Not very clever thoughts on Systems Theory

Hi Antonio and Horizons of Significance readers,

First off, thanks for the opportunity to engage in what is – for me at least – an important and useful discussion. I wish I had some more fruitful comments to make! For those of you who’ve come in late, this is my attempt to respond to Antonio’s points in his post “The Bad Taste of Clever.”

I wonder if since the origins of systems theory – to my understanding they are with von Bertalanffy, who probably was bouncing off interesting folks like Norbert Wiener and so on – have fallen victim to the same process of institutionalisation and stagnation that seems so often the case – theory degenerating into ideology. Perhaps a systems theorist – drawing on the analogy that ant colonies become less inclined to pick fights with neighbouring colonies as they mature – might reflect on the accommodationist nature of what they’re doing.

What you seem to be saying – and I think you’re right – is that there’s a phony holism at work, and Systems Theory is merely “improved means to unimproved ends.” As you’ll know from reading my blog, I like Patrick Eytchinson’s term “Green Confucianism.”

(And, more colorfully, that comment under Naomi Klein’s piece on the BP oil spill about how mostly science is used to tell us just how much more we can torture the prisoner.)

I’ve not had your time with Systems Theory, so, despite what I intellectually know (and learnt from a really good book called The Rise and Fall of Systems Theory by Robert Lilienfeld, I find that I am still attracted to its (faux) sophistication and the fact that it’s not the tedious linear crap we mostly get served (with Terry Eagleton’s warning about the unthinking approbation of ‘non-linearity‘ duly noted).

ST holds out promise of complex answers to complex problems. I agree with you though, that it is failing to keep that promise…

When you wrote of having a place to stand, I thought instantly of Archimedes wanting such a place, and with a long enough lever he promised to shift the world. There’s also this that may be of interest –

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom.
Otto Neurath (1882-1945)

Two final thoughts:

I’ve always thought the suggestion of various feminist critics of technoscience and the wishing for a “disembodied” life displayed contempt and fear for ‘meatware’ and jealousy of the life-creating ability of women.

And when you write,

“the tactic has remained the same, the battle has only moved on from being about words like peace and victory, brotherhood and truth, to the obliteration of the entire category of the few, and the conflation of any dissent with charges of fanciful conspiracy.”

I am reminded by Elvis Costello’s wonderful counterpunch to this “What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding
(Ah, there’s a thing – Wikipedia informs me that it was written by a guy called Nick Lowe….)

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One thought on “Not very clever thoughts on Systems Theory

  1. Ah, the dream lives on — that if we develop more and more sophisticated and profound theoretical concepts, it will lead to solutions of our pressing human problems on a (more rapidly) dying planet. Not to speak of the delightful relief of living in a haze of delightful abstractions and occasional brilliant discoveries.

    When will our intellectuals sober up, and turn their attention to our urgent real problems, which are not about forging more tools to uncover greater powers that will only be used to finally seal our collective fate? In brief: Technology be damned!

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