Transformative Approaches Project
Envisioning conferencing: Insights from poetry
Transformative Approaches Project |
This note continues the exercise of envisioning the cognitive
contributions of the arts to conferencing in the Year 2490.
(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
"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
(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