‘Betweenness’ : a way of being in the world

At the beginning of this year my colleague Mariana Funes and I published a paper in which we argued for ‘both/and’ thinking, as opposed to ‘either/or’. We did this in the context of open, online education environments, which we suggested can be both inclusive and exclusive. This was our abstract:

Open education aspires to democratize education, promote inclusion and effect change through social justice. These aspirations are difficult to realise in open, online environments, which enable multiple, and often conflicting, perspectives. This paper proposes a counter-narrative that surfaces certain operational norms of the internet and foregrounds their exclusionary nature. We offer an illustrative inventory of some social media interactional patterns to examine communication used in open online education communities. This examination leads us to conclude that language online is subject to a dialectical tension that both includes and excludes. We conclude that a different language is needed in open online educational environments; one that embraces exclusionary structures and strategic ambiguity, as well as the aspirations to further democratise education via digital means.

Mariana Funes & Jenny Mackness (2018) When inclusion excludes: a counter narrative of open online education, Learning, Media and Technology, 43:2, 119 138, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2018.1444638

(See also https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2018/02/28/when-inclusion-excludes/)

In the paper, we examine online communication patterns in open education environments and find them to be subject to dialectical tensions. We quote Gibbs et al. (2013, 106) as saying that “dialectical tensions have been found to be productive in enabling the accomplishment of multiple goals since they enable organizational members to creatively attend to both poles of the opposition by transforming or transcending it and embracing both alternatives as ‘both-and’ options (Putnam & Boys 2006)”.

Whilst the idea of ‘both/and’ thinking is not new, it does seem particularly relevant in this post-truth age of intolerance for ambiguity and alternative perspectives, where ‘either/or’ thinking seems to dominate. Iain McGilchrist, author of ‘The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’, considers this to be one of the results of the increasing dominance of a left-hemisphere view of the world in our current civilisation. On p.137 of his book he writes:

‘If one had to characterise the left hemisphere by reference to one governing principle it would be that of division. Manipulation and use require clarity and fixity, and clarity and fixity require separation and division. What is moving and seamless, a process, becomes static and separate – things. It is the hemisphere of ‘either/or’: clarity yields sharp boundaries.’

By contrast a right-hemisphere view of the world is one which embraces, complexity, uncertainty, and  ambiguity.  (For an introduction, but necessarily over-simplistic description of the differences between right and left hemisphere views of the world, according to McGilchrist, see this blog post. Better still watch this video.)

‘Both/and’ thinking requires accepting that opposite poles might actually be complementary, interconnected and interdependent as suggested by Yin and Yang in Chinese philosophy, and embracing paradox as depicted by Escher in his Drawing Hands lithograph.

Escher’s lithograph is one that Iain McGilchrist often uses to discuss the paradox of linear analysis. He writes: (p.134, The Master and his Emissary). ‘The paradox applies to how we get to know anything, but is particularly problematic for the special case whereby we are seeking to approach the very process whereby knowledge itself comes into being.’

If it is difficult to determine how we know something, it’s interesting to consider how, when and why ‘either/or’ thinking would be appropriate.

Implicit in McGilchrist’s writing is the suggestion that ‘both/and’ thinking is characteristic of a view of the world in which opposite poles (where subjective and objective appear as fundamentally asymmetrical, separate ways of being), are held in suspension; a world where there is ‘betweenness’.

It is this idea of ‘betweenness’ that intrigues me. What does it mean? How can we recognise it? In talking about ‘betweenness’, McGilchrist seems to go beyond the complementarity of separate poles, to thinking about a world of ‘togetherness’ and intersubjectivity, rather than one of competition and bias; a world where we transcend the apparent duality of subjective and objective, of realism and idealism (p.144, The Master and his Emissary). This is a world which focusses on the relations between things, reciprocity and empathy, where knowledge comes through a relationship. From this perspective ‘belief is a matter of care: it describes a relationship, where there is a calling and an answering, the root concept of ‘responsibility’ (p.170, The Master and his Emissary).

Betweenness does not deny our distinctness as individuals. ‘Betweenness is being able to share in the character of the Other and feel separateness from it’ (p.363, The Master and his Emissary). My interpretation is that a world view that acknowledges ‘betweenness’ enables a ‘both/and’ sort of arrangement. For me, McGilchrist best describes ‘betweenness’ when writing about music.

‘Music consists entirely of relations, ‘betweenness’. The notes mean nothing in themselves: the tensions between the notes, and between notes and the silence with which they live in reciprocal indebtedness, are everything. Melody, harmony and rhythm each lie in the gaps, and yet the betweenness is only what it is because of the notes themselves. Actually the music is not just in the gaps any more than it is just in the notes: it is in the whole that the notes and the silence make together. Each note becomes transformed by the context in which it lies. What we mean by music is not just any agglomeration of notes, but one in which the whole created is powerful enough to make each note live in a new way, a way that it had never done before.’ (p.72, The Master and his Emissary).

It’s important to stress that I am not suggesting that there is never any need for ‘either/or’ thinking, nor that a right hemisphere view of the world, which seems to embrace a ‘both/and’ approach, is the only view. As McGilchrist stresses ‘Both hemispheres clearly play crucial roles in the experience of each human individual, and … both have contributed importantly to our culture. Each needs the other.’ (p.6, The Master and his Emissary).

We need  ‘either/or’ and ‘both/and’ thinking, but these are currently out of balance. We seem to live in a world dominated by ‘either/or’ thinking. The question is how to promote more ‘both/and’ thinking and how to acknowledge ‘betweenness’ as a way of being in the world.