Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Critical Incident Analysis and the Semiosphere: The Curious Case of the Spitting Butterfly

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Critical Incident Analysis and the Semiosphere: The Curious Case of the Spitting Butterfly

Article excerpt

In January 2007, media outlets across Australia reported the outcome of a local court decision, Police v Rose (hereinafter Rose).1 Two security officers employed by RailCorp, then a state-owned corporation, had accused Garry Rose of assault for allegedly spitting and 'throwing punches' at them outside Redfern railway station in Sydney. The allegation was referred to the New South Wales Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and came before Magistrate Pat O'Shane. Her Honour found that the offences were not proved and the matter was dismissed.2 This seemingly trivial event sparked a chain of consequences that culminated in legislative changes to the make-up of the Judicial Commission, the body responsible for the oversight of judges in New South Wales. In the course of the controversy, key players in government failed to observe a cornerstone of Western democracies, the doctrine of the separation of powers.

In this article we reflect on some of the extraordinary features of the case, refracted through a complexity theory lens. The late Edward Lorenz called wild disparities between cause and effect the Butterfly Effect.3 The term is a scientificpoetic metaphor: in a chaotic system of weather, a butterfly flapping its wings in the Andes can provoke a hurricane in Montana. When Garry Rose spat in the direction of two transit officers he could not have imagined the result, a small-yet seismic- shift in the constitutional landscape of the oldest and largest state in Australia. This butterfly did not gracefully flap his wings, but his small act had a great and unpredictable effect.

As in most areas of social life, the causal chains did not unfold only in the material sphere. Actions were continually provoked and mediated by the semiosphere, the realm where meanings are created and exchanged and circulate via various media, new and old. Lorenz ignored the role of weather reporting and forecasting in his Butterfly Effect; yet weather is inserted into social systems, and mediated by human actions and interpretations, multiple times, every day. In fact, the Butterfly Effect was born inside Lorenz's computer program, which produced deterministic chaos in its flawed attempts to mirror actual weather systems. We extrapolate a general principle for analysing social complexity from this. Exchanges between material actions and the semiosphere are crucial in the production of nonlinear causality, and thus meaning, in social life.


This study is part of a research project designed around critical incident analysis. It aims to channel ideas from chaos and complexity into engaged, critical, interdisciplinary research.4 Humanities academics in general have found the ideas of chaos and complexity more abstract than usable. There have been notable exceptions, and here we note just three: John Urry from sociology; Brian McNair in the field of communications and journalism; and John Law on the philosophy of science.5

Nevertheless, humanities disciplines themselves are often seen as too abstract in their own way, too cumbrous and locked into eternal values, to be easily able to contribute to current debates about pressing issues. To better connect around such limitations, critical incident analysis starts from urgent, topical, concrete objects whose complexity and urgency are built in, not in doubt. But this form of analysis is not intended to be separate from what is being done by humanities academics. We welcome interplay between disciplines, approaches and paradigms. Critical incident analysis is a further option, to add by whatever degree seems right, for whatever purposes are at hand.

For the broader project, the authors collected media coverage of Sydney metropolitan transport systems.6 The media scan was a prolific generator of signs of a critical incident, stemming from the vicissitudes of the Sydney rail system, presided over by (the now decorporatised) RailCorp.7 Of several media spikes over the study period, the first appeared in January 2007, precipitated by our Spitting Butterfly. …

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