Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Parsing grammars of creation

George Steiner's (2001) Grammars of Creation is an incredibly erudite meditation on processes of creation, their meaning, and their embedding in art, life, philosophy, and science. He tackles religious overtones of the act of creation, differences and commonalities between creation and invention, freedom and constraints of creation, and much, much more. Coming from literary criticism, Steiner engages a staggering array of works and lives of writers, musicians, painters, philosophers, and mathematicians to shed light on the discussed topics--consequently, I know that leering gaps in my own education obscured many of the finer points of the arguments presented. And yet it is gaps and silences in the text that drew the most of my attention.

Having dazzled the reader (this reader, at least) with the breadth of his scholarship, Steiner nonchalantly throws in markers of his own limitations:
No essay on the grammars of creation should leave out Islam. My ignorance compels me to do so (p. 58).
I find nothing more frustrating, more humbling, than my incapacity, as a mathematical illiterate, to grasp this lucent realm of 'truth beauty' (p. 147).
Only mathematicians can assess the respective claims to creation, to invention and to discovery in the mathematical process.... I have no qualification to do so (p. 171).
Surprisingly, this is the only form of ignorance present in the essay. Even as he discusses invention as a form of recombination (and literature’s posited status as ars combinatoria), Steiner does not mention knowledge as a possible ingredient of creative activity. There are traces of it in the rather sceptical discussion of the establishment of new forms of thought (Darko Suvin’s proposition of the novum as a foundation of any science fiction would have, in all probability, met with much suspicion here), some more shadows of knowledge in the idea of science benefitting from, but not requiring singular geniuses for its relentless progress (actual shoulders of giants are not mentioned, though - cf. Merton 1965/85 for those), but no heads-on tackling of whether knowledge plays any part in invention or creation. The argument here is two-fold, of course: on the one hand the notion of knowledge economy (Rooney et al., 2005) comes together with ideas of the creative age (Earls, 2002) to engender business environment where creativity, knowledge, and innovation form the crucial characteristics of success or even continued existence, on the other the countless narratives of insights and breakthroughs born from ignorance: from the DIY, everybody’s-a-musician core of punk rock aesthetics to William Gibson’s (McCaffery, 1991) celebrated declaration of technological ignorance spurring him to create Neuromancer, the quintessential cyberpunk novel, to Richard Branson’s logo-ized proclamations of his own business virginity at the outset of the road to creating (sic!) his business empire.

All of my examples fall outside Steiner’s sphere of interest; while he acknowledges the existence everyday acts of creation or invention, in particular the multitude of literally unsung narratives of unspoken internal monologues, but his focus invariably returns to the great creative endeavours, from (theologically posited) cosmogony to famed works of art to establishment (creation? invention? discovery? Steiner wrestles with the issue at length) of mathematical laws. His discussion of art tends towards the classic if not classical, and never veers from what can safely be understood as high art. There are good reasons for such choices, but my own interest lies in more quotidian creation, and in the more popular art forms. Which is where we encounter another stumbling block in appropriating Steiner’s insights. He notes the collaborative practice of contemporary technoscience, the inherent sociality of a speech act, and numerous precedents of art workshops throughout history, and yet celebrates the individuality of a creative act:
In the arts, in music, in the philosophic moment, and in almost the whole of serious literature, solitude and singularity are of the essence. The creative motion is as individual, as entrenched in the citadel of the self, as is one’s own never interchangeable death (p. 181-182).
This would render the organizational experience of any kind either uncreative or, at least, unlike that of literary creativity. I am deeply suspicious of such a statement-not only from my own experience, where writing consists of bouts of solitude-seeking punctuated by moments of overwhelming need to talk about my pet projects (where conferences offer blessed opportunities for that and energize me to carry at least some of my writing projects to completion), but also from my fieldwork among computer programmers, who tended to profess the need for solitary coding, and yet huddle with co-workers upon encountering a particularly styming problem (Kociatkiewicz, 2004). Similarly, long history of literary groups and writer circles suggests at least some added value of organized attempts at creativity.

Earls, Mike (2002) Welcome to the Creative Age: Bananas, business and the death of marketing. London: John Wiley.
McCaffery, Larry (1991) “An interview with William Gibson” in: Larry McCaffery (ed.) Storming the Reality Studio. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 263-285
Kociatkiewicz, Jerzy (2004) The Social Construction of Space in a Computerized Environment. PhD Thesis at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw.
Merton, Robert K. (1965/85) On the shoulders of giants: A Shandean postscript. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Neef, Dale (ed., 1997) The Knowledge Economy. Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Steiner, George (2001) Grammars of Creation. London: Faber and Faber.
Suvin, Darko (1976) Metamorphoses of Science Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Epistemology in pursuit of meaning

The Management of Meaning in Organizations
(Magala, 2009) is a book that attempts to be quite a few things at a same time: It is a discussion of the possibility of constructing a viable epistemology for our contemporary society (tracing its history as well as its possible future[s]), an examination of a role of the university and public intellectuals in the contemporary world, an exploration of the rise of the hegemony of bureaucracy and some predictions about its possible downfall, as well as a sketch of the development of the critical strand of organization studies (stressing particularly the author's role in its conception and development). Incidentally, the topic of 'organizations' (as advertised in the title) denotes mostly a methodological meso-level approach to social phenomena rather than a focus on organizations as entities significant for the author's argument--this is an approach quite close to my own, and I'm always happy to see this interpretation of organization studies.
In general, it seems that Magala is most successful in tackling the second theme (university and the public intellectual), but my interest in the book centres around the first topic (sensemaking and methodology) and thus my following remarks, i.e. comments brought about by my reading the book, will not focus on the book's biggest strengths.
Upon embarking with great enthusiasm on investigating the phrase "management of meaning" (a journey which itself appears somewhat disingenious, with the author inventing the phrase beforehand), Magala suddenly adopts the notion of a "market of meaning" (p.39, p. 199) without pausing to consider the reasons for or effects of treating creation, dissemination, and changes of meaning as resembling (or even embodying) a market. Such a move stands out all the more for Magala's dedication to uncovering epistemological roots of meaning (Meaning, perhaps), but it would stretch imagination to envision any complex text eschewing premade metaphors and concepts altogether. This raises a question of whether the pursuit of clear definitions (or current negotiated interpretations, as Magala's more nuanced epistemological description would have it) is such a worthwhile pursuit, and whether we could avoid it while still preserving enough comprehensibility to make writing, reading, and publishing worthwhile.
Magala is well aware of the impossibility of stepping outside one's social and conceptual networks, and the necessary messiness of any "management of meaning." At the same times, he does not shy away from discussing grand patterns of sensemaking, their adoption and dismissal. The results are somewhat strange as when Kuhn's notions of paradigm change and incommensurability (Feyerabend also called dibs on that concept, but most people, Magala included, tend to link it with Kuhnian views) are shown as having grown popular due to the needs of the participants in the political/ideological struggles of the 1950s to 1980s (chapters 1 and 2, linked to the theme of the "past tense of meaning") , and later on the same notions are used as a perfectly valid explanatory framework for the contemporary world ("increasing dangers of incommensurability... as paradigms change and clash" [p. 94]). The issue of the possibility of internal critique of grand narratives is a fascinating stance, but I am unable to find any, even tentative, answers in Magala's book, which retorts rather to quickly switching between the insider and outsider perspectives depending on the particular (sub-)topic under discussion. Moreover, for an author discussing the social embedding of sensemaking processes, Magala shows surprisingly little of the sources of his examples ('cases') -- do they come from the author's (informed) recollection of events, memories of participants, or available records? That's hard to say, which is a problem as Magala's judgements tend to be authoritative even when not in sync with many other available descriptions of the same story (e.g. the very same Wikipedia which serves as the source for the only quote in Magala's reporting of the scandal surrounding the disposal of Shell's Brent Spar oil platform has a very different description of Cohn-Bendit's paedophilia controversy than the one offered by Magala).
In the same vein, while the author dilligently traces the historico-philosophical roots of the three different modes of sensemaking (religious, rational-scientific, and postmodern) he proposes, the social entities used to explain encountered social processes ("the media," "the liberal left," "the mainstream managerial sciences") are treated as empirical facts rather than as results of Magala's sensemaking reduction of the complex social landscape into discrete social actors.
Widespread lauding of creativity appears first as a symptom of the de-sociologized and over-psychologized view of the social landscape (p. 105), and yet, in the concluding chapter, Magala surmises that in the proposed, somewhat utopian future society "[c]reativity should be omnipresent through designed artifacts filling social spaces and providing cultural contents for the multimedia" (p. 218).
All in all, it's an epistemological mess, and not just because the author believes epistemology is both social and thoroughly messy (and a final aside: I wonder why Magala chose to discuss Fuller's [2000] Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times rather than seemingly much more relevant [1988] Social Epistemology? Perhaps the latter's style bored him as much as it did me).

Fuller, Steve (1988) Social Epistemology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Fuller, Steve (2000) Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Magala, SÅ‚awomir (2009) The Management of Meaning in Organizations. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.