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Sense per Simplicity: Ant Societies as a Self-description Formula of Society

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Abstract

Making sense of society is not confined to sociological theories, nor is the notion of society limited to human collectives. Since Greek antiquity, political philosophy has taken ant nests and beehives as examples of societies, and in recent times, insect societies have been studied with sociological methods as well as from experimental biological perspectives. Ant societies have been considered natural and social at the same time. Yet, morphological differences of ants and men have been disregarded, while similarities like labor division or caste differentiation have been emphasized during the course of turning ant societies into an analogy for human societies. On the one hand, the image of an ant society as an analog of human society portrays social complexity. Because it is a nest of ants after all, images of ant society, on the other hand, describe a natural, rule-based organization that eliminates contingency and reduces complexity to basic laws of biology. Thus, the picture of ant societies evokes complexity and simplicity at the same time. My paper elaborates on this tension. First, I explore the function of pictures of society and the relationship of complexity and simplicity in this aspect in general; subsequently, I focus on the specifics of ant societies as a self-descriptive formula of society, following especially the entomological and sociological fabrications of that formula. Everyone who refers to society with a representation, phrase, metaphor, or picture with the aim of designating the whole of it is generating sense: “society’s unity,” “Western civilization,” the “welfare state,” or “entrepreneurial society” are formulas, each emphasizing a historical achievement or structure of society, while simultaneously neglecting everything else or reducing it to a sheer accidental aspect of that very achievement or structure. All these formulas are trying to capture the central quality or core essence of society, thus establishing a scenario that explains “what is happening exactly in society” and setting a “frame for society’s next operations” (Guy 232). If they are evident and compelling and succeed (in a competition with other phrases), these formulas of self-description play an important role in the evolution of society (cf. Stäheli). But none of these formulas are exclusively true or solely appropriate at the same time as all the others are wrong. Rather, they mutually exclude and compete against each other. Thus, society has to deal with a “multiple of self-descriptions” and a plurality of possible “unities,” according to Jean-Sébastien Guy who recapitulates Niklas Luhmann’s approach. We can easily observe this “paradoxical” coexistence of more or less contradictory formulas in everyday culture (Guy 232). Sometimes we seem to live in a networked and global knowledge society, at other times in a besieged fortress struggling to endure the ‘clash of civilizations’ (S. Huntington). Indicating that much, ant societies can represent all these different descriptions of our social world—from swarm-collectives to totalitarianism—and can still provide evidence and sense per simplicity in each case. If sociological descriptions and distinctions aim at the ‘whole’ or the very ‘core’ of society, they are displaying a kind of “panorama view,” which offers simplified, but nonetheless convincing pictures of the social (Latour, Neue Soziologie 327). Highlighting the essential structures or primordial differences of society and downplaying everything else, these pictures are beautifully arranged and well ordered. These intriguing “panoramas” or “big pictures”, as Bruno Latour calls these formulas of societal self-description, are “fictions”, and he rates the very coherence of these formulas as an indication of their “illusionary” quality (325). Even within academia, many of those images of “the whole” float around: world society, network society, risk society, media society, multicultural society, class society, capitalism, governmentalism, Empire, post-colonial society, modern society, information society, control society, postmodern society and so on. Every formula of self-description emphasizes an aspect of the social environment: the spatial dimension, the mode of connecting and routing information, the means of stratifying society or steering inclusion and exclusion, the dominant media used for communication or commerce, the economy, the manner of dealing with the uncertain or the non-normal, the historical differences of contemporary society compared to the pre-modern world, the differences...
MLN 130 (2015): 417–553 © 2015 by Johns Hopkins University Press
Dossier: Complexity/Simplicity
Claudia Breger and Benjamin Robinson
Introduction
The binary of “complexity/simplicity” is perhaps so familiar to us that
it has evaded our explicit attention—and, as we propose here, it is
overdue for a theoretical intervention.1 A closer look quickly suggests
that the notions of “complexity” and “simplicity” are used in very dif-
ferent ways in different contexts, and there is ample disagreement as
to what counts as which. While context specic usages of the terms
might sufce to make their meanings clear in individual cases, by striv-
ing for formulations that reach across theoretical contexts, we seek
to think out the values of different conceptual commitments in ways
that may not initially be clear. When we call a phenomenon simple
or complex, we are often invoking normative connotations that we
are not otherwise arguing for, whether it is by harkening to diversity
or accessibility, richness or elegance, inventiveness or assertiveness,
compassion or militancy, integration or separation. Moreover, the
terms can refer not only to the character of an object of scholarly
analysis, but also to the character of the analysis itself. Accordingly,
it may be a point of pride to give the simplest possible account of a
complex phenomenon, or alternatively, to attain analytical complexity
sufcient to capture simplicity in its most basic abstraction.
1This dossier has its origins in two 2012 GSA sessions on the topic, convened by
Claudia Breger and Benjamin Robinson. Last spring, just when the proposal for this
dossier had been accepted by MLN, Albrecht Koschorke and others published a call for
papers for a DFG symposium on the same topic. Neither side had been aware of the
other’s undertaking; to the best of our knowledge, these are two independent investi-
gations hopefully attesting to the productivity, and timeliness, of the chosen analytic.
418 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
Precisely because of this diversity in the terms’ reference and con-
notation, however, we believe this dossier demonstrates the productiv-
ity of concentrating on how we have been using them and specifying
new uses. Of course, we are aware that there has been considerable
effort to formalize complexity in a body of scholarship associated
with the name of “complexity theory,” an approach discussed in
several contributions to this dossier, but our interest in the notion’s
uses exceeds that specic context. Importantly also, there is yet to
emerge anything like “simplicity theory,” and it is in that conceptual
asymmetry that some of our questions emerge: without a theoretical
place, simplicity can easily gure as an arbitrary assertion. Complexity,
meanwhile, can expand to signify any attempt at detailed analysis or
deliberate formalization. By pursuing such generalized metaphorical
uses along with more formalized ones, and articulating complexity
explicitly in contrast to simplicity, we place new demands on each
term and announce our interest in understanding how they express
differing attitudes toward theoretical problems and differing attributes
of proposed solutions, as well as how they foreground certain motifs
and mobilize rhetorical topoi. In other words, this collection of essays
embraces the fact that notions of “complexity” and “simplicity” are
not restricted to a few schools or tendencies of thought, but cut across
a broad spectrum of theories and disciplines, epistemological and
political afliations. (Of course, we cannot exhaustively cover their
varied uses and necessarily present an incomplete exploration marked
by our specic interests and preoccupations.) While we cannot offer
one foundational denition aiming to replace, or synthesize, each
term’s various uses, the effort of moving beyond a casual usage of the
terms does afford an analytical optic for rethinking how simplicity and
complexity operate in selected contemporary and historical analyses
of culture and society. The different analytical perspectives of the dos-
sier’s individual contributions thus might be said to look transversely
across the grids of existing categorizations, inviting us to stand back
from a given approach and reenvision it with respect to the complex-
ity or simplicity it brings into play. As we argue, this optic promises
a fresh look at old epistemological, as well as ontological questions,
and a new mapping of key theoretical controversies. Through the lens
of “complexity/simplicity,” we sharpen both our analysis of texts and
our ability to develop pertinent theoretical models. The individual
contributors, of course, chart their own goals for such reimagining
and mapping—some focus specically on debates in current, twenty-
rst-century theoryscapes, while others reconsider historical scenes
of knowledge production.
419M L N
A crucial element informing the layout of our individual mappings
is, of course, the normative or critical question of our individual
sympathies for and investments in simplicity and complexity and our
assessments of how they serve current scholarly aims. While our joint
investigations have taken us well beyond a simple binary, some of the
questions at the outset of these investigations were about the value of
clear-cut allegiances: Does simplicity, while promising elegance of dif-
ferentiation and individuation, also (necessarily) lead to reductionism
and polemic? On the other hand, does complexity, while promising a
rich embedding of concepts in history and materiality, foster a kind
of (not-least political) inertia?
While each of us may still answer these questions one way or the
other, the dossier as a whole makes a case for delving into the outlined
interactions of simplicity and complexity and specifying the scenes of
their overlap and disjuncture.
Scenes of Complexity Talk
“In general usage,” Wikipedia offers as an initial orientation, “complexity
tends to be used to characterize something with many parts in intri-
cate arrangement.”2 Short of attempting an authoritative denition
that would categorically invalidate others (as our students know, we
certainly wouldn’t want them to produce any such thing based on Wiki-
pedia), we might begin with a heuristic proposition that complexity is
not only about the number of variables in play in any given situation,
but also about ongoing processes of layering, bifurcation, un/folding,
exfoliation, combination, specication and proliferation of detail. A
number of contemporary thinkers, ranging from Niklas Luhmann,
Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to proponents of
science and society studies such as Bruno Latour and Karen Barad have
foregrounded these intricacies of multipart arrangement processes,
problematizing quick reductions to traditional notions of causal or
logical necessity3 with concepts such as Luhmann’s complex systems,
2http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complexity.
3Drawing historical lines, we may be tempted to situate these thinkers in a tradi-
tion associated with the empiricism of Locke and Hume. See especially Deleuze’s
early (1953) book on Hume where his (heterodox) reading of Hume’s empiricism
and associationism introduces a series of thoughts that remain characteristic of his
oeuvre. “Association,” Deleuze draws from Hume, “is a rule of the imagination and a
manifestation of its free exercise.... [It] is a law of nature, and like every other law, it
is dened by its effects, not by a cause” (Empiricism 24). “The cause cannot be known;
principles have neither cause nor an origin of their power. What is original is their
effect on the imagination.” “Causality… is a passion, an impression of reection, and
a ‘resemblance effect.’ Causality is felt…. The necessary relation… is only a constant
conjunction—necessity is indeed only that” (26).
420 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
Deleuze’s “assemblages,” Foucault’s “dispositifs,” Latour’s “networks,”
or Barad’s performative “intra-actions.”4
An interesting observation in light of the above list of scholars is
that different scenes of contemporary complexity-thinking in the social
sciences and humanities have been marked by interest in the natural
sciences. While the work of Foucault and Latour explicitly takes the
natural sciences as an object of interpretation, the attraction to sci-
ence is not only thematic, but also methodological—in particular, of
course, in the vicinity of complexity theory in the narrow sense. In his
contribution to this volume, which proposes a reading of Friedrich
Kittler’s theoretical trajectory through the lens of complexity theory,
Geoffrey Winthrop-Young points out how a historical mainstreaming of
humanistic concern with complexity occurred with the 1987 publica-
tion of James Gleick’s popular science book, Chaos. No doubt, the rise
of computerized communication technology as a pervasive consumer
good around the same time period has contributed to the inuence
of complexity theory—and its prevalent metaphors of networks and
systems—in the humanities. But if there is an afnity between certain
strands of complexity-thinking and the sciences, the attraction has
not always been mutual or without its pronounced dynamic of love-
hate. Winthrop-Young cites James Horgan’s 1995 reaction against the
popularity of complexity in Scientic American. In 1996 the physicist
Alan Sokal’s publication of a hoax article on the social construction of
quantum gravity arguably traumatized practitioners of science studies,
leading Bruno Latour, among others, to distance himself from strong
social-constructivist views of nature (“Why Has Critique” 247). As a
consequence, one might say that the complexity of cultural engage-
ment with science has gone up since the more naïve skirmishes of the
1990s’ “Science Wars.” While insisting on the inevitability of mediation
and the need for methodologies of interpretation, Latour embraces
4For Deleuze and Guattari “an assemblage… has two sides: it is a collective assemblage
of enunciation; it is a machinic assemblage of desire,” (Kafka 81) and it “extends over
or penetrates an unlimited eld of immanence” (86). In his essay dening Foucault’s “ap-
paratus” (dispositif), Giorgio Agamben writes, “it is a heterogeneous set that includes
virtually anything, linguistic and nonlinguistic… The apparatus itself is the network
that is established between these elements” (2–3). Bruno Latour draws his use of the
word “network” (réseau) from Diderot, but equates it to Deleuze’s rhizomes: it “is a
change of metaphors to describe essences: instead of surfaces one gets laments (or
rhizomes in Deleuze’s parlance [Deleuze and Guattari, 1980]). More precisely it is
a change of topology. Instead of thinking in terms of surfaces—two dimensions—or
spheres—three dimensions—one is asked to think in terms of nodes that have as many
dimensions as they have connections” (“On Actor-Network-Theory”). Barad’s concept
explicitly introduces a complexied notion of causality: a “specic agential intra-action”
enacts “an agential cut … effecting a separation between ‘subject’ and ‘object’” (815).
421M L N
the latter not as an alternative to, but as a means of enhancing the
scientic project of modeling empirical phenomena (Pandora’s Hope;
An Inquiry).
Of course, it wouldn’t be accurate to tie the turn to distinctly inter-
pretive practices in complexity theory and complexity talk across the
humanities to developments in science studies alone. As the contribu-
tions of Johannes Endres and Katrin Pahl show, there is a long tradition
in literature and literary hermeneutics that insists on the aesthetically
and epistemologically productive role of thinking in terms of gures of
complexity (or indistinctness). Endres turns to Goethe for a vigorous
defense of analogic thinking against rationalist critiques, explicating
analogy as way to bring complexity to the potentially sterile procedures
of logical deduction and empirical induction to which Enlightenment
thinkers sought to constrain valid knowledge. Pahl’s interpretations
of Kleist disavow both elegant simplicity and intricate complexity in
order to demonstrate the productiveness of the blooming, buzzing
confusion of aesthetic play.
In part in this interpretive tradition, gures of complexity have
prominently featured in the postmodern polemics against the grands
récits structuring traditional as well as modern modes of worldmaking
(see Lyotard).More recently, however, the same rhetorical weapon
has been turned back upon postmodernism itself: In the name of
complexity, scholars have critiqued those (simple) ‘grand narratives’
which have—if disavowedly and perhaps ironically—structured the
paradigms of deconstruction and postmodern skepticism themselves.
In a plea that has become highly inuential for contemporary literary
analysis, queer theory and performance studies, for example, Eve K.
Sedgwick asked us to overcome dominant cultural studies’ gestures
of totalizing (‘paranoid’) critique, or what Paul Ricoeur called the
‘hermeneutics of suspicion.’ In their place, Sedgwick advocates for
(complex) detailed readings unpacking “the local, contingent relations
between any given piece of knowledge and its narrative/epistemologi-
cal entailments” (Touching Feeling 124).
Sedgwick’s contribution to twenty-rst-century complexity talk is a
particularly rich example insofar as she draws on diverging disciplinary
resources, and contributes to several of the (overlapping) scholarly
“turns” that have been proclaimed as characteristic of our current,
post-postmodernist moment—including those to affect, aesthetics,
cognition, evolution, neuroscience and phenomenology. Thus, her
late work also aligns with Latour’s in its complex turn to scientic
paradigms. Specically, Sedgwick rearticulates her canonical contri-
422 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
butions to 1990s queer and performance theory through notions of
phenomenology and affect by drawing on Silvan Tomkins’ psychobi-
ology. Emphasizing the “many parts” contributing to complexity, she
hopes that Tomkins’ work can help us gain access to the “realm of
nitely many (n>2) values” foreclosed by hegemonic articulations of
linguistic theory. But at the same time, Sedgwick’s late work has been
inuential among literary scholars arguing for returns to form and
aesthetics in the twenty-rst century by way of how her plea against
‘paranoid reading’ urges us to return to “the devalued and near
obsolescent New Critical skill of imaginative close reading” (108, 145).
Drawing on Sedgwick, others have argued for fresh looks at the “varied,
contingent, and often unpredictable” transactions between texts and
readers and for restoring the artwork to its “original, compositional
complexity” (Felski 8; Levinson 560). Particularly inuential in turn,
Steven Best and Sharon Marcus have championed new paradigms of
‘surface analysis’ to displace the claims of “symptomatic” reading, or
the “metalanguages” of “psychoanalysis and Marxism” with attention,
for example, to “the intricate verbal structure of literary language”
or the “linguistic density” and “verbal complexity” of literary texts.5
Attesting to the multiple crossdisciplinary ows and connections
that constitute contemporary conceptual assemblages, Best and Mar-
cus also cite Bruno Latour’s plea for overcoming twentieth-century
poses of iconoclastic “critique” through an ethos of cautious ‘assembly’
(Best and Marcus 18, 19). In his science studies context, Latour has
developed his programmatic move beyond the simplicities of ‘mod-
ern’ as well as ‘postmodern’ critique as an enhanced empiricism that
proceeds by ‘following the actors,’ or “mapping the controversies” in
tracing the associations between “millions of contradictory voices”
(Reassembling 31). Latour’s explicit contribution to complexity talk
is indicative in its asymmetrical wording. He suggests circumventing
“the traditional opposition between complexity and simplicity by
focusing on two types of complexity”: “complication” as a “series of
simple steps” and “complexity” as the “simultaneous eruption of many
variables” (Pandora’s Hope 304). Beyond this terminological distinction,
however, Latour’s overall project of Reassembling the Social underlines
the centrality of mediation in the ways in which many different types
of (human and non-human) actors “transform, translate, distort, and
modify the meaning or the elements” in articulating them on a spec-
trum “between full causality and sheer inexistence”: they “authorize,
allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, inuence, block, render
5Best and Marcus, 1,10; the latter quote is from Samuel Otter..
423M L N
possible, forbid, and so on” (Reassembling the Social, 38–39, 70, 72).
Against the backdrop of this endless complexity, Latour conceptualizes
the scholarly project as an endeavor structurally analogous to the new
formalist critic’s surrender to the art object: “Recording not ltering
out, describing not disciplining,” her explanation achieves “specicity”
in “connecting entities with other entities,” in short, by “multiplying
the connections” (55, 103, 133, 215).
Is there such a thing as simplicity?
In such complex environments, is there any conceptual room for
simplicity? Among our contributors, Endres seems most inclined to
embrace the noted asymmetry and abandon a programmatic notion
of simplicity altogether. With a slightly different emphasis, Werber
examines how simplicity’s deployment in the self-description formulas
of societies is always contingent, but also inevitable. Both Werber and
Endres draw on Niklas Luhmann to understand simplication as a
strategy of selection that makes it easier for a system to manage its
inputs. While thus asserting the role of simplication in representa-
tion, this approach cautions that “simplicity” as such hypostatizes a
quality that can only be understood as dependent on an observer.
Werber is specically concerned with the consequences of a particu-
larly inuential simplication, the one that has dominated the eld of
sociobiology, namely, that of seeing human society in the image of ant
society. What makes such simplications so important to examine is that
they inuence decisions that affect how human society is organized.
The medium of such inuence, as Werber’s title succinctly puts it, is
the production of sense. Simplication makes sense or meaning pos-
sible, which in turn helps guide human action—for better or worse.
In the case of ants, as Werber demonstrates, the simplied image of
society they present has authoritarian implications for human social
organization. Interestingly, Endres makes a complementary case for
meaning as a way of processing complexity. The contingency of any
one simplied image in Werber is the occasion for examining its ideo-
logical implications; in Endres’ perspective, the uid contingency of
a resemblance enables a greater degree of complexity than the stiff
logic of classication. Meaning arises through multivalent similarity
relations rather than the logic of exclusive identities. Where Werber
emphasizes how an image selects among specic features of society
and essentializes them, Endres demonstrates how an analogic picture
de-essentializes the strict genotypes fostered by the modern natural
424 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
sciences, allowing people to anticipate new connections among the
elements of their world. What remains common in both accounts,
however, is the juxtaposition of sense to the challenge of systematically
unmastered complexity.
If, from the angle of complexity theory, simplicity cannot be said to
have a proper independent existence, the attainment of some ultimate
complexity is likewise unthinkable. Despite his radical advocacy for
complexity, Latour, for example, is arguably seduced by the attrac-
tions of (a horizon of) simplication when he envisions the eventual
stabilization of controversies in an emergence of the “collective” (Reas-
sembling). As he describes it, this process seems to implicitly rely on a
rather Habermasian prospect of consensus “alchemy” (Pandora’s Hope
251), if not the settling force of hegemony. In fact, Latour explicitly
foregrounds the “master narratives with which we are disciplined” as
reservoirs of “metaphors for what ‘binds us together,’” arguing that
“they offer a preview of the collective” (Reassembling 189). If even
Latour is thus not immune from all temptations of simplication, Best
and Marcus nd an anchoring point for their production of sense in
bracketing the epistemologies of mediation as such, as they recom-
mend a scholarly pose of “being simply there”—instead of engaging
in the “subtle ingenuity” of symptomatic reading—and dene “surface
to mean what is evident, perceptible” (2, 9).
Other contemporary theorists have embraced precisely those ‘stop-
ping points’ without reservations—and in doing so invite a reversal of
perspective: rather than conceiving simplicity as a temptation to which
one succumbs, they ask whether simplicity might have a theoretical
justication after all. Interrupting, bracketing, reducing or abstracting
from the ongoing unfoldings of complex arrangements, such theo-
retical gestures toward simplicity argue for making determinations
associated with discretion, clarity, priority or action. Emphasizing limits
and exteriorities, demarcating beginnings and endings, periodizing
epochs, individuating events, or separating the accidental from some
notion of the essential, they vigorously assert denitive, unqualied
concepts such as “presence,” “truth,” “singularity, “end,” or, indeed,
(strong) “theory.”6 Winthrop-Young discusses Kittler’s insistence on
the materialities of communication as an example for such emphasis
on exteriority, even as his overall reading of Kittler’s work remains
more in line with Werber’s and Endres’ pieces, in that it proceeds to
fold this simplicity back into features of complexity, features such as
emergence, recursion, self-similarity across scales, and operational
6In contrast, Sedgwick favors Tomkins’ “weak” theory (134).
425M L N
closure. Such features allow Winthrop-Young to frame Kittler’s asser-
tions of simple exteriority within the dynamic of complex systems.
But the spectrum of gestures toward simplicity is broader than what
Winthrop-Young calls the “hardware fetishism of the Kittler school.”
From a phenomenological angle, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht has urged
us to attend to the “presence effects” of literary and popular culture.
His contribution to the twenty-rst-century turn against linguistics
and hermeneutics programmatically advocates surrender to the lived
intensity, or the “event” of aesthetic experience (perhaps even as, with
Heidegger, the “happening of truth,” 112–3). Whereas Gumbrecht
playfully embraces charges of political conservatism for this turn to
aesthetics, Alain Badiou has championed the singular event from a
very different perspective of (revolutionary) politics. Epistemologically,
Badiou advocates a radical Platonism equipped with a return to uni-
versalism. Against postmodernism’s radical insistence on difference,
he contours the notion of an event as a “truth” process inaugurating
a revolutionary subject through the latter’s breaking away from all
cultural ties in “delity” to this revolutionary call (Ethics 40–41).
Among our contributors, it is Ben Robinson who ventures out fur-
thest in developing a programmatic concept of simplicity. Giving it
much benet of doubt, Robinson denes simplicity as freedom. Such
a denition is counterintuitive in light of Luhmann’s work. Instead of
being seen as state of maximum determination (whether logical, causal
or ideological), simplicity is seen as one of minimum determination;
indeed, it is a caesura in a system-state altogether—a caesura that
marks the possibility of discontinuous differentiation between systems.
This denition is motivated by the link Robinson makes between sim-
plicity and the quality of being unmediated. Simplicity thus serves in
Robinson’s argument as the indication of a “sheer” subject (without
ideological determination) and a “sheer” event (without operational
consequences).
In another reversal of perspective, Breger’s argument against the
temptations of simplicity intervenes at just the moment of discontinu-
ity that Robinson’s denition purports to discover. Rather than seeing
simplicity as an opportunity for radical differentiation of systems or
epochs, Breger sees it as a ight from the complexity of social-symbolic
mediation. This conict is not merely about the social signicance
of simplicity. Whereas Breger’s perspective is epistemological (that
is, interested in the production of knowledge), Robinson introduces
simplicity as an ontological feature of the world. The object of Rob-
inson’s analysis is the individuation of distinct systems; that is, their
426 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
ontological singularity, not their ontic conditions of reproduction and
emergence. In this account, the wager is that simplicity (or any such
emphatically non-relational term such as freedom and individuation)
might assume its full warrant only in abstraction from the complexity
of lived experience.
Complexifying Simplication - and Vice Versa
Beyond contributor quarrels (we hope), these distinctions between
diverging commitments, perspectives and foci are, as indicated above,
of crucial importance for the larger conceptual endeavor at hand.
While each of us makes specic claims to the value, scope and de-
nition of simplicity and complexity in the context of our argument,
we are not only aware of the fundamental standpoint dependency
of these claims (see, e.g., Strathern), but actively interested in the
complications, and simplications, enabled by contrasting different
perspectives and intertwining the stakes of complexity and simplic-
ity. Analytically, it is important to underline that the values as well
as rhetoric of simplicity and complexity are layered even in those
scenes of knowledge production that we may associate fairly clearly
with one or the other side of the boundary. Perhaps (as Pahl might
put it), they are messily intertwined almost everywhere. In affect
studies, for example, both Sedgwick’s and the alternative Deleuzian
paradigm are strongly informed by complexity motifs. Simultaneously,
Deleuzian approaches in particular are also permeated by prominent
gestures toward simpliciation, specically in how they theorize affect
as a singular force of excess vis-à-vis socio-symbolic mediation. Draw-
ing on what are perhaps the less complex inections of Spinoza’s
and Deleuze’s philosophy, Brian Massumi’s early work inuentially
encouraged cultural theory to overcome dominant “fears of falling
into a ‘naïve realism’” in focusing on “process before signication,”
or (resonant with Badiou and others) “the expression event” (Parables
1, 7, 27; Massumi’s emphasis). Conceptualizing affect as “intensity”
beyond subjectivity, he insists on its “unqualied” nature, vis-à-vis the
“qualied intensity” of emotion (28).
In his much more recent What Animals Teach us about Politics (dis-
cussed in Pahl’s contribution), Massumi takes this interplay between
complexity and simplicity onto an explicit, programmatic level in
describing the intertwined logics of ‘ght’ and ‘play.’ While the lat-
ter specically is associated with complexity, the coming together of
these two logics in the animal playght paradoxically both increases
427M L N
complexity and institutes the simplicity of a single gesture. In her
contribution, Pahl regures the paradox through the concept of
“mess,” as a category running diagonal to the complexity/simplic-
ity binary. Too ‘ippant’ and ‘silly’ perhaps to “deserve the name of
complexity,” mess also lacks the clear-cut contours of an event, but
instead opens into a “creative zone of indiscernibility” (Massumi 67,
as quoted by Pahl). Pahl contours this zone as a kind of “thought that
relaxes the imperative to produce clean and clear distinctions,” and
instead pursues the “uneconomical, disorderly, impure, unaesthetic”
and “indenite” as a different, affective form of “rationality,” or even
“logic,” in her close reading of Kleist’s (structural, generic, linguistic
and thematic) literary messes. Finally, this embrace of disorder and
confusion also presents a counterpoint to Breger’s plea for the pro-
ductivity of specication. Having qualied her epistemological argu-
ment against simplication with an ethico-political acknowledgement
of the need for “an occasional dose of simplicity,” Breger’s reading of
Aki Kaurismäki’s 2011 Le Havre aims to ‘sort out’ this lm’s particular
mess by detailing how its narrative conguration intertwines simple
gestures towards a better world with a complex aesthetics bracketing,
but not undoing their affective work.
The complexity of these intertwinings presented us with some seri-
ous challenges in arranging the six individual contributions. Without
doubt, alternative congurations would have been possible and equally
productive. In the hope of facilitating some reader orientation in the
folds of this dossier, however, we decided on the following order: By
way of introduction, Niels Werber’s “Sense per Simplicity: Ant Societies
as a Self-description Formula of Society” starts from the formalized
account of Luhmann’s complexity theory to pursue the interplay
between complexity and simplicity that it describes in nineteenth and
twentieth-century sociological, biological and sociobiological discourses
around ant societies. In a meta-theoretical twist, Geoffrey Winthrop-
Young’s “Discourse, Media, Cultural Techniques: The Complexity of
Kittler” then employs these notions of complexity for making sense
of the dis/continuous trajectories of German media theory. Third,
Johannes Endres’ “Meaningful Complexity: Goethe’s Concept of
Similarity” pursues some of the historical genealogies of contemporary
complexity theory in describing the eighteenth-century resurgence
of (at best seemingly simple) similarity thinking as a resource for
managing social complexity. The second part of the dossier is then
opened by Ben Robinson’s forceful plea for an ontological concept of
simplicity, simply entitled “Simple Freedom.” In “Simple Truths, Com-
428 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
plex Framings, and Crucial Specications: Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre,
Claudia Breger responds by unfolding her proposal for intertwining
the categories through a reading of Kaurismäki’s lm in dialogue
with twenty-rst century theory, particularly Alain Badiou. Finally,
Katrin Pahl’s “What a Mess” closes (and simultaneously reopens) the
investigation in demonstrating the productivity of a positive concept
of mess in her readings of Kleist’s plays and Massumi’s recent work.
Claudia Breger, Indiana University
Benjamin Robinson, Indiana University
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Sense per Simplicity:
Ant Societies as a Self-description
Formula of Society
Niels Werber
Making sense of society is not conned to sociological theories, nor is
the notion of society limited to human collectives. Since Greek antiq-
uity, political philosophy has taken ant nests and beehives as examples
of societies, and in recent times, insect societies have been studied
with sociological methods as well as from experimental biological
perspectives. Ant societies have been considered natural and social at
the same time. Yet, morphological differences of ants and men have
been disregarded, while similarities like labor division or caste dif-
ferentiation have been emphasized during the course of turning ant
societies into an analogy for human societies. On the one hand, the
image of an ant society as an analog of human society portrays social
complexity. Because it is a nest of ants after all, images of ant society,
on the other hand, describe a natural, rule-based organization that
eliminates contingency and reduces complexity to basic laws of biology.
Thus, the picture of ant societies evokes complexity and simplicity at
the same time. My paper elaborates on this tension. First, I explore
the function of pictures of society and the relationship of complex-
ity and simplicity in this aspect in general; subsequently, I focus on
the specics of ant societies as a self-descriptive formula of society,
following especially the entomological and sociological fabrications
of that formula.
Formulas of Self-Description: Making Sense of Society
Everyone who refers to society with a representation, phrase, metaphor,
or picture with the aim of designating the whole of it is generating
sense: “society’s unity,” “Western civilization,” the “welfare state,” or
431M L N
“entrepreneurial society” are formulas, each emphasizing a historical
achievement or structure of society, while simultaneously neglecting
everything else or reducing it to a sheer accidental aspect of that very
achievement or structure. All these formulas are trying to capture the
central quality or core essence of society, thus establishing a scenario
that explains “what is happening exactly in society” and setting a
“frame for society’s next operations” (Guy 232). If they are evident
and compelling and succeed (in a competition with other phrases),
these formulas of self-description play an important role in the evolu-
tion of society (cf. Stäheli).
But none of these formulas are exclusively true or solely appropriate
at the same time as all the others are wrong. Rather, they mutually
exclude and compete against each other. Thus, society has to deal with
a “multiple of self-descriptions” and a plurality of possible “unities,”
according to Jean-Sébastien Guy who recapitulates Niklas Luhmann’s
approach. We can easily observe this “paradoxical” coexistence of more
or less contradictory formulas in everyday culture (Guy 232). Some-
times we seem to live in a networked and global knowledge society, at
other times in a besieged fortress struggling to endure the ‘clash of
civilizations’ (S. Huntington). Indicating that much, ant societies can
represent all these different descriptions of our social world—from
swarm-collectives to totalitarianism—and can still provide evidence
and sense per simplicity in each case.
If sociological descriptions and distinctions aim at the ‘whole’ or
the very ‘core’ of society, they are displaying a kind of “panorama
view,” which offers simplied, but nonetheless convincing pictures
of the social (Latour, Neue Soziologie 327). Highlighting the essential
structures or primordial differences of society and downplaying every-
thing else, these pictures are beautifully arranged and well ordered.
These intriguing “panoramas” or “big pictures”, as Bruno Latour
calls these formulas of societal self-description, are “ctions”, and he
rates the very coherence of these formulas as an indication of their
“illusionary” quality (325).
Even within academia, many of those images of “the whole” oat
around: world society, network society, risk society, media society, mul-
ticultural society, class society, capitalism, governmentalism, Empire,
post-colonial society, modern society, information society, control soci-
ety, postmodern society and so on. Every formula of self-description
emphasizes an aspect of the social environment: the spatial dimension,
the mode of connecting and routing information, the means of strati-
fying society or steering inclusion and exclusion, the dominant media
432 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
used for communication or commerce, the economy, the manner of
dealing with the uncertain or the non-normal, the historical differences
of contemporary society compared to the pre-modern world, the dif-
ferences between classes, races or regions, etc. Since every panorama
is making sense of society and is leaving out a lot of social textures at
the same time, each of those big pictures hides blind spots and each
is contingent, omitting alternative tableaus, forgotten and suppressed
details, which do not t as proper parts in the whole represented.
Ever since antiquity, cultural history has displayed a rich variety of
these “big pictures.” The ship is a famous example, while the society as
a herd of sheep, monitored by a shepherd, is another (Foucault 184).
Society has been pictured as a body, governed by the head and fed
by the stomach (cf. Koschorke et al.); and it has been embodied as a
leviathan, as a “Big Animal that makes sense of [all of the] local interac-
tions (cf. Bredekamp; Latour, Recalling 17). Of course, very different
fables can be told with ships, sheep, or stomachs as protagonists (cf.
Schmitt; Derrida). Bruno Latours discomfort with these designations
of a Society (yes, with a capital S, to designate the pretension to catch
the unity of social operations) is very understandable if one remembers
the system-theoretical truism that every description of society could
be manufactured only in society, implying that every description of
society has to be a self-description. Consequently, there exists no such
thing as a correct picture of Society, no objective, god-like view from
the outside, but only framed still-lives painted from the inside. This
is the situation for every sociological perspective on society. Hence,
theory is obliged “to discover itself in its own object of study: sociology
as the self-description of society” (Luhmann, Theory 11). If this state-
ment by Niklas Luhmann holds true for every picture of society (of
“the Social”), it calls for reserve towards allegedly evident or coherent
formulas of society. Their evidence is an effect of rhetorical or picto-
rial persuasion (“sociological enlightenment,” as Luhmann calls his
agenda) (Soziologische). Because all of those “big pictures” are inevitably
“self-descriptions of society” constructed within society, they must be
contingent, which implies that alternatives are possible and that one
can “deconstruct” or show these self-descriptions to be articially made
in a certain, contingent manner that could be construed otherwise
(Luhmann, Theory 11). I will take this critical opportunity with respect
to ant societies later on. Notwithstanding these convincing reections
on the contingency of self-evident formulas, our culture uses these
“big pictures” of “the Social” to describe, understand, and control
itself—and, following Luhmann a bit further, not without reason.
433M L N
The “complexity of the system as a whole,” Luhmann states in his
opus magnum on Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, could only be made
“accessible through purposeful and selective reductions of complexity
within the system” (Luhmann, Gesellschaft 1088, my translation). Luh-
mann deploys the term complexity to characterize degrees of “internal
order of interconnecting elements.” If multiple relations between
elements are possible, then a system has to deal with a higher com-
plexity compared with an order in which fewer ways or just one way to
relate elements is possible (Theory 78). Thus, in a complex society it is
necessarily contingent which relations between elements are actually
maintained in one specic moment. While every state of a complex
system is contingent, in not realizing other options of connecting
elements, no description of this complex system ever captures the
whole, but only provides a selective picture. “In sum,” Luhmann states,
“society has no essence. Its unity cannot be discovered by reduction to
the essential, allowing contradictory views as erroneous” (Theory 47).
Therefore, every formula of self-description of the Society is a contin-
gent reduction of complexity, even if it is concealing this by resorting
to “spectacular features,” which aim at “evidential” characteristics
of the System (Gesellschaft 1088). Evidence, Luhmann claims, means
nothing other than a strategy to make alternatives and inopportune
features invisible. The radiance of the evident formula puts its unavoidable
contingency into the shadow. And contingency, as demonstrated above,
inevitably comes with complexity (Theory 78). Hence, every formula
of self-description reduces complexity (ever in a contingent man-
ner), and one can conclude that these formulas make sense of society
by simplifying society. Sense per simplicity. Thus, the complexity of our
society is “accessible” only in the mode of simplicity. Every attempt to
give an overall picture of a complex social environment implies the
humble insight that the outcome will be the product of a process of
simplication.
At this point, ant societies enter into the picture, because social ants
function as evident formulas of self-description on the one hand, and
on the other hand, their portrait of a society combines complexity and
inevitableness, contingency and necessity. Ants have been understood
as social animals ever since Aristotle’s Politics. As indicated above,
ants have functioned as images and concepts for how a society works
or should work for thousands of years, for example as a republic or
as a caste-society. In the cultural history of Europe, speaking of ants
became an established opportunity to reect on society and contem-
plate alternatives to any particular order. Because ant societies have
434 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
been considered a creation of god, nature, or evolution, the features
of their communities in these very models have been assumed to be
eternally, naturally, or necessarily what they are. Within these scenarios,
they are not contingent, because they erase all alternatives.
Modern entomology considers ant societies to be complex, with
division of labor, exible task allocation, specialization, team-switching
and so on. Nevertheless, this complexity is treated as entirely reduc-
ible to a set of rules or algorithms, for example in current swarm
intelligence studies. Ant societies are complex, and yet reduced to
the swarm behavior of “simple agents” (cf. Bonabeau et al.; Dorigo et
al.; Kennedy & Eberhart). Thus, the formula of the ant society eludes
the curse of contingency from which other self-descriptions suffer: a
picture of Society that allows no contradictory views as a rhetorical
effect of its evidence, because this society is not a manmade historical
and cultural product, but an outcome of nature. What is a result of
natural laws cannot be constructed otherwise. That might also be the
case with other prominent analogies featuring wolves, dogs, sheep,
lions, whales and so on, but an ant nest is, in contrast to a herd or
a pack, highly complex. The image of an ant society thus promises
complexity without contingency. The success of this formula can draw
from its role as a commonplace or topos in cultural history, but even
more importantly, it can rely on modern entomological research. In
the natural sciences (biology, ethology, genetics…), the semantics of
self-descriptions nd authority and support in offering evident and
simple formulas while claiming complexity at the same time.
Furthermore, this formula of societal self-description is closely con-
nected to the development of sociological theory. While entomology,
I argue, has been trying to understand how ants organize, the disci-
pline has all along formulated theories of society and, consequently,
absorbed sociological theory. At the same time, sociology has been
experimenting with entomological attempts to describe the function-
ing of huge collectives, incorporating entomological terms, methods,
and pictures. As Charlotte Sleigh and Diane Rodgers have shown,
sociology and entomology have collaborated closely since the end of
the nineteenth century, designing terms, methods, and formulas to
describe the respective societies of men and ants (Sleigh; Rodgers).
This cooperation continues to generate formulas of self-description
with eminently compelling evidence, because even the simplest picture
(of ant society as a model or metaphor for our Society) coincides with
scientic, entomological and sociological legitimation. While society
and ant society have been approximated to each other more and more
435M L N
until ant societies could function as a evident self-description formula
of Society, the human being tacitly has become an ant, a “simple”
agent, governed by algorithms: “Each entity of the swarm is made of
a simple agent” (Lim & Jain 1).
Ants as Metaphor and Model of Man
Auguste Forel, Paul Erich Wasmann, Karl Escherich, William Morton
Wheeler, Henry Christopher McCook, Theodore Christian Schnei-
rla, Bert Hölldobler, Edward Osborn Wilson… Since the end of the
nineteenth century, every important entomologist has treated ants
as a social species. In these twentieth-century models, the Linnaean
morphology and taxonomy of the ant is no longer central to insect
biology. Instead, the main task has been to answer a set of questions
raised by Darwin: how does a complex, differentiated “community”
of ants emerge, how does it provide an advantage in the evolutionary
struggle for existence, and how does it continue to function in an
almost optimal way (Darwin 236)? After all, ant societies have existed
for a long time (almost 90 million years) and have consequently
adapted very well to changing environments. Furthermore, all these
famous entomologists, who consider ants as a society-building animal,
share the premise that the main features of a universal sociology apply to
ants as well as to humans. Thus, they have transformed from a meta-
phor popular since Aristotle (and any further instance of political
zoology) into a sociological experimental system (Vogl & Heiden;
Rheinberger). What is observed in an ant colony—in the eld or the
laboratory—sheds light not just on the nest observed, but on forms of
social organization per se. The ant colony is turned into an extremely
articial ‘epistemic thing’ that produces knowledge ‘about us.’ Wheeler
and Escherich describe ant populations as societies at the beginning of
the twentieth century, as do Wilson and Holldöbler at the end. They
consider them to be “social units,” “complex societies” with a division
of labor and with communicational agents (Hölldobler and Wilson 9,
15; Wilson, Sociobiology 189). It is a merely rhetorical question when a
highly regarded entomologist like Christopher McCook asks: “Wherein
do these [ant societies] differ from the common necessities and aims
of men in their social aggregations? They are practically the same”
(xvi). The same—not just an analogy or a metaphor.
Obviously, ants are special. The whale and wolf for Hobbes, the lions
and foxes of Machiavelli, or the sheep of the pastorate are inuential
images of political thought, yet within the context of political science,
436 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
no one has claimed that the lion actually is the sovereign or the sheep
is the subject (Schmitt 9 et seq., 124). Of course, the ant is not a human
being, but the ant nest of modern entomology in fact is a society and
not like a society! This is different from any other self-description based
on a deterministic image such as a herd or organic body, because a
ock of sheep or a set of organs are not a society. There are, to be sure,
considerable differences between ants and humans, this much must
be admitted even by entomologists—yet, Wilson instructs his read-
ers in his novel Anthill, in “fundamental matters their cycles are the
same” (15). This thesis is typical for modern entomology, especially
the kind of work done at Harvard University: “Even if the sociologist
[…] prefers to minimize the importance of animal societies in his
own studies, the biologist, who must always regard man as a Primate,
is perfectly justied in considering his societies as animal societies”
(Wheeler, Social303). As far as ‘social organization’ is concerned, the
same evolutionary mechanisms apply to ant and human societies. For
this reason, these societies have managed to nd ‘convergent’ or ‘par-
allel’ solutions for dealing with complex matters, such as the division
of labor (Wheeler, Social 302). Research on ants has therefore been
informative for sociology up to the present day. Like our social worlds
ant societies are complex orders, but this complexity is completely disclosed. No
contingency is threatening the truth of these sociobiological descrip-
tions. Still unexplained, of course, is the question why any sociologist
could be bothered with this. But there are fascinating epistemological
reasons for a cooperation of entomology and sociology, a cooperation
to which we owe a very inuential paradigm of sociological theory as
well as a very simplifying formula of Society.
Society without Individuals: Functionalist instead of Interpretive
Sociology
Ants do not reason. They do not think, have no morals, no emotions,
no unconscious. Yet, they build a society. According to entomology,
the evolution of insect societies can be described in terms that apply
to every society. Hence, we should now know unequivocally that soci-
eties do not develop through contracts and, furthermore, that social
development occurs without any involvement of citizens as reasonable
beings, making rational choices (or irrational, unconscious, inspired,
in any case hard-to-grasp choices, for a sociologist). Hence, modern
myrmecology describes a social order without assuming that society is
the rational product of individuals endowed with reason. The impli-
437M L N
cations of entomology’s answer to this challenge are enormous and
very inuential concerning the development of modern sociology (cf.
Werber, Ameisengesellschaften).
Max Weber points out in the primary, methodological chapter on
the “concept of sociology” in his famous Economy and Society that for
“sociology” the “context for action [is] the object of investigation” and
that this action ultimately must be attributed to “individual persons…
since they alone are comprehensible actors of meaningful, goal-
oriented action” (6). For Weber there is neither a sociology without
intelligible acts, nor a society without rational individuals. But this
cannot be said of the “socialization of animals”(7). Weber explicitly
separates interpretive sociology from the analysis of social insects (“ants
and bees”) and does so at the level of entomological research. Weber
cites both Escherich and Weismann, who are well known German
entomological experts. The difference from insects, which are not
rational and therefore do not act intentionally in Weber’s sense, has
revealing ‘methodological consequences’. Since interpretive sociology
(verstehende Soziologie) would come up empty in the study of “animal
societies,” the “purely functional observation” seems simply “natural” in
that case and therefore entirely outside of the domain of sociology as
an interpretive science (8). Weber considers “controversies” about intel-
ligence and instincts with regard to ants to be unproductive; rather, the
analysis of mechanisms is what matters, especially the readily observed
“differentiation of functions” (8, 7). “Diet, defense, reproduction” are
organized based on the division of labor, and this differentiation of
labor is worth researching. To be sure, the division of labor does not
presuppose some kind of rationality or consciousness on the part of
the actors (8). What Weber points out here about entomology would
correspond to a kind of (non-interpretive) sociology that excludes
human beings (actors with souls, intelligence, consciousness, etc.)
from society and sociological theory.
Nevertheless, the great Harvard entomologist Wheeler, one of
Weber’s admirers, uses what seems absurd for Weber for a paradigm
shift in the study of ants. Wheeler endeavors to design a theory of
society for social insects without intentionality and psychology because
the thoughts and intentions of ants (or bees, wasps, termites) remain
forever unknown to entomology and society as the superorganism is
under observation, not the individual specimen. Therefore, purely
functional methods of observation should be explored for modeling
the behavior of large groups. The consequent reorientation of ento-
mology toward the outside observation of ant society decidedly does
438 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
not suggest instincts or psychical abilities in insects, as Erich Wasmann
and August Weismann imputed to them (as well as Huber in Switzer-
land) (cf. Wheeler, Social 230; Wasmann, Die Ameisen 17; Weismann
22; Huber). Instead of presupposing that instincts or even intentions
are responsible for the complexity of social organization, Wheeler
searches for his explanations in the “social processes” of the insect
society (Wasmann, Comparative 184 et seq.; Wheeler, Social 306). He
has a good reason for this, since a paleontological look at the genus
of ants shows that the castes of workers among the highly developed
social insects (Pheidole, Dorylus, Camponotus) hardly differ mor-
phologically from their prehistorical ancestors. The division of labor
and functional differentiation in modern insect societies is therefore,
according to Wheeler, not an effect of physiological traits, but “a result
of social life” (Social312). Thus, what has evolved in Wheeler’s eyes is
not the physical individual but the social relation among individuals.
The social evolution gives reason for rapid and signicant change,
not the relatively stable physiological individual. As a consequence,
the individual does not interest Wheeler; rather, as in modern soci-
ology and specically Pareto, who is intensely studied by Wheeler,
only the roles that are prescribed to the individual subject by society
(Wheeler, Ant-colony). Thus, what is instrumental for individuals is the
way they are “in communication with one another” (Wheeler, Social
231). Luhmann, whose concept of communication expressly rejects
recourse to “intentionality,” makes a similar argument (Luhmann,
Soziale Systeme 209). Also, it is not human beings who communicate,
but social systems that can be observed and evaluated without know-
ing about the motives and will of the single specimen. What Weber
is explicitly interested in receives no consideration from Wheeler at
all (Weber 8).
Wheeler’s epistemology applies to every society, however, not only
to ants. In 1928, he very clearly highlights the consequences: because
ant society as superorganism has to be viewed as a living and organized
whole, entomology does not need to observe the individuals that make
up the colony, but the “communication amongst themselves” instead
(Social 230 et seq.). Wheeler seals the old dispute about whether ants
act “automatically” or whether their behavior indicates individual
“intelligence” in a ‘black box’ labeled “scholastic metaphysics” that
won’t be opened any longer in his theory of the “social medium” of
ants (225). Communications media, especially trophallaxis (i.e., the
exchange of liquid food), but also the chemical exchange of signals,
constitute the key object of investigation (311). This is true for ant
439M L N
societies just as much as for our “civilized societies” whose behavior
can be predicted, according to Wheeler, by observing “public opin-
ion,” and not by studying individuals (313). Vilfredo Pareto offered
a solution that greatly fascinated Wheeler, which was to refrain from
analyzing individual people in order to make models of social media
instead (Sleigh 86, 71). All of this allows for an impressive reduc-
tion of complexity. By means of ignoring the complexity of modern
individuals and their imponderable ways of decision making, Pareto
pictures a Society as consisting of transparent and observable com-
munication media and their rules. This radically simplies the indi-
vidual (“simple agent”) with complex (!) longings, motives, intentions,
reasoning, and thoughts in order to shift the focus of representation
to social complexity. Thus, sociologists could observe the evolution
of the complex super-organism in its environment in “a similar way”
to that of entomologists. As Weber has anticipated, an epistemologi-
cal shift to functional analysis can occur, as Talcott Parsons explains,
when sociology operates on “a generalized analytical level” and takes
into account the “homeostasis” of a “social system as a whole” (61
et seq.; 160).1 Parsons also leaves behind the problems of individual
intentionality in acting and free will with this shift from one level to
another that his colleague, Wheeler, so impressively accomplished
(cf. Parsons and Shils 167 et seq., xvii). The reference unit is the
social system in its environment, not the individual whose cognition
and motives Parsons treats as ascribed (Aktor 70). Parsons reformulates
the dynamic homeostasis that Wheeler observed in ant society (“mov-
ing equilibrium and integrity,” a product of his reading Pareto) as a
“stable equilibrium” or dynamic “stability” of the social system in its
“life cycle” (Social 230; Aktor160). The history of society can now be
told like that of an ant society.
Society as an Anthill
Harvard is “a human anthill,” Wilson states (Anthill 275). But not only
Harvard: he conceives of “social systems,” found “in humans” and “in
insects,” as achievements of “eusocial evolution” and describes them
in terms of “population genetics and behavioral ecology” (186). In his
monograph on Super-Cooperators, evolutionary mathematician Martin
Nowak, who co-authored a Nature article on the emergence of insect
1Wheeler and Parsons’ colleague at Harvard, the physiologist Walter Bradford Can-
non, had incidentally just presented the theory of homeostasis in book form in 1932.
440 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
societies with Wilson, completes his chapter on the “czarina of coop-
eration” (i.e. the leaf cutter ants) and “the Lord of the Ants” (i.e.
Wilson) with a resume, which is typical for the biological-entomological
discourse treated in this paper (Nowak 153, 159):
Finally, it is fascinating to contrast two-legged and six-legged society. Both
owe their success to cooperation and division of labor. Both rely on mul-
tilevel selection, where there has been competition between groups. But,
of course, ants are ruled by instinct alone while, thanks to language, we
also have swiftly evolving cultures. (167)
Thus, differences are pointed out, but the unique features of mankind
are causing problems. Nowak continues:
Before we feel too smug, we should remember that after only 200,000 years,
we humans are in danger of overwhelming our planet while the ants have
lived in harmony with it for 100 million years.….Queen leaf-cutter, who
rules over the greatest super-organism, still has much to teach us. (167)
One difference, which Nowak underlines, is the seniority of ant
colonies, which have been performing their highly differentiated,
sustainable and adaptive social life for millions of years. By contrast,
our civilization is “dismantling the biosphere and, with it, our own
prospects for permanent existence” (13). These are the very issues
Wilson treated in his novel Anthill all along, comparing societies of
ants and men, projecting the global problem of the biosphere onto
the disruptions of the local ecosphere of Alabama. In his novel as
well as in his scholarly works, Wilson spreads the message that what
we should learn from ant societies is how our own society could re-
establish homeostasis and live in “harmony” with our planet again—as
ants have done for eons. According to this wisdom of the ant societies,
our culture has “to t the requirements of the ecological steady state”
(Wilson, Sociobiology 300). But how? Conveniently, Wilson species the
steps of the way that leads to a society in equilibrium: the monitoring
of the “genetic basis of social behavior” will create a “planned society”
in which “its members” are “steered” in an appropriate manner into
a well-adjusted world beyond “stresses and conicts” (300).
Fortunately, there are differences between novels and papers, and
in Wilson’s ction one comes across some implications of the self-
description formula for ant society that are tacit otherwise. Wilson’s
novel Anthill validates his sociobiological speculations on two levels:
the ant colonies in their habitat and the society of Alabama in its
environment. The novel dramatically shows through imbalances (over-
population, depletion of resources, devastation of biodiversity, etc.)
441M L N
that equilibrium is a very precarious state. And we learn from the Ant
Chronicles, an extensive story-within-the-story about the development of
a sample of ant colonies in a natural reserve near Mobile, Alabama,
how a complex ecology — which, due to aberrations in the super-
organism or ant society, has gone out of control — can be rebalanced.
So, how are ants solving one major problem facing human society,
its accelerating destruction of the environmental pre-conditions for
its own existence? The novel has a clear answer that is in no way justi-
ed in entomological ethology or evolutionary genetics: it is the elites
who restore homeostasis and establish a new steady-state or Pareto
optimum. “Elites” are “leading” (Anthill 244). In ant colonies and in
human societies, “the elite” saves Society, helps with the recovering
of the environment and procures a new balance (83, 97, 196, 204,
206, 214, 238, 301). In Pareto’s sociology as well, the elite, like a deus
ex machina, resolves the problem of nding a new homeostasis for an
imbalanced society:
The social equilibrium becomes unstable, any shock—either from inside
or outside—destroys it. A conquest, or a revolution, changes everything,
gives the power to a new elite, and establishes a new equilibrium, which
will stay stable for a more or less long time. (Pareto 18)
In entomology and the insect world, there exists no such thing as
an “elite ant” (Anthill 200). But Wilson’s novel points decidedly (and
often) to a distinction between the masses and the elite. His alter ego
and protagonist, the boy scout Raff, explains to his mother: “Ants
may be small, people laugh at them and all, but you know, they’re a
huge part of the environment. They’re the most social animals in the
world. Anybody who knows anything knows we learn a lot about social
behavior in people by studying things like that” (167). Raff turns into
a graduate student of entomology, and in his thesis on ant societies
one can read exactly what we have to learn about social behavior by
studying ants. Raff’s eld-study monitors a colony in distress, strug-
gling for a new steady-state:
One of the ants that led the way in restoring order was an elite worker…
The elites were nervous and vigorous in movement. They initiated more
tasks. They worked harder and more persistently, and they usually stayed
on the job until it was nished. Other colony members were stirred to join
them at the tasks they begun. They were not just statistically at the upper
end of the activity curve. They were a distinct group of their own, forming
a bump on the high end of the curve, and important to even a temporary
prolonging of the life of the colony. This particular elite worker was typical
of her class in initiative and energy. (195)
442 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
If our Society is an ant-hill, as the novel suggests with all the authority
of its very famous author, any restoration of a good order is due to an
elite (cf. 379–381). Obviously, an elite in antdom is a sociological and
highly biased attribution, not an entomological description. Indeed, if
the equilibrium of a system uctuates (for internal or external reasons),
as the inuential Pareto has argued, it was an elite class that would
bring it into balance again on a new level. Thus, the entomological
concept of Society as a homeostatic system, trying to keep itself in an
equilibrium in a certain ecological niche (this was the very topic of
Raff’s study), is supplemented with a certain ideological bias, imported,
via Wheeler, from Pareto. To learn from the ant means to follow an
“elite”(Wilson, Social Conquest 256).
Ant society as a formula of self-description of Society makes, on
the one hand, certain features of our society visible, features like
division of labor, communications, media, cultural evolution (from
hunter-gatherer to agriculture and cattle breeding), specialization,
swarm intelligence (cooperation without reason), etc. On the other
hand, sociologists and entomologists have endowed the concept of ant
society with political distinctions—for example the difference of elites
and masses, leader and followers, heroes and slackers (cf. 250). “Ant
colonies may have an elite to lead them, but they also have layabouts
who need strong encouragement” (Anthill 244).
Thanks to the long-term cooperation of sociology and entomology,
ant colonies provide us, our culture, our mass-media, even our sciences,
with striking and convincing self-description formulas of Society. That
both societal orders of men and ants have much in common seems
evident and unquestionable. Thus, wherever ant societies appear—in
a novel, in a movie (like Antz, A Bug’s life, Ant Bully, Phase IV, Empire
of Ants…), in artwork; in books, pamphlets, papers, or treatises on
swarm intelligence, distributed networks, or the evolution of coopera-
tion; in discussion of social media, drones, military tactics, or political
theory—they function as a medium of societal self-description. If we
are featuring ants, we are describing our own culture (cf. Parikka;
Werber, “Kleiner”).
Within the framework of the entomological-sociological discourse,
founded and maintained by authors like Wheeler, Pareto, Parson,
Wilson, or Nowak, the picture we get to see in the mirror of ant nests
is all too persuasive. Because it is representing societal complexity
(I refer again to concepts like the division of labor, specialization,
managerial techniques and so forth), the ant nest envisions at the
same time a very simple stratied scheme of societal organization:
443M L N
elites lead, the masses follow (cf. Krieger, Billeter and Keller). Due
to the evidence and attributed complexity of this self-description formula,
any alternatives are ignored. Thus, these metaphorical pictures of
ant-society conceal the contingency of our complex culture. Assum-
ing that the same algorithms drive and organize both our society and
insect societies and that ants have been solving all of their complex
societal and environmental problems in an almost optimal manner for
millions of years, one can only reason: “Go to the ant thou sluggard;
consider her ways” (Hölldobler and Wilson 196). Well, if not, you
stay a “sluggard”, and the “elites” will provide for “strong encourage-
ment”… (Anthill 244)
It is not very surprising that the leading elite, which claims to save
society and earth, mankind and biosphere, is made up by biologists
(cf. Wilson, Social Conquest 13). They are going to reorganize our
society in the likeness of an ant colony. In an essay, which is in a way
a literary genre similar to Wilson’s novel, his predecessor as Harvard
chair, Wheeler, advocates a society reorganized by biologists (“Termi-
todoxa” 124). Fifty years later, Wilson envisions a “planned society”
steered by biologists (Sociobiology 300). If the statement at the outset
of this essay holds true, that self-description formulas set up a “frame
for society’s next operations,” the future held out in the picture of ant
societies keeps a simple alternative ready for each of us: lead or follow
(Guy 232). Every picture, every movie, every story of an ant nest is
making sense of society, because we transfer all of these evident and
compelling notions or images of a well-ordered collective to our own
circumstances. Ants mirror our social order, so it seems, and observ-
ing ants means learning about our own society.
Compared with the many other formulas of self-descriptions of
society mentioned at the beginning of my paper, the image of the
ant society combines complexity with the absence of contingency.
Optimized through millions of years of evolution, an ant-nest is just
the way it has to be. Nothing could be constructed differently. While
highly differentiated in its internal organization, the complexity is
reduced to the only correct way. No deconstruction is possible on
such an order.
Of course, Wilson knows that during the “cultural evolution of
societies” the “complexity level” is rising (Social Conquest 97). At the
advanced civilizing stage of “states,” Wilson admits that “social order
and communication systems holding it together [are] too complex, for
any one person to monitor and control” (98, my emphasis). This
sounds very close to our conviction that society is too complex to be
444 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
represented appropriately in one picture of the whole. But Wilson
continues, addressing men and ants likewise: “And as with complexity
of any physical or biological system, the society, in order to achieve
stability and survive and not quickly crumble, must add hierarchical
control.” Wherever “complexity had to evolve from simplicity,” he
argues, the emerged society needs “hierarchy” (99). If “eusocial colo-
nies” of ants, “with their castes and division of labor,” owe their com-
plex order to hierarchy (castes! elites!), then our “cultural evolution”
towards higher levels of complexity is based on the differentiation of
an “elite” and the “general public” (98). On the top of the ladder to
complexity (“nal step”), the picture of Society is quite simple again:
stratied, either elite or simple agent, either leader or mass (98). If
an agent is born into a certain stratum, as an ant has been born into
its caste, there is no contingency (alternative possibilities) left at all
within a complex order.
Niels Werber, University of Siegen, Germany
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Discourse, Media, Cultural
Techniques:
The Complexity of Kittler
Geoffrey Winthrop-Young
The following remarks are an attempt to apply selected features associ-
ated with complex phenomena to a recent development in German
Kulturwissenschaften. The enterprise is fraught with difculties, not the
least of which is the absence of a commonly accepted and sufciently
ecumenical denition of complexity that would ease the transfer from
the natural sciences to intellectual history. In addition, there is the
Goldilocks predicament of nding the right size. Cross-disciplinary
analogies and correspondences that attempt to draw on complexity,
chaos theory and nonlinear dynamics inevitably are faced with the task
of navigating between the nicky and the facile. On the one hand,
there is the constant danger of overly enthusiastic meticulousness.
Entertaining as it may be to describe Jonathan Culler’s reading of
Barbara Johnson’s reading of Jacques Derrida’s reading of Jacques
Lacan’s reading of Poe’s “Purloined Letter” as a deconstructive variant
of period-doubling bifurcation, it is probably not very helpful. On the
other hand, the analogies frequently do not advance beyond truisms.
‘Complex,’ invoked with hushed reverence or missionary zeal, all too
often turns out to be a fancy synonym for ‘complicated’ or ‘really dif-
cult’; it indicates little more than a tacit agreement between authors
unable to explain and readers unwilling to ask. If Theodor Fontane
were still around to update Ef Briest, the trademark phrase of Ef’s
overwhelmed father das ist ein zu weites Feld (literally, ‘that is too broad
a eld’), would be das ist alles zu komplex — this is all too complex.
None of these concerns are new. Readers with sufcient length of
tooth will recall the skepticism and ridicule that accompanied the
mainstreaming of complexity theory — the Great Nonlinear Hon-
eymoon — lasting, roughly, from the appearance of James Gleick’s
448 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
Chaos in 1987 to John Horgan’s takedown of complexity as a sham in
the June 1995 issue of Scientic American, and passing through well-
thumbed copies of Kate Hayles, Kevin Kelly, Roger Lewin, Mitchell
Waldrop, John Briggs and others. Yet while the originality of deploy-
ing complexity and associated concepts within the humanities is by
now diminished, the pitfalls are still there in full force. If you repeat
something intelligent, it has lost its luster, but if you repeat something
silly, it is just as silly as before. The thrills of the honeymoon can never
be fully reenacted, while its embarrassments remain as vivid as ever.
A certain restriction of scope and goal is advisable. The following is a
heuristic exploration that I will apply to selected features of complex-
ity to illuminate a key dynamic in the work of Friedrich Kittler (and
slightly beyond). The operative word is feature. Rather than attempt
an overall denition of complexity — or, worse still, imply one without
any attempt at dening it — I will limit myself to a few well-known
characteristics of complex phenomena.
First, complexity involves the emergence of systemic properties
that arise from, but cannot be reduced to, the interaction between
individual components. Whether you are talking about ant colonies
or brains, the world wide web or the immune system, they are all
“complex systems in which relatively simple components with only
limited communication among themselves collectively give rise to
complicated and sophisticated system-wide (‘global’) behaviour”
(Mitchell 6). In the following I will argue that key concepts in current
cultural theory — including “media” — can be described as emergent
conceptual phenomena.
Second, in many instances the emergence of complex systemic
properties is the result of a recursive mechanism. Recursion refers
to an algorithmic procedure in the course of which the output of a
particular stage in the operation of a system is fed back into the system
as the input for the next iteration. One frequently cited example is
population growth, as formalized in Verhulst’s equation Xn+1 = BXn
(1-xn). There is no straightforward linear growth; instead, the popula-
tion of every given year Xn is the input for calculating the population
of year Xn+1. I will argue that this self-recursive turning back toward
and reprocessing oneself is a key dynamic for understanding Kittler’s
evolution as a theorist.
Third, complex systems frequently involve self-similarity, meaning
that similar phenomena will reappear on different levels of magnitude.
The most famous example is the Mandelbrot set image generated by
the recursive iteration of complex numbers. If you zoom in on the
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set, it will, like a Russian matryoshka doll, re-emerge at ever increasing
magnications in almost identical fashion. The dynamics that arise
from the interactions between components on one particular level
will reappear in the interaction between levels.
The fourth feature is the most difcult to grasp. Within a German
context it is frequently associated with the work of Niklas Luhmann.
Basically, we are dealing with the counterintuitive notion that the ability
of a system to process its environment depends on and increases with
its operational closure. To anticipate the nal paragraphs of this essay,
the argument is as follows: On a technical level, recursion involves a
media technology that processes its own, historically grown properties.
But it is precisely by means of this turning in on itself, as it were, that
it acquires the ability to register, store and transmit something outside
of itself. To phrase it as economically as possible, media ‘mediate’ as
a result of mediating themselves. And to return to the rst point: this
ability to mediate is an emergent property that—thanks to our myopic
perception—will be seen as an originary quality. As we shall see, this is
one of the core points of the current analysis of cultural techniques,
and it too may be traced back to pertinent features of Kittler’s work.
*
Was Friedrich Kittler a complex thinker? Some who knew him well
appear to think so. In an afterword to the recently translated collection
The Truth of the Technological World, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht repeatedly
speaks of “complexity” when characterizing Kittler’s thinking. The
term is not dened, but judging by qualiers such as “increasing” and
“new levels” we can assume it refers to something difcult becoming
even more difcult. One phrase in particular stands out:
Inasmuch as Kittler constantly incorporated new texts, phenomena, and
domains of knowledge into this thinking — and in the process, returned
to earlier positions in modied form — the mythographer lent the eclectic
complexity of his work, from its earliest stages, increasingly well-dened
contours of coherence and form, in which a certain reality began to appear.
(Gumbrecht 313; translation amended)
Note that the phrase “eclectic complexity” — “eklektische Komplexität” in
the original German — did not make it into the English translation.
This is ironic because the recursive movement sketched by Gumbrecht,
the reprocessing of “earlier positions” in “modied form” that make “a
certain reality appear,” comes very close to the recursive mechanisms
of complex phenomena. Gumbrecht is in fact hinting at arguably the
450 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
most important feature in Kittler’s work. The following remarks will
try to spell out this hint in greater detail.
In many ways Kittler is anything but complex. Admittedly, wrestling
with the cryptic allusiveness of his earlier texts is like trying to grab
a lubricated eel — but once you have mastered the key points of
so-called French poststructuralism, you can trace Kittler’s shotgun
marriage between Lacanian psychoanalysis and Foucauldian discourse
analysis. The media-theoretical writings of his middle period are bris-
tling with intimidating technological details and expertly deployed
technospeak, but once you are sufciently familiar with the relevant
arcana siliconia, matters are fairly straightforward. And then there
are the late “Greek” texts, especially the completed volumes of Musik
und Mathematik, written in a style aptly characterized as “Heidegger
for hippies” (Powell 95), that expose readers to a heady bouquet of
Pythagorean mathematics, glimpses of Kittler’s real and imaginary love
lives, and intimate (as opposed to merely close) readings of Sappho,
Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus and others. They may come across as
either romantic and intriguing or self-indulgent and embarrassing,
but they are not complex. On the contrary: If, to quote the editors
of this volume, those theories oriented toward the pole of simplicity
emphasize “limits and mutual exteriorities,” then Kittler is a para-
gon of simplication. Time and again, the invocation of medial and
material exteriorities serves to cut through and ground the analysis.
Connoisseurs of the academic idiolect called Kittlerdeutsch or Kittlerese
know that these simplifying moves are already enacted on a linguis-
tic level: be it by the frequent use of key words like ‘cleartext’, the
fondness for dramatic revelatory propositions beginning with “Denn
es gab…” (“For there was…”), or the incessant deployment of adverbs
denoting simplicity and straightforwardness such as schlicht (simply),
einfach nur (only/nothing but) and Kittler’s trademark selbstredend (see
Winthrop-Young, Friedrich Kittler 62–72). The latter usually translates
as ‘naturally’ or ‘(self-)evidently’; literally (and for the following it is
important to keep in mind that Kittler, like Heidegger, is one of the
great practitioners of literalism) it means ‘self-speaking’. It denotes
something in no need of commentary, interpretation or paraphrase
because it already speaks for and about itself.
Kittler’s invocations of the materialities of communication are a
techno-version of Foucault’s pensée du dehors. And it is here, within
Kittler’s personal brand of Foucauldian discourse analysis, that matters
slowly turn complex. Regardless of how others may dene discourse
analysis, in Kittler’s case we are dealing with an idiosyncratic variant of
451M L N
one of the twentieth century’s great quixotic theory dreams: namely,
the quest to identify generative rules determining the production of
larger texts and utterances as effectively and systematically as phonetic,
linguistic and syntactic rules determine the production of sounds,
words and sentences. By describing Foucault as an anti-humanist
dépeupleur” who “cleans up while others are still multiplying” (Kittler,
“Ein Verwaiser” 142), or by praising the “hatred of commentaries and
interpretations that enforced a principle of scarcity within Foucauldian
nominalist discourse analysis” (Kittler, Short Cuts 36), Kittler conjures
up the phantasm of a more sophisticated and exible reductionism
able to continue the structuralist enterprise. For Kittler, however, math-
ematics replaced linguistics as the master theory behind these reveries.
Foucauldian discourse analysis was less a successor to structuralism
(a characterization Foucault himself disdained) than an innumerate
precursor to Claude Shannon’s theory of information. In his appro-
priation of Foucault, Kittler tries to narrow the gap between the two
by emphasizing that discourse analysis, too, dealt with ensembles of
statements rather than with isolated utterances; that it did not center
on the (hermeneutic) question of meaning, but on the fact that state-
ments were made in the rst place rather than not; that whatever is
said had to be seen against a background of excluded alternatives; and
nally, that there are discursive regularities which determine that the
selection of an individual element within a statement or an ensemble
of statements will, as in a Markoff chain, impact the probability of
the contiguous elements (see Winthrop-Young, “Silicon Sociology”).
In other words, Foucault’s discourse analysis and Shannon’s math-
ematical information theory are similar because they both locate the
validity and meaning of utterances in the formal rules governing the
relationship between that which is said and that which could have been
said. But while Shannon’s science is able to quantify this relationship by
dening information as a statistical measure of uncertainty determined
by the base-2 logarithm of the number of available choices, Foucault’s
accounts can at best deliver impressive descriptions. As a result, the
Foucault that emerges from Kittler’s texts resembles an engineer able
to design a beautiful car but who lacks all knowledge of combustion
engines. His shorter texts “set sail from the solid shores of his librar-
ies out into the open sea of media technologies, until Wiener’s and
Shannon’s mathematical concept of information appeared on the
horizon” (Kittler, “Zum Geleit” 8). But despite his formidable rigging,
Foucault — like the decommissioned “Fighting Temeraire” in Turner’s
eponymous painting — is no longer able to cross the seas of stochastic
noise, so Kittler the tugboat has to tow him to the other side.
452 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
Increasingly, Kittler resorted to mathematical concepts to express
his affect against commentary, surplus and doubling. “Implosion”,
“cleartext”’ and “structure”’ (inspired by physics, cryptography and
linguistics, respectively) came to be replaced by “algorithm” and
“recursion” (inspired by informatics and Kittler’s own programming
ventures). The grand phantasm no longer nds a stable structure
but determines the algorithmic information content of a given dis-
course. What is the shortest possible program capable of generating a
complete description of the discursive practices under investigation?
To avoid misunderstandings, Kittler was never a proponent of what
today is known as culturomics or cultural analytics (though it would
be myopic to deny all connections between Foucauldian archivology,
Kittlerian media archeology, and the digitization of distant reading).
The crucial point is the shift of emphasis from reduction to compress-
ibility. Mathematicians know this as Kolmogorov complexity. 823543
may look like an unwieldy number, but it can easily be generated by
giving the command Multiply 7 by itself 7 times or, more economically,
77. A simple string such as abxabxabxabxabxabxabx has a simple descrip-
tion: abx seven times. But a random string like 3d5b12vv093gg803dffbmt
is complex because it can only be generated by inputting the entire
string. (In more practical terms, complexity is the measure of the
computability resources needed to specify an object.) As in the famous
Borges text, we are dealing with true complexity when the territory
can only be described by a coextensive 1:1 map — or by itself.
However, what truly matters for Kittler’s move against all grand
narratives of continuity and the gradual unfolding of meaning in his-
tory is the very mechanism of recursion, which by the time of Musik
und Mathematik had emerged, was nothing less than “a new way of
writing history” (Kittler, Musik und Mathematik I/2 245). It is both an
alternate historiographical paradigm (see Winthrop-Young, “Siren
Recursions”) and a self-description that reveals the way in which
Kittler’s thinking developed. We will focus only on the latter. As has
been described many times, Kittler’s career conveniently breaks down
into the three stages: The discourse-analytical stage of the 1970s, the
media-theoretical stage that lasted well into the mid-1990s, and the
Greek, culture-technical stage that began towards the late 1990s.
These are not simply stages that simply follow each other in a linear
or expanding fashion; rather, the relationship between them unfolds
in the way hinted by Gumbrecht. There is a return to earlier positions
“in modied form,” and each stage is a “certain reality” that appears
by mean of recursive processing.
453M L N
At the beginning of his career, Kittler’s discourse analysis was con-
cerned with two questions. First, how does discourse operate within
a given episteme? Second, what emerges from these operations? In
other words, he targeted historically specic discursive dynamics as
well as no-less specic discursive effects; he was a theorist of discourse
and discursivity. More to the point, his analysis came to focus on the
recursive relationship between the two: Discursive dynamics will in
part predetermine their cultural effects, and these cultural effects, in
turn, will in part determine both discourse production and its subse-
quent analysis. In the eyes of practitioners at the time, however, this
relationship was turned on its head. The effects came to be viewed
as the origins of discourse production. Kittler’s grand snapshot of
the “Discourse Network 1800” reveals how specic operations and
protocols including language acquisition, child rearing, alphabetiza-
tion, teaching, and philosophical reprocessing gave rise to notions
— call them humanist attractors — of Geist, Bildung, soul, or reexive
subjectivity. These entities were ontologized (or, using a different
theory register, reied) to such a degree that they appeared to be
the fountainhead of discourse. Geist, then, was not recognized and
debunked as a property that emerged from a sequence of inscription
operations. On the contrary, you could only successfully master these
operations if you had Geist to begin with. Emergent properties were
viewed as the initial conditions, not of the next iteration but of the
entire program. The humanistic Geist was an inspired chicken capable
of laying the very egg it hatched from.
In order to uncover these mechanisms as well as their obfusca-
tions, Kittler engaged in reverse engineering (his particular variant,
as it were, of Ideologiekritik). He analyzed the discursive practices of
the Age of Goethe — for instance, how mothers and teachers taught
children to speak and write. The ndings were fed into the analysis
of certain cultural artefacts — for instance, their depiction in liter-
ary texts such as E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Golden Pot (see Kittler, Discourse
Networks 77–108). This procedure was governed by Kittler’s guiding
assumption that discursive practices were particularly clearly, indeed
literally, on display when treated within ctional frameworks — for
instance, the ‘cleartext’ depiction of writing tools, copying practices
and feminine inspiration in Hoffmann’s fable. The insights derived
from these literary analyses were fed back into the next, more rened
round of the analysis of discursive practices. The result resembles an
autocatalytic loop in which the output of operation 1n is the input
for operation 2n, whose output is the input for operation 1n+1 which,
in turn, feeds its output into operation 2n+1, and so on.
454 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
Now, however, comes the crucial twist: At a certain point the recur-
sive discourse-analytical dismantling of cultural effects will turn on
itself and affect the very notion of discourse. And discourse, to put
it bluntly, had it coming. In retrospect, it is amusing to watch that
monolithic entity ‘discourse’ stomp through German texts from the
late 1970s and early 1980s like Godzilla through a cardboard Tokyo.
The dramatic use of the campy singular der Diskurs already indicates
the reication of the term. But if ‘discourse’, after being used to
dissolve imaginary cultural constructs in the Age of Goethe, is itself
engineered apart into technologies, techniques and drills, what will
replace it? Answer: media.
Kittler’s media concept, then, is not something he picked up ‘out-
side’ and added. Nor is it the result of an abseiling action to reach a
rmer ground for Foucault’s epistemic reduction exercises. In Kittler’s
theory, ‘media’ is a complex phenomenon, an emergent conceptual
property arising from recursive analysis. “Authorship and Love,” a
cusp essay that straddles the divide between his discourse-analytical
and media-theoretical stages, encapsulates this emergence. The text
contrasts in distinctly Foucauldian fashion fundamentally different
discursive constructions of love and authorship by juxtaposing epi-
sodes from Dante’s Divine Comedy and Goethe’s Sufferings of Young
Werther. On the one hand, we have Dante’s ill-fated adulterers Paolo
and Francesca who, stimulated by a joint reading of an anonymous
account of the illicit relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere,
re-enact what they are reading and end up in the second circle of
hell. On the other hand, we witness Werther and Lotte admiring a
thunderstorm blissfully united in their joint memory of a famous poem
by Klopstock describing a thunderstorm. First, a sexual communion
of bodies directly infected by sex on paper or parchment; second,
a more sublime or sublimated orgasmic communion of souls in the
spirit of authorship. In order to explain how exactly the love of the
former differs from that of the latter, and to emphasize the point that
the trans-historic construction of romantic love is the result of very
specic discourse practices, the analysis evokes not only instances
of physicality (very conspicuous in Dante, less so in Goethe), but
also, and more importantly, a wide array of literary drills, techniques
and protocols from which the soulful union of Lotte and Werther
emerges. The more the essay excavates the discursive undergrowth
of the adventures of soul production, the more it unearths what
Kittler of the early 1980s describes as “the networks and institutions
that allow a given culture to select, store, and process relevant data”
455M L N
(Kittler, Discourse Networks 369). It is only at the very end of the essay,
in the penultimate sentence, that the word appears which more than
any other has come to determine the construction of Kittler himself:
media. It bursts in like a diabolus ex machina that will put an end to all
romantic “alphabetism” (Kittler, “Autorschaft und Liebe” 166). The
analysis produces and invites its key term.
But now the same dynamic occurs on the level of media. And once
again, the lead term had it coming. While Kittler remained outspoken
in his dismissal of how others, especially those aficted with sociological
inclinations, dened media, he never furnished a satisfactory deni-
tion of his own. To a certain extent he couldn’t, since he was prone
to deploy the term in two fairly incompatible registers. Media were
analyzed, rst, with a view toward their technological specicity, and
second, with a view toward their epistemological impact. Media were a
new, different object of scholarship, but they were also, in the Freud-
ian sense, a new, different scene, ein anderer Schauplatz. Just as he had
been a theorist of discourse and discursivity, Kittler now did double
duty as a theorist of media and mediality. And once again, a lot of work
went into establishing the recursive relationship between the two. But
what happened now — and this is the core operation of his so-called
media theory — is that the recursive relationship obtained not only
on this new level, but also between the levels of discourse analysis and
media theory. The scale-invariant recursive dynamics reappeared on a
higher scale. Kittler applied his philological expertise to the study of
distinctly non-philological media objects and then applied the non-
philological expertise he acquired studying media technologies to
the study of discourse constructs. Or, to employ Lacan’s conceptual
triptych, he analyzed how symbolic machines process the real and
then used the outcome of this analysis as the input for debunking the
imaginary that occludes the interface of real and symbolic. There is
an almost Brechtian moment of defamiliarization at work in Kittler.
The debunking of imaginary fabrications depended on routines of
literacy that needed to be viewed from the outside—that is, from the
vantage point of a medial other—in order to be laid bare. As a result
we are once more faced with a recursive autocatalytic loop involving
two operations: Operation 1 — the analysis of hitherto un(der)ana-
lyzed media technologies — results in media-specic insights which,
in turn, serve as a catalyst for operation 2—namely, the analysis of
the hitherto un(der)analyzed premises underlying operation 1. The
results of operation 2 alter these premises, which subsequently guide
the next, upgraded installment of operation1.
456 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
A well-known example: Kittler analyzes how the new possibilities of
mechanical sound storage that began with Edison’s phonograph fun-
damentally alter the status of language. Once you can record, replay
and transcribe speech, language is no longer a compliant medium
that encodes human thought at our beck and call. Nor is it a neutral
conduit facilitating the transfer of ideas between consciousnesses.
Instead it is a data stream that runs according to its own rules and
systematically erodes the traditional boundaries between message and
noise. We do not speak language, we are spoken by it; and so-called
meaningful communication is an arrangement of units that precede
meaning. These media-technologically enabled insights act as the
input for Kittler’s analysis of the Freudian talking cure. The latter
presupposes the new possibilities of sound storage by asserting, rst,
that all their hemming and hawing, slips and parapraxes indicate
that patients are constantly being betrayed by a language they do not
control, and second, that in order to trace the betraying subconscious
the analyst must listen to the patient with the neutral impartiality of
a mechanical recording device. As Freud put it, the analyst
must turn his own unconscious like a receptive organ towards the transmit-
ting unconsciousness of the patient. He must adjust himself to the patient
as a telephone receiver is adjusted to the transmitting microphone. Just as
the receiver converts back into sound waves the electric oscillations in the
telephone line which were set up by sound waves, so the doctor’s uncon-
scious is able, from the derivatives of the unconsciousness which are com-
municated to him, to reconstruct that unconscious, which has determined
the patient’s free associations. (Freud, XII 115–16)
The Freud analyzed by Kittler was up to date because his materialism
reasoned “as far as the information machines of his era” (Kittler, Lit-
erature Media Information Systems 134), yet he undercut his achievement
by relegating the phonographic a priori of psychoanalysis to the level
of analogies, metaphors and similes. Kittler’s countermove is to read
Freud much like Freud himself listened to his patients. Just as the
analyst privileges unintentional and sublexical clues over intended
utterances in order to decode what the patient is repressing, Kittler
takes literally what Freud reduces to the status of metaphorical illus-
tration (see Winthrop-Young, Kittler and the Media 66–70). For those
working at the intersection of discourse analysis and media archeology,
this is a classic instance of the return of the repressed technology. Just
as Plato’s Phaedrus condemns writing as insufcient for philosophical
purposes only to have it reappear in metaphorical guise to illustrate
the philosophically more-satisfactory inscription of the soul, Kittler’s
457M L N
Freud elides the fact that nineteenth-century storage and communica-
tion media precede and prepare the ground for psychoanalysis, only
to then have them illustrate the dynamics of his talking cure.
We are now able to make a basic point concerning this peculiar
relationship between recursion, self-reexive cultural artifacts and
literality. Throughout his career Kittler displayed an enthusiastic dis-
dain for self-reexivity as the alpha indicator of an exclusively human
subjectivity. At his most radical, he attempted to collapse the distinction
between human subjects and non-trivial machines equipped with con-
ditional jump instructions. Computers and feedback-equipped cruise
missiles are “machine subjects” (Kittler, Gramophone 259). The notion
that programmed feedback mechanisms are functionally equivalent
to human self-reexivity paves the way for understanding Kittler’s
approximation of recursion and reexivity. The human reexivity that
is thrown with great aplomb out the front door surreptitiously returns
through the back entrance in the shape of self-reexive texts. Kittler
compensates for his disdain for human self-reexivity by an equally
marked preference for texts that, in self-reexive fashion, discuss
their own discursive and media-technological underpinning — from
Hoffmann’s Golden Pot and Goethe’s “Wanderer’s Nightsong,” all the
way to Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage” and Homer’s song of the Sirens
in the twelfth book of the Odyssey (see Winthrop-Young, Kittler and the
Media 28–34; 52–58; 82–87). Second-order human observers — humans
who are subjects by virtue of their ability to observe and reect on
themselves — yield to “discourse on discourse channel conditions”
(Kittler, “England 1975” 472). Translated into recursive McLuhanese,
Kittler targets media whose message is that they are their own mes-
sage. It therefore comes as no surprise that throughout his career
he preferred texts that contained their “channel conditions” in the
shape of metaphors, similes and analogies. Rather than pay respect
to the self-reexivity of humans, he chose to focus on what textual
and machinic artefacts have to say about themselves. Recursion, then,
is reexivity without consciousness; and in order to function at top
efciency it exploits — or, to use the term now made fashionable by
Peter Sloterdijk and Bruno Latour — explicitates latencies by adopt-
ing a Heidegger-based form of literalist reading. In other words, to
use the output of a technology-centered analysis as the input for
the subsequent analysis of a discursive construct works particularly
well when the latter already alludes to the former in the shape of a
metaphor which can now be read literally. Whoever has ears, let them
hear, but let them hear with the ears of machines in order to hear
458 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
that those who are speaking are themselves always already machines.
The reciprocal determination of media and cognitive functions that
Kittler uncovers in Grammophone, Film, Typewriter and the second half
Discourse Networks — in plain English, the fact that we have an assort-
ment of little information machines wired inside our skull which are
modelled on the machines that have accumulated around us since
the days of Edison — is already contained in the ongoing recursive
analyses of “so-called Man” (der sogenannte Mensch, Kittler’s trademark
phrase) and so-called media.
So-called media? Indeed. By now readers may be able to predict the
next step. The recursive analysis will do unto media what media, via
discourse, did unto Geist, Bildung, “so-called Man” and all the other
humanist suspects. But if media is an emergent property that arose
in the course of dismantling discursive practices, what arises from the
dismantling of media? The answer: cultural techniques.
Cultural techniques or Kulturtechniken have a long conceptual, practi-
cal and institutional history that reaches back into the second half of
the nineteenth century (see Winthrop-Young, “Cultural Techniques”
4–7). The term entered the German language on at least three dif-
ferent occasions, each time with a different meaning. Unfortunately,
all three are still in use. For our intents and purposes, however, the
only important instance is the most recent proposal to read cultural
techniques as operative chains composed of actors and technological
objects that produce cultural orders and constructs which are subse-
quently installed as the basis of these operations. At the core of this
third meaning of cultural techniques is the notion that fairly simple
operations coalesce into complex entities which are then viewed as the
agents or sources running these operations. To quote a well-known
summary by Thomas Macho:
Cultural techniques — such as writing, reading, painting, counting, mak-
ing music — are always older than the concepts that are generated from
them. People wrote long before they conceptualized writing or alphabets;
millennia passed before pictures and statues gave rise to the concept of
the image; and until today, people sing or make music without knowing
anything about tones or musical notation systems. Counting, too, is older
than the notion of numbers. To be sure, most cultures counted or performed
certain mathematical operations; but they did not necessarily derive from
this a concept of number. (179)
Writing is an excellent example to show how procedural chains and
connecting techniques give rise to notions and objects that are then
endowed with essentialized identities. It did not start out as the visible
459M L N
representation of language because that would have presupposed a
prior understanding of an entity called language able to indicate its
own representation. Jacques Derrida’s ‘complex’ analysis of the supple-
mentary relationship of writing to speech makes a lot of sense once you
historically tease it apart into an iterative sequence of abstractions and
refunctionalizations. Think, for instance, of the development of the
Sumerian writing system. For accounting and trade purposes, tokens
representing items traded are encased in baked envelopes, and signs
similar to the tokens inside are etched or imprinted on the outside
of the envelope. Soon two abstractions occur. The rst is linked to
the realization of redundancy: Why use tokens inside as well as their
representations outside? It sufces to focus on the latter and replace
envelopes with tablets. Second, it is unwieldy to have a one-to-one
relationship between tokens and real-life objects. In due course certain
tokens are refunctionalized by being turned into numerals indicating
tens and hundreds, thereby enforcing the notion of abstract numbers
completely dissociated from the items counted. It is at this point that it
becomes possible to use the sound value of the tokens to approximate
or represent other items -- for instance, the names of taxpayers deliv-
ering their share of wheat to the central temple. The next step (and
according to the older Kittler, one of the two pinnacle achievements
of humanity) is to move from syllabaries to the Greek vowel alphabet,
that is, from the ‘molecular’ representation of speech as we hear it to
the ‘atomistic’ representation of speech as it is produced. This point,
in turn, serves as the basis or technological input for operations that
will produce the notion of language as a universal medium.
Note, rst, that this is neither a predetermined sequence nor a
teleological evolution. To use the term introduced by Stephen Jay
Gould and Elizabeth Vrba, the emergence of the phonetic alphabet
hinges on a sequence of exaptations. It is a matter of changing the
functions of design features in ways that were not programmed or
“intended” by said features. Second, note that this is a sequence of
recursive exaptations: Every new refunctionalization is possible because
a preceding abstraction enables users to understand something new
about their communication system, and every stage operates as the
input for a subsequent processing of the system. The sequence also
illustrates Macho’s emphasis of retroactive conceptualization. First
comes the practice, then the concept: We introspect our languages
and number in terms of our writing and counting systems. Inevitably,
however, the concept is installed either as a predetermined goal (it
is assumed in teleological fashion that the system was designed to
460 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
elaborate the very concept it gives rise to), or as the equivalent of
Aristotle’s ὃ οὐ κινούµενον κινεῖ — the unmoved mover at the begin-
ning of all movement. Precisely this type of ontologization is targeted
by the cultural techniques approach:
[T]he concept of cultural techniques clearly and unequivocally repudi-
ates the ontology of philosophical concepts. Humans as such do not exist
independently of cultural techniques of hominization, time as such does
not exist independently of cultural techniques of time measurement, and
space as such does not exist independently of cultural techniques of spatial
control. (Siegert, “Cultural Techniques,” 56–57; emphasis in original)
We will add the obvious follow-up: Media as such do not exist either.
They too emerge from a motley, contingent crew of actors, gadgets
and events. Underneath our ontological distinctions are constitutive,
‘pre’-mediatic ontic operations that need to be teased out by means of
a deconstructive maneuver able to disentangle acts, series, techniques
and technologies. (Here we catch a glimpse of Heidegger’s quest for
a “different beginning” that fundamentally rethinks the relationship
between Seyn, Sein and Seiendes—but that is a story for other campres.)
One example: In a very interesting paper, Joseph Vogl has pried
apart the constellation of heterogeneous elements that allowed Gali-
leo Galilei’s telescope to become a medium: a particular lens-grinding
technology; the combination of two lenses to produce an enlargement
effect; the Copernican hypothesis; an improved way of representing
results that always involved acts of self-observation; the typographic dis-
semination of observation results; economic pressures for very earthly
employments, and so on. Using this scenario as a case in point, Vogl
argues that that “[t]he history and theory of media must address the
singular scenes or situations where media (more strictly, the functions
and functioning of media) come into existence in a coming together
of heterogeneous elements—apparatuses, codes, symbolic systems,
forms of knowledge, specic practices, and aesthetic experiences”
(16; my emphasis). First, media is an emergent property that cannot
be glimpsed on the level of its constituent factors. Second, media
history is full of examples of recording, storage and communication
technologies that in their early stage oscillated between very different
usage options before a specic function locked in that then appears to
dene what the medium really “is” (and “really” does). An assemblage
of factors turns into an oscillating medium, then the latter is locked
in to become the medium. These interrelated intra-medial processes
of becoming are — or at least should be — irritants to any serious
media theory, for what all too often is posited as the initial condition is
461M L N
in fact the termination of a complex process. The question is to what
extent, under these more uid conditions of “coming together,” media
can still function as a viable concept. It becomes difcult to avoid the
bottom line that there is “no subject area, no ontologically identiable
domain that could be called ‘media’” (Siegert, “Cultural Techniques”
3; see Winthrop-Young, “The Kultur of Cultural Techniques”).
To address this last question, it is helpful to briey follow Kittler to
his last playground, ancient Greece, and then cross over to the other
side of the Mediterranean. The rst volume of Musik und Mathematik is
a media-historical exercise in splendid isolation. Kittler acknowledges
that the Greek vowel alphabet descends from the Phoenician conso-
nant alphabet, but according to him the jump is so formidable that
there can be no talk of simple continuity or refunctionalization. His
Greeks are very clearly something altogether special; they did media-
technological things their way and signicantly upgraded whatever
they may have imported from abroad (on the political implications
of this Hellenocentrism, see Breger; Winthrop-Young Kittler and the
Media 102–110). Once the vowel alphabet arises on the splendid Greek
soil the next step analyzed by Kittler is structurally quite similar to
the steps described above that led from accounting to writing. Since
the Greeks had an alphabet, that is, a nite repository of signs with
a xed sequence alpha-beta-gamma-delta, they were able to also use it
as a number system by converting ordinal to cardinal. Alpha comes
to stand for 1, beta for 2, gamma for 3 and so on. As in the case of
the refunctionalizing of originally token-based sound values for the
approximation of very different words and names, a new function
arises from the system’s recursive processing of its basic properties.
A system that comes to be known as a media technology acquires the
ability to “represent” something outside itself by looking back at itself.
This paradox is precisely what theorists like Siegert aim to unravel
by switching from media to cultural techniques. Of the many examples
provided, one is especially revealing. In the sixteenth century the
city of Seville was the bottleneck through which all had to pass who
wanted to migrate across the Atlantic to the Spanish colonies in the
New World. In order to prevent las Indias from being ooded by idlers,
vagrants, converted Jews and irresponsibly unmarried young men, the
royal bureaucracy kept close tabs on all prospective passengers by
developing a labyrinthine system of application, recording, identica-
tion and multifold witnessing. The effect can be described by drawing
on the lugubrious glamour of pseudo-Foucauldian prose: For the rst
time in modern history, the great grid of literacy was lowered into the
462 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
teeming depths of hitherto anonymous masses. Thousands of names
that otherwise would have been washed away by history like grains of
sand on a beach are permanently xed on paper. To embark for the
New World is to set sail for an archive in which what was once the
privilege of the few becomes the burden of the many: to be put on
record. Quod non est in actis non est in mundo—what is not on le is
not in the world, and if you are not on le you cannot be on a ship.
However, no matter how governmentally nefarious this process, it
still presupposes the basic notion that writing, whether it faithfully
records or arbitrarily afxes identity, is a medium of representation
that mediates something outside itself. But as Siegert has analyzed,
this misses a crucial point. In order to apply for passage to the New
World, the applicants had to report to their local alcalde providing a
testimony of who they were. These testimonies, however, were orga-
nized along a list of precise formulas and expectations concerning
the background and behavior of eligible applicants. The applicants
then took their papers, proceeded to Seville and regurgitated to the
ofcials housed in the Casa de la Contratación what was stated on their
paper. The cultural technique of identication amounted to a Möbius
strip of remediation: It basically consisted of the re-oralization of a
written recording of an oral statement that was itself already modeled
on written formulas. To make matters worse, in order to ascertain
that the alcaldes and scribes involved weren’t fake either, documents
contained Kafkaesque layers of attestations in which, for instance,
scribe n attests to the authenticity of the signature by scribe n+1, with
which the latter had conrmed the identity of scribe n+2 witnessing
the signature of scribe n+3, and so on and so forth ad maiorem gloriam
actorum. It is as if the entire paper-based Spanish bureaucracy had
been engaged in an imperial experiment to verify key points of Der-
rida. Identity, Siegert argues, emerges as a property from an iterative
process of citationality:
The discursive practices designed to acknowledge ordinary people as
legitimate passengers are based in their entirety on the “non-serious” or
“parasitic” use of language John Austin wanted to exclude from his theory
of speech-acts: they depend on citationality. The petitioner’s escritura de
pedimiento quotes the wording of the royal law, the witnesses quote the
questionnaire of the petitioner, the royal scribe quotes the testimony of
the witnesses, and the register entry of the Contador in the Casa quotes
the passenger’s información previously acknowledged by the jueces of the
Casa. In the same way the oral testimonies of the witnesses conrm the
truth of the passenger’s story simply by repeating the facts contained in
the documents. (Siegert, Grids, Filter, Doors)
463M L N
“A medium is a medium is a medium” was one of Kittler’s pithiest
insights in Discourse Networks (265) — and a Gertrude Stein-inspired
rephrasing of McLuhan’s mantra that the content of one medium
is always another medium. The basic point is that media are able to
mediate something “outside” of themselves because they recursively deal with
themselves. It is therefore not enough to break down black-boxed media
into operative sequences and label them as cultural techniques. It is
important to realize that these operative sequences amount to recursive
self-processing that, paradoxically, enables the mediation of another.
It is therefore fully justied to identify the cultural techniques
approach as belonging to a theory epoch “nach Kittler” — in the Ger-
man double sense of both ‘after’ and ‘according to’ (see Geoghegan).
The approach reprocesses the Kittlerian input by showing how the
dismantling of imaginary constructs by means of discourse analyses
and, growing from it, the dismantling of discourse itself by means of
a media-based analysis will, in a third recursion, reappear as the dis-
mantling of media by cultural techniques. Kittler’s algorithms operate
long after the original programs they were designed for cease to run.
But nally, why not apply to the latter a term he disapproved of:
dialectics. Indeed, it would be interesting to probe the extent to which
the older Kittler’s emphasis on recursions is a functional equivalent
of dialectics (and maybe further proof that Kittler never completely
moved out of Hegel’s shadow). In order to debunk, erode or even
deconstruct the discursive pomposities of the “Discourse Network
1800,” Kittler worked his way into the materialities and medialities
of communication. As we have seen, the ongoing recursive iterations
served to erode the foundational properties of discourse itself and
bring about the emergence of media as a new foundational concept.
The dialectic arises because in order to debunk that which arose from
media, the media concept itself had to take on the ontological proper-
ties of that which it was employed to erode. What has been descried as
the hardware fetishism of the Kittler school, then, recalls the emphasis
on production in dialectic materialism — minus, of course, any undue
emphasis on the human subject. In Kittler’s theory, media are as much
their own gravediggers as the bourgeoisies are in Marx. The emphasis
on production that was deployed against the unproductive nobility
is now turned against those who claim ownership over the means
of production. The increased focus on media specicities serves to
erode the media concept and gives rise to a new conceptual emergent
phenomenon: the “coming-together” of complex cultural techniques.
Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, University of British Columbia
464 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
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Studies. Ed. Stephen Sale and LauraSalisbury.Oxford: Polity, 2015. 71–94.
Meaningful Complexity:
Goethe’s Concept of Similarity
Johannes Endres1
My following considerations will explore the relationship between
complexity and similarity. Both concepts have been highlighted in
recent scholarship as pivotal in various respects, and they are crucial
to a number of discourses that refer to these notions for different
reasons and to different ends. The concepts’ modern careers are
closely tied to a shift in epistemological and aesthetic thought, which
harks back to the origin of our ideas of scientic progress and a func-
tional differentiation of arts and sciences. This signicant transition,
which for the most part took place in the eighteenth century, not
only engendered new standards of scientic and aesthetic judgment,
but also led to unprecedented notions of complexity and similarity.
In order to demonstrate the connectedness of both concepts and
to underline their relevance to scientic and aesthetic discourses, I
will outline rst an adequately complex understanding of complexity.
I draw from systems theory, which the above-mentioned, paradigmatic
changes made available. In a second step, I will discuss the concept of
analogy as a similarity-based reasoning prominent in the eighteenth
century as a rhetorical device that allowed epistemology and aesthet-
ics to be linked—as was the case with Alexander Baumgarten’s idea
of aesthetic perception as analogous to the operations of reason. At
the same time, a critical revision of the concept of analogy prepared
the separation of both ideas—as can be seen in Kant’s limitation of
analogical reasoning to a regulatory function. Finally, an analysis of
Goethe’s use of analogy and related ideas, including “family resem-
blance” (Familienähnlichkeit), will demonstrate that concepts of similar-
ity and dissimilarity have been utilized to intermittently reduce and
increase complexity, a fact that is equally relevant both to Goethe’s
1All translations are mine unless indicated otherwise; JE.
467M L N
scientic work and to his seminal thoughts on the representational
mode of the arts.
As we will see, thinking based on similarity cannot be called insuf-
ciently complex (‘undercomplex’). It is not the case, as Tversky
and Kahneman allege, for example, that similarity settles for surface
resemblances while overlooking deep difference (“Judgment;” Tversky,
“Features;” Kahneman, Thinking). Nor can similarity be forced onto
some continuum between simplicity and complexity, where complex-
ity designates a desirable good to which simplicity is a vicious ‘other’.
Rather, complexity is a given, and our discourses exhibit it to greater
or lesser degrees without ever being absolutely simple or complex,
because simplicity is not a state, but—at least at times—a term of
praise or blame. Thus, I do not present it here as an independent
characteristic of a discourse or its object. The concept of similarity,
as it seems, allows leaving such misconceptions behind, since it has,
throughout the intellectual history of similarity, always been seen as
a relational term, even when it was looked at as an inept means of
problem-solving. But similarity has hardly ever meant a perfect match
of two of more objects (which would be considered ‘identity’), nor has
it been the opposite of dissimilarity: “The forms of the word similarity
and dissimilarity suggest that one is the negative of the other, which
is absurd, since everything is both similar and dissimilar to everything
else” (Peirce 567). As we will see, similarity is also both complex and
simple at once—simple, in that it focuses on the resemblances between
otherwise unrelated objects, ignoring palpable differences for the
sake of simplicity, and complex, in that it forges new and potentially
far-reaching links between not yet afliated objects.
Also, as the ‘return’ to analogical thinking in aesthetics and science
demonstrates, eighteenth-century epistemology did not turn away
from a “system of similarity and resemblance,” as Michel Foucault
famously suggested (17–46). It rather updated and adapted such a
system by decidedly integrating dissimilarity into it. As a matter of
fact, dissimilarity began to be seen as a means to reect indirectly the
world’s complexity through the implicit concession that it cannot
be matched by established views. In other words: while new positive
terms hadn’t yet been formulated, the language of similarity and dis-
similarity acknowledged a relationship beyond what had been hitherto
explicable. In Goethe’s epistemological thinking, the implementation
of aesthetic terms and concepts serves a similar purpose. Since scien-
tic and aesthetic approaches to the world converge in a ‘dissimilar
similarity’ to their respective objects, Goethe can correlate the two
468 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
in a reciprocal fashion: “All our knowledge is symbolic. One is the
symbol of the other” (Riemer 250). For the nature of our knowledge
is symbolic in that it resembles its object yet also differs from it, just as a
word or image differs from the world that it depicts. The perception
of the artwork underlying Goethe’s statement no longer adheres to
mimetic principles, but conceives of the similarities between art and
world in their coincidence in a third instance: “The reference to
similarity […] is convenient and useful, since it elicits symbols, and
grants the observer a third position outside the object” (Werke II: 3,
110). The appeal to such a ‘tertium comparationis’ once again indi-
cates the timeliness of these processes, which rely upon historical and
semantic presuppositions unavailable prior to the Goethezeit. Hence,
eighteenth-century notions of art mutually correspond to philosophi-
cal, epistemological and scientic gures of thought, and thus help to
adjust the idea of complexity to challenges encountered, not least, in
the life sciences of the time, which for their part deal with patterns of
similarity and forms of analogy and their relevance concerning ques-
tions of kinship and descent as well. Finally, Goethe’s involvement
in the contemporary endeavors of comparative anatomy reveals the
interdisciplinary urge attached to the concept of similarity and the
problems at stake—problems vital to the disciplines of morphology,
anatomy, biology, logic, philosophy, and aesthetics alike.
*
In the following I will adopt a denition of complexity from systems
theory, one that will serve to grasp retrospectively the epistemologi-
cal shifts of the eighteenth century. Systems theory has proposed an
understanding of complexity which causes previous theories to appear
naïve (Rasch). According to Niklas Luhmann, complexity cannot be
conceived of as an objective and more or less measurable state of
things, nor can it be seen as a trajectory that systems would naturally
follow, advancing from lower levels of complexity to higher ones (Sozi-
ologische 212; Gesellschaftsstruktur 21–22). Instead, complexity can only
be determined in relation to a system that observes varying degrees
of complexity in both its environment and its own structures, and
that tends to nd the former more complex than itself (Soziologische
210). Hence, complexity is always system relative (systemrelativ) and
is always the result of a system’s need to make a selection and draw a
distinction in order to observe anything at all (Wissenschaft; Historisches).
Complexity, in that sense, refers to a system that no longer links each
469M L N
single of its elements to every other element, but decides to select
and observe certain connections, while disregarding others: “Systems
can be called more complex when they have become too large to still
relate each element with every other” (Gesellschaftsstruktur 237). At the
same time, statements about the world’s complexity necessarily carry
an irreducible uncertainty, which is due to the asymmetrical nature of
the system’s relationship to and knowledge of its environment (Sozi-
ologische 212). Complexity is therefore two-faced: As a quality that the
system ascribes to its environment, complexity induces a reduction of
complexity by the system; as an operational term that expresses the
state achieved by the system in response to the former, complexity is
the result of a reduction of complexity—a seeming paradox Luhmann
also explains as the “reduction of one complexity by another” (Soziale
Systeme 50).2 The selections a system has to make are thus a constraint
and an opportunity (Soziologische 207). Likewise, a system’s complexity
increases not when the number, or heterogeneity, of relations between
elements is increased, but when the system’s selectivity is increased:
The more selective a system, the more complex it is (Soziologische
206; Historisches 940). For this reason, complexity—in an operational,
non-ontological sense—needs to be understood as an “intervening
variable” (intervenierende Variable) which reconciles a system’s need to
match world complexity on the one hand with its inability to fully do
so on the other (Gesellschaftsstruktur 22).
This causes an unending problem for the system itself: for the most
part, complexity is of a (doubly) negative concern to it—as the com-
plexity it cannot achieve, and as the complexity it can achieve only
through a sacrice of information. Because that is what reduction
of complexity boils down to in the end: to not take advantage of the
entirety of information the system’s environment could provide if all
possible connections of its elements were allowed. However, some
information has to be blocked out in order to not be drowned in the
informational chaos that an unmanaged complexity of the world would
entail: “The complexity of the system, from this perspective, is a mea-
sure for lack of information” (Luhmann, “Complexity and Meaning”
81; Rasch 78). This again brings about an “inferiority of complexity”
(Komplexitätsunterlegenheit) on the system’s end, when compared to
2Luhmann also refers to both terms of complexity as ‘disorganized’ and ‘organized
complexity’, following Weaver, “Science and Complexity”. Hence, Luhmann concedes
a “double use” (Doppelverwendung) of the term, which is, simply speaking, due to two
conicting perspectives: the self-reference (Selbst-Referenz) and the other-reference
(Fremd-Referenz) of each system. Soziologische 211.
470 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
the over-all complexity left unaddressed—an inferiority that has to
be compensated for by methodical efforts to regain lost information
(Luhmann, Wissenschaft 370). For reduction of complexity (selection)
can only be established through a disruption of interdependency,
comparability has to be restored in order to make up for a decient
level of complexity (368). This is where ‘theories’ enter the stage to
facilitate comparisons between elements yet unobserved (408). In this
sense, theories formulate “concealed search instructions” (verdeckte
Suchanweisungen), which again increase the number and heterogeneity
of element relations and thus lead to an improved internal, organized
complexity of the system (408). However, this increase in complexity
does not aim for an “ever-more accurate copy of the environment”,
but for a “multiplication of those aspects regarding which the system
can internally react to irritations from the world” (371). Complexity
is thus a “criterion” for a system’s capacity to solve problems, and
not a state, an ideal, or a procedural law with which evolution simply
complies. Rather, “science becomes the means through which we are
making the world uncontrollable” (371). Finally, notions and degrees
of comparability, similarity, and connectability are the indicators of the
complexity that a system omits for the sake of viability and balance.
Along with an ontological concept of complexity, the “ontological
distinction between the simple and the complex” becomes obsolete
(368). “As a consequence, complexity can never be fully reduced to an
underlying simplicity since simplicity, like complexity, is a construct of
observation that could always be other than it is” (Rasch 70). In fact,
“complexity always remains complex and serves as a self-replenishing
reservoir of possibilities” (78). Hence, neither an uncontrolled increase
of complexity nor a reduction of complexity to an ideal state of sim-
plicity can be a reasonable option: the rst would render the system
inoperable, the second would lead to its collapse due to informational
entropy (Luhmann, “Complexity and Meaning” 81). Accordingly, the
relationship between complexity and simplicity is a mutually inclusive
one, such that complexity and simplicity are no longer opposites, but
relational terms referring to varying observational viewpoints. A sys-
tem is not merely complex or simple, but has to be both at the same
time: complex regarding the selection by which it decides to structure
its environment, and less complex with respect to its ‘blind spots,’
without which it could not discern in the rst place. In the wake of
such an argument even the question has been raised, “whether the
471M L N
terms ‘simplicity’ and ‘complexity’ refer to states of affairs that lie on
a gradient at all” (Luhmann, Historisches 940).3
*
How can the binary of similarity/dissimilarity be seen then as “a new
and powerful form of coping with complexity under the unavoid-
able condition of enforced selectivity” (Luhmann, “Complexity and
Meaning” 84)? Comparative anatomy marks a major eld of Goethe’s
scientic interest since the 1790s. At the core of his related stud-
ies stands a question neither he nor his contemporaries were able
to answer: the question of kinship (Wyder; Remane; Jacobs; Mayr;
Rheinberger and Müller-Wille; Rheinberger). Similarity and resem-
blance had been considered pivotal to kinship for a long time; from
the earliest experiences with breeding over ancient nosography and
corresponding biblical stories (Genesis 30.37–39), the relationship of
resemblance and kinship was an equally close and contested one. Yet,
its discussion had not been restricted to practical, biological or religious
concerns. Aristotle’s comments on the subject reveal an instructive
interdependence of the problem of procreation and kinship with
issues of artistry and aesthetics (Generation I, 21–22). Kinship and art
not only share (seemingly) common ideas of creator and creation,
they also tend to conceptualize the rapport between progenitor and
offspring, author and work, the depicted and its depiction, along the
lines of similarity and resemblance (Begemann and Wellbery). In the
eighteenth century, however, advances in the natural sciences began
to question the venerable comparison of biological procreation and
artistic production. While the idea of the autonomous artwork and
the aesthetics of genius once more reinforced the presumed connec-
tion, the discovery of the principle of reproduction in seventeenth-
and eighteenth-century biological (and economic) discourse was
already in the process of cutting off comparisons of biological and
artistic processes for good—or at least limiting their use to a solely
3Luhmann, Historisches 940. However, Luhmann’s note that the terms complexity and
simplicity have to be used in a “historically responsible” way, proves to be true in light of
the stylistic and aesthetic ideal of simplicité, which was in favor from the seventeenth to
the eighteenth century. Wissenschaft 366. According to the simplicité ideal, any convoluted
style was considered inferior, as was the use of metaphorical speech. The antagonistic
view of simplicity and complexity here “goes hand in hand with the belief in a reality
not in need of interpretation.” Henn, Simplizität vi. Again, the epistemological changes
at the turn of the eighteenth century were about to challenge both the preference of
simplicity over complexity and the Cartesian notion of a world ‘clear and distinct’ per
se. Cf. also Kallendorf and Gondos, “Brevitas”.
472 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
metaphorical meaning (Jacobs 72–73; McLaughlin). What made the
analogy hard to conceive—even before the discovery of the laws of
biological inheritance rendered it nally circumstantial—was Charles
Darwin’s systematic separation of similarities based on descent from
similarities based on the adaptation of unrelated species to the same
habitat.4 From now on, the arts could no longer convincingly claim to
create similarities similar to those created by nature without stretching
the comparison to an extent where it loses its intellectual credibility.
Equally popular was the ipside of such a comparison: the applica-
tion of patterns and procedures of artistic creation to generation in the
biological realm. This side of the analogy also goes back to Aristotle, but
has a biblical history as well (Metaphysics 1034a). In the latter context,
a generational concept of resemblance projects onto the relationship
between artists and their artwork, as the resemblance of maker to
man, or father to son.5 The concept underlying such correspondences
was that of analogy, a mode of comparing unrelated objects through
an indirect comparison of their respective relations to other objects.
Explanations of analogous thinking by Aristotle highlight the analogy’s
most salient feature, which also sets it apart from similar forms of logic:
analogy allows us to relate the unrelated by establishing connections
across classes and categories, including biological ones (Parts I: 4,
644.a18–23; 5, 644.b12–13; 645.b6–10; Rapp). In doing so, analogy
transcends familiar and classical categorization into the realm of struc-
tural resemblance. In Aristotle’s understanding, analogical reasoning
corresponds to an increase in complexity, in that it takes information
outside the framework of categorical classication into consideration,
while at the same time cautioning against the uncertainties of such
a breakthrough into the potentially unrelated. That way, analogical
thinking also extends comparison across genetically (or genealogically)
determined borders—a feat crucial to the use of analogy in Goethe’s
and his contemporaries’ pursuit of comparative anatomy and to their
tentative attempts to establish a new, i.e. adequately complex, view of
species relationships, when more reliable scientic terms were still
out of reach (Remane 79–93; Jacobs 101–111).
4Cf. Darwin 373–78; Voigt. For the consequences drawn by twentieth-century philoso-
phers of art from such a thought, cf. Endres, “Unähnliche Ähnlichkeit.”
5Cf. Genesis 5.1–3. An example for the application of a socially and artistically deter-
mined idea of resemblance to the realm of biology and chemistry is the Gleichnisrede of
Wahlverwandtschaften (‘elective afnities’), a term rst adopted in eighteenth-century
chemical discourse and then reapplied to its source domain by Goethe in his epony-
mous novel from 1810. Cf. Endres, “Evolution und Erbe”.
473M L N
Most crucial for the following considerations, however, is Aristotle’s
extension of analogical thinking into linguistics. In particular, his
explanation of the rhetorical gure of metaphor follows the principle
of analogy (Poetics 1457.b7–25). Accordingly, metaphors are based
on an analogy of proportions in which one word doesn’t simply take
the place of the other, but instead the comparison of two otherwise-
unrelated objects’ relations allows for an abbreviated expression of
one relationship through a cross-reference to the other. “The ‘act of
metaphorization’,” in other words, “is a crucial aspect of the way in
which we naturally extend our categories” (Hofstadter and Sander
64). The very functioning of analogy in metaphorical speech is thus
best illustrated by Aristotle’s most famous example, according to which
Achilles is called a ‘lion in battle’—although Achilles and the lion do
not belong to the same species, and hardly to the same class (Rhetoric
1406.b20–24). Nevertheless, analogy creates a hypothetical relationship
between the two, which crosses categorical connes and resembles
the relationship among biological kin (while also transcending such
a relationship without constituting a new category) (Boche´nski; Track;
Kluxen, Schwarz and Remane; Hoenen; Bremer).
As mentioned above, the creative faculties of analogy come with a
considerable downside that Aristotle mentions as well: Analogies can
easily go astray and overstretch their power by forcing relationships,
which are neither entertaining nor instructive but simply far-fetched
(Rhetoric 1405.a35). This danger is at least as prominent to discourses
in philosophy, rhetoric, poetry and adjacent elds, as are the obvious
benets of analogical reasoning. It also accounts for the manifold
suspicions metaphor has faced in classical rhetoric, from the aesthetic
norm of simplicité up to critical views on judgment based on patterns
of similarity in recent discourse (Tversky and Kahneman; Hofstadter
and Sander 337–346). In eighteenth-century philosophy, such con-
cerns culminate in Immanuel Kant’s considerations on analogy, which
aim to restrict analogy’s attempt to forge cross-over links to a merely
regulatory function. Kant suggests that due to a lack of a causal con-
nection, analogical relationships are ‘presumptive’ and hence conned
to thinking only. Consequently, they do not entitle us to draw any
conclusion regarding the actual existence of said relationships (Cri-
tique §90: 399–400). Kant justifies such a restriction by pointing out
the difference between analogical comparisons on the one hand and
biological and logical categories on the other—the latter relying on
causal interdependencies that the former only resemble. He explicitly
extends the reservation to such comparisons, which are used to cor-
relate the mechanisms of artistic creation to creational patterns in
474 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
nature, and vice versa, concluding that causalities applicable to one
class (such as human beings and their products) cannot be transferred
to another class (such as a divine being and its creation), which has no
generic concept in common with the former (§90: 399–400). There-
fore, analogical thinking, according to Kant, nds its actual domain
in the realm of the arts, whose sensible objects emerge from an act of
analogical reection—a reection which Kant calls ‘symbolical’ since
it only resembles the procedure by which understanding supplies a
corresponding intuition to its concepts (§59: 248–50). Moreover, Kant
relates the use of metaphorical speech to such observations and limits
its ability to yield cognition accordingly:
Our language [i.e. German] is full of indirect presentations of this sort, in
which the expression does not contain the proper schema for the concept,
but merely a symbol for reection. Thus the words ground (support, basis),
to depend (to be held up from above), to ow from something (instead of,
to follow), substance (as Locke expresses it, the support of accidents), and
countless others, are not schematical but symbolical hypotyposes and expres-
sions for concepts, not by means of a direct intuition, but only by analogy
with it, i.e. by the transference of reection upon an object of intuition to
a quite different concept to which perhaps an intuition can never directly
correspond. (§59: 250)
What follows from this is that a strong reservation is being placed on
analogy wherever statements about the ‘true’ nature of things and their
causal relationship are concerned, as well as connections between phe-
nomena, which exhibit signs of similarity and resemblance. Although
Kant does not make explicit reference to the concept of complexity
in this regard, one could say that for him, analogy and metaphorical
discourse are inadequate to fully encompass complexity, while they
are necessary for tentatively exploring connections that established
knowledge is not able to embrace, validate or even allow for. The limi-
tation of analogy—that it cannot supply evidence for the relationships
it concocts—is therefore also its strength: it offers new connections
between elements previously disregarded and thus enables an increase
of complexity, which becomes valuable when the complexity of the
world gets ahead of that of the system.6
6Cf. Hofstadter and Sander 346. The authors suggest that the “reason analogy is so
extremely efcient is that appearances are indeed great indicators of essences.”
475M L N
*
The very ability to relate the known to the unknown, and to elicit
the unknown from the known, has been equated with analogy at least
since Christian Wolff (Wolff §364; Rudolph 66–77). Goethe frequently
refers to analogy in his scientic and poetic writings for similar rea-
sons, yet he is also aware of the dangers Kant had highlighted. He
therefore carefully distances himself from a reckless pursuit of resem-
blances in natural phenomena. His respective statements strive for a
balance between the chances and pitfalls that lurk behind a surface of
similarities. He sees an uncontrolled use of similarity-based reasoning
embodied in ‘reason’ (Witz), an intellectual technique of detecting
the similar in the dissimilar, which Wolff and others had propagated
in previous decades and which Goethe cautions against (Böckmann;
Knoerer). According to him, wit does not look for the related, but
seemingly approximates the unrelated (Goethe, Werke II: 11, 168).
Reason (Witz) even conceals dissimilarities, insinuating relationships
where nature does not provide and conrm them (II: 2, 274). The
assimilating tendency by which reason (Witz) covers actual diversity in
a misleading appearance of relatedness, on the other hand, is opposed
to the truth of analogy. Because in analogical thinking it is “not just
imagination that wants to nd similarities, but reason that discovers
real analogies” (IV: 39, 144). Goethe therefore does not hesitate to
defend analogy against critical objections that want to remove it from
philosophical and scientic reasoning altogether:
One should not be fooled when analogy misleads us at times, when as far-
fetched and random wit it ends up in smoke. […] Let’s for our purposes
stick to a purely methodological analogy, which only enlivens experience
by connecting what is separate to the seemingly remote, thus discovering
its identity and making the actual totality of life in nature step-by-step felt
in science as well. (II: 5.1, 292–93)
This quote indicates that analogy reaches out for a totality of nature
and knowledge, a totality which strategies focused on distinctions
must overlook. Analogy might therefore be undifferentiated, but it
also provides for connectivity, which can be used to extend the scope
of knowledge when necessary. Goethe’s frequent call, as both scientist
and poet, for vividness and sensuality (Anschaulichkeit) and his noto-
rious ‘realistic tic’ are side effects of his desire for totality and con-
nectivity (IV: 11, 121), both of which were left behind when natural
sciences moved the epistemological focus from visible similarities to
the more or less invisible and intangible DNA of life. His claims do
476 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
not aim to restore a naïve or simplistic idea of wholeness in the face
of an increasingly diverse and differentiated view of things, but rather
opt for a ‘heterarchic’ (or serial) inclusion of elements necessarily
ignored by the ‘hierarchic’ structures of proven knowledge.7 That is
what Goethe means when he restricts analogy to a ‘methodological’
use, which cautiously yet decidedly goes after the ‘total life of nature’.
In what seems a bold move compared to Kant’s critical restriction of
analogy to a merely hypothetical use, Goethe even vindicates analogy
in the very nature of things itself:
Each existing thing is an analogue of all existing things; hence, existence
always seems separate and connected at the same time. If one follows analogy
too closely, everything falls together as identical; if one avoids analogy, every-
thing is scattered ad innitum. In both cases observation stagnates, once
from over-animation, the other time from deadening. (Werke II: 11, 116)
In statements like this one, analogy appears to be not just a thought
pattern, but a feature of the world: “Nature, understood properly,
reects itself analogously to our mind; and when it only awakens tropes
and similes much is gained already” (IV: 37, 217). Such an idea might
at rst seem less sophisticated than Kant’s reserved view of analogy.
But Goethe does not fall behind Kant’s position, as the following
acknowledgement clearly demonstrates: “Looked at more closely, each
word is already hypothetical in itself; and with such simple phenomena
that escape consultation so easily [Goethe is referring to the subjects
of Farbenlehre] we have to resort to analogies, similes, symbols and
all kinds of gurative expressions.”8 As it turns out, Goethe doesn’t
at all assume that the world just is an analogy or that the similarities
the human mind detects in its quest for a bigger picture are inher-
ent properties of objects themselves. His argument in fact grounds
the analogical nature of the concrete world (alles Existierenden) in
the correspondence between that world and the cognitive apparatus
of man: “If the eye weren’t sun-like, / How could we see the light?”
(II: 1, xxxi). It is again a third instance then—the similarity between
human perception and the phenomenal world—that permits a com-
parison of said phenomena to each other. Things are thus similar
7Luhmann, Wissenschaft 365; Geulen, “Serialization.” Geulen might be wrong, though,
when she assumes that “questions of origin and descent did not interest“ Goethe
(57)—he just knew he couldn’t answer them.
8Werke II: 5.2, 13. In The Experiment as Mediator between Object and Subject (Der Versuch
als Vermittler von Object und Subject), Goethe concedes that man’s “disposition to hypoth-
eses, theories, terminologies, and systems” brings “several objects into an intelligible
relationship which, strictly speaking, they do not have” (II: 11, 29).
477M L N
to one another to the extent that they resemble the working of our
mind. One should not sell this idea cheap by hastily comparing it
to insights of evolutionary epistemology regarding the co-evolution
of cognitive structures and the world.9 Goethe’s point is rather one
that again demonstrates the connectedness of scientic and aesthetic
discourse, since it emphasizes the core role that representation plays
in both the cognition and depiction of complexity and similarity—an
idea that directly follows from the fact that the “concept of complexity
and, above all, the comparison of complexities in terms of more or
less, is a matter of observation” (Luhman, Wissenschaft 366). Analogies,
accordingly, reveal themselves rst and foremost in man’s attempts to
represent the world, as in “trope, metaphor, simile, fable, symbol, alle-
gory, pp.”10 In that sense, analogy and complexity are terms that refer
to a second order representation (or Spiegelung), not to a ‘suchness’ of
things. Analogy, in particular, can stress similarities on a second level
of comparison and account for dissimilarities on the level of things,
since it “does not signify (as is commonly understood) an imperfect
similarity of two things, but a perfect similarity of relations between
two quite dissimilar things” (Kant, Prolegomena §58).
It therefore does not come as a surprise that Goethe keeps citing a
term (Gleichnis) prominent in his poetics when discussing the issues
at stake. In doing so, he forges a strong link between cognition and
poetry that allows him to almost contract the two into one: “All our
knowledge is symbolic.”11 It is again the coincidence and togetherness
of “similarity and dissimilarity”12 in simile, symbol, image, trope, and
nally analogy that protects against a simple equation:
In the complicated articial language of which we were speaking, the
consequences are especially pernicious when the symbol, which implies an
approximation, is posited instead of the fact; when an external relation is
made into an internal one, and representation becomes lost in parable.
(Goethe, Briefe 4: 484–85)
By referencing artistic terms such as symbol and parable, Goethe
would rather keep the terms of philosophical and scientic debate
9For such a view on the interdependencies of cultural and biological evolution from
the standpoint of literary studies cf. Eibl.
10Goethe, Werke III: 10, 119. Goethe also quotes Roger Bacon as follows: “If a natural
entity affects our senses and brains an image is being created, something simile-like, as
everyone knows, but the same simile is also created in the matter” (II: 3, 155).
11Riemer, Mitteilungen 250; also: “All that happens is a symbol” (Goethe, Werke IV:
29, 122).
12Goethe, Werke I: 7, 114; cf. Westerhoff, “Zwischen Ganzheits- und Differenzdenken.”
478 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
‘exible’, as he says: “If we should be reproached for having over-
reached with our relationships, relations, references, analogies, inter-
pretations and similes, we reply that the mind cannot keep itself
exible enough, since it must always fear freezing in the face of this
or that phenomenon” (Werke II: 5.1, 301). As Luhmann might put
it, the “underdetermination” of our terms at times just assures their
“structurally warranted exibility” (Soziologische 211). It would be an
intellectual rigidity, though, if the mind followed only relationships
provided by class afliation, as given by a static, taxonomic system á
la Linnaeus.13 In contrast, Goethe favors an analogous method that
extends comparisons to an ‘interindividual’ level—a method nowa-
days referred to as ‘specic homology’ (or ‘homonomy’)—instead of
limiting those comparisons to individuals which belong to the same
species (Remane 76–79). Hence, when Goethe could nally prove the
existence of an intermaxillary bone in humans, he ascribed his success
to the “genius of analogy,” his “guardian angel,” which had led him
to the unknown through a proportional comparison with the known
(Werke II: 7, 199). And it is again the paradigm of the artist and his
methods and means, that ratify a pursuit, which carry similarities into
the dissimilar and, at times, generate resemblances in the rst place:
“[…] and where could such objects be reected more faithfully than
in the soul of the artist whom nature has given the ability and the
urge to create similar things” (IV: 31, 328)
However, the use of analogy and related gures of speech for Goethe
always comes with the concession of their respective uncertainty and
indecisiveness, which are equally due to a limited understanding
of the matters involved and the ‘natural’ constraints of analogical
and metaphorical thought. But Goethe also values analogy precisely
because of its vagueness, or ‘fuzziness’, as Luhmann has it, referring
to the uncertainties that complexity both creates and compensates:14
“Thinking by means of analogies is not to be condemned; analogy has
the advantage that it doesn’t come to a conclusion, and does not, in
truth, aim at nality at all” (Werke I: 42.2, 180) Analogy’s vagueness,
however, is not only faithful to the fact that a conclusive apprehen-
sion of things has not yet been reached; it is also open for subsequent
observations, which may connect to it:
13For a brief characteristic of Linnaeus’ system cf. Rheinberger and Müller-Wille,
Vererbung 54–55.
14Soziale Systeme 51. On ‘vagueness’ as a linguistic and epistemological concept, cf.
Black; Williamson; Dönninghaus.
479M L N
To communicate by means of analogy appears to me equally useful and
pleasant; the analogous case neither imposes itself nor wants to prove
anything; it juxtaposes itself to some other case without tying itself to it.
Multiple analogous cases do not join to form a closed sequence, they are
like good company, which always suggests more than it settles. (II: 11, 105)
Analogies form incomplete series, which spread out horizontally,
instead of forcing objects into hierarchical orders shaped through
principles of causality and class afliation. Goethe’s reference to
analogy and Gleichnis is therefore guided by a twofold concern: an
interest in similarities, which might indicate an actual relatedness
of phenomena, and a simultaneous interest in dissimilarities, which
conne such relations to a degree that can still be processed without
either simplifying or overcomplicating things. It is also important to
keep in mind that until the eighteenth century the word Gleichnis in
the German language is associated with gleich in the sense of ähnlich
(“similar,” as opposed to “identical,” or “equal”) (Grimm, Wörterbuch
7: 8184–205). In other words, in the term Gleichnis, dissimilarity is
inscribed into similarity intrinsically. Goethe reects this when giv-
ing the following advice regarding the proper usage of Gleichnis and
Vergleich (“comparison”): “Comparing makes judgment easier, but also
harder: for if a simile is clumsily executed, a comparative judgment
appears more inappropriate the closer one looks” (Werke I: 7, 108).
*
Goethe’s interest in resemblance and analogy on the one hand, and
his doubts about man’s ability to adequately capture and express the
two on the other, are indicative on another level that I will address in
these nal paragraphs. Questions of similarity had been essential to
discussions of kinship, inheritance and descent all along. And so they
are for Goethe. Following the Aristotelian (and Empedoclean) idea
that the “similar can be deduced from the similar,” Goethe concludes
that “living organisms, highly similar to each other, ought to have been
created by the same generating principle” II: 3, 2; 8, 273). In this way,
he traces back similarity to a generating principle (Bildungsprincipio),
which could explain the ndings of analogical thinking and compara-
tive anatomy genealogically. Here, Goethe’s considerations arrive at
the sore spot of all modern reections on similarity, the ‘elementary
structures of kinship’ (C. Lévi-Strauss). However, Goethe is not able
to settle the issue scientically because he refuses, much like Kant, to
conceive of the generation of similarity in an evolutionary perspective.
480 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
In his pursuit of the ‘Urpanze,’ the ‘Urtier’ and the ‘Urphänomen’ he
is not after a parental organism from which subsequent organisms can
be derived, according to an idea of biological descent, and classied
regarding their hereditary properties. Goethe’s idea of kinship favors
instead an ideational ‘prototype’, which warrants species constancy
without itself causing variation within species. Goethe’s assumption of
metaphysical archetypes hence marks an important “interstage” in the
transition from a static system of classication in the eighteenth century
to a genetic principle of causation in the nineteenth century (Wyder
239). Although he does not take the step to a theory of evolution,
according to which organisms not only follow each other historically,
but also emerge from one another, Goethe already senses the short-
comings of traditional theories, including his own.15 The reason why
he cannot yet allow for an evolutionary theory of generation is not
least a practical one: He, as much as his contemporaries all the way
up to Darwin, doesn’t know of an empirically valid theory of biological
inheritance (characteristically, Goethe uses the word vererben, which
means to “‘bequeath,” and its variations, only with regard to cultural,
mostly legal, procedures of transfer). Hence, Goethe has to admit that
the “inherent relationship” by which natural phenomena, “despite
their wide dissimilarities, are growing similar to each other can only
ever be intuited by us” (II: 5.1, 296). In consequence, the ‘mystery of
kinship’ (geheimnisvollen Verwandtschaften) that Goethe himself was after
in his studies on comparative anatomy had to remain unresolved (II:
7, 168). But it is important to understand that Goethe’s use of analogy,
metaphor, Gleichnis and the like, is not just a negative confession of
such a defeat, but a positive attempt to overcome it and even resolve
its underlying aporia.
This becomes clearer when looking at a term that modern episte-
mology frequently refers to whenever similar problems are at stake:
Wittgenstein’s idea of ‘family resemblance’ (Familienähnlichkeit). It
shares obvious commonalities with Goethe’s ideas of analogy and
Gleichnis, or Bild, expressions Goethe uses almost interchangeably
(Goethe Wörterbuch 2: 654–85; 4: 296–300). Family resemblance in
Wittgenstein’s sense not only utilizes analogy to build its core argu-
ment, but also allows that two elements, which we see as related, might
not so much resemble each other as a third element that links the
other two– an idea for which “vagueness” again serves as an enabling
15The theory Goethe thought would deal with such shortcomings was his own theory
of ‘metamorphosis,’ which provides the “strict bond that compels plants in all their
manifoldness to nevertheless resemble each other meticulously” (Werke II: 6, 319).
481M L N
feature (Wittgenstein §77, 99–101; cf. Teuwsen). Also, Wittgenstein’s
family resemblance and Goethe’s thoughts on analogy, metaphor and
Gleichnis converge in four major aspects: (1) They both emphasize
that similarity and dissimilarity are not opposites, but complements of
each other—liminal terms, which relativize and enforce one another
reciprocally; (2) similarity might not indicate nor follow from class
afliation—a conclusion, which follows from the fact that (as Nelson
Goodman put it) similarity “cannot be equated with, or measured in
terms of, possession of common characteristics” (Seven Strictures 25);
(3) similarity, when related to objects of cultural origin, is only remi-
niscent of actual (biological) kinship yet also differs from it; (4) ques-
tions of similarity cannot be discussed other than in close connection
with questions of representation (even if “resemblance in any degree
is no sufcient condition for representation”), a connection which
Wittgenstein’s focus on language underscores as much as Goethe’s
respective attention to Bild and Gleichnis and the like (Goodman,
Languages of Art 4). One might argue then that the key to the capaci-
ties of analogical reasoning is provided by its discursive proximity to
and entanglement with various aspects of representation. Rather
than weakening the case for analogy, the uncertainties involved with
the use of indirect and imprecise means of representation—such as
the Goethean ‘symbol’—effectively capture the dilemma of a clearly
sensed but always elusive complexity of the world.16
Interestingly then, the term Familienähnlichkeit seems to have been
familiar to Goethe and contemporaries such as Novalis and Friedrich
Schlegel. Among the many potential inspirations for Wittgenstein’s
coinage, eighteenth-century authors have hardly ever been mentioned,
let alone discussed, although their example reveals signicant simi-
larities with Wittgenstein’s concept.17 They altogether stress that the
reason which accounts for the genesis of said resemblances is unfath-
omable and that a comparison with the—equally enigmatic—resem-
blance between a work of art and its objects might best explicate the
inexplicable. Friedrich Schlegel, for example, emphasizes how family
resemblances assert themselves as much in narrative as in portraiture:
As there are poets whose poems are evidently linked one with another, and
which, notwithstanding the greatest variety of outward form and materials,
yet betray an intentional relation to each other, so that all appear designed
16Cf. Goethe, Werke I: 47, 94 (on the characteristic “indirect” mode by which the
symbol points to its objects in the visual arts).
17Cf. e.g. DeAngelis, “Wittgenstein and Spengler”; Goeres, “Familienähnlichkeit”; Glock,
“Family resemblance”; Gabriel, “Familienähnlichkeit”; Sluga, “Family Resemblance”.
482 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
to work out the same principles, and might even be considered as forming
only one poem; as they continually present to us, in varied situations, the
same few characters, which are all marked by a strong family resemblance
[…]—so it is with the paintings of Correggio. (Aesthetic 16–17)18
Obviously, family resemblance functions as a je ne sais quoi, likening
the similarities between the characters in one author’s work to the
similarity those characters share with their author, which again com-
pares to the similarity a portrait (or just any picture) relates to its
painter—a network of mutual, analogical similarities that makes up
for a lacking explanation of these similarities by comparing them to
each other (Köhler).
As it turns out, the term “family resemblance” was never used simply
to signify resemblances between objects that resemble the similarities
among biological relatives (an idea that is analogous itself). Rather
such relationships were called familienähnlich, which already evoked
a connection to efforts to either visually or linguistically depict these
relationships. With Luhmann again, family resemblance thus “reduces
complexity through complexity,” since complexity cannot be dealt
with directly nor rendered simple, but only shifted: “Only complexity
can reduce complexity” (Soziale Systeme 49). Therefore, complexity is
not even something that can be expressed by positive formula. On
the contrary: “Complexity, seen that way, is information the system is
lacking to fully grasp and describe the complexity of its environment
or its own complexity respectively” (50–51, my emph.). What at rst
glance seems like an unfavorable or even evasive view of complex-
ity quite accurately matches historical attempts to cope with the
challenges of a complexity issue like similarity. In consequence, the
example of ‘family resemblance’ underlines that those responses to
complex problems are at times most faithful when they do not settle
for causal, categorical or hierarchical terms, but re-enter the problem
of complexity on a different level of its description: “as a term, as an
unknown and precisely therefore effective quantity, as a fear factor,
a term for uncertainty or risk, a problem of planning and decision
making, a subterfuge” (51). So ‘family resemblance’ re-enters the issue
at hand by pushing the unresolved mystery of similarity to the level
of its representation, where it matters once again (in the relationship
between the depiction and the depicted).
18See also 25–26. Similar connections between the concepts of family resemblance
and representation can be found throughout Schlegel’s work, especially in his critical
commentary on Lessing and Jacobi’s novel Woldemar.
483M L N
Finally, a remark by Novalis points to one last mechanism for cop-
ing with complexity—perhaps even the most powerful and relevant
one: “All ideas are related to one another: analogy means air de
famille [family resemblance]. By comparing several of the children
of one family one can divine the characteristics of the parents” (II:
329:72). Rather than over-extending the idea of similarity, this shows
how eighteenth-century discourse anticipates something that system
theory has since highlighted—that complexity resists dissolution, but
can be processed reasonably when turned into meaning.19 Meaning
therefore is the ultimate answer to the pressing questions complex-
ity poses, and man’s attempts to metaphorically express, analogically
represent, linguistically or visually depict the world compensate for
the remaining complexity those attempts cannot make disappear:
“Meaning [Sinn] is a representation of complexity. Meaning is not
an image or a model of complexity used by conscious or social sys-
tems, but simply a new and powerful form of coping with complexity
under the unavoidable condition of enforced selectivity” (Luhmann,
“Complexity and Meaning” 84).
Johannes Endres, California State University, Long Beach
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Simple Freedom1
Benjamin Robinson
Introduction
I want the focus of my essay to land somewhat more on the modier
simple than the noun freedom in my title, but the theme of freedom
best anticipates what is at stake in my case for simplicity as a concept.
Freedom is, I suspect, more likely to mean something concrete to us
than simplicity, at least as a political value if not as an actual state of
affairs. Freedom thus gures prominently in an essay that’s primarily
about simplicity, because freedom is a value with which you probably
identify more intuitively than you do with simplicity. Accordingly,
my aim is to persuade you that since simplicity is tantamount to the
freedom you presumably value, it is also worth your esteem. My case
for simplicity is a case for freedom.
Equating simplicity with freedom may appear counterintuitive—
more often simplicity is held to be either simplistic or the result of
expedient (or inattentive) simplication. In this view, simplicity is
unrealistic; i.e., inadequate to some real state of affairs. Simplicity is
then a good or bad faith misrepresentation (it is a biased constative
claim, a biased description of a complex reality) or a one-sided com-
mand (it is an arbitrary performative utterance, not grounded in a
balanced view of reality). Even skeptics would concede that simplicity
has its attractions, ones we might, with Nietzsche, call Apollonian:
order, efciency, limpidity, control. But for the skeptic, giving in to
simplicity’s temptations is to run roughshod over the multiplicity of
meaning and fact. Whether being represented or performed, simplic-
ity, it may be said, reduces the phenomenal world to some underlying
purity, essentiality, or transparency. If simplicity’s original sin is to be
1My thanks to Claudia Breger, not only for her patient work on this dossier—especially
when my airwaves fell silent—but for her spirited engagement with the topic that moves
it, and her careful readings and persistent questioning of this essay from its earliest
versions. Thanks also to Milo Rhodes for his perceptive readings.
488 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
ontologically false, then for all its elegance, we must condemn its
neglect of details, its domination of multiplicity, and its inattention
to difference. Who could argue with such a critique of simplicity?
Rather than trying to answer this argument from ontological falsity,
my alternate approach, to link simplicity and freedom, opens the
discussion to different stakes, those of determinism and volition. As
we’ll see, this approach has its challenges as well, the chief of which is
to understand the subject of volition. Nonetheless, I think it is more
than a matter of exchanging the devil for Beelzebub, because see-
ing simplicity in terms of freedom highlights what I see as the main
liability of complexity theory: its failure to articulate a clear idea of
individuation. Everything in complexity theory is a mediated element
of an encompassing system, which itself has no clear individuality
distinguishing it from its situation. In a system of encompassing media-
tion, when, if ever, does one system become two? And in what would
such twoness consist? The simplicity of division requires freedom
(separation from given determinations), and freedom requires the
simplicity of division (self-determination of a new individual). From
the perspective I am proposing, freedom occurs at the paradoxical
spot where no determination is operative (its negative condition) and
a new individual presents itself (its positive condition). This spot is
simple because it lacks any ground in a mediating term, in a genus.
It is all differentia.
I should share a last introductory word to try to forestall a basic
misunderstanding. It would be easy to reject simplicity for implying
the idea of a single substance and to dismiss my case for simplicity
as asserting such a transcendental being. From the few words of my
introduction I hope it is clear that I see simplicity as the absoluteness
of division, not of eternal transcendence. I call such a division simple
because there is no third term mediating its rupture. The lack of a third
does not, however, imply one unchanging substance: two elements,
after all, also lack a third. Indeed, the etymology of the word simplicity
is that of single fold: sim (once) and plex (fold, plait) (Strong). If the
concept of one fold, a single ply, reads as paradoxical, its perplexity
is claried by thinking of its singularity as consisting of two sides: that
of being given as such and that of being distinctly separate.
Basic Intuitions
There are, of course, engaging arguments to be made directly on
behalf of simplicity without the detour through a discussion of free-
489M L N
dom, but I do not want to wed myself to their assumptions. The most
familiar defense of simplicity’s virtue is the aesthetic one that draws
on the Enlightenment’s esteem for the “noble simplicity” of classical
Greek sculpture, where such aesthetic simplicity takes on theological
terms connected to the sublime unity of God (Veit 369–381; Lewis
165). This broad aesthetic defense of simplicity has its philosophical
roots in the fourteenth-century epistemology of William of Ockham,
whose metaphor of a razor shaving off any unnecessary element of
an explanation to leave only the simplest standing, is based on the
presumed aesthetic economy of creation. Ockham’s thinking, in turn,
relies on the medieval scholastic adaptation of classical philosophy in
which the Christian idea of God is equated with the Aristotelian idea
of substance, both resting on the sense of the “uncompounded” or
the “sheer,” “unqualied”—haplos in Greek, simplex in Latin (Aristotle,
Metaphysics Z 1028 a35–36; Berti 98). These scholastic arguments have
been the target of the philosophical attack on metaphysics that began,
at the latest, with David Hume in the eighteenth century (Hume 6).
Since Kant, the idea of any simple substance is dismissed as “pre-
critical” and relegated to the noumenal realm of the “thing in itself,”
unknowable by either empiricism or rationalism (Meillassoux 3).
Rather than engaging the Kantian criticism of the simple substance
or simple soul, I want to avoid arguments around substance by turning
to the political ontology of freedom. The scholastic, and in particular
the nominalist, sense that the sheer individual underlies any world
does not in my account refer to a simple substance or simple soul.
Rather, what is simple in my account is freedom: simplicity is tied to
the idea that human affairs cannot be closed off in a theoretical or
aesthetic representation of the world and are inevitably subject to
the sheer (haplos) fact of crisis or epochal division. The site of such
division is experienced neither as a rational deduction from exist-
ing circumstances, nor as a sensual representation of given features
and properties. Rather, it is experienced as the indication of a novel
opportunity. An indication (an index) is a simple sign that neither
depicts nor affects its referent, just as a whistling kettle neither depicts
nor affects the boiling of water. I am calling the indicated moment
of crisis a moment of sheer freedom because there is no third term
available, no generic whole to appeal to in order to make a compara-
tive judgment about where to throw one’s will: the only options are
freedom or paralysis.
Freedom, as I have said above, is in my account synonymous with
simplicity—it is an event whose only determination lies in its actually
490 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
happening (i.e., the event cannot be t along a chain of causality or
into a mental state of intentionality or ideology). While simple, this
denition is also the challenge of the essay, since usually our sense
of what freedom means includes some kind of capacity, belonging to
an agent, that is called “free will” by the philosophical tradition—for
example, the capacity “to do otherwise” in the same circumstances.
The point of my denition, however, is to avoid an ideologically pre-
determined subject, whether ideology is conceived as the subject’s
transcendental preconditions (as in the Kantian tradition of critical
philosophy) or as its substantial identity (as in pre-critical philosophy,
theology or scientism). It is thus not an abstract freedom to do oth-
erwise or a freedom from coercion that is the focus of my denition,
but the simple point where a blind actuality is indexed to the oppor-
tunity to change its enabling circumstances. That point commands
our interest because, on the one hand, the event that reveals what an
existing situation “is all about” remains serendipity without someone
to engage the difference the revelation makes. On the other hand,
anyone capable of activating the distinction between the old situation
and something indeterminately new cannot be existentially dependent
on the old. That is, as a subject with initiative, they cannot draw the
unity of their agency from the operation of the old system, since in
that case their capacity for agency would be limited by the boundary
of the old system’s survival. Although I have said that I am posing the
question of simplicity with reference to political ontology rather than
scholastic metaphysics and its Kantian critique, the way I formulate
my challenge requires me to distinguish my political ontology from
that presumed by the classical theories of moral freedom. Thus, I do
not ask whether determinism and the free will of a subject are com-
patible. Rather, I ask how a chance event might at the same time be
the occasion for a new subject of action. To put it a bit more poeti-
cally: I inquire into the quivering moment where a potential subject
lies inchoate between receptivity to chance and denite action. That
moment is simple: it is an open interval of subject formation.
Having disavowed the theological arguments of the scholastics, let
me nonetheless turn to God not in any theological sense, but as a
form of naïve intuition about simplicity and freedom, and working
from this intuition, try to piece out the distinctions most relevant to
my argument. God is often a term we use to mark the only truly free
and truly simple being, the subject who is the unmoved mover or the
uncaused cause of anything and everything. In this cosmic intuition
God just indicates the unconditioned origin or endpoint of causality
491M L N
as such. Leibniz, for example, held that everything except creation
and annihilation falls within the scope of mechanical causality, those
endpoints alone being reserved to divine agency. But that modern
view of God as whatever goes beyond natural law falls short of the
intuition I intend, so I want to push back against modern rationalism
somewhat harder, to get the right intuition. Let me be clear: I am
not arguing against rationality; that is, I’m not questioning its tools of
logic and induction. Rather, I am working to place the intuition that
such tools of rational representation cannot resolve the questions of
epochal difference without the supplement of some simple moment
of crisis (which we might risk calling, in the language of Heidegger,
a sheerly factual moment of being left to the sway of things). Thus,
while Leibniz’s God gets us to what lies beyond mechanical law, Leibniz
held that God is still bound by a principle of sufcient reason—i.e.,
by logical law. In order to arrive at an analogy in the history of ideas
for the freedom I have in mind, I want to turn to the view of Leibniz’s
debating opponent (and deputy for Isaac Newton), Samuel Clarke, who
believed—in a tradition going back to Ockham himself—“the Will of
God can freely choose and determine itself, without any External Cause
to impel it” (Leibniz-Clarke 35). Thus, neither can any mechanical
cause, nor any sufcient reason (i.e., no intelligible cause) determine
God, for then God would be limited by the boundaries of human
knowledge. Hans Blumenberg succinctly formulated the relevance of
this theological position: “it is not the power that could give rise to
the world but the power that can give rise to something other than
this world that occupies the speculative interest” (189). Freedom, on
this analogy, is not from or to, but simply the very fact that an outside is
immanent within the whole of the world. Or to phrase it less abstractly:
freedom happens in lieu of both our artistic and rational representa-
tions of the world and our technical control of it.
Given the intuition of some sheer capacity to initiate a new world,
we can now make our contrasts with theology more precise in order
to sharpen our sense for what simple freedom might be. In the
divine analogy, God, however unfathomable, has characteristics of
omniscient intentions and transcendental substance. My argument for
simple freedom has no need for either predicate. So, if one secular
analogue to a substantial God outside creation is the event of the
Big Bang, there is no reason we cannot imagine such a total outside
to created nature as being latent anywhere at any time, not just at a
single position—so, for example, random shifts in the quantum states
of electrons represent multiple origins of distinct chains of physical
492 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
causes, as do random genetic variations. Beginnings in such instances
can break out anywhere—thus, creation is not the transcendent act
of a nal substance, but the multiple events of a creatio continua char-
acteristic of an always-incomplete world. Likewise, we are not obli-
gated to seek an analogy for God’s free will in some singular deistic
creator-intelligence, but can instead imagine spontaneous initiatives
by human actors as unique sources of novelty in the historical world.
We need not, moreover, imagine such human initiatives as intentions,
but simply as diverse attentions to the world’s opportunities, each one
capable of a unique and open response to the random shifts nascent
in any given situation. What I hope my analogies with a voluntaristic,
continuously creative divinity can invoke for us is the secular sense
not that individual souls have an unlimited free will on the model of a
capricious imagination, but that freedom refers to actual opportunities
for individuating radical change that are simply outside of the order
of dependency inhering in a given situation.
If such secular intuitions about the world’s openness make some
initial sense, then I propose formulating the general intuition that
links freedom and simplicity this way: to realize freedom is to individu-
ate a sheer novelty—it is to break an existing causal or logical chain
into a new segment indexed to someone as its exponent. Freedom
is entered as a crisis and exited when an actor specic to it presents
the systematicity of another order.
There are a few clarications I need to make right away to avoid
later confusion. In particular, I need to clarify what individuation
means. We usually think of individuation spatially, as something being
cut out of the world as its own chunk of stuff, but I’m suggesting that
we see it in terms of a distinct situation that gives rise to entailments
not otherwise indicated. So for example, the random generation of
a three-legged chicken or of dusty little Odradek, Kafka’s spool-like
creature with no activity or abode proper to its life, would be a case
of novel individuation, but so too would the arrival of a nal guest
who turns a multiple of individual people into a party. In the rst
case, a new entity is individuated, in the second, a novel occurrence
is individuated. Individuation in the sense I mean it can be either
sort—it is something that we have reason to count as a distinct this
(haecceity). In the context of our discussion of freedom, however,
the idea that an event has an “individual” exponent might give rise
to a bigger confusion about my use of the word “individual.” By indi-
vidual, I do not mean a private or personal individual. Probably our
most basic intuition of freedom is that it is just our personal ability
493M L N
to be author of our own actions. In order to attribute action at all,
Aristotle claims in the foundational text of modern ethics, it must be
the case that we can identify certain actions as being “in one’s own
power” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics III: 6). But it is just that view of
freedom, which associates it with personal attribution of an action to
me, that I contest here. The individual exponent I have in mind as
freedom’s protagonist is, rather, a novel agent of a crisis capable of
bearing a new social situation. What makes its agency a matter of free-
dom becomes apparent when we ask how such a subject arises without
being determined either by the assumptions—the ideologies—or by
the operative functions of an established situation.
Individual Unfreedom and Two Types of Emancipatory
Coordination
I hope our radical God and her secular analogues give us the intuitions
we need to jump into our case for simple freedom. The rst thing I
want to do is explain why the individual personal author of her own
actions is not a good candidate for simple freedom. Indeed, much of
the remainder of my essay is concerned with showing how the liber-
tarian and pragmatic individual decision-maker is the basic gure of
contemporary complexity-talk and, as such, is not a good place for us
to invest our intuitions about what it means to be free, provided free-
dom means something like sheer individuation. The analytic Marxist
G. A. Cohen sketched a vivid picture of what he called “the structure
of proletarian unfreedom” in order to illustrate the fallacy that an
individual person is free to escape her social class (3). His argument
held that, although it might be true that any given proletarian can
become a capitalist, the existence of capitalism depends on the fact that
most proletarians not only do not become capitalists, but also cannot.
From the point of view of my individual introspection, it seems like
I can work hard, save money, open a family business and escape the
harsh proletarian compulsion to sell my labor power. After all, this is
the story of many immigrant families in the U.S. But such personal
introspection gives the wrong impression about real chances, since
for any business that I open, I need to nd abundant cheap labor in
order to make the business protable. The possibility of my freedom as
a capitalist relies on an enduring structure of proletarian unfreedom.
While Cohen applies his argument to Marxist categories to dem-
onstrate the importance of thinking in terms of class positions rather
than phenomenological subjectivities of the individual, he basically
494 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
uses the canonical example of modern game theory, the prisoner’s
dilemma, rst formulated at the Rand Corporation in 1950. Let me
say a few words about the prisoner’s dilemma since it will be the ful-
crum for the next step of my argument, pivoting us into contemporary
views of freedom based in biology and complexity theory. In a basic
prisoner’s dilemma scenario, two people are arrested, say, me and my
buddy. There is not enough evidence for the courts to convict either
one of us, so each of us is offered a bargain, and we are not allowed
to consult with each other. The bargain stipulates that if I betray my
fellow prisoner, I walk scot-free, whereas if I protect her by remaining
silent while it turns out that she rats on me, then I get a three-year
sentence and she walks scot-free. Given the constraints on my informa-
tion (my bounded rationality), it is always rational for me to betray
my erstwhile comrade. Of course, it is likewise always rational for her
to betray me. In this circumstance, where we both rat on each other,
the deal is that we each serve two years. Now, if in a nal scenario we
opt to show solidarity with each other, then we each serve only one
year—which is the best outcome for both of us considered together
(i.e., the fewest total years spent in prison, two as opposed to either
three or four).
The scenario is so rich because there are many ways to tweak its
boundary conditions and many ways to learn from iterated perfor-
mances of it. Indeed, since its inception, a good deal of game theory
and articial intelligence research has gone into developing winning
algorithms, and indeed, to exploring how computers can use outcome
feedback to develop such winning algorithms on their own. On the
other hand, G. A. Cohen, in his application of the dilemma to Marx-
ism, raises the question of solidarity rather than individual feedback.
He points out that solidarity would arise from the perspective of “gen-
eral liberation” (12), but such a perspective, he goes on to say, falls
outside the scope of his analysis, which concerns unfreedom rather
than freedom. Nonetheless, when the question of general libera-
tion is posed, we see that scholarship has followed two broad paths,
both of them pointing to some scheme for coordination in order to
achieve the better outcome. One path involves explicit, communica-
tive coordination; the other path involves implicit, adaptive coordination.
The rst emphasizes a transcendental coordination that draws on an
idealist tradition that holds we can rationally (or sensibly) represent
our whole situation; the second, an imminent coordination rooted
in the tradition of positivist empiricism. Both paths, I want to show,
seek to exclude the purely indicative experience of crisis as an actual
495M L N
opportunity for individuating a new situation. Critically considering
both paths will let me more concretely explain what my suggested third
route is, in particular, how it avoids the ideological “interpellation”
(Althusser) of the rst route and the technical “reication” (Lukács,
History) of the second.
Subjective Coordination
The idea of having the prisoners communicate with each other
seems like it would be the obvious path to follow if our concern is
for freedom rather than, say, efciency. As a mode of coordination,
communication is, at rst glance, democratic, humanistic and just
more “free”-feeling than coordination by money or power. Let me
characterize the communicative approach at the most general level
in order to accommodate a broad range of thinkers, whose work I’ll
then only be able to allude to with a few proper names. The basic
argument draws from some notion of selfhood based in Kant’s concep-
tion of the “public use of reason” (Kant). This is an individual, but
in some manner transcendental self capable of using communication
in order to arrive at an appropriate “we-intention,” in John Searle’s
phrase, i.e., an intention not just to pursue the same goal side-by-side
with others, but to collaborate on doing one’s part with the aim of
accomplishing a collective whole (93). The communicative approach
highlights reason or desire, logic or embodiment to different degrees,
but the basic idea is that publics arise through communication that
are capable of articulating interests internal to their own identity—or
as Hegel might put it, publics that are not only in themselves, but also
consciously for themselves. We, the constituents of such publics, are
then able to express and enforce our interests through appropriate
institutional mechanisms guaranteeing our freedom. As representa-
tives of this view, let me cite proponents such as Charles Taylor (who
has a communitarian view based on the idea of the human being as
essentially a political and communicative animal); Elinor Ostrom (who
holds that horizontally networked institutions of cooperation allow us
to escape Garret Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons,” another game
theory scenario in which we rationally overuse common resources); and
Jürgen Habermas (who proposes communicative life-worlds capable
of fostering public wills that can limit and counteract the effects of
alienated administrative and technical system-worlds).
As you can see, there are many promising byways to follow here
to think beyond the clutches of the prisoner’s dilemma. Before turn-
ing to the second option, I want to mention a few more—and more
496 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
problematic, but for me ultimately more relevant—directions that
I will mark with the names Plato, Walter Lippmann, Carl Schmitt,
and Georg Lukács, surely a set of strange bedfellows. Lippmann’s
1922 book Public Opinion evoked reactions from Carl Schmitt on the
right and Georg Lukács on the left, serving each in their respective
critique of parliamentary liberalism. Lippmann holds that insofar as
we focus on personal intentions, they cannot be anything but privately
determined, since our rationality is so bounded by the small amount
of information an average individual can gather and process about
the public world. In modern, large-scale societies, the welter of data
relevant to any broadly responsible decision overwhelms rst-person
experience (310). Public opinion—the belief state that would allow
us to intervene competently in the collective affairs of society—is thus
at best an operative ction engineered by those whose executive posi-
tion allows them to access, understand and administer information
effectively (248). Lippmann’s executive ction of a public self is in
many ways a persuasive account, harking to the ambivalence character-
istic of all executive ctions going back to the “noble lie” that Plato’s
guardians tell their wards so they remain loyal to a public life whose
truth they cannot themselves understand (Plato, Republic 3: 414e–15c).
Updating Plato to t the context of modern technologies of public
relations, Lippmann pragmatically embraces what cultural critics such
as Horkheimer and Adorno skeptically diagnose as the “administered
world” (xi). Participatory freedom is not a realistic option in human
affairs; rather, a limited private freedom bounded within functional
administrative constraints delivers the best outcomes of stable and
prosperous public institutions.
To tie Lippmann back to the prisoner’s dilemma, his solution to
subpar private choices is to subject them to effective elite administra-
tion, i.e., to a hierarchical communicative instance capable of taking
the whole situation of trade-offs into consideration. For Carl Schmitt,
Lippmann recognizes, in a way congenial to his own thought, that
devices such as personal conscience and individual natural rights are
incapable of maintaining civil order, so must ultimately be subordi-
nated to the primacy of sovereign choice to uphold the system (6).
For Lukács, on the other hand, Lippmann’s administrative profession-
als only supply the latest slick American update of Marx’s claim that
“the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing
the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” (Marx). But Lukács’
own conception of a coordinating class consciousness relies on a view
of the Communist Party that is in many respects a similar instance
497M L N
of authority standing outside of a spontaneous whole. The party for
Lukács is a collector and consolidator of eeting moments of crisis
and insight in the class struggle that, in a famous phrase, “imputes”
class consciousness back to individual proletarian subjects (History
345). The party is just the organized, transcendental consciousness of
the merely empirical multiplicity of proletarians. Accordingly, Lukács’
sticking point is not that Lippmann doesn’t have faith in disparate
private individuals to enact public liberty, but that Lippmann’s expert
opinion mirrors the interests of the oppressing rather than liberating
class (Lukács, Zerstörung 669).
Objective coordination
Those examples indicate the range of ways in which communicative,
subjective reason might work to address the problem formalized by the
prisoner’s dilemma, so as to foster, if not general emancipation, then at
least optimal outcomes expressed in the idiom of deliberative reason.
I want now to focus in somewhat greater detail on the second path,
which emphasizes the “objective” coordination of individual subjects
through their diverse, independent adaption to some given situation.
In general, the “situation” we are talking about isn’t imprisonment,
but it is unfreedom in the basic sense that it is a situation of causal
determination. Hence, the paradoxical twist of this second path of
thought is that freedom resides in subjects adapting independently
to their collective dependency. The most explicitly moral thinker of
freedom in this vein is Daniel Dennett, although the trend includes
others as diverse as Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, Paul and Patri-
cia Churchland and (perhaps) Catherine Malabou. Dennett distills
his argument in the 2003 book, Freedom Evolves. To understand his
case, we want to return to a more dynamic version of the prisoner’s
dilemma in which the choice to betray or cooperate can be repeated
and the participants can learn from their past decisions. After all, that
is a less contrived scenario, since we are on most accounts historical
creatures who remember and transmit our decisions and often have
the opportunity to decide again in similar circumstances. For example,
we often have the chance to make new decisions about cooperating
rather than arguing with a peer or a manager, etc. In such iterated
cases, it turns out that the strategies evolve automatically, as it were,
toward cooperative ones. Robert Axelrod describes in his 1984 book
The Evolution of Cooperation how he invited scientists across the world
to submit programs that competed against each other in iterated
prisoner’s dilemma games in which the algorithms learned from each
498 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
round of outcomes (but not by communicating with each other) (30).
The victorious programs tended to be cooperative, rather than hostile,
in that they were the ones whose opening gambit was not to choose
to betray. Axelrod argues that such development of independent
strategies toward cooperation over repeated trials demonstrates a
mechanism by which self-interested individual humans might have ran-
domly evolved altruistic behaviors. The evolutionary biologist Richard
Dawkins, among others, has afrmed Axelrod’s game-theoretical result.
Dennett acknowledges that his claim that our perception of free
will arises through what is essentially an algorithmic feedback process,
compatible with the electro-chemical determination of our brains, is
liable to trigger a moral panic over the relevance of our cherished sense
of free will (102). He aims, therefore, to demonstrate that a theory of
evolution can give us an account of freedom that is both naturalisti-
cally determined and subjectively satisfying. The basic idea is that, as
in the iterated prisoners’ dilemma game, we are learners or what he
elsewhere calls “bootstrappers” (Elbow Room, 83). Unlike other species
who also have recursive feedback loops between themselves and their
environments, our way of learning is processed self-consciously—we
have developed a reexive mechanism (built up through language and
narration) that endows us with apparent consciousness of our decisions
and those of others. We see how what we did last time wasn’t satisfying,
how the unsatisfying outcome was determined by our decision, and the
next time a similar occasion arises, we remember our faulty choice and
act differently to determine an alternate outcome more congenial to
our desires. The free self that thus develops is a narrative-engine for
inventing “well-designed social arrangements,” including “norms that
command assent in all rational agents” (Freedom 302, 303). While Den-
nett provides for a self-aware, communicative experience, our freedom
is basically a dream overlaying an automatic mechanism of adaptation.
As Clarke put it three hundred years ago in his rejection of Leibniz’s
pre-given equilibrium of parts and wholes, “if the Harmonia praestabilita
be true, a Man does not indeed see, nor hear, nor feel anything, nor
moves his Body; but only dreams that he sees, and hears, and feels and
moves his Body… all his seemingly voluntary Motions are performed by
the mere necessary Laws of corporeal Mechanism” (Leibniz-Clarke 116).
As opposed to moral philosophers like Kant and Hannah Arendt, it
is emphatically not deliberative action, but perspicacious engineer-
ing that stands at the top of Dennett’s moral hierarchy. Indeed, it is
actually reverse engineering of an outcome already achieved, with the
goal of inventing explicit rules for something individual players in the
adaptation game all agree to call “freedom.”
499M L N
Sharing assumptions with William James’ pragmatism and Richard
Rorty’s anti-foundationalism, Dennett’s view has a contemporary famil-
iarity and plausibility to it that may well do more to assuage our moral
panic at naturalistic accounts of freedom than do, for example, the
sociobiology of E. O. Wilson or the selsh genes of Richard Dawkins—
although Dennett cites those latter as among his closest theoretical kin
(for a critique of Wilson, see the contribution by Niels Werber in this
volume). Indeed, it is the prevalence of the anti-teleological evolution-
ary models of Wilson and Dawkins that draw Dennett so close to his
chief libertarian antagonist, Robert Kane. Although Kane, contrary to
Dennett, holds that free will is not compatible with determinism, the
principled difference (on the ontological question of whether some-
thing like “free will” actually exists) is in effect very small, since in both
cases anti-teleological evolutionary theory is the dominant paradigm
for social action. Simplifying somewhat, the difference between the
two of them comes down to an inection: where Dennett frames his
evolutionary naturalism in terms of adaptation (evolutionary stable
states), Kane frames his in terms of variation (dynamic disequilibria).
Both highlight a model of probabilistic normativity—where Dennett’s
ontology insists on the existence (although not the uniqueness) of
stable states, Kane’s ontology insists on the existence of deviations that
would nudge us from one state to another via perceived intentions. It
is not at all apparent that the two ontologies are incompatible; on the
contrary, it seems they necessitate each other in just the way mutation
and selection do. Both thinkers, in any case, are attracted to the sense
that the seamless, never-ending complexity of the process of becom-
ing human is what protects freedom against its antagonists—whether
these antagonists are essentialists, mechanical determinists, or religious
believers in a nal order.
Kane puts the case for a non-determined freedom in a way, I would
argue, that makes it safe for evolution in just Dennett’s game-theoret-
ical sense of a stable strategy of self-engineering within determined
parameters:
I think the key to understanding the role of chance in free will is not to
think of chance as a causal factor by itself, but rather to think of chance as
an interfering ingredient in larger goal-direct processes. […] Agents […]
are to be conceived as information-responsive complex dynamical systems. […]
They are systems […] in which new emergent capacities arise as a result
of greater complexity […] Only when creatures attain the kind of inner
complexity capable of giving rise to conicts in their will […] between
incommensurable values does the capacity for self-formation characteristic
of free will arise. (40–41)
500 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
Without going any deeper into Kane’s account of the free will as an
“information-responsive complex dynamical system,” I think a rhetori-
cal question might help us see how little room for a political sense
of freedom that heavily technical conception allows us: what would
such adaptive response indicate about choosing between Jacobins
and Girondins in 1791? The very premise of both Kane’s indetermin-
ism and Dennett’s determinism is that the relevant environmental
parameters to which the self responds lie outside the self’s realm of
decision-making. In both accounts the self is free, objectively free in
Kane’s argument (i.e., causally undetermined with respect to certain
self-determinations) and subjectively free in Dennett’s argument
(i.e., causally determined, but capable of consciously reecting on
and learning from experience). But both instances share a version
of freedom dened by an individual adapting itself to survive in an
overwhelmingly given environment. The freedom that the libertarian
and determinist can agree on debating is not that of a political subject
free to determine a contingent environment that is not already given.
Individual Freedom and Statistical Regularity
There is another way to present the impasse that libertarian and bio-
determinist views of evolutionary freedom leave us, namely, through
the history of statistics. Ian Hacking has chronicled what he calls
“the taming of chance” through the rise of probability, rst with the
discovery of the mathematics of probability by Pascal in the 1650s and
then with the application of probability to statistics collected about
populations concerning natality, mortality, marriage, divorce, crime,
suicide rates, etc. (Hacking, Taming). Hacking describes a moral
panic that he calls a “silly season for determinism” which emerged in
the mid-nineteenth century as demographic statistics conrmed with
dumbfounding regularity the facts of events such as marriage and
murder (180). Lay people, mathematicians and bureaucrats worried
that the statistics, which modern states were becoming increasingly
adept at compiling, demonstrated that moral freedom was an illusion.
Not only were the number of suicides in a given region stable year
over year, but even the proportion of asphyxiations to poisonings. In
fact, statistics show that the probable outcome of repeated trials (just
like repeating the prisoner’s dilemma game over and over) is more
stable when the outcome of a given individual trial is more irregular.
For example, there is no constant 50–50 likelihood for defecting/
cooperating in an individual prisoner’s dilemma game as there is for
501M L N
heads/tails in a coin toss, but there is, nonetheless, a stable strategy
for winning repeated prisoner’s dilemma games whereas there is
no winning strategies for coin tosses, only dumb luck. Irregularity,
according to statisticians, “not only was consistent with, but actually
entailed large scale uniformity” (“Cracks” 470). Accordingly, as Hacking
summarizes Belgian astronomer and statistician Adolphe Quételet’s
argument about the implication of statistics for free will, “we do not
have to deny that free will applies to individuals, so long as we agree
that it has no inuence when we consider social phenomena in a
general way” (ibid.).
This idea that social phenomena are all-the-more unfree (regular),
to the extent that the freedom of the individual will is fostered, relates
to the pastoral care that Michel Foucault holds to be characteristic of
biopolitics. Foucault’s celebrated argument is that state power, starting
especially in the nineteenth century, has become ever less concerned
with the moral responsibility of the individual for her actions (and
the associated rewards and punishments meted out by the sovereign)
and ever more concerned with fostering stable social norms in whole
populations (though hygiene, sexuality, education). These norms are
achieved not by imposing upon an individual from above, from the
vantage point of the state, but by stimulating an individual’s own inter-
nal discipline through social policies regarding pleasure, diet, health,
leisure, etc. As scientists researching group behaviors today would
acknowledge, randomizing the sample population is more important
for techniques of social control than imposing top down uniformity, as
in earlier sovereign models of control. The interesting thought for my
argument is that individual liberal freedom (randomization, stimula-
tion of personal will, consumerism) is just the source of maximum
normative regularity. Freedom, in the sense opposed to libertarian
individualism—that is, in my sense, as the simple individuation of a
new situation—is managed from the biopolitical perspective through
the asymmetry of collective and individual standpoints. Rather than
imposing a constraint on an individual from above, it sufces to pre-
vent an individual from recognizing any collective intention: in that
way, simple freedom—freedom from the reproductive networks of a
given systemic framework—is taken off the ethical agenda.
Simple Freedom
How does my argument for simple freedom work to respond to the
situation of modern social and technological complexity, with its
502 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
diverse individuals responding independently to bring themselves into
internal and external equilibrium with the ecosystem on which they
depend? First, let me reiterate the basic idea. Simple freedom is to
individuate a sheer novelty—it is to break an existing causal complex
and open a new one indexed to a distinct exponent.
There are two halves to this idea: the event and its exponent. The
point of simple freedom is that both are simple individuals, albeit in
different ways. The event is simple because it is a unique case that
ts nowhere in the normal course of activity. Its exponent is simple
because it stands outside of the ideological and material conditions
of system reproduction. The event and its exponent are the two sides
of a single indicator of freedom.2
The event is outside a given system in the sense that it is not indicated
by any observation conducted within the system. It has, as far as the
system is concerned, no discernible cause and only afterwards can it
be said (by its exponent) to demarcate a blind spot in the system’s
operative criteria.
The event, moreover, is singular—it is an individual break from the
system, so not determined within it. In other words, it cannot serve as
a property or predicate of the system since that would imply its general
recurrence or regularity, whereas the event’s single determination is
its occurrence. It is a sign that demands attention, but cannot prescribe
any intentions. Like the crack of a sonic boom—or a sudden collapse
of political legitimacy—it announces, but does not necessitate.
Insofar as an event intervenes at the basic level of a system, in giving
the event my attention, I am but one of many participants in the system
attending to it. The important thing, however, is that this simultaneous
attention is not a symbolic achievement, but due to a sudden breach
in a common system. The breach might stem from something ines-
sential such as the proverbial “act of God” in an insurance clause; or
it might be a systemic but unforeseen failure in the creatio continua of
self-conservation. The only thing distinguishing the former from the
latter case is the spirit of collective recognition that might capture
the attention of participants in the system. Such shared recognition
would be the only index distinguishing between an accidental or sys-
temic breach. The effect on me, as one of many participants, would
not be ideological, but because I recognize no features beyond the
2The philosophy of the event has a diverse tradition including the work of Donald
Davidson, Roberto Casati and Achille Varzi. My own thinking about events emerged
initially around the idea of indexicality in C. S. Peirce, but its development has been
inuenced especially by the thought of Alain Badiou.
503M L N
event itself, it would be simple shock. The event has befallen me as
a crisis of expectations, and as such it calls all of us, as a collection
of system participants, out of our absorption in self-preservation and
system reproduction. Our routine operation is, as it were, suspended
by the event and we are—in so far as the system is individuated for
us as a contingent rather than necessary arrangement—momentarily
free to dispose over its future.
The event is a crisis of the sort that Nassim Taleb has called a
“black swan,” characterized by both its unpredictable rarity and its
disproportionately high impact (xviii). The word “crisis” might seem
all too familiar from the jargon of current events, something given
to us only in broadly symbolic terms, “a humanitarian crisis, environ-
mental crisis, energy crisis, debt crisis, nancial crisis, and so forth,”
as Janet Roitman catalogs in her book Anti-Crisis (3). Roitman argues
that crisis rhetoric is just another ideological mannerism, the most
prevalent in contemporary historiography, where foundational nar-
ratives are no longer persuasive. Crisis talk picks out some events for
narrative drama and neglects others that don’t t with the caesuras
of the story being told. But Roitman’s critique of the omnipresence
of crisis rhetoric is that it masks any instance of crisis worthy of the
name. “Through the term ‘crisis,’ the singularity of events is abstracted
by a generic logic” (3). By contrast to the rhetoric Roitman diagnoses,
a crisis in the sense I mean it works indexically rather than symboli-
cally—that is to say, it works by the brute force of its happening to a
decisive number of system participants. A run on a bank, mass layoffs
snowballing into the sudden inconvertibility of prot into capital, a
spiral of indignation escalating into a sudden violence—such a series
takes on distinct individual force through its actuality rather than
any particular representation of its meaning, and its effects in the
moment of crisis are indiscernible from its causes. The subject that
it indexes is one in suspension, outside of itself and attentive to the
simple here and now.
In a large-scale crisis—an event perceptible in its full dimensions
only via our indices, our measuring statistics, our prosthetic tools
for observation—we each perceive its effect only separately (without
“we”-intentions), but are nonetheless all objectively called outside of
our selves with attention to a commonly precipitated here and now,
evacuated of former meaning and function. That simple present is
what I’m calling the site of our freedom. We are each actually there
in the immediate void of a common world—in that void we can poten-
tially act collectively. That is, our simple freedom is that moment of
504 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
individuation of a here-now that is mine in the same moment as it is
everyone’s who composed the situation from which we’ve unexpect-
edly broken. What we do with our freedom is not a matter of utopian
projection—it can just as well be dystopian, nihilistic, or catastrophic.
We stand suspended in the innitesimal break between action and
reaction, we behold a difference that might in that instance make a
difference, open a site of articulation, the possibility of a distinct new
order. The crisis itself doesn’t determine either this moment of simple
freedom or us as its exponent: our freedom consists in just the lack
of determination in the interval between an actual individual system
and a potential one.
Let me conclude with a reection on this volume’s theme of com-
plexity and simplicity. I have stated emphatically my case for simplicity
as a moment of freedom, and argued for attaching such freedom to
an individuating event rather than a substantial agent. I want now to
soften the emphatic tone with a note of reservation. Complexity—as
the condition of any element, any positive predicate, any proposition
or belief—draws a tight circle around the appearance of simplicity.
I say that without a sense of disappointment or judgment. Complex-
ity is the medium of this essay, the medium of communication and
negotiation, of sociability and interiority, memory and anticipation.
Simplicity, in this light, is an impoverishment. Its poverty, whether
gured as spiritual alienation or material immiseration, is the secret
of its appeal as the hinge upon which revolution, epochal distinction,
radical novelty turns. But poverty, like freedom, is only an innitesimal
component of any phenomenology. The one thing I insist on in the
end is that we not let the fullness of complexity overwhelm the chance
opening of a void, an instant of ideological kenosis (emptying), the
eeting potential to reorient ourselves toward another complex than
the one in which we are at home. Complexity is a resilient network of
relations that allows us to reintegrate accidents and attacks into the
fullness of our experiences, to nd meaning and satisfaction in the
contingency of existence—it is a necessary condition for life. Simplic-
ity will only have been the rare and vanishing occasion where that
condition was changed.
Benjamin Robinson, Indiana University
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Simple Truths, Complex Framings,
and Crucial Specifications:
Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre
Claudia Breger
I have always preferred the version
of the fairy tale, where Little Red
Riding Hood eats the wolf and not the
opposite, but in real life I prefer wolves
to the pale men of Wall Street.
(Kaurismäki, in Masson)
Introduction: Contemporary Congurations of Complexity and
Simplicity
As we suggest in the introduction to this dossier, the theoryscapes
of our contemporary twenty-rst-century moment can be mapped
through diverging afliations with both complexity and simplicity.
Dependent on perspective, focus and exact denition, complexity
and simplicity in fact seem to be variously intertwined in almost every
individual approach, calling for a specication of different scenes,
and congurations, of these afliations. On a level of cultural critique
rather than cautious theoretical analysis, however, I have been drawn
to a more straightforward—simplied—account of the present. While
provocative and arguably a tad polemic, this critical narrative does, I
believe, discern crucial elements of contemporary intellectual culture.
It goes approximately as follows: In twenty-rst-century theory as well
as surrounding, broader cultures of knowledge production, simplicity
is back in fashion, with a vengeance, and all across the scholarly and
political spectrum. In our ‘after postmodernism’ moment, the value of
simplicity is forcefully asserted in a broad range of theoretical gestures
that, in particular, aim for renewed anchorings beyond the complexi-
507M L N
ties of socio-symbolic mediation. Inadvertently, these gestures establish
common ground between otherwise very different conceptualizations,
including cognitive and evolutionary approaches and contemporary
returns to aesthetics along with Deleuzian affect studies and Alain
Badiou’s and Slavoj Žižek’s fantasies of revolutionary rupture.
In a little more detail, these different, but in part dovetailing trends
in contemporary theory might be characterized through a series of
characteristic gestures towards simplicity: cognitive and evolutionary
theorists tend to develop highly generalizing (or abstracting) accounts
about “humans” or (literary, lm or cultural) “narratives” as such. For
example, recent studies relate the “human capacity for and delight in
narrative” to its presumed one key transhistorical function of punishing
“the guilty” (Flesch 5, 21), or identify three major cross-cultural plot
types presumably grounded in more or less universal emotion systems
(Hogan).1 Through moves of isolation from context, aesthetic experi-
ence has meanwhile been newly theorized as an encounter presumably
removed from socio-cultural processes: an experience, for example,
of perceiving the de-semanticized elements of a performance in their
“specic materiality” and “phenomenal being” (Fischer-Lichte 140–41),
or of an “insularity” instituting the “incommensurabilty” of aesthetic
experience with both “everyday worlds” and “ethical norms.”2 In affect
studies, Brian Massumi’s inuential account has been instrumental in
deactivating the complexity afliations of its Deleuzian inspirations
(as well as of Massumi’s own approach) through a variation on both
of these gestures: as a singular (abstract) category, affect is removed
from context through the assertion of its quintessential excess vis-à-vis
symbolic capture.3 Finally, Badiou’s revolutionary “event” enables radi-
1My thanks to Ben Robinson and Milo Rhodes for their feedback on earlier drafts of
this piece. The fact that even Flesch introduces his argument by drawing on a rhetoric
of complexity (2) indicates that complexity still serves a validation function in schol-
arly discourse (as postulated by Koschorke et al.). But it would be wrong to conclude
from these rhetorical gestures that academia is rmly on the side of complexity at this
historical moment.
2Gumbrecht 102 (drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin and Karl Heinz Bohrer). A more
differentiated contribution to this trend is Rita Felski’s “‘Context Stinks!,’” which
starts from Bruno Latour’s provocation that context “is simply a way of stopping the
description when you are tired or too lazy to go on” (Felski 574; citing Latour, Reas-
sembling the Social 148). While I agree that context can be thus be used to simplify by
way of short-circuiting to large anchoring claims, it does not have to. My own reading
of Latour underlines the crucial importance of context(s) for his project of reground-
ing empiricism in a methodology of tracing associations and embedding objects in a
network of construction processes. Felski herself acknowledges that literary works are
“enmeshed in a motley array of attachments and associations” (589).
3On the simplifying effect precisely of Massumi’s preference for complexity, see also
Pahl in this dossier (with reference to Massumi’s more recent work); on his affect’s
simplied reception in affect studies, see e.g., Brinkema (xiii).
508 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
cal difference by explicitly cutting through complicated socio-symbolic
embeddings: a quasi-Althusserian gure of reverse interpellation, it
raises “the human animal” into an “immortal,” and thereby effects “a
real break ... in the specic order within which the event took place,”
instituting a truth process “heterogeneous to the instituted knowledges
of the situation” (Ethics, 40; 42–43).
As I have argued elsewhere,4 these moves of abstraction from, brack-
eting of, subtracting and cutting through socio-symbolic context do not
work as simply as their proponents hope; their theoretical proposals
remain haunted by the complexity they disavow. Furthermore, on the
level of critique again, I am suspicious of the cultural functions and
effects of these attempts to bracket or undo complexity. Fueled by
intellectual discontents with the postmodern condition and/or the
insecurities of accelerated globalization and neoliberal precarity, it
seems that these various gestures towards simplicity are, on the one
hand, out to nd renewed anchors and stabilities in a frightening world
and, on the other hand, to develop utopian fantasies of escape. In a
further twist of provocation, I even wonder whether these gestures
may be too much in-time and (unwillingly) complicit with the neo-
liberal mindsets that their proponents might either politically oppose
or deem irrelevant to art and culture. This suspicion is based on the
argument that neoliberal ideology and practice are implementing on
a broader scale something analogous to these theoretical gestures.
Namely, they are displacing social mediations between the individual
and her world—in thought as well as institutional structure—with
the ‘mediating immediacies’ of “faith,” community “attachment,”
“compassion” and charity.5 In response to the loss of social and
biographical stability, neoliberal subjects are trained to simplify, and
market, themselves as a “brand”—that is, “a context-free collection
of traits” and “abstract amalgam of qualities”— supposedly anchored
in an unchanging ‘authentic’ self resonant with cognitive accounts of
subjectivity.6 Meanwhile, neoliberalism’s critics describe this self as a
(more or less Deleuzian) bundle of intensities, attracted by the market’s
momentary pleasures while driven into the compulsory hyperexibility
4See, e.g., Breger, An Aesthetics 24–40 (on Fischer-Lichte and Gumbrecht); “Congur-
ing Affect” (passim on Massumi); “Christian Universalism” (on Badiou).
5Berlant, Compassion 2–3. Badiou would agree with Berlant regarding the political
function of compassion (see below), but his own proposal relies on notions of faith
(see St. Paul).
6The quote is from Gershon (289), with reference to Celia Lury. Many thanks to
Ilana Gershon also for sharing a more elaborate, unpublished chapter on the topic.
509M L N
it demands.7 Either way, the individual is removed, or cut off, from
the context of socio-symbolic articulation which constituted her as a
subject in both psychoanalytic and discursive accounts.
Towards the goal of counteracting these scholarly and political
moves, I have argued for the productivity of a focus on complex con-
gurations, specically in conceptualizing affect(s) ‘in context’ and
the intersections of affect and narrative form in contemporary cinema,
as well as theater and literature.8 My notion of narrative as a realm of
affective encounters, which variously congures affects, associations,
images, sounds and words, conceptualizes the sensemaking process
(here specically for lm) as a collaboration—or contention—between
a range of (diegetic, performing, producing and perceiving) non-
sovereign actors populating the rhetorical loop of lm composition
and spectatorship. In developing this notion of affective conguration,
I draw on a broad range of complexity resources, including moments
of complexity within the models otherwise targeted here for their ges-
tures of simplication and alternative twenty-rst-century approaches
with a more fully-edged conceptual emphasis on complexity.
For example, I critique cognitive universalisms but simultaneously
adapt for my own model the ne-tuned lm-analytical categories that
cognitivists have suggested in the wake of their attack on ‘totalizing’
psychoanalytic accounts (e.g., Smith). These latter pleas precisely for
complexity within cognitive, as well as affect and aesthetic theory, also
provide important challenges to my own outlined proclivities towards
large-scale (perhaps at moments too simple) critical suspicions. Thus,
Eve Sedgwick, whose (Silvan Tomkins-inected) plea for studying
affects in the plural provides a more fully complexity-afliated alterna-
tive to Massumi’s model of affect, has inuentially challenged us to
overcome the “hermeneutics of suspicion” structuring dominant late
twentieth-century reading practices and to displace it with attention
to “the local, contingent relations between any given piece of knowl-
edge and its narrative/ epistemological entailments” (Sedgwick 124,
with recourse to Ricoeur). I am not ready to follow Rita Felski, who
translates this critique of suspicion into a methodological farewell to
7See, e.g., Podalsky 5, 16–17 (with reference to Beatriz Sarlo and Zygmunt Bauman).
While Jameson talks about the postmodern “waning of affect”—which was, for him, tied
to a subject with historical depth—, his description of the leftover “free-oating and
impersonal” ‘intensities’ (with Lyotard) corresponds strikingly to Massumi’s positive
denition of affect (Jameson 15–16).
8Breger, “Conguring Affect;” “Conguring the Collective;” and (with an explicit
focus on performance rather than affect) An Aesthetics.
510 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
all forms of critique.9 And while challenging the equation of critique
with a negative attitude of suspicion, I even hold on to the idea that
suspicion itself can have a productive heuristic function for socially
engaged humanities scholarship, as long as it is understood as just one
of several layers of complex reading practices. At the same time, my
own interest in methodological close-ups on complex congurations
aligns me with contemporary calls for displacing quick “symptomatic
readings” with attention to the complexities of textual surface (see Best
and Marcus, critically referencing Jameson), and with Felski’s commit-
ment to investigating the “varied, contingent, and often unpredictable”
transactions between texts and readers.10 With Felski (as well as Best
and Marcus), I also share an interest in the work of Bruno Latour.
Latour’s—as I underline, narrative—methodology of ‘reassembling
the collective’ beyond post/modernist poses of iconoclastic critique
by ‘following the actors’ on their varied, non-sovereign worldmaking
trails offers a complexity-afliated counterpart to the outlined spread
of anchoring gestures in twenty-rst-century theory.11
A focus on narrative complexity in contemporary culture, I argue,
allows me to more adequately theorize and respond to contemporary
conditions by focusing on the intricacies of signication and experi-
ence explored in many twenty-rst-century lms, novels or perfor-
mance pieces. Thus, I displace grand-scale questions about “our” evo-
lutionarily developed capacity for empathy and the Facebook-friendly
insistence on affect’s afrmative force (as a “like”-button in its own
right) with close readings of the thoroughly mixed and complexly
assembled feelings generated in individual works, for example as they
embark to imagine transcultural connection in the face of persisting
inequalities, or probe the possibility and limits of audience empathy
with terrorists or Neo-Nazi youth. However, one of the questions which
inspired this dossier is about the limits of complexity for projects of
(imaginatively) critical intervention. In short, the model of complex
conguration may not easily lend itself to imaginations of radical
change. Whereas in Badiou’s uncompromising account, “delity” to
the call provided by the “event” forms the grounds for a revolutionary
9See Felski, “Suspicious Minds.” My stance is closer to Berlant’s who also protests
affect studies’ turn away from critique, while having shifted her own methodological
focus from the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ (still prominent in Compassion) to a less
distanced engagement with the orientations of non-sovereign actors (Cruel Optimism;
on critique specically, 123).
10Felski, Uses of Literature 8. Best and Marcus target Fredrik Jameson’s concept of
“symptomatic reading.”
11See Latour, Reassembling the Social; Felski, “Context Stinks;” Best and Marcus 18–19;
Breger, “Cruel Attachments.”
511M L N
subject (Ethics 42), I insist on his model’s failure to cut through com-
plex webs of narrative connection, as indicated by Badiou’s reliance
on the gure of a Christian missionary for conguring revolutionary
departure from the world as is.12 By instead advocating an intricate
(democratic) process of cautiously reassembling people’s experiences
and evaluating their diverging truth claims, however, can I provide any
imaginative prospect of cutting one’s ties with the existing structures of
oppression? I do believe that the model of complex conguration, by
tracing contingent, layered processes of non-sovereign worldmaking,
presents a solid conceptual answer to religious and fascist closures
of all sorts—of a doubtlessly timely nature in this deadly decade. For
the purpose of imagining alternatives to the status quo, however—
and especially at the speed we may need them, even just to save the
humanities—might it be necessary to inject an occasional dose of
simplicity into the conceptual endeavor?
A Simple Story: Standing Up Against the Pale Men of Wall Street
Acts of cutting through complexity in strategically foregrounding—or
challenging—individual distinctions can be powerful, whether it is to
declare that “We are the 99%,” or that “no human being is illegal.”
These examples are deliberately chosen. On the following pages, I
conceptually intertwine complexity and simplicity by way of a dia-
logue between Aki Kaurismäki’s Finnish-French-German coproduc-
tion Le Havre (2011) and a range of theoretical contributions cited
here, but particularly Badiou’s model. Upon its release, Le Havre was
described as a cinematic equivalent to the “Occupy” Movement then
in full swing (Klawans). As indicated perhaps by Kaurismäki’s own
commentary quoted in my epigraph above, the lm presents a—force-
fully simple—fairytale of solidarity against the neo-imperialist regime
of contemporary European border control. Along with 99% of his
neighborhood (excepting one traitor), the aging bohemian-turned-
shoe-shiner Marcel Marx rises to the occasion of saving an immigrant
boy who escaped when the police opened the container in which he
had travelled from Gabon to Le Havre. In a heart-warming community
effort, they hide the kid and raise money for his eventual travel to his
mother in London. And to make the happy ending complete, Marcel’s
wife Arletty, who was diagnosed with purportedly lethal cancer in the
beginning of the lm, also miraculously rises from the almost-dead,
despite the fact that Marcel has somewhat neglected her in his quest
12See St. Paul; for detail on my argument, see Breger, “Christian Universalism?”
512 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
for saving the boy. While this plotline seemed set up for the very pur-
pose of presenting difcult choices between private love and political
empathy, the lm ultimately rejects this choice.
Rather than providing an example for the complex narrative forms I
have otherwise pursued in contemporary lm culture, this “feel good”
tale—of Kaurismäki’s “most exuberantly optimistic” lm (Gilbey)—
might lend itself to a (neo-)classical plot analysis demonstrating its
straightforward ideological and moralizing function. Clear-cut Prop-
pian functions abound: we have villains, helpers, donors, a hero and
princess engaged in acts of absentation, interdiction, villainy, a situ-
ation of lack as well as counteraction, donorship, victory, return and
reward (see Propp 25–65). To be sure, the element of “punishment”
seems to be missing, unless one counts the unsuccessful outcome
of the police search as their fair punishment. Among the twenty-
rst-century returns to narrative plot analysis cited above, Flesch’s
evolutionary approach, which reduces the narrative cast to “three
basic gures” (“an innocent, someone who exploits that innocent,
and someone else who seeks to punish the exploiter”) and the one
key function of Comeuppance, thus does not quite hit the mark (Flesch
ix, see 21–22). More promising is Patrick Hogan’s equally evolution-
ary analysis of human beings’ “passion for plots” as a function of our
“emotion systems” (1). Le Havre may present a combination of two
of Hogan’s three major transcultural plot types: a “romantic” with a
“heroic” action (19). At their intersection, the story develops from an
initial condition of “fragile” to a more “permanent” form of normalcy
(80, 33; Hogan’s emphasis).
In the beginning of the lm, the penniless bohemian is situated at
the margins of his neighborhood: he is shunned by the local grocer
and (more gently) admonished by the baker for stealing a baguette, if
with the intention of pleasing his frugal wife with extra earnings from
the day’s shoeshining endeavors. In the end, Marcel’s fully-edged
neighborhood integration and the renewal of his personal life in
health and happiness certainly suggest more stability. The boy, Idrissa,
is sent off onto the sea rather than returned to his geographic home
of origin (the last shot of him shows him looking out at the water),
but he is on his way towards his mother across the channel and thus
to a symbolic home.13 If, as Hogan argues, classically “heroic” plots
13Hogan denes home as the “center toward which we tend,” and species that his
notion of “‘normalcy’” is “dened by emotional response, not by objective conditions”
(30, 77). Nonetheless, the assumption that all human beings share emotional proclivi-
ties for a state of normalcy is, of course, highly normative.
513M L N
tend to conrm dominant ideologies with their orientation toward
“the goal of high position within the in-group and in-group domina-
tion over out-groups,” Kaurismäki’s tale can perhaps be categorized
as a “‘resistant’” variant on this plot, which rewrites notions of home
through its focus on migration and develops “egalitarian and humane
alternatives to dominant ideologies” (182, 138). In that context, the
heroic plot’s basic emotion of “pride,” supplemented by “anger,” is
perhaps displaced with the “empathic sharing of other people’s emo-
tions” that this pride, according to Hogan, is otherwise “obviously in
conict with” (133).
To be sure, my thematic and syntactic qualications throughout
the preceding paragraph indicate continued reservations about such
generalizations, which reduce the multiplicity of historically shaped
narrative forms to basic transcultural types and cut across unwieldy
details in the intricate webs of textual as well as contextual connection.
But given the forceful simplicity of Le Havre, maybe I can adjust my
conceptual reference point and displace the generic plot models of
classical and postclassical narratology with the political narrative that
the lm so strikingly points to? Does the character’s name, Marcel
Marx, not say it all? By way of such explicitness inscribed in charac-
terization, Kaurismäki supports the sensemaking function of his plot
with another resource of allegedly simple narrative: didactic Brechtian
commentary. In the opening scene, Marcel drives home a romantic
(again, “Occupy”-resonant) version of left-wing anti-capitalism by
announcing, “Money moves in the shadows.” Later, he explains that
he chose the shoe-cleaning profession because it is closest to “the
people.” The oppositional collective established here, which stands
up against a society made safe for capitalism, might in fact be that
of the “people” in Badiou’s sense of a “positive idea of humanity,”
which is latent at the outset of the lm, but then actualized at the
intersection of “our positive capability for Good,” “class struggle,” and
the “boundary-breaking treatment of possibilities” (Ethics 33, 16, 23).
Stalling Simplicity: An Array of Bracketing Devices
But of course, a number of complex bracketing techniques are also
mobilized to develop this simple story into a successful lm narrative,
not to mention to have the people win. To begin, the lm’s Brechtian
elements have effects other than explicit commentary: if didacticism
marks the simple pole of Brechtian procedure, theatricality and
(Shlovskian) defamiliarization indicate its complex pole, where avant-
514 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
garde claims to the undoing of narrative stall any straightforward
ideological mission.14 In Le Havre, rst there is the noticeable staging
of the entire lm, from the often stilted, proclamatory dialogue deliv-
ery and the “vividly theatrical lighting” to the “freshly painted” look
of the meticulously color-coded sets (Gilbey). Other foregrounding,
or bracketing, techniques include the lm’s overt intertextuality. The
oeuvre of Marcel Carné assumes center stage through character names
(the French actress Arletty played Garlance in Les Enfants du Paradis),
as well as plot and location (see Carné’s Port of Shadows, 1938). Along
with Jean-Pierre Melville, Robert Bresson and others, Kaurismäki also
deftly references his own earlier lms, most specically his 1992 La
Vie de Bohème, where Marcel Marx, played by the same actor (André
Wilms), had his rst entrance. Meanwhile, inspector Monet, without
whose initially ambiguous, but ultimately decisive support Idrissa would
have never been brought on his way to London, recalls perhaps less
a specic detective15 than an entire literary and cinematic tradition.
With his signature black hat, trenchcoat and inscrutable behavior, he
evokes a generic gure of the detective as a “third” agent (see Breger
and Döring 5–6), juggling the often diverging realms of law and justice.
The indeterminacy of historical location suggested by inspector
Monet’s generic appearance points to the lm’s most striking brack-
eting device: its intricate play with historical period and temporality.
Despite its “retro aesthetic” (Gilbey), the lm is not overall set in the
1950s or 1970s, or a straightforwardly unreal fairytale world. Rather,
it references a present moment in which militarized police units (in
twenty-rst-century uniforms) are employed to keep African refugees
out of Europe.16 Different actors in the lm, however, draw their sus-
tenance from different historical moments, to the effect of layering
the present with the (murderous as well as utopian) ghosts of the
(historical and intertextual) past. While the traitor is “straight out of
the world of Clouzot’s The Raven,” and thus the Vichy era (Kaurismäki,
in von Bagh 43), the lm’s community of solidarity is housed in Le
Havre’s only neighborhood that had not been destroyed in World
War Two, but was about to be sacriced to twenty-rst-century urban
planning at the lm’s making. As the director spells out, they enabled
the lmic (re)construction of this neighborhood with its small bakery,
14See Lachmann on different iterations of Shlovsky’s concept of defamiliarization
both with and against Brecht.
15Le Fol suggests Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
16Kaurismäki’s own playfully-pragmatic answer to this question dates the lm’s action
to “2007 or earlier, but not much earlier” (in von Bagh 40), in reference to the 2008
in-bar-smoking ban it disrespects.
515M L N
grocery and bar (“La Moderne”) by paying for a demolition delay. The
“Reality Radio” channel playing during dinner in Marcel’s apartment
with its mid-century furniture and vinyl record player unabashedly
announces Le Havre’s superimposition of historical moments. And
Inspector Monet’s own connection to the past is explicated when
during their rst encounter, Marcel disrespectfully comments that
Monet’s ID looks as if it was a “pensioner’s metro card.” “No metro
in Le Havre,” the inspector responds dryly, adding a spatial layer to
Marcel’s provocative gesture of temporal removal: the lm’s real-world
fairytale of anti-racist community action nds its imaginative resources
in the sedimentations of history at the periphery of today’s Europe.
This layered regime of bracketing implies a number of objections
to the simplicity of Badiou’s theoretical tale, including its rhetoric of
radical rupture, as intertwined with one of immediacy. Thus, Badiou
polemicizes against Jürgen Habermas’ notion of a democratic “com-
municative ethics,” insisting that what “arises from a truth-process …
cannot be communicated” (Ethics 50–1). Instead, “there must be an
encounter. The Immortal that I am capable of being ... must be directly
seized by delity” (ibid. 51). For the lm’s diegetic level, there is even
some evidence for such a claim: are Marcel and his neighborhood
not “directly seized” by the encounter with Idrissa, insofar as the lm
does not indicate lengthy deliberations about the decision to help?
Displacing discourse with action, the event of their solidarity attains
its spontaneous contours in cutting through hegemonic narratives—as
introduced by a newspaper headline Marcel notices before rst seeing
Idrissa, which imagines him armed, dangerous and with connections
to Al-Qaeda.
Certainly for the lm audience, however, there is no direct seizure.
Short of reopening media-theoretical debates as to whether or in which
sense lm ever transmits anything immediately, it seems safe to say
that Kaurismäki’s aesthetic choices in designing Le Havre deliberately
underline the process of audiovisual communication. In foregrounding
articiality, the non-realist meshing of worlds and intertextual play,
how precisely does the lm invite its audience to feel (and think)?
Perhaps, the major lesson of the longstanding theatricality debates
in cultural studies is that it is not that easy to tell, or at least not via
grand-scale theoretical claims. While aesthetic foregrounding can
produce distanciation and oppositional irony (which would result in
a mockery rather than afrmation of Marxism in Le Havre), it can
equally facilitate more open-ended play and a broad range of audience
pleasures, from the cinephilic joy of recognition to the sensory delight
516 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
in color and acting. If there is anything to the reviewer diagnosis that
Le Havre creates “an overwhelming feel for a better world” (von Bagh
38), the dominant effect of its aesthetic bracketing regime is clearly not
the coolness associated with Brechtian procedure. Instead, we could
consider not only the aforementioned cognitive notion of empathy,
but in fact also what Badiou calls the “‘affects of truth,’” that is, “the
intensities of existence” in which the subject’s seizure manifests itself:
“in love, there is happiness ... ; in politics, there is enthusiasm; and
in art, there is pleasure” (Ethics 53). My qualication is only that the
aesthetic relays of foregrounding disrupt any claim to the immediacy of
such affects. In entangling both moral rigor and revolutionary feeling
into its cinematic feast, the play of mediation complicates the circuits
of audience sensation, and “love,” “enthusiasm” and “pleasure” must
unfold any virtual revolutionary potential through a more complex
process of affective communication.
I believe the model of affective narrative conguration can conceptu-
ally integrate these complex processes unfolding simple distinctions.
As I should note, this model attains its contours not only against the
fantasy of direct seizure, but also against its theoretical counterpart,
post/modernist concepts of self-referentiality and self-reexivity,
which have variously been championed as the supposedly primary
effect of aesthetic bracketing and intertextuality. To the degree that
these post/modernist insistences totalize self-referentiality at the cost
of all (other) communicative outcomes, the complexity inscribed in
aesthetic bracketing contracts into a simple alternative to the simple
narrative didactics it seeks to displace. As indicated above, the model
of complex conguration instead traces how the (never just linear)
narrative process is sustained, rather than interrupted, and enriched
by the ‘horizontal’ dimensions of affect, spectacle, bracketing and
intertextuality. As a layered arrangement of (multiple) links between
affects, associations, images, sounds, and words, narrative congura-
tion far exceeds its traditional (simplifying) associations with plot,
ideological closure and “classical” form.
While highly complex, this process simultaneously enables connec-
tions with the promises of simplicity in unfolding a specic imaginative
proposal. Specicity, I suggest, is a quality of particular relevance for
the theoretical endeavor at hand by virtue of how it afliates with both
sides of the binary. On the one hand, Le Havres specic imaginative
proposal unfolds complexity through layering, the proliferation of
detail and the intricacy of multiplied connection modeled by Latour’s
methology of tracing associations; on the other hand, this specic-
517M L N
ity facilitates the determination and discretion in which we locate a
promise of simplicity.17 In the remainder of this contribution, I map
the contours of Le Havre’s specic imaginative proposal by further
unfolding the dialogue between the lm and Badiou’s model, detailing
the—in part parallel, in part divergent—ways in which both interlace
complexity and simplicity.18
Intertwining complexity and simplicity: Specicity in Conguration
This mapping can begin with a closer look at the key notion identi-
ed above: the collective of “the people,” as both object and subject
of the revolutionary event. In Badiou’s theoretical narrative, the
“positive idea of humanity” is introduced against the background of
a polemic against humanism, specically the contemporary doctrine
of human rights. With a characteristic rhetorical insistence on the
simplicity of self-evidence, Badiou asserts that this doctrine is “obvi-
ously linked to the collapse of revolutionary Marxism” (Ethics 4). As
he elaborates, the human rights doctrine identies man “as a victim,”
or more precisely, “the [split] being who is capable of recognizing himself
as a victim,” and thereby “equates man with his animal substructure”
(10–11; Badiou’s emphasis). From the claws of this animal substruc-
ture, Badiou’s revolutionary truth process extracts the “immortal” that
“every human being is capable of being”—according to Badiou’s own
humanism, which does not ofcially go by this name in his text (12).
Badiou motivates his intervention with a critique of the neocolonial
structures of perception informing the split subject of human rights. As
he suggests, this scene of splitting always assigns “the same roles to the
same sides”: the active (spectator) subject of judgment identies the
passive victim’s suffering and turns into the latter’s “benefactor[…];”
the scenario thus hides “behind its victim-Man, the good-Man, the
white-Man” (9, 13). This analytical point could be translated into a
critique of how Le Havre’s humanism participates in precisely such
17See Breger and Robinson in this volume. Latour denes “specicity not by any
substantial content, but by a list of associations: the more connected, the more individu-
alized a point” (133). My own proposal refuses this form-content opposition; specicity
is individualization via both connection and determination.
18Badiou’s critique of contemporary human rights ethics for their failure to think
“the singularity of situations” (Ethics 14) seems to dovetail with my interest in specicity.
However, Badiou’s oppositional rhetoric (situations vs. general maxims) disavows the
general maxims his own intervention is based on, e.g., a doctor’s “Hippocratic duty”
to treat everyone without regard to residence status (15). Conguring situations in
my sense is not about (impossibly) trying to evade all generality, but about interlacing
specic general maxims and specic concrete circumstances.
518 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
asymmetrical human rights narratives. Perhaps too simple in its reli-
ance on established tropes, does the lm not have white-Man Marcel
Marx save the African refugee child in the name of the people? Argu-
ably, Kaurismäki’s choice of the child trope is in fact an unhappy one,
in that it draws on hierarchical mainstream gurations of empathy
as “pity,” which tend to reproduce established “racialised narratives”
(Kozol 193–194). As the lm unfolds, the child trope does institute
relations of authority: upon his return from locating Idrissa’s grandfa-
ther in a detention facility, for example, Marcel admonishes the boy,
who incautiously ventured out of the house during his absence, by
declaring that the grandfather had instructed Idrissa to obey Marcel.
But of course, matters are simultaneously more complex. First, the
relations of spectacle that Badiou locates at the heart of the human
rights doctrine are deliberately foregrounded—to potentially critical
effect—early on in the scene of Le Havre which shows the discovery
of the refugees in the container. Before the container is opened up,
a medium close-up foregrounds a diegetic press camera in action.
Then, the extra-diegetic camera frontally frames the interior of the
container like a half-lit theatre stage (lm still 1), before a cut back
again reminds us of the involved diegetic camera. Beyond “mere”
self-reexivity, however, the scene congures a specic imaginative
intervention, as a series of sustained (medium) close-ups now intro-
duces us to the individual people in the container (lm still 2). Con-
trary to the expectations of the harbor workers (“more living dead”),
these shots show the people in the container to look just ne, as
they return skeptical and wary, but calm and dignied gazes to us. In
an interview, Kaurismäki explains that the script called for lth and
death, but that he “could not go through with that” and decided “to
hell with realism” (von Bagh 40). To be sure, the meanings of realism
may also need to be specied. Kaurismäki immediately adds a (dif-
ferent) claim to authenticity by underlining that many of the actors
are actual undocumented immigrants (ibid.), thus indirectly backing
the impressed reviewer who attests an “almost documentary force” to
these “linger[ing]” shots of the people in the container (Klawans 36).
Defying the claims of realism, or the regime of death operating at
the borders of contemporary Europe, Kaurismäki’s interventionist
design thus documents the force of human dignity. In doing so, Le
Havre’s specic imaginative proposal displaces the victim-savior model
of Badiou’s split human rights narrative with a different model of
humanism. At rst glance, this model corresponds to Badiou’s own
programmatic counter-guration: instead of showing the “suffering
519M L N
Le Havre. Dir. Aki Kaurismäki. France, Finland, Germany 2011. DVD.
Le Havre. Dir. Aki Kaurismäki. France, Finland, Germany 2011. DVD.
beast” and “emaciated, dying body” (Ethics 11) expected by the harbor
workers, doesn’t Kaurismäki’s camera heroicize these people’s (virtual)
“immortality”? Of course, such heroic notions of the human are also
far from uncontroversial and have been targeted by other critiques of
human rights narratives. In Precarious Life, Judith Butler counters the
asymmetrical structures of contemporary political discourse precisely
through recourse to “bodily life, ...its vulnerability and its exposure”
520 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
(25). While her reconguration of humanism starts from a critique
of neocolonial power relations analogous to that of Badiou, Butler
proceeds by politicizing the approaches he discards: her notion of
“a common human vulnerability” (31) draws on Giorgio Agamben’s
concept of “bare life” and Emmanuel Lévinas’ ethics.19
Although Kaurismäki’s presentation of the undocumented immi-
grants seems to side with Badiou in its emphasis on dignity over vulner-
ability, it simultaneously resonates with Lévinas insofar as the lm asks
us “to consider” their “‘face[s]’” (Butler 131). Does the lm then also
unfold the theological implications of Lévinas’ philosophy criticized
by Badiou (see Ethics 23)? Or does it rather resonate with the religious
coding of Badiou’s own secularized universalism, attesting to how the
conguration of his event relies on (alternative) available narratives?
Like Badiou himself in turning to the gure of St. Paul, Kaurismäki’s
lm plays with Christian references. Thus, Marcel declares the shoe
shiners not only to be closest to the people, but also to be “the last
to respect the Sermon on the Mount.” In asking Idrissa (whose name
means ‘immortal’), “Quo vadis?,” Marcel personies him as the risen
Jesus and himself as Peter. Idrissa, to be sure, does not get the bibli-
cal allusion and demands a—secularizing—translation. (“Where are
you going?”) If the lm’s happy end constitutes a “miracle,” is this
miracle made in heaven or, in line with Badiou’s secularizing take on
his theological references, by “collective action” (Klawans)? Perhaps,
it is primarily made by the ‘sovereign might’ of the imagination, that
is, the creative license that Kaurismäki takes in narratively assembling
the lm’s pointedly unrealistic, if authenticity-oriented world. Rather
than adhering to one specic system of thought, the lm develops
its imaginative proposal in syncretic terms. Although relying on
faces, the presentation of the immigrants in the container does not
highlight Lévinas’ radical alterity, but a combination of individuality
and (human) similarity. In doing so, the scene invites less pity than
respect, and perhaps empathy as a feeling ‘with’ more than ‘for’ the
other (see Smith).
Along with the hegemonic politics of pity, this proposal also coun-
ters the exclusive effects of Badiou’s (too simple, or simply unhappy?)
distinctions. From another angle, it allows me to rescue the disavowed
complexity of Badiou’s theoretical tale against Badiou’s own dominant
rhetoric of simplicity. Combining a strong causal proposition with a
large-scale generalization, for example, Badiou grandiosely claims that
19See Badiou, Ethics 18, 23 (indirectly on Agamben); Butler 67 on Agamben, 131
on Lévinas.
521M L N
“the root of the problem” of humanism (à la Lévinas) is that “every
denition of Man based on happiness is nihilist” (Ethics 37). This
claim pregures a thorny decision that Badiou is actually not entirely
prepared to make: the decision that his ethics of truths is “ascetic” and
“always demand[s] of us a renunciation” (Ethics 53). After reassuringly
referring his readers to the previously cited “affects of truth” (that
is, telling us that we will get some affective benet out of becoming a
revolutionary), Badiou admits that “ethics is not of the order of pure
seizure”— and uncharacteristically resorts to the postmodern rhetoric
of the “properly undecidable” regarding the question of renunciation
(Ethics 53; Badiou’s emphasis).
If revolutionary immortality requires the sacrice of human animal-
ity, perhaps the decision in favor of renunciation cannot properly be
avoided. But the animality-vs.-immortality opposition, which is insti-
tuted in guring the revolutionary event as a radical break with human
animality, is counteracted by the complexifying effect of—what is per-
haps—Badiou’s actual theoretical debt to postmodernism. Namely, his
account of the revolutionary’s constitution is not just, as mentioned
above, reverse-resonant with Althusser’s notion of interpellation.
Curiously, Badiou also seems to evoke Derrida by conceptualizing
the event as a “supplement” to the situation into which it intervenes
(41). Ambiguously both “addition” and substitution, which “adds only
to replace,” the Derridean supplement breaks with, but still connects
the proposed rupture to the world from which it breaks (144–145).
And in fact, Badiou balances his insistence on a “sustained break”
(Ethics 46) with acknowledgments of continuity: on the one hand,
the “subject ... is absolutely nonexistent in the situation ‘before’ the
event” (43) and there is “an insurmountable, properly ontological
clash between post-evental delity and the normal pace of things”
(54); on the other hand, every subject’s techniques of revolutionary
“consistency” depend on her “animal traits” (48).
In the lm, human “animal substructure” and happiness are certainly
not sacriced to the revolutionary event. Although Marcel Marx no
longer gets senselessly drunk, the state in which he was introduced
in La Vie de Bohème, this may be an effect of habituation more than
conversion: Marcel smoothly integrates his drinking with his new
mission throughout the lm. (When his request for water provokes
a surprised look from the owner of a fastfood joint, he quickly reas-
sures her that it is not for himself, but, of course, for Idrissa). If the
initial scene at the harbor implicitly disavows the immigrants’ needs
for air, water, and food for the sake of showcasing their dignity, the
522 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
remainder of the lm foregrounds precisely these simple things: a
sustained shot captures the nuts, nut shells and tea pot on the table
in the immigrant center where Marcel inquires about the boy’s fam-
ily, and close-ups accentuate the colorful vegetable stew prepared
in the camp where he then travels, as well as Marcel’s sandwich gift
to the boy and the one-egg omelet with a small glass of wine he can
afford outside his neighborhood. Last but not least, there is the
happiness of romantic love. As Kaurismäki’s fairytale conguration
has it, the mission of saving the boy requires reuniting an estranged
couple: without his lover returned, the aging rock icon “Little Bob”
won’t be available for the benet concert. The following extended
rock concert scene showcases a happy Little Bob in his gorgeous red
leather jacket, inviting the lm audience to indulge in the pleasures
of visual and musical spectacle. Importantly, the apparent immediacy
of these simple affective treats is layered with their multiple narrative
functions. While contributing to the boy’s rescue, the success of the
romantic side mission also superimposes, and thus enriches, the (low-
key, Brechtian) performance of the lm’s lead romantic couple with
a more amboyant, queer-inclusive image of love.20
At the same time, this layered conguration drives home a simple
point: in conjunction with the recovery of Marcel’s wife, the spec-
tacle of Little Bob’s happiness boldly decides Badiou’s “properly
undecidable” question of asceticism and renunciation.21 In foregoing
the latter, the lm dees the hegemonic narrative closure formula
that the Marxist tradition has shared with its political adversaries in
Hollywood and fascist cinema.22 Up to the the mise-en-scène of the
nal hospital sequence, which stirs audience expectations of Arletty’s
death as a narrative ‘punishment’ for Marcel’s focus on rescuing the
boy, Le Havre insistently evoked the presumed conict between love
for the collective and private happiness. Then, however, this conict
20In an interview included in the Criterion Collection DVD edition, André Wilms com-
ments on how “Little Bob” has been increasingly mistaken for a woman in aging. (I did
in fact read him as a butch lesbian upon rst viewing the lm.) Whether intentionally
or not, the iconography of this love story thus signals an afrmation of queer romance
in the audience context of heightened gay marriage debates (not only) in France.
21Badiou eventually does answer the question: for him, “the possibility that no asceticism
may be necessary” is contingent on a situation in which “the disinterested-interest” of
the revolutionary subject “might be representable as interest pure and simple” (Ethics
55; Badiou’s emphasis). In setting up the conict between private love and collective
mission, however, the lm refutes this condition.
22See Hell on the erasure of sexuality from the socialist body (rst 19).
23Indirectly, this also undoes the topos of female death as a punishment for moral
transgression often intertwined with the cinematic conict between political and
romantic love. While female transgression is absent from Le Havre, it is implicit in its
intertextual relationship with La Vie de Bohème where the unfaithful woman was pun-
ished with illness and death.
523M L N
is plainly undone.23 Le Havre’s specic imaginative proposal is, thus,
simultaneously complex and simple in that it decides against deciding
between two apparent alternatives, in a gesture of radical rupture with
the presumed demands of realism and narrative tradition. In line with
my complexifying reading of Badiou’s event as a supplement, these
demands are not simply ignored by the lm’s narrative conguration,
but complexly inscribed in it, if only to be forcefully undone through
a stroke of ‘sovereign might’ in the realm of imaginative ction: while
the mise-en-scène underlines the fairytale character of the lm’s
resolution, the happy ending does not thereby lose its power as an
insistence on imagining a different world.
Differentiations Do Hold an Interest for Political Thought
In some respects, Le Havre’s ction of heroic hedonism, or happiness-
based revolutionary humanism, resonates less with Badiou’s than with
Paul Gilroy’s twenty-rst-century reconceptualization of humanism
through notions of “principled internationalism, and cosmopolitan
conviviality” (8). Gilroy’s intervention dovetails with Badiou’s in their
shared turn against modern as well as postmodern regimes of differ-
ence: with indicative gestures of totalizing certainty, Badiou declares
that cultural differences “hold no interest for thought,” as they “amount
to nothing more than the innite and self-evident multiplicity of
humankind” (Ethics 26), while Gilroy suggests moving “away from
‘race’ altogether” (9). However, their paths diverge from here. Badiou
further unfolds his simple rhetoric of being and self-evidence with a
rather bold logical chain of assertions: “since differences are what
there is, and since every truth is the coming-to-be of that which is not
yet, so differences are then precisely what truths depose, or render
insignicant” (Ethics 27). In contrast, Gilroy immediately qualies that
his bold move away from race implies a direction “toward a confronta-
tion with the enduring power of racisms” (9). In this way, he replaces
Badiou’s disavowal of the socio-symbolic production of difference with
the complexifying distinction that racism, as opposed to race, does
hold interest for thought. Rather than concluding from the recurring
role assignments in human rights discourse that all happiness-based
humanism is nihilist, Gilroy conceptualizes happiness-based humanism
by working through the historical legacy of these role assignments.
And so does the narrative conguration of Le Havre. Questions of
cultural difference and race do not seem to hold much interest for
Kaurismäki either. While the mise-en-scène of the initial harbor scene
underlines society’s desire for the spectacle of death and/or cultural
otherness, the simultaneously individualizing and humanizing presen-
524 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
tation of the immigrants curbs such desire: what we see are just regular
special people. In contrast to race or cultural difference as such, racist
discriminations and power differentials are investigated throughout
the lm. Arguably, the lm’s very rst scene implies an initial nod
in that direction: the formally dressed “Italian” (played by one of
Kaurismäki’s gangster types, Ilkka Koivula), Marcel’s only customer
among the tennis-shoe-wearing crowds at the train station, shoots a
disdainful or mistrustful look at Marcel’s companion, the undocu-
mented Vietnamese immigrant who goes by the name of Chang. Is it
too paranoid an act of reading to interpret the following appearance
of two pursuers, who shoot the “Italian” (off-screen), as more than
intertextual and generic play, namely an act of punishment after all
within this overall compassionate lmic world? More denitively, the
owner of the neighborhood bar responds with an analogous gesture
of swift discretion to a TV report on the demolition of an immigrant
camp, which has inserted a dose of socio-discursive actuality into the
lm. When the immigration minister interviewed in this TV documen-
tary hypocritically claims that the action was not directed against the
immigrants themselves, Claire turns him off with a remote click. The
minister’s voice is replaced with that of the “subaltern,” as postcolo-
nial theory would have had it (see Spivak): Marcel engages Chang in
a conversation about the escaped boy from the container. Initially,
Chang responds that it is difcult for him to comment because he
does “not exist,” but then, he proceeds to tell his story.
To be sure, the lm’s conguration of its oppositional community
united against rich gangsters and TV politicians may in some respects
be too simple to capture the layered productions of racism. When
not only Idrissa is suspected of Al-Quaeda connections, but also when
Marcel himself is labeled a “terrorist” and chased away by a posh shoe
store owner, does the lm not ignore the crucial difference made by
his white privilege in a racist environment? However, Le Havre inves-
tigates this difference also. A dialogue with Idrissa at Marcel’s home
foregrounds the circumstance that Marcel’s spontaneous solidarity
does not preclude the presence of racialized stereotypes: surprised
about Idrissa’s formal behavior, Marcel makes a snippy remark about
his apparently “civilized/cultured” (cultivée) family. With indignation
and gravitas, Idrissa replies that his father was a professor, challenging
likely audience assumptions along with those of his host and insist-
ing on the class difference between himself and Marcel, which is not
undone by Idrissa’s situational need. The exchange also counteracts
the relations of authority instituted through the tropes of age. In
525M L N
empowering the boy, it gives support to a reviewer’s question as to
whether it actually is the dominantly white lm crew who saves Idrissa
or whether “he (as a fully contemporary gure) save[s] them from
their little world of nostalgia and miserabilist avant-garde absurdism”
(Klawans 36).
In the immigrant camp, the white-Man eager to help is greeted with
suspicious stares. When Marcel explains why he needs the requested
information on Idrissa’s grandfather, his interlocutor asks directly:
“Why should I believe you?” Be it by way of simple recourse to the
clichés of everyday racism, or by way of an attempted second order
joke about them, Marcel responds, “because of my blue eyes.” Faced
with the absurdity of this response, his immigrant interlocutor starts
to laugh loudly, incredulously. Marcel’s eyes are quite visibly brown in
the shot at hand. The following scene at the detention center, where
Idrissa’s grandfather has been taken, underlines that this congura-
tive detail does not undo Marcel’s whiteness: now trying to represent
himself as a relative of Idrissa’s, he comically introduces himself as
“the albino” of the family. All this emphasis on color intertwines
gestures at the absurdity of race with gestures at the discriminating
actuality of racism. Marcel’s interlocutor at the camp has, in fact, no
reason to believe him, as suggested also by the unmoved faces of the
other men, who are not ready to join the laughter. Perhaps himself
unburdened by laughter, though, or encouraged by an ambiguous
(barely noticeable) nod of one of his companions, the immigrant
nonetheless proceeds to offer information, which will enable Marcel
to nd Idrissa’s mother.
Once more, Kaurismäki’s lm thus cuts through its webs of com-
plexication with a bold gesture of ctional simplicity. Forcefully, the
lm asserts the possibility of solidarity against all odds—deliberately
defying the layered contrary circumstances which it has pursued in
detail. The lm’s “overwhelming feel for a better world” (von Bagh
38), that is, the positive affect it invites its audiences to share, is com-
posed of many different elements, which tend to be compartmental-
ized by diverging theoretical accounts, from character empathy to
cinephilic appreciation. But as I want to underline in concluding,
one prominent element of this complex affective conguration may
be pleasure in the deant “against all odds” stroke of the imagina-
tion. In its foregrounded ctionality, this stroke does not annul the
audience’s knowledge of a much more complicated world outside the
cinema. However, it might sustain our ability to engage in frustrating
real-world complexities with (pace Badiou, often inconsistent) simple
526 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
acts of generous deance. In this way, Kaurismäki’s specic imagina-
tive proposal intertwines complexity and simplicity towards critically
afrmative imaginations of a better world.
Claudia Breger, Indiana University
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What a Mess
Katrin Pahl
Rather than taking the side of either complexity or simplicity, and
instead of describing certain approaches as (too) complex and others
as (too) simple, this article embraces the mess of it all. In the face of
the difculty, which the editors describe, of pinpointing theoretical
trends on the complex-simple continuum or of deciding between the
appeal of simplicity and the appeal of complexity, I turn to an explo-
ration of mess. Mess runs diagonally to the (self-) categorization of
theoretical trends as complex or simple. Rarely does a theory describe
itself as messy. And if a scholarly approach gets characterized as such,
the judgment usually points to shortcomings and spells insignicance.
The messy is on the warpath with order, but the war it wages has noth-
ing heroic, deant or revolutionary about it. It falls short of vigorously
parting with the old order and simply beginning something new, i.e.
of qualifying for Badiou’s event. The messy doesn’t quite accomplish
the streamlining reduction to the essential and necessary that rational
logic promises. But does it deserve the epithet of complex for it? Or
is the messy just too simple (stupid or inattentive) to succeed in the
simplifying discipline? With its ippancy and silliness (including the
ippancy of proposing mess as a mode of thought), messiness doesn’t
quite deserve the name of complexity, but it would also be false to
say that mess is simple. Neither complex nor simple, but carrying
aspects of both, mess promises to tell us something about the overlap
of simplicity and complexity.
Entanglement, chaos, muddle, noise, etc., are increasingly recog-
nized as an inevitable, actually pervasive and even creative aspect of the
universe. Sympathetic theorists react to this discovery by demanding
pluralism, more complex logics, and an attention to the particulars,
the singularity, or the haecceity of the matter at hand. But, even as
sometimes a density in the exposition is cultivated, or sometimes a
certain looseness of thought and of logical derivation is experimented
with, such calls rarely abandon the will to know and to offer a clear
529M L N
picture and an intelligible articulation. I would like to explore here
what kind of sense it might make when we join the apparent messiness
of the world with messy thoughts and messy utterances. And by messy
I mean, specically, thought that relaxes the imperative to produce
clean and clear distinctions. William James offers an exquisite critical
description of the penchant for intellectual cleanliness and precision:
Philosophers have always aimed at cleaning up the litter with which the
world apparently is lled. They have substituted economical and orderly
conceptions for the rst sensible tangle; and whether these were morally
elevated or only intellectually neat, they were at any rate always aestheti-
cally pure and denite.(26)
While James pursues the virginal “rst sensible tangle” of nature, I
am more interested in the muddle-headed utterance. I am interested
in uneconomical, disorderly, impure, unaesthetic, indenite concep-
tions, and messy speech. As long as we don’t have a strong paradigm
of messy thought in place, messy speech will look like a mistake of the
uneducated or like the production of a confused mind. Accordingly,
I will begin my discussion with an instance of an apparent mistake. It
will soon emerge that the condition of possibility for a mistake is the
availability of a correct version and of criteria for differentiating right
from wrong. The more we advance in the messy mode of thought,
the more these criteria and this distinction go missing.
Considering mess as something to embrace rather than avoid in
the current theoryscape, I am interested in modes of thought that
afrm, attend to, and even willfully create confusion. I would go so
far as to call such a mode of thought a (different) rationality or a
(different) logic. It would be an emotional logic because mess has a
strong affective and emotional valence. On the one hand, the deci-
sion to acknowledge mess has something of the unscrupulous and
affectively liberating force of simplicity that the editors evoke, but
such an embrace of mess is also a somewhat embarrassing and often
uncomfortable, emotionally complex, gesture. By attending to the
affective life of mess and the messy logic of emotionality, we can trace
and encourage, I propose, different modes of rationality.
This article explores the effects—both simplifying and complicat-
ing—of a lax relation to mess. It will do so by rst turning to a writer
of the early nineteenth century—Heinrich von Kleist—who has, in
my view, actively embraced mess both for creative purposes and out
of epistemological concerns. Through a close reading of two brief
echoing passages from two different plays, the comedy of The Broken
Jug and the tragedy of Penthesilea, I will analyze the role mess plays in
530 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
Kleist’s texts. Then I will address how the emotional gures into the
messy. Finally, I will engage Kleist in a critical dialogue with a promi-
nent gure of the current theory landscape, namely Brian Massumi’s
version of affect theory.
*
Suppose the matter here,
As I’m afraid it may, remains
undisentangled.
— Kleist, The Broken Jug, 50/1505f 1
Kleist’s comedy The Broken Jug (Der Zerbrochne Krug) is a messy play
about mess that leaves one muddled. On the diegetic level, we nd a
jug in shambles, a nighttime ruckus in Eve’s room, a broken axle, a
disheveled village judge, dubious bookkeeping, sausage in the les,
a nest of cats in a wig (supposedly), a ooding creek, incontinence,
bad smell, and so on and so forth. On the level of the play’s structure,
mess functions as the driving force—perhaps one can even say, as the
organizing principle. It involves the mixing of at least two dramas (one
about Eve’s, the other about Adam’s honor—and then there is also
the drama of the title character, the jug), improvisation paradoxically
shaping a literary piece of theater, incompatible intertextual refer-
ences, incoherent tempo, and a text that claims to be both complete
and constitutively supplementary. The action of this analytic play
largely consists in determining who violated Eve’s private sphere and
broke the jug in her room. It takes place as a court trial with Eve’s
mother, Marthe Rull, as plaintiff and Ruprecht Tümpel, Eve’s ancé,
as defendant. The play also features a bit of meta-legal action in
that, as the village judge Adam hears the case, he is being inspected
by the assessor Walter from the high court in Utrecht and regarded
with suspicion by his own clerk Licht. This meta-action gets entangled
with the primary action as it quickly becomes obvious that Adam is
involved in the breaking of the jug. The jumbled stories judge Adam
makes up on the y both encumber and advance the analysis of the
1I rely on Constantine’s translation of Der Zerbrochne Krug, but will modify it, where
necessary, to stay close to the original signiers. Here, I have modied Constantine’s
elegant translation of unentworren as “unsettled.” “Undisentangled,” while even clumsier
than unentworren, renders its double negative and the sense of chaos that the word
enacts. With all quotations from The Broken Jug as well as Penthesilea,I will provide the
page number of the translation rst and then the verse number of the original.
531M L N
case as well as the development of the play. Mistaken correlations,
misalignments of words and things, and mismatched phrases do the
same by both obfuscating and revealing what happened. Often, such
misunderstandings prove more productive than orderly ratiocina-
tion. The buildup and denouement follow the same jumping and
jolting temporality as the court proceedings, which get desperately
stalled at times and sped up inordinately at others. The play serves as
a parodying commentary on several foundational myths of Western
culture and several canonical moments in the history of European
theater. The most prominent of them are Genesis and Oedipus Tyran-
nos. The two references are indissociably confounded in Adam’s
clubfoot, which allows him to gure as both Oedipus and the devil.
Finally, the dramatic text presents a recalcitrant and unperformable
mess in that Kleist publishes an abbreviated version together with an
appended variant.2 The extended version offers pretty much the text
that opped in Goethe’s production at his Weimar theater, only that
Kleist now echoes Goethe’s forced division into three acts with a cut
into the penultimate scene. The short version is more truncated than
abbreviated and cannot really stand on its own (despite the fact that
it has been published and translated separately). As if to show that
cuts are impossible and, in any case, a crime, the abbreviated version
features remarks that make no sense without knowledge of the variant,
and it scandalously reduces Eve’s account of the events to nothing
but one sentence. The variant contains Eve’s extended account plus
an exchange between her and Walter. While Eve’s account seems to
offer the resolution of the plot, Walter’s intervention at the end raises
new questions and substantially alters the meaning of the play. We
get the impression that the assessor Walter is also deceiving Eve—that
there is, thus, no higher authority of justice to appeal to when one
runs into problems with the lower one. But this impression remains
as inconclusive as the structure of the play, whose nal scene (in both
versions) sets the stage for the (absent) sequel when it has the plaintiff,
Marthe Rull, asking for directions to the higher court. The reader
closes the book without a clear picture of what happened, and the
spectator leaves the theater amused but puzzled and oddly alarmed.
2Kleist titles the additionally supplied alternate version Variant, i.e., in a bit of trans-
gender crossing of philology, literary production and theatricality, he uses a non-existent
masculine form of the technical term Variante. Reuß argues that, by including a variant,
Kleist calls into question the traditional idea of the artwork (BKA I/3, 430, fn 56). See
Reuß for details regarding the incompleteness of both versions (ibid 429–31).
532 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
I want to single out one specic moment of disarray, because the
example will lead rather quickly to a larger argument about Kleist’s
poetics, which in turn will allow me to show how mess relates to or,
rather, cuts across simplicity and complexity. The passage of interest
immediately follows the orgasmic moment in Ruprecht’s account of
the breaking of the jug when, all at once, Ruprecht crashes into Eve’s
chamber, the jug falls from the window sill into the room, and the
unidentied perpetrator jumps out of the window:
RUPRECHT:
And since I’ve got the handle in my hand still
From busting down the door I fetch
Him with the metal end, a pound-weight, one on the nob,
For there, Judge Adam, I could reach him.
ADAM: Was it a handle [Klinke]?
LICHT: You probably [wohl] thought it was a sword [Degen]?!
ADAM: A sword? Me, why?
RUPRECHT: A sword!
LICHT: Easy enough
To mishear, I should say. A door handle
Is very like a sword.
ADAM: I think …!
RUPRECHT: Sure as I live! The shaft of it, Judge Adam?
ADAM: The shaft!
RUPRECHT: The shaft! But that’s not what it was.
It was the end, the handle’s turned round end.
ADAM: The turned round end of the handle’s what it was.
LICHT: Well, well.
RUPRECHT: But where you hold it was a lump of lead,
Much like, that’s true, the pommel of a sword.
ADAM: Yes, like a pommel.
LICHT: Good, like the pommel of a sword.
A treacherous sort of weapon, whatever it was,
It must have been. That much I knew already [wohl].
WALTER: The point, gentlemen, please, keep to the point! (34f/978–96)
I will pass over the obvious pleasure with which the three men lin-
ger with the phallic thing, handing it around, exaggerating its heft
(pound-weight: pfundschwer) and trying out different names as if they
need an excuse to take it in their mouth (a German turn of phrase
gures speech as taking words in one’s mouth: ein Wort in den Mund
nehmen). Against the post-climactic confusion and its retarding force,
I am happy to heed Walter’s (on the second take rather ambiguous)
call (zur Sache!) and get down to business. The point of the matter is
533M L N
that the mess the men commit and indulge in here is identied as a
mistake, specically a mishearing: “Easy enough to mishear, I should
say” (man kann sich wohl verhören).
As it claims simplicity (most palpably in the translation: “easy
enough”), the statement itself seems to involve a mistake. Except for
the fact that they both have two syllables, there is very little phonetic
similarity between the words Klinke and Degen. It is therefore rather
unlikely that one could be misheard for the other. In any case, Adam
doesn’t mishear: Ruprecht says Klinke (door handle) and Adam repeats
Klinke (door handle). Only Licht, rather forcibly, introduces Degen
(sword) and then accuses Adam of mishearing by way of excusing
him for it: “Easy enough to mishear, I should say” (man kann sich
wohl verhören).
Already in the next sentence Licht’s rationalizing efforts shift from
the similarity between two words to the similarity between two things:
“A door handle / Is very like (hat sehr viel Ähnlichkeit mit) a sword.”
This might make more sense.3 Did Licht misspeak when he said “easy
enough to mishear”? Did he want to say ‘easy enough to mistake’ or
‘mis-see’? Did he actually mean to propose that the two things, the
door handle and the sword, look or feel alike when he suggested
that the two words sound similar? Did he confuse the sign with the
referent? Or is his apparent misspeaking, rather, a precise and faithful
rendering of the situation: the thing and its name overlap. The name
has a materiality that can be orally enjoyed or aurally confused. And
the thing shifts shape in experience and memory, thus highlighting
a disconnect between experiential trace and thing that might not be
qualitatively different from the arbitrary character of the link between
signier and signied. But their effect is unmistakably one of both
pleasure (in the hand or on the nob) and pain.
It is also possible that Licht uses the word “mishear” strategically.
Rather than making a mistake, he might be actively moving the focus
to the level of the signier in order to distract again from what he just
revealed, namely that he thinks that Adam was the guy whom Ruprecht
knocked over the head. When Licht says, “You probably thought it was
a sword?!”, he refers to Adam’s experience of being knocked over the
head. By then couching things in the terms of a misunderstanding,
he might be actively confusing his audience in order not to have to
explain himself on his suspicion just yet. But we can assume that his
3Even if the similarity is not so strong that someone who wielded a door handle
instead of a sword wouldn’t make a rather bumbling spectacle.
534 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
introjection makes an impression on Adam, for whom its obfuscated
sense must be more than clear.
Because the word “mishear” is out of place here and thus isolated,
less bound in its meaning by the immediate syntactical context,
another meaning of the lexeme insinuates itself and begins to make
sense. In fact, we are in the middle of an interrogation (Verhör). The
self-reexivity of sich verhören (mishearing) thus unfurls to the inter-
subjectivity and possible mutuality of interrogating one another (sich
verhören). Ruprecht is accused of having broken the jug. Adam, as the
village judge, questions him. Licht willfully inserts his Degen into the
dyad of this interrogation. He insists on playing a role and forces the
other two to make room for him. It needs a third to break up the
hierarchical binary between judge and defendant. It needs Licht (the
medium, the mediator, the scribe) to shed light (Licht’s name means
“light”) on the possibility that the judge himself might be the perpe-
trator. Only in the triad and only when the other sense of verhören,
mishearing, is retained to soften the edge of the interrogation, can
the phrase “easy enough to mishear, I should say (man kann sich wohl
verhören)” open onto a round of mutual questioning relatively free
of structural, hierarchical violence. It now sounds more like a cheer,
with the adverb wohl (well) affecting the sentence with harmlessness,
well-meaning, and even well-being. Read: one might as well interrogate
one another to forge relations. The point is that we keep in touch;
what’s passed between us doesn’t matter—just like Eve and her vir-
ginity doesn’t really matter between men.4 Anything can stand in for
the phallic object. Verhören, in the double sense of interrogating and
mishearing, keeps the connection going. The three banter and enjoy
themselves around nothing. There is no actual misunderstanding at
the origin of it all but Licht’s interjection produces and multiplies the
misunderstandings and thus makes it possible for the three of them to
shoot the breeze for a while. Until Assessor Walter calls them to order.
But why Degen of all words? Is there anything specic about this one?
Or could any other word for any other weapon have done?—Indeed,
the signier participates in Kleist’s web of allusions to the history of
European theater. With it, Kleist references a major comedy genre,
developed in Spanish baroque literature, chiey by Lope de Vega:
the comedia de capa y espada or cloak-and-sword play—what is known
in German as Mantel-und-Degen-Stück. The other eponymous accessory
of the genre appears four scenes later (in the eleventh scene), when
4I am alluding to Eve Sedgwick’s analysis of homosocial desire in Between Men.
535M L N
Ruprecht jumps to topple the judge but Adam runs away, Ruprecht
catches only his cloak and proceeds to beat it:
EVE. Got him?
RUPRECHT. Strike and blast me!
Only his cloak [Mantel]!
...
RUPRECHT (beats the cloak).
Bang! That’s one. And bang! And bang! Another one.
And another one! (63/1901–04)
Parodying the genre, Kleist empties out its two symbols. He uses only
the signier Degen, not the thing; instead Degen obliquely refers to a
“lump of lead” (34 / 991). No actual sword appears in Kleist’s play and
we see none of the dazzling swordght duels that are characteristic
for the genre of capa y espada. The cloak appears but as a piece of
clothing without the body of a person: this comedy has no knight or
caballero ght for the honor of the maiden.5 The dimwitted stand-in
for the chivalrous hero can only beat someone’s cloak and “wish it was
his hump (in Ermangelung des Buckels)” (63/1904). Besides, the cloak
plays second ddle to the wig, the other status symbol, which, on top
of it, remains absent from the stage for the longest part of the action.
We have a clear reference to Mantel und Degen in Kleist’s Broken Jug,
but every element of the genre plays a parody of itself.
The Spanish comedy usually features a comedic double to the chiv-
alrous hero: the gracioso, a menial or companion who can be dimwitted
or shrewd, and who inadvertently or intentionally parodies the ideal-
ized protagonist. Ruprecht plays the simpleton double to Adam; he
doubles Adam in the sense that they are both suitors of the maiden.
But Adam is no chevalier. He is himself a gracioso—even if it is impos-
sible to determine whether he is stupid, shrewd, or simply negligent.6
The double doubles the double. There is nothing but doubles. The
distinction between the honest and honorable and the mimicking and
laughable gets lost in the mess.7 There is no saint here, whom Knecht
Ruprecht could serve.8 The clear contrast between good and evil, which
characterizes the world of capa y espada, is smudged.
5Presumably, the judge wears a robe. While his robe can certainly function as a
cloak in the sense of cloak-and-sword, it is again more the word (Mantel) than the
thing that appears.
6Wellbery reads him as Hanswurst (22–23).
7This also has the reverse effect that the comic double can suddenly appear as the
serious and honest hero. Grugger points out that it is Ruprecht who ponders oedipal
self-blinding (70) and that, beginning with the twelfth scene, “Ruprecht kreiert aus
sich einen verständnisvoll Liebenden” (72).
8Knecht Ruprecht is the helper of Santa Claus (St. Nikolaus).
536 CLAUDIA BREGER AND BENJAMIN ROBINSON
To sum up the results of my analysis so far: we have encountered
several kinds of indistinction in this passage that are all, I argue, char-
acteristic of Kleist’s work and thought. They make him an advocate
or, at least, a practitioner of mess. We have seen the mixing (up) of
the senses—sounding is being confused here with feeling or looking.
With this mixup, the passage comments on a curious quality of Kleist’s
theater. Theater, in general, involves giving to see (scenes), giving to
hear (a literary text, at least in classical or Western high art theater)
and giving to feel (fear and pity, according to Lessing’s revival of the
tragic pathe, which for Aristotle were rather physical, thus closer to
Kleist’s staging here of being hit over the head). Kleist markedly and
methodically confuses these elements of the theater in his work.9 To
see, to hear, and to feel play each other’s roles in Kleist’s theater. They
are not arranged in a harmonious whole. Instead Kleist produces
unaesthetic and indenite doublings, disarray, disintegration, and
perplexity. In short, it’s a mess.
The indistinction of sign and thing is also frequently thematized and
practiced by Kleist. With his vibrant—often drastic—pictorial descrip-
tions and with his materially performative syntax, Kleist ceaselessly
pushes the normative boundary between language and reality. The
fact that Penthesilea can kill herself with words, in Kleist’s astonish-
ing tragedy, serves as a barely exaggerated image for the strikingly
concrete quality of Kleist’s language.10
With Kleist’s version of capa y espada, we lose the contrast between
good and evil—again a pervasive feature of Kleist’s work. We also lose
the hierarchical organization of the roles. Instead of a comic double
subordinated to the melodramatic hero, we see the doubles proliferate
and play on par with one another. This structure allows the simple,
the comic, and the dark to tip over, at times, into the sophisticated,
the serious and the splendid. This logic is carried to extremes by the
fact that a dumb thing, not a person, plays the title character. Part
of the attraction of capa y espada for Kleist must have been that it is
a genre named after pieces of costume and requisite. Both theatrical
self-referentiality and befuddling resistance to anthropogenesis are
exquisitely intertwined here.
Finally, the passage discussed also shows the overlap of mistake,
intention, and chance (or seized occasion)—something Kleist the-
matizes throughout his work and from which he derives considerable
creative energy. We saw that we could not establish conclusively whether
9See Klotz.
10See also, Jacobs.
537M L N
Licht mistakenly or intentionally says “mishear” or if indeed the word
intrudes here on account of its own agency (because its homonym
is already in circulation), and Licht then runs with it. Indeed, the
most faithful reading seems to be one that doesn’t decide between
these options but attends to their overlay. Such a reading makes us
complicit with mess.
I argue that it is better to acknowledge such complicity with mess
than to defend an illusion in the name of perspicacity. The illusion
we easily fall prey to is based on our confusing subjective and objec-
tive confusion. As more or less naive readers of Kleist’s perplexing
scenarios, we tend to invest in the idea that the protagonists simply
misinterpret the situation. This allows us to take a rm stand against
mess. But, indeed, Kleist ruins any hope that the realities he creates
can be sorted out. If we read a character as mistaken, we might nd
it possible to objectively resolve the issue, but doing so will most likely
get us caught in a subjective confusion of our own.11 In the passage
under discussion, the adverb wohl functions as a node in this net of
confusions (between the subjective and the objective, between mistake,
intention, and chance). If it weren’t such a trivial member of the lexi-
con, one could describe wohl, in its adverbial usage, as a speculative
word in Hegel’s sense. It can mean both “possibly” and “surely” and,
thus, combines incertitude and condence. Licht uses it three times
in this passage, not accidentally to modify phrases that include verbs
of knowledge and perception: “You probably [wohl] thought …?!”
(985), “Easy enough [wohl] / To mishear, I should say.” (987), and
“That much I knew already [wohl]” (995).
We might hear Kleist respond to our interpretations and perspicuous
subjective clarications by saying “That much I knew already.” But in
what sense would we have to take this response? Kleist not only stages,
as in this passage, the overlap of mistake, intention and chance, but
he also advocates for it—in particular, in the essay