Complex Singularities

Adventures in Thinking Outside the Tower
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The Surfer and the Ice Cube

Recently I unearthed this paper I wrote for Brian Massumi’s brilliant PhD seminar on Discourse and Mediated Messages. The brilliance of this seminar was that we didn’t have a single reading about discourse; rather, we looked under and behind discourse to look at structuration, how things take form, event theory and and the bifurcation of reality. More than any other course, this seminar influenced the way I understand and approach discourse analysis and moreover was key in moving my thinking from discourse to event and formulating the notion of the “complex singularity” upon which this blog is based. This is the short paper in which I tease out this concept.

The Surfer and the Ice Cube: “Soft” Intervention and Movement in Sanford Kwinter’s “The Complex and the Singular.” 

November 29, 2004.

Real time is more truly an engine [...] than a procession of images—it is expressed only by producing, or more precisely, by drawing matter into a process of becoming-ever-different, and to the product of this becoming-ever-different—to this in-built wildness—we have given the name novelty. Yet exactly what is novelty, and from where does it come? What might thinking about it make possible in this world, in this civilization whose deepest religious and philosophical beliefs, and whose social and political institutions, are committed precisely to reducing, eliding, or denying the continual mutations and insistent mischievousness of unmasterable innovation and the wild becoming that drives it? (Kwinter 5).1

What are we to take from this statement? Sanford Kwinter asks this question near the beginning of “The Complex and the Singular,” but in reality it’s more of a proposition than a question. He’s asking us to put at risk, as Isabelle Stengers might say, our conceptions of novelty and our understandings of where “the new” originates (and by extension, where everything that once was new came from). Thinking in this way thrusts us back in time, making our historical perception temporally obverse, forcing us to conceive of the nature of novelty in order to push us on our apprehensions of what currently is. It is therefore not so much forcing us to abandon our abstractions, our notions of the thingness of things, as to generalize them, to see them as the-once-new, as entities that have come about within a nature that itself is “wild, indifferent, and accidental” (4).

He challenges us to see things architecturally, “to consider all architectures as technical objects and all technical objects as architectures” (21). By this he means that “around each and every object there may be associated a corresponding complex of habits, methods, gestures, or practices that are not attributes of the object but nonetheless characterize its mode of existence” (21). Many details could be layered upon this pairing of understandings (between the world of built objects and the world of prehended entities), and Kwinter does indeed do this quite expertly, but the nucleus of this move is his desire to express all entities as things that have come about and that, once they have been “built,” go on to become influences in the becomings of other things in an ongoing process of unfolding through time:

[Time] is not a unitary strand distributing homogeneous units of past, present, and future in a fixed empirical order, but is rather a complex, interactive, “thick” manifold of distinct yet integrated durations. Events belong to a class known as “emergent phenomena”—the product and expression of sudden communicative coherences or “prehensions” (Whitehead) of converging qualities inexplicably interweaving and unfolding together, even though they may originate at vastly different temporal and phenomenal scales. (22)

But this notion of the complex entanglement underlying all objects that “have become” is, alone, an incomplete picture of Kwinter’s perspective on matter. For in Kwinter’s conception, there is no “have become,” only constant, calamitous becoming. To fully understand the nature (and power) of the complex, we must also explore the notion of singularity.

Singularity is, for Kwinter, the order that emerges from chaos, from the “complex, infinitely entailed, dynamical system, or fluid manifold” of the world (24).2 In distinction to the “random, or uncombined (incoherent) differences, which emerge and pass without leaving a trace” (24) singularities “give rise to potential or real morphogeneses within and across a system” (25). In short, they are the complex becomings that “matter”; and by matter here we can read, have become the matter (or part of the matter) of a further becoming. As Whitehead explores, they have value; they can be classed among the actual entities, as opposed to the events that made them, which are within time and are therefore only an ensemble (or society) of actual entities, as opposed to actual entities themselves.3 In Kwinter’s words:

[A] singularity describes specifically that type of difference, in a world of perpetually engendered differences, that is produced at some point along a particular flow and that may be combined with another flow to induce a difference at another scale or level in the manifold. (26)

For Kwinter, the event actualizing a given complex produces a virtual entity (a singularity) that is at once real, and yet not an entity that is self-reactualizable—rather, it’s one that can only then become part of other, further, becomings.

And yet, if we take Kwinter at face value, taking his propositions on novelty and singularity at once, it leads us into absurdity. If “no novelty appears without becoming, and no becoming without novelty” (5), then each new moment is a multiplex manifold of singularities. Each and every novelty—for how can we privilege some novelties over others, all being equal with respect to their ability to become a singular influence to something—is at once singularity and complex, society and actual entity (to wear Whitehead’s words). Each becoming is a convergence of forces and a force in its own right, and becomes the matter of the next convergence, the next manifold-instant. This doesn’t invalidate Kwinter’s framework, but it does turn it in towards itself, making it cyclical—a Deleuzo-Guattarian machine, perhaps—a self-renewing nexus of complex singularities, at once influencing and influenced, constantly becoming, constantly become new.

If this collapses Kwinter’s distinction between the virtual and the actual, with every actual thing becoming immediately virtual and the matter for the next convergence, perhaps this inward-turning has in fact realized his and Whitehead’s conceptions together: “the many [becoming] one, and being increased by one” (Whitehead 21), constantly and endlessly in a “minute and ceaseless procession of catastrophes” (10). If production is at once and immediately production/destruction then we have indeed reached Kwinter’s goal of leaving us with a conception of “‘movement’ as a first principle and not merely a special, dismissable, case” (11).

What, then, is the productivity of this model? At its very outset, Kwinter states as one of his goals to engage the problem of atrophying agency, to “[bring into relief, grasp, interrogate and perhaps transform] our capacity to engage the processes of contemporary reality” (5). He speaks of the fully coded and determined ice cube, resembling “every other just as it resembles it[’s] own mother mold” (26). Fully determined, and metonymic of subjectivity in mass society, the cubic subject is “locked into a static [...] system that reproduces a pregiven form [from which all] the aleatory conditions, all of chance, hazard, all virtuality and sensitivity to other disturbances and changes in the environment—all wildness and openness—are scrupulously (i.e., by design) eliminated” (26). To these depressingly strictured conditions, which remind us more than anything of Althusserian interpellation, he opposes the free-forming snowflake which “maintains its sensitivity both to time and to its complex milieu” (27).

He then speaks of the surfer who “rather track[s], from within the flows, a variety of emerging features, singularities, and unfoldings with which they can meld” (28); of the skate- or snowboarder, who “transform[s] any found space” into something they can work with and use (29); and finally of the purist rockclimber, who, eschewing implements, “forges a morphogenetic figure in time [...] stream[s and] becomes fluid and soft [...] engag[ing] the universe’s wild and free unfolding” (31) by becoming the site of the calamitous micro-singular conjunctions of finger and ledge, palm and rock. These images of what Kwinter calls “soft” intervention (28) speak more than just to Kwinter’s commitment to see the many and various levels of organization of our universe as architectural events (from ice-formation, to parasailing and the 360°), or to the meta-incorporation of these events into architectural and philosophical theory, but first and foremost to the possibilities for movement and change in a world that seems increasingly inbricated in the structures and strictures of the perceived possible and over-concrete real.

Perhaps seeing the ongoing and universal production of novelty on all scales (from the micro-social to the macro-political) allows us a perspective that the Italian Futurists would have been very at home with: a world of pure dynamism. Within a world so conceived (or perhaps, if we agree with Kwinter, so realized) we can view the multiplex interlaced forces that transduce patterns of order between and among the various levels and complexes of reality-making not as strictures, as inescapable engines of repression and isolation, but as lines of flight, as constant creation, and as potentials for difference and movement.


Works Cited

Kwinter, Sanford. “The Complex and the Singular.” Architectures of Time: Toward a Theory of the Event in Modernist Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2001. 3-31.

Stengers, Isabelle. “Whitehead’s Account of the Sixth Day.” ts. Configurations. 2004.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. Corrected edition. New York: Free Press, 1967.


          1. Further references to Kwinter’s “The Complex and the Singular” will be given in the text.

          2. Though Kwinter does say “world” here, I believe it is charitable to think he, in fact, in this conception, takes in the entire universe.

          3. “And when the many that are what is felt, the feeling and the feeler, have come together into a real unity, the actual entity has attained what Whitehead calls “objective immortality,” it will feel no longer, experience no longer, but will be added to what will have to be felt by other subsequent entities.  The many have become one, and are increased by one” (Stengers 10).

Click here to download this paper as a pdf from

One Comment

  1. 1
    Posted 25 April 2014 at 2:04 pm | Link

    It’s a bit more subtle. It’s more like if there is no itidcanion, direct or indirect, that something exists, then either it doesn’t exit or it doesn’t matter .While you can’t see beyond an event horizon, we can infer a fair amount. Similarly, until the 50 s no one had ever seen the far side of the moon. Until then we’d only inferred its existence, but you’d be hard pressed to find a scientist who didn’t think it did.All of physics is a self-consciously naive attempt to extrapolate some simple mathematics into reality. But that math is based entirely on a careful study of reality. In this case; the math of general relativity. General relativity has already predicted (before any direct measurements were done) things like , , , , and .The first two have since been completely confirmed, there is a lot of evidence for the existence of black holes (for example; , a tiny, invisible object with a mass in excess of four million Suns), and the last two are in the works. Point is, it’s a very accurate, successful mathematical model, that has yielded a lot of predictive fruit already.The past the event horizon, all directions point to the center thing is another prediction of general relativity. It’s due to the very non-Euclidean (non- even!) nature of spacetime around ultra-dense objects. The big bang is a whole other thing.

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