-- / --
Report on the first Members Meeting of the Club of Budapest
Budapest, May 1996 (as recalled in 2006)
[see Contributions to the meeting]
Gastronomic and olfactory perspective
Spiritual exercise perspective
The gathering of people in Budapest was effectively the first attempt to give form and relevance to the archetypal 'policy-making' encounter explored in Herman Hesse's Magister Ludi and other less known works (cf Alan Dean Foster: Game Players of Zan). The concern was to build an alliance of art, literature and spirituality in response to the challenge of both human survival and evolution, whether individual or collective.
The distinguishing feature of the gathering was the manner in which insights from the process of artistic creativity were embodied in the organization and processes of the event -- considered as the 'material' constraining and inspiring the artistic possibilities of the moment. The intent was to use the gathering itself to engender an 'elixir of transformation' from which wider society could benefit. This could only be done by acting with presence in the moment to give appropriate form to what could be more widely shared.
The gathering acknowledged the trap of conventional meetings in which representatives of various perspectives make presentations in an effort to design and colonize the future of others who cannot be present. The failure to creatively manifest new behaviour and organization in such meetings has been reflected in the subsequent failure of their work in responding to the challenges of wider society. Recognizing that a 'A trap is a function of the nature of the trapped' (Geoffrey Vickers), the transformative challenge was seen to lie in co-creating in the present. Instead of seeking to avoid this trap, the meeting sought to integrate the behaviours associated with the trap into new understanding.
Explanations of such a catalytic event are themselves misleading traps. Any such attempt -- as an ex-planation --effectively displaces the focus of attention out of the grounded plane of the present moment from which it derived both its essential meaning and its wider significance. How indeed does art both carry the insights of the spirit and entrain more fruitfully transformative behaviour -- and the social and conceptual organization to sustain it?
The diversity of perspectives present in the configuration of insights assembled at Budapest was therefore a challenge to any understanding of what was occurring. Any understanding depended upon the capacity of the attentive individual to integrate this diversity into a meaningful pattern whose nature necessarily transcended those perspectives. The transformative effect of the gathering lay in the manner in which a participant's awareness was entrained by the interference effects, harmonies and oppositions that gave structure to that configuration of perspectives.
The 'effect' of the gathering on wider society lay in the transformation it engendered in those who subsequently endeavoured to understand what had occurred in the light of the various 'products' that appeared to emanate from the gathering. In several senses, it was the meeting itself that was both 'the message' and a transformative catalyst.
What follows is an attempt to entrain and entice the reader into this transformative process through perspectives that were activated at the meeting at different times and in different ways -- remembering that the challenge to real understanding lies in recognizing how they played off against each other to set up higher harmonics and overtones.
There were many present who responded to the gathering in musical terms. It could be seen as a musical composition in three movements -- preceded by an overture. The opening address was by a musician, the introduction was provided by a scholar with musical skills. And the gathering closed with music. Music was also used in presentations.
More important however was the way in which music, as a discipline, was used to articulate and carry the insights of the participants. Religious music has long been considered to have a vital role in sustaining the aspirations of the human spirit -- if only as indicated by concern at use of less harmonious chords (cf the scandal of diabolus in musica).
Some participants at the gathering were able to see themselves as musical instruments of various kinds contributing, in their characteristic ways, to the composition as a whole through its several movements. Their verbal contributions, sounding different kinds of note, could be interrelated through musical frameworks, notably the theory of harmony. Issues of great complexity facing society could be presented and comprehended in the light of musical relationships. In this light a major achievement was interweaving skilled interpretation of views expressed elsewhere with creative improvisation in response to views expressed at the gathering. A special concern was how to respond collectively to the inability of a some participants to play 'in tune' or to 'keep the beat'.
This was the first occasion that the musical theory of harmony had been used to give subtler form to seemingly discordant views. Such perspectives were embodied in a temporal framework that gave legitimacy to each -- rather than tearing the gathering apart by confronting them unfruitfully. Different qualities of harmony were explored. These ranged from relatively simple melodies, that were picked up by many participants and woven into the gathering, to more challenging juxtapositions of musical form that reflected more fundamental challenges to society.
In contrast to conventional gatherings, replete with political clichés and popular slogans, it was a relief to many to have such perspectives transposed into a musical key which justified them by giving each new meaning in a more operationally fruitful context. This approach created a conceptual bridge from the gathering's deliberations to the concerns carried around the world by the lyrics of popular music.
For many the real outcome of the meeting lay in the way it enhanced the pattern of insights carried by popular music. Previously it had been unheard of for the outcome of an international gathering to be expressed in a complementary set of memorable melodies. Of special interest to the gathering from this perspective, was how musical structure, intuitively understood, engendered and sustained new approaches to social organization and development (Attali, 1997). Music itself became a catalyst for change.
The musical perspective was complemented and further highlighted through that of song. It is much easier to understand participants at a gathering as being singers of different quality, skill and range. As in any gathering, participants tended to have their favourite song, or favoured certain kinds of singing and certain kinds of song.
The challenge to which the gathering responded was to explore ways of combining different kinds of singers, whether as soloists or in choruses, in the search for particular patterns of harmony -- to see the gathering as a song, or perhaps an opera. To reflect the mutual challenges of the principal political and other factions in wider society, the complexities of multi-part singing proved especially appropriate. This helped to build understanding of patterns of co-existing perspectives and initiatives, how and when they needed to be distinguished, and when they could fruitfully harmonize. An interesting concern was how to agree on what constituted singing 'out of tune', and how to integrate participants who did so.
Again the importance of bridging to popular song was recognized. Again it is rare for a gathering to be challenged by the need to embody its insights in song for them to be meaningful to a wider audience. It was also accepted that innovation in popular song, as in music, amounted to innovation in insight in response to the challenges of society. The question was how to decode the significance to facilitate its embodiment in new forms of social organization. The gathering responded significantly to this opportunity.
The harmony explored in music and song was felt by some to be quite inadequate to the challenge of carrying many behavioral dimensions and complexities of lived social reality and personal idiosyncrasy. For this reason many participants chose to see the gathering as a drama in four acts. Key participants could then be reframed as forming the dramatis personae, with a supporting cast. One question was the extent to which it constituted a drama, a comedy, or a tragedy.
In this light the tensions associated with different personalities and styles at the gathering could be explored and played out as a psychodrama. Where appropriate, participants could be considered as masked to represent the interests they served. Of necessity parts of the event, and certain contributions, were pre-scripted. In other cases the players improvised heavily in response to dynamics unforeseen by the organizers.
The organizers had given careful attention to casting in the choice of key participants. Those acting in-script could be seen as reflecting the historical legacy of society, namely the sustaining patterns of the past. Improvisation by some in response to such contributions could be seen as the struggle of the future to emerge through action in the present. Dramatic 'transformative moments' were cultivated.
Whether deliberately (as 'plants'), or by chance, a few participants challenged the conventional processes of such gatherings by skilful use of the disciplines of the court jester. Already in the 1990s, 'subversive' participants of various kinds were occasionally used, even by multinational corporations, in order to challenge meeting habits.
From this dramatic perspective, a task of the event was seen as engendering new dramatic themes that could be usefully embodied in media soap operas -- seen as modern morality plays. The challenge was to develop dramatic catalysts capable of enhancing the themes that were the subject of popular attention.
For many, the gathering could be much more fruitfully understood as a dance of many parts and rhythms. There was a dance of perspectives expressed by participants, individually and in response to each other in patterns.
The dance could be understood as bearing some resemblance to ceremonial and masked dances, of earlier times and cultures. Although formal patterns could be used, the dance itself, through choices made by participants, could be understood as stabilizing temporarily in one pattern, before switching into another through a cycle of patterns.
Seen as a dance, the gathering allowed participants to explore the boundary between their personal preferences, those of others, and the organization of the whole. It offered insights into patterns of organization in which sacrifices made to others under certain conditions of movement in the dance, could be compensated by benefits under other conditions. It illustrated the art of both 'winning' and 'losing' and gave reality to larger and more complex patterns which could hold and interweave a variety of polarizing tendencies.
For some participants, the dance took on a different light as a stylized exercise in Eastern martial arts. For them, participants sought to out-manoeuvre each other's attempts to gain some immobilizing hold.
From such perspectives, the challenge for the gathering was to give form to new kinds of dance which could be given popular expression. As such it had to have qualities which allowed expression of the felt realities of people and offered them insights into new ways of articulating their relationships in collective response to their environment. Essentially it was a question of giving form to a dance for human survival through which people could thrive.
It was only too easy for participants to lapse into that turgid prose through which the hopes and fears of humanity tend to be articulated. It is with such prose that politicians, legislators and bureaucrats have so significantly failed to design a desirable future for society at every level. For some participants at the gathering, a poetic perspective therefore offered vital alternative insights on the way forward.
As stated by Gregory Bateson: 'One reason why poetry is important for finding out about the world is because in poetry a set of relationships gets mapped onto a level of diversity in us that we don't ordinarily have access to. We bring it out in poetry. We can give to each other in poetry the access to a set of relationships in the other person and in the world that we are not usually conscious of in ourselves. So we need poetry as knowledge about the world and about ourselves, because of this mapping from complexity to complexity.' (1972, pp. 288-9)
Remarkably, the agenda of the gathering in Budapest was given poetic form. This established links between different parts of the programme, weaving contributions into an aesthetic whole. But more important than the explicit relationships, highlighted between the parts in this way, was the implicit pattern of subtle associations that called for exploration.
One way of seeing the written product of the gathering was as a complex poem in which poetic criteria were given considerable importance in elaborating the policy implications -- in contrast to the communiques, declarations and proceedings into which subtle insights are usually packaged, often to be lost to any audience beyond the authors. Emphasis was placed on memorability. The prime tool in achieving this was metaphor. The challenge for the gathering was to embody emerging insights into cognitive toolkits of fresh metaphors that offered people a new way of relating operationally to their environment -- metaphors for survival. Specially valued were those metaphors which suggested ways of forming new kinds of group and organizing collective action -- metaphors for sustainable action.
For many participants the gathering was most successful through its approach to colour, shape and visual perspective. Works of artists were of course on display, but more important was the way in which the gathering itself could be seen as an exercise in colour and shape.
Colour has always been one of the prime means of distinguishing between political factions in society: reds, greens, blues, browns, etc. Each faction strives to use colour in symbolism with which voters can identify. Image has become vital to politics via the media.
The gathering responded to the challenge of the visual imagery necessary to the articulation of any credible way forward in an increasingly fragmented society. To do that it had to give colour to the contrasting contributions of participants. These became the colour palette. The colours then had to be meaningfully positioned over a space to suggest a larger pattern open to the comprehension of wider society. But the gathering moved far beyond traditional ceremonial gatherings in which colour and pageant were used to affirm the nature of the establishment. The emphasis was on giving aesthetic form to complex patterns of insights through colour, shape and opening new perspectives.
Dialogue on the wider social implications of particular policies could then be shifted from hidden factional objectives of maximizing 'blue' or 'green' to the challenge of how to combine many such colours on a complex surface. Also fundamental was how to satisfy the need for periodic change from one configuration to another in order to meet different needs. From such a perspective, conventional approaches to global policy-making appeared extremely primitive, without any sense of form, diversity or balance. The gathering raised the challenge of the aesthetics capable of sustaining sustainable development itself.
Just as there were participants who favoured visual or aural presentations, there were those who found it most meaningful to experience the gathering in terms of taste. Although Budapest is renowned for its food and wine, and these were highly appreciated, such participants were also able to attribute qualities of taste to the various contributions and to the programme of the gathering as a whole. The gathering was thus understood as a feast with many courses -- and the organizers as the chefs. The goal was seen as nourishment of the spirit, both at the gathering and elsewhere.
From a gastronomic perspective, the experience of taste is enhanced by setting and presentation. The challenge was to configure the contributions which participants brought, or themselves prepared during the event, into a coherent, balanced, tasteful experience. The foodstuffs of the spirit have to be appropriately cooked and presented at appropriate times. The experience can be totally undermined if the wrong foods are presented together, in the wrong sequence, or in the wrong manner. Choices need to be offered to those with different tastes.
Aside from taste alone, a healthy, balanced diet is also a vital consideration. For some -- fighting a tendency to excessive conceptual calorie intake -- it may be the prime concern. Participants can easily be overfed and in need of periods of respite. Contributions may be experienced as indigestible by some, or subject to dietary taboos. In preparing the event, the organizers consulted advisers who effectively functioned as cognitive dieticians.
As master chefs, the organizers had to balance extremes of culinary style in presenting contributions. These ranged from the 'French' style, in which mastery is associated with recognition of the hand of the chef (and his skill with sauces) in the preparation of every dish, to the 'Japanese' style in which mastery is associated with inability to recognize any hand in the preparation of the dish.
The ultimate challenge for the gathering was identifying new recipes and foodstuffs which wider society could explore for the nourishment of the human spirit.
Perhaps less earthy than the gastronomic perspective, there were those participants who preferred to perceive the gathering solely through a sense of smell. For them the concern was whether contributions 'smelt right' and combined appropriately in the gathering as a whole. Cognitively, they experienced the gathering as a combination of herb garden and perfume laboratory.
There is a long tradition of concern with smell in ritual gatherings -- above all in the use of incense. Such products are selected and used for their capacity to predispose the spirit to alternative modes of perception. The challenge for the gathering was to combine participant contributions in such a way as to trigger higher modes of perception, to facilitate recognition of new patterns, or to enable remembrance of older and more grounded patterns.
For many in wider society 'life stinks'. For the participants sensitive to this dimension, the challenge of the gathering as a whole was to prepare new perfumes that would entrance society in new ways.
The most depressing human conditions have long been enlivened and reframed by humour. For some participants at the gathering, it was humour which was the vehicle for the most vital and creative insights of relevance to the future. It was humour which was seen as the true leaven of the human spirit.
This perspective has a long tradition, notably in the form of the Sufi teaching stories based on the character Nasruddin (Nastratin). It is also represented by the role of the court jester. It is worth noting that there is even an International Association for the Promotion of Humour in International Affairs. And of course the power of the political cartoonist is well-recognized.
Dialogue has often been given form through exchanges of jokes between participants. Carefully chosen, such humour can convey powerful insights. Some participants at the gathering used this device quite deliberately to shift and reconfigure the pattern of dialogue.
Of course, from this perspective, the most important achievement of the gathering could only be the invention of jokes which, like Sufi tales, had multi-level reframing effects when repeated in a wider context.
For participants who have attended many meetings in different contexts, the ultimate expression of appreciation for a meeting is that 'it was magical'. This tends to imply that somehow the right people said the right things at the right time, without any apparent form of orchestration. Together these contributions are then perceived to create what have been named 'transformative moments' -- when there was a genuine shift in the configuration of forces and insights. In such terms, the secret ambition of any consultant in group dynamics is to be perceived as a 'magician'.
For some the event could therefore be understood as a gathering of magicians. As such the concern of participants was then understood to be one of creating new images of the realities in which people move and have their being. But, like competing advertising agencies, they each vied with each other to project more powerful images to attract attention and mould opinion in favour of particular transformative outcomes for wider society.
Magic, like advertising and poetry, does not 'work' because its propositions are essentially real or true; it works because practitioners become imaginatively involved in these propositions. Those affected can grow through the patterns, emerging beyond them into a clarity of awareness that was not possible before the experience of transition and transformation.
Participants endeavoured to entrance each other in their respective spells. Each could then be understood as engaged in 'spell-casting' in an attempt to capture the imagination of others at the gathering. Such a role is commonly attributed to charismatic leaders when they are labelled as 'spell-binding'. Image builders and 'spin doctors' endeavour to use similar techniques to orient opinion. New realities are 'talked up' or collectively dreamt into existence.
The challenge of the gathering as a whole was to interweave such spells to provide a coherent imaginative whole, through transformative moments which -- depending on how they were experienced -- gave birth to new worldviews. It is through these that people in wider society were themselves able to live more fruitfully and to relate more appropriately to their environments. Essentially the challenge of the gathering could then be understood as an exercise in reenchanting the world -- to counteract widespread disenchantment.
For some the gathering could better be understood as a collective weaving exercise with the objective of producing a large tapestry or carpet. As weavers, the participants could be understood as contributing particular threads of different colour and texture -- efforts at 'making a point' were seen in terms of knotting. By combining these threads into an aesthetic whole, balancing opposing tendencies, and appropriately juxtaposing complementaries, the resulting pattern effectively integrated fragmented aspects of world society. It was the aesthetic equivalent of the science of map- making.
It is in Islamic countries that there is the greatest respect for the insights that can be woven into tapestries and carpets. Many of these are exceedingly complex -- more complex than many systems diagrams through which vain attempts have been made to design the future of society. And, in striking contrast with systems diagrams, they are designed to be lived with -- even prayed upon.
Of course, it cannot be denied that the secret ambition of some of those favouring this perspective was to design the ultimate magical carpet as a new vehicle through which humanity could navigate its future. In many respects they succeeded -- if the insights associated with a magic carpet are appropriately understood. Getting the carpet to 'move' appropriately proved to be the final challenge.
Somewhat similar to the weaving perspective was the geometric perspective favoured by some participants. For them the challenge of the gathering was effectively an exercise in sacred geometry.
Spiritual principles are represented through geometric patterns in many cultures. There is even a tendency to associate particular religions, or spiritual orientations, with particular forms: triangle (Christianity), square (Freemasonry), pentagram (Islam), hexagram (Taoism), heptagram (esotericism), octagram (Buddhism), enneagram (Sufism), etc. In Hinduism, there are considered to be a set of eight aesthetic emotions (Rasas), also recognized as the ecstasy of being united with the divine; whereas in Greek mythology the arts are governed by nine Muses.
Many authors have explored the significance associated with geometrical configurations. These may even be given dynamic operational significance, as in the case of the enneagram, or heuristic significance, as in the case of the hexagram (I Ching) or the zodiac. Most such configurations are fundamental to certain spiritual and meditative disciplines, as in the case of mandalas (Buddhism). To the despair of scientists, in popular cultures the zodiac is more widely appreciated than science for the guidance apparently offered through horoscopes to different personality types -- and for the symbolic significance of the 12 Apostles or the 12 Knights of the Roundtable.
In this light the challenge was to configure the distinct tendencies and insights represented at the gathering into appropriate geometric forms. In the rapidly shifting dynamics of a meeting, recognizing and holding any underlying invariant pattern is in itself a discipline. By succeeding in this, the gathering was then able to benefit from the spiritual insights associated with the implicit central reference constituted by the empty centres of all such forms -- although many would argue that it is only through awareness of such a centre that any invariant pattern can be held. Such forms are thus able to hold and give stability to understanding of larger patterns of significance.
Some participants even chose to see the challenge in three dimensions, rather than two. Represented in this way, the polarizing forces which tend to fragment any larger frame of awareness are then integrated into a design in a way that is essential to the sustainability of new spaces -- even in material terms (Judge, 1978). Since such structural principles are also meaningful in architectural terms, they anchor subtle insights in new ways and offer new approaches to collaborative group design (Beer, 1994).
From this perspective the wider challenge for the gathering was to explore frameworks through which universality could be meaningfully articulated. This was in contrast to the bland holistic approaches associated with popular understandings of 'planetary', 'global' and 'holistic'.
For those participants attentive to other worlds and other ways of seeing, any such gathering could best be understood in terms of the presence of angelic forces -- including muses and other spiritual beings responsive to music and the arts. Such a view would be natural in many traditional cultures and belief systems.
The distinctive and contrasting energies conveyed through the contributions of participants were then understood as the manifestation of particular spiritual forces. The charm and delight of the gathering was understood to be sustained by the action of spiritual beings. Any difficulties and clashes then signalled the presence of their negative counter-parts -- as a battle between 'peaceful' and 'wrathful' deities according to the Buddhist tradition.
The degree of integration of the gathering was then understood in terms of the configuration of these angelic forces -- possibly to be associated with the angles of any sacred geometry configuration or mandala. The transformative significance of the event then became largely a matter of mystery.
For some participants the gathering could best be understood as an alchemical operation through which an appropriate vessel was constructed as a means of combining and converting material hindrances into spiritual opportunities.
From this perspective, the major practice lay in the use of the imagination to cultivate the transformative moments which occasionally illuminated the processes of the gathering. Through such imagination the continuing creation of the world was reproduced within participants -- individually and collectively. Participants strove to recognize how material appearances of the gathering were dissolved in pure life through bringing into awareness the natural sympathy which holds things together --- the pattern that connects.
Traditionally these processes have been described in terms of eliciting from leaden appearances the gold of the philosophers stone -- namely a Rosetta stone of the spirit through which incommensurable differences could be interrelated through transformations in understanding. But to reach this stage, laborious preliminary operations had to be collectively performed within the gathering.
The three operations, the focus of three Roundtables at the gathering, included the 'blackening' process (nigredo), or death to illusion, associated with the birth of discernment -- the gathering thereby embodied the process through which its tendency to fragmentation was engendered. The world could then be understood as a womb through which forms are engendered in the present rather than as a grave of dead forms from the past. Through the 'whitening' process (albedo) which followed, the gathering experienced the synthesis of all forms, notably as a marriage of opposites. In the final 'reddening' phase (rubedo), the insights of the previous stage were embodied through a transformation and sanctification of the world of appearances -- transmuting the processes of the world into a cosmic liturgy. The gathering thus took on an essentially invisible guardianship role -- holding an appropriate relationship between the mundane world and the world of the spirit.
The gathering was understood by some participants as essentially a spiritual exercise. In this light all the processes of the event, whether harmonious or discordant, were viewed as veiling the presence of God. It was to this core understanding in the moment that such participants held and then strove to cultivate throughout.
The Budapest gathering succeeded, where others have failed, because there was a discipline to the way in which each perspective was brought into play. A vital constraint was used for the first time to discipline the disciplines themselves.
Within each aesthetic discipline there is a natural understanding of the extent to which a particular colour, sound or form can be fruitfully used. Normally this understanding is not extended to the way in which the discipline itself is applied in any wider context. What space or time should a musical presentation occupy? How long should the attention of an audience be held by a poet? How is the programme as a whole to be designed to encourage appropriate interplay between different expressions of insight? What are the constraints?
In Budapest limits were honoured as explored in a famed book by a Hungarian author (Gyorgy Doczi, The Power of Limits: proportional harmonies in nature, art and architecture, 1981), and as reflected in a study by the President of the Club of Budapest (Ervin Laszlo, The Inner Limits of Mankind: heretical reflections on today's values, culture and politics, 1989). The natural tendency of particular disciplines to endeavour to dominate or monopolize was itself subjected to aesthetic constraint.
In this light, the real challenge for practitioners of each discipline, and for the reader endeavouring to explore the event in retrospective, is to distinguish the 'meta- disciplines' governing the contributions at the event:
The challenge for the reader is to approach the above metaphorical use of aesthetic perspectives with these constraints in mind. Each metaphor is indeed relevant to understanding the Budapest gathering and its wider implications. However, each has major limitations. It must be challenged and constrained in an aesthetic frame which the reader has a special responsibility for designing using that same set of metaphors -- whether as palette, keyboard, or otherwise.
There is a special danger in the use of metaphor in response to the challenges of human survival. This danger is common to the practice of any of the arts. It lies in their very power to evoke enthusiasm, to entrance, and to transform. Individuals and groups can indeed be transported by such experience. The danger is associated with the tendency to offer no more, and specifically to offer no new insights into dealing with the challenges of daily life on the planet. Both metaphor and the arts then have to face the accusation of escapism, however well it may be justified in terms of recreation.
To meet the current challenges faced by humanity, both metaphor, and the arts as metaphor, have to empower people to act collectively in new ways. They have to enable people to 'get their act together' collectively -- beyond the insensitive efforts at 'mobilization' vainly attempted through politically-motivated development programmes. The gathering in Budapest focused this concern. It avoided the trap of once more presenting the delightful, insightful works that have long inspired humanity. Unfortunately their subtleties have not had sufficient impact on the transformation of social organization -- brought to its current vulnerable state under the guidance of politicians, commerce, economists, lawyers, accountants, and security services.
According to Yi-Fu Tuan: 'The power of the human senses to organize the world takes diverse forms, shaped by the larger cultures in which they operate....Yet all possess an aesthetic-moral aspect -- as revealed by their drive toward significance and form -- and all demonstrate the power of the imagination to transcend group values held at a certain time by incorporating values from another group and thereby grow.' (p. 121)
The coherence of the Australian Aboriginal world derives from the centrality of belief in a dreamtime during which powerful beings walk the earth, establishing topographic features, calling the natural species into life, and instituting the rules of group and individual behaviour. They 'wrapped the whole world in a web of song' (Bruce Chatwin, 1988, p. 82). Creation occurs by means of song. It is therefore as though the landscape is a musical score, and the traditional tracks are what have been termed songlines.
These are themselves a powerful memory aid to navigation over the earth and to the location of essential resources, as well as providing a continuing rehearsal of cultural history. A songline is therefore 'a succession of sites' along a track, 'vibrant with incident, power and meaning' allowing for a dramatic and aesthetic participation in the environment. (Yi-Fu Tuan, 1993, pp. 125-7). 'Music is a memory bank for finding one's way about the world' (Chatwin, p. 120).
How can such perspectives have any relevance in a world faced with dramatic economic, environmental, political and social problems -- and an increasingly alienated population?
Clues to new possibilities can be found by taking each of these domains in turn:
From this perspective it is therefore intriguing that dissociating well-being from levels of material consumption features as a strategy in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities. The concern is to 'dematerialize the economy', decoupling quality of life from materialism and material resource dependency.
Such a strategy, expected to take at least half a century, focuses on shifting from primary to secondary raw materials. The far more radical question is whether society could be articulated around non-material, aesthetic relationships. And, rather than relying on change over half a century, the key issue is whether appropriate change cannot already be achieved -- and is in fact already in process of being achieved.
As indicated by the examples given above, people disadvantaged by current economic and social systems are obliged to find their individual and collective fulfilment in other ways. Those privileged by such systems discover that their fulfilment does not necessarily lie within them and is in no way guaranteed by them. There is also the suspicion that, just as such systems are currently dependent upon the exploitation of non-renewable resources like petroleum, they are at the same time dependent upon exploitation of non-renewable cultural resources. This is best seen in the exploitation by advertising of any values to which people continue to subscribe in order to market goods and services. This is especially true of aesthetic values which are subject to erosion.
Business has discovered ways to substitute marketable products for aesthetic experience. The substitution of soft drinks for home-made cool drinks is the classical example in developing countries. In industrialized countries, it could be the substitution of bottled water for tap water. The question is to what extent the reverse process is possible, namely whether aesthetic experience can substitute for the need for many marketable products. The success of business has been to create the appearance of offering a greater aesthetic experience with the manufactured product. The reality is often a disappointment -- as in the diminishing tastiness of ever more rosy apples. At the same time, the privileged pay ever higher prices for genuine aesthetic quality.
Business already acknowledges that future growth lies in non-material products. If this is as true for the individual and the community, is it necessary that such growth should be based on a monetarized economy? What might an aesthetic economy look like? Anthropologists have documented examples amongst traditional societies. But how might it work in contemporary society?
There are many indicative examples beyond those given above. Vital needs of those with scholarly orientations can be fulfilled by the excitement of exchanging of ideas -- to the point of forgetting to eat. Artists and musicians have similar experiences, as do young people at a disco. New products are usually acquired when aesthetic experiences are not available by other means. The more boring daily life becomes from an aesthetic point of view, the greater the dependence on consumerism as a remedy. Countering this trend means addressing the question of what makes daily life boring -- what inhibits aesthetic experience for the non- consumer? It is important to recognize that boredom is as much a factor in refugee camps and prisons as it is in a luxury city apartment. Recourse to drugs of some kind is one common remedy.
The perceived problems of modern society increasingly reflect the failure of aesthetic exchange of any kind. In the case of family breakdown, there are no meaningful aesthetic vehicles to carry any exchange of 'family values'. In wider society, the token of exchange is primarily financial or perverted (as criticized by those favouring political correctness). Efforts to create a common aesthetic, as in planned cities or shopping malls, fail to recognize the level of aesthetic reductionism that this constitutes. Planning tends to create environments that are ultimately experienced as boring -- only to be tolerated through consumerism (as is often intended), or being able to escape from them (as only the privileged can do). The tragedy of many developing countries and communities may be seen as the breakdown of any sustaining aesthetic that makes survival meaningful. The same may be said of many environmental disasters -- they result from loss of an aesthetic rapport with nature.
The domain in which the transition to the primacy of aesthetic organization is most evident is that of information and the multi-media environment of the World Wide Web. The key to surviving, and thriving, on the Web is through exchange of information. Economic considerations, to the despair of many commercial initiatives, tend to be quite secondary. Large quantities of information are given -- or taken -- and perused freely. It is on the Web, with its hypertext pathways, that the pattern of songlines of the noosphere is taking form.
'Pathway' is already used as a basic metaphor in the exploration of hypertext. To what extent could a sequence of pathways be usefully understood as having some of the qualities of a songline? In Chinese culture, very great importance continues to be given to 'dragon lines' from the perspective of feng shui and geomancy. Western traditional cultures attach importance to leylines linking 'sacred sites' -- which are increasingly a focus of tourism. Again 'site' is part of the basic Web terminology -- and with the arrival of the Vatican on the Web, maybe some of them might even be considered 'sacred'.
Leylines are understood as covering the globe in a triangulated gridwork whose form is of considerable interest to those concerned with sacred geometry. Traditional pilgrimage pathways to sacred sites are commonly associated with leylines. Internet magazines typically offer monthly recommendations that users visit selected sites labelled 'hot' or 'cool' -- perhaps a modern equivalent of what is sacred for some. But 'hitting' sites is far from the aesthetic associated with the laborious learning journeys of a pilgrimage or the sensitivity to landscape implied by leylines or songlines.
Songlines have suggestive features. A song, for the Aborigine, is both a map and a direction finder. Knowing the song, enables a person to move across country, from sacred site to sacred site, on seemingly unmapped territory, through language-barriers, regardless of tribe or frontier. Those encountered on the songline nevertheless share the traveller's worldview (Dreaming). The traveller also has the responsibility to maintain the landscape by singing it into existence -- a fundamental act of creative aesthetics. Essentially the land first exists as a concept in the mind and is given form through the singing (Chatwin, pp. 15- 17).
Given the network orientation of the Web, it is also intriguing that individuals only inherit a limited number of contiguous stretches on a songline. Their limit is marked by a 'stop' -- at which responsibility for stewardship of the songline passes to someone else, and where other songlines might intersect. As with any network, however, stops cannot be meaningfully linked 'horizontally' to denote a conventional political frontier. Each songline is sustained by a different melody. In effect, as with birds, territorial boundaries are defined by song (Chatwin, pp. 66).
Given the major concerns about intellectual property on the Internet, the Aboriginal view is intriguing. For them, trade routes are songlines because songs are the principal medium of exchange, rather than 'things'. Individuals inherit stretches of the songline, with their 'verses' constituting title deeds to the territory. These could be lent or borrowed (enabling extension of the individual's song map), but not given or sold away (Chatwin, pp. 64-65). Users on the Web are already at the point of trading site information as a valued commodity. What is missing is any sense of the 'melody' which defines a succession of pathways, namely a line of sites through many different domains -- although the notion of 'thread' employed in Internet jargon is an aspect of this. It is the melody which is the heuristic. For the Aborigines, and despite their many languages: 'Regardless of the words, it seems the melodic contour of the song described the nature of the land over which the song passes' (Chatwin, p. 120).
In learning terms, this is the defining quality of a particular cultural Grand Tour -- or in global terms, a great circle route around the body of knowledge. In this light, the key to thriving on the Web may eventually prove to be sensitivity to a melody or metaphor which guides passage across incommensurable domains. Without it, a user governed by the 'hitting' metaphor, like a traveller lost in the desert, may be effectively trapped in a search domain -- condemned to walk in relatively small circles within it.
Consider the possibility that global configuration of hypertext pathways could be the result of interlocking great circle routes of learning journeys. The pattern of intersections would effectively position, and significantly separate, different domains of knowledge. But although apparently a spherical grid, it would above all be characterized by the challenges to comprehension along the different journeys and the responsibility for the stewardship of parts of those journeys -- maintaining the melody. For, given that any hyperlink is to another location offering multiple links onward, the choice of link at any location to continue the journey needs to be governed by a subtle rule (more sophisticated than any left-brain indication to 'always take the third' hyperlink or menu choice). What is the heuristic 'melody' governing consistency of choice that ensures movement along the learning pathway around any of the great circle routes? How are encounters to be handled with information offering subtle enticements onto some alternative route -- onto a different melody? As at a hub airport, or a station at the intersection of a variety of transport lines, 'changing lines' may involve a major reorientation. Effectively it involves a change of metaphoric framework or vehicle.
Humanity, and policy-making in response to the crises of planetary society, are riven by differences. Efforts to transcend such differences have proven vain or tokenistic. The Club of Budapest sought to bring aesthetic insights to bear on the challenges of human survival.
Differences can themselves be usefully seen as aesthetic differences -- taste and style, sense of balance and proportion, and notions of complementarity and diversity. Little effort has been made to reflect the planetary challenge as a whole from an aesthetic perspective, although many efforts have been made to articulate particular issues.
But there is a special challenge for the arts. Whilst they may legitimately claim to have much to offer. They also have their own shadow in Jungian terms. Creative people in the arts are renowned for the personality differences, quarrels, mutual criticism and backstabbing. There is therefore a need for the arts to use aesthetic skills to address the challenge of configuring differences between practitioners and between aesthetic schools -- whether these can be creatively reframed as drama, opera or otherwise. To the extent that they have failed to do so to date, they can be seen as in more or less the same trap as the conventional cluster of policy approaches to human survival.
One approach is to deliberately accept the capacity of differences to usefully structure a new kind of framework for the noosphere -- if only as an approximation that does not inhibit more innovative responses in the future.
For example, the set of 14 quite different aesthetic perspectives reviewed earlier could be viewed as zones of the noosphere -- different windows of the collective awareness of humanity. As such, the aesthetic challenge is how they might be configured together to give form to a higher order of organization -- to provide a pattern for some equivalent social organization. This is in contrast to hopes for forms of organization, and planetary consciousness, based on a single aesthetic frame. Such a frame is commonly inspired by a single view of the planet, or notions of holism and globality -- and leads to advocacy of forms of world government which fail to honour intractable differences.
The 14 views can be mapped onto what Buckminster Fuller (1975-79) termed a vector equilibrium structure -- in three dimensions. This has the interesting property of being transformable into many other structures, including the icosahedron, the octahedron, the tetrahedron and the triangle -- all of which are important to sacred geometry. It therefore carries diversity, although this may be understood more simply or through greater complexity. It can be understood as a kind of structural Rosetta stone (cf Arthur Young, 1976). With its 7 axes, and 24 structural elements, it combines an important range of ordering principles (cf McClain, 1976)
Another approach, would be to add a sixth contextual discipline to the five meta-disciplines noted earlier. The reader could then explore how use of any particular pattern of disciplines (represented by one of 64 hexagrams) contributes to the overall pattern of transformations described by the I Ching (see Encyclopedia of world Problems and Human Potential).
The suggestion in the previous section can be viewed as a crude approximation to a highly sophisticated approach based on the 4,000 year-old chanted hymns of the Rg Veda of the Indian tradition. A very powerful exploration of this work by a philosopher, Antonio de Nicolas (1972), using the non-Boolean logic of quantum mechanics (Heelan, 1974), opens up valuable approaches to integration.
The unique feature of the approach is that it is grounded in tone and the shifting relationships between tone; It is through the pattern of musical tones that the significance of the Rg Veda is to be found.
'Therefore, from a linguistic and cultural perspective, we have to be aware that we are dealing with a language where tonal and arithmetical relations establish the epistemological invariances... Language grounded in music is grounded thereby on context dependency; any tone can have any possible relation to other tones, and the shift from one tone to another, which alone makes melody possible, is a shift in perspective which the singer himself embodies. Any perspective (tone) must be 'sacrificed' for a new one to come into being; the song is a radical activity which requires innovation while maintaining continuity, and the 'world' is the creation of the singer, who shares its dimensions with the song.' (p. 57)
De Nicolas contrasts this perspective with that of languages governed by vision:
'Thus, in a language ruled by the criteria of sight, vision may mean the sum of perspectives from which a fixed object can be seen, plus the theoretical perspective of the relationships holding amongst different perspectives of the object, plus the mental acts by which those perspectives, relationships and visions are performed. In any event, the invariant object is the condition for the variations in the meaning of vision. The object is the condition for the variations in the meaning of vision. The invariant object is, therefore, not a reality, but a theoretical precondition (phenomenal or noumenal) for a whole system or method for establishing facts. Therefore, it is no wonder that when people speak of transcendence, within this framework, they are mostly forced to speak in mystical terms of things unseen or unseeable, either in terms of religious experiences, or in terms of modern physics. In a literal sense, in the latter two cases, speech is about no things by the same criteria of the speech used to designate things.
Whereas in a language governed by sound:
In a language ruled by the criteria of sound, perspectives, the change of perspectives and vision, stand for what musicologists call 'modulation'. Modulation in music is the ability to change keys within a composition. To focus within this language, and by its criteria, is primarily the activity of being able to run the scale backwards and forwards, up and down, with these sudden shifts in perspectives. Through this ability, the singer, the body, the song and the perspective become an inseparable whole. In this language, transcendence is precisely the ability to perform the song without any theoretical construct impeding its movement a priori, or determining the result of following such movement a priori. Nor can any theoretical compromise substitute for the discovery of the movement of 'modulation' itself in history. The human body would then be asked to lose the memory of its origins; a task the human body refuses to do by its constant return to crisis.
It is up to the philosophers to discover the language ruled by the criteria of sound, rather than presuppose a priori that the only language universally human is the one ruled by the criteria of sight. (p. 192)
Jacques Attali. Bruits; essai sur l'économie politique de la musique. Paris, PUF, 1977
Mary Catherine Bateson. Our Own Metaphor: a personal account of a conference on the effects of conscious purpose on human adaptation. Knopf, 1972.
Stafford Beer. Beyond Dispute; the invention of team syntegrity. New York, Wiley, 1994
Bruce Chatwin. The Songlines. Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1988
Antonio de Nicolas. Meditations through the Rg Veda. Shambhala, 1978
Gyorgy Doczi. The Power of Limits: proportional harmonies in nature, art and architecture, 1981
P A Heelan. The Logic of Changing Classificatory Frameworks. In: J A Wojciechowski (Ed). Conceptual Basis of the Classification of Knowledge. K G Saur, 1974, pp. 260-274
R Buckminster Fuller. Synergetics: explorations in the geometry of thinking. Macmillan, 1975 (vol. I), 1979 (vol. II)
Ervin Laszlo. The Inner Limits of Mankind: heretical reflections on today's values, culture and politics, 1989
E G. McClain. The Myth of Invariance: the origins of the gods, mathematics and music from the Rg Veda to Plato. Shambhala, 1976
Thomas Moore. The Planets Within. (Interpretation of the work of Marsilio Ficino).
Frances Yates. The Art of Memory. Penguin, 1969
Yi-Fu Tuan. Passing Strange and Wonderful: aesthetics, nature and culture. Washington DC, Island Press, 1993
Arthur Young. The Geometry of Meaning. Robert Briggs Associates, 1976
For further updates on this site, subscribe here