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American Society for Cybernetics
ASC 2002 Conference
June 13-16, Santa Cruz 



  Talking 'about':
Languaging, emotioning and communicating knowings

Dr. David Wright

School of Social Ecology & Lifelong Learning
University of Western Sydney
Richmond campus
Locked Bag #1797
Penrith DMC 1797

+ 61-2-45701850


  We live in emotion. Within emotion we have the opportunity to appreciate this process as a feedback system that generates conscious and unconscious knowing. The emotional experiences of loss and love are particular forms of that knowing. Conversations about loss and love are a means of negotiating this consciousness: both the consciousness of the experience and the consciousness of the knowing. These conversations occur in contextual or holistic, ecological settings, which are themselves feedback systems. The question then becomes, 'How do you discuss it?" When the 'it' is emotion, do you talk about emotion, with emotion or through emotion or a combination of all three? When the setting is an academic one and the expectation is that the experience be understood how can the resources and facilities of language be most effectively employed to communicate the quality of the experience. Where do the creative limits lie? How do art and anecdote meet analysis in the pursuit of understanding? This paper proposes that we are in a constant process of negotiating genres in recognition of the structural limits to our knowing, further that our knowing is itself in negotiation with those structural limits and that emotion and language are key mediators and moderators in this process.


I'd like to start with a quote from British theatre director Peter Brook (1968).

"I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged." (p. 11)

In that sense, we can look at this here, today, in theatrical terms. What I am doing, here, like this, could be understood as performance of sorts. I find it quite illuminating to construct it this way. To include the nervousness in my voice, the gestures I use, the hesitation, the rhythmic flow, such as it is, within the communication. Along with the text I am reading from and the words I am using. It is important to me that the manner of my communication be made explicit. So I draw attention to it. I draw you into this consciousness. These embodied characteristics — I have not catalogued them but I have admitted them to the conversation - cannot be assumed to be co-incidental to the verbal communication, which is what is generally assumed in academic discourse. So this is what theatre does and these are the assumptions upon which theatre directors and acting teachers work. They are engaged in a meta-analysis of holistic systems of communication. It is not just how Hamlet communicates it is how communication occurs via the vessel of the actor playing Hamlet. For there are structural limits to the way in which Hamlet can be played, both as a character and by an actor. And of course the playing of the role requires the negotiation of those limits in pursuit of a relationship with an audience, who via structural coupling become participants in the playing of Hamlet. I am not playing Hamlet, nor am I asking you to play Hamlet with me. I am however, no more no less, negotiating a relationship. I talk directly, I attempt humour (perhaps), or charm (possibly), I employ imagery, I speak to my assumptions of your assumptions. This absence of a defined role — a Hamlet to hide behind - increases my vulnerability. And of course my reference to 'my vulnerability' adds another order of complexity.

I am interested in issues of language and emotion and I have started by reference to theatre and performance because theatre is a domain of inquiry that works with a consciousness of the ongoing inter-relationship between language and emotion. By its very nature theatre is, in the terminology of Humberto Maturana (1994), 'a world in parentheses'.

In the early years of the 20th century Russian theatre director Constantin Stanislavski began teaching a systematic approach to acting based on a feeling approach to the 'inner life' of a character. Benedetti (1998) describes Stanislavski's approach as a 'Method of Analysis through Physical Action' (p. xiv-xv). He says, the analysis occurs "on the rehearsal room floor, as opposed to the… study" and physical action "is the foundation on which the entire emotional, mental and philosophical superstructure of the ultimate performance is built." (p. xv). In effect, the doing of it is both the explanation and the understanding. And though no audience is referred to here, the audience is required for the action to occur.

Another great acting teacher, Jerzy Grotowski (1976) described acting as "not a collection of skills but an eradication of blocks" (p. 17). Rather than manoeuvring the spectator, Grotowski argued that the role of the actor is to make himself (sic) both available to and vulnerable to the audience. Inherent in this is an invitation to the audience to do likewise. Here theatre becomes a laboratory for the exploration of layers of experience. It is a theatre marked by what Grotowski calls, a 'special silence'. And while it does require an audience, that audience can number as few as one. This is not just a special silence it is a special conversation.

I remember one time looking at a map of the moon and pondering 'The Sea of Tranquillity'. It occurred to me that this was a very different sort of name for a place. Different to, say, King John Sea or New Florida or Moon Rock Plain. There is no water and there is no sea on the moon and I expect there is a limit to the tranquillity felt by the astronauts who, wrapped in high tech gear and a heady mixture of fear and excitement, actually get to walk upon that 'sea'. But, it seems, many years ago an earth bound astronomer, I don't know who, I tried to find out, gazed through a telescope and was sufficiently moved to identify this distant lunar region as 'The Sea of Tranquillity', and ever since people like myself have been drawn to wonder about that moon and that tranquillity. Was it the astronomer, or was it the moon? Could I lose myself in a view that way? How must that astronomer have felt? The awe in the name enchants me. How wonderful it must have been for him, I assume it was a him, on that occasion, at that time. How remarkable also that the name he offered — Mare Tranquillitatis - has been accepted and the region mapped forever after in this way. It is now the 'Sea of Tranquillity' and we relate to it, in large part, through that name. The name gives it an identity. An identity that means little to the physical environment that is the moon, but a considerable amount to those of us who ponder it from afar. I wonder how this imagination could work its magic on earth. What would happen for example, if the streets of our cities were named differently: Happiness Parade, Disappointment Road, Envy Place, Joy Street?

For some time I have been drawn to Humberto Maturana's use of the term 'emotioning' (Maturana 1988). Maturana identifies emotioning as a condition of the body: a bodily predisposition to action, associated with certain characteristics of behaviour. It is a domain of rationality through which we map both the world and our emotion. Emotioning, he depicts as 'braided with languaging in our history of interactions with other human beings.' (p. 49) I have been 'drawn to' this, I said. What does it mean to be 'drawn to' something? Attracted — not yet / perhaps even — captured. These are powerful word-images. They resonate in a range of ways. To be captured is to be attracted, charmed, enveloped. It is to be shackled, contained and restrained. Where on the spectrum of feelings does my 'captured' sit. What is my feeling response to feeling, for example, 'restrained' by being 'captured'? Kathleen Forsythe has used the term 'isophor' to depict a feeling response to one thing in terms of another. Forsythe describes an isophor as something that is "experienced emotionally and, (that) as such, define(s) the experience of understanding." (1987) I recognise the need to particularise this form of embodied consciousness. There are equivalences, for example, between the forms of embodied consciousness I experienced following the end of a love affair two and a half years ago and the death of my father. The equivalence occurs prior to the understanding, it occurs in the feeling. The latter returned to me in the feeling of the former. It was as if the experience initiated me into a form of knowing, a form of knowing that I had come to inhabit. Together these experiences enveloped me. (Interesting word choice again.)

I can attach the linguistic descriptor of 'loss' to the emotion. I can identify it in this way in this culture. I can also identify it through its power to overcome a need for me to language or name (which is not to say that it is not languaged or named). In such situations emotion is to be experienced and known emotionally. Its knowing and communication through naming is a second order activity. To experience it emotionally requires vulnerability to its rationality. Without such vulnerability emotion can be blocked, denied and set aside, suppressed, sat on, de-legitimised. Mainstream science cannot grasp and transmit this vulnerability. Art perhaps can. Novelist Gerald Murnane (1995) approaches it in a meta-analysis of the writing process. He writes,

During the years when I earned my living as a teacher of fiction-writing in a university... I would sometimes say to one or another of my students... that any person who was paid to teach other persons how to write pieces of fiction should be able... to write the whole of a previously unwritten piece of fiction and to explain at the same time what had seemingly caused each sentence of the piece to be written as it had been written. I would then write a sentence on a sheet of paper... I would then explain to my student that the sentence was a report of a detail of an image in my mind... I would then explain that the image I had begun to write about was connected by strong feelings to other images in my mind.

I would then... tell my student that my mind consisted only of images and feelings; that I had studied my mind for many years and had found in it nothing but images and feelings; that a diagram of my mind would resemble a vast and intricate map with images for its small towns and with feelings for the roads through the grassy countryside between the towns. Whenever I had seen in my mind the image that I had begun to write about just then, so I would say to my student, I had felt the strong feelings leading from that image far out into the grassy countryside of my mind towards other images, even though I might not yet have seen any of those other images. I did not doubt, so I would tell my student, that one after another of those other images would appear in my mind while I went on writing about the image that I had begun to write about on the sheet of paper that was before me (p. 1-3).

I want to mention a third performance theorist briefly. It is Antonin Artaud. Artaud was a surrealist. He is famous for his fevered writings, his madness and his adoption by radical performance artists in the 1960's and 70's. When I read Artaud's (1977) manifesto for a 'theatre of cruelty' I imagine that, unlike Murnane, Artaud does not trust that the strong feelings leading out into the grassy countryside actually will lead to other images in his mind. He lacks the belief system but, it seems to me, he sets out along the road anyway. This is an extraordinary conflict. I can only approach it metaphorically, through a story like this, or in feeling terms, isophorically. It is akin to a journey into loss, in search of what loss is.

So you can appreciate, perhaps, the mixed feelings I have about the insight and understanding contained in Maturana's construction of the braiding of languaging and emotioning. I am drawn intellectually and aesthetically. The images appeal to me. 'Braiding' is a rich term. Not folded together, not entwined, twisted, interlocked or overlapped but braided. I can feel it in my hands. And 'emotioning' and 'languaging': wonderful linguistic devices invented to communicate a subtle but deep understanding. And yet still, to a large degree, we are talking about emotion.

This emotioning — languaging interconnection that 'brings forth our world' requires emotional participation and emotional cognition, in its systems of representation and communication. It is the subject matter that we are participating in. Accordingly, the 'co-ordination of co-ordination' (Maturana 1994) occurs with it, through it and about it. And communication about it occurs with it and through it. Notions of the incommensurability between scientific and poetic knowledge come to grief here because knowledge about it can never be separated sufficiently from the way in which that knowledge is known. However it is the enactment — the performance — arising in association with the understanding that determines its relevance. Performance is a social process within which structure determined systems act upon a consciousness of their own participation; in 'loss' for example.

After loss, people have told me, healing takes time. At that time and at times since I have watched the clock, I have cried, tested my pulse, monitored my heartbeat, cried still more and watched myself, sporadically, as I became engulfed by feelings, then some time later emerged once more. And I have tried to find names for the feelings as they threatened to, in fact every so often did, totally overwhelm me, in wave after wave after wave. All the time I have carried on conversations with myself (and others willing to do so), on the nature of the feelings that arose in this time. I have felt "hollowed out", I have felt "emptied", "cold", "in need" and very much "on my own" despite the consoling words of friends and allies. In my gut I have felt the effect of loss echo. Through the muscles of my face I have felt it reveal itself, at first to me, then to anyone capable of seeing it in me. I have felt exposed. I have felt judged and I have felt incapable of defending myself from the world.

Loss is both an emotional and an imagined thing. The body yearns for the other, it aches with the absence and physically suffers the recognition that what is lost will not return. A vulnerability is exposed, a lack is put on display, an emptiness, a cavity, a deep gaping hole. At our peril we devalue the experience in our attempts to 'overcome it' and 'put it in the past' and 'move on'. Loss continues, it doesn't just pass away. Poet John Foulcher (cited in Jones 1998) offers this fragment of advice.

I think the way... in which I have learnt to cope with it (and it has been a gradual process) is to learn that the phrase "Time heals all" is a lie. Time heals nothing. When somebody dies they take a part of you with them and you can never get it back. When love dies that also takes a part of you and you'll never get that back.

My own loss led me to question others on their loss.

Donald told me,

Loss is a howl. At my tenth birthday party I watched my eight-year-old brother choke to death on a chicken bone. More than thirty years later, in a psychotherapy workshop for the first time, I found the howl. (pers. comm. July 2000.)

Ray, who escaped from communist Romania, told me,

Whenever I phone home my mother can't talk to me cause she is crying. When I went back to Romania for the first time I had to tell her, 'when I leave I don't want you to cry, cause if you are crying I can't leave and I have to go'. And when I got on the plane to go she wasn't crying but still now, whenever I phone, I can only talk to my father cause my mother is crying and she can't talk to me. (pers. comm. July 2000.)

Many years ago theatre director Constantin Stanislavski wrote,

It is only when an actor feels that his inner and outer life on the stage is flowing naturally and normally, in the circumstances that surround him, that the deeper sources of his subconscious gently open, and from them come feelings we cannot always analyse. For a shorter or longer space of time they take possession of us whenever some inner instinct bids them. Since we do not understand this governing power, and cannot study it, we actors call it simply, nature. (Stanislavski, 1980: 14-15) (my italics)

Therapists work with this sort of unfolding consciousness. Their techniques are no less a structured relationship between scientific principles and personal art. Stanislavski acknowledges, not all actors can master the method, to the same effect. Yet the understanding that constructs the method remains potent.

Curiously, as a researcher, I found that in my inquiries into loss, before any man would talk to me about his loss I had to put my own on display. There was a subtle requirement that I do not 'talk about', instead, that I talk 'with' or 'through'. Where is the quality control in this sort of methodology? Where is the science? Surely, it is in the emotion as much as it is the argument. And the quality control is so richly ingrained, in reality, it makes a nonsense of the question. So let us admit vulnerability, our own and that of others, let us embrace it, feed it into our research, report it in our findings, and acknowledge it as central to our knowledge systems.

I remember the time my father died. It was not so long ago. He had a form of cancer, a cancer of the blood. This meant that in his last few years, every so often he would be sent to hospital for a transfusion. Half a day later he would emerge with new blood, a fresh and revitalised circulatory system, ready for another twelve to fifteen months, and life would continue.

When he was in his mid seventies he and my mother were planning to travel, for what would probably be the last time, to south east Asia, the site of several earlier, happy excursions. As the departure date approached, he began to show signs of weariness. My mother assumed he was due for a transfusion, but he didn't agree (he was like that: he disliked being ill, like so many men he disliked being a burden). Finally he lost the energy to protest and Macauley, the ageing family doctor, was called, a man with whom they had both grown old. He looked at my father and within minutes booked him into hospital. He knew the history of the condition and could see the cancer taking its toll. My father's contaminated blood was eating into his bones and tiny molecules of calcium were breaking free. These molecules, set loose in his blood stream, were circulating throughout his body, building up most dramatically in his kidneys and his brain. By the time the ambulance got him to hospital he was comatose. The molecular build up had become toxic and sent him into unconsciousness.

When I arrived at the hospital 5 hours later, having driven 300 kilometres or so into the sun, he was lying on a bed in a private ward, the afternoon light of a clear, crisp wintry day angled across his body, his eyes barely open. An archetypal frail and elderly man, laid in white sheets, framed by the aluminium of the hospital bed and the paraphernalia of a well equipped ward, with just a flicker of consciousness, evidenced in part by the discomfort caused by the plastic tube linked to the heavy duty needle that fed a saline solution slowly into a vein in the mottled flesh above his wrist, gradually diluting the calcium in his heavily corrupted blood.

He opened his eyes, tilted his head ever so slightly and saw me, and I am sure he smiled. He lifted his left, unencumbered arm just inches from the bed and signalled me towards him. As I came closer his fingers attached themselves to me and he drew me closer still. His face was shockingly pale, his skin almost translucent, his features pained and angular, stretched and drained. The strength he had so long carried with pride was in default. He looked terribly, terribly old.

And when he drew me towards him, for the first time in my life he kissed me on the mouth, directly. He drew me towards him, raised his head just enough and brushed my mouth with his. He kissed me. My father, 'the old man', the patriarch, the fellow who, in his imagination, ruled his family and his home without dissent or compromise kissed me. "I've been a silly old bastard, haven't I", he said softly, before lowering his head once more and letting my arm go. And I moved round to the other side of the bed and sat in a chair alongside him in front of the window and held his hand, and sat silently, as the sun poured in. I'll never forget that window: that hospital, that light, that hand. It was barely warm. It needed to be held. He laid it in mine, against his chest. He knew I was there. He wanted me with him. We sat like this for many minutes, in silence, content, assured perhaps in the knowledge and comfort of each other's company. I knew I was with him and, I imagined, he knew he was there with me. For I was the gentle son, the one who might not achieve much in life but whose sensitivity makes him either an empathetic friend and ally to be sought out in times of difficulty or an alienated over precious distant relative who never visits and never acknowledges the true extent of his father's love and authority. And he held my hand as he lay and time moved ever so slowly.

For me then, the question is not so much how to talk about it, but how my knowing is constructed through the ways in which I make meaning from it. And as I communicate those queries it is my vulnerability to the experience that facilitates my learning as much my imagination, insight, understanding or conscious mastery.


Artaud, A. (1977) The theatre and its double. London: John Calder.

Benedetti , J (1998) Stanislavski and the Actor. London: Methuen Imprint.

Brook, P. (1968) The empty space. London: Penguin.

Fell, L, Russell, D, Stewart A. (Eds) Seized by agreement - swamped by understanding. Glenbrook, N.S.W. Drs Fell, Russell & Associates.

Grotowski, J. (1976) Towards a poor theatre. London: Eyre Methuen.

Jones, C. (1998) An Authentic Life, Sydney: ABC Books.

Forsythe, K. (1987) Isopher: Poiesis of Experience, published as Working Paper No. 87-2 of the Center for Systems Research, University of Alberta.

Maturana, H. (1988) Reality: The Search for Objectivity or the Quest for a Compelling Argument. In The Irish Journal of Psychology: 1988, 9, 1, 25-82

Maturana, H.R. (1994) Seminar address. The Tree of Knowledge. The Polding Centre; Camden, N.S.W.

Murnanae, G. (1995) Emerald blue. Ringwood, Victoria: McPhee Gribble.

Pippen, J, (1995) Maturana's biology comes out to play. In Nadie Journal. 19. 2. 81-96.

Pippen, J & Eden, D. (1997) Resonating bodies Brisbane: QUT

Stanislavski, C. (1980b) An Actor Prepares. London: Eyre Methuen.

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