Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

I offer homage to Waylon Jennings, for his song which echoes in my head as I think about what I want to say here, to Joe Alberti, the acting and drama coach whose comment I have been interacting with, and which inspired this posting, to Fernando Flores, teacher and mentor, and to Greg and Margaret and Shirah, faithful partners for reflection.

This posting has a moral: Be bloody careful about the language in which you make important interpretations, or your language will “invent you” as something you may not be happy with. Winston Churchill, in a speech in the House of Commons on October 28, 1944, said, “We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us.” (http://drmardy.com tells us that Churchill made the speech during the rebuilding of the House of Commons, after it sustained heavy bombing damage during the Battle of Britain.)

  • Paraphrasing his words and idea, we say,

    We shape our language (our interpretations of the world, and the moods and distinctions in which we listen and speak), and afterwards our language shapes us.

    Each of us interacts with the world from particular pre-interpretations that we carry around with us. We carry these interpretations in our bodies, our moods, the distinctions in which we understand the world, and so forth – in our language. Each time we observe some event or feature of our world, we arrive with that “machinery” of understanding already at work. Often we fail when we go to work to address some situation, solve a problem, invent a new path into the future without (1) paying attention to the distinctions in which we are thinking, and (2) choosing the background in which we and those working with us will address the situation. We fail because everything that we do is shaped by that “pre-understanding.” You can waste a lot of time and money – or a part of your life – by going to work with the wrong presumptive and theoretical frameworks.

    We need some examples. Let’s start with the simplest.

    You or someone you know may have had the experience of asking a child to “go look for (coat, hat, mittens, boots, pencil, etc.) and, on having the child come back and report, “I couldn’t find it,” you sent them off with another instruction: “Go FIND the (object),” and, to your pleasure, they came back with it. No accident. Two different instructions.

    Here is a “sophisticated” example: Engineering managers know that different engineering traditions “see” different things when they look at machinery. If you have a malfunctioning boiler in a power plant, you will get different results from sending an electrical, mechanical, chemical, or metallurgical engineer to look at it and tell you what to do. Each is trained in a tradition that shows them some things and hides others. A client of ours in the electrical power industry reported their embarrassment when, by accident, they sent a mechanical engineer to help a client cut their power costs, after years of having electrical engineers do that work. Why were they sending electrical engineers? Well, they were in the electric power business. But what they discovered was that the waste at the client’s plant from poor electrical connections, resistance, and so forth was under 5%, and the electricity wasted by mechanical friction in the electrical motors at the plant was on the order of 25% of the power they used. The two traditions “saw” different things when they observed the world.

    “Applying Maturana”

    In his comment, Joe Alberti reports that he is attempting to appropriate the distinctions that Humberto Maturana introduces and embodies in his work for Joe’s challenge of understanding the business of drama and acting, and shifting the behaviors of his students.

    On the one hand, I assess that what Joe is doing is a spectacularly good in two respects. First, he recognizes that there is value to be mined in appropriating the work of the right kind of thinker. Second, he has picked the work of a major figure to study. In Maturana’s field – the biology of cognition, or how human beings learn and think – what Maturana has done is epochal. Fernando Flores used to equate Maturana to Marco Polo: someone who had ventured successfully into a world that no one had dared enter before. The originality and quality of the thinking that he and his colleague Francisco Varela did compares favorably, in my interpretation, with the work of Isaac Newton. It is radically original, and has not yet begun to be appreciated.

    But here I drop the other shoe. Joe is failing in his attempts to apply Maturana’s theoretical work. The problem is that he is missing solid theoretical understandings of three critical issues in the situation that he is studying: communication, action, and listening. Why those three? Because they are the heart of the matter in teaching, observing action, and what actors are trying to do with their “audiences.” The question is not whether Maturana could teach us things about these topics. He could, but Joe is struggling with him here.

    In the work that Joe is doing if the theoretical understanding of these three issues is weak or misleading, problems will emerge all over the place. Joe is trying to “apply” Maturana’s distinctions like arithmetic equations. They don’t work that way.

    Let’s go through the three theoretical issues one at a time. First, ….

    Communication Theory

    Joe’s intuition that he needs to pay close attention to communication is solid. However, he jumps from there right to an attempt to derive aspects of a theory of communication from Maturana’s work.

    I am going to start by backing up a little further. The following riff is by Peter Denning, a friend who is a distinguished computer scientist and Distinguished Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. I can’t remember whether he wrote it or I wrote it from a conversation with him, but the work behind it is his.

  • The current understanding of communication is derived from 20th century radio engineering concepts that began to hold sway in the 1920s, became a central influence in the media by the 1930s, and dominates our understanding of communication today.
  • In this understanding, communication consists of sending messages from an autonomous sender to an autonomous receiver. The intervening communication medium, called the “channel,” can randomly and spontaneously change messages, an effect called noise. The job of the receiver is to decode the signal, remove the noise, and thereby recover the original message.
  • The job of the listener is to accurately receive the intended message; active listening means to filter out the noise, getting to the “true essence”. Notice that the responsibility for “accurate reception” lies at the receiver. The sender simply follows the established communication conventions. There is no responsibility on the sender side for tuning in on what is happening at the receiver.
  • In his famous paper on information theory (1948), Claude Shannon said that the accurate reconstruction of a message does not address the issue of whether the human receiver (reading the reconstructed message) attaches the same meaning as intended by the human sender. He separated this question, which he called “semantics” from the message “syntax” and said semantics was outside the scope of his theory.
  • As the reader can see, therefore, attempting to use this model (which Fernando Flores called the “tube” theory of communication) to understand human-human communication is to go beyond the intended purpose of the model.
  • Here is the point: Joe is attempting to interact with Maturana’s ideas from inside the tube theory of communication. (So do most of us when we attempt to think about what is going on in communication; Joe is just helping us to see/show that.) Why do I say this? Well, the dead giveaways are the notions of “senders” and “receivers” of messages and the notion of “accuracy” in receiving communications. The first two obviously belong to the tube theory, and accuracy is a useful notion if we are talking about sending and receiving strings of characters. Paraphrasing Flores, ‘communication is about coordinating concerns and living together,’ and not about complete and accurate matching of syntaxes. It is about constructing interpretations and actions that bring futures that are useful to all of the parties involved.

    A Theory of Action

    In his comment, Joe says “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.” With that opening, he launches himself right into a big mess. The role of language in the coordination of concerns and intentions among people, on the stage, in the audience, the directors, or whatever, is missing.

    The place where I would start pulling the mess apart is with language action, and for that I would not go to Maturana. I would go to Austin, Searle, and Flores, and I would use Flores as the guide into the question, beginning with Understanding Computers and Cognition and Disclosing New Worlds. Maturana provides the biology underlying language action. Sometimes Maturana claims to be a major theorist on all matters of the construction of human social interaction. I am thoroughly unconvinced of that claim; I am a major supporter of his claim to have developed a new fundamental biology that is a far superior underpinning for cognition and language.

    Here is a suggestion of a new beginning for Joe in his questioning: We can ask what kinds of language actions each actor speaking is doing, and each actor listening is interpreting, in order to understand the kinds of effects that were intended and might be expected and observed. From that perspective, many great moments in Shakespeare (I think of Othello, Hamlet, Ophelia as people ensnared in complex misunderstandings, for example, and Henry V as a speaker with clear alignment of action and understanding, based upon what he had listened the night before his famous speech while privately moving among his men.) Requests and offers bring new actions. Declarations change the background in which action can be brought. Assessments prepare actors for action and point to where particular kinds of actions might have effect. Assertions ground interpretations and provide precision in actions.


    Finally, in pointing to listening, Joe has one of the right concerns, but the challenge to find listening is much bigger than implied here. Listening is the undiscovered continent in human experience.

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