Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Trump Stories: Sketching a Rhizo Narratology

So it's time for me to start defining narratology in a way that allows me to approach the issues I have with the stories about and by Donald Trump and with the people who share and believe those stories. I think I can benefit from the narrative theories of Herman, Phelan, Rabinowitz, Robinson, and Warhol, but I also think those theories are too restrictive.

For instance, they all focus on literary narratives, even the ones that recognize non-fictional narratives. Phelan and Rabinowitz use Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) to explore their rhetorical narratology, Warhol uses Jane Austen's Persuasion (1817) to explore feminist narratology, David Herman uses Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach (2007) to explore mind-oriented narratology, and Brian Richardson uses Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981) for anti-mimetic narratology. Novels, all. Trump's stories, on the other hand, are hardly literary narratives, and whether or not they are fiction is problematic, whereas these four novels are clearly works of imaginative fiction. Yet, I need ways to discuss the Trump narratives — those about him and those by him, often the same.

I begin by recognizing narratives as complex systems, and one of the most important things I've learned about complex systems is that they are sensitive to initial conditions. Thus, I'm likely to end up in a different place with a different view by beginning with a theoretical attitude drawn less from literary theory and more from General Systems Theory, cybernetics, and artificial intelligence, as Rika Preiser says in her dissertation The Problem of Complexity: Re-Thinking the Role of Critique (2012). I've also read much from the harder sciences which have developed a complexity paradigm that Edgar Morin calls restricted complexity, distinguished from what calls general complexity, or critical complexity as Paul Cilliers terms it. Though restricted complexity has much to say about complex systems, its insistence that even complex phenomena can be reduced to number and regular rules chafes me. Like Morin, Cilliers, and Preiser, I think that complex systems such as narratives "ultimately cannot be measured and calculated but remain in principle too complex to model in theoretical equations" ("The Problem of Complexity: Definition and Knowledge"). I don't think the Trump narratives that I want to study are reducible to number and regular rules, but even if they are, I don't have the mathematical background to do it. I'm aware that some wonderful work is being done in the digital humanities, and if someone manages to measure and calculate narrative in a mathematical fashion, then I am quite willing to consider their insights.

I'm not alarmed at starting from the science side of the Science/Humanities divide. In her books The Cosmic Web: Scientific Field Models and Literary Strategies in the Twentieth Century (1984) and Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science (1990), N. Katherine Hayles convinces me that the divide between science and humanities, while real, is perhaps not so great as C. P. Snow suggests. In the "Preface" to Chaos Bound, Hayles asks why dissimilar disciplines "should nevertheless focus on similar kinds of problems about the same time and base their formulations on isomorphic assumptions" (xi). She asserts that it's because people are of an age, whether scientists or humanists, and that they tend to be perplexed and intrigued by the issues of the age. She says:

Different disciplines are drawn to similar problems because the concerns underlying them are highly charged within a prevailing cultural context. Moreover, different disciplines base the theories they construct on similar presuppositions because these are the assumptions that guide the constitution of knowledge in a given episteme. This position implies, of course, that scientific theories and models are culturally conditioned, partaking of and rooted in assumptions that can be found at multiple sites throughout the culture.

This rings true to me, and I think that complexity guides "the constitution of knowledge" in our current episteme however unevenly. Hayles, then, emboldens me to borrow useful insights from whomever in whatever discipline. I will certainly borrow heavily from Hayles. Of course, as complexity studies have demonstrated, a shared starting point does not necessarily mean a shared ending point, and the sciences and humanities can still arrive at quite different insights pursuing the same issues in the same complex systems.

Working within a framework of general complexity suggests that I view narratives as complex systems, complex phenomena, but what does that mean? Preiser says that all complexity theories use an economy of concepts to approach complex phenomena in states of non-equilibrium that display characteristics of non-linearity, self organisation, and emergence and behave in a manner in which time and energy expenditure is irreversible (41). This is a mouthful and requires some unpacking. First, it means that I assume narratives take in and expend energy and information to change over time and almost always in ways that are not easily modeled and predicted. They exist in a state of non-equilibrium until death, and even death seems to be a notable transition stage into different kinds of change and non-equilibrium. The Trump narratives are early in their life cycle, so it's rather easy to trace the changes and developments in them. Like most infants, they are energetic and noisy, but I find it easy to imagine that eventually they, too, will die, but for me that means mostly that they will be forgotten as an individual entity while they continue to echo through the infosphere — much as the plays of Shakespeare continue to echo even though most people can no longer connect the echoes to the Bard.

Of course, everything in life changes, and that change requires time, space, energy, and information. I agree with Kurt A. Richardson that complexity is "reality without the simplifying assumptions" ("Complex Systems Thinking and Its Implications for Policy Analysis" 190). So if everything is a complex system, then why bother claiming that narratives are complex systems? Because all models of reality, including models of narrative, include simplifying assumptions, as I have learned from Paul Cilliers ("Why We Cannot Know Complex Things Completely"). Any model of narrative, such as the ones from Herman, Phelan, Rabinowitz, Robinson, and Warhol, include simplifying assumptions that leave out something with no way of determining ahead of time if that something omitted is critically important to grasping and understanding the actual narrative. My own model of narrative will leave out something, and I'm almost certain to learn later that it was important. The only narratology that completely encompasses a narrative is the narrative itself. Our models of the narrative make the narrative handy but at the cost of leaving something out. It's like a picture of Yellowstone's Old Faithful. It's a great model that you can keep in your phone, travel home with, and then show your friends, but it leaves something out. Actually, it leaves out almost everything else (it certainly leaves out the hour plus intervals between eruptions) and includes distortions that are not obvious until the model fails us. All models do that.

This mention of modelling and models brings me to a related claim that I make: narratives are themselves models of reality. They are knowledge systems. As such, they always include simplifying assumptions about reality, omitting important details and including distortions of reality. Always and all: my stories, your stories, and their stories. I believe with Walter Fisher that narrative is one of the core features — if not the core feature — of human language and culture. I don't know if story came before language, or language before story, or if they co-emerged in the struggles of primitive humanity to make its way in the world, but I'm convinced that the urge of a group of early hominids to tell a story about where they had come from and where they might go next — in other words, to make sense of their world and their place in it — that narrative kernel led to the emergence of humanity as we know it. Language and story give us one of our most reliable connections to reality. Story shapes our worlds and informs us in turn. A two-edged sword, story enables the world and limits the world. Story is the ground of knowledge. However, I also believe as Fisher insists that story is ontological, not just epistemological. Becoming human requires story. Knowing humans requires another story. I'll try to explain later, if I can, but for now, I can insist that exploring the Trump narratives should lead me eventually to the heart of being human and knowing humanity, of being myself and knowing myself. Like all complexity theorists, I'm in the thick of it.

But back to Prieser's claim about complexity science: complexity theorists use an economy of concepts. By this I mean that I will not use a single concept such as rhetoric or feminism to approach narrative, but I'll use whatever concepts, tools, and processes I can find that will help me lift the Trump narratives into the light of day. Feminism and rhetoric, of course, have something to say about the Trump narratives, but the complexity of those narratives requires more than one tool, one approach, one meta-position. A complex system requires a complex approach. Given that complex systems are composed of complex systems and themselves compose other complex systems, any complex system is ultimately connected to everything else, and the diligent researcher can trace flows of energy, information, matter, and organization within and without the target system to all other systems. To do the Trump narratives justice, then, I would have to read and know everything. I can't do that, of course, so I accept up front that I cannot do the narratives complete justice. I must be humble, and shine what light I can from as many angles as possible, trusting that some useful insights will emerge.

Preiser lists five characteristics of complex phenomena that distinguish those phenomena from the simple phenomena of the traditional Cartesian/Newtonian paradigm. I have other lists with different numbers of characteristics of complexity, but these five will suffice for a large, beginning sketch of a rhizo narratology, I think.

First, narratives are open to their environments. While this is perhaps easy to see in the interactions between Trump stories and Trump believers and doubters, this openness can be more obscure in traditional literary narratives such as Huckleberry Finn which we encounter in books with covers that can, in fact, be closed and put away on the shelf with their definitive texts that will not change before we again open the book. The words in Huckleberry Finn can appear closed and finished. Those narratives can seem closed, especially when compared to modern narratives composed on electronic media such as Twitter, but they are not. Indeed, all narratives, so long as they live and circulate, continue to exchange energy, matter, information, and organization with their environments so that determining where the narrative ends and the environment begins is difficult. According to Cilliers, clearly defining the boundary of a complex system is problematic and is often "a function of the activity of the system itself, and a product of the strategy of description involved". Any narrative, then, is an expression not only of its own internal resources (genre, diction, narrator, plot, characters, etc.) but also of the language, the readers, and the knowledge, social, and technological systems within which it circulates. And more. Any living narrative interacts with its environment and expresses itself anew through those engagements and interactions. Huckleberry Finn is not the same narrative for Nineteenth century mostly white Americans that it is for Twenty-first century mixed Americans. Black Lives Matter is now part of the energy of the narrative. Huck's use of the term nigger just doesn't mean the same today as it did then. It doesn't mean the same thing as it means in Toni Morrison's Beloved.

Second, narratives are not single things, but a complexus of dynamically interacting parts, which are themselves each a complexus, and the narrative as a coherent, functioning entity is an interacting part in a larger complexus. Narratives such as the Trump stories are constituted relationally both inside and out, and the relations are dynamic, manifold, and nonlinear. The meaning of a narrative, then, is not in the narrative itself but in the relationships among all the parts both within and without the narrative, just as the color red is not an inherent feature of an apple, but is the emergent phenomenon of the interacting relationships among apple, light, eye, brain, and more. If any of those elements shift, then the red shifts. If the light fades, so does the color. If the viewer is color blind, then the apple is — in fact — a shade of gray. After #MeToo, the meaning of the interactions between Huck and Aunt Polly and the Widow Douglas changes. Different energy and information is feeding into the narrative, and in response, the narrative expresses different meanings. The narrative becomes something else.

Third, narratives are comprised of a number of heterogeneous components with multiple, dynamic pathways among them that create rich and diverse interactions which become too complex to calculate or to manage. Moreover, the elements and their interrelationships change over time and scale. Huckleberry Finn has no standard, monolithic reader. It doesn't even have a monolithic writer. Sam Clemens is not Mark Twain is not Huck Finn; rather, all take turns at telling the story, and they all seem to be aware of each other, as Huck makes clear in the very beginning:

You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.

And it's clear through most any reading that each of these fellows is jostling with the others to have his say, and none of them see the story in quite the same way. You can read Huckleberry Finn without thinking much about the different narrators, but any reading is enriched by a sensitivity to the tensions among the various narrators. Add the millions of readers since the book was published in 1884 and the different sensibilities each brought to the reading, and we begin to see the complexity of the relationships that create this particular narrative. Add the different languages used in the book: 19th century realism, river talk, slave talk, folksy humor, and then add the various translations of the book over the past 130 years. Now consider the various formats of the book from Clemens' original handwritten manuscript through 19th century printing presses to movies, comic books, and Kindle and Project Gutenberg. We can consider more components still, but this is sufficient to see how the narrative is smearing across culture like the rhizome that it is. As anyone who has ever weeded a garden can attest, tracing a rhizome is damned near impossible. The Trump stories, of course, are even more complex than Huckleberry Finn as they involve more narrators, more readers, social media, and rich language resources. That's the complexity I intend to explore.

Fourth, a narrative always means more than the sum of its parts, to borrow an old phrase. In more precise terms, narratives manifest emergent properties that can be understood only in terms of the organizational structure of the system and not simply in the properties of the components. Emergent phenomena depend on and yet are independent of constituent parts. For instance, you can understand all the words in Huckleberry Finn and still not understand the novel. Though they had some great insights, the new critics were wrong: no narrative contains within itself all that is needed to understand it and to explain it. There are no inherent properties of a narrative, only emergent properties. (I'm not sure I actually believe this, but I think that trying to support such an absolute statement will take me in directions I want to go, so let's play with it. No harm, no foul.)

These emergent phenomena suggest certain characteristics of any complex system such as narratives, and Preiser lists five characteristics of emergence that I want to consider. The first feature of emergence is radical novelty, which suggests that narratives are neither predictable nor deducible from micro level components such as words and sentences, which are necessary but insufficient for understanding stories. Most of Trump's words and sentences are common, simple, and easily understood, covfefe notwithstanding, but we must look for the connections among them and to the environment in which they are expressed to understand their meaning as a narrative. Words are something like DNA: the basic vocabulary is necessary for expressing an emerging organism such as myself, but it is not sufficient for explaining a life such as mine. My life has features that emerge from the dynamic unpacking of my own DNA, but are not deducible from that DNA — just as my thoughts are not deducible from the firing of any given neuron or group of neurons. As it happens, it's these emergent features — not the DNA — that mostly characterize me both to myself and to others. As far as I know, only one lab has ever had the privilege of looking closely at my DNA.

The emergent properties of narratives are coherent. They maintain their identity and meaning over time, even though that meaning can and does evolve. We can, then, expect and talk about coherence and identity in the Trump narratives, knowing full well that they will change over time. Eventually, of course, we can trace the evolution of any narrative, but even now this early in, we can see the shifts in Trumpian narratives from the campaign of 2015 to the final days of his administration in early 2021. Narratives, then, are coherent in the same way that I am coherent from my youth to my old age: recognizable, but changed. Huckleberry Finn has the same coherence.

The emergent properties of narratives are multi-scalar, occuring at a macro level compared to their micro level components such as words and sentences, or in Trump's particular case, in tweets. It's key, however, to keep in mind that the Trump narratives also function as micro level components within larger systems such as the Twitterverse and American political discourse. Words function at both the macro level of letters and the micro level of sentences. Any narrative itself functions at the micro level of its encompassing field of discourse. Both micro and macro levels have implications for the levels above and below. All scales of a narrative perturb and are perturbed by all the other scales. Narratives operate through both upward/downward, or inward/outward, causation. Words shape the meaning of a sentence, and the sentence in turn shapes the meanings of the words, and both words and sentences shape and are shaped by the language and knowledge systems, sociopolitical systems, technological systems, and other systems within which they are expressed. Tracking all the flows of forces across and through the Trump narratives is impossible, but we will catch some traces like arcs in the Large Hadron Collider.

The emergent properties of narratives have a life arc. They are not a priori wholes but appear gradually as a complex system that dynamically develops over time. Of course, we often perceive a narrative as a whole especially when it is presented to us in a single place and time, but we know that this is deceptive. We see a story whole as we see a mountain whole, lifting high, trimmed in forests and capped with snow. But we know enough geology now to know that the mountain did not arrive whole; rather, it has a story. Like a mountain, each story has a story. A narrative has a life, and whatever we say about the narrative must keep this life trajectory in mind.

Finally, Preiser says that the emergent phenomena of complex systems such as narratives are ostensive, recognized in terms of their presentation, purpose, discernable structures, and meaningful behavior. This is, of course, the scale at which most of us engage a story. It's what we first learn as story before we even know it's a story. It's that experience of snuggling in closer to mommy as she tells us things we can't understand but we like the way she's saying it and holding us. Stories, of course, get more sophisticated than that, but I don't know that they get any better. The ostensive parts of the story are like the flowers in a garden — the reason we look, or listen — but it's the rhizomatic flows of light and minerals and other plants at work underneath, through the yard, and up to the blue sky that makes the magic happen.

The fifth and last characteristic of complex systems that Preiser mentions is self-organization. Narratives such as the Trump stories or Huckleberry Finn are able to evolve new structures and relationships in order to cope better with their changing environments. This ability to self-organize is perhaps easiest to see in the struggle of the author — say, Trump or Twain — to craft a story that achieves whatever sociopolitical or artistic goals the author has, but eventually, the story gets away from the author and takes on a life of its own. Once released into the wild, the story must self-organize or die. Like other living organisms, the DNA, or the words, of a narrative may not change after parturition or publication, but the organism itself will continue to change as it struggles to fit within its environment. The more the environment changes, the more the narrative changes.

A complexity approach to narrative, then, is first a problem of observing and studying narratives that themselves have incalculable interrelationships and interactions and unpredictable properties. Secondly, a complexity approach is problematic in that I can observe only from the inside as part of the narrative. I have no objective, outside, meta point of view, but only a subjective, inside point of view that affects — often non-trivially — the narratives I'm observing and studying. Finally, complexity is not so much a theory as a pilot notion, one as Preiser says "that allows for an integrative theoretical approach that remains critical of the scientific assumptions that emerge from studying complex phenomena ... exposes the limits of each discipline and ... [problematizes] the status of knowledge and knowledge generating practices" (75). I hope to shine some light inside the Trump narratives to illuminate them. I am not intending to define them from the outside.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

The Trump Stories: An Antimimetic, Unnatural, and Postmodern Narratology

The last of the four approaches to narrative discussed in Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates (2012) is the antimimetic approach of Brian Richardson, who focuses on the ways that narratives do or do not conform to the usual expectations of representation. As he says:

… nearly every narrative represents some portion of the world we inhabit in one way or another. … That manner of representation may be conventional or unconventional, stylized or straightforward, unmarked or outrageous, clumsy or artistic; it is always constructed. Mimetic narratives typically try to conceal their constructedness and appear to resemble nonfictional narratives, while antimimetic narratives flaunt their artificiality and break the ontological boundaries that mimetic works so carefully preserve. (p. 20)

In broad strokes, then, narratives, whether fictional or factual, are always constructed (certainly by authors — I'm not sure if Richardson considers co-construction by the audience), and while most narratives try to hide or ignore that construction, some narratives play with the details of construction. This distinction holds even for clearly fanciful narratives: on the mimetic hand, Star Wars tries to hide the scaffolding for its outrageous characters, props, and plot lines, whereas the antimimetic Spaceballs reveals the scaffolding, largely to mock it.

Fictional narratives have more flexibility in this respect as factual narratives are usually held to higher standards. Even when a fictional narrative uses a historical event, readers are usually more tolerant of factual inaccuracies — at worst, considering it sloppy writing; at best, creative license. Not so with Trump's tales of the stolen election. Those of us who do not believe that the story matches the facts probably believe that Trump and his followers are at best delusional and at worst liars and cheats. Richardson says that he is dealing primarily with fictional narratives. Still, I think I can make use of this rather focused approach. Again, it will not by itself provide me the resources to discuss all the issues that I want, but it should give me some tools to explore the Trump stories.

Friday, October 29, 2021

The Trump Stories: A Mind-Oriented Narratology

Mind-oriented narrative theory focuses on how the human mind uses narrative to create worlds that humans can imaginatively enter and, presumably, leave. David Herman says that he focuses on "narrative worldmaking as a central heuristic framework" and that this worldmaking "encompasses the referential dimension of narrative, its capacity to evoke worlds in which interpreters can, with more or less ease or difficulty, take up imaginative residence" (Narrative Theory 14). Herman supports his focus with the insistence that worldmaking is the root function of stories and the correct starting point for any critique of a story. I agree with him. I will have to read more of his narratology to make sure I understand what he is saying, but what I understand now makes sense to me and resonates with the questions I have about those people who believe in the stories of Donald Trump. They so clearly live in a different world than I do, and I want to understand that world.

Herman is interested in "how storytellers, using many different kinds of symbol systems (written or spoken language, static or moving images, word-image combinations, etc.), prompt interpreters to engage in the process of co-creating narrative worlds" (15). I share this interest. I want to know how Donald Trump (storyteller) used Twitter and other social media to prompt his followers (interpreters) to help him create a narrative about how the Democrats stole the election from him and them. Like Herman, I want to understand the protocols and practices necessary for this kind of worldmaking. Herman claims that understanding these protocols requires closer engagement with the sciences of the mind.

Herman relies on his reading of Wittgenstein to contend that the protocols and practices of our various symbol systems frame our understanding of the world — they inform and structure our worldmaking. This both enables and limits the worlds that we can create and inhabit. I would say it like this: once we adopt a certain conversation space, then the DNA of that space unpacks in certain ways, often rich with variation, but it won't unpack in other ways. Once you inherit human DNA, you can develop (if you develop at all) in a rich variety of ways, but you will not develop as a dog or a carrot or an automobile. Those conversations are not available to the human DNA. One of the wonderful riches of language is that we are able to adopt many different conversations — though it does require some effort, often extreme effort, to shift from one conversational space to another.

And this brings me to another point about Herman's approach that I like: he references the existence of multiple narratives and the interactions among them. He says:

Narratives do not merely evoke worlds but also intervene in a field of discourses, a range of representational strategies, a constellation of ways of seeing—and sometimes a set of competing narratives, as in a courtroom trial, a political campaign, or a family dispute. (p. 17)

This addresses an important issue for me: the ecosystem of any narrative, which always emerges and finds its place within a rich ecosystem of interacting knowledge systems. Thus, I can't understand Trump's narratives without also understanding the fertile ground in which they could take root and grow. As with any complex system, I need to be able to critique both the internal DNA of the system and the ecosystem within which that DNA can unpack and express itself. Focusing merely on the narrative itself can be illuminating, but eventually it obscures more than it clarifies, I think.

I like the introduction to Herman's thinking about narrative and mind, and I think I agree with his assumption that understanding the mind can help us understand narrative, and vice versa. As he says in conclusion: "the study of narrative worldmaking can inform, and not just be informed by, understandings of the mind" (p. 18). However, there is something teasing me about extending narrative beyond mind, but I haven't worked that out yet.

Next, I'll look at the antimimetic narratology of Brian Richardson.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

The Trump Stories: A Feminist Narratology

Feminism forms the basis for Robyn Warhol's presentation of the second approach to narratology in Narrative Theory (2012) by Herman, et al. Warhol begins with a simple enough definition of feminism: "the conviction that dominant culture and society are organized to the disadvantage of everyone who does not fit a white, masculine, middle- or upper-class, Euro-American, not-yet-disabled, heterosexual norm" (Narrative Theory 9). She elaborates feminism with intersectionality "because white privilege, class privilege, heteronormativity, and other positions of relative power complicate hierarchies of gender" (9).

Feminist narrative theory, then, is a corrective to traditional critical approaches which "developed in a pointedly masculinist academic culture, based on theories developed by men who grounded their models in the study of male-written texts" (9). From its inception then and at its core, feminist narrative theory (Warhol objects to the term narratology which is too "cut off from questions of history and context") has been particularly sensitive to the position of the critic towards the work and to the relations between the author and reader — in other words, to social, political, economic, and intellectual contexts of the narrative. Warhol sees feminist narrative theory playing well with the rhetorical narratology of Phelan and Rabinowitz and with the antimimetic theory of those such as Brian Richardson. I, too, like the insistence of feminist narrative theory to place the narrative within a rich context of information, organization, material, and energy flows and at the nexus of social, political, economic, and intellectual relationships. I also like that feminist narrative theory places the critic within the narrative, always conscious of and accountable for her critical position. Warhol finds the least overlap with the mind-oriented theory of David Herman, which she considers too essentialist in its orientation.

As Warhol defines feminist narrative theory, then, it is primarily distinguished from other narrative theories by placing "at the center of the inquiry … gender, sexuality, class, or other politically significant and historically grounded differences" (11). In contrast, I place complexity theory at the center of my critique of narratives. Complexity theory, of course, includes the resources and insights of feminist theory, but does not limit itself to those issues.

Monday, October 25, 2021

The Trump Stories: A Rhetorical Narratology

I've become frustrated with my study of Trump stories, and I realize that I need a working narrative theory, a narratology. Fortunately, I've been reading Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates (2012) by David Herman, James Phelan, Peter J. Rabinowitz, Brian Richardson, and Robyn Warhol, all of Ohio State University. So I intend to work through their book and work through my own narratology that will help me analyze Trump's stories more systematically.

However, I've also been reading and writing about complexity over the last 10 years, so I aim to develop a complex narratology, or a rhizo-narratology. Much of the writing in this blog provides me with a rather rich field of ideas that can be worked into a coherent approach to narrative based on complexity theory. We'll see.

Herman, et al. explore four main approaches to narrative: rhetorical, feminist, mind-oriented, and antimimetic — their labels. All of them afford useful ways into a narrative and reliable grounds for critique. However, I think I have something to add to this conversation, primarily because of all the complexity theory that I've been reading. I'll position my own thinking about narratives against the positions outlined in this book, and I'll start with the rhetorical approach of Phelan and Rabinowitz.

Phelan and Rabinowitz define narrative as: "somebody telling somebody else, on some occasion, and for some purposes, that something happened to someone or something" (3). They note that each of these propositions about narrative merits significant development, which they provide in due course, but this definition gives us the skeleton of their approach to narrative. Using a Donald Trump tweet, I can rephrase their definition this way: Donald Trump tweeted his followers on January 6, 2021, in hopes of stalling or even undermining the certification of the 2020 Presidential election by Congress, the narrative that Vice-President Mike Pence could stop the steal of the election by Democrats and give the election to Trump. The full tweet is below:

January 6, 2021 06:00:50 If Vice President @Mike_Pence comes through for us, we will win the Presidency. Many States want to decertify the mistake they made in certifying incorrect & even fraudulent numbers in a process NOT approved by their State Legislatures (which it must be). Mike can send it back! Retweets: 66961 Favorites: 289835 ("Tweets of January 6, 2021")

Of course, this is not the only tweet from Trump on this day. According to UC Santa Barbara's site The American Presidency Project, Trump tweeted 25 times that day starting at 2:45 am and ending at 11:01 pm. All of the tweets were about the stolen election and, thus, could be joined into a single narrative arc, but this one tweet is concise and to the point, making it convenient for this post.

Phelan and Rabinowitz' definition of narrative is barebones, and they immediately try to flesh it out by listing 6 principles that support their definition:

  1. Narrative is a purposive event, "a multidimensional purposive communication from a teller to an audience" (p. 3). Purposive means that they are interested in how larger purposes shape a narrative and its various elements. Multidimensional means that they are interested in not just the meaning of a narrative but the experience of it, its affective, ethical, and aesthetic effects and the interactions among those effects. I see here a pathway to my own thinking about rhizo-narrative: an ecological approach that involves any critique of narrative in first situating the narrative in its ecosystem and tracing the flows of energy and information from the system into the narrative and back out and tracing the perturbations between and within the narrative and its ecosystem.
  2. Rhetorical narratology assumes an a posteriori rather than an a priori stance, not preselecting "for analysis particular issues such as gender or cognition or particular kinds of narratives such as those deploying antimimetic elements of story" (p. 5). I appreciate the openness of Phelan and Rabinowitz to all forms of narrative, but I wonder if they, too, by their very definition are preselecting what they consider as narrative. I think I can make a case for a soccer match underway in situ as a narrative, but I have the feeling that Phelan and Rabinowitz would limit narrative to the story I tell my friends later, after the game itself is played out, about the amazing victory or crushing defeat. In terms of my Trump discussion, I can consider the unfolding events of January 6, 2021, as a narrative as they are happening; whereas Phelan and Rabinowitz may consider as narrative only the retelling of those events by a news reporter to her television audience at a later time, or even at the same time. Of course, I am running the risk of defining everything as a narrative, but at the moment, I'm quite comfortable with that risk. It's story, all the way down.
  3. Rhetorical narratology assumes a feedback loop "among authorial agency, textual phenomena (including intertextual relations), and reader response" (p. 5). This feedback loop works very well for rhizo-narratology, though I think Phelan and Rabinowitz limit it too much, tracing only those feedback loops among the author, the text, and the reader. I want to expand to include the entire ecosystem within which the narrative unfolds and all the flows that inform and sustain the narrative.
  4. Rhetorical narratology is keenly interested in the progression of a narrative from some beginning point, through various other points, to some ending point. Understanding the progression of a narrative is key to understanding its design and its purpose. This morphological approach also works well for rhizo-narratology as it introduces time into the understanding of form. The form of a narrative is not a static structure — fixed and done by an author or a printing press, but an unpacking of DNA over time in different environments leading to different expressions and meanings, to different stories. As the events of January 6, 2021, unfolded in Washington and on television, different participants and different viewers were seeing different stories with different meanings. Of course, the narrative form of the events that day are still not fixed but continue to unfold as its DNA unpacks in different contexts for different purposes. The DNA of Huckleberry Finn (the work that Phelan and Rabinowitz use in their discussion) also continues to unfold, as the juxtaposition of the Black Lives Matter narrative highlights. Again, to my mind, Phelan and Rabinowitz limit the dynamics in this progression to the author, the audience, and the text. I think this is too narrow for my critique of the Trump narrative.
  5. Rhetorical narratology assumes three different ways for a critic to think of audiences: the actual audience of a given narrative in a given event, the authorial audience that the author imagines addressing, and the narrative audience that the narrator addresses in the narrative. These different audiences can overlap, but often do not, and they are useful for rhizo-narratology, I think. To my mind, this fragmenting into various audiences highlights the complex nature of every element within a complex system. It's complexity, all the way down.
  6. Finally, audiences engage narratives in three broad ways:
    1. mimetic: "interests in the characters as possible people and in the narrative world as like our own" (p. 7),
    2. thematic: "readers’ interests in the ideational function of the characters and in the cultural, ideological, philosophical, or ethical issues being addressed by the narrative" (p. 7), and
    3. synthetic: "interest in and attention to the characters and to the larger narrative as artificial constructs, interests that link up with our aesthetic judgments" (p. 7).
      Audiences tend to judge narratives by how well they ring true to the audience, deal with relevant issues or make the issues relevant to the audience, and how well they present to the audience. In short, most audiences want stories that are true, relevant, and well told.

Phelan and Rabinowitz's definition of narrative is useful as far as it goes, but I can already see points at which it constrains me uncomfortably. My first objection is that it appears to define narrative from the outside-in from the traditional objective position. It is as if they are standing outside the narrative situation looking in on it from some meta position that I don't think exists. Once we engage a narrative, then we have no way of removing ourselves from the narrative — no more than does the somebody telling or the somebody listening or the somebody or something being narrated. We become as much a part of the narrative as are those other agents that Phelan and Rabinowitz mention. We don't have a privileged position apart from and above the narrative from which to analyze and assess the narrative. I need a definition of narrative that involves me from the beginning so that I analyze the narrative from the inside. This is a particularly crucial point when studying the Trump stories as I am not an objective, impartial analyst with a clipboard and white coat, and even if I were, I still would have to account for the limitations and peculiarities — the biases — of that positioning within the narrative's unpacking. It's positions, all the way down.

Next, I'll look at feminist narratology.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Trumpism and Me

I have more to say about how to situate myself within Trumpism. My first tendency is to explain how I am not a part of that ecosystem, to deny it, but I have to remember that I am engaged with Trumpism whether I like it or not. My sense of identity may matter, but it does not remove me from Trumpism. My beloved friends and family are Trumpers, and much of my country is Trumpist. If I look wider, then I see that much of the world is Trumpist. I'm engaged. So how do I situate myself within this place?

I can start with Bill.

Bill and I were childhood friends. We went to the same school and the same church in Buford, Georgia — some thirty-five miles northeast of and, in the mid-60s, distinct from Atlanta, with a rural, small town feel. Buford was conservative and voted Dixie Democrat, a political allegiance seriously challenged by the presidency of John F. Kennedy. Anyway, Bill and I played together. We had sleepovers. Life was safe and comfortable where kids could stay outside and play past dark and no one worried much. Buford coddled its young — to the point that we were allowed at 14 and 15 years of age to illegally own and operate scooters and motorcycles on Buford streets, at least until several accidents drove some common sense into the city elders' heads.

Then in January, 1967, during my tenth grade of school, my family relocated from Buford to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I lost contact with most of my Buford friends, including Bill. My new high school was all sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and the University of New Mexico downtown was a hotbed of anti-war enthusiasm that proselytized the lower schools heavily. I was entranced. I wore my hair as long as my parents would let me. My new best friend Kerry introduced me to poetry and philosophy, and I met Anna at my school and Julie from the next school over. I still remember standing in our backyard in the Summer of 1967, a transistor radio to my ear, hearing the Beatles' "A Day In the Life" for the first time. Church could not compete.

At the end of high school, I left for a short stint in a commune near Taos, while over in Buford, Bill left for a long stint in Viet Nam. Our life trajectories had split.

I didn't see Bill again until Fall, 2019, at the fiftieth reunion of the Buford High School Class of 1969. I was living in Georgia again, and the organizers kindly included me even though I had graduated from a school 1,400 miles and a universe away. The gathering was not at all political, but it was clear to me that politically I was out of sync with my old classmates. Still, I enthusiastically swapped emails and befriended people on Facebook, and I learned that Bill had fought in Viet Nam, had a career with the US Postal Service, had married and had sons, then a few years ago had lost his wife to cancer, and now had a new girlfriend. He had also abandoned our pentecostal heritage and worshipped now as a Catholic.

Bill and I especially promised to get together soon, but the pandemic intervened, so we communicated over Facebook, but it didn't go so well. I quickly learned that most of the people in Bill's Facebook circle were enthusiastic Trumpists, and I made some injudicious comments during one exchange that inflamed everyone's tempers, including Bill's. I shouldn't have said what I did on Facebook — I've never seen a political challenge go well on social platforms — and I had to scramble to repair relationships and forestall a series of unfriendings.

Still, the incident highlighted the core issue for me. Bill and I had started life in very similar situations and we were ending in similar places, yet our paths had been very different, and now despite our shared interest in being friends, we found our different views confusing and challenging to each of us. I could say, of course, that we had different DNA and different life experiences so that both nature and nurture led us to different political views, but that explanation seems way too glib and dismissive to me. I think something more interesting and human is at work, and I want to explore that deeper movement.

I've come to believe that humans create or adopt stories by which they try to explain and live their lives. As I've said in a previous post, I accept Walter Fisher's claim that homo narrans is one of the root metaphors for humanity. We create, share, and live by stories, and our narratives are at the core of what we are and describe us just as our muscular, circulatory, and neuronal systems do. I think that these narrative structures are embedded in us and, thus, are only partially explicit. Mostly they are implicit, but they form the frames through which we see life and the channels by which we try to live our lives. Forming stories is what maturation and enculturation are all about. We learn stories and live those stories. Most stories are shared within some group that we identify with, but most of us have a few stories peculiar mostly to ourselves.

To believe on one hand that Donald Trump is the last, best hope for saving the United States, you have to believe certain stories about the world. To believe on the other hand that Trump is a threat to the United States, you have to believe different stories. I want to understand these stories. I want to know what they are, where they come from, and how they inform, frame, and sustain our world views. I do not aim to reconcile these stories through some dialectic. Rather, I hope to turn them into a dialogic that allows for conversation enlivened by curiosity and compassion.

I also hope to test my own stories, to measure them against other stories to see how well they hold up and where they are weak. As a liberal, I like to believe that I have no inviolable stories, stories that I will defend at all costs, but I suspect that isn't the case. My conversations with obvious liberals have demonstrated to my satisfaction that most people have a story that they will not change or even challenge because doing so threatens such trauma and loss of identity that they cannot face it. I'm wondering what story I cannot do without.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Critical Complexity and Four Cs

What I have in mind is applying Preiser's program of critical complexity to my issue with Trumpism among my friends and family. I'm comfortable enough with Preiser's critical complexity to try to use it — comfortable in the dual senses of finding it congenial to my own thinking and of believing that I understand it well enough not to butcher it too badly. I do it in the hopes that I will come to understand the issues with my heritage better and will be better positioned to cope with them. Trump has crystallized a number of issues that have for years distressed me about my religious heritage. I have tried rejecting it, ignoring it, or educating my way out of it, and while those approaches have changed the way I think, believe, and act, they haven't satisfied me. I still have this large force of energy that pushes and pulls on me, perturbs me usually at the most sensitive moments, and I don't understand it well enough. I want to turn and face the elephant and, if possible, make friends with him. Yes — I see a bull elephant with enormous tusks that can gore me, but I'm hoping to learn that it's really a cow, a mama elephant, fiercely protective of her calves and herd, no doubt, but willing to tolerate a prodigal.

I'm taking a two-path approach: I'm analyzing complexity and narrative in this blog, and I'm writing a novel in another space. The analysis here helps me define the skin of the people I'm studying, and the novel there helps me get under their skin. I hope ideas from both paths can illuminate each other, can provide soundings that keep me from straying too far from either path. My suspicion is that writing here will help ground my other writing, has already wandered all over the place. Those lateral wanderings in fiction are important, I think, but just as they can lead to new insights, they can also lead astray, and I'm not always sure which way I've wandered. We'll see.

It seems to me that my first task is to recognize the issue and to begin to define it. Critical complexity has several implications here. First, I am included in the issue. I am not apart from that which I study. I'm in the middle of it. I was born and raised in the pentecostal faith that I want to understand better, and while I no longer worship in that faith and disagree with it on numerous issues, I am still perturbed by it, and I still perturb it. Moreover, the act of questioning this faith community entangles me with it and exposes the entanglements that have been there all along. I cannot ignore my own role in any analysis of this complex system. I read sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild's 2016 study of the Tea Party community in Louisiana (Strangers in Their Own Land) and noted how she — even as a liberal academic from California — was drawn into this foreign community as she tried to understand it. Hochschild did not convert to the Tea Party, but she did come to like and respect these people and to understand better why they believed and behaved as they did. Understanding a complex system of beliefs and behavior rearranges boundaries, sometimes boundaries that we thought were inviolable. But as critical complexity insists: no boundaries are inviolable. They are all provisional, but that means that any researcher is responsible for making those boundaries explicit, demarcating the limits of what is known or even knowable.

Critical complexity also says that I must position myself in relation to the limits of my knowledge. I was raised a pentecostal and attended a pentecostal church (Church of God) until I went to college. Most of my family and many of my friends are still active within the pentecostal community or within the wider evangelical community. I might presume that I am quite knowledgeable about these conservative communities, having been raised in them, but of course, that isn't the case. My knowledge is quite intensely focused on three families: my mother's and father's and the single family they created. My knowledge is as much emotional as it is intellectual. I have a bit of reading to do. Fortunately, the Church of God is not so old — about 130 years — so I can cover most of its history. I even met as a child some of the folk from its earliest history.

Then, I must keep in mind that any definition of a complex system necessarily reduces the complexity of the system in the very act of generating a manageable, understandable model of that system. Saying it works two ways, as Cilliers caution us: it enables what we know and at the same time obscures what we know. To use terms from physics, as soon as we focus on and define the position of a particle, we lose focus on and definition of its velocity. I have no privileged position outside and independent of the system from which to observe all the system at once. I only have positions within the system that afford me certain angles of insight but that also obscure other angles that may be just as insightful if not more so. I prefer some angles over others and will choose them over the others to form my knowledge of Trumpism. These choices carry ethical implications, and I must remain aware that I am making them. Those choices carry responsibilities and obligations that I must address.

In short, any study of a complex system such as Twenty-first century Trumpism among southern American pentecostals is likely to generate far more questions than answers. I will know more, but I will also know how much more I don't know. This causes me no dismay. I'm with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who in her 1997 introduction to her translation of Derrida's Of Grammatology says:

And if the assumption of responsibility for one's discourse leads to the conclusion that all conclusions are genuinely provisional and therefore inconclusive, that all origins are similarly unoriginal, that responsibility itself must cohabit with frivolity, this need not be cause for gloom.

Actually, I find it cause for celebration. I am truly dismayed by those who believe that "we'll understand it all by and by" (the religious reductionists) or that we are about to discover the "theory of everything" (the scientific reductionists). Both present me with the dismal hope of having nothing left to learn, and I can think of no eternal punishment more hellish than this.

Fortunately, any one person's life is worthy of and will amply sustain a novel-length study. The study of a whole group of people over several lifetimes is more than ample for any study and for any work that I am likely to write with my remaining time. I especially like the promise inherent in Spivak's snarky comment that responsibility must cohabit, must couple with frivolity. What a nice way to live.

So this is not a problem that I will solve and put away. Though I may abandon study of the issue, I will not resolve it to anyone's satisfaction or cease to engage it. These are my people, my country, my world, and I must learn to live, and perhaps even thrive, within the ecosystem we all create together. At best, I  can hope to understand our ecosystem better and better position myself within it so that we all may thrive. I think this, then, may be an appropriate way to position myself within the complex system that I wish to study: responsible, frivolous, heterogenous cohabitation and coupling spurred by curiosity and some compassion.

That's a lot of Cs: cohabitation, coupling, curiosity, compassion all woven together by critical complexity. I wonder if my thinking here has been guided more by delight in language than by rigorous reason. Probably. I suspect it often is. I often devise a clever arrangement of words long before I figure out what it means — if I ever figure it out. I like when I write something that I can then read and learn.

Friday, April 23, 2021

The Problem of Complexity: Summary

In the final chapter of her dissertation, Preiser summarizes her argument by looking at how her interpretation of the problem of complexity develops over three parts. In Part I, she presents complexity as a problem for traditional science that relies on the Newtonian/Cartesian reductionist paradigm. Complexity calls into question our traditional knowledge claims that our theories mirror the world. Rather, our models of the world are always a reduction of complex reality and expose the limits of knowledge. In short, complexity presents any rigorous study of complexity with more questions than answers.

In Part II, Preiser examines the philosophical implications of complexity, situating the study of complexity within poststructural and postmetaphysical positions that challenge any grounding norms from which to launch a critique, questions inherited theories and models for explaining the world, re-examines our meaning-making strategies, and thus, undermines its own ability to be critical. She claims that we can reinvent the notion of critique as originally conceptualized by Kant and revive critique. Her re-reading of Kant's notion of judiciary critique connects critique with Derrida's concepts of stricture and différance to change critique's role as a measurement grounded in some normative framework to a generative, reflexive movement that informs a certain kind of thinking. For Preiser, critique becomes a dynamic process of cutting and joining opposing paradigms, working within both without being grounded in some fixed ideology and without reconciling them or reducing one to the other. Through its liminal, provisional position, critique legitimizes itself and operates by exposing the limits of both paradigms. This revision of critique fits best within Derrida's concept of general economy, which overcomes the restrictions and reductions of thinking about oppositions in a binary juxtaposition. Critique becomes at once a mode of questioning the limitations of inherited thought structures and a strategy of thinking about complex reality. In short, complex critique grounds itself in reference to its limitations, its horizons.

Finally in Part III, Preiser claims that critical complexity is a radically critical and normative turn in the the study of complexity as it reframes complexity as a human condition that needs to be negotiated afresh every day and not as a problem that can be resolved and put away. Her three self-undermining but non-arbitrary normative imperatives mandate a perpetual and radical self-critique that calls us to proceed differently in the world by remaining sensitive to how the self, the other, and society as a whole is co-constituted relationally.

Preiser believes that critical complexity implies that any intervention into complex systems is always provisional and temporary in nature as it cannot promise any unambiguous solutions to wicked problems. Moreover, interventions cannot be based on an a priori set of rules or programs but must remain based on the dynamic interactions of the components of complex system as a whole. Critical complexity is not a foolproof method for solving problems but a flexible engagement with the intractable human condition that can lead us to the edge of what analysis can accomplish and then point beyond to what the human spirit can attempt.

Then, Preiser claims that critical complexity as she has developed it makes a number of contributions to the study and critique of complex systems:

  1. To counter the absence of any general theory of complexity, her study presents a list of ten common characteristics of complex systems to form an economy of concepts that can help orient newcomers to the field and guide complexity studies.
  2. Critical complexity follows a middle way through the dilemma of critiquing reductionism on the one hand while using reductionist strategies on the other in order to say something meaningful about complex systems. Critical complexity thus avoids the loss of reference by maintaining a dialogical point of reference to a complex reality.
  3. Critical complexity challenges the strict distinction between epistemological and ontological complexity — between knowing complexity and living complexity — through the issue of wicked problems, ultimately claiming that such complex issues remain insolvable because of our incomplete, contradictory understandings of changing parameters. Thus, complexity issues are better approached as conditions to be engaged — accepted, understood, and wisely managed — rather than problems to be resolved and dismissed.
  4. Preiser insists that her study of critical complexity responds to the call to think differently by redefining key concepts in terms of the double bind that can be teased out from their conceptual structures so that complexity becomes general complexity, knowledge becomes difficult or hybrid knowledge, critique becomes critique as stricture, and thinking becomes complex thinking — all of which leads to critical complexity.
  5. The three critical imperatives form non-foundational (or self-undermining) groundings for provisional, open-ended strategies by which to respond to complexity.
  6. Critical complexity is distinct from other understandings of complexity in two ways. First, it converges critique and complexity in the general economy of the double bind which builds a path for complexity to engage the humanities in addition to the natural sciences. Second, it makes no claim to be better than other approaches to complexity. It calls us to think differently but acknowledges no prescriptive devices by which to measure how critical complexity is better than any other approach.
  7. Critical complexity can serve as a transversal meeting place between the natural sciences and the humanities, allowing both sides to illuminate shared issues through the common lens of critical complexity.
  8. Finally, Preiser's study serves as an example of how such a transversal process that weaves together ideas and methodologies from various fields of study can be implemented.

After listing her study's unique contributions, Preiser lists several limitations:

  1. Preiser first notes her focus on Kant's interpretation of critique, with too little engagement with the larger field of critical philosophy.
  2. Then, her study does not engage the ethical aspects of complexity thoroughly enough as she has already done that in previous studies.
  3. Her study does not clarify the epistemological status of the three imperatives, presenting them mostly as ethical formalisms. She recognizes that more analytical and conceptual work is needed.
  4. The study weaves together the ideas of a number of philosophers, all of whom could have been explored more deeply.
  5. Finally, the study fails to provide a concise Theory of Complexity, with solid answers for how to apply its concepts.
Preiser concludes her study with several suggestions for future research:

  1. She insists that while such complex phenomena as non-linear causality, emergence, and self-organization have been studied in-depth by the analytic sciences, this phenomena has received too little attention from other philosophical traditions.
  2. She is intrigued with Niklas Kompridis' elaboration of Heidegger's concept of world-disclosure and thinks his work is a new generation of Critical Theory scholarship.
  3. Critical complexity could inform other fields of study such as neo-institutional theories of global culture, global legal pluralism, and global civil society as all these theories acknowledge the importance of difference and moral pluralism.
  4. Because the notion of the general economy of thought depends on the presence of an excess of thought that refuses to be incorporated into the calculating structures of the restricted economy, then an in-depth study of a theory of excess could be valuable for understanding the general economy of thought.
So Trumpism is a wicked problem, and just maybe Preiser offers me a pathway toward understanding this problem better than I do now and situating myself in relation to this problem. I think the question becomes for me: do I have faith that Preiser's critical complexity can help me generate some actionable knowledge that will, first of all, match reality well and, secondly, benefit my community? I have enough faith to try it, and I'm certain that critical complexity as Preiser outlines it has enough rigor to enable my journey. So try it.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

The Problem of Complexity: Situating Complex Thinking

In her fifth chapter, Preiser shifts from framing the problem of observing complexity to the problem of thinking about what we observe in a complex world. Complex phenomena require complex modes of thinking, which she bases on the notion of the general economy to overcome the either/or, binary mode of thinking and a redefinition of critique in light of Cilliers' concept of critical complexity, which because of its inclusion of reflexive ethics in the very act of observing reality situates complexity in the light of our lived, complex experiences. Complexity should not be thought of as a problem to be solved on our way to Utopia but as an unsolvable condition we must engage and cope with as part of the human condition.

Cilliers (who was Preiser's mentor in university before his untimely death) argues that because our knowledge of complexity is based on models which of necessity reduce the system under investigation, then the choices about what to include and exclude in our models always requires ethical considerations. For Preiser, this ethical aspect distinguishes Cilliers' critical complexity from other postmetaphysical systems of critique as it shifts critique from a mode of thinking to a mode of being, transforming the way we act and exist in the world, not just the way that we know the world.

Preiser recognizes the problem of expressing a system of ethics after having renounced all objective, transcendental positions on which to ground those ethics. As a ground, she suggests ethics in the name of the limit, arguing that ethics enters the picture at the moment we confront the limits of our knowledge and must make decisions. Ethics is not located in the moment of organized politics or morals where decisions are prescribed. When we know which decisions or strategies lead to what results, then we don't need ethics but morals and best practices. When we cannot predict outcomes, then we need ethics. As Derrida says, "If you knew what to do, there would be no decision, you would have already done it." 

Echoing Kant and Cilliers, Preiser proposes three imperatives to frame and inform critical complexity:

The Provisional Imperative:

  1. Justify actions without precluding revision of those justifications.
  2. Make choices which keep other choices available.
  3. Make choices which respect diversity even as those choices reduce diversity.
  4. Act in ways that allow the constraining and enabling interactions within the system.

These provisions require a perpetual self-critical attitude and recognize the open, fluid nature of complex systems and the limitations of our knowledge of those systems. The provisional imperative works with the both/and logic that undermines closing off of options.

The Critical Reflexive Imperative:

  1. Distrust most strongly that which you believe most deeply.
  2. Expose the limits and overturn the boundaries of theoretical assumptions.
  3. Eschew solutions in favor of continual learning.

These provisions question the normativity at work in any practice of critique and makes critique aware of its own limitations.

The World-disclosing Imperative:

  1. Choose actions that break open new understandings of what it means to be human.
  2. Resist thought that can lead to dehumanising strategies.
  3. Choose actions that allow for new ways of understanding our situatedness in the world.

The world-disclosing imperative represents practices through which we can imagine meaningful alternatives to existing structures which are broken and no longer serving us well. For Preiser, critique discloses our embeddedness in a complex world. Because we see through the world, the meaning of objects and systems as a network of interrelationships is most often revealed in breakdowns in functionality when, for a brief moment, the meaning of objects is lighted up, mostly by their missing functionality. This disclosure works on two levels: disclosure of an already interpreted and structured world within which we always already find ourselves and disclosure of new horizons of meaning that challenge existing structures as the shifting, permeable boundaries of our understanding reorganize our world.

Preiser concludes with the claim that critical complexity provides us with the conceptual tools to proceed differently in the world, to tackle wicked problems in different ways by giving us a reasoning art that does not conform to some substantive recipe but employs a relentless multiple way of thinking that looks inward and outward, ever vigilant of how the self, the other and society are constituted relationally in the process of co-constructing the world. She insists, then, that critical complexity gives us ways of knowing and being that are different, that allow us to think together of diverging paradigms without reducing them to one another, that allow us to overcome institutions and regulations that are too eager to reduce our complex condition to some solvable or computable obstacle, that finally restores the possibilities of new, alternatives ways of engaging the radical, antagonistic space of complexity.

So where does this critical complexity take me in my efforts to understand how my conservative friends and family buy into Trumpism?

First, I find Preiser's thinking quite congenial with my own. The main benefit in reading her has been for her clarifications of some philosophical terms and concepts, especially from Derrida. I say this not to diminish but to appreciate. I am not a philosophy scholar as Preiser is, and she has combed out some tangles in my own thinking but without changing my hairstyle much. I still see the world in light of complexity theory, especially in light of Morin and Cilliers, two theorists who seemingly have had much influence on Preiser.

I was already familiar with Cilliers critical complexity and its incorporation of ethics, and in fact, it's through following Cilliers' work that I learned of Rika Preiser and Minka Woermann, two students of his at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, both of whom have written convincingly about complex ethics and have done a more thorough job than Cilliers, I think, of applying complex ethics to practical situations.

Which leads me to the second benefit of reading Preiser: she organizes in her three imperatives tendencies that had been mostly intuitive and haphazard in my own thinking. She has provided me with some rigor and structure. I can use her imperatives to better organize my approach to understanding Trumpism among my fellows, starting with her first claim: that like any complex problem, my issue with Trumpism is not a problem to be solved on my way to the United Utopia of America but an unsolvable condition I must engage and cope with as part of the human condition. I must recognize that, at least on the issue of Trump, many loved ones and I do not think the same or even see the same reality. This isn't a fight that I can win. It isn't even a fight. It is not a dialectic that can result in some synthesis between two antagonistic views. Rather, it is an intractable dialogic that can lead either to estrangement or to conversation, and which depends mostly on the inclinations and choices of the interlocutors. For myself, I must replace my combativeness with curiosity.

I am offended that my friends and family don't share my view of Trumpism. I want them to be like me, and I fight (argue, no fisticuffs) to win them over. But of course, as soon as the relationship becomes adversarial, I lose all hope of understanding them and of learning anything about Trumpism. They become alien to me, and I've lost a friend, a cousin. In my sober moments, this is not where I want to go. I need an emotional base for my thinking, but anger isn't it. I need to cultivate curiosity. That starts with giving up on the idea of winning, or even winning them over — a more subtle but just as combative a position. Rather, I need to be more rigorously curious about why they think as they do, and perhaps more importantly, why I don't. 

Curiosity, then.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The Problem of Complexity: General Complexity

In the third and fourth chapters of her dissertation, Preiser considers the implications of the limits of knowledge of complex systems for any critique of those systems. She situates her understanding within two main philosophical traditions: first, Kant's critical project and then Derrida's deconstruction and différance.

Preiser asserts that Kant's understanding of critique as the continuous self-critique of the limits and possibilities of reason itself co-insides (a nice neologism by Preiser) with her complexity approach. Her close reading of Kant reveals critique to be a judiciary process with a double movement that both cuts, or analyzes, and brings together, or decides, simultaneously. She then associates this double movement in Kant's understanding of critique with Derrida's notion of différance and his metaphors of stricture and hymen to redefine critique as dynamic rather than a static linear judicial process. She finally associates stricture with force field and hymen with constellation to create metaphors by which to express the liminality of critique.

Critique as a dynamic process of constant cutting and joining of seemingly opposing paradigms provides Preiser with an approach to the legitimization problem in poststructural critique, as it unsettles the distinctions assumed by each paradigm, establishing the limits of each and resisting both the reduction and reconciliation of one to the other. Thus, complex critique is grounded in neither paradigm, belonging to neither wholly yet partaking in both at once and finding its legitimacy in exposing the limits within each paradigm. By maintaining its position within a force field of opposing and attracting entities and forces, complex critique can work in the space between rupture and reconciliation, maintaining the gap for the enlightenment to come. In this space, Preiser insists, critique becomes the method, tool, and force that compels us toward a reform of reason and thought, which she intends to explore in her fourth chapter.

In her fourth chapter, Preiser explores the concept of general as opposed to restricted complexity after the fashion of Derrida and Morin, as general complexity allows one to both accept and reject in a double movement the strategies and positions of Newtonian/Cartesian reductionism. Her concept of general complexity follows from Derrida's concept of general as opposed to restricted economy — economy being that dynamic, complex system that enables and structures the movement, circulation, and exchange of thought (or anything else, I suppose) within a given system.

Preiser begins her exploration of general complexity through a discussion of Derrida's deconstruction of restricted economy, with its underlying rationale of a structured, universal, and closed system of production and exchange that promises absolute knowledge and formal mastery of everything in the system. This economy configures the interactions of components and other systems as always meaningful and claims that multiplicity and indeterminacy are always accounted for, creating a closed system guided by linear causality, unaffected by external influences of un-knowable, incalculable components not already taken up in their processes of production and consumption of knowledge, widgets, or whatever. Restricted economy assumes a strict distinction between inside and outside its system and always looks for ways to incorporate anything that can undermine its economizing strategies. Restricted economy sees the world as ultimately a knowable and manageable system and believes that appropriate work or thought within that system will be rewarded with appropriate wages, or returns, by that system. Preiser says that it is this restricted economy of thought that spurs both Derrida's deconstruction of metaphysics to expose the gaps in Kant's closed system as well as Horkheimer and Adorno's critique of the all-encompassing economic apparatus.

Meaning Is in the Connections & Not in the Thing

Preiser cautions in her discussion that a general economy is not a contradiction or rejection of a restricted economy but a recognition of the limits of the restricted paradigm. General complexity is not a call to holism or the chaos of relativism; rather, it is a middle way between the restricted (simple or complicated) and the chaotic — in other words, the complex. Finally, Preiser defines general economy in terms of Derrida's concept of différance. Just as the meaning of a sign is not constituted simply by qualities inherent in the sign itself but by the network of relations between the sign and all other signs in a particular text in both a particular place and time and in all other places and times, then the meaning of an economy is not constituted simply by entities and processes inside the economy but by the network of relations between that restricted economy and all other economies (the general economy) in all other places and times. Thus, no sign and no economy has some absolute, present meaning and identity within itself. Its meaning and identity is to be worked out and expressed within the complexus of traces and relationships between it and everything else. Its meaning and identity are neither simple nor chaotic, but complex: a result of the irreconcilable tensions within itself and between itself and its surround.

Preiser equates Derrida's différance with Morin's complex thought and its concept of dialogic, which maintains the tension between antagonistic systems, accepting the middle third without attempt to reconcile either rupture or reconciliation of systems in a dialectic. Working and thinking within this gap allows new possibilities of critique that are neither absolute nor eternal but open to excess, innovation, and creativity.

I am not proficient enough in philosophy to evaluate Preiser's readings of Kant, Derrida, and others in between, but her argument makes sense to me, and I think I can follow it well enough. Her reading of both Kant and Derrida clarified some confusions I had with both of those fellows, so I'm happy that I took time to read Preiser carefully. At any rate, I feel positioned to read her conclusion about the practical applications of complex thought. I suspect that I will learn something that will help with my exploration of the different ways we Americans understand Donald Trump. We'll see.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Problem of Complexity: Knowing Complexity

In the second chapter of her dissertation, Preiser tackles the difficulties of knowing complex systems. She starts with four quotes from four modern philosophers of science who all capture the issue nicely, but Bruno Latour is the most succinct: "We have taken science for realist painting, imagining that it made an exact copy of the world" (Pandora's Hope 78). Latour's implication, of course, is that science is not an exact copy of the world. What his statement overlooks is that realist painting isn't an exact copy either.

The very term copy implies not exact, not the same, but something that affords some utility: more portable and handy and reproducible. We make copies because the original is too unwieldy — too complex — to deal with handily. The models of the world — the knowledge — that we carry around in our heads, books, and computers to use for our various purposes are all inexact copies that greatly reduce the complexity of reality to make the models easy to use. A realist landscape will hang on our walls — the landscape itself will not. We reduce the landscape to a two by four foot stretch of canvas in order to make it fit and to make it easy to transport when we move or sell it, but that reduction always leaves things out that are quite likely important to the actual landscape itself. For instance, the painting may not capture the increasingly dry weather conditions that make the forest susceptible to fire and blight. The painter can overlook those details to satisfy his own purposes, the forest cannot.

Likewise, a scientist's model of the forest will omit some details and dynamics to make the forest intelligible — to paint an intelligent picture — and usually for some purpose — perhaps to convince Congress to act on global warming, but the reductions in her model always leave out details that may very well prove to be critical later on. Only the forest is exactly itself. Copies are not. As George Box has told us so very well: "All models are wrong, but some are useful." If complete correspondence between reality and your model (poem, painting, or formula) is your objective, sorry. Everything we know is wrong, but some of it is useful.

Of course, I overstate my case. Day to day, we find it useful to say that we know things, and we can usually rely on this knowledge in our proximate zones of influence, but we must always be aware that our knowledge like our influence extends only so far. We can always reach a limit where our knowledge breaks down and becomes error. I reach that limit every time I write. That's where all the insight waits.

I find it rather humorous that in its reaction against reductionist thinking, complexity reveals that knowledge always reduces reality. Yet, in a strange way and quite unexpectedly, this tension between a desire for holism and the necessity of reductionism is the zone of best complexity thinking. Complexity must operate in that hot, volatile zone between the certainty that our knowledge models reveal something reliable and testable about reality while at the same time leaving out something that is important about reality. In other words, we can be confident that we know something wrong. We can have reasonable hopes that it may be useful to us in certain situations, and we can be certain that it will prove incorrect in other situations. Strangely enough, we are both enabled by what we know and limited by what we know, equally. This is the hot zone within which human knowledge must work.

So what does Preiser say about the problem of knowledge?

Preiser addresses two core problems with modern knowledge:

  1. the failure of Newtonian/Cartesian reductionism to cope with the complex issues raised by the discovery of the quantum particle, evolution, and relativity, and
  2. the restructuring of knowledge itself in the face of these complex issues.

Preiser notes that our current dominant scientific epistemology follows from classical Cartesian/Newtonian, which in short, asserts that the descriptions of reality produced through isolation, observation, and the establishment of regularities describes reality as it is. Preiser claims that this reductionist epistemology works well enough for mechanical, closed systems, but is inadequate for dealing with complex systems with emergent properties, which leads to problems for our knowledge generating practices. She intends to correct this issue with a post-reductionist epistemology that incorporates a more holistic complexity view while coping with the necessary reductionism inherent in any epistemology.

She then gives an overview of Cartesian/Newtonian reductionism, which posits five key features of Newtonian natural systems: they are deterministic, closed, reversible, atomistic, and universal. This model became the basis of the modern scientific method and epistemology, and it was so successful that its assumptions of unchangeable, timeless properties and laws that govern the universe soon spread throughout Western thought. This view has a number of implications. First, natural systems can be known by analyzing and isolating their parts into elementary matter and interactions that follow universal and uniform laws. Science, and by extension true knowledge, is thus the process of classification, measurement, and rational organization. Newtonian reductionism was expressed in the universal languages of mathematics and logic, which precisely represented the real world as it is. 

But, Preiser cautions, the fault lines within the Newtonian scientific model finally cracked with the discovery of the quantum particle, that Gordian knot of interactions and exchanges rather than a single, unified thing. The Newtonian model could not formalize the behavior and fundamental nature of quantum particles. Moreover, relativity and evolution revealed that the concepts of space and time, absolutes in Newton's model, must be changed to account for new experience and insights. These ruptures in the Newtonian model allowed complexity theory to emerge as a new view of reality.

Many complexity theorists have recognized what Preiser calls the first problem of knowledge: that a gap has emerged between our knowledge of the world and the world itself because of the empirical difficulties of describing the physical and phenomenal characteristics of complex phenomena. The logic of classical science cannot keep up with the generative, flexible, and pluralist nature of knowledge needed to describe complex systems. Complex phenomena challenge the five Newtonian postulates mentioned above: they are non-linear rather than linearly deterministic, open rather than closed, contingent in time rather than reversible, neither compressible nor universal, but always unfolding in a local, complex ecosystem. Preiser insists that we need new methods and vocabularies to usefully describe complexity.

Preiser insists that developing these new conceptual frameworks for knowledge requires recognizing four different kinds of reductionism inherent in any knowledge system:

  1. Ontological reductionism claims that all physical and non-physical phenomena can be explained in terms of matter, particles in motion.
  2. Epistemological reductionism claims knowledge in one discipline can be reduced to another discipline, ultimately to physics.
  3. Methodological reductionism claims that all systems are best investigated at the lowest, simplest possible level.
  4. Causal reductionism claims that all emergent properties of a system can be explained by their causal relations to the basic elements of the system, thus denying any downward causation in emergent phenomena.

Reductionism creates a kind of blindness when knowledge seekers ignore the complex systems at hand to investigate the simpler elements and then to explain the complex system only in terms of the simpler elements or systems. This reductionism ignores its own blind spots in order to claim universal truth. Many with a more holistic sense of reality have argued against this reductionism, but holism itself cannot escape reductionism. Indeed, Preiser argues that it is impossible to avoid the four kinds of reductionism, which are all implicated with one another, and that most complexity theorists fall into one of two traps: those who see no distinction between the system and its environment in some holistic approach and those who insist that all complexity can indeed be measured and simulated by computational models to reveal universal laws.

Following Cilliers, Preiser insists that a rigorous understanding of complexity must be aware that any description of complexity involves some reduction of reality. This understanding leads to a performative tension that destabilizes the dichotomy between either holism or reductionism. It's always both. Thus, any engagement with complex systems is always a dynamic interaction among the nature of phenomena (ontology), our knowledge of it (epistemology), and our methods for studying it (methodology) in a dialectical (Cilliers) or a dialogical (Morin) process that Preiser calls general complexity, after Morin.

General complexity is at once coherent and open with the result that our understanding is never absolute but always contingent and skeptical of itself, allowing the researcher to reflect critically on her knowledge generating practices. She is no longer certain that her models fit reality like its mirror image as she shifts her focus from the properties of entities in classical science to the relations among entities and the echoing relations among relations in complexity science, which of necessity leads her to an entirely new epistemology as new knowledge requires new ways of modelling reality, new ways of framing reality to gather knowledge from it through observation and interpretation. But, as Preiser warns repeatedly, no model can capture the full complexity of any complex system as such systems are radically contextual and radically open. In some ways, a system's degree of complexity can be measured by the degree of difficulty in modelling the system. Any modelling system (a particular science or novel, I think) must decide what observables of a given real system to include and which to exclude in order to function as a model and to generate knowledge about that system. Knowledge, then, always limits a contextual and open system in order to understand it and use it, but it never knows when the parts of the system excluded by our models — which in the real system are still interacting non-linearly with the parts included in our models — will become relevant. Given that we cannot avoid the reductionism of any model, of any knowledge, then we must embrace up front and constantly the limitations of our models. An irreducible gap exists between complex reality and our knowledge of that reality; thus, to create knowledge, we must use reductionist strategies to be able to say anything meaningful about complex systems at all, but our models too seldom acknowledge what's left out, and thus they all have blind spots. This is the nature of knowledge as revealed by complexity: that knowledge is limited, but as Preiser argues, this limitation is not a disaster but a condition for knowledge. Limits enable knowledge. As Dutch philosopher Cornelis Anthonie van Peursen explains, we need a horizon that limits our field of vision for the act of seeing to take place. This horizon is formed by the interaction of the observer and the environment, and is situated in both at once. It is both inside (subjective) and outside (objective) the observer.

Having explored the first problem of knowledge, or the epistemological rupture that occurs when moving from the reductionist Newtonian paradigm to the complexity paradigm, Preiser frames the second problem of knowledge, arguing that knowledge generating practices and the notion of knowledge itself changes in the face of complexity.

Preiser complains that most current complexity science is still reductionist: concerning itself with measurement and uncovering regular laws — an approach that, according to Morin, recognizes complexity by decomplexifying it. The heart of the error of decomplexifying lies in the assertion that what is left out of the measurements and calculations are not of importance, but as Cilliers insists, they are of utmost importance as they are still a vital, perturbing part of the real system being measure and calculated in the model, and in complex systems, even small parts can have large effects (the butterfly effect of chaos theory). Preiser proposes Morin's concept of general complexity that replaces the concept of disjunction between emergent features of a system and its underlying structures with the concept of distinction between emergent and underlying structures that recognizes both their independence and dependence in the system. This is a post-reductionism that is self-aware of the blind spots of its own practices and disarms the animosities of opposing paradigms without uniting them into a grand monist truth. Post-reductionist denies neither reductionism nor holism, but holds them in dialectical tension and assumes that the most useful knowledge lies in the interplay of both. This new approach to generating knowledge requires a new language and vocabulary.

Preiser claims that complex knowledge is hybrid and difficult: because complex knowledge acknowledges dynamic relationships as well as entities, it is not static or fixed, but dynamical and provisional, not limited to a stable entity, a fact, but branching out to other knowledge regimes so that there is always a surplus of signification in which meaning is open, infinitely disseminated, and ultimately uncontainable (rhizomatic, in Deleuzional terms). The process of generating, storing, and using knowledge becomes a dynamic complex system itself. While, complex knowledge rejects both the absolute totality of knowledge and the possibility of representing something fully, it does not reject knowledge, truth, and representation in some anything-goes relativism. Rather, it challenges us to know and engage the limits of our knowledge, and to re-invent if necessary. In short, complex knowledge is the ghost of reality, and haunts those liminal spaces where knowing meets non-knowing.

So does Preiser clarify (reduce to a working model) this complex knowledge? I hope so. That's why I'll read the rest of her dissertation. But in this chapter she reinforces for me issues in writing fiction that almost all fiction writers and readers struggle with: where to put the frame of beginning and ending? what to put in the middle and what to leave out? and to understand the implications of all those forces that are perturbing the narrative but could find no space or time for expression. No one can tell the whole story, so how do you tell an engaging story?

I think the best writers have always understood intuitively the complexity of the world. Of course, formula fiction is a closed little system with neat actors interacting in highly regular and predictable ways (stock characters with fixed plots), but the best fiction is open to the world, mapping new terrains to see what happens, following ghosts in that liminal space between knowing and unknowing. That's the good stuff.