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.

Window

Window

In her introduction to the excellent anthology of essays – Thinking on thresholds: the poetics of transitive spaces – Subha Mukerji refers to the ‘mesmeric quality of the threshold’ (Mukerji, p. xxi) and the ‘elusive but crucial experiences at a variety of boundaries’ (p. xix).  Later in the book  the theme is developed by Gillian Beer in her thoughtful analysis of windows and their uses and meanings in literature.  They are a ‘liminal connection between inner and outer’ (Beer, p.3). Windows link and separate; provide access yet exclude; are both medium and barrier.  Incidentally, they are also places of concealment and Beer evokes the image of a spy mounting surveillance on the world beyond.  Or a voyeur perhaps – which suggests our flaneur, peering through the shop windows in a Parisian arcade: detached and distant, the spy without.

It made me think how office buildings often reflect rather than reveal.  They are more looking glass than window.  What you see is where you are rather than where you want to be. The organisation within is secluded and the story it might tell literally a closed book.

But more disturbing than the window as looking glass is the room deprived of windows.  In reference to new office buildings, Beer notes how windows are often ‘done away with’ and how ‘rooms entirely without windows have been traditionally understood as sinister or subjected…the presence of windows brings the light of the outside world to bear on what is happening in the room’ (p.6).  How many meetings have you sat through and how many training sessions endured in cell like chambers?  How can ideas, imagination, creativity flourish if the light of the outside world (or rather, enlightenment) is denied.  If we see the threshold as ‘mesmeric’, a place of liminal connection and transformation, then it is surely perverse to plasterboard it over.  How ironic that in exhorting our colleagues to – and it’s a ghastly phrase I know – ‘think outside the box’, we encourage this by placing them in the very box their imaginations are required to escape from.

But office windows can be creative in other ways too.  As you wander the corridors – an organisational flaneur perhaps? – you may peek through the windows of the offices you pass.  The door is closed; figures gather around a table and a phone; their looks may tell of frustration, excitement, anxiety.  What’s going on?  If the combination of figures is puzzling – so why are x and y meeting up? – then our irresistible urge to spin a narrative takes hold once more.  We formulate a plot, a causal and temporal chain of connection that explains these vexing stimuli.  We are excluded yet involved and perhaps it is this ambiguous, liminal state that stimulates our imaginations.

In her analysis of Yeats’s poem ‘Ego Domimus Tuus’, Beer deconstructs the image of the poet Keats ‘with face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window’.  But it is this ‘gap between nose and the sweets, the cold glass between’ that stimulates ‘Luxuriant song’ (p. 8).  It is the threshold that excites poetry.

And so too in our offices.  We may view our windows as organisational prose – boring, formulaic, transparent (in more ways than one) – but are they also not coated with a thin film of poetry? Not just windows but Keats’s very own ‘Charm’d magic casements’ that open on our ‘faery lands forlorn’ (Gittings, p.126)?

Beer, G. (2011) ‘Windows: Looking In, Looking Out, Breaking Through’, in Mukerji, S. (ed.)  Thinking on Thresholds: the Poetics of Transitive Spaces.  Anthem Press.

Gittings, R. (ed.) (1966) Selected Poems and Letters of John Keats. Heinemann.

Mukerji, S. (2011) ‘Introduction: Thinking on Thresholds’, in Mukerji, S. (ed.)  Thinking on Thresholds: the Poetics of Transitive Spaces.  Anthem Press.

flâneur

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In airport, we looked at how Augé’s non-places are maybe not so ‘non’.  They are places not merely of circulation, communication and consumption but creativity too.  This suggests perhaps a further liminal characteristic of non-places – their identity is not merely singular but multiple; and these identities blur.  It is a view proposed by Peter Merriman in his exploration of the geographies of the M1 motorway.  He views these landscapes – airports, shopping malls, service stations – as “more complex, heterogeneous and multiplicitous” than Augé suggests (Merriman, p. 160).   For an example, in an airport frequent flyers, flight crews, air traffic controllers, baggage handlers, first-time flyers are likely to have “different experiences of movement, dwelling, familiarity and belonging” (Merriman, p.152).

But how do stories relate to these non or non-non places?  Imagine you are passing through an airport or railway terminus (which, by the way, seem increasingly happy to erase their history – their existence as anthropological space – by assuming a shopping mall identity).  Do you ever wonder about the travellers you see?  Who they are, where they have come from, where they are going?  You may spot clues, clothing for example.  Shorts in January suggests Dubai rather than Finland.  As you board the railway carriage, you see a passenger manoeuvring a suitcase with the baggage label still attached.  Are ever you tempted to take a peek?

Snatches of conversation provide other evidence.  Marooned at Singapore airport for several hours, I amused myself by trying to work out a narrative to explain the American family who, in an obvious hurry, joined the cafe table next to me.  They barely had time to devour the food they had purchased, before the mother, anxious not to miss a connecting flight, herded her protesting husband and children down the corridor, cups spilling on the abandoned table and half-consumed wraps stuffed into pockets and rucksacks.

Karl Weick notes how stories “impose a formal coherence on what is otherwise a flowing soup” (Weick, p.128).  They gather strands of experience into a “plot that produces an outcome” and such “sequence is the source of sense”.  By imposing a temporal frame of past, future and present we can comprehend the random, multiple and puzzling.  The stories we create to explain our fellow travellers is a way to contain this ‘soup’.

In doing so, perhaps we also become contemporary flâneurs.  This stroller among the crowds of 19th century Paris was “a figure keenly aware of the bustle of modern life” (Shaya, p.47).  Their natural habitat was, as Walter Benjamin described, “the arcades…glass-covered, marble-panelled passageways…lighted from above…lined with the most elegant shops…so that such an arcade is a city, even a world, in miniature” (pp.36-37).  Rather like a modern airport perhaps?  In Benjamin’s study of the poet Baudelaire he observes that, for the flâneur, “the joy of watching is triumphant…the result is the amateur detective.”  He highlights Baudelaire’s translation of the Edgar Allan Poe story The Man of the Crowd, where the narrator, installed the behind a window of a London coffee-house watches the passing throng.  From here, he makes deductions, mini-narratives, from the details he observes: a man whose ears stick out indicates he must be a clerk who stores his pen behind his ears.  And what does a detective do but turn “equivocal happenings into meaningful stories characterized by a distinctive plot” (Patriotta, p. 369)?

So, as we sip our espresso in the ‘open air’ cafe of a shopping mall; tap away at our laptop in an airport lounge or wait on the concourse for our invariably delayed train to arrive – we are not just ‘customers’, ‘passengers’, ‘commuters’ but also the true and noble descendants of the frock-coated, top-hatted flâneur.  Observing, watching, making our deductions and spinning our stories to explain the passing, random and confusing bustle around us.

Benjamin, W. (1983). Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. Verso

Merriman, P. (2004) ‘Driving Places’, Theory, Culture & Society. 21(4–5), pp. 145–167.

Patriotta, G. (2003) ‘Sensemaking on the Shop Floor: Narratives of Knowledge in Organizations’, Journal of Management Studies. 40(2), pp. 349–375.

Shaya, G. (2004) ‘The Flaneur, the Badaud, and the Making of a Mass Public in France, circa 1860-1910’, The American Historical Review, 109(1), pp. 41–77.

Weick, K.E. (1995). Sense making in Organisations. Sage.