Transdisciplinary Reflections: The Sound of Surprise

January 2013 / Column

On Order, Disorder, Creativity, and Trust

Alfonso Montuori

Alfonso Montuori

History is not something ‘back there,’ something we browse through occasionally for purposes of erudition and arcane knowledge of bygone eras: history is in our flesh and bones–and in our minds. Darwin’s great revolution was to show us that we are our history (Bocchi & Ceruti, 2002). The great revolution of complexity and chaos shows us that history is not determined, that it is the contingent co-creation of individuals and their environments. It also shows us that every little thing matters a lot more than we thought…

At least since the Greeks (Parmenides, Plato, and Aristotle), human beings have had a fascination with order. But order also implies its opposite, namely disorder. When the Greeks came to worship order, they also banished disorder: logos and dike (justice) replaced chaos and hubris (transgression of the order and the arrogance that made one do so). Order and disorder became separate and disjointed in a relationship of either/or (Morin, 2008; Toulmin, 1992). Order was eternal and transcendent, and disorder and chaos were terrestrial impurities in a failed embodiment of the divine ‘word’. For the Greeks, order was not something we humans created, but a reflection of the true and the good and the real.

Categories sprang up to describe this eternal order and before long these categories became the order itself. ‘In the beginning was the Word’. They were true, not made by humans – and therefore not subject to the vagaries of human imperfection. Order and disorder found their counterparts in necessity and chance. Categories described the law-like, necessary order of things. All else was random, disorder, chance (Ceruti, 2008).

It took a while for the Greek worship of reason to become institutionalized. The Greek avant-garde did not start filtering through into the daily lives of common folks until the Renaissance, when the Greeks were ‘rediscovered’. The fetish for order – now the rational order that emerged in the 17th century, with Descartes and Newton – replaced the somewhat more chaotic order of the Church with its focus on faith rather than reason.

The new ‘rational’ slant on order was accompanied by the gradual dethronement of the Church and God to make way for the humanist ‘Man’. This enthronement of Man was liberating in one sense, because it led to a deep appreciation for the powers and potentials of the individual. It eventually led to democratic ideals. But it was also problematic: Great Men needed Great Followers to make their Great Ideas into Reality. Democracy has, like Socialism and Communism, paid lip service to the power of the people, but somehow the reigns of power seemed to end up in the hands of those who “knew best” for us. And the “Great Man” became the foundation of our understanding of the “Great Hero” of leadership and the “Lone Genius” of creativity.

Let’s look at what happened in music. 1800 marks the beginning of the end for improvisation in music in the West. Today we think of improvisation as something jazz musicians do, one of the non-Western aspects of jazz. But the West also has a great history of improvisation. In his lifetime J.S. Bach was appreciated as a superb improviser, not as a composer. Schubert, Chopin, Beethoven – all great improvisers. And it wasn’t just the great composers who were improvisers. Before 1800 (a rough cut-off date) musical pieces consisted of loosely outlined chord progressions and melodies with which the musicians took improvisational liberties not unlike those of jazz musicians today. Embellishments, cadenzas, you name it: Western musicians interpreted by improvising throughout their performances. And that meant adding a lot of material that was not written down, composing on the spot. Today classical musicians can “interpret” a piece as long as they don’t change or add any notes to the score. This means they can play (a little) with tempo, dynamics, color, but never mess around with the actual score. After 1800, with the ‘Beethoven revolution’, musicians existed solely in function of the composition, which was now finally fully written out (Goehr, 1992). This score had to be performed perfectly in accordance with the composer’s intentions. The disordered musical hubris of performing musicians making up stuff as they went along had to make way for the composer’s genius that, around that time, found expression in the work. The work was the word, written down in musical notation. The composer became God, or at least God-like. After all, he was the Creator.

Interestingly enough, there were several historical events at that time which paralleled this development. The first was the emergence of copyright, ownership of music, with financial implications and musical implications (pay me and don’t mess with my music). And a little later, after the symphony orchestra emerged with its hierarchical structure of composer, director, soloist, first violinist, section leaders, etc., we had the development of the bureaucracy, the organizational command and control hierarchy that was to blossom with the Industrial Revolution and is now proudly ensconced in our corporate offices (Attali, 1985).

Order became the word, and the word became order. Whatever was not necessary (determined by the composer) was chance, random, chaos. The composer “knew,” musicians didn’t. God was dying and being replaced by the god-like Genius of the composer and, paradoxically, the industrial magnate. Gone were the chaotic expressions of individual musicians adding their frills to the great work. Soon even the cadenzas, or the soloists’ brief moments of improvisation, were written out. No Surprises became a motto in classical music as it did in industry. Musicians were the first subjects of time and motion studies, 100 years before Frederick Taylor introduced them to organizations as the cornerstone of ‘scientific management’. Henry Ford was to make the God-like pronouncement that “they can have any color they like as long as it’s black:” “they” were, of course, the great unwashed–the Little Men, not to speak of the Little Women, which every Great Man needs to be Great. The great Bauhaus architects were furious when the workers who moved into their perfectly designed worker-buildings filled them with knick-knacks that spoiled the purity of the Spartan design.

In the postmodern age we came to realize that the old order was – and is – breaking down furiously. Deconstructionists deconstructed categories such as ‘woman’, ‘self’ and ‘progress’. Michel Foucault starts his book “The Order of Things,” by describing his amusement at reading a Borges short story that mentions a categorization of animals in a “Chinese Encyclopedia.” Animals are divided into “a) belonging to the Emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) frenzied, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a fine camelhair brush” and so on…(Foucault, 2001). This classification appears so alien to him it forces him to look at the way we order our world, and the historical interplay of power and knowledge from which it emerges.

The dyad order/disorder becomes the triad order/disorder/organization: the question arises, who’s doing the organizing, and who establishes the dominant order. Who benefits? Usually it’s the people in power who maintain the rules of the game, the categories in which we’re asked to play. They have an investment in them. But they are not necessarily the people who created the categories. In the case of music, it’s the musicians who, willy-nilly, developed a certain style, whether bebop or bluegrass, and then mixed it all up again to get Hip-Hop Jazz or Western Swing. In order to make sense of this evolutionary process, definitions of what something “is” have to make room for examples of what something is like. There is a shift from attempting to pinpoint the ‘essence’ of something (like the endless debates about what is and is not ‘jazz’, for instance) to describing its relationships in space and time: from transcendental categories to traditions and experiences.

Sometimes musicians and artists develop a proprietary interest in categories – in their Order, in their definition of what something is. But they’re also the ones who blow up the old orders and create new ones. They won’t take just anybody’s orders. And that’s a whole different kind of power – a power the people who are supposedly in power sorely envy. It’s a power to create, rather than a power over others. It’s also a different kind of order, one that is in a continuous, generative and destructive dance with disorder.

Musicians – and other artists – tend to relish what some of the corporate leaders, and even the deconstructionists, do not: the relationship between order and disorder is not either/or, it is both/and (Morin, 2008). Disorder is not, as the Greeks supposed, something to be avoided at all costs. Disorder generates order that generates disorder and so on in a recursive or mutually interactive process. You’ve got to break down those categories to come up with something new. And that also means breaking down the order created by those who benefit from the categories that define and organize the order.

So now we can see, following Edgar Morin, how the triad order/disorder/organization becomes the tetragram order/disorder/organization/interaction. Order and disorder interact as we organize our experience and our world. The pair order/disorder, when coupled with interaction/organization, becomes dynamic rather than static. It is interactive, dialogical, and therefore alive, an open system in space and time rather than a closed system capturing an eternal form, allegedly “the way things have to be.” Knowledge becomes an open system and therefore never complete, filled with uncertainty, ignorance and wonder always lurking around – and inside – us. It follows that telling other people what they must do to comply with our perfect knowledge (do as I say, don’t do as I do) might be sensibly replaced by questions, generative dialogue, and example.

The simplicity of perfect order is gone. The historical and contingent nature of categories is exposed. The creative organization of thought and action is seen as playing a vital constructive role. And disorder appears in a new light, forever connected to, and interacting with, order; but this inextricable, unavoidable connection becomes a blessing and a curse.

Just as musical organization prefigured the organization of industry in the last century, it is doing so again at the end of this one. Gone are the days of all or none, my way or no way. The homogeneous worlds of ‘absolute’ progress, of ‘manifest destinies’ for all are gone. In so many old sci-fi scenarios and movies everyone would wear antiseptic white, have little vitamin pills for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and everyone behaved according to scientifically approved codes – until the usual monster/mutant/weirdo came along to disrupt the order. Now white bread homogeneity and forced unity are replaced by heterogeneity and difference.

As disorder raises its beautiful and terrifying head, encroaching ever more into our lives, we find a longing for simple order returns: family values, back to nature, the Dumb and Dumber male hero as cheerful adolescent moron… From Heroes to Anti-Heroes to Lobotomized Heroes. Fundamentalisms of all stripes manifest in religion, government, and other aspects of out lives. Fundamentalists cannot bear the thought of collective improvisation and long for everyone to read from the same book, and interpret it all in exactly the same way. Why should we trouble ourselves with Pee Wee Hermeneutics?

The US Army uses the acronym VUCA to describe the present global situation. Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. What to do in such an environment? Without the need for much marketing, simple answers easily present themselves as the answer to all our problems. There is the single-minded faith in free markets, lowering taxes, getting rid of illegal immigrants, the abject rejection of corporations – we can all think of simplistic (uni-dimensional, reductive, decontextualized) answers that do not reflect the interconnected complexity of our world. We don’t have THE answer because the answer, if there is one, is a process, a collaborative creation occurring in an ever-changing emergent network of relationships and patterns.

The conjunction of order/disorder/interaction/organization demands more of us than this longing for a receding shore of unity or the invasive surgery of a single answer. Perhaps when we all had the musical score right in front of us, life was much easier. We all knew the parts we had to play, and worshiped the Great Composer. But we also resented the hell out of Him. Now that what postmodernists call the ‘great metanarratives’, the great plots of our novels written by the great Biblical, Scientific, Marxist, Capitalist, Romantic novelists (choose your God), are crumbling, there is a call for little narratives–short stories, if you like, written ‘by the people, for the people’ (Lyotard, 1984; Montuori, 2011a). As the American futurist and philosopher James Ogilvy proposes, there’s a shift from thinking in terms of All or Nothing to thinking of Some (Ogilvy, 2002). Many musicians and other artists have been thinking and doing just that for quite a while now.

And the way we do it is different. In music, ‘serious’ composers like John Cage are allowing musicians some of the freedom that jazz musicians have enjoyed for a while. Gone is ‘the work’. Now we see that jazz music takes the composition not as a necessity to be performed as the composer wished; the song provides a context and a tradition for the musicians to work in, a framework to alter, modify, explore. The song provides not an external order of necessity, with ‘random’ events to be avoided at all costs, but constraints and possibilities (Borgo, 2006; Ceruti, 1994). In jazz, and the arts in general, order always carries the seeds of disorder, and vice-versa (Arnheim, 1971). The random is courted, used as a source of new order through interactions among musicians, and between musicians and the song. At the interstices of order and disorder, law-like and random, as the embodiment of lived complexity, we find improvisation (Montuori, 2003).

The pioneering creativity research of Frank Barron found that one of the characteristics of creativity is an attraction to disorder and complexity. Creativity means living in a constant dynamic chain of disorder, attempts at organization through interaction, creation of order, and then the introduction of a new disorder, breaking down the old order, interacting, re-organizing, and so on (Barron, 1995; Barron, Montuori, & Barron, 1997). Every new order is only temporary; every new song or painting is just a step along the way, only to be followed by more… And this process changes how we think about the categories of thought themselves. Order is a creation. Order is both real and unreal. Every organization and every interaction takes on a quality of “as if,” one embodiment of myriad constraints and possibilities. But that does not make everything simply a play of images, of personas, a theater of the absurd, as some of the postmodernists would have us believe. It is also a world with consequences that affect the lives of people and ecosystems, a world with bum notes and bounced checks. And therein lies the complexity of it all, a call to both lighten up, open up, and dig in.

Each experience in relationship becomes an opportunity to improvise together and create our own order/disorder/organization/interaction. Those who attempt to impose their scores from on high, who try to force us to live in their novels, and abide by their categories, are playing a losing game. The forces of chaos are creeping up on them. They can either embrace them and let go, or vainly reject them. But unless they invite us nicely to join them in their stories for a while, and we really want to play with them, we will have to just say no.

We also see that as the big narratives crumble, ‘little narratives’ are not necessarily friendly little narratives: The loss of the Soviet metanarrative has led to much death and destruction in the former Soviet Union, not to speak of the former Yugoslavia. People begin to long for a new metanarrative to restore unity, security, and certainty – Law and Order. Fundamentalism in all its permutations is also that search for foundations, for Absolute Order. Ethnic cleansing, whether in the former Yugoslavia or Arizona, is a way to maintain the pristine homogeneous madness of that Order, free of differences (Bocchi & Ceruti, 1997). At a very basic level, Order provides predictability, security. Disorder suggests chaos and confusion, and fear. If we believe the universe, or at least our little corner of it, is lawfully ordered, we will fear the Lawmaker, and be Good. In an Order worshiping system, any trace of difference or disagreement scares the bejesus out of people. Paradoxically, these systems cannot handle difference. They repress it, and then it eventually all explodes. We see this from families to nation-states. Either way it’s fear: fear of Disorder, or fear-based security with Order. But from this new perspective, it’s up to us to create trust, to create what Riane Eisler calls partnership (Eisler, 1987). Trust is not a thing, it’s a process, and it has to be created and maintained.

If we create fear, those who want to divide and rule us will rejoice, because we will be fighting each other. Creating trust may seem like a small step, in this problem-ridden world. But we need to create trust to trust our creating. We need to feel secure enough to allow ourselves to become insecure, feel safe enough to take risks. This is the paradoxical nature of creativity and change (Montuori, 2011b).

In the old view big effects required big causes, a world-organization to change the world, all or nothing, Utopia or Oblivion. In the new view of the butterflies of chaos theory and complexity a small cause can have big effects: we just have to recognize we don’t have any control over it… If we create trust, we may are not setting out to rule over anything or anyone. We are creating the generative environment that allows for the emergence of truth (in a variation on Heidegger’s theme of aletheia) as well as novelty through mutual unconcealment or unveiling. The beauty of being in relationship resides not just in the security of the accustomed, the comfort of the habitual, the assurance of tradition, but also in the unexpected, the emergent, the changing, in the sound of surprise.


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About the Author

Alfonso Montuori, PhD, is Professor at California Institute of Integral Studies, where he designed and teaches in the Transformative Leadership M.A. and the Transformative Studies Ph.D. He was Distinguished Professor in the School of Fine Arts at Miami University, in Oxford Ohio and in 1985-1986 he taught at the Central South University in Hunan, China. An active musician and producer, in a former life Alfonso worked in London England as a professional musician. He is the author of several books and numerous articles on creativity and innovation, the future, complexity theory, and leadership. Alfonso is also a consultant in the areas of creativity, innovation and leadership development whose clients have included NetApp, Training Vision (Singapore), Omintel-Olivetti (Italy) and Procter and Gamble.