Talking polymathy

I found untouched the desert of the unknown,
Big enough for my feet. It is my home.
— W. S. Merwin, Noah’s Raven

I skip along in frequencies, my all-
black bandwidth crackles.
— Fran Lock, Nothing Grows Here But the Weather

and the distance he’s kept from his different selves
is all undone
— Jacob Polley, Les Symbolistes

Robert Twigger, the author of Micromastery, kindly invited me to answer some questions about polymathy. Robert’s own writing on the topic has been a personal source of inspiration for many years, exemplified by his Aeon essay. Our exchange was published on the Idries Shah Foundation blog. I am grateful to Robert and the ISF for permission to reproduce it here.

Robert Twigger: Why is polymathy shunned in many public educational areas? Why do writers on polymathy prefer to avoid the term?

Richard Martin: I wonder if one of the issues is about the definition of the term. In the OED, a polymath is defined as ‘a person of wide knowledge and learning’. Some will find the apparent emphasis on study, intelligence and intellect off-putting. Others seek practical application. A frequent challenge is framed as follows: It is all very well acquiring all this knowledge and learning, but where is the evidence of its being put into practice.

When Kenneth Mikkelsen and I were researching our book The Neo-Generalist, only one interviewee expressly stated a desire to become a polymath. It was an aspiration, the objective of a learning journey they had embarked upon. Several others, however, indicated an unwillingness to associate themselves with the term. Partly, this was motivated by humility despite their obvious mastery of serial disciplines. Partly, it was the result of fear – fear of being misunderstood, miscategorised. It was something we found with much of the terminology associated with polymathy and generalism. Over time, these terms have been transformed into ones of dismissal and abuse.

What had initially started out as a study of what might loosely be termed ‘polymathic generalism’ ended up being something more sweeping and inclusive. Our term neo-generalist is intended to span the whole spectrum from polymathy to hyperspecialism. Our insight was that few individuals remain static on that continuum, which we visualised as an infinite loop. Everyone can specialise or generalise. What they do at a given point in time is largely governed by context. But it is the curious, responsive and connective who are the most comfortable with these constant shifts.

The polymathic generalists we were initially drawn to had much in common with the micromasters you explore in your own book. What was remarkable about them was how they had varying levels of depth in multiple disciplines as well as huge breadth across diverse industries, hobbies and interests. There was both macromastery as well as micromastery. Most are combinatorial in their approach, picking and mixing, hybridising knowledge, experience and practice across multiple domains.

It is this magpie approach, which defies easy categorisation or labelling, that presents problems to our academic institutions and places of work. Their models have been fine-tuned for the deep specialists, and have their foundations in the approaches to work and education that were encouraged in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. A polymath does not fit in our line-and-box conception of corporate organisational structures. They are bored by the hermetically sealed approach to classroom study, in which a subject is isolated from all others. Music and mathematics are separated, geography and history, physics and philosophy.

Robert: Are some cultures more polymathic than others? Which can we learn from?

Richard: I’m not convinced it is a case of cultural differentiation so much as temporal. When people talk of polymaths, they often start with figures from the pre-industrial era: the ancients of China, the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe; the shining lights of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. But there is a radical shift after that. After the Industrial Revolution, there seems to be greater compartmentalisation, separation of functions and emphasis on specialisation. The polymath becomes the exception rather than the norm of an educated or inquisitive person.

I come back to the consideration of context and need. Over the past year, I have been working as ghostwriter on a book about Nordic leadership. One aspect it explores is the legacy of the Vikings on the Nordic region. The Vikings were essentially a network of small communities in which people had to be multidisciplinarian. Without it, you simply would not survive the harsh winters. So any given individual on a long ship, for example, might be a combination of warrior, sailor, craftsman and/or farmer. These multiple talents were put in service of the community, the multidisciplinarity evidenced individually and collectively.

The Neo-Generalist & Micromastery[When The Neo-Generalist met Micromastery, December 2017]

Robert: In your book The Neo-Generalist – a fascinating read – is there one point you’d like to summarise as being of most urgent importance for people today?

Richard: Relevance. Without multidisciplinarity, fuelled by curiosity, and enabled by a willingness to adapt to ever-shifting contexts, it is unlikely that you can retain it.

Many specialist tasks no longer require humans to perform them. So, it is important that we exercise our creativity and ingenuity, our capacity to mix up different interests and skills, in order to address the problems and leverage the opportunities that AI and robotics cannot. But such an outlook really requires dismantling our current approach to education and how we think about recruitment, employment, career progression and organisational structure.

Robert: We live in a culture in which the physical is increasingly absent from our work. Should we think about integrating that into intellectual endeavours? How?

Richard: The physical is absent from a lot of office work, or jobs that require a lot of screen or wheel time. But I think it is still evident in the way many work whether that is in service roles, retail, healthcare, education, agriculture or manufacturing.

When I was a commuter, I spent a lot of time sitting: on a train, on a bus, in the office, stuck in meetings. Now that I’m a freelance writer and an editor, I still experience much time at my desk. But I seek out and require personal locomotion to help me think and create too, whether that is walking on the beach or in the woods, venturing out into the Kentish countryside on my bike or doing a few household chores.

Activity frees my mind. The mechanics of motion actually shakes loose and helps organise my ideas. I often say that I do my best writing on my bike, drafting and re-drafting in my head while I ride. The observation of action by other people I also find essential. I have gained more insight about people, roles and organisation by watching professional cycling and rugby, for example, than from any business conference or book. You see abstraction put into practice, made visible and tangible.

Robert: What sort of connections do you make between polymathy and storytelling?

Richard: Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights is the narrator as polymath, demonstrating an immense breadth and depth of knowledge. In addition to sport, I filter my understanding and appreciation of the world around me through the arts, in particular fiction and film. I’ve learned more about the great scientific advances of the 20th century, for example, from novelists and poets than from any formal study of physics or chemistry.

The art that emerged in the early decades of the last century was as much a vehicle for new ideas about time, anthropology, the mind and quantum physics as it was experimental in form and subject matter. In fact, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land gave Kenneth and I a concept – shoring fragments – that served as a major theme and an organising principle for our book.

In chapter 9 of The Neo-Generalist, we make the case for the polymathic generalist as someone who is both adept at sense-making and storytelling. We use the metaphor of the detective for this, as well as the investigative journalist. People who draw on wide sources of information, mash it up, analyse and internalise, then present it back out to others, influencing them and their actions. The detective and journalist have this ability to cross borders, moving between worlds. Their stories have a catalytic effect, bridging across the divides. They bring together the polymath’s multiple domains of mastery.

Distortion is one way of making sense of things, she said,
which seemed too easy, but I wasn’t even born yet,
I hadn’t learned the art of asking questions
— Emily Berry, Ghost Dance

I ask the universe: What? and Why?
Now wakened, I must remake the world,
One grain at a time.
— Alan Lightman, Song of Two Worlds

That’s the thing about me. I’ve got a very fluid sense of self.
— Ali Smith, The Seer

 

Adaptation

I was right inside the pattern, merging, part of it as it changed and, duplicating itself yet again, here, now, transformed itself and started to become real.
— Tom McCarthy, Remainder

Repetition. Repetition, not identity. Nothing is repeated exactly, even words, because something has changed in the speaker and in the listener, because once said and then said again and again, the repetition itself alters the words.
— Siri Hustvedt, The Summer Without Men

Someone once said life is all conjunctions, just one damn thing after another. But so much of it’s not connected. You’re sliding along, hit a bump and come down in a life you don’t recognize. Every day you head out a dozen different directions, become a dozen different people; some of them make it back home that night, others don’t.
— James Sallis, Black Hornet

In a celebrated short story by the Argentinian man of letters Jorge Luis Borges, his protagonist Pierre Menard determines to recreate passages from Miguel de Cervantes’s literary masterpiece Don Quixote. Menard’s approach is one of immersion and appropriation. He intends not merely to copy from Cervantes’s book but to gain so deep an understanding of it that in writing his own version he produces a word-for-word duplicate. This while resolutely maintaining his perspective of a twentieth-century author, aware of the history and cultural changes of the years that separate his own literary efforts and those of Cervantes.

What Menard produces are passages that are exactly the same, in terms of vocabulary and register of language, as those in Cervantes’s own two-part novel. Yet they are wholly different too – precisely because of the disjunctures of time and place between the two authors. For the narrator in Borges’s story, the francophone Menard’s text is the greater, subtler achievement. He has had to imagine himself into another era, another location, another language entirely. His is an exercise that is simultaneously creation and re-creation. An adaptation that results in replication. It is also one that provides commentary on the historical, geographical and personal context in which it is written no matter that no overt reference is made to it.

For a translator, as Kate Briggs acknowledges in her book-length essay This Little Art, it is impossible to exactly reproduce source material. Translation is always an act of co-creation, of at least two levels of lexical selection and decision-making. It is impossible for the translator to get completely out of the way. They will have to filter the author’s original text through their own understanding and interpretation of it for the benefit of the new reader in a completely different language. They will have to ponder the meaning of paragraphs, phrases, single words, and render this in a way that makes sense to the reader while approximating the intentions of the author. You can read Menard’s story in the original Spanish, as written by Borges, and then in Andrew Hurley’s English translation. One story, two texts, one of which has two creators behind it.

Briggs questions whether it is legitimate to claim that you have read a book if you have not done so in the language in which it was first written. Can we ever claim to have read The Tin Drum or The Divine Comedy if we have only spent time with the English translations? When we do not have direct access to the linguistic nuances of Grass or the poetic devices deployed by Dante, is our appreciation of their work somehow poorer, watered down? Or do we, instead, take pleasure in the fact that a co-creator has opened up a literary universe otherwise closed to us? Accepting, of course, that they too are a presence in the book we read; the translator a shadow, a dæmon, that accompanies the author in this alternative version of the text.

Translation and adaptation do not have to relate only to the conversion from one language to another. They can take the form of what Briggs calls re-mediation, a shift from one artistic mode of presentation to a different one entirely. This can entail not just a change of medium, but of language too; a transformation across cultural boundaries. Radio, television and film provide numerous examples of adaptation within and between media.

  • Jon McGregor has reimagined the events leading up to the narrative of his highly-regarded novel Reservoir 13. In a series of short BBC radio plays, The Reservoir Tapes, characters from the local community featured in the book are interviewed by a journalist.
  • The popular Danish–Swedish television series Broen/Bron (The Bridge) has been adapted several times, relocated to the US–Mexican, British–French and Estonian–Russian borders. Each iteration, in their way, examines connections through similarity and the appreciation of difference.
  • Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film The Departed explores concepts about identity and performance. It not only adapts the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, but nods and winks to its two sequels too.
  • The Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing traces a lineage. Dashiell Hammett’s novels Red Harvest and The Glass Key inspired Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo. This, in turn, provided a model for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars. Each one of these works by Hammett, Kurosawa and Leone find echoes and mirrors in Miller’s Crossing in a hermetically sealed world that is a celebration of the film medium itself and of the tradition of the hardboiled novel. Art about artifice, artifice about art.
  • Roman Polanski’s Chinatown reworks the myth of Oedipus for a 1970s audience despairing of the violence, corruption and impotent leadership that informed society and politics at the time of its making.
  • Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo reimagines the Pygmalion myth through an adaptation of D’entre les morts, a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It is a film about obsession, fragmented identity and creativity.

Many films, of course, are based directly on novels, biographies and plays, as well as paintings, operas, cartoons and video games. They take source material and re-mediate it, sometimes with the input of the authors themselves. It is a co-creative endeavour, transforming one perspective of a story into something else again. On top of the author’s original vision are layered the ideas and insights of screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, art directors, designers, choreographers, actors, stunt people, editors and musical directors. This is a process that applies to all films and television shows that are not documentary in nature. For these depend on screenplays, on the written word, regardless of whether they have been adapted from another medium or not.

Reading a novel, our own imaginations take on all those roles, painting pictures, hearing voices, filling up our mindscreens, mobilising our other senses. The reader is a creative partner with the writer. In the cinema, the viewer abdicates some of these roles while seated before the screen, but resumes them as the credits roll and their brains carry on processing what they have seen and heard. They still share in the act of creation. With the novel and film there is a willing suspension of disbelief and, concurrently, an eagerness to fulfil this co-creative function. The novelist, for example, can take things so far, but at some stage the reader needs to build on the words they have read, filling in the gaps, giving the characters faces, hearing the birds, smelling the flowers, tasting the food, making the story their own.

Intriguingly, with corporate and political writing, there appears to be a reinforcement of disbelief. An unwillingness to participate, to translate, to lend meaning to the manifesto promises or vision statements. The novel and film both engage, while the bureaucrat’s prose, invariably written by committee, disengages. It is filled with empty words signifying nothing. The manifestos lie there unadapted, unrealised; the business plans dormant for the duration, never translated into meaningful action. They are texts in search of co-creators, of enactors, rarely closing the circle. It is no surprise, therefore, that some of the most powerful works about politics and business do not emerge close to home but are, in fact, to be found in the various domains of fiction: the novel, film, theatre, radio and television.

The work of anthropologists and the study of myth and fable have revealed the universality and timelessness of our stories. Frazer, Propp, Campbell, Lévi-Strauss and Warner, among many others, have helped illustrate how these are filled with archetypes and rudimentary structures that we repeat endlessly, revising and revisiting generation after generation. Every story is a translation, an adaptation. Our stories are always communal even when they appear extraordinarily personal. But in their retelling we grant them a new context, provide fresh insights about the contemporary culture in which we produce and situate them. So, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is transplanted to twenty-first-century London in Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. The Tempest is both staged and lived in a modern prison in Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed. Viking gods and heroes are revived for a fresh audience in Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. The Odyssey is spruced up in Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer’s epic poem.

The lure of the tales envisaged and told by the Ancient Greeks has remained strong, as witness Wilson’s mammoth undertaking, the late work of poets like Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, or Stephen Fry’s most recent publication, Mythos. The Greek tales help us understand who we are, help us come to terms with the repetition of the same mistakes, the same lessons unlearned. One tale of protest in the face of injustice, of the outsider on the inside, remains particularly pertinent. Chronologically, Antigone is the third instalment in Sophocles’s cycle of Theban tragedies. Its heroine confronts the empty rhetoric and hypocrisy of the political leadership, the abuse of power by a tyrant, and the nationalism and fear of the other that informs their ideas.

Antigone’s story has been revisited, translated, reconceptualised, on numerous occasions. In 1944, for example, the French playwright Jean Anouilh premiered his own version, which was as much a commentary on the Nazi occupation of Paris as it was a reimagining of Sophocles’s Thebes under the reign of Creon. More recently, partly in response to US foreign policy during the second Bush administration, Seamus Heaney published his version of the play in 2004 under the title The Burial at Thebes. It was followed, a few years later, by Ali Smith’s children’s book adaptation, The Story of Antigone, illustrated by Laura Paoletti. This sought to provide a new bird’s-eye, or drone-like, view of Antigone’s story as it unfolded. Finally, there is Kamila Shamsie’s remarkable modernisation in the novel Home Fire.

This 2017, multi-narrator retelling examines the story from the contemporary perspective of a group of British Muslims. The familiar story twists and turns against the background of rising nationalism, overseas conflict, homegrown terrorism, religious and political fundamentalism. The shadows of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Brexit and Trump loom large. This is no Menard exercise in reproduction and duplication, but one in which the author willingly serves as conduit to the world around her, allowing current affairs to shape and influence her narrative. The reader brings their own experience of that world with them to the book. They look into its dark mirror, responding to the shifting perspectives, forced to question their own values and their role in society.

It is a text twice translated. Shamsie’s own reimagining of Sophocles’s play is then internalised and adapted by the reader themselves. A story, like all great narratives, as old as human civilisation itself yet somehow sparklingly new too. In the past, our future is already written.

The novel is a form that takes time, flips time, gives us time, renews old matter, reminds you what life is and how layered and dimensional it and language and thought and being are, allows understanding, allows fellow-feeling, analyses the notion of structure while being a structure of its own, demonstrates transformation, is micro and macro, by which I mean works on us synaptically and symphonically, and as a form always at the vanguard of its own form never stops finding the form to meet the needs of the time in which it is written and therefore the needs of all our time-cycles, the ones we’re here on earth for, the ones that went before, the ones still to come, all from the pivot-point of the present moment, the no-time and the always, that each novel engages in and holds us through.
— Ali Smith, The Novel in the Age of Trump

The fragmentation of the arts and humanities in the twentieth century has often revealed itself as an obsession with novelty for its own sake, rather than originality that expands on what we already know and accept.
— Peter Watson, A Terrible Beauty

All books are made from other books and so, in their way, all books are translations in one way or another.
— Kate Briggs, This Little Art

Masks

I was called Mask, I was called Wanderer
— Anonymous, The Poetic Edda

The path to the truth is doubled, masked, ironic. This is my path, not straight, but twisted!
— Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

We’re all tricksters. We have to be, learn to be. Dissembling, signifying, masking.
— James Sallis, Bluebottle

A woman and a man stand before a camera. Each puts on a mask indicative of the other’s gender but otherwise Noh-like in its lack of expression. In donning the masks, they feel that they are stripping themselves of who they are. Through voice, gesture and movement they inhabit new characters, assume different personalities, unfamiliar behaviours, and venture into the unknown. They are creating art but, for at least one of the participants, the experience is visceral, unnerving.

Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, from which this scene is taken, is a novel concerned with revelation, unpeeling and identity. Its protagonist is the artist Harriet Burden. Harry is overshadowed by her famous art-dealing husband, and she is stymied by what she perceives as institutionalised and systemic gender prejudice and inequality. This affects galleries, critics and the viewing public, whose own opinions are often informed and shaped by the other two.

Following her husband’s sudden death, Harry gives vent to her simmering frustration, embarking upon an extended experiment she refers to as Maskings. This requires subterfuge on her own part, the cooperation of a select few and a high degree of creativity, as she produces works of art for three distinct exhibitions. These are The History of Western Art, Suffocation Rooms and Beneath, each fronted by a male artist, Anton Tish, Phineas Q. Eldridge and Rune, respectively.

Harry experiences life as wife, mother, grandmother, lover and artist. Each role requires her adopting a different character, putting on the appropriate mask. Her experience of life is one of hyphenation, embracing, sometimes confounding, familial, workplace and societal expectations and norms. ‘All the world’s a stage’, as Jaques phrases it in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. ‘And all the women and men merely players; / They have all their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts’.

Through her role-play with Rune before the camera and, on a grander scale, her self-masking with the figures of the three male artists, Harry takes this notion of perpetual performance to another level. She challenges and subverts what masks represent, what they mean, how they both hide and reveal identities. Her grand plan is eventually to make public the Maskings project, announcing herself as the true artist behind the men’s work.

Mask[Photo credit: Outside the Marlowe, Richard Martin, September 2014]

The novel is presented as an act of investigation, of ongoing academic research. Harry’s experiment is unravelled retrospectively through posthumous access to her journals and notebooks, as well as through interviews with those who were close to her. It is an act of unmasking that fails to answer the question, ‘Who are you?’ Behind the masks are yet more masks, ciphers, the ephemeral.

In one of her notebooks, Harry observes, ‘The Greeks knew that the mask in theater was not a disguise but a means of revelation.’ With the mask, we hide in plain sight. The parent takes on a role, for example, simultaneously admonishing and educating a child. Hiding the humour they might find in the situation, but displaying their own values and beliefs in the guidance they impart. They are both showing and obfuscating themselves.

The business executive, the politician, confronted with crowds and cameras, hides behind technical jargon, smokes and mirrors, a carapace of expertise. Yet they show other masks in different contexts, with different people. One mask replaces another. All is metamorphosis and shapeshifting. It is in the many performances that they reveal who they are. The courtroom, dinner table, conference podium, sports field or despatch box are all as much a stage as any walked on by a professional actor.

That is not to suggest that performance and the adoption of masks is the work of the con artist. Rather, it highlights that human identity is not rigid and fixed, but malleable and ever-shifting. We are all chameleons. Every experience we have, every interaction with another person, book, work of art, changes us in however small a way. They modify the masks we wear or endow us with new ones entirely.

Each person we encounter understands us, labels us, in slightly different ways. They associate us with whichever mask it is that we have faced them with. This creates a tension between perception and reality, our self-image and how others categorise us. It is a situation all too familiar to Harry. At the moment of revelation, as the woman behind the three exhibitions makes public what she has done, there are many who do not believe her.

The masks win out. The performance continues. Which recalls the celebrated line from John Ford’s western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ Our fictions carry more weight, perhaps more truth, than our realities. An experience all too familiar to the author behind the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. In trying to hide behind a blank mask and let the books speak for themselves, the author has unwittingly created an industry of whispering and conjecture.

In The Neo-Generalist, we suggest that where you go is who you are. For the curious, responsive and connective, the answer to the question ‘Who are you?’ is ‘Not the same person I was yesterday.’ The context shifts and so do the masks we choose to wear.

The face of a person is a mask, and the person, in truth, is a role, not the one who plays the role.
— Alva Noë, Strange Tools

I believe that in fiction one pretends much less than one does in reality. In fiction we say and recognise things about ourselves, which, for the sake of propriety, we ignore or don’t talk about in reality.
— Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia

the mask that smiles
at acquaintances, that hides and upholds
the gulfs between them.
— Emma Sedlak, The Man in the Mask

The three Cs

Cooperation is the foundation of human development, in that we learn how to be together before we learn how to stand apart.
— Richard Sennett, Together

Specialization and cooperative exchange are revealed as the routes of self-interest.
— Mark Pagel, Wired for Culture

For creative advancement, change is essential. And while all creative exchange will have a cooperative element, competition on the whole takes a slight edge. This may seem counterintuitive, since we generally yearn for order, unity, and connection. But progress depends on disorder and fluidity. Sometimes the best aids to our work are people who knock us most off balance.
— Joshua Wolf Shenk, Powers of Two

Last week, an opinion piece by Geoffrey James was published in Inc. James argues that ‘collaboration creates mediocrity’. Attention-grabbing headline aside, his article focuses on the effects of workplace environment and unstable personal relationships. It is informed too by the tendency to pigeonhole and classify.

No workplace, no relationship, is entirely collaborative. Our interactions and experience of the world are more nuanced than that. Rather, there tends to be a continuum ranging from competition through cooperation and on to collaboration that reflects constant contextual shifts in what we do alone and together. The Inc. article points to workplace distrust, choosing to frame it in terms of the bubbling resentment of the mediocre rather than positive competition that can help everyone improve.

Movement from competition to collaboration or cooperation usually reflects varying levels of trust. The more collaborative the endeavour, the higher the level of trust. Collaboration is about common purpose and shared goals, whereas cooperation is about unions of temporary convenience which can be mutually beneficial during the pursuit of different objectives. Competition is both divergent and convergent in that it involves different groups pursuing the same thing in different ways. Such competing groups are inherently distrustful of one another.

3Cs

Truly collaborative organisations can be quite fluid, with ever-shifting responsibilities, as individuals both lead and follow, adapting flexibly to changing needs, sometimes guiding, sometimes being guided. Collaboration by default entails learning and development, so mediocrity should be quickly addressed either through personal development or ejection. If mediocrity is retained, then collaboration is probably not what is happening. A label misapplied. This, at core, is the issue I have with James’s argument.

I am currently working on a book with Chris Shern and Henrik Jeberg about Nordic leadership. What has become apparent from our many conversations and the numerous interviews they have conducted are the societal differences regarding trust and, by extension, collaboration.

In most Nordic countries, trust is implicit. It is baked into social interactions, evident from an early age in the education system and the encouragement of collaborative projects. In Anglophone countries like the UK and the US, on the other hand, greater emphasis is placed on competition. Trust has to be earned in these countries. Distrust is the norm, particularly distrust of ‘the institution’ as embodied by corporate and political leaders. Just witness the reaction this week to Theresa May’s reasons for calling a general election.

In a country like Denmark, it is perfectly acceptable to leave a sleeping child in a pram on the street outside a café. But in the US, such action can lead to prosecution for neglect and the child being put into the care system. In the Nordics, implicit trust establishes an expectation that others will do the right thing. Elsewhere, where distrust is endemic, everyone is suspect. These worldviews inevitably shape different cultural approaches to and perception of collaboration and cooperation.

Writing about the peloton over the past few years has helped clarify my own thinking about competition, collaboration and cooperation. The nuances are neatly reflected in the activities that take place in the breakaway. This usually forms early in a road race, with a group of cyclists from different teams pulling away from the main peloton.

Members of the breakaway will temporarily put aside competition with one another and between their respective teams to work together. Their first objective is to stay away from the peloton, building a substantial time gap. Each member of the breakaway will have different personal objectives. Some will be working towards a stage win, others will be working on behalf of another team member behind them. Others still are simply seeking several hours of television exposure for their team’s sponsor. Cooperation is an arrangement of mutual benefit, which will once again give way to competition as the finish line nears.

Sport is a rich source of examples from the competition–collaboration–cooperation continuum. Another comes from yesterday’s announcement of the British and Irish Lions rugby union squad, which will tour New Zealand in June and July. The squad is comprised of players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. These are themselves representative teams, and in Ireland’s case is one which bridges the national borders between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, playing all its home games in Dublin.

The players in the Lions squad, therefore, already participate in an array of allegiances and relationships that will be further complicated. Some play together at club level but compete with one another internationally. All have to put aside intense club rivalries when they represent their countries, and now will have to overcome national differences in pulling on the Lions’ red jersey. Each will be competing with several others for a place in the starting line-up, or at least a role in the test squad. Yet, despite all this, they will need to cohere as a group, collaborating with one another, pursuing a common purpose.

Valdis Krebs often encourages people to ‘connect on your similarities and benefit from your differences’. This is the glue of a collaborative endeavour like the Lions, that will nevertheless feature elements of competition and cooperation too. Humility and servant leadership are essential, trust is everything, and those who lead must also learn to follow. This is neatly symbolised by the award of the captaincy to Sam Warburton for the Lions tour. His Welsh national captain, Alan Wyn Jones, will have to follow his lead, as will Rory Best the Irish skipper, working with others to form a supportive leadership group.

Collaboration is about collective strength, implicit trust, common goals and constant learning. It is about the relationships not the physical or digital spaces that enable them.

An aspect of open collaboration literacy which may seem counter intuitive is that of competition.
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines

The connected workplace requires collaboration as well as cooperation. Both collaborative behaviours (working together for a common goal) and cooperative behaviours (sharing freely without any quid pro quo) are needed, but most organizations today focus their efforts on shorter term collaboration. However, networks really thrive on cooperation, where people share without any direct benefit. Modelling cooperation is another important leadership skill in the connected workplace.
— Harold Jarche, Adapting to Perpetual Beta

Today, open sharing and collaboration are proving better long-term corporate strategies than sequestering research and development. Hiding one’s secret formulas suggests to the public—and to investors—that the company is depending on the innovations of the past and fears it won’t continue to develop new ideas into the future. Its best days are behind it, and now all the company can do is play defense. In contrast, the confidently innovating company shares its developments in the hope of incorporating the insights of others.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

Addendum: Why triangles? It is the loose shape often formed by a peloton during a road race. I think of it as something fluid rather than a rigid structure.

Memory’s assembly

Since I first started reading, I know that I think in quotations and that I write with what others have written, and that I can have no other ambition than to reshuffle and rearrange.
— Alberto Manguel, Curiosity

Books, conversations, and perceptions enter us and become us.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

Her consciousness, at this point – she was forty-three years old – was so crammed full not just of her own memories, obligations, dreams, knowledge and the plethora of her day-to-day responsibilities, but also of other people’s – gleaned over years of listening, talking, empathising, worrying – that she was frightened most of all of the boundaries separating these numerous types of mental freight, the distinctions between them, crumbling away until she was no longer certain what had happened to her and what to other people she knew, or sometimes even what was or was not real.
— Rachel Cusk, Outline

All remembrance of things past is fiction.
— Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition

A clear December morning. With a new road bike awaiting in the shed, it was all too easy to convince myself that the conditions were perfect for a morning ride. As I left the last houses of our small coastal town behind me, the white fields that lay ahead, heavy with frost, made me silently question why I was on the road at such an early hour. It would be some time before the sun effected any change on this wintry landscape. Meanwhile, the chill worked its way to my bones.

The only sound as I climbed up the slope into a neighbouring hamlet was my own laboured breathing. Its smoky plumes offset by the blueness of the sky and the ice particles twinkling on trees and rooftops. The road gradually shifted from incline to false flat, and all of a sudden I was sliding along it, separated from bicycle, both of us on our sides atop the asphalt.

Of course, as James Sallis contends, our memories are more poets than reporters. Much of what I have just related happened on a frozen morning in December 2008, but it is not a real memory. The details have been filled in, revisited, rewritten with the passage of time. That particular cycling route is one I have ridden often since then, gathering more information about landscape, road layout, housing.

Consciously, I recall being upright and then suddenly sprawled in the middle of the road. The fall itself is blacked-out, redacted. I then remember checking for damage to myself and machine, briefly talking to someone at the roadside, remounting and coming off the bike twice more as I gingerly made my way home. Whenever I think about this particular ride, I always experience regret. Regret for having headed out on a road bike in such icy conditions. Regret for endeavouring to complete a circuit when the safer thing to do would have been to turn around and head home the same way I had come.

What remains missing from my recollection of that day is the initial fall itself. That moment of hitting black ice, losing control of the bike, falling, becoming unclipped from the pedals. Yet my body retains a trace of it, my unconscious too, even if my conscious mind does not. This takes the form not just of road rash on my right knee but of physical sensations too.

It is normal, after a long bike ride, as I rest on the sofa or sit at my desk, that I feel my leg muscles twitching, almost as if they are still in action, turning pedals, climbing hills, struggling against the wind. On the days immediately following the crash, however, a combination of unconscious images and muscle memory pulled me from sleep on several occasions. With each recurrence, I awakened suddenly, sensing that I was falling again. My body and unconscious mind were bridging the gap in memory, filling it with vivid snippets, sensations and imagination.

The story of my crash, then, is a mixture of fact and fiction. Whatever I perceived as reality was laid down in my memory, the brain serving as computer. But those dream effects have blended with it over time, the computer serving as a mixing table. The story has become more finely crafted with each telling, diverging ever more from what was experienced in the moment.

But is that not always the case? Our memories accumulate not only what our eyes see, but signals from other sensations and emotions as well. These fragments become associated with images, books, phrases or locations – time capsules, if you will – the accessing of which can serve to unlock the stored but ever-fluid memories. The sharing of the stories changes our memories too as friends and family add their own perspectives, their own accounts, in Rashomon-like retellings of the same event. The boundaries between my memories and their stories blur.

I am reminded of an observation in The Neo-Generalist: ‘we are all an assembly of what we have read, the people we have met, the places we have visited, the conversations we have had, the work we have done, the shared experiences and recollected histories of the communities in which we live.’ Our pasts travel with us, constantly reinserted into the present, experienced again, in new ways, adapted as we too undergo change.

What I read, hear, see, imagine, dream, discuss becomes me. Where I go is who I am. But that identity is always changing, affected by the journey itself. Our memories are contrails gradually dissolving, and what we carry with us are comfortable fictions.

Time’s whispers are suspect, memory forever as much poet as reporter, and perhaps this is only the way that, retrospectively, imaginatively, I make sense for now.
— James Sallis, Moth

Accumulated experience always alters perception of the past.
— Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

Remembering is an act of creative reconstruction rather than simple replaying. Every time a memory is recalled it is re-formed, and in the process it becomes mingled with the stories of others and shaped by our own anxieties, desires and imaginings.
— Ian Leslie, Born Liars

Memory, as it happens, is a fairly unreliable search engine. It’s fuzzy and utopian, honoring an imagined past over a real one.
— Jessica Helfand, Design: The Invention of Desire

Memory, which dives into our sunken libraries and rescues from the long-lost pages only a few seemingly random paragraphs, chooses better than we know.
— Alberto Manguel, Curiosity

Out of time

Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on. It’s not a mere speeding up, however much our lifestyles and technologies have accelerated the rate at which we attempt to do things. It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now—and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock

We’re well past the end of the century when time, for the first time, curved, bent, slipped, flashforwarded and flashbacked yet still kept on rolling along. We know it all now, with our thoughts travelling at the speed of tweet, our 140 characters in search of a paragraph. We’re post-history. We’re post-mystery.
— Ali Smith, Artful

Five minutes later roots and fruits were abolished; the flower of the present tidily blossomed.
— Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

The 2016 film Arrival is a narrative of decipherment. Humans are intent on understanding the purpose of the recently landed aliens, which have appeared at twelve different locations on Earth. To understand, one requires language and communication. But one has to be mindful of the pitfalls of how language is interpreted. One person’s signifier does not always marry up with another’s signified.

In another recent film, Paterson, a Japanese visitor to the protagonist’s home town likens poetry in translation to standing under a shower wearing a rain mac. Nuance and beauty are lost. Misunderstanding is all too easy, which is one of the points on which humanity’s response to the aliens hinges in Arrival. Where some read weapon, others intend gift.

Arrival‘s lead character, Louise Banks, starts communicating with the aliens via single written and vocalised words. They respond with the occasional guttural noise, but primarily with ideograms. The first breakthrough for Louise and her colleagues comes with the realisation that these ideograms are complex combinations of words and phrases, which form full sentences and paragraphs.

The key discovery, however, comes when Louise alone encounters one of the aliens, nicknamed Costello. Where the linearity and structure of much human language is bound to time, Louise learns that the aliens’ language is non-linear. They are without the constraints of time as we perceive it. Her own fluency in their language unshackles Louise from the limitations of human time. With their language, she gains the ability to time travel, seeing into her own future and that of humankind. Past, present and future are simultaneously available to her. She is out of time.

In a starkly different approach to time, the citizens of Aldous Huxley’s futuristic 1931 novel Brave New World are slaves to the clock. Their happiness depends on it, rigidly following a routine of work and pleasure, both physical and chemically induced. These are rarely chosen, usually prescribed. Humans are produced in batches, and effectively have battery lives. They are created to fill designated functions, their own chemicals harvested once their use-by-dates have passed and their bodies have been incinerated.

Language – in the form of mantras, anodyne phrases, belief systems as sound bites – is imposed on the humans of Brave New World at different stages of their infancy and youth. This is achieved via hypnopaedia, a form of teaching through voice recordings heard during sleep. The citizens are conditioned to accept caste, brainwashed ideologically, and placed in thrall to the Fordian factory clock of Brave New World‘s global society. Only those on ‘uncivilised’ reservations or exiled to island communities in far-flung localities like Iceland and the Falklands are able to escape the clock’s tyranny.

Out of Time

All of which cultural musing stirs up reflections on my own temporal conditioning and experience. From late 1999 to the end of 2014, I lived the life of a commuter. A daily four-hour, door-to-door round trip from home to office and back again. The same faces on the train, the same seat occupied. The same coffee routine. Days filled with meetings and largely pointless correspondence. An eating, vegetating and sleeping routine that was far from healthy until the weekend’s release.

To be honest, I never got used to it. From the period 1993 to 1999, I had been home-based, first as a research student then as a freelancer. Office and commuting life was a shock to my body clock, to my introversion, to my effectiveness. I disliked the way time was regimented and controlled. It disturbed my desire for reflection and creative quality, which I preferred to the produce-on-demand, quantitative busyness that I encountered in each of the public, private and non-profit organisations I worked for during the next fifteen years.

Financial considerations aside, the option to return to freelancing in late 2014 was an attractive one, not least because it enabled me to dedicate myself to activities I am passionate about: writing and editing, both producing myself and helping others to realise their literary ambitions. But there has been another side effect that is relevant to my ongoing exploration of time and memory under the #timeplease tag.

Freelancing has taken me out of time, at least time as I had come to know it as a commuter. The experience is somewhat different too as a forty-something to that of my twenty-something self in the 1990s. The day, of course, remains topped-and-tailed by family routine: wake-up alarms, meals, dad-taxi services. But otherwise, as a writer and editor, I find that my work can be done at any time. Sometimes there are early morning flurries, at other times inspiration takes hold late at night or during a midday walk on the beach.

In many respects, I am always working. But I do not mean that in an onerous way. Reading a book is work; it is research regardless of the subject matter or genre. Riding my bike or standing under the shower or mowing the lawn are all part of ‘office time’; periods for reflection, sifting, testing out phrases, composing. My interaction with clients is asynchronous, only occasionally regulated by in-person meetings or video calls. These are with people dispersed around the globe, in Canada, Australia, Denmark, France, Romania, the US, the UK. Change the place, and the clock changes too.

Family life provides a loose sense of structure, as do project deadlines. But otherwise the commuter’s distinction between weekdays and weekends, morning work and evening work, all dissolve. Which raises questions about my post-commuting relationship to time. Is time as I experience it throughout a 24-hour period always linear? Or is it determined by my engagement with other people? At certain points bound to the clock, at others unbound from it?

Do I reconnect with linear time only when I have a meeting, a call, a train to catch, or as the scattered members of my family begin to return home? When I write, lost in flow, scanning both the fictions and facts of memory, blending fantasy and reality, what aspects of time am I navigating? Finally, to what extent is all of our perception of time entwined with both language and our communication with others?

My sense is that, as with Louise in Arrival, our experience and perception of time is multifaceted. It can be linear or cyclical or boundaryless. Our physical and mental conceptions of it can diverge. Yet through language, spoken and scribed, we can in some way anchor ourselves to it. We are both in and out of time.

Our conscious brains invent the concept of time over and over again, inferring it from memory and extrapolating from change. And time is indispensable to our awareness of self. Just as an author does, we construct our own narrative, assemble the scenes in a plausible order, make inferences about cause and effect.
— James Gleick, Time Travel

So emotion, fear, age, isolation, body temperature and rejection can all affect our perception of the speed of time, as does concentration, or ‘attention’.
— Claudia Hammond, Time Warped

Likewise the spinning wheel turns, cyclical time revolving to draw out the linear time of a thread.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Ambiguity detected

The appeal of the detective reflects a desire for resolution of ambiguity in a complex world. The narrative momentum, the reflection of the detective, the surprises and the twists, are all satisfying to us in this way. What I would love to see you explore is the morality and philosophy of the detective as the ‘one good purposeful person’ even when riding boundaries of social acceptance, pushing into the noir world and even playing the antihero. As much as we need the resolution of ambiguity, we need the satisfaction of detectives to whom we can look up in times of ambiguity.
— Simon Terry, Blog comment

Desire is the engine of life, the yearning that goads us forward with stops along the way, but it has no destination, no final stop, except death.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

It is human to clutch at simple answers and shunt aside ambiguous, shifting realities.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

In Together, his study of cooperation, Richard Sennett highlights a transformation in sociable behaviour that characterised the medieval era. Education and commerce witnessed the emergence of the professional, and with it a shift in ethics and behaviour from chivalry to civility. The aristocratic knight was usurped by the lawyer, the doctor, the banker, the merchant, as the Renaissance paved the way for our modern world.

Even as the relevance of the knight and his chivalric code faded, though, the figure persisted as a cultural archetype. Tales of King Arthur’s court, for example, and the legendary adventures of its knights, particularly the quest for the Holy Grail, endure today both overtly and covertly. The ethics and philosophy of the early middle ages are not entirely lost, for they remain packaged in narrative form. The myth of the solitary hero is maintained even in an age where collaboration and cooperation are the norm.

Interestingly, concurrent with the shift from chivalry to civility was the democratisation of words. No longer was the written text the preserve of Latin speakers, monks and the clergy. The printing press enabled the dissemination of ideas to a wider readership. With the printed book, knowledge could be quickly codified and shared at an unprecedented scale, and in contemporary as well as archaic languages. Stories, like genes, had always been carriers of culture. Now, though, they could be written down and read by many people in diverse locations, not just verbalised and heard in communal assemblies.

In the middle of the 20th century, Raymond Chandler was a purveyor of words whose interests straddled the boundaries between the chivalric and the prosaic, whose hardboiled narratives exposed the darkness and corruption hiding behind civilised veneers. In his 1944 essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder’, Chandler focuses on a particular type of modern professional: the private investigator. Like Arthur’s knights, this is a figure who constantly embarks upon quests, for missing items, more often for missing people, thieves, kidnappers, blackmailers, murderers.

‘The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.’ Chandler sets out the template for his own series of Philip Marlowe novels, in which the intrepid detective, time and again, ventures into the mean streets in service of both client and a personal sense of honour and morality. Yet, for all of Chandler’s protestations, there remains a sense that the detective is themself tainted, their heroism a deceit, self-perceived and projected for consumption by others.

Detection

The lineage, extending back through Arthurian legend and on to Ancient Greece, does little to dispel this unease regarding the ‘heroic’ detective. Whether it is the myth of Oedipus, the first detective, the tale of the Fisher King or the story of Jake Gittes in Chinatown, there are shared motifs, common themes. The realm is corrupted, a wasteland requiring regeneration, with the central figure either implicated in its decline or impotent to effect change. Oedipus solves the Sphinx’s riddle, but commits the crimes of patricide and incest. Gittes uncovers Noah Cross’s criminality but is unable to bring him to justice, a passive bystander to the death of the woman he loves, herself the victim of Cross’s incestuous abuse.

Joseph Campbell’s hero adventure model, with its foundations in Jungian theory, suggests that each journey is one of self-discovery. We venture into the labyrinth and find ourselves at its centre. The Minotaur is our shadow, part of our identity. This applies equally to the knight’s quest as to the detective’s investigation; their curious pursuit, assimilation and assessment of clues.

Sometimes the Minotaur, the darkness, triumphs. In Angel Heart, for example, Harry Angel discovers that it is himself he has been seeking, that he is responsible for the horrific crimes he investigates. Similarly, in Memento, Leonard Shelby is the true object of his own search, his memories conveniently corrupted or discarded as he transforms into serial executioner. In Blood Simple, the venal private investigator Visser, enacts and fabricates crimes, falsely apportioning blame, murdering at will.

Even Chandler’s own creation, Philip Marlowe, becomes executioner in Robert Altman’s 1970s reworking of The Long Goodbye. His personal code of ethics have become so skewed, his sense of betrayal so intense, that he feels able to take the law into his own hands. A move echoed by Richard Bone in Cutter’s Way, even if he holds his friend’s dead hand to the pistol that murders the corrupt patriarch.

In many respects, the 1960s and 1970s shifted the game. Chandler’s knightly detective was shown to be out of time, an anachronism unsuited to a context of political intrigue and investigation, public inquiries, impeachment proceedings and warmongering. The establishment was rotten at its core, and the true detectives were shown to be investigative journalists, like Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, wielding typewriters and pens rather than guns.

A new pattern was revealed that continued through the subsequent decades, amplified in recent times by cyberleaks and whistleblowers. The more that is revealed, the more new questions arise. Answers obfuscate rather than illuminate. The simple is rendered complex. The detective is as ill-defined, as difficult to pin down as the mysteries they investigate. Lew Griffin both writes and is written, a fiction within a fiction. In Pynchon’s novels, his male detectives lose themselves in drug-induced hazes while his female investigators lead themselves to the edge of paranoia.

Yet, for all that, there is something appealing about this investigative figure. Or at least those who have ventured into the labyrinth and either conquered or integrated the Minotaur. Their thirst for knowledge, inherent curiosity, pattern recognition and sense-making capabilities, as well as their aptitude for narration, for working out loud, have much to commend them. What they lead us to in most cases, though, is not resolution of ambiguity but rather an acceptance of and comfort with it. They are not heroes, just regular folk, like you and me, deriving temporary and contextually convenient understanding of an ever-changing world. Civilians retaining a hint of the chivalric, the romantic, in the modern day. As ambiguous as the ambiguities they detect.

Ambiguity asks: Where is the border between this and that? … But ambiguity is inherently contradictory and insoluble, a bewildering truth of fogs and mists and the unrecognizable figure or phantom or memory or dream that can’t be contained or held in my hands or kept because it is always flying away, and I cannot tell what it is or if it is anything at all.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

The immediate result of this formal change is that the detective no longer inhabits the atmosphere of pure thought, of puzzle-solving and the resolution of a set of given elements. On the contrary, he is propelled outwards into the space of his world and obliged to move from one kind of social reality to another incessantly, trying to find clues to his client’s whereabouts.
— Fredric Jameson, Raymond Chandler

There’s no completion in patterns,
For patterns are constantly restitched in new patterns.
There’s no completion in history, which kneels
bare and mute at the feet of the future.
— Alan Lightman, Song of Two Worlds

This post was written in response to the challenge laid down by Simon Terry in the blog comment cited at the top of the page. I picked up his gauntlet and enjoyed the provocation. It continues a conversation we started a few years ago, which initially resulted in The detective. The topic is also central to chapter 9 of The Neo-Generalist.