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Our Culture: When No is Not Enough

Aidan Ward and Philip Hellyer

White people don’t know what they want and it makes them really angry; that’s the uncompromising message that Carl Jung heard from an American First Peoples chief. Malidomu Some’s grandfather chief has a similar puzzlement: these white people must have done something terrible in their own country to want to come here and take over our country. These are serious points from people with a deeper wisdom than our own, and they are a gift in trying to get outside our own thinking and see ourselves afresh. What on earth are we about, really? Such restlessness, such a deep lack.

I also came across two stories about culture that take the subject way beyond the inanities spoken of in corporate circles. Firstly that, in the hundred years from 1850, the Dutch went from being the shortest nation in Europe to being the tallest. That has to count as a Dutch cultural effect, but one which falls outside our sense of how such things can happen. When I read about it I thought about how, as ideas of women’s fashion change, we see people’s body shapes change also. Secondly, I read a report in Daniel Everett’s Dark Matter of the Mind. He used to volunteer to take members of an Amazon tribe clothes shopping for western clothes. It struck him that the men were all precisely the same height and waist measurement, despite genetic diversity judging from facial features. From this we can see how a culture can converge us in ways that we are unaware of, or find divers explanations for.

The importance of culture extending to bodily expression is that this shows clearly how much deeper and wider culture goes than mere conscious awareness. We don’t get taller by wishing consciously to be so, but as a group of people we seem able to express things as clearly as an ant colony can engineer a nest without any single ant knowing what to do next. We focus ever more obsessively on individual consciousness, positively obscuring what we know collectively, but don’t know we know! Shades of Donald Rumsfeld, God help us. What can we access by merely relaxing into being able to do things that defy our conscious beliefs?

My close colleague Michael Jacobs plays a game called Mystic Numbers. A group sits in a circle and tries to count to 50! An individual can’t say two numbers in succession and there is a ban on overt signals and patterns.[1] If two people speak the same number simultaneously, the group starts counting again at one. Over half an hour or an hour playing this game, groups almost always become skilled at it, and the self-report goes something like “you just wait until you know it is your turn”. Where can such knowledge reside?

When Malidomu Some went to university, first locally in West Africa, then at the Sorbonne, and then in the US, he was able to pass his exams by reading his answers written in the auras of his examiners. That is another measure of the depth of a culture and how disparate cultures can be. I, myself, uninitiated as I am, used to be good at taking a multiple-choice exam where I knew nothing of the content or subject and getting close to full marks.

Culture and intelligence

Can you feel how fiercely we want to think that intelligence is a property of a person? This person is seriously bright and that person is thick as two short planks? Think for a moment of the ants engineering their nest — which is the bright one, the stupid one? Or watch Margaret Heffernan’s wonderful TED talk on superchickens.[2] Our views of intelligence are stupid, duh!

Think rather about intelligence as the flip side of culture. A culture values certain things and does not value others. Our own culture is universalising, thinking that all humans are basically the same.

Daniel Everett here:

Culture is an abstract network shaping and connecting social roles, hierarchically structured knowledge domains and ranked values. Culture is dynamic, shifting, reinterpreted moment by moment. Culture is found only in the bodies and behaviours of its members. Culture permeates the individual, the community, behaviours and thinking.

Culture is our adaptation at the level of a group into fitting with our environment. There, in its environment, it contains itself as a definition of emergent intelligence. We can only be intelligent doing what our culture understands is the appropriate (value-ranked) ways to respond to our environment. Robin Hanson talks about Automatic Norms,[3] in which some tradeoffs are taboo, and failing to (or choosing to) spend time on decision-making will affect the consequences (to the decider!).

Philip Shepherd uses the term organic unity to indicate the form of a culture. There is a boundary of sorts in working out who is a member of a given culture and who is not, but the culture qua culture is like the ants engineering their nest: it is a good nest if it works for the ants in that time and place and not otherwise. Our own culture errs in the direction of talking about a ‘perfect’ ants nest that got destroyed — duh again. Neoliberals being dogmatic about their correctness despite repeated abject failure to build an equivalent nest.

The harmony of any life form — what we think of as its ability to self-organise — is what enables it to live, but that harmony is not self-achieved within a boundary. In fact, the ability of an organic unity to “self-organise” sustains and is sustained by its ability to attune to the whole to which it belongs, and its ability to attune is indistinguishable from its emergent intelligence. […] And that would indicate that your experience of your own intelligence is a field phenomenon. Philip Shepherd

In playing Mystic Numbers, the players arguably experience a field. The field enables them to be good players of the game. Good players can only exist as a group because of the nature of the game. The field must encompass all the players, and the players, whether they can articulate it or not, experience their own intelligence in that field. Such a notion of intelligence is entirely absent from formal education: Malidomu Some said that his ability to read answers in his examiners’ auras exposed him to charges of cheating because of the strange way he was looking at them.[4] But a more intelligent education system could place such powers at the very pinnacle of human prowess. Hubert Dreyfus as a pre-eminent philosopher, places skilful coping at that pinnacle of human achievement: it is at least conceivable that generalised Mystic Numbers skills are part of that.

Try this as a thinking experiment. My son-in-law as part of his final exams for his degree in theoretical physics had to do an experiment in a team of six people. It was immediately apparent to him that it was crucial which team, or which type of team, he was a member of. There were people on the course who were quite brilliant in a specialised and non-communicative way. (See above!) And there were people who were good but lazy or disorganised. My son-in-law knew he had to be with people who would actually manage to work together effectively under time pressure. He knew he needed the marks from this exercise to achieve a first-class degree. I put it to you that his skilful coping didn’t have much to do with physics directly!

Philip points out that things that we often take as cultural signals, a fashionable beard, the width of your tie, have a distinctive dynamic. They are first edgy and new, then progressive, then normal then suddenly gone. If I, or Philip, was remotely fashion conscious, I would be tapped into this entirely nebulous intelligence of the changing meaning of social signals. Before you point it out to me, I do know that refusing fashion is still fashion … The field phenomenon that Philip Shepherd speaks of is a real and forceful field irrespective of the nature of our reaction to it.

High art

Philip has a way of organising his life to increase the amount of discomfort in it.[5] Noticing some novels lying around here he asked if they were worth reading. But when I offered to lend them to him he said if he were to read them he would read them in French. Never mind that I have a sudden vision of an army of translators producing French (and other) translations of books so that English speakers find them harder to read…

Philosophers of a phenomenological persuasion (whew!), such as Alva Noe, have a tradition of commenting on art as it takes us beyond our automated and unthinking ways of perceiving. Naturally they are fascinated by confounding our assumptions about how we perceive and what perceptions are. High art allows us to step outside how we ordinarily view things.

Sometimes this can be a many-layered process. I am sure that Shakespeare’s Macbeth was in its day a radical and thought-provoking play. And we get to a point when “to be or not to be” is part of our language and is close to being meaningless. Henri Bortoft makes great sport with every performance of Macbeth being different and yet still Macbeth, the many in the one. But my son Duncan conducted Brett Dean’s opera Macbeth at Glyndebourne last year, and it was something else. There have been many operatic Macbeths that did not quite make the grade, but Brett Dean spent 10 years producing something that did. The forces opposing (and creating) Macbeth’s madness were colourless civil servants from the modern, collapsing world we know. I wonder if you can imagine the sheer boldness, risk and scale of investment in getting a new opera into the public eye? And the point is to allow us to see things differently.

If we accept that our current views of the world are leading us over a cliff-edge, then seeing things differently can be crucial. Seeing the cliff and its location, understanding what mindlessly propels us over it. I try to avoid foisting theory on you in these blogs but here is one of my fall-back thinking frames, that has its roots in the First Peoples wisdom we touched on above. The 2X2 gives us four different realities that people commonly live in.

DIMENSIONS OF REALITY (Paths of Change, McWhinney, p.28)

Degree of Differentiation

…………….…… Monism….…..Pluralism


Free Will…….….MYTHIC………SOCIAL

What I want from this here is the two “grand paths of change” that McWhinney describes. We are used to Revitalisation where someone with a Unitary take on the world, a classic “leader”, develops a new vision which allows a new mythic reality (story), which becomes a social truth and ultimately allows people to see different things (sensory) to complete the vision. The opposite path of change goes through the realities in the reverse order. It starts with a loss of unitary reality where things simply do not make sense, and hope is lost, and proceeds storyless to the sensory reality to see that these data are no longer ordered. Think the extreme disorientation of high art or indeed of the collapse of empire. The social understandings that emerge from this disorientation lead to a new mythic, and this path is called renaissance or rebirth. The underlying question of course is whether revitalisation is possible or whether a thoroughgoing revolution is required.

Ms Klein pinched my conclusion

But seriously, Naomi Klein has a riff about the war on imagination by neoliberal elites. We are not allowed to know, still less to discuss, how different things can be, how much better the real solutions to our issues are than the self-serving pap we are served up about competitive markets and privatisation. Our imagination, in Klein’s estimation, has atrophied and needs some serious exercise.

We need to know about culture and emergent intelligence because they are going to be central to any way out of the hole we have been digging for the last couple of centuries. We need to know that other cultures, that we look down our noses at, have ways of organising themselves that would take our breath away if only we could notice them. Please suspend your irrational belief in technology long enough to pay attention to the ecological niche that humankind must occupy or die. Think of our terrible disruption of microbiomes, of soils, of oceans, of the atmosphere and of forests and then think of what emergent intelligence actually looks like. Pretty please.

Consciousness has been our downfall, really, our biblical fall. I have no doubt that there is an ecological understanding of the role we need to play in the biosphere for which our consciousness is crucial. But of all the brilliant people I know there is one, Paul Maiteny, who addresses this question in a serious and sustained way. If you want to ponder that and to look him up, you might like to know that his uncle perished in the Holocaust and his dad survived only to commit suicide.

[1] In improvised theatre classes, this same exercise is conducted with eyes closed, while standing in a close circle. There’s not usually an explicit prohibition on signaling, perhaps because the obvious signals would be visual. After a short period, the group learns to count by feel, without obvious coordination mechanisms. This is by no means the most ‘impossible’ experience in a theatre class; my girlfriend’s alma mater, George Brown, expected that half of the student intake would drop out each year, being unable to incorporate such unexpected experiences into their cultural/worldviews…



[4] In the western cultural expectation of what it takes to pass an exam, often the regurgitation or reformulation of a set body of knowledge, with the answers to be dredged up from the examinees memory, not extracted from the test papers, brains, or auras of other people. By this light, Some was indeed cheating.

[5] In seeking to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable, different experiences and learning become possible. How else does one begin to escape one’s cultural blinkers? Besides, I’m unlikely to read them in the original Swedish.



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Aidan Ward

Aidan Ward

Smallholder rapidly learning about the way the world works