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Transformative Approaches Project (Explanations)

Poetry and Policy: Inventing reality through configured imagery

Transformative Approaches Project

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1. "Talking it up"

The phrase "talking it up" is now commonly used to indicate one of the strategies open to a government minister of finance faced with loss of confidence in the value of the national currency. The minister makes statements to increase the credibility of the currency on the international markets. The phrase "psyching up" is commonly used by individuals or teams in sporting competitions. It indicates techniques whereby they can strengthen their attitude to respond to opponents. This technique has long been used in preparation for battle. Opponents may even be said to "psych each other up" --"winding up" is also used. Variants are used in management team building exercises. Some religious groups use testimony meetings to this end.

Of similar interest are techniques used to "create an ambience". The techniques may range from interior decoration, choice of music, and pre-structured scripts or events -- or even choice of language. Creating such intangible environments can be vital to the appeal of a community, a club, a social occasion, or a work environment.

2. Creating more complex realities

Such techniques result in a shift in the ways in which reality is understood. In its simplest form it "increases the flow of adrenalin". In the light of the previous sections however, what is of interest here is the possibility of configuring more complex realities. Clearly advertising and public relations endeavour to do this through image-building -- using a configuration of mutually reinforcing initiatives. But this is often done against the interests of those towards whom it is targeted. Magic and spell-casting may be subject to the same fundamental criticism. Like advertising, especially in the form of political propaganda, they may deliberately seek to "enthral". Some community-based cults have gone furthest in co-creating realities and can be legitimately criticized for the ways in which they enthral.

3. Succumbing to illusions

Policy scientist Yehezkel Dror (1987) expresses concern at the way top decision makers succumb to illusions which they cultivate for their environment. "Ostensibly, all decisions are based, at least in part, on facts and predictions of facts. This is an illusion, and an exceedingly dangerous one: no one can get at the facts. What one regards as facts are only images, often highly distorted, of reality. Understanding the limits of these images, reducing distortions as far as possible, and adjusting modes of decision-making to irreducible ambiguities and doubts are imperative....Recognizing what causes image distortion is a daunting task. A leader may easily overreact by putting his faith in his own personal intuition...But unaided intuition is even less trustworthy". Dror provides a valuable summary of causes of image distortion. Elsewhere he examines the challenges faced by leaders with a vision (1988, 1991).

Nevertheless are there clues in the possibility of collective dialogue through metaphor -- inspired by the aesthetics of poetry-making and disciplined by a sense of configuration? It would seem that many techniques have been explored -- but each in ways that fail to respond to the present needs for co-creating sustainable realities.

4. Invented realities

There is of course a burgeoning literature on invented realities and inventing realities. These include studies such as: Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment; the meaning and importance of fairy tales (1976); Ellen Winner's Invented Worlds; the psychology of the arts (1982); Roberts Avens' Imagination is Reality (1980); Paul Watzlawick's Invented Reality (1984); Joseph Campbell's Myths to Live By (1985); Marilee Zdenek's Inventing the Future (1988); Alan Wallace's Choosing Reality (1989) and William Irwin Thompson's Imaginary Landscape; making worlds of myth and science (1989).

Such studies are of direct interest to social constructivists as usefully summarized in Walter Truett Anderson's Reality Isn't What It Used To Be (1990). But they seem to be simplistic in their approach -- often using single generative metaphors -- despite the apparent need for more complex reality construction. But in poetry-making, where multiple metaphors are skilfully used, they are not developed within a group setting nor are they designed to help the group reframe the pattern of its actions in the light of subtler insights.

5. Dependence on a single metaphor

A principal weakness seems to lie in the rhetorical use of a single metaphor. Like a spell it is cast upon the listeners. As with a tennis ball the "service" may be so devastating that it cannot be "returned". Each may contribute to the dialogue in this way without making for interesting tennis. On the other hand even when the service is returned and the participants are able to engage in a volley exchange, this too may only make for uninteresting "ping-pong" tennis as in many parliamentary exchanges. However something quite special happens when the exchange is such that the quality or tone of the dialogue shifts and builds so as to generate new and unforeseen patterns -- and new levels of enthusiasm. The secret lies in this mutual enhancement, as it does in non-mechanical love-making through which a shared new reality is created for the lovers. The challenge in each case is to learn to act through and out of this new reality.

6. Dialogue experiments

Possibilities of this kind led physicist David Bohm to initiate dialogue experiments in a number of places. His work is currently being followed up through The Dialogue Project (Organizational Learning Center, MIT). For Bohm (1985), through the kind of dialogue he sought to cultivate:

"a new kind of mind thus begins to come into being which is based on the development of common meaning that is constantly transforming the process of dialogue. People are no longer primarily in opposition, nor can they be said to be interacting, rather they are participating in this common pool of meaning which is capable of constant development and change. In this development the group has no pre-established purpose, though at each moment a purpose that is free to change may reveal itself. Thus the group begins to engage in a new dynamic relationship in which no speaker is excluded, and in which no particular content is excluded."

Unfortunately, precisely because of the free-floating, open-ended, judgement-free nature of Bohm's process, it seems that qualities essential to policy-making are lost -- at least according to the present state of practice. Such experiments need new ways to discipline and focus themselves, rather than cultivating the abandonment of discipline and focus -- and the avoidance of judgement. The challenge is to distinguish "non-judgementally" between the incestuous self-indulgence of participants in the intellectual joys of "going meta" and the kinds of experiential transcendence that may occur on occasion and be experienced by some participants. This is a "magical gate" -- the so-called "gateless barrier" of Zen tradition (Aitken, 1990).

It is questionable whether the bonds created and the insights gained can be successfully communicated beyond the bounds of the group that meets in such dialogue -- which necessarily develops its own identity and story. Especially dangerous is the manner in which non-judgemental practices may be misused to inhibit any evaluation or the exploration of alternatives. Both poetry-making and policy-making have insights to contribute to the clarification of the conditions under which this gate can be approached and the manner in which its wider significance can emerge.

7. Need for further experiment

The suggestion is therefore that there is place for experiment. It is probable that the results will offer possibilities for new forms of policy-making in smaller groups, organizations or communities. Even so it will be of great value if it enables subtler coalitions of forces to acquire stability -- especially in situations where factionalism prevents the formation of any such structures. Hopefully this will indicate new ways of working creatively with differences rather than vainly endeavouring to eliminate them.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


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