Centre / Periphery

Centre                               -                      Periphery
Consolidation                   -                      Exploration
Classicism                        -                      Romanticism
Order                                -                      Chaos
Communal                        -                      Individual
Narrow                             -                      Wide
Normative                         -                      Deviant
Monism                             -                      Pluralism
Known                              -                      Unknown
Explicit                              -                      Implicit
Universal                           -                      Relative

If we are to communicate with one another, and to live communally, then there must always be common ground -  a centre around which we orbit.

The centre is a single point.

As we approach it, experience becomes narrowed. Possibilities are shut off in favour of an increasingly limited number of actualities.

At the centre there is a set way of doing things; rules, standards, and conventions.

As long as there's conservatism and invisible consensus, there will be avant garde work to outrage it and make it visible.

'Documenta's over, but it just keeps getting better'

The Overton window, also known as the window of discourse, is the range of ideas the public will accept.

Overton described a spectrum from "more free" to "less free" with regard to government intervention, oriented vertically on an axis. As the spectrum moves or expands, an idea at a given location may become more or less politically acceptable. His degrees of acceptance of public ideas are roughly:
  • Unthinkable
  • Radical
  • Acceptable
  • Sensible
  • Popular
  • Policy
The Overton window is an approach to identifying which ideas define the domain of acceptability within a democracy's possible governmental policies. Proponents of policies outside the window seek to persuade or educate the public in order to move and/or expand the window. Proponents of current policies, or similar ones, within the window seek to convince people that policies outside it should be deemed unacceptable.

After Overton's death, others have examined the concept of adjusting the window by the deliberate promotion of ideas outside of it, or "outer fringe" ideas, with the intention of making less fringe ideas acceptable by comparison. The "door-in-the-face" technique of persuasion is similar.

'Overton window'

There are many ways that we can frame symbolic patterns, but the frame that I will use most prominently is the geometric symbolism of centre and periphery. I’m going to use that structure because its easy to understand - we encounter it in our bodies, our rituals, our societies; and more abstractly in our language and concepts.

[…] identity, refugees, walls, immigration, technology: all of these things can be understood quite well using the basic frame of centre and periphery.

In general the problem of chaos is the problem of the margin, and whether we see the margin as an exciting potential by which we can further ourselves out into the world, or whether we see it as a dangerous threat to the things we care about.

[Jonathan Pageau]
Symbolism in Guardians of the Galaxy v.2

I always go to the rough edges, because that’s where you find things that are much more exciting than the structured aspect of the regular parts of a city.

[Tjalf Sparnaay]
Getting Closer’ (documentary)

[...] the world formed by art is recognised as a reality which is suppressed and distorted in the given reality.

[...] The truth of art lies in its power to break the monopoly of established reality (i.e. of those who established it) to define what is real [...] 

Art is committed to that perception of the world which alienates individuals from their functional existence and performance in society - it is committed to an emancipation of sensibility, imagination, and reason in all spheres of subjectivity and objectivity [...] But this achievement presupposes a degree of autonomy which withdraws art from the mystifying power of the given and frees it for the expression of its own truth.

[Herbert Marcuse]
The Aesthetic Dimension

[Marcuse] values art, as I do, for its power of contradiction, its protest against a narrow definition of reality and the prescription of its forms.

In our time, reality is administered mostly by politics: the function of the arts is the critical interrogation of politics, the questioning of its certitudes.

André Malraux's The Voices of Silence is based on his understanding that 'great artists are not transcribers of the scheme of things; they are its rivals [...] all art is a revolt against man's fate.'

The image of the doomed artist has retained its power because of the association of the artist with transgression, genius, the role of scapegoat, the sacrificial victim. We don’t know what to make of this image.

On the whole, we try to include the artist in the forms of our knowledge, but if he rejects our embrace we know that in some profound sense he is right, he knows he is not really one of us. Art does not confirm the reality we normally think we know and possess.

In fact art is permanently antagonistic to our sense of reality because it makes a space for those images which our sense of reality excludes. 

There is in fact much to be said for bourgeois society even when we insist on degrading it by calling it bourgeois, but artists have rarely wanted to say any of it. One of the aims of modern art and literature has been to escape from the middle class and what Ezra Pound called its ‘accelerated grimace’.

So the arts have appealed to pleasure rather than duty, interrogation rather than conformity; they thrive upon suspicion rather than consensus, the creative speech of poetry rather than the stereotypes of daily life.

In avant-garde art, these gestures of dissociation have sometimes been maintained to the point at which many people can see nothing in them but spiritual terrorism, like the fractured face in a Picasso portrait.

In extreme cases, the gesture amounts to a rage for the absolute, as if nothing could satisfy so long as it remains finite.

The 19th-century artist kept his soul, as far as possible, by withholding assent to official purposes. As the price to be paid for that spiritual privilege, his art emphasised difference rather than continuity of experience; a certain purity of form, only to be achieved by transcending the ordinary world. There is always a risk of weightlessness in his images or in his voice, a suggestion of falsetto. He achieves form as a desperate choice, and we sense everything that has had to be kept out of the picture to make it become what it is.

The artistic vision is in some way ineffable, unspeakable; it deflects every attempt to pin it down by knowledge or to define it in speech. The stories say that art is not to be assimilated to the comfortable ways of a society. 

The artist is an eagle, not a dove.

[Denis Donoghue]
The Arts Without Mystery, p. 13, 15-16, 21, 27, 69

Let us attempt to see.

[Robert Delaunay]

Art is exploration: artists train people how to see.

The artists are the people who articulate the unknown. The role of art in a healthy culture is to bring to public awareness elements of being that have not yet entered the collective consciousness.

Here’s a way of thinking about artistic and creative people from a biological perspective: the world is basically an explored territory, inside an unexplored territory - every world is like that, everywhere you go is like that; there’s things you know, and things you don’t know.

The conservative people like to be in the middle of the things that are known. They can master that space, and are good at maintaining it.

The artists like to be right out on the edge, and that’s the edge between chaos and order. And they like to expand the domain of order out into the chaos. They do that first by transforming perception.

Artists have always been on the frontier of human understanding. The artist bears the same relationship to society that the dream bears to mental life.

The dream is the thing that mediates between order and chaos, it starts to make chaos into order. It’s half chaos, that’s why it’s not comprehensible. Artists play exactly the same role in society: they’re the visionaries that start to transform what we don’t understand into what we can [at least] start to see. They’ve always been at the vanguard, that’s their biological niche. They’re the civilising agents.

Imagine we’re all living on an island, and many of us are in the centre of the island - far enough away so that maybe we can’t see the shoreline, and the ocean. The artists are right on the edge, and they’re expanding the landscape, they’re moving the culture forward into the unknown.

They do that by translating what is as yet unimaginable, but sensed, into what is at least imaginable, and represent it in image, and drama, and literature. That’s the precursor to its full formulation in articulated philosophy and thought.

You can see them doing [it] in cities: it’s the open people, the artists, who go into parts of the cities that have degenerated to some degree back into chaos, and revitalise and recivilise them. [Then] the less artistic people, who are more conventional, move in, and that’s when you get gentrification. That usually chases the artists out, and they go somewhere else cheap and interesting and start the renewal process again.

That’s what artists do [...] They’re problem detectors and problem solvers [...] They’re transforming chaos into order, all of the time. That’s where they live, on that edge. It’s a very tough place to live, because you can fall into the chaos at any time.

[Jordan Peterson]
'July Patreon Q and A' and ‘Lectures: Exploring the Psychology of Creativity

Structuralist readers are urged to adopt an ironic or sceptical attitude towards whatever they read; they are to know that it is poisoned.

Barthes, in his later work, showed how such readers might behave themselves. They should cultivate caprice and excess, going against the grain of the writing, distrusting its rhetorical figures, reading at their own speed.

In this way they retain some measure of freedom, and break the conspiracy between author, publisher and the economy of the market which has produced the book as a commodity for sale.

[Denis Donoghue]
The Arts Without Mystery, p. 40

The point has been made that at any given time the overwhelming majority of scientists are not trying to overthrow the prevailing orthodoxy at all but are working happily within it. 

They are not innovating, and they seldom have to choose between competing theories: what they are doing is putting accepted theories to work. This is what has come to be known as 'normal science' [...]

It is true that Popper's writings are somewhat loftily exclusive in their references to the pathbreaking geniuses of science, whose activities his theories most obviously fit. And it is also true that most scientists take for granted, in order to solve problems at a lower level, theories which only a few of their colleagues are questioning.

[Bryan Magee]
Popper, p. 41

For Levinas, the course of Western philosophical tradition is determined from the outset by its ancient Greek heritage.

'Philosophy employs a series of terms and concepts - such as morphe (form), ousia (substance), nous (reason), logos (thought) or telos (goal), etc. - which constitute a specifically Greek lexicon of intelligibility.'

Like Derrida, he sees a systematic relationship or complicity between these terms, since they all point towards a moment of ultimate, self-present truth when reason would grasp the encompassing logic of its own nature and history.

What is intelligible to thinkers in this Greek tradition is whatever lends itself to the various 'totalizing' methods and strategies which thought has devised to maintain its grasp upon an otherwise recalcitrant world.

[Christopher Norris]
Derrida, p. 231-2

Such thinking, as Derrida describes it, 'dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin which escapes play and the order of the sign, and ... live the necessity of interpretation as an exile' [...]

The other possibility is that of abandoning such nostalgic ways of thought and accepting that there can henceforth be no limit to the range of strong-willed interpretative options.

[...] To register the force of this critique would be to re-think the notion of 'structure', no longer seeking to limit the play of its differential elements by always referring them back, in the last instance, to some organizing 'centre' or thematic point of origin.

[Christopher Norris]
Derrida, p. 139

The biggest problem of explicitness, however, is that it returns us to what we already know.

It reduces a unique experience, person or thing to a bunch of abstracted, therefore central, concepts that we could have found already anywhere else – and indeed had already. Knowing, in the sense of seeing clearly, is always seeing ‘as’ a something already known, and therefore not present but re-presented.

Fruitful ambiguity is forced into being one thing or another.

[Iain McGilchrist]
The Master and his Emissary, p. 180

What can we be said to owe to romanticism? A great deal.

We owe to romanticism the notion of the freedom of the artist, and the fact that neither he nor human beings in general can be explained by oversimplified views such as were prevalent in the eighteenth century and such as are still enunciated by over-rational and over-scientific analysts either of human beings or of groups.

We also owe to romanticism the notion that a unified answer in human affairs is likely to be ruinous, that if you really believe there is one single solution to all human ills, and that you must impose this solution at no matter what cost, you are likely to become a violent and despotic tyrant in the name of your solution, because you desire to remove all obstacles to it will end by destroying those creatures for whose benefit you offer the solution.

The notion that there are many values, and that they are incompatible; the whole notion of plurality, of inexhaustibility, of the imperfection of all human answers and arrangements; the notion that no single answer which claims to be perfect and true, whether in art or in life, can in principle be perfect and true - all this we owe to the romantics. 

[...] and yet, as a result of making clear the existence of a plurality of values, as a result of driving wedges into the notion of the classical ideal, of the single answer to all questions, of the rationalisability of everything, of the answerability of all questions, of the whole jigsaw-puzzle conception of life, they have given prominence to and laid emphasis upon the incompatibility of human ideals.

But if these ideals are incompatible, then human beings sooner or later realise that they must make do, the must make compromises, because if they seek to destroy others, others will seek to destroy them; and so, as a result of this passionate, fanatical, half-mad doctrine, we arrive at an appreciation of the necessity of tolerating others, the necessity of preserving an imperfect equilibrium in human affairs, the impossibility of driving human beings so far into the pen which we have created for them, or into the single solution which possesses us, that they will ultimately revolt against us, or at any rate be crushed by it.

The result of romanticism, then, is liberalism, toleration, decency and the appreciation of the imperfections of life [...]

[Isaiah Berlin]
The Roots of Romanticism, p. 146-7

The second condition of permanent political society has been the existence, in some form or other, of the feeling of allegiance, or loyalty.

This feeling may vary in its objects, and is not confined to any particular form of government; but whether in a democracy or in a monarchy, its essence is always the same, namely that there is in the constitution of the State something that is settled, something permanent, and not to be called in question; something that is generally agreed to have a right to be where it is and to be secure against disturbance, whatever else may change.

This feeling may attach itself—as among the Jews (and indeed in most of the commonwealths of antiquity)—to a common God or gods, the protectors and guardians of their State. Or it may attach itself to certain persons who are deemed to be the rightful guides and guardians of the rest, whether by divine appointment, by long prescription, or by the general recognition of their superior capacity and worthiness. Or it may attach itself to laws; to ancient liberties, or ordinances. Or finally (and this is the only form in which the feeling is likely to exist from now on) it may attach itself to the principles of individual freedom and political and social equality, as realised in institutions that don’t yet exist anywhere except perhaps in a rudimentary state.

But in every political society that has had a durable existence there has been some fixed point, something that men agreed in holding sacred.

[John Stuart Mill]
'Essays on Bentham and Coleridge'

The third essential condition of stability in political society is a strong and active force of cohesion among the members of the same community or state. 

I need scarcely say that I do not mean ‘nationality’ in the vulgar sense of the term:

•a senseless antipathy to foreigners,

•an indifference to the general welfare of the human race, or an unjust preference for the supposed interests of our own country;

•a cherishing of bad peculiarities because they are national, or a refusal to adopt what has been found good by other countries.

I mean a force of sympathy, not of hostility; of union, not of separation. I mean a feeling of common interest among those who live under the same government and are contained within the same natural or historical boundaries. I mean that one part of the community do not consider themselves as foreigners with regard to another part; that they set a value on their connection; feel that they are one people, that their lot is cast together, that evil to any of their fellow-countrymen is evil to themselves; and do not selfishly want to free themselves from their share of any common inconvenience by breaking the connection.

Everyone knows how strong this feeling was in the ancient commonwealths that attained any durable greatness.

[John Stuart Mill]
'Essays on Bentham and Coleridge'

[…] we cannot excel our way out of modern problems […] surviving our newfound god-like powers will require modes that lie well outside expertise, excellence, and mastery.

A single obviously stupid idea like 'self-regulating financial markets' now spreads frictionlessly among fungible experts inhabiting the now interoperable centers of excellence within newspapers, government, academe, think-tanks, broadcasting and professional associations. Before long, the highest levels of government are spouting nonsense about 'the great moderation' in front of financial disaster.

We have spent the last decades inhibiting […] socially marginal individuals or chasing them to drop out of our research enterprise and into startups and hedge funds. As a result our universities are increasingly populated by the over-vetted specialist to become the dreaded centers of excellence that infantilize and uniformize the promising minds of greatest agency.

If there is hope to be found in this sorry state of affairs it is in the rise of an archipelago of alternative institutions alongside the assembly line of expertise. This island chain of mostly temporary gatherings has begun to tap into the need for heroism and genius.

In the wake of the Challenger disaster, Richard Feynman was mistakenly asked to become part of the Rogers commission investigating the accident. In a moment of candor Chairman Rogers turned to Neil Armstrong in a men's room and said "Feynman is becoming a real pain." Such is ever the verdict pronounced by steady hands over great spirits.

[Eric Weinstein]

Exploration is movement from the knowable to the complex, selectively.

This movement is often mentioned in the literature on complexity as exploration versus exploitation.

Exploration is an opening up of possibilities by reducing or removing central control without a total disruption of connections.

There are some good reasons to move deliberately from order to chaos. There are times when it is necessary to break rigid structures in precipitation of a natural collapse (as one approaches the boundary), so that the transition can be managed more carefully; and there are times when a strong disruption is the only mechanism that will break up a strong but unhealthy stability.

The [...] chaotic space [can be used] for temporary disruption of all connections (possibly within a restricted context) as a stimulant to new growth.

Entrainment breaking is movement from the knowable to the chaotic to the complex, periodically. In entrainment breaking, we move from the knowable to chaos and thus stimulate the creation of new complex systems as the system rebounds into the complex domain.

This is a common approach to disrupt the entrained thinking of experts who, in our experience, tend to be the most conservative when it comes to radical new thinking. 

The move to complex space is not radical enough to disrupt those patterns; we need to challenge at a more basic level the current assumptions of order. By using the complex space as a staging post, we create a more fertile space of interactions from which we can select stabilization points for the movement to the knowable.

Organizations tend to assume that they can design the nature of new systems. For example, an organization that needs new expertise in an area might commission a university to carry out a study, recruit specialist staff, or identify individuals within the organization and assign them new responsibilities. This is a successful and effective strategy when the conditions are suitable for ordered approaches.

However, if the situation is uncertain, it is more useful to shift the problem from the domain of the known to the complex. Organizations need to increase both internal and external levels of contact to the point where new patterns can emerge.

Immunization is movement from the known to the chaotic, temporarily. Immunization in chaos is a smaller “visit” to chaotic space that shakes up “the way things are” enough to cause reflection but not enough to destabilize the entire system.

Immunization serves two purposes. First, it inures people to the devastating force of chaos so that they will be better prepared to face those forces in the future. A perfect example: it is said that the great director Buster Keaton was able to craft his death-defying stunts (such as a house falling around him, a rescue from a drenching waterfall, amazing pratfalls, and so on) because as a toddler he was lifted out of bed by a tornado and set down unhurt in the street.

Second, immunization brings new perspectives, which cause radical disruptions in stable patterns of thought and lead to new complex patterns. 

Examples of such events are scattered throughout literature, in the accident that changes a politician’s career, or the chance encounter that causes a lonely woman’s life to fill up with new meaning, or in many other kinds of radical departures that make everything on which one had relied seem meaningless and restricting.

Metaphors are particularly useful agents of immunization because they allow conversation about painful things, enable disruptive and lateral thinking, prevent entrainment of attitudes, and clear out the cobwebs of stagnant ways. 

[Cynthia Kurtz & Dave Snowden]
'The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world'

Typical statistics textbooks teach standard (Gaussian) distribution – “the bell curve” – in which things like means and standard deviations most matter.

Some domains (like the sums of thrown die) naturally cluster around an average between strictly constrained extremes. If you know that the total height of two randomly selected people is 12-and-a-half feet, chances are the two people are each very close to 6 feet, 3 inches.

But if you know the total wealth of two randomly selected people is $125 million, the chance that wealth is close to evenly distributed is quite small; there is a very high chance that one of them has total wealth of close to $125m.

Unlike the size of an organism, the size of a bank account does not have a natural limit, and wealth isn’t evenly distributed around a mean. 

It takes wisdom to know when we are in Extremistan rather than Mediocristan, so that we are not harmed by, and can even benefit from, a rare and unforeseen outlier.

This means that many of the analytic tools of social science—like correlation and linear regression—are much more limited than usually acknowledged, and often deceptive: one can always “fit” a line to random data and find spurious “correlations” in large enough data sets.

[Joshua P. Hochschild]
'Optionality and the Intellectual Life: In Gratitude for the Real World Risk Institute'

Postmodern theory is reinterpreted in order to argue that a postmodern perspective does not necessarily imply relativism, but that it could also be viewed as a manifestation of an inherent sensitivity to complexity. 

As Cilliers explains, the characterization of complexity revolves around analyses of the process of self-organization and a rejection of traditional notions of representation. The model of language developed by Saussure - and expanded by Derrida - is used to develop the notion of distributed representation, which in turn is linked with distributed modelling techniques. Connectionism (implemented in neural networks) serves as an example of these techniques. 

Cilliers points out that this approach to complexity leads to models of complex systems that avoid the oversimplification that results from rule-based models.

The taste of the higher type is for exceptions, for things that leave most people cold and seem to lack sweetness; the higher type has a singular value standard. 

Moreover, it usually believes that the idiosyncrasy of its taste is not a singular value standard; rather, it posits its values and disvalues as generally valid and thus becomes incomprehensible and impractical. 

Very rarely does a higher nature retain sufficient reason for understanding and treating everyday people as such; for the most part, this type assumes that its own passion is present but kept concealed in all men, and this belief even becomes an ardent and eloquent faith. 

But when such exceptional people do not see themselves as the exception, how can they ever understand the common type and arrive at a fair evaluation of the rule? 

Thus they, too, speak of the folly, inexpediency, and fantasies of humanity, stunned that the course of the world should be so insane, and puzzled that it won't own up to what "is needful.”—This is the eternal injustice of those who are noble.

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
The Gay Science, 3

Not one of all these ponderous herd animals with their uneasy conscience (who undertake to advocate the cause of egoism as the cause of the general welfare – ) wants to know or scent that the 'general welfare' is not an ideal, or a goal, or a concept that can be grasped at all, but only an emetic 

– that what is right for one cannot by any means therefore be right for another, that the demand for one morality for all is detrimental to precisely the higher men, in short that there exists an order of rank between man and man, consequently also between morality and morality. 

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
Beyond Good and Evil, 228

The spell that fights on our behalf, the eye of Venus that charms and blinds even our opponents, is the magic of the extreme, the seduction that everything extreme exercises: we immoralists - we are the most extreme.

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
The Will to Power, 749

Not truth and certainty are the opposite of the world of the madman, but the universality and the universal binding force of a faith; in sum, the non-arbitrary character of judgments. 

And man's greatest labor so far has been to reach agreement about very many things and to submit to a law of agreement - regardless of whether these things are true or false. 

This is the discipline of the mind that mankind has received; but the contrary impulses are still so powerful that at bottom we cannot speak of the future of mankind with much confidence. The image of things still shifts and shuffles continually, and perhaps even more so and faster from now on than ever before. 

Continually, precisely the most select spirits bristle at this universal binding force, the explorers of truth above all. Continually this faith, as everybody's faith, arouses nausea and a new lust in subtler minds; and the slow tempo that is here demanded for all spiritual processes, this imitation of the tortoise, which is here recognized as the norm, would be quite enough to turn artists and thinkers into apostates: It is in these impatient spirits that a veritable delight in madness erupts because madness has such a cheerful tempo. 

Thus the virtuous intellects are needed - oh, let me use the most unambiguous word—what is needed is virtuous stupidity, stolid metronomes for the slow spirit, to make sure that the faithful of the great shared faith stay together and continue their dance. It is a first-rate need that commands and demands this. We others are the exception and the danger - and we need eternally to be defended. 

Well, there actually are things to be said in favor of the exception, provided that it never wants to become the rule.

[Friedrich Nietzsche]
The Gay Science, 76

All subjects, no matter how specialised, are connected with a centre; they are like rays emanating from a sun. 

The centre [...] is the place where [man] has to create for himself an orderly system of ideas about himself and the world, which can regulate the direction of his various strivings.

The centre is constituted by our most basic convictions, by those ideas which really have the power to move us. In other words, the centre consists of metaphysics and ethics, of ideas that - whether we like it or not - transcend the world of facts. Because they transcend the world of facts, they cannot be proved or disproved by ordinary scientific method. 

But that does not mean that they are purely “subjective' or 'relative' or mere arbitrary conventions. They must be true to reality, although they transcend the world of facts - an apparent paradox to our positivistic thinkers. If they are not true to reality, the adherence to such a set of ideas must inevitably lead to disaster.

Education can help us only if it produces 'whole men'. The truly educated man is not a man who knows a bit of everything, not even the man who knows all the details of all subjects (if such a thing were possible): the ‘whole man', in fact, may have little detailed knowledge of facts and theories, he may treasure the Encyclopaedia Britannica because ‘she knows and he needn't, but he will be truly in touch with the centre. 

He will not be in doubt about his basic convictions, about his view on the meaning and purpose of his life. He may not be able to explain these matters in words, but the conduct of his life will show a certain sureness of touch which stems from his inner clarity.

[E.F. Schumacher]
Small is Beautiful, p. 77

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Do Not Disturb
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