Saturday 13 August 2011

Listening, Method and Cybernetics

It's difficult to achieve anything on your own... I've been reflecting on this at the Conference on 'listening' for the American Society of Cybernetics. 'Listening' is a very personal thing.. we get hurt when we're not listened to; we annoy people when we don't listen to them. But listening is essential if people are to work together. But 'working together' and 'listening' does not equal 'agreement'.

This was brought home to me by the wonderful singing activities we have been involved with conducted by Pauline Oliveros. The beauty of the sounds we made (they felt beautiful to us) resulted from a combination of coming together and moving apart, but always conscious of what was going on around us.

That is the principal lesson I shall take away from this conference: awareness of what is around me, what it does to me, and what I do with it. I think this is this is the essence of skilful political action. It is the art of dealing with difficult people, difficult situations, personal crises, disruptions and violence in a way which hones in on the beauty which connects me with it. Like the singing.

But I've been reflecting on the method whereby this is done. There is probably a method, probably a methodology.. I think that in the difficult situations, with difficult people, etc... I've got better in my methods over the years (still a long way to go though!). If there has been improvement, then I think I attribute this to a more solid grounding in reality, and a way of approaching reality which:

  1. doesn't compromise ideals
  2. doesn't become naive in its idealism
  3. is defensible
On the whole, it is not cybernetics which has given this to me, but realist philosophy. But I have found cybernetics entirely compatible, because the critical realism which has fascinated me has concerned an ontology of mechanisms, but has been hampered by an inability to express mechanisms in a sophisticated way without resorting to established philosophical categories which preclude the expression of more dynamic theories. The cybernetic contribution enriches the expressive power of realism by broadening its vocabulary for describing the world.

But critical realism has helped me in another way, which is to connect issues of ontology and epistemology to ethics. Cybernetics tries this too, but it often lacks the philosophical sophistication to make statements about philosophy which are philosophically defensible. The join that critical realism identifies between ontology, epistemology and cybernetics (as the description and exploration of mechanisms) is methodology. In short, our knowledge about the world informs our political structures. But our knowledge is dependent on the methods by which we come to know it. The methods are also part of the political structure, and beneath the various methods that are deployed in the social sciences lie views of the world (ontologies) which are fundamentally incompatible, but rarely expressed or explored. And that is where ethics comes in, because the articulation of what ought to be means understanding what there is. And understanding what there  is means properly exploring the dissonances between the different world views that underpin different methodologies. 

A proper exploration of ontology is therefore a necessary preliminary to the critique of method which in turn can underpin a critique of political structures. And I think that exploration of ontology needs cybernetics. It's what cybernetics is fundamentally about. 

But cybernetics seems stuck. It seems more concerned with epistemology than ontology; more concerned with "questions of knowing" rather than "questions of being". Reflecting on the conference, I would say it's got stuck because it's lost touch with reality, or rather it's lost confidence - because of the epistemological conclusions of some of its theories - in its ability to say anything about reality. 

There is probably a need to dig beneath the foundations of this edifice. In history of cybernetics, a whole host of different conflicting world-views have come and gone. Were there more in the beginning than there are now? Possibly. Right now in the American Society, I only see one ontological world view. There is a need for explicitly articulating more possibilities. That means more difficult situations, difficult people, person crises, disruptions and (maybe even) violence! But maybe we've begun on a journey which has equipped us with the skills to listen for the beauty that emerges between us.

1 comment:

Astrid Johnson said...

What an excellent post!!!!!