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Voice of the Matchmaker

Poetry-making and Policy-making (Part #1)


Part D of Poetry-making and Policy-making: Arranging a Marriage between Beauty and the Beast (1993)


Is there even the faintest recognition in our times of the need to make use of poetic disciplines in response to the challenges we face ? Surprisingly there is. The recognition comes from those who recognize the limitations of scientific disciplines in dealing with the complexity of the world problematique -- and specifically with the limitations of the human mind, or of any particular language, in comprehending and encompassing the subtle dimensions amongst which a dynamic balance needs to be maintained.

For example, the biologist/anthropologist Gregory Bateson, in explaining why "we are our own metaphor", pointed out to a conference on the effects of conscious purpose on human adptation that:

"One reason why poetry is important for finding out about the world is because in poetry a set of relationships get 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." (Cited by Mary Catherine Bateson, pp. 288-9)

1. Quality vs. Complexity

As noted above, policy-making and management are faced with a crisis of impotence, incompetence and gridlock. This has been explored in many ways by numerous authors. Yugoslavia and Somalia are only the most publicized examples. The failure to respond creatively to the needs of the former socialist countries is another. The challenge of unemployment is yet another.

Of course there are many highly publicized efforts at "restructuring" institutional systems, including reforming the United Nations. Many conferences are now held on enhancing the "quality of life", of which the 1992 Earth Summit was the most important. The "dismal science" of economics even has its reformers that are endeavouring to quantify the value of quality (United Nations Research Institute on Social Development, 1991). Creativity has long been à la mode in seminars for corporate executives. Whilst effective in "cost cutting", such initiatives fail to disguise an abysmal lack of imagination in collective response to the conditions of physical suffering or psychic alienation in which many are plunged.

One response to this general challenge has been the focus on the science of complexity as a development of earlier concern with systems research and cybernetics. There remains the hope amongst certain academic elites that computers can be used to model the richness of society in order to guide policy-making at the highest level. Unfortunately this initiative is based on the naive belief that voters will have equal confidence in approaches that are essentially quantitative and which are in no way influenced in their design by the qualitative dimensions that make life worth living. It is also believed that leaders will themselves be able to grasp policies of appropriate subtlety and will be sufficiently empowered to implement them. As before, quality is only honoured to the extent that it is quantifiable, and it is hoped that leaders will be adequate to the task. Quality is increasingly emerging as incompatible with complexity -- given the simplistic nature of institutional responses.

At the Sante Fe Institute (USA), specifically established by the best and the brightest to explore with mathematical rigour the science of complexity in the light of chaos theory, the director of their first economic initiative (1987-89), W Brian Arthur notes: "Nonscientists tend to think that science works by deduction. But actually science works mainly by metaphor. And what's happening is that the kinds of metaphor people have in mind are changing....Instead of relying on the Newtonian metaphor of clockwork predictability, complexity seems to be based on metaphors more closely akin to the growth of a plant from a tiny seed, or the unfolding of a computer program from a few lines of code, or perhaps even the organic, self- organized flocking of simpleminded birds." (Waldrop, 1992, pp. 327 and 329; see also p. 149)

Arthur indicates that the institute's role is to look at the ever-changing river of complexity and to understand what they are seeing. "So we assign metaphors. It turns out that an awful lot of policy-making has to do with finding the appropriate metaphor. Conversely, bad policy-making almost always involves finding inappropriate metaphors. For example it may not be appropriate to think about a drug 'war', with guns and assaults. So, from this point of view, the purpose of having the Sante Fe Institute is that it, and places like it, are where the metaphors and vocabulary are being created in complex systems." (Waldrop, p. 334)

Ironically, the process of articulating such understanding with mathematical "rigour" necessarily has to be contrasted with the "mere" metaphors from which such understanding derives. When articulated in a rigorous computer simulation, the simulation may be recognized of greatest value as a new metaphor (Waldrop, p. 334), precisely because it is an abstraction of limited relevance to understanding the real complexities of current social concerns.

ed relevance to understanding the real complexities of current social concerns.


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