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Aesthetics of Meaning

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Published in UniS Briding Worlds (UniS Institute), Volume III, No. 4. Oct./ Nov. 1991, pp. 37-43.
Abridged adapation of Aesthetics of Governance in the Year 2490


One of the difficulties of these interesting times is the vast out pouring of information, insightful and otherwise. Even the most creative people with many helping hands have large piles of documents and periodicals in their offices labeled "To Read" - where many remain unread. In an era of "desktop-publishing" the "desktop- reader" does not accomplish for us what its name implies. It is a mark of eminence for a person to be able to claim lack of time to read all the relevant documents in his or her field. This has serious implications for those with policy-making responsibilities and forthe insightfulness of the innovations to which they subscribe. Oursociety seems to be decreasingly capable of channeling its best insights to the places where decisions are taken and interrelating them in such a way as to empower those capable of acting in terms of new paradigms - although upbeat reporting might lead us to believe otherwise.

Information specialists delight in describing what computers will be able to do for us to resolve such difficulties with new gadgets and fancy soft ware. But they focus on fact shuffling - at a time when many "facts" have become questionable.

The question of how creative, integrative insights emerge, are comprehended and rendered appealing, to a wider audience is not addressed. How do we collectively sense and grasp a fragile new gestalt that is an emerging paradigm in embryonic form?

What follows is an exercise in imagining how the creative imagination might be used some time in the future, possibly 500 years in the future - unfettered and unconstrained by the obvious difficulties arising from ourpresent priorities and understanding. The focus is on the contribution of the arts to more appropriate forms of policy- making and to the design of more appropriate forms of social and conceptual structure.

One stimulus forthis exercise has been the poverty of imagination associated with fictional and dramatic scenarios of how executive councils function in the distant future-Even when entities gather from "the 100 galaxies", in thousands of years through 'holographic projections' they still seem to be modeled on the United Nations Security Council or its unfortunate imitations. This organizational archetype is no challenge to our imagination, especially when other styles might be more appropriate. The degree of innovation in such policy councils since classical Greek or Roman times is laughable compared to that in any technology. High tech Pentagon-style "war rooms" and corporate 'situation rooms' do not empower participants to interweave value-laden views that differ and cross-pollinate in realms beyond the quantifiable. It is sad to see this same archetype impoverishing the gatherings of spiritual leaders of different faiths.


The concern in this exercise is not with new forms of information technology, nor with new kinds of business graphics 'for the decision- maker', nor with the communication of words. The focus is also not on the design of conference rooms and the associated communication technol- ogy, nor is it on group dynamics and the manner in which such meetings might then be facilitated. The group processes and interpersonal dynamics of that time, and their relationship to the personal growth of participants are not the concern.

The focus is on meaningful insight, its communication and its comprehension - and especially when participants hold quite incompatible views. The concern is with the embodiment of new patterns of meaning - whatever media are used to carry those meanings.

Although the preoccupation is with how more appropriate forms of policy will emerge at that time, the theme is the contribution of the arts to that process. What might be the interface between the arts and the most creative aspects of policy-making as a "high art" in its own right? And, let it quickly be emphasized that the issue to be explored here is not whether symphony concerts should be held "on the occasion" of any such assembly, or whether the walls should be monopolized by the mural of some distinguished artist.

In pursuing this theme it is assumed that by some time in the future it may be possible to distinguish more effectively and creatively between insights and their expression and between personal concerns and those of the collective.

Put bluntly the challenge seems to lie in making policies more seductive and enthralling to the individual, on the one hand, and in finding ways to permit the arts to be more an evolving expression of collective insight rather than a series of isolated works associated with the personalities (and idiosyncrasies) of their individual creators.

Our tragedy at this time is that the longer-term policies to move us beyond the crises of our times, and the processes by which they are formulated, are inherently boring to the vast majority of the population. But the creative expressions to which we are all attracted, whatever the form (music, poster art, TV drama, etc), do not offer us a means of articulating the frameworks from collective action - however well they may express our aspirations. Live aid can raise consciousness, enthusiasm and money, but as a process it cannot articulate and ensure its appropriate use.

What seems to be called for is a form of marriage between Beauty and the Beast, in which both need to compromise in ways quite foreign to their natures. The Beast needs to be more sensitive to the harmonies through which its force could be more appropriately expressed and Beauty needs to be less narcisstic in order to respond to the earthly priorities of the collective and the way work can be done collectively.

Movement of Meaning

In that fardistant time a gathering of the wise may best be imagined as blending the characteristics of policy councils as we now know them with those of an art workshop, a poetry reading, a classical music concert, a theater, a folk song-fest and a dance; together with other dimensions we would have difficulty recognizing - and might find awe-inspiring, if not personally quite threatening. It is difficulty to imagine how these seemingly distinct forms of activity blend in this way, but that is because we have difficulty in understanding how the same meaning can be taken up, articulated and developed through different forms. We see this more clearly today in music, where different instruments develop the same musical theme, responding to each other's contribution. In that future setting policy-related themes are developed across artistic forms, much as happens in the relation between song and music, or relation to a dramatic setting as in opera.

But it is less the form and appearance of the occasion which is the concern, for to explore those would keep us trapped in their meanings for us at this time. And it is obvious that the arts will have evolved in ways we can clearly not suspect. At this point it suffices to note the presence of a spectrum of arts. Of much greater relevance is the manner in which they open up and develop themes essential to the policy process. For lack of a better word, "Meaning" will be used to refer to the emotion-mind-intuitive "stuff with which the gathering is working and on which its attention is focussed. What are they trying to do with it and what opposing and complementary forces are brought to bear upon it?

Those attending the gathering each bring to it their own contribution. These may be quite distinct, whether compatible with others or not. The participants are there because the meanings they bring are those which others wish to articulate. The process of the gathering allows these meanings to play off against each other. Through what conceptual or other frameworks do participants (and external observers) comprehend these movements of meanings? This is what we can endeavor to explore.

Before engaging in that exploration, it may be useful to clarify the relation between meaning and policy. Put briefly, policy is that which the collective concludes that it is most meaningful to under take. Not all meaning is directed towards action. Some may articulate the context for action (or inaction). Some levels of policy may indeed be more concerned with maintaining a context within which other policies may be pursued. It may be argued that the highest and most appropriate form of governance would be that which ensured the generation and circulation of meaning within a society, whilst intervening minimally.

Artistic Vehicles for Meaning (Virtual experience)

Participants at the gathering therefore make use of different artistic vehicles at different times to introduce new meanings and to sustain the movement of meaning as a whole. We need not be too concerned about how they do this in practice.

Clearly extensive use might be made of electronic devices (or their successors) to run video or audio sequences extracted from a library of the world's cultural heritage. Perhaps participants might call upon artistic 'staff support to endeavor to articulate a theme for which no cultural referents were known. The artist might use some visual or other sequences from the library, manipulating them in the light of his or her own insight and in response to intellectual, emotional and instinctive feedback from the participants -- much as is done by computer graphics enthusiasts, by computer-enhanced music synthesizers, and by experts in special film effects. Individual participants might choose to use a poetic form, music or song, depending on their skills, in order to supplement any statements in prose form. Clearly the future will hold many possibilities of this kind - but that is not the point.

What we would have difficulty grasping in following this process would be the connection between one "intervention" and the next if the sequence moved through different artistic forms. We can begin to understand when we think of our response to the normal musical accompaniment to the drama evolving in a film. But in that time instead of simply reinforcing the meaning, the music may also carry the meaning to a new level of insight. Any words which then followed might be considered by us as a non sequitur - we would have missed the link carried meaningfully by the music. We are more used to this process when a lecturer introduces slides and other graphics to make points which cannot be effectively made in verbal form. Such graphics seldom, if ever, appear in the proceedings of policy bodies.

But how could we grasp what was being articulated when the gathering shifted from a univocal to a polyphonic mode, where the 'voices' might take visual as wall as audio form ? Again we can begin to understand when we think of how "voices" interplay in a choir or in symphonic music. There is a logic to the relationships - a harmonic logic - to which we respond both instinctively and intuitively. There is a 'rightness' to the harmonic integration so achieved. In our meetings today, people speaking simultaneously are seen as disorderly and various proce- dures are used to inhibit or prevent it. To the extent that such interventions represent the 'voices' of distinct factions, we are deprived of the richness of any polyphonic integration - one "voice" is expected to drown out all the others (as in majority voting), or all are expected to 'speak with the same voice" (as in consensus procedures). Where there are many speakers who can only speak in succession, it now takes much experience to be able to follow the emerging pattern and to integrate the threads of the discussion at a higher level of real significance to participants. And effective integration of any current debate tends in our era to be more tokenism -- its meaning lies mainly in its value for public relations, whatever the policy implications.

What could we understand from the arts today that would help us to understand how they, in the future, could work collectively in this way?

Artistic Discipline

One key to understanding how such gatherings work is their préoccupation with a well recognized concern of anyone in the arts, namely "finding the appropriate medium". The emphasis is on the insights to be expressed. The challenge is to find one or more vehicles through which to express any such insight. The dilemma is that many of the most complex and valued insights often cannot be adequately expressed through a single medium or even in a single moment of time. The insight can then onlybecarriedbyan interplay offormsovera period of time. The concern therefore shifts to the "design," "or chestration," or "choreography" of that interplay.

But of what relevance are these concerns to the articulation of policy? A major handicap for policy-makers of our day is that their in sights must invariably take their final expression as words in prose form. Much has been written about the turgidity of that prose, especially in its extreme legal form. The prose is usually structured into a nested hierarchy of 'points' - which emerge from policy meetings governed by agendas of similar form. It is difficult to imagine a less creative way of expressing insights, however carefully the document is "crafted". Its great merit lies in the fact that each point in principle corresponds to a course of action for which some person, group or institution may be made responsible. Unfortunately this leads to the creation of institutions which mirror the structural poverty of the policy document. And, although there is much benefit in the stability of static structures like agendas, policy-documents and organization charts, they are almost totally inappropriate to the ambiguous, fluid, cyclic or evolving condi- tions, so characteristic of a real world full of 'surprises' -- and such forms have proven to be incredibly difficult to change in response to the surprises.

The crises of our times, and of those to come, forced future generations to embody the temporal dimension into their design of conceptual, policy and institutional structures. The dangers of embalming such structures as monuments to the insights of a particular moment - and then allowing subsequent actions to be governed by the self-serving priesthoods which accumulated around them - became only too obvious. As will be seen, incorporating the temporal dimension involves more than producing a "Five Year Plan" which is totally insensitive to insights emerging either after its adoption or as feedback from the phases of its implementation.

But the only way that they could take this major design step, comprehend the complexity of the outcome, and (above all) engage the inter est, participation and understanding of the population as a whole, was through the use of artistic disciplines. Indeed integrating what had seemed so totally irrelevant to the policy-makers of our times was seen as an essential healing process for the collective ("two cultures") schizophrenia which had engendered the contradictions at the root of so many of our problems. This healing demanded as much radical rethinking of policy-making as it did of the social role of artistic expression.

We need look at some of the disciplines and insights from the arts and see how they were woven by our descendants into the high art of policy-making. We must of course remember that from our perspective the reality of that integration would appear quite magically incomprehensible to us - all we can do is note certain threads and principles which were significant to that magic.

Part of our difficulty in comprehending their achievement is that this healing involved more ,than a simplistic putting together of policy and artistic skills. The integration was based on a paradoxical (and uncomfortable) level of insight (with associated skills) in order to transcend the easy duality by which we now find it convenient to separate them (and many other things). The beginnings of this insight are only now becoming familiar to us in the discussions of the relationship between physics and consciousness and with related insights from the East.


For those locked into bureaucratic procedures, academic or artistic traditions, or into the prevailing conventions of policy- making, that future will appear fantastic indeed. But at a time when actors and playwrights become presidents, when policy is articulated through carefully staged photo opportunities, when major policies are communicated and discussed through their metaphoric wrappings, and when policy successes at the global level seem few and far between, then more open-ended approaches merit exploration.

Many references could have been supplied to give weight to points made and to possibilities alluded to. But this is not the place to do so. Those to whom the arguments speak will have their own references, and it is unlikely that references would persuade others to whom the perspective is unmeaningful anyway.

Underlying this paper is a concern for the unexplored possibilities of metaphor in guiding innovative approaches to governance and the design of structures for sustainable development Such uses of metaphor have formed the subject of a series of papers which developed themes first explored in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (1986). This material appears in the 1990 edition of that volume with an appropriate bibliography.

Finally it is a nice challenge to ask ourselves why the possibilities mentioned above could not be explored now rather than in the year 2490 -- if only for smaller groups and communities. What would it take to determine what might be feasible? To represent Beauty, it would be necessary to have those with artistic skills of course - but it would be vital that they not be locked into the need for a platform for themselves and their own work, rather than for collective concerns. To represent the Beast, much could be accomplished with accountants, lawyers and those from the organizational development world, in addition to those with policy skills -- but it would be vital that they not be locked into a narrow conception of their role. When they gather together it would be vital to recognize that the personal needs of facilitators, with their favorite 'processes', are also part of the problem.

We need to disillusion ourselves that the task just involves bringing appropriately skilled people together -- as in so many delightful gatherings and task forces of little consequence. It calls for long- term commitment by many-perhaps equivalent to the Apollo program - in order to escape from the conceptual gravity well in which we are stuck.

Our tragedy is that innovation tends to be forced upon us, and justified, by disaster. It will probably take a major disaster to our planet before we can find ways to surmount the conceptual greed which drives us to advance our own views (signed and copyrighted) at all costs - whether in the service of Beauty or of the Beast. But there will come a time when a match-making gathering will explore the possibility of their marriage - the form it might take, and the prodigy it will produce.

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