The Poetics of Risk

imageThe idea of poetics stems back to Aristotle and denotes ( experiences and non-technique (Ellul) focused modes of knowing and thinking (namely STEM). Poetry is one form of poetics but any form of non-technical expression and experience defines what it is to be poetic. Examples of poetics are: semiotics, literature, music, dance, art, drama, aesthetics, gardening, walking, spirituality, meditation, mindfulness (Zinn) camping and yoga. Poetics acts in dialectic with STEM and if taken seriously can inform a transdisciplinary approach to risk ( ). This is the foundation for what is known as Holistic Egonomics ( ).

In the previous blog I described the nature of trauma and what I had learned from experiences with highly traumatised young people and adults ( I have hundreds of stories of how health and healing were realized through poetic strategies of engagement. Galilee was located on a farm and many of the things we did that were therapeutic were about doing, relationships, community and listening. We would often get visits from people who wanted to see why the program was so successful and often those from schooling or technical backgrounds were amazed that we had no formal curriculum. Their view of the world said that if we concentrated on numeracy and literacy these young people would re-enter society and be successful. Nothing could be more destructive. PTSD and trauma are not about wrong rationality, wrong-thinking or cognition. Strangely, the less we focused on numeracy and literacy and the more we focused on poetic strategies of engagement, the greater the success.

The young people in Galilee were defined as ‘at-risk’ or ‘high-risk’ young people and the extremes of their enactments demonstrated a great deal about how each had embodied their trauma ( ). I remember Mary, a 15 year old girl who was a fire-lighter and self-harmer who came to us with a long history of family abuse, rape, violence, drug-abuse, out-of-home living, school failure and detention. Mary was so destructive and violent when she was in detention that she couldn’t be held in such an institution, she required he own around-the-clock 24 hour intense supervision. She has already burned down a youth refuge and accommodation centre and was attracted to cutting up razor blades and swallowing them so the pieces would cut up her internal organs leading to emergency hospitalization. Any form of restraint simply sent Mary ballistic and was sensed as a re-enactment of previous abuse. Sometimes without warning she would simply take off all her clothes and this certainly drew a response. Much of what was done to Mary as supposed therapy simply drove her more deeply into self-harming behaviour and this provided her with great comfort. Any attempt at CBT or RET therapy simply made things worse as these are often framed by binary STEM thinking and the idea that humans are brains on bodies. By the time Mary came to us she had been completely institutionalized by technique-focused approaches to therapy and she was in and out of hospital on a monthly basis.

The first thing we did was to build Mary into our community through total acceptance and non-judgmental activity. We discovered quickly that she was attracted to gardening and art and she often chose these each day. The curriculum of Galilee was undertaken by the young people themselves in a kind of Summerhill approach ( I had taught alternative approaches to Education at Canberra University for several years and based the non-formal structure of the program on extensive research. This was discussed in my sixth book Tackling Risk, A Field Guide to Risk and Learning ( The success of Galilee was informed by the work of: Apple, Gardiner, Freire, Goodman, Reimer, Postman, Weingarter, Blishen, Illich, Macklin, Barrow and A.S. Neill. All of these researchers we considered as ‘de-schoolers’, ‘free-schoolers’ or ‘un-schoolers’.

What I learned from the success at Galilee was just how much of what we do and embody does not fit the brain-as-computer or ‘engineering resilience’ metaphor. The idea that a human is an individual that can have their head ‘reprogramed’ about risk, couldn’t be more removed from reality. Engaging in risk, being attracted to risk and understanding risk requires a completely different worldview than what dominates orthodoxy. Much of what we are told is ‘mental-health’ is really embodied ill-health. When we have been traumatised we embody that suffering and harm in every sinew of our body. Many of the behaviours of young people in Galilee (and WorkAssist) were reactive, nervous responses not something that was ‘thought-through’. As Claxton informs us (Intelligence in the Flesh – ), most of what we do is driven by our endocrine system, nervous system or immune system in pre-cognitive decision making. One example of this is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. We discuss this in our training on One Brain Three Minds (

One Brain Three Minds Supplementary from Human Dymensions on Vimeo.

When we move away from the binary technicist worldview of STEM-only we begin to understand approaches to risk that address the power of the human unconscious in decision making. Semetsky ( is one of the pioneers in understanding how the unconscious informs and directs learning. With a different worldview to risk we can then approach the challenges of risk holistically and in a transdisciplinary way.

Engaging is poetics is not a rejection of STEM thinking or worldview. Transdisciplinarity is not about binary rejection in either-or thinking but rather an extended inclusion in methodology. One of the reasons why approaches to risk and safety are both closed and unsuccessful is because the STEM-only paradigm deems what ‘culture of knowledge’ is accepted. When one validates poetic approaches to knowing then one is more likely to have an holistic understanding and approach to tackling risk.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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