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Staring into the abyss; an exploration of chaos

July 26, 2022

This is going to be a rambling ride, so strap in. There was once a little TV show about vampires called True Blood. It run for several seasons, and I abandoned it around Season 4. Season 1 was interesting, 3 was deliciously campy, but season 2 contained seeds of wisdom. In Season 2, a maenad arrives at a small Louisiana town. An embodiment of chaos and rupture of the rules of society, the maenad is especially attracted to the areas of intense control – the places where people have tried to suppress chaos out of existence (in the series embodied by the local policeman). Of course it all goes sideways; the situation gets completely out of control, the maenad becomes monstrous, and (according to the rules of Hollywood) the monster must be killed. Balance is restored.  

It’s only a TV show, but that disruption revealed something real, that perhaps was lost in the narrative of restoration to former order. When we try to control chaos by tamping down on it, we are at greatest risk of releasing it. In Cynefin terms, the dangerous fall into the Chaotic domain is from Order. And before we move any further, a clarification that here I am using the Cynefin-based definition of chaos throughout, defined by the absence of effective constraint. Not at all the same as chaos theory in mathematics and physics, which explores the impact of small changes on non-linear dynamical systems. With that clear and out of the way, we see here a delicate balance: uncontrolled chaos is dangerous and destructive, but trying to eliminate chaos is equally dangerous (not to mention impossible). How do we negotiate this balance? How do we accept and use the potential of chaos without letting it take over?

Skimming chaos

As True Blood unwittingly showed, managing chaos has become something of a lost skill in many societies today; there used to be edges, out of sight corners, spaces well-delineated by ritual where chaos could be expressed and released in a controlled way. The carnival is my favourite example. Here, anything goes. You can dress in bells and animal skills, paint your face with ashes and dance in the streets. You can slap the mayor. Your granny can sing the most bawdy of songs without blinking. But only here, and only now, and then it’s over. We can already see the key elements: define the space, have a way to transition into it and out of it, and allow suspension of the rules within. 

In organisational contexts, or wherever this might be deliberately attempted, the latter part might be the hardest, and in many cases it will simply take time and there are no shortcuts. Anyone who has attempted to tell a room of people “ok, now anything goes” will know that all you get back is sheepish looks (or, at best, a performative response). If you want to trigger a quasi-chaotic state to explore additional options, release pent-up energy, and make innovative connections, it isn’t enough to say “now there are no rules”. You have to actually suspend constraints, and then sit back and wait. And you might want to bring a book because it will be a while.

But it is not a risk-free strategy, and it should not be attempted without a way to ritually transition back into the saf(er) spaces and ideally a really good monitoring mechanisms of the novelty that might emerge. Think back to the depiction of the liminal domains of Cynefin: there is an excellent reason the liminal domain between Chaotic and Complex is safely closed off from the remainder of the Chaotic domain. The central domain of aporia also suggests that a safer exit strategy from the contained liminal space is shifting into the aporetic domain and re-examining our options

The problem and attraction of chaos

But why is chaos dangerous? If it is such an inevitable part of the interaction of different systems, and if it contains generative aspects, why does it need to be expressed in controlled ways? Can’t we not just let it do its thing? Here I will refer to Dave Snowden, who has long voiced the warning that chaos is the favourite playground of fascists and autocrats. When absolutely, truly, anything goes and the only way forward is through draconian decision-making (remember that we are no longer dancing at the edges of chaos, but we are plunged in its core) it is much easier to take advantage.

An additional warning is against theories that see chaos as an inevitable part of a circle of creation, destruction, and regeneration for human systems. This is maybe less dangerous (and usually less malicious) but by positioning chaos as an inevitability it sidesteps or even glorifies the very material pain, destruction, and suffering this would entail as an inevitable sacrifice to larger dynamics. The counterpoint is that we do have influence over those dynamics (and by implication we also have responsibility) and there are choices other than surrendering to chaos.

All of this comes with a reminder of what chaos actually means in this context. Again: the very rare and brief state of the absence of effective constraints. There are deep traditions that teach us how to handle this space: acknowledge without suppression, accept the potential, but don’t embrace, feed, and sustain it.

Image credits:

Banner image is a fragment of an Attic red-figure cup, depicting a Maenead ca. 480 BC. Louvre Museum. Image is in the public domain.

In-text image is a depiction of The Tower Tarot card. Artist is Pamela Coleman Smith. Work is in the public domain.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.
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