New words to hold the invisible world of possibility
Part 3: Aphanipoiesis
In the summer of 2022, Unpsychology Magazine published our eighth issue – a collaboration with Nora Bateson and the Warm Data community. The result was a rich and beautiful journal of art and ideas, available free in digital form. We also produced a paper version of the mag – and you can find out how to get both digital and paper versions from HERE.
At the heart of the issue was a three part essay by Nora, that explains and explores these new words that “hold the invisible world of possibility”, and provide a way of beginning to understand the transcontextual world of Warm Data that she inhabits - and that she inherited from, among others, her father Gregory Bateson. We are republishing the essay here over three posts as a way of acknowledging the growing influence of Warm Data on the work and ideas of the Unpsychology project. This is the third and final part of this seminal piece of work.
Award-winning filmmaker, research designer, author & educator, Nora is President of the International Bateson Institute in Sweden.
Part 3: Aphanipoiesis
AFTER NEARLY TEN YEARS of practicing Warm Data (yes, it is a practice), I can confidently say that the profound shiftings that I witness in this work are, by necessity, unseen. The healing and insight that the Warm Data processes are taking place in the underground. Unlike other group conversation techniques, Warm Data Labs and People Need People sessions have almost nothing to do with what gets said in the groups. There is nothing to ‘harvest’ or take away from them in that sense. The Warm Data session is not about holding ‘generative’ conversations. It is not in the ‘about’ — it is what happens 'within' the ecology of communication as it composts. The shifts are in how impressions, memories, impulses to communicate, and tonalities are shifting within and between the participants. The structure of the processes of Warm Data are there to provide the conditions into which the deeper premises and presuppositions of everyday life are re-mixed to reveal overlappings across contexts. This revealing is often not even conscious. Entirely unex‐ pected memories surface: they are met and explored through unusual con‐ textual portals. New associations seem to collect; new cross-fertilization of personal experiences brings new stories to the lives we have lived. I have often heard people speak of the way “your story changed my story” — there is a cache of unseen overlapping, intertwining experiences in each of us and between us. This is a zone of possibility, just waiting. This is aphanipoiesis. I became curious as to how the unseen, unsaid, unknown, un-named, un- sensed experiences of our days were accumulating, mixing, merging, and coalescing. It is easier to notice these through the recognition of the ‘insidi‐ ous’ nature of difficult-to-change issues like addiction, racism, corruption, depression, and cancer — these issues are all formed through gradual, un-no‐ ticed combining of experience. How someone you love looked at you when you were young might join with the wording on a job application, the injury of a limb and the way identity has formed through uncountable such instances so that there is a numbness, or a block, an addiction or a harmful outlook on others. One cannot then simply say “you have to respect others” or “you have to quit that self-harm” — no. As I mentioned above, you cannot make someone love you. It is not accessible to anyone from that attempt at direct control. Before emerging as a perceivable symptom, the issue has been cooking for a long time. It has been becoming through many experiences submerging...
The same is true of life, vitality... this underground coalescence is both harmful and healing. It is where evolution lives; it is where change lives. It is how any organism is able to do what it has never done before. It is the place where there is a fermentation of our impressions, and that fermentation can become a rich biome of life or a killer mold. What would it look like to explore the unseen combinings that are a meadow, a forest, or any other vitality? And isn't this precisely what we are witnessing in the Warm Data processes? Sto‐ ries, memories, ideas, and language overlapping in new ways stirring up new combinations into insights and sensitivities and reshaping the premises. I have noticed over the years that Warm Data seems to make room in the group for a kind of integrity and generosity that is a consequence of a new percep‐ tion of transcontextual process. There is nowhere to hide old justifications in a transcontextual process. A kind of healing begins. A tending to those places in the system that need tending begins.
Aphanipoiesis is the unseen coalescence that brings about vitality.
But nothing is hidden, just unseen. Many people have asked how to ensure that aphanipoietic processes are generating vitality instead of insidiousness. However, a binary between vitality and insidiousness is not worthwhile to explore; there is no illuminating way to tease them apart. How would I know if someone's addiction would kill them or give them a source of light to share with the world as they work through it? A mistake that becomes a learning is a learning for many. I am more interested in how limited contextual inputs create the conditions for more insidious ideas to spawn. As living creatures, human beings make connections, draw out relationships, and tissue the gaps in our communication with our own imagery and ideas. Gapping is key; we sometimes refer to this as side-by-siding. An example is to look at a piece of art or music and notice the way that you make connections between the notes, tones, and rhythms and read your life's experiences (mostly non-lan‐ guaged) into the music.
When my father famously asked, “What is the pattern that connects the crab to the lobster, the orchid to the primrose, and all the four of them to me and me to you...”, he was inviting us to make connections that start off with organisms that are alike and far away from human experience; a crab and a lobster. To tissue the connective gap there, recognizing repeating patterns and shapes is easy. They both have claws, they have similar legs, and so on. Then, he adds the slightly more challenging task of inviting connection between the clawed sea creatures, the orchid, and the primrose. Both plants grow leaves and stems, but they are less similar to each other and certainly different in form than the crab and lobster. Still having made the bridge between the crab and the lobster, we are primed to make a similar set of recognitions between the orchid and the primrose. Then we get the jump. When he says, “...and all the four of them to me and me to you?” — At that point, we have to see ourselves in the crab, the lobster, the orchid, and the primrose. Many of us have not thought of ourselves as related to crabs or orchids, and vast portions of history are stories of violence that illustrate the difficulty in perceiving the connection between “me and you”. This question invites an abductive process of using one context to describe another.
In this abductive process, there is an aphanipoiesis making combinations of images and experiences between different contexts (organisms). While the question may leave us feeling warm in those possibilities it opens, it is very difficult to articulate just what the “pattern that connects” actually is. That wordlessness is as it should be. Those images that coalesce in one's head and the sensibilities that ruminate into each other in the story of one's own body are unique, but that that connective tissuing between those gaps will happen is universal. The more contextual room there is in the gapping, the more warmth, vitality, and life seem to be brewed in aphanipoietic ways. Limit the contexts, and the stories that come out are more likely to hold insidious misunderstandings of life, devitalized of their contextual possibility.
Excerpt from the aphanipoiesis paper on abductive process:
“The multiple entities of a living system are always mutually responding to the shiftings of each other in ways that constitute both stability and change. It may be possible to name the changes that form, but prior to such naming, deeper abductive possibilities have already begun to quicken. Bateson sometimes described abduction as the way one context describes another. Charles Sanders Peirce more often described it as a way to hypothesize between contexts.
Both are viable toward what I propose to call aphanipoiesis, which I define below. The resonances of mutual learning and information between the entities in a living system become their communication, as well as their possibility for communication. What is possible to communicate is far more infor‐ mative, as to the changes possible in a living system, than what is identified as communication. The brackets of possibility for communication are produced in the history of ‘differences that made differences’ into which any new informa‐ tion is brought. This waiting alchemy of difference is perhaps the most plastic aspect of what is sometimes called “change”, though it is unseen until it later finds form in more emergent properties.
A new word for an aspect of living process: aphanipoeisis
Pathology and vitality in living systems may be observable and describable, however, the ways in which they both come to occur are at least in part unseen. “Insidious” describes dangerous outcomes that ‘creep up’ through the combination of unseen contributing processes. But, there is lacking a way to describe a parallel but opposite process, by which vitality, healing, and creativity come into being by the coalescence of multiple unseen factors.
By bringing together two words from ancient Greek it might be possible to propose the word aphanipoiesis as a term for this way in which life coalesces toward vitality in unseen ways. (Aphanis is from a Greek root meaning, obscured, unseen, unnoticed; poiesis is from one meaning to bring forth, to make.) Other words which also carry the root ‘phanis’ include phantom, diaphanous, and phenomenon, while the root poiesis is familiar from the word poetry, along with Maturana and Varela’s ‘autopoiesis’.
Hypothesis and aphanipoeisis.
“[a]bduction is the process of forming explanatory hypotheses. It is the only logical operation which introduces any new idea” (CP 5.172);
Central to abductive process is the notion of hypothesis. But what does a hypothesis say about the anticipatory systems of perception of any given observer? In noticing aphanipoiesis it becomes relevant to explore the realm of unseen contributors coalescing to produce the foundations of hypothesis itself. Hypothesis is vital in the exploration of new perception, as Peirce observes. The process of hypothesis gives a scaffolding onto which new information can be recognized and built upon. But it is also limited by pre-existing anticipatory patterns. If one is listening only for that which one knows to listen for, that is what will be heard; it is the hum into which any new notes can find purchase. In the study of aphanipoeisis hypothesis is shown as an indicator of those pre-habituated perceptions into which new information will be filtered. The hypothesis itself becomes a permeable moment when the limits of perceptive capacity are revealed. The way in which familiarity with something in one context can enable a kind of description of another context becomes a basis of experiencing newness. A new flavor is explored though the experience of known flavors, a new form of music is explored through the understanding of other forms, and ultimately abductive process becomes a zone of untamed, unnamed, unseen and essential contributors to what may later be called emergence.”
Why is this important to the current emergencies of our time?
It would seem that this aphanipoietic concept is a concept for a world that has time to contemplate the nuances of existential nooks and crannies. But I would offer that the most significant deterrent that there is in this moment to making any changes in our way of life so as to be less destructive to each other and the earth — requires a change in the deep presuppositions carried on the tides of culture, community, language, and shared beliefs. Notions of success, for example, upon which identity is based, that are inextricably entangled in material wealth, lock us into ways of perceiving one another within and through the lenses of the existing economic presuppositions. What it means to be attractive or wantable may lock us into patterns of perceiving one another tangled in destructive culture and gender stereotypes. Racism is woven into submerged experiences that are well beyond the reach of policy or vocabulary change. To meet these issues, another sort of work is needed. Work that is not located in the individual any more than the issues themselves are in the individual... the shift that is needed in the larger contextual ways in which relationships between people and their environments are formed. Those premises cannot be re-taught or downloaded. They have to come through, re-tissuing the gaps. The conditions in which this can occur are varied; art is important and being around people from other cultures is important. The Warm Data processes offer an opportunity to allow for this sort of shift.
But — let me stress, this is out of reach to everyday cognition. By defini‐ tion, this process is necessarily unsee-able. What people do notice usually comes later, in conversation with their partners or children, in their habits and addictions — things seem different. New possibilities have emerged. With any luck, these new insights and premises will not be traced back to their time in the Warm Data spaces. With any luck, they will simply carry on with a new pocket of possibility, generosity, and integrity to draw from without anyone making a “thing” of it.
Sadly, the underpinnings of much of the approach to the study of life, including the study of humanity, have been tainted by the cultural justifica‐ tions of colonialism and eugenics. Today's work of “systems change” is tethered to this history in ways that must never be underestimated. The history of the separations between mind and matter, humanity and god opened the pathway to the separations leading to today's global political inability to put the continuation of life before the economy. The history upon which new research is built is like a Jenga tower of epistemological confirmations of reductionism and control.
The scientific revolution in the 1600s, for all the beauty of science, also led to a reductionistic approach to studying life. The criteria of the scientific method were created to keep science "pure" of influence from royalty or religion.
These criteria were how this 'purity' was ensured:
1. Results must be measured.
2. Repeated experiments must give the same results. 3. The observer should be objective.
However, these criteria strangle living complexity. Because ecologies have multiple organisms in constant response to one another:
It eschews measurement.
It is constantly changing and therefore impossible to get a repeated experiment within.
To study it demands multiple perspectives of interaction, thereby rendering the criterion of objectivity useless.
Reductionism is useful for some inquiries, but it decontextualizes what is being studied. This would be no problem if an equal amount of study was dedicated to the contextual and transcontextual process. But as of now—this is not so. Taking things out of context to study them is fine, but there is no habit of putting them back to see how they are in communication and rela‐ tionship in context. Life is made of communication and relationship, so this is vital, literally. Since the middle of the 1800s, the influence of the industrial models found its way into society as a whole.
The bigger problem is the persistence of the presuppositions that were fertilized in the late 1700s into the 1800s and up to today. These presuppositions are built into and through a way of being in the world that is informed by the linear control toward “efficiency” and productivity. The factory became a mirror image of the society, and the society became a mirror of the factory. School, health, economy, psychology, and anthropology all merged into the epistemology and vocabulary of efficiency. Eugenics was at its core a study of how to produce “better” citizens to create a better society. Francis Galton and his colleagues may have thought this was an altruistic endeavor. They did not see the violence they were unleashing. Some did. My grandfather, who even spoke once at Galton's annual conference on eugenics, tried to tell them this was deeply, inherently violent to living systems. Linear control, fragmented management, ‘efficiency ’, and the illusion of the individual are all in defiance of how life makes life. It is no wonder the destruction of the earth and each other has been so hard to stop. This life-lessness underpins notions of competence, normality, and productivity.
The eugenicists placed the notion of development and normalcy upon the individual and lost sight of the contexts; the reductionism proved efficient. The efforts to coin language and measurement tools that separated normal from abnormal people were critical to the project of how to fix the abnormal. A factory needs working parts that fit in. Society was seen as a factory. Pre-defined development arcs served this description. In doing so, the ability to perceive and research with contextual processes was also disrupted. The horrors of what came out of eugenics in Nazi history are well known. However, there are strains of eugenics still alive and well in education, psychology, health, studies of animal behavior, and more — which are less known and less seen. Most of the work I see in the realm of making change to avert crisis, whether in terms of climate, mental health, education, spirituality, or economy — is premised upon presuppositions soaked in eugenics and industrialism. The red flags are one size fits all solutions, mass production solutions, and top-down measured control solutions. These are inherently un-alive, un-warm, and un-possible.
This is important to the exploration of Warm Data because Warm Data work is essentially the opposite of eugenics. The learning and healing occur between people through their aphanipoietic process and are never focused on individuals.
Never is there ever a labeled pathology or a direct corrective.
People come with their own stories, usually none of which directly address what someone else might label as an “issue” — they just talk about whatever comes to mind, and as they do so, there is a coalescence that takes place. A moire phenomenon occurs in which the stories interlace, intersteep, and produce new connectives, new stories, and new perceptions. Insights begin to sparkle in their reflections in each other. The tone of voice shifts. The approach to the conversation in the Warm Data Lab or PNP becomes less focused, less urgent, and softens into the complexity between the partici‐ pants. This shift is not anyone's to manipulate or to congratulate.
From this shift in approach, a sea of possibility opens. I cannot say more than that.
A sea of possibility opens.
The concrete is getting juicier, The rub of so many paradoxes has worn down the compartment walls of my being, (Wherever me is and however many blurred variables that might include.). Bacteria? Ancestors? An idea, a dance?
Melting forms, grinding down stones. Wetness and goo of tears and the gravy of life's weird turns – The mud has become a puddle of possibility!
Opaque, formless and in its own time. The mud is just sitting there not doing anything I can see. But it is doing something.
It is making. How long it will take to become something? No idea. How it will begin to quicken and connect? No idea. How it will shape, what it will be? No idea. Fusings, musings, combinings are in motion. In a world of rapid change... Fluctuating environments require the ability to respond to unrecognizable circumstances.
Now let it be mud. There is nothing that will come otherwise.
This is urgent mud. It ferments, starts something, a small unseen stickiness, then more– Then there is a happening. I am still pinched by the collective exoskeleton of ideas on how to fix the nice muck, Name it, plan it, shape it, The wrongness of it– The uselessness of it– The pointlessness of it– The purposelessness of it– Oh yes. It must be thus. Precisely unsee-able from here.
Later maybe there will be a moment to say, "ah... it was there all along." Will saying this negate the worlds of creative work in the precious dark mud it. took to allow new forms through? Will we forget that it took being lost?
Part one of this essay, Warm Data, can be found HERE. Part two, Symmathesy, can be found HERE.
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Citations (for parts 1-3)
Bateson,N. Warm Data and iced lemonade, TheSideView, https://thesideview.co/journal/ warm-data-and-iced-lemonade/
Bateson,N.(2021)What is submerging, Medium, https://norabateson.medium.com/what-is- submerging-ad12df016cde
Bateson, G. (2000). Steps to an ecology of mind. University of Chicago Press.
Bateson, G. (2002). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. Hampton Press.
Bateson, G. & Bateson, M. C. (1988). Angels fear: An investigation into the nature of meaning of the sacred. Rider.
Bateson, N. (2016). Symmathesy — A word in progress. Proceedings of the 59th Annual Meeting of the ISSS — 2015 Berlin, Germany, 1(1), https://journals.isss.org/index.php/proceedings59th/ article/view/2720
Bateson, N. (2017, May 28). Warm Data. Hacker Noon. https://hackernoon.com/warm-da‐ ta-9f0fcd2a828c
Peirce, C. S. (1998). The essential Peirce: Selected philosophical writings (1893–1913). (Vol. 2). (Peirce Edition Project, Ed.). Indiana University Press.