Thursday, November 17, 2022

Rhizo Narratology: Infinite Descriptive Depth

My sidetrack into complexity thought in socioeconomic theory has led me to Bob Jessop's 2001 essay "Complexity, Critical Realism, and the Strategic-Relational Approach" which attempts to turn the chaotic conception of complexity into a "coherent explanatory principle" that can frame and sustain coherent scientific research, especially in the social sciences. I cannot judge if he accomplishes his goals for the socioeconomic fields that he is addressing, but he makes some nice observations that I think will be useful for clarifying rhizo narratology.

In this essay, Jessop explores the connections between complexity and the critical realism of Roy Bhaskar. To explore those connections systematically, Jessop explains that he must "reduce the complexity of complexity", noting that "such an act of simplification is an inevitable task for any agent (or operating system) in the face of complexity" (2). I find echoes here of Paul Cilliers' claim that anyone investigating complex phenomena must simplify the complexity in order to make sense of it. Our minds cannot comprehend the infinite richness of complexity, which always exceeds our knowing, which always extends infinitely beyond the horizons of what we know. 

Part of this excess of meaning stems from what Jessop calls the descriptive complexity of reality, the infinite descriptive depth of all phenomena, even the most simple. Jessop quotes Nicholas Rescher's book Complexity (1998): "There is no limit to the number of natural kinds to which any concrete particular belongs" (4). This means that we can never fully know anything, nor can anything ever fully reveal itself either to us or to itself, even if it wants to. As quantum uncertainty suggests, when a particle reveals its position to us, it necessarily hides its velocity. All of it can never be revealed simultaneously. 

Jessop takes this ultimate unknowability of complex reality as evidence that reality is independent of the human mind. He again quotes Rescher:

It is the very limitation of our knowledge of things — our recognition that reality extends beyond the horizons of what we can possibly know or even conjecture about — that most effectively betokens the mind-independence of the real. A world that is inexhaustible by our minds cannot easily be seen to be a product of their operations. (Rescher 1998: 52)

I connect this infinite descriptive depth — a poetic phrase that captures my imagination — to Siegenfeld and Bar-Yam's claim that complex systems are impossible to fully describe. They say, "A full description of all the small-scale details of even relatively simple systems is impossible" (2). So if we cannot completely know a complex system, even a relatively simple system, how are we to proceed in understanding a system such as the Trump narratives. Fortunately, Siegenfeld and Bar-Yam provide a strategy for analysis that seems promising to me:

… considering general properties of systems as wholes, complex systems science provides an interdisciplinary scientific framework that allows for the discovery of new ideas, applications, and connections. … sound analyses must describe only those properties of systems that do not depend on all these details. (2) … while attempting to characterize the behavior of a particular state of a system (e.g., a gas) may be entirely intractable, characterizing the set of all possible states of the system may not only be tractable but may also provide us with a model of the relevant information (e.g., the pressure, temperature, density, and compressibility). In other words, taking a step back and considering the space of possible behaviors provides a powerful analytical lens that can be applied not only to physical systems but also to biological and social ones. (3)

This requires a bit of unpacking.

First, we can consider the "general properties" of the Trump narratives "as wholes" or of any given Trump narrative as a whole. To do so, we must be mindful of the scale at which we are working. We can legitimately consider all the Trump narratives, stories both Trump-positive and Trump-negative, as a functioning entity with its own emergent properties. Then, we can consider those Trump-positive narratives as an entity with its own emergent properties. Finally, we can consider a single narrative (for instance, that Trump has been appointed by God to lead America back to righteousness) as an entity with its own emergent properties. We must be aware of the scale at which we are working, being mindful that some properties are legitimate properties of the entity at one scale but not necessarily properties of entities at other scales. Properties that we observe of all the Trump stories may not be properties of any single Trump story and vice versa. For instance, I suspect that the "Trump Appointed by God" story has religious properties that may not hold for all Trump stories as a whole.

Then, we know that we cannot fully describe any narrative or system of narratives, but by focusing on a given scale, we can narrow the scope of what we are trying to describe and thereby say more. I like this paradoxical turn of complexity studies: we can say more by saying less. We can say more by describing "only those properties of systems that do not depend on all those details" (2). This means to me that we must recognize the scale we are analyzing and work with the properties that emerge at that scale, temporarily ignoring the properties that emerge at different scales but do not significantly perturb the interactions at this scale. This reduction may be necessary for a systematic, useful study, but for me it carries inherent risks that the researcher must constantly remain sensitive to: determining what properties at other scales do or do not significantly perturb the properties and interactions at this scale is always problematic. As Cilliers says in his essay "Knowledge, limits, and boundaries":

In building representations of open systems, we are forced to leave things out, and since the effects of these omissions are non-linear, we cannot predict their magnitude. This is not an argument claiming that reasonable representations should not be constructed, but rather an argument that the unavoidable limitations of the representations should be acknowledged. (608)

For example, I can conceive of two complex narrative systems within the Trumpian narrative ecosystem that I might term religious and political stories. My friends and family tell both kinds of stories, and I can distinguish and consider those sets of stories independently as they have some emergent properties that are not shared (For instance, the religious stories define American exceptionalism in terms of a relationship between America and the fundamentalist Christian God, while the political stories conceive of American exceptionalism more in terms of a neoliberal free market.) However, I must always be aware that both camps are aware of each other and that the narratives of one may well perturb or be used by the other. Any reduction of a complex system to a single scale or single analytical lens is problematic even if necessary.

However, when we use an "interdisciplinary scientific framework" that encourages more researchers working at various scales and through different research lenses, then we as a swarm can say more. Such a swarm approach can mitigate the risks of reductionism. The risk of swarm writing, of course, is the resulting incoherence, at least to our minds, of the swarm voice. The swarm confuses our need for authority and identity, and this confusion is multiplied if the swarm is speaking about a swarm narrative. I will have to write more about the differences between expert authority and swarm authority, given that I am framing the Trump stories as swarm stories best studied by swarm researchers.

Finally, another strategy suggested by Siegenfeld and Bar-Yam for reducing the overwhelming infinite descriptive depth of any complex entity is to characterize "the set of all possible states of the system" (3). They are suggesting that we identify the phase space of the system in question and identify how the system fills out its place in an ecosystem, much as how a tree fills out its space in a forest or how a forest fills out its space in a landscape, and functions as a complex system. For instance, I might define the phase space of all the stories about Trump (probably too many for me to accomplish), or I could focus on a narrower scale of only Trumpian Christian fundamentalist religious stories to identify their phase space. I might actually be able to accomplish the latter. This reductionist strategy is not new as most researchers across the sciences and humanities try to limit their areas of investigation to reduce the amount of data that they have to process and to maximise their chances of saying something insightful and useful, if not novel. One of the first tasks of the mindful researcher is to identify both the system in question and the systematic approach, or lens, through which they intend to approach that system. I don't think I've successfully done that in this blog, but likely that's a task for an essay I might write.

I might say that a rhizo narratology, then, insists that story is one of our primary methods for reducing the complexity of life to an understandable, transferable, and manageable model that helps us understand the world. However, because of the infinite descriptive depth of the world, we will never run out of stories. There is always one more way to describe most any aspect of the world, even the limited part we consider human experience.