Restaurant

When, in The Godfather, Virgil Sollozzo, Captain Mark McCluskey and Michael Corleone meet for dinner at Louis’ Italian American Restaurant in the Bronx, I suspect none of them reflect on the liminality of the moment. Their minds are, understandably, on other things. Yet the restaurant is betwixt and between: a neutral, non-place where none of the New York five families can claim ownership. Outside all territorial boundaries, its attraction lies in a resistance to categorisation; if it belongs to no-one then it belongs to everyone. This confers safety but also, paradoxically, threat. To McCluskey and Michael at least, the place is unknown. It is Virgil Sollozzo, an ironic echo of his namesake guiding Dante through Hell and Purgatory, who acts as cicerone – instructing his companions on the mysteries of the menu: “try the veal – it’s the best in the city”.

FullSizeRender 5Liminality infects the scene in other ways. For Michael, the shooting of McCluskey and Solozzo represents a true rite of passage. It is liminal in the original anthropological sense – the shooting is a rite that accompanies transition: from outside the Corleone family to inside. Michael’s status, authority and identity are now in flux. Victor Turner observes how ritual subjects are suspended between the positions assigned by law, custom, convention and ceremony. Their previous identities are erased; their clothing indicative of a loss of status; their behaviour is passive, humble. Think of Michael, fleeing New York for temporary exile in Sicily. He dresses like a peasant; he succumbs to local custom; when courting Appolonia, he is Michael yet not Michael. Mary Douglas notes how the unclear or contradictory is regarded as unclean or ‘polluting’. Consequently, as neophytes are structurally ambiguous and therefore ritually polluting, they are commonly secluded from the realm of culturally defined and ordered states/statuses. Such transgression is symbolised by the shootings. To kill a police officer transgresses mafia code and so Michael needs to be physically and psychically excluded.

The restaurant suggests a further liminality. This is where people come to eat. It is a social place. Yet it is also a place of business. While McCluskey chews his veal and drinks the red wine, Michael and Sollozzo talk business: alliances, demergers, strategic re-alignments. In a perceptive study of business dinners, Sturdy observes that ‘meals are indeed valued as liminal spaces where the burden of many of the rationalistic rituals of the organisation is suspended, lessened or proscribed’ (Sturdy et al, p.930). The transaction of business has escaped the physical confines of the workplace to colonise another space. It confuses work time and social time and the rituals of business conversation intertwine with those of eating and socialising. For the frustrated consultant in Czarniawska and Mazza’s analysis of management consulting and liminality, a client’s invitation to dinner means that ‘I kept consulting (to a certain extent) till midnight’ (Czarniawska and Mazza, p.274).  In this case, colonisation has turned to conquest.

Sturdy views such business meals more benignly. For some of the consultants and the clients they study, liminality was ‘a regular haunt’ and thus ‘a relatively comfortable space’ (p.952). It is also a space that stimulates stories. When the CEO and the partner of the consultancy firm meet at an up-market restaurant in a converted castle, the former talks of his past successes (no doubts as stories). Meanwhile when the more junior members of their respective teams visit an Italian restaurant (sound familiar?) for ‘pizza and a beer’ they swap ‘accounts of how weekends were spent’ and share ‘sporting stories and jokes’ (p.946). For those listening, such stories convey rich contextual knowledge: what it takes to succeed within the political and social culture of the client organisation; the likes, interests and motivations of colleagues and clients. Such revelations simultaneously offer and reinforce trust. It accretes with each story told. When interviewed later, the participants talked not only of the knowledge they had gained but the rapport and relationships developed. For Sturdy, it is the environment that facilitates this: the ‘suspension of the routines of rationality…provided a space where information could be traded’ (p.947).

But to conclude at our beginning. In Martin Parker’s study of how food and eating in the Mafia are symbolically deployed as a representation of community, he notes that ‘food, it seems, is one of the ways in which business can be more like the Mafia, in which the commensality of the common table can (partially) rub out the instrumentality of working for money, and perhaps even hide hierarchy for a moment’ (Parker, p.994). But, unlike in business perhaps, transgression of community – to ‘go against the family’, if you like – exacts a heavy penalty.  And what better way to throw such transgression into sharp and bitter relief than by transgressing the act of commensality itself.

‘It was only after the company of men had broken bread together that the violence that followed could mean what it was intended to mean. For the bullets to be about more than greed and brutality, about some territorial or hierarchical dispute, the community needed to be re-imagined around a table. The Last Supper had to be re-enacted. And after such a demonstration of care over the sanctity of boundaries, the community could continue to claim that it believes in honour and justice.’ (p.999)

Maybe, it was this symbolism that infused the events of November 30, 1982 in San Giuseppe Jato, Sicily. Cosa Nostra boss, Rosario Riccobono, was invited to lunch with Toto Riina, capo di tutti capi – an annual barbecue to celebrate the festive season. Riccobono, dressed in his smartest suit, was disarmed ‘as was de rigueur on these festive occasions of friendship and trust’ (Robb, p.83). When, after many courses and many different wines, he was ‘slumped in a digestive doze’, Riccobono was awoken with the words “Saru [nickname for Rosario], your story ends here” (Stille, p.112). Riina, armed with a cord, then throttled him while his men held the unfortunate ‘Saru’ down. So, the business dinner – this coalescence of commerce and commensality – not only has the power to bring stories to life but, so it seems, to bring them to a close too.

Douglas, M. (1966), Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge.

Parker, M. (2008) ‘Eating with the Mafia: Belonging and violence’, Human Relations, 61(7), pp. 989–1006.

Robb, P. (1999), Midnight in Sicily: on Art, Food, History, Travel and La Cosa Nostra. The Harvill Press.

Stille, A. (1995), Excellent Cadavers: the Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic. Vintage.

Sturdy, A., Schwarz, M., Spicer, A. (2006) ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner? Structures and uses of liminality in strategic management consultancy’, Human Relations, 59(7), pp. 929–960.

Turner, V. (1969), The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Aldine Transaction.

Taxi!

We step off the pavement, one hand waving uncertainly. We want attention – the attention of the taxi driver – but, as we are modest, we fear the attention of the pedestrians, cyclists and drivers around us. For our hesitant hand sends a signal. A gesture that semiotically conveys  – or so we believe – our privilege, wealth and exclusivity. Here is someone who rejects more demotic forms of transport. Not for us the perilous thrill of the railway carriage. We require (we demand!) a private space. And so we oscillate painfully between shame and desire; wanting and not wanting; resolution and denial. That one gesture reveals our emotional ambiguity. We hold our liminality within us.

hansom-cab-1600Our signalling is successful. A black London cab executes a perfect U-turn – a masterclass in precision and confidence – that attracts notice and does little to sate our desire for anonymity. We state our destination, open the door and step inside.

And now the stories can begin. For this small, thoughtfully designed and comfortable cabin coaxes and nurtures stories. Maybe, as in the railway carriage, we are beguiled by movement from one locale to another while remaining in one unchanging place. But here this movement is not determined. With a train, the path is fixed, the rails demand one trajectory and one trajectory alone. In a taxi, although our destination is known, our route is not wholly ours to decide. We follow the mercurial whims of our driver. She or he is our flâneur who ‘can progress at their own pace and change their route at their own whim’ (Dale and Burrell, p.72). Of course this freedom is not unconstrained. Choices of speed, route and style of driving are controlled by road conditions, the Highway Code and the desires of passengers. But free of these contingencies, the ‘spatial order organizes an ensemble of possibilities’ (De Certeau, p.98). And maybe memory, the unrecognised preference for one street over another can ‘orient the magnetic field of trajectories just as they can haunt dreams’ (De Certeau, p.104). We are at the mercy of our driver’s dream-play. The shops, thoroughfares, offices and wharves unreel outside our window like as stop-start movie offering suggestions, possibilities, connections.

Our taxi experience is also liminal in other ways. Maybe we are travelling to a meeting. The space around us is infused with business concerns and demands. Yet it carries other resonances. For this is a space we experience on our way to the playhouse, the cinema or, who knows, an illicit assignation (for like the railway carriage, these are spaces of transgression). The meanings fog and coalesce – this is Lefebvre’s ‘lived space’ where ‘phenomenologically experienced space’ is ‘overlaid with ‘imaginary spaces’ whereby the material and the cultural are fused’ (Dale and Burrell, p.10). Like the business dinners analysed by Sturdy, the taxi is a place where the boundaries between ‘work time and leisure time, friendliness and professionalism are blurred further’ (Sturdy, p.929).

And maybe it is this enfolded liminality that encourages stories. For there are many of them. Travelling with colleagues, I have heard stories of clients, past leaders, rival firms and, indeed, our world outside work. Each story seems to begat another. And as we listen we learn: knowledge that is rarely encoded elsewhere is embodied and exchanged.

That such a space – this enclosed taxi cabin – engenders a willingness to narrate and, consequently, to reveal should perhaps not be so surprising. Look around you – as we sit on our compact seats, we are divided by a screen from a silent other. The other hears our stories while their face remains concealed. Maybe this explains our compulsion to tell our stories. For alone with a confessor, what else can we do?

So maybe we should satisfy our desire and banish our shame. For a taxi journey is not an extravagance. It is a liminal opportunity that helps us know our fellow travellers and the world around them better. Rather than view taxis as ephemeral non-places that underpin the ‘fixed instability involved in sticky mobile lives’ (Costas, p.1480), let us celebrate their potential. For without them, our stories, revelations and confessions would be far fewer –  and far poorer.

Costas, J. (2013) ‘Problematizing Mobility: A Metaphor of Stickiness, Non-Places and the Kinetic Elite’, Organization Studies, 34(10), pp. 1467–1485.

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2008), The Spaces of Organisation & the Organisation of Space: Palsgrave Macmillan.

De Certeau, M. (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life: University of California Press.

Sturdy, A. (2006) ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner? Structures and uses of liminality in strategic management consultancy’, Human Relations, 59(7), pp. 929–960.

Illustrations

Forestier, A. (1890) ‘A hansom cab drove to the offices of the very respectable firm of solicitors’. Available at: https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/hansom-cab/

Ghost

Our organisations are haunted places. They swarm with ghosts. Maybe not ghosts in a conventional sense; but ghosts nevertheless. If you wait long enough, you may discern the ‘sense of a presence of those who are not physically there’. In offices, factories, call-centres, shops and salons,  we ‘constitute a place in large measure by the ghosts we sense inhabit and possess it’ (Bell, p.813).

GhostAnd, as we have intimated before, these ghosts are creatures of the liminal. For Derrida, they are this ‘non-object, this non-present present, this being-there of an absent or departed one’ (Orr, p.1055). Immaterial themselves, their power is to make the space around them immaterial too; their liminality infects.  They can ‘elide the distance between the actual and the imagined’ so that ‘frail and cherished distinctions collapse’ (Beer, quoted by Jackson, p.69).

Think of an upmarket City meeting room. Let’s call it room 148. For your guest, experiencing this space for the first time, it is like any other meeting room: neutral in its ubiquity.  Subdued colours, art work on the wall, maybe coffee and pastries arranged on the table. For you, however, the experience is different. It is enhanced, tinted (or maybe tainted?) by all the other meetings you have attended there. The spectral voices and faces of those you previously met haunt the room. These presences are many. The room is a palimpsest of recalled conversations, arguments, emotions and the tone of those meetings (productive, boring, confrontational) now begins to affect your mood.  You too are haunted.  The room, familiar, comfortable, known, is infiltrated by the uncanny – das Unheimlich – infusing it, albeit momentarily, with the unfamiliar, the strange, the alien.  You sense a ‘feeling of estrangement, of being not ‘at home’ in the world’ (Jackson, p.65).

Ghosts appear in other guises. At a business school I know, the portraits of past deans frequent a corridor. They are sombre, besuited, the ties and haircuts indicative of past decades.  I wonder to what extent this ‘picture book of the dead’ (Orr, p.1047) troubles the current dean. Do these ghosts – for that is what they are – act as vengeful revenants forever comparing the shortcomings of the present to the glories of the past; or are they more comforting spirits offering inspiration, wisdom and succour.

TivetshallSuch ghosts possess other objects too. A long time ago, I asked a colleague to identify an artefact that encapsulated our then organisation. After a pause, he spoke fondly of the chair that his former boss had left behind on retirement. Each time he saw it, he took strength from the memory of his mentor, guide and protector.  It had what Weber called the ‘charisma’ of the object’ and Walter Benjamin, ‘the aura of the original’ (Bell, p.817).  That chair was not just any chair; it contained a ‘kind of life’.

We also talk to our organisational dead. Think of the role models, those presences from the past that you turn to in times of uncertainty.  You ask what they would have done; how they would have reacted; what guidance from beyond can they proffer? In short, we are accustomed to communing with our role model spirits.

And where there are ghosts, there are ghost stories. I have heard many such narratives in every organisation I have known. Tales of role models, heroic (and tragic) leaders, tricksters and fools. This cast of ghosts is conjured again each time the story is told. They are never exorcised. And with each raising of the dead, we re-assess our current actions. We think and sense anew.  These ‘inheritances of the past haunt the relations and struggles of the present’ (Orr, p.1041).

In one of the most famous ghost stories, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the ‘ghosts’ are only perceived within the liminal – the ‘tops of towers, the roof of houses, the outside of windows, the further edge of pools’ (Klapcsik, p.5). So look again at your organisation. Those corridors, meeting rooms, staircases and lifts – are they really what they seem? For if you look carefully enough, you might – beyond the posters, filing cabinets and workstations –  glimpse the symbolic equivalent of shorelines, the gibbet on the cross-roads, and the decaying mansion on the hill.

Bell, M. M. (1997) ‘The Ghosts of Place’, Theory and Society, 26, pp. 813–836.

Jackson, J. (1981). Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. Methuen.

Klapcsik, S. (2012). Liminality in Fantastic Fiction: A Poststructuralist Approach. McFarland & Company.

Orr, K. (2014) ‘Local Government Chief Executives ’ Everyday Hauntings : Towards a Theory of Organizational Ghosts’, Organization Studies, 35(7), pp. 1041–1061.

Illustrations

Cruikshank, G. (1842) ‘The Dead Drummer’.  Available at: https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/dead-drummer/

Rodwell, I. (2016) St Mary’s Church, Tivetshall St Mary, Norfolk

Railway

The railway carriage is a liminal place. It represents both spatial and temporal transition. Within its utilitarian or luxurious confines (for it is a place that also likes to classify us), we are moved from one locale to another while remaining in one unchanging space.  This in itself is problematic – as De Certeau observes there is both immobility inside and outside of the carriage. The fields, villages and towns have only ‘trompe-l’oeil movements…vision alone continually undoes and remakes the relationships between these fixed points.’ (De Certeau, p.112).

CarriageWe also progress in time, a movement governed by – or more accurately suggested by – timetables and schedules. Before 1840, such definitions of time were also inherently fluid. A journey was not just through time but between time with different towns deploying local systems of time. For the Victorians however, the modern railway carriage was, as John Bailey intriguingly explores, liminal in many other ways. If we peek through the smoke-smudged windows, we might discern a place of adventure, blurred identities, erotic escapade and transgression.

From one perspective, the carriage was a place of anxiety, discomfort and potential danger. There were no toilets, washrooms nor, in early carriages lacking corridors, an easy means of escape. Cardsharps, confidence men and tricksters (for where else does the phrase ‘taken for a ride come’?) were a recognised hazard. As Bailey observes, there was also a ‘persistent unease at confinement in the close presence of unknown others’ (p.6).  However, this close proximity might also dissolve reserve while mutual anonymity encouraged confidential disclosure and the relaxation of normal protocols.  The roles, identities and behaviours of everyday life could, for the duration of the journey, be altered or even abandoned.  This ambiguity is characterised by De Certeau as a ‘incarceration-vacation’ (De Certeau, p.114).

For Georges Simmel, modernity created the opportunity for ‘adventure’, an episode of heightened experience, informed by both risk and excitement and ‘torn-off’ from everyday life. But the railway carriage was not just a place of adventure, but also, as Bailey suggests, misadventure: in a society where gender relaxations were strictly governed, such an ‘enclosed space carried its own built-in erotic charge’ (Bailey, p.7).

Contemporary press reports revealed how first class carriages were much in demand by courting couples; popular song told of ‘tunnels so dusky’ where you can ‘kiss fondle and kiss with a double encore’; while musical halls echoed to Marie Lloyd’s rather less than innocent ‘She’d Never Had Her Ticket Punched Before’ (Bailey, p.9). Elsewhere, Ian Carter observes that ‘some ladies of the street had found that the seven-minute run [between Cannon Street and Charing Cross], provided ideal conditions for their activities at a rental that represented only a minute proportion of their income.’ (Carter, p.52).

Such transgression – albeit temporary – of the accepted social order is recognised by Turner who sees the liminal phase in tribal society as one where members of the community can ‘for a brief while have a whale of a good time being chaotic, in some saturnalian or lupercalian revelry…or institutionalised orgy’ (Turner, p.41).

And railway carriages generate other narratives of transgression. Narratives where morality and rationality are subverted. Carter identifies ‘the many hundred British crime novels and short stories’ with railway settings (Carter, p.46).  They also invite in that ultimate liminal character: the ghost.  A.M. Barrage’s The Green Bungalow, Steve Duffy’s Running Dogs and M.R. James’ A Warning to the Curious are just a few of the narratives that see the railway carriage as a haunted space – home to the dead but not dead; the there but not there.

And organisations too generate their own narratives of transgression. They rarely feature railway carriages but rather other liminal spaces: the Christmas party, the awayday or offsite, the business trip.  Here the physical space might be the office, a pub or hotel (identified by Pritchard and Morgan as a ‘place for transgressive behaviours’). We all, I suspect, have such stories.  In some, the mode is comic. Many years ago at the organisation I then worked for, the turgid annual address by the CEO at the Christmas Party was repeatedly and wittily heckled sotto voce by the office electrician  – in the character of trickster. In others, the mode is tragic.  I overheard such a story two days ago, ironically when returning from a conference on organisational storytelling.  The story was co-constructed by two, unseen travellers in the seats behind me and the plot a depressingly familiar one.  An office party, too much drink, unwanted sexual advances and a dismissal the following day. The characters too were familiar – the non-deserving victim, the villain, the supporter (the HR director perhaps?) (Gabriel, pp. 84-85).  Such stories suggest that while transgression brings creativity, release and the frisson of Simmel’s ‘adventure’, it also carries a darkling side of danger, anxiety and humiliation.

There is a final irony. For, as you have no doubt guessed, the place where I overheard this story was a railway carriage: the liminal space that is simultaneously narrative source, scene and progenitor.

Bailey, P. (2004), ‘Adventures in Space: Victorian Railway Erotics, or Taking Alienation For a Ride’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 9(1), pp. 1-21.

Carter, I. (2002), ‘The Lady in the Trunk’, The Journal of Transport History, 23(1), pp. 46–59.

De Certeau, M. (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life: University of California Press.

Gabriel, G. (2000), Storytelling in Organisations: Facts, Fictions, and Fantasies: Oxford University Press.

Pritchard, A. and Morgan, N. (2006), ‘Hotel Babylon? Exploring hotels as liminal sites of transition and transgression’, Tourism Management, 27(5), pp. 762–772.

Turner, V. (1982), From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play: PAJ Publications.

 

 

 

Green Man

“He is the spirit of the rebirth of nature. He is the chucked pebble that ripples out into every tree ring. He is a green outlaw and he is everywhere, like a Che Guevra poster”.  (Deakin, p.111)

FullSizeRender 3The Green Man lives in the margins. In the corners; the places we overlook. A painted boss high on the roof of the nave; a stone carving on a porch spandrel; a figure concealed as a misericord. And even if we see him, he resists knowing. A face concealed within leaves and vines that entwine him or spout from his eyes, nose or mouth.  Sometimes shy; sometimes pitiful; occasionally demonic. Why is he here? The theories that try to classify him are many yet our green man playfully eludes understanding. A symbol of the rebirth of nature or the Tree that bore Christ or a fragile promise of ecological survival? Possibly all, possible none – the only thing we know is that we will never know.

And this perhaps is the fascination. A figure seemingly out of place and thriving in the liminal. The green man is confined to the edgelands or the threshold and perpetually poised betwixt and between definition. In a teasing article, Richard Rottenburg explores his fascination with a bar in a small Polish border town. Its function changes through the day – from café to restaurant to nightclub – and not only do the clientele shapeshift accordingly but their puzzling heterogeneity “generated for me a peculiar feeling of classifactory uncertainty. Who are these people? Why are they sitting here of all places, and in this combination? What is happening here?” (Rottenburg, p.93). Such classifactory uncertainty is a characteristic of the liminal persona in rites of passages – as Victor Turner notes they are no longer classified and not yet classified. Borders here are permeable, porous, fluid.

Maybe this perspective helps liberate our green man from cloister, porch and chapel and place him (and her) all around us. Even in the corridors, receptions and offices in which we work. Look around you. Are there people that spark the same curiosity that transfixes Rottenburg? They don’t seem to fit the organisation; they seem out of place, out of time. Perhaps you’re even one of them. The character in a narrative that often runs like this…”Do you know Sarah/Jules/Mark/Cathy…could never work out how they ended up here…they’re so different…interesting to know though…some great ideas”. It’s a story I’ve often heard and one that’s thoughtfully probed in Marianne Cantwell’s recent TEDEx talk.

So is this the real power of the organisational green man? For Rottenburg and his German colleagues, classifactory uncertainty has emancipatory potential. Such fluidity provides an “outlook on future, better times” (p.96). Boundary crossing becomes, as Klapcik observes, “complex, covert, and disorderly”. And this transgression creates a “weird domain” (Turner, p.42), a ludic, subversive space where initiates are “taught that they did not know what they thought they knew”. Ideas, innovation, creativity, oblique insights – these are all gifts our organisational green men bestow upon us.

In a study of how stories that uphold or violate corporate values affect the behaviour of new joiners, Sean Martin cautions that not “all deviance is necessarily a values violation” (Martin, p.1720). Innovation often involves playing or subverting established ways of doing things. So, perhaps he concludes, we can encourage more innovative behaviour by “sharing narratives in which members deviate from the norm but are rewarded for it”.  Or, to put it another way, let us celebrate the green man. Let us liberate him from the corporate foliage and lure him from the secluded undergrowth of the organisational shadowland. He is both everything and nothing; our past and our future; and, undoubtedly, our unlikely saviour. For, as Roger Deakin beautifully observes, the “leaves flow from him like poems or songs”. (Deakin, p.110)

Deakin, R. (2007). Wildwood: A Journey through Trees. Hamish Hamilton

Doel, F. and G. (2010). The Green Man in Britain. The History Press

Klapcsik, S. (2012). Liminality in Fantastic Fiction: A Poststructuralist Approach. McFarland & Company

Martin, S. R. (2016) ‘Stories about Values and Valuable Stories: A Field Experiment of the Power of Narratives to Shape Newcomers Actions’, Academy of Management Journal. Academy of Management, 59(5), pp. 1707–1724.

Rottenburg, R. (2000) ‘Sitting in a bar’, Studies in Cultures, Organizations and Societies, 6(1), pp. 87–100.

Turner, V. (1982). From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. PAJ Publications.

 

Church

Two faces carved on adjoining misericord seats. They appear to converse across the void. The one on the right – severe, ascetic – speaks urgently; the one on the left, eyes lost in concentration, (a milder, gentler face I think) listens thoughtfully. Or that is how I see them.

HeadsNo doubt clerics, momentarily distracted during evensong, have spun alternative stories to ease the chill of a November dusk. The characters, the dialogue, the plot constantly vary. Our two faces are actors in a never-ending play that is performed differently every night. But here’s the thing: we are compelled to write that play. We need a story – we demand a story – to explain, to make sense of these two adjacent figures.

And stepping out of the chancel – we are struck by the richness of narrative around us. For this is a place of stories. Some are artfully told; others whispered without knowing. The faded red and ochre of muted and half-erased wall-paintings tell of saints, apostles, judgement and salvation. The three living and the three dead emerge in the half-light: macabre strip cartoons relishing in the cadaverous decay of worldly beauty and wealth. Their story is an admonitory one: such as I was you are, and such as I am you will be.

Everywhere you look – from the roof bosses portraying mysteries in the life of Christ to the brasses embedded in the stone floor – stories are revealed at every turn. And there are stories that turn on other stories. In Salle church, you will see the Four Great Doctors of the Church painted on the rood panels. Each has their own history; their own story.  But if you look carefully at Pope Gregory, you will see his eyes have been violently scratched out – the paint flaked deliberately from the wood. This raises another tale – one of a Cromwellian soldier vandalising the panel bitter with reformational zeal. And the reason for doing so? Why, that’s yet another story concealed within like a Russian doll of enfolded narratives. For to look into the eyes of a Pope was to risk instant conversion: never stare in the eyes of a gorgon (or a Pope).

But should this incessant and vibrant storytelling surprise us. For a church is a liminal place. It shelters every significant rite of passage: baptism, marriage, death. Each stage on life’s journey is witnessed  here. And those multiple memories and experiences attach themselves to what Augé describes as this anthropological place “of identity, of relations and of history” (Augé, p. 43). So surely it is fitting that such transformation and reinvention, such never-ending twists in the plot, are consecrated in a place of multiple stories: biblical, social, historical and personal.

Augé, M. (2008), Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Verso.

Maze

“Trying to get anything done here – it’s like a maze”. It’s a comment I have heard regularly over many years working in organisations. I suspect you have heard similar.  We experience tangled networks of procedures, structures and processes that belie the clear circuitry of organisational charts and hierarchies. The Circumlocution Office of  FullSizeRender 3Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend or Kafka’s The Castle offer distorted premonitions of the modern labyrinthine organisation. Both Arthur Clennam and K become enmeshed in unknowable bureaucracies where clarity is vigorously suppressed. As the shocked Junior Barnacle – interrupted in his eating of mashed potatoes and gravy – remonstrates: ‘…you mustn’t come into the place saying you want to know, you know’.  Knowledge is the ultimate taboo.

The maze is a reviled place. A quick search through the Business books section on Amazon shows the metaphor deployed in not wholly positive ways: Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, The Maze of Banking: History, Theory, Crisis; Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders. They suggest difficulty, challenge, prohibition.  As Kociatkiewicz and Kostera observe ‘the labyrinth stands for all that is absurd, unnecessary, undesired in contemporary organizations’ (Kociatkiewicz and Kostera, p.66).

But the maze is more subtle, more liminal than that.  At heart, it represents a paradox.  Think a moment of the maze designer.  With pen poised over parchment, his world is that of symmetry, elegance, order, aesthetics, cohesion and logic.  For the protagonist or navigator however, these experiences are alchemised into confusion, uncertainty and despair.  The calculating draughtsman shapeshifts into a trembling Theseus, Harry Potter or a pursued Danny Torrance in The Shining.

But the maze is liminal in other ways. In their excellent The Neo-Generalist, Mikkelsen and Martin suggest the ‘individual at labyrinth’s centre is emblematic of personal journeys, personal narratives’ (Mikkelsen and Martin p.61).  The maze is a site of transformation.  Attali describes how, for pilgrims breaking their journey to Compostela at Chartres cathedral, the circular stonework labyrinth on the floor of the nave represented the winding, arduous journey from sin to salvation: ‘the perilous path of the mortal on the way to Paradise’ (p. xiv). In contrast to K’s Castle or the Circumlocution office where knowledge is either censored or feared, here the prize is self-awareness and understanding.

And for Attali, such successful navigation relies on the skills of the ancient maze explorers: ‘perseverance, unhurriedness, curiosity, playfulness, trickery, flexibility, improvisation and self-mastery’ (Attali, p.75).  Mazes slow us down (Kociatkiewicz and Kostera, p.67), they enable us to wander, to get lost, to become a nomad (Attali, p. 76). And as nomads or pilgrims, we create the time and opportunity to make sense of what is around us; to play with alternative possibilities; to resist the lure of premature solutions or the easy to find exit.

So maybe this is the narrative we should propagate in our organisations.  The maze as a metaphor of hope and celebration.  And, if we redeem its story, then perhaps redemption may be our own well-deserved reward.

Attali, J. (1999). The Labyrinth in Culture and Society. North Atlantic Books.

Kociatkiewicz, J. and Kostera, M. (2015) ‘Into the Labyrinth: Tales of Organisational Nomadism’, Organization Studies. 36(1), pp. 55-71

Mikkelsen, K. and Martin, R. (2016). The Neo-Generalist. LID Publishing Ltd.