Costa Concordia: catataxic catastrophe

How sad that on the centenary of the Titanic disaster of 1912 another huge cruse ship should sink. It may be insensitive to be grandstanding and pontificating at a time of tragedy, but one of the causes of the Costa Concordia disaster is catataxis. As cruse liners have ballooned in size, the safety systems have not scaled up appropriately. In this case, more of the same is not just different but also deadly.

Cruise ships have been a boom industry and as a result the ships have got bigger and bigger in order to achieve economies of scale. Today’s ships are twice the size of a decade ago and can carry 6,000 passengers and 1,800 crew. That’s the size of a small town and four times bigger than the Titanic. Since most passengers want a nice view from their cabin, there are more and more decks stacked above the waterline. At the same time, the ships need to be able to get into traditional old ports (where tourists like to go) rather than to anchor offshore and be ferried in on small boats. That means they need a shallow draught. Both factors mean that ships are becoming increasingly top heavy: there is a lot more above the waterline and too little underneath.

A second factor is the lifeboat problem. This technology has not really changed since the time of the Titanic. When the top heavy Costa Concordia heeled over, that put half the life boats out of action because they could no longer be lowered into the water. Every passenger is (in theory) allocated a berth in a lifeboat matching their cabin allocation. It is a logistical nightmare to try and shepherd 7,800 people to their allocated lifeboat seat. Just picture this. A typical movie theatre has say 250 seats. Now imagine 30 cinemas stacked on top of each other in a sky scraper with every seat full. You randomly distribute tickets with seat numbers in a different cinema to all the members of all the audiences. Then you blow a whistle and tell them to find their new seats in the new auditoriums. Result: utter chaos. Now imagine doing it in the dark, at sea with the rooms gradually tilting over to one side…..

This lifeboat issue is such a logistical problem that the International Maritime Organisation advises Captains to try and use the ship itself as a “big lifeboat” and return as fast as possible to port for evacuation. In other words, the best advice available about lifeboats is to try to avoid using them at all.

Both the ship design and the lifeboat problem are problems of scale. Andrew Linington of Nautilus International, a maritime union, says “The alarm bells have been ringing with many of us for well over a decade now. These ships are floating hotels – skyscrapers, really. The design has been extrapolated from that of smaller ships. We believe a lot of basic safety principles are being compromised to maximise the revenue”

A big ship is different from a scaled up small ship. That is catataxis. If you just inflate the ship design like a balloon it becomes top heavy. Logistical problems with large numbers of passengers grow exponentially. More of the same is different.

Europe: the Federated States of Catataxia

Catataxis means level confusion and the Eurozone crisis is a catataxic one. I will explain the problem with the state(s) of Europe in a moment, but first a little bit more background about the state of catataxia.

When things start to get bigger, sooner or later a certain point arises when there is a discontinuity. Getting past that requires a transformation in structure or organization. To get to the next level, something more than just size must change. Think of the biggest insect in the world. It will not be more than a foot long. Those giant ants towering over houses in 50’s sci fi movies are a physical impossibility. A creature with an exoskeleton reaches a physical limit to growth. There comes a time when the muscles required to move the external carapace get so big they can not be contained inside that carapace. Think of an enormously fat knight; his armour is so heavy he can no longer lift it. So in order for an ant to grow to be the size of an elephant, he has to cease to be an ant. His body form must be reorganized. His exoskeleton needs to be replaced by an exoskeleton. Mammals have endoskeletons: internal bones not external shells. Mammals range in size from a tiny shrew to a gigantic blue whale. That “exo to endoskeleton ” transformation marks a catataxic boundary: a discontinuity in a smooth linear expansion. A necessary reorganisation before further growth can continue.

Hence, the catataxic maxim “more of the same is different”. Let’s look at a corporate example instead of a biological one. A common cause of failure amongst small companies is not that that they fail to adapt when things are going badly but when things are going well. Sudden rapid growth can be just as dangerous as a declining market. As they expand quickly to become a big company they face a number of complicated hurdles, mostly to do with internal organisation. They must develop more robust systems in HR, admin, compliance and legal. They must navigate through a deadly miasma of corporate structure and org charts. This is the equivalent of the “exo to endo” transformation: the ant becoming the elephant. To most employees, this pointless bureaucracy and red tape is a big dead weight; sapping energy, crippling natural agility and dragging down performance. It is true that an ant can perform prodigious feats. Insects can carry many times their own weight or jump many times their own height. An elephant can’t jump at all, but it is BIG and that brings many different benefits.

Let’s look at a social example. When two or three people go out to dinner in a restaurant it is quite easy to settle the bill: just split it down the middle. But with 12 people there, suddenly the argument is all about who had the lobster to start with and how much wine did Jimmy drink. More of the same is different. It’s hard for a big group of people to pay the bill. Often its best to appeal to a higher authority: someone picks up the tab and takes a chance by sticking it on his corporate credit card. That way some higher level corporate entity can sort it out.

And so back to Europe. Everyone agrees that there should be a bailout for the Eurozone but no one wants to pay the bill. There is no leadership and no one to take charge because they can’t. There is no institution big or powerful enough to deal with it… yet. In Europe, we are privileged enough to be watching the ant turn into an elephant before our very eyes. Yes, this will require upheavals, reorganisations and much red tape. In the end, the Federated States of Europe will emerge. This lumbering, dull witted mastodon, much mocked and stung by the agile insects around it but big enough to crush them without even noticing.

The press has delighted in pointing out that the Groupe de Francfort, the eight public figures including Merkel and Sarkozy that are attempting to lead the response to the Eurozone crisis, are largely unelected and therefore have no democratic legitimacy. But then again, no one lauds a catataxic transformation. Have you ever heard a front office employee praise a corporate decision to double the number admin staff and increase red tape. This transformation is happening because it is an inevitable consequence of scale. Globalisation has made the existing structures redundant or unfit for purpose, and new institutions must replace them. It is a naturally emergent phenomenon driven by the environment, like a high tide or a wildebeest migration.

The ant must turn into an elephant. The Groupe de Francfort is its emergent head. A catataxic boundary must be crossed. It is a necessary transformation before growth can continue.

Catataxic Rice

One of the best catataxic aphorisms is this “You are not stuck in Traffic. You are Traffic”. It invites you to step above your instinctive personal view of things and see the broader context, and your place in that context. It encourages you to “see the wood for the trees”, to get some perspective on the matter.

Here is an interesting parallel in Japan. As always, Japan absorbs interesting ideas from outside and, by putting their own spin on them, transmutes them into something sublime. Remember the crop circles on the farms in the West of England? A trigger for much mystic speculation, they were eventually shown to be a destructive but whimsical prank carried out by drunken yokels with some ropes and planks. Geometric patterns carved into the breast of Demeter, the goddess of grain. The agricultural equivalent of a cheap tattoo, or, in an urban setting, tagging a wall with spray paint.

In Japan, they have turned this “graffiti” into art. By planting different strains of kodaimai rice with yellow or purple leaves in precisely the right places among the traditional green leaved tsugaru variety, their paddy field becomes canvas. A picture that gradually becomes visible as it grows; not imposed destructively from the outside but nurtured and organically emergent from the seed.

The trend started in the village of Inakadate in Aomori Prefecture in Northern Japan but has since spread to other regions. The patterns are carefully worked out on computers before planting in May, and by September the “rice art” has fully developed and is ready for harvesting. Of course, you can only see it from a distance and after some time has passed. That is the catataxic part. When you are knee deep in the muddy water planting tiny grains its hard to perceive the big picture. That belongs on a different level.

See this you tube clip to watch the picture growing before your eyes ….

 

Close up
Medium shot
The big picture

 

 

The catataxic baguette

One of the great joys of a holiday in France is the early morning trip to the boulangerie, in my case the Ti Ar Bara in Audierne. The baker has been up since 3.00am, working hard for your sybaritic pleasure. And what a true pleasure it is. As that gorgeous smell of freshly baked bread steals into the still morning air, you feel a rushing lift of the spirits. Yes, any day with such a blest beginning will surely bring all manner of  wondrous things later.

It’s not just the smell of the bread, it’s the glorious range of different things on offer. It is a mark of true civilisation to take a so pedestrian a concept as ‘daily bread’ and turn it into this transcendent cornucopia of golden joy. There are croissants and pan chocolat, flaky and light as a cherubim’s kiss, the eggy richness of the many different styles of brioche and, here in Brittany, the dense layers of caramelised butter in the kouign amann  and the far breton.  But even in the simplest things there is still a riotous diversity. “White bread” in the Anglosphere is a simile for bland and unimaginative mediocrity. In France, white bread comes in dizzying array of forms; boules, epis, plats and rondes. Even the quintessentially French baguette comes in many different formats. There is the Ficelle, thin as the string it is named after, the shorter Batard, the pointy ended Festive, the double sized Parisienne and the giant Pan Ordinaire, which is not ordinary at all but a massive truncheon of crusty extravagance.

Baker holds a ficelle and a pan ordinaire

Where does the catataxis come in? Well, it’s to do with the variety of forms. The first point to make is that such variety is only possible in a freely operating market. Variety may be the spice of life but it only arises in response to a diversity of demand. So breadth of choice is a catataxic indicator; it is a level three phenomenon indicating the presence of a diverse community on the layer below or,more correctly, a diversity of tastes in the community beneath.

There is a second more subtle point. Why so many different types of baguette? If you want more bread why not just buy two normal sized ones rather than one big one? Two Ficelles weigh the same as one Batard so in ‘volume of bread’ terms they are identical. But mathematicians know that they are not the same thing at all. This because surface area and volume don’t scale up in the same way. Surface area scales in proportion to the radius but volume scales with the square of the radius. Gourmands know this difference too, but they put it a different way: you get a lot more crust with two Ficelles. A Ficelle is all crust; it’s so thin that there is very little doughy interior. So if you like the crust then get two Ficelles. By the time you get up to the monster Pan Ordinaire there is relatively little crust and a huge expanse of doughy interior. You can easily slice it and put it in a toaster.

So the Ficelle to Pan Ordinaire transition is a good example of catataxis: more of the same is different. Crust lovers buy Ficelles, crust haters buy Pan Ordinaire. Chacun a son gout…

Are ye going to Tewkesbury Fayre?

dog face bascinetI spent last weekend at Tewkesbury Medieval Festival helping my brother promote his new book, Kings Man, the third in his series The Outlaw Chronicles about Robin Hood. The festival is held to commemorate the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. This was the final battle of the Wars of the Roses in which Prince Edward, the heir to the House of Lancaster, was killed.

During the festival, the whole town is decked out in medieval flags and the streets throng with knights in armour and medieval re-enactors. It all culminates with a big battle down by the river on the historic battleground. A riot of cannons, men at arms and pikes as the Lancastrian and Yorkist armies clash. It is a big festival which has been going for 25 years but there are plenty of others which are popping up all over the place; not just in Britain but in France, Belgium and Eastern Europe too.

Historical re-enactment is a booming market these days. At the Tewksbury festival there are countless traders stalls selling medieval gear; hauberks, hose, vambraces, gauntlets, broadswords, smocks and jerkins. Fancy something special for the weekend ? How about a dog faced bascinet? There are so many different stalls it finally dawns on you that this is a big business. You have stumbled upon an underground fetish scene; not sexual but cultural. And it’s coming out of the closet to a town near you!

Tewkesbury Medieval Festival
Re-enactors at the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival

The big question is this: why is it suddenly so popular? The answer, although an oblique one, is in the title of a new exhibition that has just been announced at the V&A Museum: Postmodernism – Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990. Yes – notice that last date! This is a retrospective exhibition. That means postmodernism is officially over.

Post modernism was always a difficult concept since it sounds like something “after the future” and how can some thing be after a future that has not happened yet? The best way to explain it is like this. Modernism, as an artistic movement, had a tremendous sense of earnest optimism about the future. It believed that art could morally improve people; that a modernist skyscraper could improve your life. Postmodernism went in the opposite direction, not optimistic but ironic, not earnest but mocking. So where can you go next ? What is post postmodernism? After the earnest futurism and then the ironic futurism what is the next stage in the cycle? Logic dictates it must be the earnest past.

And lo, the pop charts are filled with folk music again. Mumford & Sons and The Arcade Fire are the hot new groups. And the streets of Tewkesbury overflow with people dressed in medieval tunics seeking community in the past: a secular commonality from a shared history to soothe the fits and agues of the modern world. Anywhere else, you would be arrested for wandering the streets after dark with a four foot blade in your hands. At the Tewkesbury festival, the pubs are welcoming you in for another drink.

You may be wondering where the catataxis comes in. Well, there I am in a pub dressed in a monk’s habit with a Spanish guy dressed as an elegant nobleman to my left and a French bloke in a man at arms outfit to my right. I am pointing at my costume and trying to explain a joke about ‘dirty habits’ but it does not come out so well in the translation…and suddenly it hits me. I am in a pre-national Europe. In 1471, there were no nation states. There were powerful barons, principalities, duchies and territories in a complex patchwork throughout Europe. Henry VI, King of England was also, for 30 years, the King of France too. Countries, as we know them today, did not exist. The Nation State, level four in the hierarchy that goes up from individual to family to community, does not yet exist.

And right there, in the beery good cheer of a friendly pub, surrounded by Europeans in fancy dress it strikes me that there is nothing to fear about a federated Europe. Maybe the time has come for the post Nation State, a return to a complex patchwork of entities under an EU umbrella. The resolution of the Greek Debt Crisis will be to push us all in that direction. Maybe the V&A museum will soon hold a retrospective exhibition called The European Nation State – Power at the 4th degree 1648 – 2018. After all, we do share the same values, the same history, and since I got the phone number from the elegant Spaniard, the same medieval outfitter too…

Phone Hacking? Catataxis!

Light brigade and phone hackingI remember when at university having a heated debate about the ethics of photojournalism. This was the issue. Imagine you are a photographer covering the Vietnam War. You see the slumped body of a dead GI on the road beside a paddy field. The sun is setting. You can’t resist the temptation to reach out and pull up the collar of his shirt to make a tableau of exquisite dishevelment ….and SNAP….in the dying rays of the sun you capture that perfect picture. One beautifully composed frame that says everything you could ever want to say about the horror and futility of war.Now comes the ethical question. Is it morally right to pull up that shirt collar? Some say yes. If that helps to get the point across then it is perfectly justified. The art of photography is act of visual selection. You force people to isolate and focus on what you decided they should focus on. You are using all the tricks of aperture, exposure and depth of field to make them see what you want them to see. Where is the harm in a little set dressing. Is that not just the natural extension of your other camera techniques. Every photo is just a subjective moment of reality captured on celluloid, after all.

But some say no. The point of photojournalism is objectivity. You are there to report the facts not to tamper with them. So pulling up the collar on the dead GI breaks the solemn compact between the journalist and the readership. Your role is to silently observe and document the facts, not to mould reality until it fits the contours  of your personal perspective. You must be veracity’s evangelist; the unobtrusive monitor of truth.

Technology changes things. William Russell (1820-1907), the world’s first war correspondent with The Times covered the Crimean war. His dispatches from the front had a huge impact on the public who were shocked and outraged by what they read about the appalling treatment of the troops. A huge public backlash demanded that something should be done. But, of course, there were no photographs. It was artists who visually immortalised the Charge of the Light Brigade. Painted several years after the fact, their heroic pictures bore little resemblance to the reality of what had actually happened.  It was not until the invention of light portable cameras that photojournalists could capture the brutal glamour of World War 2 as it really was. Later, TV cameras captured the horror of the Vietnam War and delivered it charred and bloody like a rare T bone steak to the voracious homes of the American public. That public was, yet again, shocked and horrified and demanded that something should be done. The ethics of the new technology were clear: monitor unobtrusively, record the facts, edit them sensitively and show the public the tip of the iceberg.

Now we have newer technology. The internet, social media, mobile phones and twitter. What should a journalist do when observing this vast digital shunting yard of packet switched data? Maybe the same as before: monitor unobtrusively, record the facts, edit them sensitively and show the public the tip of the iceberg.  If so, then phone hacking is morally acceptable. Silent monitoring in the background to establish the truth; is that not what we want our journalists to do? Ever since Watergate did we not anoint them as the watchdogs of liberty. Politicians have their secret services to ‘protect’ us. But we want our journalists to keep a check on the politicos. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who guards the guardians? Why, the journalists do. If Secret Services can monitor phone calls, then why not the journalists too.

Ah yes, you might say, but what about the principal of privacy? Is that not an essential human right?  To put the question in another way: is information in the ether in the public or private domain? Can cyberspace ever be personal? My answer is this: to believe so is to make a catataxic blunder.  Cyberspace occupies a realm beyond the personal. Information wants to be free, and Wikileaks wants to liberate it. Every mobile phone call, text or tweet you make is a geo-located pinprick of emotional luminance. Step back and marvel at that galaxy of starlight. Should not the journalists chart those heavens like the early astronomers at their telescopes. We are stardust, and our mobile phones calls even more so.

To end, we return to where we first started. The quintessential Vietnam movie is Apocalypse Now: a fusion of Joseph Conrad, helicopters and paddy fields. In my view, the information age obliterates the personal, but this is not a bad thing. In the mighty torrential Congo of digital effluvient, we are not battling upstream to a ‘Heart of Darkness’ but downstream to the open ocean and, beyond that, to a glorious far horizon of freedom, which is a freedom beyond bounds…

Husserl’s missing bits

Take a look at this advert for Fentimans Ginger Beer. Fentimans is a botanical brewery based in the North of England which produces a range of unusual drinks based on vegetable roots like burdock, dandelion and ginger. Their advertising is unusual too. When you first see the ad on the left, you think some one has made a mistake. Your eye is drawn to it. Then you realise that it is a deliberate cropping which is quite cunning. Although they only show a quarter of the bottle our minds fill in the rest. So they are effectively getting a full page ad for the price of a quarter of a page. Even better,  they are making us interact imaginatively with their brand in the act of completing the picture. And they are even able to make a joke out of it. So that is a triple plus in my book.

This  “missing part” trick seems to be becoming more popular. A lot of corporate logos these days seem to be a portion of a letter. Look at the three below. The first is the logo for Global Radio, the owner of several radio stations such as Heart, Capital and Classic FM. It’s a ‘g’ with the bottom part cropped off. Then look at the blue logo next to it for Bestway, a London based cash and carry chain. It’s the same trick but with the cropping at the top. The red logo at the end is for Adecco, an employment agency. They have taken the final ‘o’ of their name and only shown a quarter of it. It is so heavily cropped that it is almost an abstract figure. On the other hand,  if you were to reconstruct the whole word in your imagination you would get a sign 24 times bigger sticking way out into the street. Now that’s bang for your buck!

 

These logos echo the thinking of Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938), the founder of a philosophical movement known as Phenomenology. In the long running debate amongst philosophers about whether the real world actually exists or is just a figment of our imagination, Husserl had an interesting conclusion: it’s both. I can  crudely paraphrase this deep thinker with the following example. If you are standing in the street looking at a house you can only see the front of it, but you believe that the back of it exists even if you can’t see it. In other words, you think  it is a real house rather than, say, a flat piece of scenery from a film set. So the reality of the house arises partly from our direct experience and partly from our inference. As with the Fentimans advert, the world is half real and half filled in by our imagination. It is a fusion between two different levels, the tangible and the intangible. That is catataxis.

The Hop Exchange

The Hop Exchange, Southwark, London
Exterior of the Hop Exchange, Southwark, London 2011

I was working on a local history project in Kent (where I live) when a friend gave me some old photos. They showed men in frock coats handling hops on long trestle tables. These are city workers handling an agricultural product. It took me some time to track down where the photos were taken.  It turns out they were hop factors in the 1920s, working in 15 Southwark Street opposite the Hop Exchange in London.

The hop trade was once a major industry in Southwark. Back when there was only one bridge over the Thames (London Bridge) everyone passed through  Southwark . Its coaching inns and breweries have been famous since Chaucer’s time; this is where the pilgrims gathered before setting off for Canterbury. There was plenty of traffic up the other way too. Kentish hops, grown in the Garden of England, came up the A2 and the Old Kent Road to the market traders in Southwark Street, around the corner from Borough Market.

Hop factors at the exchange
Factors working near the Southwark Hop exchange in 1920s

The hops were dried in oast houses and then tightly compressed into 6 foot sacks called ‘pockets’ and sent up to the middlemen, known as hop factors, in Southwark Street.  Each load was sampled by cutting a foot square brick of pressed hops out of one of the pockets. This cube was wrapped in brown paper and secured with brass chair nails. Samples from a particular grower were all strung together with waxed hemp.

Another set of middlemen, the hop merchants who acted for the brewers, came to inspect the samples. These photos show the merchants (e.g. man in top hat on left) examining the hop samples displayed by the hop factors.  The room is starkly functional. A big glazed roof lets in plenty of natural light to help the inspection and a big clock to measure opening and closing times. Nothing else. No decorations at all.  After all, this is a serious place of business.

Hop production peaked in Kent in 1878 and has been declining ever since.  Kentish hop varieties, such as Fuggles and Goldings,  add bitterness to beer and ales, whereas German hops have low bitterness and strong aroma and are used for lager. So a number of trends conspired in the decline of the Kentish Hop industry. First was the trend towards lager over bitter. Second was the decline in exports as Australia and South Africa began growing their own  hops. The third blow came in 1973 when Britain joined the Common Market and cheaper continental hops wiped out most of the growers in Kent.

Bomb damage in WW2 meant that many warehouses were rebuilt in Paddock Wood in Kent and the hop merchants moved what was left of the industry down there in the 1970s.The last hop merchant, Wolton Biddell  in Borough High Street, closed its doors in 1991.  All the buildings have been redeveloped. The area around London Bridge and Borough has become one of the hottest development areas in London as evidenced by the Shard, Europe’s tallest building to be completed next year.  The old Hop Exchange has become a general purpose office building.

Interior of the Hop exchange
Inside the Hop Exchange, Southwark London, 2011

But what a beautiful building. Opened in 1867 and designed by R.H.Moore it is now Grade II listed. When you step inside you can see the vast open atrium and the three tiers of balconies overlooking it. It is designed to allow ‘open outcry’ ; traders on the floor, merchants on the balconies shouting their orders back and forth to each other.  Its just like the old stock exchange before it became computerised, or the Royal Exchange where futures were once traded but which is now an upmarket shopping mall.  The Lloyds Insurance building has the same “atrium and balcony” design,  letting all the brokers hear the stroke of the Lutine bell to inform them of bad news. In the hop exchange, all the balconies bear the  crest of Kent – a white horse on a red shield – to remind occupants that this is the trading place for Kentish hops.

I live opposite a oast house and travel to London Bridge every day. The oast house across the road from me has been converted to a spectacular county home. My daily journey encompasses the agricultural history of Kent both at the beginning and end; from an oast with no hops to a hop exchange with no brokers. A palace for a product that no longer exists. There are plenty of brokers getting off the train at London Bridge these days, but they are not broking hops any more but financial products instead.

You may be wondering where the catataxis comes in all of this. This tale is not just a personal trip of nostalgia,  because there is one more twist to the story: the hop exchange was never full of brokers.  The Victorian developers built it in a burst of progressive optimism hoping to capture and consolidate the hop trade inside its walls. But the hop factors and merchants already had their own various premises and saw no reason why they should move. So the hop exchange has only ever been a general office building and not a commodity exchange at all. It was an attempt to anchor the level 2 activity of the hop trade inside the level 1 physical shell of a building which failed.

Oast houses in Kent
Oast Houses in Chiddingstone Kent

The Victorians were keen on making the abstract concrete. Think of the statues of “Trade” or “Progress” that adorn Victorian metropolitan buildings. These are industrial versions of the ancient Greek muses; abstract concepts  in female form. The Hop Exchange was an attempt to cast economic activity in architectural form. Sadly, it did not work. This building designed to house speculators was itself a speculative failure. This was a catataxic blunder. Just because a building exists at level 1 does not mean that the trade at level 2 will be captured by it. In this case, the motto is: if you build it, they will not come.

See more photos of the building here:

Gaddafi and the Rub al Khali

Rub al KhaliIn 1973 the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi withdraws to the desert to contemplate. He returns with a draft of his “Green Book”;  a mystical tract that describes his political philosophy which can be summed up as being a “Third Way”. In the 1990s, many western politicians become Third Way advocates including Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. This opens up an intriguing possibility: did they steal the idea from Gaddafi? Tony Blair certainly helped to rehabilitate the Gaddafi regime with the ending of sanctions, and the two leaders were quite close.

In fact, Blair did not steal the Third Way concept from Gaddafi, because it was not Gaddafi’s idea in the first place. Hegel was there first and way before Hegel there was Buddha preaching about the middle path. His best known parable concerns a stringed instrument. If you tighten the strings too much it will break. But if they are too loose it will not make a sound. They have to be just the right tightness, and then they will produce beautiful harmonies.

That may sound a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears with the porridge that is just right. But Third Way politics is more than just a lukewarm blend of two extremes. It is sometimes describes as the “radical center“. It’s not just the balancing point at some fulcrum which is just a mechanical compromise but something extra. Less a lowest common denominator and more a highest common factor.  It implies progress; a beneficial outcome to two conflicting views.

Hegel’s dialectic is the purest theoretical statement of the third way. He posits three stages of development – theses, antitheses and then synthesis. A proposal or thesis is put forward. This prompts a reaction  which contradicts the proposal; an antithesis. Eventually, the tension between the two is resolved in a synthesis which brings us to a higher level.  The process then can begin again because this synthesis can be put forward as a new thesis.  And so, in an endless upwards cycle around the dialectic, we progress.

Hegel also offers up a worked example with his theory of the state. In this case,  the thesis is the family unit which Hegel called the “undifferentiated unity”. In other words,  a group of people who are the same (i.e. undifferentiated) and together (i.e. unity). The antithesis is “differentiated disunity” which is a group of competing individuals,  all out for whatever they can get. They are disunited and selfish. The synthesis of the two is the nation state which is a “differentiated unity”. In other words,  the state  pulls together a large and disparate group of people into a single unity. They are all different, but they are living harmoniously together. The state synthesizes a collective will from its diverse citizens.

Now look at Libya today. The people have risen up to try and topple Gaddafi.  It is an expression of the collective will. Sometime soon the situation will resolve itself and Libya will get the government that its people want. Meanwhile, the fighting in the desert continues, on sand that has soaked up so much blood before. This desert is made for war as the ghosts of Rommel’s Africa Corps and Scipio’s Roman Legions can attest.

There is another desert but this one has no war. In fact, nothing has ever happened there. No people, no civilization, just sand. This is the Rub’ al Khali in Saudi Arabia. The name means “the empty quarter”. The other three parts of Saudi Arabia have some very significant features.  On the west coast is Mecca, the holiest site in all Islam. In the centre, Riyadh the capital city. On East Coast you have the industrial conurbations at Jubail. But to the south there is nothing, just sand. It’s the Rub’ al Khali. The quadrant that has nothing in it at all. The  place you can ignore.

You will notice that Hegel’s dialectic also has an empty quadrant – a Rub’ al Khali. His dialectic theory is a riff around two concepts – unity and difference. Imagine drawing a quadrant diagram with unity/disunity on one axis and differentiated/undifferentiated on the other. His dialectic has three different combinations – but there us a fourth combination that he ignores which is “undifferentiated disunity”. In other words, same but not together.

This fourth quadrant is where catataxis lives: more of the same is different. Hegel’s synthesis is a top down view that says something like this: you may all be different but at a higher level you will be made one by the state. The state will harmonise you. But catataxis says “you are all the same but one level higher, collectively, you make something different” something that emerges bottom up – unplanned and unpredictable. Is that not the real story of all the recent uprisings in the Middle East? From the empty quadrant, the Rub’ al Khali, the place that Hegel and others felt safe to ignore comes the unexpected. It is the Khamsin. A wind from the empty desert that sweeps all before it. That is catataxis. Listen carefully  – can you hear it – there’s a storm coming in…

Hegels dialectic

Mistletoe in Winter Trees

As I was driving to the hospital the other day I saw this

Mistletoe in winter trees

Those round things high up in the trees are not nests. That is mistletoe. You can understand why the Celts thought it had magical properties. It is part of the tree that is still green (sorry my photo does not show that so well) and so in the depth of winter  holds the promise of spring. That is the reason why it is used in Christmas and New Year celebrations.

Mistletoe is also a symbol of male fertility. The berries if you squeeze them give off a sticky white juice that looks similar to semen. This sticky juice is the mechanism that the plant uses to propagate itself. Mistletoe is a parasite. Its roots are not in the soil but the branches of its host tree. So unlike other plants (but like Onan), if its seed falls to the ground it is barren. The seeds can only germinate if they are attached to the branch of another tree.  Birds do this when they eat the berries.  They wipe their beaks clean on another branch and the sticky juice attaches any uneaten seeds to a new host.

Anyway, when I saw this out of my car window I was struck by the thought that mistletoe  is also a metaphor for catataxis. Mistletoe has its roots not in the ground but in the sky. As a parasite, it is a second order plant. A sky borne floating plant that belongs at a different level and follows different rules.