I've been working on the idea of complex ethics, and I still have more to write, but I want to take a post to reflect on a larger issue. It seems to me that my writing about ethics is part of a larger effort to rethink the way I make sense of the world. I'm trying to rethink how I make meaning, and this has been made clear to me in several posts that I've read lately.
I'll start with a post by Jordan Greenhall in Venessa Miemis' emergent by design blog entitled "Kickstarter for a New Civilization". Greenhall argues for rebooting human civilization, starting with new sensemaking tools and strategies. He notes that while traditional science "has been a powerful sense making apparatus for the past 500 years", it is no longer adequate for the complexity confronting humanity. In a subsequent post, "Constructing the New Narrative", Greenhall identifies narrative as core to developing new sense-making tools for a complex world:
It is clear that in an increasingly complex world where your personal experience can account for only the tiniest sliver of potential experience, it is only through narrative — and its ability to allow individuals to benefit from the experiences of other individuals — that we can hope to collectively make sense of our world and become individually capable of navigating that world successfully.
Unfortunately, too much of our collective narrative, according to Greenhall, has been hijacked by malware. It's time to reboot.
Of course, rebooting narratives is not new, as I am reminded in Bonnie Stewart's post "temporarily embarrassed millionaires", in which she makes an intelligent call to reboot the education narrative, especially adult education, in the style of maritime Canada's Antigonish Movement. I think her call is timely, and I will attend to it to see if there is room for me to contribute. I suspect there will be. In the comments after the post, Bonnie links to Nathan J. Robinson's Current Affairs post "WHY IS “THE DECIMATION OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS” A BAD THING?", in which Robinson explains how we must change the narrative about public education if we are to cope with the changes in US public education that seem forthcoming from a Trump administration. Again, it's time to reboot, and I argue that while a pending Trump administration may heighten our sense of urgency, we've needed to reboot public education for some time.
Of course, in her blog Reflecting Allowed, Maha Bali has been calling regularly for rebooting the narratives that we live and work by. I could reference any number of Maha's posts, but I'll use the most recent, as of this post. In the post "On Noticing Absence (also #OER17)", Maha argues that absence is an important part of our narratives, a point too often ignored by data analytics, for instance, which are strongly biased toward what is present, not what is absent. We need information theory that accounts for no signal. Then in "On Noticing Absence in Algorithms part 2", she explores her issues with the persistent narrative about computer technology replacing teachers in education. Again, I sense that it's time to reboot our narratives.
So if I have to explain what I'm doing with this series of posts about complex ethics, then I think I am trying to reboot my narrative about how and why I should make choices that perturb the world. Our ethics are one of the ways we make sense of the world, and my ethics need rebooting. I believe the world is complex, not simple, and I need ethics that are complex rather than simple. Most of the ethics that I know are far too simple to meet the needs of this complex world. I thank my online community for clarifying that need for me.
I keep reading and developing my thoughts about complexity ethics, and as usual, the topic gets richer and richer. Emergence is a wonderful process that leads to more and more complexity. Emergence works in our readings and studies, as it seems to work in all complex systems. This is a principle of complexity with profound implications for education: the more we learn, the more we have to learn. Learning creates more learning. Learning a topic does not limit the topic, it does not reduce the amount we have left to learn; rather, it expands it. For every one thing we learn about history, we uncover 10 more things to learn (My numbers here are suggestive, not precise. The real ratio could be one to a million or billion or gazillion.). Beware of any curriculum that says this is the list of five things you need to know about biology, for instance. Rhizomatic education expands rather than limits knowledge. Education is lifelong—especially if you are thinking in terms of species and planets and not just individual humans.
And the more we write, the more we have to write. Writing about rhizomatic ethics, for instance, does not limit the topic. I don't have less to write now than I did when I started a year or so ago. I have more. The rhizome proliferates. It has asignifying ruptures, such as this one I am following now. I did not intend to discuss emergence when I sat down at my computer this morning in late November, 2016; rather, I intended to summarize my thinking about complexity ethics, or rhizomatic ethics, to introduce a discussion of how ethics emerges from and stains our choices about which flows of energy, matter, information, and organization to engage and how to engage them. But I wrote the topic gets richer and richer, and that comment led me to muse how Emergence is a wonderful process that leads to more and more complexity, and all of a sudden I was following a line of flight across the rhizome to something else. This touches, of course, on a practice I use in my writing classrooms: just move your fingers. Writing begets writing. Start with silliness, if you must, and something will emerge. One of the biggest issues facing my students is their overwhelming desire to finish, to write one complete, finished draft so that they can move on. Limiting comes later in writing, after you've expanded. You can't limit what isn't there. Trying to limit nothing leads to writer's block. Moving your fingers gets you going down a path, sometimes a silly path, but that's okay. Trim the silliness later after good stuff emerges. And have faith that sometimes the silliness morphs into the good stuff. Have faith in the magic of asignifying ruptures.
But I'll leave emergence and get to my summary. I'm insisting that complexity theory, which for me includes Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome, has much to say about ethics. (I use the terms complexity theory and rhizomatic theory interchangeably—complexity when I'm mostly talking about modern scientific thought and rhizomatic when I want to emphasize Deleuze and Guattari.) I can say this because I believe that all entities are complex, open systems, or rhizomes, that exist as a complexus, as Morin calls it, a weave, or better yet, a convergence of various flows of energy, matter, information, and organization like threads in a magic carpet called I from the inside and you or it from the outside.
I'm coming to believe that ethics is part of the very weave of reality; rather, the weaving of reality. Ethics is active, not passive. It's part of the process, not the meta-rules for the process. I'll start with the physics of it. In his 1968 book Energy Flow in Biology: Biological Organization as a Problem in Thermal Physics, Harold J. Morowitz notes two important ideas about complex, open, self-organizing entities:
"that energy flow alone can give rise to order in a system" and
"that energy flow is necessary to maintain order once it has been achieved" (26). Morowitz convinces me that complex, open systems (including humans) emerge, express, and maintain their lives as flows of energy. I prefer to speak of energy, matter, information, and organization as Morin does, but I suspect that the four are simply different views of the same flow. Einstein has already equated energy and matter, and information and organization certainly implicate each other. Claude Shannon's information theory exchanges energy for information in its discussion of entropy, and as Paul Cilliers says in his 1998 book Complexity and postmodernism: Understanding complex systems, "By replacing ‘energy’ with ‘information’ in the equations of thermodynamics, [Shannon] could show that the amount of information in a message is equal to its ‘entropy’." (8). I do not know of any information without energy, so as a shorthand, I'll speak of energy alone when I mean all four. I really do not know which came first: the Word or the Light, but they both seem necessary now.
So a view is emerging for me of humans as the nexus of various flows of energy, matter, information, and organization. I can say that a human biologically starts with the joining of egg and sperm (please, don't involve me in the U.S. abortion debate here), which creates a cache of electrochemical energy and information in the form of DNA. We can, at one scale, see this as a single flow as a zygote begins to unpack itself like a head of broccoli or an erupting thundercloud, but we should be aware that this process is a convergence of multiple flows of energy, matter, information, and organization from the initial fertilized ovum AND within the context of the enclosing womb (for a wonderful unpacking of this concept, see Siddhartha Mukherjee's lucid book The Gene: An Intimate History (2016). As the internal flows push the zygote outward, they immediately engage in interactions and exchanges with the womb, with the ecosystem, and flows of energy, matter, information, and organization are fed into the zygote to interact with and to modulate the emerging activities, processes, and structures of the zygote. The egg has just enough stored energy to jumpstart the process, but the emerging zygote must swiftly connect to flows of energy from the womb, its ecosystem, if it is to thrive. This drive outward fed by flows inward continues until the death of the system.
Of course, starting with the egg and sperm is a matter of habit and convenience, which points to one of the most challenging aspects of complexity thought: boundary issues. Traditional Western thought likes to posit clear, distinct boundaries—lines in the sand, walls, disciplines, jobs, narratives with distinct beginnings and final endings, and so forth, but boundaries of open systems, of rhizomes, are not so well defined or stable. They are messy and problematic. As Cilliers notes:
[I]t is often difficult to define the border of a complex system. Instead of being a characteristic of the system itself, the scope of the system is usually determined by the purpose of the description of the system, and is thus often influenced by the position of the observer. This process is called framing. (p. 4)
My own interest in genealogy has shown me that I can shift scales to frame different flows and trace a very different beginning for myself beyond the union of sperm and egg some 65 years ago. Given a frame of about 5,000 years, my DNA results show that I am overwhelmingly the result of DNA flows from Europe (97%), mostly the UK, but also from the Middle East (3%). And, of course, if I really want to find my beginning, I must go all the way back to a savannah in ancient Africa some 150,000 years ago. Though if I shift to another scale or frame, then I must go back to some primordial soup about four billion years ago. I do not have the resources to trace the flow of me at that granular a scale over such time and geographical distances, but I have no doubt that the flows are there. It's a bit like believing in a river even though I can see only a little way up and down the river at any one time. Calling the one bit of river that I can see THE RIVER is short-sighted and naive, but that is sort of what I do when I look in the mirror and say, "That is THE Keith Hamon." Well, it's just a part of me, just a snapshot of a very long flow of me that extends into the past and into the future.
I am the moving precipitate, as Randall Collins terms it, that flows across all the situations I find myself in, with boundaries like a cloud. As a thundercloud, I emerge as the self-eco-organizing conflux of flows of wind, temperature, electricity, water, vapor, light. As these flows merge and interact, I achieve a strange kind of autonomy through what Morin calls a principle of self-eco-organization. Self-eco-organization is an emergent phenomenon grounded on countless interactions that from our human scale and point of view usually appear as mechanical, deterministic, and mindless. Neurons fire or don't fire in our physical brains, and we can describe these patterns of firing in deterministic terms: one neuron fires, and if it fires with enough strength, another fires, and so on until a thought emerges. Clear cause and effect, nothing mysterious. If pursued by itself, such a reductionist view undermines the idea of autonomy of complex open systems. I reject that view.
Rather, I accept the idea of self-eco-organization that posits an autonomy in terms of determinism. For me, it works like this: as complex open systems, we must engage in various flows of energy, matter, information, and organization, yet at many points we are able to choose the manner and degree of our engagement. For instance, as a functioning human (humor me here), I have no choice but to breathe air; however, as my meditative, administrative, and soccer practices have taught me, the manner of my breathing is a choice that can dramatically change both my internal and external state at any given place and time. If I control my breathing, then I change myself and my situation. This choice to control defines my autonomy, a function of my self-organizing, but this autonomy is always a tense dialog between necessity and freedom. I must breathe if I am to remain a functioning me, but I can choose to breathe differently. Self-eco-organization. Freedom informed by necessity. Necessity informed by freedom. Keith Hamon as an emergent property of both freedom and necessity.
Many people want to focus exclusively on either the freedom to become what we want or the necessity to be what we are, but complexity thought insists that our autonomy emerges from the interplay of both freedom and necessity. To be dramatic, we all hang on a cross suspended between two thieves: absolute freedom on one hand and absolute fixed necessity on the other. Both thieves lead to death: either to the hot chaos of absolute freedom or the cold order of necessity. Both conditions destroy complex open systems. Both fire and ice, as Dante and Frost have noticed, lead to death.
However, as Morin notes—and this is the real magic—fire and ice also lead to life. Rather, the flow between fire and ice leads to life. It's the miscegenation between hot chaos and frozen fixity that creates life, just as the coupling of cold and hot air masses engenders thunderstorms. As Morowitz more scientifically explains it, energy flows from a heat source (in our case, the Sun), through a swarm of particles (in our case, the Earth), animating it, and then into a heat sink (Space). (I'm glossing here. For the details, read his book). While living, we are poised, vibrating, between extremes of heat and cold, and that vibration is life. That vibration is the turbulence of flows of energy, matter, information, and organization through a nexus that I, for instance, call Keith Hamon.
So what the hell does the flow of animating energy have to do with ethics? I'm glad I finally asked.
The choices we make about the flows of energy that we engage and how we engage them always have an ethical consideration, an ethical stain. The choices I can make about breathing air, for instance, lead to changes in my internal and external states that enhance some aspects and dampen other aspects of my internal/external state (I should think of them as conjoined twins—one state not possible without the other).
As energy, matter, information, and organization flow through me, they are modulated, translated, modified. They are refracted like light through a prism, which is different when it is released back into the ecosystem. Those modulated energy flows also involve choices, and the modulated flows perturb the ecosystem and eventually feedback to perturb me, but only after having been modulated yet again by the other complex, open systems (including other humans) that they have flowed through.
Energy does not flow through us blissfully unperturbed (with the possible exception of neutrinos, for whom the entire universe is essentially a transparent medium through which they flow unperturbed, making them very difficult to detect and impossible to catch); rather, the flows are turbulent. Flows percolate through us. We are not smooth conduits. No system is. Information flows in, but it does not flow out the same, as our parlor games teach us when we try to relay a simple story along a chain of partiers. This post you are reading emerged from my readings of Edgar Morin, Deleuze and Guattari, Paul Cilliers, Harold Morowitz, my online rhizo group, and countless others, but those information flows were modulated, distorted, perhaps tortured by the turbulent rapids of my own information processing whirlpools. Simply because I mention the names Morin, Deleuze, and Guattari, no one should assume that I am faithfully channeling their information. All information that flows through me is stained by me, changed, modulated, and that stain carries with it an ethical dimension. The stain of modulation perturbs me, it perturbs the information flow, and it perturbs the ecosystems I inhabit—even those I'm not conscious of. Things are different because Keith Hamon read Edgar Morin—even Edgar Morin is different, though he will likely never know that Keith Hamon read him. Keith Hamon bears some ethical responsibility for that difference. You, reader, now bear some responsibility because you read this. Each of you will refract this post this way or that, leaving your own stain upon it. All those stains carry ethical implications.
The prism pic above is, of course, wrong. It suggests that energy flows in pure and is then refracted. No flows reach us pure and unperturbed. All flows of energy, matter, information, and organization are already refracted and turbulent by the time we engage them, having passed through other complex open systems, other rhizomes, that left their stains first. We are then stained by and in turn stain again. Sunlight is perturbed by the Sun's own inner thought processes, is refracted by the cold soup of space, and then buffeted by Earth's atmosphere before it ever reaches me. Sunlight is further refracted by the plants I eat that capture sunlight through photosynthesis and by the animals I eat that first ate the plants that ate the sunlight. Sunlight, a fundamental energy flow, is perturbed all along the way, until I finally turn sunlight into shit. Shit is sunlight stained.
Many may complain that not all those perturbations have ethical import, that there is nothing ethical, for instance, about light filtering through the atmosphere. I suspect all perturbations do carry ethical implications, but it isn't an argument I wish to engage just now; rather for now, I insist that all human perturbations carry ethical stains. My choices about food (which food, how much, where and when to consume, and how to recycle that food) carry ethical stains. Ethics is not the only consideration, of course. We humans also have economic, biological, social, religious, and countless other considerations, but ethics is part of the mix and is ignored at our peril, in large part because these flows of energy connect us to everything and everyone else.
The energy, matter, information, and organization that flow through me also flow through everyone and everything else. Those flows are not linear, but nonlinear—in both the mathematical and metaphorical senses. They percolate, recycle, and ripple. I, then, perturb everything else and everything else perturbs me. We are, as Deleuze and Guattari say, connected heterogeneously: "any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be" (ATP 7). Those connections and the exchanges across them carry ethical stains.
Those flows and connections are multi-scalar. In other words, the flows of blood through my veins is connected to the flows of light from the Sun. Of course, the perturbations of my blood flow is so small compared to the flow of sunlight, like the ripple made by a small stone in a raging river—untraceable almost as soon as it occurs. Still, the connection is there, and this brings us to the third characteristic of the rhizome: multiplicity. Everything is a multiplicity: a complex, open system composed of myriad complex open systems arranged in a complex open ecosystem and all fed by flows of energy. Systems within systems. We host and are hosted. We are parasites, to use Serres' term in his 2007 book The Parasite, which carries a wonderful triple meaning in French: guest, leech, and noise. We are fed and we feed in return, from the microscale to the macro, and this feeding always carries ethical considerations. And because we are multiplicities, this feeding is never simple or discrete. We feed both from and to at the same time and across multiplicities. There is no unity, only flows of feeding energy, and some flows for awhile swirl in a configuration recognizable and functioning as Keith Hamon. Or as you.
Because there is no unity but only flow, we must expect asignifying ruptures (D&G's fourth characteristic of the rhizome) as one complex open system deterritorializes and reterritorializes, following lines of flight across the rhizome. To follow light again, plants feed on sunlight, and light ruptures into chlorophyll. Animals eat plants, and light and chlorophyll rupture into flesh, movement, desire. I eat animals, and light, chlorophyll, and flesh rupture into movement, desire, thought, and shit. Of course, the asignifying ruptures don't stop there. In fact, they never stop. They just morph along the flow. Each asignifying rupture carries an ethical stain—among other stains, to be sure, but ethical nonetheless.
And this brings me to the last of the six characteristics of the rhizome: mapping and decalcomania, which to my mind address what Cilliers identifies as two of the core issues confronting complex open systems:
Complex systems have to grapple with a changing environment. Depending on the severity of these changes, great demands can be made on the resources of the system. To cope with these demands the system must have two capabilities: it must be able to store information concerning the environment for future use; and it must be able to adapt its structure when necessary. The first of these will be discussed as the process of representation; the second, which concerns the development and change of internal structure without the a priori necessity of an external designer, as the process of self-organisation. (Complexity and postmodernism 10)
The ethics of mapping and decalcomania merits its own blog post, and this post is already too long, but I'll make it just a bit longer. For Cilliers, representation addresses how complex systems "gather information about that environment and store it for future use" (p. 11), or in other words, how the system creates meaning. Note here that Cilliers is not limiting meaning creation to humans; rather, ALL complex systems create meaning, a defining characteristic of complex systems, or rhizomes. To my mind, mapping and decalcomania are the terms D&G use for this inherent process of creating meaning and self-organizing in light of this meaning. I will write more about this process, but for now, I want to emphasize that creating meaning (mapping our worlds) and self-eco-organizing (responding to our meanings) carry ethical implications.
For me, the implications for education are clear: everything we do in education is stained with ethics. Actually, that is not quite correct, as it makes it sound as if ethics is something added on. It is not. Maybe I should say that everything we do in education expresses our ethics. Everything we do has a particular stain. We make choices that support the complex, open systems involved in education (students, teachers, organizations, communities, food services, traffic flows, local and national stories, and so on) or that undermine those systems. Most often, what we do supports some systems and undermines others. That ambiguity is part of the complex nature of ethics, and complexity theory helps me to see why complexity ethics is different from traditional ethics. I will write that post later.
But for now, I think I'm ready to write my summary: As complex, open systems interacting with other complex, open systems, we humans make choices about the flows of energy, matter, information, and organization that we engage and how we engage them. Our choices perturb those flows, dynamically and variously supporting and undermining our internal and external states, and those perturbations, those stains, always carry ethical implications.
I wish you all happy Holy Days. May the Word and the Light, however they flow through you, bring you peace, kindness, and safety.