Tag Archive: complexity


A glimpse of Armillaria ostoyae, said to be the world’s largest organism (whatever that means)

Replying to me here, Graham Harman explains his objections to relational ontologies, arguing that they fail to make a distinction between the “two sorts of relations” in which an entity is involved. These are not “the famous ‘internal’ and ‘external’ relations,” but are what he “somewhat whimsically” calles the “domestic” and “foreign” relations of an object. (I like this distinction, though I’m not sure how it’s different from internal and external relations.)

GH: “Surely Adrian doesn’t want to claim that the cane toad is a set of all its relations? If Mars were five inches further along in its course than it currently is, would the cane toad be a different cane toad than it is now?”

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This beautifully photographed new BBC documentary, The Secret Life of Chaos, evocatively illustrates one way of thinking about immanence, i.e., the spontaneous emergence of beauty and complexity from natural process. Morphogenesis, self-organization, the collapse of Newtonian physics (into chaos/complexity theory, etc.), the “butterfly effect,” fractal geometry, delicious little biographical details about Alan Turing, Edward Lorenz, Benoit Mandelbrot, and others — it’s all there. Iraqi-born physicist-host Jim Al-Khalili gives us the enthusiasm and hipness of a newfangled (and perhaps more respectable) James Burke, and the music, from Arvo Part’s opening strains (“Spiegel im Spiegel”) to Satie, Steve Reich, Brian Eno, et al, adds a great deal to the pleasure of watching it. Nice work on BBC’s part.

The doc provides helpful tools for visualizing dynamic systems, which are part of what’s making it possible for science and culture, Latour’s two poles of the “modern constitution,” to work their way toward a rapprochement. What’s still missing is the integration of first-person subjectivity — mind as opposed to body — which biosemiotics (drawing on Peirce, von Uexkull, Bateson, Sebeok, et al), Whiteheadian process metaphysics, enactive cognitivism, and related schools of thought, help to get at. To actually bring these together into a successful and convincing synthesis — one that would put Newton, Descartes, and the rest fully into the past and put cognitive science on a much stronger footing (in my opinion) — will require a lot more work, of course. Philosophers in particular have their work cut out for them (as my recent exchange with Levi Bryant might suggest).

The Secret Life of Chaos is in six 10-minutes segments, but if you only have a few minutes to sample it now, watch the bit on feedback loops and the butterfly effect that begins this segement:


Incidentally, John Law’s post-Actor-Network-Theory After Method: Mess in Social Science Research, which I’ve mentioned positively a few times here recently, has now been made available at the fabulous ever expanding scholar-hipster’s online library aaaarg.org. A few of the missing social-science pieces I mentioned work their way into Law’s book…

Thanks to Integral Options Cafe for blogging about the BBC doc, which just premiered in the UK this past week.

Stuart Kauffman coming to Vermont

I’m happy to share the news (a little belatedly) that complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman will be leaving his position as director of the University of Calgary’s Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics to take a position here with the University of Vermont’s Complex Systems Center, which, according to Grad College dean Dom Grasso, aims to become “the Santa Fe Institute of the East.” What form that may take is currently a little up for grabs, as UVM reconfigures its graduate offerings through a series of transdisciplinary research initiatives. But it’s a very safe bet that both environmental (including socio-environmental) research and complex systems research will continue to grow, and my hope is that Kauffman’s arrival may herald greater collaboration not only between those two broad fields but with humanists, philosophers, and cultural studies folks as well.

Kauffman’s books Reinventing the Sacred — see this video to get an idea of it — and At Home in the Universe both resonate well with the ideas explored on this blog (from Connolly’s immanent naturalism and Whitehead’s process thought to Deleuzian and Spinozan thought on nature and society), as I’ve posted about previously. I look forward to having him as a colleague.

Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson

Keith Robinson’s introduction to the collection Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson: Rhizomatic Connections, just published by Palgrave Macmillan, provides an excellent and much needed overview of the reception histories of these three thinkers. Robinson’s contextualization of them within the analytical and continental philosophical traditions makes clear why each has been marginalized or misunderstood to varying degrees in recent decades. Bergson had been extremely popular in the early years of the last century, but became almost a non-entity in the Anglo-American world until Deleuze revived him in the 1970s, while Whitehead, an acknowledged founding figure of twentieth-century analytical philosophy alongside Bertrand Russell, became an object of suspicion after his metaphysical ‘turn’ (represented in part by the mammoth Process and Reality).

Robinson argues that Russell played a key role in marginalizing both and, in the process, in reducing analytical philosophy to the logically and mathematically oriented philosophical style it has become. Deleuze, meanwhile, was welcomed as part of the wave of French poststructuralists and ‘postmodernists’ — not so much by Anglo-American philosophers as by social and cultural theorists — but, in the process, his thinking was misunderstood and caricatured as a form of psycho-political anarchism, and the nuanced thinking about science, time, metaphysics, life, organism, and all manner of other traditional philosophical themes was largely left aside.

Now, Robinson argues, as the distinction between the analytical and continental traditions is becoming increasingly irrelevant, with each caving in under the weight of its own limitations and of internal and external critiques, this threesome is finally being seen as representative of a process philosophical tradition that offers much-needed alternatives to some of the philosophical conundrums we’re facing (such as the mind-body problem, the relationship between philosophy and science/technology, life and the biopolitical, etc.). This shared focus on process — a term most closely associated with Whitehead, though it’s often taken by Whiteheadians in religious/theological directions that many would find less germane — is, according to Robinson, combined with a “methodological constructivism” that seeks to create concepts with which to think experience and life in novel ways.

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One of the impressive recent efforts to bring the physical sciences and the social sciences and humanities back onto “consilient” speaking terms (to use E. O. Wilson’s terminology, though his own efforts at this have been unimpressive) is Wendy Wheeler’s The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture. Wheeler is a humanist, an English lit specialist whose work emerges out of the Raymond Williams tradition of British cultural studies, and her foray into biosemiotics and complexity science is highly original and ambitious. She’s an editor at British Left-political cultural studies journal New Formations , having produced special issues on complexity and ecocriticism in recent years. Complexity research has been making some waves in sociological and cultural theory circles for a while now (e.g., in Theory Culture & Society), but biosemiotics is more of a newcomer on these intellectual (humanistic/culturological) shores. The book is blurbed by leading biosemiotician Jesper Hoffmeyer, author of, among other things, Signs of Meaning in the Universe (Indiana U. Press, 1996).

While I’ve only read parts of the book (and a few outtakes in other venues) and am not qualified to comment on its use of complexity theory or biosemiotics, it’s heartening to see Donald Favareau’s very favorable extended review, “Understanding Natural Constructivism” in Semiotica, which has been a leading venue for biosemiotic research and theory for several years. I strongly recommend it both as a summary of Wheeler’s book and as an introduction to biosemiotics.

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Complexity theorist Stuart Kaufmann recently gave a talk here from his book Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, which is getting more press these days than most books with a Spinozian/Whiteheadian take on the emergent nature of intelligence, complexity, spirituality, and all that. Talking to him afterwards, I was a bit disappointed to find out that he had never heard of Deleuze, had only just heard of Whitehead as someone he should look into, and knew probably a modicum about Spinoza (he cites him a few times in the book). Not that I should expect that kind of intellectual cross-fertilization to be the norm — it’s not, especially across the Continental-analytical divide (though Kauffman does have a background in philosophy; and it’s also possible that he was being humble). But there’s an obvious resonance and potential alliance to be built here. I’m starting to read Kauffman’s book to confirm or disconfirm Steven Shaviro’s critiques of it. Shaviro is a Deleuzian-Whiteheadian (post)poststructuralist whose excellent forthcoming book on Kant, Whitehead, and Deleuze can be previewed in snippets on his web site.

More “out there” among leading biologists who lean this way (toward emergence, immanence, self-organization, mind-body non-dualism, etc.) is Brian Goodwin, whose book Nature’s Due: Healing Our Fragmented Culture, is being touted as his “biological testament.” It seems unfortunate that he chose such a relatively unknown, or at least non-academic, press to publish it with (Floris Books in England; it’s distributed here by the Rudolf Steiner folks). I haven’t seen it yet, but Arturo Escobar’s review is enough to make me order and eagerly await its arrival. Escobar’s own Territories of Difference is, incidentally, one of those landmark books (a long time in the making) that I expect will redefine environmental scholarship in important ways. I’ll post more about it at some point.

Both Kauffman and Goodwin are profiled in John Brockman’s 1994 book The Third Culture, which can be read on-line. The book also includes chapters on Francesco Varela and Lynn Margulis, alongside the usual Darwinist and computationalist-cognitivist heavies like Dawkins, Pinker, Dennett, Minsky, et al., and the more likeable Gould and Eldridge types — the whole left, right, and center, if you will, of the then-current (circa early-1990s) scientific star circuit. Brockman’s profiles/interviews are a great way of getting some familiarity with these folks; they include them commenting on each other’s work and ideas, so you get a kind of three-dimensional mapping of who’s who in relation to who else. It could use some updating, though, which Brockman’s Edge.org does, in a dizzy, all-over-the-place kind of way…