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May 1998

From Statics to Dynamics in Sustainable Community

Navigating through chaos by playing on polarities as attitude correctors

-- / --

Fascination with dynamics
Danger of state-orientation in a dynamic world
Comprehending dynamics
Working with dynamic reality
Comprehending the language of pattern shifting
Challenge: how to play polarities


Objects are necessarily well-bounded. Whether or not they need to be seen through microscope or telescope, they have a stability to which meaning can be attached. It may even be difficult to disassociate object and meaning. Objects may of course move but comprehending them is usually achieved through what amounts to a photograph -- a visual moment out of time. Their movement may be also be understood through a series of such photographs. The mind shifts readily from one to the next to construct some kind of gestalt -- a sort of conceptual average or identikit portrait.

People may also be treated conceptually as objects. They too are grasped and communicated through one or more photographs. Similarly, non-photographic artists may seek to portray a person through painting or sculpture. These are held to be more or less satisfactory "representations" of a person. "Representation" is a term essential to democracy as will be seen below.

Organizations and communities can also be photographed top some degree. Considerable effort may be made by corporations to ensure that their image is appropriately portrayed through photographs -- of their headquarters, their executive officers, or their projects. It is standard practice to represent the reality of a "class" through an annual class photograph -- whether for students, sports teams, or military groupings. Indeed this may be the only visual trace of the grouping as a whole. Communities are also photographed -- indeed this is one of the principal means used by anthropologists to represent traditional communities for distant colleagues and the future.

This paper is concerned with the dangerous over-simplification that results from such static representation. What exactly is the challenge of comprehending the significance of more dynamic representations? What is the space-time phenomenon that is delineated by movement? What is the cost of ignoring that dynamic reality in favour of a static reality, jerking conceptually from one state to the next? What implications might this have for the viability of sustainable community?

Fascination with dynamics

There has always been a fascination with dynamics. Babies are distracted by rattles. Males and females of all species are fascinated by each others' moving parts. Song and dance have one of the longest cultural traditions. It could be argued that many are increasingly fascinated with dynamics -- as is shown by the universal commercial success of music and shows, whether live or on television. Many sports and games derive most of their fascination from the dynamics rather than from particular moments or the point scores of winners or losers. Flirtation and love-making are essentially dynamic processes.

It is intriguing how comprehension of dynamics does not lend itself to ready description. People have to "get it" -- as with riding a bicycle. What can be taught is most often a series of states, jerkily related. Indeed such a sequence of states is often basic to illustrated training manuals -- whether for sports, dance, manual procedures, love-making, or other movements. It is for each person to integrate the sequence into a meaningful dynamic whole. Cinematography today relies on a rapid series of images that the eye and brain integrate into an impression of movement.

The wide availability of movie and video-cameras has enabled people to pursue their fascination with meanings associated with dynamics and to capture processes that are lost to still photographs. Whilst this is true of families and groups of friends, it is also true of intentional communities. Videos have proven to be a way of capturing, representing and reinforcing the coherence of group processes. They may be shown and appreciated many times.

There is little conceptual articulation of the reality that is held to be fascinating in the portrayal of dynamics. It could be said that -- to a considerable degree -- meaningful articulation ceases with static portrayal. It is of course true that mathematics has been extremely creative in dealing with dynamics -- starting with ballistics, through descriptions of complex factory processes, to missile guidance systems and weather models. Many socio-economic processes are simulated in computer models. The first Club of Rome report was based on the study of World Dynamics (1971) by Jay Forrester. But the question is how much of this is held to be meaningful by people?

It has often been remarked that a person catching a ball, or engaging in some dynamic sport, is effectively applying an understanding that differential calculus has only recently been able to articulate -- and for which it may be unable to provide useful solutions, even with the fastest computers. A bicycle-riding robot has yet to be built -- but people must live in a world in which bicycles are ridden. The governance of such a world is a real challenge.

Danger of state-orientation in a dynamic world

It is curious how the term "state" has acquired a dominant conceptual role in modern society. Most obvious is the case of the "nation state". The world is "divided" into "nation states" whose sovereignty is enshrined in international law and the Charter of the United Nations. What price is paid by this conceptual commitment to the static in a dynamic, if not turbulent, world?

Of course, such states have a dynamic. For example, they each "develop". And this development process is considered to be highly desirable. But it is strange that people are deprived of the complementary understanding that the dynamic has states. Clearly state has been given meaning enshrined in law, whereas dynamic is an ill-defined term in this context -- despite its importance for understanding the development of any community, whether local or global. It is the dynamic which provides the temporal context for a state and its manifestation. But it can also be argued that the state provides a momentary vehicle through which a long-term dynamic manifests. It is perhaps history that is most sensitive to the dynamic -- and it is history that is most likely to be forgotten as blinkered policies are implemented in ignorance of forgotten historical learnings.

"State" is also enshrined in such notions as the annual State of the Union message in the USA. The conceptual underpinnings of this have now been replicated in the annual State of the World Forum. This corresponds to a static concept of diagnosis. It is equivalent to taking the temperature of a person at a moment in the day and then reporting on the health of the person. Any understanding of the Dynamic of the Union, or the Dynamic of the World, is lost. The notion of health is conceptually linked to "state". Are there aspects of health that might be usefully linked to dynamic? In what way is attention to these aspects inhibited by a state-orientation?

It could be argued that dynamic health is captured and represented by arrays of developmental indicators. However these are usually expressed as quantitative changes averaged between two state points -- normally a year. Is this how people are to understand the dynamic of the world they live in? Is it how they can best relate to the health of the community that they live in -- and the "quality of life" it offers? It is curious how the notion of quality of life has crept in. For those convinced by state-orientation, "quality of life" is quite adequately represented by indicators of state -- some equivalent of temperature, of which economists offer many. But both "quality" and "life" pose considerable conceptual challenges in a community context -- just like "dynamic". In fact it might be argued that it is precisely what is not captured by state-oriented concepts that makes for the more conceptually elusive features of quality of life. The nature of the "dynamic" is as elusive, and omnipresent, as that of "life".

State of the Environment reporting is a mechanism used by governments to record and monitor their compliance with, and progress in their management of, the environment and environmental issues. Such reports are produced by Canada, Norway, and Australia, for example. In the case of Australia, the report is described as a "snapshot look at the pressures on the environment and how the quality of the environment has changed over the last twenty-five or so years". But, as with individual health, it may be asked whether an essentially dynamic environment can be adequately understood through any particular state -- even if measures are made over a succession of states to derive a statistical representation of some underlying abstract "state". Is it possible that absence of dynamic of the environment reporting locks policy-making into a totally inappropriate state-oriented focus -- with the excuse that it is relatively comprehensible. If all I have is a simple static model, should every phenomenon be treated as a static problem so that I can pretend that I have the necessary understanding to handle it?

The identity card of a citizen or employee is based on a static photograph. This implies that enough of the individual's identity can be captured in this way to represent them for the understanding and purposes of the respective social structures. Although video surveillance suggests that more may be required under some circumstances. In the case of plant and animal species, the requirements for adequate understanding may in many cases be limited to a dead specimen that can be suitably mounted in museum collections -- the procedure has even been applied to indigenous tribespeople. It is much more challenging and expensive to document species dynamically. Taxonomy is therefore almost entirely based on physical structure, or, more recently, DNA patterns. Species are valued for the products and chemical substances for which they can be exploited.

Can a photographed animal, even in the wild, be said to be adequately understood through that means of representation? Even if the animal is videoed for a while, can this capture the lifecycle as a whole -- or the actions of herd animals in collective response to environmental stresses that may not manifest in any one lifecycle? Many species, valuable to the environment, are endangered -- as is acknowledged by a number of treaties. But is it not also possible that many patterns of behaviour, of equivalent value to the future, may also be disappearing without any acknowledgement of the fact? Just as species may be a unique source of valuable chemicals, unique insights into dynamics, elaborated over millions of years by evolving species, are at risk. In exchange people are educated through the dynamics of TV cartoons and soap operas. This is a consequence of state-orientation.

People are claimed to shift between emotional states and between states of consciousness. Within any such state, the person experiences a particular dynamic. The world may be experienced through that dynamic. The dynamic may characterize the state. But who or what is it that shifts between such states over a period of time and is presumably identified more with that movement than with any particular state? Possibilities of human development are presumably addressed to the identity associated with that underlying dynamic. They may open up experience through other states and ensure that the person no longer identifies with earlier states. Such development is a real challenge to comprehension. Psychology tends to respond to the states and has little access to the dynamic through which they are integrated -- and may even query the attachment of any reality to it. Where gestalt perception is recognized, it is in the sense of a structure or grouping of physical, biological or psychological phenomena so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable from its parts in summation. But the emphasis on the static. Ironically the only available descriptor of an equivalent dynamic is in the use of "trip" by drug users.

The disciplines of international relations, political science, economics and law have traditionally focused most of their attention on the state. They are now faced with the highly embarrassing phenomena of erosion of sovereignty and of the power of the state -- phenomena on which their conceptual insights have been premissed (to say nothing of persistent, if not increasing, unemployment and erosion of social safety nets). For many decades the number of non-state, or non-governmental, actors has been increasing at all levels of society. The disciplines in question have endeavoured desperately to deny the existence of such negatively-defined phenomena as marginal and ineffectual -- especially ironical since the disciplines' professional legitimacy is usually promoted and defended by such bodies. Their advice has heavily influenced government policy-making -- now in severe disarray. In the 1990s, these disciplines are having to revise their paradigms in the light of unpleasant realities to whose emergence they have significantly contributed without developing relevant conceptual tools. This is best seen in the increasing dependence of governments on non-governmental actors for development and relief programmes, and more recently on the possibility that "third sector" employment might compensate for policy inadequacies of the past. Can the mind-sets associated with such disciplines be expected to offer understanding relevant to the non-state world -- the essentially dynamic world on whose emergence most commentators concur? Their dismal inadequacy became only too apparent with the Asian financial crisis of 1997-8.

The danger of state-orientation becomes clearest in the case of bureaucracies. Frustration with red tape and bureaucratic inertia has been widespread. It is bureacuracy that best demonstrates the "static" nature of state-orientation, whether at the international, national or local level. However, bureaucracy performs vital functions in society and is much criticized for performing unpleasant tasks designed by policy-makers. It is the effective investment in a non-dynamic that is problematic in a dynamic society. What might be a dynamic bureaucracy -- beyond the apparent contradiction in terms?

The conceptual challenge might best be illustrated by the contrast between static electricity -- characteristic of sparks and lightning -- and the electrical current on which society is now so dependent. When bureaucracy strikes, it is often like lightning to the unprepared -- and dealing with bureaucracy often arouses sparks of irritation. Would converting bureaucracy from paper-driven, feuding hierarchies to non-hierarchical electronic information exchange systems adapt them appropriately to the realities of the dynamic world?

There is another aspect to the conceptual challenge, namely that arising from cultural "biases" towards styles of categorization. These have been most forcefully articulated by Magoroh Maruyama (see a review of these challenges, including other authors, in Dimensions of comprehension diversity).

Comprehending dynamics

The above paragraphs suggest that there is not much real understanding of dynamics available from the disciplines that have built their conceptual empires on state-orientation. No one would expect any discipline to be able to create a viable community from scratch -- one in which quality-of-life went beyond architectural niceties. No one would expect biological disciplines to be able to create a rich and viable ecosystem from scratch -- with hundreds of interacting species. But of course artificial, short-term versions of both are within the scope of current methodologies. Unfortunately, more is required conceptually to underpin sustainable community.

Where might one go to find experiential understandings of dynamics? Possibilities include:  

Clues to comprehending dynamics
Self Vehicle drivers Ecological 
Aesthetic processes
Martial "artists" 
Basketball, etc
Market traders 

Scuba divers Surf-boarders 
Fishers Factory process managers 
Trapezists Para-gliders 
  Bond traders 
Kundalini-yogis Rally-drivers 
Charismatic inspirers 

In reflecting on the tentative table above, it is worth noting that emphasis is placed on a particular kind of kinaesthetic intelligence -- not necessarily representative of the full array of intelligences identified in Howard Gardner's classic study Frames of Mind : The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983). In each case above, there can be a very direct relationship to the dynamic.

Another source of insight into dynamics, is the understanding associated with the "flow experience" as documented by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow : The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1991).

Another source of great potential interest is the work of Alfred North Whitehead, especially that on Process and Reality. Basic reality is constantly in a process of flux and change as suggested by Heraclitus. Whitehead suggests that the first thing we need to understand is that science is deluded: the world is not made of atoms, electrons, gravity, and the like. There is only one kind of entity; and even that perishes as soon as it comes into being. That entity is an aesthetic moment of choice, of feeling. Concepts such as creativity, freedom, novelty, emergence, and growth are fundamental explanatory categories for process philosophy. However it should be noted that "process logic" is now a discipline of some importance to computer programming and has little to do with process philosophy.

A novel approach to understanding dynamics was developed by the inventor of the Bell helicopter, Arthur Young (The Geometry of Meaning, 1978) who was naturally challenged by how many factors needed to be taken into consideration to control an object moving in three dimensions. He adapted these insights to understanding the learning cycle in relation to action as a consequence of his experience. As with the development process, the three-dimensional movement of a helicopter is notoriously difficult to control. He established the vital learning-action link through a new interpretation of the operational significance of the set of 12 "measure formulae" through which material phenomena are observed, acted upon and controlled in physics and engineering. These he portrays as corresponding to a series of phases in a learning-action cycle. Of special interest for the understanding of dynamics is the significance he attaches to the sequence of movement around the cycle: one direction involving essentially unremembered experience-without-learning, the other involving conscious-learning-action. His approach has been adapted and modified to further emphasize the action-learning significance (see table). It is interesting that the philosopher Stephane Lupasco also attaches importance to the analysis of such measures in terms of the polarities they constitute and the types of energy with which they are associated (1973, p. 26).

This approach clarifies how portions of such a cycle are vulnerable to institutionalization (as specialized, independent answer domains, or habitual responses) to the extent that there is no learning bridge across the discontinuities. The problem of (social) integration is thus intimately related to the functioning of (collective) learning cycles.

Working with dynamic reality

Process philosophy dates back decades, if not centuries. The kinaesthetic disciplines noted above are practised by many. Somehow these insights have not proven relevant to community life and design. Is there a more fruitful way to work with the dynamics of community life? Part of the challenge is implicit in the polarization set up by process philosophy -- favouring process over that which tends to deny it. Similarly the kinaesthetic disciplines "of the body" tend to disparage those "of the head".

The easy mental habit -- perhaps the most fundamental -- is to use polarization to simplify reality. With sufficient slashes of this conceptual sword, reality can be cut down to bite size chunks -- small enough for our tiny minds! What might the reverse process look like?

One way to envisage this would be to treat each polarity rather like a string of an instrument -- perhaps a wind harp -- although the many such strings need not be aligned. Combine this metaphor with that of the "attitude jets" of a space vehicle -- one pair for each polarity. Such jets, appropriately oriented, are used to control tumbling in space and to make fine adjustments to orbits. They too have to be "played" by astronauts -- just as birds control flight by adjustments to their wing feathers. Birds are carried by wings which they use to move themselves through the air -- perhaps as humans do with polarities in psycho-social space. This third metaphor offers further insights.

The musical metaphor suggests how polarity strings might be "plucked" at particular points to create particular notes. Such notes would engender harmonics in neighbouring strings. Playing several polarity strings in succession can be used to develop chords and melodies. The dynamics of moment-by-moment living involve just such plays on polarities. Those exceptionally skilled in inter-personal relations can be understood as maneuvering through psycho-social space by "working" an extensive array of polarities -- like an organist. The less skilled may only work with a handful -- as with the most basic stringed instrument. Some may be effectively restricted to what amounts to a monochord. Many may be "tone deaf". What defines someone characterized as an "operator"?

It is possible that individual identity can then be usefully understood through the kinds of melody expressed  -- or the favoured styles of play. This is often the case with songbirds. But as with some musicians, explorative playing is both self-expression and a search for a self to be expressed. Playing can also take the player to other psycho-social conditions. It can create realities. In this sense it is a process of navigation. It is possibly that playing on polarities can be used in the same way -- with the appropriate skills and insights.

Such melodic play can be used both to attract and to repel -- at least in the case of birds. Is it possible that "conceptual" attractiveness is achieved by humans in a similar way -- an invisible equivalent to the provocative movements characteristic of inter-personal relations (such as body language communication between the sexes)? Is it possible that such melodies function somewhat like the strange attractors of chaos theory? Clearly some people operate inter-personally like "gravity wells" around whom others seek to orbit. Interrogators develop skilfull ploys in playing with polarities to manipulate those they question.

Musicians would not be resistant to the notion that some music can both create and open "doorways" to new understanding. Does the way in which such doors are opened, by playing with musical "polarities", offer insights into the way in which other kinds of doorway might be opened to those playing appropriately on conceptual polarities -- however that is to be understood? If "more" can be achieved by playing music in a larger group, can "more" be achieved by playing on polarities in a community? Is appropriate play on polarities another way of understanding "sustainable community"?

For the astronaut in a space vehicle, such playing with "attitude jets" shifts the position of the vehicle within a dimensional framework. If each polarity was associated with a different dimension, playing with these "attitudes" would shift the person's "conceptual vehicle" in relationship to a multi-dimensional framework -- whose complexity would depend on the number of polarities.

It is music that points most clearly to the kind of "travel" that such "transportation" implies. It suggests subtle shifts in perception -- and relationship with reality. To an external observer, the traveller may not appear to move anywhere. It is the manner in which the polarity strings are "plucked", and the interplay between the chords so struck, that transforms awareness -- moving it through other kinds of space-time. The "music of the spheres" is then a dynamic with which awareness is identified -- as much "heard" as "travelled".

Comprehending the language of pattern shifting

This section is derived from an earlier paper (Liberation of Integration, Universality and Concord through pattern, oscillation, harmony and embodiment, 1980)

The suggestion in the previous section might be viewed as a crude approximation to a highly sophisticated approach based on the 4,000 year- old chanted hymns of the Rg Veda of the Indian tradition. A very powerful exploration of this work by a philosopher, Antonio de Nicolas (Meditations through the Rg Veda. Shambhala, 1978), using the non-Boolean logic of quantum mechanics (P A Heelan. The logic of changing classificatory frameworks. In: J A Wojciechowski (Ed).

Conceptual Basis of the Classification of Knowledge. K G Saur, 1974, pp. 260-274 ), opens up valuable approaches to integration. The following themes are explored in the de Nicolas study:

The unique feature of the approach is that it is grounded in tone and the shifting relationships between tone. It is through the pattern of musical tones that the significance of the Rg Veda is to be found.

"Therefore, from a linguistic and cultural perspective, we have to be aware that we are dealing with a language where tonal and arithmetical relations establish the epistemological invariances... Language grounded in music is grounded thereby on context dependency; any tone can have any possible relation to other tones, and the shift from one tone to another, which alone makes melody possible, is a shift in perspective which the singer himself embodies. Any perspective (tone) must be "sacrificed" for a new one to come into being; the song is a radical activity which requires innovation while maintaining continuity, and the "world" is the creation of the singer, who shares its dimensions with the song." (de Nicolas, p. 57)

De Nicolas contrasts this perspective with that of languages governed by vision:

"Thus, in a language ruled by the criteria of sight, vision may mean the sum of perspectives from which a fixed object can be seen, plus the theoretical perspective of the relationships holding amongst different perspectives of the object, plus the mental acts by which those perspectives, relationships and visions are performed. In any event, the invariant object is the condition for the variations in the meaning of vision. The object is the condition for the variations in the meaning of vision. The invariant object is, therefore, not a reality, but a theoretical precondition (phenomenal or noumenal) for a whole system or method for establishing facts. Therefore, it is no wonder that when people speak of transcendence, within this framework, they are mostly forced to speak in mystical terms of things unseen or unseeable, either in terms of religious experiences, or in terms of modern physics. In a literal sense, in the latter two cases, speech is about no things by the same criteria of the speech used to designate things. Whereas in a language governed by sound:

"In a language ruled by the criteria of sound, perspectives, the change of perspectives and vision, stand for what musicologists call "modulation". Modulation in music is the ability to change keys within a composition. To focus within this language, and by its criteria, is primarily the activity of being able to run the scale backwards and forwards, up and down, with these sudden shifts in perspectives. Through this ability, the singer, the body, the song and the perspective become an inseparable whole. In this language, transcendence is precisely the ability to perform the song without any theoretical construct impeding its movement a priori, or determining the result of following such movement a priori. Nor can any theoretical compromise substitute for the discovery of the movement of "modulation" itself in history. The human body would then be asked to lose the memory of its origins; a task the human body refuses to do by its constant return to crisis.

It is up to the philosophers to discover the language ruled by the criteria of sound, rather than presuppose a priori that the only language universally human is the one ruled by the criteria of sight." (de Nicolas, p. 192)

Challenge: how to play polarities

It could well have been "up to the philosophers" as de Nicolas puts it. Unfortunately there is an urgency to navigate polarities that leisurely philosophy apparently fails to experience.

Since we are juggling with polarities at every moment, perhaps another metaphor is also appropriate -- juggling itself. A juggler with rods might seek to keep 3 to 7 "in the air" at any one time. A skilled juggler can play with these polarities in many ways -- keeping them together. Becoming conscious of how to juggle conceptual polarities is another matter. How are they to be kept "in the air" -- and "together"? What is the significance of a rod falling out of control "to the ground"?

What do people mean by the phrase "getting one's act together"? In contrast, when it proves impossible to play on polarities and the sense of dynamic, do the polarities then effectively freeze around a person or a community like the bars on a cage? This perspective has been explored elsewhere (see Future of comprehension: conceptual birdcages and functional basket-weaving, 1980). Some polarities may be thought of as rigidifying "across" such a cage -- offering perches, hanging and swing bars, like a veritable monkey's playground!

Does the skill of a confidence trickster, or a magician, lie in the ability to bemuse and befuddle with a play on polarities -- offering certainty precisely where it does not exist? (see Governance through confidence artistry)

A credible story, by confidence trickster or story-teller, is created through a play on polarities: big-small, rich-poor, beautiful-ugly, young-old, intelligence-stupidity, routine-magic, good-evil, health-sickness, brevity-eternity, joy-sadness, villence-peace, fairness-unfairness, cruelty-kindness, courage-cowardice, honour-dishonour, nobility-vulgarity, and the like. The story acquires its interest through the drama whereby obvious perceptions (about smallness, poverty, ugliness, age, etc) are transformed so that other realities become evident. Things are not necessarily what they seem. Reality has many faces.

The challenge is how to play the polarities to which we are exposed moment-by-moment. One classic response is to shift attention exclusively to what can be claimed to be "positive" -- rejecting opposite poles as "negative". Some opt for the reverse -- applying a contrarian principle. It is also possible to opt, like Buddhists, for the "middle way" -- aiming for detachment from either pole, and ultimately from the polarity itself (as in the advaita philosophy of non-duality). Another response is to glory fatalistically in whatever happens. One attempt to map out the range of  such views is derived from the English translation by Bhikku Bodhi (1978) of the Buddhist text on The All-Embracing Net of Views. (see table). It is worth reflecting on the constrast between (and practicality of) aiming for a particular "view" that transcends all other views -- pejoratively, a kind of mega-gestalt or null point -- and a configuration, or net, of views that needs to be played in order to offer a doorway to any larger or richer perspective. Clearly these also stand in relationship to one another as any other polarity.

Within the framework of any of the metaphors used above, each such option constitutes a particular style of play. The question is how effectively one can travel with any one style only. In driving a car, applying a rule of constantly turning to the right would quickly prove dysfunctional, as would going straight only, or turning to the left. Random application of rules would also be dysfunctional. Again it is music that implies that somehow, to travel effectively, an appropriate pattern or melody is required. There is an aesthetic to the requisite rules that contrasts with the mechanistic rules suggested by conventional logic. It is possible that, just as traditionally "there are a 1,000 ways to the top of the mountain", there are a 1,000 aesthetics of play through polarities -- with each polarity then functioning like a step on a cognitivel Jacob's Ladder.

NB: The argument was subsequently developed further in Eliciting a Universe of Meaning -- within a global information society of fragmenting knowledge and relationships (2013), specifically with regard to Dynamic transformation of static reporting of global processess


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