Plotnitsky, "From the (Ever) Complex to the (Never) Simple: A Response"

Romanticism and Complexity

From the (Ever) Complex to the (Never) Simple: A Response to R. Paul Yoder’s "Unlocking Language: Self-Similarity in Blake’s Jerusalem"

Arkady Plotnitsky, Purdue University

  1. It is fitting, especially in the context of this issue of Romantic Praxis, that Paul Yoder opens his article with John Locke’s philosophy of language on his way to showing how Blake’s unlocks (to use the elegant pun of Yoder’s title) language, along with, one might add, the mind and the world, and the relationships among them. Indeed at stake in Blake’s Jerusalem is nothing less than a radical, and radically unlocking, reinterpretation or, better, re-envisioning of everything. Newton may be, and has been, a more customary and perhaps more immediately pertinent figure against whom Blake offers his own "visionary physics," as Donald Ault called it in his pioneering study.[1] I emphasize "visionary" in order to indicate a radical transformation of physis (materiality) in Blake’s re-envisioning of the world. It is not out of place to speak of "physics" insofar as the term itself is related to an envisioning — imaging—of physis through the human mind and specifically imagination, or in Blake’s terms, through the poetic genius, which Blake wanted to bring into action in each man and woman. As both (if very differently and with a different evaluation) Locke and Blake realized, Newton has in fact done just that in an extraordinary genius-like way, even while, according to Blake, perverting the power of imagination and poetic genius. Now, Locke was a Newton among philosophers, to paraphrase Karl Grabo’s description of Shelley as "a Newton among poets"—and hence a Blakean (and Blake-like) visionary Newton.[2] It would be difficult to properly address the momentous and well-known (although far from yet exhausted or even understood) implications of this link, of both of these links. It may be argued, however, that we can trace the genealogy of the confrontation, famously introduced by C. P. Snow, of the two cultures, scientific and humanistic, to Locke. In this case, it was conceived and perceived (by, it appears, Newton and Locke alike) as a meeting of the two cultures or indeed, at the time, as a meeting of two visions belonging to the same culture. It is another question whether Locke in fact managed (it would, I think, be difficult to argue that he did) to avoid making this meeting into the first confrontation. In other words, we here encounter a genealogy, which extends to Romanticism and beyond and then to our own modernity and postmodernity, of the broader subject of this issue of Romantic Praxis. I would argue that, even though more specifically concerned with Romanticism and chaos, the articles here assembled present (and represent) an irreducibly nonsimple and yet irreducibly non-synthesizable—heterogeneous interactive and interactively heterogeneous—juncture of these relationships between the two cultures, or perhaps more than two and less than one. Perhaps Romanticism was first to sense this type of complexity and to practice it within the culture of scientific modernity, that is, the modernity in which science plays an irreducible and constitutive—and, as Bruno Latour argues, constitutional—role, and there may be no other modernity.[3]

  2. It is this complexity, manifest in Yoder’s essay, that I would like to address here, extending the argument of (I hope) Yoder’s and my own essay in this issue. I shall leave aside the differences, such as they may be, between our views, which are hardly commensurable with what is at stake in this complexity. I have next to nothing to criticize and much to welcome in Yoder’s analysis and his reading of Blake. I would specifically like to mention that it manages to avoid the kind of problems that are often found in the work in the humanities, including those dealing with Romanticism and specifically Blake, which deploys mathematical and scientific ideas, especially quantum mechanics and chaos theory. Given my limit here, I shall restrict myself to two key points. The first is conceptual-philosophical and deals with the relationships between the simple and the complex, specifically with the idea, found in Blake, among a few (but not many) others, that the complex always precedes the simple rather than arises from it, as, among many others, Locke wanted to believe. The second addresses the relationships between the humanities and modern mathematics and science from this perspective.

  3. As Yoder’s essay shows, the most fundamental difference between Locke and Blake is in their understanding of minute particulars (the simple) and how they combine into conglomerates (the complex). Now, the Lockean, analytical or philosophical, organization proceeds from the simple to the complex. This approach, or this dream, of reducing the complex to simple elements and analytically (re)tracing the organization of whatever system one considers has governed much philosophy (there are exceptions, from Heraclitus to Nietzsche, Deleuze, and Derrida), as well as mathematics and science (there are exceptions here as well). Ultimately, this program has failed and, as will be seen presently, may not ever be able to succeed, given the world we live in and the minds we think with. By contrast, in the Blakean poetic or visionary organization, the complex always precedes the simple (meaning this precedence in the pre-logical rather than ontological sense), and hence the complexity is irreducible. Every conceivable element (a term no longer applicable) or atom (this term is applicable insofar as it connotes indivisibility but not simplicity) of existence becomes irreducibly nonsimple. Minute particulars are (re)defined accordingly. Now this view may appear, and indeed is, paradoxical or impossible from the classical, such as Lockean, perspective. For Blake, however, that only means that we must change our perspective, redirect and reform our vision. Once we do so, this understanding becomes not only rigorous but, whenever necessary (for example, in mathematics or physics), also logical. Naturally, the specificity of this structure (of the complex preceding the simple) would be different in each case—Romantic or other philosophical epistemology, quantum physics, post-Gödelian mathematical logic, and so forth. Accordingly, different models (mathematical, scientific, or other) of this situation are possible, and their application, say, to Blake’s work becomes subject to interpretive decisions, for example, between chaos theory and quantum mechanics.

  4. As Yoder (correctly) argues, Locke senses these "contaminating" complexities. But, beyond the fact that, unlike Blake, he sees them negatively, he still appears to think—to dream—that we may explain the world, or the language (or the mind) through which we understand the world, in terms of reduction from the complex to the simple. Blake thought that a bad, Newtonian, dream, a nightmare, warping and perverting human vision, and as ultimately an impossible task in any event. On that latter point he proved to be right, at least, the way things (of the world and of the mind) appear to us now, as quantum physics, chaos theory, post-Gödelian mathematical logic, and several other theories teach us. These theories teach us the same lesson, which, as Imre Lakatos observes in the context of mathematics, "must strike any student of the seventeenth century as déjà vu," for example, a student of Locke (Blake, it follows, was a very good one) (14). The lesson is this: any attempt to trivialize or, as it were, "elementarize" language, even that of logic or mathematics, or the world, even that of physics, by reducing them to simple constitutive elements leads to a sophistication equal and sometimes exceeding that of the original situation. The (never) simple constituents reveal themselves as (ever more?) complex entities; the "simplest" elements look like the most complex global configurations imaginable; and so forth.

  5. It cannot be surprising that such mathematical and scientific theories would apply in approaching Romantic text and praxis. This is inevitable and cannot be prevented or stopped, even if one wanted to do so, as some among recent critics of the uses of mathematics and science in the contemporary humanities would argue. As Niels Bohr argues, "The importance of physical sciences for the development of general philosophical thinking rests not only on its contribution to our steadily increasing knowledge of that nature of which we ourselves are part, but also on the opportunities which time and again it has offered for examination and refinement of our conceptual tools"(2:1). Which among such theories apply to a given figure, such as Blake, and how they apply is subject to complex decisions—interpretive, conceptual, cultural, or political (including institutional)—and, accordingly, of intellectual and scholarly responsibility. It is worth keeping in mind, however, that, sometimes, a loose application of mathematical and scientific ideas (and even getting some of them wrong in the process) can be and has been effective in the humanities or even in mathematics and science themselves. Of course, it would be naïve to think that such models are conceptually and culturally independent of other fields of human inquiry or endeavor—philosophy, literature and the arts, or even politics—however differently this dependence manifests itself (sometimes as a relative independence). The following general point may be made, following Jean-François Lyotard’s argument in The Postmodern Condition[4]). If one wants to understand human culture on the model of nature or mathematics, as has been customary throughout modernity, in the wake of Newtonian physics (the primary model of that type), one might also want to be more attentive to what nature (or science) and mathematics tell us. And they (specifically, quantum physics, chaos theory, modern analysis, algebra, and topology, and post-Gödelian mathematical logic) appear to convey to us a message very different from that of the Newtonian universe.

  6. Nor is it surprising that such mathematical and scientific models would apply and, I would argue, work better than classical models in our attempts to understand the relationships—heterogeneously interactive and interactively heterogeneous—between the humanities (or social sciences) and mathematics and science. One could, for example, envision a "quantum-mechanical" matrix of these relationships, as suggested by my own essay in this volume. But they have other, for example, chaos-theoretical or quasi-Gödelian (undecidability) aspects to or perspectives on them as well, just as all these theories can and, ultimately, have been understood with the help of nonscientific models or considerations (even if their practice in mathematics and science need not depend on the latter). It does not appear likely that we will ever be able to disentangle these relationships, again, even if we wanted to. That is to say, we are unlikely to fully or ultimately disentangle them, since some disentanglement is not only desirable but necessary and even unavoidable. (Indeed our entangling capacities are not unlimited either.) This complexity is irreducible. It precedes any simplicity, and sometimes may inhibit our practice. But it is also productive, and indeed it follows that at bottom (and there is no ultimate bottom) nothing is possible otherwise, neither an interaction between different fields nor indeed the functioning of any single field, if any field, or indeed anything ever can be single or simple. Blake’s and most of Romantic practice was predicated and took advantage of this impossibility, of the fact that nothing is possible otherwise. But it also converted it into immense possibilities, which, as Paul Yoder reminds us in closing his article, is how Blake sees the world. For the world is defined for him by the vision of genius, rather than that of mediocrity, except perhaps that we have, with the help of this vision, to rethink the very notion of mediocrity itself. Perhaps this is what Locke especially failed to do. It is not easy "To build the Universe stupendous, Mental forms Creating," as Blake urged us (Milton, Book the Second, 19-20). Nothing less than Milton’s or Blake’s vision and labor would do. But then, Blake tells us, this is almost the least, at least the most mediocre, we should all aspire to.

Works Cited

Ault, Donald. Visionary Physics: Blake’s Response to Newton. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Blake, William. Complete Poetry and Prose. Newly Revised Edition. Edited by David V. Erdman. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1981.

Bohm, David. Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London: Routledge, 1995.

Bohr, Niels. The Philosophical Writings of Niels Bohr. 3 vols. Woodbridge, Conn.: Ox Bow, 1987.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. What is Philosophy?. Trans. Hugh Tomplinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.

Grabo, Karl H. A Newton among Poets: Shelley’s Use of Science in Prometheus Unbound Chapel Hill, NC.: University of North Carolina Press, 1930.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, Minn.: Minnesota University Press, 1984.

Lakatos, Imre. Mathematics, Science and Epistemology: Philosophical Papers, Volume 2, Eds. John Worrall and Gregory Currie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Penrose, Roger. Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness Oxford: Oxford UP, 1994.


1 Donald Ault, Visionary Physics: Blake’s Response to Newton (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974).

2 Karl H. Grabo, A Newton among Poets: Shelley’s Use of Science in Prometheus Unbound (Chapel Hill, NC.: University of North Carolina Press, 1930).

3 Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).

4 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, Minn.: Minnesota University Press, 1984).