The shapes and characteristics that are recognizable and seem to repeat are languaging a sort of conversation – or contributing messages to a larger ecological conversation. This conversation is one we might call ‘order’. As a ‘vitae’ the hand is an interface in multiple contexts. The observer’s ability to hold simultaneous contextual descriptions of the hand will offer deeper and more complex understanding. The definition therefore of the hand is more valuable if the contexts or sets of relationships are brought into the description. Within the form is the communicative and information processes that enjoin contextual ecologies and provide the fodder for symmathesy.
The Word In the Belly
This transition in thinking is a personal, cultural, political, and academic dilemma.
To provide a credible account of the thinking shift here, I have given this issue its voice in formal prose, but it does not live there. The dilemma of how we change our thinking about “systems” is one which should be addressed at all its levels simultaneously. In the description below I have veered from the language of formal prose. To address the depth of these mechanistic habits of thinking is to go downstairs, and that requires other language. We give prose seriousness and credibility and consider this form of communication to be rational and precise. Words in prosaic syntax have gravitas in our culture. And while they appear to offer firm conceptual stability, this is an impossibility that scientific and non-fictional discourse cannot account for. Descriptions in this form are still stuffed with metaphors, still wound around invisible narratives. In fact it is reasonable and responsible to ask whether life, love or culture can really be described with words. To discuss the patterns and processes of the living world we will need to open the form, open the genres of our communication.
Can we describe life? Can we even describe ourselves? When we try what are the cultural lenses that filter our perception?
We will not find the symmathesy if we do not name it. The word matters. Words are what we have. They are the best means we have to paint our thoughts into pages, and to house the resonance of voice in the horizons of conversation. They are the script we speak within, or perhaps step out of. Either way the playbook is always there as a pivot. What we say is measure of what we have not said. Words have salt. They are wise. They nourish and poison. They are our vehicles and our bindings. They are not located. They lie and in lying show us the edges of our honesty. A child’s tantrum is a tone and stomp and twenty repeating words that roughly say, “don’t tell me what to do”. A lover’s exit is too many words that try too hard to buy smooth departure and fail. Words are there for so many logistics, so much weather, a lot of “nice to meet you”… and sometimes the unspeakable pops through.
Patterns of industry are hardwired into us at a deeply personal level:
Again, this matters. We cannot adopt a professional voice as researchers, artists or philosophers without an (industrial) underlying understanding of the world leaking into our inquiry.
Deep inside, below the level I can monitor, my life is charted like a mechanistic production factory. The metaphor is ubiquitous; it is in our education system, our medical system, our economic system, our political system… even our ideas of birth, life and death. This is a personal, cultural and academic dilemma. There is a great need to point to this underlying lens we are taught to see though, so I offer a metaphor:
Jam-jargon; the world of mechanism has influenced my personal identity.
Somewhere deep down, I see myself as a jam jar.
On the flickering screen of my life-plan I am haunted by an unnamed story: I am an empty glass bottle, cruising on a motorized belt. I get a dollop of raspberry preserves, then a label, then and a twist-on top. As I move along the assembly line of life, I am worked, and I am in the works, I am working. The “system” is working. I am packaged, trucked, and delivered to adulthood. And at each transition the more sophisticated jam-jars ask, “ What are your plans?” I feel I should have an answer to this question so I point to the next slot along the clunking belt.
The jam-jar phenomenon is a repeating story. We are all jam-jars in one way or another. I have been discussing this invisible sub-story, with groups around the world for a few years now. Enough to know that while the subjectivity of my own description is just that — my own, the over all experience is a shared one. The mechanical metaphors are so deep that without realizing it I place the contours of my own life on the factory belt. I wish I wasn’t a jam-jar. I wish I were able to place a patterned lens on my perception of the world that did not revert to a grid. Everything is gridded… and only sometimes can I see the symmathesy — the learning context.
We find what we are looking for:
The difficulty of catching ourselves when we begin to apply mechanistic logic to living systems is not to be underestimated. I get lost. I can only occasionally see the edges. So intrinsic is this habit of assembling the blocks of life, and deciphering the cogs of its architecture, that the way I set out to make sense of things, anything—is to begin to figure out how it works.
The danger is that if I look at life in the natural world — a forest or family, a person or an organization — and I am trying to find an arrangement of parts and wholes within it, I will find it. I can probably put names to the parts and wholes, and even diagram them in a model. We find what we are trained to see; we find what we have named.
What I won’t find with that lens is the interrelational communication, learning and contextual timbre.
What I won’t find with that lens is what is holding the systems together through time and into its evolution.
Here it is, on the front page of our way forward. The term “system” sits like a shiny hood ornament catching the sparkle of the sun, and bug guts of this moment in history. Arguably, the fate of humanity is a measurement of our capacity to evolve beyond the destructive patterns we are now engaged in. I would suggest that this evolution rests in the possibility that we might see our world differently — as a living process, not a mechanism.
We need an emblematic term for this idea base; something to share, to hold, to refer to – a tag so that we don’t have to explain the whole of the living world’s interactions every time we want to refer to them. But not “System.” It has been shaped now by time and by its users. The word “system” is ironically as bound in thinking errors as the system to which we are referring. Perhaps not explicitly, but implicitly the term has come to mean a mechanism. It means something over there, observable from here. It means something we can chart, graph, and diagram. It means boxes and arrows.
The more complex the realm of mechanism becomes, the more imperative it is that we define life differently. The jam-jar metaphor is arcane, even by industrial standards, but still, it scoops us all in.
I grew up in a household in which a system was a living thing… alive in its swirl of interrelationships and intercommunications. A system was something I was always inside of. I am one; I live in one that is inside a bigger one, inside a bigger one – inside a bigger one. But there are not really draw-able boundaries between them, it’s messier than that. There are too many variables that are varying their course. A system is hard to keep alive in this languaging. A forest is not diagrammable. Neither is a family. An ecosystem, a love affair, an organization, none of these are really “systems”.
But in my household, unusually, a system was a warm thing.
“Warm Systems.” As a terminology, that wording is perhaps an improvement. In my own work I began to use this term. Warm Systems. To show that there is difference that makes a difference, as someone once said, in the way we use the term. I wanted so much to reclaim the word “system”; to give it back the dignity of its own complexity. A warm system is a thing of elegance, and grace, it should be noble. But still, I felt the lack of movement.
For me, the word “system” and its accompanying entourage of boxy models, cannot hold the gooey ecology of what the biosemiotics experts call the “semiosphere”…. Without this aspect of communication and mutual learning we cannot grasp the idea of the living world and the nature of life. The spicy richness of real inter-subjectivity is both flattened and bleached by the terminology.
I found myself with a mouthful of dry systemic language. Pasty jargon that is stuck to power points I have seen at conferences and snatched up into the audiences’ attention. The appetite to get hold of these “systemic” things is a phenomenon in itself.
Google the word “systems”, look under images… and you will not see photographs of living things. There is no art there. Not a single illustration of something in “relationship”. Instead: You will see squares and triangles, and arrows and circles – all sharp with educated and earnest attempts to code-crack life. These graphics seem to me to be maps that lead us right back to the school of engineering from which the culture we live in first found footing. Gregory Bateson was suspicious of using metaphors from physics to describe the living world. The other way around is not so bad, he suggested. Without doing much harm one can pat a car’s dashboard and praise its performance. But to attribute the language of physics to a living system is more toxic, because it infers “control”… it infers parts and wholes.
As systems research develops we find ourselves increasingly at a junction of what is disparagingly referred to as “linear thinking”, and ‘non-linear’ thinking. While this is a step in the right direction it is important to recognize that non-linear thinking in a world that mechanizes our imagination often leads to a tricky masking of linear thinking dressed up as non-linear thinking. Additionally some of the early work focused heavily on models that were an improvement to the linear model, but have revealed their own limits. One such model is the circle as a visual analogy of ecology.
More than circular:
Circles have come to be the branded motto of recycling, ecology, and the cycles of living things. But for our work the model of circles is not enough. The cybernetic notion of circular communication, interaction and cyclical behavior was a big step forward from pre-cybernetic, linear descriptions of these processes. The value of that progress in our thinking is not to be underestimated. With respect for the fact that conceptual models provide potent impressions to our comprehension, metaphors matter. While circles are a popular visual metaphor for life, the limits of the circle as metaphor are overcome in the concept of symmathesy. The notion of a symmathesy and a learning context within other contexts does not define a field of variables in interaction that is two dimensional, nor does it return to where it began. A better visual might be the double helix, as the model of a learning system must have at least three dimensions. Four if you count time.
Gregory writes: “First, there is humility, and I propose this not as a moral principle, distasteful to a large number of people, but simply as an item of a scientific philosophy. In the period of the Industrial Revolution, perhaps the most important disaster was the enormous increase of scientific arrogance. We had discovered how to make trains and other machines. We knew how to put one box on top of the other to get that apple, and Occidental man saw himself as an autocrat with complete power over a universe, which was made of physics and chemistry. And the biological phenomena were in the end to be controlled like processes in a test tube. Evolution was the history of how organisms learned more tricks for controlling the environment; and man had better tricks than any other creature.
But that arrogant scientific philosophy is now obsolete, and in its place there is the discovery that man is only a part of larger systems and that the part can never control the whole.”-Gregory Bateson, Steps To an Ecology of Mind [pp 443-444 University of Chicago edition]
Given that the tricks we have developed to “control the environment” have reeled into consequences beyond our wildest dreams, we would do well to humbly think about how we are thinking. The trouble is NOT that the world has gone to hell, or that we have no idea how to save the future for our children. The trouble is at another level. The trouble is that even do-gooders, by that I refer to the advocates for peace and justice, the ecologists, and the dedicated teachers, the therapists and the philanthropists, are still thinking in terms of parts and wholes. Even the ones that use the language of “systems.”
People who have devoted themselves to the deeper practice of “systems thinking” will say this criticism is unfair, and they are probably correct. For a few, a system does not primarily refer to something arranged. But only for a few. So pervasive is the habit of applying the problem solving methods of the engineer that now the language of the entire body of “systems theory” and “complexity theory” has become a container for slightly higher order reductionist thinking. At least that is my experience. For several years now I have been a traveler into the groups of “system thinkers” around the world. Some have been psychologists, artists, ecologists, economists, politicians, doctors, biologists, educators, and coaches.
I will share with you my water test.
Ask the question: Does this thinker seek to make a plan? Employ a strategy? Find a solution?… Or interact with a context?
One type of thinker plots a trajectory into the future that can be controlled. Or, maybe, to be softer, manipulated. The other does not consider control, but is sensitive to the aesthetic. Attempting a multilayered ecological shift at the level of context. This requires a rigor of intellectual, perceptual, and emotional multiplicity and sensitivity. Developing rigor to hold variables in focus is not the same as romanticizing the blurry unknown. There is enough borderline new age material out there now to require that in this document I address the issue of the “unknown” and “unknowable”. This concept has unfortunately become a catch all for a lack of rigor. Instead I would argue that the complexity inherent in living processes requires that we employ more rigor, not less. To take into account the larger consequences of our “actions” is to better understand the many facets of our interactions.
I am not suggesting that action cannot be taken in acute situations to address the emergencies quickly. To relieve pain, to avert a suicide, to eschew bankruptcy… Of course this is necessary. But the larger, longer, wider response is to be scrutinized at another level. Not either or, but both. Why is one way of looking “linear” and the other “systemic”? What if linear was not linear at all… just over-planned, and what if “systemic” was something more than an organic Swiss watch?
Delivery from the dilapidated state of the world now is not the providence of the mechanic. There are no parts to fix. No particular manuals to write, or scripts to edit. The poverty of our description of these living things we call “systems” will starve us from a future of juicy life. This concerns me. And seems so unnecessary. Perhaps a better description, inaugurated by the new term symmathesy, will give us the missing understanding we require to hold present in our thoughts the mutual learning processes of all living systems.
Do we reinterpret history and the knowledge of the past through the same grid/lens through which we interpret the institutions of knowledge now? What is the plumbing blueprint for the piping up of knowledge? What is information that has been through the jam-jar factory, stripped of its contexts, labeled, categorized and parceled into jargons?
Symmathesy. I am one, you are one, we are within them. Learning together in context, at all scales.
“Now I a fourfold vision see
And a fourfold vision is given to me
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And three fold in soft Beulahs night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newtons sleep”
Implications and Applications of Symmathesy.
Education, therapy, medicine, social infrastructure, interaction with the living environment, and personal life, are all premised upon our understanding of the world we live in. If that world is a world defined through mutual learning or symmathesy, here are some shifts in perception we might notice:
(Let it first be recognized that with symmathesy in mind—we will be disinclined to draw the distinctions of this question as I have done above. To define a separation between education, therapy, social infrastructure and personal life is a misleading fracturing of context. As a means of providing a glimpse into the possible benefits of this idea, I have listed these entities as separate because that is how they are depicted by our culture. But by no means do I see them as isolated facets of our lives. )
Education: an education in the world as a mutual learning process would look at the interconnections between what we now call “disciplines” or subjects. Forests are interactions, food is culture, and so on. The ability to study both the details (existing disciplines) and the relationships of learning between them will increase our students’ ability to see and interact with a level of complexity that is necessary for future generations’ survival. As it stands our “knowledge” often prevents us from seeing the interdependencies in our complex world, which we therefore disrupt — to the detriment of our wellbeing and that of the biosphere we live within.
Therapy: If a living context is a mutual learning context then the way we approach a notion of “pathology” is radically altered. A symmathesy, as a person, or a family, is learning to make sense of its world. As their bodies, emotional, mental and interactional processes would all be included in their ways of calibrating their world (not necessarily consciously) — all pathology is also learning.
The way a symmathesy makes sense of its world is a learning process at multiple levels. But that learning is not necessarily positive or progressive in the orthodox understanding of learning. We can learn to be sick. A tree learns from its context that it needs to grow crooked. Remove the value judgment from that process and we will instead see a remarkable feat of life to survive in whatever tangle it perceives. Think of an alcoholic’s body: his skin, his metabolism, his liver, his family, his history, his communication with his friends are all revealing a mutual process of manifesting the way he makes sense of his world. Where is the pathology? And toward a response to that question:
Where is the healing? In the learning.
Healing: If pathology is learning, then healing is also learning. The person, or family or other symmathesy, will make sense of their contextual existence in another set of calibrations to heal. What if healing and pathology are both expressions and possibilities of mutual learning? The approach then to our notion of health would be geared toward providing circumstances for calibration of multiple aspects of life to be cultivated for an individual, a family or perhaps even a society to generate combined realms of learning in order to shift. In our work with the IBI at Villa Miari in Italy we observed the work at the center for rehabilitation of paralysis and terminal pain.
The work being done at the Centro Studi di Riabilitazione Neurocognitiva in Italy (the CSRN), is a remarkable testament to another way of thinking in contrast to a world where the “solution” of a problem involves singular and direct treatment. In medicine, politics, education, economy and even our personal lives we measure our productivity in terms of action and reaction. It almost seems as though we have a script that runs through our culture that instructs us how to address trouble, which reads, “where is the problem and how do we fix it?” This linear questioning leads to a set of responses, which can only treat the problem directly, with therapies that focus specifically on the details of the symptoms as presented. At CSRN the therapies are designed to reach behind the visible manifestation of the crisis the patient is in and ask another sort of question. Their question is this: “How is this system making sense of its world?” The order of information and influences that the clinicians at CSRN find in the pursuit of their question is both qualitatively and quantitatively at another level.
The question being posed at CSRN, “How is this system making sense of its world?” reveals something like a stew of slow cooked cognitive, cultural, and relational processes that need to relearn. The “treatment” then stems from a recognition that the whole person/system has to find their way to re-understanding the world they are in. This involves the enormity of the neurocognitive system, as well as the patients’ interaction with their environment and community.
( ** for more information on this please see the research with International Bateson Institute, “How do Systems get Unstuck?”).
Medicine in this sense can potentially shift in its modus operandi toward becoming more a function of cultivating a learning context in which reorganization is possible and less of a tool kit for tweaking the parts of a system. Obviously both are necessary. There are moments when the short view is vital, but even emergency situations might be seen differently through this lens. What is the symmathesy calibrating?
An umbrella concept that addresses the living world as a learning context offers another window though which to see, analyze and interact with the complexity of life. This conceptual frame furthers our research agenda, offering a wider basis of relational interaction into our notion of “subject” for study. The interactions within living systems and between them are many — so many in fact, that it is a daunting task of the research team to draw an outline around what might be the focus of study. But is this rigor a hindrance? Or is it perhaps the next frontier of inquiry? The multiplicity of these interactions demands an inclusion of the crossover between multiple contexts in which new methods of inquiry can approach the rigor of zooming our lenses of study in and out on combined processes of continual learning.
Ecology of Institutions:
Much like the body in paralysis whose many systems for making sense of the world are interrupted and disorganized, the institutions of our civilization appear to be equally entwined in a holding pattern of dysfunction involving immeasurable interweaving. So interwoven are our institutions that instigating change, even for the survival of our species, seems to get stymied by a collective body of institutions that are self-preserving. There is, like in the patients’ cognition systems, a pattern of permeated operational interactions within and between the institutions of our world. Together we have a context of economic, social and cultural institutions that have learned to accommodate us as they do today even as we have learned to accommodate to them. If the question is shifted from “how do we fix the institutions?” to “how have we learned to interact with these institutions as a context?”—we may find that our set of “solutions” is significantly more productive.