Whip it. Whip it real good.

4th September 2014 Blog

There’s a quote from French writer Jean Paulhan that you can get on postcards in Paris gift shops: “tout a été dit sans doute, si les mots n’avaient changé de sens, et les sens, de mots”. Everything might well have been said, if words hadn’t changed their meanings, and meanings their words. That was written at a time when words were paramount in French thought, when discourse and text were where the action was.

It’s a curious point of view from our current perspective since it privileges saying over doing, almost as if the two were unrelated, or at any rate as if the saying always precedes and commands the doing. You can see how Paulhan and his lover Anne Desclos could, respectively, admire the Marquis de Sade and write the Story of O with insouciance. If words are primary and doing at best secondary or even unnecessary, a bit of aggressive sadism is dandy. You aren’t actually being shackled to a pole by your boyfriend – wearing your best eighteenth century pannier – and being belaboured with a whip. There’s no need. You get the horn from the words not the deed. The world is all symbol and mind communicates with mind rather than body with body.

That particular wordy focus has gone out of fashion. Words have been reintegrated into actions, and people into systems. In fact, we may have gone one step further and our actions may have become primary so that what really matters isn’t the thinking, speaking person but the one who acts, or fails to. This is the underlying premise of a raft of research programmes, government initiatives, and any number of iPhone and Android apps that take us from behavioural economics and nudge theory via CBT to mindfulness and the quantified self.

Saying is out and doing is in. In fact there’s a further, entirely logical, step. Important forms of doing begin to involve change, ideally visible change. How do you really know you’ve done something unless you can see some sort of effect, and ideally, reduced public expenditure? So we typically understand action as incremental change in behaviours and attitudes for all individuals, as systemic change in services and innovation in business, all of this activity driven by the collection of data. Data is the trace that demonstrates change and increasingly we can all collect and access it for ourselves.

In our sector, the home of systemic change in public services, there are no think tanks anymore, there are do tanks. There’s no place for a nice bit of analysis unless it leads swiftly into the rapid prototyping of an innovative new service. Change is where the action is now, social change, a demonstrable entity measured by outcomes.

That kind of change for all of the excitable rhetoric is also a submissive kind of activity. Dominated by individual habits and inert systems the individual has little control. Change is based on the manipulation of small details. We are advised to change ourselves by collecting data on our habitual cues and their “pleasurable” rewards. That is not the kind of pleasure that Desclos wrote about. Small pieces of chocolate following thirty minutes of exercise don’t quite cut it at Roissy where pleasure is a matter of self-annihilation rather than gradual weight loss.

But Desclos could create a world of dramatic sexual dominance precisely because she lived at a time when her sort of person had enormous control. Hers was more a nineteenth century liberal corset than a poststructuralist burnt bra. Despite our emphasis on doing, we think ourselves less capable. That is the price we pay for giving up on a bigger picture of thinking and doing for the precision of manipulable detail. I would argue that we ought to think again, quite literally, instead of submitting obediently to the passive duty of small-scale change. We can and should understand change as complicated and often invisible, a matter of ideas as well as actions, minds as well as bodies.

That is why, at OSCA, we put so much emphasis on thoughtful analysis; why we understand people as irreducible to external categories and data trails and organisations as more than processes and protocols. We’re working hard on bringing that level of complexity to every aspect of our work, currently in leadership development, participatory research for Kent County Council, Viridian Housing Trust and the NHS and through our training.

The image of the wearable quantified self device, pleasingly reminiscent of a shackle, appears here courtesy of New Deal Design. You can see the original, and an article about the attractive Fitbit health fetter here.