Reflections on necessity

This is a long unfinished blog post from spring 2013, written for other participants in a small, international collaboration that was waiting to hear about funding of an innovative proposal on economic and political mobilization “from below”–how it may be produced, persist and be productive in spite of social-environmental crises and violence.

R’s comment on the necessity of what she is doing has led me into a period of reflective inquiry, which I report on here.

The first step was to construe necessity as subjectively felt necessity in the sense of what comes to mind when you wake up in the morning and what has a way of pushing aside other things one could be doing in any given day.  This sense is in contrast to objective necessity, e.g, capitalism must be overthrown if the welfare of workers and the environment is to be improved (see my post, “On necessity, subjectively felt,” http://wp.me/p1gwfa-u9).

Around what activities do I feel a sense of necessity?  My initial answer is that I cannot stop myself inquiring into the principles underlying how things run and trying to synthesize such principles into a neat framework.  (I should admit that “things” here refers less to machines, which I would have to get dirty pulling apart, and more to operations—mathematical or in organizations—that I can examine in my head or in simulations.)

I understand that digging down into underlying principles is not everyone’s cup of tea.  I also understand that there are situations when using the established procedures, not questioning them, moves us towards a desired outcome.  Indeed, this necessity to identify and synthesize underlying principles does not correspond to a subjective necessity to be politically activist and agitate for improvement in the conditions of the oppressed.  Nor does it correspond to facilitating strategic participatory planning through which diverse participants become “invested in collaborating to bring the resulting plans or actions to fruition.”  It does not even correspond to agitating for improvement of conditions within my workplace at a university.  Given the detachment from engagement with real-world struggles, it is fair to say that this subjective necessity corresponds to the position of privilege I have.

This position of privilege is objectively obvious, but for me to admit it is subjectively difficult.  What Parker Palmer observes in Letting Your Life Speak nudges me to do so:

the poet Rumi [made a] piercing observation: “If you are here unfaithfully with us, you’re causing terrible damage.” If we are unfaithful to true self, we will extract a price from others. We will make promises we cannot keep, build houses from flimsy stuff, conjure dreams that devolve into nightmares, and other people will suffer — if we are unfaithful to true self.

Yet, I still hold back from “coming out.”  After all, there is an objective necessity for political activism.  Moreover, digging deep into how things run leads me to this objective necessity (albeit in complex rather than deterministic manifestations).  And I feel a psychological necessity, that can be traced back to my childhood, to give no-one reason to blame me for undesired outcomes.  To the extent that I have taken my privilege into account, I have expounded a commitment to radical or progressive social change.  A true Rumian/Palmerian confession would be to admit that this expounded commitment is not my true self, that talking more than walking the political commitment extracts a price from others.  Such a confession would free myself to do the best work I can, to make better contributions than I have been.

What would those contributions look like?

Vertical-unity & horizontal-change: In the summer of 2011, I participated in Ben Schwendener’s seminar on creative thinking.  Ben (http://gravityarts.org), following the jazz composer and theorist, George Russell (see wikipedia), gets students IN ANY FIELD or OCCUPATION to define the deep (vertical) principles of their endeavor from which innovation (horizontal) then flows.  Indeed, I once sat with Ben and Marc Rossi as they prepared to improvise together on two pianos.  The previous time I heard them I was amazed that they could remember their intricate piece without the sheet music, so convinced was I that the two-piano piece had been composed in advance.   Their preparation was, however, only to look over a circle on a piece of paper where Ben had drawn some arcs.  This was all that was needed, given that they both understand the vertical principles of George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic system.

Ben’s course was not about music.  Each student had to identify a project that we really wanted to pursue, articulate the vertical and horizontal principles running through the project, and write a bio blurb that firmly positioned ourselves in the project.  My project was a precursor to what I now call Collaborative Explorations (CEs), which “build on a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) approach to education that allows students to shape their own directions of inquiry and develop their skills as investigators and prospective teachers (in the broadest sense of the word).”  How I presented the project and my bio in mid June 2011 is at http://wp.me/p1gwfa-nc.  I ran a prototype CE with the goal of exploring a deeper rationale for developing PBL in and beyond the graduate classroom, which resulted in a revised prospectus for CEs in July 2011: http://wp.me/p1gwfa-or.

One thing I noticed looking back at the bio I wrote is that I emphasize change in each item (#1, social change; #2, complexity & change; #3, innovation in teaching;#4, institutional change), but it is not clear what the logic is that connects the items– what the vertical principles are from which all these changes emerge.   That led me to begin earlier.  As a young child growing up in the country under Southern skies, I wanted to find out how the universe fitted together (so I thought I’d become an astronomer, c. 1960), then I learned about biology and was interested in how genes work to make life (c. 1965), then I worried about what would make life sustainable (c. 1970), then I explored the limits of what can be extracted from complex data about the causes that shaped it and would need to be shifted to change it (c. 1976), and then I wondered how to engage scientists to shape the social conditions that shape their work (c. 1979).  The vertical unity in all this is that each project of understanding the underlying principles opens out to the next.  As I dug down into each realm to try to make the principles clear, I saw that the realm didn’t make sense without attention to the dynamics of the context in which the realm was situated.  Seeing this flowed in part from a pedagogical orientation—not only making principles clear to me but trying to convey them economically to others.  At the same time, this digging down is necessarily abstracted from the materials involved in any of the realms and away from the social ties that keep many people from questioning what the filed takes as given.  It also takes me away from the ties that help, so my pedagogy has a spirit of leading others in areas where they will be dis-comforted as well.

All this made me think that the heart of my work and life is #2 in the bio from Summer 2011:

2. Investigation of complexity and change … I argue that both the situations studied and the social situation of the researchers can be characterized in terms of “unruly complexity” or “intersecting processes” that cut across scales, involve heterogeneous components, and develop over time…

(Unfinished April 2013.  For reasons I can’t recall, it got difficult to proceed at that point. The challenge now, when I post this publicly in July 2015, is to see where these reflections now lead me.)

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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