Sunday, November 13, 2011

A taste of the history of an idea.

In today's post I have to contend with one of my recurring sins, being verbose.

I want to share with you the first part of the story of The Thinkery. But its a story that has been occupying my mind for three years, and its difficult to prune all the branches to something that fits in one blog post.

Once upon a time, my friend Vernon went to Graduate school. He looked at it from the inside and said "this place is not good for people to live."

Hearing this, and being dedicated to a life of philosophy I asked "is there a good way for people to live, and practice the 'life of the mind'?"

We debated all evening, discussed all week, and thought all month. Finally we had an image that seemed plausible. A self sufficient community of thinkers, teachers, craftfolk, and artisans. But it was just an idea.

A couple months later though, things changed. Matt, a friend of Vernon and myself, showed up in Greeley and said "Start looking for farming internships to learn from, someday we will actually create the philosophy farm." He had heard the idea from Vernon, and had the vision to recognize that it was a true possibility.

Since then I have learned a lot about farming, permaculture, and community. And the vision for the farm has transformed. Its goals have changed, more focused on the pure issue of community. Philosophy was once the purpose of the farm, now it is only an aspect of the higher purpose of human community.

My next post will be about finding the people that are ready for community and one of the great difficulties for the farm. Specifically we will have to look at how the modern idea of family is a major challenge to overcome.


  1. I just saw your post on archdruid's blog. Would it be possible for you (all) to put together a post here that gives more detail regarding how you want this community to be? How much technology? How serious about farming will you be? How will you deal with dissidence in the ranks? What most matters to your core group of people? Etc etc.

    I too am looking for a community. Best of luck with your endeavor.

  2. I have actually been working on just such a post for a few days now, but I am recovering from a cold, and its drained my creative energy a bit, so to speak. But this morning I woke up feeling refreshed and I hope to get a few blog posts up in the next few days. I can briefly address your questions with answers addressed to you.

    Technology: There are two principles I would like the farm to be able to be in compliance with regarding technology.
    1. The Thinkery should be capable of maintaining its way of life with technologies that can be completely self sufficient.
    2. But be willing to use modern technology to speed things along, if it is worth the cost.
    In summary: Use a chainsaw, but own and know how to use hand saws and axes, just in case the chainsaw breaks or parts get hard to replace. Develop the crafts necessary to maintain as much of our technology as is practical. Similar idea for other tools and equipment, a possible exception for internet, which used responsibly is a worth while for information acquisition, and will remain useful for a decent amount of time we hope.

    Farming: Serious in so far as it would be the main nutrition and calorie source for the community once set up. I am less interested in market farming though, there are easier ways to make a buck, and the first priority is cost reduction more so then profit production. We will be growing anything and everything that we can, given it grows in a climate zone 8ish. Permaculture techniques will be used wherever appropriate.

    Community: In my next post I hope to deal with this in more detail. Living in community is a skill that we don't generally learn growing up, and even when it is learned the models taught are... problematic, to say the least. Consensus model bogs down or becomes governance by the most annoying people. But to many hierarchies become instruments of control and stages for people at the top to act out power fantasies. So we have been looking at the models of the old schools (I do mean OLD) for how to structure life, while maintaining the individual freedoms people of our culture (myself included) have grown to expect. Already I am getting to wordy for this form, so I will just leave a few clues. Build the hierarchies that are useful to have on the master/apprentice model, as opposed to the master/slave model all to common to our culture. Instead of punishing antisocial behavior, create ways to redirect it harmlessly away (hermitages to get away from it all, for example).

    Priorities: This varies alot among the people that are interested in the farm as of yet. We want a system that once set up is easy to maintain the basics, hopefully the work of keeping the basics running can be done in as few hours as possible, so we have time to learn other crafts, and have time for reading groups and jam sessions (a couple of very good banjo players have shown interest :D ). Since this project is, from some perspectives, a school we hope to one day be able to teach other to go and start their own projects. Matt calls it 'terraforming the west' acquiring land that traditional agriculture is ineffective on, and turning it into communities where people can live fulfilled lives, thanks to permaculture techniques which can be effective on more type of land then traditional agriculture.

    When we are ready you should come, join a good reading group and help us put in berms and plant a food forest.

  3. I like what you say. I am relieved you are not planning to do it around Greeley, but have a warmer area in mind. I am down by Pueblo, and we are in the middle of a horrible drought... And still more people come...

    Zone 8? Whereabouts?

    Consensus: governance by the most annoying people. Adore it. Will quote you... :-)

  4. The Pacific North West. Everything is so lush up there.

    I love Colorado, and would like to stay here, but it doesn't seem like the safest bet, considering aquifer depletion and potential climate change based persistent drought. So I am focusing the land search on areas between 20 and 100 miles from the ocean, a relatively stable climate zone.

    I like some aspects of the consensus model, and would use things like councils for certain situations. But that governance system is too easy to glitch unless it is supported with other structures for conflict resolution. Some decisions can be solved rationally, evidence and deduction can show that one course of action is better then another, but many issues are too complex, or not well enough defined, for this to be a reasonable solution.

    For example when the effort of solving for which course is best costs more then the difference between the courses. So offering people who have a dispute alternative solutions if consensus doesn't work. Being able to select an arbiter. Decide an issue through a competition. Techniques that Greer discuss, like separating the social self from the rational self can also be important tools.

    I talked with Matt last night about the topic of dealing with internal disputes at the thinkery. After a derail about the phenomenology of light and Bateson's levels of learning we came to a few conclusions.

    1. Councils are a good idea, but their needs to be enough other systems in place to make then
    2. Joining the project as a full resident needs to be a gradual process, it can be tied to the unavoidable lessons of teaching people the skills of being communal peasants.
    3. Starting with a small number of people who deeply trust and care for each other and who have a long history as a core is important. Though to that core an extra layer of guest-workers and students can be added shortly later.
    4. We will have to do this during a historically tumultuous time, the narratives people use to understand the world will be very stressed. We will attempt, perhaps the most ambitious aspect of the project, to help people develop new narratives. The new narratives will have to be both compatible with certain existing ideologies that people will be clinging to, and open to the new realities. Developing these narratives has been a main project of mine for years. And as you are stealing my comment on consensus, so to will I be stealing many concepts from 'Leaving Babylon' to enhance these new narratives :)

    P.S. What are you doing in Pueblo of all , dare I say it, God forsaken places.

  5. Heh. Actually, I am not in Pueblo itself, but in a tiny community at the foot of the Wet Mountains... which are not so wet these days, alas. And hey, no place in Colorado is altogether god-forsaken... I love it here too. But... the land and the water suffers too much under human onslaught...

    Have you tried living where it rains all winter? It's not for everyone. It chased me away from Eugene... but it sure is lush.

    Myself, I don't much care for consensus. No room for real dissent. Sociocracy is one alternative... I am generally for systems that cut down on meetings altogether.

    I think your idea of apprenticeship to the community is a very good one.

    Starting with a trusted core is a must... but keep in mind that it creates an insider elite. Checks and balances?

    And I will be thrilled if you steal from LB! :-) Looking forward to more of your stories here.

  6. P.S. Step #1 in dealing with internal disputes: learn NVC. IMO.

  7. I love all of Colorado, but some of my friends from Pueblo have given the region about the bleakest reviews I have heard for a place, though not as harsh as Florence.

    As for winter rain, its fairly manageable once you know how to dress for it, good to have things to do inside. Right now I am looking into the ins and outs of wool production. A good task to do indoors during the winter, and a good way of dealing with wetness in the winter.

    I don't mind meetings, as long as I am not required to go. In my opinion a required meeting is a trial by any other name, something to be avoided generally.

    The apprenticeship program is meant to be a filter to deal with the very issue of an inner elite. The model I have envisioned basically only exists as a protection system to make it hard for people to join the project, while leaving it easy for people to visit the project. You don't want to put someone into a position of trust until they have become fairly close to the community and gone through a lot together. Of the folks involved at this point a few are people who have already earned that trust, but more are people that I am excited about them visiting the project, hoping that some will end up finding a niche there.

    Actually trust is a fairly vulnerable system because of quirks of human psychology that are difficult to overcome with out going to fairly radical extremes. So the as the project grows larger I am hoping for a change such that no one (or pair or triple of people) can cause too much disruption, because things are sufficiently decentralized. It works by having more then one path into the community, each teaching skills that compliment the skills of the other paths yet can function with out the other paths. Red, blue, black, and white. If we decide to incorporate this system on large then even a new person in the red path would have earned a degree of specialization and respect to be recognized even by senior person of other paths. Recognizing that everyone I know is better then me at something is important, and a lesson I would hope to teach as a starting point for community. It was a lesson that I appreciated learning at my last farm where the other wwoofers were each clearly wiser then myself in their respective manners.

    Rosenberg's NVC? I would like to add those techniques to my 'spell book' but actually have had bad experience with it in the past. Very useful to people that like to manipulate I have found. Though of course those are corruptions of "true" non-violent communication. Much of what is best in it I find through meditation on certain Bible lines, specifically "Ask and you shall receive." and "Love thy neighbor as you love thyself."

  8. I have a friend who was ill-used by someone with NVC "expertise." But I figure... if a person is a bully or a manipulator, they will use whatever they have at their disposal, including NVC. I myself have found it immensely useful, esp. stuff on empathic listening. Still haven't quite got it down... it's a path rather than an answer. But very useful skills.

    I find the biblical admonishment to love as good reminder to love self if I am to love others... it's one package. Other times, though, I think "loving" is too hard. I am happy to settle for friendly goodwill.

    Please write more about your red white black white comment. I like the hum of it, but can't quite picture what you mean.

    Do you have much understanding of decentralization/self-organization? I am looking into it at depth at the moment, and finding good material hard to come by. Everybody mouths those words, but the praxis seems to be rare.

    Yeah. Trouble with meetings... many communities require them, because their governance happens there. I doubt it's a good model. Governance on paper, making abstract policies, does not serve well.

  9. <-- Is the little symbol that I go by, I developed with the help of my friend Vernon when we first started discussing the farm project. At the time it was a school project we were envisioning, something that would work with lots of academic works human history, but tearing down the hierarchy of academia, so that interdisciplinary cross breeding could happen freely, the riddle we were working on was how to create a perpetual intellectual revolution. The earliest expression of the idea we called 'the fire school', to burn away at dogmatic teachings. But of course wisdom dictates that there can be no flame eternal. Fire is just the release of energy that is involved in complex biological cycles.

    I will skip some of the details of the evolution of the metaphor, but what finally developed was a four fold system, that represented different aspects of nature and via works like "The Three Ecologies" it was also a model of human life. What was developed as a curriculum to retard the growth of dogmatism can be generalized to retard the growth of the analogous structures of control.

    I could write and never stop about any of the colors, but to begin.

    Blue: this is about passive patience, listening, peace, quite, stillness. Study can include: taoism, Christian grace, leaving things in the hands of nature, scrying, slow reading, patience, humility, begging, meditation, sourdough. About being able to hear and conform to the needs of the world around you. Like water conforms to the shape of its environment.

    Red: This is about active courage, creativity, responsiveness, being articulate, motion. Study can include: Zorba the Greek, tracking, anthropology, martial arts, psychoanalysis, NLP, rhetoric, dance, smithing, painting, acting, shamanism, story telling, woodwrighting, confidence, debate. About being able to know and control the world around you. Like fire, red is a dangerous path that consumes much around it and may burn the hand that lit it, but it is a real aspect of humanity, our very metabolism is slow fire, this emphasizes accepting that side of human nature and learning to live with it without falling into thoughtless consumption.

    White: Freedom, behind every vista lies uncountable horizons. If each ideology were an island of knowledge in an infinite ocean of ignorance, this would be learning to soar over the ocean. Study can include: chaos theory, (philosophic) skepticism, Parmenides, comparative religion, Bateson, Stigmergy, ecosophy, emergent behavior, non-rational wisdom, semiotics, deconstruction, Zen, Christian mysticism, Wittgenstein, hitchhiking, foraging. The infinite freedoms that you have within the limitations of life. Like the sky, without boundary and beyond human comprehension. The sky is the realm of divinities and we may not make a home there (Babel) our reason is beyond its element, but we may visit (if willing to leave the right things behind), though the path only lasts as long as a contrail.

    Black: Nurturing order. This focuses on the ordered and rational aspects of human life. The limitations we choose to accept, and the limits that make us who we are, the acceptance of our mortality and the active choice to make the best of the finite resources we are given. Study can include: logic, radical trust, mathematics, permaculture, midwifery, resilience, promise keeping, stubbornness, architecture, masonry, geomancy, hard work, cleaning, cartography, surveying, herbalism, mycology, ecology, thermodynamics, art of war. Like the earth, resilient, life source, solid, possessed of structure and patterns. The earth is our home as mortals, and it is where we make our dwelling, black is the ability to live well within our born limits.

  10. Some of the topics might seem out of place, but I decided to just project something like word association. Like fractals, each color contain the totality of the whole mandala. In the context of community I would see each color as coming with a degree of appropriate respect for a person who has earned an circle, but also with a degree of responsibility and wariness. The colors each represent great virtues of humanity, and also they each have their deadly sins attached (black dogmatism, red violence/control, blue asceticism, white lostness). It is more of a hypothetical system for counter civilization, even vices aren't rejected from humanity but given pro-social redirects, just as weeds are put to work in permaculture. But this mandala has structured my understanding of the world for a couple years now, and I am working toward self initiating into the blue circle in the next year and a half.

    Decentralized systems are my specialty as a philosopher. 1000 Plateaus is the book to read, but its a crazy read its structure of a self-organized kind. It was made to shatter the minds of rationalistic academics, and its the first reading to come to mind on the topic. Also Bateson's "Ecology of Mind" is a precise work on decentralization from the language of cybernetics. Beware, I recommend these books to friends with the same hesitation I would have if I were recommending DMT to my grandfather. As for the praxis, Vernon can speak more beautifully of that then I can, I will ask him to put up a post on his experience at Oregon Country Fair.

    link to "The three ecologies"

  11. My gratitude to the universe for having found you. -- Not to worry, my mind was blown long time ago. :-) More later when I have had to digest all this.

    The stuff I am reading on decentralization/self-organization has snippets, is all. And I am dubious if some of these "experts on complexity" understand what they are writing about. But it's a place to start.

  12. Well the experts that are really interesting to read are the ones who understand that they as individuals don't understand complexity, but realize that this limit is not a devastating one. 1000 plateaus was written by two French thinkers, a philosopher and a psychoanalyst, and with it they open up the field of schizo-analysis. They were both involved in an experimental asylum called Le Borde, which was in effect founded but a group of renegade psychologists and schizophrenics who decided to walk out of one clinic, wander around the country side until they found a building and started a clinic where the patients and doctors lived together. There were problems, and some of the treatments tried there were problematic, but over time a culture that made it possible to live with a colony of schizophrenics developed. One issue with living with large numbers of schizophrenics is that without an external criteria it quickly becomes very difficult to determine who exactly is or isn't schizophrenic, even in relation to the self. So they had to, and in short order, find ways for people to operate where a shared, or universally accessible, world view was radically impossible.

    The book is heavily influenced by this history, though it isn't a topic that they dwell on in 1000 plateaus. The understanding of schizophrenia that they develop is directly relevant to rhizomatic (likened to a plant where every part is redundant, with no central point or trunk) thought. The introduction is called "On the Rhizome."

    It reads like the writings of crazy people who cut long segments out of the most obscure and esoteric academic tomes of their local library and glued them together in bizarrely inappropriate ways with even stranger commentary in between. There is a good reason why. And learning how to read the book requires learning how to think those types of thoughts.