“The Twentieth Century is over! We don’t have to be Modern anymore!” That’s how architecture and design critic James Howard Kunstler described his joy at the passing of time a few years ago. Modernism was dead and we all lived in a Post-Modernist word – whatever that means. So what kind of era do we live in, and why do we describe it in terms of not being the era before?
The backward-looking nature of the term “Post-Modernism” limits its usefulness. Isn’t there a more forward-looking term? I think the answer lies deep within the question itself, referring back to the need for any kind of handle at all. That’s why I’ve taken to calling our time the Fractal Era.
Think back to the twentieth century for a moment, difficult as it is to relate to the world of just ten years ago. Though it had its ups and downs we still generally believed that the efforts of humans could conquer just about anything. Buildings were constructed as enormous sculptures on the horizon because, frankly, we could.
That Modernist ethic saturated all the forms of art you can name. Literature felt free to explore “the human condition” despite the fact that this phrase doesn’t mean anything like what most people think. Art became abstract and “Representationalism” was the dirty word that easily dissed a painting that looked like something – it was reality that got a special term, not the flights of artistic fancy. Music became atonal and distant, as if a score was about the idea of music more than music itself. As Peter Schickele put it, “Avant-Garde music is a lot like communism – now that you know it’s not going to win, you can just sit back and enjoy it.”
Naturally, a lot of people reacted badly to this nonsense. They were laughed down at first, but as the general public increasingly felt like they were left out of the joke some alternatives gained favor. If we can choose to do anything, why not choose the traditional forms? Why can’t we chuck atonalism for Phillip Glass, or stuff internationalism aside for Michael Graves? Why not think smaller? And so we did.
But while a lot of people were reacting against Modernism to create Postmodernism, scientists were plugging away at a different view of reality. Benoit Mandelbrot, in the 1970s, started to realize that strange geometries result naturally when you describe an object that has its own definition embedded in the process of defining it. This recursion, or definition within itself, allows representations of fractional dimensions that are otherwise hard to understand. In other words, while artists were trying to celebrate human imagination, mathematicians were imagining something that would blow their minds.
Popular culture first heard about this in 1979s “Goedel, Escher, Bach” by Douglas Hofstadter. In this work, the relationship between recursive definitions in math to the work of Escher and Bach as artists laid the groundwork for a new era of artistic expression. It still hadn’t caught on my by the time James Gleick wrote “Chaos” in 1989. This work focused on the way fractal geometries allow us to understand our world in new ways. The key method is “Bounded Chaos”, or nearly unlimited range of motion and choices within a set of boundaries.
The traditional forms and understandings emphasized by Postmodernism are naturally enhanced by a mathematics that allows us to describe our world in ever greater precision while at the same time letting some of it go as purely chaotic. The traditional forms were often born in chaotic times where people used art to related to their world or architecture to protect themselves from it. The idea of “bounded chaos” gives Modernism the finger because it says that we can only know things within a boundary. Intuitively it helps to know, first and foremost, what you don’t know.
When we think about the events that have separated us from the overtly Modernism period a generation ago, the idea that chaos has come to rule stands out strongly. That this chaos can be described and bounded isn’t necessarily all that comforting, but it does allow us to get some idea just where things might go. This view of the world fits with both our latest understanding of math and our latest understanding of culture.
This is the Fractal Era, the Age of Bounded Chaos. Our lives are lived in more dimensions than we can count, some of them virtual. We cannot expect complete control over anything, but that’s the way of nature. We just have to go with it.
The Modern Era is over. Welcome to the Fractal Era.