16/05/22 | By Phoebe Matthews


Monika Kostera: Imagine There Is No “Given”

Just like the biodiversity of our planet is steadily and alarmingly decreasing so is the diversity of the social imaginarium also rapidly diminishing. Philosopher and poet Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi speaks of a social world of imaginative impotence, where preconfigured forms are acquiring a monopolistic status. These forms are technologically and financially driven and forcefully define and limit human creativity. Only the given can be imagined, more of the same: more growth, more pollution, more profits for the billionaires, more inequality… To many of us the outlook does not seem promising. It invites thoughts of extinction, dissipation, collapse.

One hundred years ago Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote the following, now famous, line: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”. His poem The Second Coming portrays a world where sheer chaos is released upon human kind. “The ceremony of innocence is drowned” the poem proclaims; the worst of us are full of “passionate intensity” and the best “lack all conviction”. A similar if less poetic image appears in the writings of contemporary thinkers, such as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, invoking philosopher and political theorist Antonio Gramsci’s metaphor of the interregnum: a time when “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”. Big social structures are dissipating and the socio-economic system that embraces all the important institutions and organizations is dysfunctional. Yet there is no new working system on the horizon. Endless, more and more urgent and profound crises are accompanied with a major crisis of imagination. It feels bleak and no good news seem to be in sight or, indeed, possible. It is a time of conflicting and loud ideas, of sharp polarizations and violence, as well as of feelings of emptiness, with no hope of resolution. In the past there always were more or less utopian visions at hand in times of crisis: of heavenly Jerusalem, of a new golden age, of a perfectly peaceful communism. Today the choice seems to be between one antiquated set of social structures and another, just as obsolete, based on rampant nationalism and xenophobia.

The centre does not hold, but it is constantly condensing, consolidating and concentrating, locking in on itself, while using up the resources that surround it. It consists of distilled power, devouring everything in its surroundings. It is like a white dwarf star slowly turning into a black hole. Processes of entropy define the dominant dynamic of systemic death: whoever decides to ride these processes seems to be gaining power and wealth. The worst nightmares become materialized as our bosses and leaders. It seems that the most ruthless, irresponsible and nihilistic actions lead to prominence and recognition. Capitalism is dying and it seems to be quite intent take us all down with it. It has not always been like this.

Western capitalism in the last century, despite undergoing some serious crises, was capable of self-regulation. It was driven by mechanisms of negative feedback, which were used (sooner or later) as a correction of control systems. Negative feedback means that signals are used to alter the parameters and modes of how the system works. For example, this is how the thermostat works: when the temperature surpasses certain levels, it triggers an alteration in the heating system causing it to regulate itself to either lower (if it is too hot) or turn up (if it is too cold), the temperature. Applied to big socio-economic systems, it means that negative signals cause an alteration in the way that the system is managed. In times of rampant unemployment new legislation finally appears, protecting employees in relation to the employers. Women demand equal pay for equal work and after times of protest and struggle, the system finally slows for more equality. Unionized protest and demand can result in increases in rights, paid leave, working conditions.

Since the 1980s, neoliberal capitalism has abandoned this mode of social renewal and adopted a different control mechanism, based on positive feedback. Now, instead, corrective signals lead to the enhancement of existing processes. Social protests against the worsening of work conditions and a de facto decrease of standard pay in developed countries have led to the moving of production to poor countries where the employees are paid much less, and work conditions are much worse, creating massive unemployment in former industrialized areas. Protests against wars, inequality, racism, seem to be leading nowhere, only attract more and more open institutionalized violence and persecution. Neoliberalism produces vicious loops of responses to problems based on the logic of “more of the same”.

And yet there does not seem to be a way out, the is no alternative, to use the famous catchphrase of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. “More of the same” extends to power and the vision of the powerful. Power in a complex system should not be uniform, but rather reflect its complexity. The cybernetic law of requisite variety posits that the complexity of the regulator should match the complexity of the controlled system: the number of states that its control mechanism is capable of attaining (its variety) must be greater than or equal to the number of states in the system being controlled if the system is to keep stable. Systems learn by negative feedback and with the number of feedback loops the learning gets increasingly profound: from the simple corrections of the thermostat, via looking for causes (double loop learning) to learning how to learn (triple loop). But with positive (instead of negative) feedback as the main regulatory mechanism, the system ceases to learn at all. It also loses its memory. French Philosopher Bernard Stiegler speaks of systemic stupidity. Neoliberalism is stupid capitalism: a system has lost its capacity to learn, a system with no memory, no progress, no finesse. It is a system suffering from dementia, and lacks humanity and imagination. To leave the void of the interregnum collectively we need to imagine alternatives; imagination is a prerequisite for and constructing a new humane and ecologically sound system.

Romantic poet John Keats speaks of the negative capability, or the ability of “being in uncertainties.” Negative here does not mean something bad, wrong or lacking – it is a way of embracing mystery. It implies an ability to refrain from defining and categorizing, not necessarily by proclaiming what it is not but by desisting to name everything. It is a way of abstaining from the urge to explain what we do not understand proposing to remain attentive rather than jump into rationalization or conclusions about things beyond our comprehension; an approach that encompasses both modesty and bravery. Modesty, to admit to not understand something. Bravery, because it is human to assign name even before we take a good look at something. But there is more to it than that. Keats considers negative capability to be a way of gaining new insight – by way of refusing to immediately recognize and know. Human knowledge is fragmentary, local, essentially arbitrary – which does not mean irrelevant, or unimportant. On the contrary, every grain of what we name as ‘truth’ is a reflection of something immense. If we dare to question our own assumptions, this grain may be able to teach us something new.

Negative capability is important not just to poets but to all of us, including organizers. Change is threatening and the typical organizational reactions to it are, on the one hand, “management of change”, or impositions of rules that aim at forcing the organization into a scenario of development that leaves little or no space for fluctuation and adaptation. On the other hand, employees fear that every change will be for the worse, and with considerable reason. Small wonder people resist such change, if they can, or numbly go along with it, seeing “no alternative” and loosing heart. However, negative capability implies another approach to change: to live with it and tolerate ambiguity and paradox. French philosopher Ghislain Deslandes calls this alternative “weak management”. It is an approach to management based on a human conception of control, recognition of fallibility, attention to weak signals. Today it forms a radical alternative but it is rooted in ancient wisdom: by renouncing aspirations to omnipotence a leader becomes truly capable and able to face responsibility.

With negative capability we can all experience doubt and hold on to it, without immediately having to resort into one of the existing categories: conservative, liberal, national, foreign. Instead of investing our souls in an exclusionary national or otherwise fixed identity, we can remain, for a time, open to the world even in the state of current disarray. This state of mind can help us to doubt and examine, search and persist, and not be satisfied or dulled by the seemingly obvious and inevitable. It enables radical questioning not only of commonly held truths but of the assumptions that they are constructed upon. And in order to communicate and make sense of the world, despite not hurrying to name it and categorize away, we may need something instead of ready labels that is just as human as the customary definitions. We need imaginative tales.

But how is this possible in the current crisis of imagination? My book proposes a simple yet sophisticated instrument that enables to see, hear and feel imagination – the imaginoscope. It is a method, a praxis, an (imaginary) device used to observe and experience objects and events taking place in the imagination. It helps to learn negative capability. Enabling multisensory practice and a quest, perhaps the opposite to the online work we have become accustomed to during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is gallantly feminist: not just a technology for understanding but for sensuous exploration and embodied experimentation with imaginative realities.

An imaginoscope can be applied to the eye, to the ear, to the heart and even to the soul. It helps to see, to hear, and to feel patterns where there are none in a fractured reality of our liquid times. These patterns can be then turned into stories using various plots, including some very old ones – the archetypes – very powerful patterns and compelling plots that have been guiding human storytelling for millennia. My book helps to create an imaginoscope for a quest for what is unknown and uncertain. It can be used for prolonged periods of time to train the mind and the heart by reflection and practical exercises. It can be used individually and collectively to activate and mobilize creative organizing impulses. In other words, the book proposes intellectual, symbolic and poetic approaches that can be used by people who wish to do things differently, such as get together and organize for a better world.

All images by Monika Kostera.

An Imaginoscope for Organizers: Liminal Stories for Liminal Times (27 May 2022)

After the Apocalypse: Finding Hope in Organizing (2020)

Monika Kostera is Professor Ordinaria and Chair in Sociology at the University of Warsaw, Poland, and Professor in Management at ‎Institut Mines-Télécom Business School, Université Paris-Saclay. She has also been a professor and Chair at Durham University, UK and Linnaeus University, Sweden. She is the author, co-author and editor of over 40 books in Polish and English; and of numerous scientific articles. Her current research interests include organizational imagination, disalienated work and organizational ethnography. She also writes and publishes poetry. Monika shares her time between Warsaw and Paris.


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