On Networks

Image via Creative Commons from <http://www.internationalrivers.org/node/288&gt;

Hello Readers,

I have decided to blog a little on some research ideas for a change. Recently i’ve been thinking a lot about how I want to structure my thesis. The usual questions: what order should I redraft my chapters in? what do I need to read? In addition to these concerns, an increasing awareness of the thematic powers at work within my research. In response to a post by Jeffrey Cohen about terminologies beyond the all-prescriptive ‘green’ of ecocriticism, I managed to write something that gave me  some ideas.

Traditionally, I have considered my thesis to be about aqueous poetics within medieval narratives of thought. My primary concern is with the fluvial: movement, the transfer of ideas, cycling of evaporation and rain, the combination and dissolution of the elements, the impermanence of the world within medieval thought. In my comment, I proposed an approach to humanistic discourse focused on these properties, a fluvial humanities. 

Within my research, I concern myself with the power of water to move, to carry ideas, to bridge subject and object, to narrate intellection and imagination. I do not so much study water as an object, but as a mediator of signification. This water, a fluvial material abstracted from imagining the traits of water apprehensible by the senses, links ideas, builds bridges, creates networks. How can I work with this material to critically enable my research?

Rivers, when one thinks about it, are one of nature’s great and enduring exemplars of the network. Modernity lends us many more examples such as the previously invisible neurons of the human brain, and yet these do not compare to the impressive pedigree of the hydrological cycle. All of our networks and systems -roads, train lines, computer networks, and so on, appear as a form of biomimicry, an attempt to harness the structure and character of these deeper, natural networks. They exist anterior to human existence, linking point to point, subtly interrelated. In the case of fluvial mechanics, a network of springs, rivers, deltas, swamps, waterfalls, inlets, oceans and subterraneans flows create a powerful, ever dynamic interconnection far beyond the imagination of humanity. In recent decades, accelerated by the computer age, we have have created systems theory, an attempt to imagine the unimaginable, to see the links between the networks that we have created.

A system, at its heart, is a flow of matter into a matrix of interconnected nodes, each part complimenting the function of the whole. They are also, most importantly, a human construct created to better understand that which cannot be seen and yet we believe to have relationships. I have included a description of a system below to give you an idea of its properties:

•Systems have a structure that is defined by its parts and processes.
•Systems are generalizations of reality.
•Systems tend to function in the same way. This involves the inputs and outputs of material (energy and/or matter) that is then processed causing it to change in some way.
•The various parts of a system have functional as well as structural relationships between each other.
•The fact that functional relationships exist between the parts suggests the flow and transfer of some type of energy and/or matter.
•Systems often exchange energy and/or matter beyond their defined boundary with the outside environment, and other systems, through various input and output processes.
•Functional relationships can only occur because of the presence of a driving force.
•The parts that make up a system show some degree of integration – in other words the parts work well together.

(taken from http://www.physicalgeography.net/fundamentals/4b.html)

This has been used profitably by Manuel DeLanda in his materialist philosophy of the city (see his chapter on the Nonlinear development of cities in ECO-TEC: architecture of the In-Between) to map systems onto flows of matter, a sea of stuff manipulated, shaped and sometimes perverted in human hands. Great whirls and cycles of interconnected matter ebb and flow.

Although I myself do not define myself as a materialist and operate primarily within the realm of the mind, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive. These great systems of aqueous interchange are abstracted within the mind, finding their way into mental models. The nutritive qualities, flexibility, ontological depth and polyvalence of moving water make it ideal for this task. Research into river dynamics and human thought have long been of interest to anthropologists such as Veronica Strang (especially in her excellent book The Meaning of Water). She, and others interested in such matters, have recently come together in the Thinking with Water  project, currently in the process of publishing a keenly anticipated edited volume.

Rather than thinking in terms of intellectual traditions or authors, I am beginning to envisage themes of aqueous poetics that will give my chapters a broadly applicable force. In addition to focusing on my High Medieval text analyses, I can also engage with broader critical themes, and hopefully contribute something new to discourse on water, the elements, and perhaps imagination of matter itself. Maybe an engagement with the network is a good place to start for my first chapter, for which it is most ideally suited…

That’s all for now. If you have any insights, i’d be happy to hear them!,

Salvete Omnes,

James

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