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.