Welcome to Emerging Futures — Volume 31! Strategic Feeling and Sensing into the New...
Good morning — today the newsletter is all about sensing and feeling — so we hope you are attuned to the world around you as you sit down to read this edition!
Take a moment to feel your body and how you extend into the space around you. The chair and table that is you. The room. Your back, neck and butt. Settle into sensing this moment. If it feels odd to do this — lean into that experience. Stay with what is disconcerting about being your extended environment.
This has allowed us to explore some key questions and techniques:
And last week in the newsletter and in an essay we wrote on Monday we dug into constraints and blocking.
Blocking is such a powerful tool that allows affordances to exceed identity and purpose.
Blocking by itself is a very simple action — it is the refusal to do something or use something to do a task. And in this refusal you open up the space of possibilities.
So now what do you do?
With blocking you are thrown into the deep end of an experimental situation where you know what you cannot do but not what you can do. You need to probe and experiment, but where do we go?
John Cage’s work of experimental political writing “I-VI” is one of our favorite acts of radical and experimental blocking.
In 1989 Cage was asked to give the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Lectures on Poetry at Harvard— it is meant to be a chance for a major artist or critic to think deeply about the arts in general. Previous lecturers include T. S. Elliot, Northrop Frye, Borges, and Umberto Eco.
But Cage was not interested in being the sage-on-a-stage delivering truth and wisdom. For John Cage the question was always “how can we engage with reality in a manner that opens us up to new possibilities?.” That will never be possible in a standard lecture. But it is also not a situation where anything goes — Cage was interested in using this particular series of lectures to explore how we might be able to create new speculative social and political concepts, practices and narratives. How can we organize society differently? How can we deal with pressing environmental issues from a new perspective?
Cage randomly selects sentences from some of the texts by social and political thinkers that have most influenced him (Thoreau, Fuller, Wittgenstein and contemporary newspaper articles) and then using further chance operations he selects words and phrases. He is carefully and strategically blocking intended meanings and we are left in a forest of strange word combinations without a clear path. This is intentional — for Cage the question is how can we put ourselves in a position to discover something radically new in what we know? And his chance operations are the tool to do this via the blocking of conventional syntax, narratives, etc.
Listen to him reading from this work. It is an astonishing and disconcerting experience to hear the space of possible meaning. Words become frail and delicate sounds suspended in silence. We encourage you to pause in reading the newsletter and listen to this “lecture.”
It is a bracing experience. What are we hearing? Where is the wisdom on how we could engage with our environmental crisis? It is unlike any lecture we might have heard.
It is really hard to know what exactly is going on. It is not anything we are familiar with. It is quite discomforting. And if you want him to “get to the point” it will be really frustrating.
You can imagine and sympathize with how many people in the audience felt — they had come a long way to hear an important artist give a mature statement about art and this is what you got!
It was controversial, many people walked out, and Harvard convinced Cage to add a discussion session at the end where he could be asked to “explain” himself.
The experience of listening to these lectures places us in a very challenging space: If the radically new cannot be known in advance, and it emerges via a non-linear multi-step process — at the “beginning” how can you know, sense or feel anything different?
This is where we are in listening to these lectures.
What is “important” in this lecture? Where should we begin?
We can’t know…
This is a big challenge because all of our habits, practices, tools and environments are set up to help us sense, feel, think, and process what we know, and place us in a world of the familiar and the comfortable.
Now, with the new before us - we are left wander without any clear sense of where, what or how…
We do not have anything in the new to hold onto or follow. We are in a highly fraught and wholly ambitious space of transition without knowing what is emerging.
In a very real sense we cannot recognize the new (at least not as something new).
We think that we would recognize something new but how could we?
It turns out that recognizing things that are odd, out of place or different is exceedingly hard. This is called inattentional blindness.
In one experiment highly trained pilots didn’t see a plane parked on the runway as they prepared to land. This might seem impossible. But, there have been many studies of this. In a famous one participants are asked to watch a video of a basketball game and count the passes each team makes. In the middle of the game a person in a giant gorilla suit walks through the frame. When asked about the gorilla afterwards, most people did not notice it. This is not a one-off study, it has been done in countless forms — when presented with anomalies in the flow of work most often the anomaly is not noticed.
It is important to recognize that none of these studies is looking at introducing something totally new into our experience — these are all using common things we all recognize: planes, gorillas and the like.
So how are you going to recognize the new if it is astonishingly difficult to even notice something familiar that is out of place? Of course we could claim that we are special and have some unique ability, but this turns out to be another bias…
To recognize anything one needs enough of a contrast between the thing and the background. This is where the practice of disclosure is critical.
Disclosure is a tool to produce a contrast space for the new. Prior to blocking we need to understand what is happening and how. We need to understand this in a fairly complete manner: What are the habits, practices, tools, concepts, frameworks, and environments that make a way of doing and being exist?
This then allows us to know what we are refusing as we develop a specific blockage. Being very clear about what is refused and really sticking to it is what produces a contrast space. But it needs to be a practice of careful questioning that is aware of how pervasive and implicit the logics that we are refusing can be.
We can make a powerful contrast space by knowing clearly what we are experimentally refusing.
But is this enough?
We still cannot know the new…
What makes a novel world hold together and become visible to us despite its newness?
Newness is first felt prior to being fully conceptualized.
Most of our lived experience and most of our mundane daily activities are done without relying on a lot of careful conceptual reflection. We just do things and we come to do them quite skillfully. We have talked about this “know-how” in contrast to “know-what” quite extensively.
Our everyday mundane actions are regulated at the level of general sensations and feeling. It is a type of sensemaking that rarely rises to the level of a clear thought. This is how you sit, walk, shower, sip coffee.
Broad, pervasive and overall sensations (moods or feelings) are part of all experience.
In everyday life, while doing mundane tasks, we are accompanied by a pervasive sense of contentment, peace, ease, recognition, and perhaps a little boredom (frustration).
And equally, when we move away from the known into difference and novelty distinct qualitative sensations arise and can cue us into the fact that we are onto something different and perhaps important: As our experiments lead us into more chaotic and uncharted territories we often feel “nothing.” This is that feeling of low level frustration/boredom that sometimes accompanies things that are different: when we experience the odd, but we are impatient because they are not what we recognize, expect or instinctively want.
Notice how we experienced this listening to John Cage. When will something happen?
This low grade boredom or frustration is a cue that something novel is taking place. Boredom and frustration is the emotional tone of the subtle contrast between what we expect and the new. We need to sense this as an important cue to slow down and stay with the difficulty of the experience.
Sensemaking for difference involves an attunement to our frustrations and boredoms as sites of interest and engagement.
Boredom, discomfort, and frustration are all the emotional valence of perplexity. Perplexity is the feeling that accompanies the transition from what we know to the new.
We need to carefully and constructively embrace perplexity. This sensation of perplexity can either be discomforting and subtly push us back into the known, or this perplexity and discomfort can come to feel like a force that propels us further into following an experiment.
At the extremes of this space of perplexity our emotional valences will be stronger: distant, disgust, horror. We want to pull back. But this is the felt embodied and enactive sensation of the co-evolving of the new. Sensemaking for experimenting towards a co-evolving with the new requires an adjustment of how we become aware of and respond to these strong emotions.
Joining humor to perplexity is a powerful strategy. It is an active way of embracing discomfort and embracing change.
As an experiment co-evolves towards something more stable via an iterative process (everything we were discussing in last week’s newsletter) the emotional valence will shift. We are evolving with the new into a new sense of quasi-belonging. Here as a nascent world emerges we are accompanied by a sensation of something like wonder or wonder-horror, or even wonder-disgust. Wonder emerges, but not as the feel good emotion of romantic walks at sunset. Wonder is the sense that perhaps something is there. Wonder is the vague sense that we could go in this direction — something is opening up, something is happening.
As we sense this complex fraught wonder we open ourselves up to following it. A path is emerging in the walking. Perplexity is transitioning. Something is emerging as we are changing (first at the level of know-how).
Then as a novel world fully co-emerges with us, it evokes in us a sense of beauty. Now it will not be a beauty we recognize or feel comfortable with — it will be a feeling of an aberrant beauty a — novel and altogether strange, but nonetheless compelling, beauty — a disconcerting beauty.
Beauty in general is how we sense a world as a world. It is an enacted state of engaged being where we feel something bigger than we can see, sense, or know. Beauty is a sensation that holds together — we feel the new as a beautiful world. We feel it prior to knowing it.
Sensing, and welcoming disconcerting forms of beauty is a critically important skill — it cues us into the opening up of newness in its nascent state. Additionally, welcoming these feelings of perplexity, bewilderment, horror, disgust, boredom and wonder open us to an encounter with difference where we can “recognize”— really simply sense difference as a difference. This is the felt contrast space we need to avoid inattentional blindness. It is something that requires real practice — our skills of sensing, and feeling are strong and do tend to push us back into the safe and the known. But they are also our cue to the novel and different.
These aesthetic feelings are critical to creativity and invention. Knowing — conceptual knowing and engaging with the new come out of and rest upon the deeply enactive and embodied sensations of beauty.
A new form of beauty is integral to a new world — for a novel world gives us new ways to sense, feel, do, see, and think — which is aesthetics. This feeling and new modes of sensing of wonder and beauty become slowly conceptualizable and enter into discourse and debate and thus transforms into new values, and truths.
Beauty precedes and exceeds truth as novelty emerges. What is the making of beauty? It is a composition of non-conceptual feelings entangling with the unintended in a strange relay towards a difference that makes a difference. But will this be the beauty we know? No.
The new is an aberrant, strange and acquired beauty. It beckons us further, it pulls us out and draws us in -- we sense something other and we follow…
Blocking is a powerful tool — but it requires both disclosure and a new set of embodied and enactive sensemaking skills that use our feelings of perplexity to cue us into the possibility of new.
It takes great effort to move from an overly intellectual space of knowing to one of sensing and feeling. But without this move we are forever blind to radical novelty.
Try paying attention to these feelings and sensations — boredom, disdain, horror, disgust, alienation — these can become forms of active wonderment drawing us into a path of co-evolution with the emergence of the new.
Have a wondrous week!
Till Volume 32,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
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🏞 P.P.P.S.: This week's drawings in Hi-Resolution