides, rocks, and sand bars that make travel risky for all but the most experienced.

Fortunately, Serres is well trained in sciences, literature, and philosophy, and he is fun to follow. And that's what I'll do for awhile. I want to see where Hermes leads us.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

#shc20: Reverence, Revelry, and Dialogic

Morin's concept of the dialogic is core to his concept of complexity, and it was one of the first aspects of his thought to grab my attention. It is also how I am framing revelry and reverence in this series of posts. I have used the concept several times in this blog. In a post entitled "Boundaries and the Dialogic", I say:
Dialogic is a form of thinking and talking that allows us to juxtapose antagonistic points of view without seeking to resolve them in a reductionist, Hegelian dialectic that simply moves "beyond contradictions through synthesis" ("Reform of Thought", 26). As Morin explains it, dialogic "allows us to connect ideas within ourselves that are thrown back on each other" and allows us to contemplate "the necessary and complementary presence of antagonistic process or instances." Morin gives the profound examples of Life and Death, which are as antagonistic as is possible and yet which are both bound up with the other. Indeed, Reality unfolds as the constant engagement and interaction of Life with Death, and the one does not make sense without the other, and yet they are still antagonistic.
In his essay "Restricted Complexity, General Complexity", Morin suggests that dialogic is one of the core engines of complexity itself which emerges and unfolds in the excluded third, in the tensions and turbulence between irreconcilable forces:
We return again to the logical core of complexity which we will see, is dialogical: separability-inseparability, whole-parts, effect-cause, product-producer, life-death, homo sapiens-homo demens, etc. It is here that the principle of the excluded middle reveals its limit. The excluded middle states “A cannot be A and not A”, whereas it can be one and the other. For example, Spinoza is Jewish and non-Jewish, he is neither Jewish, nor non-Jewish. It is here that the dialogic is not the response to these paradoxes, but the means of facing them, by considering the complementarity of antagonisms and the productive play, sometimes vital, of complementary antagonisms.
A and not-A. Irreconcilable antagonists, yet all the interesting stuff, all the complex stuff, happens in the turbulence between these two forces. I'm reminded here of Frost's poem Mending Wall. As two fellows meet in the woods to mend their boundary wall, the narrator insists that "something there is that doesn't love a wall." The neighbor counters that "good fences make good neighbors." The poem gives us a thesis and antithesis, and in our reductionist manner of thinking, we might reasonably expect a synthesis, but there isn't one. There is only the dialogic between wall and no-wall, and all the interesting stuff, the complex stuff, in the poem happens in the turbulence -- gentle as it is -- between these antagonistic positions. The poem leaves us with only the dynamic working out of life between two older men who meet once a year to mend the wall between themselves and thus join themselves. In Morinian terms, we have antagonism in terms of complementarity, and complementarity in terms of antagonism, with no synthesis in sight.

A few hundred years before Frost, Shakespeare captured the dialogic of life and death in his Sonnet 73:
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
Here is the interplay of life and death — totally irreconcilable antagonists — captured in the magnificent image of wood that feeds the fire that turns the wood into the ashes that choke the fire. Shakespeare neatly captures the feedback loops and recursive causations that make the turbulent fire possible and make the end of the fire inevitable. The fire dances in that tense, dynamic space between life and death. The fire emerges in the dialog between life and death — its life emerging, its death already present. Both the fire and the no-fire, the cold ashes, are already in the wood, and to understand life and Shakespeare's poem we must hold both A and non-A in our view.

In his book On Complexity, Morin says it more prosaically, though he too starts with the poetic:
We could take Heraclitus's famous words, which, seven centuries before Christ, pronounced in a lapidary way: "Living from death, dying from life." Today, we know that this is not a futile paradox.

In a way, to live is to endlessly die and to rejuvenate. In other words, we live from the death of our cells, as society lives from the death of individuals, which allows it to rejuvenate. But by dint of rejuvenation, we get old, and the process of rejuvenation falls apart, derails, and in actuality, we live from death and we die from life. (42)
For this study, I am framing revelry and reverence as complementary antagonisms that form a dialogic that brings life to the Southern Humanities Conference.

The Southern Humanities Council which convenes the Conference is an interdisciplinary, scholarly community which is southern, as our website explains, only in terms of its having been founded in the southeastern United States. We are open to all scholars and topics, though we usually have a focus for each yearly conference. This year's theme is Revelry and Reverence. This willingness to reach beyond the geographical and social limits of our name suggests both the revelry and the reverence at work within our organization. I want to explore that.

This 2020 conference is also notable as it will mark the transition from SHC's current and long-time executive director to a new director. Thus, the ecosystem in which I will study the terms revelry and reverence is under some stress. That can be important. In a presentation to the Seventh International Transformative Learning Conference entitled "Beyond the Heterogeneity of Critique in Education: Researchers' Experiences of Antagonisms and Limits as Transformative Learning Opportunities", Alhadeff-Jones explores the role of antagonism in educational research, especially from the perspective of Edgar Morin's dialogic. Alhadeff-Jones argues that diversity within a given system gives rise to "collective and personal antagonisms" (1) which can expose the boundaries and limits at work within the system. In fact, he says, antagonism is central to Morin's theory of complexity within systems and complexity thinking:
For Morin, the notion of "antagonism" appears at the core of a theory of organization: "[...] Organizational equilibriums are equilibriums of antagonistic forces. Thus, every organizational relationships, and then every system, comprises and produces antagonism and in the same time complementarity." (Morin, 1977/1980, p.118, my translation). Behind the apparent solidarity of a system (individual, group, institution, theory), existing antagonisms carry a potentiality of disorganization and disintegration. Such a phenomenon is constitutive of what Morin describes as a principle of "systemic antagonism": "the complex unity of a system both creates and represses antagonism." ... The organization of every active system, as long as it carries diversity and differences, suggests the creation and the repression of antagonisms, which appear through the active play of interactions and feedbacks. (3)
In this discussion, I prefer the terms friction or tension over antagonism as being a little less emotionally charged. Antagonism suggests active hostility to my mind, while both friction and tension suggests a wider range of interactions among elements within a system, not all of them unpleasant or unfriendly. Think here of a friendly soccer match, which exists explicitly to cultivate and exploit the frictions and tensions between the two teams, two players, even between a player's boot and the ball, but need not devolve into active hostility — though that's certainly a possibility as well. The players can all leave the field after a rigorous contest and still enjoy a beer together. But antagonism is the term Morin uses, and as long as we bear in mind that antagonisms do not imply active hostility. Rather, most of the antagonisms that Morin deals — though certainly not all — are natural, non-human antagonisms that do not contain a hint of active hostility. On Complexity uses the example of whirlpools created by the antagonism of flow and obstacle:
Often, in the meeting between a flow and an obstacle, a whirlpool is created, that is, a constant, organized form that unceasingly reconstructs itself. The union of flow and counter-flow produces this organized form that will last indefinitely, at least as long as the flow lasts and as long as the obstacle is there. That is to say, an organizational order (whirlpool) can emerge from a process that produces disorder (turbulence). (41)
In his presentation, Alhadeff-Jones says that complexity thought in the style of Morin approaches concepts such as "diversity" in a different manner than either traditional modernism or postmoderism:
Beyond a modern interpretation reducing "diversity" to the study of a phenomenon which could be ordered, and a postmodern interpretation reducing it to disorder and fragmentation, an explicitly complex approach invites us to understand it as a phenomenon, both ordered and disordered, organized through complementarities and antagonisms. (2)
This suggests something of what I am looking for in a study of two terms. To my mind, revelry can tend toward disorder and fragmentation, a disregard of standard organization and protocol. Reverence, on the other hand, tends toward order, coherence, and a high regard for standards and protocol. I will take an explicitly complex approach that looks at the conference through revelry and reverence to see if I can learn anything about the life and behavior of SHC. I will examine the use of both terms within the presentations delivered at the conference, but I will also look at the activities of the conference and the organization that tend toward revelry (disorder and antagonisms) and reverence (order and complementarities). My thought is that the organization may emerge from the dialog, the conversation, between revlery and reverence.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

#shc20: Reverence, Revelry, and the Local Observer

So I want to explore the concepts of reverence and revelry from the inside out rather than the outside in, but what does this mean? Well, let's use the method to discover the method. I think that's how Morin would do it.

So let's drop these two rather old-fashioned words into a context, an environment, and watch them work their way through it. Let's watch them find their place and role in this ecosystem, and along the way, I think we will learn more about the words and more about the ecosystem as both the terms and the ecosystem express themselves through their interactions with each other. One image that I like for this is DNA. The DNA of each term will unfold and express itself both through the activities and tensions of its own internal structures and resources and through its interactions with the structures and resources of the ecosystem within which it exists. This is a dynamic process. Along the way, we also learn more about Morin's approach to complexity thought.

Starting a study with a local situation is, by the way, an important aspect of Edgar Morin's method. In his article "Complexity, Methodology and Method: Crafting a Critical Process of Research" for the open journal Complicity, Michel Alhadeff-Jones provides an overview of Morin's "paradigm of complexity" in 11 principles. Alhadeff-Jones is attempting to provide a compact, coherent theoretical framework for "researchers looking for a ‘method’ in order to critically conceive the complexity of a scientific process of research" (19). The first principle he lists is "promoting interpretations starting from the local and the singular" (21). This makes sense to me. If you want to drop into a study and explore it from the inside-out, then you drop into a singular locality, a very specific place and time. As a scholar of English, I would normally drop my two words into a text or collection of texts to see how they behave, but I'm choosing a different context. I'm dropping revelry and reverence into the 2020 Southern Humanities Conference, an interdisciplinary, scholarly community with which I have been associated for about 20 years.

This is convenient for me. First, I am attending the upcoming #SHC20 — held in Baton Rouge, LA, in early February, 2020 — and the theme of the conference is Revelry and Reverence, so the two terms under scrutiny here will be prominent within the activities and proceedings of the Conference, and I will be there to engage, observe, and take notes. The Conference is why the two terms are on my mind.

Second, I have a history with SHC. This also figures into Morin's complexity method. Too often, scientific research captures a snapshot, freezing an otherwise living, evolving system (be it an atom, a book, an animal, a conference, or a galaxy) into a static image by which we can delineate elements and relationships. While a snapshot can reveal useful information, it also destroys the living thing. Alhadeff-Jones says that complexity asserts the value of "recognizing and integrating the irreversibility of time and the necessity to include history in any description or explanation" (21). I can bring some of the history to bear in my analysis. I cannot, however, be objective about that history. I'm part of it. I also cannot be objective about this study. Again, I'm part of it.

Dropping into the singular local to study a system (a conference, say) radically changes the role of the observer. In classical science, the observer stands to the side of the observed system with the intention of being as objective as possible so that she can record what is actually happening without disturbing it. Dropping into system, however, destroys any possibility of that objective, outside stance. In fact, as I read more and more complexity studies, I'm coming to believe that an outside, objective stance is largely a fiction — a useful fiction at times no doubt, but a fiction none the less. Starting with quantum physics, modern science is learning that observed, measured behavior is different behavior. When we look and measure, then we perturb the phenomenon observed and measured. As the double-slit experiment demonstrates, observed and measured photons behave differently than photons that are not observed and measured, and as any parent can attest, observing your children changes their behavior — sometimes for the better, too often for the worse. The observer becomes part of and entangled with the observed. This seems to be the case for all phenomena.

This predicament is made even more complex by the observer bringing to the observation all of their own limited, too often flawed resources and capabilities: belief systems, biases, technological supports, knowledge communities, writing habits, manual dexterity, visual and mental acuity, quickness of reflexes, energy stores, and so forth. We cannot see it all, and even the use of methods, techniques, and equipment cannot prevent us from selecting what we can see. We know that if we expect to see something, then we increase the odds that we will see it.

So I am studying the behavior of two terms within a conference to which I belong and with which I have a fairly significant history. I will tell the conference in the presentation I'm scheduled to deliver that I am observing and measuring the conference. This will change what people do, certainly, and that may change how the conference unfolds. Moreover, I will observe and measure with my own biases, strategies, techniques, and resources, limited and flawed as they are. And I will write my findings from my particular point of view.

How am I to cope with this overwhelming, local point of view? Morin says that we cope with the limitations and capabilities of our local, entangled point of view by recognizing it and making it part of the study. In other words, we include our own learning in the process of learning about the system at hand. We must allow our methodologies to emerge as a living, dynamic interaction with new phenomena, and we must dance differently with each new dance partner and tune. As Alhadeff-Jones says, we must embrace "the principle of relationship between the observer/designer and the object of study" (21). To do so, removes the certainty of an established theory and methodology. It challenges the certainty that we seek as observers of reality. Alhadeff-Jones summarizes it this way:
The paradigm proposed by Morin suggests challenges rather than solutions. The critical stake associated with it requires therefore being able to tolerate the continuous negotiation between order and disorder. It also involves rethinking constantly the organization legitimizing one’s own statements. Considering the lack of a granted method to cope with the challenges he raises, Morin’s position is grounded in a radical uncertainty. It depends on a permanent process of self-reflection bringing researchers to continuously examine their doubts, their ignorance and their confusion. (22)
Finally, SHC is changing its leadership this year. This can be a crisis in organizations, and though I do not anticipate a crisis for SHC, I do think the transition can open opportunities for both revelry and reverence. We are a small conference, and most of us know most of the others, certainly those who have participated over the past number of years. A change of leadership is likely to have enough tension and friction, however friendly, to expose the boundaries and limits at work within the Conference, and to my mind, the terms revelry and reverence capture nicely a point of friction and tension that can emerge as the conference transitions to new leadership.

Which brings me to Morin's concept of dialogic and my next post. Later.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

#shc20: Reverence & Revelry from the Inside with Mice

In my previous post, I looked at the terms reverence and revelry from the outside, starting with standard definitions and then measuring how they interact with their respective environments. These are traditional analytical approaches to understanding things in our world: pare down the thing to its essentials (a definition) and measure how it interacts with its environment. In this case, I found some definitions on the Internet from reliable, authoritative sources, including the Oxford English Dictionary, and I used a dataset from Google Books and Google's NGram tool to measure the rate of usage of each term from 1800 to 2000 and compared those rates to each other and to a couple of other benchmark terms.

I learned a little that I did not already know about reverence and revelry, and I created some genuinely new knowledge, perhaps some knowledge that no one else has ever brought to light about these two terms together and how they have behaved over the past two centuries as they traced their own, unique trajectories through English letters. This knowledge is useful in a modest way, but I'm not sure it illuminates much. It's a small knowledge.

This little knowledge also leaves me with the feeling that perhaps reverence and revelry have become irrelevant to 21st century writers of English. They are not concepts that readily come to mind in the everyday commerce and conversation of writers. There seems to be little room in books about business, technology, and science — or even in books about art and philosophy and religion — for reverence and revelry.

But perhaps I'm not looking correctly.

I've become aware over the past few years of Edgar Morin's call for a different way of exploring and thinking about our world — he calls it complexity thought — and I think that it might be the right way, or at least, a more illuminating way to think about reverence and revelry. I could start with Morin's own writings — and I will get to those — but I prefer to start with a Billy Collins poem, "Introduction to Poetry". After all, I am an English instructor and still teach writing and literature. (And yes, I'm aware that American English requires that I put the period inside the concluding quotation marks in a sentence, but I much prefer the continental style which puts the period outside the quote unless it is actually a part of the quote. The quotation marks go around the title of the poem, and that title has no period in it; thus, the period belongs to the entire sentence and not to the title alone. That makes more sense to me. Now — should I put a period after this concluding parenthesis?)

Sorry for the digression. To the poem:
Introduction to Poetry

BY BILLY COLLINS

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
There's Morin's method in a nutshell: "Drop a mouse into a poem and watch him probe his way out". Define the poem from the inside out, not from the outside in. Ally yourself with the mouse, and let your method of analysis emerge as you follow the mouse toward meaning. Do not start with a meaning and method and then pare the mouse down until he fits that meaning and that method. Don't work from the outside in. In a 1956 interview in The Paris Review, William Faulkner says of his own method for writing Nobel-quality novels: “It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.” I do not know if Morin read Faulkner, but they seem to be saying much the same thing, at least to my mind. The observer, whether poet or scientist, must position themselves in the middle of things and record as much as possible, working outward toward meaning. Bruno Latour seems to take the same approach in his influential actor network theory of sociological research. These are all bright fellows, and I'm inclined to follow their advice.

Fortunately, Morin says more about his method. He wrote a six-volume work collectively titled La M├ęthode (not all of which has been translated into English) and the shorter book On Complexity which was my introduction to his thought about systems and complexity and is available in English. And others, notably for me Michel Alhadeff-Jones, provide analyses in English of Morin's French writings. Regrettably, my high school and college French is not commensurate to the task of reading Morin's untranslated work.

So let's drop two mice — reverence and revelry — into a maze and watch them probe their way out.