Complexity and Architecture

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It is funny because, for anyone who has read much about postmodernism, you know that its start was, interestingly enough, just as much grounded in architecture as it was in literature or science. 

Apropos of this point, I stumbled, today, across the Complexitys.com website, which is devoted to the topic of architecture and complexity science.  The ideas running through my head as I clicked through its catalogue of photos was crushing.  Of course, thinking of humans as complex, dynamic, self-organizing systems and of communities as complex networks, and on and so forth is deserving of an architectural response.  But, this point didn't really hit me until just now.  Wow!  I mean, I have been blogging on Tomas Saracano's work and green architecture and so forth.  But, for some reason it really hit me today.  How should buildings and pathways and highways and trains and public transportation and gardens and lawns and parks and stores and recreation and so on fit into all of our emerging notions of complexity? 

In my field of study, health and health care, we talk about the built environment all the time.  And, it is not like this is a new idea in architecture or urban planning.  But, suddenly, looking at these photos the whole thing just overwhelmed me in its measure.


Case Based Modeling and Sociology and the Complexity Sciences

As you can see from the picture below, we have updated the face of our Sociology and Complexity Science Website.

The new version of the website has been condensed to focus specifically on case-based modeling and its application to the study of various topics in health and health care. 

Case-based modeling is an entirely new approach to modeling complex systems, grounded in two key insights by the British sociologist and complexity scientist, David Byrne: (1) complex systems are cases and cases are complex systems; (2) complex realism serves as a viable epistemological frame for social scientific inquiry.

The SACS Toolkit is our new case-based method for modeling complex systems.  It uses a long list of the latest methods in computational modeling (e.g., network analysis, cluster analysis, agent-based modeling, neural nets, synergetics, cellular automata, etc) in connection with conventional social scientific methods (e.g., factory analysis, logistic regression, grounded theory method and historical inquiry) to model complex systems as sets of cases.  

On the website, you will see:

1. A quick overview of case-based modeling.
2. Papers on the SACS Toolkit, including a mathematical outline of our method.
3. Papers applying the SACS Toolkit to various topics.
4. Papers on mixed methods and data mining.


New Version of Complexity Map

 Hello everyone!

As you can see above,  I have updated my map of the complexity sciences.


My current edits are based on my autumn sabbatical at Durham University, in the UK.  I have spent a lot of time working with and talking to complexity scientists from as far ranging fields as quantum mechanics and neuroscience to business administration and health care to philosophy and the arts--all of which has led to my new version.

First, I have included the field of visual complexity.  As those who follow this blog know, I have spent considerable time discussing the influence of complexity science on the arts and how visual design is advancing how we organize and understand the massive globalized world of data in which we now live.  This is an important new area of emerging investigation.

Second, I have highlighted Hermann Haken and his work in the field of synergetics.  It appears that, within the past couple years, a movement has re-emerged within dynamical systems theory where complexity researchers are thinking, once again, about the macroscopic as a way to dampen or manage the high levels of complexity in a system, primarily by rethinking micro-level interactions and their rules at the macro level.  One example is the recent paper that my colleague, Rajeev Rajaram and I published in Complexity--click here.

Third, I added the field of case-based modeling, based largely on the internationally renowned work of Charles Ragin in case-based reasoning and David Byrne in case-based complexity and complex realism.  This is a major, major movement in the social sciences and in applied areas like health, business, education and political science.  It is also a significant advance in complexity method, adding an entirely new way of thinking about complex systems as cases.

Fourth, I added the field of multi-level complex systems.  This is where I think a huge segment of complexity science is headed.  We need to find ways to model systems at multiple levels, taking into account agency and structure.  And, we need to move to the usage of multiple methods.  A good example of this advance in thinking and its financial support is the European Union's initiative on multi-level complex systems--Click here.

Finally, I added a few more long-deserved names to the list, including Eshel Ben-Jacob and Nicholas Christakis and Bruno Latour (on whom I have been blogging lately).

As always, no map is perfect and I am sure people will let me know.  But, I am always working on it.



Tomás Saraceno, HangarBicocca and The Center for Art, Science and Technology at MIT

Okay, so you know I am a big fan of the work of Tomás Saraceno.

Well, he has a new exhibition at HangarBicocca, a new Italian art gallery in Milan--the picture on the left was taken from their set of gallery images.

The title of Saraceno's exhibit is On Space Time Foam--click here to see more images and a brief interview video. 

As stated on their website: On Space Time Foam is a floating structure composed of three levels of clear film that can be accessed by the public, inspired by the cubical configuration of the exhibition space. The work, whose development took months of planning and experimentation with a multidisciplinary team of architects and engineers, will then continue as an important project during a residency of the artist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - MIT in Cambridge (MA).

Speaking of MIT, through their Arts at MIT program, they have a really interesting new Center for Art, Science and Technology (CAST).  Such a center offers a lot of possibilities to complexity artists working at the intersection of complexity science, art, visual complexity and computational modeling and technologies.

Here is what they say on their website: The Center for Art, Science & Technology (MIT CAST) facilitates and creates opportunities for exchange and collaboration among artists, engineers, and scientists.  A joint initiative of the Office of the Provost, the School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) and School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), the Center is committed to fostering a culture where the arts, science and technology thrive as interrelated, mutually informing modes of exploration, knowledge and discovery.

For more on CAST Director Evan Ziporyn and other key faculty, click here.

For an overview of what Saracano will be doing at CAST, click here.


Complexity Art, Latour, Global Compositions and the Agency of Unrealized Projects

For those who follow this blog, you know that it is devoted to the development of complexity science and art at about a 50/50 split.  While blogs are great mediums for immediate expression, comprehension can get lost, as the argument being made, over time, gets lost in the archive.  I thought, therefore, it might be worthwhile to pause and summarize what I have been doing in my own complexity art, highlighting my current project.  Anyway, here is a brief review.

CLICK here for updated versions of my artistic and scientific vitae.



For the past five years I have been working rather extensively on a set of assemblages, the purpose of which is to visually portray (in various combinations of photo, paint and video) my key thoughts about human complexity.  The title of my project is Virtual Sistine Chapel Global Composition.

(The above three images are from my Virtual Sistine Chapel Global Composition)


A. 1992-1997: Painting My Way from Postmodernism to Complexity

Most people who know my work would probably think that the complexity science came first, but it didn't.  Fact is, the opposite happened: the art came years before the science.  To explain, I go back to my work in graduate school, circa 1994 to 1997 and my first show (in 1994) at Kent State University (Kent, Ohio, USA), titled, appropriately enough, Postmodernism and Beyond.

Here are two assemblages from the time period.  While I was (and remain) strongly influenced by the analytic cubism of Picasso and Hockney, my agenda, even back then, was not to deconstruct time and space.  Instead, I was trying to build it up.  More specifically, I was layering and intersecting people, looking for their connections, relationships and networks of similarity, and then assembling all of these interdependent 'pieces-parts' into a complex system where the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

 My first picture, for example, is a combination of my wife and niece.  The gestalt is someone beyond the individual images--note the similarities in facial structure.  The second is my wife and brother--note how each head, depending upon how the images are combined, results in one person standing out more than the other. 

Furthermore, I realized that these assemblages (and those I have created for the past twenty years), while highly representational, are primarily symbolic.  They are iconic representations of a complex system--by icon I mean a visual (semiotic) sign that stands in place of or acts as a simulacra of something else.  In short, my art is a visualization of a type of complexity science.  In fact, my art works are built using the same SACS Toolkit assemblage algorithm used in my science.

Twenty years later, here is an assemblage I completed this year, showing how my work has evolved--well, I hope it looks like things evolved.  phew!

B. Systems Art, Assemblage, and other such Influences

In actuality, while indebted to analytic cubism, my work for the past twenty years is more influenced by assemblage and systems art, which I think are more in line with complexity science.

For example, while my art bears no resemblance to Rauschenberg, I am nonetheless influenced by his advancement of artistic assemblage, which goes back to, amongst others, Dubuffet and Duchamp and, even earlier, to Picasso and Braque.  For example, my work combines photography, paint, paper, video, etc--which mimics the multidisciplinary nature of complexity science.

Likewise, while my work bears no resemblance to Pollock or Stella, I am also influenced by systems art--which, all the way back in the 1960s and 1970s was exploring the implications of the two historical precursors to complexity science, namely systems science and cybernetics.

All of these approaches are unique in that they are bottom-up in their design, starting with a simple set of rules or procedures, which, when iterated, produce, at the macroscopic level, very complex paintings.  Even Chuck Close's work fits this tradition.

My assemblages follow a similar process: it involves, at the micro-level, taking photos and paintings and videos and repeatedly cutting them apart into smaller squares and then copying and pasting these sections together to create macroscopic systems. This bottom-up process, for example, has also manifested itself in a cartoon version of my work, as the two above images show.  Both follow a basic algorithm: draw a character, link the next character in reaction to it, repeat the process until the system emerges.

C. 2012, Twenty Years Later

So, how do all of these ideas come together?  For the past twenty years my work has been a methodical attempt to develop a complexity art based on the ideas of cubism, systems art, assemblage and, as time has evolved, the explicit theories, concepts and methods of complexity science.  All of this work has come together, at last, for my first comprehensive project: Virtual Sistine Chapel Global Composition.  The self-portrait included here gives a clear impression of the effect that all this work has had on me.

As a prelude to finding somewhere to show this composition, I submitted a part of it to the Serpentine Gallery's Agency of Unrealized Projects--which I briefly review now.

D. The Agency of Unrealized Projects


The Agency of Unrealized Projects (AUP), run through the Serpentine Gallery in London, is the brain-child of Hans Ulrich Obrist and colleagues Julia Peyton-Jones, Julieta Aranda and Anton Vidokle.  Its purpose is to generate an ongoing catalog of projects by artists of any and all background who find, for one reason or another--intended or not--that the projects on which they worked is unrealizable--even if only for now.

In addition to Serpentine Gallery, the AUP is supported by e-flux and by daadgallerie, where it has, from September 9th to October 20th 2012, taken up temporary residence.  The goal of this round of the AUP is to present its evolving archive to the public.  Artists are invited to submit their own unrealized projects up to the 20th of October to AUP’s growing archive, which is what I did--CLICK HERE.

E. A Virtual Sistine Chapel Global Composition

 So, here is the project and the brief description of it that I submitted to the AUP:

In addition to its pure genius, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is remarkable because it represents, in art history, the rare opportunity for an artist to present to the world a rather complete visual cosmology—something even Michelangelo, due to politics, economics, and ultimately the constraints of time and place found frustratingly difficult to achieve in other areas, such as the Tomb of Julius II.
Standing under Michelangelo’s colossal ceiling at the beginning of the 21st century, however, one has to seriously wonder, given the complex world in which we live, can such a project be realized today?  It is five hundred years later.  We live, now, in a highly complex, global network society with its supporting cyber-infrastructure; its swarm of clashing individual and collective identities; its inadequate grand narratives; its numerous global social problems; and its conflicting religions, ultures, myths, artistic traditions, political systems, economies and historical narratives—so much difference.  What cosmology could handle all of this complexity?  As the last hundred years of history, theory, and art have shown us, the obvious answer is none; it is an unrealizable project. 

There is, however, a necessary and important and more modest alternative, held by a growing network of globalization scholars, artists, eco-feminists, cyber-theorists, continental philosophers and complexity scientists—and expressed well by the French theorist, Bruno Latour in his e-flux article (Issue 23), Some Experiments in Art and Politics (See also his article An Attempt at aCompositionist Manifesto, New Literary History, 2010, Issue 41). 

For Latour, success in handling globalization comes from replacing cosmologies with compositions.  Unlike cosmologies, compositions are assemblages of negotiation, difference and heterogeneity; they are compromising, decomposing, compost piles; they are post-human, non-hierarchical, self-organizing, networked, evolving, adaptive complex systems; they are global and yet local, universal and yet relativistic; serious and yet ironically playful.  And, given their nature, they are ultimately useful: they can be taken apart, added to, or reassembled to meet different global needs. 

Following Latour and others, my goal for the current project—which I have been working on for the past five years—is to take apart, add to, and reassemble the major themes of Michelangelo’s visual cosmology to create my own global composition.  This composition will include a variety of artistic and scientific assemblages—painting, photo, video, sculpture, networks, computational models, etc.

The thematic purpose of my composition is to create an inclusive, secular, scientific and more positive view of the human condition in today’s highly complex global network society.  My composition draws extensively on the latest advances in globalization studies, complexity science, global mythology, the natural and social sciences and, equally important, my local culture as an Italian-American living in Cleveland Ohio (USA), including in my assemblages family and friends as many of the heroic characters--including in my pictures the people in my life is an explicit turn to Jame Joyce's Ulysses and the idea of exploring the heroic through the lives of everyday people such as myself, family and friends.

As way of an introduction, Figure 1 (located above) provides a quick overview of my six themes and the ten images I have so far completed, as overlaid on a schematic of the Sistine Chapel.  (My ultimate architectural form, however, would be some type of network structure.)  

 Figure 2 provides a more detailed close-up of four of my completed images.  All images start as photo-assemblages created on the computer with Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator.  Some images, as shown in Figure 2, are then painted on canvas.

Finally, below is an even more detailed overview of one of the four pictures in Figure 2, called Cathy's Dinner Party.  It combines extensive photo-assemblage work done in Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop; the assemblage was then fully painted in oil on a five foot by three foot canvas; which was then photographed and integrated with the initial photo-montage.  The painting is symbolically charged, referencing a variety of symbols found in Da Vinci's Last Supper, including the famous chalice (V) formation.  The painting was also worn down and corroded with various materials to explore how so many of the images from the Renaissance have worn away, been restored to varying degrees and, in their ware, become iconic images.  What, however, does 'wear and tear' mean in a digital, globalized age?)  Anyway, there is a lot more that can be said, but that is enough to make the basic point.

Brian Castellani, Sociology and Complexity Science, Art and Science Vitae

For those interested, here are my artistic and scientific vitae.

Click Here for My Artistic Vitae

Click Here for My Scientific Vitae


Computational Art, Complexity, Design

Seeking silicon valley September 12th - December 8th
(Image copied from the website http://www.zero1biennial.org/)

I am constantly searching the web lately to find people working at the intersection of art and science and technology, particularly art and cyber-infrastructure and computational modeling.  

I ran across this biennial called SEEKING SILICON VALLEY, THE 2012 ZERO1 BIENNIAL
September 12 – December 8, 2012; Opening weekend: September 12-16, 2012

Here is what they state on their website:

"The ZERO1 Biennial will feature work by a diverse group of nearly one hundred local, national, and international contemporary artists. The artists featured in the 2012 ZERO1 Biennial will challenge our notions of place and identity as they investigate the role Silicon Valley has played in changing the ways we work, live, and communicate globally."

It is not exactly complexity science or complexity art, but there are a number of artists at the show that seems to be indirectly or directly working at the intersection of computational science and complexity and art and design.


Wolfe von Lenkiewicz: Art History, Complexity and the (Im)Possibility of New Compositions and Cosmologies

 (The above image was copied from http://wolfevonlenkiewicz.com/index.php?type=photo&id=166)

Going through my recent E-Flux RSS feeds, I came across the work of British-based artist, Wolfe von Lenkiewicz.  He has a great personal website and has a new exhibition at AVA (All Visual Arts) in London.

Lenkiewicz is fascinating to me because, as stated on his website, "He is known for his artistic reconfigurations of well-known imageries from art history and visual culture to create ambiguous compositions that question art historical discourses."

Readers of art history know that, from Michelangelo and Raphael reconfiguring ancient Greek and Roman imagery to Picasso literally repainting the masters preceding him to Takashi Murakami's super flat deconstruction of Warhol, almost all major art is, in some way or another, a reconfiguration of the past.

But what about those instances when, as in the case of Lenkiewicz, reconfiguring the past is not about replacing it with a specific future?  What if the goal--pace Derrida and Foucault--is to rewrite the past, just slightly enough, so that our unconscious reliance on these iconic parts of our culture is no longer so easy?

I am thinking, here, for example, of ethnomethodology.  The goal of this type of research is to examine the rules and social order of everyday life by just slightly changing the situations in which people live; not enough to make it apparent that "things are different," but enough to have things feel suddenly anthropologically strange.  A good fun example is the group Improv Everywhere--click here

I am also thinking, here, of Heidegger's famous quip, "We have too much culture!"  As the last hundred years of Continental philosophy, anthropology and sociology have gone to great lengths to demonstrate, we walk around engulfed in the past, relying, falling back upon, bounded up in dualisms, metaphors, cosmologies, philosophies, theologies, ideologies, ways of thinking not of our own making, handed down generation after generation across thousands of years. So thick they are that we cannot see outside them.

Mind you, this does not make these multiple "pasts" wrong.  Nor is there any other way of being.  We live, after all, in time/space.  Shaking the tree, therefore, is not a matter or simple right or wrong. It is more a matter of therapy, a sort of sociological or philosophical therapy, if you will--as in the case of C. Wright Mills' call for fostering in people a sociological imagination.  Better yet, it is like Zen Buddhist practice in meditation: helping people awaken to reality; the world in which they live; here now, right here, right on this spot, right here as you are breathing, sitting, standing, living; right now with the people around you, and with the socio-bio-physical context encasing you, and with the larger, global, orbiting plant you are on hurling through time/space. 

The trick with this sort of therapy, however, is that you cannot do it by simply replacing the past with what you think people's futures should be.  Instead, pace Foucault, you have to get out of people's way to let them fashion their own future.  This is what a good teacher does.  They do not necessarily lead; instead, they help facilitate people's own internal leadership; help them determine their own cosmologies, compositions, futures, etc to create new histories of the present.  I tell my students all the time, I want them to learn how to think for themselves, whatever their perspective be.  It is an idea--ironically enough--as old as the ancients: we think better to care better for ourselves and those around us.  As Foucault says,  "A critique does not consist in saying that things aren't good the way they are. It consists in seeing on just what type of assumptions, of familiar notions, of established and unexamined ways of thinking the accepted practices are based... To do criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy..."

To me, this is what Lenkiewicz's work is trying to do.


Warren Castellani, Globalized Education, New York City

                                         Photo by CHRISTIE M. FARRIELLA FOR NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

This was in the Daily News today.  My brother Warren is Head of School at the Lutheran School of Flushing and Bayside, Queens NYC, USA.  He and his colleagues have been slowing transforming their school into a technology-based, globally aware parochial school.  Way to go Warren!

CLICK HERE to read the article


Our latest article on case-based modeling and its utility for modeling complex systems just came out in early view for the journal Complexity.

Click here to see or download the article.  Below is our abstract:

Modeling complex systems macroscopically: Case/agent-based modeling, synergetics, and the continuity equation

  1. Rajeev Rajaram1,*,
  2. Brian Castellani2

Recently, the continuity equation (also known as the advection equation) has been used to study stability properties of dynamical systems, where a linear transfer operator approach was used to examine the stability of a nonlinear equation both in continuous and discrete time (Vaidya and Mehta, IEEE Trans Autom Control 2008, 53, 307–323; Rajaram et al., J Math Anal Appl 2010, 368, 144–156). Our study, which conducts a series of simulations on residential patterns, demonstrates that this usage of the continuity equation can advance Haken's synergetic approach to modeling certain types of complex, self-organizing social systems macroscopically. The key to this advancement comes from employing a case-based approach that (1) treats complex systems as a set of cases and (2) treats cases as dynamical vsystems which, at the microscopic level, can be conceptualized as k dimensional row vectors; and, at the macroscopic level, as vectors with magnitude and direction, which can be modeled as population densities. Our case-based employment of the continuity equation has four benefits for agent-based and case-based modeling and, more broadly, the social scientific study of complex systems where transport or spatial mobility issues are of interest: it (1) links microscopic (agent-based) and macroscopic (structural) modeling; (2) transforms the dynamics of highly nonlinear vector fields into the linear motion of densities; (3) allows predictions to be made about future states of a complex system; and (4) mathematically formalizes the structural dynamics of these types of complex social systems.

Art, Complexity and Global Politics, Or, the Red Hot Chili Peppers Supporting Russian Riot Girls (Jailed Russian Punk Band)

File:Pussy Riot by Igor Mukhin.jpg

Recently, I posted on art, complexity and global politics, via my review of the work of artist/architect Saraceno and philosopher/sociologist of science, Latour. CLICK HERE FOR MY POST

As a followup, below is an example of my point about the powerful link between art, culture, politics, and cyberinfrastructure via Castell's network society.

In quick summary, on March 3, 2012 Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Ekaterina Samoutsevitch, three alleged members of Pussy Riot, were arrested by Russian authorities and accused of hooliganism for performing a punk song in a key Russian Cathedral.  Their video of the event went viral, causing a global network chain reaction.


In response, people and groups from around the world, such as 121 members of the German Parliament--the Bundestag (see their comments here)--and artists (particularly musicians), began speaking out.  For example, organizations, such as Amnesty International--read their views here--agree with the German Parliament, seeing the arrests as examples of decreasing tolerance in Russia for artistic expression, particularly when it flies in the face of political and cultural convention, and are putting pressure on Russian authorities to treat these women appropriately and provide them their legal rights.

My favorite response is by the Red Hot Chili Peppers--one of my all-time favorite bands, who sing a lot about artistic and cultural freedom (for example, Shallow be thy game--CLICK THIS LINK AND BLAST THE SONG)--wore shirts of the band and wrote letters while performing in Russia recently.  In turn, this network society response has put pressure on the Russian government.

Here is a British broadcast on YouTube about the event, including a response by Vladimir Putin.


Saraceno, Latour, Networks, Complexity and Visual Complexity

As I discussed in an earlier post,  I am in awe of the work of artist and architect, Tomas Saraceno.

My goal here is to discuss Saraceno's work in greater detail, largely by focusing on Latour's article on Saraceno, which, by definition, moves to a larger discussion of complexity art, visual complexity and complexity science in relation to the topic of globalization.


Saraceno's work impresses me for several reasons:

First, it is visually very powerful.  The time involved in creating his networks or his geometrical shapes, for example, is incredible.  They are also very mathematically appealing.

Second, like many artists today that I think of as doing some type of complexity art--from Benjamin Edwards to Julie Mehretu to Matthew Ritchie--he demonstrates through his novel visual language how macroscopic systems emerge through microscopic relations, in the form of what can be called generative art. In Saraceno's case, this is done through his creation of networks, assembled one link at a time, or through the connecting up of various geometrical forms.

Third, his work visually and metaphorically addresses--sometimes directly and other times indirectly--the intertwined issues of cities and sustainability, architecture and ecosystems, globalization and complexity and, ultimately, our complex interconnectedness with one another, the earth and the universe.  Click, for an example, here.

Fourth, his work indirectly deals visually with the topic of complexity and complex systems.  I have not read enough about or gone through enough interviews with Saraceno to know how interested he is in complexity.  But, his emphasis on visualizing networks (even in the form of spider webs) certainly allows for easy exegesis to the field of complexity science.

In fact, it is the exegetical ease of Saraceno's work that seems to have led Bruno Latour, the famous French scholar, to write his article SOME EXPERIMENTS IN ART AND POLITICS--originally, as best I can tell, published in the visual arts journal, e-flux.

Saraceno (or those working with him) must find in Latour's article a useful "written" narrative because they have it connected, at least on the internet, with several of Saraceno's shows, including his recent installation--CLICK HERE--at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

I thought a few comments on the article, therefore, worthy, given Latour's reputation (e.g., his development of actor-network theory and his role in the sociology of science and postmodernism writ large) and the relevance of Latour's argument to the work many of us are doing at the intersection of complexity science and complexity art, particularly in connection to issues of globalization.


Reading Latour's article took me back to my 'graduate student' days when I first became involved in the sociology of science.  I always found Latour's ideas provocative; they really made me think, even though I went more in the direction of Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty and, ultimately, complexity science.

Here is my take on the article--best, however, to read it, as it is only a few pages. (SOME EXPERIMENTS IN ART AND POLITICS)

First, it must be pointed out, the article is not about Saraceno.  Instead, it uses Sarceno's work, along with a few others, to make a point about how art can help to create a new politics.

As I see it, Latour sees in Saraceno's art the ability to conflate science, philosophy and art to create room for a new form of 21st century politics, one Latour sees grounded in composition.  As best I can figure, for Latour, compositions--like those of Saraceno--are powerful because, in their acts of conflation, they flatten hierarchies, particularly those hierarchies getting in the way of us understanding globalization--a term Latour finds empty.

For Latour, the term "globalization" is empty because, in his mind, those articulating its theoretical frame (such as complexity scientists, environmentalists, etc) have yet to make a number of important moves to get to what, for a lack of better word, is some type of compositional, post-human politics.  Such a compositional, post-human politics, on the one hand, blurs the 'system' boundaries between social systems and ecosystems, human systems and animal systems, the sciences and the humanities; while, on the other hand, integrates the notions of habitation and connectedness, the local and the global.

To make his argument, Latour breaks his essay into three sections.  The first section deals with what he calls the 'networks versus spheres' debate--a debate that, to my knowledge, Latour derives from his 'reading' (translation through transportation) of the work of Peter Sloterdijkm.  It is this section where he talks about Saraceno's work.

The second section deals with the sciences versus humanities debate--again, Latour has a very specific view of this hierachy via his re-enactment of Einstein and Bergon's famous debate.  Here Latour is concerned with the ability of science to handle the nuances of subjectivity and the blurring between society and nature.  And, the third deals (via Donna Haraway and Isabelle Stengers) with an example of a post-human approach to politics, one that tries to enact an example of composition--and one that, it must be made clear, has nothing to do with Saraceno.

Because my post is focused on Saraceno, my comments will focus on Latour's first section: networks versus spheres.

Let me say immediately that, overall, I think I get Latour's point.  Dealing with the massively complex social problems facing us at the beginning of the 21st century requires new ways of thinking, many grounded in composition, collaboration, combination, assemblage, merging and juxtaposing differences.

However, I find that, for the most part, Latour has constructed a bit of a straw person by not telling us who or what group he is specifically discussing.  One cannot make dismissive statements about an entire field without a bit of evidence.  For example, unlike Latour, I think that many complexity scientists, specifically those working in globalization--such as Manuel Castells and John Urry--are already doing a variety of the creative compositions Latour seeks to promote.  And, as far back as 1996, Fritjof Capra (in his book, Web of Life) was making Latour's argument through his discussion of deep ecology (Arne Naess) and ecofeminism (Françoise d'Eaubonne), plus without all the Sloterdijk metaphorical language.  Another example is the embodied mind work of Francisco Varela.  Or, how about the cutting-edge work on the sociability of bacteria being done by Eshel Ben-Jacob?  There is also an increasing network of artists, some of whom I have discussed on my blog (e.g., visual complexity, Benjamin Edwards to Julie Mehretu to Matthew Ritchie), who are blurring distinctions between society (socio-systems) and ecosystems, humans and animals, science and the humanities.  Still, to defend Latour a bit, he is right that certain forms of ideological or economic or environmental globalization, as Joseph Stigliz often critiques, remain firmly entrenched in a modernist paradigm, as one sees throughout the global banking crisis or the global warming debate.

Despite these critiques, I very much like Latour's descriptions of Sarceno's work.  In Section 1, Latour focuses on Saraceno's show, Galaxies Forming along Filaments, Like Droplets along the Stands of a Spider's Web.  I have read these descriptions several times and I find more in them each time.

But, even here, when Latour is discussing Saraceno, I find myself once again struggling.  What I do not get are the concepts Latour uses to make this argument.  Specifically, I have a hard time with the concept of spheres and other related terms (e.g., envelopes, etc) that Latour borrows from the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk.  By using Sloterdijk's work, Latour translates through transport a series of metaphors in which I easily get lost, as I search for their empirical utility outside the simpler points they seem to make, which do not require metaphor.  Said another way, metaphor works best when one cannot otherwise make a point.  But, complexity science, more specifically, network science, already has a very good and empirically high-yielding vocabulary connected to method that can easily be used to make Latour's point. 

For example, the main concept Latour takes from Sloterdijk into the vocabulary of network science is spheres.  For Latour,"The word “network” has become a ubiquitous designation for technical infrastructures, social relations, geopolitics, mafias, and, of course, our new life online. But networks, in the way they are usually drawn, have the great visual defect of being “anemic” and “anorexic,” in the words of philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who has devised a philosophy of spheres and envelopes. Unlike networks, spheres are not anemic, not just points and links, but complex ecosystems in which forms of life define their “immunity” by devising protective walls and inventing elaborate systems of air conditioning." 

When Latour employs this type of metaphorical language I think to myself, 'hey, these spheres he talks about, they seem to be a type of weak-linked or strong-linked component; that is, they are networks within larger networks; with no hierarchical structure; where the inside of these networks is conditioned upon their connections to the outside.  So why not just say that?  Or, spheres seems to get at the idea that nodes are real things: people, animals, plants, buildings, social groups, organizations.  In other words, these nodes and their links are their own complex systems that, through their relationships, create the conditions in which they live, just as a small group of friends or animals or fish or plants do to help each other make it through the daily grind of life.  Again, why not just say that?

Here, yet, is another example from Latour's argument.  In the next paragraph Latour states: "The two concepts of networks and spheres are clearly in contradistinction to one another: while networks are good at describing long-distance and unexpected connections starting from local points, spheres are useful for describing local, fragile, and complex “atmospheric conditions”—another of Sloterdijk’s terms. Networks are good at stressing edges and movements; spheres at highlighting envelopes and wombs."

This time, with this statement, Latour is just flat wrong.  For complexity scientists, networks are scientific maps that do not, unless tied to an actual set of geographical coordinates, have any inherent spatial meaning--in other words, and this is a very important point, local and global are not spatial concepts in networks; they are relational concepts.  Distance is entirely relational.  Furthermore, as I suggested above, networks do a very good job of highlighting boundaries and revealing the internal 'spheres, envelopes and wombs', as Latour, pace Sloterdijk, calls them.  Easy examples are plant networks or friendship networks, or, perhaps, the obesity networks studied recently by Christakis and Fowler, which they found reveal internal groups, cliques and communities within the larger network, that, over time, 'wall out' or 'wall in' healthy eating or exercise behaviors.

I can go on, but i will stop.  I think I have made my point.  The metaphorical language Latour employs, to me, is unceessary and, in my mind, confuses things.

Again, having said all that, I still like Latour's article.  And, I think he is on much more solid ground when he focuses on describing his experience of Saraceno's work.  In fact, in doing so, Latour admits that spheres are really just networks.  See, when you look at Saraceno's work, Latour is right: spheres are little more than the densely connected sub-networks where movement along its edges "might' slow down due to the density of connections; but these sub-networks are nonetheless nested.  That is an empirical point worthy of study.  Can, for example, a sphere be a type of network that has a certain density--some sort of tipping point or threshold level--that protects the nodes in it, whatever these nodes be (fish, people, social groups, etc) from outside influence, as in the case of contagion spread?  Can a sphere network (for example, some type of socioecological complex system such as a local fishing community and all the living things connected to make it up) act as a wall, an immune system against wider movements or trends?  Or, conversely, as we see in poverty traps--see, for example, Bowles, Durlauf and Hoff--can such a density threshold 'wall-off' a community from socioeconomic well-being and improvement?  Or, is density really able to slow globalization or other processes down, or is this just a myth?

Critique aside, these are the types of things that Latour and Saraceno's work inspires me to think about.  And, at the end of the day, that is what good art (written or designed, compositional or not) does.


A Complex Systems Science Approach to Healthcare Costs and Quality in the USA


Bar-Yam and colleagues at the New England Complex Systems Institute just released a set of papers that are very timely, given the recent Supreme Court Decision in the United States to uphold and support the much needed Obama Health Care Plan.  As argued in the papers, the ultimate issue in the United States Health Care System is really a very complex health-system-market that needs to be managed from a complexity science perspective.  CLICK HERE to see papers.

Here is the abstract from one of their papers:
There is a mounting crisis in delivering affordable healthcare in the US. For decades, key decision makers in the public and private sectors have considered cost-effectiveness in healthcare a top priority. Their actions have focused on putting a limit on fees, services, or care options. However, they have met with limited success as costs have increased rapidly while the quality isn't commensurate with the high costs. A new approach is needed. Here we provide eight scientifically-based steps for improving the healthcare system. The core of the approach is promoting the best use of resources by matching the people and organization to the tasks they are good at, and providing the right incentive structure. Harnessing costs need not mean sacrificing quality. Quality service and low costs can be achieved by making sure the right people and the right organizations deliver services. As an example, the frequent use of emergency rooms for non-emergency care demonstrates the waste of resources of highly capable individuals and facilities resulting in high costs and ineffective care. Neither free markets nor managed care guarantees the best use of resources. A different oversight system is needed to promote the right incentives. Unlike managed care, effective oversight must not interfere with the performance of care. Otherwise, cost control only makes care more cumbersome. The eight steps we propose are designed to dramatically improve the effectiveness of the healthcare system, both for those who receive services and those who provide them.

 These are must read papers for those, like myself, involved in the application of complexity science to health and health care issues.