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Configurative Metaphors

Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue

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Part J of Towards Transformative Conferencing and Dialogue: Collection of papers and notes, problems and possibilities on the new frontier of high-risk gatherings concerning social development (1991).


Focus emerges as a consequence of an appropriate configuration of perspectives, people or groups within a meeting. To assist the exploration of the possibilities associated with configuration, it is appropriate to note different kinds of configuration in use in other domains in the hope that they may offer clues to its significance in meetings.

1. Socio-structural configurations

  1. Orchestra, with stationary groups of musicians/instruments, usually forming an incomplete circle around the conductor.
  2. Auditorium, with seats ordered by row, aisle and tier, usually in a semi-circle facing a stage area, but occasionally surrounding the stage (eg colosseum, sports arena, circus) or inter-penetrating the stage (eg some avant-garde theatres).
  3. Parliament, with seats arranged and allocated in terms of the parties and a perception of their relationship to each other (eg facing each other) and to the government (eg facing the podium).
  4. Temple or cathedral, with participants arranged in relation to a symbolic focal point before which one or more intermediaries may officiate; minor chapels may be located within the temple or disposed around it in an appropriate configuration. Special significance may be attached to location and orientation.
  5. Fortress or castle, with elements appropriately arranged to ensure successive lines of defence in order to maximize the protection of what is most valued. Importance is attached to the strategic location and the relationship to the surrounding terrain.
  6. City, when planned as a whole from the start may be specially divided into zones appropriately (often symmetrically) arranged in relation to each other according to their function and the lines of communication required. usually located in relation to natural resources or a transport nexus.
  7. Battle plan, whereby opposing generals locate the different functional units of their respective forces both in relation to one another and to the opposing force, in order to favour respective strategies. Special attention is given to terrain, logistics and the training and morale of participants.
  8. Table design and seating, whereby an attempt is made to reflect the status of the participating parties (eg in negotiations or mediation) or at functions requiring careful attention to protocol.
  9. Ritual, dramatic or dance movements, in which participants continually modify their relationship to each other, possibly to bring about a sequence of changes in the overall pattern they constitute. Some forms are completely pre-determined, others are partially or completely improvised. In some forms all participate all the time, in others they may be absent for the part of the sequence in which their role is most stressed, or when it is stressed by their absence.
2. Energy-processing configurations
  1. Antenna, for which the constituent elements are precisely located in relation to one another to constitute a configuration (often parabolic) to focus incoming electromagnetic radiation for subsequent processing. The orientation of the configuration as a whole is vital to its operation, as in the case of the microwave receiver or the radio-telescope.
  2. Magnetic "bottle", whereby a configuration of precisely located magnets is used to contain plasma in such a way that its temperature may be maintained at over one million degrees for a period of seconds in order that fusion can take place (as an alternative source of energy to nuclear fission). It is only through the use of magnetic forces that the plasma may be kept from destroying any material container.
  3. Reactor, in which particular attention is given to the configuration of heating, cooling, agitating, input and output elements, in order that an optimum transformation of materials should take place. This applies as much to the simple crucible, although the precision and symmetry of the configuration is most evident in nuclear reactor design.
  4. Mirror configurations, as used for focusing sunlight in certain solar power furnaces, or alternatively for directing light, as in search-lights and lighthouses.
  5. Optical systems of lenses, as used in telescopes and microscopes.
  6. Acoustical configurations of walls and baffles, as used in an auditorium, required to ensure the balanced distribution of sound and the elimination of unwanted echoes.
  7. Electric motor or generator, in which electricity is used or generated by the controlled movement of one configuration of elements in relation to another due to the effects of polarized forces operating in phase.
  8. Factory complex, usually designed with special attention to the transfer of energy and materials to processing locations which are therefore appropriately arranged in relation to each other. Usually located in relation to natural resources, a transport nexus or associated factories.
3. Symbolic configurations
  1. Monument or memorial, whereby architectural or decorative elements are disposed in relation to some central focal point. Such elements often reflect aspects of the central theme of the monument. In the larger memorials a considerable degree of symmetry is usually to be found.
  2. Memory devices, whereby items to be remembered are associated with or "impressed upon" some easily remembered configuration such as the elements of a memorial, the features of an ornamental garden, a suitable pantheon, etc. The items may then be "recovered" by progressing through the configuration in whatever order is appropriate.
  3. Mandalas, whereby a complete set of complementary figures are disposed symmetrically in relation to one another around a central focal point in order to indicate both a succession of possible experiences and a progression to more or less fundamental levels of experience. Each such experience is understood as essential to the harmony and evolution of the whole. Mandalas, or their equivalents, are used as attention focusing devices in different cultures.
  4. Symbols, such as a crown, a chalice or a stupa, which may be viewed as a configuration of elements constituting a "receptacle" for energies, qualities or attributes thus held in balance.

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