chapter  4
CHAOS AND COMPLEXITY THEORY
ByIRA LIVINGSTON
Pages 10

Like many non-scientists, I first learned about chaos theory – as it was widely called at the time – from James Gleick’s popularization, Chaos: The Making of a New Science (1987), which led me to Benoit Mandelbrot’s classic Fractal Geometry of Nature (1977). I remember, shortly thereafter, standing on a beach in the flux of the waves. At my feet, the sinuous fingers of the sea sent smaller fingers of froth reaching up onto the sand, waves of waves, all webbed with networks of foam made up, in turn, of smaller networks of bubbles, webs of webs. Above me, cirro-cumulus clouds sprawled across a blue sky, popcorn clusters of clusters and wisps of feathery wisps. Everything had become fractal – that is, patterned at multiple scales – and self-similar, with patterns recurring at every scale, like a feather, each arm of which is shaped like a miniature feather in turn. Learning to see chaos represented, for me, a kind of re-enchantment of the

world. No doubt some version of this experience is widely shared by those in the throes of any old paradigm shift: the sense of being “present at the creation,” the zeal of the convert. And in retrospect, gradual paradigm shifts can tend to seem more and more like acute conversion experiences (see Livingston 2006: 21-22, 85-89). Even so, this episode of world-making bears some very specific historical resonances, even in my highly condensed and aestheticized version. What I saw happening to my world was stark modernist formalism (think of something

elegant and minimalist, like a Mondrian painting) being deconstructed into baroque postmodern plenitude and excess. On a beach in Massachusetts. Part of the conversion to chaos involves learning to see structures not as

structures, but as systems, events in process. This recognition is part of what makes chaos and complexity theory full partners with poststructuralist theory generally. Sociologist Niklas Luhmann describes society as a complex system whose basic elements are events of communication; that is, “not stable units (like cells or atoms or individuals) but events that vanish as soon as they appear” (Luhmann 1990: 83). Likewise (for example), when you deconstruct the image of a human body as a structure with a simple boundary between inside (self) and outside (nonself), you get something much more dynamic and fractal. Negotiations between self and nonself (and the continuous transformations of one into the other) happen not just at the skin but fractally and at multiple scales down to the cellular level: every cell in the body is engaged in this negotiation; in fact, every cell is this negotiation. If the body is a structure, it is a fractal one, with all edges and no interior – a whirlpool, a burning bush. (And by the way, as you were reading those words, did you feel your body

subtly opening up, exquisitely flayed and aflame, and in the process, a new sense of being-in-the-moment? If so, you can skip the rest of this section. Otherwise keep reading.) These examples (of Luhmannian society and deconstructed bodies) are inti-

mately related to poststructuralist accounts of texts not as hermetic interiors but as intertextual negotiations, and more generally to the concurrent paradigm shift in cybernetics from closed to open systems. Fully coming to terms with complexity means understanding it as a feature of open systems (see Chapters 19 and 20, this volume). On the scientific side, Prigogine and Stengers’s Order Out of Chaos (1984), and Stuart Kauffmann’s The Origins of Order (1993) were influential in developing accounts of how chaos and complexity play out in time as well as in space. Under their influence, I remember walking in the Nevada desert and noticing some of the ways that the scarcity of water shapes the plants and their interactions. I saw it in the spacing of their branches and blossoms, the shapes of their leaves and stems, their own spacing in the terrain, all selected to optimize water absorption and retention. Looking at a sagebrush bush, I saw a living algorithm – an unfolding reiterated equation – in multidimensional possibility space (that is, the set of all possible parameters), its form-in-process an ongoing exploration of this space. (A bit more metacommentary: so far these little autobiographical vignettes

borrow from the romanticized image of the scientist in the “Eureka!” moment, as in Gleick’s description of physicist Mitchell Feigenbaum at the threshold of a chaos revelation: “his hair was a ragged mane, … his eyes were sudden and passionate,” etc. [Gleick 1987: 2]. But let me make it even a little more uncomfortable.) The desert ecology felt deeply strange and deeply familiar to me. What

I recognized in the sagebrush was a fellow creature engaged, like me, in the

question of how to find what nourishes you in the middle of a desert. “Danger makes human beings intelligent,” as Anna Freud (1937) put it. If this strikes you as hopeless anthropomorphosis or New Age twaddle, consider the following interchange:

Chuang Tzu said, “See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That’s what fish really enjoy!” Hui Tzu said, “You’re not a fish – how do you know what fish enjoy?” Chuang Tzu said, “You’re not I, so how do you know I don’t know

what fish enjoy?” (Chuang Tzu 1964: 110)

This, in any case, is also the kind of questioning, of both kinships and differences, that chaos and complexity make possible.