Anguish Symmetry: A New Science for the Anthropocene

January 7, 2016

Anguish symmetry is a conceivable science. Here are its theoretical foundations.

First, let us examine this article from The Nation, “What I Discovered from Interviewing Imprisoned ISIS Fighters,” by Lydia Wilson. What Wilson discovered—in the sense that facts already plainly apparent to some can be still be “discovered” by others—is that the motivation for Jihad is predominantly the trauma of subjugation to Western power. She describes how the demographics of captured ISIS fighters in Iraq are extremely homogeneous: men in their late 20s,  who came of age under the American occupation, and were old enough to comprehend but too young to have any agency within the chaos that ensued. Wilson writes:

They are children of the occupation, many with missing fathers at crucial periods (through jail, death from execution, or fighting in the insurgency), filled with rage against America and their own government. They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe.”

Second, the documentary ISIS in Afghanistan, made by PBS. Perhaps because ISIS isn’t on as spectacularly bloody a rampage in Afghanistan as in Iraq and Syria, this documentary, in lieu of execution footage, delivers its requisite atrocities in the form of footage of ISIS’s schools. In addition to avenging their anguished childhoods, the men of ISIS also appear to be reproducing them in the minds and bodies of the next generation.

This tendency for trauma to propagate from one person to another, and to continue inexorably down through the generations, is a familiar one. It is the same tedious trudging journey misery, in one form or another, has been making down a series of bodies for millennia. Nothing in this constitutes a new science, certainly not one with so colorful a name as anguish symmetry.


In which the men who grew up under the American occupation of Iraq recreate essential aspects of the experience for the boys who did not

But third, let us consider this scientific paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Childhood maltreatment is associated with altered fear circuitry and increased internalizing symptoms by late adolescence.” The details are fascinating, but all that is really important is that the authors found a linear correlation between the magnitude of childhood trauma a person experienced and a pattern of brain activity. To restate this in slightly more abstract terms: an experience of trauma was correlated to a spatial configuration with complex dynamics.

Fourth, it must be acknowledged that the extent to which trauma influences the coarse structure of global events is unknown. In practice it is immeasurable, but in principle it is quantifiable. Imagine a world which reproduces ours in most respects but differs in an essential few: People exist in the same numbers but somehow are not afflicted by their wounds. People possess the same general level of technology, but without overtly conflict-oriented tools like prisons and nuclear weapons. Don’t think about how it works—the implausibility of this scenario is immaterial.

In this world, the men of Iraq did not lose their fathers to the American invasion, the boys of Iraq are not losing their childhoods to despotic training camps, and so on. There are no existing hostilities between people. How long does it take for everything to turn back to normal? How long does it take for us to begin cutting each other’s heads off, beating up our children, and setting the rainforest on fire? Do we ever?

Man stands in front of a forest fire in Pelalawan, in the Indonesian province of Riau

Indonesia finally gets hip to the 21st century’s prevailing aesthetic themes, vanishing in a hellish conflagration.

Many would be tempted to read this as largely a rhetorical exercise, as a thought experiment clearly designed to lead one to the conclusion that were it not for all the existing hurt in the world, no more would be created. This is not at all the intention. Clearly, profound trauma is ubiquitous; clearly, it shapes behavior; clearly its effects are often unconscious. Thus it has properties that could allow it to be thought of and modeled like a virus or other propagating entity: something that is foreign to the system. If eradicated, it would not be relied upon to simply re-emerge.

Nonetheless, the actual state of the world indicates something deeper within human architecture must be at work—otherwise how would anguish come to occupy its monumental share of the human experience in the first place? Ultimately it seems that the ways trauma is transmitted between people is both highly contingent and highly fundamental.

It’s interesting to ask what happens if we run our implausible experiment, in which the world is reset without existing traumas, over and over again. And if each time, we could perhaps introduce some few different initial injuries—a reform school or a military invasion here, a few lashes of a whip there—and see how they form different patterns of subsequent propagation and reiteration, ultimately producing different patterns of global violence and destruction.

Fifth and finally, from these formative elements, we are ready to synthesize our new science by referencing an Ising model. Ising models were developed to model lattices of solid substances (e.g. crystals). The details are terribly interesting again, and again, mostly superfluous. Their essential aspect as far as anguish symmetry is concerned is that they consist of cells whose state influences the states of surrounding cells. Model parameters can be such that all cells end up the same, or cells occupy states at random. At some parameter values, there are remarkable developments, like the spontaneous emergence of fractal objects. Despite its simplicity, the Ising model can describe some facets of reality with great accuracy. To quote from Solé and Goodwin’s Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology:

“…disparate systems sharing some fundamental microscopic properties…will behave in the same way close to their respective critical points. This idea is called universality. Simple rules can generate very complex patterns of behavior, and the interactions among the different parts of a complex system—and not the detailed properties of their component parts—are the relevant part of the story.”

sst-ising model

An Ising model. Cells switch from black or white based on rules of interaction with adjacent cells. Black and white states could represent different orientations of a particle in a lattice, or equally plausibly represent the spread of an epidemic (infected/uninfected) or human settlements (occupied/unoccupied).

Ising models themselves probably don’t play any actual role in this putative new field, but they are invoked as theoretical justification for the very general conclusion that the activity patterns of (at least some) systems can be measured with adequate abstraction to allow comparison with (at least some) other systems, even when the components of said systems are neither similar nor necessarily even understood in great detail.

The brains of humans display patterns of activity measurable with technologies like electroencephalograms (EEGs), which are amenable to a whole suite of analytical techniques. The activity of human societies is likewise rigorously quantified by cadres of scientists in diverse fields, and  ecology generates tremendous amounts of data which is synthesized and analyzed by many means. Somewhere within the range of analytical techniques that exist for these disparate sources of information, a common ground could conceivably sought: a means of characterizing changes in one of these systems in terms of corresponding changes in another of these systems.

Here, then, is the essential insight of anguish symmetry: somewhere, a person is using violence despicably, and their experience of this violence is generating a pattern of brain activity. Somewhere, an international mining company is deciding to do something deplorable. Somewhere, many thousands of hectares of rainforest are burning. From this burning forest, many people are fleeing, and some of them, displaced and wounded, can perhaps be counted on in their struggle to someday use violence despicably. All these patterns of activity at different scales reciprocally inform and influence one another, and somewhere there might be an appropriate mathematical descriptor that allows us to see the essential structural universality of anguish, the essential configurations of pain that these different levels of reality transmit back and forth so freely.

As we enter a stage of truly catastrophic, truly systemic ecological breakdown, every sign indicates there will be great waves of traumatic change that reverberate through societies and individuals and be transmitted back into ecosystems, in an intensifying and cyclical fashion. It is tempting to imagine that the hidden structure universally underlying anguish is beautiful, and the revealing of it will bring a small measure of joy to the world.







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