Dave Snowden

The abstract and the liminal

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I’m now reaching the end of this series and I haven’t exhausted all the characteristics that distinguish human systems from others in nature but I think with this post I will have the main ones mapped out and tomorrow’s conclusion will pick up the pieces. In this final post I am looking at two aspects, the role of the abstract (mostly manifested as art) and the ability of humans to create liminal states, to understand and cross boundaries or maintain a state of suspension between states.

While the origin of art in human evolution was almost certainly an accident, its subsequent evolution can be mapped over multiple purposes. Abstraction allows us to make novel connections between things. Music helps reflection, I have a lot of my best ideas in the Opera, Mary Midgley famously argued the role of art in her classic Science and Poetry. But it evolved to provide symbols of authority and status, but that mundane use can also create inspiration, a sense of the other something way beyond material need. We see art in nature, we have a sense of beauty that can inspire and unite; form is as important as function. Any accounting of a human system needs to take account of the nature and utility of art and its very closely related cousin craft.

Liminality is currently close to my heart with the development of the liminal version of Cynefin. The idea that we can hold things in a state of suspension (as aspect of art in its own way, just read a book or go to a play) means that we can hold possibilities open for longer. We can also actively choose to make a boundary transition and through management of constraints achieve boundary changes. This is my final and most critical aspect of human systems, and the point where I depart from people like Stacy: human beings can create order.





Art work: Dr K D Farris Liminal Space: A Passageway to Transformation. “