Who is a System? Theory and Terminology
Often in plural/multiple and DID/OSDD spaces the word "system" is used without a qualifier and contrasted with singlet — the term used to refer to people who are not plural/multiple. This assumption isn't necessarily harmful in all instances, and given plural naming conventions like "The (blank) System" it does make a convenient shorthand when all those in the discussion are in the know. We are not writing this with the intent of scolding plurals (or singlets) for using this terminology. Our goal is to clarify what this terminology means and how juxtaposing plurals, and only plurals, as systems can lead to naturalizing singletnormativity and thereby further entrench pluralmisia.
Systems Theory looks at "interacting processes and the way they influence each other over time to permit the continuity of some larger whole.". This larger whole is a system, "A group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole". An example of such a system is a home: the people who make up the home engage in processes that care for the maintenance of the shelter like cleaning, repairs, and tending those that live there. These each require their own processes which involve importing and exporting resources from outside, communicating internally and externally, and passive and active influence in both directions as well as amongst the individual elements of the system. If someone in the home doesn't do their own dishes, then the dishes build up and attract organisms that may endanger the health of those in the home. If no one is able or willing to do those dishes, then the dynamic of the home shifts in response and the whole system is impacted by the increase in mold and insects as well as the decrease in dishes. This in turn impacts those that leave the home and the individuals and systems they interact with.
When discussing plurals as systems, its generally understood that the interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements being distinguished are the system members: different self-aware entities. The degree of interaction as well as the form of this interaction is unique to each plural system, as well as any subsystems or sidesystems within that system, but each are related to the others by their shared bodymind  and dependent on each other through that relationship. If gerry wants to eat mac and cheese, we and our gluten and lactose intolerant digestive tract depend on gerry's self-control as much as gerry depends on us to do our part in caring for our health. Together, our embodied consciousnesses come together to form a system that maneuvers the world as a complex whole — a collective.
This anecdote alludes to another system: the digestive system. Comprised of different hormones, organs, nerves, blood, bacteria, the digestive system is tasked with working together to process nutrients from our food and expell what isn't helpful. When something is off balance, the entire system is affected due to the ways they depend on each other. In turn, this impacts other interconnected systems: the endocrine system which manufactures and regulates hormones, the cardiovascular system which moves and filters the blood, the lymphatic system, the immune system, the urinary system, the musculoskeletal system, and the nervous system (comprised of the central, peripheral, somatic and autonomic nervous systems). These systems are present in singlets and plurals alike, and each have mechanisms to advocate for their needs (functioning effectively or not) to the consciousness(es) that represent them.
In this way the complex whole of the bodymind is itself a system of interconnected systems, each comprised of systems of structures and chemicals which are each in turn comprised of systems of cells that are themselves systems of atoms which are themselves systems of subatomic particles. Even assuming that a singlet is only one consciousness ever, and that singlets do not experience any level of memory or identity division at any point in time or between points in time, a singlet themself represents a system of systems. Yet singlets receive no such signifier when we discuss them, they are not "singlet systems" but "singlets" or "people." Their systemhood, even their systems of consciousnesses are obscured in our language while plural systems of consciousnesses are continually exposed in our dialogue.
When we single out plurals as systems, we reinforce a discourse where our systemhood is seen as the defining characteristic which differentiates us from "normal people." This is despite the fact that all people, indeed all that exists, is a system that itself is constantly enmeshed in several overlapping and interconnected systems. We talk of body systems, school systems, operating systems, and so on, yet when discussing people we operate under the assumption that plural/multiple/dissociative systems are uniquely so. This naturalizes the assumption that plurality is pathological or abnormal while also reinforcing terminology that encourages singlets not to see themselves in plural experiences.
This isn't to diminish the differences between singlets and systems, and there can be many, but to call us to reflect on the fact that there may be fewer of these differences than we assume. In fact, using systems theory to engage with the individual singlet mind can be incredibly effective at promoting emotional regulation, fulfillment, and internal cohesion. How many opportunities for healing — or even "just" greater self/selves-understanding — are being obscured by the implication that singlets are not themselves systems, and that the boundaries around plurality are firm rather than fluid? By treating the boundaries that have been imposed on ourselves as plural beings as natural and normal, we play a part in our own ostracization from the other systems of creation. This is a perpetuation of violence that obscures the path to liberation from pluralmisia: mutual recognition, respect, and the transformation of borders from sites of violent selves-suppression to sites of cultural exchange and growth.
The way to address this violence are not just by changing our language from "systems and singlets" to "plural systems and singlet systems" (though we do strongly encourage avoiding using "systems" on its own when referring to plural/multiple/dissociative systems), but rather to examine and criticize the ways our selves-definition can further our oppression. Plural liberation is as much an internal process as it is an external one, and we will need to be critical of the borders we define ourselves by if we are to have any hope of loosening our chains.
1. From Encyclopedia of Human Behavior (Second Edition), 2012 accessed from “Systems Theory - an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics.” Science Direct, www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/systems-theory. Accessed 9 Jan. 2022
2. “System.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition., www.wordnik.com/words/system. Accessed 8 Jan. 2022. (link)
3. For an introduction to systems theory in the context of plurality, see "Everything is a System: Intro to System Theory for Plurals" by The Crisses. This video is captioned and contains visual diagrams which are only partially described verbally. (link)
4. A subsystem is a system within a plural system, think of concentric circles. A sidesystem is a system "to the side" of a plural system, think of a venn diagram or two circles next to each other but not touching. These terms may seem confusing to those unfamiliar with their concepts, which is understandable. They exist to describe internal structure and in each case may represent different internal barriers or boundaries of identity, communication, and/or memory of different types.
5. We want to affirm here that our language is not to imply that internal self-experience is less real that external perception, and that if a system member or members feel no connection to the bodymind they are in other than that they are in it or communication to/through it we absolutely have them in mind when describing a "shared bodymind." Their experience of sharing, as well as the experience of those with dysphoria, is crucial to developing understandings of what self-determination and agency looks like for alterhumans with and without dysphoria.
6. Which, we would argue, is drawing a harsh definition retroactively over a spectrum of experiences we could stand to be more open towards with both plurals and singlets having potential for benefit. The division between "plural/multiple" and "singlet" is relatively young and no doubt we are still struggling to untangle medicalized assumptions about "the human mind" from our own sense of history. Our ancestors are not going to all have used the same language as us and, indeed, many of them are singlets. That does not mean they have nothing to say about plurality nor that their experiences are completey irrelevant.
7. Referring here to, at minimum, the "subconscious" and the "conscious."
8. See Internal Family Systems (link), Inner Child Work (link), and Parts work more generally (link). We don't necessarily endorse any of these or the many other systems of parts work (most of our issues stem with singlet normativity in the language and assumptions), but do not deny that for many they are very effective.
The overall goal of integrating communication amongst "parts" (i'm cringing typing that word, but that is what they use and there are those comfortable with that language!) is one that is very crucial in singlet and plural healing, even when dealing with individual members of a system. I know that even as the system member in front right now, i am not all of myself in this moment and there are memories, emotions, desires, and concerns i'm not troubling with so i have my attention on this essay. These components of my self are not headmates, yet they equally require recognition and respect if i and we are to be our best selves.
9. Plurals are too often expected to "earn" their plurality through rigorous selves-interrogation and scrutiny: am I separate enough? traumatized enough? plural enough? Plural identification is a site of fear and reinforcing trauma to too many of those who would benefit from exploring the aspects of their experiences that are not-quite-singular. There must be room for those who are questioning their own plurality to learn, explore, and benefit from what we've learned without demanding they identify in any particular way. There needs to be room for singlets, too, that do not now or yet identify themselves as plural but find themselves learning from and wanting to contribute to plural liberation. With community norms in place that reinforce the need for accountability and respect, we have nothing to lose to these potential community members except the illusion that they are completely different from us, unrelatable in every way.
10. “That imperialism which today is fighting against a true liberation of mankind leaves in its wake here and there tinctures of decay which we must search out and mercilessly expel from our land and our spirits.” Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. 1st ed., DIANA, 2020. (link) Exploring the ways imperialism uses pluralmisia (particularly through weaponized depictions of plurals as predators or as victims, and in both cases utilizing the image of innocent white cis-female victimhood to evoke pity or fear) to estrange us from ourselves, our communities, and the land....that's the subject of another essay. For now, we leave you with a blessing: may we root out the death and decay embedded in our hearts and process it into mulch which can feed new growth into powerful and plural expressions of liberated becomings.