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Publisher's Summary

A system can describe what we see (the solar system), operate a computer (Windows 10), or be made on a page (the 14 engineered lines of a sonnet). In this book, Clifford Siskin shows that system is best understood as a genre - a form that works physically in the world to mediate our efforts to understand it. Indeed, many Enlightenment authors published works they called "system" to compete with the essay and the treatise. Drawing on the history of system from Galileo's "message from the stars" and Newton's "system of the world" to today's "computational universe", Siskin illuminates the role that the genre of system has played in the shaping and reshaping of modern knowledge.

Previous engagements with systems have involved making them, using them, or imagining better ones. Siskin offers an innovative perspective by investigating system itself. He considers the past and present, moving from the "system of the world" to "a world full of systems". He traces the turn to system in the 17th and 18th centuries, and describes this primary form of Enlightenment as a mediator of political, cultural, and social modernity - pointing to the moment when people began to "blame the system" for working both too well ("you can't beat the system") and not well enough (it always seems to "break down"). Throughout, his touchstones are: what system is and how it has changed; how it has mediated knowledge; and how it has worked in the world.

©2016 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (P)2016 Gildan Media LLC

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Difficult Read, but Worth It

The only way to accurately describe this book is as a historical and philosophical survey of that human notion we know of as "System". Both as a conceptual tool for organizing and generating knowledge of the world (an explanatory model approximating reality) as well as an actual feature of the organization and behavior of that world, perhaps even fundamental to nature of reality itself as an information system containing many other systems at various scales, Siskin examines the subject with deft analytical and academic energy.

The book is at times earth shakingly profound in the revelations and suppositions put forward relating system to the world as well as to knowledge of the world and the magnificent moments when the author is able to steer what amounts to an intellectual locomotive in such a way as to unify vast strands of thought that serve to hint at tantalizing uniformities and commonalities across the disciplines. The depth of historical evaluation is equally impressive, almost recursive, as we are taking not just through the history of the idea of System, but the history of the idea of systems it relates to the history of ideas and indeed to the historiography of how history emerged as as separate discipline and how that discipline diverged so far from its brethren in both the humanities and the sciences for its phasis on the particular and the peculiar (the outliers) rather than a coherent knowledge system with unifying principles and explanatory forms.

Where the book suffers is a ponderous and dense writing style (even by my standards) that tends to (among other things) repeat the word "system" as a pronoun so often it becomes insufferable.

but, if you can make it through, you will come away with a richer understanding and a wider perspective of just how much is contained in (and promised by) that innocuous, overly repeated word: "system".

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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How very strange.

A complicated, yet beautiful exploration of the architecture of knowledge. I will surely listen to it again, maybe this time at a slower speed.

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Unreadable

This author might be an excellent thinker, but as a _writer_ this book represents utter failure by the author. I've rated two stars because there are a few interesting ideas lurking in this book, but the book is so poorly written that you probably would need to have had a few dozen interactive conversations with its author to be able to tease them out. The goal is interesting, but the execution ruins this attempt.