Values and Strange Attractors
One of our most subtly paralyzing dualisms is the apparently harmless one between order and disorder. The idea of artistic liberation, under which we have labored for so many years, is especially prone to the corruptions of this dualism. For instance, if order means predictability, and predictability means predetermination, and predetermination means compulsion, and compulsion means unfreedom, the only way we can be free is if we are disordered. The failed artistic hopes of the last two centuries have been founded upon a deep discomfort with the idea of order, and what are taken to be its close relatives: hierarchy, foundationalism, norms, and essences–even with value itself, if value is conceived of as being anything other than momentary individual preference.
We have found ourselves forced by the logic of the duality to choose the random, the disordered, the arbitrary, the acte gratuit, the unconditioned, the weightless, the unfurrowed–over the ordered, the intelligible, the shapely, the traditional. Our art featured aleatory music, chance splotchings of paint, the random word-choices of “language poetry”–John Cage, Jackson Pollock, John Ashbery. What, after all, were the alternatives? We could submit ourselves to the Transcendental Signified, the old man with the white beard, Nobodaddy Himself, the ancestral authority figure who bars the doors against our franchise, our potential for achievement, our free play of art, our sexuality, our political identity and self-expression. Or we could accept that the world was a dead machine and we were merely parts of that machine, linear and deterministic. We would thus be fated to some kind of mechanistic social order determined by our genes, by the physics of our energy economy, by economic necessity or psychological drives. Indeed, it began to look as if the second alternative was just a new avatar of the first, that the scientists and psychologists and sociologists and businessmen and commissars who preached materialist determinism were really just the old white-bearded patriarchs and racial oppressors in disguise.
Nobody wants either a random universe or a deterministic one, for freedom and value and meaning appear impossible within them–though great philosophers in the tradition of Nietzsche have struggled to assert them nevertheless. But given the potential for abuse inherent in the deterministic position, it seemed safest to opt for a definition of freedom as a random relationship between the past and the future. The problem is that if this were the case, memory and experience would be completely useless, because to the extent that I act on the basis of past experience, I would not be free. Any connection with tradition would be oppressive.
The postmodernist solution was to make meaning and value completely arbitrary, imposed at the whim of the individual. At least we could individually perceive events as meaningful and valuable. One person’s perception would be as good as another’s, so there could be no political repression. And then–it began to look promising–we could hold the universe to be unknowable because inherently random, and dismiss all science and all objective knowledge as irrelevant, or simply the means to rationalize the political interests of the powerful. Did not quantum theory, if we squeezed it a little and did not look too closely at its beautiful mathematics, be made to say something of the same kind? Were not the white lab-coated ones condemned out of their own mouths? And this is more or less the present state of deconstruction and discourse analysis in the arts.
But then, the knots and toils we tied ourselves into when we tried to profess views such as these! We had discovered a new sin: involuntary hypocrisy–hypocrisy when we were most desperately trying to avoid it. When we opted for simple disorder and randomness, we were faced with the problems of how to mean the destruction of meaning? how to publish the discrediting of publication and public? how to achieve institutional recognition, like Jenny Holzer in the Whitney, when institutions are the legacy of the past and thus based on sadistic repression? how to attack hierarchy in a language with a syntactical tree and grammatical subordination? how to critique a work of art as good or bad? how to get paid for paintings or sculpture where payment must be in the coin of “mimetic desire,” and private ownership of art is the quintessence of commodification? how, even, to act with a body possessed of an immune system of quite military rigor, and a nervous system strikingly unified under central control?
And can freedom, seriously, be the same as random or disordered behavior? According to classical physics the universe becomes more disordered over time, that is, less intelligible and less able to do work. Is freedom just our little contribution to the universal process of increasing entropy? Is it our job as free beings to assist in the destruction of this beautiful ordered universe about us? Intention takes a highly organized brain; can the only free intention be that which would tend to disorganize that brain and disable intention itself? What becomes of responsibility if freedom is randomness? Can we take credit for what we do that is good, if there is no responsibility? Can there be such a thing as justice, for instance, if we cannot be held responsible for our actions?
Until recently the best that we could do with the available intellectual tools in cobbling up some kind of reasonable account of the universe, and of our own freedom, was to devise some kind of combination between order and randomness, linear determinism and disordered noise. The title of Jacques Monod’s book on biological evolution, Chance and Necessity , puts it well. Perhaps we could describe both the emergence of new species and the originality and freedom of the human brain as a combination of random mutations and relatively deterministic selection.
But even here there were deep and subtle theoretical objections. Evolution seemed to proceed in sudden jumps, not gradually; a new species did not seem to emerge slowly but rather leap into being as if drawn by a premonition of its eventual stable form. Another objection: without the right suite of species, the ecological niche wouldn’t exist; but without the ecological niche, the species wouldn’t. How do new niches emerge? Again, from a purely intuitive point of view even four billion years didn’t seem nearly enough to produce the staggering variety and originality of form to be found among living species–birds of paradise, and slime molds, and hermaphroditic parasitical orchids, and sperm whales, and all. Most disturbing of all, it became clear that the process of development, by which a fertilized egg or seed multiplied and diversified itself into all the cells in all the correct positions necessary for an adult body, was not a mere following of genetic instructions embedded in the DNA blueprint, but was an original and creative process in itself, which produced a unique individual out of a dynamic and open-ended interplay of cells. The miracle was that the interplay could produce something in the end remotely resembling its twin siblings, let alone its parents. It was as if the individual organism were drawn toward a beckoning form, and that the genes were not so much blueprints specifying that form, as gates permitting the developmental process to rush to its conclusion.
And the same kinds of problems arose if we tried to apply the chance-and-necessity model to the working of the human brain. Maybe “nature and nurture” don’t exhaust the inputs. Can it make sense to speak of internal inputs, or forms which draw an appropriately prepared human brain into a specific competence, like language? There seemed to be a huge mass of internal, newly-emergent laws and principles in such systems that we have hardly begun to understand–and where did they come from, all of a sudden?
The dualism of order and disorder was coming under increasing strain. But within the arts and humanities the traditional avant-garde hatred of any kind of essentializing, hierarchizing, (biologically-) determinist, transcendentally significant and totalizing Order was so ingrained that the more shaky that dualism became, the more passionately it was asserted. The problem the avant garde was honestly trying to solve was that the only alternative to repressive order that seemed to be offered was random disorder, or on the psychological level, whim.
Suppose we were to try to specify what an escape from this predicament might look like philosophically. We would have to distinguish between two kinds of order, a repressive, deterministic kind, and some other kind that would not have these disadvantages. We would also have to distinguish between two kinds of chaos, one which was simply random, null, and unintelligible, and another that could bear the seeds of creativity and freedom. If we were really lucky, the second kind of order might turn out not to be the antithesis of the second kind of chaos; they might even be able to coexist in the same universe; best of all, they might even be the same thing!
The extraordinary thing that has happened–an astonishing stroke of good luck, an earnest of hope for the future–is that there really does seem to be the second kind of order, the second kind of chaos. And they do seem to be the same thing.
This new kind of order, or chaos, seemed to be at the heart of an extraordinary range of interesting problems that had appeared as philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, and cybernetic technologists tried to squeeze the last drops of the imponderable out of their disciplines. They included the biology and brain problems already alluded to; the problem of how to describe catastrophic changes and singularities by means of a continuous mathematics; the problem of how to predict the future states of positive feedback processes; Goedel’s paradox, which detaches the true from the provable; the description of phase-changes in crystallography and electrochemistry; the phenomenon of turbulence; the dynamics of open systems and nonlinear processes; the observer problem in a variety of disciplines; the failure of sociological and economic predictive models because of the rational expectations and second-guessing of real human subjects; the theoretical limitations of Turing machines (in certain circumstances they cannot turn themselves off); the question of how to fit the fractal geometry of Benoit Mandelbrot into orthodox mathematics; the classification of quasicrystals and Penrose tilings; the whole issue of self-reflection, bootstrapping and positive feedback in general; and most troubling of all, the question of the nature of time.
In choosing the term “chaos” to describe this new imaginative and intellectual arena, the discoverers of it pulled off something of a public-relations coup without perhaps fully intending to. They could have called it “antichaos,” which would have been just as accurate a term, in fact a better one, as its implied double negative–“not not-order”–suggests something of its iterative depth. But “antichaos” would have sounded too much like law ‘n order to avant garde artists and humanists, who would have dismissed it as yet another patriarchal Western mystification. Indeed, some humanists have taken “chaos” to their bosom, as they once did quantum uncertainty, as a confirmation of their pro-random, pro-disorder bias.
In order to understand the deeply liberating point of chaos (or antichaos) theory, we will need to go into the differences between deterministic linear order and chaotic emergent order, and between mere randomness and creative chaos. Let us begin by considering an odd little thought experiment.
Suppose we were trying to arrange a sonnet of Shakespeare in the most thermodynamically ordered way, with the least entropy. We cannot, for the sake of argument, break up the words into letters or the letters into line segments. The first thing we would do–which is the only sort of thing a strict thermodynamicist could do–is write the words out in alphabetical order: “a compare day I Shall summer’s thee to ?”. As far as thermodynamics is concerned, such an arrangement would be more ordered than the arrangement “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? . . . ” as composed by Shakespeare. Here, in a capsule, is the difference between deterministic linear order and chaotic emergent order.
We could even test the thermodynamic order of the first arrangement by a further experiment. Suppose we coded the words in terms of gas molecules, arranged in a row, the hottest ones corresponding to the beginning of the alphabet, the coldest ones to the end, and so on in alphabetical order. If left to themselves in a closed vessel the molecules would, because of the increase of entropy over time, rearrange themselves into random alphabetical order (the hot and cold would get evenly mixed). Just as in a steam engine, where the energy gradient between hot steam and cold air can be used to do work, one would be able to employ the movement of molecules, as the alphabetized “sonnet” rearranged itself, to perform some (very tiny) mechanical task. And it would take somewhat more energy than we got out to put the molecules back into alphabetical order, because of the second law of thermodynamics.
As arranged in Sonnet 18 those words are already in more or less “random” alphabetical order. Yet most human beings would rightly assert that the sonnet order is infinitely more ordered than the thermodynamic, linear, alphabetical one. And in other respects the poem does seem to exhibit the characteristics of order. It could, if damaged by being rearranged, be almost perfectly reconstituted by a person who knew Shakespeare’s work well. The sonnet can “do work:” it has deeply influenced human culture, and has helped to transform the lives of many students and lovers. It is an active force in the world precisely because it does not have the low-entropy simplicity of the alphabetical order that might enable it to do mechanical work. Here lies the basic distinction between “power” in the mechanical, political sense, and the mysterious creative influence of art.
But though we have distinguished between the two kinds of order, it is equally necessary to distinguish between the two kinds of chaos. Otherwise we would be in the predicament of someone like Stanley Fish, the “reader response” theorist, who has been forced by the “order-disorder” dualism into asserting that any random sequence of words, chosen perhaps by flipping the pages of a dictionary, would possess a richness of interpretive potential equal to that of the sonnet; and thus that the very idea of text is either meaningless or extensible to everything in the universe.
If reader response theorists understood information theory, it would be enough to show that their mistake is to confuse “white noise” with “flicker noise.” White noise is made up of random amounts of energy at all frequencies. One could certainly imagine that one was listening to the sea when one heard acoustic white noise; there are even devices that make white noise to soothe people to sleep. But there is nothing there to understand or interpret. On the other hand, flicker noise, which does not at first sound very different, is the “sound” that a system makes that is ordered in itself and at the same time highly unstable and going through continuous internal adjustments by means of feedback: a good example is a pile of sand onto whose apex new grains of sand are being dropped one by one. There are many one-grain avalanches, fewer multi-grain avalanches, fewer still mass avalanches, and only the occasional collapse of a whole slope. The sequence of these avalanches obeys laws and forms an elegant fractal pattern when plotted on a graph. What one hears when one hears flicker noise is the combination of these events; and if one analysed it carefully, one might be able to work out the size of the grains, the interval of their deposition, and so on. There is real meaning to be extracted. Our reader-response theorist refuses to extract it.
But this example is perhaps rather abstract. Flicker noise is not just the “sound” made by piles of sand. It is also what we get when we “listen” in a crude way to highly complex organic systems. For instance, suppose we take the temperature of an animal: that reading is flicker noise. The temperature is made up of a combination of fantastically organized and intricate metabolic processes; yet it is indistinguishable from the “same” temperature taken of a simple chemical reaction, or of a random mixture of unrelated processes, which would be white noise. The problem is that a thermometer is a very crude instrument; but it is not enough to do what reader-response theorists would do, that is, to accept its crudity as accuracy, and to make up for it by imagining all kinds of exotic meanings for the animal’s temperature that had no necessary connection with its organic metabolism. What makes it a crude instrument is precisely that it makes no allowance for the nature of what it is measuring.
Another example of flicker noise is what you would “hear” from a set of electrodes applied to someone’s skull if the electrical signal were translated into sound. Just because one could imagine that the squeaks and booms and whistles one would hear resembled perhaps the song of humpback whales, that would not mean that the sound “meant” humpback whales. But this mistake is exactly analogous to much contemporary art criticism and interpretative theories of literature, the arts, or history, which discount the inner personal intentions and meanings of the author, whether the author authorizes a poem, a piece of music, a painting, or an historical act. By discounting those personal meanings, and perhaps substituting the crude statistical measures (the “temperature”) of gender or race or class interest, we may avoid the bugbear of authorship–authority–but we lose any understanding of what it is we are dealing with: we cannot distinguish a living organism from a stone, and are in grave danger of treating them the same.
In the realm of artistic value, the idea of nonlinear systems generating emergent forms of order can prove very illuminating. When, in the move away from traditional societies to the modern state, we abandoned the old religious notions of the soul, of beauty, virtue, higher values, honor, truth, salvation, the divine, and so on, we suffered a genuine loss. But perhaps now we can refound some of those beautiful notions upon a new-old basis. The strange attractor of a chaotic system can look very like an Ideal Form: though any instance of the outcome of such a system at work is only partial and apparently random, when we see all instances of it, we begin to make out a beautiful, if incomplete and fuzzy shape. Might not virtues, ethics, values, and even in a way spiritual beings, be like those deep and beautiful attractors?–and might there not be larger systems still, including many brains and the interactions of all of nature, that would have attractors not unlike the Divine as described by religion?
Meaning itself can be redefined in terms of the relationship of strange attractors to the physical processes they describe. Any nonlinear dynamical system, when triggered by a stimulus, will generate a sequence of unpredictable events, but those events will nevertheless be limited to their attractor, and further iteration will fill out the attractor in more and more detail. The brain itself holds memories in the form of such attractors, the dynamical feedback system in this case being circuits of Hebb cells. Thus we can picture the relationship of a word to its meaning as the relationship of a given trigger to the attractor that is traced out by the feedback process it initiates. When the word “refers” to a perceived object–say, a smell or a sight–that object is one which can trigger a subset of the full attractor, as a Julia Set is a subset of the Mandelbrot Set. Thus a single word can trigger a “meaning-attractor,” sections of whose fine detail can also be triggered by various sensory stimuli. This description rather nicely matches with our Proustian experience of connotation and poetic evocation, and with the logical form of generalization. It accords with the results of liguistic experiments concerning the relative strength by which a given example–say, a duck, an ostrich, or a sparrow–is recognized by a speaker as belonging to the meaning of a word (“bird”). It also explains the difference between ideas and impressions, that exercised the philosophical imaginations of Locke and Hume: the richly-detailed subset evoked by the sight of an object would certainly make the general sketch of the whole set evoked by the word look somewhat pale by comparison.
Since the trigger–whether the word or the sensory stimulus–is itself part of the feedback system, it is encompassed by its description, which is the attractor proper to it when it is allowed to iterate its effects upon a complex neural network. Thus the represented, the representation, and the experiencer of the representation are all part of the same physical system. The usual critique of physical descriptions of representation–for instance, John Searle’s Chinese Room analogy for artificial intelligence–is that however a given object is represented inside the physical system, it requires a smaller system inside the system to see it and know it, or, as John Eccles believes, a detachable non-physical soul. The chaotic-attractor theory of meaning holds out the promise of an intelligible physical description of meaning that does not require an inner homunculus or the intervention of a metaphysical deus ex machina, with further attendant problems of infinite regress–how does the god in the machine perceive and know the representation?–to make it work. One way of putting this is that the issue of reflexiveness, of self-reference or self-inclusion, has been transferred from the metaphysical level where it can only be interpreted as a barren infinite regress or reductio ad absurdum, to the physical realm where it can be studied as we study turbulences of other kinds, with their own emergent properties and self-generated orderliness. The reflexiveness, we feel intuitively, should be there in any account of meaning; the trick is to keep it from messing up our own thinking about it, and place it where it belongs, in the operation of the brain itself!
It remains to suggest how this “attractor theory” of signification might work itself out in the etymological history of a language, and express itself in terms of phonology, morphology, and metaphor. The social and cultural dimension of language, like the neurosensory dimension, has the form of a nonlinear dynamical system with strange attractors pulling it toward certain “archetypal” forms. Those forms could be seen in the odd “targetedness” of the great sound-shifts that periodically convulse a language; they can also be observed in the way that metaphorization will take parallel paths in different languages, so that when a colorful idiom from another language is presented to us, we can almost always find an equivalent in our own. Thus the words “spirit” in English and “Atman” in Sanskrit have identical metaphoric histories, as do the words “kind,” “nature,” and “genus,” all of which came together again in English, having led separate lives in Germanic, Latin, Greek, and other tongues for thousands of years since their original common root in Indo-European. Metaphorization and sound-changes are every new human generation’s way of committing a sacrificial impiety against the tongue of its ancestors, an impiety that commutatively atones for the crime of the ancestors themselves in similarly appropriating the language for themselves from their own mothers and fathers. And since meaning dies the moment it ceases to cut slightly against all previous usage–a valuable if over-emphasized and not entirely original contribution of Deconstruction–it is constituted by this continual low-level feedback between the language and the world it contains.
Such might be the rudiments of a new, evolutionary poetics and a new nonlinear theory of meaning and representation. Obviously I have only scratched the surface here; the point is that we do not need to sit helplessly in the morass of late poststructuralist despair and misologism, and that there are still worlds for the literary humanities to conquer.
And there are practical implications of this model of meaning. (By now such phrases as “model of meaning,” with their invitations to further reflexive iteration, should hold no terrors for us, since we hold a clue to the labyrinth, a clue whose own windings are equal to the windings of that dark place we would discover.) One implication is that many of the characteristics of the relationship of word and meaning are already present in the relationship between a percept and the experience of it. If a sense-perception can generate a sort of “Julia Set,” then in a way a sense perception is like a word. That is, we share with other higher animals the elements of a sensory language which preexisted the more encompassing kind of language that uses words. Or we could put it the other way around, and say that language is just a larger kind of sensing, using internal triggers to evoke larger attractor-sets than any percept could. Obviously we have here a further reason for exploring our relationship with our animal friends: it is a way of understanding the fundamentals of our own language, of discovering that ur-language we share with other parts of nature than ourselves. One huge advantage of that ur-language is that it is not riven by the linguistic boundaries that divide the more fully human languages like English and French from each other; and if we learn to speak it better, we may find more common ground with cultural Others as well as with biological Others.
In one sense, of course, we already possess such ur-languages, in the shared imagery of the visual arts and in the “universal language” of music. But the theory of meaning proposed here suggests that there is something analogous to music and visual imagery that underlies language itself, obscured by its more recent evolutionary achievements, to be neglected only at the cost of a vitiation and greying of our expression and understanding. I came to this conclusion by an entirely different route a few years ago, while translating the poetry of Miklos Radnoti with my remarkable colleague Zsuzsanna Ozsvath. In the following section I shall discuss the discoveries we made together, and in this way give body to the critical and linguistic theory proposed here, especially to the concept of the ur-language. Suffice it to say here that poetic meter turns out to be a sure road to the ur-language, or to change the metaphor, meter is the lyre or golden bough or magic flute that enables us to enter the underworld of that language and to return with intelligible gifts for the community. Meter, like music and visual imagery, is an ancient psychic technology by which human nature and human culture are bridged; appropriately, and as we might imagine from our discussion of the fractal harmonics of Hebb-cell circuitry, meter is a rhythmic and harmonic system in itself, a way of inducing the wave functions of the brain. The lyre through which Rilke traces Orpheus in the Sonnets to Orpheus is the poetic form of the sonnet itself.
If the words of a poet can induce in one brain the same strange attractor that they proceeded from in the poet’s brain, an extraordinary possibility presents itself. This possibility is that when those harmonics are in our heads we are actually sharing the thoughts, and indeed the subjectivity, of the poet, even if he or she is dead. The poet lives again when his or her attractors arise in another brain. Poetry, then, is a kind of artificial intelligence program, that springs into being when booted correctly into any good human meat-computer.
The notion of the strange attractor can be useful not only in understanding artistic and poetic values, but also in the much more down-to earth realms of history and sociology. Any analysis of historical events we make, or any theory of social behavior we formulate, is itself one of the determining factors in the situation it describes. Thus there is no “meta” position, no detached Olympian viewpoint from which objective assessments can be made, and therefore no escape from the apparent chaos of mutual feedback. Even economists are just another group of competitors over what constitutes value.
Not that this struggle for ontological control is a blind one. We would be totally ineffective at it if we were not able to assess the motives and assume the worldview of others. And even this would not be enough. Our imaginative model of the other must contain its own image of oneself–the gift, said Robert Burns, is to see ourselves as others see us; and that image itself must contain its own assessment of the other. And our outer negotiations take place not just between our own persons but also among the entire dramatis personae of the inner drama by which we estimate the future. The confusion is not one of blindness, but of too much sight; not of randomness, but an excess of determinants; not of chaos, but of an order too complex to be explained before the next complicating event comes along–of which the next, complicating, event is the best explanation.
Indeed, this capacity to impose our interpretations on things is not only our predicament but also what enabled us to second-guess, predict and control the simpler systems of nature, such as the biological, chemical, and physical ones. We bought our power over the rest of nature with the essential uncontrollability of human events. We can control nature to the extent that we stay one step of reflexivity ahead of it. Nor is even nature innocent, but is itself the resultant and living history of a cosmic evolution which pitted many forms of reflection against each other; the marvellous cooperation of nature is a prudent and subtle form of mutual feedback. Even so, when we find we can reduce another organism to a successfully testable set of laws and predictions, it is a sign that we are dealing with a lower order of reflection than our own.
Thus to attempt to do so with human beings–to educe and apply the laws governing them and to predict their actions–is, in human terms, a viciously aggressive act, an attempt to get control at the expense of others’ freedom. It implicitly reduces human beings to the level of lower animals, even to that of inanimate things. But this indeed is what much social and economic history, much sociology and progressive political theory, have attempted to do. The promise such studies held out was not lost on those with the sweet thirst for power. Transformed into political programs those systems appeared in our century as the great totalizing regimes–Marxism, Fascism, National Socialism, International Socialism. We should not be surprised at the vigorous counter-reaction of human cultures against such systems.
In the light of this analysis it now becomes clear why, with the best will in the world, all principled revolutions have ended up diminishing human variety and freedom in their societies. For a revolution to be truly freeing it must be unprincipled, in the sense that its intentions do not rest on a predictive theory of human social behavior. Principles in this sense must be sharply distinguished from values , which are much more complex products and guides of human history, including within them the non-linear flexibility and creativity of their past. The American Revolution was an unpricipled revolution, which is why it succeeded when so many failed. But unlike most later revolutions it did not question the great values of human life, and indeed recommitted itself to them. Such principles as the American revolution possessed, enshrined in the Constitution, really amount to a declaration of regulated intellectual anarchy or unprincipledness. The separation of powers, which is, more than equality and more even than democracy, the central message of the Constitution and the thematic undertone of every article, is an intuitive recognition of the reflexive, self-organizing, unpredictable, feedback nature of history, which by reinterpreting its initial conditions is able to forget them.
Separation of powers makes politics into a drama, not a treatise. Perhaps the true hidden presence behind the Constitution is William Shakespeare. All the world’s a stage. We are all actors, in both senses of the word. Our inherent value derives from that condition, not from Kant’s notion that we are ends in ourselves. We can still keep our dignity even if we are, for immediate purposes, means, as long as we are actors in the drama. Even if their function is to serve, the crusty boatman or witty nurse or pushy saleslady are interpreting the world from their own center, are characters, dramatis personae, to be ignored by others at their peril; and are thus free.
But of course even this formulation which I have made is itself a part of the situation it describes; it is a speech in the play, to be evaluated by your own reflexive processes of assessment. Let us see whether the line of thought it prompts is a more or less freeing one than its competitors.
We immediately run up against a large problem. Does this critique of historical and human studies mean that they must revert to the status of chronicle and appreciative observation? Like amateur naturalists, must their practitioners only be collectors, without testable hypotheses or laws? Should we just admire the exquisite coiled turbulence of human events, wonder, and move on? The French historian Fernand Braudel is almost such a historical naturalist; there are moments as one contemplates his great colorful, slowly roiling paisley of Mediterranean history, seemingly without direction or progress, that one could wish for little more out of history. Should not the historian be a sort of Giacomo Casanova, a picaro among the courts and sewers of eternal Europe or China, remarking and “thickly describing” the choice beauties to be seen on one’s travels?
On the face of it, a very attractive approach; but it abdicates that very activity–holistic understanding and the enrichment of the world by interpretation–that characterizes the human Umwelt, the human species-world, itself. The admonition not to totalize is the most totalitarian command of all, because it essentially dehumanizes history. The feedback process of human culture is a feedback of what deconstructionists would call totalizations. The open-endedness of history is created by the competition and accommodation of various candidates for the last word, the dernier cri, the formula of closure (including this one); it is an ecology of absolutisms. Nor is this ecology a random play of flows, without direction or growth; technology, records, and enduring works of art constitute ratchets which prevent any return to earlier, less complex states of the system, just as genetic inheritance did in earlier ages. Thus history is an evolutionary system, with the three factors required for evolution to take place: variation (provided by the unpredictable paisley of reflexive events), selection (provided by the competition and accommodation of “totalizations”), and inheritance, a conservative ratchet to prevent what is of advantage from being lost.
We are already embarked on the venture of making sense of things. The only way open is to seek forms of understanding and descriptive categories that are proper to our own level of reflexive complexity. To do this is essentially an artistic, a constructive, a performative, a religious activity, and it cannot fully depend on the capacity for calculation by which we claim to understand the rest of the natural world. History is an art, even a technology, even a liturgy, as much as it is a science; and it is so not only in the activity of historiography, but also in that of research.
I am proposing, in other words, a change in our fundamental paradigm of historical and human study. And here another set of major scientific advances comes into play. Most workers in the historical and sociological fields still accept the cultural determinism that was one of the first naive responses of the West to the cultural diversity of the newly-discovered nonwestern world. Thus for them the units of historical study, human beings, are tabulae rasae, blank sheets to be inscribed by cultural conditioning or economic pressures.
More recently, however, in fields as diverse as cultural anthropology, linguistics, twin-studies, paleoanthropology, human evolution, psychophysics, performance studies, neuroanatomy, neurochemistry, folklore and mythology, and ethology, it is becoming clear that we human beings bring to history and society an enormously rich set of innate capacities, tendencies, and exclusive potentials. We uncannily choose, again and again, the same kinds of poetic meters, kinship classifications, calendars, myths, funerals, stories, decorative patterns, musical scales, performance traditions, rituals, food-preparation concepts, grammars, and symbolisms. We are not natureless. Indeed, our natures include, genetically, much of the cultural experience of our species in that period of one to five million years of nature-culture overlap during which our biological evolution had not ceased, while our cultural evolution had already begun: the period in which unwittingly we domesticated and bred ourselves into our humanity. The shape and chemistry of our brains is in part a cultural artifact. We are deeply written and inscribed already, we have our own characters, so to speak, when we come from the womb.
Having taken away one kind of rationality from historical and human studies, we may be able to replace it with another. But in so doing are we not committing the very sin, of reducing a self-organizing and unpredictable order to a set of deterministic laws, of which we accuse the determinist historians? Are we not replacing cultural or economic determinism with biological determinism? Not at all. First, to understand the principles governing the individual elements of a complex system is, as we have seen, not sufficient to be able to educe laws to predict the behavior of the whole ensemble. The beautiful paisleys of atmospheric turbulence are not explained by the most precise understanding of the individual properties–atomic weight, chemical structure, specific heat, and so on–of its elements. Second, the peculiar understanding of the human being that we are coming to is of a creature programmed rather rigidly and in certain specific ways to do something that is totally open-ended: to learn and to create. Our hardwiring–whose proper development we neglect in our education at great peril–is designed to make us infinitely inventive. Our nature is a grammar which we must learn to use correctly, and which, if we do, makes us linguistically into protean gods, able to say anything in the world or out of it.
Thus the paradigm change which this line of argument suggests is from one in which a social universe of natureless, culturally determined units is governed by a set of causal laws and principles which, given precise input, will generate accurate predictions, to one in which a cultural universe of complex-natured but knowable individuals, by the interaction and feedback of their intentions, generates an ever-changing social pattern or paisley, which can be modelled but not predicted. The meaning of understanding would change from being able to give a discursive or mathematical account of something to being able to set up a working model that can do the same sorts of things as the original.
Fundamental political concepts like freedom, war, civil order, equality, literacy, power, justice, sovereignty and so on would no longer be defined in terms of a set of objective abstract conditions but as living activities in a one-way unrepeatable process of historical change. It would be such a revaluation as occurred in literary criticism in the nineteenth century, when tragedy came to be defined as a process, an organic and recognizable activity, rather than as conforming to such rules as the Three Unities.
Objective and abstract definitions of political concepts imply utopias, ideal principled social states towards which historical polities should strive; satisfy the definitions, and we have perfection, the end of history, an objective rationality to judge all of the past! Horrible idea; but it governs most political enthusiasm. Instead, let us imagine a peculiar kind of progress–not the old one, towards Whig empire or Hegelian state or proletarian or socialist or technological paradise, but a progress in changing terms which themselves progress by subsuming earlier ones; a progress that looks like decline or stagnation to those fixed to one idea of it; a progress not along a straight time-line but along one that curves back and fills up the holes in itself until it begins to look like a plane or a solid; a progress forged out of the evolutionary competition of totalizations, in which those most accommodating, most loving to each other, like the mammals, have the best chance of survival.
And here we may be in a position to begin to redeem that promise, of forms of understanding and descriptive categories proper to our own level of reflexive complexity, which we implied earlier. The real forces at work on the stage of history are values. And values are uniquely qualified for a role both as tools to understand history and as forces at work in it. One qualification is just that: they straddle the worlds of action and knowledge, they admit candidly our involvement, our partisanship, our partiality and our power. Objectivity in a historian is an impossible goal in any case. Another qualification of values is that they give a kind of direction to history, the possibility of progress, which is the logical precondition of any inquiry. Values are essentially dynamic, readjusting, contested, vigorous, as the word’s derivation from the Latin for “health,” and its cognate “valor” imply.
We must reexamine those older partisan brands of historiography that wore their values on their sleeves: heroic, exemplary, mythic history. Perhaps their intellectual credentials were not as shaky as we thought; perhaps they were not so naively unaware of the possibility of their own bias.
It might well be objected that I am advocating an outrageous abandonment of objectivity, and giving license to the worst forms of ethnocentrism and prejudice. Indeed I must plead guilty, but with mitigating circumstances. It was the age of “objective” history that provided the fuel for scientific racism, holocausts, colonialism, and the Gulag. The ideologue who believes he has objective truth on his side is more dangerous than the ordinary patriot or hero, because he calls his values “facts” and will disregard all ordinary human values in their service. We are going to be ethnocentric anyway; let us at least play our ethnocentrisms against each other on a level playing-field and not attempt to get the objective high ground of each other. Given such a game, adaptive success in the long run attends those versions of our partisanship that have the widest, panhuman, appeal. Let us seek not to avoid bias, but to widen our bias in favor of the whole human race, and beyond.
This approach especially questions the apparently straightforwardness of the notion of political power. Events occur, and their meaning is rich and complex. The events are made up of the actions of men and women; and if they performed those actions then, tautologically, they had the power to do so. Do we gain anything by inserting the idea of power? Suppose they didn’t perform the actions; could they have? Could we prove it? Power depends on values, and values on the individual and collective imagination.
This means that the capacity to recognize beauty, the esthetic sense, is the primary cognitive skill of the historian or sociologist. It is by beauty that we intuit the order of the reflexive process of human history. On the small, tribal scale the need for this essential function may well have been one of the principal selective pressures that led us toward our extraordinary inherited talents at storytelling and the interpretation of narrative. History should be refounded on story, not the other way round.
The redescription of values as the strange attractors of certain complex systems, especially human ones, rather neatly solves many of the problems thinkers in various disciplines have had in identifying the nature of values–problems so severe that many have denied the existence of values altogether. Existing descriptions include the following:
1. Values are clear, intelligible ideal forms in the mind of God. This description catches the transcendent flavor of values, the demand they make for compliance, and the sense we have that they should be eternal and independent of particular circumstances and appearances. But it misses their rootedness in actual human situations, their cultural setting, the extreme difficulty people have in discerning when and if they apply, their processual nature, and the infinite subtlety and ambiguity they display, especially in the work of the finest artists and moralists.
2. Values are nothing more than abstract reifications of personal feelings, that can and should change when those feelings change. This description has the advantage of dismissing the problem, but it is now clear that civil culture and personal happiness are impossible on this basis; and even if values are such an illusion, they are an illusion shared by such large communities of human beings that they constitute a social fact. A huge, value-shaped hole is left in human language if this definition is accepted, one which would be as hard to negotiate around as if we were to decide that all ocular vision were simply a neural illusion. Nevertheless, there seems to be some intuitive truth in the notion that values have an internal, personal, and subjective dimension; and that they have an immanent quality, and cannot be divorced from the processes in which they arise–observations that should be saved in any more satisfactory account of the matter.
3. Values are the culturally-relative norms generated by particular societies to justify and reinforce the power of the dominant ruling group to pursue its interests. This description again avoids the problem, but only by substituting two even more questionable abstractions (“power” and “society”) for the supposed abstractions of value. What “interests” might consist of in a world in which values were entirely relative is hard to say. Why ordinary people should feel a duty to conform to values–why it is a value to adhere to values–is also not addressed. Yet this description has the virtue of pointing to something systematic and global in the nature of values, involving complex relationships among a number of players–another feature that must not be lost in a more accurate account.
4. Values are the human terms for the genetically-determined evolutionary imperatives of our species. This description ignores the very strong experience people report that their values are bound up intimately with their personal freedom, the very thing that separates us from the supposed automatism of lower animals. It also contains a troublesome flaw in logic: if we are genetically programmed to follow these evolutionary imperatives, we would have no need for social and cultural norms and prohibitions: if people did not at times wish to steal, lie, kill, disobey their parents and commit adultery, there would be no need for the ten commandments. Other animals have no decalogue. On the other hand, this description points to very important characteristics of values: that they largely transcend cultural differences, that they are rooted in our evolutionary history, that they are ideally conducive to the survival of ourselves and our fellow living things, and that they involve a tension between individual and collective interests (for instance, in the sociobiological account of altruism).
The beauty of the “strange attractor” description of values is that it nicely includes all the characteristics of values that this analysis suggests, while avoiding the flaws in the existing definitions. Strange attractors are immanent in the processes they attract, yet have an integrity, even an eternal and unchanging quality, that transcends them (the Lorenz attractor exists before and after the particular dripping faucet or rotating globular star-cluster it describes). Strange attractors do not determine which data point will come next, but rather the global shape of the ensemble of data points. Though the data points (in so-called “deterministic chaos”) are indeed in an abstract sense deterministic, the universe itself, with its quantum graininess and indeterminacy, does not have enough acuity and indeed data processing power to predict their exact location in advance, and thus such processes are for all practical purposes both unpredictable and ordered, a very fine match with our minimum conditions for freedom. Freedom, one of our supreme values and also a precondition for most other values, resists any attempt at reduction to either traditional notions of order or traditional notions of randomness–if freedom is traditional order, then it is deterministic and not free, but if it is traditional randomness (the acte gtatuit of the existentialists) its essential quality of responsibility is lost. The unpredictable emergence of Prigoginian dissipative structures from chaotic interactions, drawn by strange attractors, similarly defies traditional notions of order and randomness.
Biological evolution, with its iterative algorithm of variation, selection, and genetic inheritance, and its massively nonlinear ecological arena of selection, is a fecund womb of strange attractors. Among these, values might well be among the most complex and sophisticated, since they arise out of the further interplay of biological and cultural evolution. Strange attractors, unlike drives or instincts, however, have the engaging if frustrating feature that they can never be fully achieved; new data points can always can be added that will deepen and enrich the detail, revealing new self-similar but not self-identical depths. Thus the requirement of a tension between the ideal and the real is preserved. Drives push; attractors invite, or pull, in an unpredictable way. Strange attractors have room for both global collective features, and individual idiosyncrasies. The “meta” quality of values–it is a value to have values–is also addressed by the essentially recursive, reflexive, self-transcending character of strange attractors and the conditions of their emergence. Further, it is a moot point whether even the entire network of human social, cultural, technological and economic feedbacks and communications over the globe is yet as complex and multidimensional as the interconnections of a single human brain and nervous system–a reflection that nicely suggests the importance of the individual conscience in discerning and generating values. Finally, the oddity of these attractors when we try to fit them into our existing categories–are they physical objects, or processes, or relationships, or adjectival or adverbial qualities, or entities, or abstractions, or essences, or tendencies, or vectors, or mathematical idealizations, or what?–exactly matches our puzzlement when we try to identify values.
If this identification of values as strange attractors can be upheld, the implications for the discipline of history and the human sciences are enormous. In seeking the key principles of historical change, social organization, and economic development in forces or drives that force and push society and individuals, we may have been deeply neglecting these mysterious, yet increasingly intelligible, attractors that invite and draw society and individuals. Even assuming we could exactly specify the origins of present events, unlikely in the light of our present understanding of sensitive dependence on initial conditions, the past may be important not as the determinative cause of the present but as an archive of value-attractors for future development. It may turn out that the real reason why human beings do things is not that they are compelled into them by socio-economic causes or political and cultural norms, but that they are attracted to them by their goodness and their beauty.