Every time I drive my car, I cannot but marvel at the sheer complexity of traffic, its volatility, and lifelike behaviour. On a given morning, hundreds of thousands of individual journeys are channelled through an intricate network of roads and motorways. Like goal-driven, independent agents, people interact through their vehicles with other agents in response to changes that occur when other agents interact through their vehicles with them. Despite its highly differentiated structure, this system can produce states, which are surprisingly stable: traffic can flow smoothly despite high volume. In the process, everyone seeks to adjust their behaviour so that the probability of reaching his or her destination increases in time.
Yet, the system always seems on the brink; every journey is different, every driver drives differently, reacts differently to changes in the system, and there is a great variety of vehicles. In the face of this complexity, it is difficult to predict if or when the system is most likely to brake down; when it is best to change lanes in order to avoid a tailback, or when it is advisable to diverge from the chosen route. Often, a shockwave of slowing vehicles moves backwards, for no apparent reason, the deceleration of cars increasing in an inverse direction; or, at certain points along the way, one lane of traffic seems clogged up while, almost inexplicably, another is still moving. Yet, this state never seems to last very long. Eventually, traffic on the clogged up lane starts to spill over into the empty lane(s) until both lanes move with similar speed. This corrective behaviour can also result in over-compensation so that the lane, which was previously fast-moving becomes totally clogged up and the slow lane clears. Over time a pulsating effect can be observed when fast and slow lanes change back and forth.
Traffic must flow for everyone to succeed in reaching their destination and complete his or her journey. As long as there are gaps to take advantage of, as long as there is spatial differentiation, traffic will flow. However, when too many vehicles try to flow through ever decreasing space, a backlog builds and grows non-linearly until, somewhere behind, traffic comes to a complete halt. With no way forward, no fast lane to change into, and no gap to fill, the system brakes down. Vehicles are designed to move, roads are built to project that movement from point to point, and yet, occasionally, paralysis sets in and everything grinds to a halt. For moments, minutes or hours, the system cannot metabolise, it has, for all intents and purposes, turned into an organism that shows no signs of life. At this state, every part of the system seems to become undifferentiated. No matter how powerful the engine, what shape the vehicle, or how experienced the driver, no matter whether the vehicle is a bus, an articulated lorry or a sports car, in the state of paralysis, every constituent part of the system is the same in one crucial aspect: it has stopped moving. Sameness and stasis replaces difference and interaction. Differentiation within the system, while virtually present, cannot be actualised because one significant difference is absent: the difference between here and there. In the middle of a traffic jam, only the ‘here’ is actualised, ‘there’ is not an option; if it were, traffic would begin to move towards it.
After a while, however, spaces do open up, and once again, traffic begins to flow towards the attractive emptiness of an open road. Once again, structural differentiation within the system can emerge because a significant spatial difference can be actualised: the gradient between here and there. It has become possible again to move away from ‘here’ and towards ‘there’, and it is possible to do so in a great multitude of ways. It is possible once again to traverse that shared space in constant interaction with others who do the same differently for different reasons and on different journeys. It is possible to drive carefully or recklessly, to be respectful to others, or to ignore speed limits. As the system wakes from its paralysis it displays, once again, its baffling complexity.
Can I be myself without that which I am not? Can that which IS, be understood without reference to that which is NOT? Can some-thing be distinct from no-thing without differentiating both from one-another? We cannot, according to Mark C. Taylor, ‘assert anything without not saying something else.’ In affirmation, so it seems, we find negation and vice versa: ‘[…] to say A is not to say B.’01 George Spencer Brown posits ‘that we cannot make an indication without drawing a distinction.’02 Formless reality, George Bataille’s ‘Informe’03, is transformed from the non-specific to the specific by means of a distinction that engenders difference. Gregory Bateson famously defined information as ‘a difference which makes a difference.’04 One distinction brings forth another and another until it eventually ‘re-enters what it distinguishes’ and the act of recognition is ‘forced to encounter itself as one of its own objects.’05 Heinz von Foerster distinguishes between first- and second order observation, ie. between an observation and the observation of an observation. M.C Escher’s picture of a hand that draws the hand, which draws the hand, illustrates this concept of self-reproducing self-reflexivity. Without an original distinction implicit in the act of observation, however, there would be nothing to observe, nothing to identify, and nothing to discuss.
An I cannot constitute itself without its Not-I. The Not-I is that which surrounds the I: Not-I is what I is not. Becoming an I is to become distinct from the Not-I. Sustaining identity is to see Other-ness as indispensable. To be aware of the I is to be aware of the I and the Other. Being aware as an aware being authenticates I and Other in an act of reciprocal interaction. The perceived difference between I and Not I, or I and Other, is the condition of its existence. For Ranulph Glanville ‘the distinction of the self and other implies the distinction of the self, and the distinction of the self implies the distinction between self and other.’ That which we cannot differentiate remains beyond recognition; it defies comprehension. For us, nothing exists unless something can be distinguished, or made distinct, from that which it is not. Whether or not something can actually exist outside the gamut of perceptual distinctions has been the subject of much debate. In their seminal paper “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain”, Maturana, McCulloch and Pitts showed that perceived reality is conditional upon sensory observing interfaces. The experiment showed that, rather than registering the whole of its enveloping environment, the animal’s sensory system seemed to filter, omit and thus construct a reality. Unable to distinguish slow objects, the frog was able to detect fast movement only. In other words: In a frog’s world, there are no slow moving animals, only speeding insects.According to Ernst von Glasersfeld, the structure of observing systems is inevitably partial and constructed. Systems of distinctions, which are necessary to render observed reality observable, are built over and above an all encompassing whole without ever covering it completely. Yet without making a distinction, nothing can be differentiated at all.
Making a mark engenders a Deleuzian gradient of desire, allowing ‘the current to flow,’ communication to ensue, information to be exchanged and energy to be transformed. The line, which separates the circle from its surrounding emptiness, raises curiosity, invites speculation and demands explanation. Why does it exist? What is the relationship between interior and exterior spaces? Exactly what does the line divide? Jean Dubuffet, whose ‘Art Brut’ very much privileges the mark, describes the process of transforming the formless as such: ‘The point of departure is the surface one is to bring alive – canvas or a piece of paper- and the first stroke of colour or ink that one lays on it; the resulting effect the resulting adventure.’ For George Spencer-Brown, ‘a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart.’