PMTH NEWS                                    04/14/99

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I think that pagans are artists, that is, they can move from one [language] game to another, and in each of these games (in the optimal situation) they try to figure out new moves.  And even better, they try to invent new games.
Lyotard, 61

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The Maturana Thread

I am happy to report that our Maturana thread is developoing nicely.   Maria Nichterlein, Tony Coates, Andy Lock and Tony Michael Roberts have clearly been doing much more than I have in their studies of Humberto Maturana.  I understand that Nicherlein and Roberts have actually worked under Maturna.

And I find their discussion of Maturana's concepts are very helpful.  Last week, I asked about the concept of coordination and I had all sorts of useful help.  One parable from Nichterlein I thought was useful.  She said that to explain "coordination" Maturana gave the story of how he walked his dog Lobo.  The two of them would go for a walk but while they were walking Lobo would sometimes wander off down the wrong path.  Then, Maturana would lift his hand and say, "No, Lobo.  Come this way."  And good little Lobo would shift his direction and go with Maturana.

Of course, this was an elementary example for a beginner like me.  More difficult examples might be the way one bit of organic tissue (say finger tips on a human hand) are disturbed by their contact with another bit of tissue, say a rose.  In some sense, Maturana would say, the neurons aren't actually touching the rose.  Rather, the neurons are activated and stimulated, sending "pertubations" through the nervous systems, asthe organism with the fingers coordinates to the rose.  Much more, I hope, will come.  (And I hope I have this above explanation straight.) 

Want to see what is leading me to think Maturana is postmodern (in the Lyotardian sense)?  It is his openness to alternative views.   Read this Maturana quote and you'll see what I mean:

If we know that our world is necessarily the world we bring forth with others, every time we are in conflict with another human being with whom we want to remain in co-existence, we cannot affirm what for us is certain (an absolute truth) because that would negate the other person.  If we want to coexist with the other person, we must see that his certainty -- however undesirable it may seem to us -- is as legitimate and valid....

I take this as Maturana, who certainly asserts his beliefs, leaving room for his own blindspots.  After all, he is the one who said:

[W]e generate cognitive "blind spots" that can be cleared only through generating new blind spots in another domain.

That sounds postmodern to me.  After all, postmoderns are incredulous about metanarratives.

In appreciation of: Karl Tomm

Karl Tomm has done a lot to popularize Michael White's and David's Epston's version of Narrative Therapy.  Tomm told us of his story of inspiration with Narrative Therapy when he wrote the foreword for White and Epston's key text, Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends.  In that foreword, Tomm said

Since encountering their work three years ago, my own therapeutic methods have changed enormously.  Because of the new trail they have broken, I have been able to enter into some entirely new domains of practice.  Needless to say, this has been extremely gratifying both profesionally and personally.  Many of my friends and colleagues are having similar experiences. 

What was so inspiring to Tomm?  I think he explained that best in a frequently cited, but not very available paper that he gave before a conference in 1989 - the year before  Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends was published.
This paper previewed Narrative Therapy philosophy and helped to launch this new movement within family therapy.  (You can see my paraphrase of this paper here).  Basically, it seemed to Tomm, that Narrative Therapy could use language to eradicate the problem, almost to "exorcise" it, and it would leave clients less likely to need to defend themselves and blame others.  Blame would be cast, it seemed to him at that time, on abstract externalized entities.
In these words in 1989 and 1990, Tomm seems completely taken by Narrative Therapy. 

By 1993, we begin to see a little shift in his  writing.  He is still very inspired by White and the Narrative model of therapy, but he is now more openly eclectic and he distinguishes his own  approach from that of Michael White's in several ways. 

By 1993,  after a few years working within the Narrative Therapy paradigm, Tomm is reporting on his differences with some aspects of White's approach to therapy.  Tomm notices that Narrative Therapy  seems too monologic.  The new preferred story that the client takes from Narrative Therapy (as she reauthors her life), feels  a bit too pat, too removed the client's lived experience for Tomm. He wants to hear more what has happened and make the new, preferred story less important in the therapy conversation.  Talking about his own form of therapy, and distinguishing it from White's,  Tomm says:

I focus on enabling persons to bring forth coherent descriptions of experience that have theapeutic potential. ...Perhaps one difference between us lies in my tendency to place more emphasis on lived experience than on stories about that experience.

He seems less inspired with the central idea of Narrative Therapy, the creation of a re-authored monologic narrative, and has become  more interested in the dialogic nature of "our stories."  Comparing his own work with White's, he says that he, Tomm, is

less invested in the narrative metaphor than Michael [White].  In my work, I give more priority to conversations than to stories. 

And Tomm, by 1993, even has a kind of dialogic model of the mind (much like Bakhtin), apparently.  Tomm tells us:

I regard a personal story as a concatenation of internalized conversations and find that the complexity of a full story renders it more distant from experience than a conversation that may be a component of the story.  Furthermore, for me as a physician, it is going a bit too far to suggest that lives are constituted by stories and to say that "stories provide the structure of life." 

Thus, we see, the evolution of Tomm's own independent voice emrging from his own eclecticism.  He still seems to be someone who continues to admire and respect the work of Michael White.

Nevertheless, he finds ways to to be eclectic with White's theories.  He harvests one thing from White's model, and rejects another.  For another example, he notes that while White bases his work on Foucault,  his own work, Tomm says, is based on Maturana.  In Tomm's words:

My own personal intersets have drawn me to Maturana (rather than Foucault) as a theoretical resource.  Maturana's perspective seems less pessimistic than Foucault's; however, in many respects they are quite compatible.

Thus,  Tomm shows us his path of rethinking Narrative Therapy for himself.  To my mind this is the paralogical growth of Tomm's perspective.

It is, I believe, only in the marketing of any theory that it stands still in the consumer's mind.  Consider how drastically Freud's theory changed over the forty years he wrote.  How could any intelligent writer continue in the same unchanged, unimproved theory of things?

Living theories are continuously under revision, even as we discuss them, even as we encounter each new case.

The challenge is, it seems to me, how to stand on the shoulders of a good theorist like Michael White.  Is it shameless of us to harvest what we see as the best in the crop of his ideas?  And to weave these good ideas into the paralogical growth of our own thinking?  Or do we owe something to a teacher to preserve his ideas in their original form? 

I see that question as perhaps the biggest one of all.  Unless we can find new ways to use ideas for our own eclectic growth, in the end, postmodernism will be reduced to just another school of thought.  What it has to teach us that is most precious is this ability that Tomm has shown, the ability to cherish one set of ideas but to change them in ways that seem promising with remarkable irreverence.

I much admire Tomm's ability to learn from White, and to honor that learning, while, at the same time, to explore his own thinking and to honor the wisdom of his own voice.



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Is Rorty Postmodern?

Rorty is a Wittgensteinian, a philosopher whose ideas work well within the Lyotardian postmodern frame.  In fact, I believe that what I am calling "paralogy" is more or less what Rorty calls "edification."  I much prefer the term "paralogy" for this role, but still, it is important to be able to move in between the language games of different thinkers. 

Listen to the way Rorty sets up the word "edification."

Since "education' sounds a bit too flat, and Bildung a bit too foreign, I shall use "edification" to stand for this project of finding new, better, more interesting, more fruitful ways of speaking.

And about edification (i.e., paralogy) he says

[E]difying discourse is supposed to be abnormal, to take us out of our old selves by the power of strangeness, to aid us in becoming new beings.

Some years ago, Rorty used to consider himself postmodern but more recently he rejects that label, perhaps because of the confusion and politics surrounding the use of the term.  But, can you see why history seems to ignore Rorty's attempt to deny his postmodernism?

A  Differend in Postmodernity

Last week in PMTH NEWS  I wrote an article about Lyotard's concept of differends and also in another article about NT  philosophy as it compares to paralogical philosophies -- so perhaps it is fitting that during the week  I would discover, what seems to me to be, a remarkable differend between NT philosophy and more dialogic or paralogical ones.   That is, I think I can see why mftc got into such a dispute, and why there are often such quarrels about postmodernism.  I believe I have found a differend lurking here, a conflict between two competing language games, that is causing considerable mischief. 

First, in order to see it, get yourself into a mood of noticing differends.  A differend is a dispute that occurs when people are using terms in different ways but are unable to sort this out.  If I said, "I want something sweet" and you thought I was asking for a kiss, while I was really asking for a cookie, then we might have a differend.  When you balked at kissing me (supposing that you did) I might take offense.  And if we never figured out the source of this confusion, our prospects of solving the problem would be dim.

I think something like that is causing much of the mischief in postmodernity.  People are going round and round because they are defining terms in different ways.  Seeing this is  subtle at first, so stick with me.

Recall that Lyotard defines postmodernism as an incredulity (or skepticism) towards metanarratives.  A person is postmodern if she no longer believes, even in principle, that there is one theory, one story, that is always right and everything can be reduced to it.  Many people take this  definition of postmodernism as definitive. 

But now, in NT theory one often hears about "dominant discourses."  This is a concept based on Foucault's talk about power.  A dominant discourse is just what it sounds like it is.  It is the way of thinking and talking that convinces nearly everyone in a culture.

The differend comes about (I think) by the conflation (and confusion) between the term "dominant discourse" and the term "metnarrative."  On the surface they sound just the same -- but they're not.  Just as I might get mad if you kissed me when I was asking for a cookie, so tempers flare when this confusion between dominant discourse and metanarrative leads people into disputes.

A metanarrative is not a dominant discourse, at least not necessarily.  Here's an example that will convince you that all metanarratives are not dominant: Today, astrology is not a dominant discourse.  Science is dominant. Still, there are a circle of people today who believe in astrology and they believe in a metanarrative.  So astrology is a metanarrative, a grand theory (another synonym for metanarrative) that people sometimes believe in, yet it is hardly the dominant discourse.. 

In the last week I looked over some notes of people arguing about postmodernism.  One person said "I think postmodern is this," and another person said, "No, that's not it.  Postmodernism is this other thing."  But when I looked carefully at these notes, I think I see this mischievous differend smiling back at me.  It is that one group is saying (with Foucault) that the thing they don't believe in are these dominant stories that everyone else believes in.  And the other group is saying (with Lyotard) that the thing they don't believe in is any grand theory that explains everything even if that grand theory is not the dominant one.  It's subtle, but look at it a bit more and you'll see it.  The dominant discourse is what most people believe.  The metanarrative is an all explaining theory.

Can you see what mischief that language-game confusion could cause?  I suggest you watch for it in the debates around postmodernism.  They two sides are likely to be fighting these two different culprits unwittingly.  One side will say (with Foucault) we need to learn to resist the dominant discourse.  And that side will feel puzzled and dismayed by the others saying, "Oh, watch out.  Be careful.  You're about to jump into another metanarrative."  "But, says the first side, it's not a dominant one."  "So what, says the second side, they're both metanarratives."  A dispute like this can go round and round forever.
Thanks to Judy Weintraub , Tony Michael Roberts , Tom Hicks,   and Val Lewis for their comments in helping me sort through this.  I don't know if they agree with my analysis, but their discussion helped me think about it, and I liked what they had to say. 

I think something Roberts said in his notes is a particularly appropriatet to end this article on.  Calling the "dominant discourse" the "cognitive default," and using the word "paralogy" to name how people talk with they are incredulous of metanarratives, Roberts named the two sides a little differently, but you can see this is just different clothing for the concepts I have been talking about.  Roberts said:

I don't think anyone operates from within
paralogy as a cognitive default. I think paralogy goes against the grain of ordinary human cognition. 

In other words, most people who are skeptical of metanarratives will engage in (or try to engage in)a kind of conversation we call paralogy.  Paralogy is a way of coping with our incredulity.  But in the present state of things, paralogy is hard for us to do, so hard, that it is not likely to become a dominant discourse in the forseeable future.  That's what Roberts suggested.

And I think so, too.

Another Tool

I have added two more tools to our toolbox.  The first is Mary Klages lecture notes on postmodern topics that I think is just tops as a good introduction.  She covers a broad spectrum including: Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Freud, Lacan, Cixous, Irigaray, Althusser, Bakhtin, Foucault, Butler.  If you need an introduction to any of these theorists, take a look at Klages pages.  She is in the toolbox to your left under "postmodern sites."

Next, I hadded a link to Scott Moore's continental philosophy page.  It is a good list of links not only to original works but to online secondary commentaries about  those works.  Click here to go to the tool linking you to the Moore site.

A Parable on Normality

Not long ago, PMTH subscriber Andrew Lock forwarded a request he had received for someone to explain the postmodern deconstruction of normality.  Val Lewis had a perfect  parable ready, one  that she has been using for a long time in her teaching. 

You can reach it by clicking here.


We have talked a bit about Lyotard's notion of differends on PMTH. My interpretation of this important concept is that a differend is a dispute of a particular kind.  It happens when two people are using terms differently because they are embedded in different language games.  It happens because our language has different rules in different language regions, and so.

[l]anguage inevitably contains and produces conflict -- Lyotard's differend-- because different genres of discourse have different, overlapping, rules. 

Differends can lead to endless disputes that seem to get no where.  (If you want to read my study of how differends relate to therapy, please refer to my article on this topic.) 

Sometimes, however, differends do not lead to disputes so much as to one party being trampled by the power of another to dominate the language game.  It makes it impossible for the offended party to voice its complaint.  Lyotard talks about this in relationship to the Nazi persecution and the slaughter of the Jewish people, and an interesting article online does a good job, it seems to me,  of explaining how a differend makes such violence possible.

In these troubled times of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, it is, perhaps, good to look more deeply into aspect of differnds and to ponder their role in limiting our human understanding.  If you like, an interesting article online will assist you in that.  click here.

More on Narrative Therapy

With all this talk on Narrative Therapy, let me refer you to Andrew Lock's work on this topic.
It will introduce and summarize White's theories in a way you may well find useful.  It will also put a face on them, as Lock begins his summary with a photograph of Michael White.

Click here to go to Lock's website on White.


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