Lately I have been reading and thinking about chaotic and emergent systems, anarchism and empire in the early 20th century in Japan, Europe, and America, revolution, ecology, modern insurgent movements. This post is a series of thoughts related to those ideas: bits of my journals turned into a somewhat (but not wholely) coherent post.
QUALITY OF ACTION
Sometimes leftists will talk about communism and revolution like: First we need to get everyone to agree its the right thing to do and Then we actually do it together. But if you think of yourself as just an agent in a massive system, what you actually can do is only operate in certain ways, and obviously the systemic effects of certain patterns of behavior will be more muted or self-subduing, where other patterns will be revolutionary in how they spread and amplify. What I mean is that acting in certain ways (maybe: protesting, rioting, breaking or lighting things on fire that the people around you had subconsciously never considered breaking or lighting on fire, organizing your work cooperatively, building strong trust-based bonds with the people around you, being generous and brave) may have knock-on ripple effects or feedback loops with how they affect the agents around you and therefore the patterns of the larger system. Versus the idea of getting every agent in the system to agree on a course of action and only then acting on it: what youre actually doing in this framework here is choosing to spend your time as an agent in ways that may be less effective (maybe: proselytizing, propagandizing, arguing) and may not have the same feedback loops and ripple effects. You might instinctively think of yourself as the larger group deciding, but you aren't the group, you're an agent within the group, and you aren't deciding, you're interacting, and those interactions you're choosing to focus your time on may be relatively ineffective.
Maybe: to imagine a utopia administered as a single body is a kind of projective individualism or biophobia that is at odds with how nature works at a fundamental level. Our view of our selves as having clear boundaries and being separate from other bodies is a psychological framework that we apply elsewhere to middling success. Even relatively well-engineered 'complex' (actually: ordered, dead) machines like computers always break down over time because the reality of the world is not the same as the idealistic purity of the blueprint. The body interacts with the outside world and if it doesnt have a coherent relationship with it, if the body can only exist unobserved and untouched, then of course the reality of interaction and interdependence will break it down over time, cause it to eventually critically fail. Any engineered society will meet this, falling back into the chaotic morass.
For that matter our own bodies break down and fail as well. But their relationship to the broader and truly robust system does not. Our life continues on in other forms, even if our species dies, even if the earth becomes completely inhospitable to us. We are not actually separate from the living world, but a small part of it.
Or maybe not. The body and the self are obviously useful concepts, necessary for interacting with other bodies. But what's the point of there being One Body that encapsulates everything, in e.g. a monolithic utopian world government? If there are no other bodies to interact with at this scale, is the framework of the unified body worth anything at all, or is it just easy?
I think people fear chaos and view anarchism as chaotic, but those people see the world as split between order and chaos with nothing between. All things living and beautiful exist in between order and chaos, in the space called 'complexity', where you can see something that has recognizable patterns and structures in a certain sense, but which also behaves in seemingly chaotic or surprising ways. Fully predictable, ordered patterns, are not really living in any way, and once you slide into complete chaotic noise, similarly that space is dead, is essentially a soft diffuse sort of order, albeit made out of randomness. Complexity looks like chaos if you crave and come from order, but if you're comfortable with chaos it looks beautiful and coherent and robust.
I spoke with a friend recently about the 'coup attempt' (hi I'm from the states) and his prescriptions for what 'we' should do about it kept being things that congress does, and it made me realize that I do not think of myself as part of the american project anymore. I don't think theres a meaningful 'we' in america except as a sort of trick, which individual americans are on the joke end of. The idea that I would see something happening here or elsewhere in the world and say, "We need to do something about this," well, what could I mean by 'we'?
This has become a sort of trigger word for me. When someone says 'we' I try to stop and think 'who?' and I've found it really clarifying. For me to consider myself part of a 'we', I would have to feel that in some real sense I'm part of the decision-making process for how that body called 'we' acts. In the project of america, I don't think it's reasonable to call myself part of that body. Sometimes I may be a tool used by that body, sometimes a resource that body benefits from, sometimes I benefit from the body, but certainly in no way am I involved in choosing what the body does, nor do I even understand or see the process the body undertakes when deciding what to do.
Sometimes there really is a we, but it's surprisingly rare, once you start looking for it.
There's an idea in chaos theory (systems theory? complexity theory? not sure what the proper boundaries on terms are, but I'll just say chaos) that observations, classifications, and systemic descriptions at one scale, say at a cellular level, although they emerge from rules and interactions happening at a smaller, say atomic, scale, nevertheless it is unhelpful or even impossible to try to describe simply the small scale behavior and expect to understand the large scale results. Modern physics is great for predicting atomic behavior, and that atomic behavior does cause or make up bodies and their interactions at larger scales, but you would not ask a physicist about genetics even, let alone international politics. Descriptions and classifications of behavior at the appropriate scale are essential to understanding the behavior at that scale.
There's a descriptive classification of a certain kind of system, called a fractal, that defines them as self-similar across scale. Some people have taken that idea to be a value statement, or like an instructive tool even. Behave kindly at the small scale and you will see kind results at the large scale, because of self-similarity across scale. But there is no reason to believe that our social systems are fractal-like. Many systems are not. (There is not a tiny man in your brain making the decisions; the moral person only exists at our larger scale.) This is a misconception of the lessons of chaos theory.
The actual useful takeaway here is that our actions and classifications at the small scale of direct interpersonal interaction may have no specific comprehensible or predictable results on the larger social, industrial, political scales that we see as so essential to change, if we want to live in a better world. And for me what this suggests is that to act on those scales we need to assert ourselves as entities capable of intelligent action on those scales - not just people, but groupings of people, organizations, collectives, federations, governments, nations, something. Some of these kinds of groupings may be bad, and some good, but they interact with each other at scale. A person cannot really threaten to change a nation, but an organization might.
LIFE CANNOT BE DESIGNED
Complexity and chaos are essential themes in my work as an artist, and I put a lot of thought into how to find systems that exhibit robust, complex, living behavior. The conclusion I've come to so far is that these kinds of systems are actually everywhere except where systems are designed.
Intelligent design starts from a goal and then builds a system that predictably and dependably achieves that goal. Predictability is anathema to complexity. By their nature, complex systems act in unpredictable ways, have unpredictable results. They exhibit behavior at large scales that is impossible to predict from the base-level rules that nevertheless determine that behavior. So of course you cannot start from that high level behavior and work backwards to design the low level rules.
However if you choose rules and systems at random, astonishingly, complexity is everywhere you look. Not in literally every system, but seemingly in every sensible classification of system, if you dig around long enough, you'll find a system that exhibits complex behavior.
For my work as an artist, this has meant for me abandoning the idea of prototyping systems first. If complexity can be found everywhere, there is no sense in finding complexity first and setting the boundaries of the work around that finding. Instead what we're doing with our current project is setting the boundaries of the work with the narrative and the theme and the characters: things that are difficult to shape around a developed system. With that framework set, we'll find within those boundaries something beautiful: I'm confident.
UTOPIA CANNOT BE DESIGNED
We want a robust, living, responsive system. Chaos is useless, and order is dead already, can only break down and dissolve. The world is alive and thank god.
If living systems are found everywhere you look except within design, then the project to design a better world is a failed project even from in its intent. Living systems are found, not engineered.
The question isn't to decide what shape it should take, but what boundaries we set while looking for it. 'Where' we go looking for it.
Here's what I think right now:
The large scale behavior of social systems emerge from the relationships we set between each other as people: people are the base level particles of social systems. We search for new large scale behavior by changing our relationships and looking for the sorts of patterns we want to see at a higher level. Not at a global or national level, but maybe at a family or friend-group or company or small organization level: changing the relationship between the people in this group will change the dynamics of the group.
The boundaries we set, the things we try, are in our direct relationships with each other. So set boundaries around the kinds of relationships you want to have at the small scale. Moral boundaries, for instance, or value-based ones: act generously, or bravely, or humbly.
Capitalism emerged from a new kind of interpersonal/property relationship not only between people, but also between people and the land. So set boundaries too with how you want to relate to the land, to other living beings. Make treating these things in an ideal way a necessary condition of the kinds of behavior you try.
Ideal behavior at a small scale wont necessarily ripple up fractal-like to self-similar ideal behavior at a large scale. You'll still have to go looking within these boundaries. But it is very likely that within those base level conditions of ideal relations, there is some set of relations that produces ideal, robust, living (if distinctly different looking) behavior at a greater scale.
February 17, 2021