Another volume on the shelves of the Systems Library. Perhaps I need to start calling it the ‘Beyond Systems Library’ … Because with books such as Lois Holzman’s The End of Knowing and The Overweight Brain, Hanne De Jaegher’s Loving and Knowing, and Judi Marshall’s First-Person Action Research, we are charting new territory, beyond the perimeter of ‘traditional’ systems theory. And yet, there is no doubt that these insights are all deeply systemic ...
[When you read this review to the end and you wonder how on earth this way of thinking might ever find a practical application, then feel free to check out my musings on this book. It may eventually end up on the shelves of the Systems Library too.]
Andreas Weber might have been a poet. But he turned out as a scientist and philosopher. So he writes scholarly books that try to explain how a poet experiences the world, as a cosmos. Or, as he phrases it, as a commons, “a common household of matter, desire, and imagination — an economy of metabolic and poetic transformations.”
With this statement he foregrounds a particular ontology, a particular way of looking at the basic patterns and structures underpinning the world. He calls that Enlivenment. Today that worldview is fringe. Perhaps only poets and survivor indigenous peoples know what he is talking about. Or rather, poets and members of indigenous communities may be able to articulate this worldview and to translate it into rules that govern coexistence, but we all, living human beings, know it. Because every entity alive shares in a fundamental dimension of existence, namely “aliveness, the desire to connect through touch and body in order to create fertile communities of mutual flourishing, the members of which experience their identities as selves.” The actual experience of membership in this commons, the feeling of relationship with other members and with the world constitutes the unique feeling of being alive.
We have trouble recognising that feeling because Enlivenment has been smothered by centuries of Enlightenment thinking, trailing capitalism and neo-Darwinist biology in its wake. This reductionist worldview has made us forget what life is, means, feels like. It has led to ‘an enclosure of consciousness’. The result, as we are increasingly aware of, is a catastrophic cul-de-sac. Faced with an overshoot of our bio-geochemical planetary boundaries we continue to run in circles. Evangelising about sustainability doesn’t seem to make a dent. The reason is that our dominant worldview has led us to entertain a wrong, dualist conception of sustainability. It is us who are going to steward the world out there. Weber positions enlivenment as a way of coming back to our senses and embracing a notion of sustainability that enhances aliveness.
Enlivenment plays out at different levels.
Ontologically it means a fundamental shift away from a dualist worldview that pits humans against the rest of the cosmos. We acknowledge the entanglement of everything with everything. We go beyond mere acknowledgment by inserting ourselves into the creative matrix of life and allowing ourselves to experience it from the inside.
Phenomenologically, therefore, enlivenment comes down to “getting things, people, and oneself to live again — to be more full of life, to become more alive.”
Epistemologically enlivenment wants to supplement rational thinking and empirical observation with the lived perspective of meaningful first-person experience. Technè needs to make way for poiesis. An expanded concept of science embraces “being alive” as a generative category of thought in critical thinking. A deeper empirical subjectivity gives way to poetic objectivity. “We are because we are with-others. As subjects-together we can negotiate a fertile perspective toward aliveness. This is the true objectivity life is capable of.”
Ethically enlivenment invites us to live through a “freedom-in-necessity” within a shared biosphere of material, feeling, goal-oriented bodies.
Economically enlivenment dismisses a societal ordering and productive metabolism that rely on scarcity, competition, property, efficiency and growth. Instead it advocates a coexistence, based on fertility and mutual exchange, that brings transformational processes in alignment with natural conditions. “We should look at natural processes as the expression of the natural history of freedom and accordingly align our own actions with them.”
Spiritually enlivenment invites us to live the paradoxes that are inherent in life: objectivity in experience, freedom in necessity, indeterminacy in the certainty of fertility, meaning because of death.
Weber’s enlivenment biology and physics revolve around the entwinement of matter and desire:
“Life has needs, because it is matter that desires to conserve a specific sense of inwardness. The world is matter, and this matter is always working toward a sentient body that is trying to blossom.”
These ideas may remind us of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, and, going back further, to Spinoza’s ‘natura naturans’, to the German medieval mystics and early Christian Gnosticism. Although Weber positions enlivenment as a Romanticism 2.0, a deep historical perspective on this line of thinking is lacking from this book. The author has a more keen eye for recent developments in biology, physics, ecopsychology and economics (commons theory) that signal our willingness to reframe the phenomenon of living. Weber also points (rather anecdotally) to various forms of contemporary commoning.
I am not going to pass judgement on this book. I feel it says something important. I also feel it can be read like a poem.
More to read in the Systems Library:
Vol. 18: Luc Hoebeke: Making Work Systems Better (1994)
Vol. 17: Donella Meadows: Thinking in Systems (2009)
Vol. 10: Edgar Schein: Humble Inquiry (2013)