woensdag 26 december 2012


If there is lack of confidence, does it help to talk about it extensively?

At the Amsterdam Municipality they thought so. A few years ago, officials noted that there was much mutual distrust within the civil service. Some refused to talk to others and there was a lot of time and energy lost by legitimizing to others of what one was doing. To change this a meeting was organized for senior management to discuss the topic of trust.

After the participants had split up into groups and had begun their conversations, the chairing committee soon noted proudly that indeed people were talking about trust. The then newly appointed municipal secretary was still enough Rotterdamlike to note that if the issue is trust, you are entitled to expect that people will talk about trust. But apparently in Amsterdam this was quite a lot already.

But even then, does the premise hold true which says that talking about confidence yields confidence? If only it were that simple, I tend to think. In many cases talking about something is no more than enthousiastically –  see photo – going around the core of the issue. Unless you structure the conversation solidly, control the structure closely and collect the results and store them; then you may win something.

Meanwhile the budgetcuts make sure there is less talk in Amsterdam. The lean years have come and a lot of talk turns out afterwards to have been primarily a luxury phenomenon. That it has largely passed the core may appear from the fact that trustless talk now in some cases has been replaced by trustless management, simply top-down. Too bad the fat years have not been better utilized.

Also see Unlearning

zaterdag 15 december 2012


“The Palestinians have gone too far”

“Extra Jewish settlements as punishment for going to the UN”

I feel very embarrassed when I read this type of pedantic statements by Netanyahu, sometimes even elevated to headlines.

As if Israel does not owe its existence to a UN decision. As if the partition plan was not the core of that decision. And especially as if Israel can impose conditions on others while at the same time it continues to build settlements undisturbedly.

I understand very well that Israel does not want a second front of missile threats, this time from the East. But I’m afraid that behind this arrogant kind of performance there is mainly perverse ideology: the West Bank is ours and we let nobody stop us to have it.

Also see The Green Line and the Red Line

maandag 10 december 2012


The voice of Jewish prophets such as Isaiah, Hosea and Micah has its impact on modern philosophers. So says the American Professor Sandor Goodhart who recently gave a lecture at the Amsterdam University and who had with “modern philosophers” in particular René Girard and Emmanuel Levinas in mind.

The prophetic voice is audible in René Girard when he calls attention to the ‘scapegoat mechanism’. By that term he means the phenomenon that one man is sacrificed as atonement for uncontrolled rivalries within a collective.

Girard sees this as follows. Rivalry within a collective begins with mimesis: the tendency of people to copy each other’s behavior. In fact, this involves jealousy because people want to be or possess what other people are or possess. We, twenty-first century people, recognize this rivalry as a good capitalist principle, but according to Girard the phenomenon is as old as mankind.

The mimetic rivalry leads to a certain dynamism which runs through different stages. The first step is the struggle of all against all, for example within a city community. If that fight gets uncontrollably violent, the second step can be put in operation: the struggle of all against all becomes a struggle of all against one. This one is physically victimized – which usually means: killed – and that event will bring the peace back into the city. By this beneficial effect the victim will soon get deified and worshipped as a refuge and patron saint of the citizens.

But in order to maintain the calm for a longer period, ongoing victimization is necessary, and in the satisfaction of that long-term need the original victim appears to play a role again. Although the victim is already dead and canonized, she or he may very well be victimized again, only now in a symbolic way. That satisfies the need, and consequently that’s going to be repeated every year. The sacrificial rituals that go with it have a conciliatory and soothing effect on the urban population.

Now, the merit of the Hebrew prophets - and in their wake of Jesus - according to Girard, is that they oppose this sacrality which is so close to violence. They criticize the sacrificial rituals and proclaim that eventually our actions should be focused on individual and collective justice and nothing else.

At this point Goodhart sees Girard and Levinas meet one another. After all, Levinas draws inspiration from the prophets as well and especially from their belief that nothing, no sacrifices but also no institutions or prevailing morality, can be a substitution for one’s personal responsibility. At most, Levinas goes further than Girard, Goodhart says, when he says that one is not only responsible for one’s own actions, but also for those of others.

You could emphasize that the latter idea marks an important difference between Girard and Levinas. Indeed Levinas, when understood that way, arrives at a new type of victimization – namely that of the substituter of the Other – while Girard wants to get rid of the notion of victimhood altogether.

I personally would rather not attach too much importance to the victimish substitution in Levinas. And then Girard and Levinas stand close to each other in their shared dislike of ritual sacrality.

Also see Levinas and Badiou and Holy Fire

woensdag 5 december 2012


A human being can learn, but can she also unlearn? I don’t mean that she can forget, for example in the sense of a skill you get unused to and lose. No, I mean that one has gained insights and then returns them. And not so by progressive clarification, but because these insights have become socially less desirable. In that case the question is: did you really get rid of them? Is the situation as it was before you gained the insights?

If that would be the case, unlearning would indeed exist. But if you still carry the learned things with you and simply don’t talk about them, then there is no question of unlearning. Then anyway the situation is very different from what it was before you started to learn.

These thoughts come to me because the last two years at my work were geared to collective learning. By focusing, with the help of external consultants, on our customer (the Amsterdam citizen) and our primary staff the permanent question was: where do our management concepts and controldrive hamper us more than they help us. When the management factory becomes dysfunctional?

In the process, we learned that the reality of the customer and the workplace may sometimes be very different from the manager’s reality. And that, in order to bridge the gap, and especially in order to somehow “have a control dashboard” often too quickly ICT is embraced, forgetting that a subtle network of connections between people and between people and machines determines the quality of information. We learned that there is no quick route, and that only constant attention to these connections eventually guarantees quality.

Those are insights indeed. Can one just shake them off once they are there? It seems so. At my work I already heard the simplicities pass again: just name some goals and implement them, and then the desired information rolls with the push of a button from the machine. As if not information is the result of a multitude of dependencies and delicate interactions. But maybe that kind of talk comes from people to whom the insights of the past two years have gone by, that is: who didn’t learn anything anyway. Of course, in that case you also cannot dislearn.

With people who díd learn something the past few years I suspect that the situation is different. There, I think, things have definitely changed in a way that is not easily reversed. Once you have seen how dysfunctional an organization can operate, your alertness to sham management will be aroused for ever. Dislearning and return to a naive embrace of command-and-control management have become impossible then. A broken egg cannot be repaired.

Of course, a stiffer regime and tight economic conditions can curtail the space to give effect to these insights quite severely. But people do not just lose their insights like that, so something under the surface will be different from what was the case before the insights came. Completely back to before will therefore not really be an option.

Also see Blowing bubbles and AAA