complexity, pragmatism, critique

According to Theory, Culture and Society we are having a complexity turn. From John Urry’s introduction to the special issue on the topic:

Overall, complexity approaches both signify and enhance a new ‘structure of feeling’; one that combines system and process thinking…such an emergent structure involves a sense of contingent openness and multiple futures, of the unpredictability of outcomes in time-space, of a charity towards objects and nature, of diverse and non-linear changes in relationships, households and persons across huge distances in time and space, of the systemic nature of processes, and of the growing hyper-complexity of organizations, products, technologies and socialities.

See also Fibreculture Journal’s latest issue, on Distributed Aesthetics, edited by Lisa Gye, Anna Munster and Ingrid Richardson:

Rather than try to define the terminology or taxonomy of distributed art theories and practices we have proposed instead a descriptor for the ‘aesthesia’ of contemporary networked encounters. Distributed aesthetics, then, concerns experiences that are sensed, lived and produced in more than one place and time. This might equally be a sketch of reconsiderations of the operations of cultural memory or of phenomena such as endurance performances. But what we propose, through gathering together the disparate pieces in this fibreculture journal issue, is that techno-social networks are crucially constitutive of this distributed aesthesia. In various ways, all the texts here take up the mode through which ‘the network’ – the juncture and disjunction of here and there, you and I, social and individuated – functions as the crucial operand in dispersing and contouring perception, art practice and aesthetics.

Although I am probably more interested in socially distributed and differentiated aesthetic (value) systems, rather than the spatial and temporal (albeit networked and socially contingent) distribution of art, this is kind of tangentially useful as I attempt to describe the complex system of technologies, literacies, values, and social identity formations that shape effective access to ‘voice’ in the apparently autonomous ‘cultural public sphere’ of the Internet (i know, doesn’t work as a sphere, but leave it for now). It seems to me that it is necessary to find a rigorous and defensible position on the ‘democratisation’ of technologies of cultural production that evades binaristic thinking, does not simply ‘debunk’ hyperbole, does not promise or warn of utopias or dystopias, and does not simply rely on glib theoretical virtuosity (or glib neologisms) to get out of those double binds.

A commitment to participatory ethics in research, combined with lightly interventionist research-led practice and an insistence on theory grounded in the empirical practice of such research is both a way through these problems and an additional burden – but all worth it. And I don’t want to wake up and realise that yet again I’m either the voice of complicity – using academic rigour to legitimize shallow marketing hype – or (even worse) the arrogant and ascetic ‘voice in the wilderness’. I have to sleep at night.

In this post about the risks of critiquing that which is cool (in this case, ‘things’), and this one on technological inevitablity and intervention Anne seems to me to be practising the steps of a similar dance. I think she is falling over a lot less frequently on the slippery floor than I am, though.

As an example of where I might be able to add some value to these debates: from Bradley Horowitz, an interesting post that explains the (exponentially scaled) continuum of online participation replicated across yahoo groups, flickr, etc. (although he’s careful not to call it a ‘natural law’). The post is thoughtful, the numbers and the graph are useful, and I was quite taken by the acknowledgment of ‘implicit creation’ as a legitimate form of participation (well, actually, as a form of participation that will still work to create value for the web service – flickr, say).

Still, I can’t help but feel that there is so much missing here – why does participation pattern like this? What does it mean for the emergence of complex systems of cultural capital and social power in these environments? Does it matter, for cultural democracy? And what about considering the idea that the necessary motivation to be a content creator or even editor is not only a matter of personality, but articulates to social identity, class, education, and literacy – which itself is a complex formation that articulates to the other three. And so on we go.

7 thoughts to “complexity, pragmatism, critique”

  1. something that bugs me about the ‘complexity’ discourse in the humanities and social sciences is that there is often confusion between complexity and a ‘straightforward’ complicatedness. Complex systems with multiple attractors vs complicated systems rendered simple through ‘complexity discourse’.

    re the question of motivation, thought instead of what can be ‘read’ (identity), but in terms of what domain such acts of motivation can belong. I think there is a productive tension between subjectivist accounts of motivation (author of identity) vs systemic (or perhaps more properly ‘machinic’) accounts of *animation*. Animation here has mutliple meanings. Sure there is the puppet being-animated-by-top-down-power sort of control that I think does exist, at least, it exists in concert with other forms of determination. However, there is also ‘animation’ in the sense of ‘becoming animated’ during a coversation where one becomes excited and the register and intensity of engagement or participation may shift. However, the exact outcome of such animation is determined beforehand, only the probability of intensity is. Here it is not so much macro-scale social structures determining micro-social individual behaviour, but the individual becoming whipped up by and within the event that has been orchestrated by such macro-social forces. Event here has multiple meanings, too!! lol! the happening of the conversation may be the event of becoming-together of two or more parties in a dialogic movement. But there also may be larger scale events that involve low-level, long-term processes of animated individuation. Here I am thinking of political commitments and what I would call ‘enthusiasms’. These can be whipped up at various points through the affective modulation of populations when needed for macro-social purposes, but for the main they remain like background noise being filtered out of everyday life.

    So the question I would ask then, is what is animating your content creators/contributors to creative cultural production, not in terms of individual subjectiviist accounts of motivation, but as animations within broader cultural events?

  2. I agree with you Glen, about the mastery of discourse that makes the complex simple – through systematizing it. But the kind of system that Urry proposes here is characterized by emergence above all, so evades that kind of structuralist-style systematic thinking, no?

    As for the rest of your comment – I’ll just say first of all that when Glen Fuller longhand meets Jean Burgess shorthand, well, we could write one hell of a confusing textbook together!

    But in regard to the question, “what is animating your content creators/contributors to creative cultural production, not in terms of individual subjectiviist accounts of motivation, but as animations within broader cultural events?”

    Good question – can I get back to you when i’ve finished my fieldwork? Cop-out, yes But there is a certain problem of translatability across our theoretical frameworks, I reckon – I’m not as comfortable with the time-and-action-oriented (events, animations) reference points as you are. Or maybe mine are just different ways of describing cultural temporalities (history, memory) and actions/movements (accretion, sedimentation, touch, flow) And I won’t let go of social identity (ok, identification) or the way i use it so easily either…that doesn’t answer the question, I know! But it helps me understand why I have trouble answering your questions, sometimes.

    And the other point about answering you after I do my fieldwork, is that I need to know how my research participants theorise their own participation, first, and that probably won’t have much to do with ‘events’ and ‘animations’. Based on what I have already heard and experienced in my fieldwork, it will more likely have to do with families, social connection, stories, memories, curiosity, learning, and the desire to show off, and things of that nature.

    But, yes, outcomes of the ‘motivation’ to participate are not pretedermined – that’s how the principle of emergence works, yeah?

    And most of my work with participants involves people who are *not* particularly ‘animated’ to participate…

  3. And what about considering the idea that the necessary motivation to be a content creator or even editor is not only a matter of personality, but articulates to social identity, class, education, and literacy – which itself is a complex formation that articulates to the other three. And so on we go.

    Bingo! And I think that question leads inexorably to the need for a theory of the subject that has the possibility of becoming a “node” in any “network”. From my POV “participation” is valuable as empirical data, but doesn’t give you much to work on in terms of how to act. I mean, pentecostal churches are big on participation in creative production, doesn’t mean I want to help it happen (I can say that now I don’t teach lol). Nice post.

  4. “Anne seems to me to be practising the steps of a similar dance. I think she is falling over a lot less frequently on the slippery floor than I am, though.”

    Not true 🙂 Walking is only ever ‘controlled falling,’ and that doesn’t include when I wipe out on the ice!

  5. Anne, lol!

    to me it feels like disguised, more than controlled, falling most of the time 😉

    And, thanks Danny. Especially for your gentle reminder about the ‘participation *for what ends*’ question

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