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Transformative Approaches Project (Explanations)

Poetry and Policy: Envisioning the policy-making experience of the future

Transformative Approaches Project


How can we go about creatively envisioning the poetic experience of policy-making in a time to come? If the marriage works, then any progeny could well be quite different from both parents. Our imagination must necessarily be stretched. It is important to recognize that the product of this union will not replace the parents. Rather it performs a new function reflecting a creative union of their concerns. Perhaps it should be thought of as a "keystone" or "arena of conversion" between two approaches to reality. Perhaps it is the place from which policies can be engendered and emerge. And perhaps it is the place from which poetic imagination can derive new materials vital to our collective future. In these senses it is not the place of policy-making itself but rather a new place at which "policy-precursors" are made -- perhaps to be understood as the templates on which policies are built and by which they are integrated.

1. Paradigmatic courtship

The environment for this conjoining would be one rich in metaphoric seeds which participants could trigger. In the early phases of this joining process the different factions would "struggle" with each other, perhaps in ways best comprehended as courtship. Each would use metaphors and other poetic devices (notably rhythm) to intrigue, ensnare, entrain and seduce the others. Perhaps the skill of a fisherman casting a net, or a sorcerer casting a spell, give some sense of the process. Entrancing through music gives another. But, as in any courtship, none of the other factions is so "easily taken in". The response to "sweet words" has always been complex. Each has devices and ploys and the strength to resist those of others.

Much of what already goes on in policy-making environments can be described metaphorically in such terms. The vital difference from a future perspective may lie in their real appreciation of both the cognitive significance of the complex patterns deployed and a much heightened awareness of their aesthetic appropriateness -- or their "goodness of fit" in a design sense. These would be associated with a sense of their sustainability, viability and credibility. Is there not a desirable truth in the potential consonance between the sustainability of a favoured pattern of metaphors and the pattern of organized behaviour for which it might be a template?

2. Language creation

And, again perhaps as in a courtship, these interactions would favour a particular language -- the special pattern of language and code words which courting couples develop for themselves in the light of their shared experiences. In this sense the factions at a congress in the future would weave together a new language through which their common concerns can be articulated. Many such groups already tend to develop their own jargons. But in the time to come this jargon would not just be characterized by a specialized vocabulary, but also by the aesthetics of phrasing and the manner in which metaphoric materials would be consciously woven into the discourse.

Again traces of such uses of metaphor (especially military and sporting metaphors) are already quite evident in the discourse of management and of computer specialists. It is indeed true that in such contexts the metaphors used carry a great deal of meaning. Computer software designers are heavily dependent on metaphor in developing the way in which computer languages work -- they endeavour to stretch the use of language just as poets do. Their work has had an immense impact on the thinking of young computer users ("windows", etc). But there is no aesthetic discipline to this creative use of language processes -- if "discipline" it is to be called. Future endeavours will call for a more disciplined use of such tools of the imagination -- if creativity and application are to be more effectively bonded. The challenge of marrying creativity and discipline is shared in different ways by poets and policy-makers. It is their respective "genetic" contributions to the progeny which call for imaginative exploration.

3. New forms

Where present policy-makers make extensive use of point filled agendas, charters and declarations to express and order policies, those of the future will recognize the inappropriateness of these forms to the subtleties of what they are called upon to govern. Toour times it would appear as though they had simply expressed their agendas in a strangely poetic form, of which their declarations and charters were more complex elaborations. This perception would be to misunderstand their achievement.

The apparently poetic form will allow them to interrelate insights and challenges which we only link mechanically or as "budget items" --if they are linked at all. Rhyming and other poetic devices will be used to create links between otherwise unrelated policy elements --and such links will be vital in the pattern of checks and balances that ensures the coherence of their policies. Where policy documents of today are weighted down with verbiage, they will be able to substitute aesthetic links which carry the same information far more "economically". Furthermore, this aesthetic economy "opens" the text to imaginative participation, allowing the reader to make it his own -- especially through associations to the metaphors used.

4. Engagement of attention

Their use of such forms will immediately engage the attention --people would not only be "moved" by them, but the articulation will focus understanding of how "being moved" could be translated into implementation and what complex environmental relationships they needed to be sensitive to during that process. The metaphors used in the text effectively functioned like windows or doors through which readers could look or move to explore the links implied by the policy -- and vital to its sustainability. The metaphors will be explicitly crafted as frames for new cognitive insights. The interplay between the metaphors around which the policy will be patterned create challenging interference effects which will enable people to transcend the cognitive and operational traps associated with each metaphor. It will be through the insights of poets that these effects are appropriately configured to ensure this transcendence. The truth of the policy lies in this way beyond the text through which it will be articulated.

5. Mnemonic features

The poetic and policy parentage would also be well expressed through the mnemonic attributes of the progeny. A prime concern will be to ensure that the product is memorable, as favourite melodies and poems are memorable and re-experienced with pleasure. But beyond that there will also be the concern to ensure that its elements carried codes and memory triggers which evoke much more information than is explicitly present. Crude steps in this direction have of course been taken with advertising jingles, corporate songs and political slogans, notably in China and Japan.

6. Beyond text to multi-media

It would be a fundamental mistake to imagine the parental interaction as confined to expression in text form in the future. Recognizing the importance of imagery from a poetic perspective, and its importance to an understanding of complex policies, the complementary use of other media will be used whenever appropriate. Indeed policies might be expressed through an information package composed of a mix of text, imagery and music (as discussed below). It could be argued that this is already done in glossy media presentations of a policy. But this new form will be distinguished by the combination of aesthetic and cognitive concerns applied to, and rendered explicit within, the design of the product. The aesthetics would be composed so as to carry insights into a policy of a much higher order of complexity.

7. Learning from harmony

One of the mysteries to that future time will be our reluctance, in our constantly declared search for social "harmony", to draw upon the articulation of harmony in music. Our excuse, in the midst of factional squabbles over concrete urgent problems, is that no serious person could imagine that music had anything to offer other than some pleasant distraction before or after the reception on the occasion of some such gathering. And yet music could be called the science of harmony. An immense amount of effort has been devoted over the past centuries to exploring the nature of harmony in music.

Where we have vainly sought for the keys to controlling our environment through systems science and cybernetics, they willmarry such explorations to the science of harmony as articulated in music. In our era much has been written about the relationship of music and time -- music as time made audible. We have seen the efforts of systems scientists and "world modellers" to represent complex systems dynamics using equations, flow charts and sophisticated graphics -- denying comprehension by most of us. Our descendants will project such dynamics into musical relationships which could be played. The "business graphics" of that time will have musical variants. People will be able to hear the various harmonies which provided integration to any policy represented, and they will hear the dissonances which challenge that harmony --whether as a stimulus to social growth or as a potential crisis. The only equivalent we have to this is the ability of any motor mechanic to listen to an engine as a means of diagnosing its state of health. One great advantage in the future is that everyone will be able to listen to such musical representations, irrespective of the sophistication with which they understand it. The major integrating features would be obvious to all, however little they understood the detailed harmonic organization.

8. Musical organization

Such representations of systems insights would not just be public relations devices. By listening to the musical representation it will become possible to identify and discuss features which could be changed and improved, in the light of musical insights, into richer or more challenging patterns of harmony. The musical perspective will highlight features which make a policy boring -- namely "monotonous" to their ears -- and thus uninspiring to those in whose interest it was being elaborated. We can get some understanding of this process from the way jazz and pop groups collectively develop a piece of music until the sound is "right".

Space limitations here preclude detailed explorations of the policy significance that the future will be able to attach to all the many attributes of musical organization. But, for example, where today international development agencies have a range of programmatic approaches on which they rely, in that era such approaches would be recognizable by what are effectively melodic signatures. Such signatures will become a way of communicating complex programmatic proposals. And whilst there would be many "old favourites", there will be greater sensitivity to those which had been superseded, and to the emergence of new melodies which address issues in a more interesting way. This will clarify the relationship between the fashionable programmatic melodies of the moment and those of more enduring quality.

9. Cyclic organization of policies and programmes

Of special interest will be their use of insights from the temporal organization of music as it impacts on the programme and budgetary cycles which are the skeletal structure of any concrete action programme. A major concern in administering an organization is to ensure financial discipline. They will resolve this problem by using a musical discipline of far greater flexibility and more subtle articulation. The cyclic aspect of organizational life will acquire whole new dimensions, for in music there can be many cycles of different length and involving different instruments. They will also make intriguing use of rhythm and tempo -- partly as a way of dealing with urgency and the need for an appropriately timed response.

10. Adaptation of musical notation

But perhaps of most interest to us are the insights they will gain from musical notation and the harmonic relationship between different chords and instrumental qualities. They will take the typically politicized factional spectrum around any issue in our time (which undermines any appropriate response) and will effectively code the spectral elements into musical notation. Interventions in any discussion would thus be comprehended within a musical framework, whether as isolated notes or chords, but above all in terms of their relationship to the emerging theme. The art of debate thus becomes one of contributing to the emergence of better music -- recognizing the role and limitations of the particular contribution any one perspective could make. The characteristic intervention of our time -- the frequent repetition of a single note, louder than those preceding it -- will be an obvious musical disaster to them (although see below). In this context, "note taking" acquired a whole new meaning in recording the proceedings of the gathering.

11. Differences and dissonances

We would however be completely misunderstanding their achievement if it were taken to be a simplistic exploration of harmonies. Their society, like ours, will constantly be challenged bydeep divisions of perspective. But, whereas we resolve these in the organizational equivalent of a gladiatorial arena, they will reinterpret such dissonance in musical terms. To our ears the music they will play would at different times have such qualities as: gothic immensity; the challenging intensity and immediacy of hard rock; the supportive, solidarity of folk tunes; the intellectual intricacies of computer generated music; as well as many others. They will have a tool to work effectively with differences and to use those differences to enhance the dimensions of their policies.

12. Group creativity

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 will be 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 in the 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 will only be understood as primitive aesthetic abominations whose form distorts the spirit of collective action and ensures the reinforcement of precisely those problems which we deplore. For them, ironically, such forms will be considered conceptual totalitarianism par excellence.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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