You have recently returned from paternity leave, and have witnessed the birth of your second son, on which again my congratulations! As you wrote on your own blog, you’d like nothing more from your readers as a gift than an open letter, so who am I to refuse?
After I finished reading the final draft version of your upcoming book, Chaos Ethics, somewhere last year, I wrote to you in an email that I thought it would be an interesting idea to start a letter series on the topic of Chaos, in the broadest sense. It is not something you touch upon extensively in your book—understandably so, since it is about ethics first and foremost—but knowing you slightly, I suspect you will have some additional things to say on the concept.
Let me start with some musings of my own. The concept of chaos crops up again and again in life—certainly in mine—and it’s one of those things that people seem to have an instinctive grasp of. At the same time, perhaps because of that instinctive grasp, it’s sort of nebulous what we exactly mean by chaos when we use the word. The most common answer would probably be that chaos is disorder.
As humans, we see recurring patterns in the world, or we make them ourselves. By accident or design, things are ordered, and things are good when they are ordered in the right way. This ‘right’ way, of course, is down to the judgment of the observer. Chaos, then, is the absence of an order, or at least an observable order—I hope to come back to this point in a later letter. Something that is ordered in a bad way is not chaotic, it’s merely waiting to be fixed. Chaos is the absence of any order whatsoever, a throwback to a primal state that has not felt the beneficent hand of the one that orders.
This leads me to the opposition between chaos and cosmos. Last year, I read the book Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come by Norman Cohn with great interest. In it, Cohn makes a survey of several ancient mythologies, and the way in which these cultures contrasted a good, centralised, ethnocentric cosmos, created by beneficent gods, with surrounding forces of chaos that seek to chip away at this ordered cosmos. Those dark outside forces were of course personified by other peoples and their gods. The relationship between peoples was interpreted along these lines: “For an ethnocentric society, there was no stronger affirmation of order in the world than victory in war” (p. 16).
One element that struck me in particular was the vision of cosmos as an island amidst a sea of chaos. Not only does this image project a sense of isolation: a symbolic boundary between the good inner group and whatever is out there, the image also emphasises the uniformity of chaos as seen from the perspective of cosmos. The sea is a churning mass of water, as far as the eye can see, and what lies deep beneath the surface is impenetrable to us. The uncertainty must be frightening.
The etymology of the world chaos is also found in this sense, in a way. Originally, the Greek word χαος meant ‘abyss’, an emptiness, a gaping void, actually literally related to the word yawn, as in “yawning abyss”. The connection to chaos as an ocean is clear in the conception of chaos as a formless, moving mass, upon which order had to be imposed by creation.
I don’t want to spend all my ammo in this first letter—and to be completely honest, I don’t have to time to properly write about all these angles right now—but there are lots of different ways we could talk about chaos, and I’m hoping we’ll get to those somewhere in the future. Just to whet our appetites, here are some angles I’ve been considering:
law versus chaos in fantasy fiction — this is treated in your book Chaos Ethics, so it would be extra relevant
chaos in ethics — see previous point
chaos and the scientific concept of entropy — to what degrees do these overlap? There’s certainly a relation to chaos as informational uncertainty, but also physical states. What is the relation of life itself to chaos and entropy?
paidia, alea, and ilinx as the chaotic forces in play — Caillois hints at the disruptive power of certain kinds of play, and even ties this loosely to developments in civilisation
a synthesis of all these senses of chaos — I feel the concept is still extremely useful in analysing political tendencies in today’s societies: surveillance, treatment of minorities, views on religion and science, etc.
I hope you will consider casting your own light on some or all of these points in our future correspondence.
Until next time, and please enjoy your new dimension of fatherhood.
all the best,
This letter is a reply to “Talk to Me?” by Chris Bateman, and was written in the spirit of the Republic of Bloggers.
While it is addressed to a specific person, anyone who is interested in replying is free to do so and join the conversation, as explained by Chris in his original letter about the ‘Republic of Bloggers’.
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