Patterns in Process: Transdisciplinarity as a Background for Working with the Elemental Cycle of Transformation

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Wider Contexts

Tyler Volk, in his book Across Space, Time, and Mind (1995), speaks of metapatterns (Volk, 1995, p. vii), following Bateson’s single mention of this term: “My central thesis can now be approached in words: The pattern which connects is a metapattern. It is a pattern of patterns. It is that metapattern which defines the vast generalization that, indeed, it is patterns which connect.” (Bateson, 2002, p. 8) This language is very different than the psychological language of Jung, and has roots more in cybernetics and general systems theory.  Volk, a professor of biology at New York University with a PhD in atmospheric science, approaches the idea of metapatterns with a very strong background in the physical and biological sciences, but (as the title of the book indicates) uses the term metapattern in a way that naturally spans physical and mental realms.  Volk identifies ten such metapatterns: spheres, sheets/tubes, borders, binaries, centers, layers, calendars, arrows, breaks, and cycles (Volk, 1995).

Volk’s metapatterns only address transformation at a very superficial level, where he briefly mentions transformation in connection with breaks (in the context of stages) and cycles.  A thorough treatment of transformations is not Volk’s goal, but the metapatterns that he addresses are quite closely linked with transformation (each is embedded in the other at various levels).  Volk’s main contribution to an understanding of transformation is twofold: first, the concatenation of a large amount of brief factual examples that help show the need for the organizing concept of the metapattern, and (more importantly for the present discussion) a demonstration of the kind of thinking required to make use of the concept, which he defines as “attractors—functional universals for forms in space, processes in time, and concepts in mind” (Volk, 1995, p. ix)  This definition of metapattern is very close to the extended sense of archetype as discussed above.

The Elemental Cycle, as an archetype of transformation, is necessarily found in time.  It is an archetype not of things but of processes.  It describes patterns in processes. Because things are a manifestation or result of these processes (although it is likely more accurate to say that there simply are no things, if thing means to be ontologically separated from the continual processes of its coming into being), sometimes the Elemental Cycle appears in a more static way.  Nevertheless, the Elemental Cycle is itself a process, and cannot be accurately grasped through any non-moving imagination or representation.  Pictures of the Elemental Cycle, when held inwardly as a thing, only serve to destroy all but the corpse of the activity at work in the archetype.

I point this out because this inquiry involves an attempt to examine transformations, and to see the extent to which the Elemental Cycle usefully contextualizes how transformation occurs.  It would be easy for this to become just another model, a set of static categories into which everything gets shoved equally.  It should be clear that this potential is well-understood, as is required if the approach is to be transdisciplinary.  We could say that the Elemental Cycle invites a self-reflexive epistemology about its own content.  This keeps the field of possible ways in which to approach it open, rather than requiring that it be understood in only one way.

Montuori points out that “in our society, information must be generated” (Montuori, 1998, p. 5), as if on command.  Wilshire (1990) shows how the whole Western university system, in the 19th century, began to lead itself towards greater and greater “professionalism”, where it got itself “into the business of producing its own producers of ‘useable knowledge’” (Wilshire, 1990, p. 62).  Montuori and Wilshire warn of the dangers of this system of knowledge production.  For Wilshire, the consequence is the death of education, which is rightly a moral enterprise (Wilshire, 1990, p. xxiii), while Montuori cites the destruction of creativity and a turning away from inquiry as love of knowledge for its own sake (Montuori, 1998, pp. 13, 18-19).  Montuori thus calls for a fundamentally new mode of discourse, which attempts to steer clear of the patterns that have historically served to reduce education to the production of knowledge and knowledge to its usage (Montuori, 1998, p. 20).  The new mode of discourse, which he calls creative inquiry, draws upon and supports the picture of transdisciplinarity painted by Morin and Nicolescu.

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