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.

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