Monday, August 19, 2013

The Rigors of Complexity

I read with some interest Arnold Dodge's recent Huffington Post called It's the Complexity, Stupid, though I wasn't so happy with the epithet. It's eye-catching, but I think it distracts us from complexity and reifies the very group of people he should be embracing. Mr. Dodge is a veteran of the New York public school system and currently the chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Administration at Long Island University-Post, so he likely knows a few things about education, and perhaps a few things about complexity.

He starts his post by noting the failure of public education to service our young people so that they can be contributing members of society, lead a full and rewarding life, and understand that they are stewards of the next version of life on our planet. This failure, he says, is the greatest threat to our nation's security. That's a bold statement, and I have no idea if he's correct (a meteor strike or global warming seem a greater threats), but it's an engaging introduction. We like apocalyptic calls to action—they are simple, and this is where Mr. Dodge gets caught by the very drive for simplicity that he is attacking. And why are our schools failing? Again, he gives us a simple answer: because we prefer simplicity over complexity.

Yes, we do. Almost all of us. Fortunately, that does not make us all stupid. It makes us too left-brained, if Iain MacGilchrist is correct about the divided brain, which can leave us blind to some very useful information about the world, but it doesn't leave us stupid. But then stupid is a simple reification of all those people that Mr. Dodge wants to think differently. That seems a problem to me.

Reification is a nice concept that Mr. Dodge picks up from Stephen Jay Gould's 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man, a book I have not read, but it seems that reification, at least as Mr. Dodge is using it, is a kind of reductionism characteristic of the drive toward the simple. As Gould says we "give the word 'intelligence' to this wondrously complex and multifaceted set of human capabilities. This shorthand symbol is then reified and intelligence achieves its dubious status as a unitary thing." Like the word stupid, a simple shorthand symbol to reference a complex entity, but Mr. Dodge overlooks that most symbol systems, language certainly, have this tendency. The name Keith Hamon reifies the complex entity writing to you in this post. The term reification itself reifies a complex behavior and mental process.

Complexity demands that we vibrate, or dance if you like, between the statically reduced and reified on the one hand and the open-ended cosmic on the other. The reified is graspable and useable by the left brain, and the holistic is contemplated by the right brain. We need the simple for power to do and say things, and we need the holistic to make sense of what we do and say. Complexity is the tension and interaction between the two extremes: the simple on one hand and chaos on the other. MacGilchrist makes a strong argument, for me, that our current age is mentally unbalanced in favor of the left brain's drive for simplicity. This explains much of what I see from religious fundamentalism to scientific, technological, political, and business fundamentalism. This is unfortunate, but who cannot have a certain sympathy for those who prefer the simple over the chaotic? Most of us spend much of our time and energy trying to build simplicity into our lives: schedules, relationships, reliable incomes, maps, routines, and more. As Iran just proved to us again, we prefer the simplicity of an awful dictator to chaos. But just as both China and the Soviet Union have also proved, too much rigid simplicity does not lead to a satisfactory society for most people. We want something that oscillates between the simple and the chaotic.

I am not suggesting here some Golden Mean or dialectic; rather, I am suggesting a dialogic in the sense of Edgar Morin and Iain MacGilchrist. In his book The Master and the Emissary, MacGilchrist says that the left and right hemispheres of our brains provide antagonistic visions of the world, and our mental state is a dynamic unfolding of the tensions and interactions between the two visions. Morin says in more universal language that the dialogic "allows us to connect ideas within ourselves that are thrown back on each other" and allows us to contemplate "the necessary and complementary presence of antagonistic process or instances." There is a dialogic, too, between the Mr. Dodge's simple and the chaotic, and this dialogic is necessary for life. We can reify this zone of engagement and call it complexity.

At times, we favor the simple, at other times, the chaotic, and all of us know people who favor too much simplicity or too much chaos. Our lives are an unfolding of the tensions and interactions between the simple and the chaotic, and it may seem that this complex zone is the right place to be, but that isn't quite right. It is not a place to be; rather, it is a place of becoming that exists only as a dialog, or a dance, between the simple and the chaotic. I am not talking about a balance here, but a suspension—a not altogether happy suspension. We must be diligent and vigilant to maintain this dialog, and most of us do not have that kind of sustained energy. Thus, we lapse into the simple or the chaotic when our energies fail us. Some of us just stay there, and I can understand why.

Well, that turned into a real Sunday School lesson, didn't it?
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