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Monday, February 8, 2010

What is Fluxus Quo?

Supposed bust of Heraclitus from the Villa dei papiri in Herculaneum (bronze, Roman), Naples National Archaeological Museum

Dear Reader,

Just as Parmenides and Plato were the preeminent Hellenic philosophers advocating a static understanding of the cosmos, so Heraclitus was the preeminent Hellenic philosopher advocating a dynamic understanding of the cosmos. Although dismissed by the ignorant as a philosopher asserting that all things were made up of the element fire, Heraclitus actually strove to use the metaphors of fire, water, and many other things to try to capture the idea of the cosmos as a domain of radical transformation and flow, in which not only does nothing stay what it is eternally but also nothing is what it appears when you look below the surface, that everything that seems even briefly static is only kept that way temporarily through the intense dynamism of shifting, contesting cosmic forces.

Twenty-five hundred years of progress have not made any easier the difficulty Heraclitus experienced, the struggle to help people see past the sometimes static surfaces of things to understand the seething, roiling storm underneath. Even our very language works against us, as we find comfortable and therefore readily adopt terms like status quo that reinforce our attachment to the illusion of stasis while resisting terms like fluxus quo that might be the keys to unlocking our ability to see things as they truly are.

My first exposure to this term was in the summer of 1999 when I read a philosophical column in a magazine. Here was the crucial paragraph for me, a concise statement that captures the Hellenic view of the cosmos as a realm of change:

Nature is understood in at least two profound senses, becoming and intrinsic validity, which to the Greeks are equivocally the same. The first sense of nature, as physis—"becoming," "growing," the gerundive or process-form of the verb phuo—describes the domain of relentless, tidal mutation: nature is the realm of all things generated and perishable where nothing can remain simply what it is (we have our word "nature" out of Latin as Cicero's invention, by analogy with physis, from the past participle of the verb nascere, natus = having been born). All natural existence is pregnant with its other, incubating cryptic forms of future order and orientation which are presently unthinkable: to exist in nature is to be variable and subvertible—all that is natural changes, falls prey to the fate of alliosis or "othering." All of natural existence is thus in motion, on the way from one state into another: Heraclitus' incisive dictum Panta rhei—All things flow—captures for all time the quintessence of ancient dynamism: the world as "fluxus quo."

——from "End Times: Millennia in Microcosm, Ancient Civilization Part 1: Nature as Becoming and as Intrinsic Truth" (Kenneth Smith, originally written 15 February 1997, published in The Comics Journal #215, August 1999)
Like most reasonably educated people, I knew the term flux, certainly in two senses from the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language—(1) the action of flowing, and (2) a continuous succession of changes of condition, composition, or substance—but when I read Smith's definition of fluxus quo above it was a revelation.

Here, I thought, was a term we badly needed in English, a term that in a nutshell captured an essential but hidden truth about the cosmos, a term that was especially vital for understanding the VISTA software lifecycle. Eventually I came to understand that it was not just VISTA but all medical informatics that were driven by the principle described by this term. The practice of medicine continually changes and flows as our understanding of it improves, so medical software, too, has to continually change and flow.

Where status quo is best understood as things being the way they are because they are standing still, fluxus quo describes things as being the way they are because they are changing.

The best way, though, to understand this or any other cosmic principle is not through a description of it, since principles are not things, but through a description of what it does, how it acts, how it changes the world, because principles are agents of change that generate patterns of flow in the cosmos.

So what about fluxus quo, the principle underlying all other principles? How does it work?

Yours truly,

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