Archive for November, 2020

Just starting

So it occurred to me

I’ve decided to try typing. Just start. Not looking sideways at the overwhelming, suffocating mass of things I could maybe include. It’s paralysing. The possibilities. The variations. Jump in.

It reminds me of our childhood backyard pool. I’d try easing myself in, getting used to the cold slowly, but the others would laugh or splash me. It was better to dive, swim a couple of laps, then call up to those still hesitating. “Come on in, the water’s lovely!”

Complex. Those shifting childhood rivalries and pacts. The patterns of shadows criss-crossing ripples  as we played in the water. The lacework of the jacaranda above us, always dropping something – blossoms, twigs, leaves. The endless summers.

Complex is not the same as complicated. Things like jumbo jets are what Paul Cilliers calls “merely complicated”. There’s an enormous number of parts – but you can list them, group them in component systems, analyse the workings and understand the whole. In a complex  system there are shifting connections between the parts, between the system and its environment, feedback loops, non-linear interactions. There are no clear beginnings or endings, no single or repeating paths.

Now I’m reminded of Jane Hirshfield in Ten Windows: “Two plus two will always equal four. A sonnet or string quartet is infinite in its reaching through us.” Hirshfield quotes physicist Niels Bohr: “The difference between ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ is that a fact must be either true or false, while two opposing truths can be equally right, resonant, and informing.”

And suddenly we’re tiptoeing around because it would be easy to go down paths of different orders of infinity or the inability to prove all truths in axiomatic systems of maths. Which is exactly where I don’t want to be. Let me point at that shiny and attractive object over there…

… and we’re back to just typing. Going back to Cilliers and his chapter Approaching complexity.

Since we are in the midst of this process of change, a clear description of what is happening is not easy, but the heart of the matter is that our technologies have become more powerful than our theories. We are capable of doing things that we do not understand.

Change. Earlier I quoted from Jane Hirshfield’s chapter Poetry, Transformation, and the Column of Tears. Which doesn’t sound entirely enticing, but then we find:

We look to particular works of art, and to art in general, to renew and change our lives.


poems offer [a] transforming intimacy, one that collapses all distance entirely. This intimacy lies in the basic condition of comprehension we bring to the realm of art: in art’s transparent rhetoric, whatever enters awareness is experienced as part of, as continuous with, the self. The most recalcitrant object or fact, placed in a poem, is no longer fixed in the outer. It is alloyed with the reader’s or writer’s experiencing self – inside the body and memory, inside felt expectation, the murmur of music, the lifting or slowing of pulse and breathing.

which to me suggests the importance not only of transformation, but of welcoming the complexity of ourselves and our world, of being aware of and open to that multitude of paths and possibilities. That sometimes so overwhelm me, even in something so simple as trying to tie down some of what I’ve been reading and thinking about lately.

Circling back to Cilliers, not far below my last  quote from him we find

The power of technology has opened new possibilities for science. One of the most important scientific tools has always been the analytical method. If something is too complex to be grasped as a whole, it is divided into manageable units which can be analysed separately and then put together again. However, the study of complex dynamic systems has uncovered a fundamental flaw in the analytical method. A complex system is not constituted merely by the sum of its components, but also by the intricate relationships between these components. In ‘cutting up’ a system, the analytical method destroys what it seeks to understand.


We have to deal with what we do not understand, and that demands new ways of thinking.

Which leads to another connection. The changes, the new ways of thinking, demanded by an earlier once-new technology – writing. I’ve only read a bit of Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy, and viewing through the lens of a highly literate person in a highly literate society the idea of an oral culture is near-impossible to comprehend without distortion. Still, I’m going to cherry-pick a bit:

abstractly sequential, classificatory, explanatory examination of phenomena or of stated truths is impossible without writing and reading. Human beings in primary oral cultures, those untouched by writing in any form, learn a good deal and possess and practice great wisdom, but they do not ‘study’.

Mashing that up, the incredible technology of writing supported the abstract analytical scientific method, and now the incredible technology of modern computers can support moving beyond simplifications of the analytical method to approach complex systems.

Which is not to dump the analytical method, which can remain a useful tool – but now in a different context. And I finally get to a connection I wanted, to Johanna Drucker and a boom-bang knock you out series of quotes (because I have them in my notebook blog and it’s all gold)

“dislodging the centrism of Western epistemologies, in particular those grounded in the administrative sensibility with its peverse attachment to control through standardization and normalization.”

“The differential algebra of the humanistic world always has a factor of experience in it, a recognition that knowing is situated in lived lives, human beings, whose individual experience is always in process, always interpretative. Will we think differently because of the ways interpretation takes shape across networked contingencies?”

 “We may yet awaken the cognitive potential of our interpretative condition of being, as constructs that express themselves in forms, contingently only to be remade again, across the distributed condition of knowing.”

“Our responsibility is to infuse the engineering capability with an imaginative sensibility.”

Drucker asks

“How can we create fragmented and correlated points of view that connect one mode of analysis and display to another in a way that makes their connections legible?”

and how to enable

“framing, enframing, entanglement, hierarchy, listing, and other schematic strategies of composition? These involve the production of multilinear discourse as well as non-linear modes (even though the alphanumeric sequence will persist, visual, audio, tactile, and simulacral modes will increase.”


“The social futures of activities and effects, concepts and practices, exist in an unbounded and often unframed and non-delimitable tissue of associated links and trails.”


Let’s take a step back from Drucker’s exciting, emboldening, and very difficult, challenge to take the charts and statistics and data visualisations of science and analysis, and to modify them to enable a humanistic version of knowledge production through visual forms. Forms that reveal and allow one to explore the complexities of our lives rather than putting society into a straight-jacket of pre-aggregated types and life stages and goals.

It all sounds very theoretical, very abstract. But this year we’ve all been living very directly with computer models and statistics that drive where we can go, inform how we behave, who we can interact with, all with life-changing, potentially life-ending, outcomes. The complexity, the connections, the stakes … what can I say that doesn’t  seem trite and beside the point?

This year I’ve appreciated news reports that make the effort to remind us that statistics are actually individuals, their lives and families.


I return yet again to just typing. What are the options?

With an uncomfortable lurch, I turn to consider an essay by Ross Gibson which has provoked me. Has led me on this difficult chase. To this particular path of links and dead-ends and minor revelations.

To summarise and paraphrase in a very unreasonable way, Gibson seems to suggest that in our complex world, facing crises that demand transformation in our lives, we need to contain the infinities and windows opened by art, reduce them, limit and explain them, to make them acceptable to government actuaries. To committees. To scientists. To academics and scholars.

Rather than opening possibilities and minds, he wants to keep them safe and cozy. No, no, don’t worry about the myriad possibilities we face. Don’t worry about all that nasty complexity, that ambiguity, here’s a nice little formula that converts it back into the analytical methods we all know and love. Knowledge, certainty, progress – all are still possible and meaningful. Just check my numbers and this handy-dandy chart.

Provocation. Charlotte Wood writes about “the grit of discomfort and disorder”, of taking the time to look at what annoys and unsettles us, that has the capacity to make us feel bad – ashamed, lonely, angry, fearful, confused, disgusted…

Wood contends that to attempt to understand the unknowable and uncomfortable, to put in the hard work without necessarily any epiphany or resolution, to struggle, has its own reward. “In their radical otherness they have forced me to think, and that is suddenly more transcendent and precious than beauty.”

Provocation. To work from a position of provocation is exhausting. I know, because I have a long history of getting annoyed by something, making sweeping declarations of disapproval, then putting in time and effort and proving myself wrong. Wrestling with grit gives me focus, purpose, calls forth energy. But it’s often a negative, draining energy.

To the extent there are beginnings, this piece of research, of writing, was provoked by reading Ross Gibson. I’ve tried to narrate a path through complexity – his writing, some of his references, other recent reading – that I have taken to reach the provisional conclusion that I still disagree with Gibson’s analysis. In lots of ways and for lots of reasons that I haven’t covered here. But that’s one of the things about a path through a complex system – you can never narrate it all. And why would you seek to? I’m with Robert Francis who seeks “the old obliquity of art” which “proves  / Part may be more than whole, least may be best.”


Paul Cilliers, Complexity and postmodernism

Johanna Drucker, Graphesis: Visual forms of knowledge production

Robert Francis, Part for the Whole

Ross Gibson, The known world

Jane Hirshfield, Ten windows: How great poems transform the world

Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy

Charlotte Wood, Reading isn’t shopping


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November 2020

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