On the Sharing of Meaning
For some, the web is the defining metaphor or image of our times. For others it may be that first picture of our earth taken from a spaceship – an image that is everywhere recognisable and recognised in the First World and yet which would have been without meaning 50 years ago. (Interestingly, it’s also one that seems to distance us alarmingly, as observers, from our own planet. It reminds me of the Cartesian I/Eye/Mind looking down loftily on the detached and rather meaningless It/Body. It reminds me of the female form held by the male gaze. A sort of softgaiaporn.)
At Triarchy, the defining image is very often the rhizome. (Here, on the left, is Antony Gormley’s Rhizome III.) Why?
Let’s start with Deleuze and Guattari: “A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. The tree is filiation, but the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance.”
There. We’re moving away from the tree, from the vertical order, from hierarchy. (Our very first book was an assault on the hegemony of hierarchy and an insistent demand that we look more widely and consider more ‘heterarchical’ alternatives.) And we’re moving towards complexity and interconnectedness. “Unlike a structure, which is defined by a set of points and positions, the rhizome is made only of lines.”[Deleuze and Guattari again] So it has enormous flexibility. It also has more of the quality of a pattern about it than the quality of a structure. It’s a bit fractal in its possibilities.
Patterns seem like good models for the sort of flexible, interrelated, adaptable, responsive organisation or institution that the world needs now to replace the organisations and institutions that have failed it politically, environmentally, economically and socially. As Bill Sharpe says:
“A pattern comes about when things which have some degrees of freedom are related to each other such that for a while their behaviour is co-ordinated: drops of moisture in a cloud, living organisms in an eco-system, couples in a dance, children in a family, citizens in a nation, and so on. Life is lived amongst many such patterns which relate one life to others and to their surroundings."
Here we touch on families and other sociosystems – living patterns of people that make up and shape our world. And it seems to us that huge demands are made of these sociosystems, whilst little in the way of real resources are fed back into them. Perhaps we’re in danger of depleting our sociosystems in much the same way as we are depleting our fields and soil and seas and failing to replenish them?
What does that depletion of families and other sociosystems mean in practice? Well, to continue the environmental metaphor, it’s as if we expect to carry on ‘using’ them and expect them to carry on working without our doing anything. Take the family. The family is the embodiment of the notion of ancestors. The young learn from the old and the old from the young. The young keep challenging and the old keep reminding. It’s an exquisite balance.
Don Michael talks about learning from the old:
“Even given time and candid acknowledgements, it will be long before most humans experience the generative circumstances – the disasters, accomplishments and consequences – and learn from them that which might moderate behaviour into the compassionate ways needed to live humanely, according to a systems ethic… in an increasingly complex world. [So that] we might interpret our experiences in such ways as to engender values and a psychology that sustains a society of explorers-learners.”
Of course, he isn’t talking about families. He’s saying it takes a long time for any individual to acquire the experience that will enable her to be wise. And a remedy for that, surely, is to draw on the experience and wisdom of others who have gone before or gone elsewhere. It’s how we propagate knowledge and wisdom. And we need to do it in all our communities: in families and schools and villages and streets and cities and organisations and social networks and countries…
And yet, though we develop more and more remarkable communication technologies, they often serve to prevent us communicating. The teenager may be able to remain in almost constant contact with his friend in another city via the computer and mobile phone, yet the always tenuous communication that he used to have with his grandmother will be made much harder by his absorption in a computer screen and hers in a television screen. And so the wisdom of generations is spilt and runs away between the flag stones we hardly walk on any more.
Writing of Virginia Woolf, Sarah Bakewell says that she "…had a beautiful vision of generations interlinked in this way: of how 'minds are threaded together – how any live mind is of the very same stuff as Plato's & Euripides… it is this common mind that binds the whole world together and all the world is mind'."
We might contest the idea that all the world is mind, but it’s hard to argue about the connectedness. Let’s take another example. In “Of string bags and birds’ nests”, anthropologist Tim Ingold compares the observations of puzzled scientists as they record the behaviour of weaverbirds making their nests and the behaviour of the Telefol people when weaving string bags. The birds, it appears to the scientists, have to use something that they can only describe as ‘judgement’. As to the human bag weavers, Ingold concludes that their weaving skills are neither innate nor acquired. They are “grown”, incorporated into the human organism through practice and training in an environment. In short the nature vs nurture, genes vs culture debate falls away. Weaving becomes an ecological skill that emerges through practice and repetition in a specific environment. In this case, all the world is not so much mind as action. We are what we weave.
So where is this leading? What might we do to facilitate communication between generations, between and within organisations, across cultural divides? How might we extend the knowledge management principles that business has pursued for two decades into ‘wisdom management’?
Bill Sharpe has a suggestion: “Art is the currency of experience, putting our unique individual experiences into motion amongst us as shared meaning.” The starting point on the path to sharing wisdom is to share meaning. Sharing meaning leads to shared understanding and thence to empathy. And empathy is the corner stone of love. Coming more from empathy and love than from power, we learn how not to eat our young and kill our fellows. We learn how to nurture and nourish and how to put away our weapons and our sociopathologies and psychopathologies.
Otto Scharmer, a student and now colleague of Peter Senge, proposes the practice of Theory U in learning to share wisdom and share meaning. Theory U’s first two steps are as follows:
1. CO-INITIATING: Build Common Intent - stop and listen to others and to what life calls you to do.
2. CO-SENSING: Observe, Observe, Observe - go to the places of most potential and listen with your mind and heart wide open.
Finally, Don Michael proposes the age-old practice of story-telling to facilitate the sharing of meaning:
“All worthy stories are first and foremost occasions, mirrors and contexts for learning about self by drawing one both inwards and outwards, by expanding one's sense of the plausible. By learning about self one learns about others, for one always sees others through oneself. Thoughts about the future, by the very expansion of context they provide, offer their audience a larger mirror for viewing themselves, a larger mirror, then for viewing the world and their part in it...”
There he tells us that we learn from others’ stories but that we also learn from our own.
Oh, and rhizomes? Well, they’re a reminder that we’re not sharing meaning and experience up and down a family tree or an organisational chart but across, between, among, via foldings and multiplicities and complexities, so that we soon lose any sense of who’s teaching and who’s learning. And talking of foldings, the fold is the metaphor chosen by Jay Ogilvy to represent a better way of thinking around problems to recognise their implicit complexity and uncertainties.