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Meaning and material: phenomenology, complexity, science and

‘adjacent possible’ cities.


Stephen Read

The ‘problem’ of complexity


What makes complexity so interesting, and even what it is, is extraordinarily
hard to define. It is difficult to set boundaries to it, and indeed this openness is
part of the fascination, as we try to imagine nature and our own position in
relation to it. Today, complexity challenges the divides we set between
physical, biological, ecological and organisational ideas and concepts, as well
as those – marked as fundamental by Dilthey – between the sciences of
nature and those of the human. We could even see complexity as challenging
the boundaries we set between things and our knowledge of those things, or
between matter and meaning. But, what is it in its essence? An answer to this
question from phenomenology would emphasise not the methods and
techniques of a new science, but rather a new attitude and a new
understanding of the relation of scientists to the world and to knowledge and
its production.
Indeed, from the perspective of phenomenology, it is not so much the
complexity of the world that is the puzzle and the challenge, as the questions
a new attitude raises about the way we see our world and the way this
disrupts well-practiced categories. In particular, when we think of complex
problems, or of problems we think of as complex, to whom precisely are those
problems complex? ‘Nature itself’ deals with complex matters as a matter of
course and we have no reason to suspect that our puzzles are also its
puzzles. So much is uncontroversial, but this question about complexity and
what and for whom it is sets us to thinking again about what Wolfgang Pauli
called the ‘epistemological gap’. Complexity is, it seems, first of all an idea
about our knowledge of things. It is not an idea about things ‘in themselves’,
and is not about ideas mastering things though it may turn out to be about
ideas inveigled or embodied in the ‘things’ we produce in multifarious ways. It
is also about confronting the gap between the things we can regularise and
formalise in our science and the enormous indeterminacy and complexity of
the real problems we face in a world of everyday enchantment and concern.
Today, hopes for a “reenchantment of nature” disenchanted by a dull
mechanical reductionism would see us being drawn back in involvement and
in wonder with the objects and processes with which we are concerned
(Prigogine & Stengers 1984). Complexity seems not to be satisfied with the
reductive and distanced generalisation of ‘theory’ set apart from the activities
and concerns of an attentive and involved science – or of the concernful or
fascinated, rather than a distanced and dispassionate, scientist. We situate
ourselves with respect to problems and solutions; the objects of science
matter to us; we set the terms of the questions ourselves. Isabelle Stengers
explains that when Prigogine proposed negentropy as the answer to the
question of the relation between the second law of thermodynamics and the
kind of stable order characterising living beings, he could not simply see
negentropy as the formula to life, or define life as some kind of exception to
the second law of thermodynamics – because such a definition was not a
solution so much as just another way of stating the problem. In fact, the
question has changed. It is no longer a question of deducing from the
definition of the system the stable behaviour it will take on, it is about how a
stable behaviour becomes an unstable one if pushed further from equilibrium,
and finding the new kind of stable behaviour the system will then attain. There
are no general answers to these sorts of problem. We shift from general
principles to what the general principles explained away, which is the detailed
coupling among processes with their dynamical continuities and bifurcation
points, and with the new and often surprising structures that emerge out of
these (Stengers 2004: 94).
For Stengers the involvement of the scientist is not separable from the results
of his or her involvement. The problem is of puzzling out and defining the
bounds of significance or relevance, and the scientist finds him or herself in a
situation where models change with changing determinations of significance
and purpose, and produce rather than deduce results. “Their questions imply
an open situation: ‘what will it be able to produce?’ ‘What kind of behaviour
will emerge?’ And the question must be asked each time, with each new
situation” (Stengers 2004:96). These questions about situation, perspective
and relevance have been raised before; they are questions that have come to
the centre of a sometimes acrimonious debate on science’s relation to other
spheres of knowledge and practice. They are questions that have particularly
emerged in the engagement of a phenomenological point of view with science
and its own self-image through the 20th century. There are answers to these
questions; answers which take us into issues of practice and situation and the
production of knowledge. They are answers that problematise the difference
between first and third person points of view, and that open perspectives on
fundamental questions of context, agency and the sources of order and
regularity in a complex world. They are answers that challenge an objectivist
metaphysics, and will not satisfy everyone. But, they are also answers that
may positively reconstruct science in a different, a hermeneutical, frame, and
open new perspectives on real and complex entities like cities.
The view I outline here starts from phenomenology, but does not attempt to
remain in the bounds of phenomenology as defined; it extends and expands
both phenomenology and hermeneutics, following the thinking of Patrick
Heelan, Don Ihde and Isabelle Stengers amongst others, in order to develop a
starting position for thinking about cities in a radically materialist frame. I will
start by looking at the objectivism in modern science. Phenomenological
thinking has been at the centre of a critique of this, questioning on the one
hand the starting assumption that we live in a state of ‘Cartesian doubt’ that
requires to be overcome by science, and on the other that science (or
anything else) is, or is capable of being, the pathway to an autonomous,
objective reality, independent of the conditions of its disclosure to someone.
Both Husserl and Heidegger denied the hegemonic role of theory in the
arbitration of meaning, and affirmed the role of the embodied human subject
in the constitution of knowledge. From the phenomenological position
therefore, we can no longer believe that our descriptions of the world or of
nature can bypass human practices of knowledge-making embedded in
human life-worlds. Knowledge and meaning are not an abstraction from but a
deepening and extension of human relations with the world, and the
acquisition of knowledge is not a matter of the correction of false ideas, but of
a situated adaptation and extension of language and concept in response to
problems and questions the enquirer encounters and poses.
I will highlight the way the role of the observer in experimental science
undermined the objectivist position and show how Patrick Heelan proposes a
positive reconstruction of science that recognises the origins of knowledge in
the situated interaction of people with a material but manipulable world. Here
objects are not simplistically ‘given’ but are produced in a process that makes
the context of the objects’ appearance part of the intentional or subjective side
of observation and experiment. Objects are produced in ‘non-objective’
equipment, and there is a process of the building of intentionality into the
world, and a reconnection of meaning with materiality, which I will later begin
to develop into an account of urban complexity. This problematisation of the
naturalistic view also highlights the fact that one of our most pressing
problems of understanding is that of the nature of things in and beyond their
relationships to us. This includes the problem of the understanding of the
intrinsic orders, productivities and creativities of our natural and cultural
worlds. Material, very evidently, embodies order, and participates in the
structuration of the world. It appears sometimes to be ‘self-actualising’: things
– including, but not exclusively, living things – are capable of ‘animate’
organisation and of ‘self-motivated’ transformation. The boundaries we set to
what counts as agency move outwards from the human and from the
contained Mind of the Cartesian subject. We start to find and locate agency
and rationality in the world of artefacts, through their organisation as tools and
equipment. We see rationality being associated with animals as well as
humans (Okrent 2007), and lately, even find natural objects being re-theorised
as ‘tool-beings’ (Harman 2002) and as organised and productive on their own
account in a viewpoint that owes a lot to the process thinking of Alfred North
Whitehead. How do we understand this in a framing of the world from an
intentional perspective; how do we place subject and its agency in its relation
to object and world and their ‘agency’?
These ideas of the reality and even ‘animation’ of things as a culture-nature of
immanent and more or less active beings, capable of making the world as
they make themselves, find themselves represented in different forms and in
different fields, including a ‘pragmatic’ sociology of practices and networks, a
new ‘actor-network’ thinking, in complexity science and in biology. They take
us beyond the naturalist position and representations of reality, and lead us to
alternative ways reality may be drawn. I will attempt here to trace a path
through some of these developments, related to phenomenology and its
various extensions and developments. These affirm a more direct and visceral
relation of subject and world, and close the gap between nature and culture,
subject and object. They affirm an immanence or actuality of things that may
not depend entirely on humans, though the drawing of their reality and the
attribution of organisation or coherence to this actual state certainly still does.
Challenging the subject-object divide
Knowledge has been divided in modernity between the positivistic and the
psychologistic – between the domains of material and mental things (res
extensa versus res cogitans) as articulated by Descartes. Conceptions of
science and knowledge have, as a result, long preserved a distinction
between meaning and matter – a distinction which underpins others like those
of subject and object, agency and structure, the imagined and the real, culture
and nature, and practice and theory. And nature has been seen as being
fundamentally ‘bifurcated’, to use Whitehead’s term, along these lines.
Positive scientists and philosophers have, from this ‘classical’ dualistic
perspective, sought the ‘code’ or ‘method’ that would bring an idealised realm
of thought to bear on that of matter.
The dualism established also a bifurcation of the sciences themselves into the
natural sciences of objective things on the one hand and the human sciences
of social and subjective beings on the other. The first of these involved a
disembodied Cartesian subject, standing apart from an object which was
analysed in a frame of universal laws and an absolute space and time, while
the second involved socially embedded living subjects, a hermeneutical
method, and the beings and things the subjects were intimately involved with
and interpreted. These different attitudes were of an analytic realism on the
one hand and an interpretive relativism on the other.
Over the last decades, and as a critique of Cartesian dualism has advanced
on many fronts, a radicalising of the thesis of the social construction of reality
(Berger & Luckmann 1967), has seen the notion of knowledge as ‘social
construction’ challenge this presumed division between the knower and the
known. At the same time it has challenged an equally presumptive primacy of
‘realist’ objectivistic thinking. This has been significant for the recent history of
the human sciences. But, in fact, in the philosophies of knowledge and
experience, the idea of the construction of knowledge and meaning has had a
much longer provenance in an exploration and critique of the subject-object
distinction and a search for a way past the dualisms of modern thinking.
We forget sometimes that the question mark held over objectivism and
dualism in the philosophy of science goes all the way back to Kant, who
began the break with the opposition between things ‘in themselves’ and the
appearance of things, to establish a connection between the appearance of
things and the conditions of that appearance. Kant in fact replaced Descartes
‘thinking subject’ with the form of the appearance of things that appear. This
form that conditions, was also in Kant something that required the involved
and constructive participation of the subject: it was a ‘form of founding’ of the
thing for the subject. What Kant instituted was the finite ego who constructed
something from a limited position and ‘anticipations of experience’ – although
space and time remained absolute and he held on to the ‘thing itself’ as part
of his conceptual scheme. His philosophy had little more however to say
about them. It was in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit that the disappearance
of the two separate worlds of mind and matter was definitively announced.
Hegel proposed that the phenomenon was not simply an appearance behind
which we would find an essence; the phenomenon referred to conditions of
appearance and to meaning and at its essence was a relation linking subject
and object.
Phenomenology took up this challenge of considering phenomena in relation
to their conditions of appearance. Husserl began by developing forms of logic
appropriate to the appearance of phenomena, and proposed that the ideas
and methods of knowledge and science needed to be linked back to their
roots in the structure of the human ‘lifeworld’. He identified the lifeworld as
“the only real world, the one that is actually given through perception, that is
ever experienced and experienceable”. He opposed it to the ideal world of
classical science where there is a “surreptitious substitution of the
mathematically substructed world of idealities for the only real world” (Husserl,
1970: 48). The basic form of the phenomenological argument was that we
exist corporeally, as finite subjects, in coevolving states of knowledge and
states of affairs – and within perceptual and empirical horizons that integrate
these two dimensions. Situation and perception become primary in this view
and the world discloses itself to us within the horizons that are themselves
conditions of what we may know and do in a particular situation. In
phenomenology, all forms of appearance are forms of relation. The creative or
constructive aspect continued to play a central role. This went beyond
however the representational, where ‘mind’ constructs representations of
reality, and many versions of this phenomenological argument have
emphasised the point that ‘mind’ is put back in the world as we build
conditions, horizons, and situated states of knowledge and affairs out into our
surroundings.
Phenomenology has therefore a relation with modern science that goes back
almost to its foundation, but one that has questioned its dualism and
objectivism, finding reality rather in a relation between the knower and the
known. In addition, the relational philosophy of Leibniz understood the
appearance of things as an order of compossible coexistences and
successions, and relationality and phenomenology have joined in a cross-
fertilisation of ideas of wholeness, context, disclosure and construction.
However, it was an empiricist and objectivist view that prevailed initially in the
practice of science itself, and phenomenology has been seen from science as
subjectivist, relativist and anti-science, or at least anti the natural sciences. It
was also associated with the hermeneutical, interpretive methods revived and
adapted by Wilhelm Dilthey – methods that have indeed been carried forward
as an integral component of the phenomenological tradition.
The phenomenological viewpoint has belonged, as far as science has been
concerned, and as if by definition therefore, with the human sciences and
been seen as diametrically opposed to the worldview of the natural sciences.
This is in spite of radically materialist, relational and practical takes on
phenomenology post Husserl, notably in the phenomenology of Dasein (of
practical situation) of Heidegger and in the notion of the ‘flesh of the world’ of
Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This is in spite also of some prominent interpretations
of new developments in the natural sciences at the beginning of the 20th
century that challenged dominant objectivist interpretations.
The crisis of the object
A key issue around which the division of knower and known became
complicated in the natural sciences was that of measurement and
observation. These are by necessity specific, situated and descriptive
operations, not covered by ‘laws of nature’ which stand by definition outside of
the immediate and situated. Problems arose in Einstein’s relativity, where the
position of the observer influenced the phenomenon observed, and in
quantum physics where at the quantum level different observational acts or
measurements fundamentally affected how the object appeared to the
observer or measurer.
Quantum physics in particular (see d’Espagnat 2006) opened up the question
of the observer’s practical involvement in meaning allocation, and elicited
different interpretations from physicists – including one known as the
‘Copenhagen interpretation’ which incorporated the observer, somewhat
equivocally, into the experimental situation. In classical physics observers and
measurers stood outside of history and apart from the theory and things ‘in
themselves’. In the Copenhagen interpretation a distinction was made
between experiential or ‘pre-scientific’ – we could say ‘phenomenological’ –
and ‘scientific’ aspects of quantum experiment. This fell somewhat short
therefore of taking seriously an embodied observer as part of the setup,
seeing and explaining things through the specific relations his or her
observational instruments and measurements established with the object.
Bohr’s comment is telling: “It is certainly not possible for the observer to
influence the events which may appear under the conditions he has arranged”
(Bohr 1987; 51). It is presumably therefore possible, for Bohr, for the observer
to arrange conditions to influence the events which may appear.
According to Werner Heisenberg: “Natural science does not simply describe
and explain nature: it describes nature as exposed to our method of
questioning” (Heisenberg 1958a: 81). Heisenberg’s quantum physics is a
theory of what observers get in interaction with a quantum mechanical
system, and “[t]he aim of research is no longer an understanding of atoms
and their movements ‘in themselves’, i.e., independently of the formulation of
experimental problems. From the start, we are involved in the argument
between nature and man in which science plays only a part, so that the
common division of the world into subject and object, inner world and outer
world, body and soul, is no longer adequate and leads us into difficulties”
(Heisenberg 1958b: 24; see also Heelan 1977: 42).
The Copenhagen interpretation was, on Heisenberg’s account, a process or
developmental view of knowledge in which the objects to which the theory
refers are increments in our knowledge. These increments are observational
or experiential events and at each stage of the unfolding of our knowledge of
nature, the complete frame of our existing knowledge acts as a field of
potentiality for the occurrence of the next increment. New knowledge would
then become part of the field of possibilities and potentialities for later
increments in knowledge and so on. Heisenberg’s transitions implied not just
observer-dependency but also a path-dependency or historicity of knowledge.
It hints already at Kuhn’s view of the framing of knowledge in practical and
contingent conditions – for Kuhn, in the practices and communities of
scientists for whom and in whose practice these framings made sense (Kuhn,
1962). Heisenberg seems to suggest that the process is evolutionary whereas
Kuhn saw it as revolutionary.
Patrick Heelan, in a phenomenological investigation of experimental science
given in the lifeworlds of observers, concluded from all this that objectivism
had broken down at the heart of modern physics. The subject is, according to
him, no ideal entity standing outside of the experimental situation: the body-
as-subject, along with the equipment with which it is conjoined, and
embodying its intention, is a part of the setup. Heelan, working as both
physicist and philosopher, developed Heisenberg’s thinking (see Crease
2001), and argued that experimental science as it is practised is essentially
hermeneutical, involving, as he put it, a “hermeneutical shift”, or displacement
of the cut between the subject and the object (Heelan 1977:11). The observer
is, according to Heelan, embodied or ‘worldly’, and the body is a spatio-
temporal entity with all the predicates of an object. But, at the same time, the
intention of the scientist is embodied in, and constrained to, the real empirical
horizons of the problem at hand (Heelan 1977: 38). It draws resources,
including equipment and other material-organisational features into a situation
which is materially bounded and frames the precise conditions of observation
and action. It is in a contrived situation that the object is observed: disclosed
in a whole environment of other objects and equipment on which it depends
for its observability.
Heelan associates the lifeworld of the observer and experimenter with a
practical, historical and collective process of meaning construction – which
means, with the embodiment of meaning in practical procedure and
equipment. Scientific observation means first creating a horizon of
expectations of outcomes. Then, by trial and error and by building an
expertise with instruments and equipment, the scientist gets scientific objects
to manifest themselves in experiment. The object is constituted for the subject
in a setting controlled and manipulated by the subject, for whom the whole
setting is non-objective – that is, implicated in the intention and perception of
the subject. A new relation between language, equipment and material is
being negotiated in situ and in practice. Einstein had refused to countenance
any assumption of observer-dependency. This kind of physics, Einstein
argued, is unable to decide the ontological question of what is real – as
opposed to what is of thought and therefore imaginary. What he had not seen
is just this practical bringing together of intentional and empirical horizons,
and the way we are able to embody our ‘reasons’ and ‘purposes’ in material
and in situ (Heelan 1977: 46).
One consequence of this outline of a practical production of knowledge was
that it did away with the hard distinction between observational and theoretical
entities. “[T]heory says what observation can see” (29-30) and abstractions,
including models and theories, are for making those states of affairs that
science speaks about observable. What this suggested was that physics was
not trying to attain a model of the world so much as construct situations for the
purposes of observation and measurement! It suggested also that apparatus
incorporated and embodied models in action. The active perception and
intention of the scientist was being framed and mediated by the equipment
and instruments which was being used hermeneutically and manipulatively for
the framing of data.
So that the subject side of the subject-object divide included the instruments
and their practiced use, and equipment and instrumentation became ‘non-
objective’ and part of the manipulation of the scientific object from the subject
side. There is a full interdependence of the notions of theory and observation
– reminding us of the etymological root of ‘theory’ in the Greek theoria (a view
or overview). And the settings for science are built intentional frames – built
strategies – for constructing objects and producing results. This is not about
models substituting for reality, but about reality interpreted and produced,
materially-hermeneutically, through the use of models and model-like devices.
The experimental setting and equipment becomes a ‘machine’ for
objectification, and this objectification has a peculiarly ‘optical’ character.
Things appear in the conditions we construct in order that they may appear
that way. Experimental science is, in this view, not an accumulation of and
systematization of factual information about the world, but involves the
strategic construction and maintenance of apparatus tuned to perception-
conception, that create and maintain the conditions for objects to appear as
what they are.
The purpose embedded in the equipment is in a sense explanatory in its
material embodiment because the observer understands the set-up and can
manipulate and adjust the appearance of phenomena through adjustments to
the equipment. The setting is an artifice: as Heelan suggests, nature is not
present in the setup, what we have is a humanly-contrived phenomenon in a
well-prepared setting. It is this artifice that is the condition of possibility for the
scientific object to reveal itself to the observer. Heelan has shown how
objects, and our knowledge of them come about together. The construction
we are talking about here is one of objects as real phenomena – and Heelan
talks of an ‘horizonal realism’. These phenomena are however products not of
the intellect, but of an activity involving subject. equipment and procedure.
We can extend and generalise this result somewhat by recalling Nancy
Cartwright’s ‘nomological machines’. Nomological machines filter and shield
causal relations to produce a local order. A nomological machine is “a fixed
(enough) arrangement of components, or factors, with stable (enough)
capacities that in the right sort of stable (enough) environment will, with
repeated operation, give rise to the kind of regular behaviour that we
represent in our scientific laws" (Cartwright 1998a: 2). Here, components and
factors are anything that performs in the arrangement: experimental
equipment, abstracted models, texts, programmes, concepts and language –
along with, and serving, the intention of the enquirer. All participate in
nomological machines which are worked on and refined till they produce the
results expected. Such an arrangement has, also according to Cartwright,
little to do with nature: we have to build such a machine. “None of our
concepts are given. We create them, and their creation is a human social
enterprise with a vast number of different kinds of influences” (Cartwright
1998b: 91).
The net result is that the boundary we assume between subject and object is
displaced outwards – away from the subject him or herself and into the world.
Intention becomes embodied and materialised in a subject-equipment
complex and objects are produced or disclosed in that complex. Observation
involves therefore a synthetic ‘machine’, ‘context’ or ‘environment’ in which
the intention of the scientist and the horizon of what he or she may see is
negotiated with the effects produced. There is no subject-object, percept-
concept or culture-nature divide: instead, a practical, material hermeneutics
involves successive displacements in which meaning and material are
negotiated in contrived arrangements.

Expanding hermeneutics
We see in this a development in hermeneutics itself. The natural sciences
were, on the account of Dilthey, the originator of modern hermeneutics,
sciences of objective matter subject to a universal natural (or divine in its
original Cartesian conception) order, while the human sciences were of the
subjective and collective affairs of people capable of making and manipulating
their own codes. This ‘division of labour’ of the sciences has been
extraordinarily influential, supporting, on the one hand, popular conceptions of
‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences, and underscoring, on the other, the different
attitudes and methods of the natural and human sciences.
The power of this ‘hermeneutics-positivist binary’, as Don Ihde calls it, has
been sustained till quite recently; hermeneutics adopting the more defensive
position, as positivism tried to make inroads into the humanities. Under these
conditions, classical hermeneutics remained committed to the binary and to
defending the hermeneutical in its ‘own’ domain of the humanities. The
attention of hermeneutical scientists was not on the natural sciences and they
remained blind to the hermeneutic tendencies in the practices of the natural
sciences. The situation began to change as critics like Kuhn in the 1960s
pointed out that positivism distorted the practical and developmental aspects
of science. A new philosophy of science questioned the accumulative, linear
history of science (Kuhn), the explanatory role of verification (Popper,
Lakatos), demonstrated a relativism of methods (Feyerabend), and, in the
process, began to erode the privileged status of the natural sciences with
respect to other communities of theory users (see Ihde 1997).
Then, in the 1970s, a sociology of science, including the work on laboratory
practices by Karin Knorr-Cetina, Latour and Woolgar, and Andrew Pickering,
promoted the idea that science was itself an integral part of culture and
society. This remaking of science as a ‘social construct’ generated
considerable dispute between the defenders of an autonomous science and
the new philosophers and sociologists of science as practice. However, these
same sociologists of science also launched an attack on the social itself in its
Durkheimian orthodoxy, and, Ihde insists, social constructionism was never
the issue in this dispute. Rather, the problematising of science in this way had
raised the possibility that the practice of all science, including the natural
sciences, might be fundamentally hermeneutical.
We see also, in the work of Heelan, that the ‘socialising’ of positivist science is
not the only option. What Heelan points to is a positive reconstruction of
science from the perspective of a hermeneutical phenomenology – and a
collapsing of the hermeneutics-positivist binary itself to make all knowledge
practices hermeneutical. Beyond this binary, a ‘universal hermeneutics’
begins to get us beyond hermeneutics’ previous exclusive preoccupation with
text and language, beyond the more recent ‘hermeneutics of translation’ of
Putnam and Rorty amongst others, to a fully Heideggerian and material
‘hermeneutics of practice’ (Ihde 1997).
Heelan adopts what Don Ihde has called an ‘expanded hermeneutics’ “which
practices both a ‘hermeneutics of the thingly’ and ... calls into question the
older accepted strong distinctions between the human and natural sciences.”
As Ihde puts it: “All knowledge, scientific and cultural, must be derived from a
human ontology: ... referring knowledge practices back to the lifeworld;
[deriving] objects of science ... from praxis – and what science produces is not
only socially but also and crucially technologically constructed” (Ihde,
undated). We end up understanding science not as social construction but as
technoconstruction (Ihde 1997). A different definition of objectivity needs in
these circumstances to pay attention to the conditions of things appearing in
fields of compossibility and disclosure. This other objectivity belongs to “a
shared World of real things. It is the object of factual judgements, founded
upon perception” (Heelan 1965: 81). But neither do these factual judgements
depend on Kant’s synthetic a priori ‘axioms of intuition’ or ‘anticipations of
experience’. What they depend on are specific conditions of experience within
material-technical domains conditioned both by the attention and expectation
of an observer and by a certain autonomy of the material.
A material hermeneutics puts the lifeworld with its factors of perception,
intention and intelligibility at the centre of science. Further, it was the history of
the practices, and particularly the technics and equipment, of knowledge
production rather than a history of theory – as Kuhn had proposed – that
pointed to the ways practice and interpretation work together in an historical
and developmental process. What we call ‘reality’ is mediated by our ways of
accessing it, so that frames of reference, and contexts of interpretation all play
roles, as do language, models, instruments and equipment, as part of a total
‘structure of interpretation’, built around the practical business of attending to
concrete situations and abstract concepts and fitting them to one another
(Ihde, 1999).

Theories as negotiation
This implies a new understanding of what theory means. Instead of a theory
that limits and defines the shape and scope of the problem, and commands it
as if from above or outside the action, what is implied here is theory from the
inside, and from the perspective of the enquirer, capable of taking on the
singular particularities of problems, and of answering specific questions
complex realities impose on us. This shift has been provoked, at least in part,
by awkward questions that arise when empirical detail is looked at too closely.
Isabelle Stengers (Stengers 2000: 95) points to developmental biology, where
Conrad Waddington could not accept that the spontaneous self-production he
was studying could be explained away by classical genetics and selection. He
argued for a theoretical biology that would account for processes and
changes that included the whole organism; cytoplasm as well as genes
(Waddington 1957). In evolutionary biology, Stephen Jay Gould raised
questions about the details of the relation of adaptive traits to genetic
difference and rejected a mechanistic adaptionism based on the functions of
variation and selection. He has proposed a much more contingent
environment and event-driven emergence of adaptive features in a possibility
space which includes the structural character of the physical and chemical
organism in real environmental conditions (Gould 1991).
This other science is one where what will happen is by its nature uncertain: on
the one hand because small and specific detail may induce critical variation;
on the other, because the scientist is often working with and observing
complex entities that display coherence and work already on their own terms.
A new theory needs therefore to recognise the autonomy of complex working
arrangements. These are not particulars as representatives of general or
abstract cases, and they do not depend – at least in the first instance – on the
values human scientists confer upon them. It is the functions themselves to
which our definitions, meanings and values need to be fitted. This is, as
Stengers points out, often quite literally a matter of life and death as the object
of the science may not be indifferent to its own functional structures (Stengers
2000: 92). But, while an experimental object may have a self-volitional, so to
speak, hand in experimental results, the fact there is a result intelligible to the
scientist implicates him or her also, in his or her active grasp of the situation.
The enquiry of the scientist is part of the knowledge event and situation – and
the scientist stands in an interpretive relationship with respect to the object of
science, in the questions asked, in the equipment and setting constructed and
used, and in the negotiation skills he or she brings along.
Outcomes are not defined absolutely but always in reference to the
expectations of the observer. There is a reflexivity between scientist and the
object of the science, where they establish between themselves, and in
negotiation, horizons of expectation and outcome. It is the intelligibility to the
scientist of any self-ordering that guides observation, and an ongoing practical
negotiation with an ongoing event. Biologists or experimental biochemists, for
example, face negotiation with concrete situations which are already in their
own terms meaningful, and science “is thus a confrontation between human
language, which is also to say human devices, and non-human creation ...
and it is a speculative confrontation because it is not life, it is our human
languages and devices which are put to the test” (Stengers 2000: 93-4).
Complexity science is often characterised as a science of surprise, and
surprise is always relative to some expectation. At the same time, such
surprise then goes on to generate new expectation and new questions. A
science of complexity is, on this phenomenological account, one of an
involved, active interpretation and negotiation with and in a complex
autonomous world. It is in principle uncertain, exploratory, and will rely on the
concern and wonder of human investigators to open up particular problems
the world throws at us. It will use sets of instruments with which to do this,
instruments we could characterise in the terms of Nancy Cartwright’s
‘nomological machines’, for the production of a local ‘seeing’ and knowing.
The practices and instruments will also have a history, related to a history of
the discipline and its community of practitioners. All of this is liable to
evolution, as Heisenberg noted, as new knowledge events are constructed
and negotiated in the context of existing ones; all is liable to disruption, as
Kuhn posited, as completely new structures of knowledge events are
discovered or invented.
From the perspective of complexity sciences, this autonomy of complex
objects and of a complex world is argued around the idea of ‘emergence’,
where the quality of the system cannot be determined by an analysis of the
qualities of the system components, and further that system transitions and
transformations are of a qualitative rather than incremental character – that
there should be ‘phase’ rather than incremental changes. The autonomy of
complex arrangements relies on the idea that these are ‘energy machines’ in
their own right. Heinz von Foerster argued that “[t]hough self-organisation
obviously signifies autonomy, a self-organising system ... must work to
construct and reconstruct its autonomy and this requires energy. ... [T]he
system must draw energy from the outside; to be autonomous ... it must be
[also] dependent” (quoted in Smith & Jenks 2006: 6). It is not difficult now to
see that from the perspective of the phenomenological critique of science,
‘energy machines’ are as much part of the intelligibility of ‘systems’, and
themselves ‘epistemological devices’, as they are part of the autonomy of
complex arrangements. The question of the reality of such ‘devices’ or
‘machines’ and the objects produced is not in dispute, though the
phenomenologist or pragmatist would insist this reality is ‘horizonal’ and the
method of its attainment hermeneutical. He or she would insist that
intelligibility is the first character of any event and that we first have to give an
account of the phenomenon as an event of knowledge.

Complex practices
Today, researchers across many disciplines apply complexity theory to a
multiplicity of objects and issues. Many take the applicability of particular
models across disciplines as evidence of the promise of complexity theory as
a sort of universal science of complex and dynamic systems. The fact is what
we find is a plethora of models, methods, languages and expectations, built in
the course of practice in different disciplines over the last decades. Many of
them are founded on the transfer of ‘principles’ in work done in closely and
distantly related disciplines. Many others adapt mathematical, spatial,
statistical, relational or organisational approaches that may have been around
for longer. The ineffectuality of the falsification thesis of Popper has been
demonstrated over and over again in the complex histories of these models
and the way they have been adapted and tweaked and made over to new
problems and reformed in the light of new evidence.
In the history of complexity science, a practical tinkering and the models and
variations that are its result has generated a diverse and fragmented
proliferation of applications and techniques Glenda Eoyang calls a ‘practice
landscape’ (Eoyang 2004). She describes an evolution in the study of human
systems dynamics from a situation in the 1980s when practitioners explored
opportunities, invented tools and techniques, and made mistakes as well as
progress. They left eventually “a trail of methods, models, languages and
expectations that are not always consistent within each approach and
certainly not coherent among the various approaches. Each explorer ...
synthesised his or her experience, theoretical frameworks, and client’s needs
to create tools and methods that work[ed] in a given time and place” (Eoyang
2004: 55). Methods and models were used as a heuristic to open up specific
questions, and developed and layered into an instrumentarium available to try
out on further applications. What does it mean therefore when Peter Allen and
Denise Pumain transfer, with some success, methods and formalisms,
originally from the study of chemistry, to the study of the city? Is such a
transfer evidence of a universal principle of organisation, transferable to urban
systems? Such a claim would not be supportable from a phenomenological
perspective.
The Duhem-Quine thesis already points to the impossibility of accommodating
all background assumptions in any validation of systematic models (see
Oreskes et al., 1994). Rather than being a matter of principle this will be a
matter of a heuristic and a negotiation between the model and the problem we
are considering, and will depend perhaps even on the particular cases we
choose to highlight. Allen himself acknowledges that it is “our ‘ignorance’ or
multiple misunderstandings that ... leads therefore to exploration and
(imperfect) learning.” It is through exploration that we develop limited,
situation-specific understandings of ‘what is’, ‘what will be’, and ‘what might
be’ (Allen 2000: 41). Allen’s complex world is again one that consists of
events and increments of knowledge. But his is also one in which that
knowledge landscape is developing and proliferating as we engage and
participate in it. “[W]e have a changing system, moving in a changing
landscape of potential attractors. ... The real revolution is not therefore about
a neoclassical, equilibrium view as opposed to nonlinear dynamics having
cyclic and chaotic attractors, but instead is about the representation of the
world as a nonstationary situation of permanent adaptation and change”
(Allen 2000: 40).
What we also see, he proposes, quoting Stacy et al (2000), is “a
‘transformational teleology’, in which potential futures ... are being
transformed in the present” (Allen 2000: 40). In these circumstances there are
no optimal strategies – rather what we see are strategies of stabilisation and
persistence: “structural attractors, ecologies of behaviours, beliefs, and
strategies, clustered in a mutually consistent way ...” It is not just about
“system transformation through multiple subjective experiences” but also
about their “interpretive, meaning-giving frameworks” (Allen 2000: 41). The
question of what these ‘meaning-giving frameworks’ may be, and what are the
‘limits to knowledge’ they represent, is just as much part of the framework of
our science, and of a science of complex objects and their dynamic
compossiblity. Allen doesn’t sufficiently develop this notion of ‘interpretive,
meaning-giving frameworks’ which leads to a problem when he locates
agency and choice too simply in ‘agents’. Complex systems of
“interdependent behaviours” emergent out of “messy, shifting networks of
people things and ideas” (Allen, this volume: 20), require us to address the
issue of intelligibility and coherence, and ‘knowledge to’ the participants of
these networks.
A short digression into biological systems will illustrate how we may make
meaning something firmly part of the materiality of networks of beings and
things and make these networks ‘transformationally teleological’. Marcello
Barbieri starts from biosemiotics, but is concerned that over-abstract and
semiotic descriptions explain away what they try to describe. He tries to find
more material, less abstract, ways of introducing information, structure and
meaning into biology (Barbieri 2007). He joins with the epigenetic line of
thinking that insists that genes, as meaning-carriers, do not stand in a one-to-
one relation with a phenotypic characters but take part in complex networks of
interactions in which genes, cytoplasm, and historic and environmental factors
all play integral roles (Waddington 1957).
Barbieri proposes first there are many more regulators in nature than the
genetic code and that these ‘codes’, understood as material traces of past
processes and events, can shed new light on issues of evolution and
development. He has proposed a material model in which ‘organic codes’ are
perfectly real and perfectly material, and ‘signification’ is a material process
that happens in cytoplasmic and other biological and environmental milieus
rather than in any abstract realm of pure symbols (Barbieri 2003). But in order
to materialise biosemiotics he has also had to historicise it, as he has
incorporated information into material organisational patterns he calls
‘ribotypes’. These act on biological and evolutionary processes while they
persist in time and maintain themselves materially as pattern. In this way
‘codes’ endure historically.
Barbieri’s insight is that organisation needs to be embodied and to persist in
bodily and environmental structures inherited in a maternal line of succession.
Order is sustained in repetitive processes which depend on material-historical
structures which are themselves traces or ‘memories’ of those processes.
Barbieri’s ‘significations’ are tied to historically enduring physical and chemical
structures that come into being through some kind of ‘outside’ agency. He
speaks of life as an activity of ‘artefact making’ (Barbieri 2005). The origins of
these structures are as contingent historical events which may or may not be
linked to other living or life-like processes. The genesis of life remains one of
the big unanswered questions in science, but on this account life-forming is on
the basis of an evolution from simple molecules. Evolution and development
involves selection on the one hand and self-replication on the other in a piggy-
backing on various material-organic ‘coding’ structures.
It may be therefore that the first ‘function’ of material biological structures is to
provide stable or shielded ‘environments’ in which repetitive processes are
maintained. We can move up to the scale of organisms in an environment and
shift this argument from the biological to a ‘cultural’ level in order to begin to
develop this further. Markoš et al (2007) turn Barbieri’s bottom-up idea on its
head in an attempt to link the knower with the known of life. They move to a
conception of ‘biosphere’ as a source of order and constraint on whole
ecosystems of lineages. They start with the proposal that meaning, patterns
and order are an integral part of the embodied existence of beings who care
about being alive, make efforts to maintain that state (or at least to avoid its
alternative), and maintain uninterrupted corporeal lineages. They combine the
notions of ‘biosphere’ (Kauffman, 2000) and ‘semiosphere’ (Lotman, 2001) in
order to propose that organisms interact and communicate from integrated
backgrounds of experience and memory and are creators and builders of their
own worlds, rather than being simply tuned to environmental niches. They use
Heelan’s work on complementarity in quantum physics to link these biospheric
and semiospheric logics, proposing these different ‘languages’ refer to the
same empirical horizons, but from different perspectives (Heelan 1998: 282).
It is then the beings themselves which integrate the biosphere into a
significant space – or sets of mutually interdependant significant spaces –
held together by interactions and preserving traces of those interactions in
structures that are embodied scripts for repeated behaviour. Markoš et al
propose that living beings are integrated by shared ‘languages’ (material
structures or cultures and practices), by means of which, material-organic
‘codes’ (patterns and orders) are negotiated ‘from above’. Populations are
integrated across all levels of their organisation and ‘codes’ negotiated in a
simultaneous stepwise configuration and articulation. They reconnect means
and meaning from the ‘top down’, and go altogether beyond ‘codes’ and
simple bottom-up lineages, to a “hermeneutics of the living” (Markoš et al
2009: 8). “There are no rules and no goals [to this negotiation space] but
those negotiated by critters existing here and now, each bearing the
experience of its lineage back to the dawn of life, and laying down the rules
for one version of the adjacent possible” (240). Living beings become
participants as well as factors in development, and even the driving force of
development.
It is in these whole systemically, and even culturally, integrated and
‘environmental’ backgrounds that material ‘codes’ are negotiated. “[T]he
existence of this superposed and commonly shared field allows mutual games
of understanding, misunderstanding, cheating and imitation at all levels of the
biosphere” (Markoš et al, 2007: 237). And it is “only after habits have been
negotiated, rules settled and ‘artefacts produced’, that one can point with the
index finger and distinguish ‘this’ and ‘that’, to recognise rules, habits, or even
objects” (241). They agree here with Kauffman et al (2008) that “we cannot
pre-state the configuration space of the biosphere”. In fact what the scientist,
outside of the biosphere, sees is the outcome of this negotiation – so that
what the scientist has to do is negotiate from the outside with an inside that is
itself a negotiation. We are left with two important factors in the materialisation
of meaning: firstly, the question of the structural logic of how these material
‘codes’ are formed – and by and for whom – shifts radically when we start to
imagine what knowledge and meaning are to the participants involved inside
this process as opposed to those who see it from the outside. Participants will
adjust to and adjust their environments in ways which increase their
functionality, comfort and survival prospects. The environment becomes a
creation of the beings environed, who shift material (and materially shift) into
structures meaningful and usually advantageous at individual and species
levels. The question of first versus third person viewpoints is going to qualify
all discussion of cognition and agency. Secondly, and leading on from this,
the question of materialised meaning reduces to one of construction: beings
integrate the biosphere into a significant space – or rather into sets of
mutually interdependant significant spaces – held together by interactions and
interventions, preserving traces of these in structures that are embodied
scripts for repeated behaviour. The non-objectivity of the hermeneutically-
shifted material is clear. What is this shifting of material if not technique? What
is it if not culture?

Complex cities
What does this mean for the complexity of cities? Cities are, according to
Allen, “an embodiment of the complex, historical co-evolution of knowledge,
desires and technology” and “[i]nstead of an urban system being describable
in terms of some overall optimisation principle concerning equilibrium relations
of morphology and flows, we see instead that it is driven by the decisions and
choices of the multiple agents that are involved in decision making” (Allen; this
volume; 1). For Allen, different agents and their activities are articulated by
different timeframes. Everyday behaviour is linked with that of the emergent
urban structure, including the feedback that the macro-structure then exerts
on individuals. But we need to go further than this. The material semiotics of
Barbieri and ‘hermeneutics of the living’ of Markoš et al suggests that agency
depends on common frames of perception – and, I would suggest, on political
spaces. Common regimes of intelligibility are a prerequisite for common
meaning; they are a factor of a practical objectivity and not secondary to
governance, but constitutive of it (see Rose 1999: 28). We need to account for
regimes of intelligibility through a quite literal construction of the city in non-
objective material.
The key point we learned from Heelan was that the body as knowing subject
starts to ‘leak’ into the equipment of a prepared setting. Equipment becomes
co-active and non-objective and linked to the agent as a factor in knowledge
and agency. The locus of subjectivity and action shifts from the subject to the
subject-equipment relationship, and what acts is not simply the subject, but
the subject integrated with the technical and organisational systems that
enable the action and make it coherent. The scientist as agent was not alone
in his activity: laboratory settings, instrumentation, and eventually the institute
and the disciplinary community, were also conditions to seeing and to
knowledge.
Peter Allen talks of ‘structural attractors’ (Allen; this volume; 20). In Heelan’s
analysis we don’t see attractors as much as we see intentionally manipulated
material contexts as bounded frames for knowing, in which objects, subjects
and ways of doing things develop (and change) together. ‘Worlds’ of
inhabitation are, in this conception, constructions – but not as ‘reflections’ of
preconceived social or subjective form, rather as historical material non-
objective or cultural constructions that support particular practices of seeing,
thinking and doing. The anthroposphere becomes material shifted to the
orders of regularised and repeatable activity patterns. It is shifted what’s more
in path-dependent sequences in which the contingent events of small and
large scaled lived and social-material histories are the driving force.
Environing takes on a non-objective, but also a technological dimension: we
environ ourselves in equipped places that authorise, make coherent and even
preempt our actions. The places themselves define where certain actions are
possible and coherent, and where those same actions may be impossible or
incoherent. We distribute our practices and actions in this way, on the basis of
public conventions of place and practice that are materialised and built and
changed over time and without which – or without access to which – we might
legitimately doubt our capacity to act or know in any useful way at all. In our
human world the objects we deal with are not just accessed via technologies
but given in technologies. All this implies a practical equipmentality or
technicity inherent in human being-in-the-world that is the basis of not just
doing but also of knowing things practically. Sociality in practice depends on
settings and equipment: we are reminded of the practical settings in
Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology where “the activities whereby members
produce and manage settings of organised everyday affairs are identical with
members’ procedures for making those settings ‘account-able’” (Garfinkel
1984: 1).
There is a strategic corporeality of the world that is about the relatedness of
material stuff to human use and inhabitation. This institutes a practical and
political sphere of relations between things shifted to human purposes. In
Hannah Arendt’s words we live in a world ‘between men’, but also between
the things that are human in this more strategic sense, so that, as she
emphasises, the most constraining objectivity we know is based on the
unspoken agreements we have about the world ‘between us’ (Arendt 1970).
In acting, in interacting, in using equipment, Dasein (being there or existence)
becomes Mitsein (being with or coexistence), even when other people are not
immediately present and when actions do not immediately involve other
people. We live in dense webs of ties to ‘indeterminate others’ that reference
a common world of equipped situations and make social and urban objects
and equipment coherently to-hand and available – and even coherently
perceivable-conceivable as what they are. We may talk of an interrelationality
– but one where the problem of a ‘relation of minds’ does not arise because a
world common to us, and built to-hand, intervenes. We become public
between things and others in a realm De Certeau characterises as “the
oceanic rumble of the ordinary … the place from which discourse is produced”
(De Certeau 1984: 5).
I have introduced elsewhere the idea of ‘technological paradigms’ as
technical-environing arrangements or ‘infrastructures’ that focus attention,
perception and action, and align ways of life and the objects these ways of life
depend on (Read 2009). The ‘devices’ we build cities around are also a
pervasive governance of material apparatus that shape conduct to particular
ends (see Rose 1999:3). Sets of ‘arrangements and mechanisms’ including
people, objects and technologies institute common modes of doing things in
common situations and settings that produce and process knowledge (Knorr
Cetina, 1999). So that the knowing of how to interpret things, and how and
when to act, is supported in clearly prepared and ordered situations delivered
in technics. “[M]uch depends on getting the synthetics right … This in itself
implies a shift in power and relevance from the interaction to the situation’
(Knorr Cetina 2009: 70). I could illustrate, as Knorr Cetina does, with a
contemporary example of a ‘virtual’ communications technology and the
objects and practices produced, ordered and maintained in it, but this would fit
too easily with a presumption that we are dealing with a world fundamentally
changed and become ‘virtual’ or ‘communicative’ in contemporary
technological networks (Castells 1989). What I want to highlight rather is the
idea that material systems and technology have always embedded knowing
and doing for human beings, and are, in all of our lived environments and
situations, non-objective or ‘communicative’.
Early 17th century Amsterdam was dominated by its harbour and internally
structured around goods movement through a ring of canals oriented on the
harbour (Read 2000). These canals centred a whole life with its associated
knowledges, practices and objects, an urban material culture of merchant’s
houses, warehouses, quays, porters and barges, as well as other facilities
and activities like markets, crafts and industry that depended on and oriented
themselves towards the canals. Amsterdamers had turned the building of
fishing craft into state of the art skills and technologies which took Amsterdam
to the forefront of Baltic trade and equipped it to position itself as the entrepôt
of Europe in the 17th century. The city became itself a product of these
technologies as a system of canals was built inland from the harbour-front to
convey goods from the harbour to markets and warehouses. Within this
system the city’s elements were positioned and defined. Roland Barthes,
referring to paintings by Berckheyde, wrote of the ‘itemizing power’ of the
Dutch canals and compared them to the French Civil Code with its "list of real
estate and chattels. ... Every definition and every manipulation of property
produce an art of the catalogue, in other words, of the concrete itself, divided,
countable, mobile.”
Amsterdam, the Nieuwezijds near the Bloemmarkt, 1670-75: Gerrit Adriaensz.
Berckheyde. Historisch Museum, Amsterdam.
“Add to the vehicular movement of the water the vertical plane of the houses
which retain, absorb, interpose, or restore the merchandise: that whole
concert of pulleys, chutes and docks effects a permanent mobilisation of the
most shapeless substances. ... [O]bjects interrupt each horizon, glide along
the water and along the walls. It is objects which articulate space. The object
is by and large constituted by this mobility, Hence the defining power of all
these Dutch canals. What we have clearly is a water-merchandise complex; it
is water which makes the object, giving all the nuances of a calm planar
mobility, collecting supplies, shifting them without perceptible transition from
one exchange to the other, making the entire city into a census of agile
goods.” ... “[E]verything is, for the object, a means of procession; this bit of
wharf is a cynosure of kegs, logs, tarpaulins; man has only to overturn or to
hoist; space, obedient creature, does the rest – carries backward and forth,
selects, distributes, recovers, seems to have no other goal than to complete
the projected movement of all these things, separated from matter by the
sleek, firm film of use; here all objects are prepared for manipulation, all have
the detachment and the density of Dutch cheeses: round, waxed prehensible.
(Barthes 1972: 6-7)
La Ville d'Amsterdam, 1690: Jacques Harrewijn.
The water-merchandise complex Barthes identified was a space centred on
the focal place of the harbour, drawing the harbour via the network of canals
into the city, and centring the focal practices of goods movement, hoisting and
storage. The canals were an equipment that formed and centred an everyday
culture, economy and geography, a bounded and centred world. But this was
just one of two worlds the inhabitants of Amsterdam had contrived in their
accumulated skills and industry. Because the network of urban canals,
markets and warehouses was complimented by a network of cities without
which the first would have been pointless. This other network was of the
markets, cities, and suppliers with which Amsterdam’s merchants traded. And
these two worlds were hinged together in the harbour.
The harbour was not just a part of Amsterdam, it was also part of an
infrastructure of trade and colonial exploitation that connected to other ports in
Europe and the East and West Indies. It was through the harbour that
significant contact with the outside world was made. The harbour was also
where most of the activity was; at the interface and articulation between an
intra-city infrastructure of canals and water transport and an inter-city
infrastructure of trade and exploitation. These different systems did not merge
into each other in a universal ‘space’; they established separate material-
organisational ‘devices’ hinged together in the harbour.

Conclusion: a constructive-developmental world


The city is a set of strategic constructions which produce and stabilise the
conditions for the appearance of whole material cultures with their subjects,
objects and ways of life. These constructions institute and define human-world
relations in a sphere whose configuration space cannot be pre-stated on the
basis of universal principles. Modern science has been an attempt to create a
scientific ‘picture’ of the world, to replace an older thinking in narratives. We
have in the meanwhile remained unable to view our own condition – nor that
of our cities – from this disembodied ‘outside’, or leave behind a real and
sedimented history in which we are by necessity embedded. We could see
this as a failing we are trying still to overcome – but Kauffman (2000) shows
that the main problem lies in the fact that, for autonomous beings, no non-
situated initial or boundary conditions can be stated in advance and that time-
free descriptions of complex material systems are impossible. He proposes
instead that we are tied to “adjacent possible, persistently explored” worlds
(22), and that a principle of an active, situated and strategic growth or
development governs all autonomous beings and their interrelationships. He
proposes further that “this nonequilibrium flow into a persistent adjacent
possible may be the proper arrow of time, rather than the second law of
thermodynamics in closed thermodynamical systems” (48).
We live in a material world that is simultaneously and indivisibly also one of
communication and signification. We act and react within it, choosing life over
death, well-being over degeneration, and configuring and reconfiguring a non-
objective world in the process. Material merges with meaning in a
configuration that is as cultural as it is material (see also Eco 1979). Our
knowledge, language, and real-world interactions are parts of on-going
explorations in interpretative cycles which define the state of the world on the
basis of temporal narratives rather than on any absolutes. This is a way of
thinking that finds no fundamental difference of method across the
‘epistemological gap’ – where “the free and open creating of new symbol
strings in a language ... is not that fundamentally different from the persistent
open creation of new kinds of molecules in the biosphere as a whole”
(Kauffman, 2000: 116). It is a way of thinking that finds things and our
knowledge of things tied together in coevolving socio-technical complexes, of
which the city may be one of our most complex and developed forms.

Postscript: further ‘adjacent possibilities’ ...


If we fast forward: early 20th century Amsterdam was built on a belated
industrialisation which began in the second half of the 19th century and which
saw new industrial, harbour and housing areas being built for the first time
beyond the walls that had contained the city since the 17th century. A city
oriented via the canals on its harbour began reorienting as it expanded on the
land side. The municipality took over the tram, gas, water, electricity and
telephone services, marking also the beginnings of a different kind of modern
social contract between citizen and government (van der Woud 2001: 194).
Infrastructure (urban equipment) projects were begun that were tied not so
much to a logic of accessibility or efficiency, as to a political project of the
reformation of the city. This reformed city was centred on a tram system as a
critical component of the project that created the modern, social-democratic
city of the mid 20th century. A different territorial unit became established as
the city was concretely re-realised around public transportation. The result
was a different place; a different material and political institutionalisation with
a different perceptual-conceptual structure within which people would
communicate, interact and coordinate their activities. It was not simply the
plan of the city that was realised around public transportation; all the
components of the modern city were realised at the same time in an ongoing
work of organisation, and maintained in their order for the sense they made by
being in place. The construction of a place is about the realisation and
objectification of the thing and its components in a technical-intentional
structure. There is a socio-technological rationality about this ‘device’ that is of
the particular technical network and its coordinated objects and practices.
The city as an articulation of a movement system of canals with a global
system of harbours was replaced by that of an articulation of an urban tram
system with new regional transportation systems. The city centre reformed
radically: the harbour moved, a railway station was built, the activities it
hosted transformed, but it remained the orientation point and the place where
most of the activity was – now at the hinge between the municipal tram
system and an inter-city rail system. This would become an articulation with
global networks when Schiphol airport was built – tied to the station by 7
trains per hour. The knot of the city with its spaces of enablement and
encounter was entirely retied but the centre remained the point of articulation
and the known and valued place around which further reformations would be
constructed.
At the beginning of the 21st century it is the equipment of the motorway,
European rail links, and the airport that frame the still evolving form of
Amsterdam. Regimes of movement, activity and place-identity today are tied
to regional and national rail and road systems around which regional objects,
subjects and practices are gathered in a technical-intentional structure. The
socio-technological rationalities embedded in these ‘devices’ are largely of a
technocratic transportation planning and highway engineering. A regional
scale and space has been constructed, establishing a perceptual-conceptual
space quite distinct from that of the modern city. But most of the significant
metropolitan places metropolitan people travel to are articulations with other
already established infrastructures. The metropolitan technical-intentional
structure is articulated with historical infrastructures creating new potentialities
and centralities and reinforcing and transforming existing ones at the hinge
points. So the growth of a new infrastructure is always and necessarily
constrained by and articulated with what was built before, while it rearticulates
and transforms what was built before.

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