Reading and Working the Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network

I’m working my way toward my goal of reading 30 books this year (here’s my list so far). I wanted to share the one so far that keeps rolling around in my mind. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, by Caroline Levine is a book about formal literary criticism that focuses spends a lot of time talking about The Wire. I’m increasingly thinking it has a lot of utility for sorting out how to go about working to maximize the impact you can have in supporting an organization meet it’s mission.

This post is a sharing out of some of my notes and reflections about reading the book and The Wire. There is a good chance that this post will be much more relevant and useful if you’ve read Levine’s book and or are familiar with The Wire. I’ve tried to make the post legible without background in both, but I think it will likely make far more sense if you have some experience with them.

Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network

Levine asserts that “Formalist analysis turns out to be as valuable to understanding sociopolitical institutions as it is to reading literature” (p. 2).  I find that case compelling. The bulk of the book works to identify a set of literary and political forms and their affordances. In her words;

“Though we have not always called them forms, they are the political structures that have most concerned literary and cultural studies scholars: bounded wholes, from domestic walls to national boundaries; temporal rhythms, from reputations of industrial labor to the enduring patterns of institutions over time; powerful hierarchies, including gender, race , class and bureaucracy; and networks that link people and objects, including multinational trade, terrorism, and transportation.”  (21)

The book does a great job clarifying and articulating how these forms work and function both in literature and in society.

The more I’ve thought over the forms the more I see them in all kinds of every day decisions; who is in and out of a given group (bounded wholes), what is the right tempo for meetings and interactions around daily schedules (temporal rhythms), how are a given set of competing hierarchies playing out in any given situation, and what role are different social networks playing out in terms of how things get done.

On some level, it feels like this is a somewhat arbitrary list of forms, but the more I think about them and through them the more they seem like the right set. In many ways, several aspects of these, map into the organizational frames I discussed in a post last year.

There is no single “the system” there are colliding and competing forms

One of Levine’s central conceits is that forms collide. That in any given context there are a series of different competing socio-political forms at play which compete/struggle to resolve into maintaining or rupturing any given status quo. In her words;

“in practice, we encounter so many forms that even in the most ordinary daily experience they add up to a complex environment composed of multiple and conflicting modes of organization— forms arranging and containing us, yes, but also competing and colliding and rerouting one another.” (16)

In this context, Levine proposes that the central question for individuals working within these colliding systems is about how to navigate and work the forms. Fo her, this prompts a different set of tactical considerations for working toward any given set of goals. She asks;

“what tactics for change will work most effectively if what we are facing is not a single hegemonic system or dominant ideology but many forms, all trying to organize us at once?” (p. 22)

This line of questioning pushes us away straightforward notions of resistance or compliance with a system and toward a tactical framing focused on working through and across the collisions of forms.

Levine lands this analysis in an extended reading of the forms at work in one of my favorite works, The Wire, which I will explore further.

The Wire as a Life Coach on Forms

Like many, I’ve have been and remain compelled by the story of The Wire. I came to it late, I think Marjee and I watched the whole series four or five years ago. Since watching it I think of it often. Those who know me well will know I regularly bring it up in conversations about how systems and organizations play out in society. As a digression, I tend to think that the only other text I return to as much for understanding, explaining, and making sense of my world is American Gods.

I feel like Levine has given me a much more sophisticated set of tools for talking about how The Wire offers tools for reading our world. In Levine’s words, The Wire “conceptualizes social life as both structured and rendered radically unpredictable by large numbers of colliding social forms” (p. 23).

Central to the story is a dialog about the power and nature of the system. However, Levine nicely picks apart what that actual system is.

Both characters and critics bewail the power of what they call “the system” portrayed on The Wire, but it is crucial to note that “the system” is less an organized or integrated single structure than it is precisely this heaped assortment of wholes, rhythms, hierarchies, and networks.” (148)

In this context, “the system” is an emergent outcome of the ongoing collisions of forms competing with each other. In Levine’s reading, the central focus of “individual decisions matter only within environments of colliding forms where no individual or elite group controls either procedures or outcomes” (p. 149).

Furthermore, Levine makes the case that the heroes of the story are the people that read and navigate the collision of forms to make their world bend toward being better or more just.

“The few characters who recognize the power and significance of multiple forms—Lester Freeman, Bunny Colvin, and Omar Little— all make strategic decisions which, temporarily at least, permit outcomes that frustrate or elude the conventional distribution of power.” (p. 149)

After finishing the book, and returning to my own reflections on The Wire, I find myself increasingly thinking about reading the various situations I confront in terms of these formal categories. How can I best work within and through the competing forms that work to organize my life and work? How do I establish a trajectory for action that accepts the collision and competition of these forms as a basis to act from and not a system to define myself in opposition to?

I’m curious for thoughts from other’s reading both the book and the show. I feel like the ecological conception of society and organizations that emerges in this approach is really valuable and I’m curious to talk with folks about it more.

Reading up on Organizational Theory, Care, Emotional Intelligence & Resonance

I’ve been on a kick recently to read a lot of work on organizational theory, management, and leadership. What follows here is some of my rough notes on some of the books I’ve been reading. I’m interested/eager to talk with more folks about various takes on how these areas of work connect/don’t connect with libraries.

Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership

I read Bolman and Deal’s Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership back in grad school  and I keep using it as a way talk about organizations. So I thought it warranted a revisit.

Their central concept is that there are four competing frames through which people approach organizations and leadership and that by becoming deliberate about what frame you are working from at any given moment you can make better choices about what an organization needs at any given moment. They identify the four frames as; Structural, Human Resources, political, and symbolic. I’ve included a table from their explanation that I find quite useful below.

I like the concept in this that there aren’t right or wrong organizational frames but that it’s a question of context and that they are all aspects that are present in different organizations given the situation. I also think this is a rather useful tool for approaching others in an organization. My sense is that different people default to different frames and that the best way to work with someone is often to make your case and work with them from their default frame.

With that noted, my default frames tend to be the Human Resource and Symbolic frames and I increasingly see significant connections between those and notions of care and emotional intelligence. In this context, I see those two frames as the heart of work in organizations and the other two (structural and political) as instrumental tools that can help serve the ends that come from the symbolic and human resource frames.

Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education

I’ve been meaning to read up more on notions of care and ethics and it seemed like a good idea to go back to the source on this. So I read Nel Noddings Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education(Side note: how did anyone let me get out of a grad program in eduction without reading this?) I realize that there is a much larger body of work that has grown up out of this line of thinking and I’m excited to dig into that too, but I thought it made sense to try and read my way up that intellectual lineage by starting back with this.

I’m really liking the direction that the ethic of care takes us in and I think there are some significant connections to resulting work in leadership on ideas about emotional intelligence and resonance, which I’ll get into when I talk about the next two books. Here I think I will just share some of the quotes that have stuck with me and that I have been processing.

Noddings suggests that the central tenant of an ethic of care is to “always act so as to establish, maintain, or enhance caring relations.” (xv) and similarly that our “first and unending obligation is to meet the other as one-caring” (17). Which Noddings unpacks; “To act as one-caring is to act with special regard for the particular person in a concrete situation.” Further that. “When I care… There is more than a feeling; there is also a motivational shift. My motive energy flows toward the other and perhaps… towards his ends” (33). Going back to the Human Resource frame in Bolman and Deal, there seem to be some significant connections there with the notions around family as the organizational metaphor and about the idea that organizations best function when they think about how to meet the needs of their people and support and empower them.

But can institutions care? Noddings suggests no, then can’t. That “in a deep sense, no institution or nation can be ethical. It cannot meet the other as one-caring or as one trying to care.” further “only the individual can be truly called to ethical behavior” (103). In this context, what matters is to design institutions as places that support “conditions that make it possible for caring relations to flourish” (xiv). Further “We have to ask how best to cultivate the moral sentiments and how to develop communities that will support, not destroy, caring relations” (xv). I find Noddings’ notion of chains of caring to be useful here; “Chains of caring in which certain formal links to known cared-fors bind us to the possibility of caring. The construction of such formal chains places us in a state of readiness to care” (17). In this context, a core function for organizational design would be to work toward establishing structures and processes that support and encourage the development of these kinds of chains of caring.

On Emotional Intelligence: HBR’s 10 Must Reads

I’ve mentioned emotional intelligence a few times already. I’ve read a good bit on emotional intelligence in the past, and I’m thinking it’s more and more relevant in a range of contexts . I’m becoming all the more convinced that emotional intelligence is a core set of competencies that we need to be working to develop and cultivate. I found the The Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads on Emotional Intelligence to be a rather useful set of quick reads for trying to piece together what the implications of work on emotional intelligence are for organizations. Below is a quick blurb about the different skills that have been identified as part of emotional intelligence from the intro of the book.

Of particular note, ideas around empathy and social skill have some rather direct connections to both the human resource frame and notions of caring.  In the intro chapter, Daniel Goleman suggests that “Outstanding coaches and mentors get inside the heads of the people they are helping” (p 18). The whole conception of leaders as coaches and mentors draws from and connects to notions of support and care. 

Here are a few more quotes from chapters in the book that I’ve found to be insightful or useful;

  • “Our limbic system’s open-loop design lets other people change ur very physiology and hence, or emotions” (30). Our emotional states effect each other in rather direct ways, so the result is that that team culture and organizational culture affect the emotional states of all everyone else in the organization. Here again I think the centrality of both the human resource and symbolic frame come into play.
  • A later chapter stresses the need for organizations to establish “norms that encourage a group to recognize the feelings and needs of other groups” (84). I think this connects well with Noddings notions around getting organizations to establish the conditions for care to happen. 
  • There are a series of tables in a chapter titled Building Norms for three levels or group emotional intelligence (88) that nicely map how issues around emotional intelligence bridge from individuals up and out to teams and groups.  Great and detailed table with norms. Starting from “Norms that create awareness of emotions” then “Norms that help regulate emotions.” You can see a copy of that table online here

Becoming a Resonant Leader

The last book I’ll run through today is McKee,  Boyatzis, and Johnston’s Becoming a Resonant Leader: Develop Your Emotional Intelligence, Renew Your Relationships, Sustain Your EffectivenessI think it nicely bridges a lot of the issues that have come up thus far. They describe their idea of resonance as how leaders “become attuned to the needs and dreams of people they lead.” In this context, the work of leadership is grounded in that human resources frame in the needs and desires of others.

The book is built around the idea that resonant leadership is moored in mindfulness, which is related to one’s ability to manage cycles of sacrifice and renewal and a dialog between our ideal selves and our real selves. In this context one needs to set plans in motion to learn and advance your ability to work across each of these areas.

Much of the book focuses on the previously described functions of emotional intelligence and the role it requires for someone to be present and have presence (29). Given the previously mentioned idea that our lymbic systems are open and that other’s emotional states have direct effects on our own it becomes all the more central for people in leadership roles to manage their emotional states (31). For this reason, one of their core idea is that there are aspects of doing the emotional labor of resonant leadership that are draining and that if leaders don’t build in explicit practices to manage that they can end up getting trapped in a sacrifice syndrome.  This post has some nice diagrams and explanations of these ideas.

The diagram below from a related article by the authors illustrates how they see cycles of renewal and sacrifice from leaders functioning to maintain resonance.

The take away from their approach is that only by making sure everyone builds in time for cycles of renewal and self care can we manage the continued emotional labor of the work we face.

So those are some running notes on a four books I’ve recently read and or re-read and I’m curious for any and all thoughts you might have about the points in them or other reading that complicates or confirms any of these points. I find it interesting to see such strong connections across work in organizational theory and educational philosophy and psychology. With that noted, there are aspects of the business organizational theory work that connect with extractive work around labor and control that I still haven’t resolved. That is, when are institutions being manipulative? Further, it seems more and more clear that this understanding of how people work is something that can be marshaled and used to just about any ends or mission. So it’s clear that outside of this there are broader ethical questions about what kind of work organizations chose to focus on.