Sunday, November 7, 2010

Complications with Complexity

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?]

8 comments:

  1. Someone had to say this, and you did. Thanks.
    Complexity has gotten thrown around a lot in development-related (3rd world development) academic circles too, as has Participation which is another over-used idea.

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  2. yes, and it's not just over-use, but tossing it around willy-nilly without actually considering the ramifications undermines credibility while at the same time creating a sealed-off conversation.

    how is it that participation is overused? not that I'm questioning it, but i hadn't noticed (or perhaps it doesn't occur in my small circle)...

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  3. I took a short course in South Africa about complexity as part of larger degree programme for development planning. While I appreciate that I am more alert now for (and fascinated by) systems that could be described as complex, I've seen myself tossing around the terms complex and complicated more than needed in meetings, presentations, etc. - it becomes a distraction with questionable relevancy. One thing that irked me during the course on complexity was that the concept was being used as a new kind of cop-out explanation for project failures (in case studies) when it seemed that other more obvious causes were being overlooked.

    Participation -- I suppose my problem with the term is somewhat knee-jerk. There's a big trend in development work (in theory, at least) to let communities decide how best to spend development money on themselves. You've probably heard about how development money and projects fail because the projects were not in line with a community's own interests and self-perceived needs (this isn't only relevant to development work). That's where increased community participation is supposed to come in. My issue with participation is not that it is wrong in principle, because I know it can be critically important for some projects and at various stages in a project. My issue is that seemingly more attention has been paid to spreading the word about the importance of (community) participation without an equally important dose of attention being paid to the details of when, where, and how it is (or isn't) best applied. So I see participation being overused (probably misused) as a self-sufficient concept that is short on practical details and concerns about relevancy.
    Sorry, that's the best I can do during my lunch break.

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  4. thanks for the lunch break thoughts, carter. that is a great point about misuse of participation also, and it seems it would apply broadly to these kind of terms (the 'pillars of obfuscation' to put it hyperbolically).

    We are simpatico on the fact that pointing out something that is obviously true instead of focusing on particulars and specifics (even of broader trends, not necessarily details, much like the Wallace piece on tennis I link to) is not helpful, or even that interesting.

    Of course I'm guilt of this very thing... and I've had my moments when reading some project or theory discussed in those terms seemed poignant and appropriate. But those pieces I cited, and many like them, are not in that category.

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  5. Yes the use of complexity is on the rise these days, but then again, so is the field of landscape architecture. Just a few years ago LA was listed everywhere as one of the most promising and emerging fields to be in(boy those were the days huh?). While our field has taken a hit recently, I think there is still a big push to move the field farther in an explorative manner. Arguably, it is (and traditionally always has been) academia holding the conversations about the progress or lack thereof the profession. I think the vast amount of essays has been a positive move overall, because in the end, it is still a venue for progressive dialogue.

    I understand your issue with over complicating the practice, but most of these essays are not written for an audience of laymen, they are written for us, the "pro's." Most normal folks would have no trouble understanding LU or LA theory, its just that most folks don't really care, so writers most likely craft their piece for an audience that does care. There is a time and a place for simplified rhetoric, such as the an editorial in a major newspaper or Newsweek, or perhaps most importantly, a sales pitch to a board of real estate developers. I say write for the appropriate audience and let the thinkers and professionals in the field be complex if they so choose to be.

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  6. Ryan-
    I take your point and agree that the academic conversations within the field are working hard to continue exploring and expanding the field of landscape, which is largely a good thing. And I agree that most of those essays (those in the theory readers for instance) are by academics for academics, students, and professionals.

    There’s a good essay on this topic by Peter Connolly that I just came across (after this post) titled “Embracing Openness” that might be of interest.

    My main gripe is that complexity is a term that is utilized inappropriately because of intellectual laziness. Whether it’s in a publication for laymen or not, much of the time it is employed it could simply be edited out and the content would remain the same (or be even stronger without the shiny, meaningless words distracting the eye). I read those books and those essays and appreciate them, but I’m also critical of them. To your point in the last sentence, I would actually argue those the thinkers and professors are actually not being sophisticated at all when employing complexity in that way.

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  7. Complexity (biological, ecological...) is actually a scientific term meant to describe particular characteristics of complex systems. Is the fact that certain authors have misappropriated the term a reason to discount its potential significance for landscape design?

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  8. agreed! complexity theory (systems theory, chaos theory, etc.) are interesting, applicable, and alluded to often by contemporary practitioners. We are simpatico on that point!

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