Saturday, April 4, 2020

Hermes: Covid-19 and Enough Knowledge

So I'm being given an object lesson in connectivity, exchange, and emergence, though not the one I want. Still, the pandemic is here -- I may as well think about it. I'll consider the virus in light of my readings through Michel Serres' collection of essays, Hermes: Literature, Science, and Philosophy.

I start with the introduction to the book by Josue V. Harari and David F. Bell who attempt to outline through a list of theorems Serres' program for exploring his primary thesis ("Introduction: Journal a plusieurs voies"). According to Harari and Bell,  Serres' thesis, first noted by Rene Girard, is simple: to demonstrate the passages and connections between the exact sciences with their regime of mathematical demonstrations and rigorous observation and experimentation and the human sciences with their more open literatures, myths, and discussions. Harari and Bell list 5 theorems that they glean from decades of Serres' writings and which, they say, suggests the contours of a program of philosophical study that Serres pursued for much of his life:
  • Theorem 1: In order for there to be an encyclopedic totality, this totality must be constituted as a theory providing access not only to a field of knowledge but to the world as well. (An encyclopedia that omits any of the multiple dimensions of knowledge is a false encyclopedia at the very moment of its realization: this explains, in Serres's view, the repeated failure of all philosophers of totality.) (xvi)
  • Theorem 2: Any theoretical exigency is inextricably linked to a moral or political exigency. (Theory always borders on terror -- something that has always been known in academic circles that engage exclusively in theory.) From this follow two corollaries: (xvii)
    • 2.1: A philosophy is not purely and simply the result of a free choice ; it always results from a double necessity, theoretical on the one hand, moral and political on the other hand. (xvii)
    • 2.2: The theory of science is akin to the theory of domination. Knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is always finalized by political practice : "To know is to engage in a practice implicated in the ideology of command and obedience." (xvii)
  • Theorem 3: There is no hierarchy of cultural formations. "It is not, it has never been the case that science is on one side and myth on the other. In a given myth, millennial tradition, or barbarous thought, the proportion of relevant science is probably as great as the proportion of mythology that envelops any given science." From which one may draw the following corollaries: (xix)
    • 3. 1: Science is a cultural formation equivalent to any other. Thus one passes from the cultural formation called "science" to any and all cultural formations. (xix)
    • 3.2: There is no "natural" hierarchy within the sciences. At any given moment, one scientific discourse may fall silent to give another scientific discourse or mythology a chance to speak. (In some cases mythology may even express or explain the emergence of a new field of knowledge. This happens for instance in the nineteenth century with the emergence of topology.) (xx)
  • Theorem 4: "Science is the totality of the world's legends. The world is the space of their inscription. To read and to journey are one and the same act." One must therefore conceive of a philosophy that would no longer be founded on the classification and ordering of concepts and disciplines, but that would set out from an epistemology of journeys, forging new relations between man and the world" (xxi, xxii)
  • Theorem 5: Order is not the law of things but their exception. (xxvii)
I find their outline of Serres' thesis and program very helpful, especially since I have not read as much of Serres as Harari and Bell appear to have (much of Serres' writing has not been translated from French to English, and my French is inadequate to the task), but this is a great deal to unpack. After all, Serres spent much of his life unpacking it (he died last year, 2019, at age 88). I don't think I have that long.

Fortunately, I have Covid-19 to help. Lucky me.

Harari and Bell start their overview of Serres' program with an epistemological issue: the problematic relationship between knowledge and the world, or reality. Humans seem to want a coherent, simple world and knowledge of that world, science included, yet everywhere we see evidence of multiple views of the world, and if we travel enough, we see multiple views of the world. This multiplicity disturbs us. We will argue over different views, and we will attack, conquer, and kill over different views. We might want to think that science is above this fray, but Harari and Bell point out that it isn't. Science, too, tends to believe in the mythical one Theory of Everything, the big TOE, that holds in all the universe, at all scales, and explains everything -- and by extension, gives us power over all things if we can just understand the explanation. Harari and Bell explain science's buy-in to the one world view this way:
Until recently, science had convinced us that in the classification of the spaces of knowledge of the local was included in the global ... Clearly this assumption implied a homogeneous space of knowledge ruled entirely by a single scientific or universal truth that guaranteed the validity of the operation of passage. Such a space differs qualitatively from a more complex space in which the passage from one local singularity to another would always require an arduous effort. Rather than a universal truth, in the more complex case one would have a kind of truth that functions only in the context of local pockets, a truth that is always local, distributed haphazardly in a plurality of spaces. The space of knowledge, indeed, space itself, would not be homogeneous or rigidly bound together, it would be "in tatters." (xii)
Serres, they say, rejects a simple view of reality and embraces a multiplicity of both reality and knowledge. Harari and Bell quote Serres from his book Hermes V:
No, the real is not cut up into regular patterns, it is sporadic, spaces and times with straits and passes . . .. Therefore I assume there are fluctuating tatters; I am looking for the passage among these complicated cuttings. I believe, I see that the state of things consists of islands sown in archipelagoes on the noisy, poorly-understood disorder of the sea, ... the emergence of sporadic rationalities that are not evidently nor easily linked. Passages exist, I know, I have drawn some of them in certain works using certain operators . . .. But I cannot generalize, obstructions are manifest and counter-examples abound. (23-24)
There is no Big TOE. Or to say it more comprehensively: there is no God's Big TOE. Actually, I'm not willing to say that in any absolute terms. Perhaps there is a Big TOE and perhaps it is God's Big TOE after all, but I am unable to know it in any encyclopedic sense. I can't say what Serres' final judgment of God's Big TOE might be, but he seems to suggest that he thought it highly unlikely. Rather, reality itself is too complex for a Big TOE: "the real is not cut up into regular patterns, it is sporadic, spaces and times with straits and passes." Serres clearly sees an issue between reality and the models of reality that we humans like to construct through our various knowledge regimes.

Knowledge can be thought of as a model-making activity: we try to capture reality in words, numbers, and images that we can share with others and that enable us to extend our authority over the real. Both the religious and scientific minded, in the West at least, tend to believe that the world was made for us and that we were given dominion over it, and both our religions and our technology have provided ample evidence to support that belief. Just like Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, we want one ring, one Theory of Everything, to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. We want one model of reality by which to exercise our dominion over the world. To my mind, this is the heart of fundamentalism -- political fundamentalism, economic fundamentalism, religious fundamentalism, social fundamentalism, philosophical fundamentalism, all fundamentalisms. Fundamentalism claims that there is only one reality, that there is only one valid way to view and understand reality, and that all other worldviews are false -- or in today's parlance, fake news. Serres rejects fundamentalism. So do I.

Covid-19 helps me explain why.

We -- by that I mean the world, not just the United States -- we are confronted with an enemy that is invisible to all our senses at the human scale. It is, then, demonic. Fortunately, science and technology have exposed this demon for many of us, but millions of us still don't see it, or hear it, or feel it, smell it, taste it. For these people, Covid-19 is demonic or a hoax, depending on the knowledge regime, the island, they inhabit. And lest those of you on the scientific archipelago are feeling smug because you follow Dr. Fauci and the experts at WHO, know that your knowledge regime is no less disconnected and peculiar. For some of you, Covid-19 is seen from a den crowded with screaming, schooless children who are driving you insane. That is a very different understanding of Covid-19 from those who see the virus from a hospital emergency room in tattered protective gear and with too many patients in the ragged process of dying or recovering.

Each of us constructs a model of the virus based on our own particular knowledge regime. That model comes from the reality we confront, our existing beliefs about reality, and the interactions between reality and our minds. Each of us will work hard to see the virus in light of what we already know, and each of us will find evidence -- hard facts -- that fit our model of reality and make sense to us. All of us will struggle to form a simple model that explains and gives us control over the virus, whether we see a biological agent run amok, a punishment by God for our wickedness, or a plot by the Chinese (or North Koreans, or Democrats, or whoever) to undermine our economy or Trump's re-election or both.

But Covid-19 ain't simple, nor is our understanding of it simple. Both are complex; however, the contagion itself is more complex than our understanding of it because models of something (knowledge of something) are always less complex and more simple than the thing itself. The best, the most complete and accurate, model of something is always the thing itself. Serres says in his 1977 article La Naissance de la physique dans le texte de Lucrece, "The best model is the thing itself, or the object as it exists" (202, translated by Harari & Bell). However, we cannot grasp mentally or physically the thing itself, so we make models that we can grasp and understand, but the model always reduces and excludes aspects of the thing itself, as Paul Cilliers explains to my satisfaction (see his article "Knowledge, limits, and boundaries"), and we cannot predict how the aspects reduced or left out change the behavior of the model and distort our knowledge of the thing itself. But they do change and distort. Thus, it is impossible to know anything completely with full fidelity, certainly not something as complex as Covid-19.

Am I suggesting, then, that knowledge is useless (if you can't know it all, then you can't know anything) or that any knowledge system is as good as any other (everybody is entitled to their own opinion, as my students like to claim)?


Both those claims are nihilistic and relativistic bullshit that lead to insanity and death. In the face of existential crises such as Covid-19, some knowledge is better than no knowledge, and some knowledges are better than other knowledges. In the apocryphal words of George Box, "All models are wrong, but some are useful."

Of course, a little knowledge can be dangerous, and we should always strive to gain more knowledge -- especially knowledge from outside our usual knowledge system, but we will all make decisions from positions of relative ignorance in terms of Covid-19.

So here's what I learn from Serres, and from Harari and Bell's interpretations of him: I will never know all there is to know about Covid-19, but despite that lack of knowledge, I must generate as much sense of the virus as I can, because I must be able to take action. To my mind, some sense of where I'm going is better than no sense at all. I want for my family, my community, and me to make it through the pandemic in good health. The more I know, then the better decisions I can make.

Given that I cannot know all there is to know about Covid-19, I must seek other knowledges, often from people I do not know. In the case of epidemics, I look first to epidemiologists. These people have studied plagues and contagions way more than I have, and I have faith that they want to stop the pandemic as much as I do. I access these people through media channels that I trust to tell me just what they say -- no more and no less -- so that I can expand my own knowledge and make my own decisions. I test these people for actionable knowledge. Does this new knowledge help me to make good decisions?

Even as I am taking action, I continue to look for new information. I look to the experiences of others who have already gone through the pandemic and either did well or poorly. Both have lessons to teach me. I read a case study of two side-by-side Italian provinces in the hard-hit Lombardy region, Lodi and Bergamo, that took different responses to the pandemic and had two very different trajectories. Lodi began social distancing on Feb 23 and Bergamo not until two weeks later. At first, the infection trajectories were almost identically upward, but within two weeks, Lodi's trajectory began to flatten while Bergamo continued its exponential rise. Social distancing seems to work. I don't even have to know why to know that it works. That's sufficient knowledge for me to take action.

I also seek knowledge outside the scientific knowledge domain. I look to spiritual, social, political, and economic knowledge domains. While I might privilege scientific knowledge in this case, I cannot ignore other knowledges.

I also reject some knowledges. First, I reject knowledge of those who refuse to seek knowledge outside themselves. Politicians or business leaders, for instance, who systematically remove and undermine scientific and technical expertise from an administration and who surround themselves with sycophants are left with too narrow and simplistic view of any situation, and to my mind, that results in poor decisions. Some leaders today have consistently viewed Covid-19 only through the only frameworks that they value, and they, thus, make decisions based only on considerations about how an action will affect their personal political power, economic profit, and social popularity. When confronted with a challenging situation, such people cannot rise above their own limited points of view to craft a more comprehensive plan of action.

This unwillingness -- perhaps inability -- to seek knowledge beyond oneself is a most damaging trait for anyone, but especially for leaders. Covid-19 makes that painfully obvious to me.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Hermes: The God of Exchange and Emergence

I'm reading through Michel Serres' collection of essays entitled Hermes: Literature, Science, and Philosophy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), and I need to write it out. It's a slow way to read that I don't use with most works, but Serres is one of those thinkers that I must take my time with, and I've always been rewarded.

What attracts me immediately about the book is the focus on exchange between domains that are usually separated: literature, science, and philosophy. Of course, you can throw economics, religion, and most any other domain into the mix, and Serres seems to do so whenever it suits his purposes. By its nature, exchange opens any domain to other domains. Moreover, regular and systematic exchange within a domain is a large part of what defines that domain. That's the nature of exchange: the pathway by which  entities move energy, matter, information, and organization among or within themselves. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that exchange is the way that entities facilitate the flows of energy, matter, information, and organization. And don't think of flows as laminar and unidirectional. Nature provides for plenty of backwash, misdirection, redirection, and resistance. Flow is not simple.

The Greek god Hermes is the dominant agent standing at the crossroads, gateway, or bridge of the points of connection across which exchanges are made. Hermes is the god of exchange. Whenever two atoms exchange electrons, there is Hermes. Whenever two Instagram users swap memes, there is Hermes. Whenever people share bread, there is Hermes. Uhhh .. and Jesus, who has clear hermetic properties. Connectivity means exchange, and networks and rhizomes are mapped by their exchanges, their points of connection across which things flow, back and forth. Hermes, then, is the God of Emergence, presiding at all the points of connection and exchange which enable the emergence of entities, from ions through societies to galaxies. Hermes is one busy dude. I suspect he is worthy of serious consideration.

The second attraction for me is how Serres explores the connections and exchanges between the humanities and the sciences. As the editors of this volume explain it:
There exists a passage (or passages) between the exact sciences on the one hand and the sciences of man on the other. This thesis in itself is not new. Since the pre-Socratics and Plato, there have always been attempts to link these two domains, to overcome an unfruitful division. (Harari and Bell xi)
It seems to me that the principle of exchange runs through all domains and through all our systems for modeling and expressing our knowledge of those domains: natural language, number, music, image, statues, scale models both real and computer, and so forth. And exchange scales. This blog post, for instance, is composed of letters which exchange data to combine and form words, which exchange data to form sentences, which exchange data to form paragraphs, to form posts, to form a blog, to form a blogosphere, to form ... well, you get the idea. Numbers do the same, exchanging information and organization to enable the emergence of new entities at multiple scales. Bodies do the same: particles to atoms to molecules to cells to organs to me to family to community to ... well. Understanding any domain through words corresponds to understanding any domain through numbers. Words and numbers are not the same. Each has its own strengths and abilities, but they each use exchange and connectivity to combine and recombine in ways that generate and move information and organization and that describe matter, energy, information, and organization. We can do words about words, numbers about numbers, and words about numbers and numbers about words.

Image: © NRAO Outreach/T. Jarrett (IPAC/Caltech);
So there are passages from domain to domain -- from science to literature, for instance. Energy and information and organization flow across the domains, but the exchanges are not easy and seldom obvious -- in part, because the exchanges always require a translation. According to the editors of the book, Serres is suspicious of "a homogeneous space of knowledge ruled entirely by a single scientific or universal truth" (xiii). Rather, for Serres, the space of knowledge and, indeed, physical space itself are in tatters, with pockets or islands of coherence and truth scattered about and with treacherous passages from island to island. Anyone who has travelled much in an archipelago of islands such as I have in the Bahamas and Caribbean will understand this fractal image: each island has its own character, just reminiscent of the last island, but too different to make the similarities reliable, and the passages from island to island are fraught with currents, eddies, tides, rocks, and sand bars that make travel risky for all but the most experienced.

Fortunately, Serres is well trained in sciences, literature, and philosophy, and he is fun to follow. And that's what I'll do for awhile. I want to see where Hermes leads us.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

#shc20: Reverence, Revelry, and Dialogic

Morin's concept of the dialogic is core to his concept of complexity, and it was one of the first aspects of his thought to grab my attention. It is also how I am framing revelry and reverence in this series of posts. I have used the concept several times in this blog. In a post entitled "Boundaries and the Dialogic", I say:
Dialogic is a form of thinking and talking that allows us to juxtapose antagonistic points of view without seeking to resolve them in a reductionist, Hegelian dialectic that simply moves "beyond contradictions through synthesis" ("Reform of Thought", 26). As Morin explains it, dialogic "allows us to connect ideas within ourselves that are thrown back on each other" and allows us to contemplate "the necessary and complementary presence of antagonistic process or instances." Morin gives the profound examples of Life and Death, which are as antagonistic as is possible and yet which are both bound up with the other. Indeed, Reality unfolds as the constant engagement and interaction of Life with Death, and the one does not make sense without the other, and yet they are still antagonistic.
In his essay "Restricted Complexity, General Complexity", Morin suggests that dialogic is one of the core engines of complexity itself which emerges and unfolds in the excluded third, in the tensions and turbulence between irreconcilable forces:
We return again to the logical core of complexity which we will see, is dialogical: separability-inseparability, whole-parts, effect-cause, product-producer, life-death, homo sapiens-homo demens, etc. It is here that the principle of the excluded middle reveals its limit. The excluded middle states “A cannot be A and not A”, whereas it can be one and the other. For example, Spinoza is Jewish and non-Jewish, he is neither Jewish, nor non-Jewish. It is here that the dialogic is not the response to these paradoxes, but the means of facing them, by considering the complementarity of antagonisms and the productive play, sometimes vital, of complementary antagonisms.
A and not-A. Irreconcilable antagonists, yet all the interesting stuff, all the complex stuff, happens in the turbulence between these two forces. I'm reminded here of Frost's poem Mending Wall. As two fellows meet in the woods to mend their boundary wall, the narrator insists that "something there is that doesn't love a wall." The neighbor counters that "good fences make good neighbors." The poem gives us a thesis and antithesis, and in our reductionist manner of thinking, we might reasonably expect a synthesis, but there isn't one. There is only the dialogic between wall and no-wall, and all the interesting stuff, the complex stuff, in the poem happens in the turbulence -- gentle as it is -- between these antagonistic positions. The poem leaves us with only the dynamic working out of life between two older men who meet once a year to mend the wall between themselves and thus join themselves. In Morinian terms, we have antagonism in terms of complementarity, and complementarity in terms of antagonism, with no synthesis in sight.

A few hundred years before Frost, Shakespeare captured the dialogic of life and death in his Sonnet 73:
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
Here is the interplay of life and death — totally irreconcilable antagonists — captured in the magnificent image of wood that feeds the fire that turns the wood into the ashes that choke the fire. Shakespeare neatly captures the feedback loops and recursive causations that make the turbulent fire possible and make the end of the fire inevitable. The fire dances in that tense, dynamic space between life and death. The fire emerges in the dialog between life and death — its life emerging, its death already present. Both the fire and the no-fire, the cold ashes, are already in the wood, and to understand life and Shakespeare's poem we must hold both A and non-A in our view.

In his book On Complexity, Morin says it more prosaically, though he too starts with the poetic:
We could take Heraclitus's famous words, which, seven centuries before Christ, pronounced in a lapidary way: "Living from death, dying from life." Today, we know that this is not a futile paradox.

In a way, to live is to endlessly die and to rejuvenate. In other words, we live from the death of our cells, as society lives from the death of individuals, which allows it to rejuvenate. But by dint of rejuvenation, we get old, and the process of rejuvenation falls apart, derails, and in actuality, we live from death and we die from life. (42)
For this study, I am framing revelry and reverence as complementary antagonisms that form a dialogic that brings life to the Southern Humanities Conference.

The Southern Humanities Council which convenes the Conference is an interdisciplinary, scholarly community which is southern, as our website explains, only in terms of its having been founded in the southeastern United States. We are open to all scholars and topics, though we usually have a focus for each yearly conference. This year's theme is Revelry and Reverence. This willingness to reach beyond the geographical and social limits of our name suggests both the revelry and the reverence at work within our organization. I want to explore that.

This 2020 conference is also notable as it will mark the transition from SHC's current and long-time executive director to a new director. Thus, the ecosystem in which I will study the terms revelry and reverence is under some stress. That can be important. In a presentation to the Seventh International Transformative Learning Conference entitled "Beyond the Heterogeneity of Critique in Education: Researchers' Experiences of Antagonisms and Limits as Transformative Learning Opportunities", Alhadeff-Jones explores the role of antagonism in educational research, especially from the perspective of Edgar Morin's dialogic. Alhadeff-Jones argues that diversity within a given system gives rise to "collective and personal antagonisms" (1) which can expose the boundaries and limits at work within the system. In fact, he says, antagonism is central to Morin's theory of complexity within systems and complexity thinking:
For Morin, the notion of "antagonism" appears at the core of a theory of organization: "[...] Organizational equilibriums are equilibriums of antagonistic forces. Thus, every organizational relationships, and then every system, comprises and produces antagonism and in the same time complementarity." (Morin, 1977/1980, p.118, my translation). Behind the apparent solidarity of a system (individual, group, institution, theory), existing antagonisms carry a potentiality of disorganization and disintegration. Such a phenomenon is constitutive of what Morin describes as a principle of "systemic antagonism": "the complex unity of a system both creates and represses antagonism." ... The organization of every active system, as long as it carries diversity and differences, suggests the creation and the repression of antagonisms, which appear through the active play of interactions and feedbacks. (3)
In this discussion, I prefer the terms friction or tension over antagonism as being a little less emotionally charged. Antagonism suggests active hostility to my mind, while both friction and tension suggests a wider range of interactions among elements within a system, not all of them unpleasant or unfriendly. Think here of a friendly soccer match, which exists explicitly to cultivate and exploit the frictions and tensions between the two teams, two players, even between a player's boot and the ball, but need not devolve into active hostility — though that's certainly a possibility as well. The players can all leave the field after a rigorous contest and still enjoy a beer together. But antagonism is the term Morin uses, and as long as we bear in mind that antagonisms do not imply active hostility. Rather, most of the antagonisms that Morin deals — though certainly not all — are natural, non-human antagonisms that do not contain a hint of active hostility. On Complexity uses the example of whirlpools created by the antagonism of flow and obstacle:
Often, in the meeting between a flow and an obstacle, a whirlpool is created, that is, a constant, organized form that unceasingly reconstructs itself. The union of flow and counter-flow produces this organized form that will last indefinitely, at least as long as the flow lasts and as long as the obstacle is there. That is to say, an organizational order (whirlpool) can emerge from a process that produces disorder (turbulence). (41)
In his presentation, Alhadeff-Jones says that complexity thought in the style of Morin approaches concepts such as "diversity" in a different manner than either traditional modernism or postmoderism:
Beyond a modern interpretation reducing "diversity" to the study of a phenomenon which could be ordered, and a postmodern interpretation reducing it to disorder and fragmentation, an explicitly complex approach invites us to understand it as a phenomenon, both ordered and disordered, organized through complementarities and antagonisms. (2)
This suggests something of what I am looking for in a study of two terms. To my mind, revelry can tend toward disorder and fragmentation, a disregard of standard organization and protocol. Reverence, on the other hand, tends toward order, coherence, and a high regard for standards and protocol. I will take an explicitly complex approach that looks at the conference through revelry and reverence to see if I can learn anything about the life and behavior of SHC. I will examine the use of both terms within the presentations delivered at the conference, but I will also look at the activities of the conference and the organization that tend toward revelry (disorder and antagonisms) and reverence (order and complementarities). My thought is that the organization may emerge from the dialog, the conversation, between revlery and reverence.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

#shc20: Reverence, Revelry, and the Local Observer

So I want to explore the concepts of reverence and revelry from the inside out rather than the outside in, but what does this mean? Well, let's use the method to discover the method. I think that's how Morin would do it.

So let's drop these two rather old-fashioned words into a context, an environment, and watch them work their way through it. Let's watch them find their place and role in this ecosystem, and along the way, I think we will learn more about the words and more about the ecosystem as both the terms and the ecosystem express themselves through their interactions with each other. One image that I like for this is DNA. The DNA of each term will unfold and express itself both through the activities and tensions of its own internal structures and resources and through its interactions with the structures and resources of the ecosystem within which it exists. This is a dynamic process. Along the way, we also learn more about Morin's approach to complexity thought.

Starting a study with a local situation is, by the way, an important aspect of Edgar Morin's method. In his article "Complexity, Methodology and Method: Crafting a Critical Process of Research" for the open journal Complicity, Michel Alhadeff-Jones provides an overview of Morin's "paradigm of complexity" in 11 principles. Alhadeff-Jones is attempting to provide a compact, coherent theoretical framework for "researchers looking for a ‘method’ in order to critically conceive the complexity of a scientific process of research" (19). The first principle he lists is "promoting interpretations starting from the local and the singular" (21). This makes sense to me. If you want to drop into a study and explore it from the inside-out, then you drop into a singular locality, a very specific place and time. As a scholar of English, I would normally drop my two words into a text or collection of texts to see how they behave, but I'm choosing a different context. I'm dropping revelry and reverence into the 2020 Southern Humanities Conference, an interdisciplinary, scholarly community with which I have been associated for about 20 years.

This is convenient for me. First, I am attending the upcoming #SHC20 — held in Baton Rouge, LA, in early February, 2020 — and the theme of the conference is Revelry and Reverence, so the two terms under scrutiny here will be prominent within the activities and proceedings of the Conference, and I will be there to engage, observe, and take notes. The Conference is why the two terms are on my mind.

Second, I have a history with SHC. This also figures into Morin's complexity method. Too often, scientific research captures a snapshot, freezing an otherwise living, evolving system (be it an atom, a book, an animal, a conference, or a galaxy) into a static image by which we can delineate elements and relationships. While a snapshot can reveal useful information, it also destroys the living thing. Alhadeff-Jones says that complexity asserts the value of "recognizing and integrating the irreversibility of time and the necessity to include history in any description or explanation" (21). I can bring some of the history to bear in my analysis. I cannot, however, be objective about that history. I'm part of it. I also cannot be objective about this study. Again, I'm part of it.

Dropping into the singular local to study a system (a conference, say) radically changes the role of the observer. In classical science, the observer stands to the side of the observed system with the intention of being as objective as possible so that she can record what is actually happening without disturbing it. Dropping into system, however, destroys any possibility of that objective, outside stance. In fact, as I read more and more complexity studies, I'm coming to believe that an outside, objective stance is largely a fiction — a useful fiction at times no doubt, but a fiction none the less. Starting with quantum physics, modern science is learning that observed, measured behavior is different behavior. When we look and measure, then we perturb the phenomenon observed and measured. As the double-slit experiment demonstrates, observed and measured photons behave differently than photons that are not observed and measured, and as any parent can attest, observing your children changes their behavior — sometimes for the better, too often for the worse. The observer becomes part of and entangled with the observed. This seems to be the case for all phenomena.

This predicament is made even more complex by the observer bringing to the observation all of their own limited, too often flawed resources and capabilities: belief systems, biases, technological supports, knowledge communities, writing habits, manual dexterity, visual and mental acuity, quickness of reflexes, energy stores, and so forth. We cannot see it all, and even the use of methods, techniques, and equipment cannot prevent us from selecting what we can see. We know that if we expect to see something, then we increase the odds that we will see it.

So I am studying the behavior of two terms within a conference to which I belong and with which I have a fairly significant history. I will tell the conference in the presentation I'm scheduled to deliver that I am observing and measuring the conference. This will change what people do, certainly, and that may change how the conference unfolds. Moreover, I will observe and measure with my own biases, strategies, techniques, and resources, limited and flawed as they are. And I will write my findings from my particular point of view.

How am I to cope with this overwhelming, local point of view? Morin says that we cope with the limitations and capabilities of our local, entangled point of view by recognizing it and making it part of the study. In other words, we include our own learning in the process of learning about the system at hand. We must allow our methodologies to emerge as a living, dynamic interaction with new phenomena, and we must dance differently with each new dance partner and tune. As Alhadeff-Jones says, we must embrace "the principle of relationship between the observer/designer and the object of study" (21). To do so, removes the certainty of an established theory and methodology. It challenges the certainty that we seek as observers of reality. Alhadeff-Jones summarizes it this way:
The paradigm proposed by Morin suggests challenges rather than solutions. The critical stake associated with it requires therefore being able to tolerate the continuous negotiation between order and disorder. It also involves rethinking constantly the organization legitimizing one’s own statements. Considering the lack of a granted method to cope with the challenges he raises, Morin’s position is grounded in a radical uncertainty. It depends on a permanent process of self-reflection bringing researchers to continuously examine their doubts, their ignorance and their confusion. (22)
Finally, SHC is changing its leadership this year. This can be a crisis in organizations, and though I do not anticipate a crisis for SHC, I do think the transition can open opportunities for both revelry and reverence. We are a small conference, and most of us know most of the others, certainly those who have participated over the past number of years. A change of leadership is likely to have enough tension and friction, however friendly, to expose the boundaries and limits at work within the Conference, and to my mind, the terms revelry and reverence capture nicely a point of friction and tension that can emerge as the conference transitions to new leadership.

Which brings me to Morin's concept of dialogic and my next post. Later.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

#shc20: Reverence & Revelry from the Inside with Mice

In my previous post, I looked at the terms reverence and revelry from the outside, starting with standard definitions and then measuring how they interact with their respective environments. These are traditional analytical approaches to understanding things in our world: pare down the thing to its essentials (a definition) and measure how it interacts with its environment. In this case, I found some definitions on the Internet from reliable, authoritative sources, including the Oxford English Dictionary, and I used a dataset from Google Books and Google's NGram tool to measure the rate of usage of each term from 1800 to 2000 and compared those rates to each other and to a couple of other benchmark terms.

I learned a little that I did not already know about reverence and revelry, and I created some genuinely new knowledge, perhaps some knowledge that no one else has ever brought to light about these two terms together and how they have behaved over the past two centuries as they traced their own, unique trajectories through English letters. This knowledge is useful in a modest way, but I'm not sure it illuminates much. It's a small knowledge.

This little knowledge also leaves me with the feeling that perhaps reverence and revelry have become irrelevant to 21st century writers of English. They are not concepts that readily come to mind in the everyday commerce and conversation of writers. There seems to be little room in books about business, technology, and science — or even in books about art and philosophy and religion — for reverence and revelry.

But perhaps I'm not looking correctly.

I've become aware over the past few years of Edgar Morin's call for a different way of exploring and thinking about our world — he calls it complexity thought — and I think that it might be the right way, or at least, a more illuminating way to think about reverence and revelry. I could start with Morin's own writings — and I will get to those — but I prefer to start with a Billy Collins poem, "Introduction to Poetry". After all, I am an English instructor and still teach writing and literature. (And yes, I'm aware that American English requires that I put the period inside the concluding quotation marks in a sentence, but I much prefer the continental style which puts the period outside the quote unless it is actually a part of the quote. The quotation marks go around the title of the poem, and that title has no period in it; thus, the period belongs to the entire sentence and not to the title alone. That makes more sense to me. Now — should I put a period after this concluding parenthesis?)

Sorry for the digression. To the poem:
Introduction to Poetry


I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
There's Morin's method in a nutshell: "Drop a mouse into a poem and watch him probe his way out". Define the poem from the inside out, not from the outside in. Ally yourself with the mouse, and let your method of analysis emerge as you follow the mouse toward meaning. Do not start with a meaning and method and then pare the mouse down until he fits that meaning and that method. Don't work from the outside in. In a 1956 interview in The Paris Review, William Faulkner says of his own method for writing Nobel-quality novels: “It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.” I do not know if Morin read Faulkner, but they seem to be saying much the same thing, at least to my mind. The observer, whether poet or scientist, must position themselves in the middle of things and record as much as possible, working outward toward meaning. Bruno Latour seems to take the same approach in his influential actor network theory of sociological research. These are all bright fellows, and I'm inclined to follow their advice.

Fortunately, Morin says more about his method. He wrote a six-volume work collectively titled La M├ęthode (not all of which has been translated into English) and the shorter book On Complexity which was my introduction to his thought about systems and complexity and is available in English. And others, notably for me Michel Alhadeff-Jones, provide analyses in English of Morin's French writings. Regrettably, my high school and college French is not commensurate to the task of reading Morin's untranslated work.

So let's drop two mice — reverence and revelry — into a maze and watch them probe their way out.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

#shc20: Reverence & Revelry

I'm exploring reverence and revelry for the upcoming Southern Humanities Conference to be held in Baton Rouge, LA, this Jan 30 to Feb 01. I will be using Edgar Morin's concept of dialogic to make sense of the engagement and interactions of the two modes of human behavior, especially as these interactions relate to the Southern Humanities community itself. Let's start with some definitions.

The online Oxford English Dictionary defines revelry as "the action or an act of revelling; boisterous mirth or merrymaking; (also in plural) lively entertainments; wild or noisy festivities, esp. those involving drinking." The OED says that the word developed within English itself as a variation of the word revel, a French word that entered English with the Anglo-Normans and means "noisy merriment". The English reworked the term to better manage it into something like "an entertainment or festivity", and eventually institutionalized revelries as a "department of the British Royal Household headed by the Master of the Revels". The OED connects revelry to the term reverie, which has senses both of "wild and uncontrolled behavior" and the more contemplative "being lost in thought or daydreaming."

According to Google's Ngram Viewer, use of the term revelry in English writing peaked in 1850 (.0001497566% of all words used) and suffered a steady decline until 1987 (.0000334220%) at which time it started to recover slightly in usage among writers of English.

1850 saw the publication of Dickens' David Copperfield and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlett Letter, the Brownings's Sonnets from the Portuguese and Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day, Tennyson's In Memoriam A. H. H., and Wordsworth's The Prelude, and Soren Kierkegaard's Practice in Christianity.

Use of the word reverence peaked earlier in 1823:

But as you can see, it has declined steadily ever since, hitting its low water mark in 1988 and pretty much staying there. To my eye, the usage trends are similar: both peaking in the first half of the Nineteenth century and steadily declining to the present.

If we compare the frequency of usage of the two terms, we see that revelry was never as popular among English writers as was reverence:

I'm not quite sure what to make of this data. It is factual, but I don't know if it means much. I would have been more satisfied if the use of reverence had bottomed during the Romantic era of the early Nineteenth century and picked up during the ensuing Victorian Age and if the use of revelry had trended the reverse, as that would fit nicely my view of the Romantics favoring revelry and the Victorians favoring reverence, but this data does not fit that pattern.

Of course, neither word seems to have ever been prominent in English writing. Their rates of occurrence in 1835, a midpoint of their respective popularities, show that reverence, which was used 24 times as often as revelry, still occurred only .0024% of the time in English. Revelry occurred .0001% of the time. This seems like very small rates of occurrence, but how does it compare to other English words, especially more popular words such as the (the most frequently used English word) and this (the second most frequently used noun)? Google's NGram plots it rates for us:

The word the occurs at a rate of about 5-6% in English texts and this at about .3-.4%. In other words, the occurs 5 or 6 times in every 100 English words of text, and this occurs a little less than once in every 200 words. This is a lot, especially compared to reverence and revelry, but we can see that the frequency of occurrence for all four words declines from 1800 to 2000, which suggests to me that they are all swimming in a larger pool of words. Indeed, science writer Richard Alleyne reports in The Telegraph that the "English language has doubled in the last century." He adds that researchers at Harvard and Google report that "the language has grown by more than 70 per cent since 1950." As the number of available English words and English writers grows, then the frequency of occurrence for any single word -- even a popular word such as the -- decreases.

Still, the decline for both reverence and revelry is much steeper than for the and this. Reverence and revelry appear to be losing their purchase on the minds of writers of English. Why? I can guess that the explosion of new knowledge in the physical and social sciences and in technology (think of computing alone) has given us much more to discuss and diverted our attention away from the old human concerns with reverence and revelry. I associate reverence with God, and so I charted the rate of usage for God (with a capital G) and found a decline in usage similar to that of reverence and revelry:

As you can see, God bottomed out in English letters about 1940 and has not recovered much since. I strongly suspect that God herself is quite well, but English writers are distracted these days with quantum physics, quantum computing, relativity, artificial intelligence, the Internet, gene splicing, global warming, and the cults of personality -- among a google other topics associated with the rise of science and technology and six billion new humans. Really, there's just too much to think about these days, and none of us -- certainly not I -- are bright enough to consider it all.

At a first casual hearing, then, both reverence and revelry sound a bit quaint, as if I am in a medieval chancery court listening to its slow, arcane deliberations about the estates of lunatics and the disposition of foundlings while clarions sound through the cold, open windows. But these are the terms, the parameters, of our conversation, and so I'm wondering what to make of them. That's another post, I think.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

RhizoRhetoric: Writing as a Complex System

I've been reading about complexity science and thinking — I prefer here the active form thinking over the static form thought, verb over noun, doing over being — and I want to write a few posts about writing as a complex adaptive system. I will shamelessly pilfer from some of the works that I've been reading to see if I can make some connections between the ancient art of rhetoric and the modern science of complexity. I start with Joss Colchester's short (57 pages) introduction into complexity: Complexity Theory (2016), which is accessible to most anyone interested in the topic.

For Colchester, complex systems are subsets of systems in general. He defines a system as "a group of parts called elements and relations between these parts through which they can function together and form a whole" (5). Colchester then adds complexity to the idea of systems, presumably to distinguish complex systems from other types of systems, presumably complicated or even simple systems, though he is not clear about this. I find it useful, then, to use Snowden's categories of the simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic domains to understand the distinction that Colchester is trying to make with complex systems.

As do many writers dealing with complexity, Colchester begins by noting that "there is no formal definition for it" (5), and then like the others, he lists some characteristics of complexity, noting that complexity can be treated as a parameter, or a measurement of something:
  • Complexity is a measurement of the number of elements in a system, with a rule of thumb that the more elements a system has, then the more complex it is.
  • Complexity is a measurement of the number of connections among the elements within a system, with a similar rule of thumb: the more connections, the more complexity.
  • Complexity is a measurement of the adaptability of the elements. The more elements can adapt to themselves and to their environment, the more complex they are.
  • Finally, "complexity is also a measure of the degree of diversity between elements within a system" (6). The more diverse the elements, then the greater the complexity of the system, as a general rule.
This can be a useful starting point for thinking of writing systems such as academic English as complex. Let's see how.

First, and obviously, writing itself is a system. It is a "group of parts" and "relations between these parts" that enable the system to "function together and form a whole". We can start with the small elements: marks (letters and punctuation) and work upwards through words, phrases, clauses, paragraphs, and more which all function together to make memos for your boss, tweets to your peeps, poems for your lovers, and research papers in your college chemistry class. All of the elements of writing relate in regular ways to other elements, and these relationships form the documents that make writing useful to us humans.

But writing is a system not just within itself but also within other systems — social systems, for instance. Within other systems, writing can act as both one of the elements within the system and as one of the connectors and connections among other elements within the system. Writing connects people — especially texting. Writing is also a part of educational and commercial systems, which I will explore more in future posts.

But is writing a complex system? Yes.

First, writing has lots of elements. I'm not particularly happy with number as a defining parameter of complexity. I think that some systems with few elements (slime mold, for instance) can be complex and some systems with many elements (jet airplanes, for instance) can be merely complicated. Still, by most any measure, writing systems have sufficient number of elements to be considered complex. A study by Google and Harvard estimates over a million words in the history of English, while the Second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary lists about 600,000 words with 171,000 words in current use, and an average of 20,000 to 30,000 words used by individuals. Those are big numbers.

Second, the elements in writing (from letters and punctuation marks to paragraphs) can be connected in countless ways to form an almost infinite number of different documents, most of which feature a surprising degree of novelty. Almost any writer of English can form a sentence that has never before been written yet is still recognizable as English writing. This is astounding.

Third, writing systems can adapt in almost infinite ways to each other and to their environments. We are all witness to the new writings (words, grammars, documents, and more ) that have emerged with modern electronic technology. This blog is itself witness to how a writing system can both map and adapt to new landscapes. Of course, spoken language adapts just as well, but I'm focusing here on writing systems. This means that writing can learn. More on that in later posts.

Finally, writing systems have a sufficient diversity among the elements within the system. In this respect, English writing is somewhat like DNA: it has only 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks with which to generate countless documents. Though we start with only 26 letters, they can combine and recombine to form countless other elements, just as the four DNA bases can (A, G, C, and T).

So, based on Colchester's brief definition of complex systems, I'm quite comfortable saying that writing systems meet the cut. I'll continue to look at other definitions, but I'm confident that writing will meet those definitions as well. So writing is a complex system. What does that mean? More on that in future posts.