The first question directed to last night’s speaker at Frank’s International Soiree had to do with survival, the second with definition. Suddenly we were immersed in the midst of a dialogic surge with all the characteristics of the storming stage in group development. I immediately began to wonder if we could turn this to a sustained dialogue? Or would it fade into another instance when a bunch of individuals take up characteristic group member roles and enact the usual clash of competitive discourse…
Yes, I linked “discourse” to “path dependence” on purpose.
I make the connection between talk and institutions because this is one of the ways that the relationship between language and social reality becomes visible.
The storming phase of group development is when a group engages the questions of power and control: e.g.,
- what does the group want to do (if anything)?
- Will I like its leaders?
- Is my opinion going to matter?
I was astonished – and delighted! – that such dynamics emerged in this setting. Frank throws this monthly event bringing together diverse people with big dreams to give us a chance to meet and network with each other. This occurs generally through one-to-one conversations in small groups over a kind of rotating dinner: we switch tables throughout the meal in order to meet as many people as possible. I’ve only attended one previous Soiree, so I do not know if last night’s event was atypical. It felt special and, in my experience, relatively rare.
I’m not exactly happy to admit that I didn’t listen well to the scheduled speaker; my mind was somewhere else (I don’t even remember) – my attention was drifting. He was speaking about a sustainability initiative – such a vogue topic about which so little is actually being accomplished. The first question was from the journalist who had covered Palestine, who wanted to know about the pragmatics of funding. Another issue getting so much airtime (in these days of “the financial crisis”) without constructive effect on the economic insfrastructure. Then the philosopher fired off a sharp challenge about whether the concept of sustainability, in the speaker’s usage, was limited to the environment or could include things like language and culture… tension rose in the room – how was the speaker going to respond? Deftly 🙂
Perhaps the fact that he was unruffled (at least he did not display if he was rattled inside) gave the group confidence to take the plunge? Suddenly we were arguing about what could be included in the concept of sustainability (e.g., economics) and what should be excluded (the Irish language was given as an example). The role of consumption and consumers came up including some anger and frustration at never being asked, in the role of consumer, what one might be willing to do. Instead, the fraud investigator whispered to me: “We are just told that if you are a good enough person then you will just pay the extra…”
Meanwhile, someone else was asserting, urgently, that “we’re too nice! We need to cause more panic!”
Ah yes, panic. I thought of colleagues in my graduate program who are interested in social panics. (Interesting that the wikipedia link on this is an orphan.)
My mind flitted about, seeking context. Were we picking up some vibe from protesters of Ahmadinijad’s questionable re-election in Iran? Is fear of the consequences of global warming reaching critical mass – and similar outbursts like this are beginning to happen in groups across the globe? Not only do scientists’ concerns continue to increase as policy makers miss crucial deadlines for changing policies and big business delays implementing serious structural reforms, I had just read a proposal for geoengineering to temporarily lower the earth’s temperature in order to buy us time.
One woman explained that if we continue to use resources at the rate of the United States, we need four earths. Even, she continued, if we adapt to the lower-consumption rates in Europe, we still need two or three. “We only have one.”
And we’re gutting it. The argument made by in the new film by Yann Arthus-Bertrand is that we have only ten years in which to act decisively to avoid crossing into climactic conditions for which there is no precedent in nine billion years of life on earth. The last ten minutes of the 90 minute film make the case for hope – there are projects underway and success stories we can build on: but we can delay no longer. Somehow, we have to confront our fears, deal with each other’s defense mechanisms, and challenge our rationalizations. We must work through the storm.