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Evolving Systems: May/June Core Group Meeting

Paul Grobstein's picture

The Emergence of Form, Meaning, and Aesthetics


May/June 2009 Core Group Meeting Summaries
and Continuing Discussion

The first face to face conversation of the Evolving Systems core group consisted of two sessions, the first (28 May 2009) involving Anne, Arlo, Bharath, Hank, Liz, and Paul and the second (2 June 2009) involving Alice, Bharath,  Ben, Liz, Mark, and Paul).  The conversation summary here is by Paul.  Additional perspectives, reactions, thoughts, and continuing discussion are available in the on-line forum below.  

Core group members introduced themselves and briefly described their "starting positions," what they are bringing to the project and what they hope they might get out of it.  One quite general theme that emerged was an interest in participating in conversations where one couldn't predict at the outset how they would play out, in being surprised, in having fun.  Related to this was an interest in participating not as a representative of a discipline but rather as an individual whose distinctive perspectives included a disciplinary background but much else as well.  And in conversations that were not limited to the "academic" but encompassed deeper feelings/thoughts  and intersections with personal and practical lives, that encouraged "deconstructing expertise," made room for "non-codified, embodied knowledge," and constituted "work that is play, play that is work."  One participant suggested that "adults never take about meaningful things" and suggested the conversations should be like those children have, neither academic nor personal but rather sharing and learning from sharing thoughts about things that have deep "meaning."

There was extended discussion, particularly in the second session, of the roles of "structure" and "constraint" in the project.  Is it possible to engage in productive inquiry without specifying in advance exactly what one is inquiring into and what methods are to be used?  Isn't some structure necessary at least to react against?  One suggestion, consistent with the material above, was that we already have adequate structures to react against.  New structures could be allowed to emerge from the reaction to existing structures.  This in turn generated questions about whether conflict was the only source of productive inquiry: couldn't one as well work collaboratively out of an inclination to find shared satisfactions?  Out of a wish to create a "mutually supportive community"?  To find ways to make everybody "happier"?   
Issues of the relations among structure, constraint, methodology, conflict, commonality, and generativity are relevant not only to the activities of our working group but to problems of emergence at a variety of levels, and so it is expected they will be returned to many times.  For the moment, it was agreed that there are models for successes in putting people together and letting them create with relatively little structure/constraint, and that a common interest in bettering understanding the origins and relationships among form, meaning, and aesthetics would probably suffice for the moment as a sufficient structure/constraint.  At a more concrete level, it was generally agreed that we didn't want to focus on the reading of longer texts as a basic methodology for the group.  What we'll use instead is shorter readings, as well as other kinds of shared experiences that can generate the kinds of exchanges about deeper thoughts that constitute our primary way of working.

Other topics touched on that seem likely to reappear in future discussions had to do with the relation between human and longer/larger scales ("deep time" and "deep field"), the relations between perceived risk and perceived gain ("deep play"), and the relations between talking about something and doing something (studying something in comparison to doing it).  There was also discussion of a group name and, as might be expected, difficulty in achieving consensus about it.  For the moment, group materials carry identifiers that represent something of a record of this conversation, with those being, of course, subject to further evolution.


Paul Grobstein's picture

evolving evolving systems, year 1

Interesting  to reflect on the year, and to see/hear what others have had to say so far about where we've been/might go.  Looking forward to hearing more. 

My own experience has been rooted in two starting points.  On the one hand, I was hoping to see evolve a way of thinking about inquiry that is less fragmented and divisive, a way that combines the virtues of distributed emergent systems with those of broader reflective story telling and minimizes the problematic features of both.  On the other, I was interested in seeing to what degree broader reflective story telling itself evolves from a distributed starting point, ie from a group of interacting individuals offered at the outset a task that was neither well-defined nor collectively agreed upon ("what is needed to account for material form, meaning, and aesthetics is not several different sets of underlying fixed principles of order but rather a better understanding of how order itself, as well as various forms of order, could be created and reshaped by randomness and its continuing interaction with different degrees of order;" see Background).

The experiment ... remains in progress.  And remains interesting to me for that reason if no other. I'm inclined to agree with Anne that "we have been flailing about a bit." And that's intriguing in a variety of contexts.  Clearly "a center to build out from and return to" appears somehow in many human social groups, and seems not yet to have done so in ours.  Is that just a matter of time or are there other things to be understood here?  Is it, for example, significant that from the outset it was hard to get anyone to agree, even temporarily, on a shared set of ideas?  Is it possible that a commitment to individual story development gets in the way of shared story development, perhaps via a phenomenon Alice calls "beleagured knowing," a need to tell one's own stories that can interfere with hearing others and so building common ones?  How might this relate to efforts to create more open-ended conversational classrooms?  And, more generally, what happens in the absence of both story telling and, perhaps, beleagured knowing?  Does evolution depend on "a center to build out from and return to"?  My guess is not, and that in turn raises the question of why humans would feel a need for such a thing.  Is it a requirement for inquiry, or does it, instead or in addition, serve some other, perhaps interpersonal/social purpose?  There is, for me, a lot more to be understood about the relationship between individual and shared story creation, about both ways they can support and ways they can interfere with one another.

Whatever difficulties we may have had in developing shared stories, and indeed perhaps because of such difficulties, it was a very rich year in terms of my own interests in finding less fragmented ways to think about inquiry.  Part of this involved uncovering significant commonalities between "intellectual" and "spiritual" approaches to story development (cf Evolving inquiry: the unconscious as bridging the intellectual/spiritual and the academic/personal), and between dissatisfactions in different disciplines (cf From evolving systems to world literature and back again).  And part of it involved further thinking about the fundamental subjectivity/arbitrariness of all stories (as per From the subjective/personal to the objective/inter-personal and back again, as well as most of our other sessions and open group discussions including Chance: its meaning and significance).  The upshot is a much clearer picture for me of inquiry as rooted firmly in physical and biological processes of evolution and extended by story telling capability, and an enhanced ability to tell that story (cf Science, culture, education, and the brain).

Where to go from here? I'm happy to go with/learn from whatever emerges as the "shared subjectivity" of the group.  For my own part, I'm inclined to continue the experiment of letting the shared story emerge "as a work in progress", but am amenable to a sharper theme if others are so inclined.  Among the ones I hope to pursue in the near future is the problem of "interiority," the existence in humans (and other organisms) of characteristics influenced but not determined by their interactions with social (and other external) factors.  My intuition is that there are here both conceptual issues in a variety of disciplines and practical issues that would benefit from some emergent (and reflective) attention, and build on work we've been doing so far.

Liz's picture


Another interesting question posed in one of our start up meetings was "What should be easy, what should be hard?" I recall this was in the context of intellectual play--is play always easy, or hard, as in, fundamentally a challenge? And what does it signify to use the subjunctive, "should"? ( I hope I got that right--subjunctive tense? help from the English profs welcome...)
Play as a productive endeavor arguably would be of the challenging flavor. That it might be characterized as a "should" brings in a value element that begs cultural and disciplinary references. And off we life about finding the groove or bucking the groove? Who gets to say?

Mark Lord's picture

first thoughts.

We must take ourselves pretty seriously as an "emergent group" since the group itself has yet to be in a room together. And yet, we meet (we met) and points of engagement seem to be everywhere. A few things I hope we can keep in play:

Paul began our session by musing on the function of our work if (when) the discovery of the One True Meaning or Organizing Principle is no longer what drives us. I'm afraid that many of us ivory tower dwellers, though we have the cultural perspective to wag fingers in the direction of those who strive to accumulate Stuff, are in fact not so deeply in touch with the very personal ways in which this question of Why? might be asked of us.

My own provisional answer to this question I learned from reading Peter Handke, who says that he has faith in literature because it gives him the opportunity to change. I do think this has a lot to do with why I choose to create the work that I make. And I extend an invitation to my students, collaborators, and audiences to allow themselves to be changed also or, more accurately I hope, to change themselves through their openness to experience.

I am excited to see where this goes. It interests me a great deal to be a part of a process whose shape I can't see the end of. I feel enough points of connection with other participants to be more than just curious to see what happens.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Evolving systems: having gotten started (PG)

What struck me particularly about our first meetings was the strong interest in ... our group itself and how it would function, and the lesser attention paid to any of the larger "intellectual" issues set out in our overview and background.     There was a clear sense of academic life as not having a place for certain kinds of interpersonal interactions and of a wish to rectify that, but also a noteworthy uncertainty about exactly what is being sought and how to achieve it.

Under some circumstances, one might be pessimistic about the likely future of a group that has no sharply defined sense of an intellectual mission, and is uncertain even about how to constitute itself as an interpersonal community.  In the evolving systems context, however, the prognosis seems to me quite different.  A drive (conscious or unconscious) to create something new  is one essential element of an evolving system, and dissatisfaction with existing things is as good a source of such a drive as any.  Dissatisfaction with existing things also adds some degree of directional "selection pressure," the second key ingredient of an evolving system.  Without knowing exactly what the new things are, one at least knows to move away from where one is. That there is some commonality in the dissatisfactions, despite different ways of getting to them, makes it more likely that existing different understandings ("adaptations") can be used in symbiotic ways to open new possibilities (a third key element of evolution).  In short, evolving systems succeed in going places without a sharply defined sense of where they are going, and our group seems to have the wherewithal to achieve that.

There is, it seems to me, also substantial promise in the group's inclination to insist that intellectual issues cannot be satisfactorily addressed independently of interpersonal and personal ones.  This is very much not the typical "academic" posture and so is, I think, already pointing in a new, potentially "less wrong" direction, one consistent with a number of different lines of contemporary thought emphasizing the "embodied" character of knowledge/understanding.  Along this path of exploration, there are as yet to be fully appreciated implications for how we should be doing intellectual work but there is also the additional possibility that new directions of intellectual work could in turn suggest new directions for interpersonal and personal evolution.  

Maybe the intersection of intellectual, interpersonal, and personal realms could be generative for all three?  Its a thought that I've played with on and off in the past (cf "the personal and the political are the same thing"  and Interdisciplinarity, Transdisciplinarity, and Beyond: The Brain, Story Sharing, and Social Organization), and look forward to sharing thoughts/developing new stories about in our conversations.

The other direction our first conversations made me want to pursue further is the issue of "methodology," and, in particular, the question of whether there is or is not a characterizeable methodology appropriate for, perhaps unique to?, the kind of work we are trying to do.  Is it enough to challenge existing methodologies or does one need to go beyond that and develop new ones?  A year and a half ago, I gave a couple of talks called "Inquiry as Emergence"  and "Empirical Inquiry: Limitations and Possibilities" about "empirical non-foundationalism" as a transdisciplinary approach.  Several methodological principles from those talks may be relevant here

  • Encourage the development of new stories
  • Compare/contrast conflicting stories without quickly dismissing any
  • Notice patterns across the stories of different disciplines/forms of exploration
  • Conceive stories as yet unconceived and test those

To which I might now add, as per the illustration to the right (thanks to my daughter Rachel)

  • Find the fixed points/basic principles of any understanding, including one's own, and see what happens if you change it (the development of non-Euclidean geometry is a good example)

I'm curious to hear what additions or deletions others might have for the list.  And what peoples' feelings are about whether we have a present or future responsibility to make concrete a new methodology. And about the extent to which such a methodology might be useful not only for some intellectual work but for new thinking about interpersonal organization and personal development as well. 

Paul Grobstein's picture

A methodology for trandisciplinary work, con.

After rereading this, particularly the second part on "methodology," I realized there is a personal/background story that I left out, and that probably needs to be included for the theoretical issues to make sense.  Here the missing pieces ...

I've told a number of people, colleagues/friends/family members, about our project and, pretty uniformly, get back the questions "I don't quite understand what you're doing" and, with even more doubt/skepticism, "how do you do THAT?"  Its a quite different response from what it would be if I had said "We're trying to better understand the brain by building computer models of it" or "We're looking into the origins of modern Catholic thought by studying early Christian communities" or "we're trying to get a better handle on Moby Dick by relating it to other contemporaneous novels."  Any or all of these might have elicited a polite "how interesting."  The skepticism I've met with is quite different. 

I think one reason for the difference is the scope of what we are trying to do.  Its all right for teenagers to have conversations about how to account for .... everything.  But grownups?  with PhD's?  Aren't they supposed to have grown beyond that?  ... to be working on something that may be incomprehensible but is at least (or appears at least) to be well-defined and narrowly focused?  It all reminds me of when I was a college student, and I tried to find a faculty advisor who would sponsor me in an independent major on "human knowledge."  Faculty member after faculty member patted me on the head and said "You can't do that."  We'll see.

I think though that it is the issue of methodology as much as the issue of scope that makes people (at least the ones I've talked to) skeptical of what we're about, and may make us uncertain about it as well.  Hence the concern above for methodology.  Others may not know exactly how peering through a microscope might contribute to better understanding cancer, but they've learned to accept on faith that that might be so.  The same is true for the other examples mentioned and myriad additional ones, not only in the minds of other people but in our own.  We, and others, may not know exactly how the method can actually advance the inquiry, but we know what people will be DOING, what the observations will be and more or less what will be the accepted methods for identifying and making use of them.  There is, if no clear indication of how it will serve any given purpose, at least a clear methodology.

I think we can do better, and that's what I was trying to begin sketching above.  Our purpose is to find new and better ways of thinking about things on a more global scale, and our method is to extract from particular existing lines of inquiry the more global ways of thinking that are inherent in them, to notice patterns and conflicts in those more global ways of thinking, and to come up with new more global ways of thinking that  emerge from reflecting on those patterns and conflicts.  The method, it seems to me, fits nicely the purpose.  

What are we doing?  Trying to come up with ways of making sense of the world that don't have the problems of existing ways of making sense of the world.  How are we doing it?  What are our observations, and our methods for making use of them?  Our observations are characterizations of how other people make sense of the world, and we use them to see what new ways of making sense of the world we can conceive at more global scales that might open interesting new lines of exploration at more local and more global scales. 

Will those answers make my colleagues/friends/family less skeptical?  Probably not immediately, but perhaps as we fill in with some examples.  And maybe, if all goes well, they'll come to see this sort of "academic" activity as not something whose significance they have to talk on faith but  as something that has detectable meaning for their own lives.  We'll see.

bolshin's picture

Comments on Our Initial Meeting

This seems like a good group -- and I mean that seriously, as I've worked in a lot of groups, some good, some quite difficult!
A few thoughts: First, what seems new is that we are not a typical group in that we don’t have a particular assignment or mission. We don’t really have roles, and each person seemed to also want to avoid even “roles of expertise”. So, we are in new territory, ministers without portfolios. Which I like. What seems particularly important to me is that while we might not want to adopt a “deconstructionist” approach, we take apart things every time we seem to be going down a time-worn road. For example, we might avoid things like “we have to agree on”, or “let’s decide”, etc. Let’s see what kind of “non-processes” our interactions lead to...

I say this because my head is often heavily into politics, even as I hate the political scene. Here, I think politics is a useful (negative) model, in that most political parties, especially the ones claiming to be different, or agents of change, follow the same tired methodologies, and even use the same language, as the other parties. So, same for groups. We've got to change the very processes and language that we use, our way of thinking and interacting.

That being so, I would never prescribe to the group what we should do. However, I'd like to re-iterate an example that I brought up in the initial meeting -- I had mentioned that this past spring I was given a graduate course to teach entitled "Landscape". I was told to teach it with an emphasis on texts and readings. Absurd. I quickly dumped that idea, and ended up having the students go outside most classes, explore, take photos, build things, and so on.

Perhaps we could also think beyond talk and text for some of our interactions? Build things? Explore?
I also say this because I've spent a lot of time recently doing research on non-literate and pre-literate modes of information transmission through the ages.
As to the interesting comments already posted by other members of our group:
I like how Hank put his query: "the reasons we study what we do and the implications and ramifications of these yearnings or proddings" -- a good mystery there, and one that would be interesting to explore further...
I also agree with Bharath: "it would be helpful to discover, rather than simply lay down as a rule from a presumed privileged perspective, how we can best engage with each other..."

Alice's comment is also key, I believe: "a sense of enough time, absence of hurry" -- this whole time issue is something of great interest (at least to me!!!)

Anne wrote about: "our searching for conversations where the outcome is not “predictable” (as it so often is in departmental or disciplinary conversations)..." This is also an important point: I am interested, too, in why it is that in departmental and disciplinary conversations -- and in political ones, even personal/romantic ones (!) -- this is the case. I think that this "predictable" nature of conversations has something to do with modernity; take a look at the essay "Industrial Society and its Future"...
See you all soon...

Anne Dalke's picture

thinking beyond talk and text

I want to cheer on Ben's suggestion that it would be appropriate for an "evolving systems" group to "think beyond talk and text for some of our interactions? Build things? Explore?" I had suggested that we might also create together products that are less constrained by print conventions than academic essays have been in the past? might we try together for some similar artistic (spatial?) representations of what have been largely linguistic (and therefore temporal) orderings?


Hank Glassman's picture

some early impressions/disclosures

On Our First Meeting
I am excited to be embarking on this project with the folks I spoke with in our first gathering and look forward to meeting the rest, or to re-meeting them in this context. For me, the opportunity to stretch and have unexpected conversations is most welcome. Bharat noted (paraphrasing here) that with other philosophers of his sub-field he might have wonderful conversations, but they are predictable ones. This is my feeling exactly, I want to be able to think and speak in ways that I have been socialized away from within my own little world of religious studies/Japan studies/Buddhist studies/history. People talked about their personal connections to their work, this also interests me greatly – the reasons we study what we do and the implications and ramifications of these yearnings or proddings. What changes as we recognize/reveal/expose these motivations?
Some people identified their religious orientations (or non). I did not, not because I was keeping this private but because the opportunity did not arise. I will say that I could address the question in many different ways and want to emphasize that my self-revelation here is provisional and incomplete. Anyhow, Buddhist-Shaivite-Jew might do well to explain some of my leanings in terms of culture, thought, and practice – and in no way respectively.

Anyhow, I am very excited for our conversations and expect to learn a great deal in dialogue with all of these good folks.

alesnick's picture

Response to first meeting

Greetings --

Some thoughts that follow for me from the first meeting I attended:

-- Mark's question, in response to a thread of conversation: "If there have to be rules for emergence, what are they?"

-- My enjoyment of a sense of enough time, absence of hurry -- and wondering how this connects with loosening structure and immediate concern for outcome.

-- Curiosity about how to make cross-disciplinary conversation work here without people feeling the need to set themselves up as spokespeople for our respective disciplines.

-- Appreciation for Paul's explicit invitation to speak as oneself, in one's own voice, from one's own specific perspective/experience/language (not exactly Paul's terms here, but this is the sense I took), because it's that way of working that's apt to be most generative.  To me, this is important -- that one way to include people's subjectivities pedagogically is to invite storytelling, and/but another is to invite personal idiom.  A broader issue raised here is what kinds of facilitation scaffold generative collaborations in a group of this kind. 

-- Looking forward --


Bharath Vallabha's picture

First Meeting

One issue that struck me from the first meeting is the relation between structure and emergence. If there is too much structure imposed on the conversations, that seems to inhibit emergence of a focused conversation since pre-determined structure tends to lead to familiar and perhaps boring conversational patterns. But if there isn’t much structure, that too seems to inhibit emergence of a focused conversation since too many issues get onto the table and people might talk past one another.

So how should we deal with the question of what kind of structure we should have? And in particular, how should we organize meetings and think about readings and speakers?

The going idea that people seem to have come to is that the structure we would like to have should itself emerge from our conversations, and we can think of the structure in general as itself a work in progress. I think this is a good idea. Given the different places from which the people in the group are coming, it would be helpful to discover, rather than simply lay down as a rule from a presumed privilaged perspective, how we can best engage with each other.

Anne Dalke's picture


In our first meeting, I was struck by the shared sense of our searching for conversations where the outcome is not “predictable” (as it so often is in departmental or disciplinary conversations), where we might be surprised; where we might share both our lived experiences and our theoretical musings about them; where we might model the sort of work done in research institutes—imagined as “harmonious communities of free-ranging intellects”—but going even beyond the divisional structures that set apart the scientists @ the Institute for Advanced Study @ Princeton, from the social scientists @ the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences @ Stanford, from the humanists @ the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, NC. Here we can be scientists, social scientists, humanists, scholars, intellectuals, artists, humans, bringing mind, body and spirit to the table, as we explore—and so re-shape--the world together. Yeah! Let’s get going…

As a nudge, my "starting points...."

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