IntroductionComplexity theory is being put to use in various and contradictory ways in the natural and social sciences and humanities. Scientific proponents of complexity champion it as a new 'theory of everything' which is capable of explaining biological evolution, consciousness, weather patterns, earthquakes, revolutions, social change, and the stock market (Coveney & Highfield, 1995; Waldrop, 1992). Here complexity appears as a totalizing narrative mimetically invested with the residue of foundationalism, scientism, positivism, and objectivism. Working in opposition to this tendency, others have declared that complexity represents a paradigm shift that challenges the Newtonian world view with a revaluation of uncertainty and holism (Capra, 1996; Hayles, 1990). Beyond the wet dreams of applied science to master chaos and squeeze the dynamics of life into a neat equation, complexity theory has also been applied in other disciplines, to the study of organizations, information and technology, AI, history, literature, and pedagogy to name a few (Abraham, 1994; Campbell, 1982; Kuberski, 1994; Lanham, 1993; Lewin, 1992; Wheatley, 1992).
So far, critical social theory has made sparse use of insights from the complexity paradigm, although Lyotard devotes Section 13 of The Postmodern Condition to "Postmodern Science as the Search for Instabilities," and Slavoj Zizek has toyed with an analogy between the Lacanian object (a) and the strange attractor (Zizek 1991:38). The 'discovery' of complexity also coincides with the emergence of heterologies (de Certeau, 1986), genealogies (Foucault, 1979), nomadologies (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988) and the decentred subject (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985). In most of these cases, though, there is nothing more than a kinship -- that might well be spurious -- discernible in the use of a familiar term, phrase, or concept.
One of the few social theorists who have explicitly engaged complexity theory is Anthony Wilden, who has grafted Gregory Bateson's notion of the dependent hierarchy onto Marxian ideology critique to come up with his own method of critical analysis of social phenomena (Wilden, 1980;1981). After introducing some central concepts of complexity theory, we will present an exposition and evaluation of Wilden's project. We will then turn to face a critique that is difficult to avoid, raging across the open plains and wielding the sword of Nietzsche's attack on the rational-scientific anthropomorphization of nature. This force from the outside, Deleuze and Guattari's nomadology, says: sedentary fools! You're trying to find land, avert your gaze from the abyss, eff the ineffable, coax the silence into speech. Having visited both the temple and the steppes, we will then see in the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe an application of complexity to social theory that partakes of neither one nor the other exclusively, but includes both in a contradictory but coherent theory of discourse, subjectivity, identity, and action.
Catastrophe, Chaos, ComplexityThis section is intended to provide background for readers who are unfamiliar with complexity theory. In the interest of brevity and clarity, we will not attempt to cover the entire field, but will include only those terms and concepts that are necessary to understand what follows. First, the title of the paper should be expanded. As a mathematical formalism, catastrophe theory deals with sudden transitions from one minimum potential state of stable equilibrium to another (Woodcock, 1978:46-47). As an example of a catastrophic event, consider the dropping of grains of sand onto a pile. Most of the time, the pile just grows, achieving its characteristic cone-shaped form. But, every once in a while, unpredictably and unreproducibly, the addition of one grain of sand will trigger an avalanche that massively redistributes the pile, then subsides. Such an event is called a catastrophe. We are familiar with these events in everyday life, in the failure of overloaded computer networks, human relationships, and even social systems and empires.
While catastrophe theory examines change from one stable state to another, chaos theory looks at unstable states. Chaotic systems are collections of multiple orderly subsystems, which are flexible because they can switch rapidly and unpredictably between many different states. However, while chaotic systems may be unpredictable, they are deterministic. That is, if two identical systems have the same initial conditions they will produce the same output (Ditto & Pecora, 1993:78). The classic example of a chaotic system is the weather, which despite much modeling and coaxing, still defies prediction beyond days or even hours into the future.
Complexity theory is concerned with how ordered, complex systems spontaneously emerge out of chaotic systems, and thus provides a metatheory that encompasses both catastrophe and chaos. This spontaneous emergence of forms is often referred to as self-organization, or emergent complexity. Complex systems, then, are not merely complicated, static objects, but non-linear, spontaneous, self-organizing, systems (Ditto & Pecora, 1993:78-79; Waldrop, 1992:11-12). What makes complexity theory unique is its ability to account for the structure, coherence, and self-organizing processes of such systems, of which the genetic code is a prime example. Out of a primordial soup of inorganic elements, it gives rise to a rich and ever-changing diversity of forms of life.
The adaptiveness of complex systems is one of their most important qualities, as Peter Allen points out in the following passage.
[Complexity] is about 'adaptability' and the capacity to become aware that circumstances have changed and to produce new solutions. Not only that, it is also true that this ability to produce innovation and change will drive circumstances of others and drive evolution itself... (1994: 584).
Rather than passively responding to events, complex systems interact with their environment. Indeed, complexity is characteristically found in systems that are able to exist at the boundary between order and chaos and to strike a balance between these two regimes that is never quite stable and yet never quite turbulent (Hayles, 1991:13-14; Prigogine, 1984:115-117; Waldrop, 1992:11-12, 293). As Waldrop has described it, "the edge of chaos is the constantly shifting battle zone between stagnation and anarchy, the one place where complex systems can be spontaneous, adaptive, and alive" (1992:12).
Fundamental to the process of increased complexity and the emergence of spontaneous self-organization is the role of the agent. In complexity theory, systems are seen as being made up of a network of agents that act in parallel. It is important, here, to think of agents as a plurality. That is, agents can be either individuals or collectivities. For example, households, cities, provinces, or countries can all be seen as agents depending on what level or system one is examining. Regardless of the category though, the environment of the agent is produced through interactions with other agents within a given system. That is, agents are constantly acting and reacting to what other agents are doing in the system. Because of this, the environment is always dynamic, fluid, and unfixed. Moreover, the agents themselves have to be dispersed (as opposed to being centralized) if there is to be any coherent behaviour in the system. The notion that coherent behaviour can only arise out of competition and cooperation among agents themselves is thus central to complexity theory (Waldrop, 1992:145).
Finally, in any adaptive, complex system there are many levels of organization wherein agents at one level serve as the "building blocks" for agents at a higher level. For instance, individual workers make up a department, several departments make up a division, and several divisions make up a company, and so forth. What is of importance here is that adaptive, complex systems continually revise and reorder building blocks as each level of organization gains more experience similar to the modification, reorganization, and adaptation that occurs in the process of evolution. Whether we are speaking of cells, neurons, organisms, politics, or economics, the processes of learning, evolving, and adapting are the same within each level of organization (Waldrop, 1992:145-146).
In summary, complexity theory takes as its subject matter the unpredictable and creative emergence of order out of chaos in natural, cultural, and social systems. Generally, adaptive self-organization takes place in a population of independent agents. Through the exchange and interaction of cooperation and competition, these agents become increasingly interdependent which results in the spontaneous emergence of new structures. The emergence of novel structures not only raises a system's complexity to a higher level, but provides the foundation necessary for the emergence of yet another level of complexity.
Complexity, World, and Non-WorldThe notion that there are 'levels' of existence has a long history, which can be traced into the depths of Western cosmology. A distinction is commonly made between chaos and order, void and occupied space, chronology and eternity, thus: in the beginning was the word, first thought, big bang, some moment at which world emerges out of non-world and history begins. Here two levels of complexity are posited, one of which provides the conditions of emergence for the other. But, more importantly, the level of 'world' is seen as significant for human being, while that of 'non-world' is perpetually clouded. Though hidden from view, non-world harangues and harasses world, perhaps most compellingly in its call for dissolution, relaxation, a return to destructuration and the void.
In this section we will address two attempts to theorize the order-chaos pair, Anthony Wilden's method of "dependent hierarchies", and Deleuze and Guattari's "stratoanalysis." Both make use of the notion of structured and structuring levels, but each places emphasis and value on a different side of the world / non-world coin. Wilden's work, with its focus on order and signification, will be presented first, primarily because it displays characteristics that Deleuze and Guattari explicitly take to task in defining their own project. Taken together, these two approaches highlight some of the issues relevant to the application of complexity theory to critical, interdisciplinary analysis, and provide a basis for a theorization of both order and chaos, and the relations between them.
A concise summary of Wilden's take on complexity theory can be found in his 1980 article "Semiotics as praxis: strategy and tactics." Explicitly under the influence of Gregory Bateson, Wilden appears as a sort of critical cyberneticist, a seeker of true and correct descriptions of the behaviour of social and natural systems, in the interest of human emancipation and survival. What makes his work "critical" will be discussed later. For now, we will focus on its roots in cybernetic explanation, which are displayed in the attention paid to information and communication.
The human context ... includes dreams, perceptions, hopes, visions, and fantasies.... Our context also includes the information ceaselessly communicated at the genetic and neurological levels of organisms, as well as at the biological and ecological levels of our life-support system on the planet Earth (Wilden, 1980:2).
Here the category of 'information' is used to cut across the boundaries that traditionally separate discussions of physical, biological, and social-psychological phenomena.
For Wilden, these realms are both separate and joined, in a very particular way that he refers to as a "dependent hierarchy." Three levels are distinguished: inorganic nature, which he does not define explicitly; organic nature, which is defined differentially from the inorganic by the presence of the DNA-RNA system; and society, which "is marked by the historical evolution of human kinship systems, along with languages capable of naming and articulating kinship categories" (1980:3). Wilden presents these relationships iconically, using the symbol to describe a relation of enabling, structuring constraint across a permeable boundary.
Inorganic natur is seen as a necessary basis for the emergence of organic nature: RNA, DNA, cells, organisms. Thus Wilden would say that inorganic nature provides an environment for organic nature, just as, in everyday language, we say that organic nature provides an environment for human society.
It is important to note that the boundaries between levels are defined as permeable, that matter/energy and information flow across them in both directions -- the levels denote partially open systems. Thus it should always be assumed that there are "arrows" of communication flowing in both directions.
It is also important to note that, for Wilden, as we move from the top to the bottom of the diagram we are moving from orders of lesser to greater complexity. In an effort to avoid the metaphorical entailments of top = good = God he has inverted the spatial layout we would immediately recognize as the Great Chain of Being. But even without being 'on top', human society is obviously being endowed with the quality of 'highest' complexity.
This hierarchical ordering has further implications that are summarized in what Wilden calls the Extinction Rule. "To test for the orientation of a dependent hierarchy, mentally abolish each level in turn, and note which other levels will necessarily become extinct if it becomes extinct" (1980:4). Using this rule, one can tell if one has things the right way up, and it seems to apply nicely here: who would argue, especially given the recent commodification of 'environmentalism', that human society can survive without nature? Or, given the popular acceptance of genetic theories, that organic life could do without its proteins and nucleotides? Wilden thus makes a strong claim: "Nature ... belongs at the top of this dependent hierarchy, and its position there is the result of necessity, not of theory" (1980:4).
Leaving aside the problem of how such a "necessity" might be constituted, proven, and agreed upon in explicitly political contexts -- such as those in which debates over land and resource use are placed -- Wilden introduces the term "symmetrization" to describe what happens when a "real" hierarchy is flattened out into an "imaginary" single level. In the case of nature and society, symmetrization would involve the pretense that human society and nature are on the same level, and could therefore be in a relation of opposition to one another. Taking this a step further, it is possible for the symmetrized hierarchy to be "inverted," thus placing humanity on top of nature. For Wilden, inversion and symmetrization errors are "products of a reductionist strategy of thought, misguided and imaginary because it crosses boundaries between distinct types or orders of complexity without recognizing them" (1980:12).
Symmetrization and inversion errors, then, result from a particular sort of misrecognition, or m‚connaissance. But a misrecognition of what? Of the way things "really are?" Or of the way the architect of the hierarchy thinks they should be? To be fair, Wilden acknowledges that language is just one of many systems of communication, and that it is within discourses that relations of power are worked out; but he does not explicitly place discourses in his hierarchy. This is perhaps because doing so opens up a whole series of difficulties. For example, if we consider that all of the three orders Wilden names are discursive constructs, then there is no 'correct' way to order them. All orderings would be effects of power, and the ordering proposed by a theory of dependent hierarchies could not be established as more "correct" than any ordering, symmetrization, or inversion, produced by a different theory.
This deficiency is addressed in a revision of the article, where Wilden adds a fourth level to his diagram. Emerging out of society, which is defined in Marxist terms as a socioeconomic mode of production (base), we find culture (superstructure), which "unlike the other orders of complexity ... can be symbolic and imaginary, as well as real" (Wilden, 1982:168). The revised diagram and explanation suggests that for Wilden, discourses, and therefore the potential for (mis)recognition of hierarchies, exist only at the level of culture. The other orders of complexity partake only of the real; their characteristics are knowable and sharable by all who are capable of 'recognizing' them.
This theorization of the real poses a problem of interpretation, particularly since Wilden repeatedly uses it in juxtaposition with the imaginary and the symbolic, which implies that these terms should be read in a Lacanian context. In this context, Wilden claims, in his commentary on Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis, that "the Real is not synonymous with external reality, but with what is real for the subject" (Wilden, 1968:161). But this directly contradicts the way the term is used in "Semiotics as Praxis," where it has lost the initial capital and appears to function as a marker of some sort of objective reality. Similarly, the term "imaginary" has taken on much more of a connotation of falsehood, or lack of reality, than it has with Lacan. Again, the influence of a Marxian dichotomy between true and false consciousness seems to have thwarted Wilden's will to inclusive, both / and modes of thought.
To rescue the Real from such Marxist readings, and to open up the possibility of a gesture towards that which cannot be ordered, but is always ordering itself, we must turn to Slavoj Zizek's reading of Lacan in Looking Awry (Zizek, 1991). We must think of the Real as an 'order' which, Zizek suggests, would appear to a (fictional) human observer as a "grey and formless mist, pulsing slowly as if with inchoate life" (1991:39). We must be content to believe, without understanding, that the Real, as non-Being, is undifferentiated and chaotic. How, then, is signification possible? In the Lacanian scheme, the human subject appears as an ongoing attempt to recover the lost object of the Real, to partition an ineffable Reality into significant objects and relations: in short, to effect an illusory realization of the Real. But, if the Real were mere void, it would be unable to provide an environment out of which the possibility of signification could emerge. Perhaps, then, it would be instructive to conceptualize the Real as a system poised on the edge of chaos and order, and therefore capable of giving rise to a subtle and intimate enfoldment of levels, a multi-dimensional complex of structures and processes of mutual interaction. This would require adding another level to Wilden's diagram, a level of highest constraint, out of which inorganic nature -- and everything else that 'is' -- emerges.
But why try to theorize that which is not a 'thing', that which we cannot know, that which does not signify? Wilden, at least in his work so far, has not found a reason to approach the Real. Deleuze and Guattari, however, have: simply because of its ubiquity and its importance for life, its ongoing availability as a line of flight from order, hierarchy, series, knowledge -- what they call the "strata." In "10,000 B.C. : The Geology of Morals" (Chapter 3 of A Thousand Plateau) they provide a theory of stratification that bears a certain resemblance to Wilden's, for example in its definition of an "axiomatics" that deals with three "major types of strata": the geological / chemical, the organic, and the linguistic (1988:64). Their means of defining the distinctions between these strata, though based on a more general theorization of form, content, matter, substance, and expression, are also similar to Wilden's, in that a certain "unity of composition" is sought. On the geological-chemical stratum, the basis for unity is found in the fact that "molar," or human-scaled forms, can be said to express microscopic molecular interactions, as in the example of the crystal. The organic stratum is characterized by the linear, spatial form of coding found in the DNA-RNA system, which is exemplified in the form of the biological cell. Finally, the linguistic stratum displays temporal linearity, and is the exclusive realm of signs and language.
Like Wilden's method of dependent hierarchies, Deleuze and Guattari's stratoanalysis displays an awareness of the complexist notions of emergence and self-similarity. Strata "come at least in pairs, one serving as substratum for the other," and strata themselves are "at least double", in that they are themselves composed of other strata (1988:40). On the question of inside vs. outside, they take down the binary distinction and speak instead of open boundaries, or membranes: "interior and exterior exchange places, and both are interior ... the limit between them is the membrane that regulates the exchanges and transformations in organization" (1988:50).
Deleuze and Guattari also address the question of whether signs and signification can be found at all levels, and their answer is quite clear: they cannot. Only on the linguistic level can "translation" occur, which is defined not only as the ability of one language to (more or less adequately) represent what is given in another, but also as "the ability of language, with its own givens on its own stratum, to represent all the other strata and thus achieve a scientific conception of the world" (1988:62). This is possible because, in language, "the same form can pass from one substance to another, which is not the case for the genetic code, for example, between RNA and DNA chains" (1988:62). Language, in its infinite malleability, is capable of producing "the illusion constitutive of man" (1988:63), which is quite clearly the basis for symmetrizations and inversions. In these features, their theorization is very similar to Wilden's.
There are differences, however. For Wilden, levels of complexity are always arranged in hierarchies, with one emerging out of the other, always in the same order, and with increasing complexity each time a new emergence occurs. For Deleuze and Guattari, this would be precisely an expression of the illusion constitutive of man. In a sustained attack they take to task this sort of hierarchical thinking.
It is difficult to elucidate the system of the strata without seeming to introduce a kind of cosmic or even spiritual evolution from one to the other, as if they were arranged in stages and ascended degrees of perfection.... If one begins by considering the strata in themselves, it cannot be said that one is less organized than another (1988:69).
Not only does the notion of increasing complexity go down, the Extinction Rule and the possibility of getting things the right way around are dismissed as well. "There is no fixed order, and one stratum can serve directly as a substratum for another without the intermediaries one would expect there to be from the standpoint of stages and degrees." Finally, the basis for the ordering of a hierarchy is questioned: "the apparent order can be reversed", and "you can't even tell in advance which stratum is going to communicate with which other, in what direction" (1988:69).
Deleuze and Guattari's world, though similar to Wilden's in displaying discrete levels, is a much messier, livelier place, and this is a direct consequence of their explicit attention to non-world, which they name as the "plane of consistency" or the "body without organs" (BwO). While the strata are about "territorialization", they are also constantly subject to "deterritorialization", to what we might think of as magmatic intrusions from an underworld that shakes, folds, bends, and breaks. Thus, where Wilden's levels of complexity rest upon a stable, unquestioned foundation of "inorganic nature," Deleuze and Guattari's strata emerge out of, and subside into, the nameless void. "The strata are judgments of God; stratification in general is the entire system of the judgment of God (but the earth, or the body without organs, constantly eludes that judgment, flees and becomes destratified, decoded, deterritorialized)" (1988:40).
Of course, as soon as we turn towards the void, distinguish it from the human world, we are forced into reciting something like a creation myth, and this is perhaps why the question is side-stepped in the cybernetic version of complexity theory. Such theological concerns are simply outside the purview of science. Or are they? Deleuze and Guattari claim -- perhaps not entirely ironically -- that stratoanalysis is a science, and they are not afraid to speak about DNA, reaction rates, and theories of evolution. So how do they get around the problem of the origin of space and time? What, for them, allows for the transition(s) from non-world to world and back again?
The boundary between strata and the BwO is a "surface of stratification" that is variously described as "a more compact plane of consistency lying between two layers," a thickening of the BwO, and a "machinic assemblage distinct from the strata" (1988:40). A sort of boundary layer that expresses some of the possibilities of the BwO in the form of strata. According to Deleuze and Guattari, particular machinic assemblages "effectuate," "express," or "concretize" the body without organs, in the sense that the BwO is the abstract machine. "To express is to sing the glory of God" (1988:43). Also, particular machinic assemblages effectuate particular abstract machines, as in the case of the Abstract Animal that underlies the organic stratum. Thus, for each stratum there is a single abstract machine at the centre, but "you can't reach the centre" (1988:50). If you try, you will find nothing, or everything. Take your pick. You will find yourself on the plane of consistency, where distinction is simply not possible. To render Deleuze and Guattari's description iconically would require something like a series of rings, composed of turbulent "epistrata" and "parastrata," that make possible human experience of an abstract machine embedded at an inaccessible centre, emerging out of a primordial, omnipresent, and eternal "soup" of "unformed, unstable matters, flows in all directions, free intensities or nomadic singularities, mad or transitory particles" (1988:40). An ordered chaos. An impossible home. A beckoning. A lack.
In "The Geology of Morals" Deleuze and Guattari do not do more than gesture towards the plane of consistency, but the force and frequency of these gestures leads us to believe that it has great significance. Looking to "587 B.C. - A.D. 70", the fifth chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, life on the strata is enunciated in a Lacanian-Hegelian frame of alienation from the Absolute.
The principal strata binding human beings are the organism, signifiance, and interpretation, and subjectification and subjection. These strata together are what separates us from the plane of consistency and the abstract machine, where there is no longer any regime of signs, where the line of flight effectuates its own potential positivity and deterritorialization its absolute power (1988:134).
Given this necessary immersion in reality, in shit and subjection, how can we resist the siren song of the body without organs?
The problem, from this standpoint, is to tip the most favourable assemblage from its side facing the strata to its side facing the plane of consistency or the body without organs. Subjectification carries desire to such a point of excess and unloosening that it must either annihilate itself in a black hole or change planes. Destratify, open up a new function ... make consciousness an experimentation in life, and passion a field of continuous intensities, an emission of particle-signs" (1988:134).
Deleuze and Guattari seem to suggest that it's sometimes necessary to accept a little death, in order to avoid the big death, to escape the Priest in his temple and establish a line of flight towards the steppe.
To paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari's estimate of a debate in nineteenth century anatomy, Wilden is a man of Power and Terrain, however much he may be on the side of the proletariat, nature, and woman, while Deleuze and Guattari not only prefigure, but attempt to embody, the nomadic man of speed. Wilden lives in the modern world of Marx and ideology critique, where being able to prove that one has things right-side-up is of utmost importance. Deleuze and Guattari live in the postmodern world of Nietzsche, where it is most important to escape proof, scorch the ground of logic, and pillage metaphorical houses. The tensions between these two approaches obviously run deep, but it is only customary, and not in any way necessary to see them as in opposition. In fact, one of the most important contributions that complexity theory can make to the social sciences and humanities is to revalue contradictory, both-and modes of analysis and action. Must we choose between Wilden's scientific modernism and Deleuze and Guattari's poetic postmodernism? We think not. Depending upon the task at hand, one might like to make use of either of these tools, or perhaps even both of them at the same time, leaving the contradictions in place and not attempting any sort of 'synthesis' that would 'reconcile' them and drain each of its particularity. We see complexity theory, then, as being both modern and postmodern, and would like to see this contradictory position not only maintained, but pushed to its limits, where it might slide over into a chaotic regime and give rise to forms not yet imagined.
Always Already Neither/Both, Modern/PostmodernOne example of a new form in social theory can be found in Laclau and Mouffe's theory of the S/subject in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985). In this section we discuss the parallels between complexity theory and Laclau and Mouffe's subject in/of discourse. By reading Laclau and Mouffe through the lens of complexity theory we hope to demonstrate the similarities or blurring between them and, the way in which complexity theory can be utilized as a means of resolving modern/postmodern political tensions through a neither/both perspective.
For Laclau and Mouffe the term "subject" refers to various subject positions within discursive structures. If , however, the subject is made up of a multiplicity of discursive positions, such positions cannot be completely fixed in a closed system of difference. Thus, the subject, according to Laclau and Mouffe, cannot be the origin of social relations because the experiences necessary for social relations depend on pre-defined discursive conditions and possibilities (1985:115). This is in sharp contrast to the modernist individual which was thought to be rational, unified, and the origin of her own social relations. Laclau and Mouffe articulate the modernist conception of the individual as, "the view of the subject as an agent both rational and transparent to itself; the supposed unity and homogeneity of the ensemble of its positions; and the conception of the subject as origin and basis of social relations..." (1985:115). In this sense, Laclau and Mouffe's subject not only deconstructs the notion of a bound and orderly essential identity premised on mechanistic or organic models, but also rejects the Parmenidean principle of totalization as asserted by Hegel (1985:94, 126).
For the Laclau and Mouffe, the focus on subject positions, rather than on the 'totalized' or 'detotalized' subject, allows subject positions to act as sites of resistance and praxis, and simultaneously overcomes the discursive binary (1985:114-16). The problems associated with a totalized, essential, unified subject or 'individual' have been much discussed; however, what is not so clear are the problems associated with a theory of decentred subjectivity. Laclau and Mouffe believe that if we want to avoid saying that either the subject or subject positions are not discursive then we must make a distinction between the two (1985:114-15). The individual of modernity was not discursive per se but rather, master over her behaviours, actions, and roles. However, with the recent turn towards discursive theories of subjectivity, the subject must necessarily be discursive. This no longer makes 'the individual an agent' but 'the subject a structure' (in the most general sense). If the subject is nothing but a structure, it has no agency and no means of praxis. By decentring the subject, the problem of a bound, discursive subject diminishes, but not the problem of discursiveness itself. That is, the subject is no longer totalized under one discursive discourse or practice but rather, the decentred subject becomes the product of multiple discursive discourses (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985:115).
While an improvement over essentialism, the problem of discursive practices defining subject positions still exists. And again, the problem of agency. If it can no longer be said that the subject is discursive, but discursive practices exist, then subject positions must be discursive. However, Laclau and Mouffe acutely observe that while subject positions may be discursive, the multiplicity of those positions cannot be housed within a larger discursive discourse (1985:115-16). Such a discourse, by its nature, cannot exist because as a discourse it is discursive, and if discursive it is bound and limited. The vast multiplicity of possible combinations of subject positions, however, exceeds any limitation. Thus, a discursive discourse of difference which would accommodate all the various subject positions and their recombination cannot exist within the context of its own logic. That is, you cannot have a 'structure' that purports to accommodate unbound multiplicity because the nature of the structure itself negates other various possibilities. For Laclau and Mouffe, you can essentialize a totality (like the modernist individual) but you cannot essentialize the elements found in the various positions of the subject (1985:115-116). To do so brings us back to the same problem presented in the modernist version of the subject. For Laclau and Mouffe then, subject positions are situated in discursive practices, but the subject -- as a field -- remains detotalized and non-discursive (or as they more accurately define it, 'partially' discursive but not 'totally' fixed (1985:115-16)).
Mouffe clarifies the idea of 'partial fixations' in her essay "Feminism, Citizenship and Radical Democratic Politics" (1992). She notes that underlying the subject is a double movement: one whereby the process of decentring prevents the 'fixation' (a site of cohesion) of the subject around a pre-constituted point (or a totalizing, discursive practice); and the other whereby nodal points and partial fixations (via discursive subject positions) limit the flux of the signified under the signifier (S/s). She describes this movement (the opposition between nonfixity/fixation) as a 'dialectic', wherein the synthesis of identity can be seen as neither and both fixed and unfixed (Mouffe, 1992:371). For Mouffe, this is possible only because fixity is not predetermined and "because no centre of subjectivity precedes the subject's identifications" (1992:371). Thus, subject positions are constituted through unstable discursive structures because of 'articulatory' practices that constantly subvert, shift and transform those positions within the broader field of the subject. In other words, the subject cannot be "nailed down" because it is shifting between various positions, nor can the subject itself be totalized. In this way, there are no subject positions between individuals that are assured, and no social identity that is permanent. However, Mouffe points out that this does not mean we can no longer use categories like "working-class", "women", or "blacks" that mark or signify collective subjects, only that such categories should be viewed as non-essentialist or having no common essence (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985:118-19; 1992:373). Rather, they should be seen as 'family resemblances' whereby their unity is "the result of the partial fixation of identities through the creation of nodal points" (Mouffe, 1992:373).
Our reading of Laclau and Mouffe's theory of subjectivity suggests that the subject is a non-linear, spontaneous, disordered, adaptive, complex system. In the distinction between subject positions and the subject, Laclau and Mouffe note that subject positions are pre-determined by discursive practices while the subject remains detotalized, yet partially fixed. In this respect, the subject resembles a chaotic system from which an ordered, complex being emerges. In our earlier discussion of chaos and complexity, it was noted that chaotic systems are comprised of a multitude of orderly behaviours. The 'field' of the subject, then, becomes a chaotic system that is dynamic and flexible. This flexibility not only allows the subject to engage in various subject positions or practices, but also to adaptively respond to various discourses and practices.
Though the subject itself is a chaotic field, subject positions are comprised of a multiplicity of ordered discursive practices that make up the chaotic field of the subject. However, in the same way that we cannot predict the outcome of a chaotic system, we cannot predict the 'outcome' of the subject or subject formation. Given that the subject is a chaotic field, it is also deterministic in terms of its outcome if multiple subjects are given the exact same initiators. The subject as self-similar twin comes to mind here. However, even twins are not identical. As Laclau and Mouffe point out, the multiplicity of possible subject positions that make up the field of the subject are unlimited. The problem with suggesting that the subject has a deterministic outcome is two fold: first, the subject is transitory and has no fixed 'outcome' except for death; and second, the subject is produced through infinite interactions and inputs with other subjects, discourses, and practices. But to stop here is to simply imply that the subject is completely detotalized and decentred, the very thing Laclau and Mouffe are trying to avoid.
The subject is not merely an unstable, chaotic system or turbulent flow: rather, the subject, like all complex systems, is the spontaneous emergence of an ordered field or space which is self-organized and coherent. That is, the formation of a complex subject emerges out of a chaotic state. While the individual of modernity was situated in a state of equilibrium, the subject is characterized by perpetual novelty as it flows across various subject positions and discursive practices. Laclau and Mouffe's claim that you can essentialize a totality but not the elements found in the various positions of the subject, however, is more complicated. As we have already stated, the subject as singular is unique unto itself and thus precludes any essentialized totality when we speak of the subject as plural. However, what is important here is the concept of the subject itself. What Laclau and Mouffe seem to be saying throughout their discussion is that the subject is greater than the sum of its subject positions. Though this is consistent with a reading of complexity, the notion that the subject is not a totality is misleading. Here, the notion of totality has a double meaning for Laclau and Mouffe: one is the single process of 'the totality of the universe of differences' which is embedded in Hegelian dialectics, and the other is a term used to denote a more generalized state associated with an identity that is essential, unified, discursive, closed, fixed, or centred. For Laclau and Mouffe totality becomes a point of philosophical contention within a broader counter-tradition which rejects the Paramenidean principle that leads to the 'spirit's' conquest of the world found in Hegelian dialectics (de Certeau, 1986:vii-viii, xviii-xix; Laclau and Mouffe, 1985:94-95, 97, 123, 126). However, despite Laclau and Mouffe's debate with Hegel's logical character of dialectical transitions, what do we call a collection of discontinuous articulations that make-up the field of the subject if such an entity cannot be described as a totality?
While it seems fairly clear that Laclau and Mouffe see subject positions and discursive practices--which the subject adheres to through partial fixations--as being totalities, the subject itself is not. Or is it? The subject as the emergence of self-organized space is, in fact, a totality in that it claims to be a holistic entity, albeit an interdependent one. Though they clearly imply that the subject is neither/both totalized or detotalized--much in the same way that a complex system is neither/both unified or fragmented--the subject does exist in relation to other subjects as well as something other than what it is like not to be a subject. The problem here is that this thing we call a subject has been totalized through the act of descriptive categorization (found in the statement: "the subject, according to Laclau and Mouffe, is...."), even though that totality is described as the totality of non-totality. This problem comes up again in Laclau and Mouffe's discussions on the nature of a discursive discourse of difference. Thus, it is of little, if any, surprise that we should encounter this same problem in complexity theory.
Proponents of complexity theory position it as a totalizing theory or theory of everything. However, while complexity theory is seen as a totality, it is a totality of difference and ambiguity. Not only does this pose a contradiction in the same way that a discursive discourse of difference does, but seems to contradict the laws associated with complexity theory itself -- a similar critique levelled against Hegel by Laclau and Mouffe (1985:95). Here the idea of 'multidimensional phase space' and the 'edge of chaos' become relevant. These spaces not only allow for a plurality of legitimate perspectives which are necessary for the formation of diversity, but have the unique property of being able to balance order and chaos simultaneously. Thus, not only can the subject of complexity exist within a contradictory state, but contradiction itself becomes a necessary component in the formation of the subject and in understanding the binary patternings that occur in complex systems. In other words, contradiction is a key concept and essential element in both Laclau and Mouffe's subject and complexity theory. Thus, it can be stated that while the subject is indeed a totality, it is simultaneously not a totality.
Another point that Laclau and Mouffe point out is that not all discursive practices are created equal (1985:116-15). That is, some discursive practices are overdetermined, while others are not. The role of the theorist then, is to acknowledge that overdetermination functions as a nodal point from which various humanizing social practices have risen while simultaneously recognizing the frailty of such humanist values through their dispersion. In this way, one is able to be critical of the dispersions of various positions and also illustrate the relations of overdetermination that exist between them (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985:116-117). Laclau and Mouffe summarize this point in the following passage:
'Man' is a fundamental nodal point from which it has been possible to proceed, since the enlightenment century, to the 'humanization' of a number of social practices. To insist on the dispersion of the positions from which 'Man' has been produced, constitutes only a first moment; in a second stage, it is necessary to show the relations of overdetermination and totalization that are established among these. The non-fixity or openness of the system of discursive differences is what makes possible these effects of analogy and interpretation (1985:117).
For Laclau and Mouffe, the notion of overdetermination extends beyond 'Man' to the subject of feminism and, presumably, race, ethnicity, religion, and sexuality (1985:117). Once essentialisms and pre-constituted categories of oppression are precluded from inquiry, the attempts to isolate particular institutions and practices of oppression which produce 'women' will cease to be an issue. Having said that, Laclau and Mouffe believe that this will enable feminist politics to exist within a much broader field (1985:117). However, if such dispersion is left unchecked it simply leads to a heterogeneity of difference that bares no relation to one another. Thus, while totalizing categories should always be questioned, it is also necessary to acknowledge the role that overdetermination plays in producing systemic divisions. Despite the multiplicity of subjects, these systemic divisions (like that between feminine and masculine) are necessary in the creation of systems which, though the imaginary, produce concrete effects for political action within the diversity of social practices (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985:117-18).
For Laclau and Mouffe then, political agency for the subject exists between fixity and nonfixity and between overdetermination and disparity (1985:121). As they point out, representation is therefore constituted not as a definitive type of relation, but as a field of unstable oscillation whose vanishing point is, as we saw, either the literalization of the fiction through the breaking of every link between representative and represented, or the disappearance of the separate identity of both through their absorption as moments of a single identity (1985:121). In this way, Laclau and Mouffe overcome the relativism of the subject as political agent and the totalized essential individual of modernism. Key to this rejoinder is Laclau and Mouffe's distinction between the discursive practices of dispersive subject positions and the overdetermined discursive categories of the totalized individual. Thus, the category of the subject cannot be established through either the "absolutization of a dispersion of subject positions," nor through the "absolutist unification" of a 'transcendental subject' (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985:121). As a result, closure of a discursive totality no longer occurs at the objective level because it cannot be established at the 'meaning-giving' level of the subject if the subjectivity of the agent cannot be fixed to any point of the discursive totality of which it is apart. It is within this field that hegemonic articulation and political praxis become possible (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985:121-22; Mouffe, 1992:382).
For Laclau and Mouffe, social relations are bound and dependent on pre-defined discursive conditions. However, while the subject positions and practices that inform social relations maybe discursive, they are not static. Here, it is useful to think of subject positions and discursive practices as discourses that are bound randomness. In a manner of speaking, these discourses function as strange attractors where a trajectory exhibits random behaviour within a spatial boundary. While a central, fixed point attracts an orbit, the trajectory of that orbit never joins or intersects with itself. However, in a true dynamic system there are no fixed points. That is, attractors are not stable, fixed points but are themselves transitory. And, as the number of attractors increase, so too does the potential for freedom in the system (Gleick, 1987:135-140). Laclau and Mouffe acknowledge this same point stating:
We can thus talk of a growing complexity and fragmentation of advanced industrial societies --not in the sense that... they are more complex than earlier societies; but in the sense that they are constituted around a fundamental asymmetry. This is the asymmetry existing between a growing proliferation of differences--a surplus of meaning of the 'social'--and the differences encountered by any discourse attempting to fix those same differences as moments of a stable articulatory structure (1985:96).
The object of interest then, is no longer the trajectory but the attractors themselves. Like discursive practices, strange attractors have infinite modes, infinite dimensions, and infinite degrees of freedom within a finite space. In an interdependent system, however, there are no fixed points (Gleick, 1987:137). What constitutes an overdetermined discursive practice depends on the strength of the attractor itself. The stronger the attractor, the more finite the field becomes; and, the stronger the attractor, more orbital elements are drawn into the field. It is within this field that the subject is able to make nodal points. However, because the subject exists as a dynamic field, it is not only drawn to multiple nodal points but is able to self-reflexively become aware of those same attractors that are hegemonic articulations and comprise the subject's environment.
Much in the same way that the dichotomy between order and disorder has been destabilized in complexity theory, the subject of Laclau and Mouffe has always already been an adaptive, complex system which is neither and both fixed and unfixed, totalized and detotalized. Unlike modernist theories of the individual, the subject of complexity is both unified and fragmented, freed of the influences of Hegelian rationalism. Laclau and Mouffe have simultaneously been able to destabilize and integrate elements of both the totalized and detotalized subject into a coherent theory of discourse, subjectivity, identity and action by demonstrating that the subject is a neither/both field. Contained within this field is the capacity to balance both subjectivity and agency simultaneously. The subject then, is a system which is subject to the same conditions found in non-linear, complex systems including sensitivity to initial conditions, feedback loops, bifurcations, strange attractors, and uncertainty.
Laclau and Mouffe's theory of the subject overcomes the binary opposition between modern and postmodern theories of subjectivity. The similarities in their construction of the subject as neither/and or/both fixed and unfixed shares with complexity theory the ability to describe a dynamic, complex system that ebbs and flows across, through, and over space. Our reading of Laclau and Mouffe through the lens of complexity also suggests that complexity theory can be utilized as a means of coping with many of the same problems faced by contemporary social theory. Whether Laclau and Mouffe were formally influenced by complexity theory, or whether their theory of the subject simply parallels complexity theory is unclear. What is clear, however, is that it is in emergent complexity where the contradiction between hegemonic reductionism and fragmented relativism can be resolved (Funtowicz & Ravetz, 1994:569).
Conclusion: Control the Head/Control the BodyJohn Casti keenly directs us to the notion that complexity is inherently a subjective concept. The idea that something is "complex," then, is dependent on how systems are being examined and who is examining them. "Just like truth, beauty, good and evil, complexity resides as much in the eye of the beholder as it does in the structure and behaviour of a system itself" (Casti, 1994:270). However, Casti goes on to say that despite the sometimes arbitrary use of the term, objective measures of complexity do exist: for Casti an amoeba is less complex than an elephant under any definition. Thus, while complexity theory deconstructs the modernist notion that complete knowledge and total control are possible, it also positions itself as a true and totalizing theory. This flaw might be fatal, but seems less so if the terms of description are inverted. We would prefer to say that if complexity theory asserts something like a totality, it is a totality of difference and ambiguity; if complexity is a theory of unity and objectivity, it is simultaneously a theory of fragmentation and relativism.
Thus, our paper has been written at a nodal point, an extremity or singularity, at which modern knowledge explodes into new territory, or implodes and ceases to be, perhaps leaving the field clear enough for other forms to emerge, organize, and propagate themselves. Either way, and likely in some combination of both ways, these forms will be quite literally postmodern. Postmodern as hypermodern, bringing further realms into the empire of signs that constitutes the natural-social scientific project. Postmodern as premodern, bringing back the non-signifying speech of the untamed and the unknown, and simply leaving it in place or, better yet, even listening to it, becoming it now and then.
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