NSF Fellowship Proposal: research experience statement

NSF Fellowship proposal part 2 of 3. More things released into the underverse:

I have spent the past three years contemplating collapse. In particular I have been grappling with how we understand continuous versus discrete system change. Continuous change can be understood as regular system developmental processes. It is gradual. Discrete change is something different. It considers the emergence of new, unpredicted, and potentially unpredictable system structures. These types of change appear as events.

For the past three years I have been a member of a systems and hierarchy theory lab that focuses on problems of levels of analysis. Located within an environmental studies program and under the guidance of a botanist, ecologist, and systems theorist, I engage with purposefully disparate branches of theory. My task has been to sketch relationships between theoretical biology and ecology, mostly in the form of ecosystem development and behavior, systems theory of both hierarchical and network varieties, and post-structural philosophy. I have been analyzing and developing concepts and their arrangements in an effort to construct something new and useable. I am currently finishing a five chapter, roughly 150 page thesis detailing this work.

Looking at examples of events and emergent differentiation, the principle problem I navigate is the distinction we place between these different types of change. Continuous changes are the types we represent in computational models. They are what structures do. Discrete changes are of structures themselves. It involves drastic reorganization and emergence. Early structuralist identified systems as persistent. Structures were stable and resisted efforts of change by individual actors. People could act within the context or framework of the structures, but they could not affect these structures themselves. Examples of this way of thinking include structural Marxism and Wallerstein’s world systems analysis. This static quality of system behavior leaves something to be desired. It consigns certain types of action to a realm of futility. The question became: How do we draw forth our ability to instigate significant change in system structures and behaviors? How do we generate events?

Replies to this have largely taken the same form: Systems have a set of operational logics that guide their behavior and incorporate or ignore aberrant individual activity. Eventually certain issues arise to the point that the system is no longer able to ignore or subsume them. At these points the appropriateness of these rules becomes contested. Individual actors achieve the ability to affect system transformation by guiding it towards an alternative form. However, contingency abounds. This new form, once established, will persist as the prior one until it, too, reaches a critical moment.

I chose to enter into this narrative to question the essential nature of both systems and their transformation. My research over the past three years has been an effort to develop a different understanding: one that treats transformation as imminent while affirming continuities that persist through the transformational event. I wanted to create a framework that allows us to see the possibilities for radical transformation that are in play at any moment as well as the means to enact that possibility. The reason for this is two-fold. First, I wanted to develop a way to think about transformation and events that makes them more accessible. Events tend to be treated as large-scale phenomenon like social revolutions that have significant impacts on global behavior. They are also viewed as momentary. Systems, however, like Schrödinger’s cat gain coherency via observation. Simply because the cat is alive when we look does not mean it had to be alive. The observational act imposes this distinguishment. Similarly, Heisenberg’s uncertainty tells us that in the act of observation we cannot see all the aspects in play: location or velocity, not both. Different protocols of observation, or different decisions on what matters, draw out different forms of the system. By incorporating these complementary forms we can gain construct understandings that offer us more immediate capability. We can understand the particular set of dimensions or vectors whereby transformation is possible at any moment.

Secondly, understanding where discontinuities lie does not tell us how to activate them or make them productive. To say everything changes gives us no recourse for participation in that change. All we can do is react. Processes of identification offer us a means of participation. Events or collapse can be understood as retrenchment that makes available resources that had been locked up in the prior form. By forming a proximally-coherent idea of self, either individually or en masse, we create the means for reincorporation of these now-available resources.

Based on part of this work, I gave a presentation at the Power & Knowledge conference in Tampere, Finland in 2010. The talk looked at how power is equally within sites and embodied through networks. Sites manifest a proximal condensation of network power for particular ends. This increases relative leverage, but creates the conditions for its destabilization. Efforts to stabilize and reify site-specific power only create the conditions for alternate possibilities.

An abstract is under review for Resilience 2011 in Tempe, Arizona that continues this line of thought. It looks at how emergent upper levels wield increased power by reducing dimensions of possibility such as how concentrations of wealth reduce the definition of value to specific types. Upper levels emerge to resolve stress in lower levels and empower both in the process. However, lower levels are often elided by upper levels, eliminating the context that provides support.

In anticipation of the current proposal, I spent much of last summer and this fall meeting and working with members and affiliates of time banking in part as a consultant and analyst. This was partially to learn more about time banking and community currency issues as understood by practitioners as well as to form relationships with potential collaborators. I also attended a course on community currency design in Scotland to gain understanding of the processes and issues involved as well as the assumptions about economy and community held by practitioners. This was done informally and my no means was intended as part of any data collection for the project. Rather, it was for early contextualization. Additionally, I am coauthoring a paper for the International Conference on Community and Complementary Currencies 2011 in Lyon, France with Stephanie Rearick, director of the Dane County Time Bank and co chair of TimeBanks USA.  This paper intends to offer a preliminary analysis of the dimensions of success or abandonment of time banking efforts.