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A Chaotic Gift (for Chris Bateman)

M.C. Escher - ‘Con­trast (Order and Chaos)’ (1950)

Dear Chris,

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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