ideas – challenges – inspirations
This very moving little film is recommended to us by Lucia Andreatta, who writes “after the EU referendum, this is so needed”. It is a beautiful demonstration of the ways in which we are connected across time and space, and it paints a hopeful picture of how our oldest and most firmly-held beliefs might still be open to reconstruction – lovely, many thanks Lucia!
“stop deciding ahead of time what to discover“ – John Shotter
Four little provocations from John Shotter at the last International PCP Congress – about patterns, bewilderment, anticipations, and the insides of people’s heads.
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– “if we look for patterns we can find them, but if we look for uniquenesses we will find them too”
– “don’t ask what goes on inside people’s heads, ask what people’s heads go on inside of”
– “your bewilderment is specific, situated – move around it and crucial details will emerge – like reading a book”
– “stop deciding ahead of time what to discover – act from within the moment – be less ambitious”
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“Kafka’s stories do perform the anxiety and vertigo of a bureaucratic encounter, but they also enact its strange pleasure…..its alluring confusion.”
Some alternative perspectives on the frustrations of complexity
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The ‘Kafkaesque’ processes of institutions are a recurring theme in discussion of organisations, frequently mentioned as a source of everyday frustrations. In the interests of reclaiming energy, and potentially replacing frustration with some lively curiosity, here are a few alternative viewpoints:
“Kafka’s stories reveal bureaucratic entanglement to be both maddening and attractive. His stories might not only be critiques of bureaucratic rationality but also experimental forays into the charm of institutional complexity. He is politically incorrect enough to explore, or temperamentally perverse enough to assert, or existentially sensitive enough to discern, the wonder of the labyrinth. His stories do perform the anxiety and vertigo of a bureaucratic encounter, but they also enact its strange pleasure…..its alluring confusion.”
Jane Bennett – The Enchantment of Modern Life
“The idea was that when tools and instruments became more advanced and focused, uncertainty would be substantially reduced, or even erased. However…..the more we move the horizon of the unexplored, the unseen, the previously uncalculable, the more we find problems to be solved, theoretical issues to be untangled, and more uncertainty to be captured. Uncertainty can paralyze. We can try to limit its fuzziness, but even better we can move beyond it, by turning ‘uncertainty as an object to be conquered’ into ‘uncertainty as the very instrument fueling research and creative opportunities’.”
Buiani & Ruxton www.mutamorphosis.org
“The fact that the world has become fuller than ever of complexity of every kind may suggest at first that it is harder to find a way out of our dilemmas, but in reality the more complexities, the more crevices there are through which we can crawl. I am searching for the gaps people have not spotted, for the clues they have missed.”
Theodore Zeldin An Intimate History of Humanity
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Any re-arrangement of objects, images or text insists that we tell ourselves alternative stories, that we ask new questions. This disruptive potential lends itself both to mischievous humour – like the elves and imps of our childhood folk tales who mix things up while we sleep – and also to polemic, through the shock of mixing words and images from contrasting and contradictory sources.
“Slowly I drew forth that hideous fish, and with a feeling of desperation again looked at it again”
– a great story on the value and skill of paying curious attention to the everyday, the over-familiar, the unappealing…
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Personal Construct Psychology puts great emphasis on curiosity. One of the many reasons it appeals to me is the constant encouragement to pay curious attention to what is over-familiar or unappealing – the excitement and challenge of finding new ways of looking.
In a similar way, I am very fond of a story told by Samuel H. Scudder, an American entomologist who studied at Harvard with the zoologist Agassiz, who was a great advocate of rigorous close observation and thoughtful analysis.
“He asked me …whether I wished to study any special branch. I replied that while I wished to be well grounded in all departments of zoology, I purposed to devote myself specially to insects. He reached from a shelf a huge jar of specimens in yellow alcohol. ‘Take this fish,’ said he, ‘and look at it; by and by I will ask what you have seen.’ ”
In ten minutes Scudder had seen all he could see in the fish, had replaced it in the jar, and had taken a lunch break.
“On my return, I learned that Professor Agassiz would not return for several hours. My fellow- students were too busy to be disturbed by continued conversation. Slowly I drew forth that hideous fish, and with a feeling of desperation again looked at it. I might not use a magnifying glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish: it seemed a most limited field. I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp the teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me – I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the professor returned. He listened attentively to my brief rehearsal of the structure of parts whose names were still unknown to me … When I had finished, he waited as if expecting more, and then, with an air of disappointment: ‘You have not looked very carefully…you haven’t even see one of the most conspicuous features of the animal, which is as plainly before your eyes as the fish itself; look again, look again!’ and he left me to my misery. Still more of that wretched fish!”
As the day wore on Scudder’s interest grew and he began to see how much he had previously missed. When the professor asked again, Scudder admitted that although he hadn’t found a clear answer he was realising how little he saw before. The professor suggested that he might be ready with an answer in the morning.
“This was disconcerting; not only must I think of my fish all night, studying without the object before me, what this unknown but most visible feature might be; but also, without reviewing my new discoveries, I must give an exact account of them the next day. I had a bad memory; so I walked home by the Charles River in a distracted state, with my two perplexities.
The cordial greeting from the professor the next morning was reassuring; here was a man who seemed to be quite as anxious as I that I should see for myself what he saw.
‘Do you perhaps mean,’ I asked, ‘that the fish has symmetrical sides with paired organs?’
His thoroughly pleased ‘Of course! of course!’ repaid the wakeful hours of the previous night. ”
Delighted and relieved to have arrived at the answer, Scudder asks the professor what he should do now. And the reply?
“Oh, look at your fish!”
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“Much seems boring, irritating, wrong or offensive, but on occasion it turns out to be surprising, delightful, alarming, important and even life-changing” – Cass Sunstein
exploring the disruptive value of the unchosen…
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Personal Construct Psychology includes a theory of ‘loosening’ – a proposition that the introduction of new elements (ideas, people, experiences) provokes movement in our construct systems. This ‘loosening’ process disrupts – even if just for a moment – our fixed and habitual understandings, and opens up the possibility of developmental experimentation for individuals and the collective, and potentially kickstarting creativity.
Preparing some material for a workshop, I came across a column from by Cass Sunstein about the value of serendipity which echoes some of these PCP ideas. Critiquing our increasing personalisation of news through online sources and social media, Sunstein writes in praise of ‘old-fashioned newspapers’ which offer us vast amounts of content we wouldn’t have chosen in advance. He describes the traditional newspaper as offering ‘an architecture of serendipity’ through which we encounter many stories, facts, ideas and opinions that we didn’t select ourselves. “Much seems boring, irritating, wrong or offensive, but on occasion it turns out to be surprising, delightful, alarming, important and even life-changing”. He contrasts this with the ‘architecture of control’ offered by personally-selected and individually-targeted news which enables us to see exactly what we want to read and avoid the rest, according to our existing tastes.
Sunstein argues for serendipity as highly desirable, an important feature of freedom and self-government rather than an an obstacle. “Those who read only what they identify with in advance end up narrowing their horizons; they may create echo chambers of their own design”. He believes that this closed circuit of experience aggravates political polarisation, whereas “an architecture of serendipity can reduce that effect [and] create a kind of social glue by creating common understandings and experiences for members of a highly diverse nation.”
The language of building ‘an architecture of serendipity’ as opposed to disappearing into ‘echo chambers of our own design’ struck me as both powerful and useful. George Kelly’s work on loosening also includes a celebration of the random, including experiments with association and juxtaposition, allowing us to realign constructs in a makeshift way without concern for inconsistencies. Kelly wrote: “Loosening releases facts, long taken as self-evident, from their rigid conceptual moorings [and] once so freed, they may be seen in new aspects hitherto unsuspected, and the creative cycle may get underway”.
Cass’s article in on the Bloomberg website: so much for serendipity
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