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Paul Grobstein's picture

The Emergence of Form, Meaning, and Aesthetics

The Evolving Systems project is an exploration of  the idea that form, meaning, and esthetics are interdependent emergent characteristics of an ongoing evolutionary process originally lacking any plan, intention, of purpose.  And of the implications of such an idea for both intellectual and practical life. 

The Evolving Systems project is also itself an experiment in emergent form/meaning/aesthetics.  It brings together in interactive conversations people of diverse backgrounds and starting perspectives with the objective of seeing what new understandings of form/meaning/aesthetics emerge, individually and collectively.  For more general information about the project see Overview | Background | Starting Positions.

Project Organization

Core Group Conversation.  The Evolving Systems project was initiated by a core group of nine college faculty representing a diverse array of disciplines.  This group meets monthly.  Background for and summaries of all core group conversations are available here.   Recent and upcoming sessions include

Open Face to Face Conversation. The Evolving Systems project supports biweekly open meetings for all interested faculty, students, and others in the Delaware Valley region.  Background and summaries for all open meetings are available at Evolving Systems: Open Conversations.  Recent and upcoming conversations include

World Wide Conversation.  The Evolving Systems project also supports still wider conversations on the web, and by a program of invited speakers to Bryn Mawr.  For a listing of additional web products and information about visiting speakers, see Evolving Systems: Wider Conversations.  Recent and upcoming products and sessions include

Becoming involved

All Evolving Systems project materials are available on the web and include on-line forums to which anyone interested is invited to contribute.  Recent products and comments are listed under "Recent Group Posts" and "Recent Group Comments" in the Serendip side bar to the right.  Comments about and suggestions for the project as a whole are welcome in the on-line forum area below.   Anyone seriously interested is also encouraged to contribute their own "starting position" to the on-line forum here.   People in the Delaware Valley region are welcome to join the biweekly open conversations.   For additional information, contact Paul Grobstein.    


Supported by the Metanexus Global Network Initiative and by the Serendip web site. 


alesnick's picture

wondering about engagement

From Clover, J. & Spahr, J., "The 95 Cent Skool," in Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook (Univ. of Iowa Press, 2010).

Hi All,

I came across this passage in an essay by two poets envisioning an alternative way to teach poetry -- alternative to high price, classy workshops.  It struck me as related to our project:

. . . But we do mean that any Poetry Skool committed to more than niche marketing of the well-made object with its minor telltale difference (a.k.a. its logo) must begin by refusing the pay-to-play of the current tuition system, refusing the credit-baiting of the federal government student loan program, refusing a star system of highly paid professors. Those who want cachet and connections and career, those who conceive of Skool as an investment, will go elsewhere.

This is not because poetry is pure and should float above the economic systems that currently wreck the lives of so many. It is because poetry needs all the brains it can get. Our double faith is simple: one, that decreasing both barriers to entry and compulsions toward reward will get a dozen people around a table who are more committed to the particulars of that collective work. And two, that this dynamic of poetry for its own sake will not be insular and aestheticized—will be as a result not less but more open to the visible and invisible social contexts of poetry, not having had to harden itself to endure the marketplace.

It's interesting to play with substituting other words for "poetry" here: "science," "education?"  The idea of getting "a dozen people around a table who are MORE committed" than the marketplace typically allows/fosters is resonant with my experience of our group.  So is the idea that more brains are needed, as many as possible.  I like the idea that "decreasing both barriers to entry and compulsions toward reward" could create a more lively process of inquiry and creativity. 

Later in the piece, Clover and Spahr speak of poetry as a form of "counter-cognition."  I am not sure what they mean, but what I take away is the idea that we need group processes and creative processes that do more than second codes already in place, or fire together neurons already wired together. 

To my mind, this connects with a recent discussion here on Serendip about the distinction between policy and teaching, and between competition and fluidity as modes of being.  I would like to learn much more about how to be, and to conceive of being, active and efficacious in response to injustice and to distorting, restrictive social forms and at the same time utterly joyful in and for the lived moment of apprehension that others' lives and my own far exceed the moment, however wrecking it is. 

Could this be a focus for our project in times to come?


Anne Dalke's picture

"Exceeding the moment, however wrecking"

I don't know if this could be a future focus for our project (can you say more what that might look like??), but I do think that we considered the notion that our lives "exceed the moment, however wrecking it is" when we tried, last fall, to think with Arlo about the implications of deep time"On this time scale, nothing I do matters." In a tectonic, or even an evolutionary, framework, "nothing I do has an effect." Alternatively, might such an understanding give us a distanced perspective, make us less angry, more indifferent to petty human concerns, even bring us to ecstasy?"

I've been working w/ these ideas lately in the class on evolving systems that Paul and I are co-teaching for first-semester students, who offer both responses: feeling alternatively diminished and enlarged by a sense of the world beyond --way, way, WAY beyond!--themselves.

alesnick's picture

about scale and evolving systems

Yes!  (And thanks for asking :)  What you write about students' feeling alternatively diminished and enlarged reminds me of what it felt like to me to live in Manhattan when I was a young adult.  I walked around a lot -- often from my apartment at 44th and 9th and my school at 70th and Lex.  Or all the way down 5th Avenue to Washington Square Park.  I loved it, and still do.  I would feel so much part of something big and vibrant, and endlessly interesting, and often loved the feeling of anonymity-and-possibility, and also a satisfying connection to people and buildings, scenes, traffic around me -- not personal, but not impersonal, either.  At the same time, I do think it was daunting, and sometimes made me feel small and insignificant not in a freeing but more in a cowing way. 

I appreciate your recalling me to Arlo's important session last year.  This reminds me that an idea I have for our group this year is to investigate the meaning, import, and possible transformation of the idea/issue of scale.  What is it?  Could we come up with a new mathematics for it, one that would somehow integrate particularity with magnitude?



Paul Grobstein's picture

Evolution in progress: a case study

The web is dead.  Long live the internet .... Wired, 17 August 2010

Now playing: night of the living dead .... NYTimes, 21 August 2010)

"evolution — not extinction — has always been the primary rule of media ecology."

The Facebook effect .... NPR, 20 Aug 2010

"Facebook’s founders succeeded largely because of their unique vision."

alesnick's picture

An Institute re: evolutionary perspectives on current problems

I just learned of this and see connections with our project:

"The mission of the Evolution Institute is to use evolutionary science to solve real-world problems. Currently, there is no mechanism for applying current theory and research to public policy formulation. We aim to provide the mechanism.

Briefly, we live in a world of our own making and must use our knowledge to manage our affairs. It is time to make use of the knowledge provided by evolutionary theory."

Paul Grobstein's picture

A movie, a museum, a K12 institute, and evolving systems

From Inception, the Constitution, education, and life itself

"we each live, as the movie illustrates, in a set of multiple interdependent, interactive realities/worlds that we construct and reconstruct ourselves by noticing differences between our expectations and our experiences, as well as  differences among our expectations and experiences in the different worlds/realities we inhabit.  In so doing, we both are influenced by and influence the worlds/realities of others with whom we interact ...

That we are all "created equal" can be understood not as we are all "created the same" but rather as an acknowledgment that we each live in our own somewhat different reality/world, and that that diversity is valuable to all of us. And "checks and balances" can be understood as a mechanism to assure it will always be so, that no one world/reality shall ever be allowed to dominate all others ...

Might such an evolving systems perspective give us a new and useful way to think about a variety of things, education among them?"

Anne Dalke's picture

something for us to attend to?

"emergent gravity"--> an illusion, an entropic force, a consequence of the laws of thermodynamics?

bolshin's picture

About Gravity and Other Physical Phenomena

I appreciate Anne's posting up that link to the article on "emergent gravity". As Grobstein knows, and others in the group may have gathered, I am very interested in physics -- although I know nothing about it. Anyway, the article on gravity was quite interesting. It fits with some similar ideas that have been floating around for a while, i.e., that things like gravity, time, even inertia, are (what I call) "epiphenomena" of some much more fundamental physical properties or structures. It's something I am intrigued by because it shows that everything we thought was "final" or "fundamental" may not be -- we are as arrogant as the late 19th-century physicists who felt that they had discovered most of what there was to discover. In fact, they were only looking at the surface. As we are, too, it seems... My own belief is more complicated (and it is no more than a belief, since I am not a physicist, or, I would say, even an intellectual!): I think that the physical phenomena we observe are epiphenomena of our own consciousness, without any actual existence at all in the sense that we typically talk about it...

bolshin's picture

Emergence, Synchronicity, and Odd Coincidences...

I thought the ES group would appreciate this odd event I experienced today... I was at the pool at my aunt and uncle's apartment building in Chestnut Hill, and I see some old guy reading a book on the nature of reality and modern physics. Who reads that stuff but me? (And, I guess, some members of our group!). So, I ask him why he is reading that, and if he is a physicist or a philosopher. Neither. He's an architect, who of course knows my brother (an architect), my aunt and uncle, and half-a-dozen other Chestnut Hill / Mount Airy types whom I know. Small world -- synchronicity, or, as the Chinese have it "yun fen", "fated meeting" or "destined connection". It turns out that despite being an architect, his real love is cosmology and the question of the emergence of the universe! On top of that, he has a group that meets, in Mount Airy, even couple of weeks to discuss the subject. Seems like we are not the only ones informally seeking the mysteries of the universe...

Paul Grobstein's picture

Threadgill, "form through independence"

Apropos of dialogue, and evolving systems generally, from Henry Threadgill's Zooid: Form Through Independence

"The band's name, Zooid, is a term for independent organisms that work together in a colony, like coral. Threadgill says that, similar to the biological zooid, the music is about multiple independent voices coming together to create a whole."

""He isn't just interested in writing forms that will be played in a conventional way," Chinen says. "He actually wants to change the way that the music takes shape. The way that musicians respond to one another."

Mike S's picture

other zooids

Good to see the Threadgill concept under consideration. A good working model, I think, that acknowledges differences not as a barrier but as a generator. If others find this interesting as well, some other modern musicians to listen to/read from in a similar context are Steve Coleman [here], Vijay Iyer [here or here] , Rudresh Mahanthappa [here], or Steve Lehman [here]. And, of course there is Ornette Coleman (read the Harmolodic Manifesto under discourse here).

bolshin's picture

Time, Emergence, Farewells...

To the Group:

Greetings. I just wanted to add to what Anne and Arlo had noted elsewhere on this site -- happiness with our session last month on deep time, literature, etc. Lots of good discussion, and as I noted to Grobstein, our conversations as a group seem to be getting more interesting...


Alas, just in time for my departure. Yes, I am leaving. Off to Taiwan (not til August, but that seems very soon), for a year, but maybe longer. Depends on a lot of things.


Meanwhile... I was thinking of our group the other day when I was sitting in a thesis defense as a committee member for one of our graduate students in museum studies at University of the Arts. The student is building an exhibition on the nature of time, with the key thesis question being "How does one build an exhibit to communicate clearly an abstract concept?" Great question, great student.


I also brought up with Peter Rose (our guest on Tuesday, 20 April) my disagreement with Grobstein on an aspect of emergence. He found it amusing. I really want to bring it up with the group again some time before I depart. For me, I continue to be obsessed with the same questions that Guagin was: "D'où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous". 

alesnick's picture

re: farewells

Ben, thanks for writing with news of your upcoming travels and other thoughts.  I hope you will stay involved with evolvsys online while you are in Taiwan . . . meanwhile, I look forward to Tuesday's session with Peter Rose.

alesnick's picture

relevant article on "dysfunction momentum"

A friend sent me this link, to a piece from the MIT Sloan Management Review.  It discusses research into failed attempts to fight fires, drawing implications about how "organizational momentum tends to continue unabated unless purposefully interrupted" via such approaches as "situated humility," being open to diverse perspectives, voicing of concerns, and skepticism re: experts:

Paul Grobstein's picture

evolving systems and literature

picking up on Wai Chee's visit, World Literature and Neurobiology, and Deep Time, among other things ...

"are we working our way towards some alternative organization of world literature, that attends less to time- or place-based origins, more to where from in the brain it arises....?" ... Anne Dalke

Paul Grobstein's picture

education in the evolving systems context

More on evolving systems as applied to education at Science, culture, education, and the brain, to wit

"The task is not to get it right but to get it less wrong, not to disprove existing understandings but to recognize their context-dependence, not to discover what is but to construct from conflicting understandings previously unconceived alternative understandings.  The brain already provides each of us with the wherewithal to do this, individually and collectively.  What is needed in addition is only a shared confidence in and commitment to the process of ongoing construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction, in "life itself" as an ongoing evolutionary process.  Education should model this confidence/commitment, and contribute to creating new stories."

Thanks, evolsys colleagues, for contributions to this. 

Anne Dalke's picture

"Human Culture, an Evolutionary Force"

Well, this seems right on the money: see today's NYTimes article on Human Culture, an Evolutionary Force: "culture...seems to be a powerful force of natural selection. People adapt genetically to sustained cultural changes, like new diets. And this interaction works more quickly than other selective forces..."

Paul Grobstein's picture

evolsys updates

Conversation continues in From evolving systems to world literature and back again, and has branched to yield an additional conversation on World Literature and Neurobiology

For some thoughts of my own reflecting, among other things, our evolving systems group discussions to date, see Cultures of ability

"Instead of looking at each other in terms of deficiencies, we could look at each other in terms of strengths and construct our sense of what we're trying to do based on that.  We are trying to do whatever the particular collection of people who make up our culture is able to do well.  And we constantly adjust what we're trying to do to assure that everybody in our culture plays a meaningful role in what we're trying to do.  We create and recreate our culture to make everybody a meaningful contributor to it ... by learning to be less critical and more generous with ourselves we could as well contribute to bringing into being a more humane culture, a culture of ability rather than disability?"

Anne Dalke's picture

Storytelling: Singular and Social

I feel, sometimes, as if I were a 'barker" in this forum, calling out to all of you, "Come see! Come see!" ...
Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves,

Ava Blitz's photographs
Philadelphia's Magic Gardens,
The Village of Arts and Humanities,

the Cantor Fitzgerald exhibit on Running the Numbers.

So here we go again.


This weekend I saw two movies: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassas and Creation (based on the book about Darwin, His Daughter, and Human Evolution). Seeing them back to back provoked a few thoughts about the evolution of stories, which seem to me relevant to our shared exploration here....

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus opens by laying out a wide range of possibilities; I was especially captivated by an early scene in which the Dr. claims that "storytelling sustains the world"; when his own storytelling, and that of his adepts, is silenced, he is sure that the world has been kept going by stories told elsewhere, by others. So he accepts a wager with the devil, to see who can collect the most souls. The battle is between those who choose one sort of story over another, though I could never quite figure out why a character might make one choice rather than another, or even which "side" it represented. Did their choices lie between stories that were light vs. those that were dark, those that were life-giving vs. death-dealing, imaginative vs. addictive? But the imaginative stories just seemed to be materialized addictions....I couldn't figure this out, and

... actually? I left the theater wondering which path I'd chosen myself. I do desire stories, deeply, and seek them out, continually--is this an addiction? An obsession? A danger (as Nassim Taleb has argued so cogently)? The film didn't clarify this quandary, or give me any guidance in how to navigate it. It operated mostly as a series of sleights of hand--great visuals, drawn from the work of a range of artists, but not much of a tale. No story. No resolution.

Creation involved a very different sort of storytelling: a clear arc, and a very clear resolution. When the cinematic Darwin, like the figures in the Imaginarium, allows himself to delve into his own imagination--particularly into the tortured memories of his dead daughter Annie--he loses himself in self-recrimination. Only when he leaves the world of his solitary imagination, confronts his wife with the stories they have been keeping to themselves, and re-makes their marriage, can he write and publish his findings. In contrast to the Imaginarium, which can only handle one imagination @ a time (two or more are disastrous: too powerful!), Darwin finds relief when he emerges from  the solitary, the a-social, the atomic self, into community.

In his post about blogging and self-creation, Bharath said  that "to have access to concepts is to have the ability to create new" ones. I think we are helped in that process by one another; and I'm hoping this group can move more in that direction, working on more shared stories, that draw on our individual imaginations, but also lead us out of and beyond them....

Paul Grobstein's picture

what kind of universe DO we live in, and why does it matter?

I too spent some time with Stuart Kauffman this week. 

"Kauffman and I, unbeknownst to either of us, have been exploring related but distinct paths to a similar place, a conception of the universe which is consistent with but not constrained by physical law, a universe whose evolution is non-algorithmic and so open to the appearance of phenomena that could not in principle be predicted from a complete description of physical laws and starting conditions, a universe within which humans are causal agents in that sense, able to contribute to the appearance of things that change the nature of the universe ..."

For more see On beyond an algorithmic universe

alesnick's picture

new journal annoucement: The Evolutionary Review

Hi All,  From SUNY Pres, in case it's of interest: The Evolutionary Review: "An annual publication that uniquely and forcefully elucidates the intersections of evolutionary science, the humanities, arts, and popular culture."

Anne Dalke's picture

Against forced agreement

I went to two sort-of curious/not-entirely-satisfactory talks this past week about the intersections between science and art. Being puzzled-and-dissatisfied by each of them, differently, I thought I might use this space to try to tease out the puzzles a bit...

On February 3, Catherine Elgin, a philosopher of education @ Harvard, gave one of the talks in the BMC Philosophy Department Colloquia series, in which she argued that "the arts function cognitively": they contribute to understanding (which she defined as a "'reasonable' system of cognitive commitments that 'hold together'"). She developed this argument (as one of the student interlocutors acutely pointed out during the q&a) by attributing value to art, not because it does anything unique or different, but because it enables the already recognized values of science.

I wanted to push Elgin on this point. I think it's the case (as she argued it was) that science places a higher value than art does on intersubjective agreement. I also think it's the case that -- because art doesn't build on previous results in the way science does -- it doesn't need (for instance) to "force agreement by forcing a limit to precision" (in measurement, say). Further, I think it's the case that works of art actually seek not to align themselves with what has been done, but rather to diverge from past works, to be unique, and original.

Here's where I got stuck. What then would be the "system" of understanding to which art contributes? The totality of a work? Its genre, period, art qua art? How might "that which diverges" contribute to that which "holds together"? So much of art tries not to be "exemplary" of larger claims (as Tolstoy says in the first line of Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" -- and it is of course this unique unhappiness that he goes on to chronicle).

So I guess that's where I was left: wanting to highlight art's resistance to finding the similar, and -- more largely -- resisting any forced similarity between the actions of art and those of science.

The next afternoon I went to a Cooper Series event @ Swarthmore: a talk by Stuart Kauffman of the Santa Fe Institute on "Examining the sacred" that I thought tried to do for science and religion what Elgin had tried to do for science and art: make them one. Kauffman argued with great specificity that the universe, having "made all possible atoms," can never "make all possible molecules" (that is, all possible combinations of atoms). It is thus, he said, "grotesquely ... non-repeating," offers a "space of the possible" that will always be "larger than what happens." Not only can we "not know what will happen," we can "not even know what can happen." Unable to  "define the sample space" that is the biosphere, we can know only that "unforeseeable circumstances" and "novel possibilities" will emerge. Recognizing such a "creative universe," Kauffman concluded, can give us a shareable sense of the sacred," something we all --scientific and religious folk alike--can call "God."

And so I found myself again resisting: do we really need such a story in common: a single shared story? I'd be interested to hear how others think of these efforts to find shared language (to agree even on single shared words, like "understanding" and "God") for divergent activities.

Paul Grobstein's picture

science, art, religion: bridging for commonality or expansion?

Missed Elgin because was with Kauffman, so glad to have Anne's report and Bharath's.  Yes, I suspect the interest in bridging science and art and bridging science and religion was interestingly parallel.  And the parallel was, I think, even greater if one accepts Bharath's interpretation of Elgin.  Certainly my own interest in the science/art interface is not in forcing a common language on anyone but rather in seeing how working across "divergent" activities creates new possibilities, in and of itself as well as within the different activities.  And I think that's true of Kauffman's interests in the science/religion interface.  The idea is not at all to create a new language to replace old ones but rather to make use of divergence in the service of opening new directions of exploration that can both draw from and contribute to existing ones.  Yes, as Anne says, its a "looping."

A similar idea of expansion rather than colonization or replacement in interdisciplinary work, and in cultural evolution generally, is being developed in From evolving systems to world literature, and back again?  And an underlying idea - that not everything that can be is inherent in what has been, that existing things can be used to create genuinely new things - was very much at the center of my conversations with Kauffman (see On beyond an algorithmic universe).   Yep, science and art and religion can indeed (if their practitioners so chose) all create new things that "leap out" and provide alternative "structures that we can use in making sense of what occurs around us."   If we live, or at least act as if we live, in a non-algorithmic universe. 

Bharath Vallabha's picture

art and science

Anne, a very interesting post on the talk. I had a somewhat different reaction. I thought that the way she highlighted some similarities between art and science helped bring out how both are part of the overall endeavor of expanding and creating human understanding. As she said in response to the student’s comment you mention, I don’t think she meant to say that art is good because it is like science. Rather, I think what she is saying is that art and science have some similarities which help highlight how understanding in a more general way functions. I doubt she thinks of either art or science as in any way privileged, or that they are not different in many ways. This also doesn’t mean that she thinks that there is one way some uber thing called understanding works. Understanding can be taken as getting things a little less wrong.

You say that “works of art actually seek not to align themselves with what has been done, but rather to diverge from past works, to be unique, and original.” This seems right to me. But I don’t think there is a difference here with science. If a scientist is working within a paradigm, does that mean that she accepts the basic scientific theory (past works) and is not trying to be unique or original? Certainly a scientist could be like that, just as an artist could be broadly conforming to a paradigm. But it doesn’t mean that the scientist has to be like that. Rather, the scientist could be seeking to be unique and original as well and to rethink fundamental assumptions. I think to deny this is to hold too strongly to the distinction between normal science and revolutionary science. I would say that there is no sharp distinction between the two, and that good science, like good thinking, is trying not just to discover new facts but new modes of understanding. Here I think there is quite a bit of convergence between Elgin’s view and Paul’s (and perhaps yours, as I understand it so far from discussions).

The same point can also be put this way. Does every work of art seek to not align itself with what has gone on before? Could any work of art do that? I would be suspicious of the master genius creation from nothing picture of an artist’s motivation or working process. And I would be also doubtful of the idea that an artist necessarily seeks to be different from everyone. How then could we make sense of the miniature artists in the Islamic tradition who sought to recapture the definitive depiction mastered by the past artists? Or even of movements such as impressionism or realism or cubism, etc? True, an artist might never be really satisfied long enough with even her own creation such that she would fully identify with some framework. Perhaps good artists keep transcending or trying to transcend their own creations. But here too I see no difference from good scientists.

I think “the arts function cognitively” is similar to “science is a story”. I take it that in the latter “story” is being used more broadly than we normally use it. One might say that science isn’t a story because it doesn’t characters, it is objective, it builds on the past, etc. But that doesn’t take away from the main point of the claim, which might be that science is perspectival just as all understanding is perspectival, and that science is not a locus of universal truths simply being handed over. Similarly, I think Elgin is using “cognitive” and “understanding” in a broad sense to mean human self-conceptualizations which are constantly being amended and transformed and created anew, all against a background which is taken for granted at certain moments but might be called into question at other moments. Understanding here is not the brute depiction of facts, but the general human encounter with the world in an attempt to make sense of it.

This point especially resonated with me in terms of the Jane Austen example and the idea that a novel can be seen as a thought experiment. Austen said, “three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.” What does this mean? Elgin’s interpretation is that this gives the author enough diversity to play with without making it unmanageable. It helps bring out how ten or fifteen people interact with each other in five or ten contexts, and to thereby see how people with certain backgrounds will interact with other people with other backgrounds in certain contexts. It is a way of isolating things so as to understand them a little better. In this way, it is similar to how one might isolate some cells to understand their interactions. But there is more. The novelist isn’t simply bringing out these situations to just depict facts. Often the novelist (and the really good artists) put the thought experiment together in such a way that it enables the audience to see certain patterns in the artistic work, patterns which the audience isn’t normally attuned to and which through the reading they can thereby see in the world itself.

The Don Quixote example was an excellent example of this. Cervantes created in the story an archetype which we could understand and identify with given the context of the story. But the archetype is so powerful for us that we then take that archetype out of the context of the story, and start using it to make sense of the world around us; we start seeing some people as quixotic. The novel has thereby enhanced our perceptions of the world. The same it seems to me is true of Hamlet, Lear, the Godfather, Beethoven’s fifth symphony, one's favorite songs and many other works of art. In these cases the characters or the experiences LEAP OUT, as it were, out of the context of the novel or the movie or music and we carry it around with us in categorizing and making sense of the people and events around us. It is in this broad sense of cognitive that arts are cognitive. They can function like lenses through which we categorize and make sense of the world. And in this they are no different from other categories we might pick up in science textbooks, philosophy essays or through learning new languages.

Anne Dalke's picture

"A living novel"

Thanks, Bharath--that was a very helpful gloss on Elgin's talk (now I wish you'd been to Kauffman's, and could walk me through that one also!). Especially striking to me is your notion of characters or plots LEAPING OUT of their fictional contexts to supply categories that we can use in making sense of what occurs around us, to provide structures for organizing our experiences. This provides such a dynamic sense of the relationship between literary "thought experiments" and the world in which we move, as a bi-directional activity in which stories both arise from and affect our experiences in an on-going "loop."

We've been looking @ this dynamic (though I didn't yet have your words for it) in my genre class this week, where we have been studying the emerging genre of blogging, and thinking about the degree to which writing one's life in public may actually pre-figure and shape one's experiences. One recent visitor, who had written a travel blog while living in Chile, reported that she climbed a volcano because she didn't want to blog afterwards that she'd failed to. Another study we read about The Diary on the Internet reports on Steve Schalchlin's experience in writing one of the earliest Web diaries, Living in the Bonus Round, about his experience of (not) dying of AIDS: "Many of his readers began to think of Schalchlin as a literary character, the protagonist of ...  'a LIVING NOVEL' .... the textual has come to shape the lived life .... Schalchlin is now both producer and product of his autobiographical narrative." There's something very interesting going on here, as bloggers use this new form to stabilize a sense of themselves, in a time and space of change and fragmentation...



Bharath Vallabha's picture

blogging and self-creation

The link between blogging and the looping idea is great. Just as we look at things and people through categories we bring to them, so too other people look at us through categories they bring with them. And often we help the other person to know which categories to use in relating to us by making some of those categories salient for them. This, I think, is what it is for people to identify themselves as X, Y or Z; as a scientist or a romantic or a heterosexual or an Indian, etc. When a person identifies with something, they are telling the other people to look at them from such and such an angle so that the other people can see and organize our activities in the way in which we ourselves organize them. Here there is a wonderful looping between the categories I pick up from texts to make sense of the world, and the categories I create so that I can be seen as a part of the world and as a text for someone else. The world creates me and I create the world, and in this way both me and the world (and others) coevolve.

The appeal of blogging and of a web presence in general, it seems to me, is that it enables new ways to pick up on salient features of each other and thereby create new identities and meanings. For example, on the traditional conception of a professor, a professor is someone who is part of an inner circle of fellow intellectuals and who communicates her thoughts through articles or books deemed appropriate by that circle. This is the normal expectation reinforced by hundreds of years of use of the concept in books, culture, families, etc. That is, this is what we expect because this is the concept of professor we are unconsciously carrying around from the literary and other media texts surrounding us. I sense the power of this archetype being applied to me when people act as if they know who I am, how I think and what I care about just because they know that I am a professor. Indeed, more than that: they act as if they know how I should be, because they know how the stereotypical professor is supposed to act. And I do this to others as well when I treat them as professors or lawyers or engineers or artists or athletes, etc. (Is this why Jesus said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged”?...)

Blogging, however, gives one more control over how others might look at them and over what their identities mean. I think this is part of the reason why people blog, twitter, do facebook, etc. It gives them control over their identities. They are no longer just a teacher or a husband or a mother or an artist or a daughter – all of which are abstract categories which don’t distinguish one mother from another, or one teacher from another. But through blogging the persons shows that they are a teacher in this way, a father in that way, an artist who cares about this but not about that, and so on. Is an academic being an academic when they reflect on their personal lives? I think the traditional concept of an academic suggests not; the traditional concept requires something more like talking about people in general, rather than about one’s own personal life. But what if someone is a professor but writes about his personal life publicly in a blog, and writes about it in a way which mixes together his personal and academic interests? Is he being schizophrenic? Or has he not grasped properly the concept of an academic? Or is it that he is reorienting and transforming the notion of an academic? By embracing new modes of expression such as blogging, the person acquires a tool to stretch the concepts in new ways, to change it to incorporate new meanings and resonances.

Perhaps people don’t judge others because people are mean. Maybe they judge others because that is the only way they can understand others. They apply to others the concepts they have picked up from the culture, and if they are not familiar with new applications of the concept, they have no choice but to apply the old and well worn applications to people. This means that if I am tired of how people apply concepts to me, then simply bemoaning that fact accomplishes nothing; it means that I am unwittingly accepting the idea that concepts are unchangeable and set in stone. But concepts aren’t set in stone. An novelist creates a new concept when she creates a new character or a new situation or a new dynamic. An artist creates a new concept when she creates a new dance or a new method of representation or sings in a new way. A scientist creates a new concept when she discovers a new fact or reinterprets an old fact or comes up with a new theory or mode of analysis. A young person creates a new concept when she dresses in a new way, organizes her room in a bold way, when she questions elders in a new way or when she applies her studies to her life. Similarly, a blogger can create new concepts by blogging when she might otherwise have kept quiet, when she writes about two experiences which are normally thought of separately, and indeed by the very fact of blogging. Just like the novelist creates new concepts in her novel, so too a person who writes about her life creates new concepts which she can use for self-identification and for understanding others.

It seems to me that, in the long run, blogging can have the kind of impact reading or writing had in the past. To have access to concepts is to have the ability to create new concepts. A person who can write is not beholden to the categories created by other authors; she can create categories herself. Likewise, a person who blogs is not beholden to categories created only in special contexts such as education, art, science, etc. Blogging is itself a new context and so a mode of developing new concepts, and so is a method for proliferating an unimaginable diversity of concepts. If every person in a town blogged, just in virtue of that the town would become a thousand fold more self-conscious. For they would then have a plethora of new concepts to play with, new distinctions to appreciate and new identities to use in understanding each other.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Interdisciplinary to interdisciplinary conversation

See From evolving systems to world literature and back again?

"there might be ... instructive and mutually useful parallels between trying to unite "outsiders" around "world literature" and trying to unite an even wider array of "outsiders" around "evolving systems."

Paul Grobstein's picture

From skepticism/againstness to meaning making ...

Thanks to all my colleagues in the Evolving Systems project for conversations and experiences reflected in On beyond a critical stance

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field.  I will meet you there ... Jelaluddin Rumi

"a place where we talk and listen not to determine what is "right" and what is "wrong," nor because its important to be polite and respectful, but rather in order to create, for ourselves and others, ways to make sense of things that make more sense than anything we have yet thought of, to create and recreate meaning."

Paul Grobstein's picture

relevant evolsys events at Swarthmore next week

Lecture and Panel Discussion on Emergence and the Sacred at Swarthmore College,  featuring Stuart Kauffman, Founder of the Santa Fe Institute, Systems Theorist, Harvard University School of Divinity, and University of Calgary

Thursday, Feburary 4th, 4:30 Science 101
What constitutes the sacred and can science preserve and expand the
concept of the sacred in current society?

Friday, February 5th, 5:00 Science 199
Does modern physics and biology show that order can be easily
generated as a property of matter and that complex dynamic systems
form naturally and easily? What does this mean to our concepts of
matter, life,  evolution, and political economies? Dr. Kauffman will
be joined by Alan Baker (Philosophy, Swarthmore), Paul Grobstein
(Biology; Bryn Mawr) and  Charles Dyke (Philosophy, Temple) to look at
one of the major changes in science in this new century.

Bharath Vallabha's picture


I have started a blog in which I aim to think out loud from time to time. You can check it out here.

Paul Grobstein's picture

how to use uncertainty

From a recent lunch conversation with Mike Sears following up on some evolsys open group discussions.  Perhaps worth a session in that and/or in the core group?

Alternative perspectives on randomness and its significance

"There is certainly something appealing about a perspective that equates current uncertainty with ignorance that can be overcome in the future.  Among other things, it defines a clear task, to make certain everything that is currently uncertain.   But I find still more appealing the notion that uncertainty is a persistant and generative condition, one that allows us a creative role in shaping a future that will in turn always have new things into which to inquire ..."

Paul Grobstein's picture

evolsys evolving - end of 2009, start of 2010

For some relevant articles, excerpts, discussion of education in an evolving systems context, see The brain, old and young, and education, college and otherwise.  And for what I've learned this past year and how I got there (including important contributions from Alice and Bharath), see

Paul Grobstein's picture

on beyond againstness

For a recent radiation of our againstness discussions see

Replacing blame with generosity in classrooms, inquiry, and culture

Paul Grobstein's picture

"Unmediated presence. The unmediated now."

See what has been keeping Mark busy

"Offending the Audience is a play.  Sort of.  It is a play about plays and playing.   It is a play about what happens to you, the audience, while you are sitting in the theater.  But then, it isn’t really “about” anything.  It is something.  Bodies in space.  Voices.  Words.  Maybe an authentic connection between performers and audience members.  And, above all, awareness.  Offending the Audience is “unmediated theater,” Handke says.  Unmediated presence.  The unmediated now."

Paul Grobstein's picture

On offensiveness and againstness and making/remaking meaning

"This is not a play ... We are not acting ... We are not pretending ... We are not playing ... We represent nothing ... This is not half of one world ... not the standard idea of two worlds ... We primarily negate ... a prologue to ... "  ... Peter Handke, Offending the Audience

Is Offending the Audience offensive?

"For the thoughtless crowd of pearl-wearing theatergoers Handke assumed he was offending, these tactics might have been a surprise. Now, however, you can't surf past a Facebook page without noticing that life is a floor show, and we are all its stars" ... review

"There is nothing offensive in what is represented on the stage; the offense of the title is that nothing at all is represented" ... review

Maybe people are missing the point.  Or declining to let it impact on themselves?  This is not a play about theater, or appearances, or artifice.  Its a play about life, about the human condition, about ways we all approach the world and our place in it all of the time, and about  problems with that that we are reluctant to acknowledge.  It is a play about

"the variety of quite different concerns triggered by a relatively straightforward set of observations suggesting that what we experience is always a construction, an idiosyncratic resolution of inputs that are themselves always ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations"

and about

"the dark side of that tale.  A script that separated us from one another."

and about the need to somehow find

"a meaningful zone of human existence in between an exclusive preoccupation with experiential singularity and an unwarranted belief in objective, universal reality"

Offending the Audience is a play about "againstness."  It is, of course, about refusing theatrical conventions but it is about much more than that. It is about acknowledging that "life is a floor show, and we are all its stars" is a facile cover story hiding a much deeper issue needing to be wrestled with: the possibility that we are all products of an evolving system that lacks meaning except insofar as we create it, that we each create meaning somewhat differently, and that there is no authority outside of ourselves to adjudicate our differences.  We are not actors in a play and there are no stars.  We do not "represent" something, we just are.   There is only our lives and the world we live in,  the different meanings we attribute to that, and the inevitable againstnesses that result from it.   Audiences may not, in this day and age, be offended by someone who challenges theatrical conventions, but the play is intended to challenge social and individual conventions much more broadly, and the meanings we use to justify them.  I suspect more people would be offended by the play if they noticed that Handke was challenging not only theatrical conventions but their own conventions and meanings as well. 

But there is much more to the play than being offensive.   Particularly in Mark's hands, it is a play that plays with againstness not as negation or denial but rather as the impetus for exploring new ways of being, as the creative drive that opens new possibilities of existence, not only for the theater but for humans generally, both individually and collectively.   My own guess is that it is indeed along this path that we will all, individually and collectively, find an appealing way to make sense of ourselves not only as creators of meaning but as the source of differences in meaning from which new meanings and ways of being evolve (see Replacing blame with generosity in education, inquiry, and culture). 

Thanks, Mark, for a compelling exploration (as opposed to "representation") of the potentials of not only acknowledging but embracing againstness.

alesnick's picture

I'm interested in the

I'm interested in the distinction between making sense of ourselves "as creators of meaning" and of "the source of differences in meaning."  Is the first more a matter of storytelling, and the second more a matter of creatureliness?  If our differences give rise to the meanings we create, then it is important to keep returning focus, in interaction and education, to the interplay of differences, rather than the coherence of meanings or frameworks. If what people have to offer one another, and the universe, by virtue of conflicts between our different ways of being is vital, then what are the implications for the set-up of relationships, schools, and all?  And how can we work towards a psychology that enables trusting conflict?

Paul Grobstein's picture

humans as "creators of" and "source of differences in" meaning

Its a distinction worth calling attention to.  Thanks.  Both are, I think, largely a function of story telling rather than underlying "creatureliness." My story is that we make meaning largely be virtue of our ability to conceive alternative stories ("counterfactuals").  Our ability to conceive alternative stories, individually and collectively, can be enhanced by learning to value the differences in meaning made by different individuals rather than treating differences as things to be ignored or ironed out.   Yep, interesting implications for relationships and education.  Work towards a "psychology that enables trusting conflict" by setting up situations where people are encouraged to express differences and can experience the new insights that in turn arise?  By allowing people to have experiences with the positive outcomes, for themselves and others, of seeing each other "not in terms of deficiencies but in terms of possibilities"?  With that sort of experience in turn promoting a more "generous" character in our "creatureliness"?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Religion as an evolving system?

Nicolas Wade in the NYTimes Week in Review this morning ...

For atheists, it is not a particularly welcome thought that religion evolved because it conferred essential benefits on early human societies and their successors. If religion is a lifebelt, it is hard to portray it as useless.

For believers, it may seem threatening to think that the mind has been shaped to believe in gods, since the actual existence of the divine may then seem less likely.

But the evolutionary perspective on religion does not necessarily threaten the central position of either side ...

From Kent Flannery, referred to in the Wade article ...

I got to wondering about what archeology needed the most. I decided there probably isn't an urgent need for one more young person who makes a living editing other people's original ideas. And I decided we probably didn't need a lot more of our archeological flat tires recapped as philosophers. There seems to be enough around to handle the available work.

What I don't see enough of ... is first-rate archaeology.

Now that's sad, because after all, archeology is fun. Hell, I don't break the soil periodically to 'reaffirm my status'. I do it because archeology is still the most fun you can have with your pants on.

Paul Grobstein's picture

againstness in education as well as inquiry/life?

An intriguing specific instance of our more general againstness conversations in a discussion of educational practice that Alice has orchestrated ...

"it struck me that there are very productive things that can come out of the experience of conflict can be very helpful-even reassuring-for kids to talk directly about their unpleasant feelings ... Taking time to discuss childrens' feelings of anger, self-effacement, jealousy, or resentment not only legitimizes such feelings, but makes it okay for them to have those feelings and gives them the emotional space to work through them. A child's capacity to sort through his/her own feelings-and to understand the feelings of others-equips him or her to get the most out of a classroom setting and interpersonal learning environments throughout the rest of his or her life.

Maybe this isn't only the case for kids?  Or maybe we are all ...

Paul Grobstein's picture

evolving systems: conversational intersections (Oct 09)

The core group and open conversations each have their own idiosyncratic character and concerns but both seem to me to be wrestling in interestingly different ways with the common problem of how to understand and intersect the objective and the subjective, meaninglessness and meaning, the emergent and the "intentional."  Cf.  Meaning: declining the end run and offering an alternative, Clarifying intentionalities, and From ambiguity to skepticism to social conventions.   In an intriguing way, what seems to me to be evolving is a story of "objectivity," "meaning," and "intentionality" all emerging from and dependent on interpersonal reciprocity.  It may seem odd to have "objectivity" in this list, but see The objectivity/subjectivity spectrum: having one's cake and eating it too

alesnick's picture

scale/scales of conversation(s)?

Re: the objectivity/subjectivity spectrum, is it possible that having a conversation with the widest possible number of people isn't always a primary standard?  Is it equally possible that people could develop an ability to speak in chords, if you will, that combine subjective sources with more transpersonal linkages of ideas?  To me, this circles back to the question of specificity/uniqueness in interpersonal reciprocity.  I guess I'm just wondering if, as bodies in the body of the world, it makes more sense for us to double our voices towards both the particular and the general.  Could this be more inclusive?  More fostering of trust and common ground in which to be joyfully different?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Another evolving system example?

Review in yesterday's NYTimes of The Nature of Technology: What it Is and How it Evolves by W. Brian Arthur. 

"Technologies evolve, Dr. Arthur writes, based on the chaotic and constant recombining of already existing technologies. In this view all technological breakthroughs emerge as novel combinations of existing technological components, which have themselves come into existence through the same process. And, he argues, both technological and scientific progress are driven by humans looking for a means to an end they have already defined."

Sounds a lot like a hybrid system:  emergence interacting with intentionality. 



bolshin's picture

Technology + Evolving Systems / Problems in Emergence

Grobstein's discussion of technology's evolving is very interesting to me, trained in the history and philosophy of science and technology. Certainly, technology is often simply the recombination of existing elements -- in fact, the same can be said for much of visual art, and musical composition, too, for that matter. As for progress being the result of humans "looking for a means to an end that they have already defined", that seems a bit too simple to me. Often the technology may be designed for a certain end but yields quite different ends -- no one suspected that the Victrola would re-shape our whole approach to music, for example. Rarely is an end well-defined: I doubt that Edison devised the light bulb as a direct solution to a problem -- people had lived with gas-lighting for quite a while, and probably could have done so for another hundred years. Even now, there are problems that have direct solutions, but technologies have not appeared to address them. Technological innovation is a much more chaotic process than most people realize, and its driven mostly by irrational factors: desire for profit, personal egos, the vagaries of the market, and so on. Why does the Windows system -- a dreadful bit of backwards technology -- continue to thrive? Primarily because of its hold on the market, NOT because it provides an optimal solution to the need for personal computing (a need which was fabricated out of thin air anyway!).

Now, onto a totally different subject -- problems in emergence. In mind, Grobstein and I are still locked in battle: I don't see how order and pattern and so on can emerge from nothing. I know that's simplifying Grobstein's positions, but still... The other day, I taught some of the ideas of Empedocles and Anaxagoras to my class. The former took the four Greek material causes (the four elements) and added two efficient causes. The latter put forward the idea of nous ("Mind") as the efficient cause. In both cases, these thinkers were not content with the idea that material itself could lead to order. That is, they didn't believe that systems could spontaneously arise and be self-organizing. They posited outside organizing forces that took matter and shaped it.

This seems to be a bit lame (to use philosophical jargon) to me, of course, and leads to the question of where those efficient causes are from -- an eternal regression. But one is interesting is that philosophically, we are all still stuck in this frame of thinking. We think that there is either some fundamental organizing principle "behind" all matter (the "God equation", Wolfram's algorithms, etc.), or that matter arises with all its properties ready to go, allowing it to combine, interact, etc., giving rise to complex systems. Neither solution works for me. I am tending to think now that either, as Grobstein knows from our conversations, we give rise to ourselves (more on that another time), or that (a topic for our group's discussion perhaps??) the whole concept of "something emerging" is flawed. Perhaps the idea of "process" is wrong!

Paul Grobstein's picture

relevant conversation elsewhere

Reality reconsidered, from a brain perspective ...

Reality = the way things are, for better or for worse

or, alternatively,

Reality = a combination of informed guessing and conceiving alternatives, so can always be better ("less wrong")

Paul Grobstein's picture

upcoming relevant event

Thanks to Greg Davis, who wrote ...

Some members of the group might be interested in the discussion of TH Morgan, who was not only a professor here for a dozen years, as you know, but also harbored deep suspicions regarding the efficacy and adequacy of natural selection to explain evolution. I'm not sure exactly what Scott is going to talk about, but I imagine this point almost has to come up.  Here's the information on the talk:

The Bryn Mawr College Library will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of his landmark book On the Origin of Species with its new exhibition, Darwin’s Ancestors: Tracing the Origins of the “Origin of Species,” which will run through February 2010 in the Class of 1912 Rare Book Room in Canaday Library.

The exhibition will open on Thursday, Oct. 22, with a lecture by Swarthmore College Professor of Biology Scott Gilbert, titled “Disagreements Among Friends: How T. H. Morgan and E. B. Wilson’s Agreeing to Disagree Helped Establish Genetics and the Modern Synthesis.” Wilson was Bryn Mawr’s first biology professor and Morgan the second, and both played prominent roles in the international debates over evolution during the first half of the 20th century. The lecture will be at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 22,  in Carpenter Library 21.

bolshin's picture

Another Tough Nut for the Evolving Systems Group to Crack...

I'd like to preface my remarks here today (Sunday, 11 October 2009) by noting that my brain hurts today as much as it does in our actual meetings at Bryn Mawr. As Paul knows, I am constantly working in about three totally different fields at once -- philosophy, business consulting, art+design (I am teaching a grad seminar in industrial design this year... along with a course in Greek philosophy and another in Daoism... oowww, it hurts!), and so on. As I write this, I am getting ready to present some research at a conference on pre-Colombian voyages to the Americas...! So, my thoughts are a bit foggy. But Paul's presentation on "ambiguous images" is still in my mind, and actually the idea came up in today's conference, since I debating people who claim that certain rock carvings in the American southwest are Old World scripts. I say -- as Paul might put it -- that they are decoding or resolving external (visual) "noise" into something that makes sense to them, as observers. They are storytelling, too. The story that they are telling is defective, for various reasons that I won't get into here, but it fits with Paul's idea of pathology being when one's "story" is no longer working as a way of making one's way in the world...

But what I actually wanted to talk about was related more directly to our group's charge of looking at issues of "Form, Meaning, and Aesthetics". We've talked about how people see or create form and meaning out of "noise" or randomness, etc. We looked at some visual examples, talked about auditory examples, and so on. But the other day, I was re-reading some papers of a British physicist, Julian Barbour, who studies time, and believes that it does not exist. He presents an interesting model of a timeless universe, but never quite addresses the key question of why we perceive time. In short, then, I think that "time" may be another "story-telling" mechanism, but a very complex one, one even more complex than visual resolution, or auditory, or even linguistic resolution. This could lead to some interesting discussion, perhaps, in our future meetings. I will touch upon this in my "I Ching" workshop coming up...

Paul Grobstein's picture

Time as an emergent in evolution, as a construction

I too would love to see time as a subject of our evolving systems conversations.  And share a strong sense that it is indeed a "story telling" device.  There's a lot of interesting literature on the brain related to this.  Timing the conscious and the unconscious: some implications for thinking ... and thinking about time could be a starting point; the basic argument is that "time" is clearly manipulated by the brain and seems to be an element of conscious ("story") but not unconscious processing.   Another relevant line of exploration has to do with the distinction between narrative and non-narrative story telling.   

Paul Grobstein's picture

physics, philosophy, and the brain

Interesting seminar last night, cosponsored by Physics and Philosophy.  See Multiple worlds, multiple interpretations: quantum physics and the brain for some resulting thoughts relevant to our project.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Can one go home again? In biology/physics/human constructions?

NYTimes this week:

Can Evolution Run in Reverse?  A Study Says Its a One Way Street

Relevant to evolving systems group in general and to relation of biology to physics and literature in particular.  Physicists as a group tend to prefer to think of things as irreversible.  Biologists?  Literary scholars?  Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again?  Is time, in physics/biology/literature  an address/location in a "block universe"?  Or simply another way of talking about change, itself often irreversible?   

Anne Dalke's picture

a little economics to go w/ that art....?

On this anniversary of the financial collapse, mebbe we ought all to learn a little bit more about how the complex system that is the global market operates. Paul Krugman had a very-clarifying-to-me article in last week's NYTimes Magazine, "How Did the Economists Get It So Wrong?": "economists will have to learn to live with messiness. That is, they will have to acknowledge the importance of irrational and often unpredictable behavior, face up to the often idiosyncratic imperfections of markets..."

Paul Grobstein's picture

Economics, irrationality, and evolving systems

Thanks for the link.  I too was struck by Krugman's "economists will have to learn to live with messiness."  But I don't think its only the "irrational and often unpredictable behavior" of humans that is at issue here.  My guess is that what economists (and many other academics) need to come to grips with is "evolving systems" in general, human and otherwise, systems that  are always exploring new possibilities and so are inherently "unpredictable" and inevitably transcend any effort to fully account for them "rationally." 

Adi Flesher's picture


On the same general topic, I was listening to NPR's planet money podcast on the topic of regulation of the financial markets. They essentially make your point Paul. Every time you introduce a new regulation or rule into the system, the system itself adapts with the new rule. Of course this doesn't just apply to Government regulations but to the entire system which constantly evolving in meaningful ways.

mlord's picture

Ideas for group activities/outings

 1. We should visit Isaiah Zagar's "Philadelphia's Magic Gardens", the work of a dedicated outsider-artist/mosaicist. It's on South Street in Philadelphia. I suggest that it is an evolving system and an evolving aesthetic and that some of the dualistic thinking that we've been occasionally engaged in becomes much more difficult to sustain in an environment in which inside/outside don't quite apply.

2. We should have filmmaker Peter Rose come and speak to us and screen some of his films. You can see some at Rose has been engaged with issues that we're discussing for a number of years. He's an incredibly articulate person, with interests in both science and creating.

3. As an ancillary activity, I invite you to check out the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, which is happening Sept 4-19. Lots of great, paradigm challenging pieces. (I've been working with Headlong Dance Theater on MORE, but there's lots to see.


Paul Grobstein's picture

an erotics of classification?

Reviving the lost art of naming the world (NYTimes 10 August 2009)

"sorting and naming the natural world is a universal, deep-seated and fundamental human activity, one we cannot afford to lose because it is essential to understanding the living world, and our place in it.

find an organism, any organism ... and get a sense of it, its shape, color, size, feel, smell, sound ... meditate, luxuriate in its beetle-ness, its daffodility. Then find a name for it ... To do so is to change everything, including yourself ... once you start noticing organisms, once you have a name for particular beasts, birds and flowers, you can’t help seeing life and the order in it, just where it has always been, all around you."

Paul Grobstein's picture

evolution in progress

Apropos of evolving systems generally as well as new forms of representation, mashing up, and the OED and textbooks,   see 24 August NYTimes

"a growing realization on the part of Wikipedia’s leaders that as the site grows more influential, they must transform its embrace-the-chaos culture into something more mature and dependable."

Paul Grobstein's picture

evolving systems: one more challenge

From Repainting the past, by Randy Cohen, NYT ethicist ....

"As an unofficial part of the worldwide festivities saluting Galileo ... I'd like to do some recanting of my own ... My insurance anaology was folly, but his cosmology was correct, as he knew and as his adversary, the church, eventually acknowledged four centuries later ...  I expect and deserve no such approbation, even 400 years from now"

The problem is that Galileo's cosmology was not provably "correct" at the time, and is provably "incorrect" now: the earth doesn't go around the sun, the earth and the sun orbit a common center of mass.  So why, in an evolving systems context, do we celebrate Galileo?  And what advice/perspective could we offer Cohen, about his own approbation or any one else's?      

Paul Grobstein's picture

Education and evolving systems

Interesting challenge.  Can we redefine the role of both the OED, and TEXTBOOKS?  For more on the latter, see Textbooks and science education  and Education: between two cultures

Paul Grobstein's picture

on the OED, dictionaries, nostalgia, and emergence

Do we, should we, regard the OED as a "stunnning intelllectual accomplishment in almost every way"?  What are its limitations in an evolving systems context, and how should we make sense of/communicate/make generative use of those?

Anne Dalke's picture

"RiP! A Re-mix Manifesto"

I'm writing to add to our mix of possibilities for discussion a 1 1/2-hour YouTube video called "RiP! A Remix Manifesto," which uses re-mixes, mash-ups, and other forms of "culture jamming" and (so-called) "piracy" to challenge what Mark long ago called the "oxymoron of intellectual property"; the documentary argues that copyright is an historical anomaly, particular to the 20th century's peculiar ways of making money.

I found it a little slow to start (probably because the culture referents belong to the next generation!), but I think the story it tells is compelling, and very relevant to (@ least one of our) topics, that of emergent aesthetics (3 sound bites: "the music industry refused to evolve, so we evolved for them";  "the rules of this game are up to you"; "mixture is the future of the human race"). The documentary analogizes the work of music "sampling" to reading journals and taking notes, to writing articles and citing others, and argues in general that patenting ideas holds back knowledge exchange and development.

I'd be very interested to hear what you (and your students!) think of the argument developed here (and of course of the form it takes, which is itself a mash-up). Here's "The Remix Manifesto" in outline form:

1. Culture always builds on the past.
2. The past tries to control the future.
3. Our future is becoming less free.
4. To build free societies you must limit the control of the past.

mlord's picture

mashing up.

 First glances:

1. Culture (and everything else, if there is anything that isn't "culture" has a relationship to the past, but it surely isn't always "building on". Sometimes it is rewriting, sometimes desecrating, sometimes ignoring, sometimes adoring.

2. The past has no motive and I wonder that we would ascribe it one. The past has no desire. WE may feel anxious about our relationship to the past and may attempt to assuage our inevitable transfer to the dustbin of history by trying to control/prevent the future.

3. Each of us will always be free in every moment but, I note in middle age, it is true that the number of moments in which one can exercise one's freedom does seem to dwindle.

4. What if "free" and "societies" can't really co-exist? If one of these terms is always encroaching on the other then...a game of who gets to hide the ashes is really just taking attention from an even more basic, dynamic contradiction.... Looking forward to the afternoon.

Anne Dalke's picture

new forms of representation?

I'm lost right now in a wierd strange novel, Mark Danielewski's 2000 House of Leaves...and making note of that here because this novel (or others "like it") might be good texts to read as we think about "new ways" of writing/picturing/representing "new ways of thinking": not "against," but....?

Paul Grobstein's picture

More on how to evolve?

"Because right and wrong appeared, the Way was injured"  .... Zhuangzi

"Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing there is a field.
I'll meet you there." ... Jelaluddin Rumi

See Order from randomness, from ourselves, or both?

Anne Dalke's picture

Will you join the procession?

Here's a little more guidance (and a challenge?) from my friend-of-the-month, William James.

His proposal below (imagined as an invitatation from God to humanity) sounds parallel to what I think we are (trying to?) set up in this group.  Particularly curious and troubling to me (and perhaps something we could discuss further, given esp. Bharath's background in Hinduism and Hank's specialization in Japanese religious culture) is James's characterization of Hindus and Buddhists not as being more aware (than Christians?) of the uncertainty of life circumstances, but rather as fearful withdrawings from the challenge offered by a pragmantist engagement in the world:

"Suppose that the world's author put the case to you before creation, saying: "I am going to make a world not certain to be saved, a world the perfection of which shall be conditional merely, the condition being that each several agent does its own 'level best.' I offer you the chance of taking part in such a  world. Its safety, you see, is unwarranted. It is a real adventure, with real danger, yet it may win through. It is a social scheme of co-operative work genuinely to be done. Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?

"Should you in all seriousness, if participation in such a world were proposed to you, feel bound to reject it as not safe enough?...It would be just like the world we practically live in....Most of us, I say, would therefore welcome the proposition and add our fiat to the fiat of the creator. Yet perhaps some would not….to them the prospect of a universe with only a fighting chance of safety would probably make no appeal….We mistrust the chances of things….the peace and rest, the security security against the bewildering accidents of so much finite experience. Nirvana means safety from this everlasting round of adventures….The hindoo and the buddhist for this is essentially their attitude, are simply afraid, afraid of more experience, afraid of life" (127-128).


Paul Grobstein's picture

James - for better and for worse

I like very much James' "conditional" as a description of the world .... and perhaps of our particular small enterprise as well: do we trust ourselves and trust each other enough to take the risk?  I'm in.  See Evolving systems: having gotten started

As for James' "The hindoo and the buddhist", perhaps we could chalk it up to an unusual provinciality of thought in a man who by and large does much better than that?  Christians are, I think, at least as prone to being "afraid of more experience, afraid of life" as are Hindus and Buddhists.  And much of meditative practice is actually aimed precisely at appreciating "finite experience" rather than avoiding it.  That James used a misguided contrast to help clarify "pragmatism" doesn't itself make a strong case that there is any necessary conflict between pragmatism and either Hinduism and Buddhism or meditative disciplines in general.  In fact, Ben and I have been working on a paper arguing that there is an interesting overlap between pragmatism and, among other things, some eastern traditions.  Looking forward to talking more about that at some point.   


Anne Dalke's picture

In the making?

This coming year, I'm teaching a course on the James family, so am spending some time this summer reading the (voluminous) work of Alice, Henry and William. Have just finished William James' lectures on Pragmatism, and want to suggest that we might add them to our reading list on evolving systems. Here's a taste/tease/invitation to more:

The most fateful point of difference between being a rationalist and being a pragmatist is now fully in sight. Experience is in mutation, and our psychological ascertainments of truth are in mutation…Reality stands complete and ready-made from all eternity, rationalism insists…their truth has nothing to do with our experiences. It adds nothing to the content of experience. It makes no difference to reality itself; it is supervenient, inert, static, a reflexion merely….rationalism here again face backward to a past eternity…(99).

For rationalism reality is ready-made and complete from all eternity, while for pragmatism it is still in the making, ….On the one side the universe is absolutely secure, on the other it is still pursuing its adventures….The alternative between pragmatism and no longer a question in the theory of knowledge, it concerns the structure of the universe itself.  On the pragmatist side we have only one edition of the universe, unfinished, growing in all sorts of places, especially in the places where thinking beings are @ work" (113).

Paul Grobstein's picture

The Evolution of God

From a review by Robert Sullivan of Robert Wright's recent "The Evolution of God"

"Through science and travel, conversation and scholarship, interpretation and mysticism — our faiths have adapted throughout history, like finches on Darwin’s islands.

Wright’s core and vital point is that this is not a descent into total relativism or randomness. It is propelled by reason interacting with revelation, coupled with sporadic outbreaks of religious doubt and sheer curiosity. The Evolution of God is best understood as the evolution of human understanding of truth — even to the edge of our knowledge where mystery and meditation take over.

.... the challenge of our time is neither the arrogant dismissal of religious life and heritage, nor the rigid insistence that all metaphysical questions are already answered or unaskable, but a humble openness to history and science and revelation in the journey of faith."

Paul Grobstein's picture

deeper time and aesthetics?

Flutes Offer Clues to Stone-Age Music

35,000 years ago in Germany, when sapiens probably co-existed there with neanderthal.  I wonder what neanderthal was doing at the time?  What other hominids elsewhere were doing then?

Paul Grobstein's picture

emergent pedagogy

Also related to some of our conversations, some students' thoughts about "emergent pedagogy," and associated on-line discussion. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

Evolving perception, art, education, life?

A relevant recent student paper - Neuroesthetics: An Exploration of Aesthetic Appraisal in the Human Brain - and associated on-line discussion of the Doors of Perception.

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