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Union of Intelligible Associations

Projects Overview (Explanations)
Metaphor Project (Explanations)

Governance: Programme of metaphoric development

Metaphor Project


1. Empowerment through metaphor

There is a widely held academic view that use of metaphor may be valid for rhetorical and illustrative purposes but that its use for any serious purpose is to be considered highly suspect. This is not the place to repeat earlier arguments demonstrating how basic metaphor is to concept formation in the most respectable disciplines. Nor will any attempt be made to justify the well-established use of metaphor as an aid to creativity and social innovation. Nor is it useful to focus on the long-term debate concerning the appropriate distinctions between metaphor, analogy, allegory, parable, symbol, and the like, as literary devices, especially since such explorations do not seem to have empowered people to make more effective use of metaphor (however defined) in policy-related situations.

The key question requiring further exploration is whether metaphor can in reality be effectively used to enhance innovative policy-making for global management. The question is whether metaphors, used non-rhetorically, can provide the conceptual scaffolding for new policies and the structures resulting from them. Can metaphors offer new way for surviving in, and navigating through, a complex environment?

2. Speculative scenario for navigating through complexity

An imaginative stimulus for such investigation is provided by a science fiction scenario explored by a number of writers. It focuses on the challenge of comprehending high degrees of complexity calling for decision-making under operational conditions (as is the case in global management).

The problem envisaged is that of piloting or navigating a spacecraft through "hyperspace" or "sub-space", as imagined in the light of recent advances in theoretical physics and mathematics. Because of the inherent complexity of such environments, writers have explored the possibility that pilots and navigators might choose appropriate metaphors through which to perceive and order their task in relation to qualitative features of that complexity - for example, flying like a bird, windsurfing, swimming like a fish, tunnelling like a mole, etc.

The mass of data input derived from various arrays of sensors, and otherwise completely unmanageable, is then channelled to the pilot in the form of appropriate sensory inputs to the nerve synapses corresponding to his "wings" or his "fins". Perception through the chosen metaphor is assisted by artificial intelligence software and appropriate graphic displays.

The pilot switches between metaphors according to the nature of the hyperspace terrain. Such speculations do at least stimulate imagination concerning a possible marriage between metaphor and artificial intelligence in relation to governance.

3. Areas for investigation

Although it could be argued that successful entrepreneurs and leaders may in effect use some such metaphoric device already, as a way of ordering their strategic perceptions (even without the high-tech devices), the question as to whether more fundamental use can be made of metaphor in policy contexts can only be effectively answered by further work along the following lines:

(a) Design: Investigations are required into the way extended metaphors can be designed as an aid to governance, but above all to enable people at all levels of society to reconfigure their environment to open up the possibility of new initiatives and to provide the insights to ensure that they are viable and sustainable.

(b) Education: Educational techniques on the practical use of metaphor should be documented. People are not helped to learn how to select and use appropriate metaphors, nor how to order perceived complexity through metaphor. This failure deprives those with limited access to formal education of many possibilities, especially for self-education. A high proportion of the 120 studies of metaphor in education cited by van Noppen (1985) focus on metaphor as a problem for younger children or for students, especially when developing reading skills or learning a new language. Many studies however show the importance of figurative language for developing comprehension and recall, even on a long-term basis. But a study by H Polio et al. shows that even in the language arts, figures of speech are typically dealt with in minor subsections under the more general heading of poetry. Figurative language as such is never explained or developed as an important topic in its own right. But the same authors demonstrate that, in mundane contexts, people in their culture produce an average of about 1.5 novel and 3.4 cliche figures of speech per 100 words spoken. Van Noppen cites 31 studies of figurative language production, some of which focus on the learning environment. Although educational material to encourage use of metaphors could easily be developed to enrich peoples response to their social environment, such material does not appear to exist. The only exception appears to be the workbooks explicitly designed by W J Gordon to increase figurative language use in creative thinking (1968, 1971). He and others have described the significance of metaphors for learning.

(c) Development of metaphoric indicators: Irrespective of whether enhanced use of metaphors is encouraged, there is a need to develop aids to the recognition of what might be considered metaphoric "aggression" or "entrapment". Understanding is required of the conditions under which the use of metaphor is excessive, inadequate or inappropriate in some other way.

(d) Engaging and disengaging from a metaphor: Effort should be made to articulate the skills required to "take-on" an extended metaphor to guide understanding of complex issues, whether individually or in a group -- especially where concrete action is called for. Corresponding effort is required to develop the skills that make it possible to "take-off" the metaphor, possibly in order to move to a more appropriate metaphor. These are the processes of "donning" and "doffing" metaphors in response to different environments. Of special concern is developing the ability, when working within one metaphor, to determine that it is no longer as appropriate to the circumstances as some other metaphor might be.

(e) Empowerment in relation to social problems: The metaphors to which people have access should be examined to determine to what extent these are empowering or disempowering. The question is whether it is possible to design, or bring about the emergence of, empowering metaphors. There appear to have been no studies of the relevance of metaphor for societal learning (a major concern of the United Nations University). And there is no detectable effort to assist people in learning metaphoric skills as a means of responding more effectively to their social problems and opportunities and to the global problematique in general.

If, as Fritjof Capra claims, the contemporary crisis is a crisis of perception, there is no effort to provide people with metaphoric tools with which they can re-imagine the evolutionary challenge with which they are faced. The nature of this opportunity for innovative practical use of metaphor is unfortunately obscured by the plethora of figurative material available and the kind of attention devoted to it in literary studies undertaken for their own sake. The relevance of such studies to the social problematique has not been effectively established. It is therefore difficult for people to transfer figurative skills from that context to the non-literary world.

As a trivial, but interesting example, Lakoff and Johnson (Metaphors We Live By, 1980, p.143-4) cite the case of a foreign student of theirs who, on encountering the expression "solution of your problems", assumed that this was a well-recognized chemical metaphor. Through it he had immediately obtained an understanding of the set of problems as being made up of some dissolved into a solution whilst others had been precipitated out (perhaps later to be redissolved again).

In this light problems never completely disappear, some are perceptible, whereas others have been temporarily "solved". Any attempt to solve some problems may quite probably precipitate out others. As Lakoff and Johnson say: "To live by the chemical metaphor...rather than direct your energies towards solving your problems once and for all, you would direct your energies toward finding out what catalysts will dissolve your most pressing ones for the longest time without precipitating out worse ones."

(f) Identification of metaphors of specialized agencies: It is not recognized, when advocating or imposing the use of particular sets of values, needs or programmes, that these effectively compete as functional substitutes in traditional societies with other sets of qualities and modes of action symbolized by hierarchies of gods or spiritual beings governing those qualities. The fundamental sets society now attempts to implant, whether embodied in the Specialized Agencies of the United Nations or the equivalent government ministries, are indeed designed to perform many of the regulatory functions previously ascribed to supernatural beings or potencies. Given the ersatz quality of the academic and administrative approaches to legitimating such initiatives, in contrast with the cultural richness popularly associated in the past with pantheons or Camelot, for example, it is not surprising that public information programmes have relatively little success in arousing enthusiasm and generating "a political will to change".

The question is therefore how such agencies could make creative use of the metaphoric and symbolic dimensions to counteract their superficial and "bloodless" images, and give credibility to their initiatives. Given the criticisms of inefficiency and fragmentation, such investigations could uncover ways in which the metaphors governing agency action could be seen as components of a self-organizing organic pattern of fundamental significance - even to the governance of the planet as a whole. Such investigations could highlight the necessary functional complementarity between the metaphors in any such pattern.

(g) Investigation of problems as metaphors: It is seldom realized that a societal problem, as such, is a problem (at least to some degree) precisely because it escapes any attempt to encompass it within any conventional set of categories. Such problems cannot be "defined" in any scientific way. Of special interest are the metaphors through which the global problematique may be perceived.

(h) Investigation of metaphors implicit in development action: It is seldom realized that a significant proportion of organization vocabulary results from innovations made by the Cistercian Order of monks after the 12th century in an early form of transnational organization. The notions of "assembly", "commission", "constitution", "agenda" and "ballot", for example, derive from that context.

(i) Relevance of therapeutic metaphors to development action: Metaphors traditionally have played an important role in therapeutic situations, both in the case of individuals and for communities as a whole. David Gordon's study of Therapeutic Metaphors (1978) represents an extremely valuable articulation of the therapeutic possibilities that are highly suggestive of new approaches to development and societal learning. Gordon's work is part of the general approach of neuro-linguistic programming that deliberately makes extensive use of metaphor, perhaps the most extensive conscious use by a professional group. The wider significance of this calls for investigation.

(j) Investigation of policy cycles: It has been argued earlier that seemingly incommensurable theoretical positions or social policies could be fruitfully explored as "frozen" portions of social learning cycles. In this light such particular positions are each naturally valid (i.e. appropriate) for a part of the cycle, but are inappropriate under conditions to which positions in other parts of the cycle respond.

Well-articulated positions or policies, taken in isolation, may thus be judged as attractive by those sensitive to the range of conditions which they address, namely by those in the same portion of the learning cycle. But such positions are essentially "sub-cyclic". Thus policy-making today, with its short-term focus, becomes a victim of cycles whose temporal scope it is unable to encompass. Any such policy naturally engenders what is perceived as "opposition", once it fails to respond to emerging conditions in the learning cycle. An interesting feature of this approach is the recognition that a position or policy rejected as inappropriate today may well re-emerge as appropriate some time in the future -- when the cycle repeats. Typical examples of this are alternation between phases of "centralization" and "decentralization".

This raises the question of how to design a cycle of "incompatible" but complementary policies, and how to select or design a metaphor through which to comprehend its phases (each of which may itself need to be communicated in metaphoric form). One intriguing example along these lines is the Chinese classic the I Ching (or Book of Changes) -- a traditional policy guide to the Emperor. This involves transitions between 64 contrasting conditions in a cyclic sequence, each described in metaphoric terms. A version of this has been interpreted into Western management jargon and applied to the clarification of sustainable policy cycles (see demo).

The argument for a shift to a cyclic focus needs to be based on further theoretical understanding of cycles in relation to social phenomena. Kinhide Mushakoji is exploring the effects of the introduction of cyclic assumptions into understanding of nature/society interactions, which may result in a proposal for a quasi-Buddhist understanding of transient reality based on an underlying non-aristotelian logic.

(k) Adapting insights from the arts fiction, poetry and music: It is one of the recognized functions of the arts to give form to visions of new ways of organizing perceptions of the world. The arts are therefore an important resource in exploring new visions of social organization and visions of the future. As such it might be expected that they would suggest new approaches to governance.

In explaining why "we are our own metaphor", biologist Gregory Bateson (1972) pointed out to a conference on the effects of conscious purpose on human adaptation that

"One reason why poetry is important for finding out about the world is because in poetry a set of relationships get mapped onto a level of diversity in us that we don't ordinarily have access to. We bring it out in poetry. We can give to each other in poetry the access to a set of relationships in the other person and in the world that we're not usually conscious of in ourselves. So we need poetry as knowledge about the world and about ourselves, because of this mapping from complexity to complexity."

Bateson is thus pointing to the advantages of poetry in providing access to a level of complexity in people of which they are not normally aware. This could well be of significance for the governance of social processes characterized by patterns of relationships normally too complex for the mind to grasp. Of special interest in comprehending non-linear cyclic processes in relation to linear thinking, are the potential insights arising from the relation of rhythm to metre in poetry. In this sense the current "spastic" development of society, as a victim of economic cycles, may be seen as resulting from an a-rhythmic approach to governance.

The challenge in exploring the rich range of metaphor available from the arts is to develop a method of culling materials, identifying "useful" metaphors and storing them in some appropriately designed database through which their wider significance could be explored.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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