Critical Systems Thinking, William Burroughs, and David Bowie
- Published on December 4, 2020
Centre for Systems Studies
I have never thought it difficult to explain what critical systems thinking and practice are about. The world is increasingly throwing up complex problem situations which are beyond the scope of any one discipline to understand, let alone model. And there are multiple viewpoints on what is happening and what needs doing. All truths are therefore partial. The best way to get some handle on events is, therefore, to take a multi-perspectival approach on complexity using viewpoints that have proven their worth. Once an appreciation of the most pressing and significant issues is gained, in this manner, it becomes possible to make an informed choice of systems methodologies, models, and methods to use in combination to address the issues and seek improvement. The reason this is necessary is that even systems approaches cannot grasp the ‘whole system’. The various systems approaches available have different strengths and weaknesses and highlight and respond to different aspects of complexity. Understanding what the different systems approaches are good at, we can choose and use them appropriately according to the characteristics of particular problem situations, rethinking our strategy constantly as we learn whether we have made a sensible choice.
Of course, it is always good to see the same argument rehearsed by others using different words. I have just come across a conversation between William Burroughs and David Bowie reported in Casey Rae’s new book ‘William S Burroughs and the Cult of Rock’n’Roll’. Burroughs is explaining to Bowie his vision for his ‘Final Academy’:
“It’s aim will be to extend awareness and alter consciousness in the direction of greater range, flexibility and effectiveness at a time when traditional disciplines have failed to come up with viable solutions”
He goes on:
“We will be considering only non-chemical methods with the emphasis on combination, synthesis, interaction and rotation of methods now being used in the East and West”
The context is different – expanding consciousness rather than problem resolving capacity – but the underlying philosophy is similar to that of critical systems thinking and practice. The key is to escape ‘control’ or ‘group-think’ and to entertain new ways of thinking about the complexity we face and the variety of methods we may have to employ to navigate it.
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