Saturday, July 12, 2014

Beyond Narrative: Systems Theory and the Unveiling of History

Eduardo Mata Icaza
The contours of a train of thought has been surfacing lately — it’s the kind of thought that can very easily lead to a book or PhD thesis, if you’re not careful. But at the moment, they are thoughts that have come about researching and writing a graphic novel.

It begins something with systems theory

My interest in systems theory began with De Landa’s 1000 Years of Nonlinear History, as this turned much of my thinking on pretty much everything on its head,
One of the ideas that I attack in my book is precisely the primacy of “interpretations” and of “conceptual frameworks.” Sure, ideas and beliefs are important, and do play a role in history, but academics of different brands have reduced all material and energetic processes, and all human practices that are not linguistic or interpretative (think of manual skills, of “know-how”) to a “framework.” The twentieth century has been obsessed with positioning everything. Every culture, given that it has its own framework of beliefs, has become its own “world” and relativism (both moral and epistemological) now prevails. But once you break away from this outmoded view, once you accept all the nonlinguistic practices that really make up society (not to mention the nonhuman elements that also shape it, such as viruses, bacteria, weeds, or nonorganic energy and material flows like wind and ocean currents) then language itself becomes just another material that flows through a much expanded picture. Language, in my view, is best thought of as a catalyst, a trigger for energetic processes (think of the words “begin the battle” triggering an enormous and destructive process). (Interview with De Landa.)
…and at the same time pointed a way toward a workable avenue of dealing with a serious problem in how we speak and think about groups of people— we talk of what “Americans” or “the French” or “Women” or “Palestinians” or “gay men” or “Russians” think, so on and so forth, we speak of these things as a given, and as monolithic, or at best we flail at a recognition of the generalization we’re performing as being based on meta-narrative or ideology.
In other words, our basis for such statements, if there is one at all, is merely generalized stories about stories. Or perhaps stories about ideologies. And we speak of these ideologies (Marxists, Christians, Islamic, Neo-liberal, etc) as if they present a material force, as if they themselves are fixed and certain things that are in the world in the same way as a chair or tree, because that’s the only way many of us have learned to think of things. After all, parsing different equally valid ontological categories is time and energy consuming stuff. Consider “Why The World Does Not Exist,”
There aren’t really unicorns on the far side of the moon, are there? Of course not. The very idea is ridiculous. However, in saying that, I am assuming the ontological perspective of science, not the ontological perspective of, say, the fantasy literature aficionado. To take another example, consider witches. They don’t exist in the realm of scientific explanation but they do exist in Goethe’sFaust. Doesn’t this mean that we end up with what Gabriel calls “an unpleasant contradiction”, namely “witches exist and witches do not exist”? He’s sanguine about that affront to logic. “Existence,” he argues, “is always relative to one of more fields of sense.” This sort of suggestion is scandalous not just to scientific orthodoxy but to materialists, who hold that everything in the universe has a material foundation. In Gabriel’s more generous philosophy, everything exists — everything that is, apart from the world.
We think of the as if these classes of ideas have identical ontological ranking. Do all Unicorn feel the same way about Bill Carson? Well, we’d first have to establish that we’re actually talking about things that can compare to one another.
Sometimes we even speak of these totalizing ideas as if they had agency themselves, or as if we are actually saying anything at all, beyond fabricating a myth from whole cloth. This charge can be levied against Christians or Feminists or really any group of people that we cluster based on a single idea, that can’t possibly enclose or even describe or define many of the other traits about them. Like whether they even exist in the same way, or exist at all.
This uncertainty is not meant to imply that concepts can never describe the things they are meant to label. So then we can ask the opposite, what is the sense in which ideologies do present a material force? What are the ways that are some commonalities between one group and another, if we grant all the fallibilities involved in defining a group? This is a fundamental issue the social sciences have wrestled with for hundreds of years, though most of that valuable research and debate never makes it past the walls of one discipline or another. Despite all this work, we might want to take the other approach and come to it as if we’re children: How is it that wholes and large scale groups function, in chaos certainly, but how at all?
Only by looking toward emergent, non-linear, or open systems can we even hope to find a way. Post-modernism has burrowed deeply into the role narrative plays, and it tries to get beyond the limitation of single perspectives through multiplicity — compounding conflicting or divergent narratives, the problematic of narratives that overlap or don’t line up — but this approach too reaches a limit, and beyond that limit it has exhausted itself,
I don’t believe there is such a thing as postmodernism. It’s exhausted. We truly need a complete new thing, and [Deleuze and Guattari’s] A Thousand Plateaus is the direction. Those guys are fifty or sixty years ahead of everyone else. You read it at first and you think you’re reading poetry: “Metals are the consciousness of the planet.” Get out of here, what the fuck is that? Then you read about metallic catalysts, how in a way they are like probing heads that unconsciously accelerate certain reactions and decelerate certain others. They allow the exploration of an abstract chemical space by probing and groping in the dark. And you realize those two are right. (De Landa, Destratified)
What’s even more poignant for me, poignant and troubling both, is how De Landa’s materialism rests somehow within the very idea of immanent mythology we started to unearth in the Immanence of Myth (and I explicitly always considered that work a kind of beginning, groping around it the dark for what hasn’t been and maybe can never be fully grasped), and yet at the same time, that kind of materialism — which removes us as actors, which completely abnegates or disregards or narratives and ideologies — would seem to be completely contrary to immanent myth.
Immanent myth might seem the kind of pinnacle of the post-modern project, standing in opposition to De Landa’s project, (and in another sense Zizek’s as well). But I don’t think that is the case. No. I think this path will show how the absolute mental semiotics or symbolics of myth-theory (such as in Barthes or Levi-Strauss) and the absolute material of De Landa’s “history” are not irreconcilable opposites but two sides of the same.

Eduardo Mata Icaza
We may come at this from many vantage points, and in fact, we absolutely must. One favorite article I seem to continue to return to lately is this one, “Places To Intervene in a System,” which is absolutely worth the read.
12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).
11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.
10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures).
9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.
8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.
7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.
6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).
5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).
4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.
3. The goals of the system.
2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.
1. The power to transcend paradigms.
This is a problem that ultimately reduces to one of scale, and how we can deal with the infinite expansion or contraction of scale (cosmos, culture, individual, cells, atoms — ) without giving primacy to one scale and seeing the others as beholden to that privileged center. Similarly it depends on understanding the structure of our narratives as the chief neurological process through which we come to know both the self and the world; and much as that knowing might seem irrelevant to the macro- scale that emphasizes flows, mesh-works, and all other physical processes that likely span lifetimes as we may take a single breath, even or possibly especially within emergent systems the parts are interwoven with the system, not apart from it, as input or output, but embedded in it. As it. And if we continue to see myth as “collective narrative,” then maybe the first glimmer of this integration of inner and outer, narrative and material, mythos and logos, might occur…
This is the non-fiction or theoretical underpinnings of what I’m looking to do in narrative with the rest of the Fallen Cycle. (So you can see why I’ve before said this single project could easily take a lifetime without ever being satisfactorily concluded. And as each is a stand alone piece, within a larger over-arching mythology, I can only imagine it’ll remain somewhere in the fringe forever. But it’s what I’ve always been drawn to do.)
The problem of the limit of narratives is compounded by how single narratives are used to give us a sense of group narratives (myths.) e.g. Fiction narratives — whether literary or film — tend to over emphasize the role of individuals in the construction of a historic narrative, (nevermind the actual events silently lurking beneath or perhaps tangentially to that narrative.) 

Franz Von Stuck
I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell the story of nations within the personal narrative, and vice versa, e.g. construct a story that deals equally with multiple scales and frames of reference at once. I think within the structure of fiction it remains most engaging to tell the tale of the rise and fall of Peoples as contained within the story of single people, but I’m not blind to how this distorts our perspective of the role that we play in history, when it is quite unlike such a 1:2 ratio. The tale of Cesar as representative of the “rise of Roman power and at once its own hubris,” or even the tale of accidents, such as how a Franz Ferdinand is said to have “caused” the first World War when it’s quite evident that the happenstance of that event is merely how the overall systemic trend happened to unveil itself, in retrospect. (And it’s quite hard to say to what extent our unconscious narrative priorities play not only in what stories we tell, but also, how we tell them, especially in the subtle manner of underlying structure and conflict. This comes up a lot in talks with journalists.)
Yet distorted or not, these tales that make us feel that our actions do matter, and that they do reflect on the whole as well as the other way around, never cease to capture our imagination and attention. That’s what is so engaging about Lord of the Rings, I think, that historic scale wrapped up within very “close” narratives, thanks mostly to the hobbits — despite all its other flaws, and a style that really offends a number of presently in vogue literary conventions.

The recent TV series “Vikings” in a different way struggles with the same issue, looking to paint personal, relate-able narratives atop the hard detritus and great swath of history.

So that’s my challenge. I have been using source material for Tales From When I Had A Face, nearly all of it being Asiatic, particularly from the swath that runs between present Russia and China, nearly from border to border, and even more pointedly, toward the native cultures that seemed to originate in what we now call Siberia. This then covers both the story of the erasure of Native cultures and the rise of American and Russian imperialism, focusing on the Russian side, because it is less well known. And yet, after reading as much history and mythic source as I’ve been able to get through the past two years, when it comes to writing, I’m focusing on pure fiction. You have to let all of that go and focus at once on your creative imagination and on the other with whatever the story demands, and go. I have great misgivings about trying to portray an accurate historic nonfiction tale, and that’s because I frankly don’t believe in such things. Thus, many of my thoughts above. I just don’t think “true history” is any more or less meaningful than invented histories, in terms of their function as art, and I’d rather not make the claim. It feels too much like stamp collecting to me.

All the same, when you want to use a single story about the loss of a single life as it is unveiled, to draw a parallel with the erasure of an entire People and their history, you’ve got to try to take in all you can get.

The first book in the cycle, Party At The World’s End, came out September 2014.


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