Evolving Systems: Starting Positions
The Evolving Systems project began in the late spring of 2009 with an initial core group of nine participants. Below are their "starting positions" for the project, brief sketches of what they bring to the project and hope to get from it. Others interested in the project (see overview and background) are invited to add their own "starting positions" in the on-line forum below, as well as to comment on any starting positions included here and in the forum.
Fifty years or so as a scientist, educator, and parent, together with fifteen or so somewhat overlapping years as a child and student, have persuaded me that there has to be a "less wrong" way to go about trying to make sense of the world and the place of humans in it. Having lost any confidence in their being a "right" way to do this, I've become interested in the notion that it might be productive to take seriously the apparent absence of a "right way," to start with that and ask what follows from it.
The notion is neither as fatalistic nor as nihilistic as it might at first seem. Biology provides a number of different examples of processes of exploration that are quite successful despite the apparent absence of any pre-existing objective. A common characteristic of all of these is a web of somewhat unpredictable interactions among a diversity of somewhat unpredictable elements which generates and tests by local criteria ways of doing things and, in the process, creates both new candidate ways of doing things and new criteria by which to test them. In such emergent, distributed systems, each element both influences and is in turn influenced by the larger web of which it is a part.
If this is actually a less wrong way to proceed, an ongoing conversation among people with a variety of different experiences in trying to make sense of the world and humanities place in it should yield both new ideas about how to do so and new ways to test those ideas, with practical significance both in local and more global contexts. I imagine the Evolving Systems project as a experiment to test whether that is so, and, in turn, whether it is in fact productive to take seriously a "less wrong" approach to inquiry and, perhaps, to life in general.
I come to this group as historian specializing in the religious culture of medieval Japan [c. 1200-1600]. I am especially interested in the layered nature of religious texts, images, rituals, and so on. What I mean by “layered” here is that the meanings, audience, register, and intention of a given tale or statue or performance piece are constantly negotiated and reorganized so that the object in question can be approached from many different angles. My emerging project is a history of a certain kind of stone grave monument, called “the stupa of the five elements,” from the 13th to the 15th century. This type of grave, ubiquitous by the close of the medieval period, is first found at the close of the 12th century and would seem to be unique to Japan.
The “five elements” referred to in the name are not the five elements/phases of Chinese or Daoist yin-yang theory but rather the Indian five elements associated in Japan primarily with esoteric or tantric Buddhist doctrine. The grave monument stacks these elements represented as five discrete geometric solids one atop the other. From the bottom they are: earth, water, fire, wind, and empty space. Cube, sphere, pyramid, crescent (or date), jewel. I am interested in exploring the “form/meaning/aesthetics” of this monument (as well as two-dimensional iconic representations thereof) with this interdisciplinary mix of scholars.
This gravestone is connected to tantric doctrines on the creation of an adamantine body and Buddhist embryologies, but also can be tied to ancient traditions of stone worship. The graves are full of complex meaning connected to textual, ritual, and meditative practices (foundational?) and also, especially after they have been abandoned and forgotten and have become anonymous fragments, represent a deep layer of autochthonous religious response to lithic-as-numen(non-foundational?).
I teach and study education. My main interests are in collaboration and collaborative learning; feminist pedagogies; the role of writing in learning and forming intellectual communities; the relation of craft knowledge to critical thinking; and how people learn, or come to be, or persist in being, good. One of my ways of making sense of experience is to write poems, which I started doing while working as a high school English teacher one phase back. (Two phases back I was a third grade teacher; there I recovered an interest in science and sports.) I am sharing two poems here as a way of introducing my interest in the problems and possibilities of transformation.
One: a wooden figurine from China
carried over on a ship;
two: a blue ceramic bowl, and three:
a cannister of tea, gold and green, bearing
the image of a Chinese ship
sailing over the sea,
over the blue sea.
Tell me, how does one give way to the next:
horse's hide to whip? How does grace convert to
debt? What instant burns
in gold and green?
O Ink-eyed child lost to sleep, it is not
just the wind. Your mother loves you, but the daily news
is bad. It wastes her strength
and distances --
from carver's hand, to bowl, to sea, to child --
are large, and unreconciled.
I remember another mother.
Light on her feet, pleased
With the silks around her ankles.
Eats little, but loves the early markets.
Lovely, wise, and I have missed her,
But I miss my mother more.
Another hard day --
Not enough air
And your asthma coming on again.
Past the shoulder
Of a bannister, you could see
An unwelcome fender.
You would recompose the scene,
Put a girl there. You would,
But not until so long after.
Don't worry too much about Paradise.
You can use the blue in the king's jacket
For sky, and the black of the clubs
For piano keys. Red abounds, so
No problem there.
I work as a theater artist, as a director of plays and a dramaturg for new works of performance. In my working, I notice that the "big" questions are always in play and that they are almost always legible in the small decisions over which I labor. More, I observe that the "abstract" is always concrete in art, or at least in the art I appreciate. Finally, I relish the fact that, as a performance plays out over time, the models of that experience which I conjure towards "understanding" the piece are all provisional, each one yielding to the new information and the failure-incompleteness-oldness of the previous models of understanding. As one learns to appreciate performance more fully, one learns to let go more easily of what is in Paul's schema the "more wrong" and to reach for an incipient model, one that is still forming in the fuzziness of consciousness, grasping with a joyful and a widening consciousness the "less wrong" that may, for a moment, seem like knowledge, and then fades as the next model begins to present itself. I bring this experience with me to this conversation.
I'm attracted to exploring the connections that situate our work broadly as human pursuits of meaning and the intersections with traditions outside of academia. What boundaries do we inevitably traverse in pursuit of meaningful lives? How do they drive each other, how do they squelch each other? As a start, I am interested in the connections between the disciplines. How do the interpretive ideals in modern physics compare with those in the humanities? What is the role of unifying concepts such as “symmetry” in intellectual traditions and current practices? How do they spill over into the diverse realm of every day experience and reflection? What are the consequences of the different models of knowledge and belief that operate today? I am looking forward to a lively exchange.
I am interested in this project from a variety of perspectives. First of all, from a personal point of view, I am curious about “big questions” of knowledge, the nature of the universe, and the relationship between our minds and that universe. In addition, I am curious as to the models used by the scientific method as an approach to these big questions. My background is in the history and philosophy of science and technology, and while I believe that science is quite sound as a method, I think we need to develop a parallel tool (but NOT religion or “New Age” thinking) and a brand new series of models for investigation of these meta-questions. Current science and even philosophy do not seem designed for such a task.
Here is the main thing I am looking forward to exploring further with the group: having non-specialized conversations on issues that really matter with fellow academics. It is not often that academics get a chance to really just talk to each other as people and think together about topics that really resonate with us. It is wonderful to have a space for trans-disciplinary conversations which explore where each of us is coming from and where we might go together.
In particular, I am looking forward to conversations about understanding ourselves and the world as evolving and emerging systems, and to explore the possibility that this idea of emergence might provide a space for a common dialogue from different perspectives and disciplines (especially sciences/humanities, theoretical/practical, religious/a-religious and so on).
How can we have such trans-disciplinary conversations when the structures for them are not already readily available (and perhaps can’t be so available)? As I am thinking of it at this starting point, the aim isn’t to bridge disciplines or change institutions. Those are noble and important aims, but the beginnings have to be more humble. It seems to me that the aim is to see how the people in the group will engage with each other in an open space and to see what will emerge from the group as structures which can guide us.
So I am interested in the group not only as a space to discuss emergence, but also as a space of emergence. I am starting with the idea that each of us is a complex, emerging system which cannot be summarized in a few, well worn ideas. So the understanding I seek in the group is not to discover which ideas best summarize the other members of the group or even to discover which ideas all of us as a group might agree on. Rather, I think the understanding we seek is that of actually engaging with each other and seeing where that might lead us.
What will happen when we engage with each other in a space where the complexities inherent in each of us is allowed to breathe and grow? Can it lead to a coherent trans-disciplinary conversation and even new questions? I am glad to be a part of an experiment to find out.