A Politics of Gentleness: towards a critical vernacular ecology

The following talk was given at Peace House in Oxford on the 21st November, 2013, during a workshop on Gentleness, Trust, and Activism, as part of the Northumbria University project, “Effectiveness in Action: Exploring the role of the Durkheimian ‘sacred’ in motivating community action, using reflexive and gently disruptive co-research methodologies.” The talk includes discussions of:

– What I mean by gentleness
– What I mean by ‘power’
– What I mean by a politics of gentleness
– What I mean by enclosure
– What role the ‘elimination of uncertainty’ plays in enclosure
– What I mean by a ‘critical vernacular ecology’ and its relevance to the practice of everyday life

The following link will direct you to the soundcloud page where you can listen to the talk in its entirety:

A Politics of Gentleness: towards a critical vernacular ecology

The (slightly edited) transcription follows below:

Just to throw the cat among the pigeons, I am an advocate of gentleness.  I am not an advocate of non-violence.  I’ll explain that later, maybe, if you ask me.

Right, for many years I’ve been doing many things. I did a lot of ethnography among people who do Irish music and Irish singing for quite a while during the 1990s. During the mid-1990s I was very interested in social and ethical dynamics among Irish traditional musician, particularly the ways in which the social and ethical dynamics among Irish traditional musicians were under pressure from the encroachments of intellectual property thinking and copyright thinking. Around 1995 to the year 2000 was a real cauldron time for the commodification of Irish musical practice, in terms of commercialisation, in terms of education, in terms of performance, in terms of copyright. Lots of things between 1995 and the year 2000 coalesced, and that cauldron of change is, I suppose, the origin story for a lot of the work that I’ve since done.

My main interests at the moment are what I call cultural climate (which other people might call emotional climate), the quality of relationship, the quality of spaces that we have at various times, the ways in which these change from one way to another way, the way in which they might, in some people’s eyes, get worse and in other people’s eyes get better.

I’m also very much focused at the moment on the issue of culture change. When I talk about culture change I mean it very much from the perspective of what for me are the functions of theory.  And when I say theory I simply mean thoughtful practice. But I also mean theory in the sense that theory, thoughtful practice, hopefully helps me reduce the possibilities of coercion, violence, domination and oppression in my own relationships and, by invitation, in the relationships of others, and, secondly, hopefully allows me to come to a greater understanding of what the conditions for human flourishing might be and how we might work towards actually establishing those within our own lives, our own relationships, and, by invitation, in the lives or relationships of others.

At the heart of my work is this word “gentleness”.  I don’t have a definition for gentleness but I will say what I mean by gentleness.  What I mean by gentleness is the quality of relationship that happens when the elimination of uncertainty does not dominate in relationship in a particular environment.  It is the quality of relationship that simply happens.  It’s the quality of relationship that we can trust will likely happen when the elimination of uncertainty in its various forms does not dominate in a particular environment.

And when I say gentleness I also work on the principal of “multiple vocabularies”.  I understand the concerns about the etymology of the term gentleness and its relationship to class structure and class histories.  So, one of the ways in which I talk about gentleness is with the idea of multiple vocabularies.  I might say “gentleness” but other people might say “kindness” or “couthiness” or “decency” or “generosity” or “hospitality” or “trust”. What’s of interest to me isn’t so much the word or the words that I use but the quality of relationship that is being spoken about behind or underneath those words. [Lift the words up and look underneath them]. And for me it’s that quality of relationship that comes from the withness and the hereness of people in space when the elimination of uncertainty does not dominate as an ethic within that space.

Now I imagine when I say the elimination of uncertainty that I’m not just talking in terms of kind of heady, cerebral philosophers like Descartes who seek to eliminate uncertainty and eliminate all doubt in everything they do, I’m talking about the quest for perfection, the quest for control, the quest for saturating, the quest to fix.  You know, many things which are frequently associated with patriarchal qualities but which can be found in many forms and many places and in my own life and many other people’s lives. That quality of the elimination of uncertainty, for me, is the driving factor of the shitty stuff. It’s the heart of what makes things crap.  It’s also the heart of what makes things-crap have an expansionary quality to them, and that is a core part of what I’m going to be talking about for the next few minutes.  It isn’t just that things get bad.  Is it when things are bad they get worse when they work within their own gravities and their own logic, and that is crucial to all of this. It’s why it’s not enough to just stand there and say, “I don’t like that”.  Things get worse if we don’t do something about them when they are based around the elimination of uncertainty.

The elimination of uncertainty for me is the engine of enclosure. When I studied enclosure for quite a number of years I tried to study enclosure historically, looking at enclosure of the commons, and I stayed away from the notion of the commons eventually because I noticed that a lot of the ways in which people would talk about the commons for me were actually versions of enclosure, so I found the rhetoric of the commons was frequently misleading and I sort of moved away from it. I’ve now moved back to it in a different form but I’ll maybe talk about that later.

The notion of enclosure for me refers to an expansionary dynamic that happens when the elimination of uncertainty ethic dominates. It involves a very key thing and something that is to be found across many different situations where things simply get worse. The expansion comes from … [I pick this up later].

I’d found a lot of people who described enclosure historically and currently. But in terms of explaining it … how will I know when I’m participating in it? That’s the key problem. How can I understand something psychologically enough that I know that I myself am participating in it, whether it’s enclosure or commodification or what have you. Show me somebody out there who talks about commodification in a way that I can understand when I am participating in it. I haven’t been able to find anyone. And so that was a part of my core quest as a thinker was to try and understand commodification and enclosure in a way that I could understand my own participation in it.  How was I making things worse when they were getting worse?  How was I making things worse when they were getting worse, even when I thought I was making them better?  How could I understand the misguided (sometimes) best intentions that I might bring to something, and still make things worse?  So that was at the heart of what I was trying to make sense of.

And at the heart of it as well, bringing us back to [talking to Clare Cochrane] your exploration of activism … at the heart of it for me was the assumption that there is no time when activism does not happen. There is not activism and non-activism. There’s not action and non-action. And this gets to the heart of what people might understand as the notion of power.

If you look at the literature you generally find that power means either the ability to control resources, or the ability to engage in goal-directed action, or the ability to control behaviour of others, or variations on those.  So, power is generally a very directive way of thinking about how we engage relationships with other people.

If you follow that line of thinking then you come to the first of what I think of as 4 points of a “critical vernacular ecology”. “Vernacular” in the sense of “ordinary-life” ecology.

First point is … if you go to the orthodoxies of political and social thinking, and economic thinking … the quieter forms of life, the people who are gentle, the people who are hospitable, the people who are generous, the people I have admired most in my lifetime whether as relatives or as friends, those people are not visible within social and political theory.  Not only are they not visible, they are not possible within social and political theory. They’re neither visible nor possible and they’re not possible because they’re not plausible. They’re not visible, they’re not plausible, they’re not possible, therefore they tend to be rendered automatically irrelevant to social and political theory in terms of the orthodoxies that are present in the academic world, and by association irrelevant to influence in governmental state politics and in various other forms of life.  And to our school system, and God knows what else.

One of the key things for me has been to think, okay, hold on a second, and this is the second point, that not only are these quieter forms of politics for me invisible, impossible, implausible,  and irrelevant for a lot of people, but they are also a deeply deeply human and deeply, deeply powerful, and I think the most powerful way of being human. They have deep within them huge potential for us to learn about the realities of politics, the realities of making a difference.

And at the heart of trying to understand that I came to a new understanding of power. To step away from the idea of control and step away from the idea of goal-directed action. To step away from the idea of controlling other people’s behaviour. To move towards something that doesn’t fall into the logic that says: only those who seek to control are powerful; those who do not seek to control are powerless. Therefore those people who I look to for power and influence and example within that framework would be powerless.  How [in contrast] could I work from a position where I would never be powerless, and the people I admire would never be considered powerless but would in fact be considered the height of power and the height of how we could and maybe should – that’s questionable – but how we could be making a difference in this world to achieve the optimal conditions for human flourishing in any particular environment.

And I came to the understanding of power as “the ability to vary experience”, whether the experience of oneself or the experience of others. That’s all. Power as the ability to vary the experience of oneself or others, in an anthropocentric sense, but you could expand that, of course, to the environment and to nature and to everything else around us, but within a kind of a social sense, I understand power as the ability to vary the experience of oneself or another. Like John Cassavetes, the filmmaker, who talked about “the power of small emotions”, or like Michel Foucault who talked about that sense of micro-politics, while also being really specific about it.

So this … [I move a glass on the table] is an act of power.  Silence becomes an act of power.  The interest isn’t whether something [or someone] is powerful or not, the interest is what the effects of power are. But saying somebody is powerless within that makes no sense whatever. So, the idea of powerlessness and powerfulness, and the idea of the state as the centre of power, for me, is just uninteresting. The question for me becomes … where is power happening? when is it happening? with what effects is it happening? and who’s involved?

Because within that framework we always-already make a difference, so to consider ourselves helpless is to misread the situation. The only question is, how do we make the difference that we make? How can we listen more to the possibilities of the differences that we might make within that situation? How can we identify the opportunities for making a difference in a more helpful way that increases the possibility of human flourishing and decreases and reduces the possibilities of domination, oppression, coercion and violence?

When I talked about non-violence earlier what I was referring to was the idea that for me the elimination of uncertainty is the core act of violence. It is a claim made in language about a reality which for me is always imbued with uncertainty and ambiguity and fuzziness and relationship and movement and flux. To eliminate uncertainty is to eliminate all of those things from your consideration. That for me is the core act of violence and I believe we always participate in it to some extent within the structures in our lives. So, for me, non-violence is not possible. Less violence is always possible.

For me, it’s about dominance. It’s about the dominance of the elimination of uncertainty. We can’t make ourselves pure and uncontaminated from a lot of the structures of violence that we find ourselves surrounded by, but we can reduce the influence of them within our own lives by becoming more self-aware and more community-aware in the way that we actually think about what we do.

So, one of the ways in which I was thinking about power was – I tend to think very visually … Generally when we think about power we think about power as control, usually in terms of state power and state authority. In terms of a centre of power. That’s very much the idea behind “speaking back to power.” When we say that, for the most part that’s the type of power that we’re talking about. We speak back to the centre of authority, the centre of those people who say things which shall not be challenged.

And [within this centre-periphery model of power] we occupy a very marginal place when we talk about the likes of gentleness or kindness or hospitality. We regard it as a very, very marginal part of the power conversation if it’s at all relevant. It’s probably actually way out here somewhere in this part [at or beyond the margin of the circle].

What I’m interested in saying is if you look at the vast majority of people and do an inventory of the amount of hours that people spend doing what they do, the vast majorities of people’s lives are spent, and this is crucially important to the education conversation, the vast majority of people’s lives are spent in informal [qualities of] relationship, in the quieter forms of life. If you were to do an inventory of what you do all day every day, most of it is pretty quiet and of low intensity. The vast majority of human life is informal, casual, non-institutional. That’s where most of the power in the world happens. That’s where most of the difference in the world is actually happening all day every day, and what we [normally] consider the centre of power is, actually, if you were to use a margins framework (which I’m not too happy about, but I’ll use it anyway), is marginal to that conversation of power [understood] as the ability to vary the experience of oneself or another.

So it inverts the conversation about power, and it says that placing a piece of paper in a box once every 4 years or 5 years or 7 years depending on which election you’re talking about, in whichever country, that’s not the vast amount of the difference that you’re going to make, within a framework of making a difference.  I’m not saying democracy, I’m not saying citizenship. Within a framework of making a difference the vast majority of the power that you’re going to engage in will be in things like … when your husband is dying of cancer, placing your hand on his hand and wiping his brow … holding your one-year-old son’s hand as you walk across the road, saying “take daddy’s hand” to make sure he doesn’t get killed as he walks across the road, waking up every morning to find your son [staring at you lovingly] and then spontaneously giving you a big slobbery kiss because he doesn’t know how to close his mouth yet.

Times when people are making a huge difference in each other’s lives but are not counted, these are not put in the reckoning of Politics with a capital ‘P’.  What I would suggest is, that this [formal, institutional qualities of power] could be called politics with a small ‘p’, and this [quieter, informal qualities of power] could be thought of as Politics with a capital ‘P’. I think it is really important to continually reassert that in the ways that we think about things.

So that’s the second point, that this is a very fertile way for making sense of how politics can be reconsidered. The third point is that these forms of life, of relationship, these qualities of relationship are deeply powerful and deeply important ways of identifying, critiquing and challenging elimination of uncertainty in politics.

The elimination of uncertainty, enclosure, has an expansionary heart. The way in which expansion happens within elimination-of-uncertainty enclosing politics is the extension of authority-as-certitude.  Basically somebody comes along and says “this is the way it is”. you take something off the supermarket shelf of thinking and you go, “Oh yeah I’ll get that, it’s great. I won’t look at the ingredients list on the side of the can, that’s grand. I’ll just take that, consume it, eat it, go home, be grand.”  Or you say, “Hold on a second … Certitude is the absence of doubt, absence of uncertainty. That’s just misrepresenting, grossly misrepresenting the way the world works, the way that experience happens, the way that relationships happen.”

The identification of the elimination of uncertainty is about saying, “Hold on a second, I disagree, I think differently.” This first of all automatically identifies the expansionary quality of it.  If nobody turns up and says hold on a second then you will never know that expansion is taking place, you’ll get the gentrification without dissent, for example. With the expansion of enclosure you will get the complete change of a community, the displacement of people’s values and ways of life and of people themselves around the world in wars all over the place. As a result of that vast power of people saying, “This is the way it is,” and people acquiescing and they themselves again in turn saying, “This is the way it is,” and living “This is the way it is,” and that expansion happening person by person by person by person.

But that quieter quality of politics is a way to actually make that visible. It is only really through the quieter politics that you can make that visible in any way that changes the equation.

Generally people start with the idea of human nature. Human nature is self interest; human nature is altruism; human nature is whatever it is, social, whatever. This is a huge frustration to me. It is one of the big traps of thinking in the English language, the idea that something is such and such; that it’s an equation, human nature equals such and such.  It avoids the challenge of diversity, it avoids the challenge of variety and one of the things that’s crucial in any understanding of social life and politics is to understand that human nature can be many, many things.  Human character can be many, many things.

What I ended coming up with in terms of looking at different contexts, looking at how people work, looking at human behaviour, looking at environmental design, and various other things …  You can look at everything and drive yourself crazy or you can look at a few particular things and try and find key variables in what happens to make sense of stuff.  So I came up with 3 key variables.

The 3 key variables were intensity of affect or emotion, the way in which that changes from moment to moment.  The intensity of affect or emotion will change in different circumstances.

A second key variable is directivity, things being more or less directive, more or less pushy and pully in terms of the gravities they have, either within us or around us, or from us or to us.

And then the third one is the way in which we relate to uncertainty, our relationship to uncertainty in language and thought, remembering that the elimination of uncertainty is merely a language claim that we make about the world.

What I discovered, though, is that these are direct correlates. [see The Cultural Climate Framework]

The more we try to eliminate uncertainty the more intensity we generate. The more we try to be intense the more elimination of uncertainty thinking becomes appropriate. The more highly directive ways of doing things become appropriate the more we try to be directive in terms of obligation, law, should, must, need to, have to. The more intense it becomes, the more elimination of uncertainty thinking becomes appropriate.

It’s about appropriateness-to-context. The idea is that if you were in an environment, and this is where it becomes core to understanding, if you’re in an environment which is dominated by the elimination of uncertainty, be it a highly controlled, highly ordered, probably a very top down organised environment, what will feel most appropriate within that environment, whether you’re for or against it, will be elimination-of-uncertainty thinking.

Opposition is one of the key responses to whatever happens in such an environment.  Opposition tends to be an elimination-of-uncertainty response, the idea that somebody is not you, and that you will oppose them.

The gravities increase the more you move towards the elimination of uncertainty and intensify and double back into themselves. Crucially, because working with the elimination of uncertainty brings us to misrepresent what’s going on, the more we think in terms of elimination of uncertainty, the more we think in terms of enemies and targets and things to fix and so on an so forth, things to be erased, the more blind we become to what’s actually going on, and, more importantly, blind to our participation in what’s going on.

So, one of the things that I’ve been very interested in as a fourth point of the critical vernacular ecology is the idea that we need new theory.  We need new theory from old wisdoms.  We need new ways of talking about what’s going on based on understandings that we have already had. This is my attempt, my contribution.

Core to this is an idea that is very familiar within Aikido, the notion that to improve a situation you “sidestep, enter and turn.”  Sidestep – when there’s a truck coming down the road you get out of the bloody way because it will run you over.  So you sidestep.  Then you go back into the situation at a point of lower intensity and you move with the situation in a way which will bring it to a lower intensity.

I’ve taken advice from a friend in Australia many times, don’t plant trees where they’re going to get cut down.  Two strikes and I’m out, now three strikes and I’m out now.  I’ll try twice and if I find that the trees are going to get cut down I’m going to move to somewhere where it’s more fertile because the importance is to keep the energy at a high level in terms of being out there rather than going in to places where damage-limitation will suck you dry.

Damage-limitation is crucially important, but if you spend most of your time up doing that in elimination-of-uncertainty zones you’re going to burn yourself out. What’s really, really important is to make forays into the difficult places and find a way to keep yourself balanced and not burn yourself out. To keep that balance, work-life balance I suppose, in a sense, so that, when you make your forays, now you have your armour, you are prepared, you are able to, in a sense, engage in some sort of martial art when you do damage limitation work. But when you come out of it, you yourself are not being defined by the logic of that which you are seeking to make better.

There’s a guy called Simon Sinek who does leadership work and he talks about how most people in leadership start with what they want to do, and then they identify how they’re going to do it, and then they think, “Oh I’m kind of doing something some particular way, I’m going to think about why I’m doing it now.” Sinek went around looking at all the different leaders … Martin Luther King, Steve Jobs, you know, , and he was looking at the way in which people who had a very clear purpose (“the why”) for what they were doing were often more successful in drawing other people to what they were doing.

Now I have misgivings about this because often people who are successful in drawing people to follow them are people who are all about the elimination of uncertainty.  I watched a documentary the other day about Hitler. He was a superb, a superb speaker. He was superb at drawing followers behind him. The faster your movement grows the more you should be suspicious of what quality it has. Very simple. Invitational movements grow really really slowly. Trauma happens really, really quickly but it takes year to actually heal from that trauma. The quicker what you are doing is spreading the more you need to question what you are doing. But what I would suggest, is what I call “How 2.0”, very pretentious of me. How 2.0 is not “how am I doing it?” but, “how do I want it to feel when it happens?”. “How do I want it to feel when it happens?” And that for me is the core. That is the core of this work.

In thinking about the elimination of uncertainty, and thinking about enclosure, and thinking about gentleness, or kindness, or whatever, when you lift the words up and look underneath, and look below those multiple vocabularies, the important thing is to think about “how do I want it to feel?”, and then when it’s happening “how does it actually feel?”. If it feels really, really intense than you’re into the “enclosure triad” – High intensity.  High directivity and elimination of uncertainty thinking. If what you are doing feels like that, it’s time to rethink.

Genesis of the Cultural Climate Framework

The Cultural Climate Framework has its origins in my work in the field of ethnomusicology. Between 1996 and 2002 I undertook ethnographic fieldwork to ascertain the systematic social and ethical dynamics in the informal contexts and communities of Irish traditional music. Key to this work was evaluation of the relational implications of increased acquiescence among Irish musicians to the discourses, values, and practices of copyright and intellectual property.

Interdisciplinary theoretical analysis in ethnomusicology, anthropology, sociology, institutional economics, and social psychology led me to develop a general systematic theory for specific practices of ‘enclosure’, that is, an expansionary social dynamic driven by the ‘elimination’ of uncertainty, involving the acclelerative and intensifying commodification of everyday life (see McCann, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2012). ‘Enclosure’ became, in effect, shorthand to speak of unhelpful dynamics of excessive institutionalisation, bureaucratization, or administration within organisations.

In postdoctoral research I built on this ethnographic and theoretical work, turning to sociolinguistic register theory (see, e.g., Halliday 1978; Butler 1999, and many others), affect theory (see, e.g., Brennan 2004, Ahmed 2010, Grossberg 2010 and others), and cultural history (especially Raymond Williams’ work on ‘structures of feeling‘) in order to develop the general framework.

Counterintuitively, the fact that this research originated with a non-organisational focus is what makes it so well suited to the analysis of culture change in organisational dynamics. If the theoretical tools used to analyse culture change in organisations are forged in the empirical analysis of organisations, then the results will likely be primarily descriptive in character. Description tends to be of limited operational efficacy in the necessarily comparative analysis of cultural climate and of little guidance in trying to understand our own participation in the enactment of culture change.

Because all organisations rely on a subsystem of substantially informal human relationships and interactions, any effective model of culture change in organisations needs to be based on principles that are also inclusive of governing dynamics of attitude, behaviour, and social interaction in explicitly non-organisational culture. Indeed, I would argue that the spectrum of less formal qualities of relationship in an organisation are the very heart of possibility in culture change. You cannot construct a clear roadmap for culture change when they are excluded, or even marginalised, in the model being used.


Associated Reading

Roger D. Abrahams. 2005. Everyday Life: A Poetics of Vernacular Practices. University of Pennsylvania Press.

David Abrams. 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books.

Asif Agha. 2000. “Register”. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 9(1-2): 216-219
—. 2005. “Voice, Footing, Enregisterment.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 15(1): 38-59

Sara Ahmed. 2010. “Happy Objects.” In The Affect Theory Reader. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds. 29-51. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Richard Bauman and Charles Briggs. 1990. “Poetics and Performance As Critical Perspectives on Language and Social Life.” The Annual Review of Anthropology 19: 59-88.

Teresa Brennan. 2004. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Lance St. John Butler. 1999. Registering the Difference: Reading literature through register. Manchester and New York.

Jenny Cheshire and Allan Bell. 2003. “Register and style.” In International Encyclopedia of Linguistics Vol 3. William Frawley, ed. 454-459. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Todd Cronan. 2012. “The Aesthetic Politics of Affect.” Radical Philosophy 172: 51-53. URL: http://nonsite.org/review/radically-private-and-pretty-uncoded (accessed Dec 2012)

Jean Debernardi. 1995. Book Review: Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Register. Douglas Biber and Edward Finegan, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. 385 pp. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 5(1): 97-99.

Anind K. Dey. 2001. “Understanding and Using Context.” Personal and Ubiquitous Computing 5:4–7

Roy Dilley, ed. 1999. The Problem of Context. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Peter Fawcett. 1997. Translation and Language. Linguistic Theories Explained. Manchester: St Jerome Publishing.

Kathleen Ferrara, Hans Brunner, and Greg Whittemore.1991. “Interactive Written Discourse as an Emergent Register.” Written Communication 8(1): 8-34.

Anita Fetzer. 2004. Recontextualizing context: grammaticality meets appropriateness. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Mohsen Ghadessy, ed. 1988. Registers of Written English: Situational Factors and Linguistic Features. London and New York: Pinter Publishers.
—.  1993. Register Analysis: Theory and Practice. London and New York: Pinter Publishers.

Charles Goodwin and Alessandro Duranti, eds. 1992. Rethinking Context: Language as an Interactive Phenomenon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds. 2010. The Affect Theory Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Lawrence Grossberg. 2010. “Affect’s Future.” In The Affect Theory Reader. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds. 309-338. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Tomie Hahn. 2007. Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture Through Japanese Dance. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Michael A. K. Halliday. 1978. Language as social semiotic: The social interpretation of language and meaning. London, New York: Edward Arnold.

David Howes. 2003. Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Brian Massumi. 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Lilia Savova. 2005. “Register.” In New Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Vol. 2. Philipp Strazny, ed. 898-899. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Ben-Ami Scharfstein. 1989. The Dilemma of Context. New York: NYU Press.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. 2003. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kathleen Stewart. 2007. Ordinary Affects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Paul Stoller. 1989. The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
—. 1997. Sensuous Scholarship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Marilyn Strathern. 1987. “Out Of Context: The persuasive fictions of anthropology.” Current Anthropology 28: 251–281.

Nigel Thrift. 2008. Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect. London: Routledge.

Anna Trosborg, ed. 1997. “Text Typology: Register, Genre and Text Type.” In Text Typology and Translation. Benjamins Translation Library 26: 3-24. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Jean Ure and Jeffrey Ellis. “Register in Descriptive Linguistics and Linguistic Sociology.” In Issues in Sociolinguistics. Oscar Uribe-Villegas, ed. The Hague, Paris, New York: Mouton Publishers, 1977. 197-243.

Teun A. van Dijk. 2009. Society and Discourse: how social contexts influence text and talk. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Raymond Williams. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press
—. 1979. Politics and Letters. New York: Schoken Books.









Cultural priming, the “adjacent probable”, and changing the cultural equation

Within any particular culture, prolonged participation in the cultural climate has a tendency to prime people to reproduce the dynamics of that climate (either in that culture or upon having moved to another). When a cultural climate is dominated by the dynamics of enclosure this is one of the primary contributing factors in the acclerative intensification of enclosure. While it is possible to overcome this priming to a greater or lesser extent, for the most part in cultural priming people turn towards what I call “the adjacent probable.”

I have developed the term “adjacent probable” from the term “adjacent possible” in the work of Stuart Kauffman, a biologist and complex systems researcher. As reported by Stephen Johnson (2010), Kauffman’s work on evolution and self- organisation gave rise to the notion of “the adjacent possible”. This concept speaks to the way that biological developments can only happen within their specific conditions of possibility: “The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edge of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Yet it is not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field …. What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary things, but only certain changes can happen.”(Johnson 2010, p. 30-31).

In the context of my Cultural Climate Framework, the adjacent probable tells us is that at any moment we are capable of many things, but we tend to reach for architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing that are already dominant in the cultural climate we inhabit. The adjacent probable refers to our default responses in a particular situation, both tacit and explicit, that are both symptomatic of and constitutive of the dominant expectations in the cultural climate.

Importantly, the gravities of the adjacent probable within enclosing organisational environments are much stronger on account of the high directivity of the corresponding cultural climate. In the context of culture change interventions within cultural climates of organisational enclosure, this strong tendency to default to the adjacent probable leads to what I call “cultural feedback”. This is when we systematically reinforce and recreate the enclosing dynamics we are seeking to change, despite (or often because of) our best intentions. What seems like a good and very fresh idea at the time often ends up having very similar consequences to the thing you are trying to avoid. The “adjacent probables” of goal-driven and profit-driven organisational or institutional practice are what take their toll on employee engagement, organisational direction, and the health of the organisation’s future. They strain the social contract by limiting the expectations and quality of the social contract. If defaulting to the adjacent probable runs the risk of doubling us back into the dynamics of enclosure, the need for helpful culture change interventions invites us to challenge the priming logics of the cultural climate within the situation and within ourselves and to reach for the “adjacent unlikely” that will change the cultural equation.


Stephen Johnson. 2010. Where Good Ideas Come From: the natural history of innovation. London: Allen Lane.


The Elimination of Uncertainty: the engine of enclosure

The elimination of uncertainty ethos is what drives the cancer of “enclosure” at the heart of organisational practice. Enclosure is the accelerative and intensifying process in play when good organisations go bad and when bad organisations get worse. When left unchallenged, enclosure spreads, it deepens, and it corrodes the core cultural supports of your organisation, among them productivity, employee engagement, creativity, and trust. When this happens, it is “business as usual” that makes the unhelpful difference. Following the principles of the Cultural Climate Framework, an enclosing cultural climate comes with what I call the Organisational Enclosure Triad – an environment saturated with the elimination of uncertainty ethos tends also to be characterized by chronic heightened intensity, and by chronic heightened directivity. While there are many more features of enclosing cultural climates, these are the core drivers of unhelpful change within an organisational culture. These features, more than any others, are what will most affect the relational climate of the organisation.

One the difficulties within a business environment is that the three elements of the organisational enclosure triad are frequently to be found in the heart of workaday orthodoxy in accepted business practice. The logics of the triad are embedded within the language, habits, norms, and rules of much standard and recommended business practice. The challenge isn’t eliminating the presence of these elements, but in minimising their impact within the workplace.

It is important to note that while the “elimination” of uncertainty is to be avoided, the reduction of uncertainty is to be welcomed. Similarly, while chronic heightened intensity is to be avoided, occasional intensity at appropriate times is to be welcomed. And while chronic heightened directivity could lead to all sorts of problems, occasional directive strategic interventions might sometimes be very appropriate. It’s about avoiding the extremes of elimination, intensity, and directivity without throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Organisational Enclosure Triad redux


Cultural Climate and Culture Change

Cultural climate is the key driver of behaviour and expectations within organisations.

The most important dimension of an organizational culture might be characterised as its “cultural climate”, or, in shorthand, the personality of an organization. The cultures of organizations differ in the way that each person has a different personality, that is, a dynamic pattern of variation in attitude, behaviour, and social interaction that tends to be consistent over long periods. The better you understand the personality of your organization, the better you will be able to respond to the challenges it faces.

To speak of “a cultural climate”, then, is to speak of the dispositional quality of a particular organisational culture, considered in comparison to other organisational cultures or to other times or places within the same organisation. In colloquial terms, the cultural climate of an organisation here means, “what has tended to happen, what tends to happen, and what will tend to happen in a particular organisation (specified by location(s) over a designated time).

“Culture change” is the process of actively intervening to change the cultural climate of an organisation, and supporting that process by way of due diligence, due patience, and due care. To effect a dispositional shift in the cultural climate of an organisation takes time. It also takes sensitive leadership. Until the cultural climate, the personality, of the organisation changes, nothing substantially changes.

The notion of change can be thrown around meaninglessly so that change becomes a welcome, unconditional good, and eternally necessary. Sometimes the term is used as if change is something other than that which ordinarily happens – change becomes rare and difficult to achieve, making it the sacred preserve of the creative few. In the other extreme, change can be considered ever-present, constant flux inescapable; life becomes so saturated with change and impermanence that little we can do truly makes a difference. Change becomes more meaningful when it is thought of as ordinary, possible, and available in everything we do.

Culture change is one of the more radical approaches you can choose to change your organization. Culture change involves identifying, evaluating, and actively changing the personality or personality traits of your organisation so that they better suit the aims, aspirations, and potential of your company, and so they better support the potential and possibilities of everyone in the organisation. At its best, organisational culture change positively affects productivity, innovation, sustainability, and emotional health simultaneously.


Coaching – a hopeful art

I entered coaching more by intuition than by decision. I found myself drawn to a professional practice that aligned with my father’s legacy and with my own 15-year journey in exploration of the political possibilities of gentleness. From my course of study I now understand that, practised ethically and sensitively, coaching can be a gentle art. Coaching can be a celebration of withness. Coaching can invite people to the richness of possibilities in the art of being human. Coaching can, at best, invite people to a deep and shimmering, relational presence, in the moving embrace of the ineffable. Coaching also sits as a practice in that space between individual change and collective change, having the potential to catalyse those kinds of changes that ripple out through the pulses and echoes of individual hearts and human relationship. Unlike psychotherapy, coaching does not reach back into the darkness and stir. Sometimes it’s as simple as introducing someone to themselves, their possibilities, and the more hopeful realities of their life. To practise the profession of coaching is to practise a hopeful art.

For me, one of the clearest statements on hope comes from Roger Simon, a radical pedagogist, who writes,

“Hope is the acknowledgement of more openness in a situation than the situation easily reveals: openness above all to possibilities for human attachments, expressions, and assertions. The hopeful person does not merely envisage this possibility as a wish; the hopeful person acts upon it now by loosening and refusing the hold that taken-for-granted realities and routines have over the imagination” (Simon 1992:3).

This seems to me to speak to the very essence of the coaching profession. Hope is the assertion, for me, that stuck is never really stuck. Coaches, in effect, become catalysts for hope, inviting openness to possibilities, helping people to loosen the binds of taken-for-granted realities and routines. Through a coaching alliance, the coach and the person being coached commit themselves to a coaxing-forth of openness in and through dialogue, presence, and time spent in the company of a spirit of inquiry: “Once the inevitabilities are challenged, we begin gathering our resources for a journey of hope” (Raymond Williams 1985; cited in Hutchinson 1996:2). Of course, a successful coaching relationship will depend in large part on a coachee’s openness to feedback and willingness to change (Bacon and Spear 2003).

Very little has been written about hope in academic literature outside the contexts of theology, psychology, and education (see Halpin 2003). Most work approaches the subject of hope from a utopian or eschatalogical perspective – where hope tends to be conceived of as being ‘somewhere else’, beyond the here-and-now, situated just beyond reach, but always reached-for, in a there-and-then.

In response to such approaches, in Habits of Hope: A Pragmatic Theory (2001), Patrick Shade undertakes a critique of particularly theological conceptions of hope that locate the agency of hope elsewhere, often in a salvific external absolute power. Shade draws upon the work of pragmatist philosophers, in particular C.S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, in order to move towards more embodied and personally relevant understandings of hope, grounded in what’s available, what’s near, what’s at-hand.

This is the kind of hope that interests me, and the type of hope that I feel coaching aspires to. This is the kind of work that I want a concept of ‘hope’ and the profession of coaching to do for me. I’m interested in hope that is most helpfully considered a consequence of a deeper presencing of the self in relationship.

It is important that any such consideration of hope doesn’t allow us to simply assume that an attitude of hopefulness will leave us free to do whatever we want or be whoever we want to be. I don’t think this is what coaching invites us to think, despite some popular conceptions of coaching as a doorway to ‘get the life you want’ philosophies. Life tends to be more complex than that, and coaching at its best works from the realities of life.

One of the key questions of theoretical inquiry in the social sciences is whether individuals can freely and autonomously initiate action, or whether what we do is in somehow determined by the ways our lives and identities are constructed. From Darwin onwards we discover that we have physiological, instinctual histories linking us to the rest of the animal kingdom that we cannot escape. From Freud onwards we learn that perhaps our lives are determined, at least in part, by subconscious drives and desires. Theorists like Althusser explore the role that ideology plays in determining our possibilities as human beings. Lacan, Foucault and others have explored the ways that our actions are also a consequence of language and discourse. It might seem difficult, if not impossible, for us to escape the forces that constrain and construct us. If hope is to be real, if hope is to be present, then hope must be grounded in the realities of our lives – the constraining, determining, shaping realities of our lives that often leave us feeling stuck and unable to move. David Halpin writes,

“The state of being hopeful … is not a passive or empty one. On the contrary, it implicitly involves adopting a critical reflective attitude towards prevailing circumstances. Indeed, hope often creates discontent, inasmuch as a person’s hopes for the future may make them very dissatisfied with things as they are presently, especially if they get in the way of making progress. Consequently, discontent of this kind often draws attention to a significant absence or gap in how certain matters are currently experienced, allied to a wish to change them for the better” (Halpin 2003:15).

The initial approach a person makes to a coach in a personal coaching context might be considered, in these terms, a deeply hopeful act. A sense of dissatisfaction with the present, a sense that something is getting in the way, a sense that something is out of balance, a sense that there is nowhere to go, will come together with a wish to effect meaningful change, even if the desire for change is muddied, and the nature of that desired change unknown.

People seek out a personal coach often through some felt sense of self-estrangement,  confusion, or paralysis. Hence, the first relationship to be the focus of an invitation to a deeper presencing through coaching is the relationship a coachee has with themselves and the potential for movement in their own life. In some sense, coaching is a way of introducing a coachee to themselves. This is most obviously done by mirroring the coachee back upon themselves: “The coach acts as a mirror, reflecting back the coachee’s thoughts, words and ideas to enable the coachee to see things more clearly and, in doing so, to work out how to move forward”  (Bresser and Wilson 2012:16). This can be done through catalytic and challenging questioning, bringing the coachee closer to the core movement and dynamism of their life. The coach becomes a sounding board to reveal the hidden, the unnoticed, and the unspoken.

Fran Peavey speaks of the importance of not only bringing our unique worldview to consciousness, but also our unique changeview, that, “comes from what we’ve been taught about change, our understanding of history, and our own observations and experiences.” (1986:164). To invite a coachee to a greater understanding of their own changeview may also be to invite them to consider the ways in which their understanding of change and how it works in their life may not be serving them very well. Their changeview and their reality may be at odds: “Most change initiatives that end up going nowhere don’t fail because they lack grand visions and noble intentions. They fail because people can’t see the reality they face” (Senge et al. 2005:29). In effect, people become stuck not where they are, but where they are not.

It is the always-already hopeful structure of the coaching relationship which supports the exploration of such tensions in safety and a challenging comfort. Kimsey-House et al. discuss these two dimensions of safety and challenge within the context of what they term Co-Active coaching:

“In Co-Active coaching, we talk about two core characteristics of an effective coaching environment: one, it is safe enough for clients to take the risks they need to take, and two, it is a courageous place where clients are able to approach their lives and the choices they make with motivation, curiosity, and creativity. By the way, “safe” does not necessarily mean “comfortable.” Significant change may be highly uncomfortable, and yet there are ways to ensure that the experience is safe” (Kimsey-House et al. 2011:17).

A key aspect of coaching practice, and of the hopeful call to a relational presencing, is the invitation to the coachee to turn discussions about goals and ambitions  from dialogue, clarification, and reflection into clear plans for actions, particularly small, doable actions that are easily accomplished: “To be effective, a goal must be inspiring, challenging, measurable and have a deadline” (Bresser and Wilson 2012:20). The practicality of doability makes the stuck unstuck. For Patrick Shade, this quality is an essential quality for hope and a precondition for the fostering of agency:

 “If it is to be realizable, hope must be practical in being continuous with current conditions. And yet, hope is itself practical in that its pursuit changes us and our environment, thereby transforming and taking us beyond current conditions. Hope signifies the growth of agency. [emphasis in original]” (Shade 2001:22).

I see coaching as a vital change tool for a more hopeful world, a way to make the stuck unstuck. Through the alliance of a coaching relationship people can be invited to become more themselves, in the sense that they can come to a greater awareness of the part they play as actors and agents in the conditions of their lives. Coaching draws people into an alchemist’s cauldron, where transformations are not only possible, but expected, remembering that “When all is said and done, the only change that will make a difference is the transformation of the human heart” (Joseph Jaworski, in Senge et al. 2005:26). To practise the profession of coaching is, indeed, to practise a hopeful art.



Terry Bacon & Karen I. Spear. 2003. Adaptive coaching: The art and practice of a client-centered approach to performance improvement. Mountain View, CA: Davis-Black Publishing.

Frank Bresser and Carol Wilson. 2012. “What Is Coaching?” In Excellence in Coaching: The Industry Guide. Jonathan Passmore, ed. Pp. 9-26. London: KoganPage.

David Halpin. 2003. Hope and Education: The Role of the Utopian Imagination. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Francis Hutchinson. 1996. Educating Beyond Violent Futures. London: Routledge.

Henry Kimsey-House, Karen Kimsey-House, Phillip Sandahl, and Laura Whitworth. 2011. Co-Active Coaching: changing business, transforming lives. Boston: Nicholas Brealey.

Peter M. Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski, and Betty Sue Flowers. 2005. Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Patrick Shade. 2001. Habits of Hope: A Pragmatic Theory. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

Roger Simon. Teaching Against The Grain: Texts for a Pedagogy of Possibility. Toronto: OISE Press.

8 First Principles of “Culture Change”

For me, there are eight First Principles of Culture Change which provide the dynamic bedrock upon which all else builds:

1. Hereness: To understand the dynamic patterns within a situation, it is important to acknowledge your own place within those dynamics. Grounding yourself in “being here” is a crucial starting point.

2. Withness: It is impossible to make true sense of the culture of a situation unless you acknowledge that “being here” is also “being with”, whether with people or in relationship to the context or environment in which you find yourself. Acknowledging the cultural context of interrelationship provides a strong basis for cultural change.

3. Subtle Power: This refers to “the ability to vary the experience of oneself or another”. This is the most effective understanding of power with which to enact culture change. Subtle Power allows anyone within the situation to occupy a “position of power”; power becomes ever-present – no-one can ever be thought to work from a position of powerlessness.

4. Nearness: Each person’s experience of the culture of a particular environment is always local, specific, and personal. Through what a person experiences as near-at-hand, subtle power combines with hereness and withness, as each person is invited to an acknowledgment of their own agency, or response-ability, within a located reality.

5. Change Happens: It just does. And it doesn’t stop. And it doesn’t always look like change. And it’s not always helpful. But it can be.

6. The Relational Field: If you listen to how Subtle Power happens you soon come an understanding that each moment is a play of influences and influencing. This, the relational field, is where culture change happens. It is impossible to understand culture change without some understanding of the relational field.

7. Change Isn’t The Aim: If change simply happens, then the aim of culture change isn’t change, but, rather, particular kinds of change – it is important to be clear about what qualities of change you want to happen, and, perhaps more importantly, what kinds of change you don’t want. If the purpose for culture change isn’t clear and transparent, the culture change process can be confused, frustrating, and divisive.

8. Participation: To the extent that we acknowledge Subtle Power and the presence of a relational field, to that extent we also quickly come to acknowledge that we, too, play a part in the relational field, that we each exercise power, and that we each play our own part in the enactment of culture change. This is the heart of the notion, “Be the change you want to see.”