This post is made up of excerpts from a paper “Making and Mistaking Reality” written 2003.
Systemic thinking can be defined as not looking for statements about a situation, but for provisional and partial explanations (or images) which illuminate the here-and-now. The idea of being inside or outside a system is recognised as being itself a thought construction. In systemic thinking, the need to decide inside or outside disappears. Accepting that the whole is discernible in each part and that each part is influential in the whole, the experience in the here-and-now is of a tension between separateness (e.g., personal identity) and relatedness (e.g., belonging to a group). Freud’s methodological discovery, now encapsulated in the concepts of transference and countertransference, was that this tension could itself be attended to. Expressed as here-and- now, the multi-layered dynamic experience of the present is the crucial material for thought and thinking. In the present, the concept and practice of “Mindfulness” is a clear expression of this focussed, but freethinking awareness.
I am indebted to Anne MacDonald (2002), a forensic psychiatrist from Glasgow, speaking at a conference on “Counter-transference” for her representation of the effects of different kinds of breaks and joins, using a simple ring or a mobius strip, though she is not responsible for the following.
Beginning with the ring, there is an inside and an outside, a black
and white say, two surfaces connected only by whatever is in the depth between them. A ring can turn into a mobius strip if it breaks and is twisted, so that when rejoined the separate surfaces have become one. Different breaks and joins, with or without the twist, make all kinds of knots and tangles, or helices, depending on what is found as the broken ends seek a rejoin.
Whatever the complexity, there are essential differences between the single surface of the mobius strip, the double surfaces of the ring, or the multiple dimensions, and connections in the helix. On the strip, like Escher’s (1963) ants forever on one surface, living has no tensions between different worlds, only stop or go, following the rules. On a ring, or more complex knot, ants on the different surfaces might continue forever in endless parallel worlds. However, they might also, through trial and error, like Popperian conjecture and refutation, learn slowly.
Recall again that in the notion of systemic thinking, one is oneself a part of the system. McDonald (2002) described the profound differences in her own feeling and sense of herself which occurred when she worked with disturbed and dangerous others in prison. People with “two surfaces,” however hard to reach, had strong passions and black and white views. They understood the rules, and why they had broken them, and why they were in prison. In out of prison terms, these people are moralistic, rather than moral, and in thought terms, they make mistakes of ignorance and assumption. These in the moment reactions in people, are emotionally immature, and so is the thinking process happening at that moment, however complicated its content. In spite of this, Anne McDonald said she found it relatively easy to work, even when individuals were wholly immature or violent, as she did not feel her own sense of self in danger of being overcome.
She declared the one-surface model (formed by making a twist) much more difficult, both to see, and to influence, because in making a relationship of any kind with such a person, or the twist part of a person, one had to join them on the single surface, whatever it was. One is sucked in to the existing system, drawn in by ones own ordinary needs in contact with others (e.g., assuming trust, making a living, etc.). Instead of being able to take part in a dialogue, one loses ones own vision or perspective. McDonald (2002) said it was essential to find other people who related differently, and get out of such a system, otherwise one would be seduced. A twist in response to a break includes the manipulative, the emotional blackmailer, the con man, and the abuser, as well as the workaholic portrayed by Escher (1963), because no other way of being can be seen. The idea corresponds to hegemony of belief which distorts everyone’s experience. Institutional and cultural examples are those firms like Enron where a profit motive divorced from value existed, or the evidence of the Macpherson report (1999) of institutional racism, and the Stevens report (2003) of institutional collusion in murder in Northern Ireland. To work well in such a context, one needs a sense of ethics, as ordinary response (especially rational response) will itself become twisted, and, more importantly, in emotional terms, our sense of self is betrayed by our own need for interaction with others.
McDonald’s comment was that the only way out was to see the break and twist for what it was, a distortion which seemed like a good idea at the time, and what one really needs is the totally uncomplicated view of someone ordinary with no axe to grind (e.g., the child who saw the emperor naked, or, in real life, the chat with the secretary at the photocopier). She purposely makes time for such ordinariness, so that there is room for seeing yourself as others see you, from a distance, as well as for relationship, dialogue, and understanding (2002). Then, the distortion which seemed like a good idea at the time can be finding the break, re-breaking, and trying a different kind of join. In therapeutic understanding, counsellors know that to help someone, they often have to be seduced into failure, so they are in the kind of failure this person has previously experienced. They, unlike their client, may know the way out, and, unlike most professionals, they have supervisors who are as interested in the process of failing as they are in the process of succeeding. From emotional education experiences, it seems to me that the twist is more difficult to find in organisations, as day-to-day experience of authority, especially that of hierarchy and tradition, hide its effects within what seems like good practice at the time.
So, that is the idea of the Twist.
Now, I want to combine this with previous ideas on thought process, to develop a notion of psychopathy that helps us to see how psychopathology infects organizations and cultures. I expect this will be closely related to Paul Hoggett’s concept of as- if cultures, or perverse social structures.
Most important in my aim is to explore the idea of the twist in ordinary everyday experience, that is indeed damaging, but is far from the perversities of paedophilia or criminality that have been the subject of MacDonald’s and Black’s work.