Heinz von Foerster: Decidable and undeciable questions

In the last post, “Working on tasks and material in a personalised way”, I described a way to work with media and topics: Try to find a connection to something relevant, something that interests you. Think about this connection, write a short text, post some photos, link a video; explain this connection to the rest of the course.

Snippet: The german word “Alternativlos” (“there is no alternative”, in Great Britain known as TINA) was chosen as un-word of the year 2011 by a leading german newspaper. Politicians’ justification for a majority of drastic fiscal decisions were based on the claim that there were no alternatives to choose from. From Heinz von Foerster’s POV, german politicians saw only decidable questions.
If so, democracy would be obsolete.
This is a recurring figure of speech in politics.

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Margaret Thatcher (1980), “Speech at the conservatives’ party conference in Brighton”

„Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place. […] We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name.“
– George W. Bush (2002), “Remarks by President Bush at 2002 Graduation Exercise of the United States Military Academy

[A good example for an artistic-subversive criticism on this is Gonzalo Frasca’s Flash game “September 12th”, where there is an obnoxious artificially enforced case “no alternatives”.]

Example of a made connection:
How does this work for me as lecturer?

When I am giving courses at Hamburg University for educational scientists and teachers to-be, the students are for example confronted with different learning theories (see e.g. Ertmer & Newby 1993). Some of these theories are, mischieviously, mutually exclusive.
Thus there always had been the question from the students for a failsafe, “true” method to teach, to use media, to create learning games etc.; they concluded that more recent paradigms like constructivism are always “better” than the older and obviously obsolete ones like behaviorism.

This is one of the reasons I started courses with reading Heinz von Foerster’s “Metaphysics” from his lecture “Ethics and Second Order Cybernetics” with the students.

This has from my Point of view two benefits:

First, “The dog that barks does not bite”. They encounter a text with an alienatingly technical sounding title, but they learn that cybernetics is – among other things – about observing observers, about observing ourselves, and the difficulties that arise from subjective and objective stances. Cybernetics is originally a ‘technical’ approach to self-regulatory systems, but Heinz von Foerster translates this into an example for education, learning, teaching and even ethics. He shows that an apparently dry, technical theory can be turned into an approach to something deeply relevant for students, especially teachers, in a multicultural, highly diversified society.

So: Try to make theories relevant for you, turn them into something you can explain as something applicable!

Second, “For a man whose only tool is just a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”.
The text sets the mood (so I always hope) for the remaining time of the course to let the students see the different theories and approaches as mere tools that have or had their use for specific tasks. Von Foerster explains that the use of a specific approach tells you more about the user and his or her intentions than about an objective, general correctness of method, and that we should be aware of the tools we use and not simply rely on their “modernity”, or that they are the major paradigm of our decade. We have always the choice; but we can choose only if we aware of this possibility and of alternative choices.

So: Try to learn of alternatives where there is seemingly no alternative!

[For a more practical approach, I usually go for the modification of games, as a metaphor for a cultural medium: You have rules explaining what is allowed and forbidden, and you have narratives explaining why you should act. But unlike in their cultural variants, the rules and narratives are ‘visible’, they are explicit and changeable. We can decide, what game we play; and we can modify and change it, if we ‘need’ another game to play.]

So, what does this translate to… for a critical photographer? A positive psychologist? A designer? A teacher?
For you?

“…in the photographic camera we have the most reliable aid to a beginning of objective vision. Everyone will be compelled to see that which is optically true, is explicable in its own terms, is objective, before he can arrive at any possible subjective position.”
– Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, “Painting, Photography, Film”, 1925, reprinted 1969, quoted in Charles Traub, The New Vision, p.28. (Link to webpage)

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About Wey

My name's Wey-Han Tan, I graduated 2007 as Diplompädagoge (educational scientist) in Hamburg, and 2009 as M.A. in ePedagogy Design. Currently I work at the project "Universitätskolleg" as scientific assistant at the Faculty for Educational Sciences, Psychology and Human Movement at the University of Hamburg. My research interests are game based learning, second order gaming, media theory and (radical) constructivist approaches. I like pen-and-paper-roleplaying, especially in contemporary horror settings like "KULT" or "Call of Cthulhu".
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4 Responses to Heinz von Foerster: Decidable and undeciable questions

  1. jenniferramirez says:

    This text has a very important point that probably we in the environment of academy work forget and is to give the chance to possibilities that are not imaginable and the capacity of we as humans to change acording to the different situations that pass through our entire lifes.

    For some reason as Foerster says, is Understanding. The educational system is an institution that brings ”mental stability” to the pupils, and the jobs are systems that bring ”mental and laboral stability” to the workers. We can see all what is around us in the same way: A stable place where someone else is imposing how to think, feel and behave. Somehow I feel that we are scared of thinking far beyond and making desitions upon those thoughts.

    My favorite quote of the text was ”whenever I act, I am changing myself and the universe as well”. It has so much to do with the universe as well”.

    As a professional I have found that the lack of creativity is a big issue, and working with voluntary work and people with dissabilities needs to be reevaluated from the roots. Invisibility is the biggest problem we face everyday in our job, people with dissabilities need help, but not from the persperctive of ”normal people”. They feel there is someone always taking desitions for them about what is good or not. One clear example are the implications and the right of people with dissabilities to have a normal sexual and reproductive life. Many people disagree with this right. The right to LIFE. Noone in the world is asking if you, or me as ”normal” people will do well with our children, so why we condemn them?

    Perception is relative to the level of consciousness we have about the reality we live. That reality that is the one our brain manufactures is the one that can transform the different publics we reach in our jobs. Being a teacher, a communicator, a photographer. How can we encourage individuality, creativity, new initiatives? Are we going to continue repeating and repeating like radios or are we going to construct something new out of what we learned? This is an decible or undecible question. Depends on us to take the step or not.

  2. Pingback: She who measures | Shaping Media | Pedagogical Media Theory

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