The Bad Taste of Clever

Here is something Dwight Towers picked up on I’d written to him in an e-mail recently. He wanted me to consider writing about it at greater length.

…This is the standard System’s Theory definition.

I think putting the emphasis on the what of the system is still too deterministic.

As David Abram might say – or my Phenomenological roots push me to say – It’s more significant to talk about how things are perceived. The action happens when we perceive the complex as chaotic or complicated, or take simplistic models as if they provided us with simplicity.

I do think it’s more significant to bundle simple and complex on a continuum of attitudes towards things than to categorize the things themselves in a particular way.

The S. T. “answers” are in my experience tied into an unquestioning attitude that this knowledge will provide a more clever way to manage and control things. In this it is like a reforming capitalist, just swinging away with his feet off the ground.

I can’t stand clever. The last thirty years have just left a bad taste….

Our intention is to post back and forth on the topic.

So here’s my opening foray:

System Theory was another of those things, like speaking “prose,” that once it was described to me I realized I’ve been doing it for a long time. There are many fascinating insights to be found there. In the end, I found the “practice” of Systems Theory to be a dead end.

What struck me was that while it is a tool to help us see into, and potentially see through, so many of our shibboleths; its practitioners proceed to prescribe it as a way to prop up all of the “systems” they’ve shown to be illegitimate. I characterize the flaw to arise from not questioning their drive to be clever and their maintaining an outside-in perspective even when everything their study of systems shows us is that there is no such over-arching perspective from which to make ever grander schemes to prop up the will-to-control.

Instead I hold to embedding the insights found in Systems Theory within a broadly Phenomenological perspective well elucidated by David Abram in his work. This provides a place to “stand.” As I’ve said before, this is the necessary first step in any approach to understanding our place and to contemplating action. If we are looking for a place to stand; we come down on the limits and the possibilities presented by our immersion in our senses, and our physical embodiment within a perceived environment that has our senses at their center. An example David uses is the significance of the sensation that the sun arcs across our sky and appears to circle our world versus the fact that the earth revolves around the sun. This distinction is often brought up as a straw-man to show the Luddite – and therefore bad – tendencies of the enemies of infinite progress while as David explains it what it does show us is how an abandonment of the evidence of our senses is the first step on a trail leading farther and farther from an embodied existence – a life – towards a wishing after a disembodied and fragmented existence as a sack of atomized abstractions inconveniently tied to a body such a “spirit” would rather destroy, along with the greater world in which it is immersed, than to acknowledge our most profound condition.

I don’t want to try to make his case. He does a much better job. Finding his work about a year ago helped me put my own study of Phenomenology, both reading and as a practicing artist, into a wider framework; and showed me the way these ideas link up with much of what we can find out about pre-civilized cultures and their ways of life. This is in effect another layer of immersion into what David calls The Spell of the Sensuous. Since we “know” we are part of a continuum down the generations deep in our bones – not the eroding surface of some juggernaut of “innovation” and “change” ablating off the span of human existence in the face of onrushing “Progress.” – this understanding deepens our experiences as individual sensuous beings.

This is a long way from the technocratic rationales behind so much of what passes for practices based upon System Theory. While looking at the profound implications of what their work uncovers would lead one to want to move away from “fixes.” They carry on in language that purports to discuss predicaments instead of problems and adaptations instead of answers, but continue to operate under the fantasy that existence can be gamed.

Specifically Dwight Towers and I were discussing the tangled nest of terminology that traps words like simple and complex, and conflates them with simplistic and complicated. Throw in the general use of chaotic and uncertain, and we get such a mess that it’s easy to see how we need the boost of optimism to keep us out of nasty pessimism and “hopeless” despair. I was pushing for dropping the categories used in System Theory, which in my view tend to uphold the separateness of “things,” and adopt an approach that focuses on how these terms fit into our perceptual world.

Too often we hear people defending the abandonment of perfectly good words because they have been misused and have taken on bad connotations. I prefer to struggle to win words back from their degradation. It might be one thing if we were talking about an evolution of language, but we aren’t. We’re talking about powerful and pervasive campaigns to dilute the power of words by blurring and even obliterating their meanings. A recent example would be all the blather about the way the Tuscon Assassin rambled on about a conspiracy to destroy words. Orwell would smile knowingly before turning over in his grave to see the lengths to which the machine has gone to defend itself against his charge. The tactic has remained the same, the battle has only moved on from being about words like peace and victory, brotherhood and truth, to the obliteration of the entire category of the few, and the conflation of any dissent with charges of fanciful conspiracy.

Just as I’ve pushed to carve a distinction between hope and wishing, between mastery and control; I think that looking at simple as an attribute of perception different from the perception of something as complex; allows us to see a parallel range of distinctions between them and a perception of something as simplistic, or complicated. The same holds true for uncertainty and chaos. Uncertainty is a perception arising out of an understanding of quantum level effects, the perception that observation affects what is knowable – as well as a rhyming attribute visible in large scale events when we obtrude with a proportionate intensity upon a situation so as to affect the result, just look at media’s affects on politics as an example – or when we are confronted with turbulence in flows in any of its variations or meta-manifestations. In all these cases uncertainty is a perception not an outside reality. Chaos seen as a perception of uncertainty is useful, while making it a property of a system only works to add a judgmental weight, a negativity, that would otherwise be absent if we spoke of quantum effects or turbulence.

*  *  *

I struggle with the potential gap between what my intention leads me to do and how it might be perceived. This may be an illustrative example. This essay, many of my essays, might be taken as an amateurish attempt to “do” philosophy, or learned cultural criticism. Taken this way not only are they abject failures – there are many more talented and well trained analysts out there! – but it is also a misreading of my purpose.

I am a generalist for what it’s worth. I am intrigued by as wide a net of possible fields of inquiry as I can find. I tend to retain a certain amount of what I read or hear, but I have no intention of becoming an “expert” in any of these fields. I am a person attempting to make sense – to find a path through the various sense inputs I acquire – to make sense of my experiences, and to both formulate and record the path this takes me along. I find that I have to take what might be criticized as a solipsistic view, in which I dismantle what I come across and attempt to find ways to incorporate them into my own understanding. This is a contingent process. I know there is no “use” in following the urge to develop grand schemes of elaborate conceptual constructs since they always lead to their own dissolution and I have limited time and capacity. Instead I try to remain fluid and put together just enough structure to get me on to the next situation. What I write is both how I go about creating this rickety but serviceable framework, and also my record of where it takes me. This dual purpose is to embody decision making as well as to record what I think it can look like if done differently than from within the standard model.

This is why I write the way I do, and this is what I’m always writing about. The gulf between this project and expectations based on a legacy of the current schema is where I live. The distinctions I make here, as in any of my essays, are made from this perspective and are meant to serve these apparent needs.

I much prefer ellipses to spelling things out to an “nthº” of detail. This may be a lazy habit, but I defend it out of a belief that we are better off surfing across the surface of existence than attempting to build edifices upon a foam of contingency. I bring all this up because I want to explain why I am leery of beating the original point of this post to death in a simulacra of a definitive “tome” when my efforts would fail and in my attempt I would be mis-characterizing what I was up to.

I could “apologize” for this latest zig-zag, but that would only confuse perception even further. This is “how I roll!” I’m glad for this opportunity to “come out,” as it were. Most of the time I’m focusing on the what of my writing and this seemed like a good time to approach the why and how.

Growing up expecting the “world” to end at any moment during the early days of Mutually Assured Destruction, I came early to a habit of looking at the body of knowledge and collected experience available within our cultural artifacts as the raw material for a “survival kit.” I’ve always felt a kinship with the last days of Conimbriga, or Robinson Crusoe. Knowing we cannot “take it all with us,” has led me to find strategies of triage. I’ve fallen into this way of doing it. I can’t “afford” to be an archivist. I can’t be the founder of a “Movement.” What I can be is a survivor, looking for scraps of utility while I both admire and decry all that has brought us to this point.

I may, at times, sound like I fit into the dying world. This is a chameleon’s habit of self-preservation. If I don’t admit and maintain that I don’t belong, and that my purposes are quite alien to the world-view behind the institutions and the embodied habits of mind they support, then I’m only maintaining a confusion in myself, as well as in my readers, that this gulf doesn’t exist. As I began to discuss in my last post, this folds into the dynamics of Two Circles.

*  *  *

This post has gotten “out-of-hand.” It’s also getting too long. Don’t take any of the aside above as a discounting of any of what came before or as in any way invalidating the dialogue Dwight Towers and I are embarking on. I do feel the need more and more often to point out the difficulties instead of trying to glide over them. Confusion, ellipses, going off on tangents; are all aspects of the kind of inquiry I find we are in no matter how much the systematizers may want to make it all seem “easy” so long as we do what they say. I think we’re stuck with this. It only adds to our difficulties to deny it or hide from it. One last distinction I’d like to make, before I cut this ramble off abruptly, is between a polemic argument and the kind of dialogue I am eager to embark on. None of what I say is intended to bolster a position through verbal battle. I stand ready to be shown how fundamentally mistaken I am at any point. I welcome that, and assume the same for anyone I feel is in that “first” circle looking for a way forward.


Published by Antonio Dias

My work is centered on attending to the intersection of perception and creativity. Complexity cannot be reduced to any given certainty. Learning is Central: Sharing our gifts, Working together, Teaching and learning in reciprocity. Entering into shared Inquiry, Maintaining these practices as a way of life. Let’s work together to build practices, strengthen dialogue, and discover and develop community. Let me know how we might work together.

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