Marcel Duchamp Nude descending a staircase 1912
Ilargi: Much to my surprise, I received a mail from an old friend. Alexander Aston last wrote for the Automatic Earth in 2014. But he hasn’t been idle. Alexander is presently finishing his doctorate in archeology at Oxford, after prior degrees in philosophy and history. And for this article, he’s been thinking about how upheaval and collapse tend to lead to new insights, new bursts of creativity, in science, religion, society and the arts. A view that’s -too- rarely contemplated. It’s so long I cut it into three parts. Please don’t miss any of them.
Quantum, Jazz and Dada:
The Dynamic Symmetry of Destruction and Creativity
“Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke
This paper is not about Quantum, Jazz and Dada per se, but rather a meditation on those radical bursts of human creativity that occur during historically destructive moments. Ultimately, my thesis is quite simple. Barring the possibility of extinction, humans are on the precipice of the most radical social reorganizations in the history of the species. In navigating this process of transformation, if we wish to create a world worth living in, it is necessary to understand the interactions between energy, ecosystems, cognitive development and social organization.
Without a grasp on the interdependence of these relationships there is no hope for shaping our world in a healthier manner. What is historically unquestionable is that periods of radical upheaval result in drastic reconfigurations of belief, meaning and knowledge. In the contemporary world, metaphysical and theoretical assumptions about the division of mind and matter, culture and nature, humans and environment all stem from a philosophical and scientific heritage that has divided form and flow. If we are to create something better out of the ongoing destruction of the current system we must radically rethink our understanding of energy, matter and the interdependence of humanity and the Earth.
Collapse Ain’t Nuthin New
At the beginning of the twentieth century the Industrial Empires and their world order collapsed, imploding into a cataclysm of brutality and desperation that persisted for decades. Czars and Kaisers, empires and vassals dissolved in the onslaught of history. The old order was left rotting in the trenches. Muddy altars to the gods of empire and industry that demanded a blood sacrifice beyond comprehension. In the wake of the destruction, new imperial orders and secular religions emerged in the search for control and stability, dominating and traumatising those that survived the slaughter. It is impossible to grasp fully the horror and devastation of the period.
The wars, depressions, epidemics, famines, revolutions and authoritarian regimes have become so normalised in our narratives that it is hard to grasp the magnitude of these events. It was a cascading systems failure of a scale and intensity without historical parallel in terms of the global scope and the speed at which it unfolded. There are few words for the early twentieth century collapse other than horrific. Yet, even as the tragedy unfolded, a profoundly creative dynamism emerged from the ashes. Like a successional ecology following a wildfire, scientific, artistic and social practices began to transform.
In the ruins physicists began to undermine radically the common pre-war belief that physics was an essentially complete science. Artists began to deconstruct the meaning of cultural institutions that could not account for such technological savagery, leading to the advent of post-modernism. As the global system reoriented it was the descendants of slaves, at the beating heart of American suffering, that catalysed the greatest musical renaissance in world history. Despite the tragedy, there is a kind of beautiful symmetry in the flourishing of Quantum, Jazz and Dada amidst the rubble and devastation of the war.
Destruction is part of the fecundity of life, the dynamism that creates the possibility for growth. Disruption and disintegration break the equilibrium of our systems and feed a creative evolution for more effective, resilient practices and forms of organisation. Peak and trough, complexity and entropy are bound together like a wave to the ocean. Life flourishes amongst dead and decomposing stars, extinctions produce radiations, ovulation leads to menstruation, death and renaissance produce one another. It is in this dynamic symmetry of creation and destruction that uncertainty produces physics, chaos creates art, and the persecuted compose music.
Much like our ancestors at the dawn of the twentieth century, we are on the precipice of immense changes. Indeed, we are already caught in the momentum of this wave. The complexity of the current system has begun to hit hard energetic boundaries, fracturing economic, political and social stability. For the first time in human evolution the species is confronting not only global resource limits but its own behaviour as a geological force. The energetic structure of the global system that has emerged over the past five centuries has begun to radically reorganise.
We are experiencing negative and positive feedback on a planetary scale and facing an ecological, evolutionary and geological transformation of an intensity that is unique in the existence of the biosphere. Extinctions, natural disasters, imperial wars, refugees, financial crises, Arab springs and Syrian deserts, all are systemically entangled with the transforming energy dynamics of our planetary system.
At one pole, we are experiencing the ecological effects of a thermodynamic expansion that has dispersed the fossilised energy of entire geologic ages into the atmosphere in mere centuries. We have amplified the thermal energy retained by the planet and the principle of entropy requires it to be dissipated. Energy that flows through storms, glaciers, and oceans. At the opposite pole, we confront resource depletion and contamination as we feed the energetic demands of the global economy. It is why we claw tar out of the earth in Alberta and drill into the earth miles off the coast of Brazil.
Certainly, no conceptual system can be imposed from the top down. To enforce such abstractions and simplifications on a dynamic reality would require overwhelming violence, as indeed it already does. One of the key insights of modern science is that complex systems are inherently non-linear. In other words, their interactions and emergent properties cannot be determined from initial conditions or inputs. “Our world is governed not only by nonlinear dynamics, which makes detailed prediction and control impossible, but also by nonlinear combinatorics, which implies that the number of possible mixtures of meshwork and hierarchy, of command and market, of centralisation and decentralisation, are immense and that we simply cannot predict what the emergent properties of the myriad combinations will be.” (1) The very nature of “complex adaptive systems” means that we cannot simply engineer solutions with determinate results. (2) This is humbling, it forces us to recognise the limits of our abilities to conceptualise and design systems.
It tells us that whatever comes next, whether for good or ill, is beyond our imaginations. We are akin to medieval peasants attempting to contemplate railroads and telegraphs. The only thing that we are assured of is our current system is undergoing a process of intense reorganisation. It is our burden and privilege to participate in this process. The coming years will take radical creativity and courage if we are to find new ways of living in this world that are balanced and humane. No genius, greater leader or collection thereof can solve this predicament. They cannot scale up to the task, the problems are too intricate, their instruments too blunt and their vision too limited. What we need is not some new ideology or five-year plan but an ethics of practice derived from the organisational dynamics of our world.
It should not be our goal to design and implement a system from the top down but rather to participate in a collective process of reconfiguration through applied practices and the distribution of knowledge, skills and resources. We can only discover how to do this through observation, experimentation and participatory engagement to create new learning environments and social relationships. The next system will not so much be designed as it will be cultivated by individuals, communities and societies seeking resilience and stability. However, our sciences do illuminate fundamental patterns that provide a guide to how we might create the conditions from which new, healthier systems can emerge.
To this end we must engage with three fundamental and interrelated dynamics; energy, ecology, and human development. In other words, we must consider how we produce the fundamental energetic capacity to create and maintain our systems and the ways in which they are integrated within their environments. In turn these elements must be understood in relation to how effectively they distribute available resources in terms of the physiological, psychological and social needs of human beings. In these regards, we must work with human developmental processes in order to create new learning environments that equip people to better articulate and shape these dynamics. Communities and institutions that successfully organise around these relationships will be the steam engines of the twenty-first century.
Entropy and Complexity
“Without birth and death, and without the perpetual transmutation of all the forms of life, the world would be static, rhythm-less, undancing, mummified.”
– Alan Watts
The “next system” will not develop in a context of expansion and growth, at least not initially, but through contraction and disruption. We must consider the dynamics of collapse or disentanglement and transformation that occur in complex adaptive systems so that we might effectively engage with these processes. The universe is an intricate dance of creation and destruction, a fractal of entropy and complexity. Complex adaptive systems emerge through the self-organising dynamics of energy and matter flows in a material and spatial medium.
Think of a murmuration of starlings and one can begin to conceptualise the patterning of relationships in space and time. The process we call history clearly reveals the self-organisation of human communities across multiple, emergent scales. The question is not if humans form complex adaptive systems but how? Ultimately, it is a question of social cognition and how it is that humans understand and understand with each other so as to form relationships that radically alter their ecosystems.
Complex Adaptive Systems are formed of interdependent relationships between “dynamic structures in which faster, smaller processes nest inside and interact with larger, slower ones.” (3) Organisms, ecosystems, and the biosphere interact, aligning and diverging, shaping one another through ongoing developmental processes. The stability and coherence of any self-organising dynamic can be understood emerge through a tension between resilience (the ability to “withstand disturbances and still continue to function”) and connectedness (the ability “within a system to moderate the influences of the outside world”). (4) A highly connected system may be less influenced by external variables; however, the rigidity of its connections only allows it to operate within a limited range of conditions.
Ultimately, the organisation of any system makes trade-offs between forms of high entropy coherence, and low entropy stability. The very nature of entropy ensures that all such systems transform over time, and these processes of change can be schematised into adaptive cycles of rapid growth, conservation, disruption and regeneration. During the conservation phase of a system the “growth rate slows as connectedness increases to the point of rigidity and resilience declines. The cost of efficiency is a loss of flexibility. Increasing dependence on existing structures… such a system is stable, but over a decreasing range of conditions.”
However, it is moments of cascading transformation that are the most dramatic. “The surprise is caused by cross-scale interactions or suites of novelty that ricochet through the system as it reorganizes around alternate sets of mutually reinforcing processes.” (5) Our global system is currently exiting a period of conservation and entering a period of systemic disruption in which “a disturbance that exceeds the systems’ resilience breaks apart its web of reinforcing interactions.” (6)
Such fractal adaptive cycles can be observed repeatedly throughout history, the Neolithic emerges as Pleistocene ecologies begin to break down, the Iron Age emerges from the Bronze Age collapse, the Iroquois Confederacy consolidates out of European epidemics. The examples are numerous beyond recounting; it is an ecological pattern fundamental to the organisation of complex systems. Indeed, it is the breakdown and reorganisation of systems that appears to be one of the key motors of complexity.
Consider for a moment the broad arc of “western” history since Rome. The Roman Imperial system materialized through the resources and slaves extracted from conquered territories. As the empire expanded it required increasing amounts of energy to ensure stability and coherence between the cores and peripheries. Overtime, the cost of maintaining the imperial infrastructure exceeded the energetic returns from further expansion. It is the law of diminishing returns. The growth required to fuel the Empire stalled, sending it into a long, tumultuous process of contraction and decline.
Halting and grinding across the centuries like a receding glacier, the system broke apart, shattering across the Mediterranean world. The very language of the empire fractured, and composed anew as people congregated around the villas and farms that germinated the manorial systems of the Middle Ages. As the crises deepened and intensified a Jewish cult of ostensibly twelve families at the outset, flourished in the cities, providing sustenance and basic care as a result of their cosmology. As plagues, famines and warfare swept through Roman communities in the Third Century AD, patriarchs and patricians fled to their country estates, leaving civil administrations immobilized.
As the old patronage systems broke down, the religion spread among the most marginal and vulnerable communities, providing stability by reorienting the basic organization and distribution of social resources around new spiritual practices. Christianity was born within a dying Rome, preserving its bones in the liturgies and communication networks that flowed along the old roads and into the agricultural fortresses of Feudalism. By the time of the High Middle Ages a robust, fractal like system in the throes of a wind and water powered industrial revolution had emerged. With the end of the Medieval Warm Period, famines, schism and conflicts began to erupt in Europe as the Mongols brought the greater part of Eurasia into a single imperial system.
The riders from the Steppe likely helped spread the plague that sent the European Middle Ages into terminal decline. The system initially reoriented around the Italian City States. Those communities that were the gateway of the epidemic also created the first quarantines and effective civil responses while church and aristocracy lay paralysed. As the epidemic burned out, these merchant powers could offer high wages for the scarce labour that survived, drawing people off the manors and into the cities. In turn, the Renaissance transformed into the holocausts of the Reformation and conquests of the Atlantic Empires which in turn produced the Enlightenment and industrialisation, leading to an age of revolutions that would ultimately founder in the trenches.
Breakdown and reorganisation is a critical dynamic driving the evolution of complex systems. Transformations that reconfigure energy-matter flows create ecological bottlenecks as well as new niches to occupy. The biosphere is a “complex thermodynamic system” in which selection occurs around access to available energy gradients. (7) Organisms seek out those sources of energy that sustain their biological function. It is, along with reproduction, the most intense arena of competition amongst biotic communities. The logic of evolution dictates that selective advantage will be conferred to any organism that is more effective at harnessing and sustaining energy flows within its ecology.
In these regards, “selection” can understood “in terms of increasing energy flow through autocatalytic matter-energy loops. Selective advantage will go to those autocatalytic systems that best increase energy flow through their system, those that do so better than their competitors.” (8) Those forms of organisation that are the most flexible and efficient with their use of available resources are the most likely to adapt and succeed. One of the most dramatic examples of such processes are mass extinctions “because they remove incumbents… and unleash a scramble for post-extinction opportunities that can produce bursts of evolutionary novelty.” (9)
Periods of collapse reward forms of organisation that are the most adaptive to radically altering energy-matter flows. “After each mass extinction, the recovery included new species living off new gradients and new habitats. Here we can see a crucial pattern in which complexity declines after a major stress or disturbance and recovers, and often intensifies, during successional processes.
This dynamic of disruption and regeneration holds true across scales such as biosphere and ecosystem evolution. After a perturbation or stress, an “ecosystem rebuilds itself from the remaining species and their genetic material.” (10) These adaptive cycles algorithmically fuel the growth of complexity by selecting energetically efficient and resilient structures that form the baseline of future evolution. A perfect illustration of this is the radiation of endothermic mammals and broad-leafed angiosperms following the extinction of the dinosaurs. Endotherms have greater energetic density than exotherms.
However, though their energy requirements are higher, this was initially offset by the size of early mammals. Their internally self-regulating metabolisms allowed them to better survive in the reduced warmth of the post-meteorite environment. Similarly, with flowers and deciduous trees, their broad thin leaves allowed them to better photosynthesize in the reduced light of the nuclear winter, radiating as the coniferous canopies began to clear. A picture begins to emerge in which energy flows are organized into systems that undergo selection processes shaped by adaptive cycles.
The breakdown and reorganization of those systems has thus far resulted in the emergence of growing complexity, creating increasingly energy dense feedback in ecosystems over time in which “the level of complexity achieved by a living organism can be measured, roughly but quite objectively, by estimating the density of energy flows.” (11) It is why the energy density of ecosystems are far greater than that of stars, and why human brains far exceed both. To light, our world is dominated by institutional dinosaurs caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of resource depletion and climate change.
The future belongs to the “mammals”, those forms of organisation that can most effectively and efficiently harness the energy available in our transforming ecosystems. It is in the cycles of this process that growth occurs, the breakdown or disentanglement of systems create the possibility for new configurations and provides the raw materials from which new complexity emerges. This is how we must approach the next system, the creation of a new and resilient energetic ecology from the ground up as the old-world crumbles.
1) Manuel De Landa, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, (New York: Zone Books, 1997), 273.
2) Neil F. Johnson. Simply Complexity: A Clear Guide to Complexity Theory, (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009).
3) Lance H. Gunderson, and C. S Holling, Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems, (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2002), 22.
4) Ibid., p. 17-19
5) Ibid., p. 47
6) Ibid., p. 6-8
7) Eric D. Schneider and Dorion Sagan, Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 152.
8) Ibid., p. 254
9) David Jablonski and Paul D.Taylor, ed., Extinctions in the History of Life: The Evolutionary Role of Mass Extinction, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 173.
10) Schneider and Sagan, p. 253
11) David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 80.
Part 2 of Quantum, Jazz and Dada will follow soon. Check TheAutomaticEarth.com.
Alexander Aston is a doctoral candidate in archaeology at the University of Oxford and is on the board of directors with the Centre for Cognitive Archaeology at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. He has prior degrees in philosophy and history. His work lays at the intersection of Cognitive Archaeology, Deep History and Natural Philosophy, examining the relationship between ecology, material culture and social cognition. Alexander grew up between Zimbabwe, Greece and the United States. He has worked as a stone mason, community organiser and collaborative artist focused on issues of sustainability, alternative education and economic justice for nearly two decades. He has helped to establish community collectives, free schools, participatory art projects, sustainability and education programs in several international projects.