Monday 13 June 2011

What do artists know? (and why do social scientists find it so hard to articulate?)

At the end of Shaw's Pygmalion, Eliza, now fully transformed into a ‘lady of the upper classes’, explains how it was Mr Pickering and not Professor Higgins had taught her to become a lady:
LIZA. It's not because you paid for my dresses. I know you are generous to everybody with money. But it was from you that I learnt really nice manners; and that is what makes one a lady, isnt it? You see it was so very difficult for me with the example of Professor Higgins always before me. I was brought up to be just like him, unable to control myself, and using bad language on the slightest provocation. And I should never have known that ladies and gentlemen didnt behave like that if you hadnt been there.
LIZA [continuing] It was just like learning to dance in the fashionable way: there was nothing more than that in it. But do you know what began my real education?
LIZA [stopping her work for a moment] Your calling me Miss Doolittle that day when I first came to Wimpole Street. That was the beginning of self-respect for me. [She resumes her stitching]. And there were a hundred little things you never noticed, because they came naturally to you. Things about standing up and taking off your hat and opening door—
This difference in treatment between Higgins and Pickering that Eliza draws attention to what we Harré might call 'positioning'. Pickering positioned Eliza differently to Higgins. In being polite and respectful, Pickering revealed something of himself and his own values - perhaps an insight into his personal 'storyline'. That story had a particular effect on his communications. In being rude and obnoxious, Higgins similarly revealed his 'storyline' - but it was a rather miserable and conceited story. As Eliza points out, she already knew stories like this all too well.

Shaw didn't know about Positioning Theory. He might have known something about Freud, but I suspect he didn't really need to. He knew about people. And he moulded that knowledge into the form that he left us in Pygmalion. That others could relate to the characters was a testament to the fact that his knowledge wasn't far off-the-mark. No questionnaires, no data analysis, no triangulation of results - just a story that 'rang true'.

Shaw knew his archetypes, and his reference to Ovid in the title bears witness to a much deeper pattern of human relations. It is one that has echoes in mythology and history for centuries. And I think the thing that separates Shaw from Sociology is Shaw's comfort with working with archetypes, and the distrust for them by sociologists. The real discomfort that Jung causes psychologists is not his theory of personality types (that bit's more widely used than any other piece of psychological work!), but his theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious. Similarly, Freud causes the most consternation when he reinvents the Fall of Adam with the Oedipus myth.

Something sticks in the throats of social scientists at this point of encountering the 'eternal recurrence'. It's presented as being fanciful, unscientific. But give it to Shakespeare, and he'll write something of such power that it resonates across time.

Social science is gradually get to grips with emergence. The point is that emergence has a pattern. Something in the interactions and the properties of agents cause patterns of events to repeat, so that as Jung commented: "all cognition is recognition". Eliot said the same thing in 'Little Gidding' (oft quoted by Bateson):
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
Elliot knew his archetypes too!

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