Contributed Paper
at the International Conference
"Einstein meets Magritte"
Brussels, May 29 - June 3, 1995


Moses A. Boudourides

In general, chaos theory is considered to refer to the economy between order and chance, determinism and unpredictability, clarity and aporia. However, from an epistemological and a critical point of view, it might be interesting to assess the local and global perspectives rooted into the interdisciplinary body of chaos theory. Such an assessment is meaningful not only in understanding the various claims about the validity of chaos in different scientific fields, but also in clarifying the cultural and political context of chaos theory. The latter is what Hayles in the Chaos Bound (1990) calls the "politics of chaos."

The common direct way to distinguish between “local” and “global” character of knowledge (either scientific or experiential) sets the stage to the range of applicability and the domain of methodology involved in the discourse into which this knowledge is embodied. Of course, such an approach is not only sensitive but also pertinent to the adopted organization and articulation of the examined body of knowledge; for example, the opposing presuppositions of social constructivism and positivist realism might imply different characterizations of local/global. Nevertheless, from the standpoint of an external observer, the local or global attribute hinges upon the degree of “visibility” of the way different pieces of knowledge are related to each other. Apparently, this is a question of identifying differences and coarse graining similarities, which necessitates the construction of a virtual space of all possible and contingent configurations of knowledge. Although analogies, shifts, and other transfers between separate theories quite often occur (usually at the initial level of the intuitive theoretical formation), they can generically smoothly be appropriated into the internal structure of a knowledge. At least, this is what happens at the regime of a normal science, i.e., far from the uprising conditions of scientific revolutions, when the interior coherence of a theory is maintained by her epistemological autonomy (Kuhn, 1962).

External strains between theories can develop as a result of a variety of reasons. Some of them may reflect an intrinsic tendency towards a theoretical expansion, in some cases due to the high generality or abstract potentiality of the assumed means of analysis. Others may simply have socio- political or cultural connotations, and correspond to existing tensions at the social level. In this respect, as a rule, the social controversies are the ones to be induced onto the scientific ground: questions of power are often at the heart of certain theoretical disputes. Even if this fails to be true some times, more often it can be seen on the way and the conditions under which the theoretical antagonisms are usually committed.

Under the action of such a multiplicity of internal and external determinations, the resulting local or global characterizations are quite intricate. Although it is not one of the most crucial epistemological questions, subsuming a theory to the label of either locality or globality sometimes turns out to be something more than a conforming convenience; it becomes a matter of belief, which is a rather political and questionably scientific attitude. This culpable ambiguity may penetrate even at the level of methodology. In this way, one may wonder whether scientific reductionism might be considered as a local interpretation disguising a global disposition, and whether scientific holism might be considered as a global settlement assembling a local inducement.

The fact is that chaos theory is undoubtedly establishing a mainstream paradigm to many scientific fields. What remains to be seen, and it is still at stake, is whether this is a paradigm shift. On the one side, chaos is providing a source of methodological intuition for those working in a variety of disciplines. On the other side, the interdisciplinarity institutions do possess the tools to articulate a novel arrangement over an existing body of a scientific field. However, these events are often misunderstood; the way to conceive the resulting rearrangement is not by employing a simplistic appendage of a predefined condition of knowing in order to organize the body of some knowledge. In other words, chaos being a paradigm neither means that chaos is just an instrument of knowledge nor that a paradigm is just an interchangeable or scalable passive theoretical formation. In this sense, those globalizing claims for chaos need to be reconsidered.

In fact, Gleick's popular book, Chaos (1987), has fueled an abundant pool of statements claiming the globalizing value of chaos theory. For example, Gleick says: "Chaos breaks across the lines that separate scientific disciplines. Because it is a science of the global nature of systems, it has brought together thinkers from fields that had been widely separated. ... It makes strong claims about the universal behavior of complexity. ... They (chaos theorists) believe that they are looking for the whole" (p. 5).

Contrary to these rather absolute claims and though there are a lot of opposite arguments carrying the case for locality, the local/global constitution of chaos theory raises many delicate questions. Both in practice and in theory, for example, the occurrence of a chaotic behavior results from the nonlinear interactions between different parts of the system. Therefore, it is a local coordination subordinating the global flow of the dynamics in a strange way, ie, extremely sensitive to fluctuations and thus completely unpredictable. However, one has to suspect this argument, when one realizes that a lot of chaotic systems reveal a universal character of transition in their processes. Taking into account the previously discussed precaution to respect the relative autonomy of scientific disciplines, this almost ubiquitously emerging globalization in chaos should not pass unexplored.

In any case, the problematic relation between local and global in chaos theory is part of a wide-ranging debate about local and global in contemporary thought. Hayles in the Chaos Bound (1990) remarks some astonishing similarities between the sciences of chaos and critical theory. According to her, "In the new scientific paradigms, the global subsumes the local, but at the price of reconceptualizing the global as constituted by locality. Within critical theory, the claims of the local are expanded until the local itself becomes a new kind of globalizing imperative. These two impulses mirror each other, for in the sciences of chaos the global is localized, and in critical theory the local is globalized" (p. 213-4).

Actually, Hayles' concern (in the last chapter of her book, the Chaos Bound) was to confront critically and refute the assumptions that local knowledge is progressive, politically libertarian, while global theory is oppressive, politically totalitarian. Such a political connotation of the local/global scheme has been quite popular among some critical theorists. For example, particularly important are Foucault's (1970) archaeological analyses of the totalizing theories of the Enlightenment, from grammar to biology, and to penology, and their association with totalitarian political practices. Now, by considering an intermingle between local and global, Hayles argues that "it is wrong to assume that global theory is always politically more coercive than local knowledge" (p. 214). But she realizes that such a balance between local and global is extremely paradoxical, "for to answer it one must put forward generalizations, yet generalizations are precisely what are at issue" (p. 214).

However, behind the political connotations of the local/global dialectic, there are certain ontological presuppositions favoring or disregarding the adoption of the local or global perspective. It is not evident to a majority of contemporary theorists that the social and historical construction of reality necessitates a tendency toward generalization, essentialization, unification, and universalization. Two opposite proponents are Rorty (1989) and Smith (1988), both of whom maintaining that all values are radically contingent on social, economical, institutional, and ideological contexts; Rorty by means of an antirepresentationalist neopragmatism and Smith by a fecund axiological relativism.

Sometimes the valorization of local knowledge appears in extreme tones. Such might be considered the critisisms of Lyotard, who, according to Argyros (1991), even proceeds that far as to "define the urge towards globalization as terrorism" (p. 213). In the concluding chapter of his Postmodern Condition (1984), Lyotard foresees that the coming of the information societies will strengthen the power of the ruling elites having access to the information resources. He thinks that this totalitarian danger can be confronted by the emergence and development within natural and mathematical sciences of such theories as fractal geometry, quantum mechanics, catastrophe theory, and Godel's theorem. Grouping them under the label "paralogy," Lyotard suggests that they will let us "wage a war on totality; let us be witnesses to the unpresentable; let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name" (p. 82).

Although Lyotard's arguments express a contemporary popular allergy toward globalization, his paralogies are rather biased and hardly convincing. Their problem, as Hayles (1990) has remarked, is that they are confusing scientific theories with social problems (a kind of a social Darwinism) and that they all, despite of their local endorsement, encompass a redifined global quality. However, one might agree with Argyros' conclusion that at least one of Lyotard's themes merits special attention; this is, according to Argyros (1991), "the question of whether the meaningfulness and pragmatic usefulness of language games, by which Lyotard means semiotic exchanges in general, are best described as local or global phenomena" (p. 234).

What also seems to be very interesting is to compare and contrast Lyotard's emphasis on agonistics ("catastrophic antagonism is literally the rule" p. 59) with Prigogine's view about a cooperative and communicative behavior far from equilibrium. In their book Order Out of Chaos (1984) Prigogine and Stengers formulate this view in discussing the molecular basis of nonlinear chemical reactions: "At equilibrium molecules behave as essentially independent entities; they ignore one another. We would like to call them "hypnons," "sleepwalkers." ... However, nonequilibrium wakes them up and introduces a coherence quite foreign to equilibrium" (p. 180-81).

Thus, Prigogine's synergetic dialectic overcomes Lyotard's antagonistical paralogies aiming to the possibility of renewing man's relation to nature. As Argyros (1991) sees it, "Prigogine's version of postmodern science is not the cultivation of discontinuity and paradox, but a new dialogue with the natural world that respects both its otherness and our fundamental continuity with it" (p. 235). Such an outcome being optimistic, there is a pessimistic one too: "This leads both to hope and a threat: hope, since even small fluctuations may grow and change the overall structure. As a result, individual activity is not doomed to insignificance. On the other hand, this is also a threat, since in our universe the security of stable, permanent rules seems gone forever" (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984, p. 313). Prigogine's call to an ethical responsibility represents a brave uncompromised thesis in front of a changing chaotic universe.

Underlying the Prigogine/Lyotard contrast, there is a tangled relation between the nonlinear science of chaos and the postmodern discourse of deconstruction. First of all, there is a striking parallelism between chaos and deconstruction in a number of ways. For example, the initial focus of Derrida's work (1976, 1978) was the deconstuction of the Saussurian sign; this was an effort to establish a nonlinear relation between signifier and signified, or between sign and referent, and to affirm the destabilizing effects of undecidability. Another common characteristic refers to the openness and infinite dissemination of texts, which thus become susceptible to endless iterations; as a result, the boundaries inside and between text and context are not fixed so that infinite texts and contexts may permeate other texts and contexts. According to Hayles, "both discourses invert traditional priorities: chaos is deemed more fecund than order, uncertainty is privileged above predictability, and fragmentation is seen as the reality that arbitrary definitions of closure would deny" (Hayles, 1989, p. 314). The reason that the two theories seem to be perfectly congruent is, again according to Hayles, "not because they are derived from a common source or because they influenced each other, but because their central ideas form an interconnected network, each part of which leads to every other part" (Hayles, 1990, p. 184).

Nevertheless, there are many severe differences between deconstruction and chaos. Following Hayles (1989, 1990), let us discuss a few. Chaos is a mathematical theory dealing with concepts exactly defined, numerically computable and, up to some degree, subject to a series of proven theorems and other results; deconstruction is concerned with language and textual entities, which are hardly subject to formalization. One measure of these differences is the disagreement on how extensive chaos is: for Derrida, textual chaos is almost omnipresent, but, in chaos theories, islands of orderness are commonly acknowledged in oceans of randomness (or the other way). Moreover, while chaos often considers a transition from orderness to randomness, deconstruction sees an apocalyptic break with logocentrism. Finally, although recuparation is a standard scientific practice, as it is witnessed by Popper's (1965) falsifiability, to a deconstructionist, a "recuperator" is beyond salvation. So, Hayles (1989) concludes: "These differences are symptomatic of the different values the two camps place on chaos. For deconstructionists, chaos repudiates order; for scientists, chaos makes order possible" (1990, p. 184).


Argyros, Alexander J. 1991. A Blessed Rage of Order: Deconstruction, Evolution, and Chaos. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1976. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Spivak. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Pantheon.

Gleick, James. 1987. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Viking.

Hayles, N. Katherine. 1989. "Chaos as Orderly Disorder: Shifting Ground in Contemporary Literature and Science." New Literary History 20 (2): 305-22.

Hayles, N. Katherine. 1990. Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Kuhn, T. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (second edition, 1970). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1984. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Popper, Karl L. 1965. Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. 2d ed. New York: Basic Books.

Prigogine, Ilya, and Isabelle Stengers. 1984. Order Out of Chaos: Man's New Dialogue with Nature. New York: Bantam Books.

Rorty, Richard. 1989. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Barbara Herrnstein. 1988. Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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