Other alternatives

In policy analysis and management, we’re trained to think of events in terms of their counterfactuals (what would have happened instead) or possibilities (what could have happened). Possibilities in the form of counter-events (situations), counter-spaces (in opposition to dominant landscapes), or the counter-expected (surprises) are a few of the alternatives.

There are, however, alternatives to event-and-counterfactual that are not “possibilities” Their chief feature is they can’t be defined so conventionally:

• What’s left unsaid in your observations is that your eye cannot see itself, thereby committing all manner of silent and chronological violations (e.g., when you find out later that your being seen would have changed your observations then).

• Ada Leverson, British writer, wrote : “Looking at the poems of John Gray [poet]  when I saw the tiniest rivulet of text meandering through the very largest meadow of margin, I suggested to Oscar Wilde that he should go a step further than these minor poets; he should publish a book all margin; full of beautiful, unwritten thoughts” (my italics).

• Marcel Duchamp, the artist, coined infrathin (French: inframince), to be a concept impossible to define and for which “one can only give examples of it.” Such have included: the warmth of a seat just left; tobacco smoke that also smells of the mouth exhaling it; and the infra-thin distance at a shooting range between the noise of a gunshot and the perceived bullet hole in the target.

–Are there policy issues that are complex because their alternatives can only be posed in such ways? That is, the “we” who see them are unable to see ourselves seeing and being seen in all of this analysis. And even when seeing, we don’t see the issues from the margins (where unwritten recastings are to be made had), and where what we do see is analyzable only infra-thinly, that is, sensed inarticulately and in the immediate.

–An example?

We hear much about those stopped up short by “the unimaginability of any alternative to the neoliberal status quo.” Surely that’s a glove pulled inside-out. Isn’t it better to say neoliberalism generates so much contingency and uncertainty that it undermines a conventionally understood “status quo’? There is no place that fixes (both senses of the word) our understanding or unease. It’s the status quo as full-stop-stable that is unimaginable. Or to put the same point from a direction some insist is imaginable: “A crisis is defined as ‘stable’ if neither side has or perceives an incentive to use weapons of nuclear weapons first out of the fear that the other side is about to do so.”

–That is, more of us are in the margins than we know, and that is where we best belong. Think of it this way. “I met young and very English students trying Englishly not to be English.” The wit could have said much the same for front-stage policymakers and managers. As if we can rely on them to know where the action and centers are.

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