Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 41! Resituating Agency and the Mental in Creativity...
Good morning intra-subjective niche constructing tool-beings! It has been a week of many things — the summer solstice, Juneteenth in the US, and National Indigenous Peoples day in Canada. Last Saturday was the Mermaid Parade on Coney Island (which was just brilliant) and much else happened — we hope that you were out and about engaging with some of these or other great and interesting actions.
This week we delivered a couple of workshops with MCAD — they have a very interesting program in Leadership in the Arts. These workshops were about how much our tools, environments, each and other are critical partners in the emergence of novelty. Working on and then presenting these workshops has us interrogating our cultures habitual over stressing of the mental and all things internal.
We have been sailing some tricky waters. Last week we examined Mindsets of the formal variety (Growth, Fixed, Environmental, etc.). This week we keep sailing these waters but go south to the roaring forties and the world of sailing in a sea of ice and determining mental models.
While we are no Lisa Blair we are going to try and explore these Icy seas with you in this newsletter. What took us into these seas was seeing yet another iceberg on LinkedIn — a metaphorical iceberg.
The iceberg diagram is especially popular in the System Thinking approach to understanding and engaging with reality.
In Systems Thinking the iceberg metaphor, which has been popularly used to illustrate the fact that there is far more going on than we can see (so true), is formalized to present a model of (1) what matters, and (2) how causality works. As such it is a variation of the myriad of pyramid diagrams out there.
These are diagrams about causality. And as such it is a diagram that makes an argument for:
One of the most perplexing things about this model is that it subscribes to a very linear model of causality: something leads directly to something. We see this language consistently repeated in the users of mental models:
How we understand causality really matters if we are interested in creativity, innovation and change making in general. The understanding we have of causality shapes our model of change.
If mental models give rise to structures and these give rise to patterns that in turn give rise to events (which is what is claimed) — then if we want to see new and innovative events take place we would need to dig down to the source and come up with new mental models. Here we have an “upward” model of linear causation — where the deeper or more fundamental levels determine what happens on the upper and more epiphenomenal levels.
But if this linear model of causality is fundamentally flawed — then all of the pyramid schemes and icebergs of systems thinking melt back into the ocean. Then our neat stack of levels and upward linear causality are not just wrong but pushing us to act in ways that pragmatically do not lead to change.
We now recognize when we are looking at complex systems in reality such as messy human events we are always dealing with non-linear causality in relation determining systems.
The argument is that it is not useful to see things as causes. But it is more useful to see that when things come together in integrated ways, relational properties emerge and these properties constructively constrain (enable) the system in novel ways that cannot be found in the parts prior to becoming part of an integrated whole.
“The form, configuration, or topology of a system limits or prevents certain possible behaviors the parts could have on their own, while simultaneously opening up new possibilities for them in virtue of the states the system as a whole can access.” (Evan Thompson)
Yes systems have a form, they are patterned but this is not because of the causal agency of one pre-existing part (a mental model) — rather it is because of emergent relational constraints. We are taking an emergent pattern that we can conceptually recognize, analyze and name (in this case a model — a mental model) and making this model the cause. (A great resource on constraints as causes is Alicia Juarrero’s Dynamics in Action).
But the alternative lesson that we could draw is that creativity is “less about cause than it is about self-conditioning emergence.” (Brian Massumi)
Does all of this mean that the mind and our mental models do not have an impact on what we do?
There is no reason to see it this way. One could still argue, as many do, that mental models play an important, if indirect, role in shaping our actions.
But we want to dig into this further:
We, and others far more insightful than us, have written extensively on this first point — how we think, sense, feel and make meaning extends necessarily and constitutively beyond our skull. This argument is part of the Enactive Approach to cognition. Some useful sources:
Today we are more interested in unpacking the concept of Mental Models — that thing we will purportedly find at the bottom end of the iceberg-rainbow.
Mental models: “mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.” (Senge)
Reading this leads us to ask: Where do we find anything that is deeply ingrained? Is it really in one place (the mind-brain)? Can we really call what is deeply ingrained “mental”? On a first pass is what is deeply ingrained not something like an emergent constraint?
The first thing to acknowledge is that there are deeply ingrained patterns that can be identified in our actions. And that these patterns can be analyzed and many can be clearly articulated, named, and diagnosed.
Further some of these patterns are conceptual in nature, and some are imagistic.
These could be properly called “schema” — they have a general form. Thus it is useful to say that there are conceptual schema, imagistic schema and even cognitive schema (understanding cognition to be distributed etc).
All of these patterns are emergent — they are shaped by and emerge from the interactions of a highly dynamic, heterogeneous and distributed systems. And these patterns have causal agency (when understood as emergent constraints — see Evan Thompson above).
The next question is where do these emergent patterns reside? Can we accurately say they are mental in the sense that they are occurring in our heads?
While certain patterns and habits will have a felt location (we feel like it is more embodied or more in our heads) if the goal is understanding what they are, how they occur and how we can change them — then conflating these emergent patterns with a felt location and reifying them into things (mental models) is not very helpful.
The mental is especially problematic given the long history of the western habit of making everything important mental and immaterial at the profound expense of downplaying virtually everything else. This is a historical conceptual schema that keeps repeating…
What are we losing when actual messy bodies, environments, tools, actions, intersubjectivity, other critters, and objects are all pushed aside in favor of a focus on the mental?
What are we losing when our abstractions lose touch with the complex thicket of patterned activity that they describe? This is especially pertinent when we use the concept of a “paradigm”. We need to remember that a paradigm is not a thing in itself — that would be to make the error of what Whitehead calls misplaced concreteness. The paradigm is better understood as a shorthand for a particular organized mode of doing. Here it is, as we argue elsewhere, more useful to understand this as a “Dispositif.” It too is a type of emergent constraint.
This all brings us back to agency — in this scheme of mental models we are giving them inordinate agency. Is this really warranted? And if it is not, are we losing sight of far more important ways of acting and doing for creative outcomes?
First we need to dig briefly into agency and what is an agent again.
Latour and Callon define an agent as “any element which bends space around itself, makes other elements depend upon itself and translates their will into a language of its own.” What is interesting about this definition is that, as Lambros Malafouris in “How Things Shape the Mind” points out: anything could fulfil this definition — a thing, a person, an environment, an event.
But, as Malafouris goes on to argue, we need to understand agency as an emergent property irreducible to any one thing. By now this much should be obvious from a Complex Systems perspective. And that agency itself is a form of enabling constraint that emerges from the relations properties that parts come to have because of how they are integrated into a systematic whole.
From this perspective then “the important question is not “what is agency?” (As a universal property or substance). The important question is, rather, “When and how is agency constituted and manifest in the world?” (Malafouris).
This question is the one that matters most for creativity and innovation — it is not the search for causal silver bullets that iceberg models push us towards that matter. That infinit act of digging ever deeper for the magical thing that leads to everything else is not helpful.
With creative practices we are actually engaged in a messy experimental process of testing, stabilizing and developing “when and how novel emergent agency is constituted and manifest in the world.”
For Malafouris, it is the material things and environments that are overlooked in the relational emergence of human agency and creativity — “agency is the relational and emergent property of material engagement. It is not something given but something realized. In short, as far as agency is concerned, what an entity is doesn’t really matter; what does matter is what the entity becomes and where it stands in the network of material engagement.”
This focus is a good corrective to our mind obsessed culture.
How novel emergent patterns form and stabilize in how we act, conceptualize, think, and feel, is shaped by what we do (and everything that is part of this). To engage with creativity is not to chase after the mirage of mental models that would magical determine things — but to get down to the work of uncovering and experimentally changing material, conceptual, environmental and embodied practices and patterns across multiple connected scales and modalities.
Emergent patterns — of activity, concepts, thoughts or feelings can and do feedback into what they arise from and they do directly transform these parts. But the fetishization of the looping through cognition into a reified thing — a mental model — is to lose sight of where conceptual schema arise from, how they work, and how they are interwoven with embodied and enactive practices.
So what of mental models? A few practical things:
Well! It’s a lot to experiment with — we know — we have been testing this stuff out in workshops all week. Please test things out, reach out to us and let's continue to test, experiment and evolve creative processes together in unexpected ways.
Till Volume 42,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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