Culture: Gothic Complexity

I’m not certain as to the accuracy of the visual Goth genealogy and network of influence represented above but it is interesting to note that members of any subculture or fantasists for any specific genre of participatory cultural emulation (or simulation) tend to immerse themselves in the history and folklore of that to which they seek to belong and that they wilfully or unwittingly assist to self-propagate. The logic of functional relationship, lifestyle and participatory cultural systems of value and aesthetic production always find themselves defined in regards to the “host” culture within which they are encapsulated; here – subculture stands by its own lore and assertion in some aspirational sense “outside” the mainstream and yet is as tightly bound to, by and through the normative methods and logic of inscription, role, purpose and relational ideation as is any other person, group, clique or (other) sub-culture within this self-propelling and self-referential dynamical whirlpool of generative metamorphosis and evolution.

To stand against a system, ideology or cultural value system is also (and inevitably, irrevocably) to be defined by that thing, if inversely, and for this reason alone it is apparent that there is no “beyond” or “outside” a culture or society. All action, reference and ideation is of an internally-extensible nature. Under any authentic holistic or global systems analysis the very first assumption, axiom and consideration must always have to be that all action, thought, value-generation, reference, productivity, commerce, signification or concept is fundamentally and inextricably either within that cultural system or acts as functional assertion of the ongoing and open-ended internal extensibility of that system. Indeed, all possible paths and actions or choices are fundamentally encapsulated and directly or indirectly defined by the broader cultural context and social or economic world within which the subculture exists; there exists a certain self-warping field and matrix of possibility and action.

It is a salient feature of sub- and counter-cultures that the more rigorously they seek to extract themselves from the logic and value systems from which they profess to feel so deeply alienated, the more overtly and extravagantly do they mark, brand and identify themselves as “separate” and “unique”. It represents something of an irony that this cultural “rubber banding” and increasingly vigorous self-definition at the notional periphery of normative social or cultural value systems indicates that the more a person seeks to extract themselves from the cultural center, the more they are drawn back into it; as though this is a fundamental logical gravitational field and irreducible, inescapable systemic and distributed or non-local self-referential and self-labelling process. A person may not choose from the more probable or central and normative choice but they will choose and in this act of individuation they have become a part of the logic of taxonomy and categorisation which perpetually seeks to know through labelling and to expand through the growing pool of all possible entities and references.

What is most interesting about all this is not that it is all in essence as though some perspectival wizardry of spatial curvature fabricated by M.C. Escher and rendered into a culturally relativistic logic, although this is (and remains) both instructive and interesting. The fascinating component to all of this is that it illustrates one of the central, key components of cultural systems: their primary purpose is also their primary method.

Cultural systems are constantly undergoing metamorphosis and change and it is in the “edge-cases” of subcultural replication and evolutionary development that we can most clearly (and perhaps rapidly or easily) identify that:

• First, a subculture represents a test-algorithm and virtual machine running within the host environment and operating system of the predominant method of individuation (i.e. culture) of any specific time and place – a notion of location and moment perhaps complicated somewhat by the distributed sense of presence and shared identity now available and manifest due to globally-networked information and communications systems.

• Second, that the process of self-labelling and adoptive methods of logic and self-reference provide insight back into the whole cultural process as a bundled suite of values, beliefs, labels and references – essentially that this is a system that is in many different ways and upon many congruent contours perpetually mapping itself back onto itself; inscribing narrative upon narrative and glyph upon glyph, symbolic language upon symbolic language and logic upon logic.

In the overall recombinatory choices and selections made by individuals from those available pre-existing choices and combinations of referential elements, entities, concepts and objects – the cultural system as a whole is effectively self-propagating itself. Some patterns persist and others fade away, perhaps to be reintroduced from memory or artefact at a later time or to disappear into obscurity forever, available only through the technologies and efforts of future archaeologists and motley analysts but then, too, to be reintroduced in some sense back into that pool and whole of all available reference, choice and action. Those patterns of reference, artefact and behaviour which survive the (self-)selection tests of cultural evolution then proceed to become part of the pool of resources and artefacts from which further recombination, reconstellation and reconfiguration might be composed.

There is much to be said about all of this but the central axis of this conceptual wheel is that of elementary self-reference and recursive self-propagation. The cultural system is itself only doing what physical, material and organic systems also do (perhaps unsurprisingly as it is merely a higher-order abstraction of the same energy and information flows). There exists a gravitational center to all of this. That center is precisely that what is being self-replicated is at base the process of self-replication itself; such self-accelerating biases become pronounced at ambiguous yet broadly definable thresholds of cultural and technological mass-density such ad thst moment of accelerated change in which we currently exist. The mental image here is subtle (and complex) but is somewhat as of a graph or representation of a logarithmic curve or exponential acceleration which, by some internal logical necessity, is dragging its own frame of reference and axes into another (or additional) perpendicular axis and dimension; a dimension defined by the arc of that very same contour and curvature. This is a concept which sounds more nebulous than it actually is but finds itself very poorly articulated in language and linear narrative.

Cultural metamorphosis, individuation and splitting or (an almost genetic and cultural species) variation exists on this enigmatic spiral of procedural self-replication of self-replication. The propulsion and driving impetus behind all of this is a kind of implicit logical necessity (self-)contained within the concept of holistic and global systems-theoretic analyses of culture, of time and of place; there is a subtle principle attempting to percolate (and self-propagate !) through all of this. Representing a non-linear process of process eventually becomes difficult to articulate within the boundaries of linear narrative; I should have to revisit this all again at some later time.

Choice and Illusion

Do our choices choose us ? Objectivity and assertions of unique individuation as free will are clearly attractive but beyond an aspiration to embodied narratives of separate or subjective control, our contexts and cultures inform every personal choice and affectation in profound ways. Consider the ecological vacuums of sociological context which compel any one of us into decisions and postures we may never have imagined. Consider also that the primacy of subjectivity and free will may only really possess a certain limited, faulty claim to ascendance and for all our aspirations towards singularity and closure, we remain fundamentally unbounded and existentially unravelling as unconsciously-motivated automatons encapsulated by a thin patina of subjective choice and from which we derive our various fictions of self.

Humanity: Havoc or Hope ?

Grand benedictions are generally comical and more often faulty but late last night on an early-morning “bathroom stop” (- where else do revelations so frequently occur ? ) it occurred to me that humanity requires a singular goal. Be that becoming an Interstellar and then Galactic presence and civilisation of effective species-immortality, generating advanced technological civilisation and a concomitant world harmony or more indistinctly just not seeking fictional individuation through endlessly refined difference and confrontation, we need one single and unifying goal to get beyond the current civilisation bottleneck of hyper-competition and conflict.

Even if that one goal were (and relatively simply) just the process of seeking and cultivating the possibility and conditions conducive for the emergence of healthy dialogue towards that uniting goal and purpose, it would still be something useful and positive. It really does seem that there is no current unifying principle on the horizon and that if there were, it would very likely require a mischievously clever construction, communication and message-delivery to get it past the psychological and institutional censors which stifle and suffocate most innovation and creativity at inception.

In the graphic novel The Watchmen, Ozymandias defined a strategy for collective unity through generating an external horror to which humanity would have no choice but to unite against. I doubt very much whether fear and aggression can ever be an effective solution to the problems of fear and aggression. It may just be (and sadly so) that the beauty of the concept of a united humanity is inversely proportional to its realisability.

The coming storm of climate change may just be the final test of our collective psychological, cultural and political maturity: are we destined by our failures of compassion and intellect to devolve into conflict and fear or are we able to overcome petty indifference to work together and overcome daunting odds ?

Ant Colony

I’ve found myself several times near-hypnotised by the dancing patterns of ants on a summer day, swirling and pulsating across the ground near an ant nest; if you just stare at one spot and let your eyes defocus a little, the patterns of motion can start to swirl and spin like the dizzying randomness of white noise on an old off-channel CRT TV screen. All that activity, all those individuals working together towards some unseen and unacknowledged collective purpose and all without a single instance of identifiable individuality or subjective experience.

We humans are not so different. What exists of an interior surface and subjectivity may be little more than a convenient aggregation of knowledge and memory, an internal cache and buffer of language and behavioural queues, of autonomous instinctive reflex. Viewed from a distance, our collective behaviours resemble sophisticated instances of ant colonies or termite mounds – none of us needs to know the whole design and plan (in fact, those who claim to understand they know the way the world works and the subsequent best course of collective action rarely possess little more than some crude mental caricature or abbreviation of the world with which to inflict their ignorance upon others).

As a civilisation, such as it is, we resemble one vast disembodied and distributed organism, unified in activity but ultimately without direction or purpose beyond the collective self-gravitational influence of so many individuals attempting to survive each day and propagate or self-replicate this unbroken living thread, to communicate our ideas and identities which, if seen without bias, are rarely ever actually our own beyond that unique recombination and reshuffling of parts and components into novel patterns and configurations which is the very process of living, thinking and existing.

Our subjective selves and interior experience are indicative of the ways the world, the energy and flow of history requires constant novelty (albeit within emergent limits) and choice to remain solvent. We are the decision-engines, the choice-machines and in large enough quantities the form and flow of all those choices create the patterned cycles and overall acceleration of history, of perceived time and significance at our human scale. Our subjective selves are perhaps in some sense the network nodes and storage material for living culture.

We are all living components in a system which actively requires and convinces or rewards us to nurture these little selves of ours (and we all quite happily do so) but even that has become problematic where, intimately engaged with the overall systemic flow and constantly incomplete, hyper-connected logical self-reference of the whole, the degree to which any one of us can sensibly and coherently replicate in microcosm this accelerating narrative complexity can lead to profound isolation, confusion and anxiety.

Yes, you matter and you actively create your own meaning, but the probable reason for this intimate experience of self, of joy and pain and the whole mad swirl of human emotional and intellectual existence, is that the world as a whole can only self-propagate through the collective, kinetic flow that so many individuals fuel through their combined activity and enthusiastic aspiration to expressions and displays of self. The world of our shared experience self-propagates itself and it does so primarily through the dynamic sum of all of our collective activities of self-preservation and our many and diverse assertions of self-identity.

You have Free Will

Yes.  We are fundamentally free and in at least two different ways.

At the social and cultural (or psychological) level – we do not determine the choices from which we choose but are free to choose from within the available spectrum of all possible available decisions. We are also free to recombine existing choices, ideas, concepts into new possibilities and this creative recombination is how the possibility space internally grows and expands, gathers complexity and notional mass-density. At a global (i.e. “holistic”) systems-theoretical level, this is essentially a self-gravitating and accelerating mass of reference and blossoming internal complexity – incomplete and under constant metamorphosis.

At a more fundamental (i.e. physical reality) level, what if *all* possibilities exist ? That is – there might exist some vast and incomprehensibly complex possibility space in which *all* possibilities, all timelines exist. Not so much a multiverse in which choices or possible branching points in physical reality indicate a splitting of the Universe into divergent, historically related-realities but rather one single vast (infinite ?) multidimensional manifold in which *all* possibilities *actually do exist* within the one Cosmological entity or process; itself stupendously complex but also organically continuous, constitutive of reality and the “physical” Universe. Does it matter that it might be a concept which turns out to be potentially unprovable as that possible constellation and state of possibility space/s in which it can never be proved is also one of the possible states of the branching Yggdrasil-like tree of all possible worlds ?

Bad Decisions

The interminable drudgery of many a predictable dramatic narrative has found itself gratefully resuscitated by the poor choices made by a leading character.  In a world so enamoured by the fictional parables of heroism and success delivered en masse to our households and smart-phones by the proliferating vectors of mass media and information over-saturation, the volitional poverty of our hapless heroes constitutes a relief from the unrelenting chorus of aspirational perfection, personality renovation and lifestyle self-improvement we must endlessly endure.  These moments where the screenwriter’s ascription of a perennial poverty of choice to their primary character (or characters) serve a variety of functions above the mere fleshing-out of a dull spot in the dramatic process or as a source of new and otherwise improbable plot twists.

Beyond delivering us the modern equivalent of those ancient mythologies in which the Gods were divine mirrors for the earthbound litany of human failure and emotional turmoil, the fallible hero is also the somewhat less-than-perfect anchor upon which another (perhaps less obvious) archetype rests.  A lesser known, or at least unacknowledged, aspect of historical development and change is the role that poor thinking and terrible decisions have played in the onwards march of historical progress.

Much intellectual capital is invested in the notion that human beings are perfectly rational actors and each on their own social and economic life’s individual stage.  Beyond pure generalisation or wishful caricature, it is a rare individual indeed who can be shown to always and in every circumstance choose the most sensible and beneficial choices from the wide menu available to them.  There are vast taxonomies of equations and behavioural attributions to which we are all expected to conform when seen through the filter of an economist’s analysis but, as is readily apparent, this idealised person hardly resembles real human beings to any significant degree.

In sum total, the personal errors of choice and fallible reasoning of every single human being would have to multiply to such an astounding level of complexity as to make social and economic reality somewhat less predictable than is the weather (and for similar reasons of measurement where the numbers of dynamic factors and variables are beyond count).  This would leave us with nothing more than relatively insubstantial generalisations with which to portray the world and the people within it.  It is a source of great potential error and negative consequence to be unable to distinguish an effective difference between the loose caricatures with which we communicate and the actual immensely complex realities of society, politics, economics, the environment and human history.  This equivocation is however exactly what is done by some persons fundamentally lacking in conceptual sophistication and unable to conceive that these simplistic crayon-drawings with which we communicate or seek to politically influence, these are not actually the same as the reality to which we are referring.

It may of course in many cases be true that this categorical mistake of misidentification between the caricature and the reality can be portrayed with influence to sway opinion and swing a public debate one way or another.  The self-conscious use of error spans a spectrum from cunning ideological ploy through to unwitting buffoonery.  Where a political figure themselves may not possess the intelligence to even comprehend their own error we find ourselves staring down the loaded double-barrel threat of historically disastrous mistakes.  When an individual (or group of individuals at varying scales) finds themselves at a particular nexus or meeting point of coincident factors which may have a significant historical resonance and consequence, we may find ourselves witness to an unwitting entry into the ledger and unwritten historical document which is represented by the Great Mistakes of History.

Great mistakes are rarely recognised by those who commit them or at least they remain as unacknowledged errors so heavily steeped in ideology and vehement, retrospective self-justification that they become potentially obscured in regards to culpability or the attribution of responsibility.  These errors proliferate in this current world to an extent that they have almost become the status quo, a normative thread of unfortunate choices and even more unfortunate events.  The power of poor decisions to shape history is only dwarfed by the potentially seminal importance of tragedy and catastrophe (through its deep resonance and affective causal cascades across cultures) to drive historical change and progress.  Poor decisions, actions and speech at the macroscopic scale are only different from the aggregated errors of our daily lives by a matter of degree.  Good decisions and benevolent acts seem always to be muffled by the chorus of terrible choices that are made.  Decisions, both good and bad, are indelibly inked in time and like the bell which having been rung can not be un-struck, we just have to learn to live with them.


Go with the Flow: the Illusion of Choice ?

I wonder sometimes if all this digital media and virtual space we share is really something other than what it seems. We perceive a rich tapestry of choice and self-expression, a veritable cornucopia of tittilation, education and ideological assertion. It may actually be much simpler at base, that we are all following simple rules in the way that flocking birds or schooling fish do. The functional complexity of the digital environment, albeit a product of massively internetworked communications systems and their interdependent interaction with human choices and actions, is merely the stage upon which the crowd dances.

There is no central controlling principle at work, merely the emergent and patterned complex collective activity of so many individual entities who are all merely following the herd to nowhere in particular. It is beautiful and it is transient in the same way a flock of starlings may simultaneously resemble wisps of billowing, curlicued smoke or reflect a visualised mathematical model of complex dynamical systems in flux.

Simple rules can make for complex emergent patterns among populations of interacting, interdependent individuals and in such a context entrained entities may mistake themselves and their behaviour as unique and special. Even in the ways we are different, we are all essentially the same – we are all swimming in the same internetworked oceans of choice, breathing the same recombinatory logical vocabularies.