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Polyphonic Metamodelization

Chaos and instability, concepts only beginning to acquire formal definitions, were not the same at all. A chaotic system could be stable if its particular brand of irregularity persisted in the face of small disturbances. [Edward] Lorenz’s system was an example… The chaos Lorenz discovered, with all its unpredictability, was as stable as a marble in a bowl. You could add noise to this system, jiggle it, stir it up, interfere with its motion, and then when everything settled down, the transients dying away like echoes in a canyon, the system would return to the same peculiar pattern of irregularity as before. It was locally unpredictable, globally stable. Real dynamical systems played by a more complicated set of rules than anyone had imagined. The example described in the letter from Smale’s colleague was another simple system, discovered more than a generation earlier and all but forgotten. As it happened, it was a pendulum in disguise: an oscillating electronic circuit. It was nonlinear and it was periodically forced, just like a child on a swing.

It was just a vacuum tube, really, investigated in the twenties by a Dutch electrical engineer named Balthasar van der Pol. A modern physics student would explore the behavior of such an oscillator by looking at the line traced on the screen of an oscilloscope. Van der Pol did not have an oscilloscope, so he had to monitor his circuit by listening to changing tones in a telephone handset. He was pleased to discover regularities in the behavior as he changed the current that fed it. The tone would leap from frequency to frequency as if climbing a staircase, leaving one frequency and then locking solidly onto the next. Yet once in a while van der Pol noted something strange. The behavior sounded irregular, in a way that he could not explain. Under the circumstances he was not worried. “Often an irregular noise is heard in the telephone receivers before the frequency jumps to the next lower value,” he wrote in a letter to Nature. “However, this is a subsidiary phenomenon.” He was one of many scientists who got a glimpse of chaos but had no language to understand it. For people trying to build vacuum tubes, the frequency-locking was important. But for people trying to understand the nature of complexity, the truly interesting behavior would turn out to be the “irregular noise” created by the conflicting pulls of a higher and lower frequency.

~Gleick – Chaos: Making A New Science, pp. 48-9

My question: what if van der Pol could not have noticed the patterns he did if he had simply used a graph? What if the structures of music (e.g. chord progressions, key, octaves) can allow insight into patterns that cannot be fully conveyed via visual media, i.e. graphs?

There’s a flash game related to this topic here. Though I normally avoid such frivolous things, this one is quite simple, yet allows for a great amount of creativity. If Noam Chomsky could develop syntax out of a little grammar game he would play between sessions of ‘serious’ linguistic work, so, perhaps, one might be able to eventually come up with some practical application for playthings like this…

People’s seemingly inherent attraction to games is something that I still don’t understand, but it is nonetheless quite fascinating, not to mention (potentially) useful, as in this case.

Why The French Treat Their Intellectuals Like Americans Treat Their Rock Stars

It will strike the average person as fairly odd that France and America have such different forms of cultural icon, and that seemingly opposite values can prevail among youth of different cultures at the same point in history. Though I am not a historian of French or American culture, McLuhan’s media theory offers a satisfactory answer based solely on formal concerns, since the content of a medium (as McLuhan expertly shows) is auxiliary to the true reason for its popularity, i.e. its purely formal attributes.

Around roughly the same time period (around the 1950s, give or take a decade), the youth culture of both France and America took a drastic turn from what preceded it. McLuhan explains that American culture since its formation was traditionally literate (i.e. raised on newspapers, literature, etc., and concomitant linearity & compartmentalization of thought), as opposed to the culture of France, which was traditionally oral. From this basic description is the key to understanding this divergence. For whatever reason, the younger generation decided to rebel against the predominant media in their cultures. In doing so, these two cultures exchanged media forms, so to speak. While rock stars exemplified the nonlinear, erratic thinking of electric culture to the Americans, intellectuals (Sartre, say, or Camus) exemplify literate thinking by their sustained themes (angst, absurdity), their emphasis on lebensprojekt* (or better yet, whatever the inverse of this would be, but retaining its lifelong, linear manner), and their general abstruseness (i.e. one must read their work closely, whereas in oral transmission of information clarity & ease are essential).

Desmond Morris, in his book The Naked Ape (pg. 105), explains that the sociobiological reason for young women to scream and go into hysterics at music concerts (“They not only scream, they also grip their own and one another’s bodies, they writhe, they moan, they cover their faces and they pull at their hair”) is that they (unconsciously) desire to show their peers how they have matured to the point of being able to process complex emotions. As evidence of this thesis, he notes that if a teenage girl were to confront a rock star while on her own, it would never occur to her to scream at him. It is not at all difficult to switch the medium around in this case, and to see that reading (mainly literature, and perhaps some philosophy) could justly serve this end, provided that enough conspicuous consumption (or discourse about what each youth has been reading lately) occurs that one’s choice of reading material can be adequately broadcast to one’s peers.

Thus we see that youth possess a sociobiological need to display to their peers their developing emotional maturity, which must be satisfied one way or another. Looking at American and French culture from a purely formal perspective, then, we see that their situation is the same. Each culture merely had a different historical situation (in America, mass literacy, in France, oral culture) to rebel against.


*[German] Work to which one has devoted one’s whole life.


  • It may seem strange that the youth of these two cultures could have such different interests, but actually they’re not as different as they first seem.
  • As Marshall McLuhan shows, exposure to different types of media motivates different types of thought. People raised on books will think in a linear, compartmentalized, and mechanistic manner. People raised on television and music will think in a more nonlinear, transdisciplinary, and ‘organic’ manner.
  • Traditionally, America was characterized by its ‘print culture’, whereas France was characterized by its ‘oral culture’.
  • Around the mid-20th century, the youth of both cultures rebelled against the traditional mindsets of their respective cultures. 
  • Music in America and literature/philosophy in France fulfill the same need, i.e. for teenagers to display to peers their ability to process complex emotions.