-- / --
Re-reading as a method
Challenge: sustaining community through dialogue
Designing a more appropriate language for sustainable community
Transforming in a transforming world
Imagining sustainable dialogue -- and the community it engenders
Psycho-social permaculture: identifying the five kingdoms
Alien communication: extraterrestrial and interstitial perception
The radical suggestion is that all conceptual patterns, from any discipline, can be profitably "re-read" as metaphors -- through which insights can be gained of relevance to other domains of knowledge. The body of knowledge, generated by the disciplines over the years, may therefore be systematically (re-)explored as a resource for implicit insights. In a sense the geological layers of knowledge laid down over the centuries, including "fossilized knowledge", may be mined. Much will be irrelevant, but there are seams of insight of great value. The challenge is to separate the two.
In many disciplines, work undertaken decades (or even years) in the past is no longer of any interest. This implies that work done today is in most cases a fairly rapidly wasting asset for society as a whole -- other than for historical purposes. The difficulty with this perspective is that it neglects the challenge of educating each generation anew, and the problem of cultures and sectors of society without the resources to deliver the latest insights in a form in which they can be absorbed. As with many technologies, obsolete presentations continue to be used and to have their place. This can be seen in the distribution of out-dated textbooks in developing countries and in their use of "out-dated" traditional technologies. Some impoverished countries are obliged to operate on a basis of continuing repair of equipment, rather than its progressive replacement.
The reality of society is that different generations of information and technology coexist, often quite fruitfully. Old technologies may be rediscovered as more appropriate than the new. Portions of new technologies may be recycled in strangely innovative ways -- as may be seen in the use of old automobile tires in certain cultures. There is therefore merit in considering conceptual patterns from the past as a non-wasting asset that may prove more appropriate under certain circumstances than the most recent. Whilst more sophisticated, the latter may be both less accessible and less robust in practice. (This argument is developed elsewhere)
The challenge is to sustain new kinds of community through new kinds of dialogue that enable new kinds of insight. This may involve a clearer understanding of how existing sustainable communities are sustained through particular patterns of dialogue.
Transformative magic vs Conversational sprawl: What is exchanged in a dialogue which is sustaining? Is it as much what is exchanged as the pattern through which the exchange takes place? Much can be sustained by conversation about the weather in certain cultures. It is then the phatic communication that is vital. Much can be sustained by greeting people regularly encountered in a neighbourhood. These can become conversational habits. How to distinguish between habitual communication and richer forms that are felt to be nourishing, enhancing and transformative -- even 'magical'?
How much 'enhancing' is necessary for a pattern of activity to be 'sustaining'? Sustaining activity can be necessary, but it may not be sufficient where there is a need for a sense of 'newness', of 'happening' -- especially in the eyes of the young and adventuresome, or those on journeys of individuation. Sustainable community may in that sense be a form of 'subsistence' that denies the need for growth and development through which the community could 'thrive'. So-called 'sustainable development' may also be no more than the psycho-social equivalent of urban 'sprawl'.
Communities of discourse: There are many communities of discourse based on a style of communication. The nature of the style that sustains the interest of the community in the dialogue may be of many kinds. Most generally it is influenced by sharing of some form: background or history, language, preoccupations, preferences, beliefs, activities, etc. But the challenge of sustainable community lies beyond contexts based on solely on sharing -- in circumstances where the charm of sharing is no longer a sufficient attractant and differences are deeply held as a source of identity.
What makes for sustainable community where people are indifferent, or actively antagonistic, to others practising different styles of communication -- or where they believe they have had experiences and learnings that give them a perspective that they cannot easily share? These are real issues in places like Kosovo, Jerusalem, Rwanda, Sudan, or indeed in many urban slums. It is of course the case that special circumstances generate a special basis for dialogue. Veterans from opposing sides can have more in common than with non-combattants of their own side, as with torturers and their victims.
Special languages: Jargons easily develop amongst groups of people in order to sustain their communities. This is the case in many institutional settings whether prisons, military, corporations, student bodies, intelligence services, organized crime, sects or secret societies. More intriguing is the possibility that such jargons might be deliberately cultivated and developed to sustain a community. Examples of this have been studied (ICA, Hunger Project, EST) in terms of the generative metaphors they offer.
It could be argued that the whole push for political correctness in language has been an attempt to develop a pattern of discourse that would be more inclusive of those typically excluded. The extension of this that stresses 'positive' phrasing -- rejecting grammatical forms containing negatives -- is promoted as an effort to empower rather than disempower. However, efforts to design out negative feedback concerning inadequacies can lead to their own difficulties -- of which the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle is the most dramatic example. Institutions have to discover ways to acquire negative feedback without endangering the image and career of those who provide it. But this is also a challenge for individuals in acquiring feedback from friends concerning the suitability of their attire, the tastiness of their cooking, the boring quality of their discourse, etc. There is also a subtle monotony to being constantly exposed to positive feedback -- a real problem for leaders surrounded by sycophants.
Possibility: Given this context, what possibility is there to design new languages that might bypass the disempowering limitations of existing languages and respond more effectively to the challenges of the times? What form might a language of sustainable community take? What features would it require? How complicated would it be and how difficult to learn? How much fun would it need to be?
The many efforts towards an international language, of which Esperanto is the most widely promoted example, need to be compared with this possibility. Such international languages tend to be designed to be readily comprehensible, logical compromises in terms of existing languages. As such they are primarily exercises in linguistics. Whilst designed for communication, they are not designed to respond to challenging new circumstances. What is proposed here is quite different.
Reframing challenges: The focus of such a new language (or set of languages) would be to find new ways to acknowledge variety, provide it with a coherent context, respond more dynamically and creatively to changing circumstances, and provide users with the kind of ownership and identity that they acquire through special jargons. Fundamental to such design is that the language should have a range of aesthetic qualities that would be vital to the workings of the language and its coherence -- rather than as purely decorative features. It has to be intriguing and enjoyable to use. As with poetry, associations need to resonate meaningfully to provide a coherence to discourse that contrasts with the conventional list-fixation in discussion of sustainable community.
Strategically it could be a seen as a radical experiment in developing a language that would enable problems, and strategies in response to them, to be understood in new ways. Rather than adapt existing languages to deal with the problems that emerge as a result of the inadequacies of the conceptualization to which such languages give rise, this would be a language designed to sustain community and the creative responses to its development. Whereas 'problems' emerge as unforeseen challenges that have to be dealt with using the clunky tools of existing languages, such a language would have a proactive approach to problems and to the dynamics of change that existing languages have so much difficulty in handling.
Potential and precedents: The potential of this approach can be illustrated by cases where a relationship between two (or more) people is sustained when they communicate through one language, but is endangered when they endeavour to interact through another. The glass ceiling effect faced by executive women is partially attributed to their exclusion from the bonding discourse associated with the club (golf, drinking, strip) environment of professional male colleagues with whom they otherwise communicate fruitfully. The survival of multilingual couples may be safeguarded and enhanced in one language but undermined in another in which their interactions are experienced as discordant.
In negotiating difficult treaties a language, such as English, may be preferred because of a certain degree of ambiguity of interpretation is possible between the parties in conflict that would be absent if the treaty were articulated in French or German, for example. A Taiwan spokesman in 1999 argued that 'there is one nation and two countries'. The statement was made in English because the distinction between 'nation' (in the sense of people or race), 'country' (separate from, or against -- from the Latin contra), and 'state' as a unit of government, cannot be effectively made in Chinese. What distinctions relevant to sustainable community is it effectively impossible to make in English or other dominant languages?
There are precedents for this proposal. New computer languages are typically designed to deal with problems inadequately handled through old computer languages. It has been argued that an MBA program is primarily acquisition of a new language through which to deal with the corporate challenges of commerce. The jargon of many disciplines can be seen in this light. The strange phrasing employed by the military ('target acquisition', 'collateral damage', etc) can be seen as a language designed to maximize military efficiency -- and minimize humanitarian sensitivity (at a time when they are required to perform 'humanitarian missions'). Latin could be seen as the language appropriate to the administration of the Roman Empire and the conceptual needs of its inheritors, the Catholic Church, and European academic life over many centuries. The language of organizational processes (commission, voting, assembling, presiding, etc) has its historical origins in this religious context. Latin might even be considered as the language most supportive of unconstrained growth. Are there languages more sensitive to the patterns and processes of environmental checks and balances that are so easy to deny in English?
In this light a special language could be seen as a way of exporting intractable problems for other languages to address -- as such it is an exercise in denial. What languages are designed to deal only with the 'soluble problems', and with what language do those who have to deal with these problems communicate? What kind of language might be able to import the problems exported by other languages?
Despite its success, the danger is to assume that English is adequate to the conceptual challenges of contemporary and future crises and their resolution. It has been argued that the development community has already developed its own jargon based on English -- and the complaint is that it is stale and sterile and poorly adapted to the needs it purports to serve. There is therefore a case for exploring a new language unconstrained by the styles of communication that are common to those languages currently aggravating the challenges through their cognitive limitations.
Design traps: But how might such a new language be designed? There are some obvious traps. It could be designed by a committee that would manage an approved terminology and grammar -- the models favoured for the continuing development of French and Spanish, for example. It could be the subject of an international competition -- the design approach favoured in major architectural endeavours. Such approaches would suffer from the delivery problem that is basic to most challenges of world society.
There is also the implication that the language would be produced as a form of finished product that would not permit creative tinkering by those who use it -- as with many manufactured products and designed environments. This is contrary to the increasing recognition of the vital importance of popular participation and involvement -- if apathy is to be avoided. Then there is the problem of teaching and learning the language -- or set of languages -- in a period when successful delivery of any form of education is problematic..
Evolutionary approach: Rather than imposing a top-down design, the key might be adoption of an evolutionary approach. Rather than endeavouring presumptuously to introduce something 'other' into the many different cultural contexts, the key might be to encourage the 'growth' of the new language(s) from meaningful conceptual seeds within those contexts -- cultivation rather than manufacture.
This approach might be designed around the interaction of the following principles:
Alternative rhythm: It is so easily assumed that everyone needs to speak a language that happens to be dominant during at a particular historical period. The question is not asked whether the apparent ineffectiveness of those so dominated (and marginalized) is due to their need for another language that could better carry their cultural insights and styles of organization. Africa, for example,has been on the receiving end of colonial organizing principles, the 'Westminster style' of democracy, and yet appears to be in dire straits despite decades of 'development programs'.
It is useful to accept the inappropriateness of much conventional management thinking in response to the dramatic developmental situation in Africa -- as a basis for exploring more radical frameworks compatible with resources in African cultures, that are not taken seriously by the North. In the light of earlier work on the relevance of the cognitive frameworks associated with poetry and music in articulating more relevant policies, the question might be raised as to whether insights into rhythm and harmony cannot be used to catalyze the emergence of new forms of organization and management, whether at the grass-roots or strategic level.
It could be hypothesized that by giving legitimacy to skills common in aural cultures, notably those associated with song, new insights may emerge which place African cultures at an advantage (notably in comparison with Northern countries) in navigating through the turbulent periods of future decades. There is some probability that such insights are more readily accessible, as an unexplored developmental resource, at many levels of African society than in other cultures. This approach would also challenge the tendency to view any appreciative evaluation of African skills in this respect as a subtle form of disparagement. Rhythm may be the key to organizational breakthroughs in Africa -- just as it might be the key to the increasing political apathy of younger generations in the North.
Statics vs Dynamics: To a preponderant degree the world is described in terms of static features -- despite the fact that it is experienced dynamically, especially in the case of its challenges and opportunities. The world is made up of nation 'states', and headed by 'statesmen' who make 'statements', and may report on the 'state of the environment' or the 'state of the economy'. There is even a Forum on the 'State of the World'. People, like the weather, are described as being 'in a state'. In each case, 'dynamic' would be more appropriate but the usage is not accepted -- although the original Club of Rome report was based on a study of 'world dynamics'. Like the human body, civilization is based on processes -- whether we are aware of this or not.
This static bias extends to the description of species in the environment. As with people, most animals are described and scientifically categorized in terms of how they can be still-photographed and measured -- and not in terms of behaviours that might only be captured on video. Language itself is very clumsy in describing or thinking about behaviour. And yet it tends to be through dynamics -- rather than statics -- that people work and derive meaningful pleasure from their leisure time. Is personal identity perceived as static or dynamic -- whether by the person identified, or by others? In a transforming world, does it seem appropriate to have a static sense identity? How could one learn about process identity?
The concepts through which the world is experienced, and through which people describe themselves, follow this static pattern. They are often represented by points, or areas -- as in the Venn diagrams of symbolic logic. Even processes are grasped through what amounts to a series of conceptual snapshots of states -- as in early flip-card experiments leading to cinematography. In this way a river is conceptually static -- a line across a map -- rather than a 'flowing'. It is possible that the ability to understand 'flowing' as a dynamic process is an undeveloped or rare skill, whose absence is poorly recognized (cf Csikszentmihalyi, 1991).
Where people rely primarily on one sense -- such as sight -- drawing attention to other senses (such as smell, or sound) is problematic. Although illiteracy and dyslexia are well-recognized as the focus of international programs, innumeracy is reframed as amusingly inconsequential, as with inability to derive meaning from tabular information or structural presentations (maps, system diagrams, circuit diagrams). In a time of systemic and ecological crises, why is there no term for inability to read patterns -- or it that equivalent to tastelessness? Understanding process is treated as of even less consequence, where snapshot information is available.
The real insights into process are to be found in body sports (martial arts, surfing, acrobatics) and the arts (music, dance, drama) where comprehension through kinaesthetic intelligence of a pattern of movement as a flowing whole is the core of the art. But how to communicate the distinction between snapshot understanding of a symphony and the flowing patterns over time of any musical composition -- between recognizing the beat and understanding the evolving musical pattern? In discussion of the processes sustaining development, very little policy communication within the international community is in a non-textual form and no sense of this limitation has been expressed.
Stopping the world: By using language to conceptually freeze features of the environment and experience, much can be achieved. Having 'stopped' the world in this way, what has been stopped can then be manipulated as with childrens' blocks. Model castles and other things can be constructed -- as many academics and consultants enthusiastically do as a basis for international programs or studies 'under laboratory conditions'. These can be treated as real for certain purposes -- which are often enthralling.
But, as in certain magical tales, this freezing process seals away the secret life of what is so frozen. It is buried, like Merlin in his cave. The conceptual chunks into which frozen reality can be broken do indeed permit development of a panoply of constructs that become the basis for civilization as we know it. But like magma from beneath the Earth's crust, the dynamic processes have not gone away. They may well come bursting forth in what are perceived as natural disasters, inexplicable discontent within the population, or deep personal dissatisfaction with a hollow lifestyle. The conceptual frameworks developed by civilization are not proving adequate to governance of its processes -- despite desparate claims to the contrary.
A major advantage of freezing features of the environment is that they tend to stay frozen when one's awareness is attracted to other features of the environment. A stable, conceptually hygienic context can be constructed by effectively tiling the world with labels. That this is made up of frozen processes, is of no consequence -- again rather like inhabiting a magical castle whose walls are made up of living beings long frozen into immobility. In this sense one is a magician inhabiting a castle of stasis. The tragedy is that the magician has forgotten the spells through which the freezing was done and through which the stasis may be broken.
The problem with freezing reality is that people cannot live, or thrive, in a world of stasis -- in the bleak and arid environment typically depicted as surrounding such a black magician's castle. Life is nourished and sustained by living processes. It is ironic that modern civilization may have conceptual characteristics analogous to glaciation. Globalization may be the final onset of a conceptual Ice Age.
Underlying dynamics: The paradox is that life goes on irrespective of the manner in which people may choose to freeze it. Rivers still flow beneath the ice. There is therefore a case for seeking ways to relate to this living reality beyond the models and constructs that seek to freeze it. In such a search the dynamics of behaviour would seem to be a key. The conceptual constructs serve, like mnemonic aids, to remind us of the dynamics to which we do not know how to relate -- of the reality with which we do not know how to dance.
Suppose an 'elephant', as we choose to perceive and photograph it, was effectively the tip of a behavioural iceberg that we have essentially given up handling. So what we dimly admire in the majesty and dignity of the elephant, could be processes in which we participate and of which we are part -- at some level. Similarly with the behavioural qualities of a swallow or a trout. Some folk cultures (Native American, Aborigine, etc) that cultivate a relation to totemic animals endeavour to explain themselves in these terms. The animals in the environment in some manner then 'carry' our understanding of processes -- performing a task that we have effectively forgotten and denied. In this way they carry forgotten dimensions of ourselves -- forgotten processes in our larger selves.
Downsizing identity: Civilization engages in constructing definitions of its citizens and the nature of human beings. These constructs tend to be simplistic or mechanistic at best -- as any reading of relevant legal or academic documents will show. People endeavour to rise above such alienating definitions through art and the behaviours in which they engage. The difficulty is that civilization has set in motion initiatives to destroy features of the environment that are carrying unconscious, or culturally repressed, memories of our larger selves. In addition to effectively entombing us in demeaning conceptual frameworks, it is destroying the living symbols that in some way together carry our larger identities -- however challenging they may be to our present understanding. Elephants are now more widely understood through cartoon characterizations and advertising clips -- making a mockery of forgotten parts of ourselves.
The larger reality may however be that we are effectively downsizing our identities -- and severely diminishing ourselves in ways essentially beyond our present understanding. It is not only the rainforests that are being destroyed but that part of our larger selves that is of equivalent complexity and whose processes are carried by the forgotten complexity and richness of those rainforests.
The loss of species from nature is presented as regrettable but inevitable, although some effort is made to engage in palliative programs. Some concern for lost species is expressed in terms of lost remedial health product opportunities. But the loss may be far greater in terms of lost cultural health opportunities -- we are destroying the potential of our civilization. In this sense it is 'cultural rainforests' that are our health being cut and burnt down for simplistic reasons justified by primitive economics.
'Carrying capacity' of the environment: What are the secret dynamics of ourselves that are still carried for us by features of our environment? How can one discover them? Are we ourselves the carriers of larger meaning for other species?
There are many who still attribute deeper significance to mountains, waterfalls, rivers and other larger features of the land -- or the species associated with them. For groups this may take the form of recognizing sacredness in them -- and they are then the focus of pilgrimage. But for many individuals features of the landscape are appreciated beyond the ways in which civilization describes them. Mountains, rivers and waterfalls can have deep meaning within people -- irrespective of their appreciation by others.
To what extent do people have waterfall or mountain 'modalities' to their being -- from which they effectively distance themselves, because the vistas and dynamic engagement evoked are more than can be managed through conventional static categorization of reality? What are we doing to these modalities when we fill the rivers with life-destroying pollutants, trash the highest mountains, destroy the forests, and domesticate the few species that we allow to survive in our environment?
In this context, what is to be made of the homogenization associated with globalization? There is concern, notably in the European Union, that in order to rationalize trade, the variety of approved crop species needs to be reduced. As a carrier of larger meanings, to what extent does globalization of this kind dangerously reduce the cultural variety on which our civilization may depend to survive and to thrive? Is the process reducing the psycho-social carrying capacity of the environment?
Clearly we are forced to work with the conceptual tunnel vision through which we have been trained by our civilization to view the environment. But we can allow ourselves to remember that each conceptually frozen construct (making up our magical castle on its blighted landscape) is holding a secret dynamic for us. We are surrounded by mnemonic aids that echo understandings of our larger living selves. We are surrounded by keys to the transformation of our world of stasis into a living reality. What then is not a key to transformation?
Metaphor: turning the key: It is in this context that the potential of metaphor needs to be recognized. Metaphor offers a way of 'turning the key'. It can transport us out of the limit condition imposed by the conceptual freezing process and into other spaces and processes in which we can live and breathe. The question is whether our civilization is also destroying the ability of ordinary people to turn the key. Metaphor is deliberately designed out of many communication processes as undesirable. The possibilities of metaphor have no more status in education than grammar and forced appreciation of literary style -- quickly forgotten by school leavers. And yet metaphor is widely and cruelly misused in framing those selected as scapegoats in any bullying process in such institutions.
How do we learn how to 'do metaphor' to turn the key? A good way of exploring this is to look at how people, even in the most desperate of circumstances, engage in humour to transform their experience. Like metaphor, humour is a process of shifting frameworks. Many have a 'sense of humour' -- some do not. Some can only appreciate jokes, and some can 'make jokes'. But it is not a rare skill. Music is another example of a process through which people are moved into a different process framework. Many can only appreciate music, a few can 'make music' and are able, at will, to engage in 'transposition of key'. But again it is not a rare skill.
One of the reasons metaphor is disparaged by the sophisticated is that it is seen as a substitute for use of relevant concepts and thus a mark of lack of education and/or verbal skill. However, for the most creative, metaphor is often the vehicle through which they first give form to new insights -- notably in fundamental physics and complexity theory. Metaphor is widely used by those without formal education -- notably in slums in developing countries.
The question is then why those who are unlikely to receive a formal education should not be encouraged to use metaphor -- 'its like...' -- to articulate and communicate insights. Indeed this is a highly valued traditional teaching role of metaphor when confronted with intangible complexity. Who is failing to encourage its use as a short-cut? Has Unesco ever advocated the use of metaphor to achieve some of its educational ambitions?
There are many kinds of 'dance' and the media have enabled world-wide understanding of the variety. This cannot be said of 'dialogue' which, as another consequence of globalization, is easily assumed to conform to some universal standard practised notably at summits or inter-faith gatherings. There is a need to explore the range of possible dialogues imaginatively.
Dancing dialogue: A sense of the range may indeed perhaps be obtained by using the range of dances as a metaphor. Dance is after all a pattern of interaction between people -- often engaged in to a far greater extent than 'dialogue', at more levels of society, and to create and reinforce bonding within a community. Are there styles of dialogue that correspond to:
|Range of dances as metaphors|
But for dancing to be meaningful to all parties, there is an experiential interaction that the visible pattern and flow contains and enhances. Why does that experience draw people back to interaction through that pattern? Why do people prefer some forms of dance over others?
As with dances, dialogues explore new patterns or rehearse old ones. Emphasis may be on acceptable unengaged performance or on exceptional enthusiastic engagement. People take up positions and interact with each other from those positions. They may exchange positions. In a group this may be done in turns -- by 'rotation' as in childrens' games. The shifts in pattern may be undertaken spontaneously, in response to imposed changes, according to defined (even traditional) rules, or on instructions. People may focus on their interaction with each other within the group or they may engage in solo performances (with or without a partner) -- possibly ignored by others. In some forms of dialogue, as with some dances, it is the whole process which has to work, rather than isolated performances.
In dialogues, a chairperson or facilitator may function as a 'caller' (as used in some square dances) and the shifts in the pattern may be governed by an agenda or a programme (corresponding to dance music). As with the distinct dress used to distinguish people in some forms of dance, those in a dialogue may be recognized as associated with factions of different (ideological) colour -- with those so distinguished partnering together or into distinct groups. The role of those observing the dialogue, as an audience, may be more or less significant -- as with dance. As with dance, the pace of the dialogue may be a determining characteristic -- from slow, meditative exchanges to vigorous interchanges and shifts of position. Participants may act as channels representing absent voices (or constituencies) in the dialogue, just as some (shamanic) dancers may seek to represent and act as channels for absent forces.
Grasping and marking: There is a real challenge to 'grasping' the nature of fruitful dialogue. The valued quality of successful dialogue -- sometimes called 'magical' -- is perhaps necessarily elusive and resistant to being grasped (cf Judge, 1996). As a participant one is part of the dialogue process so that any relation to the whole process is a challenge to understanding. Participants can seek to make their 'mark', to make a remark in response to someone else's 'mark', and to be remarked, if not remarkable. This process of demarcation is basic to much dialogue. There are aspects to such efforts that bear a strong resemblance to those of graffiti artists covering urban walls with their tags to mark their territory. 'Grasping' and 'marking' may not be the keys to fruitful dialogue.
To the extent that the dialogue space resembles a wall on which marks are retained, marking can build up a pattern of insights. One difficulty is that most marks are quickly obliterated during the process, as with beach sand exposed to waves. There is then no accumulating pattern of insight that participants can seek to improve. The dialogue space is then rather like a roundtable surface onto which each participant pours sparkling reflections -- which, like mercury, briefly run together, but as quickly roll off the table into oblivion. How are disparate insights to be kept on the table and interrelated?
Visualizing dialogue: It would be good to be able to use computer visualization techniques to hold the 'points' made by each participant as they develop a 'line' of argument, in delineating a subject 'area' as a facet of the dialogue theme as a 'whole'. This would be one approach to giving structured form to what emerges from the process -- in contrast to transcription or the product of minute writers. Also built into the current language of dialogue is the production of 'notes'. What if these were actually associated with musical notes? Recording the gathering would then lead to other possibilities for comprehension of the process as a whole.
Although relatively easy to develop, such devices are essentially prosthetic. The key remains how participants experience the evolving dialogue. Ideally what would make a major difference would be a new collective insight into the process. But ultimately it is how the individual participant interprets the event, with or without such assistance or collective reinforcement of new understandings.
Greening dialogue: How far are we from experiencing a dialogue like a garden, a farm, or a wilderness area -- embodying environmental qualities which sustainable development purports to respect? In each such case there is a static sense in which a dialogue may be experienced in terms of layout. Strangely each of these contexts functions like an attractor -- a nostalgic alternative to the unacceptable in city life -- but without clear understanding of the dynamics implied.
With a greater attention span comes the understanding that in the dialogue things are growing and developing depending on the season and the climate. Like buds, sets of categories ('models') may open revealing patterns of petals (pie charts) according to the species of flower. Each pattern has a strategy to position itself favourably for attention. Like flowers, such patterns compete in seeking cross-fertilization to ensure wider dissemination. However, once disseminated they are dependent on other factors if they are to develop successfully.
The dialogue process will tend to have its seasons and changing climate, propitious for development of some patterns and hostile to others -- that may lie dormant to emerge advantageously at a later stage. At any one time, the dialogue climate may be 'hot' or 'cold', 'damp' or 'arid', 'windy' or 'calm'. Some patterns will develop best in the direct view of all, some in the shadows cast by other initiatives. A dialogue may be exploited in various ways: using a hunter/gatherer strategy (moving on after local resources have been exhausted); by preparing the ground in which particular patterns can be nourished to development with appropriate care and rotation of crops; or by forcing growth through artificial stimulation of development and avoidance of any fallow period of natural recuperation.
In this light, understandings of dialogue might perhaps be compared through the following set of agricultural metaphors:
Transformative metaphor: It becomes clear from the above that, to an intriguing degree, it is is possible for anyone to transform their own world quite radically. Any feature frozen into a category may be used as a metaphor to reframe conventional understandings. Clearly this would meet with extreme opposition from those who derive power from the rigidity of the category in question. Particular disciplines would claim a form of intellectual property over understanding of the atom, the cell, the brain, a forest, or a solar system. They would consider quite irresponsible any unauthorized appropriation of such concepts. But as with abandoned sea shells, the patterns they have developed through their explorations may be used as imaginative seeds to explore other ways of seeing the world. Is this simply what poets do? Or does this process provide a way of unfreezing the world that we inherit from conceptual colonizers?
Like it or not, the activation of transformative metaphors is a reality in society -- if only for the advertising industry and political spin-doctors. And whilst the loss of species may be deplored, there are ways in which the functional significance of such species for humans is recreated in society. The urban jungle is populated with metaphorical wolves, foxes, dogs, cats, sheep, parrots, hawks, rats, worms, snails, etc. Even the financial world is attentive to bulls, bears, snakes, and tigers.
There is a real possibility that humans need to function in a dynamic context inhabited by such 'non-human' influences. They are being regenerated as roles, in all their variety, to perform that function. How long it will take to appreciate the range and variety of psycho-cultural species required for a sustainable community environment is another matter. Which species can such a community do without if it is to be viable? Why are so many required for a sustainable natural environment? What psycho-social equivalent to biodiversity do we need to conserve? Do we need a psycho-social equivalent to the World Heritage Site programme where the focus is on unique behavioural ecosystems of outstanding significance to humanity?
Why are we so surprised when our society regenerates behavioural species that correspond to extinct species from the natural environment -- to engage in the massacres of the future? The conjunction of the Holocaust with Jurassic Park!
Peter Harper, a representative of the Centre for Alternative Technology (Wales), argues: 'The way we organize our gardens reflects the way we organize our lives, our society, our politics, our businesses and our knowledge' (Resurgence, 164). The challenge is to use this insight to reframe understanding of the dialogue process as exemplifying a sustainable community. Any failure to build a sustainable conference community, amongst those concerned with sustainable development, can be seen as a failure to generate insights of relevance to the wider world.
Five kingdoms in nature: Harper stresses that sustainable biological systems are composed of the five kingdoms: protozoa, bacteria, fungi, plants and animals (see for example Lynn Margulis, Five Kingdoms: an illustrated guide to the phyla of life on Earth). Of these some 90 percent by weight are plants, with animals (mainly insects and worms) constituting but a few percent -- and serving mainly to decompose plants into forms that may be easily recycled by fungi and bacteria. Without such decomposers the system would seize up, but, as Harper notes, their work is viewed with 'distaste or even horror...This revulsion is almost universal, but in another light can be seen as a projection of an infantile refusal to face the realities of death and decay, or (as a species) to face honourably the need to clean up after ourselves. This metaphor is starkly underlined by the basic fact that most of the decomposition processes take place under the ground...But just as the natural order would grind to a halt without its dark side, so would we: the dark side suppressed raises demons and pathologies. There can be no growth without decay, no resurrection without death.'
Five forms of attention: Applying such insights to the psycho-social system of a dialogue community, the five kingdoms of sustainable natural systems (hypothesized since 1959) can be recognized as five complementary forms of attention or engagement on the part of participants. [Biology continues to envisage from three to seven domains, kingdoms, etc to encompass the sepctrum of life and its processes.] This approach is consistent with some the Eastern epistemologies of Buddhism and Taoism, with respect to hindrances to understanding, practices for overcoming them, and the nature of the resulting insight. It recognizes that the patterns of sustainable organization elaborated over millennia in biological systems are likely to entrain (or necessitate) isomorphic pattern organization in sustainable psycho-social systems. In this sense innovation is to a large extent a question of giving conscious human expression to patterns long used unconsciously in biological organization. Few patterns of organization have not already been exemplified in nature. It is therefore useful to explore and work with those long-tested patterns, guided by the ways that they are embodied in natural processes.
In experimenting with its own processes, a conference can tentatively recognize five forms of attention or engagement as:
At the other extreme, individual attention within any community may be held, shaped and channelled over extended periods of time by belief systems. Like plants, these depend on their ability to synthesize and give coherence to perceptions of social reality in the 'light' of conscious awareness -- the equivalent to photosynthesis, which could have been termed 'psychosynthesis', if this did not already have other connotations. And as with the branching structure of plants (and petal formation in flowers), such belief systems take a multitude of forms, patterning psycho-social reality in two-fold (dualities), three-fold (trinities), four-fold (quaternities), and higher, forms of organization (exemplified by the many systems of categories).
Such belief systems develop, replicate and evolve. As the organization of individual or collective attention, any particular manifestation (as with an individual plant) is of limited duration and is vulnerable to other forces in the community. The attention span of a person reflecting a particular belief system (whether through discourse, meditation or some other practice) is a matter of hours at most -- before that particular manifestation must necessarily pass away in favour of some other mode of attention essential to thriving in a community.
Nourishment in community: As recognized in the current call for a return to core values, the coherence created by particular manifestations of belief systems is a prime source of nourishment for other forms of attention and social engagement -- namely those unable to synthesize coherence directly through any form of psychosynthesis. Like animals, such forms of engagement consume living manifestations of belief or practice on which they may be totally dependent for their survival. A member of a community may of course engage in 'plant-mode', providing coherence (eg in the practice of some discipline) that the same member may subsequently consume in 'animal- mode' (eg as when a morning meditation sustains a person throughout the day). But the duration of this mode is also limited and must necessarily pass away, possibly as the prey of some 'carnivorous' form of 'animal-mode'. Presentations at a conference (often expressed as planting seeds) may then be usefully understood as providing food for the nourishment of an audience -- usefully to be understood as operating in 'animal-mode', usually as 'herbivores'.
The active manifestation of plant or animal-modes of engagement finally ceases however, with other modes then coming into play to breakdown structures that are no longer sustained and which would otherwise clutter up psychic space. These are of course the 'fungi-' and 'bacteria-modes' which, as Harper noted, were above all characteristic of the unconscious, unless the subject of psychotherapeutic or spiritual disciplines.
Anabolic vs. Catabolic processes: As a community, a dialogue community can skillfully avoided the traps of over-definition in exploring these possibilities. Of greatest importance is the recognition of the importance of a balance between anabolic and catabolic processes, through whatever forms of social engagement these were expressed. This ensures an appropriate balance between the 'positive' processes through which structures were built up, and the 'negative' processes through which they necessarily passed away -- to be subsequently regenerated in some new manifestation. Avoiding the usual demonization, this balance met the needs of both those concerned with affirmation of existing patterns (typically in plant-mode), and those concerned to replace them by new patterns (typically in animal-mode). But as a dynamic balance of processes, this could only be achieved through the insights of permaculture rather than through vain attempts at manipulation of static structures.
Playful exploration of such insights is possible because many participants may be more than familiar with the tangible manifestation of these patterns in nature. They can be seen as a web of insights and interactions through which psycho- social organization could be more explicitly and effectively rendered congruent with nature and the challenges of community. There is a charm to 'gardening' one's own community rather than relying on the narrowly-focused skills of community-building and community-development.
Harper stresses the shift from a focus on 'standard of living' to 'quality of life'. A dialogue community can highlight the need for what can be termed 'quality of attention' or 'quality of engagement'.
Process dialogue: It would be naive to assume that some people were not highly skilled at living in a process reality. Such people would not be dependent on static categories and snapshot takes on processes. What would be the nature of an encounter with such a person? The challenge would be that the 'person' might have a sense of identity as a process. It would then be a case of a static identity encountering a dynamic identity -- a rock in a river. But for those locked into static category thinking, such a process identity would effectively be undetectable -- or only minimally detectable.
How would a group of such process people function in a collective encounter -- a process dialogue? Would the encounter be meaningful to someone locked into a static identity? How would meaning be processed, if not through static categories -- ascribing meaning to a sequence of snapshots? From a static perspective, the challenge is to build up larger patterns of insight in a dialogue. From a dynamic perspective, it would be the flow pattern that would carry larger meaning -- rather than a carpet or a map, an evolving dance or musical composition (like 'generated music'). Group improvisation in music is an example that is being studied for organizational creativity (cf Jamming, John Kao).
Perhaps some sense of a dynamic identity is associated with those who are known especially for their style or charisma -- for which there are various related terms in other languages: élan, baraka, sprezzatura. When deliberately cultivated, as the art of the courtier, the elusive quality can be described as follows:
Sprezzatura: the well practiced naturalness, the rehearsed spontaneity, which lies at the center of convincing discourse of any sort, and which has been the always-sought but seldom well-described center of rhetorical "decorum" since Aristotle first tried to describe it. (http://omni.cc.purdue.edu/~davidswf/tds.wc.html)
Process riders: But it would also be naive to assume that those capable of carrying their identities through such process thinking are necessarily benevolent in their attitude towards the well-being of static forms. Within the dynamic, they would have an ideal 'place' in which to hide -- a 'non-place'. As with frequency-hopping encrypted communications, they would be everywhere but nowhere -- the new approaches to widespread, invasive electronic surveillance provide powerful metaphors of this. Like web 'spiders', they could effectively 'ride' the dynamics in which static identities participate. Rather than being the 'substantives' of which reality is normally understood to be composed, they would be the 'verbs' through which its dynamics are expressed.
The psychology of multiple personality points to some of the challenges since the integrated personality, to the extent that it 'exists', is then expressed through a variety of sub-personalities that may or may not communicate with each other to any degree. The integrated personality is then effectively an alien riding a complex vehicle. Many people are only partially understood through some aspects of their personality, even when they cannot be said to function from multiple personality disorder. Each facet or personality then is rather like one of a number of moving feet on which the the entity as a whole navigates through reality.
This suggests a way of thinking about 'aliens' -- those who are not linked into conventional society [cf lien as the French for 'link', also as in hyperlien]. A lien is a legal right to hold another's property until a debt is paid. A community, in the light of static thinking, is a pattern of bonds or links -- the checks and balances of civil society. But from a dynamic perspective, there are flows and processes that sustain the community -- for which only the skeletal structure might be usefully described by 'links'.
The identities sustained by the dynamics alone are effectively 'aliens' -- unrecognizable from a static perspective. In folk traditions they might be readily recognized as spirits and the like -- hidden fairies contributing coherence to the forest. The religiously inclined might refer to them as angels or demons. In part, they would only live through the dynamics between the static identities. The 'demons' would be of special concern as malevolent riders of those dynamics -- 'dark riders'. What identities live through processes of overpopulation, starvation, disease, injustice, pollution and violence -- or globalization itself?
Communicating with aliens: For those puzzled by the lack of communication with extraterrestials, the possibility that their identities may only be associated with dynamics opens avenues of reflection. In this sense aliens could even be omnipresent in our civilization through the dynamics between static identities -- as verbs. How does a substantive communicate with a verb? Note that the question of the 'grammar' of process organization has been explored at MIT by Thomas Malone and others (1998).
There is relatively little literature on the strategy for communicating with aliens. What there is is focused primarily on mathematics and numbers on the assumption that this would be fundamental to intelligence anywhere. The mathematical language advocated stresses what amounts to static concepts of numbers (1, 2, 3, etc). However, if aliens were more identified with dynamics, their focus would be more on one-ing, two-ing, three-ing, etc -- more closely associated with the biodynamics of cell-division and other generative or destructive processes. Or possibly their focus would be on music, as dramatized in the Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)? How might a maths based on flow and pattern be experienced with kinaesthetic insight? Many animals, including bees, live and express themselves through movement -- no wonder that we pretend that they cannot communicate 'intelligently'. Humans may be judged in the same way by aliens -- and by many animals.
A further reason for lack of communication might simply be that human understanding of dialogue is profoundly boring in galactic society. For aliens living through dynamics, the almost total absence of co-creation in dialogue would render communication with humans virtually meaningless. Just as from a static perspective, 'watching grass grow' is an experience to be avoided. So, from a dynamic perspective, for an alien, 'moving icecubes around in patterns' until they melt would be equally alienating.
Being an alien: In a society in which there is continuing concern about 'alienation', notably amongst urban youth, the possibility of relationship building for 'sustainable community' is clearly important. Unfortunately the approach to building community tends to be little more than a radical revision of strategies employed by religious groups anxious to promote fellowship and brotherhood -- and adapted to team-building in educational, corporate, sporting and military situations where they dynamics of gender are avoided or stigmatized. However, as the escalating level of communal violence indicates, many have already been radicalized into alienhood. The resources for befriending or bonding them back into community are increasingly inadequate. The challenge of communicating with such 'aliens' may be as dramatic as that of communicating with extraterrestrials -- as many parents discover (and children too!).
Maybe there is a case for recognizing the extent to which everyone is an alien. Modern civilization may be an essentially alienating process -- evoking alien ways of being to compensate for its dehumanizing effects. As aliens, people need to discover other ways of inhabiting the same space-time continuum -- and other ways of communicating. To use a theatrical metaphor, rather than 'extraterrestrials', many are becoming 'terrestrial extras' through various processes of marginalization.
It is ironic that the sense of alienation encourages many to think of 'escape'. Where to and how to are a real challenge. To employ a space travel metaphor, how to build up an adequate 'escape velocity'? The Web, for example, offers a form of escape into a kind of 'orbit', unattached to any particular physical location. It encourages other forms of sustainable community (through hyperlinks), more meaningful in practice to many than those promoted in international programs. Already those 'on the Web' have disparaging terms for those who are not linked in this way -- they are seen as the real 'aliens' (Remember that the French word for hyperlink is hyperlien).
Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Oxford University Press, 1991 (Trans. George Kennedy).
William Sims Bainbridge:
Baldassare Castiglione. The Book of the Courtier. Trans. Thomas Hoby. Dutton, 1974.
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