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The Fractal Era

“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.

mandelbrot1Think 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.

27 thoughts on “The Fractal Era

  1. I have always thought that “Postmodern” was a terrible way to describe an era. “Fractal Era” is much more descriptive and relevant – bounded chaos is how a lot of us might describe our experience with today’s world.

  2. What a great term! I do think that we have to call this era and this century something different. “The Fractal Era” is just about perfect.

    I wonder why you didn’t mention Frank Gehry, however. What can you say about his work as a postmodernism, specifically the Weisman Gallery?

  3. Thanks so much.

    Frank Gehry is kind of a bridge between eras, in my opinion. His form is very fractal, but using materials like stainless steel is very modernist – “Just look at how clever we humans are!” I wish he took more cues from nature and lost the audacity a bit, but the principle is good.

  4. The Modern era is not over. Modernism began with the industrial revolution. The ability to build in a new way. Instead of having to hand craft all pieces of a building, now parts could be manufactured and ordered. That inspired designers, particularly the Bauhaus. The design that first came from the Modern era was a reflection of the new materials that the designers had to work with, “building as machine” if you will.

    Fast forward to what is called the Post Modern era. I will argue that this is just part of the Modern era. Architecture is still built in the same way as when the Modern era was born (parts and pieces specified and manufactured in a factory, building as machine). The only thing that changed was a longing for a different type of decoration.

    Frank Gehry, is a modernist. He used computers to come up with new ways to design his buildings. Special parts are custom made in factories for him (as are done with many modern buildings). Still, carpet is ordered, railings are ordered, lights are ordered, diffusers are order, as are most parts of the building just as when the industrial revolution began and the Modern movement started.

    Look at other era’s throughout history, such as the Gothic era for example. There are many things associated with the Gothic era (art, culture, etc.) but none more identifiable than the architecture. What makes the architecture so easy to identify? Is is a design choice that architects made? No, as with most eras it was a leap in technology that allowed them to build in a new way. The “flying buttress” that put the structure on the outside of the building, allowing tall interior spaces (that were narrow) and created the distinct exterior look of the era.

    I believe that we do not get to decide when the Modern era is over, no matter how much we would like to. Human kind will need to make some kind of giant leap in technology that changes the entire way that buildings are constructed and creates a new look to the architecture we create. Not just a different way we assemble the parts, such as what Frank Gehry does.

    It will be up to future generations to decide when our Modern era really began and when it will end.

    Judy

  5. You’re totally right. When I see a fractal image, like the one you have, I hear Phillip Glass in my head. These things are all connected. The world does look more and more complicated, but somewhere deep inside it’s very simple.

    Keep making the connections! We need them to understand our world and how it’s changing.

  6. Have you ever heard of “deconstructivism”? I think it is what you are getting at with the description of “fractal”. Phillip Glass is very deconstructovist. Another example that everyone can understand is the movie “Pulp Fiction” where the story line doesn’t follow the traditional timeline, but jumps around in order to tell the story. Deconstructivism is considered part of “Post-modernism”, and in my opinion, is still part of the Modern era. There are many reasons for this, but the main argument is the basic one that we are still in the industrial age where products are manufactured and produced in a similar manner as where when the Modern era began.

    I have a question to consider. Since most eras lasted centuries, and the Modern era just began at the end of the 1800’s, why is there a big rush for the Modern era to end and a new era to begin? In my mind we are right mix of the Modern era, with transformations happening within the style of it as it matures and grows.

  7. Thanks, everyone.

    I like the term “Fractal Era”, of course, but I do think that it’s time to start looking at other terms. I fully agree that “postmodern” is just a subset of “modern”, and should not be considered as particularly different – regardless of the art form. Postmodernism is a reaction, not a movement.

    I regret not spending more time on minimalism in literature, painting, and music, and I may have to revisit that later. There is a point where the search for the essence of the form abandons the ideas of “modernism”, and I do think we’ve crossed that long ago.

    Architecture is a bit conservative as art forms go because it does require changes in building technology. Judy, you’re right. Let’s see where things go with that, but it’s unlikely to change rapidly – especially during this downturn. I hope that some of Chris Alexander’s alternative approaches start to really catch on.

    It is a bit presumptuous to name an era that you’re living in. However, the term “Baroque” was used contemporary to the period along with “Rococo”, which also goes for “Romatic Era” along with “Enlightenment Era”. There’s clearly some flux at the time, but the principles are laid out and named.

    The term “Modern” does come from the Latin “modo” and means “in the style of / right now”. That suggests it applies to any period we’re in now, but it can also be dispensed with as necessary. Certainly, the spirit that “right now” is terribly important, ala “Avant Garde”, typifies the feeling of artistic fashion in the twentieth century – and may not relate all that well to the twenty first.

    We’ll just have to see. For me, The Fractal Era starts in the year 2000. It’s a handy place to draw a line.

  8. Judy:

    “Deconstructionism” is very, very accurate when describing what I’m talking about. Does it qualify as a real era? Not by itself, unless it influences all art forms and matures a bit.

    I write these posts to start a dialogue, and to get people thinking. You got me back. Thanks! 🙂 I’ll follow up on Deconstructionism later.

  9. An important aspect of postmodern thought is doing away with objectivsm. Everything is relative, socially constructed, nothing is fixed. Some post-modernists go so far as to claim that “there is no objective and universal truth” is a universally and objectively true statement. (Seems kinda silly to me, but YMMV.)

    And while K-12 schools focus ever more stringently on “basics” and standardized multiple-choice tests with only one set of correct answers, the exact opposite is happening in our universities and our popular culture. The “me generation” of the 60’s and 70’s has gotten tenure and directors’ chairs, and they are busily indoctrinating the IM generation that everything is subjective.

    But a funny thing is happening – there’s a backlash. People seem to be very uncomfortable with the notion that nothing is real. They want answers and certainty. The fastest-growing social institutions are theologically-conservative churches. And overseas, of course, we’ve seen a large rise in fundamentalism among non-Christian religions.

    The irony is that, like fractals, fundamentalism is self-referential. 🙂

  10. Just discovered your blog and this older post caught my eye immediately! I have been writing about similar things lately on my own blog, so am glad to meet a kindred thinker. Have you seen the book “Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature & Science” by N. Katherine Hayles? It’s been around awhile (1991). She makes a similar point. You might want to take a look if you haven’t already. Great post!

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