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Transformative Approaches Project (Explanations)

Poetry and Policy: Cultivating new conceptual languages

Transformative Approaches Project


1. Language cultivation

When a group of people successfully adopt a set of complementary metaphors through which to configure their relationships they are effectively cultivating a new language. This language may not be readily understandable to others -- or may create a false impression of being understandable. Selecting and cultivating metaphors bears a similarity to gardening in the attention that is called for and in the variety of gardens that may be so created. The garden may indeed be a "secret garden".

As noted above, there is a sense in which such language cultivation is already done within many groups, whether specialized disciplines, street gangs, student groups, or practitioners of particular sports or occupations. It can however be done more deliberately. At one extreme there are purely functional initiatives such as the international language developed for air traffic control. There is almost no aesthetic concern in such cases. More interesting are the languages that develop within spiritual cults and in many ways mould how people perceive their environment and act upon it. The emerging language of the New Agers might, for example, be considered as a kind of Esperanto of the alternative worlds. But although more aesthetic, there is little conscious attempt to give it a more integrative quality. And yet it can be argued that it does indeed enable people to work together in new ways and to make decisions in new ways. This is especially evident in California where this language has penetrated into many sectors, included the professional and business worlds.

2. Pattern and configuration

Both hierarchical and network approaches to organization have been extensively explored over the past decades. Their strengths and limitations are increasingly recognized. Networks have not proved to be a panacea. Neither has proved adequate to the challenge.

As design and the art in general have demonstrated, there is another approach which has hardly been explored in social organization. It is on this approach that the strengths of magic and ritual rely. Ironically it is also vital in any military campaign. It may be described through terms such as pattern or configuration. Contrasting elements are held in complementary positions in order collectively to create an effect which transcends the significance or capacity of any part of that configuration.

Christopher Alexander (1977), an architect, has undertaken the audacious task of identifying a "pattern language" of 256 elements through which individuals and groups may design their physical environments. His aim was to enable people to create spaces which held the elusive quality of being attractive to be in. His language may itself be seen as providing a set of metaphors for non-physical patterns, whether for the design of social space, of conceptual space, or even of a person's private psychic space.

It is also useful to consider the mandalas of Buddhist tradition as efforts to portray configurations of complementary forces of psycho-social significance (Chögyam Trungpa, 1991; Anagraika Govinda, 1976). Within that tradition, much effort is devoted to the aesthetics of such structures of which some 725 exist. The magical configurations, important to the poet Yeats in triggering his imagination at a particular stage in his development, also merit consideration. Some would argue for the relevance of the zodiacal pattern (Trevelyan, 1978) or the enneagram (Palmer, 1988) or a combination (Von Keyserling, 1992). But these traditional approaches could be considered to lack a fresh connection to current aesthetic and policy concerns. They and others (Judge, 1988) are perhaps best used as metaphors to suggest the nature of such a configuration.

3. "Deep epistemology"

Configurations can of course acquire an overly mechanical quality which poetic instincts can usefully resist. The organic dimensions of "deep ecology" perhaps call for a corresponding "deep epistemology" to distinguish the nature of organic configurations to which poets more readily resonate. There is an increasing number of studies which might be considered from this perspective. They include the work of Gregory Bateson (1979, 1987), Humberto Maturana (1987, 1988), Francisco Varela (1987, 1988), Douglas Flemons (1991),Willim Irwin Thompson (1987, 1989), and others including those concerned with neurolinguistic programming.

Kathleen Forsythe, as information scientist and poet, articulated one pattern of relationships around such a deep epistemology in an paper on Cathedrals in the Mind: the architecture of metaphor in understanding learning (1986):

"The fundamental differences in this new view of learning is to see analogical thinking as the architecture and analytical thinking as the engineering of our mind's view of the world. Thinking and learning become a dynamic 'open' geometry (Fuller, 1975-9) characterized by increasing complexity and transformation as a dissipative structure (Prigogine, 1984) based on a kinetic, relational calculus (Pask, 1975). The meta design is not built on inference and syllogism but on analogy and relation thus allowing form to develop from an underlying logic -- the morphogenesis of an idea (Sheldrake, 1983). Knowledge is seen not as an absolute to be known but always in relation to agreement and disagreement, to coherence and distinction in terms of individual, cultural and social points of view. The language we use to communicate then takes on a heightened importance (Wittgenstein, 1972) whether that be the language of words or the metaphor language of pattern (Alexander, 1977)."

Much more could be done in refining such initiatives through dialogue between poets and policy-makers.

4. Examples of language development

Two groups provide interesting examples of more deliberate development of language and have been investigated by management researchers for that reason. One is the Hunger Project which has disciplined its use of language to exclude every possibility but the elimination of hunger in the world by the year 2000 (**). Another is the Institute of Cultural Affairs which through the 1970s and 1980s cultivated a rich language of neologisms and unusual uses of existing words to articulate their spiritual experience and their work as a development organization (**).

One very interesting application of metaphor to organization development has been described by Gib Akin and Emily Schultheiss (1990). Reporting on work with a "difficult" group of

managers, asked to share stories, they note:

"As the stories were shared we began to see some similar language used to describe events. Successes were 'improvised' and depended on 'finding the beat' in the situation. Groups members 'play their own tune, in their own way'. It was a musical metaphor that made such a language meaningful, so the group...elaborated that image.

Just what kind of music was this? For them it was clearly free jazz, with only the barest scores and no specified, required instrumentation. The sound of the group would change in character with any change in personnel, with new members being incorporated into the ensemble to make the most of the sound they brought with them. As an ensemble, players would respond to each other and also to the audience. Co-ordination was accomplished not by plan but by listening to one another. It was not expected that outsiders would see much that looked like conventional teamwork, but for insiders collective improvisation meant freedom, spontaneity, as well as defining the ensemble.

As the group came to adopt and then to elaborate this metaphor they were able to talk in new ways about some issues...they had new ways of seeing themselves and their special way of working together. This new image also gave the manager...a more benign way to interpret the sometimes dissonant harmonies, both for himself and as he might be required to portray the work of his group to others.

Likewise, group members now had a language for appreciating the unique styles and competencies of group members. One member was a bass player, laying in a steady low peat, a sort of punctuation.Another might be a soaring alto saxophone player, exploding with dazzling runs and clusters of notes. With this image each member could characterise his or her own contributions to the ensemble....

There is always a sense of irony in talking about organising people whose main value is their independence, but this group was able to transcend that with the jazz band image, an image that could portray organised freedom and improvisation. This group reported that this was the first time they had successfully come together to discuss how they worked."

From the perspective of an avant-garde composer, Vinko Globokar, consider the implications, as a metaphor for group operation, of the following description of a piece of music generated through the improvisation rules provided:

"Correspondences are based on the principle of mutual psychological reactions and attempts to 'join' the four participants with each other and to make them increasingly dependent on each other. There are four levels:

(a) The musical material is entirely fixed, but the choice of instruments is left open.

(b) Each musician possesses only incomplete instructions. In order to be able to play, each musician must search for missing material in the performance of the neighbour (pitches from the first, length from the second, etc) and react to it in different ways: imitate, adapt himself to it (if need be, further develop), do the opposite, become disinterested or something else (something 'unheard of').

(c) The composed material is completely substituted by the description of the possibility arising from the reactions of the performers to their neighbours.

(d) On the last level, it is left up to the performers whether to cease playing or to continue; for not even the selection of reactions is now necessary"

Surprisingly there are strong similarities between this last approach and more recent innovations in organization design.

5. Influence of poetry

But none of these examples has been strongly influenced by the aesthetic discipline of poetry. It might be asked what kind of language poets use when they meet regularly together as in poetry circles -- and to what extent they endeavour to consciously craft that language beyond particular experiments. Clearly poets are able to make extensive use of common referents such as poems and phrases from well-known poems that carry common understanding. How do the particular understandings and contributions mould their shared space?

There is a potentially interesting interaction between those using metaphors to guide the work of their organizations in new ways and those, like poets, whose prime interest in metaphors is their value in conveying aesthetic experiences beyond the scope of existing terminology. The former take a pragmatic approach -- if it works, then use it. But this statement might be made of poets too. The difference lies in the significance attached to "works". The argument of this paper would be that what works for organizations tends to lack long-lasting appeal for the individual. And conversely, what works aesthetically may lack operational value for organizations. But both are exploring new ways of organizing the reality of their environments.

Although the preoccupations of organizations may be distasteful to poets (and vice versa), there is a definite possibility that together they could create a "third space" -- a language that would be acceptable and challenging to both. Both need to listen, and both need to reserve judgement about what it may be useful to bring to such a space and what it may be useful to leave behind. It would have to be stressed that this language does not substitute for their respective languages, but it may prove to be a space in which the dimensions excluded from each may be intertwined in valued ways.

Many issues relating to such a project are presented in the form of checklists in Part III of this paper. Metaphor clearly emerges as the most powerful tool common to both parties. Many common concerns are identified in Part I of this paper and call for further amplification.

Perhaps what is sought as a characteristic of this third space is a cognitive and operational equivalent to what is achieved by interior decoration. At its best it gives rise to a space in which all the different features, whether decorative or functional, complementeach other. There is a real sense that they "fit" together to enhance the experience of a larger whole. Colours, shapes, artwork and utility mirror or echo each other, moving awareness around the room so that it is experienced as a meaningful totality carrying its own distinctive quality. In this respect it is interesting how intimately disciplines associated with decoration are related to philosophies of being and action. The Japanese principles of ikebana are closely associated with those of strategy.

6. Criteria for selection of metaphors

What approach should be taken to the possibility of choosing a metaphor to better articulate the diverse elements of spiritual concord in an international meeting? Five criteria could be considered:

(a) Adequate to capture the variety of options

Clearly a metaphor must be rich enough so that each may find in it the dimensions to which he or she is sensitive. There is therefore advantage in highlighting those which reflect the most advanced thinking of our civilization -- those touching the frontiers of aspiration to explore our potential and articulating our comprehension of the most complex domains. But, although of necessary complexity, these metaphors must allow for simple comprehension, preferably permitting clarification by rich and evocative imagery.

(b) Opening options:

A useful metaphor must avoid the problem of over-deterministic frameworks which leave no "free space" for the imagination to explore and make discoveries. Better than static metaphors, those which embody a dynamic reality open more possibilities to the imagination. They lessen the impression of exhaustiveness and determinism -- having less of a function of a conceptual straitjacket. Such metaphors "seduce" and enchant the spirit. Their meaning can be "mined" according to people's degree of need and curiosity.

(c) Recognition of limitations:

As with every framework, a metaphor can only give a partial image of a complex reality. And like a model, a given metaphor may not be to the taste of everyone. A metaphor has a limited audience (or a "market") which may be a function of culture, education or age. Consequently any effort to impose a single metaphor is therefore destined to failure (even though this may be disguised to the extent that there may be resistance to the meaning carried by the metaphor, which is then seen as a sterile dogma).

(d) Dynamic system of complementary metaphors:

The limitations of any given metaphor may be compensated, provided that it is seen as forming part of a set of complementary metaphors. Then the weaknesses of one are compensated by the strengths of others, and the dominating points any one metaphor is constrained or checked by the insights brought by others. In such a system of metaphors, each has more chance of finding an appropriate, and even seductive, perspective than through any single metaphor.

(e) Recursive nature of metaphors selected:

A complex belief system is always a challenge to comprehension. This is also true in the case of a system of metaphors. Such metaphors should therefore be chosen on the basis of their individual capacity to provide some comprehension of the system of which they are part. This criterion guarantees, to some degree at least, the integrity and the coherence of the system.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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