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Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Embodying discontinuity: Containing the incommensurable

Global Strategies Project

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1. Meta-answer patterning

In moving beyond pluralistic relativism, what is required is some appropriate pattern whereby answer domains can be interrelated. The number-pattern of sets outlined in the previous note is one approach to this.

Another approach is to develop a suitable classification scheme for answer domains which goes beyond the limitation of conventional matrix-type schemes and the kinds of criticism to which classification is subject (Penser/Classer, 1982). The feasibility of this has been explored elsewhere and is the basis for an ongoing experiment in the classification of the 20,000 international organizations listed in the companion Yearbook of International Organizations. The intention is to highlight patterns of integrative relationships between international activities and problems in order to provide more coherent overviews of the world community of organizations in all its detailed variety.

2. Beyond pluralism to an ecology of models

In the terms of anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1979, pp.811), what is sought is an approach beyond pluralism to the "pattern that connects". Erich Jantsch points out however that: "The cultural pluralism... which is about to replace the era of uniform, committing guiding images, may be interpreted as a suspension of historical time... More surprising to many comes the conceptual pluralism of modern science. The theory of relatively and quantum mechanics "function" inside domains of observations, but all attempts to mould them into a unified paradigm have failed so far." (1980, p.303)

But he then continues: "The pluralism of more recent concepts, especially in the physics of subnuclear particles, makes some physicists already speak of an "ecology of models" which cannot be fused to a unified model, not because we lack the necessary knowledge, but as a matter of principle". (1980, p. 303)

The properties of the required meta-answer lie in the nature of such an "ecology" which does have a special form of organization. Jantsch then makes the points: "Let us remember that the evolution of dissipative structures, too, can be described only by simultaneously employing two complementary models, a macroscopic-deterministic and a microscopic-stochastic one. And the co-evolution of macro- and microcosms may only be grasped in the synopsis of complementary approaches. As a matter of principle, the autopoietic levels in a multilevel dynamic reality which have become separated by symmetry breaks cannot be united in a super-model, but only by way of describing the web of relations between them." (Erich Jantsch, 1980, p. 303)

He then cites Ilya Prigogine who investigated such dissipative structures: "The world is far too rich to be expressed in a single language... Music does not exhaust itself in a sequence of styles. Equally, the essential aspects of our experience can never be condensed into a single description. We have to use many descriptions which are irreducible to each other, but which are connected by precise rules of translation (technically called 'transformation'). Scientific work consists of selective exploration and not of the discovery of a given reality. It consists of the choice of questions which have to be posed." (Erich Jantsch, 1980, p.303)

3. Pattern of transformation

The challenge is to discover the pattern of such "transformation" and to avoid the traps of current satisfaction with only providing "micro-answers" to "micro-questions". Such answers are of course essential, but they are not enough at this time.

There does seem to be a special existential challenge to the relationship between the "pattern that connects" and acceptance of action in terms of a specific micro-answer. This challenge is associated with the "sacrifice" of generality of perspective in order to achieve concrete relevance and comprehensibility. Ironically the nature of this existential sacrifice has been explored in analyses ofRig Vedic philosophy as partly encoded in music and dance (Antonio de Nicolas, 1978, Ernest G McClain 1978). These analyses, which reflect Prigogine's above remarks on music, are explicitly linked to investigations of the significance of quantum theory for new understanding of changing classificatory frameworks (P A Heelan, 1974, C A Hooker, 1974, and see also Edgar Morin, 1981) and the network of links between such frameworks conceived as "languages". The relationship of these concerns to "integration" has been explored in an earlier paper (A J N Judge, 1984).

Another approach which provides valuable insights in delineating a meta-answer is that of Christopher Alexander (1977) on design and planning processes. Of special significance is his stress on the democratization of any design process, especially in a complex institutional setting. He clarifies the process of elaborating an open-ended "pattern language" consisting at the moment of some 250 sub-patterns (basis for part of Section CP). These can be combined in different ways by users to form their own unique languages. Clearly a similar approach could be used to elaborate a set of psycho-social patterns with which users could elaborate languages to design alternative institutions, communities and lifestyles.

4. Aesthetic containment

A major strength of Alexander's pattern language is that it is a deliberate attempt to provide a means of giving form to that core quality which makes life meaningful and a delight to live. He very carefully shows how this must necessarily be "defined" as a "quality without a name" (1979). It is only partially expressed through each of the words bandied about in social policy-making discussions. In his view the quality can only be adequately captured or "contained" by use of a pattern language. There is obviously a case for applying this approach to contain the subtleties of human and social development.

By seeking to give form to this core quality through a user-oriented language, Alexander effectively joins Attali (1981). Attali however introduces a vital additional element through his stress on the management of contradictions and violence. His three forms of truth correspond to three ways of ordering society:

"La première représentation (capitaliste) décrit l'économie comme une mécanique. Son objet est l'étude de la régulation... Une deuxième représentation (marxiste) regroupe les discours qui décrivent la société comme une production du travail des hommes" (1981,p.17)

The second corresponds to the argument here generalizing accumulation to non-material features of the "discours". Although Attali argues that Wallerstein's (1982, 1976) analysis is itself of more general significance than for the marxist paradigm within which he writes: "...il ouvre, au-delà de la régulation et de la production, à l'analyse la plus totale du processus économique, celle de l'organisation ouverte sur le monde naturel, l'écosysteme et la biosphère." (1981, p.154)

With respect to his third order, Attali then continues: "Mais le monde ne se résume ni à l'échange ni à la production, le sens ne se réduit ni au prix ni à la valeur des objets. Le monde engendre ses propres structures ailleurs que dans la seule production matérielle. Il faut aussi penser le monde comme organisation du sens. Et la crise comme rupture du sens dans l'organisation, qui naît des divergences dans l'ordre, des parasites de la communication, bruits du marche, voleurs de valeur, bruits du monde. L'ordre est alors gestion de la violence, la crise retour de la violence, selon une succession que l'histoire seule nous désigne." (1981,p.18).

The capitalist and marxist world orders are thus, according to Attali, each incapable of avoiding aspects of the organizational problem:

"Toute politique recommendée par le premier Monde aggrave les problèmes que dévoile le second, et réciproquement. L'un et l'autre n'en sont pas moins confrontés à une même double difficulté. D'une part, la circulation du sens (le prix ou le travail) peut être parasitée (par la monnaie ou la classe capitaliste). D'autre part, ce parasitage a surtout lieu quand il s'agit d'arbitrer entre ce qui doit servir a améliorer les moyens de produire et ce qui doit servir a améliorer les moyens de consommer." (1981, p.154).

5. Language and the development process

Attali's argument converges on the importance of a new understanding of language as a way of containing and managing the violence inherent in the crisis of the development process. His main hypothesis regarding the third order is that language structures order and that people and objects are only valued in terms of their capacity to participate in the circulation of messages which give a meaning to social organizations. But the only meaning for any group lies in its survival, which is only threatened by violence. All its efforts are directed via language to avoid or eliminate such violence. (1981, p.60).

For Attali, the reality of the languages which effectively structure societies is much more complex than that of the first two orders. The route forward then lies through an "aesthetic" approach to the world. Everything produced then enters a process which, by circulation and the meaning given to what is produced, prevents the proliferation of violence, transforming the production of violence into the production of meaning (1981, p.168). This would give rise to a "non-violent polyorder" in which the struggle "ne passe plus ni par la force, ni par la raison, masques de la violence, mais par la seduction des formes, la subversion des objets" (1981, p.297). This view emerges from Attali's carefully documented study of the significance of the exchange process as the "circulation of the life" of a community (1981, p.179): "En resumé, pour qu'un Ordre existe, il faut y créer en permanence des différences. Produire, c'est augmenter les différences; consommer et échanger, c'est les annuler..." (1981, p.17576).

Objects thus always remain the magical property of the producer, a living incarnation of his force and reality. Exchanging them suppresses this difference recreating violence. The exchange is thus never equal, or else there would be no interest in the exchange. The idea of balance or equivalence in exchange, as it is accepted in the first two worlds, effectively assumes the death of objects (1981, p.179). Any such similarity creates violence which difference averts and directs towards the exterior, polarized onto a suitable scapegoat (1981, p.16).

Although the first two "worlds" with their corresponding "orders" and "networks" (production of offer, production of demand), create the third (based on the exchange process), the difficulty is that such processes are not "containable" within any particular organization which could be designed by either of the first two orders in terms of their forms of "truth": "... les organisations n'ont ni fonctionnement universel ni utilité conflictuelle. D'une part, chacune à sa langue spécifique, malgré les universaux qu'elle contient. D'autre part, aucun ordre n'est réductible à son utilité pour un groupe". (1981, p.187).

6. Meaning of forms and discontinuities

Attali therefore advocates the elaboration of a theory (in effect a "meta-answer" in terms of his third form of truth, to give a meaning to forms and discontinuities. He sees this as: "un pari sur l'existence d'une adéquation entre la structure d'un esprit humain et celle du monde. Elle n'est, dès lors, vraie que si elle lui semble belle, si elle lui procure une jubilation intérieure par la perception de la potentialité infinie de toute oeuvre humaine. Elle est vraie comme l'est une oeuvre d'art, dont elle utilise d'ailleurs la métaphore: un Ordre est comme une écriture et une crise come une déchirure". (1981, p.187188).

It is interesting that Attali has recently held major posts in the French government and in a major develomment bank, because it is not clear how it might be possible to develop this position in practice. The same problem of determing what forms of organization would be appropriate for the future is left unresolved by the tantalizing images of Alvin Toffler's "Third Wave" (1980). Feyerabend (1978), as a methodological anarchist, also finds it unnecessary to envisage any new organizational form appropriate to the methodological anarchism he considers necessary toscientific advance. But such processes are unlikely to be appropriately engendered unless they are matched by complementary structures to "contain" them.

3. Observer entrapment and micro-macro complementarity

The question of "containers" and "containment" calls for a better understanding of the function of the observer called upon to respond to the elements of any duality (for which he may also be conceptually responsible).

As Ilya Prigogine notes: "There is always the temptation to try to describe the physical world as if we were not part of it." (1976, 1980). This is even more true of the social world and for most researchers on human and social development. It corresponds to the classical Galilean view of science in which an attempt is made to see phenomena "from the outside as an object of analysis to which we do not belong. But we have reached the limit of this Galilean view". (1980). To progress further, we must have a better understanding of our description of the physical universe. (1980, p.xv).

This breakthrough in perspective was triggered by Einstein's work on relativity and the constraints on communication between observers within different frames of reference moving with respect to each other. By invoking the active role of the observer, the nature and limitations of measurement processes are clarified. For Prigogine "The incorporation of the limitation of our way of acting on nature has been an essential element of progress". (1980, p.214). It is somewhat extraordinary that no equivalent to relativity theory is available to remedy the flabby weaknesses of "relativistic" perspectives in the social sciences which justify the lack of attention accorded to them.

Introducing the active role of the observer enriched physical science with the concept of complementarity which, as with relativity, has no central role in the social sciences. Prigogine clarifies the concept by the musical analogy noted above: "... the world is richer than it is possible to express in any single language. Music is not exhausted by its successive stylizations form Bach to Schoenberg. Similarly, we cannot condense into a single description the various aspects of our experience." (1980, p.51).

In this sense particular descriptions ("answers") do not become wrong, even though each may be considered fundamental; rather they correspond to idealizations that extend beyond the conceptual possibilities of observations (1980, xviii). But as idealizations they each lack essential elements and cannot be studied in isolation (1980, p.212). This is equally true for the extremes of micro and macro description of human and social development.

The main thesis of Prigogine is associated with the constructive reality of irreversible processes which appear as particularly coherent on the biological level. Irreversibility emerges once the basic concepts of the extreme idealizations cease to be observables. It is inseparable from measurement. It corresponds to the embedding of the micro perspective within a vaster formalism which permits a non-reductionist transformation to coordinate various levels of description. Irreversibility is then a manifestation on a macroscopic scale of a "randomness" on a microscopic scale. It is the modern theory of bifurcations and instabilities which provides a bridge between the micro and macro levels of description, as well as between the geometrical world of physical descriptions and the organized, functional world characteristic of biological and social systems. It is this bridge which is Prigogine's "third" perspective (1980, p. 56 and p. 196).


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


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