John Law and Annemarie Mol (Eds.): ‘Complexities’ (2014)

A Systems Library, Vol. 1

Philippe Vandenbroeck
6 min readApr 14, 2018


Image: iStockphoto

„No one would deny that the world is complex, that it escapes simplicities. But what is complexity, and how might it be attended to? How might complexities be handled in knowledge practices, non reductively, but without at the same time generating ever more complexities until we submerge in chaos? And then again, is the contrast between simplicity and complexity itself too simple a dichotomy? These are the questions explored in this book.”

Indeed, nowadays the critique of simplification is so well established that it has become a morally and epistemologically comfortable place to be. Decision-makers openly acknowledge the complexity and ‚wickedness’ of the environment in which they are operating. There is a call to develop skills in ‚systems thinking’ to get a handle on this messiness. Unfortunately, often this comes down to pouring reductionistic old wine in new bottles. Behind much of the complexity discourse lurks a desire for snug simplicities.

In this book John Law and Annemarie Mol wanted to take both complexity ànd simplicity serious. They pulled together a set of narratives that reflect on what happens to complexities in practice. There is no tidy little system that ties all these cases together. In their introduction, Law and Mol conjecture that multiple strategies might be at work:

A strategy of multiplicities that goes beyond a single order to discover a variety of logics, frames, discourses. What is reduced or effaced in one mode of ordering may be crucial in another: „multiplicity is about coexistences at a single moment. To make sense of multiplicity, we need to think and write in topological ways, discovering methods for laying out a space, for laying out spaces, and for defining paths to walk through these.” Walking is a mode of covering space that gives no overview, unlike the panoptic discipline of mapping.

A strategy of flowing and churning with nonlinear time: simple orders may be made visible by snapshots of frozen moments but complexity manifests itself when we allow narratives to move like a swallow, up, down, doubling back on itself.

A strategy of enumeration that simply groups together but refrains from categorizing. Lists do not have to impose a single mode of ordering on what is included in it. Items in the list aren’t necessarily responses to the same questions but may hang together in other ways. Individual cases are not necessarily representative for something larger. We are at liberty to consider them as phenomena in their own right.

Law and Mol’s list of possible strategies that allow the simple to coexist with the complex is what it is. In the spirit of the book it doesn’t want to present a comprehensive system or a complete overview.

There is room for many pictures on the pages of the sketchbook. And that is what this volume is: a book of sketches about complexities in knowledge practices; a book of sketches that seeks to imagine alternatives to the simplicity of the overview and its other, the forces of chaos; a book of sketches that makes any definition of complexity self-defeating. If things relate but don’t add up, then they are complex; if events occur but not within the processes of linear time, then they are complex; and if phenomena share a space but cannot be mapped in terms of s single set of three-dimensional coordinates, then they too are complex. This not exactly wrong, but it is — too simple. It is too simple because it works with binaries. Addition or not. Linearity or not. A single space, or not. But in a complex world there are no simple binaries. Things add op and they don’t. They flow in linear time and they don’t. And they exist within a single space and they escape from it. That which is complex cannot be pinned down. To pin down is to lose it.

After this stimulating introduction the reader is left to his or her own devices. I personally found the journey through the cases, culled from various settings, only partially rewarding. The most interesting chapter, by Dutch philosopher of science Chunglin Kwa is somewhat of an outlier as it concerns a more conceptual take on two contrasting modes of operationalizing complexity: the ‚romantic’ and the ‚baroque’.

Romantic complexity assumes and seeks an underlying unity in a world of heterogeneous objects and phenomena. Collections of entities form higher-order entities. The notion of a ‚system’ as ‚a structured set of objects and/or attributes together with the relationships between them’ is emblematic for a romantic worldview. The relationships between elements or subsystems then constitute greater systems.

Baroque as an artistic movement is associated with extravagance and an abundance of ornate detail. It’s a sensuous style that always seems to flow out in many directions, blurring the distinction between the entity and its environment. Kwa also points out a typical mode of baroque inventiveness: „the ability to produce lots of novel combinations out of a rather limited set of elements, for instance as in baroque music.” The metaphor that underpins baroque complexity is ‚the field’. A field in physics is basically a carrier of interactions between particles. More generally it can be understood as a setting for crossroads and interactions, a room for manoeuvre, a scene of ‚skirmishes’ between tensions and forces. A field is an ambiguous territory that generates contingent responses to mutable forces [Gausa, in Colafranceschi, 2007].

The difference between the two conceptions of complexity can then be summarized as follows: „The romantics look up — some all the way up to the world of Platonic forms — and recognize collections of individuals as higher-order individuals. This is a process of abstraction (…) By contrast, the baroque looks down and, like Leibniz, observes the mundane crawling and swarming of matter.

Romantic strategies to deal with complexity will focus on the identification of a fixed set of natural laws that underpin the workings of the system. They will also seek to delineate the hierarchy of nested systems that constitute the ‚whole’. In a baroque universe there is no overall pattern. Patterns, if they exist, will be local and short-lived. But they may lead, via chaotic phenomena, to temporary manifestations of macroscopic order. Baroque strategies are limited to creating local fluctuations and disruptions of local equilibria. They embrace experimentation and tinkering. Most often their impact will die out. Sometimes it leads to disproportionate results.

Kwa’s aim in his essay is to show that romantic and baroque complexity are paradigms that are still around and on which the sciences draw. He sees C.S. Holling, Konrad Lorenz, Gilles Deleuze and post-1968 Ilya Prigogine as neo-baroque thinkers. Howard T. Odum, early Prigogine and likely also James Lovelock can be associated with a romantic outlook.

From the cases I will only mention the story (lucidly elaborated by Charis Thompson) about the elephant compression problem in Amboseli National Park, Kenya as I felt that this one connected most readily to my own advisory practice. The combination of the concentration of elephants in the park, the cessation of migrations and the increase in elephant population led to a fivefold increase in elephant densities in the park during the 1980s. As a result the rate of tree loss increased dramatically. Incompatible strategies to deal with this issue, advocated by different coalitions of stakeholders, emerged from different models of science and conservation. The controversy trailed legal issues, land-use disputes and economic and moral concerns in its wake. Thompson reconstructs how a delicate accomodation between the opposing philosophies that eventually created a way forward: „It is the moral brokerage that is possible in this kind of complexity that I think carries the greatest hope of this case study. The reversibility of this pluralism, the fact that potentialities always remain for disintegration back into opposing sides and opposing moral universes is the cautionary tale of the case.



Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?