Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 104! A Turn to Systems is an Ethical Turn...
Good morning systemized becomings,
For us, behind the scenes, it has been an interesting week debating where to begin this newsletter series on “systems”.
On one hand, there is already so much out there about systems – what can we add? And then there is so much acrimony and so many opposing camps – who will take the time to read something different?
What perhaps most exemplifies the perils of this endeavor for us is what one finds when looking at platforms like LinkedIn and the current state of the discourse on systems that can be found there:
On LinkedIn, it can feel like all the whole astonishing worlds of systems has been reduced to two reductive camps – Complex Adaptive Systems vs Systems Thinking. And each, as they are found on LinkedIn, selling mainly profoundly anemic, highly branded products with ever cuter or more obscure names while disparaging the other with argument-free claims stripped of any sense of generosity or curiosity.
Curiosity and genuine creative development never thrive in an environment where concepts have been weaponized. And certainly little is thriving there in regards to a creative inventive dialog on systems.
Then, on the other hand, we could see that we have already written extensively on many aspects of systems and working with systems in previous newsletters. What is there to add? Are we going to be just repeating ourselves?
We eventually came to the conclusion – after scrapping a few newsletters, that since a systems logic is fundamental to our process based practice, it would be useful to begin this series by both going into why we have developed such an approach, as well as why it is different to other systems based approaches.
One of the critical motivations for developing our practice as a consultancy was the recognition that there is a pressing need to develop a non-anthropocentric approach to creativity and innovation. There is a profound need for approaches that are at once bigger and decentering of the human as well as one that can also pragmatically address the pressing social and ecological crisis that define our times.
For us, this is both an ontological challenge and a highly practical challenge.
It is an ontological challenge in that there is a clear relation between the crisis we face today and our existing anthropocentric ontology. It is also a highly pragmatic challenge in that we need usable tools, approaches, and context-determined methodologies to get to work – time is pressing.
Despite the hubris of our historical sense of self-importance and ideation-driven models of creativity – It is abundantly clear that we are not the measure of all things, nor are we solitary beings who dream up unique ideas and can make them so.
Rather, we are part of a complex history and present that has developed an ecosystem of practices, tools, environments, habits, subjectivities, and concepts that has developed a world where just such an anthropocentric destructive logic can flourish. And our existing reality is an outcome of its success.
Obviously, many are trying to use this ecosystem of anthropocentric practices and subjectivities to challenge our current crisis – but we are skeptical that such an approach will lead to any different outcome than the ones we already have.
For us, there is a need to critically disclose our world, its history, and practices. Fundamental to doing this effectively is the development of critical practices that can closely trace the genealogy and explicate the present logic of our current models of making, creating, and innovating. In short, we need both a critique of contemporary approaches to creativity and an ontological alternative.
We have gone into the problems of an anthropocentric model of creativity before, but mainly from a pragmatic functional perspective (it neither works nor gives us access to anything like a useful understanding of ourselves or the logic of how novelty emerges).
But, ultimately, we would argue that one cannot separate values, practices, and environments at a generative level – we need to be concerned with developing alternative ethico-aesthetic ontologies.
In part, our practice and our values stem from a careful critical analysis of our model of creation and creativity. Marshall Sahlins sums up this model quite succinctly:
It is “a “heroic model of creation” involving the imposition of form upon inert matter by an autonomous subject, whether god or mortal, who commands the process by pre-established plan or purpose. This scheme of action is a combination of ingrained individualism and a naturalistic materialism. It rests upon two interdependent premise: the preponderance of an individualized intentional agent as the cause of the coming-to-be of beings and things, and the radical difference between the ontological status of the creator and that of what he produces.”
Let's make a list of the implicit concepts that underpin this approach to creativity:
For us, any alternative approach to creativity worthy of such a name has to come to terms with the totality of this list. And this brings us back to this newsletter’s topic: systems and dynamics.
As I am writing this, I am struck by a memory of hearing the poet Robin Blaser – remembering him quoting Ovid so long ago in the hot cramped space of the Kootenay School of Writing:
Mela mela peto in media res
gathering honey in mid-stream – Ovid
It struck me then deeply – yes – we are all gathering honey in mid-stream – everything flows. We are in a dynamic universe with emergent islands of semi-stable order. It is a question of dynamic systems…
And this phrase has stuck with me since that night over thirty years ago. I wander into the bedroom, reaching high up on a dusty shelf to pull down The Holy Forest – his collected poems – I am looking for this phrase – but the book opens in its own way:
“Nothing distinguishes me ontologically from a crystal, a plant, an animal, or the order of the world; we are drifting together towards the noise and the black depths of the universe… Michel
Serres tells us,“
I keep looking for this phrase and poem from Ovid– but other fragments intervene as pages turn
Thalia . but in a moment, the wind hits and turns
enthralled. Later, much later – The Stars are out, I find it in a different book entirely – his collected essays. It is in a beautiful essay on Jack Spicer:
“et e medio flumine mella petat,” and let him seek honey in the middle of a river, turned by Jack in an early poem, which plays on the name of a young man, into “Mela, Mela peto/ In medio flumine”...
Blaser wrote this in 1975, and was not presenting it live as a new essay in the early 1990s. I could not have heard it in the early 1990s. What was I hearing? Where was this coming from?
– how time folds worlds… how dynamics blur and reform…
Somehow “Mela, Mela peto/ In medio flumine” flowed into Mela mela peto in media res:
gathering honey in the midst of things…
And so here we are, perhaps any radical alternative approach to creativity worthy of such a name acts – gathers honey – in relation to this vertiginous active gap between being midstream and mid-event.
The turn to radically dynamic and co-emergent approaches that go under the name of “systems” is, for us, not a neutral event that is simply part of a striving for a more accurate theory of knowledge (epistemology). Which is something we see in the work of many Complex Adaptive Systems Business Consultants – for them, it is just a useful tool with no meaning beyond efficiency. For us, it is part of a critical project of deconstruction and twisting out of a dangerous ontology.
As such, a systems approach is not simply remedial – a practical act of repair and improvement – something we see exemplified in the work of systems thinkers such as Donella Meadows. It is a call for critical, historically aware experiments in new forms of dynamic being and becoming (ontogenesis).
We see many of these remedial and expeditious approaches to systems caught up in the current debates between “systems” and “individual agents.” The structure vs agency debate – which tends to resolve the issue by falling back in one direction or the other – or some compromise by meeting in the middle:
Here, the individual is still the axis systems revolve around.
But, when we move away from these anthropocentric approaches then there is a clear alternative in a field dynamics model of causality:
“Nature does not consist of basic particulars, but fields and processes… There is no bottom level of base particulars with intrinsic properties that upwardly determines everything else. Everything is process all the way “down” and all the way “up”...
“…these processes are “irreducibly relational — they exist only in patterns, networks, organizations, configurations or webs… Phenomena at all scales are not entities or substances but relatively stable [relational] processes…”
“...since processes achieve stability at different levels of complexity, while still interacting with processes at other levels, all are equally real and none has absolute ontological primacy.”…” (Evan Thompson, Mind in Life, p. 440)
For us a “systems theory” is part of a dynamic processual and emergent ontological approach to creativity. When we talk of systems approaches – whether it be complex systems, complex adaptive systems, systems thinking systems – whatever it is – it does not stand alone as simply another tool – that is perhaps more effective – in the classical humanist toolkit of change making. It is a critical aspect of a new, more-than-human processual and perspectival approach to reality.
Systems are structures – dynamic ways of organizing – patterning in a processual reality. They are the “patterns, networks, organizations, configurations, webs” that processes inherently take. Agents and Structures are not two distinct entities. In fact, they are not entities whatsoever in the traditional sense of the term. Any phenomenon as it co-emerges can be viewed from either a structural vantage point or an agential vantage point, depending on perspective and question. What matters is how processes in dynamic relation are mediating and co-determining from the emergent middle:
“Mediation should be understood not as standing between pre-formed subjects, objects, actants, or entities but as the process, action, or event that generates or provides the conditions for the emergence of subjects and objects, for the individuation of entities within the world. “ (Richard Grusin)
For us, what matters is that we understand the context of contemporary engagements and turn towards systems as part of a critical processual approach to engage with our current reality. it is a deliberate refusal and constructive alternative activity of moving away from a highly problematic anthropocentric approach to creativity and reality. Systems approaches – in whatever form – have to confront the “successes” of an anthropocentric approach to creation, making, and creativity.
There is more to say on the range of non-anthropocentric approaches to processes, systems, and creativity – and we will get to this in due course (Newsletter 106). One way to think of this week's newsletter is as a belated contextual introduction to our earlier series of eleven newsletters on Process. If you have not read these, we would suggest dipping into them – all or any that catch your interest:
That's it for this week.
Next week, we will focus on three or perhaps four concepts that we strongly feel are missing from most contemporary approaches to systems based innovation logics. In the meantime, we would be very curious about how you approach the problems of failed anthropocentric models of creativity and/or what are the concepts that you think are most necessary but absent from the contemporary systems innovation discourse? Drop us an email – and if you are curious to hear more – let's talk.
Till next week – actively feel the more-than-human processes!
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