It’s been that CDSA paperwork time of year again, and if nothing else it has forced me to start pulling together some fragments of ideas backed up by other peoples’ (or people’s – I never can remember) words…
So here are some fragments that are, I think, aligned to some of the things that I’ve thought for a long time and have been thinking again more recently, things that resonated with me as I read them just now…
The way in to this this time round for me was part of a talk by Prof Richard Keeble at the University of Lincoln School of Journalism Research Symposium last week, when he mentioned the role of the fool as a safety valve or regulator in the classical court…
First up, from “Class Clown and Court Jester“, David Chevreau, MA thesis, UBC, April 1994
The fool can fill a number of specific roles in the group. He represents the rejected values, lost causes, fiascoes, and incompetencies of the larger gathering. His lowly yet valued position in the office of scapegoat and butt of humour gives him license to depart from the group’s accepted social norms with a unique impunity.
Footnote 10 – The fool is a rebel, outcast, prophet and whipping boy, and his office is a well defined social phenomenon.
As a scapegoat, you can speak the truth and people can choose to listen or not. The truth can be ignored if spoken by the fool, because the fool said it..
Unperturbed by misplaced authority, the Class Clown seizes an opportunity either the naivete of the natural innocent or the insight of the wizened fool.
I’m often confused…
The Fool exists on the fringe of social convention, and thus has a license which frees him from responsibility and consequence.
It is difficult to accuse a Fool of meaning anything, for his foolish words may be nothing more than the babbling of the idiot or a disguise which reveals hidden truth to some but appears to be senseless chatter to others.
WTF is he on about?
Transgressing the bounds of propriety in his failure to cope with convention the Fool does not suffer the usual loss of dignity associated with social failure.
FFS… swearing again…
Standing at the fringe, the Fool may be a disinterested truth-teller whose apparent madness masks his breadth of perspective. The Fool is a detached observer who lives at the boundary not just between order and chaos but also between what is and what appears to be, and is often confused with the silly and deluded.
So, I deserve a Chair, right?!:-)
The Fool perceives that the world has more to do with seeming than with seeing, for too much of our world is actually unknown and irrational. To take the imposition of order too seriously is the height of folly, and so the Fool, standing aside, sees through the illusion.
Ooh, big data… and squillionty billionty pounds will be made from open data… innit.
So that was that one…
Here’s another take… As I read (/red/) this, I also though about my own role within the university… As above,so below…? “Institutional Heterogeneity and Change: The University as Fool”, Donncha Kavanagh, Organization Volume 16(4): 575–595 ISSN 1350–5084 , 2009.
First, the scene is set…
p577 “Detailed study of the history of the University suggests that it is an institution that acts and has a role akin to the Fool in the royal court of medieval times.”
The paper then explores this idea in narrative form…
Fool as normative narrator:
p586 “The Fool is a story-teller, but its stories are always embedded in a framework of norms and values that connect the moment into longer conversations over time and space.”
There is a context to what we do, and a tradition that informs it, in both form and in content…
p587 “Akin to the medieval fool, who is not there to merely tell stories, the University is expected to provide a normative narrative or a critical interpretation of the world. … the University’s long tradition of academic freedom mirrors the Fool’s position as the Sovereign’s independent critic. … The university does not just (re-)tell stories, parables, and proverbs. Its power also comes about from its material ability to sort things out (Bowker and Star, 1999 [Bowker, G. and Star, S. L. (1999) Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences. London: MIT Press.]); it is a sorter par excellence.”
The university helps make sense of the world… it can do this by putting things into perspective, or ordering them/organising them, in a particular way (that is, is can “sort” them, as you might sort a sock drawer, albeit one that doesn’t necessarily contain any actual pairs of socks…)
p588 “Through these twin processes of normative narrating and sorting the university constructs and maintains what I term the semiotic nexus. The semiotic nexus gives meaning to an institution — be it the University, its sovereign or one of the other institutions in the realm—through telling a multi-part, compelling, value-laden tale about the institution and its place in the world. The university is not the only institution engaged in this process of ‘making meaning’—narrating is a form of theorizing that everyone engages in—but it plays a central role in determining what counts as knowledge, as well as defining what is valuable, peripheral, obscene, sacred, profane, reputable, opinion, fact, etc. The University, like the Fool, personifies truth and reason, in that it is required to tell the truth, to abolish myth, and to distinguish fact from mere opinion. In other words, the University’s normative story-telling ability allied to its sorting practices and technologies are basic to how the University realizes its imagined community of academics, how it at once becomes an institution itself, and also how it maintains and sustains the semiotic nexus underpinning other institutions. In other words, these practices play a significant role in the process of institutionalization.”
I’ve noticed that people find it very hard to play… I can play all day… Erm… I can only play?!
p589 Play in the fool
“The Fool is a ludic spirit within the institutional complex, and play—a free activity standing outside of and opposed to the seriousness of ordinary life (Huizinga, 1955)—is its modus operandi. As with the child, the Fool is allowed, expected and given time and space to play. Through playing with language the Fool sparks a new (yet old) understanding of the here and now. This incandescent quality at once makes events alive—giving them immediate meaning—while simultaneously framing them within a longer temporal structure or longue durée that articulates the empirical with a transcendent truth. Each ‘play’ then endures as a new mental creation, to be repeated and retained in memory, echoing older refrains of truth and tradition. Following Huizinga, play is primordial and because of its close links with the sacred, it works to keep old norms and beliefs alive. The Fool as playmaker extraordinaire is central to this continual process of institutional re-creation through which an institution breathes, lives and renews itself.
Yet, because it takes work to create order within play, play always (sub- liminally) reminds us that the world is fundamentally chaotic and that any meaning within this chaos is always provisional and artificial. The Fool’s work of play then is to institutionalize order and at once to open up order to de-institutionalization. Through its role as playmaker, the Fool puts an institution ‘into play’, which means that work must be done to either recreate or de-stabilize the institution. In this way, the Fool’s ability and license to play is paradoxically central to both institutionalization and de-institutionalization.”
FWIW, seeing that mention of Huizinga, I’m reminded of how play is a serious business… see for example, Getting Philosophical About Games. The Magic Circle applies similarly to the little closed off workds we lock ourselves into when doing a research project. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that research is anything more than play, (though it’s often less…). Note also that that Digital Worlds blog post was itself is an ‘output’ from an uncourse I played with creating a few years ago. The material ended up being used by an actual OU course that followed on. I don’t think anyone in the OU really got it. Then MOOC hype shite came along and nothing really changed.
Playing the fool is a responsbile job, If you aren’t responsible, you can step beyond the bounds of playful foolishness and start “stirring”, or trying to use the cloak of foolishness to cause trouble directly…
“Another transgression occurs when the Fool cannot see beyond the play-making; i.e. the Fool becomes a Trickster, a Lucifer figure working solely to undermine and destroy order. This happens when the Fool forgets that part of the Fool’s role is sustaining order in the institutional complex.”
Beware Anansi taking over, in other words…
The “Emperor’s New Clothes” is one of my favourite stories. The boy is portrayed as foolish in his innocence, but he speaks a truth as a naif, or innocent. We see how corollaries to that story can be played out by the wise fool, rather than truth telling innocent…
p590 fool as educator
“Pursuing the metaphor of the Fool presents an interesting perspective on the University as an educational institution. While the Fool is an educator of sorts, she does not really ‘own’ knowledge that she ‘passes on’ as per our conventional understanding of pedagogy. Unlike the teacher who is usually cast as the learner’s caring coach, the Fool is an irritant, a provocateur, whose modus operandi is to provoke new wisdom in others. The Fool’s approach is, quite literally, to play the fool, acting as a lucid and ludic lens through which others perceive and recognize profound truths, truths that indeed may be lost in the conventions of learning and scholarship. The fool (like the child) is not expected to ‘know’ anything and is therefore free to act the fool, because she cannot, by definition, ‘know any better’. Paradoxically, this epistemic vacuum is also a potential source of great wisdom, which is why the idea of the ‘wise fool’ has such a long tradition. Moreover, the oxymoron ‘wise fool’ is also reversible: he that believes himself to be wise is necessarily foolish. For the Fool also reminds us that knowledge of the mystery of life is always beyond even the wise; at best we can only know that there is much of which we are and can only be ignorant.
[The university] must be the institutional manifestation of an oxymoron, remembering that this word comes from the Greek, oxumo ̄rone, meaning ‘pointedly foolish’.”
…or, a little bit about how I see myself…
I can’t remember the context now, but a little while ago I picked up the following tweet from Pete Mitton:
The Abilene Paradox? So what’s that when it’s at home, then?
The Abilene Paradox is a phenomenon in which the limits of a particular situation seems to force a group of people to act in a way that is the opposite of what they actually want. This situation can occur when groups continue with misguided activities which no group member desires because no member is willing to raise objections, or displease the others.
The paradox was introduced and illustrated by means of the following anecdote, recounted in an article from 1974 – “The abilene paradox: The management of agreement” by Jerry Harvey [doi:10.1016/0090-2616(74)90005-9]:
On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”
The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.
One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it.” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.
The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.
Hence the need for the “corporate fool”, a role I aspire to…;-)
the curious double-act of king and fool, master and servant, substance and shadow, may thus be seen as a universal, symbolic expression of the antithesis lying at the heart of of the autocratic state between the forces of order and disorder, of structured authority and incipient anarchy, in which the conditional nature of the fool’s licence (‘so far but not further’) gives reassurance that ultimately order will prevail. The fool, though constrained, continually threatens to break free in pushing to its limits whatever freedom he is given. He is the trickster of myth in an historical strait-jacket from which he is forever struggling to escape. And if the king, the dominant partner, sets the tone of their exchanges and the fool has everything to gain from a willing acceptance of his subservient role, his participation can never be forced. If, for whatever reason, he should come to feel that his master has reneged on the unwritten contract between them (the rules of the game), it is always open to him to refuse to play, however costly to himself the refusal might prove to be. He thus retains – and needs to retain if he is to achieve the full potential of his role – a degree of independence. Like the actor on stage in a live performance, success is inevitably accompanied by the possibility of failure. …
But there was a danger on both sides of this balancing act. If the fool risked going too far in his banter and tricks, the king was also vulnerable to the fool’s abuse of the licence he was given. [“Fools and Jesters at the English Court“, J Southworth, p3.]
See also: OMG…There are spies everywhere sabotaging our organizations!!, which reveals some tricks about how to destroy your organisation from within (“General Interference with Organizations and Production”), via the uncompromising OSS Simple Sabotage Manual [Declassified] (PDF).
I once started putting together an “anti-training” course based around this sort of thing, called “Thinking Inside the Box”. It’s a shame I never blogged the notes – all that knowledge is lost, now ;-)
PS Here’s an example of a piece of corporate sabotage I started exploring: The Cost of Meetings – How Much Return on Investment Do YOU Get? (Meeting taxi meter).