It seems clear that a systems approach, most prominent in the earth sciences, has triumphed at a more general level as the new way of envisioning the world. It seems obvious to us now, indeed, that the idea of a world just is the idea of a dynamic interpenetration of complex sub-systems in which humans play an integral part, a part most often cited these days in the negative via our contribution to the climate and extinction crisis. And perhaps it is this very crisis which has categorically established an understanding of the world as a “world-system” in which two formally bifurcated modes – the ontological and the epistemological, the inter-subjective and the objective, nature and culture – have at last been coupled in a way that does justice to their inter-dependent co-arising.
This way of thinking has become the default paradigm of the scientific and academic intelligentsia and has very quickly filtered down into the consciousness of ordinary people as a generalised concept of inter-relatedness or connectedness of everything with everything else. While formally the folk wisdom contained in the notion that “all things change” and “all things are connected” functioned as an intuitive bulwark against authority conceived as foundational substance coincidental with the idea of law of God or Science, quite suddenly (in civilisational terms) the official zeitgeist has embraced the notion of indeterminacy and interconnectedness as itself foundational. This new paradigm is most succinctly expressed in the Standard Model beloved of physics. Substance has been abandoned in favour of quanta – packets of energy spread across space and time in the form of gravitational, magnetic and particle fields.
Despite outstanding issues, the “physics of everyday life” have been correctly understood. The results of this understanding are everywhere present, enabling the structures and processes of our collective life, governed as it is by unceasing technological innovation. Science, practised at particular levels of experiment and theorised from particular perspectives, continues to deliver knowledge and continues to be fertile ground for the invention of new technological gadgets, large, small, frivolous, life transforming and destructive. At the level of the very big and the very small, on the other hand, the notion of indeterminacy rests on a series of impossibly obtuse mathematical speculations, many of which have been confirmed by empirical experimentation. The science of particle physics now occupies only a slot in the standard model as one manifestation of a quantum field alongside other fields. There is no evidence that one could ever come to the bottom of it all and not find that the bottom was bottomless, another way of saying a field just is the absence of a bottom or a top. The practical power of this paradigm is most impressively illustrated by the success of the Great Hadron Collider at CERN, a machine able to confirm predictions made via complex and highly speculative mathematical theorem.
If the predictive power of the maths and the empirical capability of the machine at CERN was most spectacularly expressed in the discovery of the Higgs-bosen, the applause which greeted this feat was only a preamble to the silence that ensued after two years of refurbishment and the restart of the super machine. The consensus seems to be that we are left poised on the edge of an un-synthesisable ensemble of fields, each expressive of a non-totalisable dynamic. At the other scale too the physicists are perplexed. Two aptly cinematic terms – dark matter and dark energy – have been deployed by a generation of scientists brought up in the age of Star wars to mark the discovery of an aporia in our knowledge of the very big, into which we can plunge only via the fabulations of the entertainment industry or by trying to follow the adventures of a small group of specialised mathematicians. The idea of dark matter and dark energy is the latest and most telling expression of the triumph of spontaneity over law, of chaos over order. We have entered a new age in which order and chaos are subsumed under a notion of hyper chaos. Simplistic and pre-supposed bifurcations need no longer apply. This is the good news of the age of the system as such: all claims to absolutism in both science and philosophy are null and void.
What is true of physics and biology is also true of the science of cognition. The cognitive process is no longer only an affair of the interior of the brain, much less of the mind, but extends beyond brain and mind via the nervous and sensory systems into the environment- physiological, social, cultural and communicative -in which the animal organism has it’s being. A strict computational/informational approach has given way to a more generalised conception of cognition as embodied in motor, sensory and nervous systems coupled with and embedded within specific niche environments. It was only following the widening of the field that the earlier mapping of the neural correlates via machine imaging technology came into it’s own as part of a conception of cognitive embodiment or extended mind. Thus cognitive scientists are apt to describe the processes of cognition as analogous to a storm of non-localised energy detectable across relatively stable structures or patterns of brain architecture. Cognition is, according to the new theory, a system of interrelated processes traversing both the brain and the body and extended into the environment as a series of inter-related autopoietic feedback loops. Here again simplistic bifurcations need no longer apply. What looks like freedom turns on interconnected multi-level constraints; what looks like necessity turns on the spontaneous association of random entities, processes and events. It all depends on your perspective: scale up or down and freedom and necessity change places dependent on your level of entry into the system.
One could see this new conception of the world as the logical outcome of enlightenment thought, inclusive of the scientific and technological innovations that paved the way for the triumph of the capitalist mode. What melted into air (in that famous quote by Marx) just was the idea of absolute and enduring essences of things and persons now conceived as a nexus of energies available for use – fuel for economic growth, technological progress and the extraction of surpluses. Indeed, this metabolic conception of the transformation and regulation of energies just is inseparable from the idea of a system, which came into it’s own as the age of steam – the harnessing of a dynamic flow via the precise operation of pistons, cogs and valves. Immediately, a wave of technological innovation and administrative techno-managerial regulation followed, transforming every aspect of ordinary life and re-structuring social relations in new ways. Almost simultaneously, society itself began to be conceived of as the coupling of the material and social via complex feed back loops, principle among them the regulation of flows of information. The concept of nested hierarchies in which systems of energetic flow self regulate via feedback loops at once ontological (the being of beings ) and informational (the self-system or agency of such beings) has itself become one of the dynamic feedback loops in a matrix of neo-liberal becomings.
What the systems sciences tell us is that the science of complex systems conceived as an understanding of the flow of energies – bio or techno metabolism – will replace (has replaced) the idea of substance and its reductive explication as law. Order was once conceived as punctuated by moments of change; now change is punctuated by moments of synchronic order. The way such paradigms come to supersede older ones at the theoretical and popular level is itself a complex process transcending particular and locally constrained discursive modes and social practices.
We are on the cusp of a revolution that will usher in the age of machine-human interface as envisaged by Google, Facebook and a long line of emulators in every conceivable niche market of tech-innovation. A cyborg-like subject is already with us, enabling mind-object interaction (telekinesis), individual mind to mind communication, augmented brain computationality, and direct mind-computer-mind interaction across geographic locations. Very soon, networked mind to mind communication or localised swarm consciousness will become a reality. Can we even begin to predict the destructive power of such technology, unleashed on a world who’s structures are already undermined by so many interdependent and complex processes The near future augers the triumph of the quazi-human or altogether trans-human subject.
What we need, say the proselytisers of this new age, are not explicator-priests of the foundational Laws of God or the universe but a science of flows and systems of flows, of the containment and exploitation of hyper flux and dis-order. The improvisational and intuitive practices of containment and regulation has triumphed over substance, law and fixed structure. What the new era needs is a priesthood of scientists, a bureaucracy of techno managers and an efficient policing of the dis-order that will ensue as each wave of technological innovation washes over the body politic. What the new age needs, in short, is what has already come about – a mode of social organisation and regulation on the model of the system now firmly established in the Peoples republic of China.
That China was the prophet of this new future is a confirmation of an old folk wisdom -only change abides – and the triumph of a new science. Such an understanding has always been foundational to the evolution of Chinese culture, a truth affirmed by it’s embrace of the market as simply another opportunity to regulate a system of disorderly flows and harness eruptive and unsettling energies to the benefit of those able to integrate sky and earth and practice the Tao of unceasing change. For the Chinese, the technological innovations unleashed by entrepreneurial capitalism and the subsequent transformation of economic structures and social relations just is the practice of the harnessing and regulation of chi or flows of energy. By such means, after all, China has, for thousands of years, maintained a social order by way of irrigation – the control and channelling of water – and bureaucratic techno-management or social regulation – the control and channelling of human energy in the interest of the whole.
For China, the communist revolution was not a decisive break with the past but an acceleration in which the energy of industrial labour harnessed to technological innovation and informational flow supplemented it’s understanding of the complexities of irrigation, metabolism and the control of energies by way of letting things alone. Traditionally, the art of the Tao needed a supplement in the form of a notion of social order (Confucianism) that would ride and domesticate the tiger of contradiction just as the regulation of energetic flows. In this context the Communist Party, in the person of it’s Chairman and supported by an army of advisers, functionaries, techno-managers and loyal supporters, continues to function as the Emperor whose job it is to harmonise the overall flow (harmonising heaven and earth) to the betterment of the whole. Chairman Xn jing is to the free market what Confucius was to the unnamable dynamic of the Tao.
Historically, the Chinese communist party has often resorted to brutal repression. But even under Mao the party favoured a Chinese (as distinct from a Russian) solution to the problems of “contradictions among the people” which involved a utilisation of the tradition of Confucian extortions to self sacrifice of individual drives in the interest of the whole. With the death of Mao and the defeat of the “Gang of Four” the Chinese leadership have tried to minimise repression in favour of self- validated and self-administered forms of social control, including the revival of religion under the control of a centralised leadership sympathetic to the system. But only up to a point, of course. As the Tienanmen square and Falung Gong episodes illustrate, the Chinese leadership will resort to outright repression in desperate circumstances, insisting that, in the long term, it’s social experiment will prove successful and in the interests of the vast majority of humanity. To that effect China has embarked on a programme of control, utilising technologies of surveillance and accountability that enable a vast and complicated system of social incentives and punishments weaved into the fabric of community life and only possible by the utilisation of networked computationality. Such means are suitably metabolic, conceiving society as, in essence, a living organism that must evolve it’s own auto -immune system in the interests of the survival of the whole. Key to the overall health of society is control over the distribution and flow of information and the longer term evolution of the conceptual memes which function to encapsulate and codify the presuppositions of the social system as a form of naturalised common understanding.
Against this backdrop, the unfolding crisis in Hong Kong is an opportunity for the Chinese leadership to test it’s skill, allowing for the inevitably of contradiction and struggle while guiding the outcome by rigorously pursuing it’s interests as one contradictory pole embedded in the overall situation. The art, in this instance, consists in practising immanence while not losing sight of the unfolding of the overall indeterminate (quantum?) undulation of the (social) system, with a view to imposing more rigorous and effective forms of control in the interests of social harmony. That the leadership has so far not resorted to military intervention is a measure of their commitment to this policy, a policy made more difficult to implement by the fact that they are operating in a former British colony whose population is still ideologically and institutionally wedded to the norms and practices of bourgeois parliamentarianism.
At any rate this, more or less, is also the future of the west, dependent on the outcome of the various struggles between existing powers and the imposition of the new paradigm by way of new structures of organisation and social relation, a process intensified by the climate and extinction crisis but not conditioned on it. Perhaps it will be the corporate entrepreneur as instigator of a new wave of technological undulation within the social field (corporate autocrat) who will coordinate and regulate successive waves of innovation; or perhaps a reconfigured nation-state (most likely minus the trappings of democracy) will continue to deploy the force(s) needed to administer processes of containment of innovative energies, guaranteeing the imposition of effective, though flexible, regimes of accumulation of resources and profits to the benefit of the few. Here, the west differs from the east. The existing liberal consensus (a sort of Confucian break on the disorder of innovation) has only a tenuous hold on power, resulting in a fragmented and altogether more unpredictable style of politics.
For some, the emergence of the the Chinese model is good news, marking as it does the triumph of an idea of freedom – the subsumption of dynamic energies under the rubric of skilful means – over an idea of neccessity conceived as god given natural law, immutable and transcendent to the world, essence of that otherworldly creature Man. It is this Man with a capital M who is in the process of being overthrown; Man as the apex of a descending hierarchy of beings each allotted it’s place in the great chain of Being consubstantial with the being of the Creator; Man, that being destined to enter history and undertake a redemptive journey from an Alpha point of creaturely sinfulness and ignorance (Adam) to an Omega point of redemption and enlightenment (Christ Risen); Man, subject of White European Anglo-Saxon Christian Civilisation; steward of an ordered, time bound and essentially closed cosmos which nonetheless opens out onto an infinite and majestic transcendent realm consubstantial with the essence of God, a God that is also the hidden essence of Man himself. Modernism subsumed this theological vision under a veneer of secularity but did not negate the underlying structure of transcendence – scientific law simply replaced the law of god; a futural mythology grounded on the notion of unending progress completed a telos of Man as, in essence, a manifestation of cosmic self-completion.
Such a Man is rightly derided as symbolising a nexus of oppressive exclusions, annexations and appropriations consequent on the rationalisation of Man just as that subject who would, by a process of civilising redemption of those outside the pale of European enlightenment thought, complete history in a dialectical self-realisation of his Godly essence. All of this, as Marx predicted, has melted into air, and for good reason. God is dead and Substance too. Man has had the substance let out of him and become deflated, only to be reinvigorated by the realisation the he was, after all, only made of air; or of equally insubstantial energies ripe for containment, channelling, regulation and exploitation. What was capitalism if not the regulation of flows – the flow of oil, bio-energy of the sun; the flow of labour, bio-energy harnessed to the machine; the flow of information, medium of the expansion of the general intellect.
This insight was, of course, intuited by the sixties generation and those who inherited its deconstructive flair. The image of man, once deflated by power of the ecstatic imagination (dropping out and turning on helped) became the nexus of an eruptive flow. Man became at once a flow and a surfer of flows, able to ride the wave, poised atop an avalanche of dynamic energies, flexible and resilient. What the sixties psychonauts failed to intuit was that this man just was the capitalist entrepreneur freed from the weight of a moribund conception of the real. Once Substance, Man, Law and Social Order (the Square) could be abandoned in the proto-laboratory of communal living, a new man came into view and seemed, for a moment, to want to seize power.
That was the spirit, if not the letter, of the new law-of-lawlessness taken up by the Thatcherite and Reaganite revolutionaries who wanted to smash open a cumbersome and outmoded superstructure – Man, Law, Substance, Society. They were unable to unleash the cultural revolution that could jettison the old idea of Man in favour of the new one. That revolution happened in China, by power of uneven development and the dialectical triumph of the backward, a law of process over substance if ever there was one. What we are left to contemplate, here in the west, is a hotchpotch of Man, a being trying to straddle past and future, most ludicrously represented by Trump, that cauldron of contradictory energies; a man unable to self-integrate internal flows; a man conspicuously bereft of the aura of inner harmony and external power most notable in the demeanour and actions of Chairman Xi Jinping, that dude in a suit.
As everyone knows, it’s only a matter of time before the world turns and we enter the age of the New Man – resilient, self-reliant, strangely plastic in relation to strict demarcations formally considered sacrosanct- ethnicity, gender, sexual proclivity and that once absolutely strict division between man and machine. A new man willing and able to ride the tiger of unceasing technological innovation (himself become a manifestation of technological innovation?) of social dis-order, war, pestilence and famine, bereft of god, law, and the sacred; a man at home in chaos, himself only a fleeting manifestation of chaos, auto self-reflexive nexus of the becomings of the social, momentarily resplendent in the charism of power and the luxuries of accumulation. A minor, futuristic god among gods, vain, unpredictable, egocentric, cruel, hedonistic, a strange attractor, self-aware object of the longing gaze of the excluded, who see in his glory their own unrealised self-essence projected onto a billion screens.
This subject, in outline at least, is already discernable. Initially, he will have to accommodate his activities to existing power structures – to the corporation and nation state, to bureaucracies and managerial systems, to systems of control, surveillance and centralisation, all of which will work sometimes in his favour and sometimes against and all of which are themselves in states of crisis and transition. In the end his wildness will be tamed, if only because the increasing intensity of the climate crisis will necessitate a centralised response to increasing fragmentation and social unrest. Either that or the present situation will lead to catastrophic social collapse and, perhaps, nuclear extermination of the species.
At all events, the future awaits, bleaker than bleak, some would say and bereft of hope. Or bereft, at least, of a hope conceived as the promise of human flourishing understood as the realisation of an innate essence or as an unfolding in history of a human potential in some way necessitating that very history. Such a vision, in one form or another, has sustained collective hope for millennia. The death of that hope is only a symptom of a deeper malaise, one expressive of the triumph of a systemic nowness – that annexation of the future under the wholesale commodification of the life-process, a rule most outrageously expressed in the personal fortunes accumulated by an elite of corporate owners and in the more mundane acquisitiveness of a consumer driven by an advertisement industry harnessed to the processing of desire enabled on computer functionality and the algorithm.
Such a present, at once an expression of the extinction of collective hope and the very means by which that hope is extinguished as a living potential, will have been seen to be a recipe for the murder of imagination and love, in all it’s forms. So much is evident if one honestly appraises the state of our present existence in relation to both the glory and the stupidity of our past.
Man has fallen, for good or ill.
What will we do, faced with a world that might, before it succumbs to the inevitable, give birth to our nemesis? We must, at least, be stony eyed enough to call this coming age an “age of ruin” and be prepared to deploy ourselves against it, if not in the name of Man, then at least in the name of that Stranger to the World that men and women will have become.