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Cultural disorder

Updated: Feb 24

"Whenas in silks my Julia goes,

Then, then, methinks,

how sweetly flows

That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see

That brave vibration each way free,

O how that glittering taketh me!"

—Robert Herrick, Upon Julia’s Clothes (See Holt 1915)


Robert Herrick saw flow, liquefaction, vibration and glittering in clothing in his poem “Upon Julia’s Clothes,” and saw disorder there in “Delight in Disorder”:

“A sweet disorder in the dress

Kindles in clothes a wantonness:

A lawn about the shoulders thrown

Into a fine distraction:

An erring lace, which here and there

Enthralls the crimson stomacher:

A cuff neglectful, and thereby

Ribbons to flow confusedly:

A winning wave deserving note,

In the tempestuous petticoat:

A careless shoe-string, in whose tie

I see wild civility:

Do more

bewitch me than when art

Is too precise in every part.”

Spitzer (1961) takes issue with the interpretation of “Delight in Disorder” as a commendation of extreme disorder. He points out that Herrick restricts the disorder to “sweet” disorder, distraction to “fine” distraction, wildness to the civil kind, and that among the waves in the “tempestuous” petticoat, only some are “deserving note,” or “winning.” Also, the enthralling erring laces are “here and there,” not everywhere. In more than one way the poem demonstrates an apparently general aesthetic principle of disorder in moderation. The structure of music and dance do so as well. Spitzer goes on to describe other ways in which Herrick’s poem does this. All but one of the rhymes is imperfect, the exception being the last. In the last pair of lines the idea of the beauty of imprecision forms an amusing contrast with the fact that they are the only precisely rhyming lines in the poem.

Disorder and order are found together in popular phrases and concepts like “creative destruction,” “deterministic chaos,” “damage control,” “rules were made to be broken,” “mix and match,” and “a diamond in the rough.” Several popular short quotes are similar. According to Carl Jung: “In all chaos there is cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.” Will Durant said that “Civilization begins with order, grows with liberty, and dies with chaos.” Steve Martin said of humor: “Chaos in the midst of chaos isn't funny, but chaos in the midst of order is.”

Disorder is essential in the Mother Goose rhymes “The Crooked Sixpence,” “Bandy Legs”, “London Bridge”, “Jack and Jill” and “Humpty Dumpty.” It’s an element of culture, for example, in Piñatas, Jenga, Burning Man, puzzles, and christening by breaking bottles.

Cook (1903) devoted a chapter of his work on spirals in nature and art to what he calls “symmetrophobia” and “deliberate error.” He mentions the architectural technique of adding subtle curvature or other types of irregularity to various elements of a building in order to make it more appealing to the eye. Deliberate error of this kind is ancient, to be found, for example, in parts of Temple of Medinet Habou, Egypt, which dates from the New Kingdom period (1550-1069 BC). John Pennethorne noticed asymmetries in the Parthenon in 1837, and in 1851 Francis Cranmer Penrose published Principles of Athenian Architecture, in which, according to Cook, he gives the results of measurements showing that neighboring capitals are of different sizes, that columns are unevenly spaced, their diameters are different, and they lean toward the center of the building. Vertical lines are not perpendicular to horizontal lines, which are curved and not parallel to each other. All of this is said to have been done deliberately with the purpose of making the building more attractive.

Deliberate error is not only ancient but also widespread (Cook 1903), to be found in Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Gothic buildings, as well as many old churches, e.g. St. Ouen at Rouen, Old St. Paul’s St. Mark’s at Venice, Sant’ Ambrogio at Milan, and Westminster Abbey, where the lines of the nave bend out near the base, then in, and then back out again. Occasionally, “the hatred of mathematical exactness” leads engineers to create structures with particularly conspicuous abnormality, as in the columns of Santa Maria della Pieve at Arezzo, Italy. Cook claims the Leaning Tower of Pisa was built to lean deliberately, which seems unlikely, but the question of why we find it fascinating remains, and Capital Gate in The United Arab Emirates is a modern example of a leaning tower which was built to lean aesthetically.

Languages and cosmologies involving order, randomness, and other natural dualities evolve with no direct knowledge of the order and randomness in submicroscopic matter, as in the culture of the Bororo of Brazil. The environment doesn’t conspicuously present the dualities order/randomness, regular/variable or static/dynamic to the mind, yet these dualities have evolved with the Bororo and other cultural cosmologies. Maybury-Lewis (1989) says of Bororo culture:

“The Bororo… have an all-pervasive dual organization that is at once cosmic, symbolic, and social (see Crocker 1985). It is expressed through the two major classes of spirits that exist in Bororo cosmology: the Aroe and Bope. The Aroe are associated with essence and pure form, as opposed to the Bope who are associated with process and flux. The Aroe are thus static, where the Bope are dynamic. The Aroe are associated with order, the Bope with disorder. The Aroe are comparatively sterile, as compared to the Bope who are associated with both creativity and destruction. The Aroe are rather distant, whereas the Bope are immediate and their influence is both sought and felt.”


Complexity bias


Works cited


Cook, Theodore Andrea, and Edwin Ray. Lankester. Spirals in Nature and Art: a Study of Spiral Formations Based on the Manuscripts of Leonardo Da Vinci with Special Reference to the Architecture of the Open Staircase at Blois, in Touraine, Now for the First Time Shown to Be from His Designs. Kessinger Publisher, 1903.


Crocker, Jon Christopher. Vital Souls: Bororo Cosmology, Natural Symbolism, and Shamanism. University of Arizona Press, 1985.


Holt, Lucius Hudson. The Leading English Poets from Chaucer to Browning: Ed., with Introduction, Biographies, and Glossary. United States, Houghton Mifflin, 1915.


Maybury-Lewis, David. “Social Theory and Social Practice: Binary Systems in Central Brazil.” The Attraction of Opposites: Thought and Society in the Dualistic Mode. Ed Maybury-Lewis, David and Uri Almagor. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1989. 97-116.


Spitzer, Leo. “Herrick's ‘Delight in Disorder.’” Modern Language Notes, vol. 76, no. 3, 1961, p. 209., doi:10.2307/3039876.

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