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.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Problem of Complexity: Self-Organization

The fifth and last of Preiser's characteristics of complexity is self-organization, which I previously summarized as the ability of complex systems to modify and reproduce themselves in order to cope with their environments. In other words, they are able to learn and to adjust to ensure their survival. At last, I thought, I had come to a characteristic that seems to divide living, animate systems from inanimate systems.

I can learn about my environment and modify my behavior and beliefs to cope. I can reproduce to continue something of myself. I don't think my house can do these things.

But I may be misunderstanding both my abilities to self-organize and the abilities of my house.

I, of course, am able to exchange energy, matter, information, and organization with my environment in complex loops that restructure me internally and my environment externally. In other words, my environment perturbs me, and I perturb my environment, and we can both modify ourselves to maintain our own integrity and to better fit with the other. These perturbations are reciprocal but not commensurate. Because of its immense size, the environment perturbs me much more than I perturb it. It's a bit like comparing the gravitational pull I exert on the Earth to the pull the Earth exerts on me. The tail does not wag the dog, though neither are passive.As an aside observation, however, note that if I combine with 7 billion other humans to create a modern consumer society, then that society can begin to wag the Earth, and this helps me understand our current ecological crisis. I must keep in mind that the environment, the Earth, will respond to the perturbations of seven billion ticks to maintain its own integrity as a functioning complex system. And I think the Earth is still the more powerful partner here. If it starts scratching its back because we are making it itch, then we humans may not benefit.

But this is not a post about ecology as such, but about self-organization. I perturb and am perturbed in return, but I notice that I have looked in only one direction: outward. What about inward? As it turns out, the environment inside me is just as big and as complex as the environment outside me. In other words, the distance from me to infinitesimal strings is about the same as the distance from me to the infinite stars. You can find some wonderful interactive animations that help visualize this seeming paradox here and here, but my point is that likely there is as much perturbation coming from inside me as from outside me, and I emerge as Keith Hamon in the whirlpool at a particular intersection of these forces. I do influence those flows of forces, but they influence me so much more. They create me. For a time, the forces coming from the stars and the strings weave a pattern that is me. And everything else, of course. I mean, it isn't all about me -- though in a way it is -- just as it is all about you. And your dog. And your iPad. And your planet. We are each rather nicely positioned at the center of the Universe, and the whole freaking thing works together to create each and every one of us.

These fanciful flights quickly land me in a mystical realm of mystery and awe which resonates well with me, but it isn't what I want to discuss in this post. I'm intellectually aware of these vast scales within and without me, but of course, day-to-day I'm aware mostly of the proximate scales just within and just without me: does my stomach hurt? is my family excited about Christmas? These scales form my day-to-day reality, and while I'm always aware that my feet stay on the ground because of the gravitational pull of the Earth, I often forget that I can go crazy because of the pull of the Moon, only one scale removed farther out. Or while I'm aware that my muscles one scale inward ache after exercising, I'm blissfully unaware when one cell in my lungs -- just one scale farther in -- mutates, becoming cancerous in reaction to the perturbations of working with asbestos fifty years ago (I don't know that this has happened, but it could -- I do know about the Moon).

In short, I can learn and self-organize. I can somewhat sense the forces moving around and through me, and I am somewhat resourceful enough to adjust myself to find a better fit with those forces: deflecting some, modifying others, washing in a few. I've been doing this since my embryonic phase in the womb when my cells started unpacking themselves using the energy, matter, information, and organization supplied by DNA and the womb. Can my house learn and adjust itself?

I suspect that most of us think of learning as an intellectual task, and much of formal learning is, but complexity tells me that learning is any ability to sense and to respond at any scale to the forces flowing within and without us. I'm thinking now that most learning is not intellectual or conscious at all. I coached soccer for years, and I became aware that most of my players who became adept at some skill had no conscious idea of how they were able to capture a ball out of the air while simultaneously turning to move toward the opponent's goal. They just did it, or didn't. Those who did didn't know why they could do it anymore than those who didn't knew why they couldn't. My attempts at explanation were mostly vapid and useless, because I didn't know either. Somehow, that one's body could learn that trick, and the other body could not.

I say body to distinguish it from intellectual mind. Our feet learn quite aside from our conscious control. With no immediately conscious help from my mind, my immune system learns about new invaders and then fights epic wars throughout the galaxy within me. Star Wars is not just in my mind, but literally in my body, and thus far, the good guys are winning, though there have been some close skirmishes.

So if learning is not an exclusive privilege of human intellect -- however much I may value it -- then how far does learning extend through the Universe. My immune cells, obviously, can learn. Dogs and trees learn. I recall how the dwarfish oak trees on the south Texas coastline bend inward from the prevailing Gulf winds. This is not an innate growth pattern of oak trees; rather, these trees have learned to cope with their environment, using what range of responses they have available. Slime mold and viruses can learn. If viruses can learn, are we very far removed from carbon and oxygen learning?

I tend to think of hydrogen coupling with oxygen as a rather mechanical process, but perhaps all coupling from atoms to humans to galaxies are to some degree complex behaviors that lead to new forms. They do, of course. The coupling of hydrogen and oxygen leads to water. My own coupling with a woman led to a life-long relationship and to two sons. My coupling with other Georgians this past November led to a victory for Joe Biden and the overturn of the Trump Administration. The coupling of the stars led to the Milky Way and Earth. The Ancients may have been right: it's all coupling, all the way in, all the way out. And while there are mechanics to the coupling in its myriad forms, it is never merely mechanical. Coupling can not be reduced simply to its parts and mechanics. It is always purposeful and meaningful.

Well, I seem to have landed myself into some kind of Gaia theory. I didn't expect that, and it's clear that I have much thinking to do before I sort this out in my head, but I'm not likely to do it in this post.

Let me summarize what I mean by self-organization in complex systems. First, I'm convinced that to some degree, all entities are complex: from rocks and water to human brains and galaxies. Then, all these systems, including my house, can sense their internal and external environments and can respond -- however slowly and in however limited or expansive a range -- to those perturbations. They can all self-organize.