Wise Organizations? Continued …

With the permission of the publishers of the book, Idea Group, Inc., I’m sharing this chapter in a series of postings, to see what kind of conversation it generates. Idea Group’s copyright prohibits copying the text in any written or electronic form. Please help me protect this copyright by referring people to the blog, but don’t copy the text that is here.

Preparing the Way for Wisdom in Organizations – Part 2a

This is the second in a set of six essays inviting reflection about the construction of the conditions and situations in which wisdom can be cultivated and exercised in organizational settings.
Language-Action and the Constitution of Organizations

For the vast majority of the moments of our lives (including much of our sleep, in dreams remembered and not), we are doing things in language, and language is doing things to us. The opportunity of this topic is that “language-action” offers a radically improved path to observing what we are doing as we are speaking (and listening). When we speak we create new interpretations, moods, possibilities, and futures in the bodies and minds of those with whom we are speaking (and for ourselves). Therefore, one of the distinctions that will be essential for us is language-action: observing language as communicative acts.

The English philosopher John L. Austin (1911-1960) was the first to carefully distinguish a class of verbs that he called performatives – verbs that, rather than describing actions, perform actions. (John L. Austin, (1975). How to Do Things With Words, Second Edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, p. 148.)

When someone says ‘I promise to …,’ he is performing the action of promising, not reporting that he will, did, or might promise. It turns out that all human languages contain performatives. For the purpose of designing work in organizations, I distinguish six classes of performatives:

* declarations
* offers
* requests
* promises
* assessments
* assertions

The most important, and most interesting thing about these verbs is that, when we look carefully, we can see that it is with these acts that we human beings invent our futures. Very often we don’t actually use the words; people make promises all the time without saying “I promise,” and make requests even more often without saying “I request” (for example, “The soup needs salt” and “Don’t you think that it is cold in here?”)

How do these language-actions show up as we are inventing our futures?

* With declarations we create new distinctions: identities, products, roles, services, companies, names, etc. – with which we take care of our concerns.
* With offers, requests, and promises we orchestrate new spaces in which we take action, and we produce mutual commitment and coordinated action.
* With assessments we take stock of our world, evaluate our progress, and assure that we are prepared for action.
* With assertions we test and build confidence in our judgments, and assure that we are coordinating effectively and reliably.

Here’s an example. Right now Greg thinks that he is getting prepared to get married. How did that happen, he asks himself? Here, approximately, is the story, told in a way that helps illuminate language-action in our lives. Greg and I have been talking about his interest in having a woman in his life for a long time (that is, we shared assessments about his life with each other).

About a year ago, I said to him, “You know, there is a woman out there right now who is looking for you – looking for exactly the person that you are.” As he listened to that declaration, Greg said he realized for the first time that there was a truth there. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m looking,” he said, “and in that moment I realized that on the other side of the rainbow, someone was looking for me.'” Soon, in a matter of a few weeks, someone new showed up in his life. She was recently divorced. They dated for a while, and then she went and dated other people for a while. They remained friends and stayed in contact. At the end of 2007, while he was traveling, he started getting phone calls and emails from her in which she said she wanted to marry him. They spent what Greg called “three wonderful days” together, and at the end he asked her if she still wanted to get married. She looked away, and he interpreted that she was frightened by the prospect.

Then, last week, “things changed.” She arrived, asked him to marry her, and insisted (requested) that he take her seriously. All of this, over the last year, happened in a particular background. A year ago, Greg shifted from the idea that the challenge was to “find a woman” to an interpretation that what he needed to do was to create room for a woman to find him. “The amazing thing,” he says, “is that there was no effort involved in making the shift.” The way that he listened to the declaration that I spoke opened a space for a new possibility – a new interpretation – and he began to live his life from that new possibility.


Stay tuned. More to come.

Click to go to the next installment.

© Copyright Chauncey Bell, 2003-4. All rights reserved worldwide.
Copyright © 2005, Idea Group Inc. Copying or distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of Idea Group Inc. is prohibited.

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3 thoughts on “Wise Organizations? Continued …

  1. Hi Chauncy,

    Thank you for your response. I have been very busy getting my dissertation proposal prepared, sent, and now accepted, so I have begun writing it officially though I have been doing a lot of unofficial work on it since starting the Ph.D. program.

    You asked what questions I am working with regarding my reading of Maturana as I relate it to my work. My questions are not well articulated, but since you asked I have begun to clarify them. I have noticed that in theatre, specifically theatre training for actors, the presupposed and inaccurate model for communication (as far as, I assume, Maturana would assert) is in terms of an agent sending a message to another agent with the intent of changing his or her behavior, (as Maturana illustrates in The Tree of Knowledge). In my years in theatre I have seen this model operating quite clearly in the language and pedagogy of actor training, rehearsal and performance. However, I have also observed that the behavior of the “receiver” of an utterance (or some sort of action) from a “sender” often has nothing to do with what was sent by the source. And yet we continue to operate in theatre as if this were the case. By “operate” I mean that we rehearse our response as if what is being “sent” is what causes the response rehearsed to happen. In this way we are reinforcing what Maturana would interpret as an inaccurate model of what is going on. The point for my purposes is not, however, that we in theatre are reinforcing an inaccurate model. (That point might belong within the domain of right/wrong). My point is that we are limiting the possibilities of experience by imposing a “logical” perspective on human interaction, i.e., if I do this to Duncan then almost certainly what will show up is anger, sadness, etc. What seems much more accurate to me is seeing through the perspective of Maturana’s interpretation that, for example, Macbeth does something and it triggers a response in Duncan, a response that occurs because of Duncan’s structure, not because of what Macbeth did, even if Macbeth intended the response that occurred.

    I think about the situation where I am performing in front of a live audience. The performances are different every night. Different audiences react differently to the same lines of dialogue, the same basic blocking (stage movement), the same set, costumes, etc. Yet a performance on Thursday night may have the audience laughing in the aisles when Friday night’s audience is in tears. I have not heard of anyone during my work in the theatre ever investigate what Maturana is proposing. (Why would they unless they were aware of it)? Maturana’s model gives me a new possibility for study, experimentation, doing.

    My doctoral dissertation (which I am currently writing part-time while teaching full-time acting, voice, and Shakespeare in the B.F.A. acting program at Syracuse University) is based on the work I did studying a master acting teacher, one of the best, at the Yale School of Drama. One of the distinction on which his methodology rests is a definition of action which is somewhat unique in the theatre. Action has been something I have studied, as it is so much a part of theatre for an obvious reason: actors act[ion]. I have examined, for example, notions of action that go back to Stanislavski, a Russian actor, director, and teacher who created methods of acting that were continually evolving. His Method of Physical Action is an approach to performance that is still in use today, and was the subject of my master’s thesis. I have looked at other theories of action, such as Austin and Searle’s theories of requests and promises, as well as declarations and assertions, particularly declarations, and have begun to investigate the phenomenon of declaring in terms of inventing character for the stage, using actions to realize those declarations.

    The theory of action in my dissertation is based on how one actor, as a character, makes another actor, as a character, feel as a means toward producing a result. For example, I might be playing a scene where my wife has been unfaithful, and I as the actor decide that my character wants to get his wife to stop cheating. I (choosing and doing on behalf of the character) might make her feel guilty, ashamed, loved, even hated as a means for getting her to stop cheating. Let’s say I choose to make her feel hated. What is really going on in playing this action? I, as that character, am attempting to make some actress, as the character, feel hated. If I compare models of communication: 1. sending some “thing” i.e., whatever I as actor send to make her feel hated versus 2. attempting to trigger a feeling within the listening/structure of the other actor, what is the difference between the two? This is one of the questions I am working with.
    Other questions I am thinking about deal with listening. I read your review in Amazon on Fiumara’s book. It made me realize that an enormous amount of theatre training is based on speaking and effective doing, but there is no training whatsoever on listening. (I am a designated Linklater voice teacher, and a large part of my teaching work deals with voice training). I wonder how Maturana’s model can help me to investigate what listening training might be in theatre and what is the marriage between playing a character and allowing that character’s structure to be triggered in a way that is appropriate to the given circumstances of the play, rather than, as Maturana points out in The Tree of Knowledge, playing a solipsistic openness/mood or “cognitive solitude,” where whatever shows up, shows up and it (the showing up) may not be appropriate to the play given the limited possibilities of the writing and/or directing aesthetic, while simultaneously taking care to avoid a representational mimicking of a predetermined (rehearsed for my purposes) experience? Maturana talks about walking the razor’s edge. Perhaps this is what that means for me…

    Other Questions:

    It seems that we know that systems are structurally determined, yet we act as if they are not, particularly in the domain of human communication, so much a part of my work in acting, directing and training actors to act and to speak. What value might lie in taking on Maturana’s model of communication as being perturbations that trigger experiences, i.e., emotions, thoughts, sensations, and even in a thrown way (using Heidegger’s theory of throwness) actions, as in being thrown to act? Maturana offers a theory of 4 distinct possibilities for living in terms of events that happen, using a trumpet as a model, though it is true for human beings as well:

    1. Change of state
    2. Destructive changes
    3. Perturbations
    4. Destructive interactions

    I think there is much to reflect on with these 4 distinctions in terms of their application to approaching a piece of dramatic literature for staging, shifting trumpet for the characters in the play and interpreting the moment to moment flow of dialogue by defining it in terms of the 4 distinctions. What I think this does is that it begins to address what I see as a fundamental area of neglect in actor training and performance: that listening is not given the respect, emphasis, consideration that it deserves. Through beginning to examine character, action and dramatic literature, as well as training of actors, directors, set designers, the question of listening should be given equal time. Here’s why: we should not only be concerned with doing in staging shows, but what is done, what is the result of doing. So, in the dance of life in Maturana’s model, the structurally determined system (character in a play) can go through the above 4 possibilities, depending on the specifics of the playwriting in terms of what actually occurs. But also depending on what other character do in order to bring about steps 1-4 above. In my work, if I blanket the dynamic of one character doing something to another which causes the bringing about of any one of the above changes as that character who changes is as being in a state of “listening,” I have a new domain from which to begin to investigate acting, directing and training when I define listening, not as a message or action being directed from a source to a receiver with the intention of training his or her behavior, but as a perturbation or destruction depending on the coupling (relationship), then listening starts to take on a new meaning, as opposed to the traditional meaning in theatre, which is hearing. For example, Cordelia in King Lear has a destructive interaction with her father at the very beginning of the play, eventually leading to her death (destruction).

    I have been reading The Tree of Knowledge and visiting Maturana’s website and I’ll order Autopoeisis and Cognition ,(as soon as I find a copy that’s not so expensive on Amazon). I used to be intimidated by difficult books. My new approach is to study them anyway, even if I don’t really understand them, but remaining open to learn and make discoveries. It’s so much more exciting than reading something I already know something about. In reading Maturana, I sometimes just read and read though I do not comprehend much of what he is saying.

    I hope some of the above makes sense to you. I am more of a theatre practitioner than a writer. I have always looked outside of the theatre tradition for ideas that I could then bring back, but have more often than not used those ideas in an intuitive way without explaining or writing about them, at least initially. Later, if at all, I have written about them and/or articulated them to others. However, I do see the value in articulating my hunches about certain theories earlier…

    -Joe Alberti

  2. Pingback: Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places « Chauncey Bell Blog

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