“Perhaps it would not satisfy completely, and that is what the esteemed author would have for all the diligence employed, whereas with a promise he could easily benefit himself and others even more than if he had written a prodigy of a system.”

“When the word “mediation” is merely mentioned, everything becomes so magnificent and grandiose that I do not feel well but am oppressed and chafed. Have compassion on me in only this one respect; exempt me from mediation …”

Kierkegaard – Prefaces













The artworks sampled above are –


Landscape of the Four Seasons (Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers) – Sōami



Landscape with a Hundred Bridges – Katsushika Hokusa



Bridge at Iwakuni  – Hasegawa Settan.


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Could “Complexity Theory” be an oxymoron? Melanie Mitchell in her book “Complexity: A Guided Tour” talks of “the sciences of complexity”, and this might indicate a lack of integration to the field. Indeed, John Bragin in a review of the book for the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation notes the lack of broad agreement on necessary and sufficient fundamentals within the field, shown by great variability in the course materials for its study at different educational institutions, and the absence of widely accepted and recognised textbooks. Perhaps complexity is just complicatedness, and general theories will forever elude us – complexity might inhabit the interstices of various theories, shot through so completely with contingency and local uniqueness as to evade generalization into any sort of global paradigm. This reminds us of the saying that the Devil (or God, depending on one’s theology) is in the details.

An interesting turning-around of complexity is made by Cohen and Stewart in their book “The Collapse of Chaos” – they indicate that one of the tasks of complexity theory is to explain high-level simplicities, which make the world to some extent navigable for creatures like ourselves; in many ways we do not experience an overwhelming explosion of complexity; they coin the term “simplexity” to indicate this aspect of reality.

Darwinian evolution, the theory of natural selection, seems to be a well-established and relatively simple, at least in its basic outlines, kind of complexity theory, and is often considered in the literature of complexity theory.

[bridging laws]

Why isn’t there just fundamental physics? As Per Bak asks in his ground-breaking book “How Nature Works” –

“How can the universe start with a few types of elementary particles at the big
bang, and end up with life, history, economics, and literature? The question is
screaming out to be answered but it is seldom even asked. Why did the big
bang not form a simple gas of particles, or condense into one big crystal?”

I’ve already used the term “level”. The idea of levels is often invoked to explain higher orders of complexity, and here the related concepts of emergence and hierarchy are relevant. Levels are a fascinating aspect of reality, but should not be taken to dispel all mystery. Rather, I think levels are part of what is to be explained, and not a thorough explanation. We must always bear in mind that levels is very much a metaphor. Often, levels seem bound up with grain and resolution, micro- and macro-, fundamental physics often dealing with the very small, chemistry with full atoms and molecules, biology with biochemistry and larger entities, and so on. However, this is not always the case, for example, the astrophysics of gravity deals with some vast objects.

We often think of there as being a kind of hierarchy of sciences, which would be something like – physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, to put it in a rudimentary form. I’ve appropriated this diagram from the web to illustrate the idea, but it’s probably familiar –


Each higher science is more limited in its applicability to reality, for example, physics would apply across the universe, but biology only to restricted situations. This interpretation of the narrowing towards the pinnacle of the triangle may be more proper than its suggestiveness for our inclinations to think of superiority and “the higher the fewer”. Personally, I would not count Mathematics as a science, nor put Arts at the pinnacle (the understanding of the arts, aesthetics, maybe).

This article will consider what we might call “Actually Existing Complexity”, complexity as it arises in the physical world. My article Maximization pays more attention to complexity in its mathematical, informational, algorithmic form, as something measurable.

The field of complexity could clearly be quite vast. It is difficult to follow my own path whilst still accurately showing the field, especially as the field is not settled, so I will try to indicate, as I go along, that wider field. My own path here will be to explore some fundamental ideas rooted in the thermodynamics of non-equilibrium systems as pioneered by Ilya Prigogine, and then attempt to unify these ideas with a consideration of complexity as involving some sort of circularity, utilizing ideas from Wiener, Kauffman, Edelman, and Maturana and Varela. The two movements are thus –

1 Thermodynamics – Prigogine

2 Cybernetics – Wiener

I’m hoping to move from Prigogine’s ideas of the thermodynamics of non-equilibrium open systems, via the idea of imbalance, to the idea of something separating off and forming a boundary. I’m then going to try to drive forward the idea of boundary, and circular processes within the boundary, in tandem, and I hope they can be seen as two sides of the same coin.

_____________BELOW HERE UNDER CONSTRUCTION______________

The Prehistory of Complexity Theory

  1. General System Theory
  2. Cybernetics 

philosopher’s stone? – systems theory and cybernetics (and dialectics)

Both General System Theory and Cybernetics took as imperative the desirability of identifying similar patterns (Bertalanffy talks of “isomorphic laws”) which occur within different specialized sciences. It is here that we encounter an idea which vertically cuts downwards through our idea of levels: similar laws may be identified at different levels within our hierarchy. This indicates a deep integrity to the levels, a similarity between them, with “systems” as the potentially unifying concept.

It was noticed, with the development of science in the nineteenth century, that the findings of thermodynamics and of evolutionary theory seemed to be in contradiction; thermodynamics indicated an inescapable winding-down of organization to a state of disorganization and randomness, whereas evolutionary theory indicated tendencies to complexification, and increasing sophistication and internal differentiation. The theory of open systems goes some way to resolving this contradiction.


Thermodynamic disequilibrium within open systems (Prigogine) means that boundaries can develop.

Prigogine seems to regard asymmetry as the cosmic aspect of disequilibrium.

boundary, closure, insulation initially for us an enclosing membrane. Note also Volk’s idea of borders and pores, one of his metapatterns.

“the concept of an autonomous agent is inherently a non equilibrium concept” Kauffman

The thermodynamics of open systems, perhaps differences within far-from-equilibrium states, means that insulation / closure / boundary can occur. This allows for the development of forms of circular causation, re-entrance, etc. It means that systems can develop which are closed to energy / matter in brute form, but open to information (though there is always an energy cost to information). [or closed to information but open to energy / matter?]

feedback, or something like it, is central to complexity, control, and emergence.

We might need a general term  – circularity, circular causation, cyclicity, loops, recursion – to subsume more specific forms, including but not restricted to feedback, negative and positive. Negative feedback has great importance. Modulation, mentioned by John Holland, may be a middling form.

There is something about catalysis (including enzymes) which makes it important as a building block for the circular processes, including autocatalysis, which are in turn important at a higher level. Not being used up in a process is similar to the “weight” of information in control.

As an aside, I am utterly against any attempt to take the concept of circular causation in a mystical direction, as if it involves some sort of time travel; formulations like “self-causing cause” invite such speculation. The circular causation I consider here is completely compatible with our usual intuitions about causality and time.

autocatalysis – Kauffman

re-entrance – Edelman

operational closure – Maturana and Varela

Kauffman talks of circuits a lot – I’m still analysing his work, but as yet he doesn’t seem to put the notion of circularity centre-stage, which would make it easier for me. However, his circuits implicitly involve circularity. Here it may seem that I am resorting to an argument from etymology. However, it is clear that he is not thinking of a circuit that begins and ends in a battery, but of a self-sustaining network.

Deacon, in his paper “Emergence: The Hole at the Wheel’s Hub” uses an image I have independently used, that of the Ouroboros –

“The image of a snake biting its own tail (ouroboros) is an ancient sign for
the mysterious. Circularity is also the key to unlocking the mystery of the
apparent time-reversed causality of self-organizing and teleological processes.”

Prigogine –

“Although the effects of “nonlinear” reactions (the presence
of the reaction product) have a feedback action on their
“cause” and are comparatively rare in the inorganic world,
molecular biology has discovered that they are virtually the
rule as far as living systems are concerned. Autocatalysis (the
presence of X accelerates its own synthesis), autoinhibition
(the presence of X blocks a catalysis needed to synthesize it),
and crosscatalysis (two products belonging to two different reaction
chains activate each other’s synthesis) provide the classical
regulation mechanism guaranteeing the coherence of the
metabolic function.”

Circularity seems often assumed by the most advanced thinkers, implicit, and thus never quite given its full recognition. It is an invisible thread, crochet, or knitting.

Recursion seems to underlie nonlinearity, a key concept of chaos and complexity theory, and both recursion and nonlinearity seem based on some form of cyclicity.

Ellis makes a useful distinction between two forms of control / feedback – the lower form of homeostasis and the higher form of the explicit setting of values and goals. Homeostasis can also be thought of in terms of convergence rather than divergence, using the notion of an attractor. Bertalanffy argues against any subsumption of homeostasis to negative feedback on the reasonable grounds that homeostasis can occur at low levels of organic behaviour, whereas negative feedback is dependent on differentiation of function, especially into a control hierarchy, a sort of specialization which he would regard as a kind of mechanization.

[logic gates, neurons, neuronal groups, discrete, continuous, complex]

You can’t really have information without closure. You would just have cause and effect.

Circular causation and downward causation are two aspects of the same process.

The blocking of complete interaction means we can have triggers and filters (see Koestler). This opens the way for control, especially negative feedback. The energy utilized is not causative in the normal sense. The concept of constraint is important here.

We have a duality of closure and circularity.

Two conditions for levels and emergence are closure and circular causation. Circular causation might cause closure, or conversely closure might cause circular causation. Each causes the other. It would be difficult to assign priority.

The circularity carves out its circular pathways, and in doing so, excludes a lot of outside interference. Or – circularity IS the lessening of outside interference / influence.

from Maturana and Varela – The Tree of Knowledge –


Chaos Theory is connected to Complexity, but antichaos with its dampening effects might be the most relevant aspect of this, at least as regards levels, emergence, and downward causation. Whereas chaos theory describes situations which display extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, biological systems and other stable systems show the opposite – what Bertalanffy calls “equifinality” – a tendency, even with outside perturbations, from different starting points, to lead to the same end state. Nowadays, such insights are usually expressed with the language of “attractors”. We might provisionally align things thus –

negative feedback : positive feedback :: antichaos : chaos

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On Russian Formalism


“We do not see the walls of our rooms”  Victor Shklovsky

Russian Formalism began in the immediately pre-revolutionary period in Russia, developed through the revolutionary and post-revolutionary periods, receiving some negative criticisms from within the new communist regime, most notably from Leon Trotsky, and was suppressed as Russia descended into the Stalinist night. It is in many ways at the inception of modern literary theory, fathering early Structuralism by way of Prague, though in the west its influence was largely posthumous and belated, as if it was time-warped from 1920’s Russia to 1960’s Western Europe.

Russian Formalism was not very tightly unified as a school, but its general orientation was to overcome the sort of criticism and reflection on literature which preceded it, and which is in other places and at all times, even now, a pole of attraction – a muddling of specifically literary concerns with biographical, even gossipy, details of an author’s life, psychological conjectures, over-emphasis on contemporary social events and currents, philosophical musings, and so on. All this, the Formalists felt, condemned literary theory to an unscientific, cosy dilettantism, and, though the sorts of concerns just indicated may have their place as subsidiary enquiries, these were obscuring our view of the specifically literary. In contrast to this, many of the Formalists saw their project as being to put literary studies on a scientific footing.

One can detect even from this rudimentary outline a tendency to emphasize the autonomy, whether relative or absolute, of literature, and to split it off from its embeddedness in wider society; as one might expect, the communist regime did not look too kindly on it, being guided by a philosophy which is in many ways quite the opposite.

“Formalist” was, at least initially, not a term of their own choosing, but more a term of disparagement from their opponents, such as we find in the phrase “merely formal” – their own view of themselves is, perhaps, better indicated by the term “specifiers”: they were trying to analyse what was specific to literature that made it literature. As they developed their views, they started to define their object not as literature but as literariness – literary texts may have a multiplicity of features, but it was the literary features which were of central concern to literary theory.

The Formalists had two main geographical centres – St. Petersburg was home to the Society for the Study of Poetic Language, (acronymed in Russian as Opojaz), and Moscow to the Moscow Linguistic Circle. The key figure in the St. Petersburg society was Victor Shklovsky, and the leader of the Moscow circle Roman Jakobson.

Shklovsky maintained that “art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony”, and that this was accomplished by a certain technique – “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”

The central notion here is usually named Defamiliarization, or Estrangement, from the Russian Ostranenie.  Closely related terms are Alienation (taken up by Bertolt Brecht), De-automatization, Deformation and Deviation.

Shklovsky believed that in ordinary life we tend to fall prey to a tendency to “recognize” rather than really “see” things – our perceptions become routine, habitual, and automatized – “We no more feel the world in which we live than we feel the clothes we wear.” and “After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it – hence, we cannot say anything significant about it.” However, “Art removes objects from the automatism of perception …”

The main way this is done is through the peculiar form language takes in literary works – “The language of poetry is, then, a difficult, roughened, impeded language.” “The poet brings about a semantic dislocation, he snatches the concept out of the sequence in which it is usually found and transfers it with the aid of the word (the trope) to another meaning-sequence. And now we have a sense of novelty at finding the object in a fresh sequence.”

In some ways, Shklovsky seems to be flying in the face of a lot of our intuitions about art – for instance, that poetic language is the most direct and immediate form of language. Yet, if we pick up on his use of the word “trope” here, we can begin to make some sort of sense of what he is getting at. “Trope” is originally Greek, meaning a turn, an alteration, or a change, and is roughly equivalent to “figure of speech” or “rhetorical device”. The key idea is that in using language in altered ways, our perception of the world is changed and freshened.

I mentioned earlier that in attempting to found literary theory as an autonomous discipline, the Formalists frowned upon psychological conjectures – they had as their targets those who had too great a concern with the mindset or attitudes of a writer, and those who regarded literature as being in some special way about the mind, as telling us about the mind. However, Shklovsky’s thought clearly has a psychological dimension in a different sense – we are dealing with perception, caught within the polarity of its automatization and its defamiliarization.

In developing the concept of defamiliarization, the early Russian Formalist analysis bifurcated – some saw defamiliarization as related to general perception and not exclusively linguistic (Shklovsky tends in this direction) whilst others saw defamiliarization as essentially linguistic. That which is defamiliarized could thus either be out in the big wide world, or be constructions within language itself.

_____________BELOW HERE UNDER CONSTRUCTION______________

The Formalists who were more inclined to generalize features of literature outside literature itself noted the similarity between literature and other arts, and, whilst this seems to pull poetics away from the purely linguistic, the concept of semiotics, a science of signs which would include linguistics as a subsector, would afford some room for manouevre even for specifiers: literature would be a species within two genera – language, and art – both of which could be understood within semiotics. Whether the understanding of pure music or pure abstract art can be largely assimilated within a semiotic paradigm, orientated as it is to the concept of the sign, remains a puzzle.

Shklovsky pays great attention to Tolstoy’s “Kholstomer: The Story of a Horse” where the observation of human behaviour and values from the perspective of a horse serves to defamiliarize and subvert our habitual outlook. Though the story depends on language in the most obvious way, its main impact is not achieved by unusual use of language, but rather at the semantic level. Although this example is one from prose fiction, it is not too difficult to find similar examples within poetry.

These considerations apply not only to deviation, which we have discussed, but also to extra patterning (as yet not discussed here) – Extra patterning can occur at a semantic level, and not be a matter of linguistics in any immediate sense, for example, a sub-plot which mirrors or inverts the main plot.

Provisionally, we can note a tripartite division of subject, language, and reality, and see deviation as the linguistic means, and the achievement of defamiliarization of reality as the end.

The concept of defamiliarization was subsumed under the concept of foregrounding, a development which I regard as unfortunate for reasons I’ll try to explain here.

Foregrounding seems at first glance perfectly reasonable – defamiliarization was brought under the superordinate concept of foregrounding, which presumed to include not only defamiliarization / deviation but also extra patterning. Deviation would be a loss of order, and extra patterning an addition of order, both foregrounding language. Very neat. These two would form the wings of foregrounding, but nevertheless the aircraft “Foregrounding” should not be given permission to fly. The acceptance of foregrounding is a mistake for aesthetics. It invites a sort of ultra-formalism, where it is claimed that artistic uses of language can be fully analysed as drawing our attention to language as such (on one wing conflating deviation, the mechanism, with defamiliarization, the result, and on the other wing conflating the pleasure of patterning with the significance for cognition). It is a false unification of deviation and extra patterning, seductive by its surface simplicity and obviousness.

[Would it be possible to replace foregrounding with totality?][Foregrounding and the dominant.]

Peter Steiner divides the development of Russian Formalism into 3 stages –

  1. The Machine Metaphor
  2. The Organic Metaphor
  3. The Systems Metaphor

The Machine Metaphor stage, focussed on defamiliarization, has become linked by Steiner and others with what I would call an atomistic tendency – Shklovsky spoke of the literary work as being the sum of its devices. I regard this as unfortunate, and would like to extricate the concept of defamiliarization from the bad company of atomism: simply because the relationship between defamiliarizing devices within a work was undertheorized is not in itself reason to move on from the concept.

The Organic Metaphor stage seems close to the thinking within New Criticism, though perhaps overly concerned with the phonetic aspects of verbal art.

The Systems Metaphor stage is closely related to the mutation of late Formalism into Structuralism – the literary system rather than the individual work becomes the focus of attention and analysis.

(Note – “Systems” is apt to confuse: at a glance, it is easy to see little difference as such between the organic and the systems metaphors, since much systems thinking could be regarded as a sort of generalized organicism (I’m thinking here of the General Systems Theory founded by Bertalanffy, and Cybernetics founded by Wiener) . However, the differences become clearer if we regard organicism as closely related to the internal integrity of something (here, a literary work), whereas the systems metaphor shifts focus entirely from the individual work to the systems which govern the structure of that work like a language governing an utterence. In other words, the shift to the systems metaphor is a shift to full-blown Structuralism. It is interesting to note that Saussure, the father of Structuralism, did not talk of structure, but rather of system. Terms within different theoretical paradigms can take on different meanings.)

The specifier aspect of Formalism can be qualified in two directions –

that some of its concepts (e.g. defamiliarization) might generalize to other arts,

that, similarly, they might generalize to human psychology, and as a particularly notabe sub-section, humour.

Poetics clearly falls within either linguistics, or within a bad form of mysticism; that far, I am a formalist, a semiotician, and a structuralist. However, there are obvious similarities and affinities between the arts, whether drama, dance, or painting, and also between these and other areas of human communication and psychology, notably humour.

My psychologistic interpretation or slant on Russian Formalism will mean that it should lose something of its specifier aspect, if it is taken to insist on a specification of literariness, and literariness alone; it has already been noticed by many people that some of the core concepts of Russian Formalism (especially defamiliarization) seem to generalize to arts beyond the literary, and perhaps beyond art itself to key features of human psychology. One of my favourite examples of defamiliarization leading to a freshening of perception is this – if one takes a trip out to an unfamiliar place, one feels enlivened. In taking such a slant, I don’t want to suggest that the linguistic aspects of Russian Formalism and its heritage should be discarded – actually quite the opposite; I want to use them, in combination with concepts from other schools of thought, as a model for psychology.

This puts me at odds with attempts to subsume or sublate the insights of Russian Formalism towards sociology, a premature politicization, and a liquidation of poetics into a part of sociology or politics, sometimes conceived of as Rhetoric, and sometimes as a general theory of ideology – I’m thinking here particularly of a tendency for those influenced by Bakhtin, Voloshinov, Medvedev, Althusser, Bennett and Frow.

However, I acknowledge that the social is not an add-on to psychology, probably not even for many non-human species, but especially not for the human, and most especially because of language. Language is intrinsically social and at the same time vital and essential to an understanding of human psychology. So, we cannot have human psychology as a level which we then integrate into the next level up, sociology, or social psychology.

Nevertheless, the path towards the liquidation of literary theory into a general and sociologically conceived rhetoric is an evasion of the psychological aspects of literature and poetry; there seems to be something premature about Voloshinov’s formulations – he throws out the specificity of poetry in a rush to show the complete integrity of his concerns with his regime’s sociology, here, Bukharin’s Historical Materialism. Methodologically, it might be fruitful to look at Literary Theory against the immediate background of a psychology which is initially considered as friction-free – as if sociologically neutral. The sort of psychology I’m thinking of here is cognitive. Integrations of any insights afforded by such a restriction with a later bringing into play of sociology might arise, or the model might just get messier, or a more fundamentally sociological approach prove its worth and win the ground.

Perhaps those of a psychological, poetic bent and those of a sociological or political bent are destined forever to talk past each other, but there is good reason to believe the former approach stands more chance – linguistics, though intrinsically social, is in its core achievements free of sociology, and is one of the most advanced areas of the humanities. Similarly, cognitive psychology and neuropsychology have recently advanced considerably, and have done so with a sort of bracketing-out of sociological concerns.

In “Literature and Revolution”, Trotsky devotes a chapter to an attack on the Formalist school.  … but in this battle between Shklovsky and Trotsky, a central conflict of modernism is being fought out …

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Structuralist Poetics and the New Criticism

Re-reading Jonathan Culler’s seminal Structuralist Poetics last summer, I was pleasantly surprised to note that in the chapter on Poetics of the Lyric, (the chapter most at the focus of my own concerns), Culler seemed to indicate that after the Structuralist groundwork, our theories could make some use of New Critical ideas of the content of literary works.

My surprise was a result of a conditioning which dates way back – when first studying literary theory in the mid-1980’s at Leeds, the New Critics were the recently-overthrown consensus – the status quo ante – and the still somewhat new-fangled approaches of Structuralism, Post-structuralism and Marxism, then in ascendancy, were often set in contrast to the old school. New Criticism was old hat, and often portrayed as intrinsically reactionary and conservative, particularly for its idea of the literary text as showing integration and reconciliation.

My surprise was pleasant, since I’ve felt for a while that this “revolutionary” rejection of the New Critics threw some precious babies out with the bathwater. This is ironic, in that the Young Turks of Structuralism and Marxism in many ways had a philosophical view of the world, or at least the human world, as oppositional, in contradiction, in tension, and dialectical. To me, irony, paradox, ambiguity and other terms of the New Critics are not a million miles away from the framework of their erstwhile opponents.

My own inclinations as a theorist are towards the formalist pole, but clearly sheer form, without what I provisionally call “human concern”, would, if scrupulously adhered to, give us fairly arid works of art, such as would only delight a thoroughgoing technician. Only within music, I think, do we find entirely successful and purely formal artworks.

Yet a complete separation of form and humanly-interesting content, as if they were two different dimensions, seems to fall short of what we would expect of an adequate aesthetics. It is here that I find the direction of Culler’s thought suggestive in indicating a bridge between the two.

Culler begins the chapter “Poetics of the Lyric” by arguing, with apt examples, that to read a poem as a poem is at least partly a matter of conventions and expectations which are in many ways external to any intrinsic features of the “poem”. Neither linguistic deviation nor formal patterns, both often considered as the two generic forms of such intrinsic features, will suffice to clarify this matter. I make much, elsewhere, of just these two forms, but here, we are stepping back to a point which analytically precedes that formalist stage.

(Note – Because I capitalize “New Criticism” and “New Critics” throughout (to identify it as a school), I usually capitalize “Structuralism” and “Structuralist”, for consistency.)

Distance and Deixis

[indexical, demonstrative, anaphora]

We read a poem with a kind of distance, taking it out of any usual circuit of communication, and taking it impersonally. Again, this is an expectation brought to the poem. This expectation alters the effects of deictics or shifters:

“for our purposes the most interesting are first and second person pronouns (whose meaning in ordinary discourse is ‘the speaker’ and ‘the person addressed’), anaphoric articles and demonstratives which refer to an external context rather than to
other elements in the discourse, adverbials of place and time whose reference depends on the situation of utterance (here, there, now, yesterday) and verb tenses, especially the non-timeless present.”

“we recognize from the outset that such deictics are not determined by an actual situation of utterance but operate at a certain distance from it.” p. 193

Culler regards these conventions of reading as operating to fulfil the demands of coherence and of thematic function.

Totality / Unity / Coherence

With his consideration of the second fundamental convention of the lyric, the expectation of totality or coherence, Culler moves closer to concerns which were also those of the New Critics. Near synonyms are unity, (organic) wholeness, harmony, and symmetry. Again, Culler emphasizes that this is a convention of reading, as much as a property of the poem.

“even if we deny the need for a poem to be a harmonious totality we make use of the notion in reading. Understanding is necessarily a teleological process and a sense of totality is the end which governs its progress.” p. 200

Culler concludes his consideration of totality by noting that its literary manifestation is a version of ideas explored in gestalt psychology, and lists six models of unity

binary opposition

dialectical resolution of a binary opposition

displacement of an opposition by a third term

four-term homology

series united by a common denominator

series with a transcendent or summarizing final term

Provisionally, I note that the first three form a group based on opposition, and the last two are based on difference (and similarity) rather than opposition.

“Four-term homology” is explored by Culler more thoroughly elsewhere in Structuralist Poetics. It is the pattern that a is to b as c is to d. This is generally regarded as a parallelism indicated or sought between two pairs of oppositions. It is not clear to me that a and b need be opposites, but again, we encounter the pervasiveness of opposition within human thought. Four-term homology seems to be very closely related to analogy and metaphor, though perhaps of the type whereby the network of some of the concepts in the poem indicates an anatomization of each of the source and target terms. I would regard it as somewhere between opposition and similarity / difference, perhaps a fusion of the two.


Regarding significance, once again Culler treats this as a matter of the conventions we bring to a poem as much as a feature of the poem.

To put this matter in my own terms, rather than Culler’s, the situation or message of the poem is read as having a general significance – thus metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, etc., are interpreted, even identified, in accordance with a strategy aimed at the sort of generalization which enables a larger significance. Koestler deals with this as a bisociation of the particular and the general, and it is a large part of what we mean by literary symbolism.

Three Conventions of Interpretation

Culler now proposes three general conventions of interpretation: a poem should be –


thematically significant

can take the form of a reflection on poetry

Regarding the last of these, I ought to deal with an aspect of Culler’s approach which runs through this and other chapters of his book, and which I have so far stepped aside from, running the risk of misrepresentation. Culler is very interested in the idea, important to much Structuralist literary theory, that literature can be taken as being “about” language, or “about” literature itself – a kind of self-referring or reflexive form of discourse. There is something to be said for this, but feel that, at least for now, I need to bracket such considerations out, perhaps for another time. Note, though, that even Culler qualifies this convention with “can”, unlike his first two, which fall directly under “should”.

Distance and deixis have gone missing from this threesome  – they seem to be part of achieving a level of generality, so perhaps fall under “thematically significant” in the list above, and are related to the 3rd in the list below. Earlier, Culler treated distance as a convention of reading operating to fulfil the demands of coherence and of thematic function, but coherence and thematic function are then defined as conventions of interpretation. There is clearly an unnecessary doubling up of terms here; I think it is best to regard distance as a sub-convention serving both coherence and thematic function.

Culler then defines four interpretive operations

1 establishment of binary relations of opposition or equivalence

2 integration of puns and ambiguities

3 reading of items as synecdoches, metaphors, etc. to attain generality

4 relating the poem to the fact that it is a poem

1 relates most closely to totality.

2 I regard as closely related to 3, but lack a thorough analysis of that relationship as yet.

3 relates most closely to significance (as I think also does the earlier category of distance and deixis). It privileges synecdoche (understandably in the context of the need for generalisation to achieve significance) but also broadly encompasses the traditional category of deviation, which for the Russian Formalist school was central to literariness. However, we should note that unlike the Russian Formalists, for whom deviation was an end in itself, here, it is subordinated to the purpose of attaining generality and significance – and perhaps we could add facilitating totality.

4 I will again bracket out for the reasons given above.


I conclude this exposition with a diagram of my own interpretation of Culler’s Structuralist poetics of the lyric, before moving on to his hints of a qualified appropriation of New Critical ideas. Click on the image to view. The vertices fall into three genera, and I have taken the liberty of adding “Distance” close to “Conventions of Interpretation”. The edges indicate what are for me the most salient relations, but it may be that all relations, at least between vertices of different genera, are satisfied by significant aspects of poetry within a thoroughly realized theoretical poetics.


The New Criticism

After very briefly mentioning conventions of reading associated with other particular schools (biographical, psychoanalytical, sociological), Culler spends more time on the New Criticism.

For the New Critics, the idea of balanced, resolved, or reconciled tensions within a poem was important.

Ambivalence, tension, irony and paradox were deployed in the analysis of a poem towards a set of reduction terms, oppositions which R. S. Crane, in “The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry”, lists as –

life and death

good and evil

love and hate

harmony and strife

order and disorder

eternity and time

reality and appearance

truth and falsity


emotion and reason

complexity and simplicity

nature and art

Unfortunately, I cannot get hold of the original text by Crane, so cannot tell if the list is complete, or what status the elision has. It is not that I think any such list could be complete in an objective sense; all can only be treated as provisional, but I think some can be better than others. I will refrain from a temptation to structure the list my own way, and restrict myself to this observation: some of these oppositions lean more towards being matters of form (e.g. order and disorder), some can be matters of both form and content (e.g. harmony and strife), and some lean more towards being matters of content (e.g. good and evil).

At the start of this article I indicated an interest in moving as seamlessly as possible between form and content, and it is here that I find things suggestive: opposition, important within the earlier exposition of Structuralist poetics (throughout the whole discussion, but note additionally that puns and ambiguities are oppositional, and seem as much New Critical as Structuralist) and here for the New Criticism (ambivalence, tension, irony and paradox are all essentially oppositional concepts), moves over quite naturally from the formal to key oppositions which are perennially of human concern, (as well as to oppositions which may be of a more limited and historically-bound concern). If I’m being “liberal humanist” here, then so be it.

Why is the New Criticism held to be reprehensible?

Something radical critics dislike about New Critical attitudes is the idea of poetry as bringing about reconciliation. New Criticism seems to be held guilty of some sort of literary version of ideas in the behaviourist psychology and functionalist sociology mid-twentieth century, of adjustment, whereby, by the therapeutic means of poetry, contradictions are reconciled. One of the formative influences on the New Criticism, I. A. Richards, certainly did think about the psychological function of poetry in such terms.

However, the idea of oppositions within a totality is to me quite clearly a general orientation which would include more specific forms, one of which would be Structuralism, another Dialectics, whether Hegelian, Marxist, or any offshoot, and a third, the New Criticism. There may be more, and they may all be irreconcilable, but you’ve got to admit, there’s a bit of a family resemblance.

Perhaps the worry is that the poem is taken as a totality, rather than one’s own life, or the social process as a trans-personal historical working-out and overcoming of contradictions. So the poem, or a general orientation towards poetry, art, or culture as providing reconciliation, would be the acceptance of a sop, by its nature conservative and supine.

[Levi-Strauss – “imaginary resolution of real contradictions” – Adorno – objection to the consolations of art and literature rather than a particular school of criticism]

But then one should perhaps take up one’s arguments not with the theory of a particular critical school, but with artworks (including poems, songs and films) themselves, for often attempting to resolve unresolvable contradictions.

[differences and binary oppositions within Structuralism – Eco on opposites]


I detect in Culler a sort of closet New Criticism; a symptomatic reading of the chapter under consideration indicates a closeness to New Criticism which its surface manoeuvres distance, perhaps because Culler’s purpose at that time, quite reasonably, was to explain what was new and productive about Structuralism, rather than to build an argument for a rapprochement between Structuralism and New Criticism. In an interview with Jonathan Culler published in the Minnesota Review in 2008, he indicates that his attraction to literary theory predated his involvement with Structuralism, and that he was to some extent already trained in New Critical modes of thought prior to Structuralism’s rise; see

I, of course, writing many years later than Culler’s formative book, am precisely interested in such a rapprochement. By way of conclusion, I would like the reader to witness Culler’s ambivalence with three quotations –

Regarding the oppositions identified by R. S. Crane –

“These oppositions function as rudimentary models of the kind of thematic significance that the reader attempts to find in poems. A structuralist criticism, on the other hand, as opposed to a structuralist poetics which does not aim at interpretation, tends to use as models of significance notions of language, of literature itself, and of the sign. The successful critical act will show what the poem implies about the status of the sign and the poetic act itself. There is, of course, no way to escape from such models altogether, for the simple reason that one must have a sense, however undefined, of what one is reading towards.” p. 208 – 209

In the conclusion to the chapter under consideration –

“Structuralists have done relatively little work on poetry … One is therefore bound to take from structuralism a theoretical framework and to fill it in by drawing on the writings of critics from other traditions who have worked to greater purpose on the lyric.” p. 220

And, finally, Culler is presently working on a book about lyric poetry. From the aforementioned interview, much more recent than the book I have been analyzing –

“Recently, I have been working primarily on the lyric, and that’s the project that I have underway at the moment, a book called Theory of the Lyric, partly because there isn’t really such a thing, and there should be.”


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Effeective Complexity


A poetic text is ‘semantically saturated’, condensing more ‘information’ than any other discourse; but whereas for modern communication theory in general an increase in ‘information’ leads to a decrease in ‘communication’ (since I cannot ‘take in’ all that you so intensively tell me), this is not so in poetry because of its unique kind of internal organisation. Poetry has a minimum of ‘redundancy’ – of those signs which are present in a discourse to facilitate communication rather than convey information – but still manages to produce a richer set of messages than any other form of language.”

___________________           Terry Eagleton on Yuri Lotman, in “Literary Theory”.

I have indicated elsewhere that one of the principal tasks of the mind is the identification of patterns, or regularities.  I felt that it was necessary to explore this area from a scientific viewpoint, and took recourse to a book by Murray Gell-Mann, “The Quark and the Jaguar”. Gell-Mann is one of the foremost theoretical physicists of the last century, the key figure in the development of quantum chromodynamics, and the man who named the quark. His book is a popular exposition of his ideas on how the fundamental laws of physics give rise to the complexity we see around us, and is extremely wide-ranging, from sections on quantum mechanics to considerations on the degradation of the environment. However, my focus here is on one aspect of the book: in dealing with complexity, he gives a good overview of ideas of regularity as developed within information theory. He acknowledges a debt to the work of Charles H. Bennett, physicist and information theorist, for the concepts underpinning these sections.

I have two particular concerns here:

Firstly, with the relevance or adequacy of these ideas to our understanding of the mind as some sort of pattern identifier.

Secondly, with their possible relevance to, and clarification of, notions within poetics and literary theory of the poetic or literary work, at least the “great” or worthwhile ones, as being particularly complex, “rich”, or saturated with meaning. Indeed, such ideas are not restricted to academic theory, but are part of many people’s intuitions about the more highly-valued works. The quote at the head of this section indicates these views, but also represents an attempt to make precise such intuitions about this complexity and richness, and perhaps validate them, by putting them under the magnifying glass of complexity theory and information theory, to find out whether literary works have some sort of particular or peculiar informational richness. It is very much in the same spirit that this enquiry will be conducted.

But before I deal with these two concerns, I will give a brief synopsis of Gell-Mann’s presentation.

[Crude] Complexity – Algorithmic Information Content

The first measure of complexity which Gell-Mann considers is Algorithmic Information Content. I will represent strings of information here in binary, as that is the basic level to which all strings or streams of information are assumed by information theory to be reducible. An example of a binary bit string would be –


If we have a bit string such as –


this has low algorithmic information content, since its description can be shortened to something like –

PRINT “10” x 50.

(A purist might at this point cry “foul!”, since my shortened description is not itself in binary, but I must crack on.) The bit string has low algorithmic content, since it follows one simple pattern.

By contrast, imagine a bit string of a hundred 1’s or 0’s which has very few, perhaps no regularities – such a string as might be generated by a hundred coin tosses recorded in sequence. Such a bit string would, in all likelihood, have high algorithmic information content, since it would be difficult to compress into a shorter description; some aspects might be compressible, but to nothing like the level of our very regular string.

There are subtleties to the concept of randomness, which Gell-Mann discusses, but which need not detain us here. I refer readers to the actual book should they be interested.

How does Algorithmic Information Content fare as a candidate measure of the sorts of complexity in which we might be interested?

Not very well – “randomness” isn’t quite what we mean by “complexity”; as Gell-Mann points out, a longish string generated by outputs from the proverbial monkey on a typewriter would have higher algorithmic information content than a string of the same length from the works of Shakespeare, but we would surely think of the Shakespearean string as more complex. For such reasons, algorithmic information content has been dubbed a measure of “crude” complexity.

Effective Complexity

Is there a better measure of complexity than crude complexity / algorithmic information content, one which might more fruitfully capture and clarify our intuitions? It seems that there is; “effective complexity”. Effective complexity is the length of a concise description of a string’s regularities. The diagram at the start of this article, taken from Gell-Mann, indicates how effective complexity varies with crude complexity.

The concept of effective complexity is important, as it means we can be a little clearer about whether we are talking about maximization of information, or maximization of patterning. The latter is more central to our concerns with psychology and aesthetics, and is captured at least provisionally in this concept.

For the sake of completeness, I’ll mention here two other concepts – [Logical] Depth, and Crypticity, but make little of them; again, curious readers are referred to Gell-Mann’s book.

Logical Depth is the time it takes to compute from a program or schema to a full description of the system, or at least of the system’s regularities.

Crypticity is something like the reciprocal of this – the time it takes to compute from a full description to a program or schema.

Complex Adaptive Systems

Gell-Mann also considers what we could regard as the subjective pole to these ideas of complexity, the sorts of beings which have evolved to identify and exploit regularities within information. He terms such beings Complex Adaptive Systems, of which the most familiar are biological creatures, including ourselves, but the category also includes certain forms of computerized system which evolved systems such as ourselves have designed.

The identification of regularities involves their condensation into a “schema” or model, and such schemata can then be used as the basis for action. Gell-Mann also talks of compression of regularities.

Schemata are for purposes of description, prediction, and prescription. Gell-Mann is clearly an evolutionary thinker, and regards complex adaptive systems as things which are results of a honing by natural selection; in this regard, I find his triple of purposes pleasing; logically, description comes first, the use of such regularities in prediction second, and the use of such prediction for the prescription of actions to be executed in the world third.

But in evolutionary terms, the order can be reversed – it is the usefulness for survival in the “smart” actions prescribed by the identification of regularities which drives the increasing sophistication of the complex adaptive systems as pattern identifiers.


However, unless I’m missing something, there seems to be a gap between the idea of compression of effective complexity and what we would more humanly think of as schemata; a merely mathematical notion of compression may be in danger of elision into an already-interpreted idea of condensation of sensory flux into concepts. There is not really any sort of bridge here between a pure and rather abstract notion of a pattern spotter, and what we might regard as an Actually Existing Pattern Spotter – a mammal, intelligent bird, or whatnot – within the general concept of “pattern spotter”, outside of computerized systems, born mathematicians, and other specialists.

The concept of “schema” runs the danger of getting blurred into something like “shortest mathematical description” in a way which obscures the role of conceptual thought, whilst seeming to have covered it. This is partly because “schema” is in use within other areas of philosophy, with a broader and more psychologistic meaning.

Related to this, there is little indication in this material of any decent general heuristics for deriving effective complexity. Gell-Mann considers pattern extrapolation in a fairly abstract and mathematical way, which I think is fine, and should indeed be part of our understanding of what is meant by “pattern” and “regularity”. But Gell-Mann only gives us an abstract description of what a pattern identifier does.

None of this is to find fault with Gell-Mann, but only to indicate a possible way forward, in that this use of “schema” might not fully capture “concept”, though concepts surely are a way of condensing regularities.

As an aside, an interesting insight afforded by such an abstract and mathematical treatment is that it involves us in what I call “Godelisation”; it is quite likely, perhaps provable, that we can never arrive at a general “best pattern identifier” – one that would spot and condense all regularities in what we would know to be the neatest way; effective complexity seems to fall prey to problems here in the same way that algorithmic complexity has been proven to. Readers may be aware of such issues from acquaintance with the work of Kurt Godel and Alan Turing.

Effective Complexity and Literary Theory

Within literary theory, there is a school of thought which privileges foregrounding as the distinctive feature of literary texts. Foregrounding is regarded as achievable by two means – deviation, and extra patterning. I am sympathetic with the identification of these two aspects of literary and poetic works as fundamental. (I am, however, at present uneasy with their subsumption under the function of foregrounding, but my unease must await proper consideration, exploration, and justification elsewhere on this site.)

Deviation and extra patterning are in a sense opposites – deviation being a loss of regularity, and extra patterning an apparently superfluous regularity.

The considerations here give some precising of, and constraint on, the notion of extra patterning, extra regularities, or, as Geoffrey M. Leech puts it, “parallelism in the widest sense of that word.” In conclusion, I’d like to refer back to the Eagleton quote at the head of this article – the distinction between maximization of information (crude complexity) and maximization of patterning (effective complexity) explored in our enquiry could help clarify and further develop Eagleton’s (and Lotman’s) intuitions, rescuing them from surface mystification and paradox, and helping to shed further light on at least one aspect of the “unique kind of internal organisation” of poetry.

Finally, I must point out that this article has only cut a certain path through Gell-Mann’s “The Quark and the Jaguar” for my own purposes – my comments should not be taken as a review of the book as a whole. My focus has been narrow, but the book itself is panoramic, and at times the view is breathtaking.

_____________BELOW HERE UNDER CONSTRUCTION______________

One of the main ways in which maximization of patterning can occur within literature is through the exploitation of the various linguistic levels – at the phonic level, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, etc, add regularities, at the syntactic level, parallels can be established, and so on.

[Complex patterning across linguistic levels – e.g. the use of more purely linguistic patterns to establish a semantic pattern]

[Problems with the foregrounding model]

[Bennett and Gell-Mann’s other two articles.]

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The Mind Ouroboros



The concept of frames can be traced back, at least, to Kant, who believed that the mind necessarily utilizes Schemas or Schemata. His basic insight was that we understand the world through an internal framework; incoming sensory data, “raw data” as it’s sometimes put, is processed through a system of categories. For Kant, these divide into two types – the a priori “forms” – space and time, which for Kant were respectively Euclidean and Newtonian, and the categories proper, in his terminology – such things as causality and modality (the having of properties). All of the foregoing are what we generally think of as falling under the study of ontology, and are essential to Kant’s understanding of “synthetic” reasoning. Schemata are the link between the forms and categories, and sensory experience; the Schemata render experience intelligible.

For Kant, such schemata were trans-historical – part of the nature of human reasoning itself, and unchangeable – we cannot get outside them to see the world “as it really is”. I am not, here, particularly interested in expounding the ideas of Kant, but rather in the usefulness of this concept of frames. It seems to me that there may be such basic, unchangeable categories (though perhaps they can be altered within scientific disciplines, as has happened to Euclidean and Newtonian frameworks), but also, more changeable frameworks, of a cultural or individual psychological nature, which can alter, develop, or sometimes go awry. These more alterable frameworks might be based on the more fundamental frameworks: a sort of malleable superstructure on an adamantine foundation, the more specific grounded in the more general.

This idea of frames was picked up again, or perhaps reinvented, with the development of Artificial Intelligence in the post-war period. One of the problems which the attempt to build intelligent machines started to encounter was that though computers were good at using abstract logical rules, they had no way of classifying or understanding information about the real world. A possible solution to this was proposed by Marvin Minsky, one of the leading lights in the field, with his “Frame System Theory”:

“A frame is a sort of skeleton, somewhat like an application form with many blanks or slots to be filled. We’ll call these blanks its terminals; we use them as connection points to which we can attach other kinds of information. For example, a frame that represents a “chair” might have some terminals to represent a seat, a back, and legs, while a frame to represent a “person” would have some terminals for a body and head and arms and legs. To represent a particular chair or person, we simply fill in the terminals of the corresponding frame with structures that represent, in more detail, particular features of the back, seat, and legs of that particular person or chair.” Minsky, The Society of Mind. p.245

Particularly important is the idea of “default assignments” – we assume some typical assignments. Thus we deal with things as, in a sense, stereotypes.

Minsky also talks of super-frames and sub-frames, more general frames which would perhaps embrace more specific frames.

A similar idea, perhaps more temporally orientated, is the idea of a “script” – a kind of template of typical things we might expect, and typical actions or responses, within a delineated field (for example, a restaurant). These ideas, though useful, hardly solved all the problems in the field of A.I., but that need not concern us here. Similar ideas to those of frame, framework, schema and script are Koestler’s idea of matrix and Kuhn’s much used (and abused) idea of paradigms.

We have, so far, a sort of duality – of Frame and of what I will call Data.

I’ve indicated that the sort of frames in which I am interested would be the more flexible ones, the ones which are subject to alteration. (It seems that it was the flexibility of human frames which posed one of the difficulties which A.I. then encountered). Such alteration could be refinement, modification, collapse, synthesis or tension with another frame, extension, over-extension or increasing rigidity (as in some forms of obsessive behaviour), and perhaps could take many other forms.

Now, the question is, what causes the alteration, or perhaps, what determines the alteration? Possibly, other frames. Or perhaps the incoming data alters the frames? I’m going to leave that question hanging for a while, but return to it later.

Neurons and Brains

I’ve been exploring the idea of frames because it seems that it gives us insight into how the human mind can do the sort of things that it does – thinking, understanding, being conscious, and so on. I’d like now to take a step back, and consider some aspects of what we generally accept to be the material basis for the mind, which is the brain.

The mind has long puzzled philosophers. One modern school of thought, the “mysterians”, believe that an understanding of consciousness within a materialist framework will always elude us, and as part of this belief, think that advances in the understanding of the brain will be of little use for understanding consciousness. Colin McGinn, a philosopher of this tendency, says –

“How could the aggregation of millions of individually insentient neurons generate subjective awareness? We know that brains are the de facto causal basis of consciousness, but we have, it seems, no understanding whatever of how this can be so. It strikes us as miraculous, eerie, even faintly comic.”

A philosopher of the opposed school, [the source, alas, eludes me for now] says that such aggregations of neurons are exactly the sort of thing which could underpin the mind. This opposed school of thought insists that understanding of the brain will go a long way, perhaps all the way, to helping our understanding of the mind. My own sympathies are with this latter school, though I don’t think, as yet, we have anything like an adequate understanding.

What is it about all these squiggly wiggly neurons that makes them good candidates? First, a fairly basic observation – the brain is the destination for the incoming neuronal bundles, from the senses, and the source of the outgoing bundles, motor neurons, which cause our actions and behaviour. Damage to incoming or outgoing bundles can affect our capabilities, and damage to the brain can too. Crudely, the brain is “in the middle”, so may well be the core component. Even dualists, those who believe the mind is separate from the brain, tend to put the mind/body interface in the region of the brain.

But there are deeper reasons. In the quote above, the word “aggregate” seems to me to be significantly wrong; the neurons are interconnected in vastly complex ways – they are parts within a whole, the whole having a structure. Now, I’ve used here the two words “interconnected” and “complex”, but the development of Complexity Theory indicated that these two concepts are not merely related externally – there’s something about interconnection which is part of the nature of complexity.

I’ve talked about interconnection, but interconnection is a fairly static concept – if we want a picture of this, we imagine the neurons as vastly entangled. The dynamism comes from what the neurons do; they fire when incoming signals from other neurons reach a threshold, transferring an impulse down the cell body, possibly firing other neurons. This signal, to my knowledge, always goes one way. Another important feature is that the more one neuron fires up another, the more it is likely to; the insight from Donald Hebb’s research in this area is – “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” (I’m making a massive generalization and simplification here, which doesn’t always hold, but nevertheless the simplification gives us a way forward). We have, with this finding, a potential source of flexibility.  Neurons are themselves quite complex, and their behaviour includes all sorts of subtleties, but the important point for me is the idea of direction, because at the level of complexes of neurons, we find that neurons don’t merely feed from the senses to the motor neurons in a simple “handing on the baton” kind of way, but can loop back, so that neuron A. might connect to neuron B., neuron B. to neuron C., and neuron C back to neuron A. Add in to this image that other neurons are also feeding into and out of neurons A., B., and C., that we have billions of neurons, and also think of the way that the extent of the firing can alter the strength of the connection between one neuron and another, thus meaning that process can modify structure, and we seem to have a few ideas in play which give us a glimpse of a very complex and malleable system.

Reentrance and Feedback

The foregoing sketch will probably remind many people of the idea of “feedback”. Feedback is a very important concept within Cybernetics, the study of control and communication within the animal and machinic worlds, and studies of systems: General System Theory, Operational Research, and Management Theory. It is key to understanding how complex systems maintain a steady or optimal state within a changing environment. It deals with the sort of circular causation outlined above, but might perhaps best be regarded as a special case of a wider phenomenon. A thinker who has influenced my ideas here, Gerald Edelman, talks of “reentrance” with reference to neural assemblies, which he is at pains to distinguish from “feedback”. Unfortunately, Edelman is not the clearest of writers, and the point is moot regarding whether he is dealing with a form of feedback.

Most important for me is that feedback alone doesn’t seem to fully account for a system that can alter its actual structure – not its fundamental structure, certainly not its biochemical nature, nor many levels up – but its mid-level structures, in a way that isn’t captured by the idea of a mere change of state – whether of a thermostat or of a much more complex and multi-leveled feedback device.

Squaring the Circle: Framing the Cycles

In the earlier sections of this chapter, I wrote of the duality of frame and data, and left a question hanging – What causes the alteration of frames? In the later sections, I wrote about neurons and such stuff. I would now like to try to pull these different ideas together and attempt an answer to the question.

In a sense, the only thing that can alter a frame is data – we can imagine this as some kind of lack of fit between the data and the frame provoking an adjustment. Yet this seems too much to require data to speak for itself, to interpret itself – as if it can protest at the imposition of an ill-fitting frame, and this seems wrong.

It certainly seems that it is the incoming data which can be the only real source of change in the neural networks; left to themselves, we would expect the patterns of activation of the network to settle into a stable state or an endlessly repeating cycle, the physical equivalent of a solipsistic, self-contained and unchanging world-view (this is to treat the matter abstractly – I don’t know what the physiological results of such a nightmare situation are).

I think the best way of understanding how change comes about is to think of the input, the downstream-back-to-upstream circularity, and synapse strengthening all at once; these things in combination are responsible for the mutability of frames. They are core to an understanding of human creativity.


But even at this abstract level, the idea of a frame is sitting uneasily with the idea of a circular network; there is a fundamental difference between the hypothesized frames and the hypothesized networks: frames seem like a phenomenological conjecture, whereas networks are purely physical in nature; frames seem already semiotically interpreted – slots for properties, and so on, whereas networks seem pre-semiotic. In a way, that is okay, as we can see the frames as emergent from the more physicalistic networks, but we still feel the need for some middle steps to make things clearer.

I don’t have an answer to this, a way of bridging the gap between the two models, even though I think the two models both stand a reasonable chance of being valuable to our understanding of the mind/brain. The most I can hope for is that my way of presenting the problem might be useful to its solution. I will conclude with a hopefully suggestive observation on another difference between the models:

The “frame” model seems mainly to be in a dimension “head on” to incoming data – we imagine it as a record, a form, with each of its fields getting populated as the mind shifts attention.

The model of circular neural networks is orthogonal to that – we represent it with inputs to the left, spiraling forms of transformation in the middle, and outputs to the right.

There are possible link-ups though – wider and more all-embracing spirals might be the set frame, and narrower inputs the data. Physiologically, there is no absolute division between structure and state changes at the levels which interest us.

NOTE – I have recently (25/04/2015), since writing this article, come across a passage in John H. Holland’s “Complexity: A Very Short Introduction”, which, if I’m interpreting it correctly, gives some back-up to my points above –

The combination of high fanout and hierarchical organization results in complex networks that include large numbers of sequences that form loops. Loops recirculate signals and resources … Loops also offer control through positive and negative feedback (as in a thermostat). Equally important, loops make possible program-like ‘subroutines’ that are partially autonomous in the sense that their activity is only modulated by surrounding activity rather than being completely controlled by it.”


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Koestler Reloaded


“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”

Arthur Koestler

I’ve had an interest in Koestler’s theories of creativity for many years – as a young man, one of the books on my parents’ shelves was “The Act of Creation”, an intriguing, thickish volume, and the ideas in that book have continued to carry weight with me throughout my life, partly perhaps by impressing themselves upon a mind which was at that time fairly free of prior imprints.

In the next few years I came across ideas which were more mainstream, even trendy, within the fields of philosophy and literary theory, especially those of the school known as Russian Formalism, which also appealed to me. (I write about Russian Formalism elsewhere on this site.) However, none of this stuff really led me to jettison Koestler’s ideas, and in this article, I want to make good on my positive evaluation of Koestler by giving a reasonable synopsis of his ideas, then moving on to a consideration of these in relation to those of other schools of thought and their relevance today.

Arthur Koestler was an early rebel against behaviourism, the consensus in psychology in the post-war years, and was writing before what we now know of as the Cognitive Revolution in Psychology had properly got underway. Arguably, Koestler’s attempts at a new synthesis were premature, which may partially account for his works falling into what I regard as an undeserved neglect. I’ve been re-reading Koestler recently, and once again have felt awe at his skill as a writer. If my presentation here seems rather skeletal, I would recommend that the reader at least dip into any of the books here considered and witness Koestler’s lively, witty, erudite, indeed polymathic range.

After, in the earlier part of his career, concentrating on novels and political thought, Koestler’s focus shifted towards psychological concerns, which resulted in a sort of trilogy of works – “The Sleepwalkers”, “The Act of Creation” and “The Ghost in the Machine”, plus a shorter volume summarizing these works, “Janus, A Summing Up”. It is also worth looking at a short paper delivered to a symposium, “Some General Properties of Self-Regulating Open Hierarchic Order”.


The Sleepwalkers is, to use its subtitle, “A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe” – an extremely readable history of the development of science. I’m not going to concentrate on that work here, but for now will note that it indicates a convergence of Koestler’s views with those of Thomas Kuhn, stressing the importance of revolutionary shifts in perspective within the development of science, and challenging ideas of science as gradual development based on the slow accumulation of data.

The Act of Creation will be my main focus in this article. The Act of Creation places the earlier work of The Sleepwalkers within a threesome – Scientific Discovery is considered as one of three related phenomena, the other two being Humour and Art. The Act of Creation, though one volume, is divided into two “books”:

The first “book” divides into three parts – “The Jester” (humour), “The Sage” (science) and “The Artist” (which covers both verbal and visual creation). I want to give an adequate overview, here, of the entirety of Koestler’s later thought, but my focus will be on the “verbal creation” segment of the third part of the first “book” of this volume, for obvious reasons.

The second “book” deals with more technical issues, and is omitted from many publications of the volume; it is worth being aware of this if you are going to get a copy.

The Ghost in the Machine. If The Act of Creation is a consideration of the glory of mankind, his creativity, The Ghost in the Machine deals with the obverse of this: man’s predicament, brought about by his tendencies towards destructiveness, which, given his present level of technological development, now threaten his survival as a species. But The Ghost in the Machine also gives a more thorough development of Koestler’s systems thinking; it is here that the considerations of the often-omitted Book 2 of The  Act of Creation are given a more refined expression (probably the main reason for such later omission), and where the term “holon” is first used, though the idea is anticipated in The Act of Creation.


In combatting what Koestler saw as the pernicious influence of behaviourism and reductionism on the human sciences, he did have a resource in the developing field of Systems Theory, and in my view made a major contribution to that field.  Central to his contribution is the notion of the Holon, a term he coins in The Ghost in the Machine, but which is anticipated in his earlier works; in The Act of Creation, the holon was the sub-whole. The holon is Janus-faced, looking two ways – it is simultaneously a whole and a part, the “(w)hol(e)-” morpheme indicating the whole, and the “-on” morpheme indicating the part, by analogy with physical particles such as proton, neutron, electron. The holon is related to the insight, considered central in holistic and systems thinking, that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, first noted by Aristotle.

The concept of the holon is closely related to Koestler’s concern that we grasp the importance of hierarchy in our understanding of the world – or at least, the biological world.  Thus, each holon is made up of holons, and in turn is itself a component of a larger holon; the vision here is of a vast, nested array of holons arranged hierarchically.

The nested structure of holons within hierarchies should be familiar to us from diagrams we come across in many fields which take the form of a tree-like structure: departments to divisions to teams within a company, biological divisions from body to system to organ to tissue to cell, and so on. Koestler terms this feature “arborization”. However, he also mentions a complementary feature, “reticulation”, which is the interlocking of branches of a hierarchy with those of another hierarchy; “arborization” is a vertical feature, “reticulation” a horizontal feature. It seems to me that “reticulation” is quite a complex notion which needs some unpacking. More than one hierarchy can be in the same space, somewhat like the entanglement of privet bushes; perhaps the intertwining of the various systems of the body can give us a mental picture of this – the skeletal, nervous, circulatory, digestive, respiratory, etc. systems. I was tempted to skip consideration of this difficult concept, but think it may be important to our understanding of the concept of bisociation, which will move to centre-stage later in this article.

The Act of Creation seems to slip too easily between two forms of hierarchy -a control hierarchy (which I believe is roughly equivalent to what we now call a functional hierarchy) and a structural hierarchy (often called a holarchy). These two forms of hierarchy are more explicitly defined in the later work, The Ghost in the Machine, and it seems that Koestler becomes clearer as his thought develops. The way I remember the distinction is by thinking of a control hierarchy by the paradigm of the organisation of the armed forces: private, sergeant, officer, captain, major, up to field marshal. A structural hierarchy can be remembered by the paradigm of a living organism: cell, tissue, organ, system (e.g. the circulatory system).

The concept of control hierarchy can raise issues, or have unpleasant connotations, for those of us of a liberal or democratic bent, perhaps not helped by my military example, but the ubiquity of control hierarchies in nature and in mechanical control systems seems to me to make the concept invaluable. It’s application to human systems – societies and organizations – also seems undeniable. A consideration of how the concept of control hierarchy can and should be articulated with our democratic ideals is beyond the scope of this paper.

The holon has a dual aspect, featuring both –

– self-asserting tendencies

– self-transcending, participatory, or integrative tendencies.

For human beings, this duality, though displayed in many ways, takes a particularly salient form in the division of the autonomous nervous system into two systems, the adrenal-sympathetic, and the parasympathetic, and these two aspects of our physiological system are our bodily version of the part / whole duality, the former representing the self-assertive tendencies seen in fight or flight, and the latter the self-transcending tendencies seen in reverie, weeping, etc. These two metabolic systems operate in tension, and each pole of this duality governs a different set of emotions.

The behaviour of each holon is governed by a code, which determines a matrix.

The code consists of the rules, or constraints, which govern the behaviour of each holon, in a hierarchically nested fashion. It is the “rules of the game”, actually a complex set of rules and sub-rules.

The matrix is the space of possible realizations of the code – the possibilities of actions which the code constrains. The codes are described as fixed and invariant, whereas the matrix is adaptable. The most sensible interpretation I can give of the concept of the matrix is that it is a result of the combination of code and strategy, where code is pre-set, but strategy takes notice of affordances and constraints imposed by the wider world. If the code is the rules, the matrix is the pattern of possibilities within those rules. On this understanding,

Code + Strategy = Matrix

We have considered holons as rule-governed entities, but in the human world, rules can become inadequate to the tasks being faced, and too much rigidity in our rule systems can become a danger. It is with this that we move to a consideration of how we can get beyond existing rules, entrenched habits, sub-optimal routines. This leads us on to Koestler’s treatment of creativity.

The Act of Creation features as a frontispiece a diagram (shown at the top of this article) which has a triptych division between three domains of creativity – Humour, Discovery, Art. It may be as well to take a while studying this diagram, as it is a succinct expression of Koestler’s insight.

Bisociation is the core concept of Koestler’s approach to creativity. Bisociation is the bringing into relation of two matrices, and this relation can take three different forms, which correspond to the three domains of humour, discovery and art.

With humour, we have a clash of two frames of reference, an incongruity, a sort of explosion because of incompatibility. With discovery, looking at a problem domain with the perhaps fortuitous resources of the patterns from another domain, leads to a synthesis of matrices, a more powerful theory than hitherto. With art, and we include here verbal art, which is the focus of my interests, the two matrices are maintained in a tension, a juxtaposition.

Koestler starts his exploration of creativity by considering humour; if for Freud dreams were the royal road to the unconscious, for Koestler, the jester leads the way to an understanding of the creative process. This is partly because humour is such a basic and all-pervasive aspect of human behaviour, in contrast to the more high-flown processes of scientific discovery or artistic endeavour, and partly because there is such a clear physiological accompaniment to humour in the laughter reflex, smiling, etc.

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