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Paradox Found: How To Write About Complexity

I’m writing on article on complexity.

But then who isn’t?

And there you have it. The ultimate non-discovery of my subject of study. Writing and complexity are everywhere already written. Put in another way, the article has to be finished but already is.

Here’s why.

Writing—creating relationships with language—is a complex activity and part of a complex system.  A complex system is one “in which elements interact and affect each other so that it is difficult to separate the behavior of individual elements” says Carlos Gershenson in his 2008 edited collection Complexity: Five Questions.  In other words, complex systems self-organize: there is no one part that generates the whole, no whole that is not in refiguring along with the parts.

Examples of complex systems include ant colonies and the internet, globalization and poetry (see Ira Livingston for a rich unpacking of this unlikely last candidate). Understanding complex systems in our contemporary moment matters, if we believe Nobel Prize Winner Murray Gell-Mann and Biologist Stuart Kauffman, journalist Steven Johnson and Education and literary critic Cathy Davidson to name some of the believers.

Writing self-organizes.  The  “whole” can only be made out of many parts that feel unrelated but connect to another by way of dissection and replacement: repeated cutting and pasting. Some writing parts of are recycled. Some are discovered as new but later recognized as revised bits from elsewhere.

Writing is complex, complexity is writing. Such recursive wrangling can lead to charges of impenetrable “philosophizing” and irrelevant naval gazing.

But that would be too simple.  Because to observe complex systems is an act of radical and practical participation in them. One way to observe complexity is to write about it.

I’m trying.

Over the last few years, I’ve been thinking about “complexity” and “writing” but researching  “Complexity” and “Writing.” The disciplines of Complexity and Writing became my topics.  This is not quite same as the phenomena and practice of complexity and writing.  Disciplines are definable.  Practice and phenomena are complex.

Once complexity becomes “C”omplexity (the mid 1990s) and writing becomes “W”riting (solidified as such in the same decade) they are more manageable entities to describe and define.  This is good–we need to be able to observe our world.  But disciplines also breed distinctions that deny access.  Strong disciplines and closed systems open vision but restrict expanded participation.

More on what it means to “expand participation” next week.  For now, I’ll only say this. Without expanded participation in the way of beginners’ access, we have nothing but boundaries.

But back to the article on complexity and writing.  In this piece, I distinguish between “complexity” and “C”omplexity” (the phenomena and the system that contains it) and between writing (the act of composing) and Writing (the discipline that describes, defines, researches and teaches the act).  Both came into their own in the 1990s. Why and how complexity emerged as a credible counter to Newtonian science and a term of popular significance in this decade are questions relevant to the explosion of the term today.

Amidst the height of the culture wars and the attacks on higher education, Complexity emerged.  And so did the birth of “Writing Studies”—a subject distinct from both its relatives in literary studies and its past life as “Composition” or “Rhetoric” (for one description of a department of Writing Studies see this). Tracing the evolution of these systems as a product of the 1990s helps understand the dynamic relationship between crisis and innovation, practice and theory, new ideas and abandoned or destroyed structures.

Now we need to understand what might have happened with complexity and writing when we built the systems that contain them.

Paradox found. To write about complexity, acknowledge that the piece has already begun.

About Jessica Yood

I am an Associate Professor of English at Lehman College, The City University of New York (CUNY). Composition and Rhetoric is my primary field and research into the history and emerging role of writing in our contemporary culture continues to broaden my definition of this discipline. Work for my book project takes me into the history of literary criticism in America, complexity theories, the culture wars and the intellectual crises of the 1990s, and the enduring complexity of first-year writing and writers.
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4 Responses to Paradox Found: How To Write About Complexity

  1. Alan says:

    ” In other words, complex systems self-organize: there is no one part that generates the whole, no whole that is not in refiguring along with the parts.” If one can understand the Higgs boson, then one might say that one part actually say that one part generates the whole. Of course, that is quantum physics and may not apply in this case.

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  3. Nora says:

    I like how you integrated your ideas of C(c)omplexity and W(w) riting within the theme of “begininngs” which you have written about in earlier blogs . Now that you’ve started your piece, I am looking forward to learn where you will take it. And who doesn’t like spending time with a good paradox?

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