Aesthetics and meaning

August 1, 2009

Settled into Adelaide for a weekend of email catch up and hopefully writing, I went out for a morning walk with the camera seeking a University Bookshop, Brunch and photogenic material. The city is a model of tidiness and an exemplar of eco awareness with the pictured sola cells everywhere. Some wonderful buildings as well as you will see from the photostream. The University bookshop was not huge, and it didn’t have an anthropology section (I urgently need a good general book on ritual if anyone has any suggestions) but the philosophy section had some novelties. OK we had the normal stables of any university, but every institution has its odd idiosyncratic titles depending on the interests of the staff. I picked up two books.   Aesthetics and Material Beauty by Jennifer McMahon and Margins of Religion by John Llewelyn. If I could have found a book on ethics then my three main loves in philosophy would have been satisfied in one visit!.

MacMahon a lecturer at Adelaide is seeking to create a naturalized approach to aesthetics and defend that against the usual arguments made against formalist theories of art. It looks as if she is doing this by looking at the way in which constraints apply to the creative process which will (I hope) provide high utility. Understanding the role of aesthetics in other that purely relativist and experiential terms is important to my work in general (although why may not be immediately obvious). Our micro-narratives and their self signification implies, through the creation of a common grammar of meaning, that some degree of modifiable constraint is in place and the more I understand of related theories the better the approach will become, both method and software alike. Such constrains are of course necessary for a complexity systems to exist, and therefore for the emergence of meaning.

Far too many people (especially those who focus on story as an object, which category includes most of those who offer story telling services) fail to grasp that meaning in human systems is necessarily fragmented with emergent patterns of coherence. Good natural story tellers know this by instinct, they often don’t have a specific point or structure in mind but explore emergent potential in their engagement with the audience, moving to subtly different endings and beginnings as their story unfolds.

Its curious that so many people who advocate story telling, often in ideological opposition to process management end up making stories into processes. They want stories to have clear messages, progress in a structured way without deviation, hesitation or repetition. In contrast I would argue that some of the best days are when you tell a story and discover new meaning yourself as it unfolds, which harks back to my hydrostatic lift post a couple of days ago. The rambling country lane, however familiar, always reveals new understanding, while the broad straight track of the highway just gets you where you thought you wanted to go in the first place which is always less interesting than where you might have unexpectedly and serendipitously arrived. The well meaning advocates of structured approaches to story telling (those who mean well are always the most dangerous, see Kenneth Branagh’s part in Rabbit-Proof Fence) tend to stories purely as an act of communication with purpose, they recognise that different people take away different messages from those intended, but assume that originator intent and recipient meaning are distinct entities that can be compared. They fail to perceive that the naturalistic flow of fragmented narrative, in spoken and non spoken aspects is an essential aspect of human meaning, it can’t be structured into the artificial constraints of a teachable process, it’s a mentored experience if anything. The cult of story telling is as dangerous as the cult of sick stigma and it manifests itself in similar forms.

Llewelyn’s book is linked to some of the above themes. It explores Derrida’s reflections on a “religion without a religion”, building on the ideas of Kierkegaard. It looks like a heavy, but worthwhile read. Understanding the essential mystery of human living, that sense of the other which is naturally present in all humane members of our species, needs work. We need to steer away from the formulaic cults of conversion with their all too easy promises of redemption that are all to manifest on Sunday morning television here in Australia and the States (very similar to much of the story telling movement and just as manipulative). We need to avoid the purely subjective aspects of relativism and start to understand that our language, our poetry, our songs are both situated in the world, but are also not fully of it.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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