13th December 2008 | Draft
challenge of incomprehensibility of systemic neglect
- / -
Incomprehensibility within existing analytical frameworks
Strategy through poetry
Unrecognized strategic implications of paradox and logical fallacy
Strategic patterns in terms of knowing, feeling and action (in Annex):
-- using a Chinese perspective
-- using a symbolic perspective
-- using an alternative Chinese perspective
Paradigm shift: from a single pattern to alternation between a set of patterns
Further possibilities for unconventional exploration
The following exploration uses as its point of departure a much-cited "strategic" poem presented by Donald Rumsfeld as US Secretary of Defense. The cognitive categories of the poem, and what was omitted, are used to elaborate various ways of ordering strategies -- possibly in the form of "periodic tables".
Deliberate use is made of Chinese traditional perspectives on such matters, notably in their relationship to governance. The point stressed is that there is a need for a paradigm shift to alternation between patterns of strategies, and interpretation, rather than depending on the possibility of finding a single pattern of strategies -- lacking the requisite variety for the complexity of the challwnges of the times.
In recent years a range of incidents have been widely publicized as incomprehensible in their violence or seeming irrationality. They include school shootings, suicide bombings, the cycles of violence in the Middle East, and the riots in Greece following a police shooting in 2008. With respect to the latter, Costas Douzinas (What we can learn from the Greek riots, The Guardian, 9 January 2009) argues that it is time to understand the insurrection as the response of those who feel invisible to the political system:
The challenge of this comment lies in the asserted "incomprehensibility" associated with inability to integrate current events into existing analytical frameworks. Assertions of "incomprehensibility" are a continuing feature of the crises across the Middle East. They would also seem to have characterized the financial crisis of 2008 and its emerging economic consequences in 2009. Curiously its incomprehensibility has been determed as being the primary reason for the rejection of the EU Reform Treaty by the Irish people in 2008 (Post Lisbon Treaty Referendum Research Findings, September 2008).
Whilst there is much to regret with regard to "incomprehensible violence", perhaps more incomprehensible and regrettable is the cognitive impoverishment out of which such processes are addressed and through which remedies are sought.
It is in this context that it is appropriate to explore the strategic highlighting offered by Donald Rumsfeld with respect to the "known unknowns". To the extent that inappropriate responses to the supposedly unknown reinforces uncontrolled vicious cycles, the question is what is the learning context that would enable such cycles to be "broken" (Dysfunctional Cycles and Spirals: web resources on "breaking the cycle", 2002)?
The former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld continues to be cited for his prescience in strategic and security circles due to his succinct articulation of the challenge of what may be known with any confidence in a world of increasing uncertainty. His formulation famously took the form of a "poem" -- on The Unknown -- presented during a Department of Defense news briefing on 12 February 2002. The insight has been most recently used in the analysis by Nathan Freier (Known Unknowns: Unconventional 'Strategic Shocks' in Defense Strategy Development. Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, November 2008).
It is presented on the left below. An adapted version of that "poem" is presented here on the right -- on The Undoing -- with due apologies to Donald Rumsfeld.
The "poem" on The Undoing is presented here on the occasion of publication of the conclusion of an 18-month investigation by the bipartisan United States Senate Committee on Armed Services to the effect that Rumsfeld's approval of aggressive interrogation methods in December 2002 was a direct cause of abuses that began in the Guantánamo Detention Camp and spread to Afghanistan and Iraq. They culminated in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in 2003, where Iraqi detainees were found to have been forced into naked pyramids, sexually humiliated and threatened by dogs (Ed Pilkington, Senators accuse Rumsfeld over abuse of detainees, The Guardian, 12 December 2008; Greg Miller and Julian E. Barnes, Rumsfeld blamed in detainee abuse scandals, Los Angeles Times, 12 December 2008; David Morgan, Senate report ties Rumsfeld to Abu Ghraib abuse, Reuters, 11 December 2008).
However, in relation to knowing about the occurrence of torture at Guantanamo Bay, Donalid Rumsfeld had firmly declared on 2 March 2006:
This assertion may in future be compared with the much analyzed statement by Bill Clinton: "'I did not have sex with that woman" (Sex, lies and impeachment, BBC News, 22 December 1998). Both would seem to be associated with issues explored by Paul Ormerod (Why Most Things Fail: evolution, extinction and economics, 2005) and Karen A.Cerulo (Never Saw It Coming: cultural challenges to envisioning the worst, 2006). At a press conference, the UK Tory Party leader David Cameron stated: "We are debating something that we didn't do, we weren't going to do and even if we did do it, would have been undone" (TimesOnline, 22 May 2007).
In the light of the above, the following adaptation of both variants of the "poem" might therefore be appropriate, especially given the absence of feeling or compassion associated with the intervention by the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and the disproportionate number of deaths resulting from the Rumsfeld-inspired strategy.
Given the historically unprecedented allocation of resources to the military intervention strategically framed by such thinking, there is a case for exploring the insights it offers into the possibility of subtler and more appropriate strategies. The case is further reinforced by the review by Nathan Freier (2008) of the "failure of imagination" that has been a widely recognized as characteristic of strategic development. He introduces his analysis with the statement:
Whereas Freier's focus is on defence, these observations might be seen as applying with equal (if not greater relevance) to other global strategic issues with more general security implications, including food, employment, water, energy, climate, etc.
Aside from any personal responsibilities of Rumsfeld and his colleagues, or the particular consequences of their actions, there is therefore scope for imaginatively applying the first two "poetic frameworks" -- knowledge and action -- to the complex of crises with which society sees itself as faced. It is perhaps curious that, from a strategic perspective, any question of "feeling" is normally set aside; even "ethics" (however engendered and justified) cannot rightly be said to involve feeling or an experiential sense of compassion -- however much ethical failure is experienced as "unfeeling" and even highly painful.
The above exercise can only be tentative but does usefully highlight a spectrum of possible considerations. The focus on "undoing" (or "unmaking") highlights action taken, whether deliberately or inadvertently, that endangers or undermines complex systems -- causing them to be "undone" or to "unravel" in some way. It is notably a consequence of systemic neglect -- action taken irresponsibly without heed for possible consequences, as foreseen by the Precautionary Principle. At its most general level it corresponds to what Gregory Bateson (Mind and Nature: a necessary unity, 1979) terms breaking the "pattern which connects":
And it is from this perspective that he warns: "Break the pattern which connects the items of learning and you necessarily destroy all quality."
Descriptors: The descriptors are unfortunately somewhat clumsy -- hence the advantage of the peoetic form. Alternatives might have been included (perhaps using "unconscious" in addition to "unknown", and "unmaking" in addition to "undoing"), but this would increase the complexity of the table. The inversion of the word order in pursuit of a degree of succinct clarity, notably with the addition of the "unfeeling" variant (as in Figure 2), therefore necessitates a degree of reflection which may be appropriate.
Row of "unknown knowns" / "knowingly undone": Commenting on the orginal poem in relation to the table, Robert Daoust (personal communication) notes that this row is in fact absent from the pattern of poem. He argues that this is morally significant. There are things we know without knowing that we know them, well described by Michael Polanyi as tacit knowledge. Polanyi's emphasis on "tacit knowing" suggests that the descriptors of all rows might have fruitfully used such a process emphasis.
For Daoust, it is arguably in our attitude toward those things that moral character is most candidly revealed. The most classical form of denial is probably "unknown knowns", the associated complicity of silence, and the things "knowingly undone" (the "not done things"). "We didn't know", said those suspected of implication in the Shoah -- we didn't know that we knew (so pervasively, tacitly) and therefore we didn't do what we did… For Daoust this seems highly relevant to the question of "political" sense perception raised in current strategic references to the "elephant in the room".
Studies about blindsight (and also deaf-hearing, numb-sense, etc.) and affective blindsight might then be significant, as with the capacity to "turn a blind eye" to issues that may then be said to be "unknown", of which the incidence of "extrajudicial rendition" offers a number of examples. Such matters relate to notions of "deniable culpability" and the manner in which it is used to provide impunity to those responsible for questionable initiatives -- as so admirably demonstrated in the case of Rumsfeld and his colleagues. .
This argument is especially relevant to the absence from the "unfeeling" variant of the poems of any reference to things that are "knowingly unfeeling" -- as is the case with torture. This missing dimension is perhaps usefully recognized by Barton Gellman and Jo Becker (The Undoing of the Geneva Conventions: pushing the envelope on presidential powers, Washington Post, 25 June 2007) and is well documented by Philippe Sands (Torture Team: Rumsfeld's Memo and the Betrayal of American Values, 2008).
More generally this row is relevant to the attitude of humans to other species in the environment, as vigorously articulated by animal rights groups.
Row of "unknown unknowns / unknowingly undone": This corresponds to the issues highlighted by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable, 2007). It is also associated with the law of unintended consequences (notably recognized by neoconservatives as more significant than those intended). The financial crisis of 2008 offers a striking example. The table as a whole might be understood as a fruitful way of framing the issues highlighted by Thomas Homer-Dixon (The Upside of Down: catastrophe, creativity, and the renewal of civilization, 2006) following those highlighted by Jared Diamond (Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed, 2005).
Strategic domains: It is of course the case that the selection of four "strategic domains" presented in the table is itself controversial. In conventional terms, the financial system and the economic system are those which are currently seen as the principal immediate priorities. Climate is conventionally seen as vital, but not immediate. Population is not a matter of public debate -- as reviewed elsewhere (Institutionalized Shunning of Overpopulation Challenge: incommunicability of fundamentally inconvenient truth, 2008).
The four systems selected are however intimately interlinked, including population. As the latter study noted, in a global economic system, dependent for its viability on economic "growth", currently it is only by effectively encouraging an increase in the population that market growth and low cost productivity can be ensured -- irrespective of the neglected impacts on climate change (Climate Change and the Elephant in the Living Room, 2008).
It is therefore appropriate that "finance" and "growth" should be clustered together as "conscious" collective initiatives, and that "climate" and "population" should be clustered as "unconscious" collective initiatives (especially in the light of their consequences), in the spirit of the argument of John Ralston Saul (The Unconscious Civilization, 1995).
The Rumsfeld poem has the great merit of pointing towards the need for more fruitful recognition of the challenges of what are otherwise readily assumed to be straightforward logical approaches to strategically relevant knowledge. The degree of incoherence and inconsistency underlying what is otherwise expected to be "comprehensible" calls for acknowledgement if more appropriate forms of understanding are to emerge.
One helpful review of the challenges is provided by John Woods (Paradox and Paraconsistency: conflict resolution in the abstract sciences, 2003). He notes that in a world plagued by disagreement and conflict, it might be expected that the exact sciences of logic and mathematics would provide a safe harbour. In fact, however, these disciplines are rife with internal divisions between different, often incompatible systems -- a situation explored more generally by Nicholas Rescher (The Strife of Systems: an essay on the grounds and implications of philosophical diversity, 1985). As Woods notes, there are apparently intractable disagreements in logic and the foundations of mathematics. Woods himself worked on conflict resolution strategies for intractable disagreements in questions of public policy through the research group on Fallacies as Violations of Rules for Argumentative Discourse (of the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study).
Paradox might be understood as undesirable and regrettable, especially in methodologies upheld as a standard of rigour. But in his award-winning study, Etienne Klein (Conversations with the Sphinx: paradoxes in physics, 1996) takes as his point of departure the recognition by modern physics of the inadequacy of common sense in the construction of theories and the understanding of certain experimental results. As he notes with respect to fundamental physics:
Whilst it might be assumed that such thinking merely constitutes a form of armchair indulgence in a real world faced with real and bloody conflict, it is appropriate to recognize that the development of ever more destructive weapons of mass destruction emerges from such disciplines -- whose development is typically funded by goverment institutions such as that headed by Donald Rumsfeld.
If global strategy (in its military manifestations) is dependent on thinking of such paradoxical nature, it is then appropriate to ask whether requisite governance thinking for the future should necessarily be consciously based on more "astonishing decriptions" in contrast with the convenience of "cosy appearances". The desirability of this is strongly suggested by the above-mentioned references to the "incomprehensibility" of popular reactions to simplistic governance. As argued by Etienne Klein (1996):
Given the challenge to global civilization arising from its dependence on non-renewable energy resources, and the global security issues that are likely to result (Russian gas, etc), a similar argument might be made with respect to dependence on developments in fundamental physics to derive new sources of energy, as exemplified by the recent launching of the ITER nuclear fusion project. In this case fruitful outcomes are dependent on theoretical developments that are even more incomprehensible. Worse still, as documented by Peter Woit (Not Even Wrong: the failure of string theory and the continuing challenge to unify the laws of physics, 2006), the approach to this fundamental theoretical challenge is "flawed" in ways that constitute a strange metaphor of that faced by a global governance arguably dependent on its fruitful outcome.
Just as fundamental physics has had its reasonably successful Standard Model since 1975 so might be said to be the case of global governance through the international community. Just as the Standard Model left a number of key questions unanswered with respect to a much-sought, powerful, all-encompassing Theory of Everything, so the inadequacies of global governance have become evident, notably in the light of 9/11 and the unresolved problematic issues associated with any form of humanitarian intervention (Middle East, Dafur, etc). It is therefore interesting to recognize the status of the development of "superstring theory", and its total lack of any success in going beyond the Standard Model, as a fruitful metaphor of the total lack of any success in moving beyond the "standard model" of global governance. This is sustained by an international rule of law, articulated in a network of treaties and informed by a universal understanding of human rights -- all much-challenged in practice (cf Worldwide Governance Indicators; Universal Human Rights Index; Human Development Index; Democracy Index)
As documented by Peter Woit (2006), the dominant "superstring theory" of fundamental physics actually refers not to a well-defined theory but rather to the unrealized hopes that one might exist. Such unrealized hopes might similarly be said to dominate thinking regarding the possibility of global governance. Superstring "theory" in fact makes no predictions, not even wrong ones. It is in fact this very lack of falsifiability that has allowed it to not only to surivive but to flourish. Woit highlights the refusal by physics to challenge the conventional thinking that sustains this controversial situation, exemplified by an unwilligness to evaluate honestly the arguments for and against string theory in its many co-existing manifestations. Again this offers parallels to the situation in the case of global governance, most recently highlighted by the response to the global financial crisis of 2008.
John Woods (Paradox and Paraconsistency: conflict resolution in the abstract sciences, 2003) provides an insightful framing of post modern logical developments governing current understanding of objectivity and realism relevant to both domains:
Etienne Klein (Conversations with the Sphinx: paradoxes in physics, 1996) also notes how the challenge applies beyond the sciences by referring to the study of "cotton-wool language" by François-Bernard Huyghe (La Langue de Coton, 1991) who points out that:
In such a context it is therefore entirely "comprehensible" why so little insight is drawn from the work of the above-mentioned research group on Fallacies as Violations of Rules for Argumentative Discourse, or that of John Woods on conflict resolution strategies for intractable disagreements in questions of public policy.
Whilst the challenge of a Theory of Everything may be framed as the most exciting intellectual puzzle for humankind, that of global governance might be seen as that most essential to its survival. It would appear that the poorly acknowledged inadequacies of both enterprises are evidence of a degree of cognitive complacency and of a complicity in the inadequacies of comfortable conventional thinking. There is therefore a case for exploiting the problematic framework offered by Rumsfeld in the light of the subtle riches of a non-western culture -- one which has explicitly integrated the paradoxical challenges of comprehension of somplex subtleties into an unusually comprehensive cognitive system designed with governance in mind.
Strategic patterns in terms of knowing, feeling and action
Conventional practice seeks desparately for a single invariant pattern of categories through which strategic reality can be articulated. The models that are produced and promoted in support of strategic development exemplify this tendency. Given the fact that different constituencies have preferences for different models, which may be variously fashionable, there is a case for recognizing the need to engage through a plurality of stakeholders using a variety of models.
The desirable paradigm shift at this time may therefore involve a recognition of how distinct models are used and in what ways they can relate to each other. Etienne Klein (Conversations with the Sphinx: paradoxes in physics, 1996) helpfully highlights the challenge:
The various patterns presented above, that may serve as alternative ways of interrelating strategic initiatives, therefore raise the question of how many such patterns exist and whether any understanding of "sustainable development" is dependent on the ability to shift appropriately between them. Is it indeed the case that every particular arrangement of strategies lends itself to interpretation otherwise -- and requires such interpretation to hold a more complex dynamic reality?
Minimally this then points to the vital importance of recognizing a four-phase approach to many terms that are conventionally only considered in a two-phase, binary manner in which one is framed as "good" in some way and the other as therefore "bad". Recognized as a quadrilemma according to Kinhide Mushakoji (Global Issues and Interparadigmatic Dialogue, 1988), the four phases may be represented as:
This would correspond to both the classical Vedic insight of Neti Neti (Not this, Not that) and to the first insight of the Tao Te Ching:
The Tao that can be told
In the proposed new strategic emphasis on "soft power" by the Obama presidency, through the foreign policy initiatives of Hillary Clinton, the challenge is then to move beyond the binary logic of the Clinton and Bush presidencies -- perhaps best exemplified by: "If you are not with US, you are against US". In precluding other conditions, such a false dilemma (as with "guilty vs not-guilty"), even suggested that any "abstention" in a UN Security Council vote on controversial issues was as meaningless as that implied with respect to any failure to support the "war on terrorism". Soft power might then be exemplified by the art of working with the third and fourth conditions -- most notably in the Middle East.
Those conditions would seem to offer considerable opportunity for moving "out-of-the-box", beyond the agonizingly intractable strategic dilemmas framed by the first two conditions: employment/unemployment, health/illness, knowledge/ignorance, development/environment, resources/scarcity, tolerance/intolerance, etc. Ironically, navigating the subtle ambiguties of the latter conditions is most familiar, at every level of society, in the experiential dilemmas of affective relationships, especially of a romantic nature.
The patterns presented certainly evoke the possibility of interpreting them otherwise. For example, the four arrangements presented in Figure 3 give rise to other insights if the convention of reading the hexagrams from top to bottom is reversed. This is also true of circular arrangements where it is a convention (and a decision) as to whether they are read "top-out" or "top-in" (see Interrelationships between 64 Complementary Approaches to Policy-making, 2007).
Comprehending the nature of any such shift is facilitated by:
The approach taken here is consistent to some degree with contributions to the 1971 Conference on the Conceptual Basis of the Classification of Knowledge (Joseph Wojciechowski (Ed.), Conceptual basis of the classification of knowledge, 1974):
Is it the case that the paradoxes implicit in Rumsfeld's "poem" point to an aesthetic possibility for responding to the "incomprehensible" tragedies engendered by conventional strategic thinking? Etienne Klein (Conversations with the Sphinx: paradoxes in physics, 1996) uses aesthetic language to acknowledge the drama of cognitive tragedy with which some new engagement is urgently required:
In the desperate quest by governance for "harmonious" relations (as they are so frequently termed), there is therefore a case for taking seriously the cognitive organization of music, given its universal appeal. The case has been well-argued by Ernest G. McLain (The Myth of Invariance: the origins of the gods, mathematics and music from the Rg Veda to Plato, 1976), notably with respect to related preoccupations of Antonio de Nicolas (Meditations through the Rg Veda: four-dimensional man, 1978). The unique feature of an epistemological approach grounded in tone, and the shifting relationships between tones, has been expressed by de Nicolas in the following terms:
Although seemingly irrelevant, perhaps the most readily "comprehensible" articulation of the interplay between knowing and not-knowing, in relation to doing and undoing, is that offered by snoring (Snoring of The Other: a politically relevant psycho-spiritual metaphor? 2006). It might be considered especially relevant given the manner in which it is recognized as undermining relationships.
The potential for governance offered by poetry, music and song is explored in:
The "philosophical", cognitive and strategic challenges of "unknowing", "undoing" and the "negative arts" are also variously explored in:
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John Woods and Douglas Walton:
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