Event as resonance cascade, circa spring 2009
The following is an essay I wrote over a year and a half ago for a political geography seminar. At the time it was the culmination of my thinking on the concept of the event. Since then my thoughts have developed further out and been refined. I’ve modified diagrams and adapted my thought of them, for instance, but I think it’s useful maintaining a document to that allows someone to trace the modification and development of thought.
The Event has subsequently become focal to the work that I do and this essay, in a modified and expanded form, has become one of the three primary chapters in my thesis. That version is not yet ready and benefits from what precedes and follows it. At some point soon I hope to have it posted here along with the rest of my thesis. Ideally, I will begin publishing it in segments in the next couple weeks. I just want to get the first chapter polished as much as possible so it appropriately sets up what follows it.
Everything is a political event
The social sciences seem to have difficulty addressing change. Structural modes of analysis have insisted on static forms such as the state or identity that work to give shape and meaning to the ephemeral activities of their component actors. Working from the relatively archaic though generally reliable ideas of Newtonian mechanics, social theorists attempted to apply a similar form of calculable logic to the behavior of individuals and groups. Most of the prominent social theory originating during the past 200 years has attempted to apply deterministic rules to the course of history. By doing so, they have portrayed human history as a clockwork mechanism unfolding in a consistent direction interpreted as progress. Empirical examples of deviation from this assumed larger historical trajectory have been classified as unfortunate or worse, allowing a predominantly western and European viewpoint to create its own rationale for its apparent, though by no means inherent or permanent, global dominance. Even those theorists who have sought to question this narrative have largely done so within these progressivist confines, opting for a hegemony-influenced analysis that insists on the singular and static nature of the institutions they wish to subvert. The argument is that social structures are real things that persist and delimit ranges of alternate possibilities, and only through concerted and deliberate action do opponents have the chance of subverting them. The belief in hegemony contributes to the belief in how it is disposed: through grand historical movements. The goal is to create beautiful ruins (Fig. 1) from which new possibilities may emanate. Even in these narratives, however, such overthrows are seen as inevitable occurrences and predictable, merely a further elaboration of the progress of history.
In contrast to this assumed stasis or linearity, event-based approaches have sought to offer evidence of unpredictable emergence, catastrophic collapse, and contingency. Rather than a purely developmental perspective, history is seen to move in fits and starts that press against expected or inevitable outcomes. These frameworks have developed in several forms. In more structurational analyses, history unfolds in a more or less predictable fashion until cracks, slowly developing in the structural edifice, precipitate a collapse that starts the developmental clock not quite back to the beginning as historical memory persists, but to a new beginning that has the chance of developing differently from before. In this understanding, social processes develop in a relatively predictable fashion until punctuated by transformative events. In these analyses, events become meta-transformative as exemplified by instances like the French Revolution. This approach can be abstracted to a form as in Figure 2, with the peak representing the ultimately significant transformative events followed by a static or predictable trajectory. The peak represents only those events which become narrated as grand causes, the sufficient rationale for the connection between the two states. This becomes one of the problems with the structurationalist eventful approach: how eventful is an event? How much difference must it generate for it to be sufficiently eventful? In Badiou’s ontology where an event is that which is universally transformative (MacKenzie 2008), the significance, and thus the peak, reaches towards infinity which correspondingly makes the event infinitely rare. If events are infinitely rare, however, how can they be talked about? How can a phenomenon that is infinitely rare be located and observed, much less observed to such a variable extent to make a general principle of what it is or may be? This renders events non-empirical, which makes eventful literature merely a collection of plausibilities and a matter of purely inductive reasoning.
A further problem with this approach is the assumption that steady states lie on either side of the event. While they do not necessarily rule out small, marginal, or iterative changes in the structures, they do attempt to linearize a predictable trajectory. This can take many forms, some of the crassest of which are particularly teleological (Tainter, 1987 discusses many trends; also, Sewell, 2005), but certain deterministic analyses persist in less crude terms. Even in Sewell’s critique of overly static interpretations of social structures [“A fully eventful conception of temporality must also deny the assumption that causal structures are uniform through time.” 101] he insists on a general stability that is only occasionally successfully contested [“Most happenings … reproduce social and cultural structures without significant changes.” 100]. The assumption in this analysis is that causes and effects are closely and predictably linked, and that non-successful perturbations are subsumed in the broader mill of life, forgotten as easily as they emerged. These systems, then, are homeostatic – when disturbed the system returns to its prior state – or homeorhetic – when disturbed the system returns to the prior trajectory. Both of these notions assume the system is near or at equilibrium. Correspondingly, these are either closed systems or open systems with nominal flows across boundaries. However, the near in near equilibrium systems is infinitesimally so, so it does not take much distance from equilibrium for a system to exhibit far-from-equilibrium properties (Ulanowicz 2004). Moreover, human systems are incredibly open, bleeding and feeding resources back and forth between other systems and their environment to a very high degree (Von Bertalanffy 1968). Social systems, then, are fare from equilibrium and exhibit strong flows of at least some types – energy, material, information, etc. – that contribute to emergent phenomena. In these systems, steady states, whether homeostatic or homeorhetic, can never be assumed. Similarly, causalities are not necessarily closely related or linear. Small variations may be inconsequential in the short term but become significant as time passes.
The critique of a structuration-based event approach is not intended to universally dismiss the effort. The difference between continuous and discrete changes it expresses is not wrong or unhelpful. Rather, it is a difference that requires further development and distinction. Sewell does attempt to bring the two together, but in doing so he sets them up as necessarily different phenomena. Post-structural event analyses prefer to get rid of stable forms in their entirety, focusing instead on continual flows and immanent discontinuities. Massumi (2002), who draws significantly on Deleuze, extends Sewell a degree further by arguing for the primacy of change over stasis. Instead of change as stochastic processes that disrupt structures and force their reassessment, change is the continual function from which structures arise as frozen phenomena. [“Position no longer comes first, with movement a problematic second. It is secondary to movement and derived from it. It is retro movement, movement residue.” 7] This tendency to give prominence to flow and movement comes in part from readings of Deleuze and Guattari (1987), in particular their argument to subvert arborescences with rhizomes (stable static forms subverted by emergent flows and potentials). While they assert an anarchic preference for the destabilization of existing forms in their argument for a rhizomatic approach, they do acknowledge that trees and structures do play a role in things beyond that of the target of destabilization. As with Bakunin’s (1842) claim that “the passion for destruction is a creative passion,” the question which needs to follow the rhizome is: the creation of what and how? This is a necessary inclusion, and not one that follows from a strict adherence to pure destabilizing flows. In order to address the differences between destruction and creation it is useful to adopt a treatment of structures and dynamics or stasis and change that undermines both Sewell and Massumi’s treatment.
Both Sewell and Massumi treat some of the categories of their analysis as real things: structures are stable until transformed by contingent events; processes are the real phenomena from which structures emerge – it is always the movements which create. This framework tends to assume that the things which Sewell and Massumi call structures and processes are real things. Massumi is softer to an extent, saying that: “indeterminacy and determination… are inseparable and always actually coincide while remaining disjunctive in their modes of reality. To say that passage and indeterminacy ‘come first’ or ‘are primary’ is more a statement of ontological priority than the assertion of a time sequence,” (8) but this distinction cements further a position that should be reconsidered. Although he avoids ordering them as temporal phenomenon he still asserts a distinction of significance that assumes the categories are, in fact, necessarily distinct. We propose an alternative consideration of structure and dynamics that avoids both prioritization and strict determination, namely that of Bohr’s complementarity principle.
Derived from Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle which states that one can know either the location or the velocity of an electron but never both at the same time, the complementarity principle was an attempt to interpret the wave-particle duality of electrons. Double-slit experiments where electrons were fired one at a time through a single slit elicited an expected normal distribution of electrons on a plate. When both slits were opened so that the electron could pass through either one, the expected pattern was of two normal distributions merging together or a bimodal distribution. Instead, however, a wave interference pattern resulted even though electrons continued to be fired only one at a time. The implication of these results was that electrons needed to be considered as both waves and particles, that is, dynamics and structures, even though those two states are in contradiction. Neither option is reducible to the other; there is no option of synthesis between them. Bohr’s interest was in extending this notion of complementarity into the social and biological realms. On first appearance, this may seem as merely another attempt to extend physical explanations towards more-than-physical situations, and if this were the case it would be a project to avoid. However, the extension was not meant to be an ontological one. The complementarity principle is an epistemological problem. It tells us nothing of the world as it is but instead addresses our ability to apprehend the world. Bohr likened the distinction of particle and wave to that of subject and object, making it as much an issue of thought as an issue of choice in observation. The underlying issue of complementarity, then, is not that things are particles and waves or structures and dynamics, but that we can only comprehend them as such and that by focusing on one in exclusion of the other is to develop a minimal understanding of what is being observed. (Pattee 1978)
Pattee opted to extend Bohr’s musings in a more programmatic way by differentiating the distinctions between these two different ways of knowing in order to make complementarity more applicable to social and biological studies. He creates a distinction between rules and laws, considering the former as those of constraint and the latter as those of dynamics. Rules are arbitrary considerations like the fact that the letters C-A-T combined in that order refer to a specific class of creature. The word is a stable structure that exists independent of the concept of the thing. The interpretation of a cat is a more dynamic consideration, but the letters as referent to a cat are not. C-A-T does not refer to a cat at a rate; it simply refers to a cat. Similarly, the substitution of B for C does not happen at a rate and neither does the distinction between cats and bats, hats, or rats. They are simply coded representations for those things. Consequently, Pattee states that rules:
are perhaps best described as frozen historical accidents – accidents because their antecedent events are unobservable, historical because the crucial events occurred only once, and frozen because the results persist as a coherent, stable, hereditary constraint. (194)
|Rules are:||Laws are:|
Table 1: Rules versus laws, adapted from Pattee 1978
Laws, in contrast, refer to what he calls laws of nature. These are things that exist independent of individuals observing them. Examples would be the rate of acceleration for a falling object and the rate of dissipation of a heat gradient. Table 1 contains a list of properties that distinguish laws and rules, adapted from Pattee. To this list we have added discrete versus continuous behavior, a distinction that allows us to bring Sewell and Massumi into further correspondence. Sewell, with a focus on disturbances to existing structures, is focused on discrete changes as seen in relation to rules. Massumi, with a focus on processes of emergence, focuses primarily on continuous behavior with discrete outcomes appearing primarily as an afterthought. Rather than holding these two approaches distinct as they do, we find it more useful to draw them into paradoxical convergence so that we might better be able to address the issues of events and transformation. The issue then becomes not one of events as ontological category, although they may have ontological ramifications. Rather, events and transformation are epistemological considerations. That is to say, what they are and how change is manifesting in a given system is contingent on the level of analysis of the observer rather than internal to the system or the behaviors themselves.
Structures, as explained above, exhibit discontinuous change. Other examples in addition to the linguistic one can be found in many optical illusions (Figure 3). The change in perception for the vase is a discrete one with two stable states: that of the vase and that of the faces. It is a binary system with no gradient between the two. Figures 4 and 5 represent a graphical representation of discrete changes in structure. Figure 4 is a hysteretic curve that provides a useful framework for thinking about discontinuous systems with memory. Movement on the curve is represented by the arrow. As the system moves through its state space it may approach a threshold upon the crossing of which it finds itself in a new stable state. Movement towards the cusp represents the loss of some type of structural consideration that was able to contain or maintain the system in the prior state. Figure 5 provides a series of curves that represent the environmental or structural conditions of the system as if approaches the fold. The structures are manifestations of the interaction between processes and constraints and the rules of behavior, and consequently the types of structures that appear, are conditional to either stable state. When there is a flip, the constraints on the initial state may not be the same as the constraints on the new state.
The top and bottom segments of Figure 4 represent stable singularities as seen in figure 5. Small, iterative changes like those Sewell describes occur here. The diagonal represents the unstable singularity that lies between the two alternate states as seen in the middle diagram. The folded spaces on the curve represent inflection points. These are zones that have a potential to remain in the prior state, but the likelihood is that the system will eventually collapse into the other state. Events in a structurational perspective are located at these points. It should be noted that the cup diagrams do not necessarily determine the condition of the system within that landscape. Although the sides of each cup represent constraints or structural considerations that work to stabilize the system (civil laws, social agreements, rituals, peer pressure, etc.), a system exhibits behavior relative to those constraints that can push it towards a transition even when the buffers remain. Of course, actors’ ability to push the system to a different state could also mean that the buffers or controls were not nearly as effective or relevant as some may have assumed. Regardless, though, we can consider collapses as able to be generated from inside or outside the system. For the sake of definition, we will call external or exogenous variability disturbance while internal or endogenous variability behavior. Similarly, the buffers to the system, and their degradation, can manifest either from within or without the system, although this is largely a function of where the boundaries are drawn.
The hysteretic curve represents changes in structures, and thus discrete change as mentioned above, but it does not address continual change in a way that is satisfactory for someone unconvinced by arguments that the grand sweeps of history are its most significant elements. Similarly, it addresses the conditions in which systems of different sorts find themselves, but it does not address well the behavior of systems visa vie those changes. However, the curve that represents the system’s movement relative to those stable zones does offer some intriguing possibilities as we move from Sewell’s structurational approach back to Massumi’s post-structural one. The curve as shown in Figure 6 is exponential and therefore fractal. Any span in the curve, when isolated, will repeat the identical curve. This is the result of the continual flattening of the lower portion of the curve as the peak forces an automatic rescaling. A point in the peak will be quickly integrated into the base of the curve in a few time steps as the curve intensifies. In addition to this rescaling, the upper reach of the curve provides us with a few things. The circle on this curve is intended to align with the inflection singularity at the lower fold of Figure 4. It is the zone at which the past manifests into the future and the future recedes into the past. Deleuze describes the inflection point as “a physical point… [that] is neither an atom nor a Cartesian point, but an elastic or plastic point-fold. Thus it is not exact” (1993, 23, italics in original). In the continuous, and indeed in the discontinuous rendering of social systems as we are presenting it, it represents the eternal site of systems becoming. It marks the edge of chaos, the both/and in place of the either/or, or the critically un/stable point where a system risks descending into chaotic incoherence (Bell 2006). It is the point at which trees become rhizomes and rhizomes become trees. This present, though infinite in its persistence, is also infinitely small in its actualization. Each moment quickly passes on into the past and future through eventful unfoldings. The present, then, is pulled in opposite directions through the advent of time just as Alice, in Deleuze’s example (1990), grows simultaneously bigger and smaller.
The peak represents the emergent event continuously rising out of the narrated context. The infinite yet infinitely small present narrates the past through the context of the anticipated emergent possibilities of the eventful future just as the eventful future rises from the context of the narrated past (Rosen 1979). Both sides of the curve become the context for the other. Both are narrated continually through the present. The narrative is what makes both the future and the past useful in providing the context for their respective other. By flattening the one by the other, they allow their own continual emergence. The point on Figure 6, however, is more than simply a marker for the present. Infinite and infinitely small, it is Leibniz’s monad eternal in its existence. The monad is the smallest indivisible unit which contains the world in its entirety. It has all possible predicates that express the world folded in. It is a metaphysical point of the inflection that is paired the physical point, “the soul or the subject. It is what occupies the point of view [defined by the mathematical point which projects the monad], it is what is projected in the point of view… [it is] the point of inclusion…” (Deleuze 1993, 23, italics in the original). It is the reciprocal of God in Deleuze’s rendering of Leibniz, 1/∞. It contains all possible predicates, all possible events. The monad is unique to each subject, and though containing the world (the virtual), each individual monad contains it in different series or different possible expressions of that world. Though contained within it, then, the monad cannot express the world. However, the predicates contained in the monads are the events of the world: “the predicate is an event, and appears in the subject as a change of perceptions” (69). With all possible predicates, all possible events are immanent. Events manifest through the unfolding of the monad into the world. These are the outer folds, those of the material world. The monad becomes the point that expresses the problem through which events unfold. They contain all series, but can only express them through their unfolding into the world.
To sum: monads contain the world but can only express aspects of it through their unfolding. The unfolding is the movement of predicates or events from the virtual to the actual. From the monad an aspect of the world unfolds as an event. This event produces a change in perception (Figure 3) as a discontinuity which forces a reassessment of all that preceded it. This reassessment manifests as a re-narration of the context from which the event unfolded, rendering past discontinuities continuous as a function of time. Simultaneously, the narrated historical context becomes the iterative, continuous field from which new possibilities or unfoldings can occur. It provides the frame from which events emerge in contrast. These different processes all happen concurrently. The event unfolds in both directions in time from the present, affecting the entire trajectory in unison. Both discrete and continuous functions are coincident; it is not preferentially one or the other. (Figure 6)
Catastrophes and Events
With the distinction of continuous and discrete somewhat clarified, the model of events can be extended further in order to return us to Bakunin’s creative passion. Adding an additional dimension to the hysteretic curve gives us a catastrophe cusp as seen in Figure 7 (Woodcock and Davis 1978). In this model up to two environmental variables and one behavioral variable can be considered in relation to each other. The environmental variables lay on the horizontal axes while the behavioral variable takes the vertical axis. The top and the bottom of the fold represent two separate states, liquid and gas, for instance, while the fold represents a region of discontinuity as demonstrated by path A. Path B demonstrates a possible continuous path between the two states. In a liquid like water, the transition to a gas is discontinuous under normal temperature and pressure conditions. While it requires 100 calories to raise a cubic centimeter of water from freezing to boiling, it takes an additional 540 calories for the water to turn to vapor. This additional energy is the latent heat of vaporization and it is taken from the surrounding air, thus generating a cooling effect. As the water’s environmental temperature and pressure increase, the extra energy required decreases until the system moves off the cusp into the continuous space. Plants use this extra energy involved in evaporation for the majority of their growing (Allen et al 2001). The cusp, then, provides an energy gradient through discontinuous change. In order for the change between states to occur continuously, energy needs to be expended (heat and pressure). When going over the cusp, energy is released. The challenge lies in the productive use of that energy.
Figure 8 shows the same cusp within the context of bifurcation. Bifurcation points are areas where multiple possibilities emerge and in the context of cusps develop around the triple point. Since we are discussing discrete change, and therefore changes in rules, we can envision a bifurcation point as a time when a certain set of rules or restrictions that may have been relevant at a given time cease to be so. Rule sets like rituals exist in part to make the world more predictable by providing an established mediation technique between a system and its context (Estyn-Evans 1956). In order to make something predictable, there has to be the assumption that the context is static. This is never the case over long enough time scales, however, since people’s perceptions of context, themselves, rules, etc. change through time, so certain established practices lose their applicability. As rules or norms become less relevant to the people who operate by them, at least two different phenomena may occur: 1) they may be casually disregarded and forgotten about except in particular meaningful instances (celebration customs); or 2) they may be rigidly maintained even in the face of declining support. Both of these choices involve a discrete change in and of themselves, but they also manifest different behavior relative to each other. At this point, a bifurcation occurs. If we envision proximity towards the cusp as an expression of potential energy in a system (like the latent heat of vaporization), we might decide that in the congenial transformation of what the rules mean the system bifurcates to the lower stable state away from the cusp. On the other hand, the contestable transformation bifurcates the system to the upper state near the fold. At this point the likelihood of catastrophic collapse is higher, which can be considered within the realm of popular discontent.
Kaiser (2009), drawing principally from Deleuze and Massumi, provides a framework for eventful unfoldings that distinguishes different phases of emergence. First there is a phase of resonance or intensification that has the potential to build into the second phase which is that of a big bang. Once the resonation reaches a critical threshold it explodes as the event moves from the virtual to the actual. The third phase is that of capture and containment as the lines of flight which were deterritorialized through the buildup and explosion are converted through reterritorialization. This latter process includes attempts to apply meaning and signification to the event as well as the more material process of picking up the pieces. Additionally, attempts at reterritorialization occur throughout all phases of the event as they attempt to apply meaning and dampen resonances in anticipation. Reterritorialization in Massumi’s framework appears as a process of backformation or retroduction:
Possibility is back-formed from potential’s unfolding. But once it is formed, it also effectively feeds in…. These possibilities delineate a region of nominally defining – that is, normative – variation…. Conditions of emergence are one with becoming. Re-conditionings of the emerged define normative or regulatory operations that set the parameters of history…. History is inseparably, ontogenetically different from becoming…. If history has a becoming from which it is inseparably, ontogenetically different, then conversely becoming has a history. (9)
It exists in stark contrast to the emergent potential of deterritorialized lines of flight. Massumi, as stated earlier, tends to hold deterritorialization as the preferred category as it allows for the generation of new possibilities. It is the passion for destruction as its own entity. The assumption is that the creative passion exists within the deterritorialization, too, but that becomes a difficult position to argue.
Fractal Resonance Cascades
The collapse over the catastrophe cusp can be considered a deterritorializing event with the accompanying energy gradient as a manifestation of a line of flight. In ecosystem theory biological systems grow by degrading available gradients more quickly than they would otherwise degrade (as the food we eat breaks down in our bodies much faster than it does on the shelves). The useable energy, or exergy, is converted by the systems into more biological material to allow the system to capture more energy or some other use depending on the successional stage of the system (network formation or information storage also occurs). (Schneider and Kay 1994; Jørgensen and Fath 2004). While the available energy is a necessary element of their growth, the ability to capture and utilize it is similarly necessary. If the available solar or other energy can be considered as a deterritorialized line of flight, the plant’s or ecosystem’s ability to capture and convert that gradient is an act of reterritorialization.With the energy available in the discontinuous phase transition as a deterritorialized gradient, the necessary corollary is that the ability to capture and structure the flow is necessary not only for its prolongation but also for its utilization. For the destruction to be creative the potential creativity has to be actualized by structured capture and containment. Otherwise it will simply dissipate on its own.
Far from equilibrium systems frequently exhibit autocatalytic properties. (Ulanowicz 2004) These are self-reinforcing cycles that operate to maximize use of available resources like energy. Material and behavior are used in a way that is mutually self-reinforcing, creating increased selective advantage for the system. An ecosystem in a growth cycle is a good example as nutrients are passed around components in a way that helps the system as a whole gather more resources. Autocatalysis is a self-organized phenomenon meaning it requires no planning to achieve. Rather, it emerges, like many structures, on a strong energy gradient. Gradients are not the only issue involved, however. Many gradients exist only in coordination with an appropriate structure: before steam engines or the deforestation of Europe there is no significant gradient in coal. Wood will suffice. Similarly, the energy gradient in a nuclear reaction is immense. It can occur quickly in a nuclear explosion, or, with the proper structures, it can occur slowly and provide a great deal of electrical power. Of course, other power sources are required before the energy potential of uranium can be utilized. Similarly, the energy of small transformations is necessary for the organization of large-scale phenomena. Flows need to start somewhere, and they need to be utilized in order for larger flows to be similarly addressed. This brings us to our central issue of event dynamics.
The prioritization by some on large-scale or universal phenomenon in the class of events inappropriately differentiates between scales in what is largely a scale-free, fractal phenomenon. As in Figure 6, events exist independent of scale. The issue is that not all of them enter the resonant understanding of the majority of people. With each discontinuous change there is a release of energy. One person, a structure, undergoes a transition. The transition could be appreciation for a newly heard song or dissatisfaction of political operations. This transition sets the individual resonating; they now exhibit dynamic properties. They talk to a friend about their latest personal event. If the friend is non-responsive the gradient moves towards dissipation; if she is negatively responsive the first individual may reassess his position. If on the other hand she responds with similar interest she amplifies his resonation as she begins to resonate in turn. If their resonation amplifies large enough they may decide to start a band or a political organization. With further interactions the resonant potential is similarly amplified, dampened, or let loose. If the resonation extends far enough and intensifies high enough, it may manifest in the sort of broad, sharp changes considered by Sewell or Badiou. This is not to say, however, that the event occurs only at this stage. The event is immanently emanant and emanantly immanent. It is fractal and in occurrence in all levels of analysis.
De- and reterritorialization are co-emanant. It is not an either/or scenario but a both/and one. Lines of flight only become useable through capture and containment, the process of reterritorialization. Reterritorialization gives the lines form and shape. In the line of flight is an embodied energy, the release of which creates a gradient for its capture. Bakunin’s creative passion is dependent on this capture which can and does manifest in many forms, not simply those that are most evident. A police force may attempt or achieve the containment of a mob, but that containment does not necessarily take only the form of a subdued populace. Resonation can persist and become re-actualized in an apparent way long after the originating event has seemingly passed. The event exists continually in both discrete and continuous forms. One does not preempt the other. To assume that events are only those which manifest among a large population is to deny the underlying processes from which events derive their organization. If we are to talk compellingly about human behaviors, interactions, and social manifestations we need to be able to remove strict or inherent scalar notions so we can recognize phenomena in all of its manifold manifestations.
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