I almost mentioned Douglas Hofstadter’s book, I Am a Strange Loop, in last week’s post (“The Mythical Economy,” 23 July 2008). He could have gone with Ouroboros on the cover too, but instead he went with mise en abyme.
Or maybe he couldn’t have gone with Ouroboros. While Ouroboros is, on a superficial level, obviously a strange loop and a symbol that could be seen as self-referential, a peek at the index of Hofstadter’s book at the entry for “video feedback” — a technological mise en abyme — shows that he has a thicker analogy in mind:
video feedback, 65-71; as candidate for strange loop, 103, 187, 203, 361; epiphenomena in, 68, 70-71; fear of meltdown, 56, 57; fractalic gestalts of, 204; lack of “I” in, 203; lack of perception in, 75-77, 187, 203; lack of symbols in, 203; lack of thinking in, 203; locking-in of patterns in, 70; parameters of, 65-67, 69, 75; reverberation in, 67-68; two systems entwined in, 210-211, 253-254; vanilla loop in, 208
While I’m amused at the notion of an Ouroboros economy, I can’t really think of any real correlate to the slightly humorous image. Unless maybe something like a naturalistic notion of the human economy, wherein the human economy is nature parasitic upon itself. The destruction of the biological world as giving birth to the artifactual or the cybernetic world. Ouroboros reborn for the Twenty-first Century!
The thing that’s really causing me to bring up mise en abyme is some thoughts on how people think about the future. People are faced with the need to decide and nearly all decisions that people make are, when not completely about the future, at least future-oriented. People’s thoughts about the future are divided into two closely related activities, carried out in tandem: planning and prediction. Prediction occasionally becomes an activity of its own, but for the most part prediction is an activity carried out in service of the more pragmatic planning.
Planning is a branching strategic game. It works like this. I have a goal whose attainment is not simple: it involves a number of steps and it could be thwarted at any one of them. I start with my known situation and have a vague idea what the path to my goal would be and I make a series of hypothetical decisions. I test the soundness of a hypothetical decision by predicting the outcome of such an action. That is, I imagine a potential future.
In the first round, the one inaugurated in the present, I know what my options are because they are present. In the second round and in all subsequent rounds, I must employ prediction to imagine what options I will have to choose from because from then on I am dealing in an imagined future. I repeat the hypothetical decision, predict, test, simulate new options algorithm down until I reach the last round whose decision results in the attainment of the goal.
When I make predictions about the future, I rarely make a single prediction, since prediction, especially the sort of intuitionistic variant that people employ for the purpose of most of their planning, is not a very reliable. So I predict a range of possible futures. And in each possible future I face a range of possible decisions that I can take. Predicting and planning branch. Most of these I abandon in favor of the most fruitful seeming paths. But if a path dead-ends, I back up until I find the probable fateful decision that sent me down the path to the dead end. I recollect the other options at that possible future and imagine my way down another branch. I also generally flag a number of contingency plans. I went with this predicted future, but as things actually unfold, if it turns out that I predicted wrong, I have a plan ready for that other branch too.
When I have what I imagine to be a satisfactory path from present to goal, I lock in each decision hypothetically made into “what I’ve decided upon.”
This is a pretty systematic model and not necessarily exactly how most people make plans. People rarely sit town and carry it out algorithmically from beginning to end. More frequently people engage in this activity in fits and starts, not taking the problem from start to finish, but working on pieces that strike them at various occasions throughout their day. They absentmindedly do it while at their work computer, or do it extremely quickly while laying a joint plan with a partner over the telephone. Or maybe they try to be thorough about it and make a list on a notepad so they can see what’s done and what still in need of attention. Whatever the case, I think that ultimately this is what people are doing.
The important point for mise en abyme is that near future decisions can only be locked in once more distant future decisions have been validated. Each step is dependent on the one after it having been made first. One starts the planning and predicting from the present and works one’s way forward, but one decides, as it were, backward, from the future to the present. Predictions and plans regarding the immediate future include as a part within them predictions and plans regarding the immediate future, which in turn contain predictions and plans about the distant future and so on. My thoughts about the future are mise en abyme insofar as they contain within them further thoughts about more distant futures.
What one is doing in this process of planning for the future is conducting is a depth first search of potential futures. And depth first search is canonically thought of as recursive.
Mise en abyme seems to have a lot more analogistic or systemizing potential. Scale symmetry (e.g. fractals) along with all the related phenomena that can be grouped under that pattern seem coterminous with mise en abyme. Hegel’s logical schema seems like a highly abstract instance of mise en abyme, where each intellectual system is subsumed into a higher order intellectual system.
Perhaps there is a historical development of the conceptual depth and sophistication of the idea of self-referentiality. Ouroboros is simple cyclicality, though extrapolated into a notion of infinity or eternity. Homunculus is a limited instance of scale symmetry. Modern formal recursion are the culmination.