From Linear to Liminal







It is a bit like patting bread down  – except instead of letting it rise, one reduces 

Till there is nothing left that is worthy of consumption

Meeta Sengupta  – this is a thought note from me, to me. Sharing, for collegiality.

If there was a recipe for knowledge processing, it would look like this. This is what we have been doing to bring the complexity of the world to heel. 

All of knowledge in the world is said to be ‘organised’ and therefore learnable when it becomes linearised. A classic example of that is Darwin’s understanding of evolution. Evolution is a fairly complex process, but it becomes teachable when it has been linearised, and reduced into soundbytes. Had it not been reduced, it would not have been taught in schools across the world and would not have enhanced our understanding of the world. 

This was wonderful. And not. 

In doing this yeoman service of making the complex knowledge accessible, what we have also done is to oversimplify it so much that we are rendering it liable to truly dumb denials such as – ‘our grandfathers were were/were not monkeys. Of course, no one said your grandparents were monkeys, that is not how selection works. But that is often what it sounds like to us when we are first taught this as children, and it stays with us. There is a case to be made here for teaching complexity to the very young, to finding the language and visuals to teach better. Reducing knowledge to straight lines is doing harm too. 

(All of knowledge is formed by distilling a large amount of data and then abstracting it into a simple sounding theory or axiom (yaaay when that happens). This is the way specialists work in their domains. But that is a whole other discussion, a bit longer than this one)

Another fantastic example is that of the understanding the world through its elements. The types of things that make up the world, at the atomic level. We then have a nice, neat, linear grid called the Periodic Table. It would be absurd to say that understanding the periodic table gives us a clear and comprehensive understanding of the world. Indeed, this is the point – linearising things makes it easier for us to see the vastness of what must be understood, but it does not make for understanding. 

Our world is made up of complex, interlinked and non linear bits. For everything in the world we have intersections, influences, forces, and even emotions that impact the phenomenon, and our observation and understanding. This does get too much for our brains, so we try to simplify it. We chop, and slice, and rearrange – till our brains say, ah I get it. I can handle this. 

This would not be too much trouble if we realised that we are looking at a reduction, and not the whole. As long as we remain humble, and continue to quest for more and better understanding of what we think we ‘know’, we will continue to progress. It is our certainty that leads us to trouble. Because the map is not the territory, and when we progress as if the map is the territory, we find different things that were never presaged by the reductionist pill that we swallowed. 

(meaning: we are confused, angry, lost and make mistakes. It’s horrible out there in the real world, and none of our teaching prepared us for it). 

See, as an illustration, how we organise our workplaces. Have you seen an organisation chart? It is a linear representation of relationships and roles. Have you ever had a linear set of relationships in real life? But our work lives are organised in boxes and lines. This is an artificial construct, and the rich lives of us humans are supposed to fit ourselves into those boxes, and reach out only along those lines. This is a cage made by us for ourselves. It is an unnatural application of the very simple idea – that linearisation is organisation. 

No, linearisation is not organisation. It is merely a simplification, a shadow of reality – something that we use as a tool as a first step to understanding how things work. We would be extremely naive to stay on the first step. All leaders who have run organisations well learn that and this is the secret of their success. They go beyond the linear to the liminal. It is in the spaces between these boxes that real value lies. 

The linear, the distilled and the reduced has its place in the world, but it is only a tool for kickstarting the brain, no more. It is not an engine for understanding, it is not a representation of reality. It is merely a signal to the brain to expand, and make room to start learning, experiencing, experimenting, exploring and then, steadily begin to figure out things. To build on the grid would be harmful, find the real world in between and around the grid. From the linear to the liminal. 

(c) MeetaSengupta

(This is a thought note for something I am writing. I will reuse large parts of this and anyone who calls it self plagiarising will get a virtual eyeroll from me. Thank you for listening/reading, I will hopefully be building on this further. There is a model, and I’m happy to run a workshop on this, from linear to liminal) 

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