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16 March 2009 | Draft

Framing the Global Future by Ignoring Alternatives

unfreezing categories as a vital necessity

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Produced on the occasion of the G20 Summit (London, April 2009)

Images as indicators
Failure to consider a spectrum of alternatives
Unfreezing categories?
-- Jobs (employment / work) | Resolutions | Drugs
-- Health | Safety | Death | Population | Energy
-- Extremism | Property | Education
-- Qualification | Growth | Corruption and Crime
Opening possibilities for maneuver in seemingly blocked contexts

Images as indicators

In preparation for the much-heralded, key meeting of the G20 Group in London (March 2009), two striking images were produced. The negatives are reproduced below:

Fifty who will frame a way forward
Financial Times, 11 March 2009
G-20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors
Horsham, 15 March 2009
Fifty who will frame a way forward G-20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors

What is so striking about these images? Both have the traditional predominance of "white males". But to clarify further, of the 50 identified by the Financial Times, 5 are women (blurred out in white). Of the 46 present at the G20 Finance Meeting, 2 are women (blurred out in black). This treatment might have been rendered even more striking by blurring out the women using white, and the "non-whites" using black.

Despite the confusion and obfuscation over who actually had any responsibility for the financial crisis and the management of its evolution, there is a significant consensus that a failure of regulatory overview has been a key factor. It is therefore reasonable to ask:

The focus of the argument here is not on the questionable representation of "non-whites" and "women" -- old issues as yet unresolved -- as with the proportion of women in national parliaments, of which the above situation is a reflection (Inter-Parliamentary Union, Women in National Parliaments, 2009).

Failure to consider a spectrum of alternatives

The concern here is rather to refer to these images as dramatic indicators of a failure to bring new insights to bear upon a global challenge which will affect "white", "non-white", "male" and "female" -- whilst ensuring the presence of many who were complicit in the emergence of the crisis.

Given the striking failure of many indicated in the images -- and the skewed participation in the above selections -- with what confidence can it be assumed that an appropriate range of alternatives will be under consideration for the G20 Summit or in any efforts to "frame a way forward"? What information is there on the alternatives that have been designed out of consideration?

Given that there is every expectation that social unrest will increase as the predicted effects of the crisis affect households and livelihoods worldwide, how prudent is it to exclude discussion of a comprehensive range of alternatives? Clearly any failure of remedies as currently envisaged will then be appropriately placed directly at the door of those who have had the arrogance to assume that they alone know best what to do -- having failed to exhibit that insight with respect to their responsibility for the emergence of the crisis.

How irresponsible is it to bring to bear on the challenge what some will consider to be the same mindset as ensured an inadequate response to the emerging challenge? Is global governance locked into a highly dangerous pattern of tunnel vision and groupthink?


Indeed what are the alternatives that have been considered inappropriate? Why are they not articulated on the G20 website -- with clarification as to why they are indeed inappropriate? Would this not be of assistance to all concerned -- especially if those finally recommended prove to be inadequate?

How significant is the inadequate representation of insights from those marginalized by the process? Indeed is designing out the perspectives of women and "non-whites" symptomatic of an underlying pattern of designing out insights distinct from those that led to the crisis of the financial system? Why are alternatives considered to be so threatening as to be excluded from a discussion in which new thinking is in extremely short supply?

Part of the difficulty is again highlighted, if only as an example, by the role of women in relation to the financial system and world governance. This is explored in some detail in Symptoms of denial: gender and the underside of meetings (2009) as part of an exploration of Engaging with Globality. Is the absence of discussion of "alternatives" at summits as appropriately indicated as the effacement of the women from the above images?

Is this treatment of the perspective of women to be considered as were the canaries in the coal mines -- as indicators of the threat of a dangerous explosion? Faced with disaster, in the absence of insightful new thinking, should not every effort be made to draw on the full range of potential insights -- rather than depending on the dangers of more of the same?

What level of crisis is required to make it evident that "global" governance -- adequate to the crisis -- calls for a form of "framing" enriched by alternatives, rather than impoverished by dangerously oversimplistic remedies?

Curiously a "frame", as with the frame that might be used for the above images, is typically a two-dimensional construct -- as are the "plans" vainly formulated to encompass the three-dimensionality of the "globe". This challenge of cognitive geometry is summarized (Metaphorical Geometry in Quest of Globality: in response to global governance challenges, 2009). This is itself a summary of a more detailed commentary on the governance challenges and possibilities (Engaging with Globality -- through cognitive lines, circlets, crowns or holes, 2009).

Is it possible that such "framing" has many of the regrettable characteristics of "in-the-box" thinking? Will the G20 gathering offer any indication of "out-of-the-box" thinking whatsoever? Will there be anything new on offer -- perhaps commensurate with the advanced technical innovation associated with the financial derivatives that triggered the subprime crisis? That such innovation is unlikely is indicated by a commentary in the Financial Times by Alan Beattie (Panic buttons for future use, 12 March 2009) in response to the question "Why did no one see this coming?":

As policymakers from the Group of 20 leading developed and emerging economies struggle to combat the immediate effects of the crisis with fiscal stimulus packages and financial bail-outs, their forthcoming summit will also look at designing early warning systems to spot new disasters.

The problem, experts warn, is that, like much of the G20's agenda, it is a question of implementation rather than technical improvement. It is not just that any attempt to design such a system inevitably misses crises that do happen and falsely predicts crises that do not, but that policymakers tend either to ignore such warnings or try to suppress them so they are not made public.

So no technical improvement -- more of the same? No insightful questions to detect the issues that are not being addressed? Just make sure that opinions contrary to the received wisdom -- that engendered the crisis -- are not effectively represented?

Unfreezing categories ?

If the emerging implications of the financial crisis -- and the highly constrained manner in which responses are being "framed" -- are to be taken seriously, then new questions should be asked. This is especially the case if the UK has now decided to indulge in "quantitative easing" as an emergency remedy. Aside from the constipatory connotations, such printing of money may be understood as the printing of promises -- at a time when the credibility of any promises is severely reduced. Is it possible that the financial "unfreezing" so desperately sought implies the need for a more generic unfreezing of categories? This challenge may indeed be exemplified by the manner in which women are "frozen out of meetings" regarding a global future -- as discussed separately in Symptoms of denial: gender and the underside of meetings (2009) as part of an exploration of Engaging with Globality.

What other questions might then be asked with respect to global governance, such as:

For example, with respect to the categories (and their associated crises):

The general point to be made in each case is that categories are not written in stone and for all time. As with the constant massaging of the definition of "unemployment" for politial convenience, categories can be considered more "plastic". Such a possibility is the focus of the international, transdisciplinary network Plasticities Sciences Arts (PSA), namely new fields of interaction between sciences, arts and humanities -- founded on both knowledge and human experience. Plasticity is considered to be the basic principle underlying the organization of any life form, art or idea -- as most recently articulated by Eric Combet (From the concept of plasticity to the plasticity of the concept, Plastir, 2009, 14). Of course, within this metaphor, it is appropriatew to ask whether categories as conventional understood are presented in a suitably "plastified" manner to ensure their durability.

The finanical crisis and its economic consequences suggests that the institutions of global governance run the danger of defining themselves as guardians and curators of "category museums". More is required by the nature of the crisis and the challenge of the future.

Opening possibilities for maneuver in seemingly blocked contexts

Responses to situations created by a number of the categories above arouse despair at the immense challenge involved -- as with "unemployment" and the search for "jobs". This might however be explored as a binary trap engendered by binary logic -- an inappropriately learnt response. Such an approach could be contrasted with that highlighted from Eastern cultures by Kinhide Mushakoji (Global Issues and Interparadigmatic Dialogue; essays on multipolar politics, 1988) in the form of a quadrilemma, rather than a dilemma.

It is the last two modes, and the set as a whole, that are suggestive of further insight. A binary response to such a possibility is readily framed as "irrelevant" rather than "relevant" -- without any room for maneuver. The possibilities may perhaps be illustrated experientially by the examples in the following table.

  Binary logic Poorly explored alternatives
. A
A and not-A
("good" and "bad")
neither A nor not-A
(neither "good" nor "bad")
weather sun ("good weather") rain ("bad weather") sun and rain neither sun
nor rain
ethics no-corruption corruption no-corruption and corruption neither corruption
nor no- corruption
competition winning losing winning and losing neither winning nor losing
self-esteem aggrandisement deprecation aggrandisement and deprecation neikther aggrandisement nor deprecation
happiness happiness unhappiness happiness and unhappiness neither happiness
nor unhappiness
love in love no love/unloved loving and unloved neither loved (loving)
nor unloved
enlightenment enlightened unenlightened enlightened and unenlightened neither enlightened
nor unenglightened

It is the last two columns, typically a matter of common experiential insight, which are suggestive of a richer approach to "unfreezing" the categories above. For example:

The obsession with a binary approach to strategic options would seem to inhibit recognition of the spectrum of alternatives associated with the further two columns, and possibly more (Discovering Richer Patterns of Comprehension to Reframe Polarization, 1998). Especially interesting is the manner in which strategies associated with the first two columns engage in a process of demonisation of each other:

This process of demonisation lends itself to reframing through musical metaphor (All Blacks of Davos vs All Greens of Porto Alegre reframing global strategic discord through polyphony? 2007). The relation between the columns, especially the last two, is typically explored through various understandings of ambiguity (William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, 1930). It might be argued that the relation between initiatives associated with either of the first two columns is concerned with "impact" on the other -- an unfortunate quasi-military metaphor (Enhancing Sustainable Development Strategies through Avoidance of Military Metaphors, 1998; Conversion of Strategic Bullets into Global Accomplishment: clues to a crowning initiative based on effective partnerships, 2009)

Whilst the limited numeracy of some indigenous tribes is deprecated ("one", "two", "many"), the future may be equally scathing in its regard for such an obsessive binary strategic focus at the present time. There tends to be an experiential progression from the first column (identification with A), to the encounter with another (not-A), to an understanding of the co-existence of both (A and not-A), to a recognition of significance beyond either (neither A nor not-A). This then, through a form of imprinting, is reframed as "A" -- at a higher level of abstraction -- as yet unchallenged by the potential emergence of a "not-A". Again this highlights the merits of the "unsaying" of apophatic discourse.

As discussed with respect to happiness (Happiness and Unhappiness through Naysign and Nescience: comprehending the essence of sustainability? 2008), it is possibly the cyclic configuration of the four columns that is significant to the dynamics of learning under complex conditions, especially over a more extended period of time. This would seem to involve a process of enantiodromia, namely cyclic transformation through the opposite (Psychosocial Energy from Polarization within a Cyclic Pattern of Enantiodromia, 2007; Patterns of Alternation: toward an enantiomorphic policy, 1995).

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