Celebrating Complexity

Celebrating Complexity

2004-12-05
The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture
Mark C. Taylor
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. $32.00, 340pp.

Stephen Schryer reviews Mark Taylor and casts a critical eye on the unconditional celebration of complexity.

The Moment of Complexity, by digital Renaissance man Mark Taylor, is a heady blend of continental philosophy and complexity theory, visual studies and neurology. Taylor’s basic argument is that, for better or for worse, we are living in a complex, network culture, perched precariously on the border of chaos and order. The accelerated rate of technological change in the twentieth century, in particular the development of information technologies after World War II, means that individuals, societies, and institutions must find ever more creative means of adapting to their cultural environment. Taylor’s book thus pursues two goals. First, he wants to explore what it means to live with complexity, “to develop an interpretation of network culture that will make it possible to understand what is occurring more adequately and to respond more effectively to the challenges and opportunities we face” (5). Pursuing this interpretation, his book explains the basics of complexity theory, illustrating them through readings of Frank Gehry’s non-linear architecture and Chuck Close’s hyperrealistic paintings. Second, Taylor engages in a sustained polemic against theories and practices that have not adapted to the contemporary “moment of complexity.” In particular, he criticizes “post-structuralist” theories of subjectivity and politics, which have contributed to the isolation of Humanities Departments from our information culture. In Taylor’s terms, Derridean deconstruction and other types of post-structuralism have conveyed a merely negative wisdom to liberal arts students; in contrast, “in The Moment of Complexity, emerging network culture is creating not only perils but, more important, opportunities for individuals and institutions who, without losing their critical edge, are willing to say `Yes’ ” (270).

Unfortunately, Taylor’s “Yes” to network culture is often unqualified, turning his book into a paean to neo-liberal economics. However, before going into some of the pitfalls of Taylor’s approach, it is important to recognize the merits of The Moment of Complexity. Taylor’s interest throughout the book is in complexity theory, which he helpfully distinguishes from chaos theory, with which it is often confused. Chaos theory investigates non-linear systems, especially systems in which an extreme sensitivity to initial conditions creates effects disproportionate to their causes (the so-called “butterfly effect”). Chaos theorists typically look for patterns of order in chaotic systems - such as the eddies that appear and disappear in turbulent water - and try to derive these patterns from a set of generative mathematical rules. Complexity theory, in contrast, explores the activity of complex systems at the edge of chaos, such as living organisms. Complex systems exist on the cusp of too much and too little order; they are systems that act as wholes but are nevertheless far from equilibrium. In other words, complex systems are capable of undergoing rapid and radical transformations in order to adjust to changes in their environment. Complexity theorists are primarily interested in the ways in which such systems are self-organizing, or autopoietic, developing new structures without any external cause or motive.

Taylor is at his best when he links this theory of complexity to the continental, idealist tradition in philosophy (especially Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard). For Taylor, many aspects of complexity theory were prefigured by Kant’s theory of the beautiful in his Critique of Judgment and Hegel’s opposition between mechanistic and dialectical logic in his Science of Logic. Kant, in his third critique, distinguishes between mechanisms, in which cause and effect are externally related, and organisms, which exhibit “inner teleology,” or “purposiveness without purpose.” In other words, for Kant, the parts of an organism are reciprocally related and mutually constitutive; an organism finds its cause and effect within itself. For Kant, this inner teleology is what gives organisms and works of art a systematic structure, what constitutes them as integrated wholes. Hegel, in his Science of Logic, extends this model of self-causality to the structure of history and nature as a whole, creating a model for teleological structures in which “the differences that form identity can only emerge in a unified whole that is in some sense more than the sum of its parts. Parts and whole exist in and through each other in such a way that each brings forth and sustains the other. Parts create the whole, which, in turn, creates the parts” (87). For Taylor, Kant and Hegel were thus the first to formulate the principle of self-organization, or autopoiesis, which 20th century systems theorists would later identify as the characteristic feature of all complex systems.

Similarly, Taylor relates key concepts in complexity theory to Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel’s idealism. Kierkegaard’s criticism of Hegel is that lived experience can never be totalized into a coherent “system.” Experience instead involves moments of radically free decision-making, which realize some possibilities of experience and cut off others. Although these decisions can assume meaning in hindsight, they can never be predicted in the present and thus cannot be contained in a total structure. Taylor relates these moments of decision to the “bifurcation” points of complexity theory, in which a once-stable system undergoes a catastrophic series of changes that turn it into a completely different system. Taylor is interested in systems which exhibit the complex wholeness that Kant and Hegel associated with the structure of organisms, yet at the same time are unpredictable, subject to moments of radical change of the kind described by Kierkegaard. Indeed, it could be argued that Taylor’s purpose is to invent a synthesis of Hegel and Kierkegaard, of systemic and anti-systemic thought. As he explains in his introduction, the challenge of contemporary critical theory is to imagine “a nontotalizing structure that nonetheless acts as a whole” (11).

Taylor’s critique of deconstruction and other forms of “post-structuralism” is that they have failed in this task. Deconstruction, he argues, has focused exclusively on the Kierkegaardian critique of totalizing systems, demonstrating the ways in which systems presuppose but cannot contain the unpredictable, that which is wholly other. The problem with this position is that it assumes that all systems aim for perfect self-closure and thus repress difference. Hence, deconstruction can never imagine alternative systems; “instead of showing how totalizing structures can actually be changed, deconstruction demonstrates that the tendency to totalize can never be overcome and, thus, that repressive structures are inescapable” (65). Rightly, I think, Taylor links this pessimistic tendency in deconstruction to the irrelevancy and isolationism of much academic politics. Deconstructive politics can only say “No” to the institutions and culture it inhabits, without offering constructive criticism. In the context of the national welfare state, in which deconstruction and other forms of post-structuralism first emerged, this emphasis upon critique for its own sake meant that post-structuralism unwittingly became the ideological bedfellow of neo-liberal champions of free-market economics. Post-structuralists such as Foucault attacked the modern state as an inherently “repressive” system without suggesting alternative systems that could take its place.

In contrast, Taylor sees in complexity theory an opportunity to explore creative, non-totalizing systems; although, as we shall see, he is in fact even closer to neo-liberalism than the post-structuralists he criticizes. Drawing upon the work of Henri Atlan, Taylor argues that complex systems, such as organisms and human societies, are inherently open to disruptive “noise.” Indeed, this openness is a necessary condition for the survival of such systems; complex systems are dependent upon noise and chaos in their environments, out of which they draw energy and create order. Furthermore, complex systems are adaptive, which means they must be capable of undergoing catastrophic changes in order to react to other systems in their environment. This critique of deconstruction is the most important argument in Taylor’s book, and is indeed one of the strengths of most sophisticated versions of systems theory or “second-order cybernetics,” such as the work of Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Heinz von Foerster, and Niklas Luhmann. Systems theorists incorporate the “anti-foundationalism” of post-structuralist thought into their work; Maturana and Varela’s studies of living systems, for example, advance a radically constructivist position, whereby living beings never come into unmediated contact with their environments. Instead, systems interact with their environments through self-reflexive operations that produce “blind spots” observable by other systems but never by themselves. However, the difference between systems theory and most forms of post-structuralism is that despite its anti-foundationalism, systems theory nevertheless models functioning systems. While deconstruction, for example, demonstrates the ways in which systems fail to achieve closure, systems theory argues that systems rarely attempt to do so. Indeed, their refusal of closure is a positive condition of their ability to function as systems. For this reason, systems theory has a pragmatic dimension absent from deconstruction; it is able to show how systems work. [see Linda Brigham’s review of Cultural Critique for an earlier engagement with systems theory and its practitioners, or Chris Messenger’s review of Tom LeClair’s Passing Off for a discussion of the “systems novel.”]

However, Taylor also shares many of the limitations of systems theorists, in particular social systems theorists such as Talcott Parsons and his latter-day disciple, Niklas Luhmann. Systems theory, when applied to human societies, is incapable of evaluating systems in anything other than functional terms. Social systems theory, in short, cannot determine if one social system is more “just” than another. This was a problem with the work of the first systematic social systems theorist, the American sociologist Talcott Parsons. In his theoretical work of the 1950s and 1960s, Parsons argued that social systems (which Parsons at times problematically equated with nation states) were inherently homeostatic, adjusting to their environments so as to maintain a state of internal equilibrium. However, contrary to what the term “homeostatic” implies, this process of achieving equilibrium was dynamic. Societies, for Parsons, evolve in two related ways. First, as societies adapt to their environments, they have a natural tendency to increase in complexity through a process of “functional differentiation”; modernizing societies sprout ever-more-refined social sub-systems to deal with particular problems of the social system as a whole. Second, to compensate for this differentiation, societies develop institutions of “social integration,” which inculcate common values in different citizens so as to ensure the society’s coherency. The resulting, differentiated but integrated society is a “societal community,” combining the best features of a small community with those of a modern, bureaucratized state. For Parsons, the best available model for an inclusive state of this kind was Cold War America. The problem with this theory of societies, as Jürgen Habermas points out in his reading of Parsons in The Theory of Communicative Action, is that it reduces social norms to their functional value in maintaining social equilibrium. For Parsons, a society is good if it works, and American society of the Cold War seemed to work fairly well. Indeed, given social systems theory’s emphasis upon functional adaptation, contemporary societies will tautologically seem better evolved and thus better than any other societies.

Taylor is obviously working with a more sophisticated version of systems theory than Talcott Parsons; unlike Parsons, he emphasizes the importance of disequilibrium and conflict within creatively complex systems. However, like Parsons, Taylor celebrates the contemporary “moment of complexity” with little qualification or hesitation. This tendency to celebrate the present means that he overlooks some of the crucial injustices in our globalized network culture. Here, for example, is Taylor’s account of the cultural effects of globalization:

As different myths mingle and mix in a culture that is increasingly global, particular symbol systems and networks of myths are pushed to the edge of chaos where they either transform or collapse. Transformation can only occur far from equilibrium. As incongruous experiences and dissonant interpretations accumulate, the conditions for psychosocial dislocation as well as creative change gradually take shape. Expanding networks of communication promoting rapid symbolic exchange generate a density and diversity of symbolic and mythic resources that make creative innovation possible though not inevitable. (214)

From Taylor’s account, it seems like globalization takes place on a level playing field, with different social systems interacting in creative but chaotic ways. In fact, unless one is a neo-conservative ideologue such as Francis Fukuyama, globalization depends upon the exploitation of the Third World, whose economic and cultural situation is frequently worsened, rather than improved. Indeed, the chief difference between Parsons and Taylor is that they are simply celebrating different complex systems. Parsons celebrates the American post-war, Keynesian state, while Taylor celebrates “postmodern” free-market economics. Indeed, Taylor’s definition of network culture is essentially a translation of free-market economics into pseudo-scientific terms:

…as the networks passing through us become more complex and the relations at every level of experience become more extensive and intensive, the speed of change accelerates until equilibrium disappears and turbulence becomes a more or less permanent condition. While occasioning confusion, uncertainty, and sometimes despair, this inescapable turbulence harbors creative possibilities for people and institutions able to adapt quickly, creatively, and effectively. Those who are too rigid to fit into rapidly changing worlds become obsolete or are driven beyond the edge of chaos to destruction. (202)

Stripped of the scientific jargon, this statement is neither new nor particularly exciting; 19th century social Darwinists such as Herbert Spencer would have heartily agreed.

In conclusion, while I believe that Taylor is correct in his critique of post-structuralism, that it offers an unqualified “No” often better left unspoken, Taylor’s own unqualified “Yes” is far more insidious. This “Yes” is what makes his final chapter, on online education, so deeply disturbing. Here, Taylor argues that the traditional academy is being threatened with obsolescence and destruction; it must develop innovative strategies in order to survive within our evolving network culture. In particular, liberal arts scholars should question the value of academic “autonomy” in a society in which for-profit education is threatening to dominate the educational market. He offers his own Global Education Network (GEN), a digital liberal arts college developed by him and Herbert Allen, the head of a New York investment bank, as an example of how academics might creatively diverge from this tradition. The purpose of GEN is to offer quality online humanities education, through a partnership between liberal arts scholars and investors. While Taylor is right to insist that the academy is already imbricated in “corporate culture” through its reliance upon corporate donors and through its own bureaucratized structure, his critique of academic “autonomy” begs the question of whether the academy should still play any sort of critical role at all in the contemporary “network culture.” Taylor’s “survival of the fittest” model of society makes one doubt whether there is any room for scholarly integrity in a purely functional world.