Speedrun: Mess

This speedrun is a bit of an experiment and might go terribly. It’s a more open-ended topic than the ones I’ve tried before, and I’m not sure what I even want to know exactly.

The background is that I’m a big fan of Sarah Perry’s Tendrils of Mess in our Brains. This is a sketch of a satisfying theory of what mess is: interference from multiple conflicting ordering principles. (That’s probably too concise of a summary – see the post for more details and many good examples.)

I’d like to be able to contextualise this post, to have an idea about what other people have said about mess. Are there any other Big Theories of Mess? I’m not too sure where to start, even, but probably there is a Wikipedia article on mess. If not I’ll dredge Google Scholar. Let’s find out.


There is no Wikipedia article on mess 😦 Unless you’re looking for the military term.

Google Scholar is giving me articles written by people called Mess. This isn’t going well…

‘Theory of mess’ maybe? All sorts of things are coming up, mostly uninteresting. Maybe this paper on ‘Attuning to mess’? Oh it’s a book chapter, in some kind of military strategy context. Doesn’t look that promising for what I want.

Ok, try ‘What is mess’. Now I’ve found a paper that’s just called ‘Mess‘, by Tanggaard and Tue Juelsbo.

This text is about mess, feelings of loneliness and loss, and their potential creative power. In a recent paper on collaborative writing, Wegener (2014) shares her experience with the reader on how a writing refuge almost turned into a prison. Having spent two days at the refuge, piles of papers with interview transcripts and field-notes were in a total mess. The themes in the writing seemed irrelevant and boring. Feeling lost, Wegener realised that she needed to break free and do something, and so she eventually decided to leave the research files behind and enjoy life in the sun outside the dirty windows in her room (Figure 10.1). She walked out along the beach and, when she came back, she began reading A. C. Bryatt’s A Biographer’s Tale, which she found by chance in her messy suitcase. The book was just meant to be a leisurely read and not intended to serve as a research tool and yet, soon, Wegener found herself writing a fictional dialogue with the protagonist Phineas from the tale about feeling lost and in need of creative inspiration (see also Chapter 8).

Getting warmer, still not really what I want.

Further down there’s a book called A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, by Abrahamson and Freedman. The book preview looks kind of entertaining, but probably not going to get into any deep theory of mess. Hm, though I did just find this bit:

Mess Isn’t Necessarily an Absence of Order. Often a system is messy to some extent because of the lack of one specific type of order, even though other forms of order are present in abundance… What’s more, mess often arises from a failed order rather than from an absence of order.

This is sort of close to Perry’s thesis. But the book seems to be mostly more first-principles musings on mess, rather than helping me find more standard references. (Are there standard references? Where are the Established Theorists of Mess hanging out?)

There’s a categorisation of types of mess that may be worth returning to later, I’ll just add a screenshot in:

That’s probably all I’ll get out of this source for now. None of the other search results look useful. What about a general google search? Nope, totally useless, pages of dictionary definitions and other useless crap.

Hmm. This is not easy. It’s a mess, in fact. 41 minutes left, what to try next? Let’s search the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for the word ‘mess’. Nothing really about mess as such, just the word cropping up in various unrelated contexts. Where’s my Grand Theory of Mess??

OK I’ll go back to the original blog post and check for leads there. Oh OK there’s Alan Watts:

When you look at the clouds they are not symmetrical. They do not form fours and they do not come along in cubes, but you know at once that they are not a mess. A dirty old ashtray full of junk may be a mess but clouds do not look like that. When you look at the patterns of foam on water they never make an artistic mistake and they are not a mess. They are wiggly but in a way, orderly, although it is difficult for us to describe that kind of order.

Alan Watts, The Tao of Philosophy, p. 27.

I’ve always got some weird resistance to reading Alan Watts that I don’t fully understand but if this is the source I’d better go there. I don’t know though, I’m googling this quote and the context is sort of more first principles talking about mess. I’m still unclear what I do want but this isn’t really it. Ugh.

Back on Google Scholar looking up various combinations of ‘mess’ and ‘aesthetics’. Haha I just found a paper called ‘Chocolate or shit: aesthetics and cultural poverty in art therapy with children’. Not what I want either but… interesting I guess? I’m over half way through now and getting nowhere.

Hmm, this isn’t particularly promising but I just searched ‘theory of mess’ in google and found a review of something called Cooking with Mud: The Idea of Mess in Nineteenth-Century Art and Fiction by David Trotter. This at least seems to have some links to other works:

The only strange feature of this admirable book is its title. Baudelaire, the writer who pre-eminently characterized the creation of art in terms of the culinary and the cosmetic, described the metamorphosis of raw reality into crafted artefact, as the transformation of mud into gold, in a way which the anecdote from the childhood of Mary Butts, cited by David Trotter, barely encompasses. The sub-title of the book gives a far clearer picture of its range and content: the poetics and politics of “mess-theory” in Western fiction and painting, from approximately 1860 to 1900. “Mess” is to be understood in Samuel Beckett’s use of the term, in his 1961 interview with Tom Driver, when he spoke of seeking in art “a form that accommodates the mess.” Beckett, however, equated this activity with “chaos,” whereas Trotter, in his book, differentiates between the two. More precisely, Trotter makes a distinction between a theory of “waste” and a theory of “mess” (17). “Waste” is an effect which can be traced back to its cause and, ultimately, to human agency: it can be recycled and can be linked to renewal. Philosophically, in terms of order and disorder, it is related to determinism. By contrast, “mess” is governed by chance. It can be “good,” in that it may mark the beginning of an illusion (as in desire), or “bad,” in that it may mark the shattering of an illusion. It may be creative, as in the clutter of the studios of Edgar Degas or Francis Bacon, who each, in their different ways, produced some of their finest works in an environment of extreme “messiness.” Philosophically, it is linked to the concept of contingency and is, aesthetically, the harbinger of modernism.

But ‘mess’ as ‘governed by chance’ isn’t really what I’m looking for.

Now I’ve found a book called Making the Most of Mess by Emery Roe, which seems to be about policy and management. Quotes the Trotter piece: ‘Those interested in the role of mess in other fields should begin with mess theory in literary criticism (Trotter 2000), rubbish theory in anthropology (Thompson 1979), or the heap paradox in philosophy’.

I’m out of better ideas so let’s look up ‘rubbish theory in anthropology’. OK the book is Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value by Michael Thompson. Seems to be about waste and not particular about mess.

Oh god, 12 minutes left. Back on Scholar looking at stuff to do with mess and aesthetics. Debris, Mess and the Modernist Self? Making Sense of Mess. Marginal Lives, Impossible Spaces? This last one seems to theroise about mess at least a bit:

In the following few paragraphs I sketch some of the main concepts that animate our understanding of ‘mess’, as a way of attempting to outline a tradition of thinkers that were fascinated by lack of formal order, by chaos or filth; I hope
then to draw a constellation of keywords which help us clarify the connotations of the term we intend to use as a guiding idea running throughout this issue.

In its comparative understanding, as the opposite or ‘lack’ of order, balance, and clarity, mess reminds us of the canonical Dionysian/Apollonian dialectic as famously articulated by Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872).

… Fast-forwarding to more recent times, it is noticeable that postmodern culture is certainly deeply fascinated by mess, by simultaneity and overlapping, by directionless hyperactivity and the overcrowded physical scenarios of mass society
and conspicuous consumption.

Bla bla Lyotard, bla bla entropy. Doesn’t go too deep, seems to just be an introduction to a book of essays with a fairly typical pomo-ish inverting-the-order theme: ‘It also contributes, I believe, to questioning the rationale behind a value system that prioritizes order and rational organization of space, objects, and people.’

I just found another potentially interesting reference: Thomas Leddy, “Everyday Surface Aesthetic Qualities: ‘Neat,’ ‘Messy,’ ‘Clean,’ ‘Dirty,'” This is in something called ‘Everyday Aesthetics’ by Yuriko Saito. I’ve only found the first page of the Leddy so far and don’t have long left, and it looks like it probably won’t go deep on mess, though it might be worth reading anyway.


Ding! Ok, yeah, that did go pretty terribly. But my lack of success is least suggestive that there really isn’t a lot of deep theory of mess out there. There’s still a chance that I’m missing the right search terms, but I have no idea what the right ones would be. If you have any good ideas, let me know…

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