Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#2 Geert Lovink 1 Jan 1993


Norbert Bolz, Chaos und Simulation, W. Fink Verlag 1992

Die Welt als Chaos und als Simulation is the third book in a series by German media philosopher Norbert Bolz.


Cover of "Chaos und Simulation" -

Die Welt als Chaos und als Simulation is the third book in a series by German media philosopher Norbert Bolz. After the Theorie der neuen Medien (1990) about Wagner, Benjamin and McLuhan (see Mediamatic 5#4) Fink Verlag published Eine kurze Geschichte des Scheins in which the classic conflict between appearance and reality is tested on the hard reality of contemporary computer graphics. He does not attempt to re-write the history of Western philosophy in this series. In light of his productivity, it would seem that Bolz is inspired more by an urge to intervene. He wants to drag alienated colleagues into the present, get them to open their treasure chests and help in the comprehension and historical placement of contemporary technological developments.
But it is unlikely that the conservative bulwark of academic philosophy will take up this challenge.

That is why Bolz aims simultaneously at another field, the semi-official scientific circle where media theory is being developed historically and in essays. Institutions like the Kunstforum, Ars Electronica, the ZKM and various media art schools can use a philosophical basis. Bolz developed such a media philosophy in the Kassel research project (headed by Kittler); their background in Germanic studies is clearly evident in his work. His research falls exactly between the strict academic and the free, essayistic approach. Bolz is thus in danger of falling between two stools: not experimental enough to pass for underground (Avital Ronell succeeds in this) and too speculative to penetrate into the established knowledge factories. Yet this in-between terrain is important. It intensifies awareness that accepted words like reality, appearance or chaos have a rich history. In the case of chaos, this history has even been repressed. Chaos has always had a bad name; its status improved only slowly, over the last two centuries. Bolz attempts a description of this process.

Chaos und Simulation opens with the statement that today, chaos appears to be a norm-free concept representing not an exceptional state, but normality. The scientific conquest of the undetermined (made accessible to a broad public by Gleick and Peitgen/Richter, among others) teaches us to deal with unforeseen things, blind spots, turbulence and irregularities. The fear of chaos in areas like art, theory and music has disappeared, creating the possibility of
'fractal knowledge'. Johnny Rotten's We're not into music, we're into chaos is typical of the qualitative leap taken by the primal amalgam. Bolz sees this as a return of lawlessness in which the awareness emerges that chaos contains a hidden order and that every kind of order becomes chaos, sooner or later.

Bolz's 'raked-up' history begins with the concept 'border'. Dialectics exists by the grace of border delineation. For Hegel, being exists only in its borders. Naked being is nothing but an abyss in which no distinctions can be perceived. Drawing lines through the chaos is an a priori prerequisite for the construction of any system. Sensory capacities introduce primal differences into an unmarked space. We cannot make an indication without drawing a distinction
(Spencer Brown). Etymologically, 'chaos' means the yet unformed primal material preceding Creation. He who crosses the (drawn) borders is in danger of falling back into this phase.

Modernity settles accounts with this mythical view and accepts contingency as a real, existing phenomenon that can be taken into account. Chaos is transformed into risk. Uncertainty is no longer excluded, but included as a factor. One can become insured against coincidence. One who does not take risks will soon be capable of nothing at all. But this does not eliminate chaos from the picture. According to Bolz, modernity is characterised by the 're-entry' of the
monstrous, evidenced by the work of authors like Joseph Conrad, Franz Kafka and Stephen King. While rationalism is still busy banning all irregularity to keep its conceptual structures as pure as possible, it becomes apparent (with the work of Nietzsche) that a study of confusion comes much closer to the logic of the world. Bolz finds another definition of chaos in Hesiodus (700 bc), who defines chaos not as an entropical disarray or raw material but as a gaping void or abyss. From this sensory deprivation space, the imagination comes forth, the dream of reason giving birth to monsters (Goya). Ovidius' description of chaos as the raw material used by the demiurge to build the cosmos, is not negative. Lullus even finds that chaos contains all that is possible.
Leibniz, perceived by Bolz as the founder of fractal geometry, continues this line of thought. Leibniz finds chaos to be 'perspectivistic appearance', that can be tampered with until order emerges. Mandelbrot's instrumentarium to split chaos elaborates directly on Leibniz's Theodizee. Or take Lichtenberg: he wondered why geometry had to begin with the straight line and not with the folds of a pillow.

For the moment, positive definitions have their peak in the Romantic cult of chaos. Modernity must accept and activate its own passive chaos; this is the romantic idea of revolution. Nietzsche goes one step further with his the world is chaos in all eternity. This necessity occurs without any subject, principle or aim. Nietzsche's chaos is directed against all attempts to humanize the world.

The second part of the book is devoted to the 20th-century. While static is beginning to make itself heard in physics, music and literature, philosophy is falling farther and farther behind and is becoming downright sore-headed. With perhaps one exception - Ernst Jünger – authors like Adorno, Sedlmeyer and Gehlen can only interpret chaos as relapse and a sign of threatening decline. Bolz does not state this explicitly and continues to defend the alienated
culture critics. A radical settling of accounts with philosophers hostile to technology would be difficult for Bolz, as he is indebted to the thinkers of the Weimar republic. The ponderous ambivalence of philosophy, so characteristic of German modernism, thus remains an undercurrent in Bolz's work. Something is stopping him from turning his own discipline into static. The overtaking manoeuvre Bolz is forced to carry out to arrive at 'fractal knowledge'
takes him through the Anglo-Saxon language. Not for nothing is English the language of information. What a different sound the discussion of technique would have had if some seventy years ago a Kittler had emerged (and Heidegger had become an astronaut). Paul Feyerabend states it loud and clear: without chaos, thought goes in circles. Without chaos, no knowledge. In order to reactivate its dialogue with the world, philosophy seeks to join physics and information science. Bolz perceives the beginning of this movement in the discovery of Brownian motion in a free particle in water (1828), and arrives at Mandelbrot's fractal via Jean Perrin's non-differentiable curve and Norbert Weiner's mathematical analysis. From this point on, non-linear dynamics can be portrayed. Computer graphics do not show random data, but orderly disorder. Chaos theory has solved this paradox. Coincidence has become system-immanent and is generated; it no longer breaks into the system from outside like a catastrophe. Systems move continuously between poles of entropy and turbulence. Bolz clearly explains the laws of disorderly chaos, but does not get around to philosophy. Baudrillard remains one of the few who have succeeded in integrating viruses and fractals as metaphors in their philosophy.

Die Welt als Chaos und als Simulation closes with four essays about various subjects like the staged metropolis, the esthetics of the 'posthistoire''' and the status of politics in media-democracy. Only the last essay brave new computerworlds continues the theme of chaos and information technology, a media-theoretical compact text that debates with the last dinosaurs of the Gutenberg galaxy.'' Here it then becomes clear that Bolz can proceed with his
comprehension of the hyper-media without all those German philosophers who drew on 19th-century ideas.

translation JIM BOEKBINDER