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Transformative Approaches Project (Explanations)

Envisioning conferencing: Insights from poetry and painting

Transformative Approaches Project


This note continues the exercise of envisioning the cognitive contributions of the arts to conferencing in the Year 2490.

1. Poetry

(a) Beyond turgid prose: The written and spoken word during the policy-making process has lost those attributes of language which focus our aspirations and inspire us to collective action. There is a divorce between the "rousing speech" of a leader and the articulation of the policy by men in grey suits -- a divorce concealed by the use of public relations consultants to sooth our concern. We are governed through turgid prose embodied in the bureaucratic procedures we love to hate.

In that far time their deliberations and conclusions depended heavily on insights into poetic form. They rediscovered the merits of poetry as "the other way of using language". It should not be forgotten that poetry was first used in rituals to regulate the life of a community and ensure a good harvest, only later to become an important means of giving form to the life of the spirit. It should quickly be emphasized that it was the discipline of the poetic form through which they worked, not some convoluted effort to translate policy conclusions into a poetic "press communiqué" for public consumption.

(b) Mapping complexity onto subtly known patterns: Is there even the faintest recognition in our times of the need to make use of poetic disciplines in response to the challenges we face? Surprisingly there is. The recognition comes from those who recognize the limitations of scientific disciplines in dealing with the complexity of the problematique -- and specifically with the limitations of the human mind, or any particular language, in comprehending and encompassing the subtle dimensions amongst which a dynamic balance needs to be maintained. For example, the biologist Gregory Bateson, in explaining why "we are our own metaphor", 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 are 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." (1972, p. 288-9)

(c) Poetically moving agendas: Again space precludes no more than brief references to how the poetic form was used in the future. For example, where we make extensive use of point filled agendas, charters and declarations to express and order our policies, they recognized the inappropriateness of these forms to the subtleties of what they were called upon to govern. To our times it would appear as though they had simply expressed their agendas as poems, of which declarations and charters were more complex elaborations.

This perception would be to misunderstand their achievement. For the poetic form allowed them to interrelate insights and challenges which we only link mechanically or as "budget items". Their use of such forms immediately engaged the attention -- people were not only "moved" by them, but the articulation focused understanding of how "being moved" could be translated into implementation and what complex environmental relationships they needed to be sensitive to during that process.

(d) Poetry of the collective: Such approaches appear totally impractical to us, locked as we are into our schizophrenically dissociated roles. For us a poem is the work of an individual (often marginalized) making few concessions to the collective -- it is a voice crying in the wilderness. For them their highest achievements were poems designed by groups (of inspired individuals) representing the aspirations of the collective -- faced with its own shadow. We can only laugh at such possibilities because we perceive in it various echoes of totalitarian art (just as we would question the collective function of martial music). Group creativity is the rare exception inthe arts -- and then only in pop music, experimental theatre, and group murals, none of which are held to be of great long-term value. But from their perspective our charters and declarations could only be understood as aesthetic abominations whose form, distorted the spirit of collective action and ensured the reinforcement of precisely those problems which we deplore. For them, ironically, such forms were conceptual totalitarianism par excellence.

2. Painting

(a) Challenge of colour: It would be a mistake to believe that policy-makers in our day are blind to any distinctions of colour. On the contrary their task is bedeviled by problems of colour, especially at the national level. For policy-making is highly politicized and the factions are usually strongly associated with a particular colour: from the socialist reds, to the conservative blues, with of course the ecologist greens. Some distinguish fascist blacks and technocratic yellows. And there are even efforts to distinguish shadings: pink to dark red, light to dark green, etc. Such use of colours goes back to early military needs to be able to identify soldiers on a battlefield and rally them around a distinctive banner to be loyally defended "to the last".

(b) Aesthetics of colour coded policies: In that time to come, the objective of policy had shifted from explicit attempts to ensure that any particular colour triumphed to the suppression and exclusion of all others. The significant contributions and dramatic weaknesses of each such approach had become only too apparent.

Treating each policy as a sort of action vector, they were able to represent the range of possible action vectors through a complex classification of the complete range of several thousand colours distinguishable to the human eye. One policy-making tool they then used was the art of combining colours from this "palette" into a meaningful painting, whether in two or three dimensions (or more, by cycling through pattern sequences). Some representations also took the form of "light sculptures". Others bore more resemblance to tapestries.

(c) Policy balance and appeal: Discussion about policy thus shifted from the implicit objective of maximizing blue or green, to the challenge of how to combine many such colours on a complex surface. In this light our efforts at global policy-making were primitive in the extreme, without any sense of form, diversity or balance. It makes clear how little respect technocratic policy-makers now have for the complex issues of balance and appeal to which aesthetics devotes so much attention.

They were able to use colours to encode the policy dimensions which needed to be held in balance in a complex social ecology. A credible policy was therefore designed and represented by some form of painting with a strong aesthetic appeal -- with the colours and shapes indicative of details necessary to the pattern of the whole. Indeed, their technology permitted such paintings (on computer-enhanced screens) to be used as "control panels" through which the health of a society could be assessed by all. The elements of the painting became indicators (so by-passing the statistical difficulties of the innumerate). Such pictures were truly worth a million words.

(d) Aesthetics of sustainable development: We can speculate on how they would represent to us on some such painting the appropriate policy mix to respond to the challenges of "sustainable development" in the 1990s. Obviously there would be some green, but how much of each shade. How would it be related to the conservative blue? And what of the shades of red? And how would the colours be disposed and interwoven? What would justify the exclusion of any particular range of colours?

To respond to concerns at both global and local level, the painting would have to be very large indeed -- and beyond our current imaginings. But this would allow many policy variants at the detailed level, where different constituencies experimented with different policy combinations. The merit would lie in the ability to discuss the aesthetics of the painting as a whole -- would the detail form a meaningful global pattern?

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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