Transformative Approaches Project
Envisioning conferencing: Aesthetics of governance
Transformative Approaches Project |
One of the difficulties of these interesting times is the vast outpouring
of information, insightful and otherwise. Even the most creative people
with many helping hands have large piles of documents and periodicals in
their offices labelled "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 for the insightfulness of the innovations
to which they subscribe. Our society seems to be decreasingly capable of
channelling 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
Information specialists delight in describing what computers will be
able to do for us to resolve such difficulties with new gadgets and fancy
software. 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?
2. Imaging exercise: conferencing in the Year 2490
What follows, in this note and the following, 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 the obvious
difficulties arising from our present priorities and understanding. The
focus is on the contribution of the arts to more appropriate forms of policy-making
and to the design of more appropriate forms of social and conceptual structure.
One stimulus for this exercise is the poverty of imagination associated
with fictional and dramatic scenarios of how executive councils function
in the distant future -- as reflected in science fiction films and books.
Even when entities gather from "the 100 galaxies", thousands
of years hence, their encounter (even through "holographic projections")
still seems to be modelled 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 indeed
to see this same archetype impoverishing the gatherings of spiritual leaders
of different faiths.
A second stimulus is the failure of artists to nourish our imaginations
with better insights into the technicalities of governing our world --
and specifically the failure of the poet Robert Graves in endeavouring
to describe a country ruled by poets (in "Seven Days in New Crete")
and of the author Doris Lessing in her, otherwise remarkable, "Canopus"
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 communication technology, 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
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 newpatterns 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 symphony concerts 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 that time 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 an evolving 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 for collective
action -- however well they may express our aspirations. Live Aid can raise
consciousness, enthusiasm and money, but as a process it cannot articulate
and ensure its appropriate use.
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 narcissistic in order to respond to the earthly priorities of
the collective and the way work can be done collectively.
4. Movement of meaning
In that far and distant 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 reading, a classical music concert,
a theatre, a folk song-fest and a dance, together with other dimensions
we would have difficulty recognizing -- and might find awe-inspiring, if
not personally quite threatening. It is difficult 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 most 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 artistic forms, much as happens in the relation
between song and music, or in relation to a dramatic setting as in opera.
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 focused. What are they trying to do with it and what opposing
and complementary forces are brought to bear upon it?
Those attending the gathering each bring to it their own contributions.
These may be quite distinct, whether compatible with others or not. The
participants are there because the meanings they bring are those which
others wish them to articulate. The process of the gathering allows these
meanings toplay off against each other. Through what conceptual or other
frameworks do participants (and external observers) comprehend these movements
of meanings? This is what we can endeavour 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 undertake. 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 maintaining a 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 circulation of meaning within
a society, whilst intervening minimally.
5. Artistic vehicles for meaning
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 need not be too concerned about how
they do this is 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. Perhaps participants might
call upon artistic "staff" support to endeavour to articulate
a theme for which no cultural referents were known. The artist might use
some visual or other sequences from the library, manipulating them in the
light of his or her own insight (and in response to feedback from the participant)
-- much as is done by computer graphics enthusiasts, by computer-enhanced
music synthesizers, and by experts in special film effects. 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
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 accompaniment 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 then followed might be considered by us as a non sequitur
-- we would have missed the link carried meaningfully by the music. We
are more used to this process when a lecturer introduces slides and other
graphics to make points which cannot be effectively made in verbal form.
Such 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 well 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 procedures 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 tokenistic -- 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?
6. Artistic discipline
One key to understanding how such gatherings work is their preoccupation
with a well recognized concern of anyone in the arts, namely "finding
the appropriate medium". The emphasis is on the insights to be expressed.
The challenge is to find one or morevehicles through which to express any
such insight. The dilemma is that many of the most complex and valued insights
often cannot be adequately expressed through a single medium or even in
a single moment of time. The insight can then only be carried by an interplay
of forms over a period of time. The concern therefore shifts to the "design",
"orchestration" or "choreography" of that interplay.
But of what relevance are these concerns to the articulation of policy?
A major handicap for policy-makers of our day is that their insights 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 conditions, 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 which
accumulated around them -- became only too obvious. As will be seen, incorporating
the temporal dimension 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 interest, 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 artistic expression.
Let us now 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 incomprehensible to us -- all
we can do is note certain threads and principles which were significant
to that magic.
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 other
things). 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.
From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential