Aphanipoiesis & Basket-Weaving
Editorially, one of the most frequent collisions we have with authors (that is to say, reasonable souls not wild fundamentalists) is over the tendency to slip into talking of evolution as if it were a something. And more than that, the tendency to slip into talking of evolution as if it were a something that knows where it’s going. So that the words “evolving towards” must always ring loud alarms. This objection has prevented Triarchy publishing a number of books about Spiral Dynamics and other theories that locate us on a trajectory whose endpoint is already known.
Recently, two wonderful pieces of writing that have come Triarchy’s way throw light on this question from different angles.
In ‘Goblin Queens and Qualia Knights: A guide to Xisting’, Phil Smith writes:
“The process of randomly driven providence should be familiar. Dinosaurs did not come to fly because they ‘tried’ to fly. They first grew feathers as functionless mutations which turned out to cool them usefully, hence the tendency of those with the mutant feather-trait (jouissant in the feeling of their cooled pleasure organs) to survive and prosper, and pass on their trait.
Then, as the trait grew more abundant over further generations, (and new desires replaced those already satisfied) they ‘accidentally’ facilitated flight.
Similarly there is such a tendency (or tendencies) in ‘the pattern’, for it is packed with desires, but there is no intention at all; an outcome arrives by tendency and mutation and functionless desire and not by will or target. The basket weave of tendency is dominant over the spear thrust of intention.”
Having relished the idea of the jouissant dinosaur, you may ask what ‘the pattern’ is. For Phil it seems to be something like life itself, and its score and structure, and life’s overlay and its underpinning. Unsurprisingly he (and co-author Helen Billinghurst) have a whole book on it, called The Pattern.
And you can’t talk about patterns for very long before coming to Gregory Bateson’s question in Mind and Nature: “What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all the four of them to me? And me to you? And all the six of us to the amoeba in one direction and to the back-ward schizophrenic in another?”
From there is it a short step to Nora Bateson’s coining of the term aphanipoiesis, which she uses (in her book Combining) to mean “a coalescing of unseen factors toward vitality”. Now a ‘coalescing of unseen factors towards’ is a very different kettle of fish from an evolution towards. As she explains when she discusses first the contrary idea of the ‘insidious’ which tends to end not in vitality but in disaster.
“I have attempted to name and discuss a characteristic of life I have found necessary for any systemic change. Most of the urgent issues at this moment in history can be described as ‘insidious’, which is to say that they are produced through the combination of circumstances over time in unseen ways that have produced danger. Racism is insidious; sexism is insidious; corruption is insidious; consumerism is insidious; greed is insidious; cancer is insidious; trauma is insidious; addiction is insidious. A contemporary definition of the term ‘insidious’ is roughly ‘spreading gradually or without being noticed but causing serious harm’ (OED)…
But how would one describe the opposite of this? What is the word to describe how unseen, gradual processes come together to form life, vitality, healing, and ongoing learning? And how would one know where the vitality begins, and danger ends?”
Her solution, as will be obvious, is the word aphanipoiesis. Literally, the word means something like ‘creating in obscurity’, but I think her definition of “a coalescing of unseen factors toward vitality” is somehow close to Phil’s basket weaving.
Let us pray, as it were, that some vital basket is weaving itself unseen in these dark times.
The Pattern ~ Helen Billinghurst and Phil Smith
Mind & Nature ~ Gregory Bateson
Combining ~ Nora Bateson
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