/ / / / / /RiffingOn
‘New collective assemblages of enunciation are beginning to form an identity out of fragmentary ventures, at times risky initiatives, trial and error experiments; different ways of seeing and of making the world’. (Felix Guattari Chaosmosis)
I’ve recently joined my local ‘Transition’ initiative and I’m trying to make sense of its evolving ideas, practices and structures— in particular, work out how our nascent community relates to the ‘mothership’ in Totnes. This is partly a debate about governance yet it’s also about the relationship between networks and hierarchies, how different formations affect creativity and innovation.
Transition opens up fascinating possibilities for design, bottom-up, interactive strategies that involve code and organism— social groups and identity systems. If wasps and termites can build complex structures from simple rule-based interaction, then why not the ‘third chimpanzee’?
What is Transition?
‘Transition’ is a genetically modified version of Permaculture. Re-engineered by Louise Rooney and Rob Hopkins for a 21st century apocalypse. In short, it engages with Oil peak and Climate change through the establishment of ‘resilient’ communities— the development of entities that have the capacity to ‘absorb disturbance’. These toughened ‘Communitas’ could steer us away from oblivion and develop new subjectivities and possibilities in the process— both individual and collective identities. Like a contagion transition ideas and practices have spread far and wide, accelerated by the inertia and ineptitude of big government and big business. As communities, we will take responsibility for our futures, we will grow them together.
The town of Totnes in Devon is transition-central, an embryonic post oil community— a beacon of proto-resilience. It is a work in progress, a ‘test-tube’. Most of the time it’s output is inspiring and deeply compelling. However some aspects elements do raise an eyebrow, appearing confused and somewhat disconcerting. Such ambiguity should come as no surprise. Transition is not about ‘stages’, its far more chaotic and non-linear- multiple states will coexist. We’re talking about a fluid, fast-moving, self-organizing structure coming to terms with its emergent identity. All-encompassing vision allied with deep pragmatism will inevitably create unholy alliances. Equally, any organization that values multiplicity, chaos and openness will present as incoherent.
With the appearance of ‘Transition Network Ltd’ there appears to be a growing tension, a holistic totalizing identity run in parallel with a looser more heterogeneous compound. Simultaneously, there is a ‘Body’ and ‘Network’ model. To quote Donna Haraway again, is there ‘unity-through-domination or unity-through-incorporation’?
In flirting with consumption and hierarchy is ‘Tansition’ in danger of going the way of the Green Party? Rendered ineffectual, no different from any other political movement, conditioned and disciplined by the surrounding environment. Or, is this ‘complexity’ a symptom of a multiple set of phase transitions, a requirement for the difficult road ahead— a pre-requisite tension for the birth of alternative structures?
Inspiration and hope, new ‘ecosophic cartographies’
‘Nature-culture’, collapse, narrative and open space technology— four components that got me stoked.
The measure of any contemporary practice is how it relates to the domains of culture and nature. Is there an ‘antiseptic split’, are they perceived to be separate? In this respect Transition could be categorized as ‘nonmodern’ or ‘amodern’, viewing ‘nature-culture’ as a ‘seamless fabric’, refusing to draw divisive arbitrary boundaries. As Brian Goodwin (a transition ‘executive’) says: ‘nature and culture are understood to be one continuous and unified creative process’. This is an important piece of conceptual machinery, a counter to industrial logic. The notion of ‘nature-culture’ should radicalise our thought and practice.
Equally, at the core of many Transition initiatives is the idea of self-immolation, or composting. It has been described as: ‘designing demise’. Like ‘Replicants’, projects should build-in obsolescence, yet not arbitrarily, they should collapse on completion of goals. TAZ-like, these projects have an ‘uprising’, they then flourish, collapse and move on. This is such an important quality, an inbuilt mechanism that should prevent the replication and consolidation of abusive power structures. It would be interesting to know if ‘Transition Network Ltd’ is auto-destructive?
The Transition movement places a great deal of emphasis on stories and narrative— which is deeply attractive. If one expands their definition, it becomes interesting to consider narrative and design, particularly with regards to co-creation and communication. Two things just briefly; firstly, there is the question of whether designers have an archaeological approach to complex systems— are they aware of a systems history? Obviously, one cannot anticipate certain synergies, but we can begin to interrogate flows of matter and energy, pinpoint the various feedback loops that contribute to a particular ‘dynamical state’. The mapping of a network’s story or biography should lead to a more informed design and (hopefully) interventions should become less destructive. Secondly, as with the process of ‘hyperstition’, certain narrative flows traverse the ‘real-and-imagined’, coalesce and harden. Storytelling can be used as a form of ‘reality hacking’, particularly when harnessed to certain cultural practices, as ritual, writing or design. Myth and narrative can act as reprogramming tools, re-patterning entrenched constellations— even speeding-up and catalysing essential phase transitions. ‘Bringing forth new worlds’. In this sense, narrative becomes a vital political tool.
OST, ‘Open Space Technology’ is something I wish I’d come across in the Vaux days, as it’s a great way of getting large, disparate groups to self-organize. There are 4 axioms: whoever comes is the right people, whatever happens is the only thing that could have, whenever it starts is the right and when it’s over it’s over. There is also a law of ‘two feet’, it is time for you to go when you when the group ceases to be productive. ‘The only way to bring an Open Space gathering to its knees is to attempt to control it’.
I’ve just described four inspiring elements of ‘Transition’. Personally, they automatically make one want to join in. These are the hallmarks of a creative collaborative machine. Something, I’d like to connect with and contribute energy to. Opensource and bottom-up, there is a lightness of touch that is both refreshing and beguiling.
Hierarchy and Meshworks
Now this is where I’ve begun to get confused, as I’ve dug around ‘Transition’ a kind of ‘double-speak’ has begun to emerge. Along with all the inclusive, decentralised rhetoric; there is also a parallel current of paternalism and control. A hierarchy and a meshwork appear to be simultaneously emerging.
The first piece of information that begun to dampen some of my enthusiasm was the existence of a ‘Transition Network Ltd’ and the associated ring fencing of the terms ‘Transition Network’ and ‘Transition Initiatives’. The movement seemed to be posturing as a ‘brand’. Which to me, is falling at the first hurdle, quite literally buying into the very system that has perpetrated so much havoc. It feels particularly depressing as transition practice could potentially challenge capitalist subjectivity.
All this tends to breed immediate suspicion, undermining all the talk of ‘decentralisation’, ‘temporality’, ‘sharing’ and ‘openness’— its just business as usual. I find the copyright issue particularly confusing as it’s being invoked ‘to ensure their work isn’t hijacked’. This seems crazy, the whole project has emerged virally, its meant to be replicated, adjusted, twisted and hacked. It’s designed to be adapted to local conditions. The Transition network should be more confident of its biological models. As with open-source programming, the code should be freely available— to be tinkered, adjusted and improved by anyone. Yes, misuse of ‘the commons’ is possible, yet this is the nature of the beast. The benefits and advantages of a locked-open system far out way the possibilities of any ‘deviant’ application. (Ab)use and error are necessary evils, a creative system requires them. To make pearls and snow, one needs ‘dirt’.
Similarly, Transition wants to avoid ‘them and us’ thinking and is committed to ‘openness and inclusion’. It’s a pragmatic approach that makes a great deal of sense, especially when whole communities require mobilization. However, mothership Totes draws a distinction between groups or cells that are "official" and those that are still “mulling”— groups wondering if they really want to become a franchise. There is boundary maintenance occurring. In addition to this it looks like it is possible to be ‘kicked out’ of the club, or more accurately, to be excommunicated from the transition movement. For me, this is a real test. How a community deals with its heretical and dissident voices is very important. An assemblage or the state of ‘perma-mulling’ will have the ability to simultaneously contain forces of ‘territorialization’ and ‘deterritorialization’— there is a place for antibodies, or should I say ‘antipaths’: the cutters, jammers and blockers.
Connected to the metaphysic of inside-outside are the debates around organisation, governance and ‘subsidiarity’— ‘self-organistion and decision making at the appropriate level’. Historically subsidiarity has been espoused by Catholic social teaching, cybernetics and (disturbingly), neo-con and neo-liberalism regimes; where it is linked to opportunism and a way for power elites to pursue their own agendas. The notion of a subsystem resolving its own problems without an appeal to a higher authority is obviously appealing and it can be read through a bottom-up lens. However, it’s hard to separate the idea from its history and the fact that it appears to be inevitably proposed by centralised hierarchical structures. The prefix ‘sub’ is a dead give away.
Transition Network Ltd likens itself to ‘a cell membrane’; and to be fair, they do acknowledge the metaphor is problematic. The boundary is perceived to enshrine ‘purpose and principles’ and define ‘the identity of the whole’. It echoes Maturana and Varela’s notion of autopoiesis, how the constituent parts of a cell (including the membrane) bootstrap themselves into existence.
With ‘autopoiesis’ in mind, one can see why some thinkers have sort to establish an idea of self-similar replication that dose not rely on an edge or a membrane. For instance, sympoiesis or borderless self-organisation, a way of thinking that counters ‘organismic’ metaphors and seeks to define systems not by their edges but by their relationships. For me, the logic of the rhizome is a far more appropriate model for Transition than the cell.
This baggy ramble is a genuine attempt to make sense of a movement that I am still excited by. Yet instinctually, I will always favour bottom-up decentralised systems, as Manuel DeLanda says: ‘decentralization is more desirable than centralization for many reasons’. The trick is not to place hierarchy and networks in opposition and cook-up fictional accounts of human history where ‘meshworks’ are the heroes. Having said this, my hope is that the Transition movement will maintain its bottom-up structures. As the resulting synergy and diversity that these structures generate will contribute significantly to our future flourishing. To paraphrase the law of ‘Two Feet’, over-control will suffocate creativity.
Bottom-up Visual Identities
Buried deep in these wanderings are some nascent ideas. I can see a constellation. But as yet, I have no idea of how to create a more precise pattern— several interests and obsessions appear to be hovering and circling.
Some of these fragments are to do with what Manual DeLanda calls morphogenesis: ‘the production of stable structures out of material flows’. Complex forms emerging from simple rule-based processes and repetition, order appearing out of chaos.
As a designer I want to know if there is shared diagram between the formation of social groups and the construction of visual identities? Better still, can an emergent, bottom-up approach to identity building be developed; can a visual grammar emerge directly out of the interaction of individual group members and group practices? In this sense, an indigenous identity that is produced owned and used by the group and not imposed from above or from outside. Invariably, identities are bestowed not grown. We are talking about a communication-identity that is irreducible to the processes of the group— an inevitable result of its interaction and dynamic. Obviously, this is where the ‘felt and fabric’, hierarchy and meshwork debate begins to resonate and this is why the Transition Movement becomes such an interesting case study and potential experiment.
I still wonder if contemporary social formations even require identities or if the term ‘identity’ makes any sense when talking about networks, affinities and assemblages? There is also the central role these grammars perform within ‘cognitive capitalism’, when identity building slips into branding, that ‘supremely shallow phenomenon’. However, if it is possible to rip visual identities from their niche, and preserve the cosmological and narrative components, then perhaps the practice can be revised? Especially, if we begin to talk about building spaces for communication and spaces for exchange. Collaborative acts of ‘terraforming’ that invoke crossroad sites and ‘bring forth’ new worlds.
As yet, I have no idea if a bottom-up self-organizing identity system is either desirable or possible. Yet it’s worth speculating on and augmenting the theoretical framework with various ‘trial and error experiments’. The dream would be to place these ideas in the service of the ‘multitude’ and develop bio-informatic models of identity; structures that are relational and borderless, where patterns are recognised not through boundaries but through links, associations and behaviours. Alternatively it would be fascinating to experiment with ‘core’ strands of DNA, the genotype, and test them in different contexts and locations— see if the resulting structures and phenotypes radically differ.
These incomplete musings are ‘thinking aloud’, an attempt to work-out the role of the designer in the near-future matrix. In some respects it is a ‘metadesign’ project, where design escapes its historical confines and the designer moves from author to curator. The grid metaphor is collapsing, welcome to the world of code.