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 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.