Monday, 29 February 2016

The Difficulty of Change

Posted by Tessa den Uyl 

We often use the word 'change' in our conversation. Everybody seems to understand such expressions as: change yourself, we have to change, things are changing, change is needed, or if only something would change.

Change presupposes a certain kind of disruption in the way we think. We guide our perceptions through the creation of conceptual relations, which we think of as stable, of which we are consciously aware, and of which we recognise certain qualities within.

Upon such conceptual relations we act and react. And yet we desire change. This would not be so but for the fact that we question these relations.

In a world of myriad relations, we tend to extract only a few as valuable for the pattern of our proper life. And where we ascribe everything to specific relations in our life, desiring change signals trouble. Yet without change, we have no descriptive material. Without the stream of constant sensory change, how can we perceive life? 

This morning, in a small village in Morocco, I go out to buy a washing powder called Tide. My friend Ilias understands not Tide but tête, meaning 'head'. Ilias does not understand what I want. With the help of a description of laundry, and pointing to the package, eventually we arrive at 'Oh, you want Tide.' Now why would one buy a 'head' in a shop which sells products for the home?

Over the past two years, Ilias and I have conducted a dialogue over many such misunderstandings regarding pronunciation. I try to apprehend his pronunciation, to speak slowly, but today we’re still at the same place where we started.

We are stuck. Ilias thinks that I should learn to speak better French – or from my point of view, I should learn to speak his kind of French. We are caught in a no-man's-land, where there is a problem about who will leave their territory to risk entering another – in which proper communication becomes possible.

What do we learn from this situation, about change? We learn that, in attempting to communicate, both parties need to reconsider the relations which lie behind the words and concepts of their communication. The problem was never really about Tide or tête, but rather about different cultures and perceptions, different languages and foci.

Ilias and I have no 'common ground' where we may place our verbal misunderstandings. His change is not my change. 
My interests are not his, and the relations which he traces in this world are not mine.

However simple this example might seem, it illustrates the difficulty of finding the mutual understandings which are essential before we try to change something in the understanding of another: my lack must become his lack, and his lack must become mine. To be able to act for change, we have to be willing to change the descriptions of the world which we ourselves possess.

In arguments about words, there is always a defence of a supposed norm. And so it is with all change. Change challenges ideas of truth which each one of us carries about with us inside. Psychological change always trespasses on property in this sense – the property of truth. Could it be, then, that change can only come about when we are aware of the diversity among us?

Consider another example. A Yemeni woman exclaims: 'Sometimes I hope that a missile would just blow us all away' – meaning: destroy herself and her family. What the woman desires is her liberation by that same force which took the old, recognisable relations from her.

Often we desire change without having to let go of ideas we have previously used to describe and make sense of the world. We want to continue to recognise something, while (impossibly) including within that old recognition a new, unlived experience of change. This may be why the Yemeni woman 'desires' death – which is the most logical change we can imagine. Although death itself does not change.

Change poses the problem and risk of being reconstructed inside of previously constructed ideas, which are thought upon the logic of some existing principle. Change, then, will eventually serve the function of that principle. If there is to be true change, apart from the irreversibility of death, then this change is not found in adapting to previous notions.

Yet if change is something that does not conform to a previous pattern, then where does change live? Can change then be thought? In a certain way, change can only live in a space unknown to our psyche.

We long for change, knowing that change is about a combination of more things than we can consider. These unconsidered things create not only linguistic difficulties when we talk together, but muddy all of our living together. In whatever way we may use the word 'change', perhaps change truly means the inability to point to ourselves.


  1. I like the last line, so brief, that change may mean 'the inability to point to ourselves'. Also the way that this follows from the text. It seems to me to be a revolutionary observation.

  2. Thank you Tessa.

    I was particularly struck by the following description of the inability to change:

    "However simple this example might seem, it illustrates the difficulty of finding the mutual understandings which are essential before we try to change something in the understanding of another: my lack must become his lack, and his lack must become mine. To be able to act for change, we have to be willing to change the descriptions of the world which we ourselves possess.

    In arguments about words, there is always a defence of a supposed norm. And so it is with all change. Change challenges ideas of truth which each one of us carries about with us inside. Psychological change always trespasses on property in this sense – the property of truth. "

    This is very compelling to me because everyday, every single day of my life, I encounter behaviours resulting from what I call cognitive capitalism. I find that most people, even the most progressive ones, hold to their cherished capital of ideas just like any capitalist would with other kinds of possessions. In order to really change, people need to put their cherished assets into the market of ideas and to run the risk of seeing their stockholders (their fans, members of their community of ideas) losing confidence in their intellectual enterprise, and then the ideas, which made them valuable assets, might lose value.

    However, I don't perceive that change is so difficult once we have recognized that, first, we all start from a place where we don't have those conceptual and perceptual properties, childhood and teen years -- there are people like myself who remember this period of their lives and are still very uncomfortable with the world of adults. Second, I don't think that things are so difficult, that change is so hard, mainly because there is love and compassion between individuals holding different beliefs and ideas.

    Of course, I understand that you were pointing or aiming at the idea of change understood in a radical manner, what you call true change. To approach this topic, I would consider the experiences of meditators and users of hallucinogenic (psychedelic) substances. That's change!! Your text reminds me a lot of Derrida, in particular his meditation on the event (l'événement). (cf Jacques Derrida (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)) perhaps you would be interested in reading more from him. He is a notoriously difficult writer, some say he's a kind of hoax, but I still think that some people are able to extract useful insights from his works.

  3. Yes, I always think of Derrida as philosophy at its very worst... indeed, I'm rather at odds here generally! For me, the 'cherished capital' is a kind of painfully aquired background knowledge. Of course, as Tessa illustrates, it is problematic (as flawed) but without it, as educationalists (like Piaget) say, learning cannot proceed.

    1. I will not speak for Derrida, but let me explain a bit more my metaphor. When I say that people should put their ideas in the marketplace, what I'm saying is that they should try to overcome their reluctance to share this background knowledge that you're talking about. Oftentimes, what happens is that those who have painstakingly developed a specialized knowledge of some kind rather indulge in publicity, presenting their assets as something of value, that we should not question, ponder or investigate: we should take what they advertise as is. " I am the expert of so and so", " I know how to use this word and you don't", " come back when you have read this author", etc.

  4. Dear gentlemen,

    First I would like to reply to the suggestion Perig offers that change is encountered in the use of hallucinogenic substances combined to the notion of cognitive capitalism. (Since you have mentioned this before at PI Perig) To quote Gregory Bateson: To take a dose of LSD is all right, and you will have the experience of being more or less crazy, but this will make quite good sense because you know you took the dose of LSD. If, on the other hand, you took the LSD by accident, and then find yourself going crazy, not knowing how you got there, this is a terrifying and horrible experience.

    Now I think, that human being kind of recognizes itself in the latter description, not knowing how you got there. We do not know how we got the way we are, this is an important notion, for in a way we do not even know why we talk the way we think or think what we perceive. To ease this enigma we all face, fixed (or save) convictions keep one from having to question too much and this is also education. A child is told to do it this way for now and once grown up will do what it wants, well yes, but then it is already too late. In that sense adulthood means revising childhood, but this is a rather lonely voyage where you put yourself at risk and keeping the faith you can come out of this voyage ‘better’ is not usually supported by your environment. Someone ever told you stability does not exist? Stability does exist if one does not question his convictions. So the more you keep something ‘stable,’ the less you will be hurt, that is education; meaning to function. This probably explains egocentrism and cognitive capitalism. To ease fear, prevent change could be its slogan.

    Now, in this cognitive capitalism only introducing the word hallucinogenic substances will frighten most persons, even when they do not know why. One might respond you loose control, another educated response for language functions as well to avoid topics, especially in regard to ourselves. A very small group will experiment with these substances to obtain more insight, and might help to explore parts of the brain usually left untouched. There has to be a lot of knowledge to do so, for if your notion about the use of psychedelic substances Perig would truly evoke change, why, with so many persons using these substances, change does not seem to come along? You see, you can have an experience, but if afterwards that experience is placed onto cognitive capitalism, it might as well be useless. For the experience is not used to overcome. Overcome ourselves.


    1. Well, Tessa, I don't think that there are so many people who use psychedelic drugs right now. I've consulted a few of my friends and contacts who have access to the market and they tell me unanimously that most of those drugs are not popular anymore. It seems that people are more interested in very strong stuff or just brutal stimulants and tranquilizers and are less inclined to contemplative experiences. I'm comparing 2016 with the 1990s, which saw an increase in interest because of the rave scene, but we would have to go 30 years earlier to really find a meaningful, statistically significant use of psychedelics. And indeed, what we find is that psychedelics have helped effect a cultural change and also triggered some interesting discoveries that we use nowadays.

      As we speak, the ban on psychedelics is being slowly lifted and we are seeing after 40 years of Puritan prohibition, the rebirth of psychedelics in serious, clinical settings. What has been discovered is that we can use psychedelics without using high doses, and that they are, simply put, just better at doing what other psychotropics such as antidepressants are trying to do. This is an example of a topic that would deserve fact-finding and discussions on our wiki.

      It is also important to remember that what we experience with psychedelics is often extremely close to what is experienced during dreams. So it is not so much a clash as we might think. It is a clash... with the kind of experiences that we already live in dream states (and that we used to live when we were young children).

      I think I could find studies about the effects of psychedelics on people's lives. I think I've seen that, and that it looks pretty much like the effects of near death experiences: they are almost systematically life-changing. Again, I might be wrong, and I think it's not the place to discuss those things because the linear structure of our comment system doesn't allow to engage in fact finding and cautious analysis of what is found.

    2. Dear Perig,

      The wiki is a good idea.

      You mention: "It seems that people are more interested in very strong stuff or just brutal stimulants and tranquilizers and are less inclined to contemplative experiences.” Indeed, the use of legal neuropsychofarmacie (Is this the correct term?) has invaded many households and this astonishes me. Treating severe disorders is something else from being depressed because you are simply not happy or coping with your life. There used to be a celebration in certain African populations when a member of the tribe would fall into depression, the celebration would enhance the experience of the depressed to have been offered a chance to change.

      In our society there is a manner that rules and based on the avoidance of malfunctioning. The mal is connected to not function in a system and most efforts are placed in reinserting the ‘malfunctioning' person in that same system in one way or another. There is no alternative. (The system we face did not create an alternative, it does not have the flexibility for that). The mal is never connected to optimism and enforcement to give time to figure it out, to contemplate. Time is not available unless you can allow yourself financially or into defined, and thus limited, structures to contemplate? Contemplation is seen as a luxury but even then, not a choice of the many. So then maybe, contemplation is not a necessity for that many people? Though knowledge gives you an understanding of love for example, it is philo that connects you with your hintergedanke. The question is why, in a world where so many persons have lost track to recognise a sense for (their) life, contemplation and imagination is not stimulated? Thus change is not stimulated.

    3. Sorry Tessa, I had not noticed your commentary.

      First, let me share a recent development in psychedelic research : Johns Hopkins Study Finds Psilocybin's Ideal Dose For Long-Term Positive Effects | Minds

      I believe that it is with such results that we will be able to give contemplation more importance in our society.

      I think we live in societies where countercultures are rather well tolerated. One of the main reasons for that is that they constitute an interesting market. The hegemony slowly understood since the 60s, ands especially during the 80's, that it was better to corrupt and make money out of the counterculture, rather than fight it frontally. Contemplation is a whole market.

      What is not marketable is what you allude to with your African example: authentic solidarity (although we are witnessing something like a marketization of it with Facebook and Twitter).

      I will try to fit my passion (wiki and these sort of things) in my busy schedule... I will do it for sure. But I have to go now :/

  5. p.s. forgot; I think men is capable of radical change but is not feeling the need of that kind of change.