Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Rhizo Narratology: Decentralized Processes

A friend has asked me to work with him on applying complexity to the academic field of public policy. Our cooperation may lead to an article or two eventually, but it has already led me to some interesting reading in Gonzalo Castañeda's recent textbook The Paradigm of Social Complexity (2020) and Bob Jessop's studies in complexity and critical realism. I think their applications of complexity thought to socioeconomic theory have something instructive to say about how I can apply complexity thought to the study of narrative. I'll start with the more accessible text from Castañeda.

Castañeda opens his textbook with an argument about why the social sciences need to change to the complexity paradigm for creating new knowledge about social reality. I'm sure his argument is important to social scientists, but for me, he becomes relevant in the second chapter: "Vision and modelling of complexity" in which he "contextualizes the paradigm of complexity within the socioeconomic field" (61). He begins by insisting that the "paradigm of complexity offers a universal vision of how the world works" (61). It's a bold statement, but I suppose it's an engaging way to begin a textbook that is arguing for a new way of thinking about the natural and social world. Castañeda's new vision begins with two characteristics of complexity: decentralized systems and emergence. He says that complexity "adopts as a fundamental premise the decentralised character of natural and social systems" in which "the continuous interaction of agents at a certain level of analysis … gives rise to properties and patterns at another level" (61). This position has a couple of immediate implications for narratives.

First, if Castañeda is correct, then a narrative is a complex system of meaning-making that is decentralized. This view renders highly problematic the traditional view of authorship, which says that a story is the product of a single author, often a genius if the work is deemed of high value. In other words, a story is the work of a single, centralized agent, and typically, that agent gets all the praise or blame for the work. Castañeda provides an alternative, complex view of the emergence of complex systems such as stories, and though he is speaking almost exclusively of socioeconomic systems, I find his perspective useful in my own emerging narratology.

In his section about "Decentralized processes" (63-67), Castañeda addresses directly the issue of modern society's tendency to attribute the emergence of socioeconomic systems to centralized players, or great men — and they are still mostly men — who make things happen: Steve Jobs, Lennon-McCartney, Nelson Mandela, or Donald Trump. We progressive-minded people can celebrate that at last some women are being included in this conversation about movers and shakers, but that blinds us to the fact that we are still characterizing complex systems as the result of central agents of whatever gender or social status. Complexity science, however, demonstrates — convincingly to my mind — that complex systems emerge from the interactions of all the agents within a system with little or no centralized control.

But! we protest, Jobs, Lennon-McCartney, Mandela, and Trump did all those things, and certain socioeconomic and artistic systems — the effects of their work — can be traced back directly to those great minds and to their work in a clear cause-effect relationship. Can't it? Well, yes, it can. But as Castañeda notes this reductionist view of a single, simple cause-effect blinds us to the work of the complex system without which none of these truly powerful agents could have accomplished what they did. The problem is that even within a complex system of interacting agents, some agents gain more power and status than other agents, which focuses our attention on them, but this in no way cancels the overwhelming power of the system. Yes, Steve Jobs and his iPhone perturbed the socioeconomic systems of much of the world — certainly more than I ever will — but this does not cancel the fact that the socioeconomic systems perturbed him more or that those larger systems enabled all that he accomplished. As Castañeda says:

The fact that theories of complexity emphasise the relevance of decentralised processes does not mean that all the agents of a system impact the observed macroscopic regularities in the same way. The decentralisation of these systems has to do with the interaction of a multiplicity of agents with potentially very diverse behaviours. For example, … the presence of absolutist monarchies and dictatorships does not rule out that historical processes and the construction of formal and informal institutions are the product of the interactions between agents and their mechanisms of adaptation to the environment. (63)

Likewise then, the presence of Steve Jobs does not mean that the iPhone is directly attributable to him as the sole causal agent. This is too simple a view. Rather, the iPhone emerged from "the interaction of a multiplicity of agents with … very diverse behaviors." While focusing on Steve Jobs can help us learn much about the iPhone, it blinds us to the larger systemic forces that worked with and supported the brilliant efforts of Steve Jobs to change the world and make a billion bucks in the process. Yet, too many stories in the popular press about the iPhone make Jobs the sole protagonist, the hero, and they promote our human tendency to hero worship. To understand the iPhone, we must consider the complex system within which it emerged. Castañeda argues that this focus on a central agent is akin to our ancient tendency to see first the Earth and then the Sun as the center of the universe. Those two agents, of course, pulled harder on us and shined brighter and blinded us to the fact — only recently discovered in history — that we are not the center of the universe or the pinnacle of evolution. Our focus on a central, causal agent obscures our vision and truncates our understanding of the system in question, such as the iPhone.

Modern science and even many modern social movements such as the #metoo, the Arab Spring, and Black Lives Matter plainly demonstrate the operations and character of complex systems, yet we are still dominated by a centralist mental scheme that makes more sense to us. We need a Jobs or Mandela or a Club of Rome to make sense of events. As Castañeda explains it:

At the end of the 20th century, the world experienced decentralising movements that emerged in different socioeconomic arenas. … In spite of this clear tendency in the contemporary world, Resnick (1997) maintains that the human being interprets his/her environment with a centralist mental scheme. In the field of academia, this vision is not innocuous, since it affects the way in which a large number of researchers explain social and natural phenomena. … This same centralist propensity explains why … the public in general – and some academics – assign the misfortune of economically backward countries to the designs of the powers ‘controlling’ the international economic order. (64-65)

I think this centralist mental scheme still holds sway in most narratologies. We need a single agent to explain a text — a Mark Twain to account for Huckleberry Finn. In a rhizo narratology, Mark Twain is insufficient — necessary, but insufficient — as the sole source of Huckleberry Finn. Clearly, Twain is a primary source, but like the Sun, he can blind us to the fact that Huckleberry Finn has emerged from the complex interactions of countless agents in the 138 years since it was first published. Reading the novel today, for instance, must account for its presence in hundreds of classrooms across the United States and the interactions of all those students and teachers engaging the great American novel and the interactions of all those literary scholars who declare Huckleberry Finn to be the great American novel and those who disagree and the interactions of all those other story tellers who are trying not to echo Huckleberry Finn too closely. The text has quite gotten away from Mark Twain — if we can even claim that he ever had it — and has taken up its own life in a complex world that Mark Twain could have hardly imagined.

I think I will have to change the ways that I talk about narrative. For instance, I speak of Trump's incompetence in handling the pandemic, when I know that the American response to the pandemic emerged from the complex interactions of millions of agents, including Trump, but not limited to Trump. Trump, of course, is a prominent character in the American pandemic story, perhaps even a prominent author of that story, and it is convenient and familiar to speak of him as the central author or character, but it is misleading to do so. Our pandemic story emerged from the swarm, not from a central character or author.

This does not mean that we cannot learn something about the pandemic by looking closely at the words and actions of Donald Trump. We can. But it does mean that if we look only, or even primarily, at Trump, then we will not understand the pandemic narrative. Almost all of the story came from the swarm. Trump channeled that story, giving it focus and prominence by association with his already prominent status in America. He did not craft that narrative alone. At most, I might say that Trump channeled the pandemic story as well as the stolen-election story to his own ends, but those stories would have been stillborn if not for all the other systems that engaged the stories positively, negatively, or neutrally. We all wrote those stories.

I'm thinking now that Mark Twain did not craft the Huckleberry Finn narrative alone and that to frame the novel that way is ultimately misleading even though it provides scholars and general readers some useful focus and insight. It also helps explain certain socioeconomic aspects of the novel. Society knows who to credit with fame and money or who to blame and ban: Mark Twain. As Castañeda explains, our Western culture is trapped in its centralist mental scheme. We want authors and protagonists. As Serres explains in his book Genesis, we do not like the swarm. We don't know how to count or account for the swarm.

Little clarifies this centralist tendency more than the #metoo narrative which emerged on social media — mostly Twitter — in 2017, catalyzed by a tweet from Alyssa Milano. Millions of women worldwide engaged the narrative over the next year, swarm writing a narrative about the abuse of women by men. Popular stories about #metoo almost always focused on Milano as the author or at least the catalyst for #metoo, and when someone discovered that activist Tarana Burke had used the term, if not the hashtag, on MySpace in 2006, then public media scrambled to make sure that Burke got the credit, or blame. I'm insisting that neither Burke nor Milano wrote the #metoo narrative. Rather, millions of women wrote it, but we don't really know how to speak of that. What do we call all those nameless, unknown people? It's much easier to speak of the well-known Milano or the woke Burke as the true author of #metoo, when they are not.

I am not dismissing or denigrating the roles of Milano or Burke. Both were prominent agents in the #metoo narrative, and we can truly learn something about #metoo by examining them closely. However, if we ignore the overwhelming contribution of the swarm, then we misunderstand the narrative. Had those millions of women not engaged Milano's original tweet, then I would not be discussing the #metoo narrative, Milano, or Burke. Neither would anyone else — at least, not in this context.

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