Out of the box

We’ve been talking about constraint and causation (or ‘enablement’, as Garfinkel might say), and this morning I’ve stumbled into a chain of associations that illustrate the point. Specifically, two juxtaposed reviews in the NYRB, on Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels and Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe; the book Rachel is reading, Charlatan, on medical quackery in the fin de siecle; her previous research on Olaus Rudbeck; and a movie we just watched, “(untitled).” All of these are cautionary tales about thinking outside the box, and therefore reminders of the enabling function of boxes.

Let’s start with Rudbeck, a Swedish scientist who taught Linnaeus and (perhaps) discovered the limbic system. Rightly celebrated as a Renaissance man, he spent the second half of his life and blew his reputation pursuing his idee fixe that Atlantis had been in Sweden. Clearly a creative thinker, once he got into a field where his thinking was unconstrained by conventions and a developmental programme of investigation he came unglued and started making stuff up to suit his emotional preferences, then selectively interpreting the evidence to fit. This fact was clear to everyone but him.

In the review of Wertheim, Freeman Dyson tells a similar story about Sir Arthur Eddington, a brilliant astronomer whose observations of deflected starlight were instrumental to the experimental support of Einsteinian relativity, and whose lucid writing and teaching on the subject helped establish the new orthodoxy. But Eddington also had his own “Fundamental Theory,” an idiosyncratic mishmash of “mathematical and verbal arguments… [with] no firm basis either in physics or mathematics.” “Two facts were clear. First, Eddington was talking nonsense. Second, in spite of the nonsense, he was still a great man.”

What’s striking about these examples is how people exquisitely functional within one set of conventions can spectacularly implode outside them, and without any apparent reflexive awareness that this is the case. St. Aubyn’s novels (which I have not read) would seem to be excruciating meditations on this theme. Patrick Melrose, the main character, is an unwilling participant observer in a horrifying upper-crust British social milieu in which publicly effective people behave abominably to each other in private, with no apparent sense of disconnect. In fact, they seem to use the effective parts of their lives as systematic displacements of self-reflection. Patrick, in contrast, is practically disabled by self-awareness (“how could he think his way out of the problem when the problem was the way he thought”) and floats through drug addiction before finally working himself around to an effective balance of interiority and exteriority.

Charlatan is about a guy who got rich transplanting goat testicles into the scrota of men anxious about their virility. Needless to say this was a fool’s errand and a septic nightmare, but neither he nor his patients seemed clear on these obvious facts. In Physics on the Fringe Wertheim writes about Jim Carter, a successful engineer and entrepreneur who spends his spare time concocting experiments to prove his pet theory that the universe is composed of hierarchies of “circlons,” of which smoke rings are the demonstrative exemplars. It turns out that unbeknownst to Carter a very similar theory was once entertained by Lord Kelvin, but dropped for lack of convincing evidence – despite/because of experiments much like Carter’s, experiments which he finds amply probative, although he cannot convince the scientific community to agree.

In his review of Wertheim, Dyson champions the fringe creatives working outside the box as courageous poetic visionaries. But the tricky thing is figuring out what the ‘good’ versions of this are, since both psychosis and ordinary crackpottery are also often characterized by poetic vision. “untitled” comes at this question from the arts side and shows that Dyson’s offloading of the question onto art only works because his understanding of art is romantic. (Of course he does not know this about himself.) The movie’s central characters are an experimental musician, his brother the painter, and the gallerist who takes an interest in both. The painter is a hack, but does not know it; his paintings sell very well to hospital chains for use as soothing motifs in their lobbies, which is how the gallerist funds her showings of the serious art that does not sell. The musician produces elaborate cacophanies; he tells us that tonality is over, now just a matter of “pushing notes around,” which is essentially what his brother the painter is doing with color. The problem is that although it’s clear the painter is a hack, it’s not at all clear whether the musician is something better. There are norms of judgment for the former, but not the latter. Is that just unpleasant noise, or is it a brilliant meditation on the contingency of norms of pleasantness? As the musician tells us, all sound is noise unless it’s welcome. What makes it welcome?

The problem turns out to be that outside the box, there’s no way to settle these questions, to move things forward or even to know what forward would be. “It’s all good,” as they say. But a river without banks is a swamp. So constraint, a box of some kind, is essential to getting anything done, even if all it does is provide the contrast space (Garfinkel again, but see here for another awesome citation controversy, although oddly enough a different Garfinkel) against which plausible innovation can be measured. Is that enough of a point for this post? It will have to be, because I’ve said all I had in mind to say at this time.



  1. The opposite of the self-referential, unchecked, head-in-the-sand initiatives and pursuits you mention here is a kind of paralysis that stems from the abstract, unchecked assumption that there must already exist work far better/more accurate than anything one could undertake. I wonder if it wouldn’t be fair to say that a certain amount of ego, willful ignorance, and self-centeredness is required for most undertakings, certainly those innovations that can only happen outside of known boxes.

  2. Yes! Some disciplines need to be broken open to advance, and it’s often the work of a naive outsider who does the breaking. Maybe it’s a matter of being “just naive enough” — In other words, having *some* awareness that you are working outside of your normal conventions. It’s true, I think, that break-out concepts by outsiders often involve the application of one domain’s conventions to another domain.

    Wrt our discussions of Deacon, I wonder if Deacon considers himself “well-versed” in philosophy. I personally would find it paralyzing to write even about someone like Aristotle with Deacon’s seeming confidence. I’d be thinking that some Aristotle scholar was going to come along and poke a huge whole in whatever I said.

    This also made me think of the HBO show “In Treatment”. In that show, the main character is a therapist whose personality works best within a particular “role”. When his patients try to change the roles, he flounders. I think our personal and professional roles are a lot like domain conventions.

  3. The binary opposition “inside the box” (thus only repetitious) and “outside the box” (thus chaotic) is too simplistic. Most people whose jobs involve creativity or innovation develop procedures that amount to what we might call a disciplined openness to novelty. Nothing mysterious here. Think of poets writing in classical forms, sonnets or haiku, for example, where the form constrains the set of what remains an infinity of new poems. In the advertising world, a clear brief that spells out target, proposition, intended effect and provides a rationale for why communicating that proposition to that target should have the intended effect can enhance creativity by eliminating the thrashing around that occurs when the purposes of an ad are not clearly spelled out.

  4. An excellent cross-disciplinary post, Carl. Kuhn famously dichotomized science into two categories: normal and revolutionary. While normal science is portrayed as a kind of technical hackwork, filling in the knowledge grid imposed by the dominant paradigm, revolutionary science busts open the paradigm through a burst of creativity that releases the traditional constraints on free inquiry. I’d say that the Deacon of Incomplete Nature would contend that science entails the increase of knowledge via the progressive propagation of constraints. A scientific revolution is valuable to the extent that the constraints it imposes facilitate the development of more accurate information about the world than did the prior paradigm.

    Deacon observes that the imposition of constraint is what characterizes a negentropic system. E.g., variation in temperature in a vat of goo only if something — a physical barrier, an external source of heat applied to one end of the vat — constrains the spontaneous tendency toward equilibration of kinetic energy throughout the vat. Deacon notes that constraint plays a similar function in informational entropy as it does in thermodynamic entropy. A signal imposes a constraint on random noise; e.g., obtaining information about the external heat source applied to the vat constrains the randomness of our speculations about the vat. In empirical research the scientist proposes a hypothesis that imposes an informational constraint on some corner of the world. Data are collected using some sort of random selection process. The data are analyzed to ascertain whether the proposed hypothesis partitions the informational randomness of the sample into two or more components: a component explained by the hypothesis plus a component that remains unexplained, random, entropic. This systematic reduction of “degrees of freedom” entails the reduction of informational entropy via the work of imposing ideational constraints on our understanding of the world. Usually the subsequent study doesn’t attempt to debunk or overthrow the earlier findings. Rather, effort is made to partition the data further, imposing more constraints on the randomness in order to account for even more of the variance, thus further reducing the informational entropy.

    In short, the scientific task isn’t so much to work outside the box; it’s to make the box a better fit. While elegance is an attractive feature of boxes, rococo intricacies may be needed for the box to contain all of the folds and creases of the world.

  5. JohnM/Jacob, I agree and thought I was illustrating that the out/in metaphor misses the actual dynamic, which is about how possibility/freedom are both generated and eliminated by constraint. I take this to be what Deacon is on about with absences, but Asher and JohnD are more up on that than I. Anyway I’m sorry if I did not make this point clearly enough in the flow of associations. Notice however that literatures generate, via constraining what’s possible to think, the contrast spaces within/against which it’s possible to have ‘good’ ideas.

    JohnD, yes. Re: partitioning, I was just reading over at Jonathan’s site a piece on medieval climate change and surplus. Incidentally there was a line about there being a chicken-egg sort of problem about peasant productivity and modes of exploitation thereof. And it struck me that any time there’s an apparent chicken-egg problem what’s happening is that the gain is not turned up high enough on analysis of the feedback-loop. In essence the data is too chunky (not partitioned enough) to resolve the dynamic.

    Rachel and Asher, yes yes. I sneakily embedded a link to the Dunning-Kruger effect to get the flipside point into the subtext. There are some gnarly trade-offs between focused expertise and relational generalization; how that plays out in particular psychologies and public receptions is fraught and fascinating.

  6. Your point was clear; I was just adding my association to the string. In reading St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels I was struck by how much they adhered structurally to the traditional norms of “the bourgeois novel”: emphasis on character development, depth and interiority, relationships, linear storytelling, a strong sense of meaning and moral. By functioning within this literary box St. Aubyn is tacitly agreeing with the worldview that created the box. So even though the aristocrats who populate his books could and do disregard bourgeois constraints, the personal and interpersonal consequences are dire. The books are good; I believe they’re at least partially autobiographical.

  7. Understood JohnD, I partitioned you from JohnM.

    My impression is you’re right in St. Aubyn’s case about genre embedding a shared worldview; but must that be so, or can say the bourgeois novel be repurposed, its degrees of freedom further partitioned perhaps?

  8. I liked this post very much, much more in fact than an article of my own I posted to my blog a couple of years ago dealing with similar issues.

    I’m preparing for several job interviews at the moment. Hopefully I can come back later and think through what you have written more carefully and say something halfway intelligent.

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