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Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices

Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices

by John Law

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Although much recent social science and humanities work has been a revolt against simplification, this volume explores the contrast between simplicity and complexity to reveal that this dichotomy, itself, is too simplistic. John Law and Annemarie Mol have gathered a distinguished panel of contributors to offer—particularly within the field of science


Although much recent social science and humanities work has been a revolt against simplification, this volume explores the contrast between simplicity and complexity to reveal that this dichotomy, itself, is too simplistic. John Law and Annemarie Mol have gathered a distinguished panel of contributors to offer—particularly within the field of science studies—approaches to a theory of complexity, and at the same time a theoretical introduction to the topic. Indeed, they examine not only ways of relating to complexity but complexity in practice.
Individual essays study complexity from a variety of perspectives, addressing market behavior, medical interventions, aeronautical design, the governing of supranational states, ecology, roadbuilding, meteorology, the science of complexity itself, and the psychology of childhood trauma. Other topics include complex wholes (holism) in the sciences, moral complexity in seemingly amoral endeavors, and issues relating to the protection of African elephants. With a focus on such concepts as multiplicity, partial connections, and ebbs and flows, the collection includes narratives from Kenya, Great Britain, Papua New Guinea, the Netherlands, France, and the meetings of the European Commission, written by anthropologists, economists, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and scholars of science, technology, and society.

Contributors. Andrew Barry, Steven D. Brown, Michel Callon, Chunglin Kwa, John Law, Nick Lee, Annemarie Mol, Marilyn Strathern, Laurent Thévenot, Charis Thompson

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Extremely timely, important, and well-defined, this book is precisely on target in focusing on heterogeneous studies that treat knowledge as local. The types of science and technology discussed are diverse and well-balanced.”—David Stump, coeditor of The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contests, and Power

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Duke University Press
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Science and Cultural Theory
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Social studies of knowledge practices
By John Law

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2846-1

Chapter One

CHUNGLIN KWA Romantic and Baroque Conceptions of Complex Wholes in the Sciences

In the 1990s complexity came to mean something different from what it predominantly meant in the 1950s. The newer complexity is not simply an extension of, or a development from, the old complexity. For complexity comes in kinds. In this essay I distinguish between "romantic" complexity and "baroque" complexity. They have, I will argue, quite different conceptions of the structure of reality. I develop the argument in three stages. First, I characterize these two forms of complexity. Second, I explore the ways in which the term changed in the twentieth century by considering certain writings in meteorology and evolution and so-called chaos theory. And third, I return to the distinction between the romantic and the baroque and argue that both-together with other commitments, including those to reductionism-are long-standing metaphors, tropes, or indeed metaphysical positions within the natural sciences.


A Romantic Expectation

Models seek to bring conceptual unity to what otherwise would not easily be put together. And in a mathematical model several basic laws can be made to work together to "mimic" nature. The computer makes this possible. The enthusiasm inspired by the computer was nicely expressed bypopulation dynamicist Crawford Holling in 1966: "If biology has told us anything, it is that complex systems are not just the sum of their parts. There is an emergent principle when fragments act and interact in a whole system. The speed and large memory of modern digital computers for the first time allows the ecologist, in principle, to incorporate all the relevant actions and interactions of the fragments of complex ecological systems in an integrated manner." The ideal of integrating all the workings of nature into one whole is called holism. And, indeed, for many years there was a special relationship between holism and the computer. If the assumption of holism is fed into a computer model, the computer faithfully reproduces it. But Holling was hoping for too much in 1966.


In the early twentieth century, organicists such as J. S. Haldane, Jan Smuts, and Paul Weiss reinvigorated romantic conceptions of nature through the notion of the complex unity of systems, in particular living systems. Jan Smuts gave wide currency to the notion of "holism." "The whole as a real character is writ large on the face of Nature," he wrote in his Holism and Evolution. So what is holism? Smuts's answer came in two parts. First, it is the idea that there are hierarchically different levels of organization in the natural world, each of which unites heterogeneous items of a lower level of integration into a functional whole. Second, holism is the suggestion that new levels of integration, or new wholes, have emerged at various times during the course of evolution on earth. Smuts's rather unsurprising paradigmatic example of the emergence of wholes is the organism. More controversially, he talks of higher levels of holism, the mind, and personality-where the latter is virtually in command of the universe. Although the latter, somewhat mystical, levels found few adherents in the scientific community, the word holism has stuck.

For many decades romantic holism and complexity were synonymous. If one took "complexity" seriously as a subject for science, one was a holist. If one objected to holism-usually on the grounds that it rests on unwarranted speculation-one was a reductionist. However, recently the word holism has disappeared more or less completely from discourse about complexity-which is, perhaps, an index of a different kind of complexity.

The Romantic Tradition: The Unity of the Whole

Romantic complexity sees an underlying unity in a world of heterogeneous objects and phenomena-ever since Rousseau wrote in the seventh promenade of his Reveries that all individual objects escape a sensitive observer of the natural world and "il ne voit et ne sent rien que dans le tout" (he sees and feels nothing but the unity of things). In the natural sciences Cuvier's discovery of the unity of plan of, for instance, the vertebrates is romantic, as is Orsted's discovery that an electrical current produces a magnetic field, a discovery to which he was led by his naturphilosophische intuition that there was a basic unity between physical forces. For the last two hundred years the romantic view of nature has been a constant in the modern sciences, however much the more extreme versions have been challenged or tempered by parallel strategies, such as reductionistic mechanicism in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The Romantic Tradition: The Whole Is Real

Relatively few scientists have been content with Kant's insistence that the creation of unity is an activity of the subject. Kant's Copernican Revolution was not swallowed whole. "I have arranged the facts, not successively in the order in which they have presented themselves, but according to the relations which they have between themselves," writes Alexander von Humboldt in his Voyage de Humboldt et Bonpland. And in Kosmos: "The scattered images offered to the contemplation of the senses, notwithstanding their number and diversity, were gradually fused into a concrete whole; Terrestrial nature was conceived in its generality." However, not everyone would be able to follow von Humboldt. To see what von Humboldt was able to see takes "a sensitive observer," for instance like Rousseau. This is the romantic scientist's moderate version of Kant's Copernican Revolution.

Romantic Holism Looks Up, Baroque Complexity Down

Romantic holism integrates individuals who appear to be a heterogeneous lot at the phenomenological level to a single entity at a higher level of organization. Baroque complexity is much less severe on this point. For example, a community of different species of plants seems to be less of a single whole when conceived of as "table companions," as it was by the Swiss plant sociologist Josias Braun-Blanquet in 1923, than it does when taken as a single "superorganism," as conceived by his American contemporary Frederic Clements. In the former view plant and animal species may be seen as "cooperating," whereas in the latter they are "functionally" integrated.

The romantics look up-some all the way up to the world of Platonic forms-and recognize collections of individuals as higher-order individuals. This is a process of abstraction, a search for higher-order laws and principles. The higher-order individual may have the abstract structure of an organism; it is not a real flesh-and-blood organism. By contrast, the baroque looks down and, like Leibniz, observes the mundane crawling and swarming of matter: "Chaque portion de la matiere peut etre concue comme une jardin plein de plantes; et comme un Etang plein de poissons. Mais chaque rameau de la plante, chaque membre de l'Animal, chaque goutte de ses humeurs est encore un tel jardin, ou un tel etang" (Every bit of matter can be conceived as a garden full of plants or a pond full of fish. But each branch of the plant, each drop of its bodily fluids, is also such a garden or such a pond). To Leibniz the unity of his body is political in form, a free republic of monads. So it is the direction of looking that matters. Only then does the fundamental difference between the romantic conception of a society as an organism and the baroque conception of an organism as a society appear.

The Historic Baroque

It may seem unnecessary to use an overloaded word like baroque, especially because it is not immediately apparent that there is a historic continuity with the grand style of the seventeenth century. In the case of romanticism it is much easier to argue for an uninterrupted lineage. Yet several important characteristics of the historic baroque make the term baroque attractive to use for later periods, including the present. First the historic baroque insists on a strong phenomenological realness, a sensuous materiality. Second, this materiality is not confined to, or locked within, a simple individual but flows out in many directions, blurring the distinction between individual and environment. And third, there is also the baroque inventiveness, the ability to produce lots of novel combinations out of a rather limited set of elements, for instance as in baroque music. Similarly, action in early baroque theater is not based on the logical development of a plot but rather on a sequence of monologues, debates, and allegories. The great masters of baroque painting, such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt, made stunning innovations with well-known iconographic commonplaces.

Leibniz's Baroque Monads

Leibniz was a strict nominalist. His monads participate in the cosmos in a fashion that is entirely different from that imagined in the concept of system in romanticism. In Leibniz's baroque philosophy individuals are not linked to form greater systems. Individuals-monads-are not linked at all; they do not even communicate. But they are connected in the sense that, in their material aspect, they affect each other. If one individual had not existed, the whole universe would have been different.

Gilles Deleuze sketches a baroque building, an allegory of the monad. Its lower part has windows on the world, but the upper floor is entirely closed. Here, each monad has its context represented inside itself, as if on an inner screen. Lesser monads just have their own local context represented; the more important the monad, the richer its world. But no monad could read its own inner screen in its entirety; its folds go to infinity. Leibniz said, "Mais une Ame ne peut lire en elle-meme que ce qui y est represente distinctement, elle ne sauroit developper tout d'un coup tous ses replis, car ils vont a l'infini" (But a soul can read in itself only that which is represented distinctly there; it cannot pursue all at once all of its folds, because they extend to infinity). All monads are forces primitives (primordial forces). All laws of nature can be conceived as forces that spring from monads. The concept of field in physics is Leibnizian in origin. It makes no sense to think of abstract laws of nature, in which the process of abstraction has been carried to a point where they would exist without the monads that give rise to them.

Metaphors of Romanticism

Organicism provides the metaphor of choice to romanticism, but system is its favorite word. Behind system an organism may hide itself. But machines and engines are also systems. In graphical representations systems are usually depicted by connecting lines between constituent elements. If one draws them in the right way, the larger entity appears from the graph. By contrast, baroque monads are not connected to other monads at all. Each individual monad is a world in itself; each has its context represented on its own inner screen.

Systems and Objects

According to Alfred North Whitehead, "nature appears as a complex system, whose factors are dimly discerned by us." The fact that the mind creates individual entities for itself is necessary as procedure, but it is not a metaphysical necessity. "The immediate fact for awareness is the whole occurrence of nature" (14). Whitehead defines objects as "elements in nature which do not pass" (143). They are the durable ingredients in events, the items of which we can say, "There it is again" (144). Objects may be systems, that is, a multiplicity of entities, but Whitehead says that an arbitrary halt to the dissociation of matter is necessary, and the resulting material entities need to be considered as units (23). More important are systems; ultimately, nature is a complex of related entities.

In 1926 Alfred Tansley makes a Whiteheadian inventory of systems: atoms of the chemical elements of low atomic numbers, the sugar molecule, a single organism, the solar system. They are all physical systems, and they can be ranked on a scale of stability. Longevity-Whitehead used the word endurance-is the measure of their stability. Tansley includes a peculiar object that explains the entire inventory: ecological systems in their "climax stage." Tansley is an ecologist. He borrows the concept of "climax" from Frederick Clements, who considers ecological systems (we would now say "ecosystems," a word coined by Tansley in 1935) as superorganisms. Just as organisms develop toward maturity, to adulthood, ecosystems develop toward the climax, a final stage in which their species composition no longer changes. According to Tansley, climax ecosystems sustain themselves for a thousand years or more-not quite as long as an atom but long enough to qualify as systems.

A Romantic Reading of Whitehead

Was Whitehead a holist? Historian of ecology Donald Worster thinks so, largely on the basis of the following passage, which is close to the end of Concepts of Nature: "In Nature the normal way trees flourish is by their association in a forest. Each tree may lose something of its individual perfection of growth, but they mutually assist each other in preserving the conditions for survival." The forest would be the new individual holist entity. But elsewhere, in the context of Darwinian evolution, Whitehead is more explicit in his imagery. He writes that organisms creatively transform their own environments. And because a single organism would be almost helpless to do so, this requires societies of cooperating organisms.

Deleuze Reads Whitehead

But Deleuze reads Whitehead as a neobaroque philosopher, a neo-Leibnizian. Whitehead frees Leibniz's world of the stringent requirement of "compossibility." There is a strong conceptual link between the notion of compossibility and harmony in music. In a polyphonic musical piece we may hear different melodies at the same time, but together they sound right. Harmony, as it was practiced throughout the baroque era, is the art of counterpoint, bringing together independent voices. Similarly, all the different and individual story lines that are found in the world together form the one world we know. Remove one historical event, and everything goes wrong. In our world Caesar could not have crossed the Rubicon. In Leibniz's mathematics this idea is expressed through convergent series. Even though divergent series were mathematically possible, he didn't envisage them. This is not the place to speculate on Leibniz's reasons for holding on so strongly to compossibility. At any rate Whitehead includes divergent series, and the result is the emancipation of dissonance, the possibility of a chaotic side-by-side existence of mutually exclusive realities.

A Fragmented Nature?

According to Walter Benjamin, in the German baroque drama of Andreas Gryphius and Daniel Caspar von Lohenstein, nature appears as a ruin, a heap of highly significant fragments, rather than as a seamless web. We should be careful not to invest the concept of "fragment" with its current postmodern significance as the ruins of the holistic project that was modernity. Although Benjamin sees a connection between the baroque vision of the world and the atrocities of the Thirty Years' War, the term fragments does not refer to what once was a greater whole. Rather, fragments are independent individual things with a monadological structure. The link between them is not connection but reciprocal reference. Gershom Scholem talks of a web of references, which remain in their allegorical immanence. But each individual thing can be severed from that contextual network at all times. Benjamin also applies this vision of nature to the idea world of the baroque. "The idea is a monad-that means briefly: every idea contains the image of the world."


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What People are Saying About This

David Stump
Extremely timely, important, and well-defined, this book is precisely on target in focusing on heterogeneous studies that treat knowledge as local. The types of science and technology discussed are diverse and well-balanced.
— David Stump, coeditor of The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contests, and Power

Meet the Author

John Law is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Centre for Science Studies at Lancaster University in England.

Annemarie Mol is Professor of Political Philosophy at Twente University in the Netherlands.

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