Dissensus and Organic Process

In bringing up the vexed relationship between evolution as it happens in nature, on the one hand, and the ways the concept of evolution has been redefined in current ideologies on the other, last week’s Archdruid Report post dipped a tentative toe into some very deep and murky waters. Over a century or more, ideas and metaphors from the natural sciences have become potent factors in the public life of the western world; terms such as “natural,” “organic,” and, yes, “evolution” have been caught up by any number of players in the scrimmage of contemporary culture, and more often than not have come out much the worse for wear.

There’s no shortage of ingenious ways to misuse concepts such as these, but one in particular has had a pervasive presence in our collective dialogue. Perhaps the best way to show it at work is to track the use of natural concepts in one of the towering creative minds of the twentieth century, American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Full disclosure probably requires me to admit up front that I’m a fan of Wright’s work, and not only because he was one of the handful of first-rate creative talents to have been influenced by the modern Druid tradition. In his quest for an organic architecture – notice the concept lifted from the life sciences – he reshaped the vocabulary of space and form in ways that are still being explored by architects today, and he also produced rather more than his share of stunningly beautiful buildings.

Still, there are few geniuses whose works are without flaws, and Wright was not one of them. Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame has set out the case for the prosecution in his useful book How Buildings Learn (1994). To begin with, Brand points out, all Wright’s roofs leak. This may seem like a small thing, but since the basic purpose of shelter is to keep weather out, and it’s not actually that difficult to design a watertight roof, Wright’s failure to accomplish this fundamental requirement is not a good sign.

More generally, Wright paid close attention to the esthetic qualities of building materials, but not always to their structural strength; the results included a fair number of splendid buildings that could not hold up to normal wear and tear, or in some cases, the simple force of gravity. Thus a great many Wright buildings have had to be torn down since his time, and others linger on as museums, struggling to raise the money to meet their huge maintenance costs. Similar concerns run through every aspect of his work; the chairs he designed were beautiful, for instance, but many of them are acutely uncomfortable to sit in.

The problem with Wright’s work, essentially, is that he applied his core concept of organic architecture in too one-sided a way. The way he structured space resonates intensely with the nature of the site, the purpose of the building, and the esthetic of the materials he used; so far, so good. The difficulties arose because he handled at least two other aspects of the building process in a profoundly inorganic way. The first of these, as mentioned already, was his cavalier attitude toward the structural qualities of materials, and more generally to the “substance” side of Aristotle’s famous form/substance dichotomy. The rain that leaked through Wright’s roofs, and the dampness that pervaded his famous house Fallingwater – it had a stream running through the middle of it, complete with waterfall – and made its first owner refer to it as “Rising Mildew,” are substances as relevant to the architect as the material forming the beams that support the floors. An architecture that embraced substance in an organic way would arguably shape form according to the physical potentials and weaknesses of the relevant substances, just as Wright’s forms were shaped by the esthetics of the substances he used.

The second aspect is subtler, and the book by Stewart Brand mentioned above is perhaps the best guide to it. A building is a pattern in space and in substance, but it is also a pattern in time, following its own trajectory from the first work on the site to the last swing of the wrecking ball. Successful buildings adapt to the people who live in them or use them, just as the people adapt to the buildings; Brand argues that in this sense, buildings “learn.” Many of Wright’s buildings – though there were important exceptions – were distinctly slow learners, and some proved to be wholly unteachable. Admittedly, in Wright’s day as now, the architect’s job mostly ended when the blueprints were handed over to the builder; additionally, of course, creative minds in his milieu were expected to be prima donnas, and his income and reputation depended at least in part on playing that role. Most of today’s fashionable architects suffer from the same fixation on form over substance and process, without the benefit of Wright’s sure esthetic touch.

All this may seem far removed from the questions that have become central to this blog – the twilight of the industrial age and the birthing of constructive responses to its end – but the same three dimensions just considered – form, substance, process – apply to design in any context, from a mud hut to an alternative currency. Mud huts aside, most modern design that tries to be organic focuses, as Wright did, on organic form, and much of it neglects substance and process. Thus, for example, you get plans for “renewable” energy systems that may use sun or wind, but can’t be made or maintained without petroleum products and massive energy inputs, and power equally unsustainable machines or lifestyles.

These same concerns apply even more stringently to plans for social change. Plenty of proposals for allegedly “natural” or “ecological” societies, communities, and institutions have been floated over the last three decades or so, and most of them are natural in the same sense that Wright’s architecture is organic: they represent one person’s best shot at grasping the natural potentials of a situation. Very often, though, these proposals fail to address issues of substance or process. Substance in a social context refers, among other things, to the people who will presumably take up the new social system, but who inevitably bring to it attitudes and behavior patterns from other social contexts and the evolution of our species; it’s notorious, and also true, that most Utopian schemes would work wondrously well if human beings could just stop behaving like human beings.

Process in a social context, in turn, refers to the way that the new system is to be designed, set in motion, and adapted to meet changing needs, but there is another dimension as well: how the new system is to deal with competition from other social systems. When this has been addressed at all, it has too often been phrased in simplistic and stereotyped terms, as by insisting that lifeboat communities have plenty of guns so they can fight off the marauding hordes that feature so largely in contemporary survivalist fantasy. The history of Utopian communities in North America offers a useful corrective; most of the successful communes of the nineteenth century, for example, went under once the founding generation died off and the younger generations found communal life less appealing than the seductions of mainstream culture. The same thing could easily happen in a generation or so to any number of the communities being planned so eagerly today, since a future in which the inhabitants of such communities have no other options is probably the least likely of all the possibilities before us.

I’ve critiqued the Transition Town movement in these essays, but the value of organic process is one thing that this movement has grasped at least as well as anybody in the peak oil movement just now. Those who are still trying to impose plans based on some ideology or other on the fluid potentials of the future might learn a few things from this source. Still, it’s possible and, I think, useful, to go further still in the same direction. One potentially valuable way of doing so is the process of dissensus.

I’ve borrowed that term from postmodern theorist Ewa Ziarek, who introduced it in a book on ethical theory in 2001. As most of my readers likely guessed at first glance, dissensus is the opposite of consensus, and it comes into play when consensus, for one reason or another, is either impossible or a bad idea: when, that is, irreducible differences make it impossible to find any common ground for agreement on the points that matter, or when settling on any common decision would be premature.

This latter, I suggest, is a fair description of where we stand as we face the future that will follow the end of the industrial age. There’s an interesting dichotomy in our knowledge of the future: history can give us a fair idea of the type of events that we will encounter, but neither it nor anything else can give us the details. When housing prices started zooming upwards a few years back, quite a number of people compared that to other speculative bubbles and correctly predicted that an enormous crash would shake the world economy when the bubble popped – but neither they nor anyone else could have known in advance when the crash would come or what the details of its downward course would be.

The twilight of the industrial age puts us in a similar place. Looking at what’s happened to previous civilizations that overshot the limits of their resource base, it’s not hard to recognize the parallels and predict the onset of the familiar process of decline and fall. That process has some constant features, and it’s probably safe to predict that those will occur this time too: for example, mass migration is a very common consequence of the fall of civilizations, and recent warnings about tidal flows of environmental refugees in the not too distant future suggest that it may be a safe bet to assume that the same thing will happen in our future. What nobody can anticipate are the details: what will set any particular migration in motion, what its scale, route, and final destination will be, and above all what the timing will be.

Lacking those details, a consensus plan is not a good idea. If you knew today, let’s say, that the region containing your ecovillage was going to have much less rain in the future, you would make one set of choices; if you knew that the same region was going to have much more rain in the future, you would make another, and so on. If you knew that a million refugees from climate change will be coming through your town, your plans would be very different from the ones you would make if you knew that your town would be far from the migration routes. Since these things can’t be known in advance, though, whatever consensus you reach has a very real chance of being exactly the wrong choice. This is where dissensus comes to the rescue. In a situation of uncertainty, encouraging people to pursue different and even opposed options increases the likelihood that somebody will happen on the right answer.

Dissensus, it deserves to be said, is not simply a lack of consensus. Like consensus itself, it has its own methods and process, its own values and style; the Thelonious Monk CD playing in my study as I type these words might also serve as a reminder that where dissensus is encouraged, and individuals pursue their own visions rather than submitting to a socially based consensus, the results can include dazzling creativity. Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom I began this essay, was a master of dissensus; great artists usually are. Yet the greatest master of dissensus is arguably Nature itself.

Those first inch-long vertebrates who darted about in shallow seas half a billion years ago, after all, did not come to some sort of genetic consensus about where evolution was going to take them, nor did the evolutionary process itself push them in one direction. Some of their offspring became fish, some amphibians, some reptiles, some birds, and some mammals, and a few of the latter are either typing this essay or reading it. Evolution is dissensus in action, the outward pressure of genetic diversification running up against the limits of environment and, now and then, pushing through to some new adaptation: the wings of bats, the opposable thumbs of primates, the cultural evolution of human beings. As we enter a future of new limits and unpredictable opportunities, this is arguably the kind of organic process we need most.