Harry Potter as Complex Event

I’m editing a long section of my manuscript that argues for seeing European colonialism in Africa, and specifically indirect rule, as an emergent, complex-system kind of institution. There are some really overt explanatory and causal arguments that come with this shift: a system that some argue was designed from above with specific instrumental intent becomes instead the accidental consequence of many smaller historical movements and developments. In other ways, it’s not necessarily that different a perspective. Power doesn’t disappear from the scene, imperialism doesn’t become benevolent, and the kinds of mutualism or negotiation between Africans and Europeans within indirect rule practices that have received more attention in the historiography in recent years just take on a slightly different structural character.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to rewrite many similar kinds of events using the vocabulary of complex-systems theory. Such a shift isn’t necessarily radically unlike anything we know, but it does strike at the heart of one kind of common explanatory framework that many of us turn to when we’re trying to explain why a social or cultural event has occurred. I’ll call this “popular social science”, a kind of generalized, public-sphere version of the disciplinary practices of economics and political science. It’s regression analysis without the math. People try to explain an event by identifying its causes or inputs and then proceed to identify the single most important independent variable through common sense or observed assertions about the effect size of that variable. So we end up with stories like, “It was going after the squeegee men that reduced crime in New York”, “The reason that 9/11 happened is US training and arming of jihadis in Afghanistan during Soviet occupation”, or “Pirates of the Caribbean 2 sold as well as it did because of Johnny Depp’s performance in the first film, not because the audience liked the second film better than the first.” These are popular arguments about causation, echoed by a variety of scholarly arguments.

A causal narrative that follows a complex-systems logic is different. Rather than trying to subtract away all competing explanations to identify a single key variable, a complex-system story would want to keep piling it on, because the whole point is that an important discrete event of some kind happens because of the accidental or unplanned convergence of many smaller changes and ongoing developments. For a story-teller, though, this poses a problem. How to convey complexity in simple terms?

Let’s take the example of the Harry Potter phenomenon. A lot of the writing I’ve seen in the press about this ever since the first book took off into the sales stratosphere wants to settle on a single overriding explanation. It’s the general quality of the books! It’s cunning marketing! It’s Rowling’s particular flavor of fantasy and school-days pastiche! It’s the triumph of geekery in mass culture! It’s a new generation of shared parent-child culture!

It seems silly to want to settle on any of those as a single or overriding explanation. A complex-systems story isn’t just “it’s all of those and more”, though. That would leave a complex-system story as, “Nothing is explainable, because all events are irreducibly complex and all explanations equal”. In public life, that would leave us with little more to say about any event besides “que sera, sera”.

A good complex-system story, it seems to me, is always a history. It’s a story about how many tributaries flow into a river. Once you’re at the river and you’re looking back at the terrain, then of course it seems inevitable that they would flow as they did. But if you start at the point when one glacier started to melt as it grinded its way back up a mountain valley, trickling this way and that, the precise placement and flow of the river isn’t at all inevitable, and very small shifts in how that river evolved over long periods of time is what makes for its unique character, what makes for an Angel Falls or a Grand Canyon.

So take Harry Potter again. Here’s the story I think you could tell.

The first tributary: over the course of the past century, “children’s literature” grew both in the range of stories it contained and in the amount of books. This growth was fed by the democratization of education, the spread and valorization of literacy, the idea that childhood was a special time of life needing special forms of appropriate entertainment and leisure, by the growth of consumerism after 1945, and by the huge demographic bulge known as the “Baby Boom”.

The second tributary: a common narrative structure and set of tropes within children’s literature based around schooling and coming of age, an early representative of which was Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

The third tributary: JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings popularized the genre of fantasy in the 1970s and contributed a key conceptual vocabulary that then mutated and took on new forms in other books and in other genres of popular culture.

The fourth tributary: a specific set of children’s books published between 1975 and 1996 whose protagonists and themes helped make the Harry Potter books seem familiar in both theme and tone (Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, Lloyd Alexander’s Taran series, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Margaret Storey’s The Dragon’s Sister and Timothy Travels, lots more)

The fifth tributary: a convergence of adult and children’s entertainment produced in part by films like Disney’s A Little Mermaid but also by the coming of age of a generation of parents who continued to preferentially consume cultural works resembling some of their favorite works from childhood, who were for various reasons less concerned with emphasizing their adulthood through rejecting childhood leisure habits.

The sixth tributary: JK Rowling’s extremely appealing mixture of established themes, character types and narrative structures. (E.g., the Harry Potter books aren’t just a random pastiche, but instead a markedly skilled and creative combination of familiar elements, forming an original whole.)

The seventh tributary: the initial slow popularization of the series among children and fantasy-reading adults, giving the first book an air of authenticity, combined with new communicative networks (e.g., the Internet) that allowed people making such cultural discoveries to exchange their discoveries more rapidly through networks of similarly minded consumers.

The eight tributary: smart marketing of the series once its popularity began to take off.

The ninth tributary: the intensifying feedback loop of the media attention to the series popularity, bringing in new readers and making the phenomenon structurally permanent. (This commonly happens to other cultural “series” of various kinds, and the quality of subsequent installments has to be truly dreadful in order to dampen the feedback effects.)


I don’t know how to tell that story in as compact a fashion as “It’s because Scholastic advertised the series heavily” or “It’s because Rowling is derivative, kids have lousy taste and our mass culture sucks” (the Harold Bloom approach). But I think you can organize this kind of story so that it’s not just a random list of contributing causes, either. I’ve tried to go chronologically (oldest cause first, most recent effect last) and from levels of structural depth to levels of contingent immediacy. (e.g., “children’s literature” is a really complex phenomenon in its own right, structurally embedded in its own complex history; “smart marketing” is a very episodic, fast-moving response to a situation where arguably “dumb marketing” could have affected this history in an opposite way).

The important thing is not to get gulled into giving one of these mini-stories the prize of being the key or singular event. Instead, this is like a simultaneous version of “for want of a nail”: all these stories have to flow into the river for the river to flow its spectacular and specific course, to make its waterfalls and canyons and change everything downstream. There’s a place for some determinism in this story: by 1997, children’s literature was an established cultural system, fantasy was an important part of it, adult-children crossover was well-established in the marketplace. There would have been books and films produced by the confluence of those things. There’s a place for some contingency in this story: Rowling’s creative abilities, the marketing by Scholastic, the identification by “early adopters” of the book’s appeal.

I also think you can tell a complex-systems story where the effects of the event can be described without having to rehearse the causes endlessly. In fact, that’s the other place where the complex-systems story differs from the single-variable crowd. The single-variable crowd are often going to assume the continued determinative importance of that variable. E.g., if they argue that Harry Potter took off because it was marketed aggressively, they’re going to assume that aggressive marketing can sell most cultural products. The complex-system storyteller can say instead, “It almost doesn’t matter why Harry Potter became an event if what you want to know is, ‘What will its consequences be’? The event is not the sum of its causes, its causes cannot be disaggregated from it: it is now a phenomenon in its own right that will cause future events as a singular force”.

So you go into the children’s section of the bookstore and you see a great many books that I think would not have existed but for Harry Potter, or which are being marketed and written differently than they would have been. You see Hollywood making films that I think no producer would have thought to greenlight in 1996, let alone throw huge sums of money at. (The Golden Compass, for example.) But because the Harry Potter phenomenon wasn’t driven centrally or in a single-cause way by an attraction to literacy, it also isn’t going to have the spillover effects on literacy as a general phenomenon that some commenters keep expecting it to have.

This entry was posted in Academia, Books, Popular Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Harry Potter as Complex Event

  1. withywindle says:

    A critical vocabulary note: when you say “complex system”, this isn’t so far off from my nattering on about “contingent particulars”. Not identical, but some overlap.

    There’s a curious double game of English images of England and American images of England playing here as well. Not identical, and Rowling does a delicate job of appealing to both markets–both appeals necessary but not sufficient to give her worldwide appeal. I think the changing status of England in American eyes matters here–that there is persisting Anglophilia without much memory of the Anglophobia, which helps American readers (even the young ones) accept a certain English (British!) self-understanding without demur, even as it reinforces it. (I think American readers in 1900 would have been more likely to think of the Malfoys as characteristically English, and less likely to take Potter as the representative of English virtue; and that the distinction between English and American self-understandings would have made a Potter-transcendance much harder to pull off.) So if not a tributary, it is, I think, a cultural manifestation of the Anglo-American special relationship.

    This is a little confused, and I’m not dogmatic on this point. I’m still working this out.

    Good comment; thank you.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    The English/American thing is definitely another piece of the puzzle. I think for American readers, the Englishness of the series carries an appealing “exoticism” that reinforces the fantasy elements while also being intensely familiar in the context of the fantasy genre.

    Anglophilia is a really deep part of the genetics of modern fantasy fiction, when you start to add it up: hobbits, Arthurian narrative, the Celt/Anglo-Saxon mythological elements including fairies dwarves trolls and so on. Of the stories I can think of that are the immediate children’s literature precursors to Rowling, almost all of them are Anglophiliac or set in imaginary Englands of some kind or another.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Actually this makes me think. Could a major fantasy series within the body of ‘children’s literature’ take off if it drew its iconic themes, tropes, and so on from anything but English/Anglo-Saxon roots? I can see a bit of wiggle room here, maybe. A series that was set in a mythologized or fantasy Renaissance Italy, for example. Maybe, just maybe, something that was set in the American West.

    But I wonder if even the most skillful deployment of some other body of myth and fantasy could achieve a mass-market breakthrough. Say, a more children’s-lit version of Hughart’s Bridge of Birds, which is a great book. It seems to me at some subtle point you move into the market-space of “multicultural enrichment” which most parents and readers go to in order to demonstrate their enlightened status but not necessarily for something they value as much as Harry Potter.

  4. Tim, you gotta’ read Arthur De Vany’s book, Hollywood Economics: How Extreme Uncertainty Shapes the Film Indusry (I’ve got a review of it at Amazon.com that gives the gist). It’s a technical analysis of a decade’s worth of statistics about the theatrical performance of Hollywood movies. If you’ve got a feel for the material and look at the graphs and charts you can get a pretty good idea of what’s going on. You’ll just have to take it on faith that he’s technically competent. (And, he’s got a blog that has some stuff on it; just google his name.)

    What he shows is that, no matter what the studios do to manipulate people into going to their films — using “bankable” stars and directors, opening wide, lots of PR, etc. — it doesn’t matter. What matters, duh, is whether or not people actually like the films and tell their friends, and their friends, etc. He doesn’t get into the business of how one would figure out just what it is about this or that popular or successful film that works. Presumably that’s the “fit” between the film and the marketplace. His point is that there is no way to determine whether or not a film “fits” the marketplace short of putting it out there in the marketplace. And when you do that, there’s not much you can do to manipulate the marketplace in your favor. You gotta’ have the goods but there’s no sure way of identifying them ahead of time.

    Your first six tributaries would be factors contributing to a marketplace that’s receptive to Harry Potter. And perhaps the seventh and nineth as well. If De Vany’s right about these things, then your 8th tributary is either irrelevant or reduces to something like: don’t do anything stupid.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    The book sounds great.

    I would say my 8th tributary is in fact “don’t do anything stupid”. But I would submit that there are examples of mass culture phenomena that amount to “somebody did something stupid” in the marketing that slowed or misdirected the cohering of the phenomena. Maybe the easiest way to look for that is to look for a film, book or other product that achieves widespread popularity well after it was initially circulated or published. Sometimes that’s because the conditions weren’t right when it first appeared for it to be popular. But sometimes it’s because someone really screwed the pooch when marketing or promoting the product.

  6. withywindle says:

    On Anglophilia: I also take Celtophilia (among non-Celts) as a displaced form of Anglophilia, allowing you to enjoy English/British culture while still knocking the English. The Taran series, after all, is Welsh; the Darkness Rising makes a great deal of casting the Britons/Welsh as heroes as against Saxons and Normans invading, from Arthur to Own Glendower; The Wrinkle in Time series has a Welsh-Irish theme going. So you have that displacement. I know that various childen’s authors are trying non-British settings for their fantasy realms. My guess is that we’re in the process of seeing a Japanese or Japanese/Western cultural model emerge–this whole samurai-ninja-Godzilla-anime complex does seem to be genuinely popular in America and Europe, and movies like Spirited Away seem to have real popular appeal. (As opposed to enthusiastic geek appeal.) It may be a tougher fit to align Japanese and Western audiences on a Potteresque way, but I think that’s as likely a possibility for a non-British model as anything.

  7. Fascinating dissection of the event, Tim; thank you. And I like very much the direction you and Withywindle are going in regards to Anglophilia. It’s a fascinating question, the one you ask about whether Anglophilic tropes (and, as Withywindle observes, America’s changing reception of them, especially in the context of epic and heroic fantasy genres A.T. (After Tolkien)). My wife reads a great deal more youth and children’s literature than I, and she’s pointed out to me a several examples of fairly successful fantasies and adventures that have been set in East Asian or Eastern European contexts. But then, none of them have had nearly the success as the Potter books, which would suggest that those tributaries just aren’t as strong.

    Tim and Withy, both of you might also be interested in this thoughtful post I stumbled upon here, which talks about the Harry Potter “event” in light of Derrida and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

  8. Alan Jacobs says:

    Tim, I’ve got a response to your thoughts over at The American Scene.

  9. If you want to popularize complex-systems explanations, there’s a metaphor out there waiting to be turned into the next “tipping point”: Perfect Storm. I like the tributaries-Big Muddy metaphor myself, but you gotta go with what people know.

  10. Tim, this essay is really delightful, and I think it’s a great way to introduce these concepts. I have a hunch that you might end up using this exact parallel in freshman seminar sometime soon. As a theory, it’s very clear. The tributaries metaphor is rich, because we also have a sense that that there are small creeks and big wide rivers. And each of those subsystems has an interesting story to analyze in themselves. Your seventh tributary is something of an obsession right now in the era of The Tipping Point, The Long Tail, The Wisdom of Crowds, Web 2.0, etc.

    To follow with an almost silly and pedantic point, there still are some absolute causal moments of agency worth noting. For starters, JK Rowling had an idea for a book, and then she wrote it. Also, two years later, some very lucky or smart acquisitions editor bought the book and published it.

    They are, I guess, the rainmakers.

    * * *

    By the way, I’d love to read an article sometime by a literary editor titled “Yes, I was the one who passed on Harry Potter.”

  11. Tim, you’re not campaigning to be Berube’s running mate, are you?

  12. jpool says:

    Nice application of complex causation. It seems like one of the big hurdles that more structurally minded scholars/thinkers seem to run into with these sort of histories is that they are fundamentally explanations rather than predictions. It wasn’t that these structural conditions produced Harry Potter, or that people were crying out for the wedding of a contemporary coming-of-age story to epic fantasy and if Rowling hadn’t filled the gap someone else would have, but rather that there were a variety of structural conditions that made such a thing possible. It’s also significant (though I think most historians of whatever stripe are more likely to get this part) that many of these structures or streams are not those of more traditional social or cultural history, or at least are a more dynamic combination of the two.
    This is one of the things I wrestle with in thinking about the cultural history of African nationalism. In trying to respond mid-century modernization theory in a nondismissive way, or to reform it into some sort of usefulness, it seems important to say that all of these structural conditions and intellectual currents were indeed present and important, but that they didn’t produce African nationalism, only provided the conditions in which people could produce it.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, exactly. That’s the problem with the old-line approach of social history: it’s X + Y = Z. Add up the underlying conditions, get the results–usually with the implication that all the things being added were there *in order* to produce that result. I’m ok with an argument that African nationalism is partly a product of a lot of things coming together, just not with an argument that the confluence of those things was intended to author or produce African nationalism.

  14. Withywindle: Isn’t the Darwinian (or neo-Darwinian) theory of biological evolution about how certain kinds of “contingent particulars” become “accumulated” in populations & lineages of living creatures? It would be nice to have a similar account with respect to culture. There’s lots of chatter about such, but it’s mostly chatter.

    * * * * *

    I’d think that the strong likelihood that these underlying conditions don’t mechanically ad up to the results (observed in retrospect) leaves room for individual and collective agency in accounting for history.

  15. kit says:

    I’m coming to this very late, but on the subject of fantasy books drawing on non-Anglo/Celtic roots, I think immediately of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys. A crumb of a thought.

  16. Speaking of Gaiman, think how he, Alan Moore, Douglas Adams, and probably a million other English writers I can’t think of off the top of my head helped prepare parents for appreciating smart riffs on classic fantasy (and sf) themes.

  17. withywindle says:

    William Benzon: I don’t know enough Darwinian theory to respond intelligently on the subject, but I like the idea that one can align Aristotelian and Darwinian languages. A first stab at thought, though: I believe one is supposed to associate Aristotelian language, contingent particulars, with narration, rather than (scientific) exposition. To think of evolution as narrative in structure would–displace telos? Reinforce it? Speak to micro-evolution vs. macro-evolution, and the way to explain how one can lead to the other? I defer to people who know more.

  18. Bill McNeill says:

    If you’re looking for a concise, everyday-speech way of characterizing a complex-systems view of things, the phrase “a perfect storm” may fit the bill. For example, “A perfect storm of factors within the field of children’s literature led to the popularity of the Harry Potter books, among them…” would communicate your idea of confluence without having to haul out the technical language.

  19. Bill McNeill says:

    Another form of faulty reasoning that may lead people to posit erroneous single-cause analyses: there is a tendency to attribute importance to one of a set of causes not because it is truly significant but simply because it is unusual or otherwise prominent in some way. For example, going after squeegee men probably had very little effect on the crime rate in New York City, however, squeegee men are a very distinctive feature of life in New York City, so they draw unwarranted explanatory attention. This error is particularly tempting if the prominent cause is ironic in some way.

    I write this with the concept of mutual information I(X;Y) in mind. Loosely speaking, when attempting to find a causal explanation, people should be considering I(crime;squeegee) but instead they look at I(New York City;squeegee) because I(New York City;squeegee)>I(crime;squeegee). If you’ve done work in Information theory, this is a natural and illuminating way to think about things. Unfortunately, if you haven’t, this notation is even more dauntingly technical than terms like “complex-systems”, and there is no pre-digested idiom like “perfect storm” that already captures the idea.

  20. Withywindle: Nor am I familiar with Aristotle. Still, narration tells a history. Evolution is a historical process, taking place over an extended period of time. The lives of organisms are filled with “accidents,” contingent particulars. These accidents are of many kinds, some of which bear strongly on the organism’s ability to survive, either helping it or hindering it. Over a long period of time, and in the population at large, that population will “adapt” itself to those accidents that are recurrent and affect the lives of individuals. The gene pool of the population, in effect, “learns” about the world around it.

  21. David McDonald says:

    I wandered over here from the History News Network and can’t resist kibitzing on this interesting post cum comments. First, isn’t complex causation a sub-set of what Basil Fawlty once termed the “bleeding obvious”? Second, our pals in lit-crit and English have spilled gallons of ink on narratology, conventions, plot-lines etc. Third, I agree that you have identified plausible “tributaries,” but am surprised at a certain lack of specificity. L’Engle, certainly, but no C. S. Lewis. Tom Brown, indeed, but Rowling appropriates conventions from English children’s literature–as you correctly note–but you might have identified such authors as Enid Blyton and E. Nisbet, classics in English and post-imperial Commonwealth households of a certain generation. You might also have incorporated in your mechanisms of dissemination an infrastructure developed for the marketing of mass culture–and particularly popular music–whose density or intensity/efficiency of operation and penetration underwent several “leaps”–with radio, TV, the web, etc–and evolution driven by tributary processes of their own.

    As with any “complex” set of explanations, however, the interest seems to me to lie less in the inherently overdetermined nature of any historical moment or phenomenon than in the sources for a given observer’s choices on what to identify as more or less significant or persuasive at a given time.

  22. I can’t add much except rapturous applause. We definitely need more historians who are interested in complexity. In this post I touched on the issue in relation to the causes of the English Civil War.

    I’m very interested in complex systems theory but don’t know enough about it. What should I read?

  23. Doug says:

    A Princess of Roumania and its sequels (two to date) try to avoid the English angle altogether.

    I wonder if the popularity of Potter and other series don’t plot to some sort of power-order graph.

    Would it spoil all the fun to posit that Rowling got lucky?

Comments are closed.