The Visible and Invisible in Risk and Culture

In response to questions about culture as observable, measureable and behavioural

Creative people dream and imagine, they see things and envision possibilities that don’t exist. They write poems, songs and stories about the things they see and ‘tell forward’ their vision for what might be and their dissatisfaction in what is. Of course, all of this happens invisibly and it’s risky. We can’t see thoughts, dreams and ideas until they are made visible. We can’t see the outcome of risk, if it’s not uncertain then it’s not a risk.

We can’t observe beliefs, values or attitudes until they are surfaced and made visible. We go to concerts, galleries and the movies to experience the vision of seers and prophets as they make their visions present. However, there is no evidence that the dreams and imaginations of seers and prophets exists based on a behaviourist assumption of culture. Even when a dream is enacted, played and performed it is only a fragment of the invisible, the unconscious. When we share in these unconscious dreams and imaginations, what resonates in us at movies and concerts is that we participate and embody these experiences in the collective unconscious. (https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-collective-unconscious-2671571). But this sharing is not in the act or performance or in the viewing or the artifact but rather, in the air between us that we share that can’t be seen.

I watched an interview with Margaret Atwood last week and was stunned by her prophetic voice (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PH2ltR-xvFI ). Prophetic voice is not about fortune telling or predicting the future but rather about ‘telling forward’ the bleeding obvious to those who are ready to see it. Perception and vision operate at three levels, the 3Ps: in the physical, the phenomenological and prophetical. Prophecy is sometimes defined and understood to be about Nostradamus and seeing into the future, but this is just a minor definition of its meaning. Prophetic imagination is not really like this, as Atwood knows. Seers and prophets like Atwood can see the bloody obvious in trajectories for decisions being made in the here and now. She sees ethical outcomes in the face of projected moral decisions in the now. Then she articulates and ‘surfaces’ her vision as we saw in Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian prophecy of where humans go in religious dictatorships and fundamentalist theocracies. She shows how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely in the name of good and safety.

In many ways Atwood replicates the genre of the Eight Century Prophets Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah. A study of the Eighth Century Prophet genre is essential to understanding biblical hermeneutics. Prophecy in the Bible is not about magical predictions of the future but rather predictions based on the bleeding obvious, sometimes written in code at the time for fear of death (eg. Revelation). Amos and Micah are more like historical versions of Atwood than Nostradamus. One doesn’t have to be some special Seer, Oracle, Psychic, Medium or Diviner to see the trajectory of injustice in decisions based in the now. One doesn’t need to be a medium to connect the dots as Atwood does. Atwood, like Hieronymus Bosch before her, shows us what a fundamentalist theocracy looks like: horrifying, dehumanising, vicious and brutal, all in the name of good, all in the name of safety. The cultural gestures: ‘Blessed be the fruit’, ‘may the lord open’ and ‘praise be’ is the language of the absolute in a purge against the fallible. One doesn’t need to be a clairvoyant or crystal gazer to know what leads to brutalism. Brutalism is most often delivered in the name of good and safety. Perhaps have a look at the work of Trump’s spiritual advisor Paula White sometime (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ua34uNxaG4o; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5w0kSkvusjI) ‘may the lord open’, may the force be with you ( yes indeed, Janine (Season 2, Episode 8).

The trouble is, prophetic imagination is not liked. There are many vested interests that have much to lose if the prophet is listened to. Prophets like Atwood attract detractors (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/17/margaret-atwood-the-prophet-of-dystopia; https://quillette.com/2020/01/19/margaret-atwood-wrote-a-great-novel-unfortunately-her-fans-turned-it-into-a-cult/; https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/oct/15/bernardine-evaristo-margaret-atwood-share-booker-prize-award). Similarly, brilliant historians like Prof. Bruce Pascoe has his detractors (https://www.dark-emu-exposed.org/) most of which are vomited from the Murdoch stable of intelligence gleaned from the back of a postage stamp with no expertise in Historiography. The Loudest Voice itself a prophecy, demonstrates just how this all works (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6821044/). The prophet names the propaganda but doesn’t win many friends.

One can’t see ideologies, dreams and ideas, even in many acts and narratives. Many an image, symbol and myth disguise real meaning and serve as only a small indicator of a cultural behemoth. Metaphors in particular often hide meaning rather than reveal it and metaphors are the foundation of all communication (see Lakoff and Johnson Metaphors We Live By (2003) or; Lotman on metaphors as self-referential semiospheres).

Our perception and vision is limited to our cultural equipment, we can only see what we have been enculturated to see. Even though we see people change, no one knows why people change. The power of chat changes people is invisible, often unconscious to the convert. We all have experienced various conversions throughout our lives but no one knows why people experience a conversion. These are the invisibles of culture, the unconscious drivers that can can’t be measured or made objects of science. These transcendent realities and metaphysical mysteries are powerful forces in understanding culture that behaviourism and materialism puts in the too hard basket. This is why Safety puts it’s head in the sand and blithely holds to ‘what we do around here’ (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6821044/). One would have to transverse across unfamiliar disciplines to begin a conversation about such things.

It’s much easier to imagine that risk is about the known than the unknown and the uncertain. It’s much more comfortable to register thousands of hazards on a risk register even though they are meaningless, than contemplate risk from a transdisciplinary view (https://safetyrisk.net/transdisciplinarity-and-worldviews-in-risk/ ). It’s so comforting to put together swiss cheese, pyramids and curves as semiotic relics for worship than face risk as a wicked problem (https://safetyrisk.net/risk-and-safety-as-a-wicked-problem/). It’s much easier to hold to a deontological ethic of duty as the BoK on Ethics portrays, than to be exposed to some dialectical uncertainty. How easy to have safety all nice and tidy in black and white, ‘blessed be the fruit’.

Merleau-Ponty hinges his whole philosophy on the mystery of ‘the flesh’ (the Leib) a similar concept to the mystery of fallibility/mind (see The Visible and Invisible p.248ff –https://monoskop.org/images/8/80/Merleau_Ponty_Maurice_The_Visible_and_the_Invisible_1968.pdf ). He states: ‘Then interrogate once again these phenomena-questions : they refer us to the perceiving-perceived Einfiihlung, for they mean that we are already in the being thus described, that we are of it, that between it and us there is Einfühlung’. (Einfuhlung really has no English equivalent, but is about the feeling of fallibility). That is, we cannot escape our fallibility/mind in order to perceive the invisible, even though we know it is there – because we participate and experience it and have faith in it. It is both our weakness and our strength. We either embrace our fallibility/mind or retreat to the naivety of a behaviourist cocoon that imagines everything measureable. This is the delusion of zero, ‘praise be’.

So where does this leave us with a definition of culture? The question of fallibility and participation in fallibility is why we must include semiotics in our definition of culture, perhaps even approaching culture as a cloud (https://safetyrisk.net/safety-and-risk-culture-cloud/). Perhaps the cloud says more than we know (Polanyi). Perhaps like a myth, it says much more about the invisible than what is visible? Perhaps it puts in place the vanity of our measures, and zeros and quests for certainty/control in denial of fallibility and throws us back into doubt, mystery and humility? Perhaps semiotic language says more than words because it is ‘felt’ and embodied and not rationalised? Maybe in poetics and invisibles there are new realizations about culture and how to tackle things differently. ‘may the lord open’.  

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
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.

2 Replies to “The Visible and Invisible in Risk and Culture”

  1. Hi Rob,

    I think you woefully misrepresent and underestimate Biblical prophecy – Biblical prophecy is always an amazing revelation of things that cannot be foreseen or even imagined

    Look at David foretelling a crucifixion a thousand years before crucifixions were even invented (Psalm 22) – how could such knowledge be derived from the daily happenings?
    The birthplace of Jesus was foretold – (Micah 5:2) how can that be foreseen from the obvious? Would you be able able to predict the birthplace of your grandchild’s grandchild?
    How can the death of Christ be foreseen through obvious events yet God prophesied this through Isaiah in chapter 53
    Obvious predictions would never imagine that a virgin could give birth yet that is what God prophesied though Isaiah 7:14

    The irony is that even the unbelief of men regarding such prophesies (or the power of God through them) was prophesied – Isaiah 6 or 2 Peter 3:3

    1. James, I appreciate your hermeneutic but that’s not mine. Nor is this the place to discuss but reading the text differently is not ‘misrepresentation’.

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