Friday, November 19, 2010

Foucault as a complexity theorist

I recently discovered the Sociology and Complexity Science blog (now added to the links).

Among the rather interesting items there were references to two papers exploring the links between Foucault and complexity theory. Here are the references and abstracts.

1) Ken Baskin, "Foucault, Complexity, and Myth: Toward a Complexity-based Approach to Social Evolution (a.k.a. History)." (You can preview the paper by opening the cover in Amazon and going to it--it is the first chapter in the book).

2) Mark Olssen "Foucault as Complexity Theorist: Overcoming the problems of classical philosophical analysis." Educational Philosophy and Theory, Volume 40, Issue 1, pages 96–117, February 2008 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-5812.2007.00406.x
This article explores the affinities and parallels between Foucault's Nietzschean view of history and models of complexity developed in the physical sciences in the twentieth century. It claims that Foucault's rejection of structuralism and Marxism can be explained as a consequence of his own approach which posits a radical ontology whereby the conception of the totality or whole is reconfigured as an always open, relatively borderless system of infinite interconnections, possibilities and developments. His rejection of Hegelianism, as well as of other enlightenment philosophies, can be understood at one level as a direct response to his rejection of the mechanical atomist, and organicist epistemological world views, based upon a Newtonian conception of a closed universe operating upon the basis of a small number of invariable and universal laws, by which all could be predicted and explained. The idea of a fully determined, closed universe is replaced; and in a way parallel to complexity theories, Foucault's own approach emphasises notions such as self-organisation and dissipative structures; time as an irreversible, existential dimension; a world of finite resources but with infinite possibilities for articulation, or re-investment; and characterised by the principles of openness, indeterminism, unpredictability, and uncertainty. The implications of Foucault's type of approach are then explored in relation to identity, creativity, and the uniqueness of the person. The article suggests that within a complexity theory approach many of the old conundrums concerning determinism and creativity, social constructionism and uniqueness, can be overcome.

1 comment:

  1. I wrote an essay for my Contemporary Theory course at New School on Foucault as a "post-Newtonian" theorist. I didn't call it "complexity theory" because at the time I was not well versed in that area. I spoke of his work in terms of network theory and also compared it to Einstein's relativity. But I cited passages in Foucault to show that he was one of the few contemporary theorists whom we might use to look beyond the Newtonian world view of "cause and effect".