Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Ordering of Institutional Fear

There is a limit between the true and false. In many aspects of everyday life, we fear traversing this limit: fear is the emotion we associate with encountering the limit between the true and the false. There are other limits which we experience emotionally: for example, the limit between absence and unity (between 0 and 1) is, I suspect, the experience of climax: music and sex are where this is most apparent. This is where the real power of category theory lies: it provides a unified way of talking about rational experience (between truth and fasehood) and those experiences which are nuanced, flowing, emotional - what we might otherwise call irrational. In education, both matter. Badiou presents this as the difference between classical logic (excluded middle logic) and non-classical, dialectical logic.

In category theory, truth and falsehood are defined with relation to a 'sub-object classifier' (typically in the literature, this is written as Ω, although Badiou prefers to call it 'C'). In determining truth functions, the sub-object classifier is fundamentally the object which helps us determine order among the objects and transformations in a category. Ordering means some things are more important than others. It means that the experience of limits between truth and falsehood, ie. fear, which are everywhere present (because limits are everywhere present) have a hierarchy. Some fears are more constraining than others; some people are more frightened than others; the fear of one person depending on their ordering in the social scheme can impact on the fears of everyone else. Category theory gives us a way of ordering fear within an institution. This is both fascinating and important, given the amount of fear within our institutions (universities in particular), and the managerial belief that fear can be ramped up and oppression increased without consequences (many vice-chancellors apparently believe that fear within the institution has no effect on teaching and learning.)

What are the consequences of ramping-up institutional fear? There are two sides to it. On the one hand, there is the limit of fear within the person implementing a ramping-up of fear (say, a VC). VCs are among the most constrained actors in a University - 'clear' in their vision about what must be done, yet only clear because of what they do not admit into their picture of the world: clarity exists against the force of a limit. Here both the limits of fear and the limits associated with emotion (climaxes, excitement, enthusiasms) can be in play: a VC's enthusiasm for a particular 'pet-project' is as much the exposure of limit as their fear relating to pursuing a particular policy or not. The VC's limits determine differences throughout the structure of the institution. It is these differences which bear upon everyone else, to which everyone else's limits are subordinated. The question is, How do everyone else's fears (awareness of limits) become subordinated to the leader's fear? And what are the effects on the organisation?

The interplay between emotional limits concerning enthusiasms, climaxes, achievements, and (fundamentally) meaning, and the limits of fear between the true and the false can create conflicts and split within individuals. These conflicts can distort the limits of fear to the point that what is feared at one level presents emotional limits of a different and opposing kind at another. Here we may find the classic signs of Bateson's 'double-bind': for example, the alcoholic's calculation that  'alcohol is bad for you' which is between the true and the false, whilst the pleasure that alcohol brings (and the converse misery of acknowledgement of true/false distinction) serves to maintain individuals in a cycle of oscillating dependency. This is how people can be manipulated. Most of the logic concerning money is of this sort: on the one hand, money exists on a true-false distinction concerning the limits of financial viability, whilst on the other hand, money brings degrees of security and compensatory pleasure which leads to the a kind of economic slavery.

The boss as paymaster is the figure who is in control of determining the rational bargain with employees. For employees, the bargain carries an element of security providing the rational true/false distinction is appropriately met. The boss's assertion of this bargain is also subject to their own emotional limits: whims, enthusiasms, etc. It is not beyond possibility that some whims and enthusiasms are in some way sadistic or victimising. The enthusiasm may not be shared with the employees, who nevertheless have to comply to satisfy the pay (truth) bargain. At some point, the boss might demand compliance and enthusiasm as part of the pay bargain. At this point, the employees, who will have their own emotional limits, will find themselves split in an emotional tangle where the rational (or cynical) compliance and real emotional needs cannot be reconciled. Here we find (I think) the difference between Habermas's "communicative action" and "strategic action". It begins to mark out the logical structure of the double-bind situation. The double-bind situation bearing upon employees becomes more marked the more the whims of the boss are reinforced in the institutional structure: 'cronies' are appointed whose rational bargain reinforces the boss's whims (because there is rational gain in the form of higher status or pay). The example of such people is illustrative of the fact that the boss relies on employees for their status: the status functions concerning the boss ultimately come from the employees; this status declaration can be reinforced through the double-bind people are placed in - so in a University, as Senate and Governors are stuffed with yes-people, whims are reinforced, alienation increased and the double-bind exacerbated. Greater alienation may equal greater reinforcement for the boss's position: those VC's who believe fear is good appear to have justification at first glance! But it only works to a point.

The principal issue is the way that redundancies can become codified discourse.When redundancies of expectations are shared between people then communication arises and redundancies effectively become foreground and not background (in fact they are no longer redundancies). With an asserted policy which clearly doesn't work it will not be long before the individual disjunction between rational limits and emotional limits results in the emergence of codifications of emotional expectations which will become part of the fabric of rational limits: at this point there is a risk that rational challenge in the form of reorganising status functions - particularly those status functions which relate to the boss - might result in criticism and direct challenge. Such are the dialectics of the institution, and managers have to react appropriately in the light of this.

Empirically, we can measure status declarations between individuals. Every declaration of change to practice, every new professional mandate, every new technology, every new procedure is a status declaration. Some of these come from the top and filters to the bottom; others relate to experience on the ground (engagements with learners). There can sometimes be a strong conflict either between the commitments and other status declarations that staff are involved in, and therefore not all mandated changes to practice will actually occur (however much the boss might wish it). Conflicts in status declarations can be measured simply by ascertaining the status declarations surrounding existing practices, technologies and so on. Emotional factors have a bearing on this, but the emotional factors are establishable not through status declarations, but through redundancies of practice. Redundancies reflect the absences bearing upon individuals in their practice. What do they think about? What do they worry about most? What do they do most often?

Of course, the empirical investigation of redundancies may itself be a catalyst to change. But perhaps this wouldn't be a bad thing!!

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