This week I enjoyed an overview of the work of Albert Hirschman by Cass R Sunstein in the New York Review of Books. Hirschman is described as seeking, from an early age, to ‘prove Hamlet wrong’, seeing the character as immobilized and defeated by doubt. By contrast, he was convinced that doubt could be a source not of paralysis and death but of creativity and self-renewal.
“He was a great believer in doubt – he never doubted it—and he certainly doubted his own convictions. At a conference designed to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his first book, who else would take the opportunity to show that one of his own central arguments was wrong?”
One of his notable essays explored the ‘overproduction of opinionated opinion‘, and advocated the importance of doubting one’s opinions and even one’s tastes. Sustein comments: “Hirschman thought that strong opinions might be dangerous to the health of our democracy because they are an obstacle to mutual understanding and constructive problem-solving. Writing in 1989, he was not speaking of the current political culture, but he might as well have been”.
My attention was also caught by the reference to one of his later books: A Propensity to Self-Subversion (the title of which calls to mind Spencer McWilliams’ notion of The Personal Anarchist). Hirschman is described as celebrating skepticism about his own theories and ideas, and capturing “not only the insight but also the pleasure, even the joy, that can come from learning that one had it wrong.”
Overall he seemed “delighted by paradoxes, unintended consequences (especially good ones), the telling detail, inventories of actual practices (rather than big theories), surprises, and improvisation.” This was after all, the inventor of ‘possibilism’, who wanted to draw attention to “the discovery of paths, however narrow, leading to an outcome that appears to be foreclosed on the basis of probabilistic reasoning alone.”
Sunstein sums up with this: “The sustained attack on intransigence, the bias in favor of hope, the delight in paradox, the insistence on the creative power of doubt—all these prove a lot of people wrong, not just Hamlet.”
I also rediscovered this 1929 poem by Robert Graves which travels a similar path, and, if we can read it with a tad more humility than the original voice, it offers a fine description of constructivist doubt, and of its contrast pole:
He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.
He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images.
Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.
Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact;
Questioning their relevance, l question the fact.
When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.
He is in a new confusion of his understanding;
I am in a new understanding of my confusion.
The full review of Hirschman ‘An Original Thinker of Our Times is at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/may/23/albert-hirschman-original-thinker/?pagination=false
17 May 2013
Over the past year or so, I have noticed a shift in the kinds of work which organisational consulting colleagues are engaging with, a change which may perhaps be connected with the current popularity of 1-1 and small group coaching. Rather than large-scale interventions, there seems to be a trend towards working with with very small groups or with a few key individuals, but still with scope for generalised feedback into the wider organisation.
The shift of focus is interesting. There is less emphasis on overview, representative sampling, comprehensive analysis or working towards strategic recommendations. In contrast, work might start where the interest or energy emerges. The themes gathered from individual examples and case studies tend to throw up unusual ideas and generative questions, suggesting points of departure for new conversations and highlighting potential connections which can be considered propositionally. It can be a creative and energising process.
In his essay on the miniature in ‘The Poetics of Space’, Bachelard wrote in praise of the magnification of small things as giving us a quite new take on the world. He proposed that the magnifying glass might ‘furnish us with documents of pure phenomenology’, leading to surprising discoveries rather than familiar ‘worn-out words’. Under imaginative scrutiny, he suggested, details will reveal themselves and ‘patiently take their places’, uncovering what has previously gone unnoticed and requiring us to deal with these things afresh. And it does feel refreshing to hear people attending more actively to individuality, exceptions, diversity, the unrepresentative, puzzles.
One of my own clients reflected recently that whereas in the past he had valued consulting to help him ‘see the wood from the trees’, he now finds the reverse is true: ‘Consultants are able to do some close reading for us in key spots. We are continually pushed into big-picture thinking and strategising on a global scale. These days we need help seeing the trees in the wood’.
17th April 2013
I was listening last week to a group of arts educators as they were sharing and developing defensive arguments for their very place in the academy, and exchanging concerns about the potential despondency of their students as arts and humanities are repeatedly and publicly devalued. Our subsequent discussion was about hope, and the difference between a falsely ‘positive’ attitude to current challenges, and a more genuine stance of constructive hope.
On the way home, a diversion into a charity bookstore threw up a treasure of a book by Seamus Heaney – the transcript of his 2003 lecture at Dundee University where he gave one of his typically inspiring and robust arguments for art:
‘Basically, the experience of art firms us up inside. It fortifies our subjectivity. The world comes at us minute by minute, day by day, presenting us with every kind of emotional and professional and historical predicament so that as individuals we are always in danger of losing trust in our resourceful selves…forgetting that we have a stake in the ore of our selfhood and negotiating instead in the coin of the moment, the currency of the ephemeral. In this situation, poetry and art and cultural memory kick in like an emergency power system to reinforce the self, besieged as it is by the constant clamour and distraction of circumstance.’
I had some trace memory of Heaney writing about hope, and yesterday I tracked it down to his much earlier Oxford lecture on The Redress of Poetry. He references Simone Weil’s inspirational law – ‘Obedience to the force of gravity. The greatest sin’ – and talks about her idea of ‘counterweighting’. Heaney suggests that in poetry – and I imagine he might agree, most art – a counter-reality is placed on the scales, ‘a reality which may be only imagined but which nevertheless has weight because it is imagined within the gravitational pull of the actual and can therefore hold its own balance against the historical situation…a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances’.
And then I found the quote I had vaguely remembered which is actually from Vaclav Havel:
‘Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation…It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons…It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out’.
20 February 2013
Pictures by Brigid Collins from ‘Room to Rhyme’ – much more of her beautiful work is at www.brigidcollins.co.uk
Viola: Thy reason, man?
Feste: Troth sir, I can yield thee none without words, and words are grown so false, I am loath to prove reason with them
Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
‘Skiver v striver….how did this false dichotomy, which has been at the heart of the rhetoric around the government’s attack on benefits this week, catch on? It has seeped so far, so fast, into the national consciousness as a meaningful idea that the very people vilified by it – the people who know they are unemployed by circumstance and not by choice – feel their lives judged against its fictional benchmarks… The word “cheat” now fits so snugly against the word “benefits” that they run together as a single concept.’
Zoe Williams, Guardian
‘Between the experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet and the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life, the empty space, the gap, is enormous. The desolation lies there….’
John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket
(Feste image by Hannah Tompkins http://shakespeare-art-museum.com/Rummy/Rummy-Cont.html)
11 January 2013
From the opening pages of his 2-volume work on The Psychology of Personal Constructs, George Kelly emphasises the essentially active nature of our universe and everything in it, reminding us, rather neatly, that ‘the world is not an abandoned monument – it is an event of tremendous proportions, the conclusion of which is not yet apparent’
Organisations can be construed in a similar way: not as fixed entitities, but as ongoing events created moment by moment through the behaviours, communications and interactions of the people engaged with them. This view of things tends to run against the fixed ways in which organisations habitually describe themselves through reports, statistics and charts. Hierarchical structure charts in particular propose a set of static and orderly elements with clear connections, rather than a web of living breathing conversationally-generated role-relationships.
So, meet the Organic Organization Chart – an Autodesk project which maps the evolution of a company’s structure over 4 years, illustrating three types of change: employees joining, employees leaving, and changes to line management.
It has a strange beauty in itself as a set of images (which is not something I’ve ever said about a structure chart) calling to mind travels with the Hubble telescope, or the movement of creatures deep under the ocean. Perhaps it might help us to look at organisations with similar wonder as it attempts to describe their ongoing complex, energetic life.
You can view the chart in motion here:
Happy new year!
31 December 2012
will o’brien: It’s good to have this. I am looking for some ways to show the spontaneity of organisation and I’ve been speeding up film of people arriving at factories and the like but it tends rather toward Metropolis if you know what I mean – this is a great step on the way. 1 Jan 2013
franzciska magdalena: WOW – like fireworks on New Years Day… so relaxing for our over-used and underappreciated left brains and a fantastic workout for our neglected, sleepy right brains. Unforgettable … keep em coming! 1 Jan 2013
Krznaric offers us this new contrast for introspection, and talks simply and enthusiastically about empathy, usefully ‘de-fluffing’ it as a construct, and advocating above all the cultivation of curiosity, citing George Orwell as the great empathic adventurer of the late C20.
He links empathic curiosity (in our terms Kellyan sociality) with the necessity for social & political action, giving small and inspiring examples of steps towards transforming social relationships.
Like all the RSA ‘animates’ it’s a lively, clever and engaging presentation of simple and useful ideas.
View the presentation here:
16 December 2012
franzciska magdalena: interesting and slightly amazing …”Opening the empathic imagination” … Do we need more empathy? …or do we need to learn the politics of empathy? – how to look after ourselves when we become entangled by our inability to empathise with those who don’t have those skills … or who misdirect them?… I love the ideas and the technology … and the energy… 20 December
carl: outrospection is such an AWFUL word – please let’s never use it again… 23 December
fiona duggan: I was reminded of this post while looking at magazine shelves in my local newsagents shop earlier today. The magazines’ cover headlines generally seemed to be obsessed with demonstrating how one could (should, must …) make the most of 2013 to improve oneself by doing this, that and the other. This obsession with self-improvement was all rather depressing somehow. I went home, replayed the rsa presentation and came to the conclusion that an outrospective, empathetic approach to 2013 would be much more interesting and energising! 3 January 2013
In the wake of George Osbourne’s depressing autumn statement – which has sent fact-checkers into overdrive and left us with utterly toxic images of our close neighbours and fellow citizens – a salute to Adbusters for over 20 years of unravelling spin, unpicking propaganda, and countering the hypnotic power of consumption.
Their spoof ads continue to generate alternative meanings with just a keen wit and a sharp pair of scissors.
7 December 2012
I have been looking at this map of management structure at the BBC, published to illustrate a piece about the Jimmy Savile story and show ‘how it happened’. As an image, it has acquired some dynamism thanks to the journalist’s overlay of colour, but the underlying chart is a typical fixed hierarchical map of individual roles and territories – in this case attracting attention because of many perceived overlaps of interest.
In most organisations similar charts are centre-stage, and when communication and role have become problematic the charts are reconsidered. Staff can expect a shift in the map every two years or so, emerging with slightly different job titles and a few shuffles of the mix on each line.
It is curious that significant changes in communication or relationship are expected as a result of alterations to the chart. If we see the life of an organisation as relational – maintained or changed by myriad daily interactions and conversations – then little will depend on the places people occupy on such maps. Organisations with tightly defined structures and sharply separated ‘silos’ of responsibility can still be lively and dynamic groups where people relate creatively across the formal boundaries, while staff in more loosely defined networks can in practice be operating with minimal communication and strong territorial instincts.
While musing on all this, I received an email from John Shotter which included this chart:
It comes from a New York Times article (titled ‘We have met the enemy and he is Powerpoint’) and claims to show the US military strategy in Afghanistan. Apparently General McChrystal’s comment when he saw it was ‘when we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war’. The article describes the vast amount of senior military time dedicated each day to producing charts on powerpoint slides for briefing purposes.
In his accompanying note, John Shotter makes some important points about the value being placed on such pictures. He suggests that they
‘can (mis)lead us, disastrously, into (mis)identifying and (mis)naming the actual influences at work in shaping people’s actions. What in the past we have taken to be explanations of our actions – the accounts we give of the supposed causes we see as leading to our actions – have it back-to-front, for it is only possible to see such ‘things’ as having been at work in people’s performances after they have been completed. In short, such nicely ‘picturable’ and nameable forms are after the fact – only available to us retrospectively – and beside the point – in that as finished forms they cannot provide the guidance we need in the unique situations we confront.‘
From this perspective, spontaneously-emerging relational life necessarily defies ‘accurate’ mapping, and the BBC chart tells us little about how decisions are being communicated or negotiated while giving us a falsely reassuring sense of ‘having the picture’.
The two diagrams reminded me of a scene from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Sylvie and Bruno Concluded’. At one point, the character Mein Herr asks:
‘What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?”
“About six inches to the mile.”
“Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”
“Have you used it much?” I enquired.
“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”
26 November 2012
My earlier post on maps: www.constructivistconsulting.com/map-or-no-map/
domenica: the map/pictures are usefully revealing though aren’t they? in some other way, not of what they mean to show. I love the story! 25 November
john shotter: I didn’t know of the Lewis Carroll piece… very useful… in a move away from pictureable understandings on the objective (rational) side of the Cartesian split, I’m talking of performative understandings functioning on the subjective (intuitive) side of the split. 25 November
anna c: love all the map stories, anyone interested in how maps have been/are being used to construct realities will enjoy the British Library ‘Magnificant Maps’ blog, latest post on ‘octopus maps’ http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/magnificentmaps/2012/12/falmouth-gets-the-octopus-treatment.html 8 December
Such sad news this week of the death of Peggy Dalton, my warm friend and inspirational guide for over twenty years. Author of ‘A Psychology for Living’, she consistently embodied a constructivist approach to life, despite many years of very severe physical challenges.
A memory: A dark winter evening, not long after the death of her beloved husband Bill. It was a sad time and I had taken to calling in a couple of times a week after work in London. We sat in her very softly-lit room with a Peggy-style cocktail of dry sherry and Kimberley biscuits. I was repairing one of her necklaces and she had been telling me some tales of her days in the National Theatre.
After a while, she began, unusually, to talk in depth about her chronic pain. She was wondering how she could construe it differently to avoid being a ‘victim’ or ‘sufferer’ and to escape a constant sense of ‘battle’ or ‘struggle’.
We thought of alternative metaphors and eventually Peggy alighted on one that felt possible: a companion – not a chosen companion, but an imposed companion you might find yourself stuck with unwillingly on a very very long journey. No way to shake them off, and so no option as Peggy saw it, other than to try to make some kind of constructive relationship with them so that the whole journey would not be ruined.
We played with the idea for quite a while, thinking up a variety of ways to interact with this awful annoying person. It was a very funny conversation, full of her typical mischief and irreverence. As I was leaving I remember saying ‘Well I’ll have to leave you and your companion for the night’ and Peggy replied ‘Oh yes, I’m very curious about her now, so many things to try!’
I walked to the station with such lightness, realising what an astonishing experience I had just shared, what a lesson in the art of living constructively, and what a rare and precious friend l had in Peggy.
As our friend Sean Brophy wrote to me, just after hearing of her death:
‘A light has gone out in our lives, and now the warm spark of her spirit lights the universe. Ni fheiceamar a letheid seo aris : we will never see the likes of her again’
12 November 2012
In Liverpool with time to visit some of the galleries, a highlight was John Akomfrah’s film ‘The Unfinished Conversation’ exploring and celebrating the life and work of Stuart Hall. It runs at the Bluecoat Gallery until 25 November if you are within striking distance.
Underpinned by Hall’s understanding of identity as a process of ‘becoming’ forged at the intersection between subjective meaning-making and the push-pull of the cultural and historical narratives we move through, the film intersperses autobiographical memories with clips from his groundbreaking documentaries and archive film and photographs from the upheavals and changes of the past 60 years.
The soundtrack is also an intriguing collage of Hall’s own narrations and his beloved modern jazz, with the unexpected – including extracts from The Waves, Gormenghast and Blake’s poetry – which lift and shift our attention as sound and vision continually overlay each other in new combinations. The experience is a continual, gentle retuning of our wavelength.
This is an inspiring film, dense with ideas and propositions about belonging and identity, freedom and equality, memory and storytelling, upheaval and continuity. Split between three screens, the constant shifts of content and perspective keep our eyes, ears and minds open.
I have long been an admirer of Stuart Hall who seems to me to have fitted Henry Giroux’s concept of the ‘transformative intellectual’: a teacher who ‘gives students the opportunity to become agents of civic courage, and therefore citizens who have the knowledge and courage to take seriously the need to make despair unconvincing and hope practical’.
My previous post about Stuart Hall: http://www.constructivistconsulting.com/an-optimist-of-the-will/
2 November 2012