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.

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