Johann van der Merwe’s Paper Proposal

Finding no-one

By listening we find out that we are not. Ordinary listening merely accesses data and at best information, but that does not necessarily lead to action, in the absence of the making of distinctions. Once we get to this constructivist point, we can use the space of ‘we are not’ to make distinctions between our old selves and the continuously (re)designed new selves, and for that to happen we need to pay attention to what listening can reveal.
Claudia Westerman (2010:24-25) queried, apropos of last year’s C:ADM conference, the type of space that a cybernetic conversation needs in order to ‘be designed’ / constructed (my wording), and, even more interesting, she uses the term ‘framing’ in the context of this space, as well as reporting that there were many questions from participants “about rules and how to play them”. Mark Johnson (2010) was somewhat concerned with the notion of causality in terms of the nature of constructed realities, in the sense that “I’d like my cybernetics to allow me the freedom to at least consider the possibility of an ontological world, just as it lends itself to allowing me to consider the possibility of the absence of reality”, to which Ben Sweeting responded with “cybernetics [locates] us in the world in the midst of reciprocal subject-object interactions”.
This paper, then, will have a conversation with itself, following Luhmann’s (2002:156) ‘only communications can communicate’, in the sense of wondering about Westerman’s space for conversation, and what framing means for the conversationalist (speaker) and listener (same person, who is also the observer of self-observations); it is in the ‘framing’ that construction of realities take shape, and it is here that a communal sense of the rules and how to ‘play’ them emerge, an element of cybernetic conversation that should speak to Johnson’s concerns over causality. This space of becoming is nothing if it is not an ontological world of possibility, and it is here that we find both presence and absence playing new games with new rules, proving that cybernetics allows us to locate ourselves in worlds of probability wherein we are the reciprocal subject-object relation. If listening could be made visible, we would be able to see this happening, see ourselves being redesigned, ‘as we speak’.

Finding no-one
By listening we find out that we are not. Ordinary listening merely accesses data and at best information, but that does not necessarily lead to action,[1] in the absence of the making of distinctions. Once we get to this constructivist point, we can use the space of ‘we are not’ to make distinctions between our old selves and the continuously (re)designed new selves, and for that to happen we need to pay attention to what the concept of listening can reveal.

Claudia Westermann (2010:24-25) queried, apropos of last year’s C:ADM conference, the type of space that a cybernetic conversation needs in order to ‘be designed’ / constructed (my wording), and, even more interesting, she uses the term ‘framing’ in the context of this space, as well as reporting that there were many questions from participants “about rules and how to play them”. I find that these and similar queries are ongoing, and still of concern to many people, which is enough reason to entice them into an open conversation about understanding, and what we mean when using this term. The space of ‘we are not’ is a space for conversation, and it is here that the construction of realities take shape. This space of becoming is nothing if it is not an ontological world of possibility, proving that cybernetics allows us to locate ourselves in worlds of probability wherein we are the reciprocal subject-object relation. If listening could be made visible, we would be able to see this happening, see ourselves being redesigned, ‘as we speak’, as we listen, given that speaking here means an investigative response to what we are listening to, turning ‘speech’ into ‘probe’.

Listening to no-one
Listen as hard as you may, but you will still hear nothing, since there is nothing to hear in the first place. We tell ourselves that there can be no listening without hearing, and no hearing without sound, and the content of sound is communication; so we fondly believe, since this is a normal, safe, and accepted argument. In that case, you would be arguing that deaf people cannot listen to a conversation, and yet they do exactly that. If there can be no listening without hearing, then reading a book cannot be about a conversation, but it is, and even more so (in some respects) than a verbal conversation.[2] Listening does not just mean I hear you, and that we can therefore assume that I understand you. Listening can be done with our ears, with our eyes, with our skin, and if we are lucky, we learn how to listen with all our senses, in an act of synchrony, or, we learn to listen by designing our own framing actions. The truth is that I cannot hear ‘you’, because there is no ‘you’ to listen to, only an ‘I’ that advances the movements (and displacements) of existence. I admit to a radical constructivism, and I may as well be as radical as I can be, which includes the tenets of social autopoiesis, and therefore we hear nothing because there is no you, only a structural I that makes decisions about couplings with its environment[3] based on the integrity of its own internal organisation. This last observation can be, and is usually, interpreted (put into practice) in various (and often, divergent) ways, the most common state of being ensuing through what Heidegger calls Verfallen, since we deal with our world (our whole environment, i.e., our social, cultural, economic, professional ‘worlds-of-influence’) in such a way that the ‘I’ we have constructed can survive, as intact as possible, based on the integrity of the internal organisation of what we believe our identity to be, but Verfallen can mean such a falling back into the everyday concerns of the world – work and play – that we are not really thinking, and definitely not listening.

Who are we then, if we can so easily construct an ‘I’ that only manages to listen to the brute voice of animal survival?
If reasoning is anything like thinking (seen in the broadest sense), then everyday concerns, Verfallen, an unthinking and ‘practical’ attitude will lead us to the conclusion that in everyday conversations we are not listening at all, but only manufacturing arguments to strengthen our own case (which may be seen as an argument for brute survival), and yet this is exactly what is seemingly being argued by Mercier and Sperber (2011), and I am afraid that I have to agree. However, the case for reasoning as an argument for ‘survival’ does not, in fact, include the brute voice of individualism as we have been led to believe, and if we can accept the autopoietical structure of living systems (above), then the Mercier and Sperber (2011:57) argument holds, namely that when humans use reasoning (as an everyday activity, but we can expand that idea to specific reasoning as well) they are not so much seeking truth as they are ‘designing’ an argument to support their particular viewpoint. What Mercier and Sperber are proposing is that we should re-think our notion of reasoning in general, since “much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions” (:57). Much of what can be called ‘normal’ reasoning is done through an unconscious and intuitive inference, while argument should be a conscious process, by the observer of that process, of the process itself, but also a consciousness of the mechanism by which a conclusion is reached; “What characterizes reasoning proper is indeed the awareness not just of a conclusion but of an argument that justifies accepting that conclusion” (Mercier and Sperber, 2011:58). Justification of the making of (particular) distinctions (part of argumentation) and justification of the form that our ‘survival’ takes – in short, justification of and for the form that the design we choose is inclusive or exclusive, of the other.

What, then, is the difference between this type of argument (which most people would assume to be linked to ‘logic’) and rhetoric (which, by the same argument, is assumed to be strengthened, perhaps unfairly, by persuasion), and how is reasoning / thinking like listening?
Toulmin (2001:167) refers to Aristotle’s work on logic as a still relevant point of departure when thinking about our own thinking, which is what reasoning is, or should be, even on the mildest scale of operations; “We give reasons for the things we do, the ways we vote, and the movies we admire; we find fault with the reasons of the same kinds that others offer in turn … Little of this has to do with formal or substantive analytics; yet we can all be said to ‘know a lot’ about these things, as is clear of we take the trouble to study everyday conversations.” Here we have a link between conversation and logic, and more, since Toulmin (2001:25) questions the distinction between logical analysis and rhetorical power – seen by some as the difference between authentic reasoning and inadequate persuasion – and then asks how can this distinction, this separation, be maintained in real life (“realistically or universally … applied”), as if we could think and reason using “context-free and timeless concepts” that are “disembedded” from our experiential world(s) via a valueless language? How could we, in our language use that is so humanly and metaphorically symbolic, manage to break apart what can better be regarded as a unity, i.e., “Rhetoric and Logic … the substantive appraisal of argumentation and the formal analysis of arguments” (:25), since both provide us with forms of knowledge that should return to a whole (experience and appreciation of our constructed worlds).

To reason within an everyday conversation

The cybernetic rule of law (which I just made up) is encapsulated in the following: as I have written elsewhere (van der Merwe, 2007), according to Churchman (1977) the philosopher Spinoza was of the opinion that “the ethical mode of life is understanding”, and Russell (1987:555) agrees that Spinoza thought the preservation (those formative elements we choose to conserve) of man’s own being results from a wise act, which in turn is made possible through personal but also contextual understanding. Wittgenstein’s belief (Edmonds and Eidinow, 2001:55) was that ethics can only be revealed through the way we choose to act, because as a subject it resists articulation: it is there, but we cannot talk about it, directly, as a subject separate from … something else, which is more like Davis’s hermeneutic listening, below.

To reason within an everyday conversation, then, requires that we pay attention to what a cybernetic conversation can afford its participants, namely the capability of listening to the cybernetic rule of law, which, among other things states that ethics can only be expressed when ‘dialogue falls quiet’, allowing us to see the form of ethics in the representation of each other’s actions and its consequences, and we listen to, and ‘see’ the developing social systems design conversation, itself a ‘thing’ that cannot be expressed or perceived directly, but that must be allowed, in a reasonable way and in the public sphere, to develop as a living systems idea, and therefore protected as an ongoing and necessary conversation. What we listen to cannot be written down, and like ethics cannot be expressed directly (everything is mediated by something else), and “when words are not enough – when dialogue falls quiet” (Nelson, 2004:265), we have to allow a ‘thing’ to show itself, to become clear through its image in another’s representation.

This correlates with Jacques Maritain’s belief that we should live according to the “logic of the structure of the living thing”, not the logic of decidability, or what Maritain (1939:52) called the pseudo-logic of clear ideas (i.e., positivism), but the logic of the living and contextual, cybernetic, conversation that seeks associations, relationships, and the creation of that open space of ontological possibility where listening includes the idea of an investigative response. We are indeed redesigning our new selves when we find ourselves ‘listening’ for our own voices of reason – that could bring to us a narrative of being/movement and of action/decision. This hybrid rhetoric/logic voice speaks to us of both our own contact with the world and the information coming to us (the structure being informationally open) from the environment we move in, i.e., the social and practical world of others, and find in this hybrid voice /narrative the acceptable reasons (the logic of the living thing) for making choices.

A cybernetic conversation is thus much more a form of listening than it is a form of (traditional) communication, as Davis’s work shows. Davis (1997:355-356) uses Rorty’s expansive approach to human consciousness by referring to the latter’s notion of developing new ways of speaking (and therefore of thinking) about perception and its consequent action(s), and Davis does so by focusing on three ways of listening, the third being of most interest here, which he calls hermeneutic listening. This comes closest to what a cybernetic conversation can achieve, although I have to take issue with his interpretation of constructivism, which he believes has the individual as its object of study as far as cognition is concerned. In contrast, enactivism regards issues such as learning and making distinctions for action as both individual and collective, which, when “understood to exist in dialogical, ecological, and coemergent relationship … cannot be understood as distinct” (Davis, 1997:366). And yet, while regarding constructivism as limited, Davis does point out that both constructivism and enactivism (and for the latter he cites the work of Bateson and Varela et al. as examples) are based on a cognitive logic that brings into play the principle of survival-of-the-fit (as opposed to the erroneous survival of the fittest), which means that cognition, and particularly the example of hermeneutic listening, should be underpinned by the notion of adequacy (i.e., also denoting competency and capability), in other words, based on (contextual) discussion rather than through imposition of a rule.

What hermeneutic listening accomplishes is to overcome the notion of a single authority, and to replace that with collective relationships, further highlighting the importance of listening as “an imaginative participation in the formation and transformation of experience … [demanding] … the willingness to interrogate the taken for granted and the prejudices that frame our perceptions and actions” (Davis, 1997:369-370). Hermeneutic listening is thus, ultimately, a corrective to the modern preoccupation with an authentic ‘self’ – we listen to know who we are, and what we can become. As for my statement that cybernetics allows us to locate ourselves in worlds of probability wherein we are the reciprocal subject-object relation, the following: “Once one has understood that perceptions and observations do not drift like snowflakes into a passive receiver but are the result of actions carried out by an active subject, one cannot but wonder what precisely these actions are and how they work” (von Glasersfeld, 1996); extrapolated from this I believe that this active subject can also be an ‘active object’, in the sense that perceptions and observations drift like snowflakes from the observer towards the observed, and settle on the objects and events being observed like a cloak of awareness, trying in the process to become conscious of the no-one. This is the act of listening, a discernment that feels its way to a possible judgment (the making of distinctions in order to act/decide), and it tries to do so with shrewdness and sensitivity. What is being observed, and listened to (listened for), also includes the possible relations we can observe, in this act of listening, that, if acceptable, can lead to the form (design) of the new self.

List of References
Churchman, C.W. (1977). A Philosophy for Complexity, from Managing Complexity, orig. in H.A. Linstone and W.H. Simmonds (eds.), Managing Complexity. Reading (Mass.): Addison-Wesley. http://groups.haas.berkeley.edu/gem/essays/complex.html
Davis, B. (1997). Listening for Differences: An Evolving Conception of Mathematics Teaching. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 28(3):355-376.
Edmonds, D. and Eidinow, J. (2001) Wittgenstein’s Poker. London: faber and faber.
Maritain, J. (1939). Art and Scholasticism, J.F. Scanlan, translator. London: Sheed & Ward.
Mercier, H. and Sperber, D. (2011). Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 34(2):57-74.
Nelson, H. (2004). Bela H. Banathy: The Legacy of a Design Conversation. Systems Research and Behavioural Science 21(3):261-268.
Russell, B. (1987). A History of Western Philosophy. London: George Allen & Unwin.
Toulmin, S. (2001). Return to Reason. Cambridge (MASS): Harvard University Press.
Van der Merwe, J. (2007). The complexity of design as a wavefunction, in Pre-proceedings of the 3rd International Workshop on Complexity and Philosophy, February 22-23, 2007, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.
Van der Merwe, J., and Brewis, J. (2011). From Problem-Solving Paradigm to Co-Ontogenic Drift: How do Learning Narratives Self-Generate? Leonardo 44(2):133-138.
Westermann, C. (2010). Review of Cybernetics: Art, Design, Mathematics Conference 2010. Leonardo Online, 2 November 2010. http://www.leonardo.info/reviews/nov2010/westermann_cybernetic.php

4 Responses to Johann van der Merwe’s Paper Proposal

  1. Philip Baron says:

    Hi Johan, I have read your paper twice. I will read it it again, and then again i think.

    J: “The truth is that I cannot hear ‘you’, because there is no ‘you’ to listen to, only an ‘I’ that advances the movements (and displacements) of existence”
    P: A question: how does the experience of the “I” originate then? In community? If i was alone on an island, am I an “I”? What do you think?

    J: “an imaginative participation in the formation and transformation of experience … [demanding] … the willingness to interrogate the taken for granted and the prejudices that frame our perceptions and actions”
    P: – I like this. Its the taken for granted that often is troublesome. The assumption that you know what i know, or you live like i live. Alasdair Macintyre uses the example of a person who lives a dual language. I am sure you have read his work.
    The prejudices which are merely lack of understanding…

    • Johann van der Merwe says:

      Philip
      Q1: Alone on an island a living & thinking entity would still be able to construct and “I” – except this would be an impoverished one. There is no real “out there” to “listen” to, only our own reactions (making decisions to accpet or reject) to our environment, and so there is no real island or a “you”, and yet the richer our environment (some aspects of which we can control and some not)the better chance we have of making positive decisions/distinctions, and so a better “I”

      No, I’ve not come across Macintyre before, but I have read about people who “live a dual life” because of speaking two languages, and therefore virtualy having to think in two ways – that is, having to adjust their behaviour/reaction to others because of a change in “environment”, which would mean that they are able to adjust the “I” to different situations of understanding (the one source claimed that her grandmother “knitted in German”).

  2. Ranulph Glanville says:

    I like the not, that you talk about. The concern with the before, the supposed emptiness. But there is no conversation before there is conversation. Is there? This is really interesting stuff.

    I am surprised you don’t refer to the cybernetician who really worked most at conversation, Gordon Pask. Pask, of course, talked mainly fro mechanism, following Asbhy’s definition of cybernetics.

    You will find a exploration of the space for conversation in my paper “Behind the Curtain”.

    One thing, about listening: for me, listening is not just to do with the auditory. I see (!!!) it as a general purpose verb for being willing and open to what the other has to offer, a way of being generous.

    • Johann van der Merwe says:

      Ranulph
      I feel that there is always conversation, especially when there is not. The silence of (basho) emptiness is, for me at least, the best therapy to restart my thinking process, and when I am working, listening to Bach or baroque music helps this “emptiness” to work … I have to find the conversation that isn’t yet (between myself and the work I am attempting to do). The poem The Thought Fox by Ted Hughes probably started me off thinking this way …

      I do plan to bring Pask back in the article (I wouldn’t dare leave him out) when I have more space to ramble on. There is something about his “repulsive carapace force” drawing that nags at me to compare it to J. Scott Turner’s linking of the Bernard machine concept and shear homestasis in blood vessels; I have yet to find out what the link can be, or if I’m clutching at straws(!?).

      I do agree with listening as a willingness to open up to what the other (side, the other of us) has to offer, but this is dangerous and stupid according to too many people (including some design critics – I should know! since I’ve been called worse). This approach also then must mean that the “I” has to wait for the other (anything) to approach and “introduce” itself … I do sometimes stare at the screen (I cannot seem to write on paper anymore) as if listening to what I am going to “say” next – while what I hope I am listening to is a mix of what I have just “thought”/said/written, and all that can still be heard/read/listened to – I wait for the interactions to show themselves to me.

      PS: it has just occurred to me that this is exactly what I do when working on one of my (this is not a) watercolour paintings: I seem to be listening to the work until I have enough confidence to go on …

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