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Evolving systems: a year's experience

Paul Grobstein's picture

Evolving Systems

May, 2010 Core Group Meeting

Background, Summary,
and Continuing Discussion

Reflections after the first year


The Evolving Systems project is an exploration of  the idea that form, meaning, and esthetics are interdependent emergent characteristics of an ongoing evolutionary process originally lacking any plan, intention, of purpose.  And of the implications of such an idea for both intellectual and practical life. 

The Evolving Systems project is also itself an experiment in emergent form/meaning/aesthetics.  It brings together in interactive conversations people of diverse backgrounds and starting perspectives with the objective of seeing what new understandings of form/meaning/aesthetics emerge, individually and collectively.

Where have we gotten to, individually and collectively?  What openings have been created that we would like, individually and collectively, to next pursue? 


A meeting summary (Paul)

The group met in two sessions, with several people attending both.  The first focused more on expressions of disappointment with what had been achieved by the group to date, and possible ways to improve.  The second focused more on expressions of satisfaction with what had been achieved.  There was though substantial commonality across both sessions about people's individual experiences with the group, and there emerged overall an intriguing characterization of the ongoing experiment in emergent exploration, of what has usefully been achieved, of how that relates to what has not been achieved to date, and how both suggest possible directions for future development.

The significant commonality was a sense of having successfully created a distinctive and valuable interpersonal environment within which people felt free to explore interesting things in the absence of a concern about being criticized as well as of any need to demonstrate achievement relative to some immediate task.   People not only looked forward to meetings of the group but described a variety of ways in which both particular sessions and experience with such an environment generally had impacted significantly not only on their activities outside the group but also on their understandings of themselves and on their approaches to dealing with things outside the group.  There was an increased appreciation of the value and productivity of a non-judgemental, non-task-oriented environment within which new things could and did evolve.

Several people felt the achievement and continuing existence of such an environment was a sufficient accomplishment for the group.  Others, however, felt that the willingness/ability of the group to confront difficult issues not approachable in other contexts had not yet gone deep enough and that the year's experience had been one of "flailing a bit," skipping from thing to thing without a coherent sense of purpose.  The contrast between satisfactions and dissatisfactions led to an interesting discussion of whether a non-judgemental, non-task-oriented environment was itself desirable.  On the one hand, it was likened to the "pure research" ideal and to the process of biological evolution.  Valuable and unexpected things evolve in contexts lacking any overriding purpose or standard of judgement  On the other, concern was expressed that such an environment was "academic" and "privileged"/"indulgent."  There are real problems in the world that people are confronted with all the time.  Shouldn't the group be engaging explicitly with such problems?  Wouldn't doing so give it a  drive that might lead to still deeper personal and interpersonal engagements and a greater sense of both individual and collective coherence?

A way of drawing from both perspectives rather than setting them in opposition derives from a recent essay, Cultures of ability.  The essay, itself a product of the Evolving Systems group activities, suggests that social and cultural organizations might best be brought together with the intent of allowing a collective purpose or objective to emerge from the interactions of the particular people involved, rather than with a pre-established purpose or objective.  It was proposed that the core Evolving Systems group, having established some level of awareness of each other's distinctive backgrounds, interests, and areas of expertise, might move on to trying to more deliberately evolve/elaborate a shared sense of purpose.  One direction that might be explored, given discussions to date, relates to existing educational structures and practices, and the degree to which they might usefully be reconsidered in the evolving systems context and the experiences with group dynamics of the Evolving Systems project to date. 

Given summer scheduling complexities, regular meetings of the core group will be postponed to next fall when we will consider together this new direction.  During the summer, informal meetings will be held for those available.


Continuing discussion (below)


Bharath Vallabha's picture

developing relationships

I second the various ideas on commitment being expressed here. Here is my take on it.

In the meeting last Wednesday I expressed my sense that it is unclear to me what we are doing in this group, and that it might be helpful to engage with big questions which are easily accessible to non-academics (like "Does religion matter anymore?" "Is there objective truth?" and so on). I was very grateful for the open space of the group and for our conversation. I have thought since the conversation that perhaps I didn't then fully put my finger on what I wanted to express.

There is something about our group dynamic which still strikes me as very traditionally and unhelpfully academic. And in the following sense: we don't put any direct emphasis on developing inter-personal relationships among the various members. My sense is that we come together to talk about some thing big, abstract and general (be it ideas, books, processes, modes of thinking, etc.), and very rarely do we ask each other, "What do you care about? What does your life look like? What would you like your life to look like?"

I liked everyone in the group, and I am happy to say that there are things about each person which I admire. But I also felt that I didn’t learn (at least in the group conversations) anything deep or important about any person. Relatedly, I didn’t feel that people learnt anything deep or important about me, or at any rate, nothing which I expressed, since it felt like I didn’t really express myself. I am not sure any of us did, other than in the well worn academic sense of expressing some ideas or values which we like.

I have often felt that conversations with academic collegues (no matter how smart or well intentioned they are) are rarely as intellectually vigorous as a deep conversation one has with a friend. With a friend one knows in one’s life the whole of one’s life is in play and there is a vivid sense that this conversation means something about how my life will be lived. The conversation makes a difference to my life, because something I take away from the conversation might change how I interact with some people or brings closure to some aspect of my past or opens up new relationships for the future. Did I feel something like this with the conversations of our group? No. Did I enjoy the group conversations? Yes. Did I learn something from them? Yes. Was I inspired by them? A little. Did they make a difference in how I lived my life? Not much.

During the course of this year I had a couple of times coffee or lunch with different people in the group: Paul, Alice and Anne (not with all of them together). I tremendously enjoyed these conversations, and always felt empowered by them. These were conversations in which I felt myself as a whole person engaged. But in the group conversations I never felt quite as if I was talking with the same Paul, Alice or Anne. And the same is true for myself: I never quite felt as if I was being the same person in the group that I was normally or what I would be in a one on one conversation. And I image that this might be true of the others as well.

This is what I mean by saying that I feel the group is still too academic. It felt like in entering the seminar room we had to leave at the door our ordinary selves and put on the “scholar”, “thinker” identities. Perhaps we were doing this less in this group than in a departmental colloquium, but less is not the same as not doing it at all, and for my taste, it was still too much like a department colloquium. I would be interested if there are ways in which we can self-consciously try more to leave the academic identities at the door, and try to forge new identities together. That might mean not worrying about what books we read or what the process will look like, but simply turning to each other and being with each other.

It is in this sense that I was not a fan from the beginning of the multiple layers of the evolving systems: the core, the morning groups and the web. It seems to me that this is just multiplying complexity and actually makes it harder to have real inter-personal conversations, which thrive in a smaller group setting. And since developing inter-personal relationships means being emotionally honest, I will take a step in that direction here. I think it feels good to us to say that there are meetings happening every two weeks and every month and on the web and so on; it makes us feel like we are producing something, creating something, contributing to something. But this strikes me as a false hope and not a real sustainable gain. I think the only real sustainable growth and emergence comes from developing inter-personal relationships; from creating communities. And that means accepting all the time and energy it takes to get to know a few other people, and that means accepting that one will make room for such interactions by cutting back on some other aspects of one’s life and even academic identities. I don’t think it happens simply by going to a meeting for an hour or two on an intellectual topic, no matter how many times a month one does it.

It seems to me that a community gets built through people giving up something for the sake of that community. What did we give up in order to have the conversations in our group? Did I give up anything? No, I don’t think I did. I wish I did, and I wish we held each other accountable for such things.

Paul Grobstein's picture

a reason to talk together differently for a shared purpose?

Interesting/helpful conversation with Ben at lunch today on peoples' discomfort with "flailing a bit."   Made me think a bit more about how/why the group was conceived in the first place, and my personal reluctance to make major changes in how we operate.  A sense of common purpose can be facilitated by more homogenity in the community, or by defining more sharply the purpose of a particular community.  Both directions, however, reduce the likelihood of things emerging that were on no one's mind at the outset, and that's something I'd prefer not to do given the experiment in finding alternative forms of inquiry that motivates the project. 

Perhaps a greater sense of common purpose can be achieved by regrounding ourselves in that shared commitment?  Along which lines, the questions under Overview continue to seem relevant.  If indeed there is only the process of inquiry, with no "external reality" or external judge to measure its achievements by, how does one proceed?   Maybe our "flailing" to date is itself a symptom of a problem yet to be fully engaged with?   

alesnick's picture


Assuming it's the case that the "flailing" (I don't think I would call it this -- maybe "waiting?") is a symptom of "a problem yet to be fully engaged with," what is the problem?  I think it could be that we not committed in the same ways or to the same degrees to this project (indeed, when do members of  a group ever not differ in this connection?) , perhaps because  we need to give more attention to the question what we are committing to and how,  and at the same time trust more in ourselves, one another, and the universe that ongoing open-hearted and open-minded engagement with . . . ourselves, one another, and the universe will illuminate the question and possible directions flowing from it.

Anne Dalke's picture

On talking together differently

I was very moved, in our discussion Wednesday evening, by Bharath's call for us to speak together about what which is real, about that which matters...and also heartened by the opportunities Liz held out, for us to learn how to speak together differently. That feels to me like something the world needs: a different way of talking among ourselves and others.
What this suggests, I think, is that we need less an organizing principle or topic (as some of us were suggesting below) than a different mode, a different way of interacting, one in which we don't each default to our area of professional expertise (or, I think, to our idiosyncratic, personal vulnerabilities?--not sure about this one!).

I've been recording elsewhere (close by) what I've been learning from Rebecca Goldstein's new novel, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. The central character, who has gotten fame and fortune by publishing a book on The Varieties of Religious Illusion (which has an appendix rebutting all the arguments for God's existence) muses towards the end of the novel,

"his Appendix was only an appendix, and...has little to do with the text...the text is written not out there but in here, in the emotions that are so fundamental that we spread them onto a world of our imagining, or onto a world of our making, so that we end up beholding a world that is lavished with ...our vertiginous bafflement at the self that is inviolably me and here and now, and with our desperate and incomplete sense of the inviolable selves of the others that we need so crucially, and with our fear of all that's unknown out there and that can hurt us, and with our suspicions that almost everything out there will turn out to be unknown and able to hurt us....and then what happens?

This is what happens....The rituals of purification; and the laws of separation....The communities that define themselves in distinction from others, and the hatred in those others who can burn them alive....The elected circle of disciples, and the ordeals that try their faith..."

This is the challenge, I think (one Metanexus might well like to see us take on): Might we create here, among ourselves, a different sort of "happening"? One without such rituals, such laws, such distinctions, such disciplines, such disciples, such ordeals....?

Paul Grobstein's picture

a place of generative exchange

"we need ... a different way of talking among ourselves and others"
I agree, as per Cultures of ability
Instead of looking at each other in terms of deficiencies, we could look at each other in terms of strengths and construct our sense of what we're trying to do based on that.  We are trying to do whatever the particular collection of people who make up our culture is able to do well.  And we constantly adjust what we're trying to do to assure that everybody in our culture plays a meaningful role in what we're trying to do.  We create and recreate our culture to make everybody a meaningful contributor to it
maybe, by learning to be less critical and more generous with ourselves we could as well contribute to bringing into being a more humane culture, a culture of ability rather than disability?"
and On beyond a critical stance
The ability to use what is available, both in oneself and in other people, to create new understandings and new meaning depends on a critical posture but requires, beyond that, an interesting blend of humility and ambition: a willingness to listen to both oneself and others and a belief that it is actually possible, individually and collectively, to create new understandings.
I think its something like that that Rumi [see below] had in mind: a place where we talk and listen not to determine what is "right" and what is "wrong," nor because its important to be polite and respectful, but rather in order to create, for ourselves and others, ways to make sense of things that make more sense than anything we have yet thought of, to create and recreate meaning."
The key to such a place, it seems to me, is not in fact to give up "professional expertise" nor the "idiosyncratic, personal."  Nor to focus on "that which is real, about that which matters."  What is needed is to bring to the conversational table not restricted or focused parts of oneself but the entirety of an inevitably incoherent self.  And faith that it is from the exchange of the richness of pieces that new coherences will emerge, individually and collectively.  And again dissolve, providing the grist for new coherences to again emerge.  What is needed is to see each other less as representative of wholes that challenge or threaten and more as a source of diverse openings, each to be accepted or declined  without judgement of their possible worth for others. 
Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing
there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
...... Jelaluddin Rumi

Anne Dalke's picture

"warming up what is in the box"

"I want to warm up what is in the box"--Alice.

I'd say that, as a group developing a multiply-angled and -layered understanding of various linked topics, and finding a way to work usefully and (warmly?) together, we have been flailing about a bit. Each of us has, in turn, pursued our own area of interest, with others responding (or not); so we've veered from Paul's discussion of "perceptual fluidity," to Ben's explication of how to use the I Ching; from Bharath and Alice's exploration of heaven as "part of a tool kit of survival and liberation," to Arlo's description of deep time; from Liz's and my presentation of "object-oriented ontology," through Wai Chee Dimock's explication of American literary history as a world event, to Peter Rose's "metaperception."

Each of those sessions interested and engaged me in a different way, but looking back now, it doesn't feel to me that they built on or extended one another very much. Just listing them emphasizes the random quality of our explorations. So I'd suggest that, going into our second year, we need more of a center to build out from and return to. It could be a shared topic that each of us might, again, speak to in sequence. The meaning and implications of "chance" is providing a locus for the morning group; might that work for us, also? Liz and I have been discussing "information" as an organizing principle for our new course upcoming on "Gender, Information, Technology and Gender," and I think that could provide another interesting focus: what is "information"? How does it differ from "meaning," from "noise"?) Or--following Alice, below--I'd love to hear how each of us might speak of love, which I would say is a primary way of giving "form" to "chaos" -- or maybe it's giving "chaos" to form"? In either case, each of us could select a text or image that illustrates our understanding, and we could all explore it together.

Or we could read a single book as a group; if not Nicole Krauss's wonderful novel The History of Love (which I warmly recommend!), then perhaps Rebecca Goldstein's newest one, 365 Arguments for the Existence of God (which has been garnering me lots of comments on the train ride to campus and back). There are of course tons of older more classic texts (William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience?) that would give us a shared location for speaking from-and-to....

Along these lines, a tease or two from Goldstein:

"Gideon Raven had always had a rigorous bent to his mind. He'd come to identify this as his major problem. It made him panicky to step from one thought to the next without some connective scaffolding, even if slippery and narrow. It was a form of cognitive acrophobia....Even in his imagination he was an earth-crawler..."

"The science is incomplete, sure. It always is. If we wait around to get it, we'll never live to see it gotten. The best we can do is experiment with ourselves."
"I don't like the sound of that."
"Life isn't a randomized, double-blind, peer-reviewed clinical trial. Big gains require big risks, and we're after the biggest gain of all...."




alesnick's picture

adding to the brainstorm

I would be very interested in "information" as a focal idea for this group, and I think it could be interesting to consider what we did this year with reference to it.  All three of the books you mention sound great to me, too.  Another thought is that we try a different fourth term in the box from time to time . . . I don't mean to insist that it only be love!

Paul Grobstein's picture

thinking about information

For more on information, see Information?: An Inquiry

Anne Dalke's picture

Information, Meaning and Noise

And for a less abstract discussion of the same issues, see
Information, Meaning and Noise: What's the Difference?

Anne Dalke's picture

love, error, and information

...and for more on love (and its "productivity") see Lewis Hyde's poem,
"This Error is the Sign of Love" (which I think suggests that
"information" emerges in the gaps and cracks, the slippages between....

Am also thinking here about the unexpected in written form,
remembering the instability of the text,
its revise-ability, recalling its origin in the oral tradition....

"This error is the sign of love,
the crack in the ice where the otters breathe....
The teacher's failings in which the students ripen....
the picnic basket that slips overboard and leads to the invention of the lobster trap,
the one slack line in a poem where the listener relaxes and suddenly the poem is in your heart like a fruit wasp in an apple,
this error is the sign of love!"

alesnick's picture

love in the box

I look forward to upcoming retrospective and prospective conversation. As part of this, I would like to ask again, as I did a few months back, that we consider adding the term "love" to the listing of the Evolving Systems group's focal concerns: form, meaning, and aesthetics.  In other words, I move that the word "love" be included in the box of the universe that is the project's logo (or so I take it!).  I want to warm up what is in that box, and also to insist on erotic, emotive connection as important (not sure about fundamental -- does it have to be to get into the box?) to the relations (at least some important ones) of form, meaning, and aesthetics.

In Toni Morrison's novel Song of Solomon, the hero, Pilate, says before she dies, "I wish I had known more people.  If I had known them, I would have loved them."  I take this as a touchstone.  To me, it has to do with Bharath's idea that "every individual is at the cutting edge of the universe."  I want to say that love enables people to grasp this fact about one another. 

If there are no "gaps in knowledge" without "eager curiosity," then eagerness, itself an emotive, erotic state, is important to thought and creativity.  Form, meaning, and aesthetics play through thought and creativity.  So love, while perhaps not as elemental as they to the patterns of thought, is a necessary (not THE necessary, and not without risk or problems) channel for those patterns.

D'ya think?



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