Aesthetics of Meaning
- / -
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
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
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
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
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
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
well they may express our aspirations. Live aid can raise consciousness,
enthusiasm and money, but as a process it cannot articulate and ensure its
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
classical music concert, a theater, a folk song-fest and a dance; together with
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
much as happens in the relation between song and music, or relation to a
dramatic setting as in
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
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
bring are those which others wish to articulate. The process of the gathering
meanings to play off against each other. Through what conceptual or other
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
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
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
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.
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
manipulating them in the light of his or her own insight and in response to
and instinctive feedback from the participants -- much as is done by computer
enthusiasts, by computer-enhanced music synthesizers, and by experts in special
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
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
might be considered by us as a non sequitur - we would have missed the link
meaningfully by the music. We are more used to this process when a lecturer
and other graphics to make points which cannot be effectively made in verbal
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?
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
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
insights often cannot be adequately expressed through a single medium or even
in a single
moment of time. The insight can then onlybecarriedbyan
time. The concern therefore shifts to the "design," "or
chestration," or "choreography" of that
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
around them - became only too obvious. As will be seen, incorporating the temporal
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
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
can do is note certain threads and principles which were significant to that
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
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
staged photo opportunities, when major policies are communicated and discussed
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.