Sunday, July 3, 2016

the Chrysalis

Christopher Gaston "The Chrysalis", 2012

Phase transitions, we call them in Physics. In our everyday existence, we recognize them as sudden rips in the texture of life, catastrophic transformative changes. The sandpile model, with a gradual accumulation of grains of sand, each affecting a minuscule change, reaches a threshold of self-organized criticality, where a chain of growth and collapse initiates a profound restructuring into a state of higher complexity. As usual, mathematical abstraction is consoling and beautiful, in comparison with the ugly reality that populates the mathematical world. About three years ago, I reached one of those thresholds, which kept me off regular writing for the ensuing time. What caused it was just another casual drop of yet another stone on the pile, another brick in the wall, another random act of bullying by one of the usual suspects who claim control of the territory in one of my recent research areas. An average act of verbal violence, abuse, condescension, mansplaining and assorted ugliness: nothing unusual, in other words. Yet, it created a threshold, a liminal region between a before and an after, a profound process of reconfiguring. We move through life with a vague sense of continuity, of consistency between our past, present, and projected near-future selves. We are used to imagining our spacetime profile as a continuum, not as a granular composition of disconnected entities. However, we all know that there are special times and special events, a major loss, sometimes a trauma, sometimes simply a phase transition of the kind discussed here, which make it impossible to compare our old and our new selves on a principle of continuity. I can no longer look at the past twenty years of my scientific career in the same light, I can no longer accept to consider myself a part of a "community" that still insists on calling itself "the mathematical community" as if it were based on some shared principles. I do not consider myself a mathematician any longer. This is curious, in a way, because mathematical research, in some form or other, is what I spend my days doing and what pays for my living. Yet, I no longer accept to be part of the underlying order, its network of connectedness, to participate in its functioning, to accept it for what it is. So about three years ago I entered a long phase of profound restructuring. As a scientist, it is very hard to reinvent oneself from scratch after twenty years of career: the apprenticeship phase in science is long and painfully slow. It takes an enormous effort to start it all over again, when one could simply comfortably sit on top of one's own well oiled paper producing mechanics and continue to let it run along its well trodden path. Yes, it takes a major rip in the personal spacetime continuum to attempt an abrupt change in the set course of a fast moving machine. I have previously made many other drastic changes over the span of my mathematical career: they were all difficult, and behind each of them was an attempt to escape the violence of the environment. This story is told at length in the article "A Drifter of Dadaist Persuasion" in the recently published AMS volume "Art in the Life of Mathematicians" and I do not need to repeat it here. The blog posts preceding this one, in this blog and in the previous blog Welcome to the Machine, testify to the latest of all these struggles for survival, the one that began around eight years ago and hasn't resolved itself yet. An important part of the later ongoing transformative change consisted of gaining a broader perspective and an understanding of the fact that it is not simply the effect of certain specific people who make their surrounding research environment so toxic as to force others in the field to quit all they are doing and jump ship, and start all over again one more time, each time, over and over again. The problem is more widespread and systemic: it is the culture of the "mathematical community" that makes all this common practice and acceptable.  It is a culture of violence, of intimidation and fear, of behind the back stabbing and smear campaigns carried out in dark alleys.  I am not a mathematician, because I no longer accept to be part of this environment. Society forces on us a professional identity. I work in a mathematics department, in one of the world top science and technology hubs. I produce mathematics. These days I do this largely in the attempt to train a new generation of students about whom I have some hopes. I have a dream, that they may one day not only become producers of innovative ideas and results in mathematics, but perhaps also game changers in the way the "mathematical community" is structured. I have a dream, that they will be finally willing to stand up to the widespread culture of abuse and confront it, instead of joining the crowd of those who prefer to look the other way and speak softly in the presence of power. That is, of course, a hope and a dream, which may be fulfilled, but only if they do not get corrupted by the system along the way. There are many subtle ways in which complacency is enforced. We shall see. I am not a mathematician though. I am not, because I refuse to be considered a part of all this. Unlike all the previous changes of course and restarts of my mathematical research path, the current one is deeper and more deeply existential. I am no longer attempting to jump start the same machine once again on a slightly different course within the same scientific community: I have done that enough times already, and each time, within the span of just a few years, I have inevitably run into the same problem again, each time with a different name and a slightly different face, but ultimately with the same programmed reptilian territoriality instinct and the same ferocity. I have grown tired of this repetition compulsion. I have gained from it occasionally: without the bully of my postdoc days, I would still be doing gauge theory and I would not have learned a lot of other beautiful things and done a lot of other interesting work. Without the bully of these last eight years, without the ostracism of his court of sycophants, I would have continued on a set course without exploring and learning new subjects. Without the bully of the transitional episode three years ago, that I have been referring to here, I would not have seriously reflected on where all these efforts were going, on whether it is a good course of action to keep wandering the mathematical landscape in search of a mythical oasis of peace, or rather trying some longer term strategic thinking and perhaps a different navigational route altogether. I consider these past years as an incubation period, a chrysalis state, in which a core transformative restructuring is taking place. I sometimes say that I am a Linguist now, but even that is a poor description of what is going on. I don't think I even want a professional label like that attached to my life anymore. Any kind of grouping comes with its own forms of group think and power abuse. I have become a profoundly convinced anarchist, as an effect of the toxic dynamics of power that I have witnessed in the world of mathematical research, and that is another important part of my personal growth that I have gained from this experience. I used to linger in the old fairytales teaching us that once the class struggle for a world of better economic justice would be finally victorious, all other forms of oppression would magically evaporate and disappear in a future classless society. When I slammed hard into the power abuses within the community of research mathematicians I had to finally admit that there are oppressive power structures that cannot be simply deduced from class struggle, not even with the best revolutionary tightrope walking sophistry. Oppression because of narcissism, of power hunger: the pure pleasure of being able to exercise force, to hurt and dominate others, the trolls in respectable academic clothes. All this is real and widespread. Anarchism is about the abolition of all power relations and only such a broader victory can restore science to the pleasure of investigating the unknown, to the pursuit of knowledge as the higher goal of humankind. There is no power structure that is not abusive and criminal. There is no authority that is not build on the crushing of the lives of others. Not even in science. Especially not in science. 

Catherine Malabou's recent book "The Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity" deals precisely with this type of sudden transformations of the self. "In the usual order of things", she writes, "in classical metamorphoses, transformation intervenes in place of flight [...] But metamorphosis by destruction in not the same as flight; it is rather the form of the impossibility of fleeing. The impossibility of flight, when flight presents the only possible solution." Like all animals, we possess an innate fight or flight response to a situation of aggression. When fight is not an option, we instinctively escape. When the escape route presents over and over again the same scenario of aggression, with names and faces just slightly transposed, we are faced with a more drastic transformative experience: destructive plasticity. "The individual's history is cut definitively, breached by the meaningless accident, an accident that it is impossible to re-appropriate through either speech or recollection. [...] These types of events are pure hits, tearing and piercing subjective continuity and allowing no justification or recall in the psyche." Destructive plasticity is the building of a new self after a profound metamorphic restructuring of the self. A chrysalis that covers a body in transformation and opens up again, after a transformative process has run its course, to reveal an entirely new structure of existence. "What do we look like once we are metamorphosized by destruction, once we are formed by destructive, explosive, nuclear plasticity? How do we look? However beautiful and decisive," Malabou writes, "we have rejected the figures of trees, animals, and the fantastic beings described by Ovid." At the end of the essay she concludes: "the history of being itself consists perhaps of nothing but a series of accidents which, in every era and without hope of return, dangerously disfigure the meaning of essence."

The Greeks and the classical world populated the boundaries of the unknown with liminal figures, stretching across the human and the animal, the natural and the supernatural. Mostly, these symbols signified transformations, possible and impossible, composite chimeric bodies resulting from ill amalgamated conflicting experiences, incomplete metamorphoses, attempts to hold a fragmentary self together under impossible pressures. Identities that do not fit into any classification, into any Linnaean labeling taxonomy, inevitably become monsters, that is, portents and omens that signal the impending downfall of power and herald the arrival of waves of liberatory chaos. Out of Chaos everything is born, out of that primordial anarchist yawn. Out of that cosmic chrysalis new shapes emerge, known and unknown, heterogeneous and unclassifiable, monstrous, precisely because they are not subject to domination. Abomination of insurrectional selves, who dwell in spaces outside the reach of power. The continuous restructuring of the toppling sandpile leads to complexity, to deeper structures. Out of this restructuring a new and completely unexpected shape will eventually emerge.