To recap, even the best organizations are arrayed around instrumentality, doing something in the world. That doing something might be as noble as feeding the poor, but the relationships within that organization are, by necessity, instrumental and provisional. This is fine, we humans make meaning through instrumental work, but it isn’t enough to sustain us. Meaning that sustains our humanity comes through our humanity. In other words meaning that sustains us come through a non-provisional, non-instrumental identity.
ECOLOGY OF MEANING
Historically our non-instrumental identity was nurtured through contexts like family, or faith, which, over the last several centuries, provided a deep sense of belonging and identity. Most importantly they nurtured a non-instrumental sense of identity, the simple dignity of being human and thus belonging.
In modern technological cultures both of these repositories of non-instrumental identity are under increasing strain. In many urban contexts, which tend to be centred around mobility and wealth, identities rooted in family or faith have for the most part dissolved altogether.
While specific family and faith contexts find themselves under duress, at the same time and in a broader sense, the humanities (philosophy, literature, language, visual and performing arts) find themselves under deep suspicion. Arts funding is usually first to be cut on civic, provincial and national governmental levels. This is particularly true in public schools.
The Humanities are in crisis as Universities move away from the historic roots of education which, historically, consisted solely of the humanities taught in the hopes of creating a more human human. If there was any pragmatic expectation it was to create a better citizen. The humanities are now required to justify themselves not in terms of human value, but in terms of bare pragmatism. They must justify their instrumentality to the universities they are part of, which are in turn asked to justify themselves on economic terms of profit and loss. This pressure has resulted in Universities mutating into highly sophisticated vocational schools. Higher education is almost always considered in terms of facilitating a “better” career. Better almost always refers to secure or higher paying careers. The humanities have a difficult time justifying themselves if they are required to facilitate secure and high paying careers. The humanities were only ever meant to create more human humans.
In this context, the waning of the humanities along with the near dissolution of historic non-instrumental entities, there is very little in our everyday lives that tethers us to our humanity and a sense of our shared human belonging. There is very little that tethers us to a non-instrumental way of being or helps us be more human. A shared cultural respect for the humanities no longer provides an ecology of meaning exterior to the self-referential ecologies of meaning manifest by the many instrumental organizations [corporations & institutions] we find ourselves within on a day to day basis.
The one mitigating factor, particularly in urban contexts, is a tightly knit friendship cluster which provide a simple non-instrumental mode of being. However, for many, particularly urban professionals, it’s very difficult to form friendship clusters outside those which naturally occur between co-workers or industry cohorts. While existing outside of organizational structures, these friendship clusters, because they are with co-workers or industry cohorts, bear a tinge of provisionality and instrumentality and the impulse to uphold a professional identity.
Organizations are very likely to be unwitting downward pulling anxiety factories. Add to this the just mentioned cultural ethos external to the organization that provides very little in the way of the simple dignity of being human. As a result there remains little, internal to the organization or external to the organization, that pulls upward and counters our profound existential anxiety.
That’s why, when you scratch under the surface of the shiny happy condo marketing version of Vancouver, you find people who operate within progressive well intentioned organizations that in turn operate within a progressive well intentioned cultural ethos and yet find themselves a jittery jumble of tenuous identities, their days marked with fragmentation, busy-ness, and to a great extent, loneliness.
Here’s the great opportunity—a weird, upside-down and unexpected opportunity to be sure, but an opportunity none the less. Even as the Humanities on university campuses are in crisis, a small segment of the business community is waking up to the useful un-usefulness of the humanities. If happy employees make good employees, then it is of value to help people tether to a shared human belonging, to pay down the deficit of meaning, to help people be more fully human, to help people be more fully themselves and therefore at their best. It is of value in a way that even purely instrumental organizations are beginning to understand.
But the problem is most organization don’t have a clue how to tether to shared human belonging. Even the ones ahead of the curve and who are taking a good shot at it are prone to be unwitting anxiety factories. How can instrumental organizations possibly tether to non-instrumental shared human belonging?
PERMEABLE AND NON-PERMEABLE
Organizations tend to operate like plastic wading pools that lay on top of the grass. It’s great for the people in the pool, but it tends to kill the grass underneath.
An organization’s sub-culture, when it is arrayed around abstracted instrumental relationships, tend to be inwardly focused in a way that cuts it off from a broader eco-system of social meaning, an eco-system constituted of non-instrumental relationships rooted in place and in our shared humanity. In other words organizations in modern technological cultures tend to be non-permeable.
Condo developments are perhaps the most concentrated form of our modern tendency toward no-permeability. Condos developments use pictures of the grass to sell the pool, then build the pool that will most surely kill the grass. They turn the non-instrumental act of “living” into an instrumental and utilitarian acquisition of a “lifestyle.” The relationships between residents of a condo development aren’t arrayed around a non-instrumental life together, they are arrayed around the instrumental acquisition of a “lifestyle.” One can be of use or not of use to this end, and so one can potentially belong or not-belong.
They are relationships borne of the anxiety of not-belonging, and so are marked by scarcity and fear. This is also true of gated communities and can be true of neighbourhoods in general if one’s commitment is to a “lifestyle” rather than to a place. A “lifestyle” is an abstracted social whim. A neighbourhood is a place in which to live that is bound by the constraints of both space and time.
If organizations what be permeable they need to cut up the wading pool and use the plastic to create little green house with a dirt floor. It gets to have a separate sub-culture, its own distinct ecology of meaning, but that ecology of meaning is implicitly connected to a larger ecology of meaning.
A permeable culture is connected to a broader ecology of relationships which ground it in sustainable and sustaining human meaning. Permeable cultures don’t just make things, they makes things and at the same time make meaning.
A permeable culture remains permeable through an embodied engagement with place. It expends money, time and energy in useful un-usefulness that roots itself in the particularity, the phenomenological truth of where it finds itself, of here and now, of its neighbourhood. When it commits to this, and moves towards this it is caring for the ecology of our shared humanity. By caring for the ecology of our shared humanity it tethers itself to that shared humanity.
Caring for the ecology of our shared humanity does not make the organization as psuedo-family. It is more than nurturing a healthy corporate culture, which is still inward looking and self-referential, it is externally tethered to our human family.
This useful un-usefulness happens within the organization, is separate and apart from the organization’s instrumentality, but at the same time happens outside of the organization. It tethers the organization’s ecology of meaning to an external ecology of meaning. It tethers self referential instrumentality to a broader human belonging, and it does so at the tangible and concrete scale of neighbourhood.
Caring for our physical ecology was at one time seen as an un-useful expense and drain on the bottom line. We now, at least on paper, see ecological care as a necessary expenditure which contributes directly to an organizations ability to exist in that it allows human beings in general to exist. It has become a useful un-usefulness.
In the same way, caring for the ecology of our shared humanity is likely to be resisted and viewed as an un-useful and unnecessary expense. But some forward looking organizations do see caring for the ecology of our shared humanity as a necessary expenditure which contributes directly to their ability to exist in that it allows human beings in general to exist and flourish.
The really exciting thing? There is a hub of these forward looking companies right here in Vancouver.
Next up, wut? What does caring for the ecology of our shared humanity look like and what does it have to do with artists? (Ask an artist, they probably already know, otherwise you’ll have to wait.)