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Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Post-crisis opportunities: Strategic metaphors for thriving

Global Strategies Project


1. Challenge of required learning

In the many pleas for a paradigm shift and for new thinking, what fails to emerge is how different this new attitude needs to be in order to be adequate to increasingly turbulent times. As a consequence, the best efforts to formulate new strategies tend to be constrained by a pattern of outdated assumptions and working methods -- often inherent in the authority and history of those called upon to undertake such exercises.

A key question is how people and groups are to survive under such circumstances. Clearly they must rely, to the extent possible, on existing social structures and systems. Some effort will be made to design safety nets. But perhaps of more importance is the question of how people are to thrive, even if they can survive.

2. Individual opportunity

The opportunities for the individual and for affinity groups are entirely different from those of major established institutions faced with collapse. Individuals may relatively easily choose to make much more extensive use of metaphor to provide themselves with quite different ways of restructuring their perceptual and cognitive environments. This may be done, as it is to some degree at present, quite superficially and primarily for rhetorical or illustrative purposes. There is however little to prevent individuals and groups from selecting or designing metaphors to be used over an extended period of time to structure their perceptions and their communications. Such use is evident in the implicit use of military and sporting jargon amongst management groups already. The same be said of the language of students and youth gangs.

Such use of metaphor may become "revolutionary" in the following two ways, as consciously cultivated cognitive dissonance, and through a rhythmic change of cognitive framework.

3. Consciously cultivated cognitive dissonance

Individuals alienated by mind-sets and policies prevailing in society may choose metaphors which enable them to totally reinterpret social dynamics, attributing value according to a very different pattern. They may associate with others sharing that metaphor. Strongly bonded associations may well depend a great deal on the implicit or explicit metaphors which their members share.

The key question is whether this is in any way different from the current freedom of individuals to hold (or convert to) certain beliefs or work with certain paradigms. In many ways it is not, except perhaps in the greater recognition that individuals are free to do so, and can personally respond to the creative opportunity. The shift becomes more radical and revolutionary to the extent that individuals choose metaphors which provide them with insights into dynamic relationships about which they can communicate amongst those who share the metaphor but who are then totally unable to communicate meaningfully with those who do not. This too is already a characteristic of those using specialized jargons, whether academics or gang members. The question is how would society be if the number of active specialized jargons increased by several orders of magnitude -- if individuals effectively felt empowered to develop their own specialized languages and cognitive systems.

It is one thing for such specialized jargons to emerge from scholarly or technological preoccupations legitimized by establishment institutions. It is quite another when people are actively developing uses of metaphors which effectively ignore or devalue such structures and the cognitive systems on which they are based.

None of this is especially improbable, as can be seen in the development and seductiveness of the cognitive systems associated with cults. In this sense the metaphoric revolution opens the gates to a new cognitive frontier, a set of parallel conceptual universes, possibly richer and more challenging, in which people can develop new relationships to their available resources.

4. Rhythmic change of cognitive framework

Such a revolution would encourage and enable people and groups to select, adapt or design their own conceptual frameworks and manner of perceiving their environment as well as their own way of comprehending and communicating about their action on it. Whilst they might at any one time use frameworks favoured or advocated by others, they would in no way feel obliged to continue to use them.

5. Implications

(a) De-linking from authoritative explanations: The emphasis following such a revolution would shift from the present situation of dependence on specialists, experts and political leaders putting forward "ultimate" explanations, models and developmental policy recommendations. The implication that such explanations should be accepted in preference to all previous ones would then become questionable. Earlier explanations, no longer need necessarily be rejected as reflecting various levels of misunderstanding or downright stupidity -- irrespective of any fundamental disagreement amongst the elites responsible for them.

Such a shift in emphasis honours the complexity and variety of peoples needs and the increasing difficulty for the average person to even remotely comprehend the justification of such explanations. These they are therefore expected to take on trust --but which they often simply ignore.

In a condition of continuous metaphoric revolution an explanation loses its character of permanence as the authoritative pattern of reference. Rather people select between alternative explanations according to their circumstances and immediate needs -- shifting to other explanations as the circumstances change. This does not preclude the possibility of staying permanently with one explanation -- but continuously shifting between explanations becomes a meaningful alternative.

Metaphors are required through which to balance the harmonies and discords engendered by mind-sets of particular authorities, whether taken together or in succession. Perhaps the skill called for is the creation of "melodies" or "dances" through which to give place, duration and significance to each such form, whether in turn or through new combinations and permutations. In practical terms, this suggests the need to transcend the extremes of "hierarchy vs. network" or "majority vs. consensus voting" in seeking more viable forms of cooperation. The route forward could be through ordering patterns of differences in which different perspectives and strategies are interrelated....perhaps as phases in policy cycles....or like the tracery of struts in a dome....a cathedral of interdependent insights?

(b) Cognitive empowerment: Under such circumstances the value of an explanation to the user comes as much from the consciousness of having chosen it -- however temporarily -- as from its intrinsic merits. This is equivalent to the value attached by a climber to the particular branches of a tree or ledges on a mountain -- they are of value as part of the climbing process in providing temporary security and a foundation for further progress. But equally, staying on any one ledge may offer a satisfactory view of the world which reduces any need to continue climbing.

It might be considered strange that in a rapidly changing world, considerable effort should be made to incarcerate comprehension of society in particular explanations. In a context of planned obsolescence, changing priorities and shifting fashions, such explanations do not last long. It would seem to be more appropriate to open up the possibility of shifting explanations, thus freeing people to explore the many dimensions of comprehension and the opportunities to which they give rise.

6. Response to reservations

(a) Loss of permanence: The major objection to the acceptance of such "epistemological chaos" is the seeming loss of permanence and order which have been the object of so much effort in the past -- and what of the various "bodies of knowledge" so painfully built up? How could society function under such circumstances? Candevelopment be sustained in such a turbulent epistemological context? The argument of this section is that to a large extent this is already the case, but by attempting to avoid such seeming chaos, policies and institutions are designed which are inadequate to the real challenge of sustainable development.

(b) Cultivating the gift of pattern: Citing Gregory Bateson's concern with the "pattern that connects" and Christopher Alexander's proposal for a living pattern language, Kathleen Forsythe (1986) argues: "It is time to acknowledge that we are all born with a gift of pattern. It is as evident in us as the pattern of the whole corn plant is potential in the kernel. We have a living language, a metaphoric language of analogy and relation, that lies at the heart of our conceptual system and probably does not take place in the brain! Each time we move, we seek to complete the pattern, we speak, engage in conversation and each time the conversation is new. We understand, when we perceive the distinction that makes the pattern new.

Our wholeness derives from having at the core of our being, one pattern, one rule that derives from our kernel and orders our movements in each of our consensual domains whether these be the domain of physiological relations or the consensual domains of information relations, structural relations or conversational relations. When we are true to our one rule then our decisions, our actions and our behaviour have integrity that is the essence of harmony. To do this we must, however, move beyond information, to be able to self-reference ourself in all the consensual domains at once. Such consciousness transcends goals and allows us a direct experience of being and becoming simultaneously.

We may formulate our one rule differently -- it is our purpose our meaning. But the nature of our rule will determine, as we move through the cosmic web of new beginnings, whether our interactions empower and free us or ensnare and entrap us. When we chain the real in worlds that follow one on one, we enslave the kinetic pattern from the dance towards wholeness, clouding our eyes from the vision as we move."

Forsythe also cites Christopher Alexander (1979): "Imagine that one day millions of people are using pattern languages and making them again. Won't it impress itself then, as extraordinary, that these poems which they exchange, this giant tapestry of images, which they create, is coming alive before their eyes. Will it be possible then, for people to say stonily, that poems are not real, and that patterns are nothing but images; when in fact, the world of images controls the world of matter...a pattern language...shows each person his connection to the world in terms so powerful that he can re-affirm it daily by using it to create new life in all the places round about him. And in this sense, finally, as we shall see, the living language is a gate."

(c) Acknowledging virtual centres of reference: Development of the ability to dance through cognitive frameworks could encourage recognition of the underlying perspective from which the decision to shift is made, the emptiness at the centre of change, or the silent place to which mystics respond.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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