Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Dignity of Difference

In Sir Jonathan Sacks' book The Dignity of Difference: How to avoid the class of civilizations (2002) is a plea for the embrace of difference in the diversity of the universals of mankind. He reveals something about how we each hold individual and universal truths. To illustrate this he recalls the story of the creation of mankind in the Jewish tradition, as follows:

"When God was about to create Adam. the ministering angels split into contending groups. ... Mercy said, 'Let him be created, because he will do merciful deeds. Truth said, 'Let him not be created, for he will be full of falsehoods'. Righteousness said, 'Let him be created, for he will do righteous deeds.' Peace said, 'Let him not be created, for he will never cease quarrelling'. What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He took truth and threw it to the ground. The angels said, 'Sovereign of the universe, why do You do thus to Your own seal, truth? Let truth arise from the ground. Thus it is written, 'Let truth spring from the earth." (Psalm 85:12)

Reflecting on the interpretation offered by Rabbi Sacks it is suggested that God recognized that Man is not capable of the perfect truth that exists in heaven and to hold the pretense of such truth in human knowing will only create conflict, not peace. The proposal is that Man must live by 'a different standard of truth, one that is conscious of its limitations'. It is by these attempts at limited truths that heaven's own Truth is re-created 'from the earth'.

Perhaps that is where we find ourselves in the post-postmodern discourse, where an abundance of truths each reflect the universals of Man's existence and the diversity of our own interpretations. We each make truths to live by in a world of infinite things to know. Like sacks of valued gems each contributes to the others principally by the appreciation of their preciousness. Regardless of their accuracy by another's yardstick of worth, they also reveal something to us that is much more precious ...

... that each truth is the expression of humanity in understanding its own becoming.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Aesthetics of Profit

I was just reading Paul Hawken's remarkable synthesis of information and vision, 'The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability' (1993), and found myself in one of those moments of surprise while immersed in the familiar. In a call for a new language for business expanding its specialized dialect he says:

"The language of commerce sounds specific, but in fact it is not explicit enough. If Hawaiians had 138 different ways to describe falling rain, we can assume that rain had a profound importance in their lives. Business, on the other hand, only has two words for profit - gross and net. ... In other words, business does not discern whether the profit is one of quality, or mere quantity." (p. 10-11)

This made me think of the aesthetics of profit. What would be the qualities we would seek to vest in something that is apparently real, albeit merely a numeric fiction? If something as temporary as a cloud could have qualities, such as ... wispy, fluffy, buoyant, gloomy and stormy, why not profits? I can see no reason, as like Hawkens, I am not against profits or business, only the unconscious desire to externalise the costs of life to a location of isolation that is a solitary and momentary P/L statement.

The question is what qualities would we seek to attribute to the profits we desire? Rather than 'ethical', 'green', 'sustainable' or 'responsible' profits, I am sure we could discover more meaningful terms to recover the emotion of business.

I, like others, would invest in a business whose profits were 'nourishing', 'generative', 'enduring', 'resourceful', 'contributive' or even 'life enriching' to the human commons. The Accounting Standards themselves would require an inspired taskforce of newly enthused auditors to put greater meaning, feeling and precision into their assessment of the human worth of the productive gain. Rather than externalities, the profit forecasts of resonant aesthetics would appeal to the internalities, of our profoundest human emotions.

I wonder which 'beautiful' company might be the first to take this challenge? It is a conversation, I for one, would love to have.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Path in Walking

In the continuation of his work with Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson's Mind in Life (2007) is the integrative discourse piece many cognitive evolutionaries had been waiting for. To limit the description of this work to the field of neurophenomenology both portrays its focus and obscures its encompassing reach. I am not sure how many years I will take over this work and its sources, yet feel time in its pages are always well spent.

On yet another reading I was reminded how one risk in creating any description of a dynamic process is how immediately the discourse begins to discuss it as an object formed. The descriptor ceases to be a shorthand in the community of shared understanding of the complexity and gains a life of its own as a thing to be discovered.

Thompson discusses natural selection and its interesting how Darwin's description of that process gained existence as a mythic force. When we go looking for the existence of the mythic beast, it is discoverable only by the parts glimpsed in its fleeting escape between the trees of the forest of our own inquiry. The process is not a thing in and of itself. It does not explain existence, but describes its process. As Thompson says:

"According to the viewpoint I am proposing, self-organisation and natural selection are not opposed but are actually two interwoven aspects of a single process of enactive evolution." (p215).

This view of organism-environment co-determination (being a 'both/and' approach) is central to our understanding of how the dynamic processes of life exhibit emergence. We enact meaning in the context of the conjunction of our 'own dynamics and those of the environments to which they are structurally coupled'. We are not a stationary thing. We are part of a process of life. In holding both concepts together we understand how "enactive evolution is the laying down of a path while walking" (p. 218).

An earlier example of this proposition is the central (and sometimes overlooked) tenet in Graves' (2005) levels of existence theory, in which he describes human consciousness as the resultant of the 'organismic' equipment and 'environmental' conditions which combine to generate 'momentary operants' (p. 162). He describes the elements as the conditions of existence and the conditions for existence, being the existential problems of living and the existential means for living, which combine as coherent forms of coping. We are neurophenomenological beings. We find coherence in the context of human existence. We are remarkable for doing this.

What if we were to accept our identity as 'momentary operants' as a reflection of the process of life in occurrence? Would we struggle to hold on to our temporary coherence of self so strongly? How does one let go into the void when there is nothing to step out to? How does one find a path forward where there appears to be none?

In knowing that we are laying down a path while walking, essentially creating our environment as we enact meaning and create ourselves, this raises for us also a moral responsibility. As members of humanity the parts and the whole co-emerge and mutually specify each other in a process of dynamic co-emergence (Thompson, 2007, p. 431). Each of us in a way is providing content in the self-definition of our collective path.

Where then are we guiding ourselves to ...

Caught in Motion

Have you ever seen an image by Robert Doisneau, the Parisian photographer? They are very distinctive. What is remarkable in these photographs for me is how they typify moments of commonplace humanity captured with great beauty.

I was in Paris a few years ago at the same time as the opening of a retrospective of his entire life's work at the Hotel de Ville. A few of these photographs are featured in the Seconds Snatched from Eternity collection. His images feature many subjects, from Coco Chanel models to the kitchens of Parisian worker's apartments. All contain candid humour and great lightness. The commonality of essence within the diversity of subjects fascinated me.

It was only on finding one photo towards the end of the exhibition that I understood the craft and art of this photographer. It was a portrait of the artist himself (1949, at Jules Ferry). Doisneau would use an older style camera with a top sighting viewfinder. Hanging this at his waist he would set up the shot, but rather than being separated by the machine and the lens, would engage and be present to the moment around him. This is what enabled the magic of the engaged voyeur.

This made me think about my own inquiry practice. I will consciously seek, less to apply the mechanical lens and filters to capture an image of a mental projection on the photographic plate of understanding, and more to be open and involved while simply being aware to what is happening as an occurrence, rather than what just happened as evidence. The engagement, not the capture, is inherent in my epistemological bias.

The artifacts of such work then are nothing, except seconds snatched from eternity.

"I put all my trust in intuition, which contributes so much more than rational thought. This is a commendable approach, because you need courage to be stupid - it's so rare these days when there are so many intelligent people all over the place who've stopped looking because they're so knowledgeable." ~ Robert Doisneau

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Beauty of Poverty

I was struck recently in visiting the Japanese collection at the National Gallery of Victoria by the forms of the Shigaraki jars. The rough and dynamic designs dating from the 16th century in the Muromachi period (1334-1573) were used in the complex aesthetics of the tea ceremony for the beauty in their 'natural imperfection' (Jap. - wabi) and their commonplace and humble origins.

The fashion of the day eventually led to innovation in glazing techniques being adopted in the regions of the Six Ancient Kilns, which sought to copy higher quality aesthetics from China of the same period (Kidder, 1981). It is ironic that the simplicity of these practical vessels created their later attractiveness.

In this we find the beauty of poverty, where the simple and naturally flawed holds a nostalgia of exquisiteness for us. We each probably have an object of beauty that holds an attraction for us, even though its aesthetic appeal is lacking to other tastes. The beauty is in the meaning, not the contents, these objects skilfully hold.

Perhaps it is the new muddy footprint on the floor of the most perfect architect designed family home that gives the clean space its 'now it is truly finished' appeal.

Daedalus' Envy

I favour Bullfinch's classic collection in mythology as a source work, mostly for the side tales and other fables of interest connected to the familiar myths, so often lost in a contemporary retelling.

In the myth of Icarus, his father Daedelus who designed the labyrinth of King Minos, loses the king's favour and they were both imprisoned in a tower above the sea. Daedelus gradually collects feathers and one by one builds the wings with wax that carry them to their escape.

We know Icarus' fate, but his father survives and later becomes the mentor to his nephew, Perdix, who becomes the great inventor's apprentice. The apprentice begins to outshine the master. Daedelus becomes so envious of Perdix's precociousness that he takes a momentary opportunity to push Perdix from a high tower. The goddess Minerva, protector of the inventive, saves Perdix by turning him into a bird, now called the partridge which nests in hedgerows rather than lofty heights, mindful of that fateful fall.

The hubris of excitement felled Daedelus' son. The envy of his successor's successes, which outshone his own, disclosed the master's true nature. In ingenuity there is to be won great praise, but in its service to humanity, there is also great caution and humility required.

The reality is we never complete the knowledge we create, only provide stepping stones to those who will follow. If we are not working for the knowledge to be held by humanity that comes after ours, who is it we are really serving?

Sustainability Groundrush

Have you ever experienced the groundrush that comes from the freefall approach to the ground while skydiving? I once jumped out of a plane at 12,000 feet and got a sense of this experience as the overwealm of information floods over your sensory capacity to take action. Even once the chute is pulled, there is a delay as the rush continues, before the relief of safety returns.

Recently while preparing a course in macro-sustainability strategies I was putting together all the data for the changes in the holarchy of humanity. Hours of looking at the statistics on oil depletion, water scarcity, deforestation, species transmigration, human population explosion, political instability, child literacy, wealth inequality, social dislocation and individual depression filled my awareness, recalling all I have read in these fields. When I finished there was a sense of 'sustainability groundrush' - that feeling of freefall overwhelm when the ground of reality rushes in to meet you.

When we look into the biosphychosocial system dynamics of humanity in emergence this is a common occurrence. The overwhelm factor becomes too great for us to hold the content. The trick is to learn how to hover - and take it all in. To hold this with equanimity. While sitting with this experience for a while there came a desire to map the dynamics of this in the sustainability spheres I use to explain this field. This is what resulted (in an apithology matrix):

Sphere. Pathology. Apithology
Lithosphere. Exhaustability. Utility
Atmosphere. Variability. Stability
Hydrosphere. Uncertainty. Certainty
Biosphere. Vulnerability. Integrity
Sociosphere. Insufficiency. Security
Technosphere. Inefficiency. Efficiency
Econosphere. Reactivity. Reality
Politiosphere. Autocracy. Authenticity
Ethosphere. Autonomy. Responsibility
Theosphere. Incapacity. Self-Efficacy

The cycle of resource depletion, causing greenhouse emissions and climate variation, creating water scarcity, compounding the loss of ecological viability, generating food insecurity, requiring expansions in consumptive technology, triggering hyper-inflationary markets, causing political instability, driving ethical isolationism and a feeling of spiritual paucity - reveals itself as the reinforcing dynamics of decline.

Yet what about its opposite configuration of equal potentiality? I envisage a world (daily) of resource utility, climatic stability, water predictability, ecological integrity, society cohesivity, technological creativity, economic sensitivity, political authenticity, inter-generational ethicality and spiritual generativity.

In avoiding the immensity of the compounding dynamics we can sometimes lose our perspective, seeing a part of the half and failing to see the health of the whole. The groundrush is an illusion, for we are not falling, only floating on the uncertain wings of our own desires.

Perhaps now it is time to pull the rip cord, to float on the thermals of ascent once more, undertaking the work of transition with generative and grounded hope, implementing this between the sun, sea and every shore.

For we have been waiting for a while ...

Life Sucks (Information)

I never go to far away from Arthur Koestler in depictions of systems theory in holarchies without having to come back to source. I always find more to discover in his thoughts. In Chapter 14 of The Ghost in the Machine (1967) Koestler talks about life as open systems and the apparent defiance of entropy in the 'integrative tendency' of biological forms.

He holds an open question as to the causation of evolution and appears to posit that there is a counterpart principle in life to that of entropy in matter ~ yet sees no need to prematurely define it (or manufacture it). Koestler remarks on entropy and its relationship to information:

"Our perceptions, then, become 'negative noises', knowledge becomes negative ignorance, amusement the absence of boredom and cosmos the absence of chaos. But whatever the terminology, the fact remains that living organisms have the power to build up ordered, coherent perceptions and complex systems of knowledge out of the chaos of sensations impinging on them: life sucks information from the environment as it feeds on its substances and synthesises its energies." (p. 199)

I often wonder if it is our failure to develop the layers of physical laws that nest in holarchy that makes the irreconcilable differences of science and novel theory. We recognize the difference in energy, matter, information and meaning, and yet we try to apply the principles of one to the others without discrimination.

What if were to develop a coherent approach to the principles of existence across these layers of perception? What if we were to develop principles that were not, as Koestler suggests, the absence of chaos - but were the principles for the presence of coherence?

This parallel path is possibly the purpose of the field of apithology. It takes Koestler's invitation to look at what can be seen by its opposite counterparts and directs the inquiry to that source.

Where this perhaps takes us - is towards the coherence of life.

Finding First Flight

I recently watched a dove take its first flight. The nesting parents had found a location away from neighbouring cats in not the most secure location, on a piece of wind chime art I had made, where mother and egg swung precariously for two weeks. After carefully not disturbing the nesting, where I walk five times a day, the egg then hatched.

The hatchling slowly grew in size and strength leading up to the moments of its first flight. This momentous event I watched for two hours intently. A rare opportunity. The dove gradually stood, shuffled to the edge of the structure to stretch its wings and practiced launching. After a hour of stretch and pause a trial hop was attempted, just a couple of feet between footholds. Then the mother reappeared on a nearby tree and cooed loudly. With a great flapping of wings and nervousness the fledgling leapt into space and clumsily joined its mother. The next flight was to the empty field next to my house, where eight more new doves were feeding on seeds. Then ... it was gone.

It made me think, what makes us leave the nest? It is not the shock of denial and negation. The strength and encouragement of love is a much greater force. The dove did all things necessary to prepare for the flight and eventually leapt with the encouragement of its parent. This combination of preparation and encouragement seems so logical, yet how often do we overly protect and 'do for' others, and in doing so fail to do what is needed to enable them to survive. I think often about the responsibilities that will befall Generation Y in their heroic quests we have left them. Have we prepared them for the flight, or just kept them safe, nurturing in protection of predators? Will they learn to fly, and at the same time , not too high?

I can hear them cooing now ...

Ends and Means

I was just reading a very aged copy of Aldous Huxley's 'Ends and Means' (1938) subtitled 'An Enquiry into the Nature of Ideals and into the Method employed for their Realization' in which Huxley asks a common question of what is the society we ideally want and, if that were knowable, what would we logically do for its creation. This closing quote reminded me of the central reason why this does not seem possible:

“In an age in which the fundamental beliefs of all or most members of a given society are the same, it is possible to discuss the problems of politics, or economics or education, without making any explicit reference to these beliefs. It is possible, because it is assumed by the author that the cosmology of all his readers will be the same as his own. But at the present time there are no axioms, no universally accepted postulates. In these circumstances a discussion of political, economic or educational problems, containing no reference to fundamental beliefs, is incomplete and even misleading.” (Aldous Huxley Ends and Means p329-330)

The presumption of a diversity of values must now be accepted. Analysis of the belief structures operating and their identification is essential if any public discourse is to be intelligible (or productive). To see the tensions between conceptions we need first to see those conceptions. Making the coherences of meaning visible is one means by which we find a way to our common future. That is the main reason for this research.

Friday, January 23, 2009


I am not sure when I was first caught by the picture of Icarus by Matisse. I was struck though. Perhaps it was on listening to The Majesty of the Blues by Wynton Marsalis and reflecting on the meaning behind the image on the album. The myth does, however, seem appropriate.

In any inquiry into flights of fancy we must soar somewhere between the sea and the sun. If we fly too close to either we will drift from safety, yet the whole purpose is to fly.

The icarus myth is a continuous reminder to hold within oneself a premise of knowledge humility, lest we become bedazzled by the illusion of actual knowing in the unfolding world of one's own understanding.

May these fragments of reflections serve as breadcrumbs for those making similar inquiries and following parallel paths.

In openness ...