Finished studying for a practical thing. So, I’m rewarding myself by nerding out this evening on an impractical thing, trying to understand the roots of Benoit Mandelbrot’s thinking. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_set)
“I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, undending, free.” Ta-Nehisi Coates “Between the World and Me”, p 48. I finally got around to reading Coates’ book earlier this week. I devoured the first section of seventy pages within an hour. Several sections struck me and I copied them out by hand. This one reminded me of Loyola, myself, and 1998.
I declared my Philosophy major Spring 1998, the second semester of my Freshman year. For the next year, I intently listened to my professors and mimicked their interests — Saussure, Foucault, Derrida, Habermas: the usual suspects of Late 20th Century Continental Philosophy. By the end of the year, I was deeply frustrated. Every text simply pointed to another text. The Linguistic Turn was a great thing for the publishing industry, but annoying for Eagle Scouts trying to pick up girls on Maple St. I was trying to find a way to apply this stuff to living, to side-step the old Texas dogma that academics were incompetent. Randomly, I came across the work of Gregory Bateson, the anthropologist. Bateson threw out the idea that objects had an essence and focused on the relationship of objects with each other, and the human with objects — think Orchid and Wasp or Lion’s Claws and Gazelle’s hide (If you’ve ever read Bateson, he is much more elegant than I am being here.) I read “Mind and Nature”. Then I read “Steps to an Ecology of Mind”. This was philosophy I could get my mind around — heady, but practical. Abstract, yet rooted in real problems. Even better, Bateson’s work in Bali yielded the notion of the plateau. For some reason, the plateau captured the French imagination. It set against climax, in both literary and sexual contexts. It was the title of a work I had been trying to understand for the better part of three years, Mille Plateaux.
Bateson opened the doors to Cybernetics. Cybernetics begat Systems Science. Systems Science begat Complexity. Complexity begat the world in which we live now. OMPE. Wood-Coal-Oil-Renew.
“What are you going to be when you grow up?”* People have asked me for years what I’m doing, what my goal is in life, and such. My complete and honest nerd answer is this: “I have been trying to understand the mathematical developments in France in the 19th and 20th centuries which laid the groundwork for the revolutions we are living through.” It’s dorky and esoteric as fuck.
I realized I was going to need to study more math in 2000, after reading Mitchell Waldrop’s Complexity. That whole period where I wanted to study medicine? Stuart Kaufman’s fault. (If you don’t know who Stuart Kaufman is — he’s the real life basis for Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park. He got his MD in order to be practical, yet be able to study Complex Systems.) But every damn time, I sat down to study, some form of damn hurricane came along and knocked the table over…
*The real answer to this question is “Piracy — a wholly democratic pursuit of knowledge, profit, women and rum with a heterogenous assemblage of equals. Don’t like that? Fuck you.”