Getting Messy with Mental Polyculture

Over here in my corner of the Twittersphere, it seems you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t read James Scott’s Seeing Like a State. In some sense I’ve been thinking with it ever since I came across Venkatesh Rao’s elucidation of ‘legibility’. This isn’t a long summary or a review – I’d recommend the above or Slate Star Codex for that – but a brief look at a simple idea: that of ‘strength in diversity’.

One of the key ideas that the book circles back to is the fragility of monoculture, and the strength of polyculture, despite an outer aesthetic appearance of disorder. Scott’s first example is that of German forest management from the seventeenth century onwards, when it was discovered that a pristine forest of neatly regimented trees may produce an abundance of lumber for a generation or two, but is ultimately likely to collapse under one or more stresses of disease or weather, in a way that a more diverse forest does not. The rule holds in other kinds of agriculture, and can also be extended to cities, as explored in Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Whenever an authority seeks to ‘legibilise’ a population or place, they tend to envision a rational order along the lines of a military camp, and whether their intentions are benign, malignant, or somewhere in between, this legibilising will entail cutting out a good deal of actually useful stuff. For instance, the Soviet Union’s enforced collectivisation of farming failed to account for a myriad of factors, and its perverse incentives meant that most of the country’s eggs and garden vegetables ended up being produced in tiny private plots of land in the free time of collectivised workers. There is always a ‘dark side’ to these projects: ‘The most rigidly planned economies tend to be accompanied by large ‘underground, gray, informal’ economies that supply, in a thousand ways, what the formal economy fails to supply’.

For now, it seems that European countries and the U.S.A. have given up on vast, high modernist urban or agricultural projects (not so the Gulf states and China). But the force of legibilisation continues apace, especially in the realm of measurement, or metrics. While we are used to the idea that the government gathers information to conduct taxation and distribute services, the last few decades have seen an explosion in the capabilites of corporations to mine and make use information about us. And not only do corporations do this, but we are encouraged to measure ourselves, using apps to track biological processes like menstruation and sleep, and counting the interactions that our increasingly branded personas make with each other on social media. We also find a generalised expectation that an individual monitor, manage and increase their own productivity (however defined).*

Ironically, for the productivity gurus, it seems that attempting to be productive at all costs is, in fact, unproductive. Trying to optimise your life in line with a one-track route of productivity, whatever the goal, just results in burnout and/or apathy. You can think of it a little like going to the gym. If you decide to make your metric of gym success the amount of weight you can lift in a biceps curl, and simply do that, your initial gains will quickly plateau, leaving you with not much to show beyond curious looking biceps. A well-balanced routine would challenge different aspects of fitness at different times, giving a more holistically healthy outcome. Simple productivity ideas applied with brute force often display a similar poverty of breadth, and even if they result in a higher output on whatever metric you might be measuring, this output may well be brittle and somewhat meaningless (the paperclip maximiser is a philosophical exploration of this idea in the realm of AI).

I’m interested in how this notion of mono vs polyculture might apply to our mental lives, as well as the outer world. On a recent Deconstructing Yourself episode, Rin’dzin Pamo and the host Michael Taft discussed the place of internal conflict in meditation practice. External conflict is a given – our expectations, wishes and desires constantly react with a world that does not take them into account. But internal conflict is often assumed to be an ultimately soluble problem. The idea is that to be a rational, disciplined member of modern society, your desires must be legible to yourself, and they must at least accord with one another, whether they make sense in the real world or not. Despite the century that has passed since Freud and Jung’s exploration of the contradictory world of the subconscious, the assumption of much ‘inner work’, be it psychotherapy or meditation practice, seems to be that one could eventually reach a state of perfect mental harmony. In particular, Theravada Buddhist meditation is often described as purifying the contents of the mind, such that one no longer feels strong emotions like fear, rage desire at all. Whether or not this is the case, I’ve come to think that it’s a remarkably bland and uninteresting vision for being a human. I found Rin’dzin’s Vajrayana Buddhist perspective very useful – as they put it: ’I don’t have a problem with conflict, I kind of welcome it’. As anyone who has worked within a formal system knows, there is always a point at which carefully laid rules and plans break down. In the reality of working with a situation, unexpected results are bound to happen. That’s when you need to work with whatever is actually occurring, and be willing to get a bit messy.**

The paradox is in trying to work with systems, order and discipline without coming to believe in them too strongly. The polycultural metaphor could serve us well here, in the context of an imaginary monastery garden. This garden was laid out by several different hands over a few generations as the monastery expanded and contracted. Some parts are more formal and decorative, others purely practical, with room for flowers, shrubs and trees alongside the fruit and vegetables that the monks need to live. From time to time, an administrator will attempt to corral the whole thing into his own vision of order. The head gardener smiles, nods, makes a few cosmetic changes, and keeps things going roughly as before. He has what Scott refers to as mētis, a kind of local, situated and situational knowledge of the garden; the lay of the land, the history of planting, not to mention knowledge of his workforce and their abilities. He also recognises the limits of his knowledge, and allows the complexity of the various garden systems to work themselves out, and occasionally surprise him. Most of all, he understands that the very strength of the garden is in its diversity, with different parts flourishing at different times in response to geography and human intervention. I believe that it’s possible to take this perspective on the individual body/mind. By allowing the existing patterns to express themselves, you can work with the grain of your experience, leaving room for chance, serendipity, and the occasional surprise.


*Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy is on my radar here as a book to read.

**Another podcast conversation that helped to crystalise these thoughts was Zak Stein on Emerge with Daniel Thorson (Metapsychology, Soul, and Collapse, Pt. 2). Stein frames the problem of internal conflict using the terms polytheistic and monotheistic, the former based on a Jungian notion of a cast of archetypal or mythic characters. He also suggests that just as a monocultural farm allows for easy pest control, harvesting, etc., so does mental monoculture, in the sense that it skews towards creating highly legible people with predictable needs and desires.


Recent watching: Stewart Brand’s wonderful ‘How Buildings Learn’, a BBC programme about architecture and design from the late 1990s, which the man himself has kindly uploaded to YouTube.