complex n 1: a whole made up of two or more separable or identifiable elements [synonyms composite, compound] 2: hard to separate, analyze, or solve [synonyms byzantine, complicated, daedal, elaborate, intricate, labyrinthine] [related bewildering, confusing, distracting, disturbing, baffling, confounding, mysterious, mystifying, obscure, vague, involute] 3: a group of repressed desires and memories that exert a dominating influence on one’s personality or behaviors
complication n 1: the quality or state of being complicated 3: a disease or condition that develops during and after the course of a primary disease or condition
complicated adj 1: consisting of parts intricately combined 2: difficult to analyze, understand, or explain
[the mycorrhizal mycelium of a simple pine sapling- wildly complex; image courtesy of the folks at the University of Aberdeen]
It is time to address complexity, or rather the widespread use of the word. In the last decade it has become one of the pillars of technophilic obfuscation- one of those vague terms used to dance around ideas or elaborate issues in a completely unjustified and ostentatious manner. Recently, over on Places Journal there was an article titled “Infrastructural Ecologies: Principals for Post-Industrial Public Works”. The title was a mouthful but the article made some very thoughtful, interesting points. Yet at the end, we get this admonition:
America’s infrastructure needs are dauntingly large, complex, and urgent. Ultimately, if we are to regain not only economic stability but also prosperity, if we are to remain a creative and competitive nation, we will need to demonstrate the capacity for holistic thinking and integrative action.
Holy Lord! We are doomed! Doomed! Doomed! Doomed!
But wait a second- the author has just spent 3,000 words meticulously describing various contemporary infrastructure projects around the world and then raising some good questions and critical observations. So why the language at the end?
The unnecessary emphasis on complexity struck a familiar chord with us- it is a recurring trope, one that designers fall back on when demanding that their work is important. A quick survey of two of the influential texts of contemporary landscape theory yields the following:
Recovering Landscape (11 essays, published 1999): complexity- 15, complex- 29
Landscape Urbanism Reader (14 essays, published 2006): complexity- 29, complex- 53
Utterly fucking absurd. At this rate, future LU publications will require mention of “complexity” in every paragraph and if the author fails to comply the word will just be inserted into every other sentence during copy-editing.
[an afternoon surfing the web and drawing landscape details in cad- unbelievably complex; image courtesy of the excellent CNVerge]
[the movements of one team during a game of soccer- unfathomable complexity; image from mammoth, by David Marsh]
The overuse of “complexity” is obviously rhetorical- a political act. Political action through design activism is a prominent topic in recent years and likely to become more so, given the rate of change in our economic and environmental situations and the fact that intervening in the landscape is fundamentally a political action. But this use of “complexity” is also ontological, attempting to define the very foundation of landscape theory through the term. The problems with this approach are two-fold:
One, defining anything as complex is meaningless, because everything is complex. Literally everything. From the sophisticated financial instruments of globalized late-capitalism to a jolly afternoon watching two chums hit a ball back and forth across a net, everything is as complex as one's understanding of and familiarity with it. Always emphasizing the term is not necessary.
Two, as a political act it has consequences. And in this case those consequences are something we here at FASLANYC hate- emphasizing complexity excludes and mystifies, suggesting that normal folks couldn’t possibly understand what is going on and that any new interventions are best left to the technoratti.
Now granted, by emphasizing complexity and offering it as the conceptual foundation of landscape, these theorists are attempting to differentiate their reading of the landscape- focused on process, possibilities, systems, and unknowns- from modern and post-modern conceptions. But the problem with this specific etiology is that it is not intelligent. By choosing to define landscape through complexity we make it vague and meaningless, because complexity is based on understanding, not essence. As a method for expanding definitions something in order to gain operating space (intellectually or politically) this is excellent, but it stunts the dialogue by saying nothing with a lot of words. There are other ways to expand the agency of landscape.
It is our hope that more landscape writing can become like this piece, communicating subtlety, complexity, technical aspect and beauty in a concise mythology that is compelling and erotic. Of course, we may not all have the ability or time to write at that level, but if we really desire increased political agency, we would do well to relax with the complexity fetish.
[also complex; but why talk about it that way?]