Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 9. Nr. Oktober 2000

The global culture machine -
a chaos theory approach to contemporary culture

Peter Horn (Capetown/Berlin)


Even in the wisest, rationality is the exception: chaos and necessity and the whirl of the stars - that is the rule.(1)

Culture is only a thin apple skin over a red-hot chaos.(2)

The fact that the postmodern converges with basic theoremes of the scientific modern at the end of the the 20th century has been commented on before: concepts like chaos, plurality, discontinuity, antagonism and particularity form part of the store of scientific assumptions today and at the same time inform the postmodern outlook.(3) Yet, we need to be precise, and remember that chaos theory(4) and postmodernism are not two names for the same thing. We need to keep them separate and understand them as parallel developments rather than let the one absorb the other. Between these two different theoretical structures there are specific differences which we must not obscure, not even on the basis of the postmodern demand to transgress boundaries. It is not the blurring of boundaries which characterises postmodernism, but making them visible.(5) A veritable postmodernism is characterised by the category of difference(6)from that form of postmodernism which is nothing but a theory of anything goes.

In philosophical thought chaos has a long history(7) designating that state of things in which there is no order, but a fertile state which is more creative than order. Hesiodos already sees Chaos as the original state of the world which then produces eros.(8) Chaos and order are seen as two dynamically linked sides of the world: chaos can change into order and order can suddenly produce chaos. Enclaves of order within chaos are possible, as are enclaves of chaos within order. While such archetypal images still inhabit our consciousness, we need to understand that concepts like chaos which have a very precise and strictly mathematical definition in physics cannot be taken across into the analysis of society and culture except on the level of analogy.(9) In this process chaos will necessarily lose some of its mathematical exactness, but will serve as a metaphor(10) for a fundamental social and cultural process.

The question is, whether the concept of chaos is useful for the description of facts outside of the natural sciences. While maintaining the specific difference between the mathematical and scientific structure of chaos theory and the descriptive nature of cultural and social sciences, I maintain that chaos theory provides a number of metaphors and analogies which produce images and provide a descriptive instrumentarium of complex and pluralistic social and cultural processes. This adaptation of theory concepts from the natural sciences does not only allow us to remove anthropomorphic concepts from our instruments of description of nature, in the way Nietzsche demanded it a hundred years ago, when he spoke of Chaos sive natura: "of the dehumanisation of nature"(11), but in turn to remove anthropomorphic reasoning from our analysis of cultural systems and to understand culture as something which operates like nature. The point is that we cannot understand social, economic and cultural systems from the "will" or "intentions" of individuals.

Chaos theory (or more exactly: the theory of chaos and order) allows us to understand that a certain amount of instability is necessary in any system. That is true for the concept of health and sickness in medicine, as it is for social stability and revolt. Medically we do not understand health any longer as a stabilised order of the life processes, and sickness is not simply a disturbance or loss of this order, thus chaos. Instead sickness is understood as an ossified order or alternatively as overwhelming preponderance of chaos. Too much harmony is not bearable either for the human organism or for society. As soon as the fractal chaotic structure of electric waves around the heart begins to become symmetrical, the heart begins to flicker uncontrollably, more harmony than this is the moment of cardiac arrest. Similar processes can be seen in society, where total Gleichschaltung (enforced conformity) is a sign of social death.(12)

What I would like to explore is the metaphor of dissipative structures to explain the chaotic self-organisation of cultural fields. The concept was formed by Prigogine,(13) and refers to stable systems which are, however, far from a thermodynamical equilibrium such as the envelope of air of the earth.(14) This concept of Prigogine appears to be paradox, because dissipation implies falling apart, while structure is its opposite. However, dissipative structures are such systems which retain their identity precisely because they constantly appear to break apart, because are open to influences of their surroundings. Dissipative structures are constantly fed energies from their surroundings and give off energies to them, and transfer the entropy(15) produced in them to their surroundings. Such structures maintain both their energetic potential and their identity by being open to influences from the outside, but at the same time avoid the destructive power of such energy concentration by exporting entropy to their surroundings.(16)

The experience of the metropolis (at the moment the United States and to a lesser degree Western Europe) and the margin (i.e. the so called underdeveloped countries including the states of the erstwhile Soviet block) that there is a serious disequilibrium - not only in culture and the arts - leads me to postulate a process similar to Prigogine's dissipative structures in the economic and cultural relationships between the first world and the third world.

Creative cultural energies are attracted to these centres (which are like hurricanes in their structure), thus allowing them to generate cultural surplus while at the same time destroying indigenous cultures worldwide. Thus, it is precisely the dynamic that began with the wager for "civilization" which has produced what Franz Hinkelammert calls the "hurricane of globalization"(17) and which we perceive today as a destructive force that suffocates cultural differences and attacks the substance of life itself in its most diverse realms, from the personal psychological to the ecological. Multiculturalism is de facto impossible under the present conditions of a globalisation which concentrates all resources in a few super-rich countries. The dominant culture has already penetrated foreign territories to such an extent that it would be myopic not to see it. Technocracy has penetrated the four directions of the earth. We cannot ignore its ubiquity. It even looks as if it is destined to become the unique culture which will replace all others.

Cultural order is characterised by a higher degree of differentiation and complexity, but also a higher improbability, because the normal direction of development is away from order toward disorder. In order to maintain the complexity and the processes of order which make it possible, these systems need a constant feed of syntropy. This constant advection of syntropy from the margin impoverishes the margin and opens it to the destructive influences of the dominant culture. My speculation is that globalisation paradoxically produces fragmentation and disintegration not only in the countries of the Third World, but also in certain regions and certain groups of people within the First World. While some boundaries are opened (e.g. within the European Union), others are made more difficult to pass (e.g. the Schengen frontiers). While there are transnational tendencies towards democratisation, ethnic and cultural conflicts fuelled by fears of the negative consequences of globalisation are escalating and favour anti-democratic forces both in the Third and the First World. The loss of social integration experienced by the losers of globalisation creates a new clientele for extremist groupings and localised mafia structures who support solutions which seem plausible to the masses, yet are impractical in the new world order.(18) While the disenchantment of the unemployed and the downward mobile sections of society are understandable, and their loss of perspectives and security a real concern, the solutions of rightwing radicalism and fundamentalist movements are in fact contraproductive in so far as they frighten away any development from areas with high social instability. Such areas of underdevelopment resemble areas in the crumbling Roman Empire dominated by local warlords. Consequently, my diagnosis would be as follows: We have today our own "Barbarism"(19): a post-civilizing "Barbarism" that is evident in the destruction of cultures, social exclusion, ecological destruction, racism, hunger and malnutrition, the reductionism of our vision that generates a model of life propagated by our media, and a global disequilibrium.(20)

The current disssipative structure of world culture has been called globalisation, but globalisation is not something new. It began last century with the establishment of the first international commodity markets. Steamships, submarine telegraph cables, factory-based production broadened the process. Information technology in the latter half of this century only accelerated what was already under way. The magnitude of globalisation is astonishing. Post-war output has grown five times but world trade has increased 12 times. Transactions in foreign exchange markets are now worth around $1,2-trillion a day, more than the total foreign currency reserves of the world's central banks. Around 95% of these transactions are speculative. One could define globalisation in its contemporary form as the worldwide spread of modern technologies of industrial production and communication. It implies the delocalisation of price-setting and strategic decision-making, international branding and convergences in consumer behaviour. Globalisation does not imply a process towards a global free-market, the whole-scale integration of different economies or the eventual homogeneity of cultures. Globalisation will continue to thrive on differences and frontiers between people, economies and cultures, and the trade and investment opportunities they provide. Economies will influence each other, but will retain their identities, as with Japan and the United States, or attempt to create new ones out of the shattered remains of pre-colonial identities.

The social and cultural costs of globalisation have been considerable: deeply damaged family life, a diminished middle class in a state of perpetual anxiety about its employment, an escalating underclass, the growth of crime and prison populations. If the centre exports entropy (disorder) to the periphery - and the ghettoes of the United States and certain areas in East Germany are part of the periphery as much as the Congo, Russia or India - and if the periphery has no place to export this entropy in turn, then entropy will increase, because it cannot be reduced or destroyed. The periphery thus is characterised by a growth of disorder.

This is especially true of third world countries and countries of the erstwhile Soviet block of states, which were effectively colonies of the Soviet empire with a local compradore class as puppet rulers. All these colonial and post-colonial regimes remained caught in administrative and political despotism and thus destroyed existing state structures or hindered the development of feudal structures towards indigenous statehood. Because of the despotic nature of these states, there is no basic trust between rulers and subjects, and these states therefore had to resort to the everyday use of violence. In such states opposition is an unknown concept: there are only rulers and their enemies. Colonialists have remained aliens not only in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. But because the territorial power of the state and the state’s monopoly of violence is diminished by globalisation, chiefs and various forms of mafia are able to revert to a personalised and feudal form of effective power. International boundaries which appear on maps have little meaning in non-states like the Congo, Uganda and Ruanda, where tribal armies move across these boundaries at will. Since 1991 warlords and their gangs have completely destroyed all state structures and the entire infrastructure in Somalia.

Yet these wars are not simply "tribal wars". The precolonial tribal structures have been altered and destroyed by colonialism and exist in name only, covering a different structure of more or less independent commercial and monetary regions, which exploit local resources such as diamonds and gold for the local rulers, chiefs, bandits, robbers and their followers in the many private armies. What these new structures have in common with the old structures is that chiefs did not control territories but people, and that their governance was based on the reciprocity of primary person to person relationships of family and tribe. What has largely been destroyed during colonial times is the morality and legitimacy of most of these relationships. These local power centres compete with the state for autonomy, sovereignity and administrative tasks. Local chiefs control development organisations and non-government organisations. Parastatal chiefdoms and armies are power centres within this informal decentralisation and privatisation of the state. They most resemble feudal or mafia structures of patron and client. Clients ask for favours and in turn enter into social obligations. Nepotism, family relations and followership allow people to gain privileges. State power in turn had been degraded to a similar level, where the logic of enrichment of super rich patrons with weapons, money in overseas bank accounts, women and followers leads to an escalation of violence, robbery, and smuggling, and where state presidents like Suharto in Indonesia, Abacha in Nigeria, and Mobutu and Kabila in the Congo have become a booty-presidents. The state, under such conditions, is, like the medieval German empire, only capable of a generalised patronage, and presidents and prime ministers are merely primus inter pares among all the other patrons and warlords.

This concentric order of feudalism is, however, historically the normal order. Democracy, freedom, law and order, welfare are a radical break with the personalised relations of feudal chiefdoms, because they replace personalised relationships with the general abstract relationship of equals (only undermined by positive discrimination, party loyalty etc). This abstract relationship, which is experienced as a form of alienation by many, is based on a supposedly neutral bureaucracy as the abstract management of social relationships. This form of state has a high cost which under present circumstance cannot be paid for by the citizens of these states alone. The exploitation of the populations of peripheral states is an essential element which pays indirectly for the bureaucracies of the first world.

The illusionary belief of inhabitants of the first world that they can erect strong barriers against the entropy which they have exported into the third world and that they can be protected against the increasing disorder in large parts of the world where the vast majority of human beings live, makes any attempt to rethink the dynamics of globalisation nearly impossible. There is no doubt that ,even more than today, the rich centre will attract Russian politicians, Indian computer specialists, Korean television presenters and darkskinned managers. Some see this development as a threat. The concept of reciprocity which governs the feudal structures and which demands that those who command the loyalty of their followers have to provide them with a reciprocal value, was replaced in the territorial state by the concept of equality - at first the equality of all under the absolute prince, then the equality of all under a democratic government. We now need to extend this concept of reciprocity to a global dynamic system in such a way that the flows are no longer unidirectional to the centres of power, if we do not want to create a highly unstable and essentially dangerous situation in a globalised world.

The concept of profit, which appears to be a natural phenomenon, is as much a cultural concept as the concept of reciprocity. Both denote a different value system. But while the concept of profit is essentially destructive in its unintented consequences, the concept of reciprocity establishes a sustainable world order. If we cannot realise justice and solidarity (which is another name for social reciprocity) in our own democracies and, equally important, globally between the various states and cultures, if we cannot overcome the egoisms of the rich welfare states of the first world, we will not be able to establish the democratic identities of our global age, and culture will remain an illusion in a new age of profit-driven barbarism.(21) In this world it is of no consequence whether you sell toilet paper, advertisements between TV-programs, computers, pornography or cocaine. What is important is the share price. At the moment profit is, in the terminology of the chaos theory, a kind of simple attractor, similar to a periodic attractor, a geometric structure which describes the longterm behaviour of a complex system. In the case of a profit-oriented society this curve is determined by the amount of cash available for consumption. As it goes down, the number of goods sold goes down, the number of factories, service providers and workplaces goes down. Once all "superfluous" manufacturing places are eliminated, the decrease in available goods forces a new cycle, and so on. It is a simple attractor, because the lines converge in one point, rather than diverging and creating constantly new curves.

Reciprocity, however, would describe a far more complex attractor, a so called chaotic attractor, one which is much less predictable. Because reciprocity has innumerable feed-fack loops between individuals, and between individuals and institutions, small movements can bring about large movements. Because in a chaotic attractor apparently insignificant changes can bring about macroscopic changes over many iterations, a chaotic attractor is capable of significant change over time. It is this possibility which is hopeful, if we attempt to change the present system with its serious imbalances into another one which is much more creative.

Culture is the field that makes it possible for us to cultivate the world, so that human beings may become fully human and achieve their fullness. Culture is the specific form of human nature. The nature of humankind is cultural. Culture is not an additive to humankind, it is not something artificial. Human beings are cultural animals. Culture is not extrinsic to them, but natural. Human beings are naturally cultural - or culturally natural.(22) Because humanity is determined by culture as much as by nature, it can transform much more quickly than by natural evolution. The extreme speed of human evolution is based on the fact that our evolution is a cultural evolution.

The age of enlightenment had a horror of the concept of chaos. Philosophers like Leibniz(23) attempted to show that chaos has no relevance to the origins of the world and in the system of rational thinking. What the enlightenment thinkers, however, overlooked is the creative aspect of chaos, of indeterminacy. Human culture is such an indeterminate system. The existence of human culture and the possibility of communication and storing of knowledge within the system of human culture allows the phenomenon of cultural feedback,(24) which in turn changes the cultural systems into systems of non-linearity. That means that in human cultures small disturbances can bring about large, unpredictable reactions, similar to the butterfly effect which Lorenz discovered in weather phenomena.(25) Thus, while negative social phenomena can grow in extremely short time to overwhelm a society - examples such as the growth of National Socialism in Germany come to mind - positive developments in the direction of more democracy and justice, are equally possible. It also means that we need extreme alertness to counteract negative phenomena, while they are still small, and courage and activism to further positive phenomena: the negligible physical force of a spoken sentence, like the beat of the wing of a butterfly, can, to astonish those who tend to dismiss mere words for more visible realities like factories and rockets, produce incredibly large effects.

That is, in truth, our only hope.

© Peter Horn (Capetown/Berlin)

home.gif (2030 Byte)buinst.gif (1751 Byte)        table of contents: No.9


(1) Friedrich Nietzsche: Kritische Studienausgabe. Herausgegeben von Giorgio Colli und Mazzino Montinari. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag/de Gruyter, 1988: Fragment 4 [5].

(2) Nietzsche: Kritische Studienausgabe. Fragment 9 [48].

(3) Wolfgang Welsch: Unsere postmoderne Moderne. Dritte, durchgesehene Auflage. Weinheim, 1991: p.188f. Nietzsche has been put at the origin of the concept of pluralism repeatedly. Welsch refers to Nietzsche as the "great prognostician of individual plurality". Wolfgang Welsch: Topoi der Postmoderne. In: Hans Rudi Fischer / Arnold Retzer / Jochen Schweitzer (Hrsg.): Das Ende der großen Entwürfe. Frankfurt a.M., 1992: p. 44.

(4) Cf. James Gleick: Chaos. The making of a new science. London: Abacus 1994; Doublas R. Hofstadter: Metamagical Themas. New York: Basic Books 1985; Hao Bai-Lin: Chaos. Singapore: World Scientific 1984; Pedrag Cvitanovic: Universality in Chaos. Bristol: Adam Hilger 1984; Benoit Mandelbrot: The fractal geometry of nature. New York: Freeman 1977.

(5) Rüdiger Görner: Über postmodernes Schreiben. In: Die Neue Gesellschaft - Frankfurter Hefte 38 (1991). Heft 6. P.536.

(6) Jacques Derrida: Grammatologie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp (1983): p. 65.

(7) Kant in his Kritik der Urteilskraft equates chaos with the wildest disorder and destruction. Immanuel Kant: Werke in zwölf Bänden. Herausgegeben von Wilhelm Weischedel. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977: p.167.

(8) Platon: Das Gastmahl, in: Sämtliche Werke. Berlin: Lambert Schneider, [1940] Bd. 1, p. 667.

(9) Helmut Bachmaier / Ernst Peter Fischer (Hrsg.): Glanz und Elend der zwei Kulturen. Über die Verträglichkeit der Natur- und Geisteswissenschaften. Konstanz, 1991.

(10) I refer to Eco’s concept of structural analogy, a "convergence of problems and needs", without being able to draw strict parallels. This concept of analogy is based on the concept of Roman Jakobson. Umberto Eco: Das offene Kunstwerk. Frankfurt a. M., 1977: p. 52.

(11) Nietzsche, Friedrich: Nachgelassene Fragmente Frühjahr 1881 bis Sommer 1882. (= Kritische Studienausgabe. Hg. von Giorgio Colli und Mazzino Montinari. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag/de Gruyter, 1988), KSA 9.519.

(12) Dieter Wrobel: Postmodernes Chaos - Chaotische Postmoderne Eine Studie zu Analogien zwischen Chaostheorie und deutschsprachiger Prosa der Postmoderne. Bielefeld: Aisthesis Verlag 1997: p.49 fn 80.

(13) Ilya Prigogine: Étude thermodynamique des phénomènes irréversibles. Lüttich 1947: p.234-239.

(14) Karl Toifl, Chaos im Kopf. Chaostheorie - ein nichtlinearer Weg für Medizin und Wissenschaft. Wien - München - Bern 1995: p.129.

(15) According to the second law of thermodynamics, heat is distributed in a system in such a way that entropy (the loss of energy of the system) always increases.

(16) Vgl. John Briggs / F. David Peat: Die Entdeckung des Chaos. Eine Reise durch die Chaos-Theorie. München/Wien, 1990: p.207.

(17) Cf. Franz J. Hinkelammert: "El huracán de la globalización: la exclusión y la destrucción del medio ambiente vistos desde la teoria de la dependencia". In: Pasos 69/1997, S.21-27.

(18) Seyla Benhabib: Kulturelle Vielfalt und demokratische Gleichheit. Politische Partizipation im Zeitalter der Globalisierung. Frankfurt/M: Fischer, 1999.

(19) Cf. Michel Henry: La barbarie. Paris 1987; Rolf Kühn: Leben als Bedürfen. Eine lebensphänomelogische Analyse zu Kultur und Wirtschaft. Heidelberg 1996. Also relevant here is the critique in Max Horkheimer / Theodor W. Adorno: Dialektik der Aufklärung. Frankfurt/M. 1969.

(20) Raúl Fornet-Betancourt, Philosophical Presuppositions of Intercultural Dialogue

(21) Cf. Seyla Benhabib: Kulturelle Vielfalt und demokratische Gleichheit. Politische Partizipation im Zeitalter der Globalisierung. Frankfurt/M: Fischer, 1999.

(22) Raimon Panikkar: Religion, Philosophy and Culture.

(23) Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Die Theodicee. Übersetzt von J. H. von Kirchmann, Leipzig: Dürr, 1879 (Philosophische Bibliothek, Bd. 71): p.397: "Die, welche ein Chaos annehmen, ehe Gott die Hand an dasselbe anlegte, haben in diesem die Ursache der Unordnung gesucht. Plato hatte diese Ansicht in seinem Timäus ausgesprochen. Aristoteles hat ihn deshalb getadelt (im 3. Buch über den Himmel, Kap. 2), weil nach dieser Lehre die Unordnung, das Ursprüngliche und Natürliche und die Ordnung gegen die Natur eingeführt worden wäre.

(24) Toifl: Chaos im Kopf: p.37.

(25) E.N. Lorenz: Deterministic nonperiodic flow. Journal Atmospheric Sciences 20/1976: p. 69-75.

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