[ by Charles Cameron — non-linearity, complexity, “constellational thinking”, a quick spin around the blogosphere, history, Walter Benjamin — following on from Nancy Fouts ]
image: Galileo Galilei, Siderius Nuncius (i.e. The Starry Messenger), 1610
The novelist Teju Cole has a piece in the Atlantic that’s triggered by the Kony2012 business, and zooms out to touch on much else besides. His piece is titled The White Savior Industrial Complex, and as I was reading it, I came across a phrase that tweaked my keen interest. Cole is talking about Nicholas Kristof, and writes:
His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated “disasters.” All he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.
By my lights, “he sees no need to reason out the need for the need” is a powerful tongue-twister, but it’s the phrase “to think constellationally” that interests me here.
Cole returns to a slight variant on the phrase later, this time saying:
Success for Kony 2012 would mean increased militarization of the anti-democratic Yoweri Museveni government, which has been in power in Uganda since 1986 and has played a major role in the world’s deadliest ongoing conflict, the war in the Congo. But those whom privilege allows to deny constellational thinking would enjoy ignoring this fact.
Constellational thinking, then, connects the dots, sees the patterns behind isolated events, sees not just the events themselves but also the circumstances that caused them – and its absence allows us to reduce complexly-interwoven reality to one or more simplistic polarities — better suited to sound bites than to analysis.
Cole also points us to Rosebell Kagumire‘s video response to the Kony affair, and she in turn has her own way of addressing the same kind of reduction of complexity to simplicity. She wrote, back on March 8th:
For the last many hours i have followed a campaign by Invisible Children NGO called KONY2012 that has gone viral getting more than 20 million hits on Youtube. I am a story teller and i know the danger of a single story.
So simple, that: I know the danger of a single story.
Remember the Ocean of the Streams of Story diagram in my post almost a week ago, Countering Violent Extremism: variants on a theme? Edward Tufte designed it, to illustrate a paragraph by Salman Rushdie…
The truth of a complex situation lives in the interweaving of many stories, not in a single strand, a single view.
Constellations — of thoughts, of ideas.
image: Eugen Gomringer, Constellation, ca 1960
I did some digging – I’m not the Oxford English Dictionary, and I can’t say for sure that any particular use of “constellation” marks its first appearance in the sense that interests me here – Eugen Gomringer‘s Constellations (from 1954 onwards, example above) may be relevant in an avant-garde way– but my search brought me to a post by Liz Danzico at Bobulate titled Celestial History, in which Liz wrote:
Teaching constellations is an exercise in storytelling. You see, dots, these anonymous light encrusted patterns, must be memorized and categorized, and it’s only through stories that one can make sense of them. Starting with the north star, and systematically creating relationships in the winter sky among Hercules and Sagittarius, Libra and Polaris, we told tales. We’d trade stories on top of the old stone building in the middle of dark campus until late into the night. Creating these stories, giving Hercules a relationship to Cassiopeia — true or not, good or not, believable or not, it didn’t matter — what mattered were that patterns were found and marked.
Marking patterns and making content accessible through stories is what we do. And often, still, when we begin, we’re in the dark.
This post in turn lead Robin Sloan at Snarkmarket to write a quick note of praise, Explosions in the sky, which drew a comment from Tim of Short Schrift that said:
After the Copernican revolution, a constellation isn’t even a constellation. Instead, it’s a two-dimensional flattening of a three-dimensional reality. Actually, we should probably say a FOUR-dimensional reality. The light from stars at varying distances, leaving their sources at various times in the distant past, gets mistaken, from our earthbound point-of-view, as a simultaneous two-dimensional pattern.
BUT! That distortion, that accident, produces something extremely powerful — both imaginatively and practically.
Take “constellational thinking” and apply it to something besides stars in space. Let’s say — history.
Over here, you’ve got the Roman Republic, over there, the French Revolution. Distant in time, distant in geography, no kind of causal proximity let alone a relationship between them.
But bam! Slap them together. View them as a single event, a collapse of time.
Now you begin to see the French Revolution the way part of the Revolution saw itself, as an explosion of the continuum of history.
Now — and sorry if I slow-played this — you’re in Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History.” Now you’re performing a genuinely three-dimensional nonlinear reading of historical time.
Consider that process, spelled out in the phrases “Distant in time, distant in geography, no kind of causal proximity let alone a relationship between them. But bam! Slap them together. View them as a single event, a collapse of time.”
Consider how that “fits” the same Arthur Koestler model of thinking I was on about yesterday in my post Nancy Fouts and the heart of the matter, in which I described:
the “release of cognitive tension” that occurs when some form of analogy, similitude, overlap allows the mind to join conceptual clusters from two fields in a “creative leap”
Well, I’m not along in finding this sort of thing useful. Here’s bethr from Mixed Bits writing on tumblr:
Omigosh… I’ve been using this phrase in numerous conversations for at least 4 years, usually when attempting to describe how I seem to process information and think, in contrast to the linear thinking which is more prevalent and encouraged in my profession. I’ve never heard anyone else use this phrase…it excites me that others have applied the same phrase and metaphor to the same idea and have articulated it much better than I ever have.
And Walter Benjamin:
image: Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920
Turning to Walter Benjamin’s On the Concept of History for a moment, we find a remarkable and justly celebrated paragraph about the angel depicted above, a 1920 Paul Klee painted etching which Benjamin himself once owned, now housed in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem:
There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.
More prosaically, Benjamin then gives us the twinned realities to which Tim had pointed in his comment at Snarkmarket:
For Robespierre, Roman antiquity was a past charged with the here-and-now, which he exploded out of the continuum of history. The French revolution thought of itself as a latter day Rome. It cited ancient Rome exactly the way fashion cites a past costume. Fashion has an eye for what is up-to-date, wherever it moves in the jungle of what was.
Benjamin’s “moment” — his here-and-now — has passed, perhaps. The nuances discoverable through juxtaposition, counterpoint, overlay, constellational thinking, remain.