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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 10/04/2004
Vol. 2, #143

Never An End in Sight (Part III)

In a certain sense, every configuration, every collocation of elements working together only has significance when you see it as a system. For example, if you just had a character like Superman, you'd have to have him somewhere, someplace, doing things with and to others. In short, the very notion is meaningless by itself. It has to be part of a system. So today, we're aware of that in most science they tend to think and explain things in terms of systems. But you can't have a system with just a bunch of pasted-on things. They need to work together. For that they need energy. Or heat, as it's called in more specific terminology. And, as I just explained, when there's no more heat, the system stops. The old entropy thing. So all operating systems have heat or energy and that energy is not in equilibrium, it is exchanging heat with parts that have less heat, and so the whole thing functions. A man named Fourier figured this all out in the nineteenth century. So, as a result, systems that are operating are always in a non-equilibrium state. Everything's moving around, and that disequilibrium has some chancey effects. For example, the state of the system may be such that the mere flap of a butterfly's wings can come upon the system in such a state that it CAN PRODUCE PERTURBATIONS THAT SHAKE THE WHOLE SYSTEM TO THE POINT OF COLLAPSE!

Note that before systems thinking became the vogue, this same idea was expressed by Norbert Wiener in Cybernetics, a science that was the precursor of systems thinking. Wiener expressed his idea by examinng the nature of feedback. In rowing, for example, if a rower makes a hard left stroke that turned the boat too sharply to the left (negative feedback), his inner feedback system makes a compensating stroke to turn the boat back to the right (positive feedback). Positive feedback is good so long as it doesn't go beyond correcting an overly negative feedback. But suppose it's too strong. Suppose the rower has a weak right arm and a strong left arm, then there's going to be too much positive feedback, that is breaking out of a planned direction and going around in circles.

Now let's get back to systems thinking, where this same excess of positive feedback occurs so that the beat of a butterfly's wing can swamp the whole system with an energy shift equivalent to going around in circles. The whole system then goes berserk and reaches a point of breaking apart. Here, then, is Prigogine's great contribution. In various experiments, he determined that a system on the point of exterminating itself can transform itself into what he calls a "dissipative structure"

In Prigogine's own words: "We know now that far from equilibrium, new types of structures may originate spontaneously. In far-from-equilibrium conditions we may have transformation from disorder, from thermal chaos into order. New dynamic states of matter may originate... We have called these new structures dissipative structures to emphasize the constructive role of dissipative processes in their formation." (Order Out of Chaos, Prigogine & Stengers, Bantum 1984)

I've carefully laid out all of this to draw a significant metaphysical conclusion about the so-called "end of things" including comics and many other systems and practices and beliefs of our culture. There really is no such thing, not the "end of science", the "end of sociology" or the "end of comics" but rather the endless transformation of systems from one state into some unpredictable other state.

For readers on this site, I'm referring to comics, of course, which is often described as a dying medium. Well, yes and no. The energy that created "comics" will reshape itself into other forms, perhaps even by way of a sudden leap. In these last two decades, for example, the writing has been on the wall. Yes, comics will shift into another form, perhaps combining with another technology still to be developed. It is, after all, a form of storytelling, and storytelling has been with us in a thousand forms since the dawn of history. Similarly the superhero. Old stuff, yet eternally new. Life is like that. Its manifestations never end. They just change shape. In the end, nothing is ever lost, not even the you that's reading this today.

--Alvin

<< 09/27/2004 | 10/04/2004 | 10/11/2004 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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