Paul Cilliers, Complexity and Postmodernism: Understanding Complex
Systems. London: Routledge, 1998.
- Paul Cilliers's Complexity and Postmodernism: Understanding
Complex Systems attempts to bring together developments in neuroscience,
linguistics, logic, computer science, the philosophy of science, and
poststructural theory in an effort to locate unifying themes in these
exciting fields. Cilliers seizes on "complexity," a term used to
describe large-scale, non-linear interaction of nodes or agents in a
dynamic environment, as a way to discuss possible structural resonances
among the brain, natural language, artificial intelligence,
deconstruction, and the legitimation of knowledge in contemporary society.
By means of this ambitiously interdisciplinary approach, Cilliers hopes to
overcome certain persistent simplifications in the thinking of both
representation and organization.
- Cilliers introduces the terms "distributed
representation" and "self-organization" (or "self-organized criticality")
to improve upon the standard analytical and rule-based methods of
understanding complexity. He takes up the "connectionism" attributed
to neural networks as a model for the contingency and dynamism of complex
systems such as those of the brain or of natural language. Connectionism
treats the interactions of the
nodes within it as a dynamic whole, each individual node working in
concert with all other nodes of the network to adapt continually to
environmental changes. This is in stark contrast to the rule-based
descriptions of complexity which, imposing the rigidity of principled
behavior on the nodes, cannot account for the contingency of environmental
conditions and localized adaptations. Through distributed representation,
Cilliers circumvents the shortcomings of the rule-based understanding of
complexity because he is able to demonstrate that distributed
representation is not representation at all, but rather the recognition of
localized contingency. Each node interacts in concert with the other nodes
of a neural or language network because each node acts and reacts as a
system, not individually. This interaction is further explained through
self-organization. A complex system, able to organize its individual nodes
or agents through concerted action, does not have a central organization
center but has the capacity to self-organize at local sites where
environmental changes are detected.
- Cilliers, following Saussure and Derrida, recognizes the complexity
of natural language in terms of both its stability and its evolutionary
capacity. Discussing natural language's ability to instantiate meaning
through a system of phonetic or graphical differences, he claims that
while language users are bound to certain language rules, they are
nonetheless free to adjust those rules and hence to influence the
evolution of the language. This seemingly contradictory statement finds
its theoretical underpinnings in Saussure's concepts of the signifier and
signified, where signification involves mental representation and the
enactment of this representation through the utilization of the signifier
in either spoken or written language. A language user has to choose
among a host of socially sanctioned signifiers to represent a mental
state. As Cilliers observes,
"The system of language transcends the choices of any individual user, and
therefore has stability" (39).
But while he recognizes the constraints of social conditioning and common
culture that temper any "free play" of language, Cilliers conceptualizes
language as less the closed system described by Saussure than the open
one of Derrida. Derrida, by denying the metaphysics of
presence, claims that meaning cannot be generated outside of language and
hence "where there is meaning there is already language" (43). Drawing
in particular on the Derridean notions of différance and
trace, Cilliers tries to show that natural language is a complex system
which adapts dynamically over time and across multiple environments
through a system of phonetic and graphic difference. Because language is
constituted by nothing
more than relationships, there are traces of other signs inherent in every
sign. Language, through difference and deferral (hence
différance), self-organizes signs through distributed
- Cilliers uses his discussion of natural language as a segue into a
consideration of artificial intelligence as a complex system. In a chapter
entitled "John Searle Befuddles," Cilliers asserts that Searle's
contention that artificial intelligence does not possess intentionality and
hence cannot be called intelligence at all is untenable. Cilliers briefly
summarizes Searle's views on artificial intelligence through a description
of "The Chinese Room Experiment," in which an English man, unfamiliar with
Chinese, is provided with a rule book describing how to translate Chinese
symbols into meaningful sentences. To the outside observer, the man
appears able to "speak" Chinese as well as he can speak English, when in
fact he is only following a rulebook. Searle contends that a computer,
similar to the man in the experiment room, is simply following rules and
cannot be truly said to think. In the absence of intentionality, Searle
asserts, thinking cannot be said to have occurred. Cilliers rejects
Searle's pronouncement on the ground that it leaves intentionality
undefined and does not consider that there might be different forms or
modes of intentionality corresponding to different agents, such as the
human brain and the computer. Cilliers also reiterates certain key points
from Derrida's critique of Searle in "Signature Event Context," strongly
endorsing the former's reading of Austin's speech act theory over the
latter's, which would hold that the context of a speaker's utterance can
be relied upon to anchor its meaning. For Cilliers, Derrida's elaborate
mockery of any such rule-based description of language contains crucial
insights for discussions of complexity, for it both unseats the code as
the ultimate arbiter of rules and dislodges context as the master precept
of the code.
- Cilliers's considerations of complexity with respect to neural
networks, language, and artificial intelligence provide him with a
theoretical base upon which to discuss the postmodern condition.
Incorporating insights gleaned from Lyotard's The Postmodern
Condition, Cilliers asserts that postmodern
societies meet all of the ten criteria for a complex system:
- Complex systems are comprised of a large number of elements.
The elements in a complex system interact dynamically.
- The level of interaction is fairly rich.
- Interactions are non-linear.
- The interactions have a fairly short-range.
- There are loops in the interactions.
- Complex systems are open systems.
- Complex systems operate under conditions far from equilibrium.
- Complex systems have histories.
- Individual elements are ignorant of the behavior of the whole
system in which they are embedded. (119-120)
- Postmodern societies have millions of agents operating within
them at any one time.
- These agents fulfill their functions in a number of dynamic and
multiple roles (teacher, consumer, parent, child, etc.).
- In a postmodern society, the interactions between agents and and
mechanisms of the societal system are extremely rich and
- Social relationships in postmodern society are non-linear and
asymmetrical with respect to power. It
is within these asymmetrical power relationships that people operate as
teachers, students, consumers, and citizens.
- Individuals interact on local levels. Although interactions on
one level affect those on another, there is no "metalevel controlling the
flow of information" (121).
- All interpretations are local, contingent, and provisional. In
this situation, paralogy and dissensus rather than homology prevail.
- Open systems such as the social interact with other open systems
such as the ecological.
- Social disequilibrium characterizes the postmodern condition.
Although the concept of history is dismissed as a grand
narrative in the postmodern, local narratives tell the histories of
individuals and groups.
- It is impossible for an individual to have a complete
understanding of the operations of the entire social system in which he or
she lives and interacts. (6-7)
- Cilliers uses his analogy between complex systems and
societies to dismiss the notion that postmodernism sanctions an "anything
goes mentality" in which relativism reigns supreme. Instead, Cilliers
asserts, postmodernism leads us to new ethical horizons and committments.
He draws upon Lyotard to emphasize this point:
As Cilliers states, "A careful reading of Lyotard shows that his
understanding of the individual is formulated in such a way as to counter
the idea of fragmentation and isolation that could result from a dismissal
of the grand narrative" (115). He goes on to argue that individuals
constitute part of a vast social scene where each enters into an "agonistic
network" in which discourses compete for legitimacy. Within this
framework, paralogy and dissensus rather than homology and consensus
"supply the system with that increased performativity it forever demands
and consumes" (The Postmodern Condition 15). Cilliers compares paralogy
to self-organized criticality by which "networks diversify their internal
structure maximally" (117).
The breaking up of the Grand Narratives... leads to what some
authors analyze in terms of the dissolution of the social bond and the
disintegration of social aggregates into a mass of individual atoms thrown
into the absurdity of Brownian motion. Nothing of this kind is happening:
this point of view, it seems to me, is haunted by the paradisaic
representation of a lost "organic society."
(The Postmodern Condition 15)
- Ultimately, Cilliers is most intrigued by the Lyotardian concept of
justice within the postmodern condition. Through the work of Cornell and
Derrida, he outlines four criteria for "responsible judgment" in the wake
of postmodernism and complexity:
- Respect otherness and difference as values in themselves.
- Gather as much information on the issue as possible,
notwithstanding the fact that it is impossible to gather all the
- Consider as many of the possible consequences of the
notwithstanding the fact that it is impossible to consider all the
- Make sure that it is possible to revise the judgment as
it becomes clear that it has flaws. (139-40)
These four criteria could very well be called a "postmodern ethic."
- Cilliers's book provides a sympathetic yet rigorous
reading of poststructural
theory in the wake of the rapid advances in complex system research and
understanding. Cilliers's interdisciplinary approach to the concept of
complexity will allow literary critics, philosophers, and scientists to
reach across their respective disciplines and to appreciate the application
of their disciplinary perspectives in new and exciting arenas. This book
has taken an innovative and important first step down the path of critical
scholarship on the subject of complexity and postmodernism.
Philosophy and Literature Program
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HOPKINS UNIVERSITY PRESS.
Derrida, Jacques. "Signature, Event, Context." Limited
Inc. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1988. 1-23.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A
Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1979.